Advent Devotional: Day 11

Advent 2021
Day 11: Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Opening Prayer

“Almighty God, who in thy providence hast made all ages a preparation for the kingdom of thy Son: We beseech thee to make ready our hearts for the brightness of thy glory and the fulness of thy blessing in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Methodist Book of Worship, 1965)

Scripture Reading

Revelation 1:17-2:7

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

“To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.

Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.

The Great Tradition

“You have sinned, yet you still can be reconciled. You have someone to whom you can make satisfaction, yes, and one who wills it. If you doubt that this is true, consider what the Spirit says to the churches. He charges the Ephesians with “having abandoned charity.” He reproaches the Thyatirenes with fornication and “eating food sacrificed to idols.” He accuses the Sardians of “works that are not complete.”8 He censures the people of Pergamos for teaching false doctrines. He upbraids the Laodiceans for “placing their trust in riches.”10 And yet he warns them all to repent—even adding threats. But he would not threaten the impenitent if he failed to pardon the penitent.” (Tertullian)

Prayer of Confession

“It shames us to admit to you, compassionate God, our many sins and shortcomings that prevent us from living in covenant with you. We are truly sorry for these, and ask for your mercy, your forgiveness, your grace, and your Spirit to cleanse and purify us. Make us ready for the new life that results whenever you come. In the spirit of advent and the name of the coming Christ we pray. Amen.” Paul Laughlin

Reflection

I like the words from Tertullian in today’s reading from The Great Tradition. He writes, “But [Jesus] would not threaten the impenitent if he failed to pardon the penitent.” In other words, our Lord Jesus would not call his bride, the church, to repent if he did not love her and desire to forgive her. In our day, we do not tend to receive a call to repentance as an act of love, but of judgment. Yet Christians understand (or, ought to understand) that it is because we are loved that we are called to repent, to turn away from the wrong path and return to the right one. Such was the case with the church at Ephesus.

Jesus began by telling the Ephesians that he had seen their good works and knew they had persevered when it wasn’t easy to do so. They did not put up with wickedness and, furthermore, weeded out false teachers who were leading people astray. He said, “You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary” (vv. 2-4). Can you even dream of being commended for your faithfulness by our Lord? I cannot imagine being able to stand under the weight of awe I would feel hearing such words. Thoughts and feelings of unworthiness would flood my soul. Yet here is our Lord doing just that, extolling the Ephesians for their good works. But he wasn’t done addressing them.

He next revealed that they should not be resting on their laurels, for he was not pleased with a great shortcoming of theirs. He said in verses 4-5, “You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen!” Going through the motions of mere religion is not the same thing as enjoying the union of a deep relationship with Christ and bearing its fruit. Orthodox belief and pharisaical obedience are not the same thing as loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. But please don’t misunderstand – believing right things about Jesus is crucial and obedience to him is absolutely vital. But the former ought to lead to greater and deeper love for Christ while the latter should be the result of that loving relationship. The Ephesians, it appears, had drifted from the foundational love for Christ they once had. Furthermore, it was negatively impacting the way they were treating one another. To this, Jesus commanded, “Repent!”

Do you have ears to hear when Jesus addresses you like that? Being able to receive such a rebuke from Jesus is painful. When his Holy Spirit brings conviction for sin in my life, I feel like curling up in a corner, the grief is so strong. Yet it’s a life-giving word and we are all the better for hearing it and responding as the Spirit of the risen Lord commands. To those who are obedient to the words of Jesus, he proclaims, “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (v. 7). It is Jesus who saves us through his death and resurrection. Moreover, there is no repentance possible if his Spirit is not animating our thoughts, words, and deeds. And still, the fruit of saving faith is manifested in and through the good works for which we were graciously and lovingly created (Ephesians 2:10). Therefore, such works are expected by his covenant children, the church.

Walking Points

  • How do you think you would react if Jesus commended you for your faithfulness? What emotions would you experience?
  • How do you usually respond to Christ’s call in your life to repent of your sinful thoughts, words, deeds, desires, and attitudes? Is there a pattern of stages you go through? Explain.
  • How can you continue to grow in your love for Christ so that it doesn’t become stale and stagnant? Share your thoughts with a friend and pray for one another.

