1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Have you ever wondered if you can make a difference in someone’s life? I believe most people want to make a difference in others, but many feel like they are incapable. In 1 Corinthians 15, the apostle Paul makes it clear that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the thing that should be of utmost importance in our lives. That is a great truth because it is the gospel that changes lives. However, Paul made note of something. In verse 10, he said, “by the grace of God I am what I am.” What Paul meant by that was that it was the grace of God that rescued him from an empty life and gave him purpose. Though at one time he was on the wrong path, God changed his course. Paul went from being a man bent on destroying people to a man who sought to rescue people. He recognized that this change clearly came from God. It was God’s grace that gave him new direction.

Paul also noted that making a difference in others did take hard work. Also in verse 10, he noted that he worked harder than others to make a difference (we all can get into a little comparison game at times). However, he clarified that by saying, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Paul knew that even his hard work of reaching others was really not his own doing but God working in him. Therefore, I believe he would conclude that no matter how hard he had to work in comparison to others didn’t really matter. What mattered was that he did what he could for the Lord, and the Lord worked. What was the result? Look at what he says in verse 11, “Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.” Paul at this point put away comparisons and said what really matters is that Christ was preached and people believed. That is the point we need to hear. If you really want to make a difference in someone’s life, how do you do it? Preach Jesus. For some it might be a laborious time-consuming effort; for others things may go easier. It really shouldn’t matter to us as long as Jesus is preached. Let me ask today: Are you preaching Jesus? If not start today. It doesn’t matter your past because God, through Jesus, is the one who makes you who are, and it is God that will empower you to make a difference for him. If you share Jesus, you will not fail. Just share and keep sharing. Sometimes the task will be easier and sometimes the task will be harder but the goal is the same. Preach so some believe.

Matthew 24:1-28

In my lifetime, I have survived the world ending several times. Well, not the world actually ending but at least someone’s prediction. Harold Camping published a book titled 1994 and predicted the world would end somewhere in that year, and it didn’t happen. He then changed his prediction to 2011, and once again, the world went on. I also survived the 2012 Maya Apocalypse. Oh, I forgot to mention that I survived the end of the world that Pat Robertson predicted would happen in 1982 and then his second failed prediction of 2007. Then I survived Jerry Falwell’s and Tim LaHaye’s predictions among others about the year 2000. I’m sure by now you have gotten my sarcasm (at least I hope you have). Many people have tried to undertake a prediction of the end of times with some unfortunately claiming revelation from God.

Matthew 24 is a passage that deals with the end of times. Some have even taken aspects of what Jesus said here and used them to predict the end or to even point to specific events and things that have already happened saying they have pointed to the end soon to come. I really wish I could tell you today when the end specifically was coming. But I can’t. One thing I can tell you for sure is that anytime you hear someone give a specific date, you should consider them a false prophet. What? Because Jesus said no one but the Father knows when they day will come (vs 36). Although I cannot explain to you in exact detail what everything in these first verses of Matthew 24 mean. There are a few things we can know. First, things will be difficult. God never promised an easy life for believers. Second, there is an end coming some day. But more importantly, there are a couple great promises in verses 13-14.

But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

Matthew 24:13-14

Those who endure to the end will be saved, and the gospel will be proclaimed to the whole world before the end. I hear these promises, and I am reminded to not give up. Even when it is tough, you press on as a believer. Turning your back on God is always a losing proposition. Continuing to believe always ends in a win. Also, sharing the gospel must always be a priority. We ultimately know that the Lord’s return is the only thing that will make everything right. Therefore, the best thing we can do is help share Jesus with the world so that the Lord will come.

Matthew 18:15-35

In 1993 Mary Johnson lost her only son when he was shot during an argument at a party. Her first reaction was to want Oshea Israel, the shooter, to pay for his crime, and he did. He served 17 years of a 25.5 year sentence. What is interesting is that after his release from jail, Oshea not only returned to his old neighborhood but moved right next door to Mary. Before you get appalled at this bold move, you need to know that it was not by accident. Mary herself made it happen. A few years prior to his release, Mary was overcome by the conviction to forgive him, so she set out to do just that through the course of several meetings. After some time, she was able to not only forgive him but help him upon his departure from prison. In fact, they don’t just LIVE close to each other—they are close in spirit. Mary gives God the glory for her ability to forgive such a tragedy, “unforgiveness is like cancer. It will eat you from the inside out. It’s not about the other person, me forgiving him does not diminish what he’s done. Yes, he murdered my son – but the forgiveness is for me. It’s just for me.”  (Story from belief.net)

