Matthew 21:6-11 – The lamb…

Matthew 21:6-11 – The lamb…

The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them. They brought the donkey and the colt and put on them their cloaks, and he sat on them. Most of the crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’ And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, ‘Who is this?’ And the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.’” – Matthew 21:6-11ESV

Imagine a lamb: the soft, pristine, snowy wool; the dewy, gentle eyes; the seemingly innocent smile; the pink of new skin showing through the wool on the soft nose and inside the ears; the total vulnerability… On the Sunday before Passover, a male lamb like this was brought into the homes of the Israelites. The lamb would be cared for carefully. The children of the household would play with this lamb, showering it with love and affection. The adults would monitor it for illness or lameness or any indication it was less than perfect. It would sleep in the household with the family. And then, on the Friday of Passover…that cherished lamb was butchered for the sins of the family.

Shocked? Unless you grew up on a livestock farm, this probably is shocking to imagine. Even if you grew up raising animals for meat, you’re probably familiar with the practice of avoiding getting attached to meat animals. You know they’re going to die, so you keep them emotionally at a distance to make it easier for you and your family. You don’t even give meat animals names.

Yet God institutes the practice of the sacrificial lamb, back in Exodus on the night the angel of death came to take the firstborn and secure the freedom of the Israelites from Egypt, and He creates a situation where the family necessarily becomes close to the lamb who will be slain. I imagine the children would inevitably give the lamb a name. The adults, who have spent four solid days protecting this young animal from all harm, suddenly must give it over to death. It could not have been easy to take this animal who had come to trust you and give it over to strangers to be sacrificed without mercy. Why did God do this?

Because He wanted us to know exactly what Jesus came to endure and why.

Like the passover lamb, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem on the Sunday before Passover. A young man in his early thirties, above criticism and sinless before men.

Like the passover lamb, Jesus spent four days in the midst of the people, letting them know Him and proving Himself a worthy sacrifice. He criticized the evil practices of the Jewish leadership, He drove out the money changers putting a financial barrier between people and forgiveness from God, He taught about who God is and the importance of a right relationship with Him. At the end of it, even His pagan judge, Pontius Pilate, stated boldly, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4).

And like the passover lamb, Jesus was abandoned into the hands of strangers to be murdered…dying at precisely 3PM, the same hour at which the passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple for the sins of Israel.

You see…Jesus came to be known by us. To be cherished and loved and looked to as an example. We can’t keep Him at arms length, a distant God to be worshiped, but not loved. He comes into our lives, into our very homes. He made it so His sacrifice brings every person to account.

And He died, bearing our failures with Him into the darkness of death.

But unlike the lambs, who every year were sacrificed but could not truly free us from sin… Jesus’ death forever carried away our failings. When His body was born into the darkness of the earth, and He descended into the pits of Hell…He took every failure with Him, forever breaking us free from the torment of our own imperfections.

But that wasn’t all… because Easter was coming… The sun would rise Sunday morning on a world that would never be the same.

Because the Son would rise.

  1. There is only one challenge this week: keep your eyes on the Son of God. Don’t let this week just be another week in your calendar. This week changed everything. This week was the week toward which all Jesus’ earthly life was focused. He walked into Jerusalem to die. He intentionally drove the Pharisees (Jewish leadership) to turn against Him, fearlessly holding back none of Himself… For you… For all of us. This week… don’t forget the footsteps of the Savior… headed straight for the cross.
Matthew 2:13-15 – Familiarity breeds indifference

Matthew 2:13-15 – Familiarity breeds indifference

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'” – Matthew 2:13-15NIV

There is a saying “Familiarity breeds contempt.” I have heard it used most often to supposedly explain why marriages go sour. I don’t know if that adage is necessarily true in most circumstances, but I have found familiarity tends to breed indifference. The more we are exposed to ideas or experiences, the less they seem to impact us. It’s why ski jumpers progressively have to hit higher jumps. It’s why travelers always want to see new places. It’s part of why kindergarten is fantastic and junior year is terrible. It’s part of why people cheat in relationships or people get new jobs. Once the newness wears off, the ordinary no longer holds our attention.

