For many people, 'the most wonderful time of the year' is the most stressful time of year. And apart from any seasonal stress, life can be stressful enough. But there is relief and refuge from stress in the Lord. I don’t mean that in a vague or generic way, but in very specific ways as you look at how He reveals Himself: "Grace and peace to you from Him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth." (Revelation 1:4,5)
Change can be stressful, and we face it often. But Him "who is, and who was, and who is to come" is constant and consistent. His love and care and promises are as unchanging as He is. It can be stressful to face life’s challenges, but God comes to us with "the seven spirits" – the gifts of the Holy Spirit to equip us are many. In a world of spin and deception, it can be stressful not knowing whom we can really trust. But "the faithful witness" gave His life for the sake of the truth that we might KNOW that He is our Savior. It is stressful to face death, whether yours or that of a loved one, but the One who gave His life is also "the firstborn from the dead" who rose to assure us of eternal life in His name. We can be stressed by those in authority in the world and in our lives, but who’s really in charge? Jesus is "the ruler of the kings of the earth." None of these stresses compare to the stressful burden of sin. For all our selfishness we can’t escape, for all our evils we can’t undo, for all that anguish that weighs on us, we look "to Him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by His blood." (Revelation 1:5) …Look again at all that He is, all that He has revealed about Himself just in those few verses. Do you see? GOD IS GREATER THAN ANY STRESS IN YOUR LIFE. "Grace and peace to you FROM HIM." Get to know Him; grow in your relationship with Him. The more you do, the more you will find the strength and comfort to handle any stress.
Weddings are joyful events. But they usually come with a great deal of stressful planning for the bride and at a great expense to the bride’s family. One of the ways God pictures heaven is as a wedding celebration, one in which YOU are invited to come and be His bride. "Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!" (Revelation 19:9)
Stressful planning? No! God has already taken care of every bit of it. His plan of salvation was in place before the beginning of time, and He has worked it out to the smallest detail. You see that in the promise of the Savior preserved from the Garden of Eden to the manager at Bethlehem to the empty tomb outside of Jerusalem. You see that plan of salvation worked out as He continues to call you to His side even now through His Word, through this very message. He doesn’t invite you to be His bride because you’ve caught His eye with good looks or good deeds or anything to win His love. No, but in love, your heavenly Bridegroom gave His life to pay the full cost for your sins which otherwise would have separated you from Him forever. Yes, the expense of this wedding celebration is great, but as with the planning, He has already taken care of every bit of it. So come! YOU ARE INVITED TO THE WEDDING SUPPER OF THE LAMB!
Have you ever been so overwhelmed or confused by a challenge or a hardship that you had no idea what to pray or how to pray? Whenever or for whatever reason you might find it difficult to pray, God wants you to know that YOU HAVE HELP IN PRAYER: "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express." (Romans 8:26) We struggle with prayer because we are weak, and our weaknesses are many. We often don’t understand why God does what He does. Our desires don’t naturally line up with His will. At times we are impatient or lack hope or struggle to take God at His word. Behind it all is sin, and that really is our biggest barrier to prayer. How can sinners approach God and ask anything of Him?
Before you ever uttered your first words of prayer, the Holy Spirit opened your eyes to see and believe that Jesus is your Savior from sin, that He has removed everything that would separate you from God or get in the way of a relationship with Him. And now, just as you can be confident that Christ died for your sins and rose from the dead for your salvation, you can be confident that the Holy Spirit is right there with every prayer you pray. In legal matters, a lawyer may intercede for you, but in prayer matters – in the most important matters in life – it is the Holy Spirit who speaks on your behalf! In His own divine way beyond your words, the Spirit knows your heart and expresses your deepest needs in line with God’s will. His work is described as "interceding for the saints." (Romans 8:27) "The saints"? That’s how God sees all who trust in Jesus’ perfect life and innocent death for their salvation. When you come to the Father in prayer through faith in His Son, you are holy to God; you are His saints, and the Spirit attends to your every prayer. So pray with confidence. You have divine help in prayer!
What will make you truly content in life? Fill in the blank for yourself: 'If ________ , then I will be content.' To hold up these 'ifs' as the key to contentment is to live with false hope. The sinful human heart is never satisfied; today’s 'ifs,' even if fulfilled, are replaced by new 'ifs' tomorrow. And to live life under such 'ifs' is to live at the mercy of your circumstances. Life is a constant flow of change; what would make you content tomorrow can quickly be overshadowed by difficulty the next day. God wants you to understand that true contentment is unrelated to circumstances. Paul, imprisoned for his faith, learned this "secret of being content, whatever the circumstances." What is that secret? "I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:11-13) This Bible verse is often misused, but keep the context. Paul isn’t saying that there are no limitations to what you can do in life. He’s saying that nothing in life can limit your contentment when it is rooted not in your circumstances, but in your Savior. YOUR SAVIOR IS GREATER THAN YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES!
