Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The marks of love

He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke 24:38-39).

In an English cathedral stand statues of a crusader knight and his lovely lady. If one looks closely, you can see that the statue of the lady is missing its’ right hand. The church records indicate that in one of the wars of the Crusades this English knight, fighting under the banner of Richard the Lionhearted, was taken prisoner. He begged Saladin, the leader of the Muslim forces, to spare his life and set him free for the sake of the love that his lady back home bore for him. But Saladin scoffed at him, saying that it would not be long before she forgot about her missing knight and married someone else. The knight assured him that his lady would never do such a thing; she would always remain faithful to his memory, so long as there was hope that he remained alive.

Saladin challenged the knight’s faith in his lady. He said that if the woman would send her right hand as evidence of her love for her husband, he would set the knight free. When the letter reached the lady in England, she promptly had her right hand severed and sent in a bag to the Muslim leader. When Saladin saw that hand, he freed the soldier and sent him back to England. That amputated hand was the irrefutable proof of the lady’s devotion to her beloved.

The irrefutable proof of our Savior’s love lies in His hands. When we look at Jesus’ open palms, we see the permanent scars caused by the nails that held Him to the cross. Jesus came down to earth from His Father in heaven to be subjected to the worst form of death devised by men, death by crucifixion. Jesus was fastened to a wooden cross by nails through His hands and feet to suffer a slow, agonizing death. He accepted this punishment willingly, even though He never once in His life did a single thing to anger God. The Son of God accepted the sentence of death that by all rights should have been ours. We anger God every day. When we try to fix our mistakes, we only make things worse. Only Jesus could set right the wrongs that we have committed. He was scarred to ensure our safety from God’s righteous anger. And He has willingly borne those scars ever since, as permanent proof of His immeasurable devotion to us.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Blessed are you

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:1-12).

A beatitude is the announcing of a blessing. The phrase "blessed are those" is a beatitude. Beatitudes are found many places in the Bible, but more are found together here on the lips of Jesus than anywhere else in Scripture. That is why this collection of blessings is called the Beatitudes.

Over the years, many people have understood the Beatitudes as a rulebook for life. According to them, Jesus used the Beatitudes to teach His disciples how Christians should live. Such people say that these should be our attitude—our 'be-attitudes'. But there is more to the Beatitudes than just rules for living. The Beatitudes not only describe what a Christian does, they also describe who a Christian is. Understood properly, the Beatitudes show every disciple of Christ what a Christian life looks like.

The first four Beatitudes are about our relationship with God. The first Beatitude sets up all the rest: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The poor in spirit are those people who know what God expects from them--and tremble in fear. The poor in spirit know that God says in Leviticus 11:45, "be holy, because I am holy." To be holy is to be absolutely perfect. To be holy is to live life from cradle to grave without one single selfish thought or one single cross word. To be holy is to live life in complete service to God, using every opportunity to study His Word, sing His praises, and tell others about His love. To be holy is to be without sin. Those who are poor in spirit are those who know all this, and are honest with themselves—they are not holy. They know that Saint Paul included them when he wrote, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Knowing this, they tremble; they tremble because God will not accept unholy things into heaven. Unholy things rightfully belong in hell.

But Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who are poor in spirit. Those who have nothing, no way to please God or earn a place in heaven, those people have been given faith in Jesus. They have been given faith that their sins are forgiven because of Jesus’ death in our place for our sins. They believe that Jesus rose from the dead so that He can bring His followers into heaven. The poor in spirit don’t reject these blessings—they are grateful for them! The poor in spirit know that they need God--and this pleases God, who said in Isaiah 66:2, "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word." The person who knows that he needs Jesus is blessed because Jesus gives him membership in the Kingdom of Heaven. Who are the poor in spirit? You and me. And because we know that we need God to find peace on earth and joy in heaven, we ask Jesus to forgive us our unholiness, knowing that He will. We are members of the Kingdom of Heaven—we are blessed.

Jesus next says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." To understand this properly, we must remember what causes mourning. All mourning is caused by sin. Sin brought sickness and decay and death into the world. Jesus announces blessing for those who mourn. God is pleased when we see sin for what it is—the bringer of death and destruction. God doesn’t want us to enjoy our sins or the sins of others; He wants us to hate those sins as He hates them. The psalmist wrote, "Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed" (Psalm 119:136). David said, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge" (Psalm 51:4). When we mourn our sin and the sin that burdens our friends and neighbors, we are blessed. We are blessed with God’s promise that sin will be ended once and for all on the Last Day, when "God will wipe away every tear from [His servants’] eyes" (Revelation 7:17). Jesus blesses us with the hope of a sinless world to come, so that we can endure the sins of this one while we live. He also blesses us with His offer of help in Matthew chapter 11: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Truly, those who mourn sin receive blessings from God.

"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth." Meekness is not found in the proud. People who are proud believe that they don’t need anyone’s help. Prideful people don’t want to receive advice on life, they want to give it. Prideful people don’t want to follow, they want to lead. It is the meek who are humble. It is the meek who know that they are so corrupted by sin that they have no business trying to tell others how they should live. It is the meek who know that sin makes their every decision suspect, and so they ask God to lead them through their lives. The meek trust in God for everything, and Jesus promises them a blessing: "they will inherit the earth." In Isaiah 66:22, God speaks of a new, eternal earth that will replace this sinful dying one: "the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me," declares the LORD. This is the world the meek will inherit, as we read in Psalm 37: "For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek will inherit the land and enjoy great peace." Those with pride do not want to submit to God and follow Him; we, who meekly trust and follow Jesus, will not be sharing everlasting life with those who reject our God.

