Saturday, October 29, 2005

Live each day like it is your last

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, `Here it is,' or `There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

Then he said to his disciples, "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. Men will tell you, `There he is!' or `Here he is!' Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in his day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other. But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.

"Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man. People were eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all.

"It was the same in the days of Lot. People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building. But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.

"It will be just like this on the day the Son of Man is revealed" (Luke 17:20-30).

Are you a procrastinator? Do you believe that if something can be put off until tomorrow, it should be? When you were in school, did you wait to do your homework until right before bed? Do you wait to pay your bills until the day before they’re due? If your boss wants a report by Friday, do you put it off until Thursday afternoon? If you owe the government money, how close to April 15th do you wait to file your tax return? How close to Christmas does it have to get before you start your shopping and wrapping?

We tend to be procrastinators when it comes to something that we don’t want to do. Given the opportunity to do something fun like sports or video games or cruising, what youth would rather sit down and struggle with homework for a class he hates, like Math or English? What man would turn down an invitation to a Super Bowl party, because he wanted to get his taxes figured early this year? What woman would willingly turn down an invitation to go shopping with her friends, because she had been looking forward to getting laundry washed today? We have little trouble finding time for things we love to do, whether it be trying out a new SUV, or visiting on the phone, or exploring the Internet. But when something unpleasant comes along, we are usually happy for any excuse to put it off until ‘later’.

This is why there are deadlines in our lives. Deadlines exist to force us to get on with things that we don’t really feel like doing. Businesses set the time to report to work, because they know that most people would rather sleep late than go to work early. Credit card offers are only good for a limited time, because the companies know that you are likely to bury their letter under a pile of mail instead of reading it. Teachers give students deadlines for their assignments so that the kids don’t let all their work pile up until the day before report card grades are due.

Many people find that it is easier to get going on a project when they know they only a have a few days left to complete it. In fact, although we grumble about them, most people like having deadlines. Deadlines help us to set our priorities as we plan our days. Deadlines give us a certain sense of security. When we know what the future will bring, we feel more in control of our lives. A sense of control over the future helps us to feel confident instead of fearful.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. We are interested in knowing this, too. We want to know when the Last Day will be, so that we can plan for it. Let’s face it—we are all sinners. We should feel like David, who regretted his inability to lead a holy life: "Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me" (Psalm 119:5-8). But the problem is, being a Christian is hard work. It is hard work to wrestle with the temptation to sin. It is hard work to get into the habit of frequent prayer throughout each day. It is hard work to get up the courage to talk about Jesus with friends and relatives and strangers. It is hard work to sacrifice time and money to Jesus' church. It seems so much easier to give in to temptation, keep our mouths shut, and enjoy ourselves whenever we can; because life that is not dedicated to God seems easier, we want to put it off for as long as we can.

Of course, none of us wants to go to hell. But if we just knew when the End was coming, we’d have time to prepare for it. Suppose we knew with certainty that Jesus was going to come again on January 1st, 2006. We could start making plans. For example, we know that Jesus wants us to forgive others as He has forgiven us. How long would it take to track down everyone with whom we needed to ‘mend fences’? Perhaps we could start working on that two months before Judgment Day, to make sure we had time to reach everybody. We wouldn’t want our homes filled with sinful things on the Last Day, so perhaps around December 15th we’d make sure to throw away any pornography that might be stashed away somewhere. We wouldn’t want to be found drunk by our Savior when He returns, so we probably would go out partying for the last time on December 29th. Since Jesus commanded us to go and make disciples of all nations, we would make a special push on the last Christmas Eve to get some guests to come to church with us. And you can be sure that just before midnight on that final December 31st, we’d read our Bibles, earnestly repent of all our sins, and beg God to have mercy on us and our loved ones.

Do you see the problem? Do you see how sinful procrastination would use our knowledge of the Last Day against us? Sure, we would eventually mend fences with our enemies—but shouldn’t we do that today? Of course, we would eventually put sinful habits out of our lives—but why not today? Don’t unbelievers die every day? Don’t they need to hear God’s saving Word today? Don’t you sin every day? Don’t you need to repent today?

This is why God doesn’t tell us when He will send Jesus back in glory. Our heavenly Father knows our sinful nature only too well. He knows that if we believe there is plenty of time to change our ways and repent, we’ll put it off until the last possible moment. But our God doesn’t want us putting off living our lives in His service. First of all, God doesn’t want us to procrastinate, because He hates sin. God is perfect, and everything that He made, He made perfect. Satan introduced sin into God’s holy world, hoping that God would turn away from His now tainted creation in disgust and leaving us victim to Satan’s whims. Satan used to be an angel in God’s court—he knows personally how much God hates sin and the imperfection that it brings. God does not want us to be tainted with sin; in Matthew 5:48 Jesus said "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." Jesus did not say ‘become perfect by the end of your life’, He said "BE perfect." If God announced when the Last Trumpet will sound, He knows that people would feel comfortable living in the sin that He hates, until right before the end.

Even more importantly, our God does not tell us when the End will come because He loves us. Living under the weight of sin is a terrible burden. Millions of dollars are spent on psychiatrists, anti-depressant drugs, alcohol, and even psychic help lines. Why? Because America is full of people who don’t know what sin is, or how to escape its’ weight. They only know that they are burdened with grief, guilt, frustration, disappointment, and the hurt of betrayal. Since they don’t know why they do bad things, or why others do bad things to them, they spend money for advice that does not help, or they temporarily numb the pain with alcohol or drugs. This is a terrible way to live, and it hurts our Savior to see people living lives without hope, doomed to an eternal death of despair. That is why Jesus came into our world through a miraculous birth, a birth that was free of the sin that taints every other birth. Jesus lived among us, perfect and sinless, truly God and also truly human, so that He could lift the burden of our sins from us and carry that unbearable burden to the cross, where He died under its’ awful weight. Because Jesus is God, only He could carry that burden. Because Jesus is God, only He could return to life and leave our burden of sin in His grave, buried forever. Jesus bought our release from sin, and even now prepares a place for us in heaven. In the meantime, He comes to us through His Word, through His baptism, and through the giving of His body and blood in Communion. He comes to us every time we come to church, or read His Bible, or pray in His name. He comes to us all through our lives, because He loves us too much to want us to live under the yoke of sin, under the mistaken impression that bearing sin is easier than bearing Christianity. Jesus said "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:29-30).

God does not tell us when the Last Day will be, out of love for us. He does not want us to have the excuse of a far-off deadline, to put off taking advantage of Jesus’ free gift of salvation today. But God also knows that it is easy to lose heart if the end of the struggle with sin seems far away. In today’s lesson, Jesus said "The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man". Jesus knows that the only true peace in times of trouble comes from God. Jesus knows that Christians long for reassurance that everything will turn out okay. In times of trouble, we begin to wish that Jesus was back among us right now. We want the security of His visible presence. But this is not to be. Until the Day of Judgment, our Lord is only seen in the waters of Baptism and the bread and wine of Communion. Until the Day of Judgment, our Lord is only heard through the words of His Holy Scripture. He gives us the Scriptures, because "everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope" (Romans 15:4). Rather than give us a specific date, the Holy Spirit prompted James to write "Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord's coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord's coming is near" (James 5:7-8).

