Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A mountaintop experience

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."

While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead" (Matthew 17:1-9).

When was the last time that you went on a trip to spend time with someone special? I don’t necessarily mean a long trip; what I’m talking about is a time where you left behind your work and your home and spent quality time with someone you love. It may have been a trip to your grandparents. It may have been a trip to the home of your parents, or a brother or a sister, or one of your children. Perhaps it was a trip to an old friend’s place. In any event, the time there was special. You didn’t worry about your job or cooking or schoolwork; you just enjoyed the company of someone dear. It was a happy time, and when it came time to return home, a part of you didn’t want to go.

Or perhaps you have taken time away to attend a convention, conference or seminar. You had the chance to mingle with people who all shared similar interests with you, even though they were strangers. As the hours went by, you found many people who shared your passions and could relate to your problems. You listened to speakers who got you excited about what you could do with your life. In the car returning home, you reflected on everything you’d seen and heard and wished that the conference could have gone on for just one more day.

These are just two examples of having a "mountaintop experience". The classic mountaintop experience is the feeling that a mountain climber gets when he finally reaches the summit. There is a rush of emotion that sweeps away all exhaustion and pain. The climber is overcome with joy and wants nothing more than to just stand where he is, enjoying the bliss of the moment. Many people have these kinds of experiences. Recently, many athletes from around the world felt such bliss when they won a medal at the Olympics. Many couples wish that their honeymoon would never end. Many parents wish that their babies would stay little just a few more months. When we experience something wonderful in our lives, we don’t want it to ever go away.

Peter, James and John had a mountaintop experience. They experienced something so wonderful, so awe-inspiring, that they didn’t want the moment to end. These three disciples, Jesus’ closest friends, were privileged to see the glory of God, to hear the Father’s voice, and to see with their own eyes the greatest prophets of history. Peter, James and John received an experience so special that it was reserved only for those closest to Jesus—and yet they misunderstood the purpose for this mountaintop experience. The three disciples wanted to stay on the mountain and continue to enjoy their wonderful experience, but the purpose of Jesus’ Transfiguration was to prepare them to leave the mountaintop.

Why did the Transfiguration take place? To understand this important event, we must look back to the verses just preceding it. In chapter 16, verse 21 we read "From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life." How did the disciples react to this startling news? In verse 22, Peter speaks for the group when he says, "Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!" It is clear that the disciples will go through a very hard time while they watch their beloved Teacher endure arrest, trial and execution for crimes that He did not commit. Jesus knew that His heavenly Father hated sin. Jesus also knew that because His Father loved every man, woman and child, He did not want to send them into eternal darkness. So the Son of God volunteered to take on a human body and the responsibilities that went with it. Jesus agreed to become a man so that He could stand between His Father and all of mankind, asking His Father to punish Him for the sins of every man, woman and child standing behind Him. Jesus volunteered to come into our world to suffer and to die. Jesus knew that very soon He would enter Jerusalem to bring the work of His suffering to its bloody climax. And Jesus knew that His disciples would all desert Him as His final hours drew near.

Jesus did not want His suffering and death to leave His disciples completely without hope. Jesus selects the three disciples who are closest to Him and best able to understand what would happen, and leads them up on a mountain where they would have privacy for what was about to take place. Jesus takes three, because under Jewish law it took two or three witnesses to establish the facts in a legal case; when Jesus later ascended into heaven, the testimony of these three men would prove to their listeners that the Transfiguration really happened just as they described it. While they were on the mountaintop, Jesus is changed. All His life, Jesus was at the same time truly and completely God as well as truly and completely human. Under ordinary circumstances, people could only see Jesus’ humanity as He walked and taught among them. But on this day, some of the Lord's divine glory briefly shines through His human body. His face glows like the sun, and even His clothing becomes dazzlingly white. For a brief time, Jesus appears to the human eye as the glorious Son of God that He is. Jesus’ true glory was revealed to the three disciples to show them who He really is, in order to strengthen their faith in Him.

