Saturday, December 24, 2016

So Loved

For God so loved the world
that he gave his one and only Son…

Do you have a favorite Christmas carol? Do you know it by heart? If so, take a moment to sing it to yourself. Why is it your favorite? Is it the tune, the words, the meaning?

Whether it's a silly song or a serious one, it's probably easy to sing without thinking too much about what you're singing. You may not even know what it means or the history behind it, but that doesn't stop you from singing along.

Familiar Christmas songs, Christmas traditions kept year after year, and the gifts given and received often become so familiar, it's easy to overlook how special they are. Sometimes it takes a change, where certain elements are missing, to realize how much a part of our celebration they have become.

Perhaps you have experienced this: the year your family had to go without a tree, gifts, or some-one. If you haven't suffered such a loss, take a moment to think about what you would miss at Christmas—a little, and a lot. 

I don't bring this up to put a damper on your holiday. Quite the opposite, actually. Like a festive carol that puts you in the Christmas spirit, I want to share words from the Bible that remind us what Christmas is all about. John 3:16 says, For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  If this is your first time hearing this verse, keep reading, and if it's so familiar you could say it in your sleep, you might want to listen in too, because I'm willing to bet you need to let the words go a little deeper.

God so loved… Because God loved everyone so much, He sent His Son, Jesus, to display His mercy...

Just think about that! I mean, what else could God have given to show how much He loves us? It's not like He didn't have other grand things to choose from. He could have given us each our own galaxy. He could have given us magical powers to fly. He could have given us rivers of chocolate and mountains of ice cream. But instead of going for whimsical gifts, He chose the most precious thing to Him. Not something He could wave His hand and create in an instant, but something irreplaceable. His most precious possession. Something that said, This is how much I love you. You are so loved.

You might be asking, 'But what is Jesus to me? Why is that such a great gift? No offense, God, but a new galaxy sounds pretty cool—or the house I've always wanted, an unending closet, a pool in the backyard…'

Yes, those things would be nice, and if you take time to think about it, He's probably given you a lot of good things—more blessings than you could think of before finishing this blog. But what makes Jesus so special? Why is He the best gift of all?

When Jesus came, His purpose was to proclaim God's love: His compassion; His nearness. God wasn't far away. He wasn't out of reach. He wasn't like a busy parent who is never home. He isn't like Santa who brings gifts at midnight but is gone in the morning. He is real and never more than a prayer away.

Like Christmas that wouldn't be the same without your favorite song, gifts, or your family, life would be very different without God's love. If Jesus never came, I'm pretty sure we wouldn't be here; but if we were, there would be no hope for the future, no comfort in sorrow, no happiness to be found anywhere, no love in our hearts. This world would be a very dark, horrible place. There would be no reason to sing, "Joy to the World".

The prophet Isaiah said, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…For to us a child is born, to us a son is given…He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:2,6)

You see, when God sent Jesus, He was giving us Himself; His presence; His unconditional, unending love.

This Christmas I pray you will take that into your heart like never before. God could not have given you a greater gift, so believe it. You are so loved.

The LORD delights in youHe will rejoice over you as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. (Isaiah 62:4,5 NLT)

Photos by Rick Jernberg, Dany Sabadini;

Sunday, December 11, 2016


My righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.
Isaiah 53:11 (NLT)

I've been reading in the book of Isaiah lately, and the ancient prophet makes many references to the promised Messiah of Israel. Today we know he was talking about Jesus, the baby who was born to Mary and Joseph. On the night of His birth, an angel was sent to shepherds watching over their flocks at night and made this announcement: "I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people."

In my previous blog, I talked about Jesus bringing the Good News that "The Kingdom of God is near."  In essence, the angel was saying the same in announcing the birth of the Christ-child. "A Savior has been born to you…peace to those on whom his favor rests."  God had come near to bring salvation, peace, and joy, as the prophet Isaiah had proclaimed hundreds of years before.

In Isaiah 53, we read about Who was promised, what He would be like, and His purpose. In verse 11 it says, My righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins.  This is the cornerstone of God's Kingdom. His mercy and forgiveness counts us as righteous.

We are loved. We are forgiven. We are free.

Later in the Gospels, we can read a wonderful story that shows what this means for one woman. She responds to this free gift of salvation by attending a dinner-party held in Jesus' honor and washing His feet with perfume and her tears. The host of the party is disgusted by her actions because she is a "sinful woman", but Jesus is moved by her gratitude and love.

"I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love."

In contrast, the man sees himself as righteous with no need for forgiveness—or at least not as much as this woman. Other than inviting Jesus to dinner, he doesn't do anything to honor Him. Why? He doesn't understand how much Jesus has given him. He hasn't been made righteous through forgiveness, but rather is self-righteous, thinking he hasn't done much that needs forgiving, and he can easily make up for his shortcomings by having the Messiah over for dinner. (Surely that will cover it.)

But it doesn't work that way. Hundreds of years before, God had said, My righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for HE will bear all their sins. The "sinful" woman understood this, the "righteous" man did not. He didn't understand that he and the woman were the same: sinful but forgiven. That's the only scale of righteousness God has.

We all make mistakes. No one is perfect. We're all sinners. Perhaps you see yourself like the man who wasn't "too bad"; or maybe you see yourself as the man saw the woman. In his eyes, she was beyond forgiveness. Her sins were "too great". But in God's Kingdom, neither reality exists.

