John 13:31-35

31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

John 13:31-35

When Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was about to happen on the cross, he gave them a new commandment: love one another as I have loved you. This commandment was and is intended to be the identifying characteristic for those who follow Jesus, and it didn’t fizzle out or lose power over time. As Christians, we are still called to show the love of Christ; it is supposed to be what sets us apart.

Are we loving one another the way that we are supposed to? We tend to love conditionally, favoring those we like or agree with. It’s hard to love those who have wronged us. It’s easy to forget that we’re supposed to show love when we’re caught up in an argument or when issues divide us. I encourage you today to reflect on the way that you love others. At the start of new year, maybe it’s time to realign with this new commandment to love one another just as Jesus has loved us.

Ezekiel 36:22-38

When I start something new, there is always a purpose behind it in my mind. Over the holiday, I created a little indoor treehouse in one of my closets. It was a full day project but so worth it. It’s a cozy place with one purpose. That purpose is to remove distractions and be a place where I can get lost in books. Whether that is digging into God’s Word or reading a good mystery, that’s where all the reading happens. It’s my new favorite place in the house and if you ever ask me about it, you might regret you mentioned it because I’m sure to start showing you before and after pictures and explaining all the elements of it’s formation. But let’s get back to the point of the story. . .purpose. I’m a purpose fanatic and believe that if we are doing something, we better be able to point to the “why” behind it. A clearly given purpose just brings me joy.

I love this passage of Scripture because it points forward to the new covenant God will make with His people. At this point in history, sin and exile had been a point of disgrace for the Israelites and God was speaking of His plan for restoration. He had a plan to give His people a new heart and a new spirit, to make a covenant with His people to bring His name glory, restore His name among the nations, and to bring His people to Himself. He made it clear to the people that the purpose of the new covenant was not for their sake but for His glory. They had done nothing to earn this new heart and new spirit. They had done nothing to deserve a new covenant with the one true God. Regardless of His people’s merit, God always works for His glory and our good. By providing a new heart, His people would be better able to live a teachable life seeking after God. By providing a new spirit, His people would have the guidance to live as He has called them. The new covenant isn’t about following a list of rules but rather living in communion with our God. He has provided a solution to the sin problem of the human heart and offered the assurance of restoration–all for His glory. As we start this fresh year with new projects and goals, let’s remember our purpose. We have been given this new heart and spirit. Thus, everything we do should be for the purpose of glorifying God, both the small things and the big things. Let’s be intentional and sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s guidance as we seek to grow and make disciples.

Lamentations 3

Taking a look back at 2020, we see where God allowed us to be put into some uncomfortable situations.  He moved us from our comfort zone into the unknown.  This caused me to question God at times about what he was doing and why he was doing this.  At times, it seems that there is no end to when this stuff is going to be over. I had moments where I was worn down and tired.  The prophet Jeremiah experienced this same feeling and spoke to this in verse 18. 

so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.

Lamentations 3:18

When these times came upon me, I had only one place to turn for help. I had to turn and trust that God has already taken care of everything that I was going through. My focus had to shift from my problems to the problem solver. Just a few verses later Jeremiah realized this also and penned verses 22 and 23.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases;
his mercies never come to an end;
great is they faithfulness.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

Lamentations 3:22-23

These two verses inspired Thomas Chisholm to write a poem that later was turned into the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness”. This hymn has been sung in churches for decades now. The chorus is almost a direct quote of these two verses.

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
 Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

Thomas Chisholm

Take heart and know that God is not surprised by what happens in our lives. He never changes and is quick to forgive when we doubt and stray. Take time today and think on the new mercies God has given to you today.

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!

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 5

James chapter five offers solid counsel for the faith life. Maybe not easy advice to put into practice, but worth the effort. He tackles topics still relevant today: fiances, suffering, and health. 

Take time to reflect on your prayer requests. Odds are many surround those very topics either for yourself or for those you know. 

