Well-rooted in the Word or Withered

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Luke 8:6, 13 “Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture….Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

You heard Jesus right. These are people who believe for a while (we are people who have believed for a while) but in a time of testing they fall away. Matthew’s gospel defines this testing a little further as trouble or persecution that comes because of God’s word. This is suffering because of what we believe. Others oppose our Christian faith.

This kind of testing is a universal Christian experience. In some places the testing is severe. You remember about four years ago when about 275 Christian girls were kidnapped from their school in northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, a Muslim terrorist group that opposes educating girls because it prevents them from adopting Islamic teaching as a way of life. All the girls were pressured to convert. Many were forced to marry. According to Boko Haram, as many as 90 have been martyred, and another 100 have converted to Islam.

For you and me, the testing has been more subtle. But the pressure is unrelenting. It is so much a part of the atmosphere in which we live that at times we may not even notice it. While canvassing one day, a woman in the neighborhood asked me what we believed. I wanted to talk about our need for repentance and Jesus’ redeeming work on the cross. She wanted to talk about same-sex marriage and paths to heaven outside of Christianity. She had grown up a Christian. But the spirit of the age in which we live had its way with her heart. She gave up not only a few isolated Christian doctrines. She gave up on Christianity altogether. And though she was polite, she made it clear there was something wrong with me for not “moving on” and letting go of what the Bible teaches.

Jesus never said that following him would be easy. He said, “Take up your cross.” It is easy to be a Christian when you are living in the joy of knowing God loves and forgives you, and when you are surrounded by people who share that faith and support it. That is God’s good seed at work in us. And we don’t have to lose that joy or surrender our faith when it comes under fire.

But we need roots in God’s word to go down deep, because Jesus did not come to bring peace but a sword, and he warns that in this world we will have much trouble, and that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. God’s word is a powerful seed, but we know it will be opposed by others.

God’s Word Snatched

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Luke 8:5, 11-12 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up….The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”

During archaeological excavations of Herod the Great’s palace on Masada in the mid-1960’s, a cache of Judean date palm seeds was discovered. The Judean date palm tree became extinct 800 years ago. For forty years this cache of seeds was stored at an Israeli university. In 2005 three of the seeds were planted, and one of them has grown into a tree that has been nicknamed “Methuselah.” The hope is that by the early 2020’s this tree can be crossbred with its nearest contemporary relative to produce fruit. After 2000 years this dry, hard, apparently lifeless piece of plant material has produced new life.

Seeds are little miracles of creation. Something that looks so simple, just a little ball of ordinary material to the naked eye, possesses the power to transform itself into a living thing thousands of times its size, complex in shape, beauty, and function. Seeds make a fitting picture for the word of God in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. Something that looks ordinary and small–just some words, a simple message–has the power transform itself into a new heart, a changed man, a life that never ends. But it doesn’t always turn out that way…

The first time the devil appears in the Bible, the first words out of his mouth are, “Did God really say…?” Since that time attacking God’s word has been central to his business. It’s no surprise, then, when Jesus explains the first part of his parable this way: “The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” The devil has ways of hardening the heart and snatching the word away before it can do any “damage.” He makes the word sound unreasonable. I mean, miracles and magic are fine for fairy tales. Prince Charming can kiss the princess and bring her back to life. But the dead leaving their graves and rejoining the living? Maybe in a horror flick. Grown ups don’t put stock in that kind of thing, do they?

Or, he pits the word against our personal experience. “Honor your father and mother.” Yeah right. Maybe in some 1950’s Leave-It-to-Beaver family. Dad was a workaholic, and mom was an alcoholic, and neither cared about anyone but themselves. “He will command his angels concerning you to keep you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.” So where were they when the car accident left me with chronic back pain, or robbed me of 80 percent use of my right hand?