All of us like sheep have strayed away. We have left God's paths to follow our own. Yet the LORD laid on HIM the sins of us all.

The sins of us all…I pray you believe that. You are forgiven. No matter what mistakes you have made, no matter what you need forgiveness for. You are. You are counted as righteous.

As the woman in the story who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, may your motive for loving God and showing Him that love be the same. Not from a heart of guilt and shame, nor from a heart of self-righteousness. But rather as one who owed a debt that couldn't be paid, so He paid it for you. Go in peace, dear one. You have been forgiven.

Scripture taken from Mark 1:15; Luke 2:10-11, 14; Luke 7:47 (NLT); Isaiah 53:6 (NLT)
Woman photo by Benjamin Earwicker,

Thursday, December 1, 2016

"The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news." Mark 1:15

Christmas is just around the corner. Are you ready? Did you shop till you dropped on Black Friday, or do you need to get started? Have you gotten a tree and untangled the lights, or do you still have those tasks before you?

I love Christmas. I love how December is different than any other month of the year. I love the decorations, the Christmas plays, the giving, and above all, the reason we celebrate. Christmas is a time we remember God sent His Son into the world to save us from our sins. It's a time of hope and joy.

It's easy to get caught up in the shopping, decorating, and activity of the Christmas season and completely forget about Jesus. But it's also possible to remember the story of Jesus being born and having a feeding trough as a crib, but completely forget He didn't stay in the manger. Jesus grew up, became a man, and spent three years traveling around Israel to teach the message God had sent Him to share. The verse above, from Mark 1:15, was His primary message. "The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news."  Do you know what it means? What is the Kingdom of God? What is the Good News?

The Kingdom of God has existed from the beginning of time. We are here because God created His Kingdom and created us to enjoy it. You can think of it like a country that is ruled by a king; but it's not limited by space, a certain time period, or for certain people. The Kingdom of God is a present reality for anyone who wants to engage with Him, and it lasts forever.

Some believe we are simply here on earth by chance, an accident of nature that serves no purpose. Others believe we are created beings and we're here for a reason, but those reasons may be vague or misunderstood. But the Kingdom of God is not complicated, it's clear and simple: God is the King and we are His children—His beloved children who are loved unconditionally and valued immensely.

The message of Christmas never changes no matter how old you are. Do you treat the holiday as if it's only for children and forget about all the ways God wants to bless YOU? His gifts to us are eternal—ongoing year after year, no matter the season. But Christmas is a good time to be reminded of the love, peace, joy, guidance, hope, healing, and truth He gives.

When Jesus said, "The Kingdom of God is near", He was obviously speaking to those who didn't see it that way. God didn't send His Son to preach something everyone already understood and believed. He came to change their thinking (this is the definition of the word repent).

"Repent and believe the good news," He said. So, what's the Good News? By default, good news is not bad. He didn't say, 'Repent or you're going to Hell; Repent or God will stop loving you. Repent or you're getting kicked out of the Kingdom.' That would be bad news. The good news was (and still is), "The Kingdom of God is near."

What would have made them believe it was far away? When Jesus appeared on the scene, it was a chaotic time of political change and unrest in Israel. The Roman Empire had taken over, benefitting some but oppressing others. Poverty was widespread. Disease was rampant. Demon-possession was plaguing individual lives and communities. People had feelings of hopelessness, dread, and insignificance. They were "poor in spirit". They had little hope for their present and the future.

But Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven."  He wanted them to go from seeing themselves as doomed and destitute, to believing they were valued, forgiven, and loved.

"Don't worry; Trust God," He said. "Seek His Kingdom and all your needs will be met. Love others. Pray for your enemies. Forgive. Don't be angry. Do not fear."

He even recruited a band of disciples to help Him spread the word. "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." It was a message everyone needed to hear, and He only had three years to preach before He would be silenced by those who couldn't take any more of His absurd teaching that God loved everyone.

How did Jesus demonstrate this free love? He drove out demons, healed the sick, gave the blind sight and the lame new legs. He went everywhere, spreading the Good News to all. "Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."  We often say Jesus came to die for our sins, and He did, but His death only proved His message: You are loved. God does not hold your sin against you. He loves you. He values you. You belong to Him.

In Mark 2:5, we see this love and forgiveness demonstrated when Jesus says to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  This man didn't make a decision that he wanted to be forgiven and come to Jesus to ask for that. He didn't pray the "sinner's prayer." He was just there, in need of God's touchOthers would have viewed him as sinful and unworthy because of his crippled condition, but he wasn't unworthy. He wasn't overlooked. And Jesus didn't just say so, He demonstrated it: "I tell you, get up, take your mat, and go home."  The One who had the power to heal the body also had the power to heal the soul.

Do you need to believe the Kingdom of God is near? Does it feel far away? Are you living in fear, hate, defeat, despair, or hopelessness? Do you feel unloved or less than perfectly loved?

If so, you need to change your thinking. Repent and believe the good news: The Kingdom of heaven is near. The Kingdom of God is for you. Dwell in His love and live in His grace. He is the King; You are His child; and you can trust Him.

Photo Credit 1:
Photo Credit 2:
Scripture taken from Mark 1:15; Matt. 5:2; Matt. 5-6 (various); Mark 1:17; Mark 1:38; Mark 2:5, 11