Saturday, December 31, 2005

2006--a better year?

The LORD said to Moses, "Tell Aaron and his sons, `This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ` "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace." ' So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them." (Numbers 6:22-27)

The ancient Romans used to worship a two-faced god. This god was associated with gates and doorways of all kinds; his symbol was carved on doorposts in such a way that he could simultaneously keep an eye on people both arriving and departing. This god was also the patron of leaving the past behind and making a new start. He was called Janus, and his name is still honored today by our calling the first month of the New Year January.

January serves as a doorway by which we leave the old year and enter the new; it is also the month in which we look back at the mistakes of the year just past and make resolutions to live life differently in the future. As January begins, we say goodbye to the past and celebrate the possibilities offered by a bright, shining new year.

I’m sure that every one of you has some pleasant memories from 2005, happy events that filled you with joy and still warm your heart today. But I am even more sure there are things about 2005 that you would be happy to forget. Loved ones lost to you because of a stupid fight, or their moving away, or their death. Stress caused by changing jobs or moving to a new place of residence. Concern over foolish decisions that you couldn’t stop your children or friends from making. The pain and depression resulting from health problems or advancing age. Despair over your inability to free yourself from an addiction or find relief from a compulsive behavior. Every person reading this has experienced something painful in 2005 that you’d just as soon leave behind as you enter 2006.

Have you made your New Year’s resolutions? Are you facing the New Year with confident hope that things will be better? Not to burst your bubble, but perhaps now would be a good time for a reality check. Think back to other January firsts; call up from memory New Year’s resolutions that you’ve made in the past. Considered as a whole, how many of them have you successfully kept? What’s your track record for shaking off the mistakes of your past? How confident can you be than 2006 will really be significantly better than 2005?

I’m not out to make you depressed. I actually do want you to be optimistic about the new year. But I want you to be optimistic for the right reasons. New Year’s resolutions won’t significantly change your life—not if you are pinning your hopes for improvement upon yourself.

Frankly, most of what goes on in your life is beyond your control. You can’t make the economy go the way you want it to. You can’t stop wars from happening. You can lead a healthy lifestyle, but that won’t prevent you from getting sick or eventually dying. You can be an excellent parent, but you can’t stop your children from engaging in dangerous behavior. You can be the best spouse in the world, but you can’t ensure that the person you married won’t cheat on you or leave you.

But let’s face it—you can’t even control yourself all the time. How many promises have you made that you just couldn’t keep? How many times have you lost or forgotten something important? How many times have you let your anger or your lust or your greed lead you into making a foolish decision? How many times have you been in such a rush that you didn’t consider the consequences of your actions?

We would like to believe that we are in control of our lives, that we know what is best for us. The sad fact is, though, that control is often an illusion, and even when we have control, we make a mess of things far more often than we’d like to admit. This being the case, how can we look at the New Year and believe that we can make things significantly better than they have been?

For 2006 to be a better year, we need to see 2005 clearly. That means that we have to stop kidding ourselves, we have to stop hiding our heads in the sand like ostriches and own up to the truth—we are failures. And the reason we are failures is because we are sinners. We fail because we try to live without God. To live without God is to sin. To make decisions without asking for God’s leadership is to sin. To spend our time on activities that do not honor God is to sin. To spend our money on things that do not serve God’s purposes is to sin. To ignore God by neglecting to give Him our time is to sin.

The failures of 2005 were due to sin. Loneliness happens when our sins drive us apart from each other. Fear happens when sinful behavior gets out of control and threatens us with danger. Anger flares up when sin demands that we get our way, regardless of the consequences. Worry is the result of sin leading us to believe that we can’t trust God to take care of things. Every unpleasant memory of the year just past can be traced to the failures brought about by sin.

Of course, not every memory of 2005 is a bad one; but to keep things in proper perspective, let’s be careful about where to give credit for the good things that occurred. The apostle James tells us that "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights" (James 1:17). All good things come from God, and He showers them down on everybody, not just the faithful—Jesus said: He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). And God’s generosity is not limited to just sprinkling gifts here and there; during one of his most famous speeches, Paul declared: "he…gives all men life and breath and everything else…in him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:25). God is active continually, making your life possible from moment to moment; speaking of His Father’s ongoing activity, Jesus said: My Father is always at his work to this very day (John 5:17). The only reason that you have pleasant memories of 2005 is because of God’s ongoing generosity.

Since sin is the underlying cause of all unpleasantness, what can we do to make 2006 a better year? On our own, nothing. Our sinful impulses are too strong, too much a part of us. Because of the sin that distorts our thinking, we cannot see the truth of things. Sin hijacks our emotions and colors our perception of everything we see and hear; sin makes it impossible for us to live the kind of lives God had intended for us. Romans chapter 8 tells us, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8).

However, things are not hopeless. Paul goes on to say, You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Romans 8:9). This is what gives us hope for the coming year being a better one. Second Corinthians 5:17-18 says, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. It started 2,000 Christmases ago with Jesus, when the Son of God entered the world as a mortal through the womb of a virgin believer. Our Lord grew to manhood without having a single sinful desire; He lived a perfect life untainted by any sinful words or deeds. Jesus lived His life perfectly so that when He suffered and died on the cross, it was not for His own sins, but for ours. All of the anger God harbored at our sins was expended on Jesus; because of this we can be reconciled to God through Christ’s merit.

Christ not only died for our sins, He showed His victory over them by rising again from the grave. Alive once more, Jesus comes to we who believe--and lives within us. Each time we humbly turn to Him in prayer and ask for mercy, He forgives our sins and erases the mistakes of our past, giving us a fresh start that is as new and exciting and filled with hope as New Year’s Day.

Nor does it end there. Because God is within us, we have access to a moral compass that can show the right path through the fog of sin. Because God is within us, we have a source of enthusiasm and strength and courage that can help us to face difficult times with calmness, and enable us to do the right thing even when the right thing is hard to do. When our Lord lives in us, He works constantly to remake us to be increasingly like Him, and while we will never come close to being perfect while on earth, years spent united to the Savior can bring dramatic improvements into one’s life.

No amount of New Year’s resolutions will make 2006 a significantly better year than the one just past, unless your resolution is to follow the advice given in 2nd Peter chapter three: grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Only God can control the weather. Only God can force warring nations to stand down. Only God can bring health from sickness. Only God can bring life to the dead. Only God can erase the mistakes of the past and offer a new beginning. Only God can give real hope for a better year to come.

The prophet Nahum writes, The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him (Nahum 1:7). If you want 2006 to be a better year, snuggle in close to the Lord. Spend time singing to Him songs of thankfulness and joy. Get to know His heart better by reading the Book that He wrote. Spend time praying, and slow down so you do not miss it when He answers your prayers. Ask Christ to lead you through the year, and then let Him! Ask Jesus to take over your worries and concerns, and then let Him! Stop fighting the Savior and instead let Him show you how to live in the months to come.