Or he makes the word seem foolish and unappealing. “Blessed are the poor…those who mourn…the meek.” “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

By stirring up false human reasoning, flattering shallow human goodness, appealing to selfish ideas about “fairness,” inflating the idea that “I’m a good person–I deserve better,” the devil hardens human hearts and snatches God’s word away. He goes over the heart like a steam roller, making it hard to the idea that I am a sinner who needs God’s grace; or that there is such a thing as God; or that God is loving, forgiving, good, and kind. In this way the greatest gift ever given, Jesus’ selfless sacrifice on the cross, sits like seed on a concrete slab. It might be heard, but it won’t be considered or believed. Satan has effectively snatched the seed away.

This isn’t so much a description of you or me. If you are reading this, chances are you are a believer with a heart opened by God’s grace to what his word says. But next time you find your sharing of God’s word bouncing off someone’s heart and falling to the floor, remember Jesus’ picture.

Then remember that there is more to this story…

Prayer’s Concerns

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Daniel 9:19 “O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your name.”

Listening is an important part of our relationship with God, and there is nothing more important for us than to listen to him speak to us in his word. One thing he promises us there is that he will always listen to us. The Lord is the best listener there is! And when Daniel speaks to him, Daniel shows that he has learned to speak the Lord’s language: to pray about the things that especially concern the Lord.

“O Lord, forgive!” Daniel pleads. Does anything strike you as strange about that request? Other than Jesus, Daniel is one of the few characters in the Bible about whom we never hear anything negative. He was about as upright and godly a man as this earth has known. And yet, when you read this prayer in its entirety, and here as he concludes it, Daniel begs for God’s forgiveness again and again. In fact, the majority of his prayer is made of confession of sin and pleas for forgiveness.

Do you see why this is such a basic part of our life of prayer? It has been said that we live for the forgiveness of sins. As believers in Jesus, our relationship with God is not based upon our obedience to him. If it were, we would all be in trouble. Our whole relationship with God is based upon his forgiveness of our sins. If Jesus had not given his life on the cross in payment for our every sin, we would have no access to God. It is only that sacrifice that makes our relationship with God possible. Based on that forgiveness alone are any of our prayers are ever heard. God does forgive every sin for Jesus’ sake. He promises to do so. And thus forgiveness is the doorway through which we pass to bring every other request we make in prayer.

“O Lord, hear and act!” Daniel asks. Daniel understood what gives prayer its power. The words we speak do not have mystical, magical power of their own. We aren’t witches casting a spell. Rather, prayer invites God himself to take up our cause and to solve our problems or provide what we need. Sometimes, the Lord has been waiting for just such an invitation, even though he may have intended to help us all along. He is waiting for us to remember how much we need him before he himself gets involved.

And nothing in which he gets involved gives him greater pleasure than that which affects his own name and reputation. “For your sake, O Lord my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your name.” Daniel was an old man now. When the rest of his people returned to Jerusalem, he would not be making the trip. But since God had promised to bring his people home, and since God’s promise of a Savior relied upon God’s people getting back to the promised land, God’s own reputation was at stake. Daniel’s prayer wasn’t selfish. It was a prayer for the glory of God.

What do we pray about? We can pray about all our needs, but learning God’s language in prayer also involves learning to pray for God’s glory like Daniel did. In teaching us to pray this way, our heavenly Father is teaching us to better understand what it means to be members of his family. Then we will have something truly worth saying.

Prayer’s Object

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Daniel 9:4 “I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed, ‘O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands…’”

Daniel refers to the God to whom he was praying as the LORD. If you check in your Bible, this is spelled in all capital letters. This is the name by which God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush: the “I Am” God, “Jehovah” or “Yahweh” if taken letter by letter from the Hebrew.

This name was important for a couple of reasons. It was this name especially by which God distinguished himself from all the false gods. The God of the Bible has always insisted that he is the only God there is. Praying to any other god is a complete waste of time.

We might compare it to praying in Jesus’ name in our day. Since Jesus has come, we know that it is only through him that we know the true God. We even have his promise to give us what we ask in his name. When we pray to or through Jesus, we are praying to the only God there really is.

