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Taming the Tongue

Text: James 3:1-18

“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” —James 3:10 ESV

Recently our 12-year old daughter got braces on her teeth. I was surprised to learn that nowadays you can change the colors of your braces during routine appointments. Had they done that when I was a kid, I may have worn my braces much longer! It’s amazing how technology can straighten out the appearance of our mouths, but straightening out the flow of our mouths—more specifically the use of our words—is a far greater task.

When was the last time you spewed forth some words that you went on to regret?

In James 3, the writer establishes the general principle that small things can bring about big outcomes, and then more specifically applies this to the power that the tongue has over the entire course of one’s life (James 3:1–12). Bits in a horse’s mouth and the small rudder on a ship are examples of very small things that control large objects. He goes on to explain that all kinds of creatures have been tamed by mankind, yet “no human being can tame the tongue… it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:7-8). Ouch!

The tongue, one of the smaller organs of the body, has control over everything a person is and does. A person’s words reflect his or her character and thus are a key to his or her whole being.

In the book of Proverbs, King Solomon gave some wise instruction—spiritual braces—to encourage us in keeping our words straight. He wrote, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21), “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1), and “a gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit” (Proverbs 15:4).

Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? What a lie that turned out to be! Words do hurt. They can break a spirit. As a child I was a victim of verbal abuse. Every ill word said to me by a close relative was like a stone thrown at my heart. It took me years into adulthood to heal from the wounds that harsh words caused.

Words don’t have to be spoken directly to someone to harm them. Proverbs 25:18 warns “Telling lies about others is as harmful as hitting them with an ax, wounding them with a sword, or shooting them with a sharp arrow.” Gossip, slander, harshness, sarcasm, and many other forms of incendiary speech cause many fires. They go all the way to the spirit of a person. Yet the inverse is also true, and quite powerful as well—“kind words are like honey-sweet to the soul and healthy for the body” (Proverbs 16:24), “a person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook” (Proverbs 18:4), and “like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Proverbs 25:11).

How will you use your words today? Will you build others up, or tear them down? Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, teach me how to use my words in a manner that is pleasing to you and edifying to others. Let not blessing and cursing come from the same mouth. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. If you could hear a tape recording of everything you said last week, what would you want to edit out?
  2. What similarity does a person’s tongue have to a horse’s bit, a ship’s rudder, and a spark of fire? (James 3:5)
  3. What inconsistencies are we capable of committing? (James 3:9-10)
  4. What weaknesses in our lives will our speech often expose?
  5. Read Colossians 4:6. How can your speech become more full of grace and “seasoned with salt” this week?

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Big ‘Buts’ in the Bible

Text: Psalm 55:1-23

“But I call to God, and the Lord will save me.” (Psalm 55:16)

I once preached a sermon series called “Big ‘Buts’ in the Bible.” Yep, you read that right. “But” is a very important word. In Greek it is the word “alla.” Throughout scripture there are many big time game changers in the form of ‘buts’…

“Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). That’s an important but. “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). Where would we be today without that but? “Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess [Jesus]…” (John 12:42). Fear is a big but that keeps many people from becoming fully alive in Christ!

Psalm 55 contains one of those game changing buts. David holds nothing back in his restless complaint to God about injustices that are all around him. He describes it as “the noise of the enemy… dropping trouble upon me.” There is violence and strife in the city, oppression and fraud in the marketplace, while the man of God has experienced the betrayal of a close companion—a “familiar friend.”

Have you ever had a season like this? One in which you longed for “wings like a dove” so that you were able to fly away, finding solace and refuge in a remote wilderness. A five star paradise resort with a masseuse would be ideal; nevertheless just a quiet getaway will suffice!

Then as David is petitioning for the death and destruction of his enemies, we see one of those really big ‘buts’ come into play:

But I call to God, and the Lord will save me… He hears my voice… He redeems my soul in safety from the battle… (Psalm 55:16-18)

Then we can picture David turning his attention to his own soul and giving it a command: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.” (Psalm 55:22)

The word “burden” means whatever is given you, or your appointed lot. What will we do with the burdens God allows into our lives? Will we keep dragging them to our own undoing, or will we cast them on Him for an exchange of grace? George Campbell Morgan underscored the transitions in this psalm from fear to fury and now finally to faith. “Fear leads only to desire to flee. Fury only emphasizes the consciousness of the wrong. Faith alone creates courage,” he noted.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes my soul needs a real good kick in the… hindquarters. My flesh wants to groan and complain. I want to pity myself. The “noise” of everything that is wrong about the world becomes the anthem of my heart, as the “death” and “destruction” of evildoers becomes my chorus. BUT God is faithful—He calls me to courageously cast my burden on Him, promising to sustain me in every way. As I do that in faith, the toxins in my heart are flushed out by His grace and mercy. I find peace in the storm, forgiveness for those who have hurt me, and compassion for all those “sinners” who don’t know how to act like anything else but… sinners.