Mary’s story may seem unbelievable. However, forgiveness is something that God calls us to, and Matthew 18:15-35 makes that clear. First, it is clear that forgiveness should be a priority. Verse 15 says if your brother (or sister) sins against you, go and try to make it right. Don’t gossip about them. Don’t trash their name. Don’t try to get even. Don’t stew in your anger. Go and try to make it right. Forgiveness and reconciliation should be a priority. Not only is it a priority, it is a necessity, at least if you don’t want to suffer God’s wrath. In our passage today, we see the servant who had been forgiven much by his master refuse to forgive his fellow servant who owed him much less. In response, the master delivered him to the jailer until he should pay all his debts. Then we are told, “so also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” Knowing the debt I have before God, I know I had better forgive or I’m in trouble. How about you? Mary’s example of forgiveness may seem extraordinary, but actually to a follower of Jesus, it should be normal. Is there anyone today you need to forgive? Then forgive. God doesn’t want excuses.

Matthew 13:24-43

If you have done planting of any kind you know the reality of properly preparing the soil, planting seed for only the plant you want to grow but still having weeds grow in your garden. It can be frustrating but it is the reality. For the serious gardener, time is taken to weed the garden or plant bed so that only the desired plants are left. Anyone who has spent any time weeding has had the experience more than once of pulling up a weed and unfortunately pulling up the good plant as well. No matter how careful one is, there will be those occasions. When that happens, you try to replant the good plant but there is no guarantee it will survive. Sometimes a gardener will realize the particular riskiness of pulling a certain weed and therefore will simply let it stay. Most likely a gardener will trim the weed, but not pull it.

In this section of Matthew 13, Jesus tells a parable that recognizes the reality that intermingled with the children of God will be weeds or rather the children of the devil. God’s children would always prefer that God would simply remove the bad people from amongst us and live only the good. Life should would be simpler. However, I’m reminded that the difference between people and weeds is that God can transform people. Therefore, maybe God leaves them in hopes that they will be transformed. Whatever the case here is what the parable that Jesus told assures us–in the end the good will be separate from the bad. That tells me that I can take comfort in knowing that serving the Lord is not in vain. “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father” (Matthew 13:43). Subsequently, those who are evil will be thrown “into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13:42). Besides being comfort that in the end the righteous will be vindicated, as believers we should understand as well that it is not our position to judge the good from the bad in order to separate them. That responsibility will belong to God’s angels who in the end will do a perfect job weeding God’s garden. That’s good news. We can leave the weeding to God. I never liked weeding anyway!

Matthew 9:1-17

Have you ever had to think about something in a way that you never had before? I’m old enough now that I remember when computers were brand new. As computers came upon the scene, so many things began to change. Soon to be gone was the need for typing correction paper because mistakes would be made before a printing head would print the words on a piece of paper. Also, soon would come communication via e-mail and other forms of electronic communication. My guess is many people today would struggle to sit down and write a formal hand-written communication. As I mention these couple of advances, what those who lived through these changes know is that change doesn’t always come easy. We get stuck in the way things have always been and refuse to acknowledge that what is new is actually better. I know for me I am happy that I don’t have to use correction tape anymore, and I appreciate the ease of electronic communication. However, this change didn’t happen overnight.

When Jesus stepped into history to bring God’s salvation, he was hard for many to accept because he was different. His approach was not what the religious had known; his message was not the typical religious message. In Matthew 9:16-17 Jesus tried to help those who didn’t understand him to grasp that what he was bringing was something completely different and that for them to try and put him in their traditional box would not work. As he said in verse 16 and 17…

“No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.”

His audience would have understood the absurdity of doing either one of these two things. So, what was Jesus bringing that was so different? First, he was the source of forgiveness, not their religious rituals. The scribes would have more than likely thought that for the paralytic to be forgiven and healed he would have need to go through the proper sacrifice and cleansing. However, Jesus was making it clear who he was and that he was the source of forgiveness. Second, he was showing that God desires mercy, not sacrifice. I loved what one commentator said, which was Jesus was showing that “holiness, not uncleanness was understood to be contagious and it could overpower uncleanliness and not the reverse.” The Pharisees would not have had an issue with a sinner repenting but would have looked with disdain on one fellowshipping with a sinner who had not gone through the traditional acts of repentance and restitution. To them, this fellowship would have caused one to be unclean. However, Jesus by eating with a group of “sinners” was making a clear declaration that forgiveness was found in following him, the one who offers mercy, not in the sacrifice of the scribes which had become empty ritual.

