December 4, 2018 By Faith, Jesus was Born of Mary-Matthew 1:18-25

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Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14) (which means, God with us).

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV)

We share a common ground with Mary. Like her, we are saints.  Like her, we are sinners.  Like her, we have our life and being and our salvation in Jesus, our Savior. Mary is indeed blessed among women, because God chose her for a very special as well as a very daunting mission.  She is not immaculate, nor is she the co-redemptrix with God. She is a human being like us.  She is a human being through whom God worked.

By faith she received the gift of Jesus as not only her Savior, but also her firstborn son. By faith, Jesus, became fully human, as well as fully God. He shares His humanity with us.  The only difference is that Jesus alone of all humans is free from the curse of sin.

We learn from Scripture that we, like Mary and all of the saints who have gone before us, are saved by faith- not by what we do or even by who we are, but by faith in God.

God promised Abraham that he would be the father of countless generations. Mary acknowledges in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that in Christ the promise of Abraham is fulfilled.

God has a history of working in and through His people. He even chose to do His greatest work- the bodily incarnation and sacrifice of Jesus- through human flesh.

We have to wonder about the faith of Joseph as well. Certainly he may have faced accusations from the family or the community that either Mary or both of them had engaged in immoral behavior. It’s understandable that it would take an angel of God to convince him of what in every other situation would be a biological impossibility- a virgin carrying a child.  God made a way for him to believe, and worked in him the faith necessary for him to trust God and trust that Mary’s child was indeed the Son of God.

In Christ we are given the gift of faith. We are given the gift of God’s faith at work in and through the saints, like Mary, whose faith in Jesus was her righteousness.

God provided the lamb for Abraham, and God provides the Lamb for us. In Jesus we have God-with-us. We cannot come to faith in and of our own reason or power. God works great and wonderful gifts in and through the faith He gives us.

November 7, 2018 The Undeserved Faithfulness of God- Psalm 36, Hebrews 11:1-3

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Transgression speaks to the wicked deep in his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit; he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
He plots trouble while on his bed; he sets himself in a way that is not good; he does not reject evil.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mountains of God; your judgments are like the great deep; man and beast you save, O Lord.

 How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light.

 Oh, continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your righteousness to the upright of heart! Let not the foot of arrogance come upon me, nor the hand of the wicked drive me away.
There the evildoers lie fallen; they are thrust down, unable to rise. Psalm 36 (ESV)

King David wrote many of the Psalms, including Psalm 36. We see the concept of simul Justus et peccator (we are saints and sinners at the same time) lived out in David’s life as well as it is spelled out beautifully in this Psalm.  We are wicked transgressors- blatant sinners- who do not fear God. We flatter ourselves and we make excuses for and cover up our sins.  We like to think we are OK because, “well I didn’t do what THAT guy did,” even though in reality we are just as bad if not worse than those we disdain. We are all prone to gossip and slander. We wish evil on our enemies, and we openly plot revenge on those who do us wrong.  Save by the mercy and love of Jesus we have absolutely nothing good or worthy about us.

God on the other hand, keeps His end of the covenant, His promise to Abraham and his descendents, (and we are descendents of Abraham by faith in Christ) even though we are not capable of believing and trusting God in our own strength. In our baptism, in the preaching of God’s Word, and at the communion table, through these means of grace, God gives us the gift of faith. The completed work of Jesus on the Cross is redemption, deliverance and restoration, not just of His people, but of creation itself. We can’t trust our own fickle and often evil hearts, but we can trust that God is faithful to His promises.

God has made Himself our refuge, our safe place. Apart from God there is no rest, no safety, no provision, no hope and no light.  By faith we trust that God provides for all of our needs.  We trust that He loves us and that He will not forget us- even though we do not and cannot earn or deserve His grace.

We pray that God would transform our hearts. We pray that we would live in humility, knowing that anything good is a gift from God alone.  We pray that God would spread around the good news of Jesus in and through us, even though we wrestle with the saint/sinner paradox (see Romans 7) every day of our lives this side of eternity.

We also pray that God would restrain evil- that we would not be the ones spreading evil around, and that those who are working evil in the world would be stopped in their tracks.

We learn in this Psalm that God is our refuge. Jesus laid down His life for us as a perfect sacrifice (Isaiah 53:1-5) so that our sins are forgiven, and when God looks at us He sees only Jesus.  Even though we are born with evil and death all over us, through the gift of faith in Jesus and His death on the Cross to save us from our sins, we belong to God, made descendents of Abraham and inheritors of the covenant of faith that God made with Abraham.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation.  By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. Hebrews 11:1-3 (ESV)

 

August 28, 2018 -The Curse…and the Blessing, by Faith -Galatians 3:10-14, Romans 4:13,2 Corinthians 5:21

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For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Galatians 3:10-14 (ESV).