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." We get hungry and thirsty many times every day. We can ignore our hunger and thirst when we think we are too busy to eat or get a drink, but if we ignore our body’s needs for too long our body begins to die. It is the same with spiritual nourishment. David said, "O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you in a dry and weary land where there is no water" (Psalm 63:1). Our souls hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness many times every day. When we are faced with any kind of decision, our souls need God’s wisdom and courage to do that which pleases God. If we ignore our hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, the sin in us grows bolder and we begin to choose sins’ way instead of God’s way with ever-increasing frequency. Without the nourishment of hearing and studying God’s Word on a regular basis, our souls weaken and can eventually lose the spark of life that only Jesus can provide. That is why Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. God fills those who want Jesus to live in their hearts and work through their hands. God gives us the desire and strength to do things that please Him. He gives us these blessings through the reading of the Scriptures, through sermons, through Bible study, and through Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When we ask God to nourish our souls, He blesses us with more opportunities to grow than we can ever take full advantage of.

At this point in the Beatitudes, Jesus now begins to address our relationships with our fellow man. These Beatitudes are not Law commands that we must carry out to get into heaven; these Beatitudes show us how we can relate to each other when God is in control of our lives. Jesus says, "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." This recalls to our minds the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus instructs us to pray, "and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us" (Matthew 6:12). God does put a condition on the mercy He will show to us on Judgment Day—we must be willing to forgive others, to show mercy to them. Further on in Matthew Jesus says plainly, "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." We must remember that, left on our own, this would be impossible. But when Jesus lives in our hearts we can forgive other people for their sins against us. When we are poor in spirit, we are meek, because we know that the only good in us is Jesus. We know that without Jesus, we are no better than any other sinner. Rather than hate another sinner and hold a grudge, Jesus helps us to say, "there but for the grace of God go I."

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." By nature, our hearts are not pure. Jesus says, "For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man unclean" (Matthew 15:19-20). The unclean heart is the source of every sin we commit against God and one another. There is nothing that we can do to change the nature of our hearts. But when we realize that we are poor in spirit and begin to hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness, Jesus comes to live in our hearts. As long as He lives in us through faith, Jesus is constantly forgiving our sins and purifying our hearts, a process that will continue until the day that we die and are finally freed from the cancer of sin that infects our flesh. And because Jesus lives in us forgiving our sins, God the Father regards our hearts as pure and holy. When we die with Jesus in our hearts, God will allow us to see Him face to face, and He will be smiling at us in welcome. What a tremendous blessing!

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God." When God created the world, every living thing was united with God and each other in peace. When sin entered the world, it brought division and conflict—sin brought division and conflict between God and man, and between every man and his neighbor. Jesus, the Son of God, died for all sins on the cross for the purpose of restoring peace: most importantly, peace between man and God, a peace that only comes when the source of conflict—sin—is erased. In this Beatitude, Jesus pronounces a special blessing on those who carry on His work among men by preaching and teaching about God’s plan of salvation for all mankind. Any peace effort undertaken by diplomats is doomed to failure, unless that peace effort includes the forgiveness of sins that only Jesus brings. Without the cross of Jesus, no peace effort addresses the true cause of the conflict—human sin. We are peacemakers whenever Jesus speaks His words of forgiveness and love through our lips, and we then are called sons of God, brothers with Jesus, in whom all true peace is found.

The Beatitudes end on a somewhat jarring note: "Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." The reality of persecution should not surprise us. Many people like to hold grudges and will not be satisfied without gaining revenge for being wronged. Such unforgiving types resent a Christian’s message of peace and reconciliation through Jesus. But we should also remember that Satan opposes Jesus’ saving work at every turn. If non-Christians begin to tease you, make fun of you, or accuse you of being judgmental of them when all you were doing was meekly offering God’s saving message, consider this: Satan is trying to shut you up. When you are persecuted just for being a Christian, it is proof that you are on Jesus’ side, because Satan is opposing Jesus’ work in your life. For this reason, Jesus tells us to rejoice and be glad, because you are certainly of citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven, just as were every persecuted prophet and apostle of the Bible. God is pleased when we remain loyal to Him in the face of Satan’s attacks, and Jesus assures us, "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).

The Beatitudes are not about how we lead our lives; they are about how our lives can look when Christ is our Savior and our leader. Jesus says, "blessed are you"—and, as Jesus’ modern-day disciple, you truly are blessed.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Are you an athiest?

They asked him, "Where is your father?" "You do not know me or my Father," Jesus replied. "If you knew me, you would know my Father also" (John 8:19).

A young woman walked into a pastor’s office and said, "I’m an atheist." The pastor replied, "Well, that’s very interesting. Tell me what kind of God you don’t believe in." And for the next hour, she told him. When she had concluded, the pastor said, "You know, I must be an atheist too, because I don’t believe in that god either." Then he proceeded to tell her what kind of God we have.

We have a God who is discoverable; He is not hidden in obscure books of occult wisdom. God has made Himself known to us through the Bible, the widest read book in the world. We have a God who is contemporary; His wisdom is not old-fashioned or bound to one specific cultural background. There are practicing Christians in every culture and economic group in the world, from tribal hunters in Africa to farmers in Russia, from the destitute in India to the wealthy in the Arab states, from illiterate children in South America to college students in Japan. We have a God whose wisdom is a timeless anchor in a world of swiftly shifting moral standards, whose ways promote spiritual health, mental stability, and self-worth. His teachings offer the only true solution to the problems of the human condition—unconditional forgiveness of past mistakes and long-term commitment to the loving care of others, no matter the personal cost.

Most importantly, we have a God who gives us the answers to the fundamental questions of humanity: "Who am I? Do I have worth? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? What will happen to me when I die?" Who am I? I am a child of God, created by Him as a unique person, precious to Him. Do I have worth? I make constant mistakes, for which God should punish me. But God sent His Son Jesus to be punished in my place, so that I can be forgiven. That's how much I am worth—the life of God’s own Son. What will happen to me when I die? Jesus has promised that everyone who rejects the love of sinning and puts their trust in Him will get to live forever with Him in paradise. What am I supposed to be doing with my life? I am God’s living invitation by which others can meet Jesus and come into His blessings.

That’s the kind of God we have.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006


Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17).

