Praying for the President

1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:1-4

It has been said that one of the most talked about yet least practiced spiritual disciplines is prayer. When it comes to believers praying for the office of the President of the United States, this is perhaps even more true! I am often guilty of proffering political opinion in the form of utterance to God rather than providing powerful prayer for personal transformation when it comes to politics. The trajectory of my prayers often reveals much about my spiritual walk, and sometimes my prayer life is evidence of my own spiritual immaturity.I could ask God for anything, yet I spend most of my time complaining about things that simply don’t matter. Am I more concerned about my political position or about the eternal position of those for whom I pray? Do my prayers extend beyond my own preference or discomfort, or do they stay way from the realm of the nations and God’s grace to the entire earth? In truth, my ability to articulate a position has no cosmic power whatsoever, yet when I pray I am speaking to the One who created the cosmos simply by speaking. My attempt to persuade another to a policy has no lasting change to the heart, yet when I pray I am speaking to the One who holds the hearts of all leaders in His hands to direct wherever He wills (Proverbs 21:1).

In the end, what I’ve realized is that my prayer pattern for our President is more driven by what’s bothering me in that moment based on a news report than what’s significant in eternity. Basing my prayer in my annoyances is a terrible way to pray! I’d like to change that in my own heart this year.

With the inauguration of a new president, I have a chance to pray the right way for our new President. And so, this year I will be using 1 Timothy 2:1 as a template to guide my prayer. If this is pleasing to God then it’s something I want to do! (2:3). It’s not a complicated way to pray, nor is it anything new. It is as old as the Church itself and the King who rules over it, and is a pathway to align my prayer with God’s desire to see all people saved (2:4)! After all, a cursory reading through the prayers of Jesus Christ on earth reveals He makes supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving as a regular part of His prayer life, even on behalf of those who had just driven the nails into His hands on the Cross! 

And so, here’s a way to pray for our President in the coming year. Each time I pray for Joe Biden, I’ll be making:

Supplications

“Supplications” carries the sense of deep spiritual need for which I am praying. In other words, what is the spiritual need our President has? What is the request I am making for his spiritual development? What does he need from God? 

Prayers

“Prayers” is a the general term for praying to God, but a reminder that it is to God that we are praying. We are not asking an earthly power to move, nor are we hoping in any ultimate fulfillment of what we are praying for to come from anywhere else other than Heaven. We are, when we pray for our president, speaking to God about him. How would I approach God about my president? What would the presence of God guide, guard, and govern my prayer? In practice, for me this involves taking a moment to quiet my heart and focus my mind on what’s of eternal value as I’m speaking to God. 

Intercessions

“Intercessions” is just what you know it means – to stand in the gap for another and plead on their behalf. With this, we are petitioning God on behalf of our president. If President Biden succeeds, we all benefit. If God chooses to bless and lead him, it is for everyone’s good. In intercession, we stand before our King and ask Him to move in our President as God does in us – forming us more and more into the image of Christ.

Thanksgivings

Thanksgiving, sometimes called gratitude, is always a requirement when going into the presence of God in prayer (for a great book, see A Grumbler’s Guide to Giving Thanks by Dustin Crowe). Relative to our President, gratitude toward God for the good gifts He allows us to enjoy through this leader, even at times when some policies are not what we would prefer or are even oppressive, is a proper posture while praying. What are the things I can be thankful for? What are joys that I see around me that I can thank God for?

So this year, and really for the next four years, I will be focusing on supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving when praying for our president. I know that one day I will stand before God and give an account for how I prayed, and in that day I hope to be able to hear from Him, “You didn’t always get it right, but you kept asking Me for the things I cared most about on behalf of your earthly leader! Well done! That’s how I told you to pray in my Word!” Yes, may it be that we pray in a way that God says, “Well done! That’s what I told you to do and you did it!”