Practical Atheism

Romans 1:21 -For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Militant Atheism

Much has been made over the last few years regarding the emergence of militant atheism’s evangelistic crusade to rid the world of ignorance. Specifically, these crusaders want to enlighten the minds of the masses who still believe God exists. For these spokesmen for atheism, belief in God is intellectually unsustainable and should by all means be abandoned. Not only that, these atheistic evangelists believe a person’s commitment to belief in God is actually harmful to children as well as to civilization as a whole.

Thankfully, their charges have been sufficiently answered at every turn by faithful Christian apologists. The atheists are getting all the press, but their arguments are unable to stand up to the Light of Truth.

A More Dangerous Breed of Atheism

Yet there is a more prevalent form of atheism that lurks in our land. Indeed, it can even be found in the church. It is what Cornelius Van Til called, “practical atheism.” A practical atheist is a person who professes to believe in God, and yet the God whose existence is professed does not seem to make any meaningful difference in that person’s daily life. His beliefs, values, morals, and actions are not prioritized by his supposed belief in God’s existence. Put another way: If this person was to wake up one day and decide he no longer believed in the existence of God, his life would change very little. This is practical atheism.

In Romans 1:21, Paul describes the person who has suppressed the truth he knows about God. Paul says that, in truth, all people know God exists. In fact, they even know things about his power and majesty. Yet, in order to maintain a certain way of living, they alter their belief system to accommodate their lifestyle. Like the hard atheist who formally declares there is no God, practical atheists deny God by the way in which they live their lives. Paul teaches us that “although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him…”

God at the Center

We glorify God when we seek to live purposefully and intentionally for him each day. We glorify God when we live to please, honor, obey, love, represent, bear witness to, and imitate him. That’s what a God-glorifying, God-informed life looks like. It’s also a life that is grateful to God for his goodness. This is more than tossing out a “thank you” every now and then at the beginning of a meal. Instead, it’s more of an all-encompassing attitude of gratitude. It becomes pervasive in one’s personality. This attitude glorifies God because it exalts God as the One who is worthy of such affection and appreciation.

How are you doing with this? Are you seeking to glorify God and be thankful to him in all things? Of course, none of us is perfect at this. We can all get fairly self-absorbed and self-centered in the goings on of our lives. We all, from time to time, become too preoccupied with lesser interests.

Yet the One who should be our greatest interest has told us we are to have no other gods before him. We are called to seek him first and foremost. We are instructed and encouraged to be holy because God is holy. His existence, in other words, should play a profound role in the lives of those who profess to believe in and follow him. He should be our ultimate influence and his influence should saturate every sphere of our lives, for his glory and our good.

Walking Points

  • What are some of the ways you have observed people “suppressing the truth they know about God.” Why do you think they do so?
  • Have you found yourself doing the same – living throughout the day, making decisions, and behaving with little or no reference to God?
  • What are some ways you can more intentionally live for God each day?
  • Talk to a trusted Christian friend about this devotion, brainstorm together, and then hold one another accountable.

Prayer

Heavenly Father, the whole of creation testifies to your existence. It’s truly amazing what we have to go through to deny that you are there and are not silent. And yet, you are the God who is not to be merely believed in. Instead, you are the Triune, personal God who calls us into a relationship with yourself. You first loved us, not because we were so good, but because you are. You are our loving Father who is worthy of our love and devotion. Indeed, to know and love you is to seek to become increasingly like you and obey your commands. In my own strength I will fall short of this. Therefore, loving Father, I humbly ask you to please fill me with your Holy Spirit and spur me on to greater and greater love for you. And, I pray, this love for you will influence every sphere of my life so that, one day, my whole life will be a shining testimony of your glory. In Christ I pray. Amen.

