The Happiest Place on Earth!

Disneyland in California has had the slogan of “The Happiest Place on Earth” for years. I’ve never visited Disneyland, but we took our kids to Disney World twice. The first time was when three were in elementary school, and one was in junior high. If you’ve been to a theme park before, you know that you don’t have to wait very long for a child within hearing distance to have a meltdown. On this particular visit whenever we would hear a child losing it around us, I would lean over and whisper in my wife’s ear, This is the happiest place on earth. I thought it was pretty funny, but my wife didn’t seem to agree.

I think about the theological implications of that slogan once in a while. Disney is selling the perfect circumstances to young parents. Imagine you could take your children to a place where everything is carefully curated, presented, and always exactly right. Wouldn’t your children have the best time possible? Well, every screaming child proves that slogan wrong.

How could you not be happy here? 😉

Turns out better circumstances don’t make a better me. The Bible tells us this.

The Perfect Environment Didn’t Prevent Sin (Gen 3:6)

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Gen 3:6 (ESV)

Adam and Eve had the best circumstances ever—far better than anything that Disney can offer—and sin still intruded. So if Adam and Even sinned in the Garden of Eden, then there must be something fundamentally wrong with us—not our environment—that produces sin. And that’s exactly what Scripture teaches.

Your Desires Are Insatiable (Prov 27:20; 30:15-16)

Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man. Prov 27:20 (ESV) The leech has two daughters: Give and Give. Three things are never satisfied; four never say, “Enough”: Sheol, the barren womb, the land never satisfied with water, and the fire that never says, “Enough.” Prov 30:15–16 (ESV)

Our lusts can never be fed enough even when we’re only a few years old. So Disneyland with it’s helpful employees and amazing rides and fun shows cannot satisfy the heart of a five year old—or a 35 year old! All of us want more even after we’ve been given more. What does a child say after opening the last Christmas present? “Is that all?” or “Is there any more?” That child might be more honest about his insatiable desires, but I have them too. “Give and Give” are in my heart; they’re in your counselees’ hearts as well.

What’s Inside of Us Is More Important than What’s Around Us (Mk 7:20-23)

And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:20, 23 (ESV)

I really want to believe that if my circumstances were different, I would be different. But it’s just not true. What is going on inside of me is more significant than what is happening around me or to me. No circumstance can guarantee my happiness if my heart is wired for more: more lust, more stuff.

This is a very persuasive lie—that better circumstances would make me better. It shows up in the spouse who imagines that being married to a different person would make him different. It is in the heart of the pastor who dreams that a different church would display his Christlikeness so much easier. It is in the heart of the teenager that believes that she would not respond with anger if she had someone else’s parents. It’s a convincing untruth.

It’s easy to believe this about my own heart, but it’s also easy to believe about my counselees. I will hear terrible stories of tragic sin that make me want to rescue this person. And sometimes I think rescue equals fixing their circumstances.[1]Certainly there are some situations that require immediate intervention: abuse, suicidal ideation, potential criminality, etc. In those cases immediate help is getting the oppressed out of those … Continue reading But most often a person’s greatest need is being rescued from their sin. They need help to please Christ in the middle of their circumstances.

The Happiest Place on Earth? Well it can be anywhere that your heart is satisfied with Christ. Daydreaming about changed circumstances won’t lead to happiness. A changed heart can.

As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. Psalm 17:15 (ESV)

References

References
1 Certainly there are some situations that require immediate intervention: abuse, suicidal ideation, potential criminality, etc. In those cases immediate help is getting the oppressed out of those circumstances.

In Praise of a Godly Layman, Gary Riegel, upon His Death

Just before Christmas, on December 22nd, Gary Riegel, my father-in-law, entered glory and saw his Savior—faith became sight. It was an outcome we had been praying for because we were certain of his genuine salvation. His death after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was quick–less than a year, but it was also God’s mercy.

Gary was born in Cody, Wyoming and spent most of his growing up years there, but spent most of his life in Laramie, Wyoming. The move was necessary, and there is a story behind it.

Gary with his Dad

Gary’s father, Ted, was a sniper for the Marines in World War II, and he fought in the Island-hopping campaigns of the South Pacific. It’s hard for us to imagine how stressful and dangerous this necessary service was. One night, so the story goes, the pressure broke Ted’s good friend, Francis. He started making noise that was going to give away their position, so Ted had to shoot his friend. That’s the story the family has told; it seems the type of thing that could happen in war. What we know for sure is that Francis died, and Ted named his only child, Gary Francis Riegel, in his buddy’s memory.

