“Do Not Be Afraid!”

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, one of the first things he said to her was, “Do not be afraid.”  When an angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds on the outskirts of Bethlehem, his first words were, “Do not be afraid.”  And God’s word to you this Christmas is, “Do not be afraid.”

We live in a fearful world.  On a national and international scale, we are reminded everyday of who and what to fear.  I don’t know if our ramped up fear is a result of the 24-hour news cycle, or if the world really is going crazy.  As believers, we know what is behind the craziness.  We know that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (I Jn 5:19).  Fear, intimidation, and pure evil are being unleashed on the world in the wake of Satan’s influence.  Into this chaos, God’s word to us is, “Do not be afraid.”

But let’s set the big picture aside, if we can, and bring it down to a personal level.  Even here, we find much to fear.  Family dysfunction, broken relationships, chronic sickness, mysterious pain, financial setbacks, job insecurity, and the worry that accompanies these problems surge right to the front of our brains.  Into this personal chaos, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.”

This assurance from Jesus is not a Pollyanna, naïve, let’s-not-acknowledge-the-pain word from our Lord.  No, Jesus knows all about tribulation.  He knows all about pain; even to the point of carrying the weight of our sin to a painful death on a cross.  And He knows your pain.  He knows your trial.  And He has a word for you.

“In this world you will have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).  In this world, in this pain, in this fear, Jesus is asking us to “take courage, do not be afraid.”

How can we take courage when, on both a personal and global scale, our world seems to be falling apart?  The answer is the miracles of Christmas.  The first miracle is lying in a manger.  When we stare into the face of the baby Jesus, we are seeing Immanuel, God with us.  We are seeing the miracle of the Incarnation.  God Himself coming to dwell with us.

But there is a second miracle of Christmas that we often overlook.  If you are a Christ-follower, when you look inside yourself you are seeing Immanuel, God with us.  Do you believe that?  It is a miracle.  But, it’s true!  If you have embraced the gospel message of Jesus Christ, the God of the universe has taken up residence in you.  And recognizing this incredible and supernatural indwelling is key to overcoming fear.

The apostle John highlights this in his first letter.  “You are from God, little children, and have overcome them; because greater is He that is in you than he who is in the world” (I Jn 4:4).  Can you believe it?  Not only are you indwelt with God’s spirit, but it is a Spirit that is far stronger than Satan’s spirit of fear that grips the world.

Believe it because it is true!  The Spirit of God who indwells you is greater than the spirit of Satan that is wreaking such havoc in the world.  Notice the word “overcome” in both Jesus’ statement (Jn 16:33) and the verse above (I Jn 4:4).  We overcome the world, we overcome the spirit of the world, we overcome our fears though the Spirit that lives inside.

Embrace the Spirit of God living inside.  Run to the Spirit.  Walk in the Spirit.  Listen to the Spirit.  When you do this, the light of God’s Spirit will shine in you, through you, and out from you like the light shining in that first nativity stable.  Follow the light into the stable, and let your gaze land on the manger.  Look into the feeding trough.  Look into the face of the baby Jesus and see God Himself.

When we look into the face of Jesus, we see a miracle.  We see Immanuel, God with us.  And when we look in the mirror, we see another miracle.  We see Immanuel, God with us, living inside.  The miracles of Christmas.  The miracles that empower us to, “Take courage, do not be afraid.”

Thanksgiving and the New You

I am a stickler for truth in advertising.  When the Bible talks about God’s commands as not burdensome or His yoke as light, I want to know how this happens.  Because, quite frankly, I have felt the weight and burden of Christ’s commands and it was not always pleasant.  And I do not think I am alone in that feeling.

What lifted the burden for me was an understanding of all that changed at my new birth.  And one of the changes was an infusion of a new nature – an infusion of the righteousness of Christ – such that obeying Christ’s commands is now my new normal.  I am not saying my new normal is always easy, but following Christ’s commands has become my second nature and yours too.

When we recognize that Christ is literally living His life through us, that He is in the yoke with us (after all Jesus calls it “His yoke” and I fully expect Him to be in there with me), it lifts the burden.  On the other hand, when we fail to embrace or believe or expect that Christ is living His life through us, we become worn down, oppressed, and yes, burdened by all that He requires.  Our Christian life turns sour and gratefulness is the furthest thing from our minds.