The Gentleness of Christ – Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the marks of a Christian is gentleness, because one of the marks of Christ is gentleness. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit of God in those who bear His name (Galatians 5:23). Gentleness is a requirement for church leadership (1 Timothy 3:3). Christ describes Himself as gentle toward those who come to Him (Matthew 11:29). The gentleness of Christ drives Paul to deal gently with the Corinthians whose sin is so obvious (2 Corinthians 10:1). And the Gospel compels us to know Christ can deal with our weakness with gentleness, because He knows what it is to be beset with the weight of sin and weakness (Hebrews 5:2). 

In other words, because Christ is gentle we are gentle, because we are Christ’s. The Kingdom of God belongs to people who are gentle, and His favor rests with them forever so that they will inherit the full inheritance of God Himself when He returns to rule forever (Matthew 5:5). 

And yet, even as Christ is gentle, it does not mean that Christ has no strength. Christ is the Creator of all things who, by His power, holds all things together. He rules over every dominion, power, and authority on earth. He is the conquering King with unrivaled, unchallenged, and unmatched supremacy forever (Colossians 1:15-22). Not even death has any say in His life (John 10:18). He is gentle and powerful. 

And so when we think of the gentleness of Christ, we are not thinking, at any level, of “strengthlessness.” The Bible defines gentleness as controlled strength. Like a lion who allows his cubs to crawl on his neck and yet in a flash can turn and devour any opponent, gentleness is controlled strength, not a lack of it. Unlike a lion, however, our strength is not found in our own body, but in the resurrected body of the bloodied, beaten, crucified, and risen King whose strength now dwells in us and in whose Kingdom we now live in and for. Our strength is found in the Gospel living through us. Though we are weak, in Him we are strong. Even the greatest earthly king who ever reigned proclaimed:

“You have given me the shield of your salvation, and your right hand supported me, and your gentleness made me great.” (Psalm 18:35)

For God’s people who follow Him, we ought to be obviously marked by His gentleness. We stand strong, certainly. But our strength is seen in the gentleness of our stand. This marks every aspect of our lives as followers of Jesus. And as Christ was gentle toward us who crucified Him, we are gentle toward those around us even if they are not gentle toward us (c.f. all of 1 Peter 2). This uncommon trait in culture, religious or otherwise, is a common requirement of Christians. To see an example of a believer marked by gentleness, we need look no further than the man we, as a nation, remember today.

Today, we celebrate the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. During a time where bombings, lynchings, shootings, segregation, violent mobs, unlawful arrests, unjust court rulings, and evil treatment of black Americans was often condoned or overlooked, Dr. King stood as a formidable force for Civil Rights whose Christian example of gentleness we can follow.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, many freedoms – the freedom to vote, the freedom to attend an integrated public school, the freedom to sit down in the dining hall of a restaurant, the freedom to attend the closest church – were still not a reality for African Americans, especially in Southern culture. Even among the religious leaders, it was common to find an enemy and rare to find an ally to the cause of Civil Rights (for more, see Bryan Loritts’s Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Moody Publishers, 2014). And yet, Dr. King’s strength was shown in gentleness. This believer, empowered by the Christian conviction that all men are created in God’s image, fought with a tenacity that was marked by gentleness because of the Gospel that compelled him to be strong and gentle.

For example, hear his words following the news that buses in Birmingham would finally be integrated. On December 20th, 1956 Dr. King spoke to the thousands gathered at St. John A.M.E Church:

These twelve months have not at all been easy. Our feet have often been tired. We have struggled against tremendous odds to maintain an alternative transportation. There have been moments when roaring waters of disappointment poured upon us in staggering torrents. We can remember days when unfavorable court decisions came upon us like tidal waves, leaving us trading in the deep and confused waters of despair. But amid all of this we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us, and that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice. We have lived under the agony and darkness of Good Friday with the conviction that one day the heightening glow of Easter would emerge on the horizon. We have seen truth crucified and goodness buried, but we have kept going with the conviction that truth crushed to earth will rise again.