“Through Christ death has lost her sting. Christ is the death of death.”– Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 1535

One of the primary teachings of the Protestant Reformation is sola fide, or Faith Alone. This is important to remember because even today we as Christians are tempted to think we can earn brownie points and follow the rules to justify ourselves.  Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians because there were teachers called Judaizers who were trying to convince the Galatian church that they could only truly follow Jesus if they also kept the Jewish Law.  They were leading people away from the sound doctrine of salvation by Faith Alone into setting extra conditions for salvation- the unsound doctrine of Jesus…AND.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 (ESV)

Paul is underscoring the reality that we as fallen creatures do not have the power to break the curse of sin and death based on what we do or don’t do. We are powerless to save ourselves, or to will ourselves to life, no matter what we do.  We are lifeless like the dry bones that God told Ezekiel to prophesy to. (Ezekiel 37) The dry bones could do nothing to come alive of their own accord.  The Word of God- Jesus- is the only power that can break the curse of sin and death and bring us to life out of the deadness of our trespasses and sins.

Jesus took our place as the curse, hanged on a tree. He was made to be the curse so that through faith in Him we can become children of God- the spiritual descendents and inheritors of the blessing of salvation that was promised in God’s covenant to Abraham.

“By faith Christ changes places with us. He gets our sins, we get His holiness.”– Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 1535

Abraham was never justified by keeping the Law. The Law didn’t even show up until centuries after Abraham. God’s promise to Abraham was a one way deal.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. Romans 4:13 (ESV)

Jesus has become both the curse- hanged on the tree carrying all of humanity’s sins- and the blessing of Abraham. Jesus is the promised offspring of Abraham, from the covenant God made before the covenant with Moses and the handing down of the Jewish Law.  God’s covenant with Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus. We become children of God’s promise through faith- through trusting Jesus.  Not Jesus…AND, but through faith in Him alone.

“Let us become expert in the art of transferring our sins, our death, and every evil from ourselves to Christ; and Christ’s righteousness and blessing from Christ to ourselves.”– Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, 1535

May 9, 2018 – Faith Alone- Abraham’s Righteousness- Romans 4:13-25

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For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”  But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Romans 4:13-25 (ESV)

The apostle Paul (who had formerly been the Pharisee, Saul) was dealing with the Judaizers, who were Jews who had become Christians and who expected Gentile converts to Christianity to adopt the Jewish laws, including being circumcised and living as a Jew.

It became necessary for Paul to teach to the Gentile churches that obeying the Jewish laws and adopting Jewish customs are not required to follow Jesus or to be saved.

Our salvation and justification (being made right in the eyes of God) comes through faith alone in Jesus.  Paul uses the example of Abraham to set the precedent- Abraham was justified by faith before the covenant, before he was circumcised, because God gave Abraham the gift of faith.

Today the premise of faith alone (sola fide) is challenged in many Christian traditions.  If any preacher or teacher tries to say faith plus anything is required of us to follow Jesus, know that is not the truth.  We are not required to follow the Mosaic Law, or to wear specific clothing, or to observe specific rites or rituals.  Even if we did do these things, it would not save us or justify us in the eyes of God. None of us are in any way able to fulfill the Law completely, which means the one who tries to earn his or her way to God is doomed.  The apostle James teaches us that if we break one teeny tiny piece of the Law we violate all of it. (James 2:10)  The scandalous, almost unbelievable, simple truth is that the only requirement for salvation is faith that Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves – He kept the Law perfectly and became the perfect sacrifice to cover our sins.

One might say, “That’s cheap grace, because we don’t do anything or earn anything. Just believe?  That’s nuts!”  That’s exactly the point, that our faith is what justifies us before God, though grace is anything but cheap.  Grace, salvation, forgiveness, eternal life- Jesus bought and paid for all of these- which we cannot do- with His suffering and with His precious Blood.  We respond to and reflect His amazing love and grace by serving our neighbors, by learning His word, and by partaking of the Sacraments. All of these are gifts from God to us. God is the action hero in this story.

The good works that Christians were created to do (Ephesians 2:10) are not ways to earn brownie points.  They are an answer to the prayer Jesus taught us: thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our good works are the end result of having the faith (which is a gift from God) to confess our sins to God, knowing that in Christ we are forgiven, and trusting Him for what we need to live in a way that honors Him.

