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Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
— Philippians 2:12–13
You don’t have to walk through the aisles of your local grocery store for long to realize that “new” sells. Those highly paid marketing executives who work in those big buildings on Madison Avenue have discovered the appeal of “new.” If you don’t believe me, then just take the challenge and browse through the merchandise the next time you go out shopping, or just go to your pantry right now. The words, “new and improved” appear everywhere. Toothpaste, toiler paper, Windex, peanut butter, potato chips, and Kleenex all tout the “new” part of their product. Some of them aren’t even speaking of the new and improved product, but rather about new packaging.
Have you ever stopped to think about why this works? Have you ever wondered what these marketing gurus have figured out? I suspect that they know something about the human psyche. When you and I hear about something being “new and improved,” we are convinced that the company is working on it. They are readily admitting that they have yet to reach the perfection with their product, but they are committed to getting better continually. They are in the process of getting better, and we can’t help but respect that. We don’t know for sure that they have actually done anything to their product (Can you really improve toilet paper that substantially?), but just the effort seems to suffice.
I wonder if (and how often) God would be able to slap the “new and improved” on my forehead. I wonder if I am really moving forward in spiritual maturity. I received everything that I need when I received Christ, but there is still a working out of his person in my life. Anyone can say that they are “new and improved,” but there should evidence of that as I begin to look less like my old self and more like the “new” person I was conceived and birthed to be (See John 3:1–17). God doesn’t only see us for who we are, he sees us for who we are daily becoming, the people we were birthed to be. However, it is going to take some work.
This may be why today’s passage tells us to continue to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Although conversion is instant, sanctification is a process. It is a daily process of becoming more like the Christ who lives in us, making us into something new. The most interesting part about this passage is that it tells us to “work out” while God actually “works in” us. You see, my “newness” is ultimately a reflection of the work that God is doing in me, conforming me into the image of the Son (see Romans 8:29). This means that he is constantly molding me into the image of Christ, making me a vessel that he can best use to accomplish his good purpose or plan.
So salvation isn’t merely a one-time transaction. Yes, it is final, but none the less progressive. The good news is “He’s working on it!”
After our ship had pulled into port at Playa del Carmen, and we were allowed to disembark. The first thing I wanted to do was stroll along the pristine beaches, feeling the soft white sand swirl between my toes. I love the sea, and cruise vacations are one of my favorite ways to spend my vacation time. Ordinarily, five-day excursions are enough to appease my addiction to the endless blue waters I find so intoxicating, and of course, the lavish buffets, gourmet dining, fun and festivities I always indulge in while aboard the ship. Yes, I have dropped a few dollars in the onboard casinos too, but that’s another story.
It was only a hundred yards or so from where the ship’s moorings held the ocean liner fast to the dock that I spotted a walkway leading down to the beach. I scurried past the passengers waiting in line to have their picture taken with a small band of natives dressed in the customary attire of their Aztec ancestors (a big money maker for the cruise line), took off my sandals and walked. The waves rolling into shore were about ankle deep where I stood, warm and energizing. Slowly drifting along, my eyes caught a glimpse of a couple of sunbathers up ahead stretched out beneath an inviting Caribbean sun, two young women. What caught my attention about them most, however, wasn’t their tan, but how much of their tan I could see. It seems they had forgotten the upper half of their bathing suits.
Never having been on a public beach where topless sunbathing was permitted, I must admit I took a second look. The first look was simply by accident, the second was in disbelief, wanting to be sure I saw what I thought I did. But the third, oh well, I tried appearing not to gawk.
You might guess the weight of conviction I felt was sufficient to prompt me into doing a 180-degree turn, making a quick exit to a more family-friendly section of beach on the other side of the boardwalk. And I did leave, but that was then. Earlier chapters in my life’s story would have found things to be quite different, snapping pictures and sharing them with coworkers back home. In fact, as I stroll down the avenue of life bearing my name, I find so many wrong turns taken, poor choices made, and times when my actions were in outright rebellion to what I knew not only to be right morally, but spiritually. In spite of the Holy Spirit’s clear indictment against a particular decision I would make, or a pattern of behavior I might be following, like Frank Sinatra and Elvis, I did it My Way.
Nothing more than a modern-day copy of Jonah — not only did I think I could outrun God, I thought I could outsmart him, manipulate him and have the best of both worlds: lunch with the Lord, dinner with the devil, and sometimes, brunch with both. A juvenile delinquent Christian (spiritually speaking) who could well be the poster child for those passages of scripture dealing with spiritual immaturity such as 1 Corinthians 3:3, and Hebrews 5:12, I was a Peter Pan believer, an infantile child of God who refused to grow up. What I would find out though is this: there are things in life other than a God-made big fish that can swallow a man whole. More things than one that can bring him to his knees and force him to look up, not calling out, but crying out to God, “Save me, Lord, I’m drowning”.