A young mother was alone with her three children on a remote farm in central California. The children had been swimming in their pool, when the mother suddenly noticed that the two-and-a-half year old was floating motionlessly at the bottom. She got the child out as quickly as she could, and just then a neighboring farmer came by. He immediately began administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to try to save the child. After several agonizingly long minutes life stirred in the little form, and doctors later confirmed that the prompt treatment had prevented brain damage.

In the days following, people who had heard of the child’s rescue from drowning would tell the parents "You sure were lucky! You sure were lucky!" But the father told his pastor, "When people would say that to me I replied, ‘It wasn’t luck at all. My wife and daughter were on their knees praying while our friend was working on my son.’ What a wonderful opportunity I had for witnessing to Christ again and again as my friends spoke to me about my son being saved."

I can’t begin to count how many times I hear people give thanks to luck when something good happens in their lives. But a Christian should never speak about 'luck'. To do so implies that random events shape our lives. But the Christian knows that life is shaped by two great, invisible powers. The lesser of those powers is that of evil—the power of the sin that has distorted our world into a caricature of what God had created, and the influence of Satan and his demonic allies. The power of corruption has brought disease, decay, destructive weather and death into God’s perfect creation. Every bad thing that happens to us has its ultimate origin with sin and Satan. But Scripture tells us that every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. Every truly good blessing that we experience comes from our loving heavenly Father. "Luck" has nothing to do with it. Pleae join me in praying:

Help us, Lord Jesus, to recognize Your loving care in every good thing in our lives. Teach us to stop saying, "that was lucky," and instead start saying, "thank You, Lord." Amen.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Light in the darkness

When Jesus heard that John had been put in prison, he returned to Galilee. Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali--to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles--the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned."

From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men." At once they left their nets and followed him.

Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people (Matthew 4:12-23).

I’d like you to think back to the last time that your power went out for a long time at night. Probably, it was a stormy night—wind howling, maybe lightning flashing through the windows and thunder shaking the house. Regardless of the weather, things were dark—really dark. If you lived in town, there were no streetlights working; if you lived on a farm, the yard light was out. It was hard to get around the house while looking for flashlights and candles. Even though you thought you knew where everything was, you still managed to bump into a piece of furniture or trip over something left on the floor. As the minutes dragged by, you began to wonder how long the lights would stay off? Children, who at first thought that this was a neat adventure, became scared about having to stay in the dark. As the power outage crept past an hour, you began to worry about using up your candles and exhausting the batteries in the flashlight. You did not want to end up stuck in darkness with no light at all. And when the lights finally came back on, there was a smile of relief on everybody’s face.

Why do we fear the darkness? Chiefly, we fear darkness because it limits our ability to see. In the darkness, we have a hard time taking care of ourselves. Without any light, it is hard to get dressed and impossible to select coordinated clothing. In the darkness, we cannot see things that might hurt us. When we can’t see, we stub our toes and bark our shins on hard furniture. In the darkness, it is hard to defend ourselves. Walking out to the barn or the grove in darkness, we can’t see a skunk or a coyote standing in our path. Walking along a city street in darkness, we can't see a mugger waiting for us to draw near. Living in darkness makes life hard and dangerous. This is why we fear darkness.

But there are people who do like to spend time in darkness. They like to spend time in darkness because darkness hides things. Many people like to go on dates to poorly-lit restaurants and bars, because in the dimness blotchy skin and graying hair are harder to notice. Burglars and vandals like to strike under the cover of darkness, because the darkness hides their faces and their crimes. There are many people who prefer to live in the darkness of ignorance, believing that what they don’t know can’t hurt them.

Isaiah prophesied that the people living in darkness have seen a great light. Who were these people? Isaiah locates them for us: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the twelve tribes of Israel, tribes whose lands were in the far north of the country, near the Sea of Galilee. When the northern part of Israel turned away from God, God sent the Assyrians to punish them. The Assyrians conquered the Israelites and deported many of them to other countries; then they brought in foreigners as settlers to till the fertile fields of the lands of Galilee. By Jesus’ day, the peoples of Galilee were a mixed bag of Jews and Gentiles. Galilee had not only been resettled by foreigners hundreds of years earlier, it was also on a major trade route, thus ensuring that foreign people and foreign ideas were constantly being introduced. Of all the Jewish homelands, Galilee had strayed the farthest from Jewish purity.

In Judea to the south, no pious Jew would seriously consider the possibility that the promised Messiah would spend much of His ministry among borderline Jews like the Galileans. The Galileans lived in darkness; Isaiah says that they lived in the land of the shadow of death. In the darkness, people cannot see where danger lies. In their spiritual darkness, many Galileans had given up going to God’s Temple in far-off Jerusalem to have sacrifices offered for their sins. Because they did not seek forgiveness of their sins against God, these Galileans were living dead men, men who were physically alive, but spiritually dead in their sins. These Galileans lived under the shadow of death. God promised eternal death in hell to all who died outside of the Kingdom of Heaven. Without the forgiveness of their sins, these people were unacceptable to God and unfit to be subjects in His Kingdom. Without membership in the heavenly kingdom, the people of the north country could only live hopeless lives. What is the point of working and investing, of marrying and having children, if all these things are eventually lost forever because of death? Living in darkness, living in the shadow of death, made the Galilean lifestyle of work and trade to be nothing more than frantic business without any real purpose.

And then Jesus came. Jesus said, "I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness" (John 12:46). Since Jesus came to be the light in darkness, He began His ministry among those Jews living in the deepest darkness—the Jews of Galilee. Jesus brought the light of the Word of God, the light that is a "lamp to my feet and a light for my path" (Psalm 119:105). Jesus’ light is "the light of life" (John 8:12). Jesus’ light allows us to see things as they truly are. God’s Word, revealed in Jesus, shows us every danger that hides in the darkness. In Jesus’ life-giving light, we can see clearly the sin that makes us unattractive to each other and repugnant to God. It is good that God’s light shows us our sin. If we didn’t know that we were sinful, we wouldn’t see the need for forgiveness from Jesus; and if we don’t repent our sins, we will have no part in the Kingdom of Heaven. Because of God’s light, we can also see the grace that He offers us through Jesus’ words "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." These are words of hope. Why would Jesus tell men to repent, unless God was willing to forgive sins?

