Christmas, Devotionals, Faith, Life, writings

What Is Advent?

As we kick off sharing the next 4 weeks together, I think it’s only fitting that we start by asking and answering a simple question: What is Advent?

I grew up in a faith tradition that wasn’t particularly “liturgical”, meaning we didn’t follow a set calendar in Church for readings or ceremonies. We did Communion every 5th Sunday and, well, that was about it. I remember a few years when someone in the Church would do an advent wreath and candles, but that seemed to be the exception. I think that, without being spoken, the idea was that those sorts of traditions would be too stuffy, too formal for us.

But as I got older, and my love for Church History grew, I began to learn that Advent was more than 4 candles and a calendar that my mom would buy. It was more than counting down the shopping days left before Santa showed up.

Advent comes to us from the Latin word Adventus, and it means coming. It refers to the coming of Christ. While the word itself appears nowhere in the Bible, the theme most certainly does. Throughout the Old Testament, we have prophecies concerning a coming Messiah. We also see in the writings of the prophets, a longing for Messiah to make all things right, to restore God’s people, and to see a renewal of the covenant with God. When we look at the history of the Jewish people, especially the last part of the Old Testament period, and in the 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, we see that this waiting moves from just a desire to expectant waiting.

So why should we, who live after Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus, commemorate Advent? I think there at several reasons.

First, it helps us to remember that God has a plan and a timeline that doesn’t often coincide with our own. In Galatians 4:4, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law,” Christ came at the precise moment the Father knew to be best. God’s time and God’s plan aren’t ours. But we must learn to wait for His perfect timing.

Secondly, Advent helps us to remember the mystery, the wonder, of the Incarnation. Incarnation simply means that Jesus became a man and lived among us. I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase, The Message words John 1:14—The Word [Jesus] became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish. I think it would behoove us to take time, more than just a few weeks each year, to meditate on the truth that God loved us so much that Jesus didn’t just show up, he came and lived among us, experiencing life with us.

Thirdly, Advent reminds us of our mission to prepare the way for the Messiah. According to Old Testament prophecies, before the Messiah would appear, there would be individuals preparing people for his coming. John the Baptist was one, the “voice crying in the wilderness”. John 1:6-8 says this about him, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light [Jesus], that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.” Now, you don’t have to be Baptist to be like John. No, you see, each of us has been tasked with helping to prepare the way for others to come to Jesus. Each of us has a role to play in seeing others place their faith in Jesus. It is during Advent that we remember we have a part in the Christmas Story as well.

And finally, Fourth, during Advent, we are reminded that Jesus is coming again. We call this the Second Advent. This is where we share in the eager expectation of the Old Testament saints of God restoring, no, surpassing, Eden and that we might dwell with our Lord. Sadly, when we think about the Second Coming of Christ today, we’ve often focused on “end times” prophecies and blood moons and hogwash like that. In fact, the “last days” began over 2,000 years ago. There is nothing to prevent Jesus from coming back at any moment. Instead of fixating on days or silly conspiracy theories or secret raptures, we can rejoice that in the end, God wins, and because of Christ, we are victors over death, hell, and separation from our heavenly Father.

So maybe Advent isn’t your thing. Hey, that’s fine. I think I’ve given you four pretty good reasons to check it out. I hope you’ll consider going on this journey with us, as we go into the Christmas season and even beyond it a little bit. Together we remember that Christ has come, Christ has risen, and Christ is coming again.

Devotionals, Faith, Life, Ministry, writings

Reflecting The Night Before the Midterms

Across the USA tomorrow, millions of people will vote in the midterm elections. And boy, I’ve heard some crazy stuff this cycle. Much of it is just regurgitated talking points from cable news or worse, some debunked lie that fits in with someone’s world view. Elections are important. But sometimes we lose sight of what is even more important.

If you’re a follower of Jesus, just imagine if half of what was spent on political advertising was spent instead on eliminating hunger? We could end it in the US with what has been spent this year.
What if that same amount of money was put into adult education, or programs for the disabled or those troubled by PTSD from combat?
What if we told people about Jesus with as much enthusiasm as we tell people who to vote for?
What if we shared Scripture like we share political memes?
What if we invited people to a meal like we invite them to vote our values?
What if we viewed the opposing side as people made in the image of God and deserving of our love and service?
What if we acted like Jesus was our Savior more than the political party we prefer?
What if we were more concerned about our own integrity and witness than with “taking our country back”?
What if we did more than talk about living out our faith and we actually did it?
What if we were to speak the truth not only to those of a different party but also to those in our own political camp?
What if we were committed to being the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus?

Friends, we’d change the world for the glory of God.

Devotionals, Faith, Family, Life, Ministry

How “Saved” Are Christians?

The other night, I had a conversation with my daughter Libby. At age 11, she is my oldest and I probably talk more about faith with her than I do with the other kids. It seemed like a trivial question at first. In a book she is reading, a girl hides in a well so she cannot be found. Later she dies of an infection she acquired while in the well. Libby asked if that was murder or suicide. I explained to her that it was neither. It would be considered an accident.