When Moses was leading the people of God through the wilderness, God told him how a better tomorrow could be theirs. His instruction was this--have the religious leaders, starting with Aaron, bless the people with these words: May the LORD bless you and protect you. May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you. May the LORD show you his favor and give you his peace. God promised that when the Israelites had been designated as His own people in this way, He would bless them.

God’s representatives still give this blessing today. You hear it at the end of most worship services. If God is important to you, important enough for you to spend time with Him regularly, than you are present when His blessing is given. And it is only by the grace of God that 2006 can be the shiny New Year that we all hope it will be.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Enduring worth

He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:11-12).

Paintings, music and books that were held in wide acclaim a few years ago are now all but forgotten; other works of art and literature, insulted and ignored in their day, are now hailed as masterpieces. Schubert could not find steady employment during his life; Rembrandt died bankrupt; Mozart had to work so hard to make ends meet that he contracted tuberculosis. Paderewski’s music was scorned by German critics; Van Gogh’s paintings were spat upon by respectable Dutch burghers in his native land; Verdi was refused admission to the Milan Conservatory of Music.

Jesus was the ultimate example of such rejection. He represented more than just advancement in education or in culture; He was "the way and the truth and the life" (John 14:6). Jesus spoke the unvarnished truth about the human condition—that all humanity is mired in soul-rotting selfishness. Jesus revealed the way out of the deadly quicksand of our sins—that God is willing to forgive everyone who turns their back on the love of sinning and asks Jesus to take them by the hand. And Jesus offered life itself—life that had meaning and value, life that would not be ended by death. Jesus offered up His life on the cross to give us the opportunity to embark on this new way of living.

Because Jesus offered something so radically different, the world judged Him as a dangerous fanatic, out of touch with the needs of society. He was rejected more completely and severely than anyone has ever been rejected. Yet 2,000 years later His teachings, His promises and His love shine as brightly as ever, giving hope to those whom the world has cast aside. No amount of ridicule, hatred or persecution can ever diminish the glory and perfection of the holy Word of God. Please join me in praying:

We thank You, Lord Jesus, for being our beautiful Savior in a world that loves the ugliness of sinful things. May we always treasure Your gift of the holy Bible, and may we always speak to others of Your truths that time can never destroy. Amen.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Keeping in shape

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9:10).

Have you ever seen a picture of what the imaginary inhabitants of Mars are supposed to look like? They are usually pictured as being all head and eyes and ears, with miniature bodies and spindly arms and legs. And that would probably be a good picture of someone who has been trained only in mind, ignoring the physical development of the body. Pictures have also been produced of what Mars, the Roman god of war, might look like if he truly existed. He is not particularly handsome, with his bullet-shaped head, his neck and shoulders like an ox, and a body bound in muscles. And that is probably a good picture of someone whose efforts at development have been concentrated on the body at the expense of the mind.

Most people would agree that to be healthy, both mind and body must be developed; to leave either one stunted is unnatural. But it is just as unnatural to think that someone can be a whole person without spiritual development, a knowledge of the things of God. Someone once said, "To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." The man who spoke these words was not a preacher; he was a former president of the United States, Teddy Roosevelt. An English philosopher, who was also practical enough to be an engineer and an architect, once said, "When a man’s knowledge is not in order, the more of it he has, the greater will be his confusion."

Information without a moral context is useless. For example, science can explain how babies are formed through the mixing of male and female DNA. But killing someone might not be a big deal to a person who believes that all humans are accidents of nature, whereas killing is a big deal to someone who believes that God creates every human life. We are given a great deal of information throughout our lives, and we are given bodies that can act on that information; but it takes spiritual development to be able to decide the best way to use our minds and bodies. Please join me in praying,

Lord Jesus, we live in a world that cares more about the perfection of our bodies and the content of our minds than it cares about the rightness of our actions. Forgive us for neglecting our spiritual development. Give us the desire to study Your Bible, where we might find the wisdom to make decisions that are pleasing to You and that serve others in love. Amen.

Friday, December 23, 2005

A Christmas without Christ

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told
(Luke 2:1-20).

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no decorations. No Christmas tree. No lights strung on the porch. No garland or tinsel. No Yule logs or mistletoe. No Santas or reindeer.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without these decorations? Christmas trees did not come into use until the year 1510. Christmas lights weren’t available until 1920. Yule logs and mistletoe were first used by Norsemen and druids in their religious ceremonies before they found their way into Christmas. Santa, as he is known today, got his first publicity from Washington Irving in 1809, and Montgomery Ward introduced Rudolph to the world in 1939. Although the decorations are pretty, they have not always been part of the Christmas experience.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no holiday treats. No cookies. No eggnog. No candy canes.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without Christmas treats? Well, we might lose a few pounds! But once again, Christmas treats are not as old a tradition as you might think. Candy canes were first given out by a choirmaster in 1670 to keep the children quiet during long church services. The recipe for eggnog was finalized just 150 years ago. The earliest Christmas cookies were ginger, spritz, and krumkake, all of which first became popular in the 1500s--and cookie-cutter shapes did not become common until the 1930s. Sweets are enjoyable, but they haven’t always been a part of Christmas.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no pre-recorded music. No songs on the radio. No music in the stores. No Christmas specials on TV. No animated plastic snowmen mangling carols with a hissing synthetic voice.

What would we lose by having a Christmas without pre-recorded music? Music could not be recorded and reproduced until the 1870s. Prior to that, making music was a live event. Christmas music could only be heard in church, from groups of wandering carolers, or when families gathered around pianos in their homes. Music has always been a part of Christmas, beginning with the angels singing Good News to the shepherds. However, making music was always a group event.

I’d like you to imagine a Christmas with no shopping. No Christmas cards. No Christmas presents. No Christmas dinner.

What would we lose by having a Christmas with no shopping? Well for one thing, we would lose a huge credit card statement come January. But once again, this is a tradition of recent times. The large Christmas dinner dates from the Middle Ages. Christmas cards weren’t invented until 1840. The interest in giving elaborate gifts on Christmas started with a Macy’s holiday promotion in 1867, and modern holiday shopping habits developed during World War II when retailers urged customers to ‘buy early’ so that gifts mailed to troops serving overseas would arrive in time for Christmas.

Some people have the mistaken idea that the tradition of gift giving started with the Wise Men bringing gifts to Christ. Not so! When a person comes to meet royalty, it is customary to bring a gift. The Wise Men came seeking ‘The King of the Jews’; their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh were intended to show respect to the newborn King. Modern gift giving is completely different; instead of giving our gifts to the King, we give our gifts to each other. Our pattern of gift giving is not based on the example of the Wise Men.