Now not every prayer has to include the letters J-E-S-U-S out loud to be “in his name.” But prayers which purposely exclude Jesus to avoid offense, or because they are offered by non-Christians, go nowhere. Offered to any other god, they are a complete waste of time.

Getting the object of our prayers, the true God, right was important for another reason. By his name the LORD God revealed some very important truths about what kind of a God he is. To put it in his own words, he is “The LORD, the LORD, the gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in love, forgiving wickedness, rebellion, and sin.” Knowing that he is a God of grace, compassion, forgiveness, and love, encourages us to come to him in prayer often.

So do Daniel’s descriptions of him. “O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands…” When we believe in God and go to him for help, we need to know that we are praying to more than some little sprite like the tooth fairy, who isn’t good for much more than a couple of quarters under the pillow. He is the great and awesome God who fills all things and holds all power. We can share the confidence of our children who have learned to sing, “My God is so great, so strong, and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.”

Then we can be sure that he is the God who “keeps his covenant of love,” the God who keeps all his promises. That was a special comfort for Daniel here. He was praying about the seemingly impossible return of his people to their homeland. Who was Israel now but a defeated little ethnic group without a country of their own? What favors could they expect from the great Persian Empire? But Daniel knew that God had promised through Jeremiah this would all end in 70 years. Daniel knew that our God keeps his promises.

Doesn’t that help to inspire our prayers? And doesn’t that encourage us to get to know more and more about the God to whom we pray, so that we can know his promises and be sure of his blessings?

Prayer’s Posture

Praying Kneeling

Daniel 9:3 “So I turned to the Lord and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.”

The way that Daniel describes his approach to God tells us something about his posture on the inside. Daniel came with a humble heart. He “turned to the Lord and pleaded.” In other words, Daniel realized his own talents and resources were not going to solve his problem. Daniel was confessing that he really needed God.

When we look at the wider context of Daniel’s problem, we might be tempted to say, “Well of course! Daniel was praying about the release of his entire nation from their 70-year exile in Babylon. There was no way this one man all by himself could do anything about that. He really did need God!”

But are we any less needy than Daniel, any less dependent on the Lord? Even the simplest and most commonplace details of our lives rely on him. We could not draw our very next breath without God’s help and blessing, much less accomplish anything else we ever do.

Perhaps we don’t like to regard ourselves so helpless and dependent, but this is what we are. Too often we set out on some project, great or small, thinking we can lick it all on our own. And sometimes in his grace the Lord lets us get away with this for a time. But we are deceiving ourselves and insulting God if we think we reach the goal alone. Daniel teaches us we need God, not just for a little help, but for every little detail that makes our lives possible.

Daniel expressed this kind of humility by his external posture, too. “I turned to the Lord and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth, and ashes.” Fasting, sackcloth, ashes–these were ancient ways of expressing great sadness and grief. Fasting–giving up food for a time–wasn’t practiced as a way to make God happy or to mystically get closer to him. It was a vivid way of saying, “I’m so upset or concerned about this that I don’t want to eat.” Sackcloth was a dark, rough and cheap cloth of such a poor quality and appearance that it almost wasn’t suitable to be worn. Wearing it was a way of saying, “I am so disturbed that I don’t even feel like getting dressed and making myself presentable today.” Ashes communicated a similar message.

Do these have any place in our prayer lives? Here we need to be careful. Americans are very hungry for spiritual experiences. They have become bored with the gospel of God’s love in Jesus, and so have gone looking for others ways to “experience” God. Some have latched on to fasting as a mystical way to get closer to God. It often loses its character as a heartfelt expression of sorrow over sin, the way God’s people used it in the Bible.