Jesus said "I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved" (John 10:9). Jesus is the only way into the Kingdom of Heaven; it is impossible to enter God’s kingdom any other way than through belief and trust in Jesus. Jesus told the Galileans that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. It was very near. The Kingdom of Heaven was as close as Jesus standing before them, ready to say those life-restoring words, "Friend, your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20). The moment that Jesus forgave a person his sins, that blessed man or woman immediately became a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven is not found only in Heaven, it is just ruled from there. The Kingdom of Heaven is a nation made up of all people who trust in Christ as their ruler. The Kingdom of Heaven includes the saints in heaven as well as those who walk by the light of faith on earth. The Kingdom of Heaven is the one and only nation where man can bask in the light of a love that is never concealed by darkness; it is the only place where the shadow of death never ends the light of life.

Jesus came to bring light to the people who live in darkness, who live in the land of the shadow of death. We are all Galileans. We all live in darkness, under the shadow of death. Our world is filled with the darkness that makes truth hard to see. A great number of Americans alter their true looks through hair dye and plastic surgery. Lawyers make a career out of distorting truth to win their cases. Teachers in our universities teach our youth that there is no such thing as absolute truth. Our world cowers in fear under the shadow of death. Many people refuse to attend funerals out of fear of facing death. Those who can afford it spend vast amounts of money to keep appearing youthful. These past few years, people have become hesitant to fly in an airplane or travel overseas. People in America and around the world are looking for answers, looking for truth, looking for a path to walk on—but all they see is darkness and death.

Thankfully, Jesus still brings us His light. In today’s Gospel lesson, we see Jesus calling men to follow Him, to learn from Him. These men would be shown God’s light through their time with Jesus. These men would witness Jesus’ conviction as a criminal and His subsequent execution for crimes that He did not commit. These men would see Jesus restored to life after three days in the grave. Jesus would open the minds of these men, that they could understand that Jesus was convicted of our crimes against God, and that He suffered the death penalty of our crimes in our place. When these men saw Jesus ascend into heaven to rule His Kingdom from His Father’s side, they knew that Jesus had returned to life so that every person who trusts in Him can become a citizen in Christ’s eternal kingdom. These men wrote down these truths in the Bible, and they taught these truths to anyone who would listen. Over the years, Jesus built His holy Church through these men, and it is through His Church today that Jesus continues to shine His light into our benighted world. It is Christ’s Church, using God’s Holy Bible, which dares to tell the world that there are answers to the questions of life; there is truth that a person can hold onto and depend on. God’s light, shining through the doors and windows of His many churches, still shows people their sins and their need for repentance. God’s holy light shines from the pages of His Scriptures, and lets us read with understanding of God’s love and mercy to those who want to turn their backs on the deceptive darkness and instead walk in His marvelous light.

Not everyone welcomes the light. I’m sure there have been mornings when you’ve gotten up before dawn, and squinted in pain at the first light that you turned on. Sometimes it almost seems easier to just turn the light off and go back to bed. That is how some people respond to God’s light. St. John wrote: "The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (John 1:5). Jesus said, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed" (John 3:19-20). It is a sad thing to offer the blessings of light to a person suffering in darkness, only to have that offer refused. But Jesus gave His light to the Church for a purpose: Jesus said, "No one lights a lamp and hides it in a jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, he puts it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light" (Luke 8:16). Jesus also said "let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). Jesus gave us the light of His Word to save us, and to save others as we let His light shine through us into their lives. May the light of Christ that lives in your heart be a beacon of hope to all you meet.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hope in the face of death

Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13).

David Hume, the atheist philosopher, had a mother who was at one time a believer in Christ. Misled by the teachings of her son, she followed him into a life of unbelief and lost her faith. Years passed, and she approached the end of life. From her deathbed she sent a letter to her son; she wrote, "Dear son, my health has forsaken me. I am failing rapidly; I cannot live much longer. My philosophy affords me no comfort in my distress. I have lost the hope and comfort of religion and am sinking into despair. You can offer me something that will replace the hope of religion that I have lost. Hurry home, I beseech you, to comfort me, or at least write me what consolation you can afford in the hour of death." But her son, the philosopher, had no comfort he could give to his dying mother. He could only watch her die in the grip of despair.

I used to work in a funeral home, and I was able to listen in on many different funeral services. The one that sticks in my mind was a service where the worship leader spoke not one word about sin or Jesus or forgiveness or eternal life. All he spoke about was the wonderful life the deceased had lived, and how she would never be truly gone as long as her memory was preserved in the hearts of those who loved her. The so-called sermon was nothing but greeting card platitudes. When he finished speaking, I never in my life heard such agonized weeping as came from that family. The man had offered them absolutely no hope at all. Their loved one was gone, her existence ended forever. Her death had left a terrible hole in the souls of every person in the funeral chapel.

I was furious. I wanted to go and grab that man by the lapels and tell him to do the service over, and do it right this time! He needed to talk about the sin that infests each of us like cancer and eventually results in the decay of death. He needed to talk about God’s love, a love that brought His Son Jesus into the world to show us that sin need not be eternally fatal. He needed to tell them that God’s Son died under the terrible weight of our sins so that we could be freed of their burden. He needed to tell them that Jesus rose from the grave eternally alive and ascended into heaven where He welcomes us to spend eternity with Him, if we only reject our sins and love Him instead. He needed to tell them that because of Jesus, believers do not say goodbye at funerals, only "see you soon."

There is no comfort in the presence of death unless we have Jesus holding our hands as we face it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Having a good time

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18).