No decorations. No treats. No pre-recorded music. No shopping. Strip these all away and Christmas would look different—in fact, it would look like Christmas as it was first observed in the fourth century. In those days, the Roman Empire was made up of both Christians and non-Christians in large numbers. Many non-Christian religions celebrated the end of one year and the beginning of the next on the date of the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. To encourage unity among the citizens, Emperor Constantine promoted December 25th as the date for a holiday that could be holy both to Christians and to the followers of other religions at the same time. From the beginning, Christmas has shared December 25th with the false religions of the world.

Which brings us to today. Now I’d like you to imagine a Christmas without Christ. No church services. No nativity scenes. No Christmas carols. There are trees and lights and Santa. There are candy canes and cookies and oyster stew. There are songs like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer’ and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.’ There are stacks of cards and piles of presents and a table groaning under the weight of food. But there is no Jesus.

This describes many peoples’ Christmas. This is the kind of holiday our world is moving towards with increasing speed. This year a record number of retailers have banished the words ‘Merry Christmas’ from their promotions for fear of offending any potential customers; now it’s ‘Happy Holidays.’ Christmas trees are being replaced with ‘holiday trees’. There have been efforts to combine Christmas with Hanukkah, creating a new holiday called "Chrismukkah," and African-Americans have offered the alternative of Kwanzaa since 1966. More and more, Christ is being edged out of Christmas.

What do we lose by taking Christ out of Christmas? First of all, we lose the chance to meet God. Hebrews 1:3 tells us: The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being. To see Jesus is to see His Father—in the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. Indeed, the only way to see God is through His Son; our Lord states: No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well (John 14:6-7). When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the ability to see our Creator.

This is a dangerous loss. If we cannot see God, we cannot know how to please Him. Have you ever drawn names for a gift exchange and been absolutely stumped on what to buy for the name you got? When a person is a stranger to you, it is impossible to know what kind of gift will please them. So it is with God. It is Jesus who reveals the Father to us; it is Jesus who tells us what God enjoys, what His priorities are, and what provokes His anger. Without Jesus, it is impossible for us to please God. And to anger God has terrible consequences, as death will only be the introduction to suffering.

When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the offer of forgiveness. Jesus came among us to do more than just teach us about God; He dressed Himself in the body of a human being so that He could suffer and die. The sinless Son of God assumed responsibility for all our sinfulness; Paul writes: God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21). The eternal Son of God became human so that He could shed His blood for us and bring us freedom from a lifetime of mistakes; Ephesians 1:7 states "[God] is so rich in kindness that he purchased our freedom through the blood of his Son, and our sins are forgiven." Without forgiveness, life is nothing but an ever-increasing heap of guilt over foolish words, broken promises and missed opportunities that we drag along with us like a mortal version of Marley’s ghost. Without forgiveness, life can only grow more depressing with each passing year. And without forgiveness, we cannot find welcome in heaven when we eventually die.

When we take Christ out of Christmas, we lose the promise of everlasting life in paradise. Our Lord came to earth to die so that we might escape the grave; just before He raised Lazarus from the dead, our Master said: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25). Jesus promises to rescue His followers from the grave, and once raised by Him, they will never die again. Not only that, but the life that awaits His followers is eternity in paradise; Jesus said "Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me" (John 12:26). Every painful memory will be pushed aside by a never-ending life of peace and happiness, a bliss that we can scarcely imagine. Without the promise of paradise, life becomes little more than a mad scramble to stay away from the grave at any cost, while filling every waking moment with pleasures meant to distract from the specter of death.

Imagine a Christmas without Christ: a constant stream of lights and wrapping paper and food and canned music, all of it trying to conceal our problems. But Santa can’t tell us what’s right and wrong as we wrestle with difficult decisions. An expensive present cannot undo the hurt that we’ve inflicted on a loved one. The words of Blue Christmas’ cannot give us hope as the flipping of the calendar brings us another year closer to our last holiday season here on earth. Without Christ, Christmas cannot offer any of the things that we really need--a moral compass, forgiveness, and hope in the face of approaching death.

This is why we need Christ in Christmas. Only He can guide us through the complexity of life and help us make decisions that are good and constructive and God-pleasing. Only He can give us release from our guilt and lift us up when we have made a mess of things. Only He can take the black hole of despair that is our grave and make it a doorway to eternal life, eternal happiness, and eternal love. Only Christ can satisfy our deepest, most important needs.

Keep Christ in your Christmas. Everything else is shiny and fun, but ultimately little more than a distraction. Welcome Christ—welcome Him into your home and into your heart. May you have a most blessed Christmas.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

The best Christmas gift

I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).

At the close of World War II, a group of American GIs were stationed in London. They were walking the city streets on Christmas Day when they came to an old gray building; the sign out front said, "Queen Anne’s Orphanage." The soldiers were curious to see what sort of Christmas party might be going on inside, so they knocked on the door. An attendant told them that all of the children in the orphanage had lost their parents in the London bombings of the past few years. The soldiers went inside. There was no tree; there were no decorations or gifts. The GIs gave out whatever they had on them as gifts—a stick of gum, a coin, the stub of a pencil. One soldier saw a boy standing alone in a corner; he went to the lad and asked, "My little man, what do you want?" Turning his face up towards the soldier, the little boy answered, "Please, sir, I want to be loved."

Our world is like that orphanage—people everywhere are in desperate need of love. We who are Christians are like those American GIs standing face to face with people lost and alone with their despair. But we have something better to offer than scraps of food or a little money. When we became God’s children by faith in Jesus, our Lord began filling our pockets so that we could share with those who need love. Through our soothing voices and gentle hands Jesus offers His love to the world. Saint Paul tells us, He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:4). When others are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. Our ability to show compassionate love to others is a direct result of our relationship with Jesus; St. John writes: We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).

There is no better gift that you can give to another person than God’s love. Food is appreciated, but in a few hours hunger returns. Money can be easily wasted on foolish things. Even the gift of your own love will end when you leave this life. Only God’s love extended through Jesus has staying power. Only God’s love can give courage and hope when things look their darkest. Only God’s love can erase the foolish mistakes of the past. Only God’s love can give lasting meaning to life in the midst of sorrow and loneliness. Only God’s love can lift us from our graves to eternity in heaven. Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, fill our pockets with the gift of Your love. Open our eyes to the people around us who are hungering for love. As we share our time and food and money with them, remind us that the most important gift we can share is the wonderful relationship that we have with You. Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2005


We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).