It’s true with travesty, too. In our post 9/11, post Columbine, post Black Lives Matter, post #MeToo world, we hardly go a day without news of a new war, a new terrorist attack, a new shooting, a new politician spouting hatred, a new beloved icon turned out to be a monster. It’s so expected it rarely excites us. Rarely holds our attention. The movements which spawned in response to these atrocities and abuses slowly lose momentum as we become used to them being part of the news and our lives.

So it is with the story of Jesus’ birth. Every year, we read about Mary’s and Joseph’s dreams, Elizabeth’s testimony, the journey to Bethlehem, the angels singing, the shepherds rushing, the Magi journeying, the star shining, Herod’s slaughter, and the escape to Egypt. Memorialized in ornaments and cute manger scenes and Christmas lights…there’s a blurry, soft edge to the account. Something familiar and comfortable. We focus on the fluffy lambs, the excitement, the cooing baby, the adoring family, the hope of nations… and forget the nightmare. Forget the courage and desperation and fear.

Mary was probably thirteen or fourteen years old when Jesus was born. Shockingly early for our world, but the age of many new brides in first century Israel. Joseph…no more than a teen himself. He was probably between seventeen and nineteen, as Jewish men often married shortly after completing their apprenticeship in their family trade. No more than children themselves, they’d also probably rarely been far from home and family. First century people did not travel the world as we do today.

Yet now, a new husband, a new father, a new wife, a new mother…the angel appears to them to proclaim, “Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (Matthew 2:13b NIV). They are being hunted by the ruler of their land. Personally. For death. So, in a world where being an unprotected stranger often left you killed or enslaved, these teenagers had to flee to the very country from which God had liberated the Jews hundreds of years before. A land with no family or connections with whom to claim refuge. It was roughly a 200 mile journey just to the border of Egypt, into a life they had never planned for.

It was a call to extraordinary courage from a young, inexperienced, unprepared couple from rural Israel.

As we begin a new year, hoping it will be better than the last, getting wrapped up in the new demands and expectations of our lives… Don’t forget the courage of two ordinary believers caught up in the work of the extraordinary. Don’t set aside the account of Jesus’ birth with your ornaments and trees and lights until next December. Don’t forget what God achieves through the most unexpected means.

Remember…remember the courage of Christmas. Remember what God’s strength made Joseph and Mary capable of. Holding the Savior in their arms, they journeyed in fear and doubt, yet with the God of the universe right there in their midst.

And as with them, so with you. The God of the Universe is with you as you face the unknown, perhaps with your own fears and doubts. He does not abandon you to the evil intentions of others or the uncertainty of the path. He gives you strength to face the day. To face your times: through the Bible, through worship, through fellow believers, through the miraculous in every day that we so easily overlook.

Have courage, my friends. The Author of Life is with you.

  1. How does your life feel overwhelming right now?
  2. If you’ve never considered the courage of Mary and Joseph before, how does it impact you to think on it, now?
  3. How is it different to try to be courageous versus trusting God to provide you with the strength you need for your challenges?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Courage happens through small instances of acting in trust in God’s promises. Pray for an opportunity to practice courage this week. When it comes, take steps into it.
1 Peter 5:6-11 – True Advertising

1 Peter 5:6-11 – True Advertising

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” – 1 Peter 5:6-11NIV

According to a 2015 survey of 6000 people, the number one priority in a relationship is honesty, with a whopping 70% saying it is the most important aspect of a relationship (Croce, 2015). More than anything, we want to know the truth about where we’re at with the people we value most, even if that truth is painful or takes some getting used to.

It explains why so many people today are done with the institutions in our country. We sense, often rightly, we’re being sold something, but we aren’t necessarily sure what is really being sold. We’re afraid to commit to anything because we’ve been so often disappointed by false or misleading advertising. As the adage says, “If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.” We long to connect with people and institutions who genuinely care about us, not just what we have to offer or what the other party can get out of us…but we’re skeptical anyone really is offering that kind of relationship. Even Christianity is more and more viewed as a group selling morality but not delivering.

In this passage, Peter is writing to fellow Christians during a time when Emperor Nero, the leader of the Roman Empire, is absolutely butchering Christians. One of the more well-known ways Christians were killed was by putting a group of them in the Colosseum and then releasing into their midst half-starved lions. The crowds would watch as they were hunted and ripped apart before their eyes.

