Invitation to Paradise

On the day that Jesus was crucified, he joined two criminals appropriately charged and sentenced to execution for the crimes they had committed. One of them saw their true self in the light of the righteous Savior hanging next to him. Humbly he cried out for Jesus to remember him.

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.” – Luke 23:43

Many people think they are not good enough to be in the presence of God for eternity. And even worse than that is that many people think they are good enough.  But the truth is that no one is! We have all sinned and by that fact alone, we fall far short of the glory of God.  (Romans 3:23)  We are all infected with the impurity of sin. (Isaiah 64:6)

But just like the criminal on the cross beside Jesus – we have been given a free gift of mercy that is not something we deserve. We have been given the amazing opportunity to be righteous through Jesus Christ.  We have been introduced to Jesus – and all we need to do is to cry out to him.  There is one way alone to be assured of eternal life. There is one way alone to know that when you face the final, unavoidable judgement, you will hear Jesus invite you to join him in paradise.

“The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart.” And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by confessing with your mouth that you are saved. As the Scriptures tell us, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced.” – Romans 10:8-11

And just like the criminal on the cross beside Jesus – our time is short.  We don’t have forever to acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

Impenetrable Shelter

“Those who live in the shelter of the Most High…” Live in the shelter.  Not like a storm shelter that you only go to when there’s an immediate threat, but an impenetrable shelter that you live in.

“If you make the Lord your refuge…”  God alone is where you turn for protection.  There’s no need for other escape routes.  There’s no need to hide yourself in places that don’t offer you a way out.

This I declare about the Lord:  He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God and I trust him.  Psalm 91:2

Fear is a very real feeling that tends to take over when it moves in.  It might start as a small weed that seems harmless, but in no time at all it will have grown into a troublesome plant that threatens the landscape of your life.  It’s a tool used by the devil that is fed by the very doubt it creates.

But God did not give us a spirit of fear!  (2 Timothy 1:7)  He has given us promise after promise of his unfailing love, his unending protection and his everlasting Salvation.

He will cover you with his feathers.  He will shelter you with his wings.  His faithful promises are your armor and protection.  Psalm 91:4

It is by living in the shelter of the Almighty God, and experiencing the security you feel when a storm is passing through your life, that you will conquer the fear that wants to control you!  It is by knowing his promises through regular time in his word that you can declare that you are not afraid!  It is by knowing God and calling on him alone that you can be assured of the most amazing outcome no matter what may be incoming!

One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Psalm 91.  I have prayed it back to God time and time again.  I have exclaimed it’s truth in the face of fear more times than I can count.  I have closed my eyes and pictured the wings of God sheltering my loved ones and me; and the angels in his charge guarding us.  And after the storm has blown over – I’ve turned around and seen in hindsight what my loving Father protected us from.

Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the Lord : He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him. – Psalms 91:1-2

He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection. – Psalms 91:4

If you make the Lord your refuge, if you make the Most High your shelter, no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home. For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go. They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone. – Psalms 91:9-12

The Lord says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name. When they call on me, I will answer; I will be with them in trouble. I will rescue and honor them. I will reward them with a long life and give them my salvation.” – Psalms 91:14-16 

Don’t take the bait

Fishing is quite the hobby.  Someone who’s into it will sit for hours upon hours, day after day throwing their baited hook into the water to catch a fish.  And the really avid fisherman will likely have a whole tackle box full of various baits – all different sizes, shapes and colors. 

They have a very specific way of doing things, too.  They will decide which type of fish they feel like fishing for.  They will decide where they want to fish – lake, river, stream, etc.  Then they will go through the detailed process of preparing their fishing rod.  They have to have the right strength fishing line to make sure it’s strong enough to hold the fish.  They need to have the right size hook to ensure when the fish grabs on it won’t be getting away.  And finally, they have to be sure to have the right bait.  That’s what will draw the fish in and get it to bite. 

I got to thinking that sometimes we’re like fish swimming around in this big world, and the devil is like a fisherman trying to get as many of us as he can into his boat.  Each of us will be drawn to a different sort of lure, but he’s got a massive tackle box – with every lure he needs at his disposal.  And if the first one he tries doesn’t work – he’ll reel in his line and try another one. 