In 1845 a Texas pioneer named Sam Maverick accepted a herd of 400 cattle in payment of a debt. He put them in the care of one of his men on his 400,000-acre ranch. They were neglected and allowed to run wild. When calves were born they were unmarked, and soon were rustled by neighboring ranchers who immediately branded them as their own. Their ownership could no longer be disputed, because the brand was the legal mark of identity. From this event developed the word maverick—an unbranded straying animal, claimed by the first person to find it.

This seems to mirror the history and character of humanity. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah wrote, each of us has turned to his own way. While under the ownership of God, humanity (including you and me) strayed away—became mavericks. And invariably we are branded by other gods, the thousands of false religions of this world.

Thankfully, Jesus comes to us as our Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd doesn’t bully us into doing what He wants. He doesn’t try to motivate us by making us feel guilty. Instead, He invites us to follow Him. Jesus says I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep…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 10:14-15, 27-28). Notice how the Good Shepherd is different from the false gods who want to own us. He laid down His life for we, His sheep; instead of making demands of us, our Lord gave up His own life that we could be free of the brand of sin. And our Shepherd rose from the dead to prove His power to raise us from our graves when we die; He rose from the dead so that He can continue to protect us from those who want to steal us away and return us to the captivity of false promises and degrading behavior. When we look to Jesus to lead us, He promises that no one can snatch us out of His hand. Please join me in praying:

Dearest Lord Jesus, thank You for freeing us from the lies and mistreatment of false religions and hollow philosophies. Keep our eyes focused only on You, that we may never be tempted to stray again. Amen.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Be repenting!

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

"A voice of one calling in the desert,
`Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

"I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire" (Matthew 3:1-12).

"You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why—Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice—he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice—Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good, for goodness’ sake!"

I bet you never thought you’d see these lyrics in a religious meditation! But I think there’s something interesting in them, something that we usually don’t associate with Christmas—judgment. Santa is supposed to be this happy little elf who spends all year getting ready to make children happy. No one thinks of Santa with a stern face, wagging his finger and saying ‘naughty, naughty’. But this classic song suggests that Santa isn’t all fun and games. Do you remember what were you supposed to get from Santa if you’d been naughty this past year? That’s right, you’d get a lump of coal.

Santa has nothing to do with the coming of our Savior into this sinful world 2000 years ago. Nevertheless, the Santa tradition of America has picked up more than the name ‘Christmas’ from Christianity. The Santa tradition correctly recognizes that there is a connection between the gift of Christmas and the kind of behavior that fills our lives. Santa did not give presents to naughty children; in an imperfect way, this Santa tradition reflects the teachings of Jesus’ herald, John the Baptist.

John began his ministry in a desolate area some distance from Jerusalem. His message was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." Actually, good English obscures his meaning a bit. Although it doesn’t sound proper to our ears, a more exact translation would be, "Be repenting, because the kingdom of heaven is near". John was calling on his listeners to adopt a new attitude in their lives. John wasn’t talking about the kind of repentance where you feel bad for a little while, until you talk things through and realize that you did the best you could in a bad situation. John wasn’t talking about the kind of repentance where you go to church on the weekend, confess to God that you did some bad things this past week, hear forgiveness announced, and then go out and do the same bad things all over again. No, John was talking about something more radical. The repentance that John preached was a life-changing repentance.

As far as John was concerned, repentance was a journey, not an event. Some Christians have the idea that repentance is something that you do once, when you change from being a non-Christian into a believer. For some Christians, repentance is part of their ‘conversion experience’, something that you do at a religious rally. They believe that once Jesus lives in your heart, nothing you do can offend God, because you now have His forgiveness living within you. Other Christians look at repentance the same way they look at the safety release floodgates on a dam. Just as water slowly rises when it is trapped behind a dam, these Christians look at sin as something that piles up in their souls. Confessing sins in church each week is like opening the floodgates and letting the pent-up waters loose. Such Christians treat confession as a way to keep from being overwhelmed by their sins.

John does not teach these kinds of repentance. John said, "Be repenting." John knew that all of us are sinners by nature. We commit sins because our souls are tainted with sin. It isn’t just our sins that anger God; the sin that taints our souls angers God as well. God created mankind to be without sin; it infuriates God to see us enjoying our sinful behavior. Since sin corrupts every moment of our lives, God sent John to tell us that we need to ‘be repenting’ continuously. Repentance is a lifestyle.

We hear a lot about lifestyle choices these days. Living together outside of marriage is a lifestyle choice. Homosexual relationships are a lifestyle choice. Choosing abortion is a lifestyle choice. Choosing to divorce is a lifestyle choice. We are told that everyone is entitled to live the type of lifestyle that makes them happy and fulfilled. But John came with a message that made many people uncomfortable. John came with the message that there is only one lifestyle acceptable to God—the lifestyle of repenting. John knew full well that the sin within us makes it impossible for us to please God in our lives, so he announced an alternative: admit that the way you are living is wrong, and beg God for mercy. Beg for mercy continually, and ask God to help you live the kind of life He wants you to live. John said, "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance." In other words, live your life according to a new lifestyle—the lifestyle of repentance. If you are truly grieved that you’ve been angering God with your sins, you won’t want to fall back into them. Every time that you are tempted to go back to your old ways, you will recoil in horror and plead that God would give you the strength to resist the temptation. Every time that you knuckle under to temptation, you will soon be on your knees begging for forgiveness. A lifestyle of repenting is daily, even hourly struggle with temptation, where you pray for strength and forgiveness.

Such grim news, just before Christmas! Why is there such an emphasis on repentance as we approach the joyful arrival of our Savior in Bethlehem? Because John, in preaching repentance, was preparing the way for our Lord. When Isaiah said, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him', Isaiah wasn’t talking about maintaining county roads. Isaiah was saying that, before Jesus comes, our hearts have to be prepared to receive Him. The path into our hearts is a rough and desolate one, as rough and desolate as the area where John called the people to repentance. There are valleys of selfishness and mountains of pride. These obstacles must be cleared away before our Savior comes.

Our problem is that we need a Savior, but so often we don’t realize that we need Him. Sin is like a mirror; rather than look at God and our fellow man, the mirror of our sin tempts us to only look at ourselves. We look in the mirror and admire ourselves. We look in the mirror and see that we could be even better if we just had a few more accessories, like more money, a more prestigious job, or a better quality circle of friends. The mirror of our sin tempts us to spend our time and energy on ourselves, not on God our fellow man. But the mirror of our sin is like a funhouse mirror—it doesn’t give a true reflection. That is why God gives us the mirror of His Law. When we see what God expects of us, and how miserably we fail to measure up to what our reflection should be, the mountains of our pride collapse and the valleys of our selfishness are filled in. When we realize how utterly contemptible we really are because of the sin within us, our hearts are ready for the coming of our Lord.