But what do we give more attention to – our circumstances, or our Savior? If it’s our circumstances, we’ll never find contentment. And here’s the great evil of our discontent: We so easily and arrogantly live the lie that God owes us better, that we’ve earned or deserve better circumstances than what we’re experiencing. The reality is that we will only be content if we understand and admit what God really owes us. We have sinned against God – often in this very matter of blaming Him for our circumstances – and we deserve nothing but His wrath and eternal punishment. But because of God’s great mercy, Jesus took our place and was punished for our sins, and we are made right with God. Now, instead of living AT the mercy of our circumstances, we get to live IN the mercy of our Savior, forgiven of our sins and bound for heaven. Greater than any circumstance in life is to know where you stand with God in life and in death and in eternity. All this is yours through faith in Jesus; He gives you strength for all life’s circumstances.
What is it like to seek someone’s approval only to feel like you can never measure up to that person’s standards, like nothing you do is ever good enough? You may have experienced that in a relationship with a parent or a spouse or a boss or a teacher. It is beyond frustrating and can lead to anger and despair. This is what Martin Luther experienced in his relationship with God. The harder he tried to please God, the more he realized he could not meet the unrelenting demands of God’s Law for continual obedience and purity of heart. Luther’s problem is our problem. How do we satisfy God? How do we gain His approval? We come to the same answer Luther did: If it’s up to us, we don’t; we can’t gain His approval by our efforts.
But everything changed for Luther when God opened his eyes to this truth: "In the gospel, a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last." (Romans 1:17) Righteousness is 'right-ness' with God. Put another way, to have righteousness is to have God’s approval. Previously, Luther had only known the righteousness OF God, His standard of holiness that none of us can measure up to. But do you see what Luther saw? The gospel is the good news of righteousness FROM God. The approval you desperately need and long for comes FROM GOD, TO YOU, through faith in Jesus. He lived a life that fully met God’s approval and gave up His life as the righteous sacrifice to fully satisfy God’s wrath against sinners. His resurrection proves that His sacrifice was fully accepted and that we are fully approved through faith in Him. YOU HAVE GOD’S APPROVAL THROUGH FAITH IN JESUS! The gospel changed Luther’s life; I pray that it changes your life today as well. I leave you with Luther’s reflection on how precious this approval from God is: "If you want to be comforted when your conscience plagues you or when you are in dire distress, then you must do nothing but grasp Christ in faith and say, 'I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who suffered, was crucified, and died for me. In His wounds and death, I see my sin. In His resurrection, I see the victory over sin, death, and the devil. I see righteousness and eternal life as well. I want to see and hear nothing except Christ.' "
Words have power. Unfortunately in our world today, we might immediately think of the negative power of words, such as the hurtful power of hateful words to cut someone down. But words wield a positive power as well, such as the healing power of wholesome words to restore hope to someone on the edge.
No words have power like God’s words. Think of Jesus at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. The unforgiving stench of death had already overtaken his lifeless, decaying body. But what does Jesus do? He speaks a command of life to the dead man – "Lazarus, come out!" (John 11:43) – and life overtakes the dead man! Lazarus emerges from the tomb, made alive by the power of God through the word of Jesus! In the same way the gospel comes to those who are dead in sin; Jesus calls us to life with the word of forgiveness for our sins and deliverance from damnation. THE GOSPEL IS THE POWER OF GOD FOR SALVATION. (Romans 1:16) This is so much more than a message that is simply informative or inspiring. If I have a disease, I can read about medicines, treatments, and cures and be informed and find hope. But to read of them is one thing; to experience them is another. The gospel message itself is the power of God! God is working – powerfully, dynamically, graciously – He is working right now through this message to create and strengthen and sustain faith that leads to eternal life in Jesus. "He has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel." (II Timothy 1:10)
On August 15, 1945, the headline of The Baltimore Sun stated, 'The War Is Over.' What effect do you think that news had on all who heard it? One sub-headline read, 'Flood of Joy Sweeps Through Allied World.' But what if the headline was different? – 'The Allies Must Do Such-and-Such to End the War.' That headline wouldn’t bring peace and joy. The difference between good news and good advice is life-changing, isn’t it? The word "gospel" means "good news," the good news of salvation. Yes, THE GOSPEL IS GOOD NEWS, NOT GOOD ADVICE. If the gospel was no more than advice, it would leave us grasping at straws with God as it is with any other philosophy and religion: 'If you want to be right with God and live forever, do this, this, and this.' That’s advice, and bad advice at that. It only leads to hopelessness and despair as you fail to measure up, or it leads to pride and delusion as you convince yourself that you’ve earned God’s favor.