It is interesting Peter describes Satan as a lion prowling about, looking for someone to devour. The implication is, as great as the threat of persecution for the Christian is, the threat of the spiritual attacks of Satan is just as great. He can also rip us apart…in soul-deep ways.

Does Peter go on to say, “But no worries…it’ll be fine”?

No…no he doesn’t. In fact, he goes on to write they will, in fact, suffer at the hands of Satan during their life here on earth. He doesn’t sugar-coat it. He. Is. Honest.

That means God’s priority in His relationship with us is exactly what we’re hungry for: honesty. He guided the writers of the books of the Bible to be completely honest with what the cost of following Him will be. He doesn’t try to make it look prettier or easier than it really will be. He doesn’t dismiss the struggle.

He points it out. Right up front.

In my book…that’s a trustworthy God. And if He’s honest about the suffering, then we can trust He’s honest about the promise, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ…will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast.

  1. How has your trust been betrayed by misleading promises?
  2. Why do you find it hard to trust what you hear in scripture?
  3. How is God’s honesty about the struggle helpful in your life?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Each day, keep track of struggles you’ve faced related trying to be faithful to Christ. Ask God to give you strength to stand firm in Him.

References

Croce, M. (2015, September 1). Forget sex, the secret to a good relationship is communication. Daily Record. Retrieved from https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/lifestyle/family-relationships/forget-sex-secret-good-relationship-6357824

Matthew 26:36-42 – Jesus gets you

Matthew 26:36-42 – Jesus gets you

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, ‘Sit here while I go over there and pray.’ He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.’ Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’ Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. ‘Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?’ he asked Peter. ‘Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ He went away a second time and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.'”
– Matthew 26:36-42NIV

One of the things that perplexed me as a child was that Jesus went through the big deal of living a life on earth, going through all the betrayal and pain of the cross, rising from the dead…just to save us. Not that I thought saving us wasn’t a big deal, but why did God do it that way? He’s the All-Powerful One, right? Couldn’t he just wave His God-hand and obliterate our sin, then make sure someone told us we were forgiven? It would still have been a free gift to which we could respond in faith. He’d still get to bring us healing and the opportunity to be with Him always. Win-win, right?

As an adult…I get it. It’s not for any profound theologically-discerned reason based on an understanding of God’s adherence to justice because of His wholly-just nature. This reason is certainly true…but there’s a reason that hits right into my heart far more than a highly rational explanation like that.

Jesus’ life proves He gets me.

Jesus’ suffering proves He knows me.

You see…as an adult, I have come to understand Jesus’ words in the depths of my soul:

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”
(Matthew 26:38NIV)

Have you ever cried until your were screaming? Have you ever felt like the world was spiraling into an inescapable dark hole beneath your feet? Have you ever looked at your future and saw…nothing? Have you ever faced a moment where you knew the next moment would determine whether you’d ever be able to truly live again? Have you ever roamed the darkness of night in silent desperation and found no hope or comfort at all?

The worst night of my life was the first night in the hospital after my husband unexpectedly collapsed at work and nearly died in the ER. We didn’t know what was wrong with him, yet. We didn’t know if we had a future together. We didn’t know what the next day would be like. We just knew other people’s blood was keeping him alive. We would find out three days later he had leukemia…that we were in a fight for his life.

He was asleep in his hospital bed. I couldn’t hold him…I couldn’t sleep. Everyone I knew was asleep. I was alone.

And that’s why Jesus took the path to the cross.

Because when I read His words in Gethsemane on the eve of His death…I know He understands what it’s like to be me. My God knows me. He has lived through what I am living through. So when the author of Hebrews wrote in Hebrews 4:15, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses”… I know it’s true. I know Jesus’ heart is with me on this road we’re walking.

And if it’s true for us…it’s true for you.

  • “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” Describe a time when that was true for you.
  • How did you endure through that experience?
  • How does it impact you to realize Jesus has felt the same as you?
  • Challenge for the week: We all know someone whose soul is in the same situation as Jesus described. Do something small to let them know they are not forgotten.
Ephesians 1:15-20 – What is truth?

Ephesians 1:15-20 – What is truth?