But we would be just as mistaken to dismiss these things altogether. We are not bound to fasting, sackcloth, and ashes, but they remind us our body language still reveals something about the attitude with which we pray. It can be used as a teaching tool, too. Look at the practices with which we are more familiar. When we fold our hands, we are confessing our helplessness and our need to God. It’s not these hands which will ultimately solve our problems. When we bow our heads, we are humbling ourselves as we come to God, recognizing that we are sinful and unworthy, and he is great and gracious. This is perhaps impressed upon us, or expressed by us, even more when we do something that seems to be increasingly rare–literally get down on our knees before God when we pray.

These postures also express something about our regard for the God to whom we pray. He is the God of grace. He taught us to trust him for the entirety of our salvation. He has taken care of dealing with our sins from beginning to end. We made no contribution to Jesus work at the cross other than the sins for which he suffered. We make no payment to receive his forgiveness today. All is done.

Likewise, we can trust him that he doesn’t need our help with the daily crises we face. That’s not to say we become passive in addressing them. It is to say we trust the Lord who loves us fully to handle today’s urgent need.

Is our posture in prayer simply a matter of habit, or a sincere demonstration of the attitude of our hearts? Daniel teaches us that prayer’s posture is another way we talk to God.

Christ’s Ambassadors

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2 Corinthians 5:20 “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

An ambassador is not an entrepreneur. He is not self-employed or self-appointed. He serves under the authority, and acts by the authority, of someone else. So it is with Christ’s ambassadors. As ambassadors of Christ, we serve on his behalf, under his authority. Perhaps that seems obvious. Whom else might we look to as our authority? Our churches? Our communities? Ourselves?

It is true that we serve our Christian brothers and sisters in the faith. We should receive their advice and counsel and work together with them as a team, even receive their loving rebuke if called for. But we are Christ’s ambassador. We work for him, because he is our authority.

Nor is our authority those people Christ calls us to reach. In order to reach them we need to get to know them, immerse ourselves in their culture, and build bridges with them so that we clearly communicate the gospel.

But it would be strange, wouldn’t it, if the U.S. Ambassador to China began to support and promote the positions of the government of the People’s Republic of China instead of the United States? Isn’t that backwards? Doesn’t that make the ambassador more or less useless? In the same way we can never win the lost by adopting their lost positions. Then they have won us. Live with the people God has placed in your path. Learn from them. Love them. But don’t forget that you are Christ’s Ambassador to them, and he is your authority.

As ambassadors, what is the message Christ wants us to deliver? “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.”

Paul’s own delivery of the message was filled with urgency. “We implore you,” he says. He is pleading, begging. That’s because the gospel we’ve been given is not just information. We aren’t reciting a list of neutral facts, like a person reading definitions out of a dictionary. We are all about the greatest issue of all time. The eternal future of the people who hear us hangs in the balance. The message we have been given is more than a matter of life or death. It is a matter of heaven or hell.

Deliver that message with passion. Urge people. Plead with them. Implore. Assert. Let them see that it is your cause. I’m not suggesting that we need to take on a different personality when we talk to others about Jesus. Urgency can be communicated in a low-key way, too. But since we are Christ’s Ambassador, let his message be our cause.

When we consider its contents– Jesus’ gracious work for us– can it be anything else? “Be reconciled to God.” If those words were a command to us to make amends for our past and convince God to take us back, they would be depressing. Who would be equal to such a task? We would all remain his enemies.

But these words communicate something real, accomplished, and available, not just possible or potential. They assume Jesus’ saving work just verses before, “…that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.” Being reconciled to God is not about us convincing him to change his mind about us. It is about Jesus giving us a new status, a new identity before God. The very Son of God loved us so much he gave up heaven to become one of us and live in our world. He gave up his own life to pay for the sins that we have committed. Our sins no longer count against us. With our sins forgiven, God has nothing left to be angry about. He hasn’t changed. He never does. But Jesus’ work changes how we look to him. God is smiling on us because we look sinless to him now.

