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Romans 8:28 Reconsidered

One of the most cherished verses in the Bible is Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” This verse has been dragged into contemporary culture in the the shortened saying: “Everything happens for a reason.” Christians have often taken this verse as a promise that God will make everything turn out well for us. I believe that ultimately that’s true. But what about those who lost their lives as martyrs for the Gospel? What about devoted followers of Jesus who seem to go from one bad break to another?

There’s a catch to this promise. We don’t get to define “good.” Only God gets to define what qualifies as good for us. He probably has different ideas than we do. One of my favorite authors, A.W. Tozer, put it this way: “When I understand that everything happening to me is to make me more Christlike, it solves a great deal of anxiety.” God’s goal for your life and mine is to make us more like Jesus. That’s how God defines “good.” And He promises to use everything in our lives to move us toward that goal.

 

Seasons

Michigan is one of the places in the world where we get four real seasons. When we lived in North Carolina people talked about having four seasons, but they really only had two-and-a-half (hot, sort of hot, and chilly). In Michigan the places we go in the summer look like a completely different place in the winter. It’s amazing how shorter days, cold weather, and snow can completely change a landscape. The exact same trail, beach, or field can look completely different.

There are seasons in our lives too. Although we remain the same people, when our circumstances and resources change, we can look very different. These new conditions call forth different parts of ourselves. There are seasons of planting and preparing (spring). There are seasons of growth and productivity (summer). There are seasons of reaping and contentment (fall). There are even seasons of stillness and rest (winter). It’s winter in Michigan. But what about you? What season are you in? And how is that season changing the landscape of your life?

Epiphany

At Ferrysburg Community Church, we’ve not traditionally done a lot with Epiphany. We mention Epiphany Sunday (yesterday) and sing some Epiphany songs. But other than that, not much. Epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “an appearing” or “a manifestation.” In the Greek language this word was sometimes used to describe the appearing of an enemy coming to attack. Epiphany was also used to describe the dawn – the appearing of the sun.

These are powerful pictures of Jesus being revealed to the world. Imagine the forces of of sin and death seeing Jesus appearing on a ridge, marching into battle. Picture Jesus, like the sun, breaking into the darkness with rays of light. As great as it is to celebrate the birth of Jesus, Epiphany marks the start of business time. As we live out the drama of Christ’s life, Epiphany is a time to remind us that Jesus has declared war on brokenness and sin. It’s on! Light has come!

The Ultimate New Year

New Year’s Day is a pretty simple, straightforward holiday. It’s not a celebration of a specific historical event. It’s not a religious or spiritual holiday. Therefore, we don’t have to protect it against commercialism or secularization. It’s just the first day of the next year. And yet there’s something powerfully refreshing and hopeful about New Year’s Day. There’s something about this day that helps us believe in better things, a different, improved future.

I think New Year’s Day connects deeply with our longing for newness. While the day provides very little in the way of actual newness, it points to a day when everything will be made new. A day is coming when all of creation – the earth, the social order, relationships, and even our bodies – will be made new. That, of course, is the day when Christ will come again. It is the day when heaven will come down to earth and make all things new. So if your resolutions seem unrealistic and impossible, know that God has made some resolutions through His Son Jesus Christ. These resolutions will not be broken. They will be fulfilled beyond anything we can imagine. That will be the ultimate New Year’s Day.

Two Things You Need for Christmas

There are a number of things that we believe we need for Christmas. These needs show up in our Christmas wish lists and hopefully under the tree. Maybe what you need is family around you or a specific set of circumstances. But Christmas in its simplest and most powerful form only requires two things.

The first thing is Jesus. That should be obvious. Christmas is the celebration of His birthday. He is the original Gift. But Jesus alone doesn’t make it Christmas. A second thing is needed: your attention. Space in your heart. Christmas is a re-enactment of sorts. We celebrate the birth of the Christ by re-living the drama of the original event. We become the stable, our hearts the manger. There’s no question that Jesus is present this Christmas. The question is whether we will be present to the miracle. Will we find the quiet space to behold Him as the newborn King? Will we give our attention to Jesus?