Maybe some of us are still waiting to understand the radical nature of Jesus. We, too, still look to rituals for a person to be cleansed, and we are afraid that associating with sinners will make you unclean. What we need to understand is that in both situations the answer is Jesus and genuine faith in him. Let’s make sure that we don’t hold on to our old traditions to the point that we miss the power of Jesus to forgive sins of even the worst of sinners.

Matthew 5:1-16

When I ask people how they are, one of my favorite responses has to be, “I’m blessed.” I like that response because when people say they are blessed, I am assuming they are in part acknowledging God’s work in their lives. “Blessed” carries with it the idea that there is one who is doing the blessing. That one being God. However, what does it mean to be blessed? I’m sure people have their own definitions, but if we are honest, when we think of being blessed, we think more in the lines of good things happening to us. Some feel blessed when their kids are doing well. Some feel blessed when their job is going well. Some feel blessed when their bank account is full. Some feel blessed when their team is winning. Some feel blessed when they are free from sickness. You get the idea. We normally associate being blessed with good things. However, when we read what Jesus taught in Matthew 5, it seems, at least from God’s perspective, being blessed is much different than our normal way of thinking. Consider just a few words of what Jesus taught.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:3-10

Reading these words, we see that being blessed is not about us having things easy or good in life. Being blessed is about living a life with the character and attitude of God. It is about living a life that gives glory to God on the earth. A person who truly knows what it means to be blessed understands that true joy and well-being are not based upon the circumstances or the physical condition around you but rather found in a contentedness based upon one’s relationship with God. One can truly be blessed no matter what the situation in life is when one is walking in a relationship with God and living in that relationship. Being blessed is understanding truly that God is the one who blesses and that ultimately through Jesus, he has already taken care of our greatest need and has given us eternal life. If we keep in mind all that God has done and continues to do, it is easy to say, “I am blessed.”

Romans 6:1-11

A little more than 17 years ago I was given a pretty pricey gift. I was given a car by my parents. I had been driving my current car at that point to the total of over 250,000 miles. Quite a few miles. In fact, it was starting to have some issues and I wasn’t sure how many more miles I could get out of it. At some point it was going to stop running and I didn’t know when. The problem was I couldn’t afford a different car. We had four small children, Kim was going to college, we had recently made a ministry change which came with expenses, and my salary as a minister at that point was not able to pay for any additional expenses. So, without me asking, my parents decided to take things into their hands and bought me a new car. Needless to say, it was wonderful to go from driving a car that had 250,000 miles on it to driving a car with a few hundred of miles on it. Not only was the worry of it dying on me gone, but this car got better gas mileage. Now, I will be honest and say it was hard for me to accept that gift. I, like so many people, like to think I can take care of myself. Therefore, to accept such a gracious gift was hard on my pride, even though it was greatly appreciated. But I still could have said no. But having said yes, I did experience a great blessing. If I were to have asked you shortly after receiving the new car if I should return it to my parents and go back to driving my 250,000 mile car what would you say? You would say, “Absolutely not. Enjoy the new car.” You would tell me to be thankful for such a wonderful gift and to make the most of it.

In Romans 6:1-11, Paul is speaking about a gift that his readers had received. They had received the gift of new life through their faith in Jesus Christ. Sin had caused a great need and God in his grace met their need. But some were tempted to keep on sinning believing that it would be good so that grace could continue to abound in their lives. However, Paul had a clear answer to those wondering if they should go on sinning. In Romans 6:2 Paul said,

Romans 6:2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?

Paul knew it was crazy for someone to have been set free from sin to still walk in it. When my parents gave me the new car I still had my old one. No doubt if I had chosen to leave the new car parked and drive the old one instead you would have thought me crazy. You would ask why would you not drive the new car? I could have said, “I’m used to the way the old car drives” or given other excuses but any excuse would have sounded silly. For those who are believers yet choose to continue to live in sin, that choice is just as crazy. God has provided the ultimate gift. The gift of eternal life and the new life it brings. We would be silly to refuse his gift in the first place but even more crazy would be to fail to walk in the new life he has given. One of the best things I did after getting my new car was giving my old one away. I wasn’t tempted to drive it that way. The best thing a believer can do is put the sin of your old life out of your life and walk in the new life that God provided. As Paul said,

Romans 6:11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

For those of us who are believers let’s walk in the new life that God has provided. There is no need to walk in our old life any longer and it would be silly for us to do so.