Someplace in his introduction to The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis writes that he was not gifted with extraordinary insights into human sin and temptation when he wrote about them, as some people assumed from the book. He needed to look no further than his own heart for examples. On the gospel side, the more that our own hearts have seen Christ’s work, have tasted the sweet peace of reconciliation with God, the better ambassadors we will be of the message he wants proclaimed.

I once heard about a church whose motto was, “We’re all about the people.” I don’t want to be hypercritical. The motto could be understood in a proper way. But isn’t there something more important that we are all about? We’re all about the Savior. And we will continue to be, so long as we are Christ’s Ambassadors.

Lean on Him

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Proverbs 3:5 “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.”

Do you ever find what you think and what God says going in opposite directions? Sometimes we look at God’s way and think to ourselves, “That’s not going to work.”  Bible history is filled with examples: the people who lived in Noah’s neighborhood while he was building the ark; the children of Israel waiting on the shores of the Red Sea; the people of Jericho while the children of Israel were marching around their city walls each day; Jesus’ own disciples just before he took five little loaves of bread and two small fishes and started passing them out to over 5000 people. But God’s way does work, doesn’t it, even when it seems to defy our common sense.

Sometimes we want what we want so badly that we tell ourselves, “It won’t hurt anything,” even when God warns us not to. Again, the Bible is full of examples: Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit; Lot’s wife turning around to take a look back at Sodom and Gomorrah; Israel worshiping the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai; David committing adultery with Bathsheba. But ignoring God’s warnings always has consequences. We lose his blessings and invite his judgment– not just now, but forever.

This “Trust in the Lord” approach, then, will be tested in our own lives in many ways. If a financial crisis strikes, will you lean on your own understanding and give in to worry, or will you trust in the Lord and his promise to provide your daily bread? As you arrange your priorities, will you lean on your own understanding and arrange your life to maximize your personal comfort and enjoyment, or will you trust in the Lord and put him first in how you budget your time and other resources? As you raise your children will you lean on the understanding of so many others that the best thing you can give them is every toy and gadget that comes along, participation in all the music or athletics they could ever want? Or will you trust in the Lord and make sure they receive God’s word above all else, and loving, godly discipline next to that?

The Lord has earned our trust in all these little details of our lives by his handling of the one great issue we had. If we were to lean on our own understanding in dealing with our sin, we would try to pay for it ourselves. We would try to earn God’s love and acceptance. And we would fail. But the Lord has that covered for us, too. Who would have thought of asking God to save us from the sins we had committed against him himself? But that is just what he has done. Who would have thought of asking God to sacrifice the only Son he had to pay for those sins? But that is what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross. Who would have thought of asking God to make forgiveness and eternal life a free gift? But that is just the gift he has given to us.

The gift of God’s Son inspires us to trust in the Lord with all our heart, and lean on him, not just with our soul’s salvation, but in all the little details of life as well.

Ready to Answer

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1 Peter 3:15 “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”

What our translation calls an “answer” is literally a “defense.” Peter was writing for people whose faith regularly came under attack in the form of persecution. When people asked them about their faith, it was often to challenge them, ridicule them, or condemn them. Peter wanted them to be ready with a defense of their beliefs when such times came.

We may not face the same kind of hostility when we share our faith today. People who ask us what we believe may not be looking to put us down or contradict our position. But every presentation of Bible truth still has a certain defensive characteristic, even if I’m simply telling someone the story about Jesus for the first time.

You see, every one of us, Christians included, is a skeptic at heart. By nature we can’t and don’t believe what God has to say about salvation. It seems unreasonable, foolish, impossible. Remember what Paul told the Corinthians? “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Though you have the Spirit, don’t you find a voice inside of you still questioning much of what God has to say? “How can that be?” “That doesn’t make sense.” Or “Why should I care?” “What difference does it really make?” “That doesn’t seem very important.”

When I write my sermons and prepare my Bible classes, I write with the skeptic in mind. I need look no further than my own perverse heart to find the challenges to God’s commands and God’s promises that haunt every human heart. I need look no further than God’s word to find the answer to, the defense for, those challenges.