“But dad, she did it on purpose,” Libby responded.

“Yes, she went into the well on purpose, but she didn’t do it to get sick. And even if she did it to get sick, she didn’t know it would cause her death.”

I went on to explain that suicide is a deliberate act, not an accidental one. I gave the example that if I got drunk, got behind the wheel, and drove into a tree, that would be incredibly stupid of me, but not suicide, but rather an accidental death. That then led to the question of if I would go to hell if I did that. My answer of “no” surprised her.

It reminded me of a conversation with a friend earlier in the day where we briefly mentioned death (it happens when you, like me, work in a funeral home and with a cemetery). I said something to the effect of, “Well, I know I’m going to heaven, so I hope to see you there.” My friend, also a follower of Jesus, remarked something along the line of “Well, that’s great Mr. Perfect.” Something in his tone made me ponder the rest of the way home.

Now back to Libby and me. Here is my 11-year-old wondering if you die committing a sin if you are going to heaven. I honestly don’t like the “going to heaven” language because too often we focus more on the destination than we do the Deity, God (He is the goal, not just the location). So, I switch to the language of “being right with God”. Libby is where many people are, where I was for much of my life, including my entry into ministry. Her rationale is: Jesus has forgiven me for the sins I committed in the past. But what about sins I commit in the future?

See, we take 1 John 1:8-9 (If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.) sometimes to mean that if we have sin in our lives and do not confess it, then we are once again at enmity with God. Not that we’re not saved, but almost in a quasi-saved state, a state of limbo, if you will, where as long as we confess and ask for forgiveness, we maintain our salvation.

But this is wrong. You see, if we are maintaining our salvation by continuing to confess and ask for forgiveness, then our salvation is simply that: maintained by us, not the saving work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. It would mean that we may be saved by grace through faith, but in the end are kept saved by our actions or works. It’s as if Jesus is a debt-consolidation service. He’ll even cancel out your debt, but you are responsible from here on out for any future indebtedness you incur.

Just as a general observation, I think a lot of Christians have this view of Christ. Even if they attend a church that leans heavily on “eternal security” or “once-saved-always-saved”, the preaching and teaching (and frankly a general Biblical ignorance) lead to this kind of thinking.

On one hand, it’s completely understandable why we come to this position. After all, does God not call us to holiness? Does he not have standards? Standards that we fail to maintain, yet they remain. God calls us to love him and love others, and this call means continually denying ourselves, taking up the cross, and following Jesus. Doesn’t God call us to growth? Doesn’t he rebuke those who hear and do not do?

And what are we to do with sin? Do we just excuse it as a part of the human condition? Do we make allowances for the flesh, for carnality, for selfishness? Paul would say “God forbid!” So if grace is not a license to sin, and if sin still offends the heart of God, and if we are called to live holy… Isn’t unconfessed sin a hindrance to our relationship with our Creator?

The open-ended question I often came to, and would hear ministers offer was this: “How do you make it into heaven, where there is no sin, with sin in your heart?”

It’s ironic as I look back, many of the evangelists we would have in for revivals as a child came from Baptist backgrounds. One of the caricatures of Baptists is that as long as you “invited Jesus into your heart” then you were saved no matter what. If that was the case, why did these same men offer so many salvation altar calls? You’d get saved 6 or 7 times, which by their own (and real Biblical) theology just couldn’t happen.

And so, this kind of thinking can lead to different conclusions, few of them good. I’ve known people who have incredibly strong faith, the kind of people I call on to pray for me when I’m going through something, who are very insecure in their own standing with God. Let us not confuse humility with an accurate understanding of our relationship with God.

I have also witnessed people so insecure about the forgiveness that God offers that they reject his offer entirely. What good is grace, after all, if it leads to a life of enslavement to a list of rules. Does it not at that point cease to be grace?

Additionally, I have seen many well-intentioned Christians, perhaps immature in their faith, perhaps not exposed to solid Bible teaching, pass judgment on other believers because they didn’t live up to the same standards.

For instance, I was once in a worship service where I was supposed to be filling in for the minister. During a time of sharing prayer requests and testimonies, one person mentioned how a person had taken their own life. This led to several people making comments that “suicide is a ticket straight to hell” (I recall that phrase quite well). Not only was this hardly the place to bring up a theological discourse on suicide not being the unforgivable sin, but it also would surely cause undue pain and hardship to any friend or loved one of a suicide victim. If suicide is not the unforgivable sin, the only way it can lead “straight to hell” is because it forbids asking God for forgiveness after the fact. That same logic would also mean that should you suffer a heart attack immediately following a single sin and not repent as you died, you would also be going to an eternity apart from Christ.

This sort of theology may lead to crowded altar calls. It may lead to dozens of commitments or recommitments to Christ to list on your church’s annual report. But it does not lead to a deeper love for the Lord or an abiding sense of His love for you.