Now our faith sems to be vindicated. This morning the long awaited mandate from the United States Supreme Court concerning bus segregation came to Montgomery. Our experience and growth during this past year of united nonviolent protest has been of such that we cannot be satisfied with a court “victory” over our white brothers. We must respond to the decision with an understanding of those who have oppressed us and with an appreciation of new adjustments that the court order poses for them. We must be able to face up honestly to our own shortcomings. We must act in such a way as to make possible a coming together of white people and colored people on the basis of a real harmony of interests and understanding. We seek an integration based on mutual respect.

This is the time that we must evince calm dignity and wise restraint. Emotions must not run wild. Violence must not come from any of us, for if we become victimized with violent intents, we will have walked in vain, and our twelve months of glorious dignity will be transformed into an eve of gloomy catastrophe. As we go back to the buses let us be loving enough to turn an enemy into a friend. We must now move from protest to reconciliation. It is my firm conviction that God is working in Montgomery. Let all men of goodwill, both Negro [sic] and white, continue to work with Him. With this dedication we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. (Martin Luther King, Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson, (Grand Central Publishing), 1998, 96-97).

This is what it looks like for gentleness to be obvious in a Christ follower. Under adversity and oppression, the character of Christ shone brightly through Dr. King during this moment – in his strong actions and gentle responses. As we consider the character of Christ that shines through us, let us consider the gentleness He calls us to have. And let us remember, today, the example of gentleness in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Further Up and Further In (by Lauren Bassett)

I was sitting on the couch with tears streaming down my face when the light bulb went off in my husband’s brain. We had been discussing one of many emotionally stressful topics recently triggered in me by, of all things, a Facebook postAs I unraveled my concerns, confusion, and doubt over this particular subject, Jordan gasped and calmly diagnosed a piece of me contributing to my distress. In this case, the problematic personality trait is my no-questions-asked adherence to rules. I love a good, straightforward instruction. Park closed at sunset? Got it. No dogs on the beach? Would not be caught dead with a dog. Speed limit 55? Meet a 32-year old (Hi! I’m Lauren!) who has never been pulled over. 

Now, Jordan knows this tendency well but he discovered another layer of how it contributes to me – how I act, how I process, and what I feel – just the other night. We have known each other since we were five, having met at First Norfolk in kindergarten. We’ve been together for twelve years and married for eight this summer. But he is still trying to figure out how the deep and intricate pieces of me interact to create his wife in the ups and downs, pandemic and predictable, moments of life. Have you ever realized something that seems obvious in hindsight but felt groundbreaking in your moment of discovery? 

That’s how I felt this week as I was reading Matthew as part of our church’s Reading Through the Bible plan. I know Jesus, but as I read Scripture I can see the Father’s heart shining through in new ways. This light often falls on areas of my life I need to adjust to act and think more like Christ. Other times, God quietly reveals a deeper understanding of Himself. In this case, I noticed a pattern emerging as Matthew describes the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. After years of Sunday School, I was familiar with the many scenes of Jesus healing people with physical challenges, illnesses, and spiritual trials. Perhaps I was too familiar. I had always thought God strategically placed these repetitive healings to demonstrate Christ’s mercy and to prove His power to the crowd of onlookers. But as I read these chapters in quick succession, my heart softened to another purpose. 

Look with me! In Matthew 8 and 9, we see at least nine different instances of Jesus healing. He cleanses a leper in 8:1-4 who said “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” In 8:5-13, a centurion asked Jesus to heal his paralyzed servant with expectant confidence. Jesus replied “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith” and “Let it be done for you as you have believed.” In 8:28-34, Jesus heals demon-possessed men. We know from the accounts in Mark and Luke that one of these men went on to tell the entire countryside of Jesus’ power. In Matthew 9:1-8, Jesus heals a paralytic brought to him by able-bodied men. “When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven”. In 9:18-26, we see a woman who said, “If I only touch his garment, I will be made well” and a ruler who said, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.” In 9:27-31, Jesus asks two blind men, “‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ They said to him, ‘Yes, Lord.’ Then he touched their eyes, saying, ‘According to your faith be it done to you.’”