What Ted experienced in the war changed him. He came back and ever after struggled with drinking. Gary’s early years were years of consistent disappointment. He loved his dad, but his dad was trapped by his own sin.

Martha, Ted, and Gary

One example suffices. He promised Gary he would take him fishing. They drove off, and his dad said he needed to make a quick stop at a bar. He left Gary in the truck and went inside, and probably thought he would only be inside for a single drink, but he stayed there for hours. His young son finally got tired of waiting, got out of the truck, and walked home. Disappointments like that were normal for Gary as he grew up.

Ted was spending so much on alcohol that there wasn’t enough to buy groceries, so his wife made the tough decision of separating from him and moving to Laramie. Martha, Gary’s mom, never divorced his dad, but she never lived with him again. Even though they were separated, she loved him, and never said anything critical about him.

Martha had never heard the gospel until her brother-in-law and sister-in-law shared it with her. She was gloriously saved and through her witness, Gary trusted Christ too. He graduated from Laramie High in 1967 and married his teenage bride, Grace. Many marriages that start that early don’t last, but Gary and Grace were married over 45 years until her death.

Gary and Grace

They had nothing at the beginning; they were poor. But Gary and Grace always had their four children in church. They were of the generation that came every time the doors were open, and the doors were open a lot.

Gary started a body shop in 1976 that his oldest son owns today. Eventually the business grew and Gary and Grace had some extra room in their budget. Gary was a generous man with what God had given him. He supported several students at Bible college through the years, and he did it anonymously. He wanted them to believe that they could trust God for their needs. He supported his church at a generous level, and also supported missionaries, camp ministries, and many family members and friends. He used what God had blessed him with to bless others.

He was a godly layman for his entire adult life. He pursued Christ wholeheartedly. He was the first to volunteer when a ministry needed some physical labor. One of my youngest son’s memories is his grandpa taking him to a Christian camp in Wyoming and the two of them working on a building crew all week. That was Gary Riegel. When Laura and I were young marrieds and bought our first house, Gary would come out to North Carolina and put up a fence or build a small deck or whatever we needed. He was a servant. Through the years he served his small church as a deacon and also as treasurer.

Christ’s work in Gary’s life became increasingly evident. Like many of his generation, he didn’t have a lot of time for his children when they were young; he was always working. But he grew in Christ and made time for his adult children, their wives, and his grandkids. He was being sanctified.

My father-in-law was my go to guy for advice on cars, houses, and well… anything that required being handy. He patiently helped me. It was only a few years ago that I realized how merciful God had been to me through my in-laws. People make jokes about conflict with in-laws, and as a pastor I saw in-law situations that were very difficult. But Grace and Gary were a joy to me. They were kind and generous and humble. Gary was a godly father-in-law. Using his name in this blog is a bit jarring because I simply called him Dad.

When he retired, he and his wife would often start the day by listening to a sermon on the radio and talk about what they learned. They read God’s Word together. Grace died in 2014; they had a marriage that glorified God. Gary married Susan, and they were married until his death. She was a wonderful Christian woman whose husband had died a few years earlier.

Gary Riegel was a good man because Jesus saved him decades ago. He wasn’t naturally good. He was the only child of a drunk father, raised by his mother alone, and he married too young. Life was stacked against Gary, but he became a new creation when he trusted Christ as his Savior (2 Cor 5:17). Jesus takes rebels and makes them good through Christ’s righteousness. I’m thankful for my father-in-law’s salvation; he made some missteps as we all do, but he pursued Jesus with all his heart. When he could no longer remember his family members, he could still sing Amazing Grace–the grace of God that he never got over. He left a legacy where his grandkids can see God’s goodness. I hope my kids will remember their grandpa, be thankful, and pursue Christ like he did.

Gary with my kids in 2005

Four Reasons Micah 5:2 is Compelling at Christmas

It is a dream of humanity to predict the future—some movie plots are based on figuring out the future. Investment advice is based on what the advisor sees as coming in the future. But it is impossible to predict the future—even just a few years from now. Well, it’s impossible for man but not for God. I couldn’t predict where my great-great-great-great grandchild would be born. Should God tarry His coming I can’t even be sure that my descendants 200 years from now will even be born in this country, much less predict the town they would be born in. Could your ancestors have predicted where you would be born? My ancestors mainly came from Germany. I’m sure they thought that their descendants would always live in Germany.