Jesus told the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God was among them now. The Kingdom of God is the union of all believers, living and dead, who are lead by Christ the King. The Kingdom of God came 2,000 years ago, and we believers of today are members of it as well. We have the gifts of forgiveness and eternal life through the work of our heavenly King. We have the security of knowing that we cannot be forcibly taken from Jesus’ protection; Jesus said "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:27-28). With God’s gracious gifts and the security that they bring, the time of the Last Day becomes largely irrelevant to us. Whether Jesus comes again in glory tomorrow or a thousand years from now, we are members of His kingdom today. We have forgiveness of sins and the presence of the Holy Spirit within us today. The Holy Spirit gives us the love and courage to mend fences with our enemies, and to speak of Jesus’ love with others, today. Jesus invites us to pray to Him and to listen to His holy Word today.

When we hear God’s Word, when His Holy Spirit fills our hearts with love and peace, we can’t help but feel joy at being free of sin and a member of Christ’s holy band. With the love of Jesus in our hearts, we can look forward to serving others even more than we used to look forward to serving our own sinful desires. The love that God gives, sweeps away sinful procrastination and makes us eager to work in His church. Listen to God’s Word. Confess your sins. Pray for those you love, and those you don’t. Tell of Christ and the mercy that He’s shown you. Live today as if it were your last.

Because it might be.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Waiting for God

Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty (Malaci 4:1).

In 361 AD, Julian the Apostate became emperor of the Roman Empire. He is called "the Apostate" because he rejected Christianity when he assumed the throne and tried to wipe out Christianity throughout his empire. Two years into his reign, during a campaign against the Persians, a Christian was being mocked by a group of other soldiers. "Where is your Carpenter now?" they taunted him. Steadfastly the Christian soldier replied, "He is making a coffin for your emperor." A few months later, Julian received a mortal wound in battle. According to legend, as he lay dying Julian took a handful of his own blood and hurled it into the sky with the words, "O Galilean, Thou hast conquered!"

It can be frustrating to be a Christian. It can be frustrating to see prayer banned from schools. It can be frustrating to see abortion not only legalized, but protests against it suppressed. It can be frustrating to see same-sex unions being given the status of marriage. Everywhere we look, it seems as if more and more people are ignoring what God has to say about how He wants life to be lived, and when Christians raise their voices in protest, we are accused of being unloving because we are 'intolerant' of other lifestyles.

But it can become much worse. There have been churches burned down in the South. Christians are subject to persecution and arrest in some Muslim nations. Christianity is illegal in some communist countries, and Christians are being murdered for their faith in India.

Jesus said of His Father that He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). At times, this seems unfair to us. But God showers blessings on everyone because He loves everyone, and wants everyone to have a relationship with Him. If an unbeliever never experienced anything in his life except God’s anger, why would he ever believe that God loves him and wants to be a part of his life? Peter tells us that He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).

But God will not be patient forever. The Bible is full of examples of people who experienced God’s judgment because they rejected Him and brought misery to the faithful. God will act to protect those who put their trust in Him. Psalm 135 verse 14 says, the LORD will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants. God is patient because He is merciful; but He will also bring judgment because He is righteous. Please join me in praying,

Thank You, heavenly Father, for being patient with sinful men—because we too are sinful and are in need of Your mercy. Grant us patience while You offer unbelievers time to repent and join us in the saving faith that is the gift of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Defend us from the hurtful words and thoughtless acts of those who live their lives in ignorance of Your holy will. Grant us loving hearts to gently show them the error of their ways and help us to bring them to You for salvation before it is too late. In Jesus’ Name we pray, amen.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Battle scars

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep (John 10:11).

In the year 1386, Switzerland fought a decisive battle for independence from Austria at the city of Sempach. The Swiss were facing defeat as the Austrians charged, spears leading the advance. It was then that Arnold von Winkelried rushed towards the Austrians, grabbed as many spearheads with his hands as he could, and deliberately plunged them into his own body. As he died, the weight of his pierced body pulled a large number of Austrian weapons down and out of the fight, opening a hole through which the Swiss soldiers charged, granting them a decisive victory.

In a similar way, our Lord Jesus was born on earth to go ahead of us into battle with the forces of evil. We are all sinners, and sin brings with it the promise of eternal death in hell. On our own, defeat was certain. But Jesus used His own body to keep the eternal death brought by sin from reaching us. Through the beatings, through the crown of thorns, through the nailing to the cross, Jesus placed His body in harm’s way in order to protect us and ensure victory in the struggle. When Jesus died, His body carried the danger of our sins down into the grave where they can no longer hurt us. Then on the third day, Jesus rose from the grave alive once more. Jesus still bears the scars of this battle—He tells us behold My hands (John 20:27), hands which still show the marks of the crucifixion. But our sins, as terrible and powerful as they were, could not keep our Lord in the grave. His love for us compelled Him not only to die for us, but to continue to live for us as well. Jesus promises, because I live, you also will live (John 14:19). And Paul tells us, Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us (Romans 8:34). Every day, Jesus listens to your prayers for forgiveness and gains for you the Father’s mercy. Jesus died to save us from the death of our sins, and He lives to make sure that we can join Him to celebrate the victory in heaven. Please join me in praying,

Dearest Lord Jesus, we thank You for going before us and suffering the injuries of sin that should have been ours. We thank You for single-handedly winning us freedom from the oppression of our sins and the death that they threatened us with. We thank You for rising from the grave to open heaven for us. Help us to never take Your sacrifice for granted, by always holding before us the bloodstained cross along with the empty tomb. Forgive us, keep us faithful, and when our time has come, welcome us home to Your victory celebration. Amen.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The value of one lost sheep

Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them."

Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

"Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, `Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.' In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:1-10).

There’s an old story about a woman who was walking along a beach and came upon a man throwing starfish into the sea. This man looked carefully in the sand, and each time he found a starfish, he would pick it up and gaze at it, then throw it out into the water. The woman came up to him and said “That’s very kind of you, to want to save these sea creatures by throwing them back into the water so they won’t dry out and die. But what’s the point? There’s thousands of starfish on the beach; what difference will it make, throwing a few back?” The man held up a starfish and said, “It matters to this one.”

Churchgoers worry about the size of their congregations. Across America, many congregations are shrinking in membership; few are growing. I’ve been to meetings where church leaders have put up graphs showing changes in membership, and analyses of where evangelism efforts are needed. But the problem with these analyses and plans is that they tend to treat people like numbers in a ledger. Increasing the size of the church can seem to be more important than identifying one person by name and introducing him to our Savior.

Jesus doesn’t approach us this way. Jesus is concerned for each of us individually. In today’s lesson, Jesus uses two illustrations to teach about redemption. In each illustration, one thing is recovered: one sheep and one coin. In each case, the owner is not concerned with how much he or she has, whether it be 99 other sheep or 9 other coins. The owner is consumed with finding that one lost lamb and that one lost coin.