No doubt, each of the people we see healed in Scripture had a background of suffering. The challenges they faced were not merely crises of health. They had serious social, familial, financial, religious, mental, and quality of life implications. But these were not merely at the right place at the right time to be healed by some chance encounter. They were not randomly chosen just to demonstrate the power of God to the crowds or to the reader of the Word today. If that was the case, the writers could have merely reported how many people Jesus healed and omitted their conversations with Him. Instead, they shared the prerequisite of faith. When their simple belief intersected the grace of God, their lives changed drastically. 

Suddenly these men and women transformed in my mind from frozen Sunday School room illustrations and points on the timeline of Jesus’ ministry to a picture of myself – constantly being transformed and healed from my withered, blind, paralyzed, suffering, dead self. When God chooses to reveal Himself to us, all we can do is respond with that same faith. Faith that Jesus is who He says He is and recognizes that we have nothing of value to offer in return for His healing touch. These stories may seem short and insignificant at first glance, but for these people, meeting Jesus as He travelled through the ancient world was as life-changing as our own light-bulb moments when we opened the door to relationship with Christ. Their healings are pictures of our own salvation.

Maybe this perspective is old news to you. Maybe it’s not. I almost can’t believe that I missed it for so long. But you know what? I’m grateful that there is always more depth in the Word of God, more that the Holy Spirit is waiting to reveal, that we never fully arrive. As someone that really loved school growing up and misses the process of building knowledge grade after grade, I appreciate so that God still has plenty more to teach me. So, bring it on 2021! I can’t wait to see the next thing God is going to reveal through His Word.

What about you? Are you longing for an “aha” moment? Crack open the Word faithfully and He will meet you there time after time. If you want to join in the effort to read through the Bible you can find more information here: www.firstnorfolk.org/bible2021. Don’t feel like you need to catch up in order to be a part of this. There is grace here! And the goal is not to check all the boxes, it is to go further up and further in as we read God’s Word together.

Revenge is a dish best thrown in the trash.

One of the most difficult texts for me to personally apply is the command of Jesus found in Matthew 5:36-41. You’ve probably heard the phrase “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” I mean, if you ever wanted to justify revenge against another, this just might give you a reason. It doesn’t of course. But it does speak into an issue in all of our hearts to look at the wrong another is doing and feel the personal responsibility to give them what they deserve. 

This idea was often appealed to when they sought to do unto another as they have done unto them, but only as it relates to wrongdoing or a negative situation. Even more, this phrase is from the Bible, which makes it even easier to use the wrong way! Feel free to go check it out (Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21). 

These commands do, at a macro level of government, provide God’s desire for the minimum and maximum boundaries of what justice requires for another to pay for their evil deed. In the Old Testament, they gave the leaders of God’s people boundaries for both extremes. For example, on the maximum boundary side these keep a government from punishment above the full measure of the crime – if it is just. For example, if someone were to put another in jail for 20 years for a minor offense, it would be inconsistent with God’s design. On the minimum side, requiring less than the offense for repayment is also inconsistent with God’s design – if it is just. For example, the principle allows leaders to be held fully accountable – no matter their position – for the evil they commit. 

But rules of governmental authority were NOT what Jesus was addressing in this specific passage. As God’s people have often done, the people Jesus was speaking to had taken the macro principle of just repayment and applied it to the micro rule of personal revenge. If someone punches you, punch them back! If someone sues you to take the very shirt off your back, lawyer up and sue them back! If someone uses their governmental right to take advantage of you, take advantage of them back! In other words, there was an idea of justifying wrongdoing and sin toward another because they had done it to you. 

Jesus wanted His followers to see: The way of Christ opposes any evil force with the force of grace and love. The God-Man who would die on a Cross in an act of grace, because of the love He has for the evil people in front of Him, (and the whole world) told them this:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. (Matthew 5:38-42) 

Long before we ever existed, Jesus wanted them (and us) to know seeking revenge on another, even if they deserve it, is not what He wants, nor has ever wanted, for His followers. In fact, His kingdom is built not by personal revenge, or military might, nor by governmental power, but by the name of Christ and God’s Spirit in His people! In the New Testament, this building of the Kingdom began by a bloodied Savior and continued by God’s people being taken advantage of, sawn in two, oppressed, despised, thrown to the lions, persecuted, and sued for their land to be taken away – all because of the Gospel the were spreading! And like wildfire, it spread! Throughout the suppression of personal revenge, God’s Kingdom flourished as God’s people opposed any evil force against them with the force of grace and love through the Gospel.