And yet, God predicted through Micah the prophet where the Messiah would be born.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2 (ESV)

Why is this verse significant? I’ve given you the first reason.

It Prophesies Christ’s Birth

Specifically that Christ would be born in Bethlehem, and as every child knows, that’s where Christ was born.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:4–5 (ESV)

Hundreds of years before it happened, God told us where it would happen. Only God can do that. The first-century Jewish leadership knew that this verse was referring to the Messiah because they told Herod so when the Wise Men inquired where Jesus would be born (Mt 2:3-6).

So this verse is significant because hundreds of years before Christ was born, it told us where He would be born.

It Describes the Humanity and Divinity of Jesus

It’s easy to see how this describes the humanity of Jesus. He will be born in Bethlehem. Babies are born.

But it also describes the divinity of Jesus. It tells us that His coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. That’s a strange way to describe a baby, isn’t it? No one claims a baby is old, except it’s said about this baby. It’s describing the things that the Messiah did before He was born. The Bible tells us that He created and sustained the universe. He appeared as the Angel of Jehovah. All this happened before He was ever born. Only God can do that.

“Messiah’s generation as man coming forth unto God to do His will on earth is from Beth-lehem; but as Son of God, His goings forth are from everlasting.”[1]Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. … Continue reading

Your Savior was both God and man. He had to be God for His sacrifice to be sufficient, but He had to be man in order for the sacrifice to be accepted.

It Illustrates God’s Use of the Insignificant

We are not talking about some minor king somewhere in the world. We are talking about the King of kings! Shouldn’t the greatest king ever be born in the power center of Israel—Jerusalem? But instead He’s born in a humble town.

It’s not even as if He’s born a big fish in a small pond. He’s not born in the biggest house in little Bethlehem. He’s born in a stable. That’s where cattle are born—not kings! Bethlehem was such a small town that when the towns of Israel were listed in Joshua 15:21 and Nehemiah 11:25, Bethlehem wasn’t even mentioned. It was too insignificant to be listed.

Our God delights in using the insignificant, the unexpected. A town that the world would overlook is where the Messiah was born.

Have you ever felt insignificant? Do you look around you at those that are so much more talented and gifted and imagine that God can use them but not you? God can use those that come from good families with wonderful backgrounds but you didn’t. You’re broken. You’ve made bad choices. You haven’t been given all the benefits that others have been given. Your family abused you. Maybe you never really knew your dad. Your parents divorced. They were poor. You couldn’t achieve a good education. You don’t have wonderful social gifts. You have never been the life of the party. You’re not popular.

Good! God delights in using people like that. People like you. People like me.

You know who else was from Bethlehem? Israel’s greatest king, David, was also from Bethlehem. His family was a group of insignificant shepherds when God chose David. They weren’t anything.

God can use the gifted, but He often chooses to use the rest of us. Think about who was humanly responsible for your salvation. It probably wasn’t some powerhouse pastor. It could have been a faithful mom or dad. It could have been a faithful friend or coworker. Probably it was someone that the world might overlook, but God used him or her to see you come to Christ.

God uses the insignificant.

It Tells Us the Purpose of Christ’s Birth

How does it do that? Through the use of the short phrase, “for me.”

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:2 (ESV)

Who’s saying that? “Me” is capitalized because translators recognize that this pronoun is referring to God the Father. The Messiah’s life, sacrifice, Resurrection, and rule would be for God. The ultimate purpose of our redemption is God’s glory.

Christ was born in an insignificant town over 2000 years ago for God. Do you live for God? Do people see your love for God during the Christmas season? Or do you forget God in this busiest time of year? Your redeemed life is all about God. Even Jesus came to earth for God.

One verse in one of the minor prophetic books in the Old Testament tells us so much about Christ. And at Christmas, I need this reminder.

References

References
1 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., Fausset, A. R., Brown, D., & Brown, D. (1997). A commentary, critical and explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments. On spine: Critical and explanatory commentary. (Mic 5:2). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

God Gave His Best Gift

What was the best gift you ever got at Christmas? One year my wife gave me an old, ratty, used soft rifle case. And I was thankful. I think she would agree with that. Turns out she had also gotten me a rifle to put in it as well, but she gave it to me separately. That was a pretty memorable gift.

Probably most memorable gifts are something we got when we were kids. Don’t those seem to be better gifts? We anticipate them more. We aren’t as jaded and cynical about Christmas when we are children.