“For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 1:15-20ESV

Truth…how can we even know it in our world? Since the revelation of how prevalent and deep-running “fake news” is, every time I read an article or watch a snippet of news…I feel the worm of doubt eating its way through the back of my mind, unless the news report is on rescued kittens or the latest outfit a female royal wore to a high-profile event. It’s gotten to the point where, unless I actually read the transcript of the entire conversation being reported on, I nearly wholly doubt the truth of what is being reported. The biases are so obvious, even in the most respected sources of world news…how can I even know for sure what is really happening unless I witness it myself? I find myself asking:

“What is true?”

And in so doing, I echo the question an incredulous Pontius Pilate posited to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38ESV). Ironically enough, in a world where we celebrate “You do you” truth, where truth’s parameters are defined subjectively by the individual without any necessary application to anyone else… we hunger for somewhere strong to stand. We want the things we believe in to not just be our arbitrary stances but to have good reasons for us to believe them. We want to know we are doing well, even if we don’t agree what that looks like. We want our lives to have meaning, not just a chasing after the whims of the moment. When we stand at the end of our lives, we want to look back and say, “Man…what a good ride.”

Interestingly, it seems as though we stand in a world similar to the one in which Pontius Pilate first placed his question before Jesus. A preoccupation with gladiatorial violence and love of dangerous chariot races doesn’t seem that different from some of the reality shows and popular sports we see today. People want their shows to be more and more realistic, barring no content in the pursuit of “authenticity”. Paganism, central to Roman culture, is the on the rise in the United States. Extremely lose parameters on sex and sexuality were common in Rome (at least for men), and we see those same parameters sliding away for men and women today. Political unrest and dissidence are shared between ancient Rome and the modern United States, including a general skepticism of the reliability of political entities. I’m sure a more informed historian could draw even deeper parallels.

So we ask, ‘What is truth?” as Pontius Pilate did two thousand years ago…and shrug.

But the question is: what did Jesus say that drove Pontius to ask this heart-deep question?

“For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37ESV).

You see…Jesus is the source of truth we are hungry for.

In Ephesians 1:15-20, Paul prays for the Church at Ephesus to:

  • receive “the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” – v. 17
  • have “the eyes of your hearts enlightened” v. 18
  • know what is the hope to which he has called you” – v. 18

If you look at the bolded words in this passage, all of them have to do with someone coming to know something in deep, life-changing ways. The Spirit referenced in verse 17 is the Spirit of God, whose whole job is to help us know and understand God’s voice and will. To have your heart’s eyes enlightened is to have them come to see the world through the eyes and love of God so you desire what He desires. To know God’s hope is to know the hope revealed in Jesus’ victory over death, sin, and the Devil when He died on the cross and rose from the grave.

You see, in a world where everything seems suspicious and uncertain, fearful and dangerous and hopeless…Jesus gave Himself so we could know truth. The kind of truth immune to the twisted words and judgment of this life. The kind of truth that never buckles under scrutiny. The kind of truth we can turn to when we are pounded with lie after lie. The kind of truth we can stand firm on when everything else is stripped away.

And He is not a truth buried in mystery that we have to hunt down. He is truth revealed. Revealed freely out of love for us.

  • When you look at our culture today, what discourages you?
  • When you try to define what is true, how hard is it for you to do so? Why?
  • Do you sense the desire for firm truth in our culture, even as we reject it? Where?
  • Challenge for the Week: If Jesus is the truth, then His words shape reality. Review His words in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and ask God to guide you to live into His truth this week. Pray this prayer every morning.

 

2 Corinthians 5:16-20 – Ambassador

2 Corinthians 5:16-20 – Ambassador

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” – 2 Corinthians 5:16-20ESV

For most of my life, I’ve been intrigued by this idea that we are ambassadors for God to our world. It started in high school, when I was studying up to lead a Bible study for the middle school students at my church, and found the connection between the concept of being a disciple and being an ambassador. It was a connection point for me that really clarified my purpose here as a follower of Christ. I suppose, in a way, it’s sort of been a vision around which I’ve desired to live my life. Whether I’ve done so successfully or not is a book for another day, but suffice it to say…I think there is huge significance in this idea we are ambassadors of Christ.

You see…ambassador implies a role in the kingdom…a critical purpose. Though we are citizens, we are not merely citizens. Under a good monarchy, a citizen’s job is merely to work the land, give money for the good of the kingdom, follow the laws, and perhaps help stand against invasion in extreme circumstances. If this were merely our role in the Kingdom of God, our job here on earth would be merely to persist as believers until we die, attending church and Bible studies regularly, tithing to the church’s work, being “good Christians”, and perhaps taking a quiet stand against cultural values which violate our faith.