When you think of kicking back and having fun, do you picture doing things alone or with others? Christmas celebrations emphasize time with family and close friends. Advertisements for cruise ships always show group events or romantic twosomes. When we think of summer recreation, we think of ball games, people at the beach, or friends backpacking. Most people prefer to share their moments of fun with at least one other person; it is a truly rare individual who likes to be by themselves the majority of the time. When we think of having fun, we generally think of having fun with someone.

Do you think of God as someone you enjoy spending time with? Is Jesus someone who you think of when you are having fun? Or is this a surprising thought? It shouldn’t be. We were created by God in His image. We smile because God wanted to see us smile. We can laugh because God gives us the gift of a sense of humor. We enjoy hugging and being hugged because the Father, Son and Holy Spirit value the warmth of close, personal relationships.

God created humans to enjoy time with Him and with each other. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments in order to teach men and women how to be good company. Think about it: reject anything that is evil, respect God, set aside time for God regularly to get to know Him better, don’t be disrespectful of others, don’t cause injury, don’t steal, don’t interfere with another person’s marriage, don’t tell lies, don’t be jealous or motivated by money—if we behaved like this consistently, everyone would love spending time with us! God wants us to enjoy our time with Him and with each other.

Sin is what drives wedges between people. Acting selfishly, being miserly with our time and resources, speaking our negative thoughts impulsively--these create walls of distrust and resentment between people, just as our sins build a barrier between us and God. This is why Jesus came to die for us; His death on our behalf allows us to be forgiven, and tears down the wall of sin that separates us from God and each other. Jesus suffered and died for us because He loves spending time with us, and He wants His time with us to last beyond our deaths forever.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The ultimate stain remover

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"

Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:13-17).

It is Saturday morning, the day of the week that Maggie sets aside to get caught up on doing laundry. She gathers up the boys’ clothes and heads down to the basement. As she goes through Michael’s pile of dirty clothes, Maggie is horrified to find blueberry stains on one of his school shirts—it has been at least four days since that pie was finished off. She doesn’t hold a lot of hope for getting the stain out at this point, but Maggie uses a presoak and her best stain-removing detergent on the off-chance that maybe the shirt will come clean. Alas, when she finally takes it out of the washing machine, the ugly spot is still there, mocking her. She knows she has no choice: if she wants to salvage Michael’s shirt, she’s going to have to go to a professional spot-remover—she’s going to have to take the shirt to the dry cleaners.

We humans are messy people. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t spilled or dripped something on our clothes at some time or another. Every one of us has ruined more than one dress shirt or blouse or pair of slacks. Every one of us has stained some piece of clothing so badly that professional cleaning was the only hope we had of getting that favorite tie or dress back in wearable condition. In fact, most of us, in trying to get a stain out, have sometimes made the problem worse by using too much of the wrong stain-remover on the wrong fabric. Sometimes it just seems easier to throw the ruined clothing out and go shopping for a replacement.

Sin is a stain. Sin is an ugly blot on a person’s life, just like a stain is an ugly blot on a person’s clothes. Sin makes us ugly, just as stains make pretty clothes ugly. Pride is a sin; pride makes us ugly. Selfishness is a sin; selfishness makes us ugly. Laziness, greed, and lust are sins that make us ugly. Faithlessness is a sin; living without faith in Jesus makes us ugly.

Sin is the stain that we can’t wash out. In fact, the more that we try to get rid of our sins, the bigger a mess we end up making of our lives. Some people try to cover up the ugliness of their sins by pretending that they never happened. Some try to blame their sins on others. Some people try to make up for their sins by punishing themselves or by purchasing extravagant gifts for those they’ve hurt. But all these attempts to wash away our sins ultimately fail. People who lie about their sins are eventually exposed, getting into even worse trouble. People who punish themselves for their sins never reach a point where they feel free of their guilt. People who try to buy forgiveness through lavish spending only earn the contempt of those they’ve wronged. When it comes to washing away our sins, we are very poor launderers.

If we were just talking about clothing, it would be tempting to give up, throw the outfit away, and buy new clothes. But life isn’t like a suit of clothes. We are each of us only given one life to live. If that life becomes stained with sin, we must either have the stains removed or learn to live with them. It is a tragedy that most people are content to live with the stain of their sins. Most people live their entire lives soiled by selfish ambition, envy, and the pursuit of personal pleasure at all costs. Most people live their lives victim of the loneliness that is caused by sins alienating friends and family. This is a tragedy, because living with the stain of sin is unnecessary. Professional cleaning is available—and even better, it’s free!

In today’s Gospel lesson, we are told of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan. This event is of tremendous importance to us, for at least two reasons. First, this event inaugurated Jesus’ saving work on our behalf as our Redeemer. Second, Jesus’ baptism gave power to all of our baptisms, power that assures us that Jesus’ salvation belongs to each and every one of us.

The Son of God came into this world in the body of a human being to end sin’s control over human life. Jesus was both the holy Son of God and He was also a perfect man, born of His human mother Mary. At His baptism the Spirit of God came down out of Heaven and rested on the part of Jesus that was human, so that Jesus the God-man would have the strength to save all mankind from the sin that stained us. Jesus was not baptized to wash away His sins; Jesus had no sin in Himself. By His baptism, Jesus voluntarily came and stood beside everyone who did need baptism. Baptism brings the promise of eternal life and eternal love under the leadership and care of our heavenly Father. By His baptism, Jesus began His ministry among us under the same promises of God’s love that we live under. Jesus spent three years revealing God’s love to us. Jesus taught us about how we could be freed from the stain of sin: recognize that sin has made us ugly to God and to each other, ask God to forgive us, and trust that God will remove the stain of sin from our lives.

But why should we trust that God really is interested in cleaning us from our sins? Why would God want to pick up filthy, wretched humans in His pure, holy hands and clean up a mess that He didn’t make? We can believe that God will forgive us because He loves us. God loves us so much that He was willing to send the joy of His heart, His one and only Son, to die for us. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." God loved His Son Jesus, yet He was willing to watch Jesus live a life filled with rejection, humiliation and pain, a life that ended with a criminal-style execution. God accepted this loss because He loves us, and Jesus’ willing sacrifice of His holy, perfect life was the only sacrifice great enough to make up for all the evil that we have done.