It is also in this place that I recognize I myself am my greatest enemy: I’m the sinner in need of saving. Just because I prayed a sinner’s prayer as a teenager over three decades ago doesn’t take away the fact that I still need to be saved from myself every day. Casting my burden on the Lord means bringing Him everything—my bitter complaints, my fury, my suffering, my weaknesses, my hurt, my struggle, my addiction, my loss, my grief, my disappointments, my failures, my need for recognition, my pride, my self-sufficiency… and on and on that list goes.

God never imposes burdens to crush us; He allows them so that we will come to the place where we say, “But I will trust in you.” Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

Lord, your purpose is not that the burdens of life would crush me, but that they would bring me to you. Help me to recognize the toxins that seep into my heart when I try to carry these burdens alone. Teach me what it means to cast my burdens on you and to experience your sustaining grace in all the chaos. Thank you for never failing me. Jesus, I will trust in you. Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. How do you typically handle disappointment?
  2. How did David describe his heart’s pain, and what does the psalm say he wished he could do? (Psalm 55:4-8) When have you wished you could escape from a problem?
  3. What made David’s situation especially painful? (Psalm 55:12-14) How do people usually react when they feel betrayed or let down by a trusted friend?
  4. How did David deal with his pain and anger? (Psalm 55:16-23)
  5. What words of instruction does this psalm offer us? For what friend or enemy do you need to pray this next week? How can you commit a sense of anger or hurt to the Lord?

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“Not a Lowly Worm Anymore”

Text: Romans 8:18-31

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” —Romans 8:18

Cheryl loved butterflies. My wife’s sister combined her butterfly affinity with her longtime passion of photography, capturing some of the most stunning portraits of butterflies in Northeast Ohio. I was browsing her website after Cheryl passed away last week, bringing closure to a seven year battle with cancer. In her “Butterflies and Caterpillars” gallery she gave the subtitle, “Not a lowly worm anymore.”

My sister-in-law loved to be in nature, capturing every moment she could with God’s awesome creation. She knew so much about birds, reptiles, insects, and those fascinating creatures we call butterflies. A caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a beautiful butterfly is one of those awe-inspiring transformations in wildlife. It reaches maturity through a strenuous cycle that includes pupation—a passive meltdown of all but the core cells of the caterpillar’s body. The lowly worm’s struggle in one form must seem like forever… until at last it emerges into a glorious new form altogether.

American novelist Richard Bach said: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”

Our tussle is always a matter of perspective. Speaking to early Christians about their struggle with pain and hardship, Paul wrote: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” He spoke of waiting for the “redemption of our bodies” with hope and patience (Romans 8:23-25), that the Holy Spirit helps us in our current weaknesses (Romans 8:26-27), that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28), and that nothing in all this world can separate us from the love of Christ—not tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, “nor things present nor things to come.”

God has promised us the victory and triumph over all things, including the glorious resurrection of our earthly bodies. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Paul spoke of a future spiritual metamorphosis when he hailed that one day “this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53). On that day, we will be no “lowly worms” anymore. The temporary human struggle will give way to the infinite goodness of God as we fly eternally free of pain and suffering like a butterfly arrayed in all its glory.

What is your version of the cocoon this day, beloved? What is your struggle? May you find encouragement in the promise that nothing on this side of the cocoon can even compare to what God has prepared for you on the other side (Romans 8:18). God’s word tells us to wait for it with hope and patience, to trust in His process, to allow the Holy Spirit to help us in our weakness, and to never—ever—forget that nothing in all of this transitory world can ever separate us from the love of Christ. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, the struggle is real. Sometimes it hurts too much to even pray. In those times we can rest assured that even the Holy Spirit makes intercession for us. Thank you for the promises You have given to us. Help us to lean in to those promises each day, especially when the cocoon feels quite dark. Swell our hearts with the confidence that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us later. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. What feels like a cocoon to you in this moment?
  2. When have you found it hard to pray?
  3. What might we learn about God’s love for us when we realize that the Holy Spirit helps us even when we cannot pray?
  4. What does God promise to us that can make any suffering bearable?
  5. In what circumstances of your life do you need to wait patiently for God to act?