Jesus came to offer mercy. God knows that our sin makes it impossible for us to ever please Him in this life. We cannot even live a life of repentance without lapsing into periods of pride and selfishness. Every thing we do, every 'fruit' that our lives produce, is tainted and worthless. But Jesus comes to those who recognize their hopeless condition; David wrote in Psalm 51 "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." David knew that sinners who are truly repentant do receive mercy from God; in Psalm 32 he wrote "Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the LORD"--and you forgave the guilt of my sin." John the Gospel writer adds to this when he writes, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). When we live our lives repenting, Jesus not only forgives our sins, He blots out everything that identifies us as sinners when God looks upon our lives. Jesus’ forgiveness not only removes the threat of God’s punishment, it restores us to the warm and powerful arms of our loving heavenly Father.

This is why Jesus came into the world. Jesus was born of the Holy Spirit by the virgin Mary and was made man, so that He could offer us the twin gifts of freedom from our sin and sonship in the Father’s kingdom. To do all this for us, it was necessary that the sinless Son of God take into Himself the nature of a human being. Being born of both God and man, Jesus was both divine and mortal. He had to be mortal, because He came to pay for our sin. Scripture says, "it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life" (Leviticus 17:11). Since "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), sin had stolen our lives from us. The only way Jesus could give life back to us was by the giving of His own blood as He died on the cross. Jesus had to be human so that He could die for us. But Jesus also had to be God. He had to be God so that His blood would have divine worth, worth enough to blot out every sin, of every human being, of every time and place. Because Jesus was true God, death could not end His work. Jesus rose from the grave of our sins to assure us that all is forgiven to those who put their trust solely in Him. Only in Jesus is found freedom from sin and death. Only in Jesus is found everlasting life.

It is said that you cannot appreciate the brightness of a beam of light unless you see it contrasted with the darkness of shadow. The Law that John preached in the wilderness serves to make us aware of how beautiful and precious the mercy of Jesus is. If we are not aware of how deeply we are sunk in our sin, we will not cling desperately to our beautiful Savior as our only hope and rescue. So it is appropriate to discuss repentance as we draw near to Christmas. Christmas is about Jesus coming to save us from our sin, and the death that sin brings as its punishment. When we realize how deeply we are corrupted by sin, and how helpless we are to resist temptation, we realize how wonderful it is that God in His mercy sent His one and only Son to live among us, die for us, and rise to lead us to heaven. As we look forward to celebrating Jesus’ entry into the world He came to save, we can pray. We can pray for forgiveness for everything we’ve done that angers God. We can pray for forgiveness for sometimes enjoying the sin that lives within us. We can thank God for His infinite mercy, shown to us who don’t deserve His mercy. And we can pray for Jesus’ continuing presence in our lives, that He would help us to recognize temptations when they arise, and give us the strength to resist them.

The Lord is coming soon. Make His way straight to your heart by pleading for forgiveness and asking for the strength to bear fruit in your life, fruit that is in keeping with repentance. Ask with confidence, because "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Do the math

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

A father once took his small son to visit a huge cathedral. As the two were walking down the aisle, the boy pointed at the cross on the altar and said, "Father, what is that big plus sign up there?"

Anyone who thinks that the Christian religion subtracts something from life is mistaken. It is true that Christianity seeks to eliminate sin from our lives, but that is no loss. Sin is a negative. Sin fills our lives with angry words, violent acts and selfish pride. Sin adds no value to life; in fact, indulging in sin makes life miserable with addiction, broken relationships and years of wasted opportunities. Sin takes away from our quality of life.

Here’s a quick math review: what do you get when you subtract a negative number? When you take away the negative, the result is positive! And this is what happens when Jesus takes away our sins. Instead of our lives losing something of value, the quality of our lives increases! Jesus adds quality to our lives by freeing us from brooding over past mistakes. Jesus adds value to our lives by helping us to repair damaged relationships through the gift of forgiveness. Jesus adds value to our lives by freeing us from the fear of death, because we know that He will give life beyond the grave to those who follow Him. When Jesus suffered the penalty for our sins on the cross, He took that symbol of cruel death and turned it into an enormous plus sign that adds value to every life that embraces it. Please join me in praying:

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for taking the negative things in our lives and replacing their emptiness with Your blessings—blessings of forgiveness, blessings of love, blessings of wisdom, strength and life beyond the grave. Help us to see sinful pleasures as the negative things they are, and cause us to desire only Your goodness. Amen.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

God's message to you

[Jesus] told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:46-47).

When you go to church or watch a worship service on television, what kind of message do you expect to hear? For many Americans, the message they receive is a self-help message. The cleric talks about how the listeners can change their lives, reach their goals, feel empowered; advice is given on how to set priorities, how to budget time, how to manage conflict and reduce stress. Other clergy emphasize the love of God--how He accepts everyone just as they are, how tolerant He is of our personal weaknesses.

The problem with these two kinds of messages is that they are both incomplete. I have heard self-help sermons that never speak about Jesus as the power for living a new life; these lectures sound more like 12 step programs than sermons. I have also heard messages that speak about God’s love, but avoid talking about sin and the need for God’s forgiveness, or submission to His holy will; these messages often sound as if they want to use universal love to excuse sinful behavior.

This is not the way that Jesus or the apostles preached. The pattern laid out by Jesus was this: repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name. Christian preaching contains three things. First, it issues us a wake-up call. The Christian message of salvation constantly reminds us that we are sinners—that we anger God by what we do and by what we fail to do each day. That is the preaching of repentance. Second, Christian sermons are always to announce to us that God is willing to give us another chance to start living life right—that He will forget our past mistakes, if we genuinely want to abandon our old sinful ways and instead live a life that is pleasing to God. That is the preaching of forgiveness of sins. Finally, Christian preaching always focuses on Jesus, the Son of God who suffered for our sins. Without Jesus, there is no offer of forgiveness; without Jesus, there is no strength to help us in rejecting what is evil and embracing what is holy. This is why all preaching must be done in His Name. When a religious message fails to show us our sin, introduce us to our Savior, and offer us forgiveness, that message fails to bring us the Good News that God wants us to hear.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Your Christmas warranty

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him--
the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and of power,
the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD--
and he will delight in the fear of the LORD.
He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.
He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth;
with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked.
Righteousness will be his belt
and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the hole of the cobra,
and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD
as the waters cover the sea.

In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious (Isaiah 11:1-10).

Have you ever received a Christmas present that turned out to be a disappointment? Have you ever gotten a gift that was missing a part, or didn’t work right, or broke in just a few days? Have you ever received a Christmas present that went out of style after you’d only worn it a couple of times? Have you ever gotten a gift on Christmas, and were bored with it by New Year’s?