Jesus warned that there will “always be temptation to sin.”  (Luke 17:1)  He spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan.  But he refused to bite!  Surrounded by the angels and armed with the Word of God – he refused to take the baits that the devil threw his way. 

Overcoming temptation is not easy.  Jesus was well aware of the struggles we would face, and he implored his disciples to “keep watch and pray” so that they would not succumb to temptation.  (Matthew 26:41)  The devil is not going to give up.  He will continue to bait his hook, cast his line and reel it back in until we finally bite – and then he will pull with all of his might to set the hook!

We must stay alert (1 Peter 5:8).  We must avoid the murky waters where Satan is dropping the bait specific to us.  And we must recognize temptations that come our way for exactly what they are – bait.  Then we need to remember who’s at the other end of that the line and swim away quickly.

Opportunity in persecution?

Jesus warned his followers of a time that would come when they would face persecution because of his name.  He warned them of a time to come when they would stand trial before kings and governors because they were his followers.  Then he told them why this would happen.

…But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me.  Luke 21:12

Had they not heard this from him in advance, they might not have stood strong through the persecution to come as so many of them did.  They might have cried out to God – afraid and confused – “Why?!?”  They might have expected Jesus to return right then to put an end to the evil that contributed to the way they and many future generations to come of Christians would be treated simply because they declared Jesus is God and emphatically proclaimed him as the only way to heaven.  But instead they knew through an abundance of faith that whatever it was they had to experience during their short stay on earth had a purpose in heaven. 

And Jesus also told them to “make up their mind beforehand not to worry” as he assured them that he would be right there with them, promising to give them the “right words and such wisdom” that no one opposing them would stand a chance.  (Luke 21:14 & 15)

Each of us here on earth will experience some level of persecution due to our faith.  In some cases it will even come from those closest to us.  In some places we will be hated simply because we are followers of Christ.  (Luke 21:16 & 17)  But we must stand strong and see these situations as opportunities to testify about our Savior.  Who he is.  What he did.  And what it means for those that believe. 

The promise Jesus offers provides eternal assurance:  But not a hair of your head will perish.  Stand firm, and you will win life.  Luke 21:18 & 19

Praise God!

Why do we praise God?  Is it because he needs it?  Does he need our praise, the praise of human beings that he created? Is it somehow meant to boost his ego or increase his confidence?  Hardly!  If we decide not to praise him, he’ll still be praised.  The heavenly beings are constantly praising him.  (Revelations 4:8) And when the religious leaders told Jesus to hush the praising crowds, he said:  “If they kept quiet, the stones along the road would burst into cheers.”  (Luke 19:40)

So why do we praise him?  I can think of a couple of reasons.  First of all, when we’ve accepted Christ as our Savior and the Holy Spirit moves in, we become humbly aware of how amazing God is, and our praise is the natural response.  Also – I think in making praise a regular part of our worship and time with God, we remind ourselves who God is.

When should we praise him?  Always!  How should we praise him?  In any way we can!

An obvious opportunity to praise God is collectively in worship at church.  This can be an amazing experience if you realize that as you are lifting your voice to God and are surrounded by Christian brothers and sisters also lifting their voice to God, you are joining a chorus being sung by the angels in heaven.  And the sounds of these praises are no doubt “music to God’s ears”.

But we can praise God wherever we are, even if it’s just us.  A great way to get the praise going is to listen to Christian music.  Some prefer hymns that have been sung for generations.  Others enjoy praise songs of today.  Personally, I enjoy a combination of both.  And if we want to dance and clap and have fun while we’re lifting our voice up to God – he won’t mind!  After all, King David danced before the Lord “with all his might”.  (2 Samuel 6:14)

Praising doesn’t have to be singing.  Another great way to get the praise going is to read the Psalms.  There are 150 of them, and many of them are whole chapters of praising God for who he is and what he’s done. Praising God is exclaiming his greatness, whether in song or not.

O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!  Your glory is higher than the heavens.  When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers – the moon and the stars you set in place – what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?  Yet you made them only a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.  You gave them charge with what you made, putting all things under their authority.  O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth.  Psalm 8

Come, everyone!  Clap your hands!  Shout to God with joyful praise!  For the Lord Most High is awesome.  He is the great King of all the earth.  Psalm 47

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name.  Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me.  Psalm 103

And hopefully once we get inspired, we will find words of praise of our own to offer up to God to praise him for who he is and what he’s done in our life.  And as we acknowledge how amazing he is, we’ll be more tuned into his greatness – and we’ll find ourselves praising him all the more!