In the middle of the chaos right now, there is no simple solution for the complex problems we see around us. But one thing I know for sure for you and me personally:  The way of Christ in us opposes any evil force against us with the force of grace and love. 

Now let’s do this today. Let’s not serve personal revenge. Let’s throw it in the trash.

Propitiation

He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. 1 John 2:2

Propitiation. If you ever needed a word that could make you sound theologically smart, this one is it! Seriously. The next time you’re in a LifeGroup or in a conversation with another believer, simply throw this word out – either as part of an answer or in a question to your leader. In fact, using it as a complete sentence can give you double points (if you’re weird and keep score). If your LifeGroup leader asks a question about Jesus, simply reply, “Propitiation.” And boom – you win.

Kidding, of course. Don’t do that. But the weight of this word is so important in theology, and vitally important in understanding 1 John that it ought to be on readily on the mind of every believer. What does it mean, that gives it so much weight?

Just as a sword is both an offensive and defensive weapon, propitiation is two sides of one sword – on one side it releases the satisfaction of God that brings joy to His heart, and on the other side it absorbs the satisfaction of God’s wrath against wrongdoing (sin). It’s the sword swing that does both. In older translations of Scripture, you’ll see the word “expiation” used. The idea this translation focuses on is the act of making amends for the guilt of a party. In other words, the theological idea of “propitiation” carries behind it a guilty party – a party that deserves wrath – has an action done or payment made that makes amends and releases joy in God’s heart. 

This is important. The debt doesn’t disappear magically, nor is the offense of the guilty simply forgotten. The payment is made by an action to satisfy the debt and amend two parties.

In the Bible, the two parties are always God alone on one side, and everyone else on the other. Jesus is the propitiation between the two. He is the One whom God sends to make amends between Him and the guilty (everyone), because the guilty are in debt to Him. The only payment of that guilt is death (Romans 6:23), so Jesus pays the debt to satisfy God on behalf of everyone who believes in Him. Central to the Gospel is this idea! Jesus doesn’t make God’s wrath disappear. He takes it for you.

But not JUST for you! He is the propitiation for the world. In other words, at His table and in His Kingdom are all the sorts of people you find in the world. Think of how many different kinds of people have lived in this world since it was created! Every continent. Every country. Every tribe. Every tongue. Every nation. Every color. Every culture. Every hair style. Every clothing style. Every generation. The whole world!

And yes, under every form of government and from every political view over the past thousands of years, Jesus is all that satisfies God on their behalf.

So, Jesus’s act of propitiation is the unifying factor of all believers.

It would be foolish of us to exclude from salvation any group of people whom God has not. The propitiation of Christ is for every person in the world who would believe in God’s Gospel. It has been since the beginning of Creation, and will continue to be even until the end of all things when Christ’s Kingdom is established (for real…look at Revelation 21:22-25 where at the literal end of all things the different nations of the earth are in relationship with God forever). 

So propitiation. This is your word for the week! 

Take some time today and meditate on this beautiful verse and this beautiful word. And see how God begins to change how you view the world around you – the one Christ died for, the world He has become the propitiation for. 

Smoke Screens

Smoke screens. Are you familiar with this term?

A smoke screen is something that’s designed to hide or confuse another from what is really happening. Eventually it fades and others can see through it, but for a little while it provides cover for what’s happening. It might be smoke, or the phrase can be used to describe something that you see that hides what’s really happening. We have all seen the old magician’s trick where a cloud of smoke covers a movement on stage so that the audience can’t see the reality behind the illusion. Or in a military sense, a smoke screen obscures the vision of any enemy onlooker so that one can move more freely to do what they need to do. Or with little kids, where you distract with a toy so they don’t see the candy and ask for some. Smoke screens are used for all sorts of purposes. In any case, smoke screens are used to make the onlooker not see what’s really there.