In Ephesians 1:20-23, Paul is trying to communicate how much God the Father thinks of Jesus. And because He thinks so much of Jesus, God wants us to think a lot of Jesus too. In fact, what we learn here is God gave His best gift to us.

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Eph 1:22-23 (ESV)

So Paul is saying that God made Jesus head over all creation and also gave Jesus to the church. All human authorities are put down by force—they are under His feet. But His relationship to the church is not as conqueror, but as a gift from the Father.

So we could read it as, “And he put all things under his feet and gave [Jesus] … to the church….”

“So what?” is maybe what you’re thinking. But isn’t it true that the gifts we give say something about us?

My family had some pretty humble Christmases as I was growing up. I don’t remember getting more than two or three gifts at Christmas.  Now maybe I remember things as slightly more difficult than they actually were, but I think that’s accurate. I averaged two, maybe three small presents from my parents at Christmas.

Now that says something about my parents; it says they didn’t have a whole lot of money. It doesn’t say something bad, but it does say that we were poor as I was growing up. Maybe it also says that they tried to keep Christ in Christmas for us kids. My parents would tell us what they had budgeted for Christmas and then they would give half of that amount to Jesus in an offering at church. That says something about them too. Something wonderful.

So our gifts do say something about us, don’t they? You know this. Isn’t there a difference between the gifts you give your children and the gift you bring for the white elephant gift exchange at the company party? You don’t wrap up the kitchen trash for your children to open on Christmas morning. You give them something valuable. And you give them more valuable gifts than you contribute to the white elephant gift exchange, right? When I have a white elephant gift, it’s typically something I grabbed off a dusty shelf in the basement as I was running around trying to find something at the last minute. It doesn’t get my full attention or effort. I don’t think about it ahead of time. That probably says something about me too. But with your family you put in more effort. The gift means something.

The gift that God gave the church means something too. What’s the best gift that God could have given to the Church? Is there a better one? When God was looking for the best gift that He could give to believers, there was only one choice—Jesus.

Jesus is God’s best gift. He loves His Son and wants you and me to love Him too. So He gave Jesus to the church. God didn’t give us some cast off gift. No, God gave the very best gift He had. And while giving Jesus does show that God loves the church, it shows even more that God loves Jesus.

The gift of His Son says something great about God. He is generous. He is gracious. And he gives the best gifts. He gave the only gift that can satisfy our thirst—Jesus Christ (Jn 7:37).

Are you thankful for the best gift?

When My Sin Is the Worst…

One of my goals in 2022 is to review my devotional journal from 10 years ago so I’m reminded of God’s sanctifying work in my life. I came across this today…

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Last night I was reminded of God’s grace again. I sinned against my wife and son, and God graciously forgave me. Because of my sin against my wife, I made a poor decision with my son. My sin against his mother affected him. I was wrong. God’s grace is all over my life. I have a son that I don’t deserve. He obeyed me when it was extraordinarily difficult to do so. He’s a much better son to me than I ever was to my father. In part I know God’s grace because of my son. I don’t deserve a son like him.

When my sin embarrasses me, I grow in humility—even if only temporarily. And it embarrasses me now to think about last night. The Gospel is precious because it’s not by works that I’m saved. When my sin embarrasses me, I’m especially sensitive to the message of the Gospel. God’s grace becomes a rich treasure and my only hope. When my sin is the worst, the Gospel is so much more precious.

Thank You Father for Your saving and sanctifying grace.

This is how the gospel becomes more precious to us—as we see our sin with more clarity and accuracy we realize how blessed we are that God would save us. Knowing our sin is an unusual blessing; it helps humble us, and humility draws us closer to God.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. James 4:8-10 (ESV)

In Luke 6:36-50 right after a woman who was a great sinner washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, Jesus told the parable of the two debtors to Simon, the self-righteous Pharisee who was his host. One debtor owed a lot and his debt was cancelled; one owed a little and also had his debt cancelled. So Jesus asks Simon,

Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Luke 7:42b–43 (ESV)

I don’t appreciate the gospel when I don’t think I’m a very big sinner. When I have more in common with Simon the Pharisee’s self-righteousness than the immoral woman’s sorrow and repentance, the gospel won’t be that precious.

So, today, are you amazed by God’s grace? If not, could it be that you don’t think sin is that significant in your life? When your sin is the worst, the Gospel is so much more precious.