Psalm 96

Have you made a commitment to do something new as the year starts? Many people do. Whether you call them new year resolutions or not doesn’t matter but many people start the year determined for things to be different. Some determine to have new eating habits, new exercise habits, new reading habits, new relationship habits, and many other new things. There is nothing wrong with making these new commitments. In fact, if some are kept then one’s life can be changed for the better. In Psalm 96, we see a call to the people of God to something new. A call to sing a new song. If you read the entire Psalm what you see is a call for God’s people to heartfelt worship and witness. The first word of the Psalm “Oh” is a call to something heartfelt. If you took out the word, the Psalm would still make sense but the use of “Oh” calls us to a deep sense of feeling. In the depth of who we are, we are called to sing a new song to God. A new song simply means recognizing what God is doing in the present. In Lamentations 3:23 we are told that God’s mercies are new every morning, so if nothing else, each day we can sing about how merciful God has been to us for the previous day’s failure. But God is so much more. The Psalm declares God’s greatness and reminds us that it is to the Lord we sing. As people we are by nature worshippers. If we don’t worship God we will worship something. Therefore, we are called to sing a new song “to the Lord” to make sure that our hearts are pointed in the right direction. Pointed to the one who is to be feared above all the false gods of the earth, the one who “will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.” As we worship, notice in this Psalm we are also to “declare his glory among the nations.” If we worship God correctly it will result in us witnessing to others about the greatness of God.

Maybe you think all I have said so far is common sense to the people of God. Maybe so. However, coming out of the year marked by COVID-19, we must make sure that we don’t get our eyes off God. Some studies have suggested that thirty percent or more of people who used to come to church will not return even when the pandemic is over, yet the Psalmist says we are to “bring an offering and come into his courts!” It is easy for us all to lose focus on even the basic things. Therefore, as this year is beginning let’s renew our commitment to worship the Lord and to witness to the world. If we do those two basic things we will have many new songs to sing in the coming year about what God is doing in our lives.

James 1

Often when we study the Bible it can become an academic exercise as we seek to know God’s truths. However, the study of God’s Word should never simply be academic. James 1:22-24 contains some very familiar words to those who have studied God’s Word. Look at them carefully.

James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.

It is important for us to see what James is saying. We truly must be doers of the Word. Even as we read devotionals, we can simply make them an exercise in gaining knowledge and encouragement without any real change in our lives. If all we ever get from reading God’s words and devotions is information or encouragement, then we have missed the purpose of God’s words. We have missed being transformed by the God who is the author of His Word. Truly God wants us to put into practice what we read and learn. As you hopefully take the challenge to read one chapter of James each day this week, be sure to not only read it but also understand what God wants you to do and then do it. The true blessing will come as you are a doer of God’s Word. Not only will you be blessed, but all those who you have contact with and influence over will also be blessed. I have no doubt that each chapter in James will reveal to you actions that will be a benefit to all if you do what God’s Word says. Read all of James 1 now and let God begin to transform you as 2021 draws near.

Malachi 1:2-5

Most people know that I am a fan of the Kentucky Wildcats. Fewer people know that I am a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. When I was young, I made the choice for whatever reason that these teams would be my favorite. Here is something that some of you will understand. No matter what happens with these teams, I will always be a fan. I still find it easy to be a UK fan, while I find it difficult to be a Cowboys fan. If I am honest, I would rather not be a Cowboys fan. However, something in me cannot stop cheering for the Cowboys. No matter how bad the team may be or no matter how much turmoil the organization is in, I still love the Cowboys. I cannot turn away from the teams I have chosen to love. If you are not a sports person, maybe you understand this feeling when it comes to a favorite musician or favorite actor or actress, or maybe even a favorite restaurant. Sometimes we choose to love things and even if things go a little wrong, we still choose to love.

In Malachi 1, God reaffirms his love for his people. As we read the Scriptures, God chose the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, to be his chosen people to bless the whole world. That will never change. Here in Malachi the Israelites were questioning God’s love because of their difficult situation. In part, they felt that God wasn’t punishing the evil and wicked nations around them. God tried to help them understand that he was a God of justice by noting that the Edomites suffered greatly by his hand for their wickedness and the Edomites were even descendants of Jacob’s brother Esau. God is both a God of love and justice.

As we read these first verses of Malachi, we need to be mostly reminded of the steadfast love of God. Difficulties in life do not mean that God does not love you. This life is full of trouble. The good news for us is that trouble doesn’t separate us from the love of God. I am reminded of the New Testament verses that reaffirm this. In Romans 8 it says…

Romans 8:35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You can be assured that God’s love for you never changes. That is good news for a people who have a tendency to take God’s love for granted and who have a tendency to take advantage of God’s love. First, take a moment to thank God for His steadfast love. Then I want to encourage you to consider what your response to God’s love should be. Hopefully your response will be to love Him in return.