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The Risk You Must Take

Text: Philippians 2:1-30

“For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” —Philippians 2:21

As a child growing up in Maryland, I often emulated my favorite baseball players. In the basement of our townhome I would throw a tennis ball against the wall imagining I was a big league pitcher. I studied and learned the distinct batting stances of each player on the Baltimore Orioles lineup, imitating their swings in my grandmother’s backyard. I wanted to play the game well, so I modeled my practice after successful big leaguers.

In Philippians 2, Paul wants Christians to experience a deep, abiding, internal unity among one another. In order to have that type of “full accord” and oneness of mind, they must emulate the humility and mind of Christ.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3-4)

Think about this for a minute. Who do you know that lives this way? What makes people want to count others more significant than themselves? In Paul’s estimation, it is having the “mind” of Christ—“who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…”

Then the apostle gives us two big league examples of those who actually emulated Christ in this way, highlighting the very sacrificing nature of early church life. Their names were Timothy and Epaphroditus. Paul said of his mentee, Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:20-21).

In addition to writing about Timothy’s “proven worth” as a servant of the gospel, he also points to Epaphroditus, as a “fellow soldier” who nearly died for the work of Christ, “risking his life to complete what was lacking” of others. The ancient Greek phrase “risking his life” uses a gambler’s word that meant to risk everything on the roll of the dice. For the sake of Jesus Christ, Epaphroditus was willing to gamble everything for the benefit of others.

In the days of the Early Church there was an association of men and women who called themselves the gamblers, taken from this same ancient Greek word used in risking his life. It was their aim to visit the prisoners and the sick, especially those who were ill with dangerous and infectious diseases. Often, when a plague struck a city, the heathen threw the dead bodies into the streets and fled in terror. But the gamblers buried the dead and helped the sick the best they could, and so risked their lives to show the love of Jesus.

Imagine this kind of emulation of Christ in our communities today—people who risked everything in seeking the welfare, dignity, and interests of others. Imagine communities where people did not engage primarily to get something out of it for themselves, but to contribute something exceedingly beneficial to others. Imagine how emulating Christ’s humility could shape our esteem of one another. If I consider you above me and you consider me above you, then a marvelous thing happens: we have a community where everyone is looking up and no one is looked down on. Think about this as you seek to abide in Christ this week.

PRAYER

Lord Jesus, teach us how to emulate your humility, compassion, and sacrificial love for others. Help us to risk ourselves in ways that bring glory to You and good to others… that we may truly live, and become fully alive. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Who is one of the most selfless people you have ever met? What do you think motivated that person?
  2. When have you risked something in your life for the sake of someone else? What might constitute a foolish risk versus a necessary risk?
  3. The text says that Christ emptied himself by taking the form of a servant. Why is that important for us to emulate? How does that touch on pride and humility?
  4. Why is it important that the church be “in full accord and of one mind”? What is at stake if we aren’t?
  5. Where do you need to apply the biblical examples of “seeking the interests of others” in your life this week?

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Don’t Forget What It’s Like to Be Lost

Text: Ephesians 2:1-22

“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” —Ephesians 2:13

Has your GPS ever done you wrong? Mine sure has, and apparently I’m not alone. I read about a 67-year-old Belgian woman who drove 900 miles off course, over a two-day period due to a faulty GPS combined with her own disorientation. Her actual destination was only 90 miles away.

During Sabine Moreau’s odyssey, she stopped two times to get gas, slept for a few hours on the side of the road, and even suffered a minor car accident. She ended up in Croatia! Moreau later explained: “I saw all kinds of road signs: first in French, then in German, and finally in Croatian, but I kept driving because I was distracted. Suddenly I appeared in Zagreb and I realized I wasn’t in Belgium anymore.”

To those early Christians in Ephesus, Paul reminded them of what their lives looked like when they were spiritually off course and disoriented in a world of lost-ness. It seems that he doesn’t want his readers to forget the reality of what that was like. Remembering, perhaps, would not only cause them to worship God more gratefully, but also help them to be more compassionate toward those still in a state of spiritual darkness.