But the revelation doesn’t stop there. Next, God the Father sends the two greatest prophets of history to stand and converse with Jesus. Of course, no one living knows what these great men looked like, but God miraculously makes sure that the disciples recognize Moses and Elijah. Moses had led the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Moses had gone up on Mount Sinai and stood in the presence of God as he received the Ten Commandments from Him. Moses’ leadership had been questioned and rejected by the Israelites while on their desert travels. Yet Moses was so loved by God that God buried Moses personally on a mountain overlooking the Promised Land. Elijah was sent by God to lead the people back to faithful worship, at a time when most of Israel had become idol worshippers. Elijah had been marked for death by the Israelite leadership. Elijah had gone up on Mount Horeb, where God appeared to him to strengthen him for his work. And Elijah was so loved by God that God took him directly to heaven, without first dying. Together, Moses and Elijah represented the Old Testament’s teachings about the Messiah: that He would lead the people to God, that He would stand in the presence of God, that He would be persecuted for His work on God’s behalf, and that God would bless the ending of His life. The presence of Moses and Elijah was intended to show the three disciples just who Jesus really is—the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy.

As if all this wasn’t enough, God the Father brings a bright cloud upon the mountaintop and speaks. The Father conceals Himself from human eyes using the cloud because no sinful human can look upon God and live. From the cloud, God the Father lets His voice be heard: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" The presence of the Father, veiled as it is, is overpowering: the disciples fall to the ground, terrified. The Father has told them that He is pleased with everything that Jesus is saying and doing, including His announced intention of going to Jerusalem to suffer persecution and death on behalf of sinful mankind. The message is this: don’t argue with Jesus, as Peter did recently—listen to what Jesus says, and trust that He is doing the right thing. No matter how bad things will look in the days ahead, it is all according to God’s plan and will turn out for the best. And so in a third way, the three disciples are being strengthened in their faith.

In spite of all this, the disciples misunderstand. Yes, this is a wonderful event: they see some of the true glory of their Master, they stand with the great prophets, and God the Father speaks to them personally. But they fail to understand the reason for all this. This event was not arranged to give the disciples a religious holiday. The disciples have been equipped to descend the mountain and enter Jerusalem with Jesus to be witnesses to His suffering and death. Without Jesus’ suffering and death, no one could ever receive forgiveness of their sins. Without their witnessing of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, the disciples could not spread the truth of the Good News of salvation--that those who admit to their sins and trust in Jesus as their living Savior will spend eternity in God’s life-giving love. Without witnessing Jesus’ Passion and victory over the death of sin, the disciples could not have written the four Gospels that you and I hold so dear today. The disciples were not invited by Jesus to go to the mountaintop to stay;
they were invited so that their faith could be strengthened for the days ahead.

The Christian church is our Mount of Transfiguration. The world outside doesn’t understand who Jesus is. Some say He was a wise human teacher, like Confucius or The Buddha or Muhammad. Some doubt He ever lived at all. The people of the world cannot see the glory of God that lies concealed within Jesus’ human flesh. But Jesus invites us to join Him on the mountain. In the sanctuary of the Church, away from the eyes of unbelievers, we see Christ’s glory revealed. Through the reading of inspired Scripture, through preaching, through Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Sacrament, we see Jesus for who He truly is—the living Son of God, who paid our debt of sin. In the Church, we hear from those who witnessed Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, that we might have life, and have it to the full.

The Mount of Transfiguration strengthened the disciples for the hardships that would come from following Jesus. Similarly, our time in the sanctuary of the Church prepares us for the hardships of being Christians in a sin-filled world. Jesus does not invite us to church just to give us a religious holiday; He invites us there to strengthen our trust in Him, so that we can go out into the world and spread the Good News of salvation just as the disciples did. Jesus knew that we will face tough days as we confront temptation and suffering and persecution because of our commitment to Him. That is why we can return to our Mount of Transfiguration, Christ's Church, every week for refreshment and revitalization. Jesus wants no one to fall away in the hour of testing; in His church, you can find all the joy and peace and love that you will ever need to make it through this life, until our Savior welcomes you into heaven.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Achieving greatness

Now as Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the twelve disciples aside and said to them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!"