Yet, we are not merely citizens. We are ambassadors. Ambassadors do not just live off the fat of the land. They know the desires and mind of the king intimately and thoroughly. They have the best interests of the kingdom at heart…and they are sent into the stronghold of the enemy. As soon as they cross the border into the enemy kingdom, their every action no longer represents them personally, it represents the kingdom, and in particular, the king who has sent them. When they speak, it is their king’s words. When they act, it is their king’s will. They go into the enemy kingdom, not for their own interests, but the interests of the king and kingdom from which they come. If they are rejected by the enemy kingdom, that is a rejection of their king. If the ambassador is abused and killed, it is viewed as an attack on the king, himself. In a good kingdom, the ambassador goes to the enemy to pursue peace between the nations, utilizing resources that don’t belong to the ambassador but are a gift from the king.

This is our life in Christ, here on this earth.

We, knowing the heart and mind of God for the salvation of all people, step into enemy territory for all the days given us. And people know Christ through knowing us. If we are merciful, if we are loving, if we are honest…people believe Christ is these things. If we are judgmental and cruel and self-righteous…people believe Christ is these things. We come extending God’s reconciliation with mankind, and at times we are rejected, abused…even killed for the words and actions the King has commissioned us to share. We do all this with the gifts and blessings God has given us, in the way He has equipped us to do so. And when we die to this world…it is not a death to existence, but a triumphant return to the King and Kingdom to which we have always belonged but have long been away from.

And someday…the True King will finally and totally bring peace. The King will bring His kingdom here. And we will be with Him, to see His work fulfilled at last.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, your life was not bought with the blood of God to be merely a citizen, though that is what you are by God’s power. You are called to be more! You are gifted to be more! You are crafted to speak the words of the King to a world at war. To bring the Peace of God to our shattered world. Now, more than ever, be courageous in small and huge ways. Breathe life into a dying world through the love and grace of Jesus. Dare to bring a picture of what His kingdom is like, today, to the sphere in which you live.

You are an ambassador. And your King is good.

  • How do you feel seeing yourself as an ambassador, not just a citizen, of God’s kingdom?
  • What is one thing in your life that is holding you back from living into your role as ambassador?
  • Where is one area in your life you are feeling the tug to be an ambassador in a more intentional way?
  • Challenge for the week: Find one moment to be an ambassador in a small way. Do it and share with a Christian mentor how it went, “good” or “bad”. Make sure you learn something and then try it again.

Revelation 1:8 – Almighty God

“‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.'” – Revelation 1:8

My husband and I used to play ultimate frisbee…a lot. In college, it was two hours a day Monday through Friday, plus the occasional Saturday. It didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing, we were out on one of the fields, huffing and puffing. Needless to say, we got pretty good at it.

Even when we graduated, we still threw frisbee all the time together to keep up our skills. On one such occasion, we came across a group of high school club players playing ultimate frisbee in a park. Eager to play again, asked if we could join them. They were gracious enough to let us play with them, but I could tell right away they were feeling confident and self-assured I would be a non-factor in the game. Proudly certain of their skills, they completely ignored me. Their pride made it all-the-more satisfying when my husband and I outran, out-threw, and out-caught them the whole game.

Isn’t that how we react to pride all the time? We see someone boldly confident and proud and we just love to watch them fall. We resist siding with them on any occasion because we don’t want to puff them up even more. Pride rubs against our nerves like sandpaper.

In Revelation 1:8, it seems like God is puffing Himself right up. The very first words John writes about God saying are, “I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” The rebel in you just wants to say sarcastically, “Well good for you!” After all, while He’s being “Almighty,” things seem pretty rough down here.

But this isn’t God bragging Himself up, wanting us to feel how puny we are and how much bigger and better He is. This is not God lording over us (though He certainly has every right to.) Revelation was written in a time when Rome was actively murdering Christians. All of the Apostles, except John, had already been murdered for their faith, and John was in exile on a prison island, where he would ultimately die. This is after Rome had taken up the practice of sewing Christians into animal skins to be mauled to death by wild dogs in the arena, tying them up to huge stakes and setting them on fire as “Roman candles”, and crucifying them by their hundreds.