The sin that stains us is, at heart, rebellion against God. We sin whenever we do something that displeases God. Sin is when we disobey God; sin is rebellion. To sin is to turn traitor against the God who is our rightful ruler. In the United States and most other countries, to act against the government is to commit treason. Treason is the worst crime possible, and almost everywhere is punishable by death. Thus, when we stain our lives with sin, we commit treason against God, and God sentences us to death for our sins. But Jesus, because of His baptism in the Jordan, stands with us. Jesus, who is God made touchable to us, stepped forward 2,000 years ago and asked His Father to punish Him for our crimes so that we might be spared God’s wrath. Jesus died for our sins, and on the third day following His death Jesus returned to life, proof that His sacrifice had settled the debt of treason for every human sin. Now Jesus sits at His Father’s side in heaven. Whenever a Christian comes to the throne of God in prayer, begging for forgiveness, the Father forgives the sins of that person because Jesus has already paid their penalty. Whenever a Christian comes to God asking to be cleaned of the sin that makes him ugly and unacceptable, Jesus washes away the stain of sin.

Jesus is the professional cleaner. We come to Him seeking cleansing, and we wonder what He will demand in payment. After all, Jesus suffered so much for us—He must expect something in return. But Jesus surprises us. Jesus offers to clean us from the stain of our sins for free! The only thing Jesus wants from us is to give up our pride and come to Him empty-handed, seeking His help. Jesus wants nothing from us but our need. God told Saint Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9). When we have nothing to offer but our need, God gives us everything that we could ever need to live a happy, fulfilled life.

It can be hard to believe in God’s grace. It can be hard to believe that God’s grace to us comes freely. There are days when, worn down by the sins that fill this world, we begin to doubt. We begin to doubt that God really loves us. We begin to doubt that Jesus really does forgive us our every sin. We begin to doubt that heaven doesn’t come with a price tag. It is for this reason that Jesus gave us our baptisms. Baptism is a joining of water with the spoken promises of God. Peter states the promise this way: "baptism…now saves you…It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand--with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" (1 Peter 3:21-22). Just as Jesus joined with mankind through His baptism, we are joined to Jesus through our baptisms, as Paul explains: "We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:4). Baptism brings us the benefits of Jesus’ work on our behalf: forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God. Baptism is an event in our lives, an event that erases the guilt of sin and makes us part of the Kingdom of God. Baptism is an event that is a matter of record; you can check its reality on your baptismal certificate and in the church records. It is a matter of record to give you assurance on those days when you find yourself assailed by doubts about God’s love for you. When you start to worry that you are so stained with sin that God won’t clean you up anymore, you can look to the fact of your baptism and be reminded that you are a child of God, bought from sin at a price—but it was a price that God was willing to pay. Peter wrote, "Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18). The price has been paid in full. There is no reason to doubt that God will ever stop forgiving you, because Jesus has settled the debt of all sin forever.

Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River for us. In a sense, Jesus used His baptism to sanctify the waters of baptism for you and me and those who still live uneasily with the stain of their sins. Take comfort in the fact that, through baptism, Jesus has made you a member of His heavenly kingdom. When doubts start nagging you, look at your baptismal certificate and be reassured that God has made a commitment to your eternal welfare. "Baptism…now saves you."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A bumpy ride

Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2Corinthians 4:17).

In 1857, at the outbreak of the Sepoy Rebellion in India, the Hindus tried to slaughter as many of the occupying Englishmen as they could, especially military officers and their families. One such officer, along with his wife, had gone to a neighboring town, unaware that danger was imminent. They had left their little daughter at home in the care of a native nurse whom the little girl was very fond of. When the uprising against the British began, little Ellen was in mortal danger regardless of her young age because she had white skin and was a child of an officer. But her father’s countrymen did not forget about her. One of them galloped to her home, snatched her from her native nurse, and took off on his horse holding Ellen in front of him.

By this time the streets were filled with shouting, frenzied people. They tried to stop the horse and kill both rider and child. But the man drew his saber and fought every foot of the way, all the while holding the little girl firmly in his left arm. Naturally, she was terrified. She kicked and struggled and cried. Several times she almost slipped from his arms. This made his efforts to ride and protect her much more difficult, but at last he got free of the crowd and, after a long hard ride, he delivered his little charge to her mother.

We can only imagine the frantic joy these parents knew as they were reunited with their daughter. Their gratitude towards the rider knew no bounds. But their daughter did not share their gratitude; she felt deep resentment towards her rescuer. He had held her so roughly; he had jolted her so much during the ride; he had refused to let her go back to her nurse. How could such a rude man be considered a friend? Under no circumstances could she be persuaded to kiss him or even thank him. As she grew older, Ellen must have come to realize that the bumps and jolts that she received during the wild ride were the unavoidable side effects of being rescued. But at the time, all she looked at was the superficial--because her ride was rough, she concluded that the rider did not like her.

The life of a Christian is not a smooth ride either; it is filled with terrifying bumps and jolts. Sometimes, people conclude from the pains these cause that God does not love them. They ask, "how can a loving God let me be hurt this way?" Just remember Ellen and her terrifying ride to safety as her rescuer fought to save her life; every jolt is a reminder that Jesus is fighting Satan to bring you safely home.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I am the LORD your God.

I am the LORD your God (Exodus 20:2).

Reformation writer Philip Melanchthon found a wonderful Gospel message in these words that introduce the Ten Commandments. "First," he says, "you must discover that our God is a personal being, not merely a force or an urge, not merely a helpless statue like some of the images that were constructed in days of old or in the devising of the human mind in our day. I am the LORD your God. The "I" reminds us that God is a personal being, intimately involved with His people.

"Second, this God is eternal: I am the God who was, who is, and who ever shall be. He is not the product of human wisdom, but people are the product of His wisdom.