The Candle of Love

Love is the most written about, sung about, talked about thing in the world. The word itself could refer to hundreds of different realities, feelings, or actions. Even the Bible talks about love from several different perspectives. One biblical angle that has struck me recently is from 1 John 4: 18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

I think what John is saying is that when we live in God’s love, there is really nothing to be afraid of. If you are fired from your job, you don’t have to be afraid of losing your job anymore. If you’ve died to yourself and Christ lives in you, you don’t have to be afraid of dying anymore. When you’ve got all the love you need in Christ, you don’t have to fear losing it in your relationships with others. It’s hard for us to understand how perfectly and completely Jesus loves us. The more we understand it, the less afraid we become.

The Candle of Joy

This Sunday we will light the third candle of Advent – the candle of joy. Joy is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Yet I think we miss the great weight of this word. We easily mistake joy for happiness. If we feel happy or are excited about something, we call it joy. If there are some things happening that feel positive to us, we call our response joy. But what we are really talking about is happiness. Happiness rests on the circumstances and situations in our lives. Joy is anchored in something much deeper and much more solid.

It might help to think of this as two tracks that our lives run on. The first track runs according to what happens to us. It is made up of our health, the state of our marriage, the grades on our finals, and the speeding ticket we got. But the second track is not so much what happens to us, but rather what is true of us. This track is about who we are and to whom we belong. Joy is based on this second track. So while our circumstances will change, sometimes dramatically, our God and our identity do not. Happiness is fleeting. Joy is permanent. Happiness changes with the circumstance of our lives. Joy runs straight and true right through those circumstances. Joy is based on a Son who was born to us, a Son who died for us, a Son to whom we belong.

The Candle of Peace

Sometimes a word gets watered down to the point of losing its meaning. I think the word “peace” is a classic example of this. Maybe it got co-opted by the flower children in the 1960s. Maybe Ryan Seacrest stripped it of meaning by ending American Idol with “Peace out.” This word has come to mean something pretty ordinary. It means, “I hope things go well for you.” It means, “Our countries aren’t shooting at each other right now.” This is the peace that we’ve settled for: a decent set of personal circumstances or the absence of active combat.

But when the Bible talks about peace it means something totally different. On a personal level, it is a rock solid assurance that nothing can ever change the most important things in our lives. On a broader scale it refers to something greater than a cease-fire. It speaks of nations working together in trust and friendship and respect. This kind of peace is very rare. This is a peace only Jesus can bring. As we light the candle of peace this week, consider what a precious commodity peace is. Remember that it has a single source: the baby that was born on Christmas.

The Candle of Hope

It’s a busy week that lies before us. We will give thanks Wednesday night in church and on Thursday with our families. If you get into the Black Friday thing, you’ll be up early on Friday for that. After all of those festivities we will begin the Advent season on Sunday by lighting the candle of hope. Hope is a powerful thing. Hope will drive people to cross oceans to unknown worlds. Hope will pick a person back up after being knocked down for the hundredth time. Because of hope, people will put themselves and their bodies through excruciating pain. Hope sees past current struggles to a glorious day that lies in the future.

As we light this first candle of hope, we are connecting with God’s Old Testament people who longed for the coming of the Messiah. We connect with those who were in exile, away from their homeland. We connect with those longing for redemption, for a change of fortunes. As we light this candle, let’s call to mind all that we deeply long for. Let’s remember that we now have what so many hoped for. A day is coming for us when every longing will be met, a day when we will finally be home.

 

Christ the King Sunday

This coming Sunday has come to be known as “Christ the King Sunday” in liturgical churches. It is the last Sunday before the Advent season. Unlike many parts of the church year, Christ the King Sunday is relatively new. It was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. It was his response to two things that were happening in the world. First, life was growing more secular. More people were beginning to doubt the deity of Christ. This day was instituted to help restore people’s faith in in Christ as the Son of God. Second, dictatorships were on the rise in Europe. Several years later World War II would begin. Christ the King Sunday was a bold statement that Jesus was the true ruler of the world.

As we move toward this Sunday, Pope Pius XI’s observation remains valid. Secularism has continued to rise. There are tyrants in different parts of the world. Even our own politicians make grand claims. But Jesus stands above the fray, fully God and fully King of the world. With all the uncertainty in the world today, the reality that Christ is the King is something worth celebrating.