But the gospel is good news about what Jesus has done for you, something that has already happened, that has already been accomplished. It is the good news that God has worked out your salvation in full! The good news is that Jesus’ perfect life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection count for you. On the cross, Jesus cried out, "It is finished!" (headline: 'Sin Paid In Full'), and at His empty tomb the angels proclaimed, "He has risen, just as He said!" (headline: 'His Victory = Your Peace'). The Bible puts it this way: "Jesus was handed over to die for our sins, and He was raised from death to make us right with God. Therefore, since we have been made right with God through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." (Romans 4:25, 5:1) Believe the good news of the gospel, and be at peace!
"Grace" is a word Christians use a lot that is not always well explained or understood. I would suggest that if you want to understand "grace," you need to understand the word "but." "But" means 'instead of,' 'rather than,' 'contrary to what you would expect.' How does it help us understand "grace"? Consider God’s Word from Ephesians chapter 2. "As for you, you were dead in your disobedience and sins…gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts." (v1-3) This is the ugly truth of who we are apart from God. We know how prone we are to sin and how often we repeat the same sins. Behind it all is a sinful heart that is profoundly self-centered and self-justifying. Martin Luther observed, 'Our sinful human heart is so deeply curved in on itself that it wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks to use all things, even God, for its own sake.' We must admit that God is right in saying that we are by nature "objects of wrath" (v3), deserving of His anger and punishment.
Then comes that little word "but" – little, yet pivotal and powerful. "BUT because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in sins – it is by grace you have been saved." (Ephesians 2:4,5) So INSTEAD OF receiving God’s wrath for our sins, RATHER THAN being punished, CONTRARY TO our expectation of going to hell, God showed us a saving love that only God could show. This is GRACE, that God loved us, not because of something good in us, but because of something good in Him. Note the contrast between sin and grace: The essence of sin is the self-centeredness of us substituting ourselves for God, but the essence of grace is God substituting Himself for us EVEN WHEN we were dead in sin. Do you see why the Bible speaks of grace as "indescribable," "immeasurable," and "unsearchable"? I pray you have a better understanding of and joy in what it means to say that WE ARE SAVED BY GRACE.
What are your present realities? Single parent? Broken family? Loneliness? Overworked? Looking for employment? Struggling to pay bills? Overcome by current events? Deployed? Chronic pain? Debilitating disease? Aging? Imminent death? Regardless of your present realities, God wants you to LIVE IN THE LIGHT OF YOUR HEAVENLY REALITY. Faith in Jesus Christ lights our life with this reality: "Our citizenship is in heaven." (Philippians 3:20)
If you are like me, this heavenly reality is hard to imagine when you struggle with your present realities, and even worse, when you struggle with your sinfulness as you try to deal with those present realities. We worry and doubt. We might even question why doesn’t God do something more to change our present realities. When that happens, you need to ask yourself: What more could God do than He has already done for me? What more could He do for me than sacrificing His Son for my sin in my place? What more could He do for me than raising His Son from the dead to assure me that my sin has been paid in full and that I am forgiven fully? What more could He do for me than securing eternal life and a heavenly home for me? Look again to this great reality we have in Jesus: "Our citizenship is in heaven." Now look at the eager expectation this heavenly reality gives us as we endure all things in life: "And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body." (Philippians 3:20,21) May this heavenly reality sustain you with real hope as you cling to Jesus through the present realities of life.
Why do you do what you do? There is a motive, a driving force, behind everything you do. Motives have compelled mankind to do the greatest of things in this world…and the worst of things. (And the worst began with the motive to "be like God" when Adam and Eve ate of the tree that God commanded them not to eat from.) It is a good thing to examine why you do what you do. So let me ask this: What is your motive to love your fellow man? God tells us, "Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ." (Philippians 1:27) Can we admit that we need to hear that? Our lives often reflect love of self more than love of others; selfishness is mankind’s default motive. Now some think that 'the church' preaches this to guilt, shape, and control people. And wherever that’s been the case, that’s a shame. But God comes to us with "the Gospel of Christ." The Gospel preaches, "I have loved you with an everlasting love." The Gospel preaches, "I have forgiven all of your sins through the life, death, and resurrection of my Son."
So the Gospel of Christ establishes a completely different motive. The life of love that God calls us to is not rooted in the guilt of trying to measure up and gain something with God, but in the grace of what Christ has done for us in atoning for our guilt and the privilege of reflecting that in the world. The life of love that God calls us to is not effected by a threat, 'do this or else,' but by a promise, "that whoever believes in the Son will not perish but have everlasting life." The Gospel preaches, "I am your God, you are my people, and heaven is your home." So let us believe the Gospel and live as citizens of heaven who reflect the good news about Christ our Savior. THE GOSPEL GIVES US THE GREATEST MOTIVE TO LIVE IN LOVE.
Come visit us at CHRIST OUR REDEEMER for more of this message of God's grace!
Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church
Daniel is the Staff Minister at Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, El Paso TX.