As we get older, we start becoming a little cautious about gifts. We learn to check to make sure that all the parts are in the box, before we start assembling something. We read warranties carefully, and mail them in promptly. If a gift seems too trendy or uninteresting, we are in line to exchange it before Christmas week is over. Nowadays, we want reassurance that our gifts will bring us pleasure for more than a few days. We want to be sure that our gifts really can make us happy.

Christmas is all about gifts. First and foremost, Christmas giving is about the great Christmas gift our God gave to us 2,000 years ago—His Son, our Lord Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate Christmas present. He is the gift that doesn’t break, wear out, or go out of style. He is the gift that brings us new joy, every day of our lives. In fact, He is the gift that gives life, and gives meaning to life. And in chapter 11 of Isaiah, God even gives us a statement of warranty on this greatest gift of all. Through the mouth of the prophet, our heavenly Father gives us the reasons why we can have confidence that Jesus truly is the perfect, everlasting gift!

Key to everything else is Isaiah’s testimony that "he will delight in the fear of the LORD." It sounds odd, to speak of Jesus fearing His Father. It sounds odd, trying to imagine how anyone could take ‘delight’ in fear. But Holy Scripture uses the word ‘fear’ in a slightly different way than modern Americans do. When we speak of fear, we think of being frightened by something dangerous, and wanting to get away from it as quickly as possible. When the Bible speaks of the fear of the LORD, it refers to reverential awe. A person who fears God has a clear understanding of his relationship with God. God is creator and ruler of the universe; man is a creation of God, born to serve. Such a person is both grateful that his Creator has given him life, but is also careful not to anger the God who can take that life away again. This attitude of grateful respect is called ‘the fear of the LORD.’

Jesus delighted in ‘the fear of the LORD’. That is to say, Jesus delighted in being God’s obedient Son. Paul writes, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." Jesus held His heavenly Father in reverential awe, and always acted according to His Father’s directives. Even during His sleepless night in Gethsemane, as He dreaded the trial and crucifixion to come, Jesus prayed, "My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done." Jesus led His life of perfect submission to God for us. God expects us to fear and love Him; God expects us to hold Him in reverential awe. But the sin that lives in each of us makes us near-sighted. Instead of looking towards God for leadership in our lives, we look to ourselves. So Jesus led a sinless life for us. By delighting in the ‘fear of the LORD’, Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves—satisfy the expectations of our Creator.

Solomon wrote, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge." Isaiah tells us that our Savior came in the Spirit of knowledge. Knowledge of God is crucial to our salvation. We must know what God has done for us, and what response He expects from those He has saved through Jesus’ work. Through the prophet Hosea, God said, "For I delight in loyalty rather than sacrifice, and in the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings." Knowledge of God gives us blessings, as Peter tells us: "Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord." It gives us insight into how God wants us to live; "And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ." In fact, ignorance of God is a person’s doom; God said of Israel "my people are destroyed from lack of knowledge." Because knowledge of God is so very important, our heavenly Father entrusted it to no one less than His perfect Son, Jesus. It is only through Jesus that we have the knowledge of the secrets of God, the secrets of His plan of salvation. Jesus said to His disciples, "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you." This is why it is so important that Jesus came in the spirit of knowledge; He brought the knowledge needed for our salvation.

Understanding is the ability to take the knowledge that God gives, and use it to distinguish between good and evil, between what pleases God, and what angers God. When he became king, Solomon prayed to God "Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant [an understanding] heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" We must have understanding in order to see God’s Law; David prayed "Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart." Without an understanding of good and evil, we are no more useful than dumb beasts of burden: "Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding, but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you." Understanding only comes from knowing God’s will. Psalm 119 says "I gain understanding from your precepts, therefore I hate every wrong path." Only Jesus has perfect, complete knowledge of God’s will. Jesus said, "I and the Father are one." Because Jesus and His Father are one God, Jesus is uniquely qualified to know what actions will please our Creator.

Wisdom is the ability to make good decisions, decisions that inspire the confidence of others. In 1 Kings, we read of Solomon: "When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice." In order to arrive at good judgments, wisdom provides the gift of discernment. In the book of Ezra, the king of Persia recognized what Ezra could do with the wisdom God had given him. The king said, "And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates." The king of Persia trusted that Ezra, using God’s gift of wisdom, would be able to select the best men available for positions of authority. Such wisdom, found perfectly in Jesus, allows Him to discern the hearts of men, as we read in Matthew: "Knowing their thoughts, Jesus said, "Why do you entertain evil thoughts in your hearts?" With such wisdom, Jesus knows those who love Him, and those who don’t.

A judge can have all the wisdom in the world, but without the power to back up his judgments, it means but little. That is why our Savior came with power, the power of a king over his subjects. The power of God is irresistible; "O LORD, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations. Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you." God uses this power to convict men of their sins; Micah wrote "But as for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, to Israel his sin." But this conviction of sin by the power of God is for a greater purpose. Zephaniah wrote, "The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save." This is the entire reason that Jesus came into this world, that first Christmas so long ago. Jesus came to save us from our doom. Because of our sinful selfishness, we were doomed to an eternity of punishment from the God who hates all sin. But God loved us more than He hated our sin, so He sent His Son Jesus to be our substitute. Jesus took the responsibility for all the sins by which we angered God. The consequence of sin is death; because He came to be our substitute, Jesus died, in our place, as a consequence of our sin. But the story of salvation did not end with Jesus’ death. "He is mighty to save." Jesus was too powerful for death to contain. Jesus, in the full glory of God, returned to life, the ultimate guarantee that He has the power to make good on His promises. When we humbly ask Jesus to forgive our sinfulness and take us back into His family of believers, we have the comfort of knowing that all of God’s anger was spent on Jesus—there is no divine anger left for the Christian.

Jesus also came with the Spirit of counsel. At His baptism, the Holy Spirit came down and remained with Jesus, as John recorded in his Gospel: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him." Throughout His ministry, the Holy Spirit guided and strengthened Jesus, who was both man and God. Even though He was the Son of God, Jesus prayed for help and support throughout His ministry. It was the Holy Spirit, the Third Person in the Trinity, who equipped Jesus for His saving work on earth by giving Jesus’ human nature wisdom and understanding…counsel and power…knowledge and the fear of the LORD. And so it was that Jesus Christ, true God by being the Father’s Son, and perfect man by the power of the Holy Spirit, was equipped to save us from our sins—the best Christmas present of all time.