Over the course of the past several months, God has been helping me see the smoke screens in my own life. Or to be more specific: He’s teaching me where I have set Him up as the smoke screen in my life, where I may be guilty of using Him as a cover for what’s really in my heart and mind. As I finish reading the book of Isaiah for my devotions, I am given a daily reminder that He does not exist to cover my evil, especially when my evil looks like godly practice. Yesterday, for example, here’s a part of what I read (Isaiah 58):

‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not? 

Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ 

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, 

and oppress all your workers. 

Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight 

and to hit with a wicked fist. 

Fasting like yours this day 

will not make your voice to be heard on high. 

The people of God were asking Him (v.3a), “We’re fasting and praying, but you’re not hearing it. Why don’t you hear our prayers God?” And God’s answer is simply (v.3b – 4), “Because you’re doing it for yourselves” in order to “quarrel and fight” … “And I won’t hear that.” In other words, the people of God were using a spiritual discipline that’s supposed to draw them near to Him – prayer and fasting – to implore God to validate their own position against another in an earthly argument. They were using God as a smoke screen.

For sure, God is for His truth proclaimed. So for Him to be against them means the position they were going for was some kind of selfish preference, not God’s. God saw that they were using Him as a smoke screen. They were abusing His promise to hear prayers as a means to validate their own position and gain their own preferences. A few verses later, God tells them what drawing near to Him through fasting is for (v.6: to break the bonds of sin, v.7: to be empowered to serve the low and poor). Perhaps we need to hear that verse today, but loud and resounding is this truth in my life right now:

God isn’t going to be mocked as a smoke screen for my preferences.  And in His grace, He tells them that, so that they can see what they are really doing and turn to Him.

So I’m in a season right now of asking God to help me see anywhere that I am using His Word and His ways as a smoke screen, because like these people I am not always aware of when I’m doing it. And by God’s grace in helping me see this about my own life, here’s what I’ve grown more sensitive to:

When I am confronted with being wrong about a preference, it’s a place where I am tempted to put up God as a smoke screen to validate my preferences, pride, or position.

Do you see how dangerous this could be for my soul (and yours)? As a pastor, I have the knowledge to turn to a verse, quote a theologian, or call sin “justified” in the name of some righteous thing I’m doing. Eventually, it fades and others can see through it. So the danger in smoke screens for me (and you) is that, instead of using the means of spiritual disciplines God has given us to draw near to Him and be changed, I can be tempted to use these disciplines as a way to validate my own pride, position, or preference. Like using a sword edge as a bench, this does not end well.

So what do we do? Well, the simple answer is “stop and seek God.” It’s the simple answer given in this chapter of Isaiah (58:13). Turn away and stop, or repent, from doing that. But there’s a step before that we can get from the context that I would encourage you to take right now: If you feel you’re unheard by God and He isn’t moving to resolve the positions you take, stop and ask God where you are using Him as a cover for your own pride, position, or preference. Certainly, there’s more than that. But it isn’t less than that. 

And let’s walk forward next week with Christ alone as the thing people see.

Just the Word (by Lauren Bassett)

It is 2021. A new year and a fresh start. As a parent, I am especially grateful that God’s mercies are new every morning and I have the chance to correct my failings from yesterday. Even better, God’s mercies are new every year, as well. There is nothing like the clean slate that happens when that last numeral or two change on the calendar and we return again to January. It is a breath of fresh air, a moment to reflect and resolve, and a time to look back to where I have been and imagine where I might be this time next year. 

Admittedly, I am more of a goal-setter than a dreamer. I only want to speak what I think I can accomplish and am often dissatisfied if I don’t hit the mark right on time. I’m working on the idea of living with open hands, accepting when roadblocks come (hello 2020!). Nevertheless, I am setting some goals for 2021. This year, I am excited to read through the entire Bible in one go for the first time in my life alongside the rest of our church family who are choosing to participate. If you haven’t heard about this or want to join in the effort, head to firstnorfolk.org/bible2021 and join our encouragement group on Facebook by searching “2021 Reading Through the Bible”.