Faithful Discipleship

Southside’s Mission

Before I arrived at the church I presently serve, a vision committee was formed to prayerfully study, discuss, and articulate our church’s mission. They were then tasked with writing a mission statement based on their effort. The statement declared Southside United Methodist Church’s mission was to,

Build the Family of God into Faithful Disciples of Jesus Christ.

The committee also wanted to make sure Southside was not just another church with just another mission statement. They wanted to make the mission statement an ongoing reality. With that in mind, the church put together a search committee assigned with the purpose of finding someone whose ministry would focus on helping to build the family of God at Southside into faithful disciples of Jesus Christ.

In doing this they were showing how seriously they took the familiar words of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, what we call the Great Commission. There Jesus said,

Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

By God’s grace, at least from my perspective, I was hired as Southside’s Minister of Discipleship. The idea and goal of discipleship is vital to the life of Christ’s Church. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t thank the Lord for putting the burden of discipleship on my heart and allowing me to serve with the congregation at Southside.

Making Disciples

Can any church faithfully live out its calling and mission if making disciples of Jesus Christ is not a priority? That question raises an even more fundamental question: What exactly is a disciple? After all, you can be a disciple of practically anything or anyone. Therefore, what defines a disciple of Jesus Christ is the question before us.

To help us unpack what a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ looks like, we’re going to take a look at Matthew 7:24-27.

The Sermon

Our text comes at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. For three chapters Jesus taught what has sometimes been called, “The norms of the Kingdom.” In these three chapters our Lord focused on what our character and conduct should look like if we would be faithful citizens of his Kingdom.  

Jesus concluded his remarks in the Sermon by saying in Matthew 7:24,

Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine…”

What “words” was he talking about? He was referring to the words he had been preaching throughout the Sermon on the Mount. Those “words” of Jesus are important in helping us understand what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.

The message of the Sermon on the Mount is powerful, convicting, and even devastating. But someone may well ask whether Jesus’ message can really be relevant to us, some 2,000 years later. Here is a small sampling of what Jesus taught in the Sermon, to help answer that question.

In chapters 5, 6, and 7 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ words focus on:

  • Our character
  • God’s blessings
  • How to influence others
  • God’s Law
  • The righteousness God expects from us
  • Murder
  • Anger
  • Hate
  • Reconciliation
  • Adultery
  • Lust
  • Divorce
  • Taking oaths
  • Truth telling
  • Revenge
  • Going the extra mile for another person
  • Loving your enemies
  • Giving to the needy
  • How to pray
  • The Lord’s Prayer
  • How to fast
  • Humility
  • Treasures in heaven vs. treasures on earth
  • Putting God first
  • Priorities
  • Worry
  • God’s provision for your family
  • God’s Kingdom
  • Judging others
  • Hypocrisy
  • Persistence in prayer
  • God’s goodness to his children
  • How to enter into heaven
  • True and false prophets and how to tell the difference between them
  • The right foundation for building your life

That is a pretty contemporary and relevant list.

A Tale of Two Builders

To bring his teaching to life and emphasize what it means to be a faithful disciple, Jesus told his listeners a story about two builders, one he called wise, and the other, foolish.

There is one part of this familiar story that may be easy to miss. In this story, Jesus was not comparing and contrasting a “Church-goer” from a “non-Church-goer.” He was not comparing and contrasting a committed Christian and an outspoken pagan who had never darkened the door of a church.

If that was the case, we might all breathe a collective sigh of relief, as if to say, “Whew, at least he’s not talking about me.”

In this parable Jesus focused his attention on two different kinds of people who, for all practical purposes, looked just alike in almost every way. To put it in our own language, we might say both people went to church. Both could recite the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer from memory. Both could sing every verse of every hymn. And both sat and listened to every word of the sermon.

Jesus’ point was that both houses the builders built looked identical, with this crucial exception: The foundations were completely different. One builder searched, found, and labored to build his house on a firm foundation of rock. The other took the path of least resistance and built his house in any old place, in this case, on nothing but sand.