But there is one other very important gift that God has given you. When Jesus told His disciples that He was soon returning to heaven He said, "But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you." This Counselor is the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus at His baptism, and equipped Jesus for the work of our salvation. Ever since Pentecost, this same Holy Spirit comes upon us in the waters of Holy Baptism, and equips us with faith to believe in the promises of the God who is ‘mighty to save.’ God has really given us two gifts; Jesus, who saved us, and the Holy Spirit, who led us to our Savior’s arms.

As you open your Christmas presents this year, I pray that you remember that the greatest Christmas gifts in your life have already been opened. One was opened when Jesus died on the cross, the other was opened the day that the Holy Spirit planted faith in your heart. Take time this Christmas season to enjoy these gifts that never break, never wear out, and never go out of style. Enjoy them with confidence, because God Himself backs up their warranty.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Pray continually

Pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

It once was as common for Christians to give thanks before meals as it was for them to eat. An incident from the Thirty Years’ War makes the point. A small group of Protestant officers were hiding together in a cave; each day a little girl brought them food from a nearby farm. One day they were joined by a stranger who had been walking through the woods. At first, they were naturally suspicious of him, but he talked so much like one of them that soon their doubts were removed. After a while the girl came with their supplies, and with genuine politeness they offered food to the stranger first. To their surprise, he began to eat without first giving thanks to God. This omission revealed the true character of the man. He was what they had suspected—a spy—and they barely had time to make their escape from the dragoons that he was working for.

Prayer is one of the identifying marks of a Christian household. Our Lord wants to have a relationship with us, but no relationship can survive if communication has been shut down. God communicates with us through the Bible; it was written under the supervision of the Holy Spirit and reveals God’s instructions and promises to us. Prayer is our way of communicating with God; it is the means by which we tell God our troubles, ask for His forgiveness and thank Him for His goodness to us. When we stay away from church, when we let our Bibles collect dust, when we neglect to take time to pray, we are giving God the silent treatment—we are refusing to talk to Him, or listen as He attempts to talk to us. No relationship can survive when communication is shut down—not even our relationship with God. Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, forgive us for taking so little time to listen to You. Forgive us for coming to You so infrequently with our joys, our sorrows and our needs. Move us to make time for You every day. Remind us to give thanks, to ask for wisdom and leadership, and most importantly to admit to our sins and seek Your mercy. Make prayer a daily part of our lives. Amen.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The road less traveled

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14).

The Greek philosopher Socrates once told this story: "Young Hercules, emerging from boyhood to manhood, is pondering how to shape his life. Two women appear before him, one voluptuous in form and luxurious in dress, the other severe and strict in appearance and clothed in a simple white garment. The name of the one is Pleasure; the name of the other is Virtue. Pleasure promises to lead young Hercules by the shortest road and without any toil to the enjoyment of every pleasure. Virtue beckons him along a path on which he will experience labors and suffering, but where alone he shall find a beautiful and good life worthy of his manhood."

Socrates lived over 2,000 years ago, yet he writes of a human problem that is far older. It is the choice between living for the moment or living for the future, the choice between the desires of the flesh and what is good for the soul, the choice between spending time and money on fleeting pleasures or investing in things that will last eternally. It is the choice between embracing the lure of sin, or seeking the blessings of God.

Jesus compared this choice to a traveler’s decision between two roads—one is wide and well traveled, the other is narrow and less well used. Most people choose the path of least resistance—the road that is wide, easy to navigate, and is crowded with others. But the road of Pleasure, the path that makes excuses for sinning by claiming that God’s laws are out of touch with modern sensibilities, this easy road leads to destruction—to addiction, poverty, broken relationships, and eventually to hell. It is the narrow road that Jesus recommends to us—the road of Virtue which calls for dedication to hard work, dedication to God, and a focus on the heavenly destination instead of the sinful pleasures that seek to distract us. The road of virtue is the more difficult path to walk because it is narrow, and because less people walk it with us—but it is only on this narrow way that our Savior walks with us, offering a steadying arm when we stumble and fall.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Advent of our King

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away."

This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet: "Say to the Daughter of Zion, `See, your king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.' "

The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. They brought the donkey and the colt, placed their cloaks on them, and Jesus sat on them. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, "Who is this?"

The crowds answered, "This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee"
(Matthew 21:1-11).

Do you remember the wedding of Princess Diana?

When Lady Diana Spencer married Charles, Prince of Wales in 1981, it was a major event. The wedding was telecast live here in the States, and was watched with great interest by millions of people who had never set foot in Britain, never had a king or queen of their own. Americans were also very interested in Princess Diana’s trips to America, her family troubles, and her tragic early death. As a matter of fact, interest in Princess Diana and her family is typical of American interest in England. We know almost nothing of what goes on in that small country across the sea, but if it involves English royalty, we are surprisingly well informed.

What is it about royalty that fascinates us? Is it the fine clothes and elegant jewelry? Is it the limousines and servants? Are we fascinated by royalty because they get to live in palaces? Or are we just curious about what it would be like to be a member of the Royal Family?

Royalty was certainly on the minds of Jesus’ many followers as He entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. They had seen His miracles. They had heard His words. Throughout His ministry, Jesus had spoken with the wisdom of God, and His miracles proved that He spoke with the authority of God. They were confident that He was the Messiah that God had promised to them long ago, the One Who was to Come to free God’s people from oppression. For almost three years Jesus had been teaching more and more about Himself and what God had sent Him to Israel to do. Now at last the Messiah was preparing to enter Jerusalem, the holy City of God, the home of King David’s throne. It seemed obvious to the crowd of Jesus’ followers that He was about to proclaim Himself King of Israel and begin freeing His people from oppression by leading a revolt against the Roman government that had conquered them. So as Jesus approached Jerusalem, the people took off their cloaks and laid them in the road to keep the dust down. This was an act of submission to the man who would be their king, and it was an act of bestowing high honor. People who did not have a cloak joined in as well by cutting down branches from nearby trees and laying these upon the road. These people joined together in shouting "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!"

Hosanna is a very old Hebrew word; because of its age, it has two meanings. The older meaning was "please save us!" The newer meaning built on the old: "blessed be God for saving us!" Jesus’ followers fully expected to be freed from the taxes of Rome and the occupation of her soldiers. The Jews had waited a long time for their Messiah, and now that He had come they were ecstatic.

But Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem as the kind of king His followers were expecting. Jesus did not come to be the kind of royalty that we know, dressed in expensive clothes, sporting fine jewelry, living in a palace and traveling in style. Jesus did not come so that his people might serve Him. To make this point, Jesus chose a very different way to enter Jerusalem. Rather than ride a chariot or a war-horse into the city, Jesus rode on the back of a young donkey, a humble beast of burden that had no royal or military use at all. Jesus rode a donkey, the kind of animal that was used by the common man to carry heavy burdens. Jesus rode a donkey as an expression of the kind of king He truly was: a king who came in humility to carry the heavy load for His subjects.