The apostle writes: “you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:12-13)

Let those words sink in for a moment—“having no hope and without God in the world.” This is the condition of so many of those around us. I think oftentimes we forget what it is like to be in this cold and lonely world apart from Christ. This is especially true for those of us who have been “saved” for many years. Though we still have struggles, trials, troubles, persecutions, and suffering, we still tend to forget what it was like to go through these hardships alone.

Though we were once “far off,” the blood of Christ has brought us near. We are no longer slaves to this world’s faulty GPS system—lies, disillusionment, moral myopia, and spiritual disorientation. Our minds are no longer blinded by the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4); we have had the eyes of our hearts enlightened, that we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, and what are the riches of his glorious inheritance (Ephesians 1:18). We have a new and reliable GPS—the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13).

He wants us to remember that we have been saved by such amazing grace. This grace was demonstrated in that Jesus offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins. In His great mercy, God has reconciled us to Himself and brought us near through the ransom of Christ’s blood. He also doesn’t want us to forget what we have been saved from, and that people all around us are still in that alienated condition, afar off—hurting, blinded, lost, and without hope. Ask God to give you eyes to see this brokenness and the hands to reach out to those enslaved by the world’s faulty navigation system. They need your testimony. They need your witness. Pray about this as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, you have saved us from a world without hope. Help us to never forget the great price and ransom that you paid to save us from this spiritual darkness. May our meditation of the depth of your grace cause us to worship YOU more fully. May the remembrance of what we have been saved from cause us to love and serve others more diligently, especially with great compassion toward those who are presently far off. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When was the last time you were physically lost? What happened and how did you get back on course?
  2. Do you remember what it was like to be spiritually lost? How would you describe your life when you were “far off” from God?
  3. Why do you think it is important to remember that we have been saved by grace alone (God’s free gift of salvation), and not our own doing?
  4. Why do you think it is important to remember what it was like to be lost and without God in this world?
  5. Who are those in your proximity or network of relationships that may be lost in this world and in particular need of your prayers, witness, or outreach?

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Your Delays Are Not Defeats

Text: Ezra 3:1-13; 5:1-2

“For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.” ­­­­—Habakkuk 2:3

The Book of Ezra, along with Nehemiah, is a narrative of the “Restoration” period for the Jews—the regathering of their worshiping community as well as their struggle to survive and rebuild what had been destroyed after the Babylonian invasion. With the help of prophetic support, Ezra declared that they were still God’s people, that God had not forgotten them, and that He still had a promised plan to fulfill for them.

The first wave of exiles returned with a zeal to rebuild what had been broken down. They built an altar to the Lord and began to lay the foundation for the reconstruction of the temple (Ezra 3:1-13). This new beginning evoked a powerful worship experience as the people sang “responsively, praising and giving thanks” for God’s goodness and steadfast love. Shortly thereafter, things began to stall. The worshipers were faced with fierce opposition as the enemy moved in like a flood.

“From this point onward right to the end of Nehemiah there is conflict,” noted Derek Kidner. “Nothing that is attempted for God will now go unchallenged, and scarcely a tactic be unexplored by the opposition.”

Ezra’s adversaries succeeded in stopping the building work for some 15 years. The enemy never enjoys your spiritual progress. He is hell-bent on tearing down everything that God longs to do in you, for you, and through you. The adversary of your soul brings fierce opposition because his very nature is to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10). His one mission is to interrupt everything that God is actively doing in your life. But you can find encouragement from Ezra. Though the enemy could delay the work, he couldn’t defeat it.

The returning tribes came together in unification as they shared common struggles and were challenged to work together for the glory of God. Ezra led them to apply God’s Word as the authoritative rule for living. As they continued in healthy spiritual disciplines, the people witnessed God’s sovereignty and protection. God revealed Himself as a promise-keeper and sent in reinforcements to embolden the people with encouragement (Ezra 5:1–2). After several years of inactivity, the community resumes their work of rebuilding the temple. The end game includes a renewed reverence for God’s Word, restored worship, significant reforms, and ultimately a spiritual revival in Jerusalem.