In Jesus’ parables, we are the lost lamb, we are the lost coin. Like them, we have gotten away from our owner, the Son of God. Jesus is our owner because the Father who created us has made Jesus king over us. But as a lamb wanders away from the herd, as a coin rolls off a table to fall on the floor, so also do we stop listening to our owner and go off on our own. Eventually, things start to fall apart: we find ourselves deeply in debt, we are addicted to alcohol or casual sex or drugs, or we’ve made a mess of our relationships with our loved ones. We’ve become lost in our problems; we can’t find a way back out to safety or love. We don’t even know where to look for help, because we’ve wandered out of sight of our caretaker and we don’t know how to find Him.

Thankfully, our God is not content with just His other 99 sheep, His other 9 silver coins. Like the people in today’s parables, Jesus looks for us in our lost, sinful condition. Jesus looks for us diligently and unceasingly. In Jesus’ parables, the shepherd and the woman both went through considerable effort to find what was lost. The shepherd may have had a long walk through brambles or rough countryside to locate his lost sheep. The woman certainly stirred up dirt as she swept the floor, looking for her coin. The shepherd and the woman were both willing to get dirty in their searching and finding. Just so, Jesus went through considerable effort to rescue us from our lost condition. Jesus was also willing to get dirty in order to find us. It is true that Jesus got dirty just by living the life of a wandering preacher; He walked wherever He went on hot, dusty roads and He often preached outdoors. But Jesus truly became dirty because of our sin. Since Jesus is God’s Son, He was born perfect, pure of any sin. But Jesus’ purpose on Earth was to become dirty with our sins as He walked and taught among us. When Jesus suffered on the cross, His blood washed our sins away; when Jesus rose from death on Easter morning, He rose purified of our sins. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, we have the promise of the Father’s grace. All we need do is admit that we’ve done wrong and beg for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Because Jesus has taken the force of His Father’s anger at our sins, the Father is now pleased to give us His forgiveness and the blessing of residency in His eternal mansion.

Everything Jesus did in His three-year ministry on Earth was done for one purpose: to find and rescue His lost sheep. But even though Jesus has paid the price for our sins, His work isn’t completely done. Now that Jesus has won forgiveness and eternal life for us, He continues to seek His lost sheep so that He can give each of them this wonderful gift. Jesus does this work through His Church. The Church isn’t a building, nor is it a group of people who have signed a constitution. The Church is the sum total of every person who believes in Jesus as the only way to receive forgiveness of sins and membership in the Kingdom of God. It is this Church that has been given God’s word in the Bible, so that it can be used to find others who are still lost in their sin. The Church is like the woman in the second parable, using the light of God’s Scriptures to find another person who is lost, like the silver coin. As long as people are lost, Jesus will keep trying to bring them back to His flock; as long as people are lost, Christ’s Church will continue to use God’s word to bring light to those lost in darkness.

People concerned about growth in the church may be tempted think like the woman on the beach, and say: “One person brought back into the fold won’t make much of a difference.” But Jesus takes the view of the man returning starfish to the sea: “It makes all the difference in the world to the sinner who now has a saving faith in Me.” Our sinful nature prompts us to greediness; we want lots of people in church, because it makes us feel like we’re doing ministry right or we have the most faithful people as members, or, most crass of all, we’ll have good collections to support our budget. But while Jesus wants all men to be saved, He takes delight in each individual who turns from his sinful ways in true repentance and puts his trust in Christ. This is the part of repentance we so often forget: joy.

It is a rare thing to see a painting of our Savior smiling, let alone laughing. It is commonly thought that Jesus’ work of finding the lost is so deadly serious that it is inappropriate to think of Jesus enjoying Himself. But Scripture doesn’t teach us any such thing. Heaven is a place of joy. The angels sang in joy at Jesus’ birth. God commands us to praise Him joyfully. Joy would not be possible in Heaven or on Earth if it did not come from God. Jesus often pictured Heaven as a wedding banquet, a joyful meal if ever there was one. In fact, eating meals together was a common way for the Jews of Jesus’ day to enjoy each other’s company. When the shepherd and the woman in Jesus’ parables invited others to rejoice with them, they were most likely inviting them over for a meal and fellowship. Jesus did much of His teaching when at such meals. Indeed, His first public miracle was at the wedding celebration in Cana.

In today’s parables, Jesus casts Himself as the shepherd seeking a lost sheep, and He casts His Church as the woman seeking her lost coin. Both rejoice when the lost is found; both want to share this joy with others. In Heaven, Jesus shares His joy with the angels; on Earth, Christians share this joy with each other. Our God is delighted when a sinner repents and is restored to the Kingdom of God. We are to be similarly delighted when a person who was lost in darkness returns to the light of faith. We are not to grump and groan that not enough people are being converted or restored to active membership, nor are we to be cynical, wondering if the person is really serious about changing his ways. God’s faith, active in another person’s life, is always something worth celebrating. One more person has been snatched from Satan’s control and been restored to true life.

There remains one more point to be made. Our English text reads “one sinner who repents.” But English cannot clearly bring out the true force of the original Greek, which really says “one sinner, repenting.” The difference is subtle, but important. Many branches of American Christianity emphasize the importance of a ‘conversion experience.’ They will ask, “Do you remember the day you came to faith?” Today’s text makes it sound like repentance is an event; after that event, you are now a believer. But the Greek speaks of repenting. Repentance is not a specific moment of decision; it is a lifestyle. Repentance is a way of life where every moment of every day, the Christian knows he is both a saint and a sinner. He is a saint because Christ has put saving faith in his heart. He is a sinner because sin still lives in him, causing all sorts of deadly mischief. A Christian who lives a lifestyle of repentance knows that he is constantly angering God, but also knows that every plea for mercy is granted because Jesus dwells in his heart. Repentance and forgiveness are ongoing activities in the life of the Christian.

Why is this important? Well, remember the 99 sheep the shepherd left alone while he sought the lost sheep? Remember Jesus’ words “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”? We must understand that there are no individuals who are righteous, in and of themselves. But when we live a life of repentance, when we acknowledge our complete and continuing dependence on God for forgiveness and leadership, God lives in us. And since God is righteous, when He lives in us we are filled with His righteous as well. The 99 righteous that Jesus speaks of are those who are already living a life of repenting. And Jesus takes joy in them, too.

Our God is not a God of numbers. He doesn’t concern Himself with charts or graphs; He concerns Himself with people on a personal basis. And that is how He wants us to be. Although Jesus takes our salvation very seriously, our Savior is a Savior who takes joy in His work. And that is how He wants us to be. Jesus is delighted when we live a life of repentance, relying on Him for grace and leadership; Jesus is even more delighted when one of the lost returns to the light of faith by the power of God working through us. So I encourage you: take joy in your faith. Pray the words of David that we know from Psalm 51 verse 12: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Show that joy in worship, like David: “I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD” (Psalm 104:33-34). Show that joy in your everyday life, as Moses instructed the Israelites: “you are to rejoice before the LORD your God in everything you put your hand to” (Deuteronomy 12:18). Rejoice when God has given you release from trouble, as David did: “I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul” (Psalm 31:7). Enjoy every day: “This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). Rejoice, because you have good reason to: God loves you and has given you entry into His kingdom. Live in joy, and those who are still lost will want to share in your joy. Live in joy, and God will use the witness of your joy to bring other individuals into the flock, and further increase the joy of all.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Strength through adversity

When He has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).