Some communities may pass out projects and to-do lists, which are not bad things in and of themselves, but we cannot earn our way into heaven based upon how many items we check or don’t check off of a list. What sets Christians apart is our love for Jesus. Our motivation to serve others comes as a result of wanting what God wants for others and for the world around us- not to earn points or to stroke our own vanity, but to follow Jesus’ example.

Abraham was justified by his faith. His faith, which was a gift from God, brought forth amazing fruit.  Faith is also what justifies us- not that we are able to live 100% perfect lives, or even to have 100% perfect faith.

Do we trust Jesus enough to rely on Him alone? Even that is a tricky question.  Every one of us struggles with a degree of unbelief.  At times we also need to pray as the father of the boy with the unclean spirit (see Mark 9:14-29) prays- “I believe, help my unbelief!”

God was faithful to Abraham even though Abraham wasn’t perfectly faithful. The fact that Abraham, when he was still called Abram, had a son, Ishmael, that was conceived outside of the promise comes to mind as we learn in Genesis 16. Even though Abram and Sarai acted according to their desperation for a son rather than in response to God’s promise, He was still faithful to His promise to give them Isaac, a son born of Sarah, the son of His promise.

We can only be saved, justified, and made right with God by faith alone. Yet even that faith is a gift that God gives us.  God worked great things through Abraham by faith- not because Abraham was entirely faithful, but because God made Abraham able to believe.  God works in us by the gift of faith today as well without brownie points, no checklist to check off.  By the sacrifice of Jesus alone, He covers us, He adopts us. In baptism we are marked with the Cross of Christ, and named and claimed as God’s own.  In the Sacrament we are given the very Body and Blood of Jesus to give us strength and sustenance for our toil here on earth.  Jesus fulfills God’s promise from long ago to Abraham, the promise that extends to us as well- because of faith.

May 8, 2018 God’s Promise, Praise, and Abraham’s Offspring- Psalm 47, Genesis 12:2-3, John 8:54-59

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Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy! For the Lord, the Most High, is to be feared, a great king over all the earth. He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah

God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises! Sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm!

God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted! – Psalm 47 (ESV)

Praise is not an optional thing for people of God- it should be an automatic response to the grace and love of God.   When we think about the wonder and majesty of God, how can we keep from singing?

(God says to Abraham):And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:2-3 (ESV)

When the Psalmist speaks of our heritage, he is not just talking about the tribes of Israel or the direct genetic descendants of Abraham.  He speaks of all the families of the earth- meaning all nations, people groups and tribes, receiving blessing through the promise God gave to Abraham.

Jesus answered (the Pharisees), “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word.  Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad. So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. John 8:54-59 (ESV)

Jesus scandalized the Pharisees when He informed them, before Abraham was, I AM. Yet Jesus Himself is also a descendant of Abraham.

We see Psalm 47 not only as a Psalm of praise, but also as a vision of the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus- God I AM- long before Abraham was, came down to earth to live as one of us. Jesus, God I AM, was given to die on the Cross and become the perfect sacrifice for our sins, giving Himself as a free gift for all those who would hear and have faith. Jesus, God I AM, defeated death. He is both with us, and has gone to live in glory in heaven.  We will ultimately join him there.  All the more reason for songs and praise!

Jesus is who He says He is- God I AM, on whose Word the world was created. He created humanity perfect, but we fell into the sin of pride and made ourselves imperfect, wanting to be our own gods. He did not abandon us messed up humans who disobeyed Him.  Instead, He gave Himself to break the curse of sin we brought upon ourselves, the sin that began in the Garden. (Genesis 3:1-7) He keeps the promise He made to Abraham- that all the nations and tribes of the earth are blessed- and redeemed- through Abraham’s offspring.

February 28, 2018 – God Provides the Lamb- Genesis 22:1-19

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Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Here I am,” he replied.

Then God said, “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.”

Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance.  He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, “Father?”

“Yes, my son?” Abraham replied.

“The fire and wood are here,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?”

Abraham answered, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” And the two of them went on together.

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

 “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.”

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided.”

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. Genesis 22:1-19 (NIV)

Child sacrifice is rightly considered an abomination to God’s people. When child sacrifice is mentioned later in Scripture, specifically in offering one’s children to the false god Molech, it is named as a sin punishable by stoning (Leviticus 20:2-5).  God does not take sacrificing children to false gods lightly.  Jesus said to His disciples, “Let the children come to Me and do not stop them.” (Luke 18:16)  God loves children and expects us to love and protect them as well.