Replacing cacophany with symphony

Cacophony – a harsh discordance of sound; a meaningless mixture of sounds. 

Not a word I use in a sentence very often.  I don’t even recall where I first heard it.  But I thought it was a neat word, and it stuck in my head.  Interestingly, the only time it really pops in my head is when I start to realize that the day-to-day craziness in my life has gotten in the way of my day-to-day connection with my Savior.  All that stuff I’m worried about in life has become a cacophony – and I need to get back to the symphony of life God’s way.

It can be a struggle not to let the “stuff” we are doing every day crowd out time spent in the Word or in prayer.  After all, much of what we’re setting out to accomplish is good and necessary.  Keeping a clean home.  Being a hard worker.  Raising kids.  Exercising.  But if we don’t make our relationship with Jesus our number one priority, we won’t even notice it fading away until suddenly we can barely make out the sound of it in the distance being drowned out by all the noise in our life.  It becomes harder and harder to hear the melody when you haven’t listened in a while.

If we want to keep making the beautiful music that we can make when we’re living in concert with God, we need to keep our eyes on the conductor.  We have to start every day in prayer, praising God for who he is and thanking him for all he’s done in our life.  We have to remain in prayer throughout our day, remembering that he is by our side and ready to join us in the concert of our life if we stop trying to be an orchestra of one and allow him to play his part.

And we can be assured that if we remain in the Lord’s orchestra, we will be appearing with Jesus at the final curtain call!

“Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.”  John 15:4

Create in me a clean heart, O God.  Renew a loyal spirit within me.  Psalm 51:10

Come close to God, and God will come close to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world.  James 4:8

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.  Psalm 119:11

Study this Book of Instruction continually.  Meditate on it day and night so you will be sure to obey everything written in it.  Only then will you prosper and succeed in all you do.  Joshua 1:8

It is good to proclaim your unfailing love in the morning, your faithfulness in the evening.  Psalm 92:2

It is useless for you to work so hard from early morning until late at night, anxiously working for food to eat; for God gives rest to his loved ones.  Psalm 127:2

Let me hear of your unfailing love each morning for I am trusting you.  Show me where to walk for I give myself to you.  Psalm 143:8

Our Shepherd

Once you were like sheep who wandered away.  But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls.  1 Peter 2:25

One of the ways that God uses to show us his tender love and care for us is to describe us as his sheep and him as our shepherd.  It’s a cool way to picture it.  Shepherds spend their days and their nights caring for their sheep.  They make sure they are well fed, have the shelter they need and are safe from threats.  When a sheep wanders, the shepherd goes after it. 

Psalm 23 paints a picture of this to show how much God loves those of us that have put our faith in him.  Explaining just how much we each mean to him, individually, just like every little sheep in the shepherds flock has value to the shepherd.

The Lord is my shepherd; I have all that I need.

He lets me rest in green meadows; he leads be beside peaceful streams.

He renews my strength.  He guides me along right paths, bringing honor to his name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me.  Your rod and your staff comfort me.

You prepare a feast for me in the presence of my enemies.  You honor me by anointing my head with oil.  My cup overflows with blessings.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.

And Jesus provided another analogy of how his love and care for us is like that of a good shepherd.

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep.  A hired hand will run when he sees a wolf coming.  He will abandon the sheep because they don’t belong to him and he isn’t their shepherd…I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me…They will listen to my voice, and there will be one flock with one shepherd.”  John 10:11-16

If we have accepted Jesus as our Savior – we have a Shepherd that is not only completely capable of taking care of all of our needs but also lovingly willing to sacrifice his life for us.  And if we follow him, he will lead us through the green meadows and the darkest valleys until he ultimately leads us home to be with him for eternity.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd.  He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart.  He will gently lead the mother sheep with her young.  Isaiah 40:11

O Lord, protect your people with your shepherd’s staff; lead your flock, your special possession.  Micah 7:14

On that day the Lord their God will rescue his people, just as a shepherd rescues his sheep.  They will sparkle in his land like jewels in a crown.  Zechariah 9:16

For the Lamb on the throne will be their Shepherd.  He will lead them to springs of life-giving water.  And God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Revelation 7:17