Shakespeare once said, “In sickness, let me not so much say, 'Am I getting better of my pain?' as, 'Am I getting better for it?'”

Testing is never fun. No student enjoys taking finales. No pilot enjoys having his skills put to the test by passing through severe weather. But testing is necessary for improvement. Rope is not sold until it has been put through a stress test to increase its strength. An athlete will never reach his full potential unless his skills are put to the test in genuine competition.

There is a saying that goes, “That which does not kill me shall only serve to make me stronger”. Have you ever thought of disease as serving this purpose? It is a fact that after you suffer through infection by a virus, you are generally immune to getting it again. Going through sickness makes your body stronger. The same can also apply to your soul. Job went through terrible sickness—his entire body was afflicted by painful sores. But although his wife advised him to curse God for allowing this to befall him, Job said: when He has tested me, I will come forth as gold. Job knew that gold can never achieve the full potential of its beauty until it has been purified through a refiner’s fire. Neither can a Christian’s faith reach it's full potential without going through periodic testing.

It is easy for us to ignore God when we are feeling good. But when we are sick, especially when doctors can do little to ease our suffering, that is the time when it becomes easier for God to catch and hold our attention. It is when our bodies betray us with pain and weakness that we are forcibly reminded that only God can give us relief from suffering, strength to endure, and hope for the future. It is when we have endured a period of sickness that we recognize God’s hand supporting us, and give Him thanks for staying constantly at our side during the long, bleak hours of the night. Going through sickness is unpleasant, but like any other form of testing, it can bring the result of our faith in the Lord being strengthened. please join me in praying:

Dearest Jesus, our Great Physician, we give You thanks that Your love is so powerful that it can bring blessings even out of hardship. We thank You for bringing us through illness and injury so that we can praise You for Your goodness this day. We ask You to look in kindness on every person reading this devotion who is suffering from an ailment of the body. Cause them to look to You for mercy; move them to place their trust in You. Grant them strength to face the hours that lie ahead with hope in Your benevolence, and forgive us for ignoring You when our healthy bodies tempt us to go other places than to Your house of worship. Amen.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

From a distance?

Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

A tourist to New York City took the trip to the top of the Empire State Building. As he was looking down from that lofty view to the people on the sidewalks, they appeared to him like ants scurrying about their business. The tourist said, “I imagine this is the way the people of the earth look to God.”

This tourist’s comment reminds us of a song made popular by Bette Midler some years ago, where she sings “God is watching us from a distance.” But both Bette and this New York tourist were wrong—God does not view us from a distance! God is not sitting on top of a distant mountain like the gods of Olympus, only looking at our lives with a detached, casual interest. That is the religion of Deism—the belief held by some of America's Founding Fathers that God is like a divine clockmaker who made the universe, wound it up, and now passively watches it tick away on its own.

The Bible reveals a very different God to us. The Bible tells us of a God who is interested in every aspect of our lives, a God who wants us to be praying to Him every day, a God who knows us in such detail that Jesus said: the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matthew 10:30). The Bible tells us of a God who was so interested in our lives that He sent His Son to wear the body of a human being and live among us, sharing in both our joys and sorrows. The Bible tells us of a divine Savior who was willing to suffer God’s anger at our sins on our behalf, because He cared so much about each and every one of us that He was willing to shoulder that terrible punishment for us. We are not insignificant ants to our Lord; in fact, Jesus said: I have called you friends (John 15:15). Please join me in praying:

Dearest Jesus, we thank You for Your loving interest in our lives. We thank You for caring about us so much that You stepped down from the glories of heaven to walk with us. We thank You for dedication to our welfare that nailed You to a cursed cross to die for our sinfulness. Keep us in Your arms always, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Useless people

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the saints.

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I appeal to you on the basis of love. I then, as Paul--an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus--I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

I am sending him--who is my very heart--back to you. I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do will be spontaneous and not forced. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good--no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.

So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back--not to mention that you owe me your very self. I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask (Philemon 1-21).

I’d like you to think about 'useless' people.

What makes a person useless? Let’s consider three different people. First, there’s Sam. Sam used to farm, but his tractor rolled over on him 10 years ago and his back was broken. Ever since the accident, Sam has been paralyzed from the neck down. He can’t dress himself, feed himself, or clean himself without his wife’s help. As a matter of fact, caring for Sam has been quite a burden on his wife. She can’t get a job because he needs her with him constantly, and Sam’s medical bills eat up Social Security before she can fill the refrigerator with food. Even worse, Sam’s wife has come to resent waiting on him hand and foot. They never had a chance to have kids, and she now realizes that she’ll never have any, stuck in this life with a cripple. As far as Sam’s wife is concerned, he is a useless man.

Then there’s Mary. Mary is 32 and still lives at home with her parents. She doesn’t pay rent, cook meals or help with grocery shopping. She’s never held a job for more than a week at a time because she can’t find any place that’s ‘fun’ to work at. She’s had lots of boyfriends and has had three abortions because she didn’t want to be tied down by any kids. Mary’s father wants her to move out on her own, but her mother is afraid that Mary will only get into worse trouble if she isn’t home where she can be taken care of. Mary’s mother loves her daughter desperately, but her father has come to think of Mary as a useless daughter.

Finally, we have Joe. Joe drives his wife crazy. When she asks Joe to put up shelves in the laundry room, she finds him tinkering on the car’s transmission instead. When she asks him to pick up the kids from school, he gets involved fixing the neighbor’s fence and forgets. When she knows she’ll be home late and asks him to make supper, he burns the food. When money is tight at the end of the month, he empties his wallet on lottery tickets. As far as Joe’s wife is concerned, he his completely undependable, useless as a father and as a husband.

What do these three people have in common? First of all, none of them could be depended upon to do things that needed to be done. Sam was unable to give his wife children or to care for himself. Mary was unwilling to take responsibility for living her life independently. Joe’s unreliability made it impossible for his wife to depend on him.

More importantly, all three of these people were afflicted by sin. Because of sin, our Earth and everything on it is imperfect. It was this imperfection that led to Sam’s farming accident, leaving him a burden on his wife. It is the imperfection of sin that tempts people to behave like selfish children, even when they’re grown adults, like Mary. It is the imperfection of sin that makes people easy prey to distractions, like Joe. Sin makes people useless—useless to each other, and useless to God.