I’m a little embarrassed to say I have never set out to read the entire Bible in any amount of time. I know so many people who have made that a goal, but it never really struck me to read so systematically. I have happily jumped from study to study, sometimes with a companion book, sometimes with a group of friends, and at other times on my own. There has been a healthy amount of cracking open an epistle on a whim, and in some cases, in desperate need for guidance on a particular subject in the midst of life’s circumstances. I have enjoyed studying the Word in smaller chunks, or camping out on a few chapters for long seasons. Truthfully, there have also been stretches where I have not been in the Word consistently or meditating on my daughter’s children’s Bible story has been my nourishment of Scripture for that day. Now, on the brink of a new year, I am excited to finally take on this read-thru challenge. 

It is a beautiful thing that we can, as average people in 2021, read the Bible for ourselves and see the details of God’s purposes in the world He has created. Though we work to apply what we read to our lives, the Word is not merely instructive. It reveals the heart of God, His priorities, and His motivating love of us as individuals and a Church. I am ready to drink in all God has to show me during this particular season, knowing there will be more when I come back in another.

When I started working at First Norfolk, assisting with events and outreach efforts, I felt completely unsure of myself when the conversation turned to theology. I had a clear understanding of my beliefs as a follower of Jesus and read Scripture with a deep desire to grasp and absorb it but was unsure if I should speak up or stay silent in discussion. After all, I have no seminary education. Would my opinion reveal some glaring immaturity, pride, or lapse in judgment? Insights into Greek and Hebrew seemed to me a hidden treasure trove of spiritual wealth that I could not access. I felt there was this other level of sophisticated Biblical thought that I was missing. I worried that my understanding of Scripture was so simple and obvious it was better left unsaid. 

But over time and through many conversations with those around me, my perspective shifted. While I am grateful our pastors are able to shed light when we have tough questions, the Word is sufficient to make me complete as a follower of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, not a degree or academic knowledge, guides our discernment through Scripture. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” This truth is not a justification to disconnect from a local church body and think there is no need for the roles fulfilled by pastors and the Church. If we are reading and valuing the Word as Paul suggests to Timothy then we see the Father’s intention is to use the local church and the overarching Church as the vehicle to reach the world with the Gospel and disciple Christ’s followers. 

We often disqualify ourselves from taking up God’s mission for us because we don’t have the qualifications or experience we think we need. But Scripture reminds time and time again that His plan often relied on people the world would consider unqualified: fisherman disciples, ragtag armies, youngest brother kings, infant Savior. All God requires is a vessel with a willing heart and a love for Him, for His Word, and people. 

Take some time in prayer today and determine what barriers you may have placed on your relationship with Jesus and what it is He has equipped you to do. Maybe there is a sin in your life the Enemy exploits to insist you could not be capable of being bold with the Gospel. Confess it and repent. Perhaps you want to dive into Scripture with me and others from our church family this year to discover the Word and see how the Holy Spirit opens your eyes to His truth firsthand. Join us! Whatever it is, I pray that today you will consider in these early days of January how you might use this clean slate, this New Year, to bring glory to Jesus. 

Complete Joy!

“And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.” John 1:4 

How are joy and the Gospel related?

One of the reasons the book of 1 John was written – indeed, the stated reason from John on why he wrote this book – was so that your joy would be complete. Don’t read this as something for other people. This one is for YOU. It doesn’t take a rhetorical genius to figure out the implication, because we can relate to what it means to have incomplete joy and need our joy completed, even if we don’t know where to begin. We’ve all felt like this. We’re going about our days doing what we believe is good, yet a lack of joy still remains in our lives. Should we join another Bible study? Should we pray more? Should we serve someone? Well – we need to do all of those things! But those aren’t always the starting point. John helps us know where to begin to look if we don’t have a complete joy in life!