Then the mother of Zebedee's sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

"What is it you want?" he asked.

She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom."

"You don't know what you are asking," Jesus said to them. "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?"

"We can," they answered.

Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father."

When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
(Matthew 20:17-28)

I want you to try to think of the most impressive person you have ever met. I want you to pick out someone that you have admired, someone who inspired you, someone who changed your life for the better. Picture this man or woman’s face. Remember the kinds of things he or she said, the things that were important to him or her. Does this person hold a special place in your heart because he or she enjoyed ordering you around, or does this person hold a special place in your heart because he or she listened to you carefully? Did you have to work hard to get this person’s attention away from other things, or did this person always make time for you when you were in need? Do you have fond memories of this person because he or she was selfish, or do you have fond memories because he or she was giving?

I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that you were not picturing an arrogant, opinionated person who didn’t have time for you. I’m pretty sure that the person you pictured was a patient listener, someone who was generous with time and always willing to offer a helping hand. I am confident that the people who mean the most to you could be described by our Lord Jesus as people who are willing to serve others.

We treasure such people because acts of service demonstrate love. By serving us in our need, these people have shown us that they love us. Maybe they never said the words. I don’t know about your cultural background, but the Germans I am descended from don’t really like to say "I love you" very much. A German would rather show his love by offering his hand to help fix a fence; a German would prefer to show her love by the offer of her shoulder as a place to lay your head and cry. Germans know that actions speak louder than words. Germans know that acts of service are nothing less than love expressed.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us that acts of service--acts of love--are what result in personal greatness. This is a message that our world can’t really understand. Even Jesus’ disciples, who by this point had been learning from Him for three years, didn’t understand it. Our world understands greatness in a way completely opposite from Jesus’ definition. The world defines greatness in terms of power. In Washington DC, a person is great if he holds influence in public office. The Speaker of the House is great; the President is greater. In Hollywood, a person is great if she is popular and good-looking. Reese Witherspoon is great; Angelina Jolie is greater. On Wall Street, a person is great if he is rich. Donald Trump is great; Bill Gates is greater.

This kind of human greatness is selfishness taken to an extreme. A politician does not get into national office without the work of thousands of supporters. A music or sports star is not popular unless thousands of people buy tickets to watch a performance. A tycoon only gets wealthy if the thousands of people employed by him work hard at making his business a success. Human greatness is built on backs of mankind. What is selfish about those who stand on the tops of these pyramids of success is that they tend to see their success as entirely their own, and they give comparatively little of the decision-making, recognition, or profit back to the people whose shoulders they are standing on. People who are great in the eyes of the world have influence and control over many, many people, and they enjoy using that power to make their own lives pleasant.

God does not value selfishness. Selfishness is about ‘me first’ and everyone else second—including God. Selfishness violates God’s First Commandment "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). People who prize highly things like power, fame or wealth have made those things their gods. People who pursue worldly greatness do so at the peril of their eternal home, because God sends those who worship false gods to hell.

Greatness in the sight of God is completely different. Saint John tells us that "God is love" (1 John 4:8). John isn’t talking about a passive love. John isn’t talking about an emotion that lives in the heart but never reaches out to take action. John is talking about an active love, a love that caused God to give His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Because God loved us, He was moved to an act of service on our behalf: God sent His beloved Son to live in human form and suffer the punishment that our sins deserved. Every one of us is by nature selfish; every one of us angers God over and over again by making our wants and desires our top priority, instead of making God and His other children our top priority. The sin of selfishness is punishable by eternal death in hell. But Jesus’ loving service to us lifted the death sentence from our souls. Jesus was executed as a criminal for our crimes. Jesus’ willing crucifixion for us was the ultimate act of love. The torment and death of the divine Son of God was such a powerful act of service that there is no longer any punishment found in the kingdom of heaven for those who ask the Son for mercy. No one has ever loved so much. No one has ever given so much. And because of this, no one has ever been greater in the kingdom of heaven.