So why does God give Abraham this impossible decision? From the perspective of a parent of an only son (technically Abraham did have another son, but Isaac was the child of God’s promise) this is an unthinkable, unimaginable decision to make.  A parent’s natural reaction, especially the reaction of a parent who had suffered through years of infertility, would be something along the lines of, “God, you can’t possibly be serious!”

How would we react to such a command from God? Even should we have multiple children to spare? First of all we would want to be sure that it’s God talking and not some other voice. Today, because of Jesus becoming the one perfect sacrifice for all time, we can be confident that God would not want us to take any of our children and set them up on a barbeque, which is a comforting thought. Today, if one thinks that God wants them to sacrifice his or her child, this should be taken as a cry for mental help.

God will provide the lamb. This is what Abraham tells Isaac to comfort him, even though at the time, Abraham has no way of knowing this.  We learn that Abraham was not permitted to follow through with sacrificing Isaac.  God did indeed provide the lamb- first a foreshadowing by the appearance of the ram in the Genesis account, and then He provided the true Lamb of God, Jesus.

Are we willing to follow God no matter how illogical or impractical or impossible it sounds to us? What is God asking of us?

Surrender is not easy.  It should be easy for us to surrender our sins, our faults, our doubts, but as soon as we think we have left them at the foot of the Cross, we tend to pick them back up again.  When the apostle Peter tells us, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”- 1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)- that’s passive surrender, but we are still called to do it.  We endure much more anguish and distress than we should when we do not surrender our anxiety and our worry to Jesus.

Sometimes surrender is proactive, as we see in the Genesis text. God wants us to reach out and do things that are hard. Often we are called to surrender our time and our resources with no tangible assurance that our sacrifice will even be noticed or appreciated.

Surrender is about obedience, in putting the pursuit of God’s will above our own will. It is never easy to surrender, but the Holy Spirit will help us seek God’s will and be obedient to Him.

Like Abraham we are called to trust God without knowing how He will provide. It’s not easy sometimes, especially when we don’t see a way out or a way through an illness or a bad situation.  It’s hard when we are at the end of ourselves. God has provided the Lamb- but it is hard for us to realize that when everything around us screams that there is no hope.

Even when everything we see looks hopeless, God has promises for us that are going to come about for us even though we can’t imagine them. We can’t see how they play out right now. Abraham didn’t live on this earth long enough to see all of his descendants. We may never know how we will impact someone else’s life here and now.  Maybe something we said or something we did for someone will make a difference in their lives and other lives years after we have forgotten about it, or even years after our time on this earth is over.

Today might be a good day to meditate on the provision of God and surrender to His will, knowing that He has good plans and promises for us.  God provides the Lamb.  No matter how hopeless our situations may seem.

May 25, 2017- The Blessings of Surrender- Genesis 22:15-19

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The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.”

Then Abraham returned to his servants, and they set off together for Beersheba. And Abraham stayed in Beersheba. Genesis 22:15-19 (NRSV)

Do we truly seek God’s will and are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit? Even as we ask this question, in the back of our minds we should understand that we are not the Lone Ranger.  God provides the Lamb.  He equips us to fulfill the missions He gives us, spiritually, emotionally, physically and materially. He sends us people to walk with us and to be part of our purpose as well.  He works the impossible with the ordinary, and He can make everything out of nothing.

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God does ask of us both obedience and surrender, even when we fail miserably at it. Do we have a willingness to do what God asks of us, even when it is difficult or painful, or it involves the sacrifice of something priceless and irreplaceable to us?

There are rewards inherent to obeying God and being willing to surrender to Him, even if we don’t see it immediately, or the world makes it look like no good deed goes unpunished.

Jesus taught us to store up our rewards in Heaven- to live for what really matters- instead of chasing what’s temporary. Abraham didn’t live on this earth to see his legacy fulfilled, but his obedience was rewarded.  He would not keep back any of his gifts from God, including his precious only son.

It’s a countercultural message to go against the tide of instant gratification and the “me, me, me” mentality.

Sometimes we have to sacrifice in great ways and we don’t necessarily see results. Sometimes we are called to keep working on a difficult relationship, or to walk with a person in crisis instead of following pop culture and leaving the scene as soon as the skies turn dark.  Society doesn’t necessarily reward doing the right thing, especially when the right thing is hard or costly and it doesn’t bring forth an appreciable immediate benefit.

There is blessing in obeying God. We might not see it right away, but God notices.  God cares.  God provides.

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