The audience that John was writing to had incomplete joy. But their incomplete joy wasn’t coming from an outright unbelief of the Gospel, but from a partial belief in everything the Gospel says for their lives. We know this because at the end of this letter John reminds his readers, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13). So God connects joy and belief in the Gospel by this letter. This means that the problem wasn’t that they were living in complete misery because of complete ignorance of Gospel or the truth of God’s Word. It’s the opposite problem – they were in incomplete joy because they lacked some understanding and application of the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word in their lives. They learned something we all need to remember this week:

A partial belief of the Gospel produces partial joy.

There is a deep connection between the joy you experience and your faith in the Gospel. If there’s something we can be guilty of as Christians, it’s the idea that we live in partial joy in this life but never really pause to examine why. The Gospel calls us to fully believe in all that God is, all that He has done, and all that He will do to truly experience Him! And now from Him we experience the joy that God has for those who are His. John knew this, which is why he says that what he’s talking about is true because he’s seen it, lived it, and experienced in for himself. There’s You are designed for more than partial joy, but for full joy! 

So today, take some time to ask God to help you see the connection between your faith in Him and your joy. Ask God to increase your joy by increasing your faith in Him. And let’s continue living in joy together through the Gospel!

Advent – Day 25

1Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Isaiah 42:1-4

…He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.

When was the last time you were so excited about someone’s arrival that you could not sleep the night before? For many children last night, the thought of someone bringing presents overnight while they sleep in their beds was enough to cause them to lose sleep. Perhaps you can relate. Children wait in hopeful anticipation of the joy they expect to find around the tree this morning. For the past several months, or maybe even all year long, they have made lists and requests for what they want or “need” this Christmas. Today, they will find what they have been waiting for!

Today is the Advent of our King, and with Him comes the evidence that what we have been waiting for is here! The promise that God will bring forth justice is here! He will make justice forever! Like children receiving their Christmas gifts, we celebrate exuberantly at the presence of the greatest gift the world has ever known. There is a hopeful anticipation for today, because today marks the beauty of this truth: He will faithfully bring forth justice…

We celebrate today because what creation waited for we have now received. He has arrived and remains with us forever. We now understand what creation groans for, what angels have longed to look into, and what our own hearts crave to receive. We find today God’s plan that is guaranteed to never grow faint. He will not be distracted or stop due to frustration. He has a worldwide plan that He is faithfully bringing about, and He is doing it through His own incarnation into our world.

Today as you celebrate – whether with family or alone, loud or silent, with fanfare or quiet merriment – take a moment to remember the beauty of your King who has arrived. The entire world celebrates, though many do not know why. Yet you know better than to miss His arrival. And you have prepared for Him on this day.

So, rejoice today that your King has arrived. Feast today on the measure of love that He has shown you in His arrival. And enjoy the wonder revealed in the Advent of Christ this Christmas Day.

Advent – Day 24

1Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Isaiah 42:1-4

…and a faintly burning wick he will not quench… 

Life is often so overwhelming. In fact, the end of life will always reveal that the laws that govern living eventually overcome even the strongest of humans. There is a point in every person’s existence when living ends and when life is quenched. At that point, every personal endeavor comes to a halt. There is no longer any power, authority, or ability to respond. 

Through the valleys and peaks of life we learn this lesson long before the end. There are times when it seems that we cannot go another step and the obstacle that stops our task is insurmountable. The pink slip is final. Our spouse will not come home. Our child is gone forever. In life we learn that in some things there is more than difficulty, there’s impossibility. We find ourselves unable to go on. Unable to even struggle. We are exhausted. We are quenched. 

Though we are exhausted, Advent is a reminder that our God is inexhaustible. Though a divine babe seems as nothing more than a faintly burning wick, we celebrate the arriving of an unquenchable flame. At His arrival we are confronted with an unstoppable Light that will not be extinguished. And now, though we may find ourselves thinking that life confronts us with things that are impossible to overcome, we celebrate a King who overpowers the impossible.

Today, take some time to name things that you find impossible, and say them out loud to God. Ask God to do something there, and to give you trust in Him because of Jesus.