Even when His plan seems to be interrupted at times, as in Ezra’s account, the Almighty steps in at just the right time to unveil His redemptive plan and to continue His process of restoration in our lives. He knows exactly what we need and He sends it precisely when we need it. He is always faithful to complete the work He began in us (Philippians 1:6). In Ezra’s case, God even moved the hearts of pagan rulers (Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes) to allow, encourage, and assist the Jewish people to return home. The God Who used these unlikely allies to fulfill His promises of restoration for His chosen people is the same God Who will move heaven and earth to fulfill His promises in your life. Think about that as you abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, your faithfulness moves us to worship. We revere you because you are holy, sovereign, and immutable. Help us to take courage that you leave nothing undone in our lives. You will bring to completion what you have started, despite apparent interruptions and delays along the way. We trust in your promises and your process. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In what ways has your faith ever come under attack, been tested, or been opposed?
  2. Why is community so vital to our struggle with adversity in life?
  3. What can you learn from Ezra about God’s control over the events of your life, both good and bad?
  4. Ezra’s community was delayed for some 15 years in accomplishing their mission. What do you suppose they might have been tempted to think about God’s promises during those 15 years of apparent delay?
  5. Where might you need to shift your perspective about the delays in your life to a focus on God’s promises?

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You Can’t Make a Difference Without Proximity

Text: 2 Kings 4:8-37

“Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.” —Proverbs 27:10

In the film Amazing Grace—the true account of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade—Wilberforce has a way of making the distant reality of slavery troubling to those who are far removed from its deplorability. He leads a group of high society dames and dandies on a pleasant harbor tour, eating and chatting on the deck of an elegant ship. Wilberforce has the vessel guided to a particular spot of the harbor, where the high society crowd begin to wrinkle their noses, then cough and cover their faces at a horrific odor that begins to fill the air. He then announces that what they smell is the stench of death, disease, and unimaginable suffering coming from a slave ship docked nearby.

Wilberforce seemed to understand that the only way he could get people to make a difference was to give them an up-close perspective of the pain—a nearness to the suffering.

In chapter four of 2 Kings, a wealthy Shunammite woman who had shown generous hospitality to the prophet Elisha over the course of his ministry, suddenly faced a personal crisis. Her son, whom Elisha had prophesied would be born, later fell dead. She came to Elisha crying out in bitter distress. Elisha’s initial response was to send his servant, Gehazi, on ahead to lay his staff on the face of the child. But when his efforts returned no results—no sound or sign of life—he returned to meet Elisha and told him: “The child has not awakened.”

Upon coming to the house and seeing the child lying dead on his bed, Elisha went in and shut the door behind the others and prayed to the Lord.

Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. (2 Kings 4:34-35)

This imagery may appear a bit strange, yet I believe it yields a parabolic picture of God’s kingdom servants resuscitating life in a world of widespread suffering. God doesn’t need us, but He certainly chooses to use us. Most of the time, we can’t make a difference from a distance. We can’t help heal the brokenness without proximity to the suffering. It’s not enough to merely send our staff like Elisha did with Gehazi; we have to show up hands on hands, flesh on flesh, and life on life.

Jesus said that His disciples would be the “salt” of the earth. But salt loses its preserving and healing qualities without proximity. If we long to see our neighbors coming to Christ, the lost being found, the broken being healed, hearts and minds transformed by the power of God, and revival sweeping across this land, it will require something of us. That something is called proximity. We have to be in the world, not of it (John 17:15-17). This is at the very heart of the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus didn’t save the world by keeping His distance—He pitched his earthly tent right in the center of its brokenness.

It’s a fallacy to assume we can be God’s change agents solely by electing officials we believe will uphold our values. Legislation doesn’t change hearts. We can’t expect to resuscitate hope for those numb in despair or to bring truth to those entangled in spiritual/moral confusion by simply posting a few inspirational Tweets, Instagram Bible verses, or Facebook sermonettes from a distance. God wants us life on life with people who are struggling, people who are hurting, and those in need of the Gospel. Where can you flesh out life on life ministry to those in need around you—in the workplace, at school, to your neighbors, with your peers, or to the marginalized and less fortunate in your community?

It’s been said that you can impress people from a distance, but you can’t influence them without getting close. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for all of those who participated in your kingdom work of helping to resuscitate our lives when we were lost without hope. It’s on those shoulders that we now stand as you call us to be agents of resuscitation for those on their bed of despair—those alienated by others, trapped in injustice, deceived by darkness, imprisoned to ideologies, wounded by humanity, or dead in their own sins. Show us how to live in proximity with those in need—life on life—and teach us how to be your ministers of reconciliation. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Who have been the agents of resuscitation God has used to revive things in your life?
  2. Whose prayers do you want when you are facing life’s most daunting problems?
  3. What did Elisha do when the child didn’t immediately resuscitate (2 Kings 4:34-35)? What can this imagery teach us about persistence in ministering to others?
  4. If God can perform miracles without us, why do you think He chooses to use our proximity to cultivate life and healing with others?
  5. Where might hope and faith need to be resuscitated in your life right now?