At age 26, dealing with illness, out of work, out of money and soon to be afoot and homeless, God said, “Enough, Pat”. The words of Isaiah 43:1 rang out with unmistakable clarity, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine”. I picked up the telephone and called a dear pastor friend to ask for prayer. More than just pray, he and his precious wife came to my home that evening with words of hope and encouragement. Although they knew me well, they didn’t lay my sins before me, or talk about the hole I had dug myself and fell into without enough forethought to include a way out of the hole while digging it. There was no mention of my waywardness or my rebellion against God. Just talk of God’s love, his mercy, and forgiveness. That day, 38+ years ago, I bowed my head, repentant of my self-will and experienced the loving kindness of a second-chance God.
Make no mistake about it, God plays hardball (I found that out) and will go to any extreme within his righteous character to get your attention and back on the right road. If it means winding up destitute as did the prodigal son in Luke 15, don’t think it won’t happen. If it takes being struck blind as did Saul (Paul) in Acts 9, don’t think God won’t go there. Even if it means a few nights in the belly of a fish, all I can say to that is, you might want to think twice before booking a cruise.
Today I am thankful for the mercies God has abundantly poured out on me. I am happy, content with where He has placed me in life. I am blessed with a loving wife and family I don’t deserve, a good job, a comfortable home, a great church, and a group of wonderful friends I get to spend time with each week. But above all, I am blessed to be his child and have him walk alongside me each day. Oh yes, I still blow it at times. I’m far from perfect, but I have learned to repent when I mess up and not look back. Just keep my eyes on Jesus and follow where he leads, over and over again replaying the words of the Psalmist as I go.
Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
how I praise you!
I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.
I lie awake thinking of you,
meditating on you through the night.
Because you are my helper,
I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your strong right hand holds me securely.
— Psalms 63:3–8 NLT
Today, I will open my devo with a full confession: What you are about to read is totally based on First-World problems. I admit it. But as an average, middle-aged mom to a 20-something college graduate daughter, what is, more often than not, the logical next step? For your daughter to be engaged and married, right? And so, as our story goes, our daughter was engaged to her boyfriend of four years in August of 2018, graduated college in December of 2018, and the wedding planning began! The date was set for April 4, 2020, and everything was moving along for a destination wedding at Crystal Beach, Texas.
Enter the Great Pandemic of 2020.
We waited until the last possible second, but in the last week of March, the odds were just stacked too high against us. The state shut down, and we had to cancel. To avoid losing money, we had to pick a date and reschedule. We chose July 25, 2020, never dreaming at the time the word “pandemic” would even still be a thing. (Yes, we laugh in hindsight).
As the days, weeks and months ticked by, we continued to watch and wonder what would happen. Would there be another shutdown? Would we have to cancel again? At what point should we just throw in the towel? But the closer we got, our guest list continued to shrink, which actually put us within all the wedding guidelines the governor had issued for the state of Texas. We were a go! We loaded all of our cars, two trailers, one wedding gown, the kitchen sink and a partridge in a pear tree, and headed for the beach!
Enter Hurricane Hannah.
As the day of the wedding approached on the calendar, the tropical depression, turned tropical storm, turned hurricane barreled straight for our four front-row beach houses that were supposed to host our festivities. Every attempt at an adjusted plan was literally ripped to shreds by the winds and rains. The rehearsal and dinner following was almost a comical disaster, with food literally blowing off of our guests plates, and we were only at the beginning of the storm. The worst had not hit. Defeat was definitely in the air, and certainly in the eyes of one particular bride. We went to bed Friday with heavy hearts.
“When we face things that we don’t know, let’s remember who we do.”
— Jeremy Fisher
I tossed and turned and slept maybe two hours. I was awakened by a wicked wind and rain beating the house. It was three stories high and it was literally swaying side to side. The road below us that led to the beach was washed out. As the mother of the bride, I felt a lot of weight on my shoulders to care for the safety and well being of all who had come to support us because they loved us. I was laying in the middle of the bed, watching the ceiling fan sway when the final hit came. The power went out on the whole island. All I could do was laugh. I literally had that moment of thinking, “Well, it’s over. I did my best, but it’s over.”
It was only then I remembered what I had so easily forgotten. My boat was rocking (quite literally). I was thrown overboard. I was in the belly of the whale with nothing but a bag of Lay’s potato chips to comfort me. I had let my fears get in the way of crying out to the one who comforts me in spite of myself. And so I began to pray.