Put Into Practice

What does the foundation of each builder represent? Jesus said the foundation signifies the words Jesus taught. Both people heard Jesus. According to Jesus, what made a person wise or foolish was what he did with those words. Only one builder put those words into practice. Jesus called that person wise. The other builder also heard the words of Jesus. However, he ignored them. Jesus called him foolish.

James, the brother of our Lord, must have paid attention to what Jesus was saying here because he wrote these words in James 1:22-25,

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. [23] Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror [24] and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. [25] But the man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it–he will be blessed in what he does.

The word to describe what Jesus was talking about is obedience. A faithful disciple is the follower of Jesus who hears his words and obeys them, puts them into practice. That is faithful discipleship.

This emphasis is found in the Old Testament as well. God gave the same message through his prophet, Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 33:31-32, we read,

My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice. With their mouths they express devotion, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. [32] Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice.

God’s Word isn’t just to be admired, but obeyed. A number of years ago the men’s ministry at my church studied a book entitled, Point Man by Steve Farrar. It focused on helping Christian men live as the godly husbands, fathers, workers, and churchmen God desires. One of the chapters spoke to our need to study and obey Scripture. Farrar wrote,

“The Enemy does not mind if you revere the Bible, just as long as you don’t feed from it.”

He continued,

“The danger in the Christian life comes when I listen to a sermon or go to a Christian seminar or listen to a series of teaching tapes without applying the truth I hear to my life.”

He concluded this thought with these words,

“In the Christian life the opposite of ignorance is not knowledge, but obedience. God does not want to take a new Christian and move him from ignorance to knowledge. He wants to move him from ignorance to knowledge to obedience.”

Information for Transformation

From ignorance to knowledge to obedience. That is an essential element to faithful discipleship. God does not want men to read or study the Bible purely for informational purposes, but for transformation. To be sure, we must know and understand what the Bible says before we can put it into practice. But faithful disciples of Jesus Christ do not simply “collect” Bible-information so they can win Bible-trivia contests. They read and obey God’s Word so they can meet with God and be transformed by him.

My First Time with the Sermon

Have you ever read the Sermon on the Mount? I remember what I experienced when I finally started getting what Jesus was talking about. I felt despair. I felt so because in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said things like,

Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (5:19)

“Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (5:20)

“I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (5:22)

“Anyone who looks at a woman (or man) lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (5:28)

“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away…If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (5:29-30)

That’s just from the first half of chapter 5. It is those words, and others like them, that we are actually commanded to read, study, and put into practice. That is why I felt despair and guilt the first time I really started understanding what Jesus was talking about.

The Point of Those Words

And that’s the point. Those feelings of despair, guilt, and hopelessness are there to drive us to the Cross of Christ. They are meant to move us to God’s gracious provision in the person and work of his Son, Jesus Christ. Only Jesus perfectly practiced those words. That is why he was the only acceptable sacrifice on our behalf.

We are saved only when we place our trust in Christ alone and love him as our Savior, Lord, and all-sufficient Treasure. He is the pearl of great price.

We must indeed strive to increasingly grow more obedient to God’s Word. It is how we glorify God and become more like Christ. Like the wise builder, we must build a strong foundation by putting our Lord’s words into practice.

Yet we do not obey Jesus in order to save ourselves by our own good works. Instead, a faithful disciple seeks to obey Jesus because he has already been saved by God’s grace. Our obedience, while required in a qualified sense, is evidence of a grateful and loving heart.

That is how faithful disciples show Jesus and the world they love him. By obeying him, they will bear much good and lasting fruit. Jesus said in John 14:15,

If you love me, you will obey what I command.

And in John 14:21, our Lord taught,

Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.

That is what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God who gives us eyes to see and ears to hear.

Walking Points

  • Have you ever read the Sermon on the Mount? If so, what did you think? What parts are you drawn to? What parts scare you?
  • What part is the hardest for you to put into practice? Why?
  • If you haven’t read it, take time now to do so. You will find it in Matthew 5-7. Ask God to reveal to you what it would look like in your life to obey what you’re reading. Then, ask for God’s Spirit to enable you to do so.