Have you ever felt useless, or been told you were useless by somebody else? I wouldn’t be surprised if everyone hasn’t felt or been called useless more than once in their lives. And as if that didn’t make us feel bad enough, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are useless. How many times have you broken a promise to your parents, your spouse, your children, or yourself? How many times have you promised to do something, and found out that you can’t do what you promised? How many times have you told someone that you would do something, just to get them off your back, but never intending to really do it? How many times have you forgotten all about a promise until it was too late?

We feel worthless when we let ourselves down, and we feel guilty when we let our loved ones down. But God also condemns uselessness. In Luke, we find this parable of Jesus: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, `For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil? `Sir,' the man replied, `leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' " (Luke 13:6-9). In this parable, the owner of the vineyard is our Heavenly Father, and the man who wants to give the fig tree a little more time is our Savior, Jesus. God is certainly patient with our uselessness—after all, how many of you would keep an apple tree that didn’t give apples for four years in a row?—but even God’s patience will end eventually.

In today’s devotional reading Paul writes a letter to a wealthy Christian friend named Philemon. Paul writes to him because of Onesimus, a slave who had run away from Philemon (who owned him). As a slave, Onesimus had become worthless; having run away, he was worth nothing to anyone and could never be trusted to dependably follow orders again. Philemon was within his rights to beat Onesimus to death, if he wished. But God had brought Onesimus to where Paul was confined in prison, and through Paul’s words the Holy Spirit gave Onesimus saving faith in Christ. Now Onesimus had a completely different outlook on his life. Onesimus saw how Paul was more a prisoner than he ever was as a slave, yet Paul was at the same time free. Paul may not have been able to live where he wanted or eat his favorite foods, but he was free of the guilt of his sin, free of feeling worthless before God and his fellow Christians. Paul knew that Jesus had lived a life of infinite worth in place of Paul’s life of uselessness. Paul knew that Jesus had died to pay the price of God’s wrath over Paul’s worthlessness. Paul knew that Jesus had returned to eternal life so that the Lord could give worth to Paul’s life and make it useful to God. Paul was able to say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Because of God’s work through Paul, Onesimus came to see that he could be free in every way that truly matters, even while still living the life of a slave to Philemon. It may seem amazing to us, but Onesimus was willing to return to Philemon and continue his life as a slave! Because Onesimus had become a Christian, he did not want to live the life of a criminal; if he was to become a free man, it would be because Philemon freed him legally. Even more remarkably, Paul offered to repay Philemon for any losses incurred by Onesimus’ escape; Paul offered to settled the debt that Onesimus could not, just as Jesus settled our debt of sin which we could not repay.

In many ways, we are Onesimus. We have lived unhappy lives, enslaved to Satan because of the sin that makes us useless people. But thanks to God, we have been brought the saving words of the Gospel by someone like Paul. It may have been your parents, who brought you to be baptized. It may have been someone you dated, who invited you to church. It may have been a friend, who told you of their faith in Christ when you were going through a crisis in your life. It may have been a Gideon Bible in a night stand drawer, or a church service on television, or a devotion you read on the Internet. Somehow, some way, God made sure that you heard His Good News of freedom from sin, just as God made sure that an escaped slave somehow found his way to Paul, chained in a prison cell.

And now, like Onesimus, you are free of the guilt of every sin, through repentance and faith in the One Who Forgives. Because you have the Holy Spirit living in you, you are no longer useless! Because of God, the things we do in service to others have value and can be depended on. God told Paul “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). This means that although we are weak and our works are only feeble attempts at doing good, God takes what faith moves us to say and do and crowns our words and deeds with success! It has pleased our God, who is perfectly dependable, to act faithfully in other people’s lives through us. God, in His infinite mercy, uses the unusable to build His Kingdom in the hearts of mankind.

How does God use us for the benefit of others? There are as many ways as there are Christians. Some are used as artists who design web pages, banners, and bulletins that honor and worship God. Some are used to write and perform music that sings God’s praises. Some are used to grow and distribute food, that people may be fed and give thanks to the God that gives every good thing. Some are used to provide the electricity needed to give light to those who read the Scriptures. Some are used to protect God’s people from those who are still slaves to sin and Satan. And some are used to teach God’s word to His people, since we read in the Acts of the Apostles these words: Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road…that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch…Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" (Acts 8:26-31). This is the most important thing that you and I can be used for—teaching our children, telling our friends and coworkers about the freedom from uselessness that Jesus offers freely to all. Paul told Philemon: you owe me your very self. What Paul meant was that if Philemon had not heard the Gospel he would have nothing of value, even though he was wealthy. When we share the Gospel with others, as Paul shared it with Philemon and Onesimus, God uses us to give life itself! Surely there can be no more important use that we could be put to.

When you break a promise, when you succumb to a bad habit, when others are disappointed with you, read Paul’s letter to Philemon. Think about how Onesimus was a useless person until Christ made him His own. Remember that Christ has made you His own through Baptism. Remember that God’s power is made perfect in your weakness. And thank God that He uses us, the useless, to bring His light and life to those who still live their lives in hopeless despair. Thank you Lord, for using us to do Your good works.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Stability in a changing world

I the LORD do not change (Malachi 3:6).

As the seasons change, the constellations visible in the sky also change; come winter, well-known stars like Betelgeuse, Rigel, Orion and Sirius replace the night lights of the summer months. Even over the course of one night, the constellations move from one horizon to the other. Thankfully for those who travel, there is one star that essentially remains in the same place every night, all night; this is the North Star (also called Polaris, the 'pole star'), and people have depended on it for navigation throughout history.

Unlike the stars, God is not subject to change. Even a so-called “fixed star” (like the North Star) is not truly fixed in place. Nothing in nature remains constant. Every celestial body is constantly moving; it’s just that some stars are so far away that they do not appear to move. For instance, two stars in the Great Dipper, one at either end, are travelling in a direction opposite to that of the other five stars--but it will be a thousand years before anyone on earth could notice a significant change in their positions relative to each other. Someday the North Star will be out of position, and Vega, the bright star in the constellation of Lyra, will then be used by navigators as the pole star. Even things that seem as unchangeable as stars do slowly change over time.

But the Creator is not like His creation. God does not change. God has always been alive, and He always will be alive. God has always been perfectly holy, and He always will be perfectly holy. God has always been just and fair, and He always will be just and fair. And God has always loved the creature He named Man, and He always will love we His created children.

Isn’t this comforting? What relationship in your life has ever proven to be permanent? Parents die. Children grow up and start their own families. Friends move away. Spouses file for divorce. It doesn’t seem as if there is any person in your life that you can always count on to be there for you.

But God does not change. Death cannot remove God from our lives, because Jesus defeated death through His glorious resurrection from the grave. God does not grow bored with us and turn His attention to something else. And God will not divorce us—He will not give up on us, no matter how often we neglect Him and direct our love somewhere else, so long as we come back to Him in genuine sorrow for our mistakes. God is always present, and He always wants to be the pole star of our lives. He is the one person that you can always count on. Please join me in praying:

Heavenly Father, we praise You for Your dependability; when the chaos of our lives threatens to overwhelm us, it is wonderful knowing that You are always there for us, always ready to forgive us, love us and help us. Keep us close to You always, our anchor in the storm. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Giving cheerfully

God loves a cheerful giver (2nd Corinthians 9:7).