From inside the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God. He said, “In my distress I called to the Lord, and he answered me. From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help, and you listened to my cry.
— Jonah 2:1–2
The story of the next day is kind of a blur, but let me give you the 30-second recap. The power was back on by 10 a.m. Everything about our plan had to be scrapped, changed and reworked. Family and friends banded together and worked so hard. The wind continued to blow and the rain continued to come down, but the plan came together, perhaps even better than we had designed it before. God knew the exact number we could seat when we had to move it inside: the exact number of attendees. God knew the exact moment the weather would break: long enough for her to walk down the sand to her groom. God also knew that the best pictures (and memories) come from two families and a bunch of friends laughing on the beach in the rain, so moments after everyone was in place, it poured. We chose to stick it out, laughing and celebrating in the pouring rain and pounding surf, coming right up over that perfect white lace dress.
We laughed, we loved, we celebrated. Our expectations were of a Pinterest-perfect wedding day. God’s expectations for us were so much more. The kids said it was a perfect day. They loved it. The guests said it was their honor to be a part of it. The memories made will be talked about far longer than a cookie-cutter wedding would have ever been. The pictures captured so much more than was said. God loved us enough to rock our boat, and we were left with nothing but gratitude for the perfection that literally came out of a storm.
Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
— Acts 8:4 NIV
In Sunday’s sermon we heard a message that had its roots in Acts chapters 8 and 9. There are many great lessons there for us, and today I want to focus on three of those.
1. God’s work moves on.
Even in the face of attacks and persecution by powerful forces, God’s work through the Church is still empowered to get the message of his love and grace to the world. Saul and the religious leaders of the day thought their efforts were destroying the Christian Church, but they were actually a part of spreading the word to a much wider audience of people. Those who were scattered because of this persecution spread the word wherever they went. God’s work moved on.
2. The Spirit leads God’s people.
The Spirit told Phillip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
— Acts 8:29 NIV
Phillip sensed that he was being guided by the Spirit. He did as he felt the Spirit led him, and he was able to lead a man to Christ.
God still calls his people to specific tasks and empowers our efforts as we follow his guidance. Let’s listen for that holy call.
3. A sense of urgency occurs when the Spirit works.
The scripture tells us that, after his conversion, the eunuch was led to take the “next step” as quickly as possible:
As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
— Acts 8:36–38 NIV
I recently called a good and longtime friend. I had heard he was having some major health issues and I wanted to check in on him. It was a serious situation. After we talked for a good while, I told him that I would be praying for him. He immediately said, “Do it now.” So I did. I prayed for my friend right then over the phone. My friend was glad to hear that I would pray for him. But he wanted that prayer raised right then. The Spirit still works. It leads God’s people. And often, that brings along with it a sense of urgency. Some things need to be done now.
Have you accepted Christ as your savior? If not, if you sense the movement of God in your heart, do it now.
My wife and I got married on July 25, 2009, at the Dallas Arboretum, and I wanted everyone to know! When Lindsay and I started dating, I was teaching at a private Christian school in Illinois. At that time, I was a single guy in a small, tight-knit community without a wife. You can only imagine the number of conversations I had about my dating life or lack thereof. Whispers and rumors spread around our little school when Lindsay and I started dating. My favorite rumor was that she was a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader. (I let that rumor run for a few weeks before addressing it.) When Lindsay and I began dating, I wanted everyone to know that I had a girlfriend, and she was awesome. But more than that, I wanted to be identified with her. When people spoke about her, I wanted them to think about me. I was honored to be associated with Lindsay. I think the same thing is true about baptism. The purpose of baptism is not for salvation, but rather for identification. It seeks to answer the question: Do you claim the name of Christ?
I love what co-pastor Paul McDill said during last Sunday’s sermon:
“Here is a piece of advice for you young people: Never date someone that wants to keep it a secret.”
I love it!
The same is true for baptism, it is our public proclamation of our relationship with Jesus Christ, and we should want the whole world to know about it. Baptism is letting your friends, family and community know that you are a follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus has some very serious words to his followers in chapter 10 of Matthew:
“But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”
— Matthew 10:33
My relationship with Christ is public, and I never want to hide my personal relationship with him. I know that baptism can be confusing to people, and possibly intimidating, but baptism is nothing more than a proclamation of faith — a telling to the world that you are in a relationship with Jesus Christ. I was married on July 25, 2009, because I wanted everyone to know who I fell in love with. I was baptized in the fall of 1989 for the same reason.