In that light, God’s bold statement of His power and authority is actually God reassuring and comforting His people. The most powerful Empire on earth is hunting down and murdering God’s people. It seems like dark, hopeless days facing a power they cannot possibly overcome. But God reminds His people HE is the one with the first say (Alpha) and the last say (Omega). The one who has existed before time, throughout all time, beyond the end of time (who was, and is, and is to come), the one who has ALL power and ALL authority to govern the universe (the Almighty). Evil may come, but it will not overcome Him…nor those who belong to Him… no matter what source it comes from.

And that same promise holds true now. In a world that seems to be spinning out of control, where Christians are more-and-more ignored and sidelined for speaking the Truth, where fact and fiction are intertwined so tightly it’s hard to know what’s really going on in the world, when everything seems to be a physical or verbal conflict…when violence is a norm…when it seems like nothing can ever get any better… God says to us, even today, “I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” He has the power and always will have the power to overcome the evil in our world. No matter how dark things become, He is reigning – He is winning – and where He reigns and wins…so do we. There is real hope in Him.

No matter what.

  1. Do you ever feel like God isn’t interested in what you’re going through? Why?
  2. What do you think it felt like to live through what the Christians were living through when John wrote Revelation?
  3. How can you see God winning over evil in your day-to-day life?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Go to Voice of the Martyrs and look into how Christians are being persecuted around the world. Commit to praying for a specific persecuted Christian group or Christian for the week.

John 14:6 – Jesus’ Truth

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'” – John 14:6ESV

When I was young, I remember going to the local butterfly habitat with a group of kids. I vividly remember getting up the courage to pet a tarantula (it’s legs felt like kitten fur!), flicking lights on an off in a scorpion habitat because the scorpions could glow-in-the-dark, and entering the giant, butterfly room. There were butterflies everywhere, of every color. They even landed on people as they walked among the verdant flowers and plants.

Unfortunately, as clear as these memories are, there is one even clearer that ended up defining the trip for me. This was the time of the “Beanie Baby” craze, and in the gift shop they had a stuffed bee that looked a lot like a “Beanie Baby”. I wanted it desperately…but I didn’t have the money to purchase it. So, when it was time to leave, I reluctantly put it back on the shelf and headed out with the rest of the group. While we were eating outside, our leader came around and was checking everyone’s bags, so when she got to the friend I had gone through the exhibit with, I said jokingly, “What? You think we stole something?”

When the bag opened…to my horror, there sat the very stuffed bee I had wanted so much. And my supposed friend accused me of putting it there while she was in the bathroom. Over my protests, our leader made us both return the bee and apologize for stealing it. It was one of the most humiliating, and unjust, experiences of my childhood.

Experiences like this can end up defining a person. When we are treated poorly, when we suffer because people cannot be honest and decent to others, we start to believe everyone is that way. When a husband or father leaves, when a mother or wife is abusive, when a boss pushes us to lie to make the sale, when a teacher clearly plays favorites, when friends betray our confidences…we start to believe we can only trust ourselves.

Sometimes…perhaps more than sometimes…we even look at God that way. When the world is so dark, when there is so much hardship we have to endure… it is easy to lose trust in God.

Yet Jesus insists He is quite the opposite of the lack of honesty and decency we see in the world. Instead of being out to trick us, He insists, “I am…the truth.” He is the embodiment of all that is true. It is His very nature. In a world where we are constantly overwhelmed by lies, even from inside our own heads, we can look to Jesus for honesty and guidance. We can rely on Him to be consistent when no one and nothing else is. We can find direction and hope in a world that seems to empty of both.

Let the voice of Jesus cut through the garbage this world and Satan throws at you…and be set free by the Truth.

  1. What untruths do you see portrayed as truth in our culture?
  2. What are some untruths you find yourself believing about yourself?
  3. Why are those untruths so hard for you to shake?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Read this compilation of who God says you are by bible.org. Write down a few that really speak into your heart on a notecard. Put it in your wallet in front of your credit card so every time you spend money, you are reminded of the Truth about you from God.