"Third, He has the power to judge, for He says: I am the Lord. In the Old Testament this title always referred to the God who moved in and called His people to judgment. But at the same time, His judgment is always "judgment in love," for He adds: I am the Lord, your God. He relates Himself to His people. He shows Himself to be concerned about their welfare. He remembers them in their need and comes to their rescue. And finally, He has the power to say: I am the LORD your God."

So much in so few words! In the little phrase I am the LORD your God, Melanchthon finds that God is a living, thinking being; that He is personally interested in each of us; that He is eternal, and so is always ready to help us; that He has standards of conduct that He expects us to keep on pain of death; and that He judges with mercy, willing to forgive us our sins for the sake of His Son Jesus when we let go of our pride and throw ourselves at His feet for mercy! Please join me in praying:

Dear heavenly Father, we thank You for creating us. We thank You for revealing Yourself to us through Your Son Jesus Christ. We thank You for giving us work to do and standards of behavior to uphold. But we thank You most of all for sending Jesus to suffer and die in our place, so that we can be forgiven when we fail to live up to Your standards. In Your Son’s holy name we pray, amen.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Seeing the Light

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel."

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him."

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route. (Matthew 2:1-12).

This week we are celebrating Epiphany. But do you know what the word ‘epiphany’ means? An epiphany is an event where God reveals something of Himself to mortal men. There are many epiphanies throughout the Bible; indeed, the Bible itself is an epiphany of a sort, because it is through the Bible that God reveals Himself to us. But the epiphany we are remembering presently took place shortly after Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. The epiphany we aree remembering is the event when God revealed His chosen Messiah to the Gentiles. Through the use of a miraculous star, God led magi from the east to come and worship the Christ-child.

Who were the magi? Matthew really doesn’t tell us much about them, although historians can make several educated guesses to give us some additional details. Matthew’s primary concern is that the magi were Gentiles. To a Jew, the people of the world were divided into two groups. One group consisted of Jews. The Jews were God’s chosen people, a select group who had a long-standing relationship with God that began with their ancestor, Abraham. Through the Jews, God sent prophets to proclaim His word. Through the Jews, God had promised to send a Messiah who would free all Jews from oppression and would rule the earth in justice and peace. This Messiah would be King of the Jews, and ultimately King of the World. The members of the other group, the non-Jews, were called Gentiles. Gentiles were heathens, people who had no relationship with God. At best, Gentiles were to be ignored or pitied; at worst, they were active enemies of the Jews. The Gentiles would also come under the rulership of the King of the Jews, but as far as the Jews were concerned, Gentiles would always be second-class citizens under the Messiah’s reign.

Matthew tells us that the magi came from the east. To the east were such countries as Arabia and Persia. The city of Babylon, where many Jews had been held in exile for 70 years, had a strong tradition of studying the sky in order to better understand the world and to predict the future. People who specialized in interpreting the heavens, people we would call astrologers, were there known as magi, or wise men. It is very possible that the magi Matthew speaks of came from Babylon, where they would have had access to Jewish writings about the Messiah and become interested in the expected King of the Jews.

We don’t know how many magi were involved in the events of Epiphany; since three gifts are mentioned, it is speculated that there were three magi. Regardless, these learned men saw a remarkable star in their western sky, a star that was new and commanded attention. From their studies, the magi concluded that the star heralded the birth of the long-expected King of the Jews. We don’t know precisely what they believed about this newborn king, but consider the types of gifts they gathered to take with them. Gold, of course, would be a suitable gift for a person of importance, such as a king. Frankincense was a very expensive incense, generally burned as a part of worship; this gift suggests that the magi may have believed in Christ’s divinity. Myrrh is a spice often used for embalming; whether or not the magi understood from their studies that Christ would suffer and die to buy His people back from sin and death, myrrh was perhaps the most appropriate gift of the three. In fact, whether the magi fully realized it or not, God saw that they chose gifts which testified to Christ’s three-fold office as Prophet, Priest and King. Frankincense witnesses to Jesus as God revealing Himself to us—His prophetic role. Myrrh witnesses to Jesus as the God-man who died to pay the penalty for our sins—His priestly role. And gold witnesses to Jesus as the ruler of the universe who is empowered to punish sin and forgive the faithful—His kingly role.

The magi knew that an extraordinary person had been born in the land of the Jews, and they set out to pay their respects to Him. By the time they arrived in Jerusalem, capital city of the Jews, the star had apparently faded from view, so they inquired of Herod, the current king, where they could find his successor. Herod was no Jew—he was an Edomite, put on the throne to be a puppet king by the Roman Empire. So Herod called the religious scholars together to find out more about this possible threat to his throne. The scholars knew where Jesus was to be born, but no one from Jerusalem went with the magi to Bethlehem to meet the newborn king. The religious leaders of the Jews stayed away in disbelief; only foreign Gentiles went to worship the King of the Jews.

God’s guiding star appeared again, and the magi were overwhelmed with joy to see it. The mere promise of soon seeing the long-awaited King stirred excitement in the wise men’s hearts. When they at last entered Jesus’ humble house and beheld the Savior of the world, the magi immediately bowed in humble worship. The magi knew that they were in the presence of true greatness, disguised as it was in baby’s clothes. And they offered gifts to the King of the Jews, expensive gifts that spoke of the high esteem they held for the infant king. So came the very first Gentiles to worship our Lord Jesus.

The magi in Matthew’s account were real people, but they also represent us. We, too, are Gentiles. We, too, are strangers who have been brought into God’s chosen people. Saint Paul compares the people of God to an olive plant; the Jews are native branches and we Gentiles are grafted in among them, as he explains in Romans: "If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, do not boast over those branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you" (Romans 11:17-18).