Two members of the same congregation left church together one Sunday morning. As they crossed the street, one of them began to complain bitterly. “Well, we heard it again this morning. We’re supposed to give willingly, give regularly, give generously. Give, give, give! When are all these appeals for money going to stop?”

His friend turned to him and said, “Bill, you remember my son Jim, don’t you? When Jim came into the world, he cost me quite a tidy sum. I had to pay for the doctor bill and the hospital charges, buy a crib and car seat, and so on. In addition, money had to be spent on medicine, food, clothing, and other such items. As Jim began to grow up, expenses increased. When he started school, we spent money on transportation, books, and fundraisers. In due time we were told that he should have braces on his teeth—that was quite an expenditure, I assure you! He entered high school, and now we had the expenses of uniforms and a car for him to drive. And then he went away to college—you can imagine what that cost!

“Well, as you may remember, just a few weeks before he was to graduate, Jim became critically ill. We paid for every test and procedure that was available, but the good Lord was pleased to call Jim home to heaven. Bill, since we buried our boy, he hasn’t cost us a single additional cent—no, not one cent!”

It is a bit of a truism that “you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone.” Jesus promised that His church would survive every hardship that Satan could throw against it—the holy Christian Church will still be offering shelter to the hopeless and the despairing right up to the day that Jesus returns in glory. But no individual congregation is promised to exist that long; all across America there are empty church buildings that were closed because their congregations could not afford to keep them in operation.

God loves a cheerful giver. In a sense, your giving to the support of Christ’s work in a local congregation or in foreign missions is a measure of the joy that you have in your heart over being a Christian. How much do you appreciate hearing the Word of God, in church or on the radio or TV? How much do you appreciate having a member of the clergy to talk to when tragedy darkens your life? How much do you appreciate having a church to go to for baptisms, weddings, and funerals? Do you appreciate God’s work in your life enough to cheerfully support it? Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, we thank You for Your gifts won for us by Your death on the cross—release from guilt, reconciliation with God, and the promise of everlasting life beyond the grave. We thank You for placing so many Christians churches in the world from whom we are privileged to receive this Good News. Help us to never take Your churches for granted, and give us the desire to support them so that they will always be a part of our lives. Amen.

Friday, October 07, 2005

The hell you say

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?"
He said to them, "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, `Sir, open the door for us.'
"But he will answer, `I don't know you or where you come from.'
"Then you will say, `We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.'
"But he will reply, `I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!'
"There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last" (Luke 13:22-30).

“What the hell is going on here?” “Who the hell do you think you are?” “Hell if I know.”

This is the way many people talk nowadays. 'Hell' has become a common, everyday word. People use 'hell' to emphasize how angry they are. It has become a word that describes their emotional state.

But it wasn’t always so. Were you surprised by my casual use of 'hell' when I started this devotion? Did I make you feel uncomfortable? If so, good for you! It wasn’t so many years ago that 'hell' was considered a bad word; you didn’t use it in polite company and children got into trouble for saying it. Back then, saying 'hell' was considered the same thing as saying 'damn you' or 'damn it to hell.' It was a curse, a wish that a person, thing, or situation would be condemned by God to hell because of the suffering it was causing. Since Scripture forbids cursing, 'hell' was seen as sinful language.

But what’s the big deal? Why should anyone get stirred up over 'hell'? It isn’t a real place, is it? Or even if it is, nobody really goes there, do they? Our God is a God of love; surely, no God of love would send anybody to hell. The Bible just talks about hell to scare us into leading a good life, right?

Wrong. Hell is real. There are people in hell right now, and more people are going there every day. And they aren’t getting there on their own, either--our God is sending them there. That is why hell is a big deal, that is why Christians ought to squirm when hell is talked about. We know that it is a real place. We know that being sent there is no laughing matter. The consequence of damnation in hell is deadly serious business, not something to ever be treated lightly.

What do we know about hell? First of all, we know that it is a place of punishment set up by God for the fallen angels we call devils and demons. In Matthew 25:41, Jesus warns us of Judgment Day: “Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” We know that there are human beings imprisoned in hell as well. Saint Peter speaks of Jesus visiting hell in triumph after He was crucified: “He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago…” (1 Peter 3:18-20). We know that it is a place of terrible suffering: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth” (Luke 13:28). It is a place of unending pain, where “their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). It is a place separated from God’s presence and the light of His divine love: “Then the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness…” (Matthew 22:13).

Who is sent to hell? Jesus says “anyone who says, `You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell” (Matthew 5:22). He also tells us “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-30). According to Jesus, anyone who has a casual sinful thought or lets a careless word slip from his lips is worthy of imprisonment in hell!

There are many people today who cannot accept that hell is a very real threat. I have heard more than one person say “I can’t believe in a God that would send anyone to hell.” What an arrogant attitude! As if we are in the position of deciding which god to believe in? Scripture teaches us that there is only one God, and He is a just and holy God. Our God cannot stand sin; sin is rebellion against everything that God values. God values honesty; sin suggests that we say whatever we must to stay out of trouble. God expects us to give; sin encourages us to fill our homes with expensive, pretty things. God desires that we love others; sin wants us to look out for Number One. God demands perfection from us; sin allows us an “A” for effort. God expects us to be holy like Him; sin taints every part of our personality and every aspect of our lives.

Thankfully, it is sin God hates, not the sinner. God hates the evil things we think, say and do, but He doesn’t hate us. God loves us. He has always loved us. God loved each and every one of us before we were even born. And that created a problem for God. God is perfect and will not tolerate the slightest imperfection in the things that are His. When Satan led a group of angels in rebellion against God, God banished them all to hell because of their sin. But mankind is the crown of God’s creation; of all the things He’s made, God loves mankind the most. That is why Satan tempted Adam and Eve to sin—Satan knew that there was no worse way that he could hurt God than to make Him send humanity to hell because of their sins. After all, Satan thought, God is perfect; how could He stop being perfect and turn a blind eye to mankind’s sin? A perfect God must be perfectly just.

But our wise and loving God found a way to remain perfectly just, punishing all sins, while also offering His beloved children escape from the doom of hell. God sent His perfect Son to suffer the torments of hell on our behalf. All the punishment we have so rightly deserved was heaped on Jesus as He hung on that cruel Roman cross nearly 2,000 years ago. During those long hours of Good Friday, Jesus suffered every moment of our eternal imprisonment in hell. When Jesus finally said “It is finished” and died, He was announcing to us that the power of hell to claim sinful man had been broken. Only Jesus could bear an eternity of suffering on behalf of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. Jesus alone could bear our punishment because He was and is our true God, living in human flesh and bone. Only God, with infinite power, infinite endurance and infinite love, could be greater than all the wickedness this world has ever known. Only Jesus Christ, our God, is the means to be rid of our rightful punishment so that heaven replaces hell as our eternal home.