This is our King. This is our Messiah, our Liberator. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matthew 28:18). Jesus has command of the heavenly army; He said to Peter, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:53). Jesus has the authority to sit in judgment upon all Mankind: "I tell you the truth, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man" (John 5:25-27). Jesus bears a royal name; "Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow" (Philippians 2:9-10). Our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, is entitled to nothing less than the complete service of every living person. But Jesus turned His back on the glories of royalty and heaven. Why?

When our Triune God created Mankind thousands of years ago, the Son of God was involved. From the very beginning, the Son of God loved each and every man, woman and child who has ever lived. That is why the Son of God was saddened that Adam and Eve let Satan bring sin into God’s perfect world. Corrupted by the selfishness that taints every child from birth, all Mankind has been made unacceptable to God. Because sin twists our thinking, we all put our own needs and wants in place of trusting submission to God’s leadership. No king wants rebellious subjects in his kingdom, and sin makes us all rebel against God. Sin excluded everyone from the Kingdom of God.

But God was not content to leave things this way. The Son of God willingly left His place of honor in heaven to come down among His former subjects in order to restore them to His kingdom. Because every baby born of the union between sinful man and sinful woman is also tainted by sin, our Messiah chose a different way. The Holy Spirit conceived a child in Mary, a common woman whose only special quality was that she was among those who believed in God’s promises of salvation through a Deliverer from heaven. Because of this unique birth, Jesus was the only baby ever born who was born without sin. Because Mary was engaged to Joseph who was of the house and lineage of King David, Jesus was of royal birth both by His heavenly Father and by His earthly foster father. But because God chose a common carpenter and his fiancee to be Jesus’ earthly parents, Jesus did not grow up in a life of privilege. Jesus was born in a stable for animals and had only an animal’s trough for a crib. Jesus, the King of the world, was welcomed to His realm only by poor shepherds and a few mystics from a far-away land. Rather than being raised in a palace, Jesus grew in wisdom and stature in a small town, learning from the religious leaders as a humble student, and being obedient to His parents.

As an adult, Jesus continued to live a humble lifestyle. During the temptation in the wilderness, Satan took Jesus to the top of the Temple and said, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written: `He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’" (Matthew 4:6). Satan wanted Jesus to prove His royal privilege by using God’s power openly and selfishly, but Jesus refused to do so. After Jesus fed the crowd of 5,000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish, He deliberately avoided the opportunity to be treated as royalty, as we read in John 6:14-15: "After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself." In fact, the only time that Jesus was ever dressed in a king’s robe and wore a crown during His time on earth happened just before His crucifixion: "The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, "Hail, king of the Jews!" And they struck him in the face" (John 19:2-3).

Why? Why did Jesus go through all this for us? Because He came to do what we could not do for ourselves. We are all created by God. As God’s creations, we have an obligation to dedicate our entire lives to serving God in love. But the sin that lives in us makes perfect service to God impossible. Sin always draws our attention away from God and back to our own selfish wants and needs. So Jesus came to give God the life of perfect service that we could not give. That is why Jesus could not live among us as the king that He truly is. A King does not serve others. In order to live a life of perfect service in our place, Jesus had to set aside the prerogatives of royalty and live a life of perfect submission to His heavenly Father. Paul says in Philippians 2:5-11, "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Jesus was humble even to His death—the death of a criminal. Jesus willingly died the death of a lawbreaker, because that is what you and I are: lawbreakers. The sin that turns us away from God causes us to break God’s law. Only Jesus could set aside our death sentence. Jesus suffered the death that you and I deserved, because we are His creations and He loves us. Jesus set aside His royalty out of love for us, His wayward children. When Jesus died a law-breaker’s death, He satisfied the requirements of God’s law—sin was punished with death. Now, when we ask God to forgive our sins and accept us back, we know that He does forgive us, because Jesus has already suffered the punishment that was our due.

Earlier, I suggested that we are fascinated by royalty, because we wonder what it would be like to be members of a royal family. Well, wonder no longer—you are a member of a royal family. You are an inheritor of the Kingdom of God! Paul writes in Romans 8:16-17, "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory." There is a heavenly parallel here. When Jesus lived on earth, His royalty was hidden while He served others in love and suffered on their behalf. When Jesus rose from the grave and ascended into heaven, His royalty was revealed in all its glory. While we live on earth, our royalty is hidden while we serve others in love and suffer for being Jesus’ disciples. When we join Jesus in heaven, we will see our royalty, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4:8: "Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing."

Advent is the time for us to prepare for the coming of our king. In the weeks ahead, let us join the crowds of Palm Sunday in shouting, "Hosanna! We thank you, oh Heavenly Father, for sending Your perfect Son to save us from our sins! Hosanna to You in the highest!"

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stuck in a hole

Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righteous will live by faith" (Galatians 3:11).

A man was preaching in the slums of a great Scottish city. He had been urging his listeners to make a new start, to use their will power to the utmost, to turn over a new leaf, to grab the rope and climb out of the hole they had dug themselves into. At the edge of the crowd stood a poor prostitute. She listened as long as she could to the expectations of God's Law. Finally, from the depths of her despair and repeated failures, she cried out "Your rope’s not long enough to reach me!"

The Law cannot bring rescue to people lying in the dark pit of their sins; to people who are struggling with the despair of years of mistakes, the command of the Law to pull yourself out of the quicksand of your sins seems an impossible task. The rope leading out of darkness into light is out of the reach of their trembling fingers.

A lifeline that requires us to save ourselves is useless, because as sinners we don’t have the strength to climb free from the muck of our misspent lives. The only way that we can hope to be saved is for a rescuer to come down and lift us from the pit on His strong shoulders. God has sent such a rescuer; His name is Jesus. Jesus comes to us by the lifeline of the Gospel; when we hear how Jesus died to free us from the guilt of our mistakes and how God the Father is willing to forgive us because of what Jesus has done, it is as if a rescuer has come down to us in our darkness, wrapped loving arms around us, and lifted us with Him as He climbs the rope of salvation to bring us out into the light. Being told to live a better life does not give us the ability to do so; but when we believe in Jesus and welcome Him into our lives, we can stand straight and walk tall, because it is our Lord who gives us the strength and confidence to live a new life. Please join me in praying:

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for coming to us in the dark hole of our sins and offering to lift us to freedom. Help us to reject everything evil and selfish in our lives. Give us faith to trust that when You forgive us, the guilt of those mistakes has been erased forever. Lift us up into the light of Your love. Amen.

Blog Top Sites
Blog Directory & Search engine
Blog Directory