Like the magi, we seek Jesus. Like the magi in Babylon, we are surrounded by God’s word and God’s people. The magi had Jews and the writings of the Old Testament available for consultation and study. We have our fellow Christians and the Bible. There is no place in this country where a Christian church cannot be found, no place where a Bible cannot be borrowed or purchased. Like the magi, we talk to God’s people and we study His written Word. We want to know of God, because we know in our hearts that we are sinful and unclean, and that we displease our Creator in thought, word, and deed. And as we attend church to listen to God’s Word, as we study the Holy Bible looking for answers to the mysteries of life and death, God sends us an epiphany. When we hear or read about how God loved the world so much, that He sent His only Son to reclaim its lost and lonely people for His own, God sends us the guiding light of His Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is our bright evening star, the star that leads us to the throne of our heavenly King. As the magi were led by the star of Bethlehem to the presence of the Christ child, the Holy Spirit leads the believer to our Savior’s waiting arms. The Holy Spirit gives us faith so that we can believe that the Jesus, written of by Matthew and the other writers of the Bible, is indeed the Son of God come into our lives to save us from the oppression of our sins. The Holy Spirit gives us faith so that we can bow down and worship our King, just as the magi did. And when we acknowledge Jesus as our Savior and our ruler, our hearts are filled with the same joy that the magi had. The magi were grateful that Jesus had come to live among us, and they showed that gratitude with gifts, gifts that honored Him as Prophet, Priest and King. We poor sinners are also glad that Jesus came to live among us, died in our place for our sins, and rose from the grave so that He could hold open the gates of heaven for us. Because of this gratitude, we too are moved to bring gifts. To honor Him as our Prophet who reveals God to us, we give Him worship when we gather in church, singing His praises. To honor Him as our Priest who gave His own life as a sacrifice so that our sins could be forgiven, we give Him first place in our hearts, asking Jesus to help us live lives that are pleasing to God. To honor Him as our King who forgives our sins and protects us from our enemies, we give Him our time and money, that His church may grow and bring the light of faith to people who still live in the darkness of night with no star to guide them.

This week, we celebrate Epiphany. This week, we celebrate that God has given each of us, foreign Gentiles, an epiphany that has brought us into the People of God. This week, we thank God for forgiving our sins and opening heaven to us. This week, like the magi of old, we bring gifts of thankfulness—gifts of time and money, gifts of worship, gifts of humble submission to our Lord’s leadership in our lives. This week, we rejoice that "there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Romans 10:12-13).

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The "fifth column"

No matter which way I turn, I can't make myself do right. I want to, but I can't. When I want to do good, I don't. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway. But if I am doing what I don't want to do, I am not really the one doing it; the sin within me is doing it (Romans 7:18-20).

When Francisco Franco was leading the revolution in Spain, he coined the phrase "the fifth column." He was trying to capture Madrid. He said that he had four columns of soldiers marching on the city, one from the north, one from the south, one from the east, and one from the west. But the most important column of all was his "fifth" column, the citizens of Madrid who would rise up and betray the city from within, welcoming him in.

Over the years, "the fifth column" has come to refer to any group that plans to betray their country from the inside. This is the most dangerous kind of attack in a war because it catches us by surprise, it causes significant damage by slipping past our defenses, and the betrayal from within hurts our morale. The highest crime a citizen can be convicted of is treason.

Christians are warned to be on guard for the temptations and attacks launched against us by the devil, but our worst defeats come about when we betray ourselves. Each of us tries to live a morally responsible life, but our dark inner desires have other ideas. It only takes a moment of weakness to cave into the addiction of smoking or drinking or gambling; it only takes a brief lapse of judgment to end up hitting someone you love, or become infected with a sexually transmitted disease. And when we betray ourselves by breaking a promise to "never do that again," we not only let down others, we sink deeper and deeper into the black pit of self-hatred for being weak and useless.

Sin lives in each of us. Our dark desires try to convince us that they are normal and natural, a part of us that makes us uniquely who we are. But our sinful desires are in truth fifth columnists; they plot to end our ability to control them so that they can do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want. And every time that we let our dark desires express themselves, they get stronger and our ability to control them weakens.

This is why we need Jesus Christ. Jesus lived on earth to take the responsibility for our evil deeds. He suffered and died when God the Father punished Him in our place for these sins. But Jesus did not stay dead; He returned to life to prove that there is no evil deed of ours that has been left unpunished. Because Jesus lives, we have the promise that no matter how many times we betray ourselves, Jesus is willing to move into our hearts and restore the rule of God’s love.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The touch of a Friend

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:26-28).

It happened in Westminster Abbey over 500 years ago. There was a talented preacher in the Abbey that day, giving a sermon that had attracted a great crowd of people. But when a servant of King Henry the Fifth came to the abbey with a message, he did not find his king among the crowd. After some searching, he discovered Henry at a small altar in an almost deserted part of the building, where the king was receiving the Lord’s Supper. When the messenger asked his liege why he was not in the large nave with the rest of the congregation, Henry replied "I would rather meet with my Friend than merely hear Him talked about."

Our Lord Jesus is our heavenly friend, but as things stand right now, we can’t see Him with our eyes. But like King Henry the Fifth, we can still meet with our Friend. Our Lord has given us a way to kiss Him with our lips. We are given this wonderful opportunity in Holy Communion. Using His divine power, the Son of God performs a miracle every time bread and wine are served in His name. By His almighty power, Jesus places into the bread the essence of His body, the body that died for our sins on the cross; and into the wine He pours His holy blood, the blood that made atonement for every sin you and I have ever committed. When we take the bread and wine of the Eucharist, we are privileged to touch our Savior, who died to free us from God’s anger and who rose from the dead to strengthen us and to lead us into heaven. Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, our heavenly Friend, we thank You for leaving the joys of heaven to live among us and touch us with Your love. We thank You for suffering Your Father’s punishment for our sins. And we thank You for reaching out to us through the bread and wine of Your Holy Supper, touching us with Your own body and blood. By Your touch, we know You have forgiven us. By Your touch, we are reassured that You care for us each day. By Your touch, we receive strength to live our lives in service to You. May we never take Your touch for granted, Lord Jesus. Amen.

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