John 10:11-15 – The Good Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” – John 10:11-15ESV

If you live in the parts of America where wolves are being reintroduced after they were wiped out by humans, then you know wolves and ranchers are always in contention. On the one hand, you have a species we drove to extinction in parts of the world that we’re now trying to do right by. The loss of the animal in the ecosystem, particularly in places like Colorado, has led to elk overpopulation and disease and a strained ecosystem not designed to support so many large, grazing mammals. On the other hand, you have ranchers, worried about the threat to their livestock represented by the reintroduction of wolves. Their livelihood is balanced on the well-being of their animals. It’s hard to ignore the concerns of a man who represents a threatened way of life in a country dependent on farming and ranching to survive.

This same dynamic of wolf, and in this case shepherd, played out in the ancient world. But shepherds didn’t have rifles and shotguns and big barns to protect their sheep. There was just the shepherd, with his staff and maybe a sling, standing between an entire herd of sheep and the wolves. And wolves are not mindless killers. They’re crafty, they’re intelligent, they’ve honed hunting down to an art in order to survive. They wait for a moment of inattention or distraction to find the weaker animal: one injured or sick or very old or very young. And they harass it, frighten it to run, to isolate itself from the rest of the flock and the protection of the shepherd. Then…the whole pack descends to bring it down.

Is this not a picture of what it is like to experience hardship in our lives? Trouble seems to pile on trouble. Conflict upon conflict. Disaster upon disaster. Your spouse gets sick, then they lose their job because they can’t work, then they lose their insurance, then the bills start to pile up, you can’t make payments and the creditors start calling, then your son or daughter starts struggling in school, then your car breaks down, then the IRS comes calling for an audit, then you start to get in trouble with your boss at work… You’re a wreck, but you don’t want anyone to know. You can’t afford counseling, even if you wanted to go. You withdraw from your friends. You’re drowning… and in the middle of it all, a traitorous voice in your head whispers:

“Where is God?”

“Why won’t He help me?”

“Surely if He’s so loving, He would do something.”

“Is this my fault? Is God punishing me?”

“If God were really there, He wouldn’t let this happen…”

“How dare He leave me like this…”

Because the wolves we face aren’t wild animals just trying to survive. The wolves who hunt us aren’t providing for their pack…they’re out to “steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10ESV). The wolves who hunt us are Satan and his demons, and they will do whatever they have to to separate you from the very One who can save your life: the Good Shepherd.

But our Good Shepherd is not a mortal man with a stick peering desperately into the darkness. Our Good Shepherd is the “Light of the World” (John 8:12ESV), the “Mighty God” (Isaiah 9:6ESV), the “Strong Tower Against the Enemy” (Psalm 61:3ESV) and “God With Us” (Matthew 1:23ESV “Immanuel”). He does not become distracted, turning His eyes and attention to other things. We are the center of His focus. He lives within us, walks beside us, and carries us through every breath of our lives. He is the “Good Shepherd” whom the wolves themselves dragged down and murdered on the cross at Calvary…but they could not keep Him. Instead, He went into the den of the wolves (Hell) to announce His victory before raising from the dead so you, in all the brokenness you would know in your life, could know this one incredible truth: Jesus is ALIVE. The wolves of your life may harass you, but they cannot defeat the One who guards your eternity: Jesus.

1 Samuel 1:1-20 – Two Important Things

There was a certain man of Ramathaim-zophim of the hill country of Ephraim whose name was Elkanah the son of Jeroham, son of Elihu, son of Tohu, son of Zuph, an Ephrathite. He had two wives. The name of the one was Hannah, and the name of the other, Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had no children.

Now this man used to go up year by year from his city to worship and to sacrifice to the Lord of hosts at Shiloh, where the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, were priests of the Lord. On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to Peninnah his wife and to all her sons and daughters. But to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. And her rival used to provoke her grievously to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. So it went on year by year. As often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore Hannah wept and would not eat. And Elkanah, her husband, said to her, ‘Hannah, why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?’

After they had eaten and drunk in Shiloh, Hannah rose. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, ‘O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.’