Perfect love inevitably results in perfect service. Jesus loved perfectly, and He served perfectly. Jesus loved His Father perfectly. The Father decided that the way to save mankind from the death of sin was to allow Jesus to take our punishment in our place, because Jesus is greater than all our sins combined. Jesus loved His Father, so He was willing to suffer and die at His Father’s command. Jesus also loved us perfectly. Because of His love for us, Jesus was unwilling to see any sinful person sent to hell without the opportunity for forgiveness and mercy. So Jesus willingly suffered His Father’s terrible anger at our sins so that He could offer forgiveness and eternal life to all who trust in His power and care. Jesus loved and served His Father perfectly; He loved and served us perfectly.

Earlier I suggested that humans who consider themselves great are actually standing on the top of human pyramids, standing on the shoulders of others who have made their success possible. With Jesus, it is just the opposite. Jesus is the greatest because He has loved and served more than anyone else ever can. Jesus is the greatest, but He is beneath the pyramid of mankind. Picture a pyramid upside down, its point resting on one man—that man is the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ act of loving service was to shoulder the burden of the entire world; there is no human success that does not ultimately rest on His love and care alone.

Salome and her sons James and John did not understand the cost of greatness in the kingdom of God. The sons of Zebedee desired fame and power, but through their mother they were really asking for a life of humble service. They were unknowingly asking for a career of service that would be despised and rejected by those who didn’t understand the nature of true greatness. They didn’t understand that the cup Jesus would drink would be filled with the poison of sin, a cup that would bring about Jesus’ death. They, too, would sip from this cup—James would be martyred for his faith and John would face exile. But by the time that they eventually did sip out of Jesus’ cup of suffering, they did so knowing that humble, sometimes painful, Christian service leads to glory in heaven. Jesus was their living proof, as He was raised in glory out of death into everlasting rulership in heaven.

For Jesus, loving service came first, glory came later. So it was for the sons of Zebedee; so it is for us. Jesus has called us to believe in Him, to submit to His leadership, to abandon our selfishness. Jesus has called us to love one another, to serve one another. Jesus wants us to be servants to each other; in this way all men will know that we are His disciples, because our love for one another will be evident. And the evidence of the love that Jesus has placed in our hearts will draw others to our Savior as well.

Who wants to be great? We all do. But heavenly greatness is a greatness of the future; for now, our Lord asks us to serve Him by serving one another. So let us serve in joy every day, looking forward to the time when Jesus tells us: "Well done, good and faithful servant! …Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matthew 25:21). May our Lord Jesus give you such a willing heart and the love of service in His name.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

An offer of pardon

[Jesus] said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:15-16).

Around 1830, a certain George Wilson of Pennsylvania was sentenced to be hanged for robbing the mails and for murder. President Andrew Jackson pardoned him. But Wilson refused the pardon, insisting that it was not truly a pardon unless he accepted it. This was a point of law never before raised in the United States. The attorney general said that the law was silent on this point. The president was urged to call on the Supreme Court to decide the point at once, because the local sheriff needed to know whether to hang Wilson or not. Chief Justice John Marshall, one of the best lawyers living at that time, handed down this decision: "A pardon is paper, the value of which depends upon its acceptance by the person implicated. It is hardly to be supposed that one under sentence of death would refuse to accept a pardon, but if it is refused, it is no pardon. George Wilson must hang."

Who was responsible for Wilson’s death? No one except the man himself. This Supreme Court decision illustrates an important truth about Jesus’ work on our behalf. Jesus came into the world to save everyone from sin and eternal death in hell; the Bible tells us God our Savior…wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). Jesus made this salvation possible by dying on the cross as our substitute; Paul tells us in Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7).

But although Jesus offers His divine pardon to every person, many like George Wilson do not want it. Some do not feel that they have done anything that needs to be forgiven. Others object to Jesus saying, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). But to reject Jesus is to reject His pardon; Jesus warns if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins (John 8:24). Our Lord wants everyone to have forgiveness and eternal life, but we must look to Him alone for these wonderful gifts; Jesus says in no uncertain terms, Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him (John 3:36). This is why it is so very important that you and I share the Good News of Jesus’ offer of salvation with everyone, every chance we get.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dynamic life

I can do everything through Him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).