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When It’s Hard to Pray

Text: Romans 8:18-27

“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” —Romans 8:26

When I am communicating at one of our cross-cultural sports camps in Italy, Germany, or Dominican Republic, I always make sure to have a translator app on my phone. There have been many times I couldn’t speak in a foreign language, but thanks to technology, I could pull out that app and type in what I am saying and let the person read it off of my phone—and voilà, I am communicating though I don’t know the right native words to use.

Sometimes I feel like I’m unable to communicate and express my heart when I pray to my heavenly Father—and I’m not alone. Many of us struggle at times with prayer. But the apostle Paul wrote, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27).

How amazing is the gift of the Holy Spirit! Better than any technology or computer program, He clearly communicates my thoughts and desires in harmony with the Father’s purposes. The work of the Spirit not only makes prayer work, that intercession also carries us when our hearts fail.

Perhaps you are going through a time in which you find it difficult to talk to God. It’s comforting to know that God doesn’t expect us to have all the right words. He is merely looking for childlike faith in our hearts—the simple and innocent trust, even naïve dependence, that our heavenly Father is going to take care of us no matter how bleak a situation looks. In those times when our hearts fail and words are not to be found, God meets us in our weakness. The Spirit searches our hearts and speaks on our behalf. The Psalmist said (Psalm 73:26):

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

PRAYER

Father, I thank You for the gift of Your Spirit and the privilege of prayer. Help me to lean on Your Spirit in moments when I don’t know how to pray. Thank you, Holy Spirit, for having the words when I don’t. Thank you for meeting me in my weakest and bleakest of moments—interceding for me when I get stuck. My flesh and my heart may fail, but YOU are my portion forever. I praise YOU that I am never, ever left to my own devices. I am YOURS, and YOU carry me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. In what circumstances might a Christian find it hard to pray?
  2. What is the relationship between God and the Holy Spirit, and how does the Holy Spirit help us in our weakness? (Romans 8:26-27)
  3. What does God promise to us that can make any suffering bearable?
  4. What do we learn about God’s love for us when we realize that the Holy Spirit helps us even when we cannot pray?
  5. How can you lean on the Holy Spirit as you seek to abide in the Father’s love this week?

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Unless The Lord Builds the House

Text: Psalm 127:1-5

“Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” —Psalm 127:1

What do you do when you have reached your limits? What about when you realize you don’t have what it takes to fix a problem, to settle a dispute, to restore something that is broken, or to achieve the next level of success? Though not necessarily directly against us, we realize there are so many things beyond our control and also so many forces that still resist our efforts. The good news is that we find peace and strength in taking it to the Lord.

The crowning achievement of Solomon’s life was building the temple—the house of God in Jerusalem—and in Psalm 127, this poster child for wisdom reminds us that it is foolish to undertake any venture that leaves the Lord out of it. Whenever we leave the Lord out of our labor, we sabotage our own endeavors and undermine our own hard work.

God is the source of success in whatever we seek to do and all of our efforts are in vain without Him. Jesus alluded to this principle when He said, “I only do what I see the Father doing” (John 5:19). He also spoke to his followers saying: “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

This is so true. Time and time again, I look at things and I am amazed at how they come together with no other explanation than “only God.” Only God moments come from giving God all of our effort through blood, sweat, and toil, and then resting with all of our trust that He will bring everything to fruition for His glory and our good.

Obviously, those who build a house must labor on it, and the watchman of a city must stay awake in responsible fashion. At the same time, they must carry out their efforts in faith—trusting God to make the work prosperous. Wisdom promotes diligence but clarifies that diligence is neither greed nor restless anxiety (Proverbs 10:22; 23:4–5). Diligence is the act of working with all that is in us because our faith and trust is in the notion that God does use our efforts to contribute to outcomes only He can establish—things that are bigger than our abilities and beyond our control. Thus, God gave us the Sabbath commandment (Exodus 20:8–11) as a gift to enable us to live by faith and trust Him for His sufficiency in all of our hard work and with all of our inadequacies.