If you are a Christian, you are going to have opportunities to defend your beliefs. Be ready to answer the questions that come your way. I probably don’t have to tell you that. In my life I have had real opportunities to explain my beliefs on the swing set and in the sandbox in the backyard of the home in which I grew up, while assembling doors for electrical enclosures during my college years, talking with the person sitting next to me on the airplane, mingling with the customers at my wife’s garage sales, watching my children take swimming lessons, sitting in the waiting room while my son was undergoing surgery, riding in golf carts, attending wedding receptions. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences.

How can you be ready to answer the challenge of witnessing in those situations? “Always be prepared,” Peter urges. Know your Scriptures. Study them. Think about what they mean to you. And don’t be afraid to say what you know.

Even more, live in the gospel. Read and think about God’s grace in Christ often. Know that you are forgiven. Meditate on it. Nothing so changes our hearts and fills them with fresh expressions of God’s powerful love than the words that claim us as his children, assure us of our salvation, and tell the story of Jesus and his love. Then, “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).”

I’m not a particularly quick wit. Snappy comebacks are not my strength. Sometimes I’ll think of a great comeback hours later, and all I can do is hope I’ll remember it if ever the chance to use it comes again.

Don’t rely on quick wits when it comes to the challenge of witnessing for Jesus. Give Jesus first place in your heart. Give his word first place in your mind and thoughts. Then you’ll be ready to tell others about your hope.

Set Christ Apart

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1 Peter 3:15 “But in your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord.”

What does it mean to set Jesus apart as Lord? The word “set apart” is the same word we often translate “make holy” or “sanctify.” When God sanctifies us, he lifts us up above the rest of the world and gives us a privileged position in his family. We are no longer ordinary, just another face in the crowd, part of a mass of sinful humanity for which he has little use. By the forgiveness of sins we are holy and perfect. By the faith he plants in our hearts we become eminently useful to him. He treats us as dear children and an indispensable part of his plan to save the world.

Of course, we can’t make Jesus any holier than he already is. But just as he has lifted us up to a special place and value in his heart, we can give him a special place in our hearts. We can lift him above all our selfish goals and plans. We can lift him above our investments, bank accounts, and tax sheltered annuities. We can lift him above our dream homes, our fancy vacations, and our 32-valve, leather-trimmed, high-performance vehicles. We can lift him above the manager we kiss-up to, the buddies we hang out with, the children and grandchildren we dote upon. We can set Jesus apart, set him above it all, by giving him first place in our hearts.

The position Jesus then occupies in our hearts is the position of Lord. Now a Lord has two things: authority and power. Our Lord has the authority to set the standard for us. He calls the shots. He makes the rules. With his authority our Lord describes for us what a Christian life will look like. Regardless of your personal gifts, it will look a lot like love, kindness, compassion, humility, and gentleness.

Our Lord also has the power to turn this kind of life into a life of witness for him. Now if he were an earthly Lord or master, that power would come from the outside in the form of threats and force. But Christ is the Lord of our hearts. It was his love that won control of our hearts, and it is that same love that puts the gas in our engine, the wind in our sails, and gives us the power to live in a way that gives a good witness.

At this point someone might ask, “But didn’t Jesus become the Lord of our hearts when we came to faith? Why make the command now?” It is true that he became our Lord when we came to faith in him as our Savior. But each of us also knows that there are ever-present challengers to him for first place in our lives. Nothing wrestles him for first place in my life harder than my own sinful nature.

That means that every day I need to repent and in my heart set apart Christ as Lord. Every day I need to hear a healthy dose of his love and forgiveness by which he made himself Lord of my heart in the first place. Every day I need to have the cross lifted before my eyes, and the hope of the empty tomb, and the power of Jesus’ ascension, so that my heart will be ready to live for him, and be an ambassador for him to others.