But when we recognize that the gospel message is not only about our initial salvation, but also informs our new power to live the life now, a thankful heart is our natural response.  We can not add anything to what Christ has done for us.  We cannot live the life He wants to live through us by will power and shutting Him out.  We cannot lift ourselves up to righteousness by our bootstraps and true grit.  No, we live the life by accepting all that Christ has accomplished on our behalf.

In the book of Colossians, Paul explains that legalism – working our way to righteousness – is not only foolish, but has no value in defeating the flesh.  He goes on to explain that we live the life, defeat the flesh, and experience victory over sin by living into our new nature; by putting on the new self.  And this new self is infused with thanksgiving.

Gratefulness is so much a part of our new life that Paul comes back to it for three verses in a row as He concludes his treatise on the new self.  “And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.  Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father” (Col 3:15-17).

In your unity and peace, give thanks.  In Christ’s word dwelling within you, give thanks.  In your singing, give thanks.  And then it is as if Paul looks up and says, “You know the more I think about it, just go ahead and give thanks in everything you do” (vs 17).  Thanksgiving and a grateful heart are that important.

May I encourage you this thanksgiving to thank the Lord for His goodness.  To thank the Lord for the friends and family in your life.  To thank the Lord for His material blessings.  But don’t forget to thank Him for making you a new creation; a new you with a soft and grateful heart.

Merry Christmas from Franklin Tennessee

Rhonda and I are wishing you the best of Christmas greetings from our new home in Franklin, Tennessee.  After nearly thirty years of living in Houston, we have relocated to the Volunteer State.  There is definitely a small town feel to Franklin with its thriving downtown square, shotgun style homes on narrow lots, and so much within walking distance.  But we also feel the proximity to Nashville, 25 miles to the north, and all that the Music City has to offer.

Our Christmas prayer for you is to experience the “no condemnation” life that God promises to His children.  It is easy – as husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and workers, leaders and ministry partners – to let those around us know that they are not living up to expectations.  It is easy to put a layer of guilt and blame on those close to us.  When we look deeper, however, maybe putting others down is just a veiled attempt to elevate ourselves.

Has this been your experience?  I see it all the time in the workplace, but it also infiltrates our families and churches.  We seem to think that our value and significance improves and we are made to look better if others are being put down.  We even justify this, at times, by saying that they need to be “put in their place.”  But this is not how a believer should live.

Remember the point of the parable Jesus told about the two debtors?  The one who owed an infinite amount was forgiven by the king and then proceeded to beat his fellow servant over a small debt.  He failed to grasp the concept that he who had been forgiven a great debt by the Master should forgive his brother.  Likewise, how can we who have been so miraculously set free by Christ and the promise of “no condemnation”, lay a condemning attitude or comment on our brother?  God’s stance toward us is fundamentally optimistic, calling us saints.  This should be our view as well toward those who serve us and whom we serve.

Part of the challenge in seeing this is the erroneous teaching regarding Romans chapter 7 that the apostle Paul’s condemning passage about himself reflects the life of a believer.  Paul’s diatribe of condemnation clearly describes his life prior to salvation; a point made clear when he ends with “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).  We somehow see the condemning tone of Romans 7, and thinking it applies today, use it to condemn both ourselves and others.

But it is not supposed to be that way.  You have been set free from the power of sin.  It is no longer your master.  That condemning voice you hear is Satan, not God.  Satan wants you living under a rock of self-condemnation.  And he wants you to bring as many people as you can under the rock with you by criticizing their work or behavior.  Christ, on the other hand, wants you living out in the open; experiencing and celebrating a life set free.  Remember, “There is now [present tense, after I have left the pre-Christian life of condemnation behind] no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Rom 8:1-2).

Do you recall this quote from a Christmas classic?  “Charlie Brown, you’re the only person I know who can take a wonderful season like Christmas and turn it into a problem.”  In your best Linus voice you might be thinking, “Jay, you are the only person I know who can take a perfectly good Christmas message and turn it into a discussion of Romans chapter 7.”  Yes, I can.  Because the heartbeat of this blog and the Fanning the Flames ministry is for you and us to experience all that came with our new identity in Christ when we embraced His gospel message.  At the heart of that message is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  We have been set free.

So celebrate the season with an attitude of encouraging and building up those you love.  Christ the newborn King was born in a manger, lived a perfect life, died in your place, and rose again to give us a new life, free from guilt and condemnation.  Embracing that truth and living into it will make this a very merry Christmas indeed!