There is a line in a hymn that says, “O what peace we often forfeit; O what needless pains we bear; all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.” It is wise to make sure our focus is on the Lord, resting in the One who is able to give us the ability to have joy, peace, contentment, fruitfulness, and favorable outcomes in all of our endeavors. We don’t need to be in control of outcomes when the One Who established the universe is the contractor and interior designer of “the house” in which we labor. He is the Master Builder, beloved. Take comfort in that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, thank you for the strength you give when we are feeling weak, insufficient, and inadequate. Unless you build the house we labor in vain. I trust you to finish everything that you have started in my life—bringing it to fruition for your glory and my good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. When have you built something you were most proud of?
  2. Think of a situation where you worked hard to achieve something but it wasn’t working out the way you hoped, despite your best efforts. How did you feel about yourself and God during that time?
  3. What are some of the “only God” moments you have witnessed lately?
  4. Is there any restless anxiety that you need to bring to God in this hour?
  5. In what specific area of your life could you depend more on the Lord and less on confidence in your own abilities?

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Changing The World Doesn’t Have to Be Intimidating

Text: Esther 2:1-11

“And every day Mordecai walked in front of the court of the harem to learn how Esther was and what was happening to her.” —Esther 2:11

Most of us have heard of the name Billy Graham. As a teenager growing up on a dairy farm in North Carolina during the Great Depression, he grudgingly attended church with his family. The young Graham often felt restless and resentful during his family’s Bible reading, praying, and psalm singing. But that all changed one night after he surrendered his life to Christ at a tent revival in Charlotte. He went on to become a legendary preacher—for decades, Billy Graham held numerous preaching Crusades in stadiums and sports arenas across the United States and the world, leading millions to faith in Christ.

We know about Dr. Graham’s legacy. But do you know the name of Graham’s teenage friend who invited him to that tent revival? Most do not. His name is Albert McMakin. He invited Billy to the meeting by saying, “Why don’t you come out and hear our fighting preacher?” The deal was then clinched when McMakin offered to let Billy drive his dairy truck to the meetings. The rest is history.

Do you know what McMakin was doing? He was simply doing for one what he wished he could do for all—constructing opportunities for people to encounter Jesus. God used McMakin in the tapestry of Billy’s life. That young man helped shape eternity in many by investing in the one right in front of him. Though that may not always seem far-reaching, it is much bigger than you realize.

Oftentimes when we think about the story of Esther, we are mindful of the orphan minority girl who bravely saved her people from genocide. We might tend to overlook the simple example of how Mordecai—the devoted foster parent, the consummate mentor, and the intentional discipler—changed the world by investing in ONE vulnerable young person. He didn’t change the world or redirect the course of history by pastoring a mega church, building a mammoth non-profit organization, preaching mass crusades, or producing faith-based films that influence millions.

No, Mordecai changed the world by investing in the faith of ONE person caringly and consistently—Esther!

Mordecai took Esther in and raised her after she lost her parents. He nurtured her, bringing her up in a God-fearing home. He endowed her with courage, faith, and dignity. He empowered her to use the gifts she had for the right purposes in serving others rather than self-preservation. Then he unleashed her potential by sending her out with confidence (though he wasn’t in control of her destiny). Furthermore, he continued to walk by the king’s palace every day to check on her as she was preparing for her big moment with the king.

Mordecai invested so much into one. Who is that one that God wants you to intentionally invest in right now? Is there a colleague or friend in need of spiritual answers? Where do you need to mentor, disciple, parent, or just be there for one presently in need of encouragement, guidance, or strength. Whose corner do you need to stand in right now in this season as they endure hardship or trials?

Changing the world doesn’t have to sound intimidating, it’s simply a matter of saying “yes” to Jesus regarding those in your path of responsibility or proximity of influence. Think about that as you seek to abide in Him this week.

PRAYER

God, help us to be encouraged as disciplers and world changers—salt and light in a land that is desperate for gospel saturation. Guide us each day into those contexts and relationships where we can flesh out the gospel and invest in a future generation that will serve you faithfully. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Questions for Reflection, Small Group or Family Discussion:

  1. Why does changing the world feel so intimidating?
  2. In what ways might accomplishing ordinary things for God make us instruments of change?
  3. Who has God brought into your life that you have a sense of responsibility to mentor?
  4. In what ways does the story of Mordecai and Esther challenge your faith?
  5. How does knowing that you were made for such a time as this affect the way you approach each day you’ve been given in this lifetime?

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