As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was speaking in her heart; only her lips moved, and her voice was not heard. Therefore Eli took her to be a drunken woman. And Eli said to her, ‘How long will you go on being drunk? Put your wine away from you.’ But Hannah answered, ‘No, my lord, I am a woman troubled in spirit. I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for all along I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation.’ Then Eli answered, ‘Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.’ And she said, ‘Let your servant find favor in your eyes.’ Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. And Elkanah knew Hannah his wife, and the Lordremembered her. And in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, ‘I have asked for him from the Lord.'” – 1 Samuel 1:1-20ESV

In youth ministry, you hear a lot of stories. I’ve heard enough that one thing I confidently tell other adults is, “People think kids have it easy. The reality is a lot of kids have nightmares behind their eyes. They just don’t have the benefit of experience to help them deal with it.” The stories that really break your heart are about what happens when they’re at home: emotional abuse, gaslighting, sexual abuse, physical abuse, marriages tearing apart while the kids can only watch, denial of affection and approval, passing back and forth between divorced parents so frequently they never really feel “at home” anywhere… the list goes on. The worst is the kids who don’t tell me what’s going on, thinking I can’t see behind the withdrawn attitudes or the showboating or the combativeness to know there’s more going on. It’s worse because I know they’re broken open and bleeding inside, in desperate need of help they’ll never accept. They don’t dare trust again.

With these years as a youth leader, I’ve also had many conversations with afraid, angry, crying parents who don’t know how to help their hurting kids. They don’t like the way things are…but they don’t know what to change and aren’t even sure anything can work. The unfortunate reality is usually, by the time I know their kids, it is often almost too late. They’re teenagers, a few years from graduation and the freedom to do whatever they chose. The road they are set upon was paved long before I knew them. Because the reality is, the best two things you can give your kids starts before they’re even born:

  1. Your living faith in Jesus
  2. Your loving marriage

In 1 Samuel 1:1-20, the prophet Samuel is born. He will ultimately be the prophet who serves God during the years of King Saul, the first king of Israel. He will be the prophet who identifies and anoints David to become king after Saul. This is the same King David God calls a “man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14ESV). But Saul’s beginnings are much more humble: the first son of a woman unable to have children, bullied by her husband’s far more fruitful second wife. This is a woman who would have been told her womb was “dead”.

But there were two things Hannah did have:

  1. She turned to the Lord for comfort in suffering, demonstrating her trusting relationship with Him. “She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly.” – 1 Samuel 1:10ESV
  2. A husband who loved her deeply, despite the fact she had “no value” as a woman in his culture because she could not give him sons. “But to Hannah [Elkanah, her husband,] gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb.” – 1 Samuel 1:5ESV

If you continue to read through 1 Samuel, you will find these two things proved fertile ground for Samuel to grow into an incredible man of God:

  • “Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and also with man.” – 1 Samuel 2:26ESV
  • God calls Samuel “a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever.” – 1 Samuel 2:35ESV
  • “Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.” – 1 Samuel 7:15ESV (Meaning he was the spiritual leader of all Israel, holding it accountable to God’s leadership.)
  • God chose Samuel to name the first King of Israel. “Then Samuel took a flask of oil and poured it on his head and kissed him and said, ‘Has not the Lord anointed you to be prince over his people Israel? And you shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their surrounding enemies.'”  – 1 Samuel 10:1ESV
  • God chose Samuel to stand before King of Israel himself and hold him accountable for evil, “And Samuel said to Saul, “I will not return with you. For you have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.” – 1 Samuel 15:26ESV

This is not to say being faithful to Christ and devoted to your marriage is the “silver bullet” of raising children. Sin is in the world, and Satan is active to mislead us. However, when your children see the love of God in your life and see deep, abiding, forgiving love between their parents… they have modeled for them a life infused with meaning and purpose. They have a strong foundation from which to step into a world filled with opportunity and danger. They have a powerful reminder of the enduring ability of God to make an incredible impact through two people who love one another and Him.

Through your marriage, kids have a picture of the love of God for His people…including them. A love “that surpasses knowledge” (Ephesians 3:19ESV).

  1. If you are married, how do you think you’re doing together? What might be some ways you could “grow together” as models of Christ’s love?
  2. If your marriage is broken, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. What couples has God placed in your life who could help you mentor your children?
  3. If you are unmarried, reflect on the marriage habits you learned from your parents. Where may God be trying to grow you and prepare you as a partner to someone someday?
  4. Challenge for the Week: Whether you are married or not, bring your marriage or possible future marriage before God, praying for His strength and guidance and love to guide it.