Jesus won release from hell and reconciliation with His Father for everyone, but not everyone will receive this gift of release. When God the Father looks at mankind, our sin is still present; the proof is on the news every day. Jesus paid for our sins, but He did not remove our sinful nature. Every day, people lie, cheat, steal, rape and murder. Christians continue to commit sins, as do their unbelieving neighbors. But there is a difference. A Christian is a person who humbly admits his sins, desperately desires forgiveness, believes that Jesus has suffered his punishment on his behalf, and trusts that because of this, the Father finds him acceptable for heaven. When our heavenly Father looks on a person with this faith, God does not see a need for punishment—the sentence of death has already been carried out on Jesus’ cross. But when the Father looks at the life of the unbeliever, He finds no recognition of wrongdoing, no hope in the supreme sacrifice Jesus made on this person's behalf. For such a person, hell remains the eternal home that follows death. God wants the unbeliever to be saved; Paul says “God our Savior...wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4). But there is only one way for a man to be saved; Jesus says “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). When a man dies in unbelief, hell is a very real place indeed.

In the Scripture passage that started this devotion, a person asks how many would be saved. Jesus turns the question around and asks each and every one of us, ‘Will you be saved?’ The answer is yes, we will be saved, because we have a Christian faith, a faith that moves us to repent of our sinning, a faith that knows that Jesus has paid the price for our sinning, a faith that trusts that, because of Jesus, we really can expect to see God in His heaven when we die. We have this saving faith because God’s Holy Spirit has entered us through baptism and time spent with God’s word. But this is not something that we dare take for granted. Jesus warns us that we must “make every effort to enter through the narrow door.” Jesus Himself is the narrow door; in John 10:9 we read “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.” Heaven is not like a stadium, where many doors allow entry; Jesus alone is the way into the Father’s heavenly throne room. Jesus instructs us to ‘make every effort’ to enter the narrow door, because He knows full well how much of a struggle Satan will make it for us. Paul says, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (Romans 7:18-20). Thankfully, we are not left to this struggle by ourselves; in Acts 2:37-38 we read, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It is this Holy Spirit who not only gives us faith, but also gives us the strength to struggle with our sinful nature, so that when we die, we will die in the Lord.

Jesus also admonishes us to make ‘every effort’ to enter, because there is a time limit; when a man dies, if he dies outside the faith, he will find the door to heaven closed. Only the person who trusts in Christ alone will pass through the narrow door when his last breath leaves his body. We can die at any time; no one knows if he will die unexpectedly in a car crash or of a sudden heart attack. That is why it is important that you listen to God’s word today and tomorrow and the next day. The Holy Spirit who provides our faith and strength in our struggles comes through hearing and studying God’s word. This is why we are grateful that God provides clergy to preach His word and Sunday School teachers to help parents “Train a child in the way he should go” (Proverbs 22:6).

Jesus tells us to ‘make every effort’ to enter by the narrow door. So I urge you: see that your children attend Sunday School every week. Go to a Bible class so that you “may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). Attend church on Sunday and hold family devotions the other six days of the week. Don’t take your faith in God for granted and give Satan an opening to lure you back to hell. ‘Make every effort’ to enter through the narrow door and you will not be disappointed, for that narrow door leads to the eternal presence of God and a heavenly celebration that will never end.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Setting aside worldly distractions

Do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:31-33).

Sir William Cecil was once the Lord Treasurer of England. When he went to bed at night, he would take off his robe of office and say to it: "Lie there, Lord Treasurer." In this way he was setting aside all the affairs of state for which he was responsible, so that he could get a peaceful night’s rest.

This is a habit we would do well to cultivate in ourselves when we spend time with God. How often do you find your mind wandering during a sermon, or while reading a devotion, or while in prayer? Oftentimes, we come to church or start a table prayer without first clearing our minds of everything else. Devoting our attention to God is not a passive recreational activity, like sitting down to watch a TV show. Worshiping God is an activity that requires concentration, no different than the concentration needed to cut a lawn in straight rows or properly finish a piece of embroidery.

It is hard to concentrate on God when we let worries gnaw at us. Thankfully, Jesus invites us to turn our worries over to Him. Peter writes, cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you (1 Peter 5:7). Whenever you prepare to worship our Lord, take a moment to go to Jesus in prayer and ask Him to do two things for you: first, ask Him to take the things you are worried about under His almighty care; second, ask Him to help you focus on Him alone as you devote your time to Him. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and He will see to it that you have everything you truly need. Please join me in prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, forgive us for letting the worries of life distract us from focusing properly on You. Help us to turn our concerns over to You every day, because You have both the wisdom and the power to resolve things in ways that we never can. Move us to set time aside for You every day, and when we do, help us to devote our attention entirely to You. Amen.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

A thorough education

All Scripture comes from God’s mouth, and is useful for teaching, warning, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2nd Timothy 3:16-17).

Many years ago, writer and Yale University Doctor William Lyon Phelps wrote: “I thoroughly believe in a university education for both men and women, but I believe a knowledge of the Bible without a college course is more valuable than a college course without the Bible. Every one who has a thorough knowledge of the Bible may truly be called educated, and no other learning or culture, no matter how extensive or elegant, can form a proper substitute."

What do you suppose is the most important field of study? Physics? Biology? Mathematics? Political Science? These fields of study are highly prized in our modern world, and a person who is an expert in one of them can make a comfortable living.

But will a Ph.D. in molecular biology save a troubled marriage? Will a Nobel Prize in mathematics enable you to avoid death and live forever? When it comes to matters of life and death, only one field of knowledge is truly worth mastering—the knowledge of the Word of God given to us through Jesus Christ. Only the Word of God can properly equip us for life’s most urgent problems—how to love unselfishly, how to forgive and be forgiven, how to find peace and purpose in life, how to survive the grave and live forever.

The Bible is God’s Word given to us. Every teaching of the Holy Scriptures comes from God’s own lips. Peter tells us prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2nd Peter 1:21). The Bible is not an anthology of myths made up by men, it is the authentic message of God dictated to men who willingly set God’s words down in writing so that you and I could have our own copy of the Lord’s message in our own homes! No library in the world can replace the Bible as the one indispensable resource to living life and facing death. Everything that you need is given by God to you in its pages—all you need do is open the cover and start reading. Please join me in praying:

Thank you, Holy Spirit, for taking the Words of heaven and placing them in our hands. Forgive us when we allow this wonderful gift to collect dust on our shelves. Move us to open our Bibles and read from them every day, and help us to clearly understand the wonderful things You have caused to be written there. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.