He issues a strong warning to the rich in verses 5-6, not condemning those who have money, but what they have decided to do with their money. James is talking about people who’ve swindled their workers, given them unfair wages, they’re greedy, and lived in luxury while not giving thoughts to those around them. 

I openly admit reading this and thinking, “Yeah, rich people who don’t share what they have totally deserve punishment.” But, then I’m reminded that even America’s poorest 20% are wealthier than a large portion of other countries around the world. 

We’re not here to debate why, the social and political issues surrounding that fact, but I do want to point out how we handle our money matters. We are accountable, and James reminds us of that. All we have belongs to God, and we should give back as we are able. 

After tackling finances, James moves on to suffering. His words are inspiring and motivating. “Be patient,” he says in verse seven. We see words like “steadfast” and “established” giving this image of holding on because what’s coming–the Lord–is better. He’s worth any suffering we may endure. 

It’s worth noting that James moves into health after talking about patience in suffering. Many health problems we face require patience. Whether it’s dealing with a series of doctor appointments, the red tape of insurance companies, chronic pain or cancer treatments, health problems often lead to suffering, which requires patience, and prayer. James knows this and says to pray when someone is sick. He points out the power of prayer and even links confession to healing. In a world where pills are prescribed, James says to pray. 

 From finances, to suffering, to health, James covers it all–all the things that still matter to us today. Though there may be no easy answers, James reminds us of the One who holds all the answers and encourages us to prayer. 

Give God your finances, your suffering, and your health.

James 4

This week I decided to do a light purge of excess stuff that has piled up in my office. As I was going through things, I found an entire stack of empty binders. I normally make my plans and fill my binders with all of my ideas and schedules and details. This year was different. This year required me to set aside my plans, my binders, and my preferences as I had to go one day at a time. Much was accomplished, new strategies were formed, and connections were made. But for someone like me who thrives on plans in binders, it was a little tough to get used to at first, which is why this passage of Scripture resonates with me more after this year than it ever has before.

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.

James 4:13-17

Unfortunately, the trap of self-reliance is easy to fall into. It’s a trap that I’ve always had to intentionally watch for. Though this year has brought sorrow, hardship, sickness, and storms, it has also brought growth. It has been literally impossible to say what we will do tomorrow or where we will be next week. As I look back at the lessons of this year, it’s the seriousness of this passage that shines brightest. . .”If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” This should always be our posture in life, a true dependence on God and His will.

My prayer for us, church family, is that, as we enter into 2021, we will take the opportunity to give thanks for the good and the different that came out of this past year. That we would continue in our growth and understanding of fully leaning on God and His plans. We know the posture we should have, we know we should live humbly in the presence of our God, and we know that only He knows what tomorrow will bring. Let’s then live to glorify Him and set aside our own plans and preferences as we find new ways to seek Him and serve Him in the coming days, whatever they may bring.

James 3

As we are approaching the new year, most people are thankful we have made it through 2020. Also, they are looking forward to 2021 by making New Year’s resolutions. Most people are taking an inventory of their life and seeing where they want to change. The most common goals seem to fall into how people view themselves physically, like losing weight or working out more. I know I should certainly focus on these areas of my life, but even more important is the taming of my tongue. This is something that I am constantly having to check myself on. It is easy for me to criticize, in writing or speech, the way someone believes or does things. I know I have the ability to be just downright mean about it.

but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:8

James the brother of Jesus has laid out a few characteristics of a mature believer. In the first two chapters of this letter, a mature believer is seen to be one who is patient in trouble (James 1) and practices the truth (James 2). The third trait of a mature believer is their ability to control their tongue. I know if I do not allow God to take control of my tongue, it can do so much harm and cause a plethora of issues among the people around me. When I am allowing God to tame my tongue, I may still disagree with what someone says or does, but the way I say it and treat that person changes considerably. Only God can tame the tongue, and we must submit control of it to Him. Paul reminds us about how we should talk to one another in Ephesians.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:29

My challenge to you and me starting today is to allow God to control your tongue. Watch what you say and how you say it. When we make the effort to do this, the way we treat people will change, and they will notice.

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.

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.