It was as a grown man, even as a minister responsible for teaching God’s word, that I began to discover that God loved me despite my failings, despite the fact that I would continue to let him down. This didn’t give me a sense of freedom to sin, as some would worry, but rather it drove me to see how wonderful the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ truly is. It has caused me to have greater compassion to reach people who have either never known Jesus as well as those who have felt abandoned or forsaken by their Creator.

When I told my friend that I am sure I am going to heaven, it is not because Adam Will is perfect. It is not because I keep all God’s commandments and do not err. On the contrary, I sin far too much. I still wrestle with doubts. I still feel inadequate. But the truth of it all, the glorious truth of the Gospel, is that I am made right with God because of what Jesus did. Not because of what I once did or continue to do. The most I ever did was simply to open the gift of salvation that He gave to me and offers to all who will receive Him.

If you have made it this far, I wish to offer you my most heartfelt congratulations. Sometimes I don’t even stick with me. But I have one more related issue to tackle. I’ll keep it relatively brief but I must include it for the sake of balance and to help you understand more fully where I am coming from.

It would be unfortunate for you to have made it thus far and conclude, “Oh, Adam is one of those reformed Calvinist dudes who thinks that once you pray to receive Christ, you’re golden.”

I don’t believe in “once-saved-always-saved” because I have seen that to mean that anyone who prays a prayer is getting in the gates. It doesn’t work that way. There must be genuine transformation. Again, that transformation is evidence, yes, but not evidence of your work, but of the work of the Holy Spirit.

I would strongly argue that many people whom we consider “backslidden” who prayed a “sinners’ prayer” at a Bible School or funeral after Granny died, didn’t understand (or count the cost) of what salvation truly is. It’s hard to backslide when you’ve never slid forward to begin with.

Do I believe that some people have left the faith? I don’t know. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But if I do grant that some people may have “lost” their salvation, it isn’t because of a slip-up or a sin. It would have to be because of a complete and utter rejection of what they know, have known, to be true.

And so, brothers and sisters, we walk the balanced way, or as Johnny Cash might say “I walk the line”. We must reject the idea that the grace of God gives you permission to do whatever you want with no concern in regard to the Lord. But we also must reject the heavy burden that comes from legalism and trying to keep the law. Yes, your sin will cause a disruption in the fellowship you have with God, but the blood of Jesus is stronger than the bonds of sin. If he has set you free, you are still free. You are free indeed.

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Devotionals, Faith, Life, The Bible, writings

Taking A Step Towards Jesus: Pt. 2

Part 2 of 4

Today, I’m continuing to share some truths found in Matthew 14:22-33. This is a familiar passage to folks who grew up in a church setting. Jesus comes to his disciples in the middle of a storm and walks on water. Now, I grant you, walking on water sounds silly, right? I mean, no one can do that.

So if you’re not a person of faith, let me clue you in on something. By and large, Christians don’t subscribe to silly stories. Most of us don’t believe in fairy tales. But we do believe in supernatural occurrences. All that means is that there are things that cannot be explained naturally. We believe that miracles can and do happen. No, we don’t believe in the tooth fairy, but we believe in Jesus. And as illogical as it sounds, Occam’s Razor leads us to believe that sometimes a supernatural occurrence, like Jesus walking on water, is the most logical conclusion. Don’t worry, we’re not talking about miracles today; that tidbit is free.

So where were we? Ah Yes, Jesus is walking on the water.

The disciples were scared. Honestly, I don’t know what would be scarier: being in the middle of a giant lake in a bad storm or seeing someone walking on the waves. But scared they were.

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. 27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”

Now, last time I shared that a nugget of truth is that God Will Allow Us to Encounter Storms. I mean, Jesus knew what was going to happen, and he allowed those disciples to sail right into what seemed like a danger zone. But as I said, many times what seems like a setup for failure is a setup for God to show up. And that’s something we need to know: Jesus Always Shows Up at the Right Time.

I know, for those of us with some miles on us, and some life experiences, we would think that might sound cute but life would have us believe something else entirely. “That’s a nice greeting card sentiment, but in real life…” Hey, I get it. Where is Jesus when the doctor gives you the diagnosis that the cancer is back? Where is Jesus when the bills come in with a FINAL NOTICE stamped on them? Where is Jesus when you feel like you’re all alone, the only one still trying?

I’ll tell you where. Right there beside you. Do we question the promise of Jesus when he said “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5b)? Or do we take him at his word?

There are a lot of times that I don’t feel God with me. But ours is a belief system of faith, not of emotions. When the God who set the stars in their places says that He is with me, who am I to doubt that? It is just possible that I’m not trusting him at that moment? Overcome by worry or emotion, have we allowed the situation to cloud our confidence in our Creator?

Jesus showing up doesn’t mean the storm is always over. It doesn’t mean the journey through turbulent seas is over. But it does mean that the Master of the seas is riding along with us. And we can trust his timing and his guidance to get to the other side of the storm we find ourselves in.

Jesus always shows up at the right time.

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