One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: "When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, `Give this man your seat.' Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, `Friend, move up to a better place.' Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

The president of the Ellingsworth National Bank decides to throw a party. It’s been about a year since the last one he hosted, so it’s his turn again. He doesn’t need to think about whom to invite; it’ll be the usual group. Edward, the surgeon; Marlys, the attorney; Carl, the owner of the golf course; Frank, the mayor; and so on. No, the question isn’t who to invite, it’s what to serve and how to decorate. Perhaps a delicate chicken cordon bleu, with truffles? No, Gene had that at his party back in April. Hmm, maybe shrimp balls wrapped in extra-lean bacon strips, with chilled lobster tails? Yes, that should do. As to the rest, the caterer can decide on appropriate choices. Now, about the ice sculpture centerpiece…

The night of the party arrives. Every one is there. Overall, it is a splendid evening. The bank president got a bit of a chuckle watching everyone jockeying for seats near the head of the table; he had deliberately ‘forgotten’ to have name tags put on each person’s plate. He enjoyed finding out who most desperately wanted to be the envy of everyone there; such a weak person could be a useful tool in the future. The only thing that marred the party was the homeless man who the caterers caught rummaging through the garbage cans, looking for food; unpleasant, having to deal with that type of person. Still, a successful party; Frank will have his work cut out for him, trying to top it next month…

In today’s lesson, Jesus was invited to attend a snooty party like this. The host was a prominent Pharisee. Pharisees were Jewish men of higher education, who devoted their lives to being respectable. They thought of themselves as the elite, because they followed the Laws of God so carefully. They figured, if anyone deserved to go to Heaven, it was they. Most common folk respected the Pharisees, for the holy lives they led, as an example to others.

The Pharisees recognized that Jesus was also a man of superior education, but they were puzzled by Him. Jesus didn’t want to be a part of their group. Instead, He spent much of His time fraternizing with the poor, the sick, and those who worked in dirty, degrading jobs. So a prominent Pharisee invited Jesus to a party with his friends. They wanted to see how Jesus would handle Himself when He was with His equals and His betters. They hoped to find out why this educated man of God wasted His time with sinful people.

Jesus took this opportunity to teach the Pharisees, not only about Himself and His heavenly kingdom, but also about themselves. Jesus taught His fellow guests about how guests should conduct themselves, and He taught His host how hosts should throw their parties. Common to both is Jesus’ teaching on pride and humility, and the rewards that God gives for each.

Jesus’ fellow guests were guilty of pride. When they came to the banquet, each of them competed for the seats close to the host, because only the most favored were allowed to sit near the master of the banquet. Their reasons for wanting these seats were purely selfish. Some wanted to be able to influence the wealthy man who was hosting the party; today, many businessmen broker important deals over lunch, where the fellowship of eating helps bring people together on a more personal level. Other guests at the Pharisee’s party wanted to gain the respect of others by being seen as a favorite of the influential host; today many teenagers crave the respect that could come if they were accepted by the popular group of kids at school. For the guests at the Pharisee’s banquet, pride either made them desire influence over others that they did not deserve, or seek to gain respect in a shallow way.

Jesus’ host was also guilty of pride. When he threw his party, he was seeking to impress his friends with his wealth and good taste. The host was proud of what he had and believed that ‘if you have it, flaunt it.’ Today people flaunt their wealth by buying expensive cars, wearing designer clothes, or by bragging about their jobs. For the influential Pharisee who hosted the party, pride made him want to buy the companionship of others through extravagant spending.

Jesus criticized prideful behavior. He did this because pride is a sin, and serves to separate us from God. Every human being needs to be appreciated. But pride makes us believe that we deserve to be appreciated. Pride makes it impossible for us to recognize that sin has made us unacceptable to God, and that nothing we do can please God. We are like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day when we perform an act of kindness or charity and then smugly think ‘I did good’ or ‘Now God will be happy with me.’ Pride prevents us from understanding Jesus’ words (spoken in Luke 6:32 and Luke 17:9-10): “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even `sinners' love those who love them” and “Would (a master) thank (his) servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "

Pride also makes it impossible for us to receive God’s grace. Everything God gives us is an undeserved gift. But pride wants us to believe that we receive good things from God because we are entitled to them, that God is obligated to bless us and take us to heaven. Pride says that ‘God made me this way, so I am good enough just as I am.’ Pride prevents us from seeing that we need rescue from our sins, that we need a Savior. Pride won’t accept gifts; when Jesus says that forgiveness of sins is free, pride wants to earn Jesus’ favor by doing something to ‘pay off’ the transgression. A person struggling with pride does not want to admit to dependence on anyone or anything, because he fears that being dependent will cost him the respect of others.

Solomon, by God’s wisdom, said “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). This echoes Jesus’ words “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled.” But it would be wrong of us to read these words as a divine threat. The prideful are not brought low because God is punishing them, but because He loves them. Jesus knows that, as long as pride rules our hearts, we cannot see that we need Him as our only way to enter Heaven. Jesus knows that, if our pride is left unchallenged, we will die without a Savior and will spend eternity bitterly regretting our foolishness. So Jesus promises us that the prideful will not go through life unchallenged; at a time of His choosing, God grabs us by the shoulders and forces us to take a good, hard look at ourselves in the mirror of His Law. A time comes when nothing we can do helps us to escape the hole we’ve dug ourselves into. At that time, when our pride has been dealt a crippling blow, Jesus comes to us again with His words of promise: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29). And the Holy Spirit, working faith in our hearts through Jesus’ words, removes our sinful pride and helps us to beg forgiveness for our arrogance. Then Jesus gives us the undeserved gift of forgiveness, and welcomes us as one of God’s children.

As one of God’s children, our sinful pride is replaced with God-pleasing humility. Humility is the opposite of pride. Where pride wants us to have selfish influence over others, humility recognizes that we are all sinners, imperfect and in need of God’s wisdom and leadership. Humble Christians speak their minds, but realize that their ideas may be flawed because of sin, and are willing to accept the wisdom of others. Humble Christians always include in their prayers, ‘Thy will be done, O Lord.’

Where pride wants us to gain the respect of others by being part of the ‘in’ crowd, even if that means hiding our Christian values, humility realizes that because of our daily sinning, we are not worthy of respect. Humble Christians look for friends who, like them, know that they are imperfect and need forgiveness daily. Humble Christians treasure friends who are willing to forgive their mistakes, because Christ has first forgiven them.

Where pride wants us to buy the love of others through extravagant gifts, humility knows that true love is a gift; it cannot be purchased or earned. Humble Christians give God thanks for their material blessings, and pass on what they can to the poor, the suffering, the weak. Humble Christians don’t blow money on the most expensive or most trendy things; they spend money carefully for the purpose of showing genuine care and concern for those who they love.

Jesus was born in a manger and wrapped in inexpensive cloth. He grew up a carpenter’s son. Jesus never owned more than He could carry with Him as He walked the dusty roads of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea, teaching about His Father’s heavenly kingdom. Jesus washed His disciple’s feet before He was put do death, an innocent man condemned for our transgressions against God. Jesus lived the life of humility that God expects of us. While we try and beat down our selfish pride, we often fail. When we do fall victim to pride, we beg Jesus for forgiveness; since our sin could not keep Jesus in the grave, His resurrection gives us the proof we need that He can forgive us for our sinful pride. Pray that Jesus will forgive your pride and give you the gift of a humble heart; thank Him for living the life of true humility, on your behalf, that God had expected of you

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