The great Scottish preacher George Jeffrey once told of his visit to Niagara Falls. He said that even more impressive than the great flow of Niagara’s mighty waters was the small power station located at the edge of the falls. In this quiet place, one heard only the faint hum of the dynamos. No more than a trickle of Niagara’s immense waters had been harnessed, and yet this little station supplied light and power for miles around.

God’s power is like Niagara Falls—incomprehensibly powerful. And each Christian is like that small power station—only the tiniest trickle of God’s immense power flows through us, and yet that trickle is more than enough to fill many lives with the light of hope and the power of the Holy Spirit.

We have limits, but God’s power flowing through us is limitless—our Lord energizes us when we become exhausted. When we are tired of struggling with our children to keep them on the straight and narrow, the Holy Spirit gives us perseverance. When it seems pointless to keep on speaking against abortion or same-sex marriage, the Spirit renews our desire to proclaim God’s will. When we are fed up with trying to get our spouse to go to church with us, the Lord gives us reassurance that our efforts on God’s behalf are not in vain.

We are weak, but God’s power flowing through us is strong—strong enough to reach out to others in spite of our own shortcomings. God’s power can reach out to others through us even if we are shy, even if we are not well educated, even if we have a tendency to put our foot in our mouth. God’s words are powerful enough to force their way out past our uncertain tongues and stammering lips.

The Niagara power plant was filled with power because it was built right next to the Falls, and was continually in contact with the rushing waters. In order for you and me to be filled with God’s power, we must build our lives on Jesus; this means frequent prayer and regular time with His written words, preserved for us as the Bible. When we are in contact with our Lord every day His waters of life will flow through us, and Jesus promises: the water I give…will become…a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14).

Friday, February 17, 2006

“There are none so blind as those who will not see.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man's eyes was a Sabbath. Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. "He put mud on my eyes," the man replied, "and I washed, and now I see."

Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others asked, "How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?" So they were divided.

Finally they turned again to the blind man, "What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened."

The man replied, "He is a prophet."

To this they replied, "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out.

Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?"

"Who is he, sir?" the man asked. "Tell me so that I may believe in him."

Jesus said, "You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you."

Then the man said, "Lord, I believe," and he worshipped him.

Jesus said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." (John 9:13-17, 34-39)

"There are none so blind as those who will not see." This old quote summarizes very neatly the harsh word of Law that Jesus proclaimed when He said, "For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind." And yet it would be a mistake to only see condemning Law in Jesus’ words, because Scripture also teaches us, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17). The task before us, then, is to understand what Jesus meant when He said the words recorded in this section of the Gospel.

John the Gospel writer begins with a man who has been blind from birth. Right away, John intends us to understand this man’s blindness on two levels—physical and spiritual. From his birth, this man had been unable to see; he had been unable to see the world, he had been unable to see himself. Being born blind, this man did not have a concept of what ugliness was, because he had never seen beauty. Growing up blind, this man had learned that it was best to form daily routines and never deviate from them—to walk to the town well by a different route than usual was to risk getting lost or falling over an unexpected obstacle. Having lived his life in blindness, the man had never seen himself in a mirror, never developed the faintest idea as to what he looked like. And the saddest fact of all was that he had no idea what he was missing. Never having seen light, the blind man had no concept as to what light was. Moving in darkness was his normal state of existence.

All this describes the man’s spiritual state as well. This man had also been born spiritually blind. From his birth, this man had not been able to see the world in spiritual terms, nor was he able to see himself in spiritual terms. Being born spiritually blind, this man did not have a concept of what the ugliness of sin looked like, because he could not see it contrasted against the beauty of God’s holiness. Growing up spiritually blind, this man had learned to find comfort in walking and re-walking the familiar ways of his sinful life along with his sin-filled friends, because he was afraid to try to live any other way, to walk an unfamiliar path alone in the dark. Having lived his life in spiritual blindness, the man had never looked into the mirror of God’s Law, never seen himself as God saw him—a miserable lost soul who was completely unacceptable to God, but who God loved greatly nevertheless. The saddest fact of all was that the blind man had no concept as to what God’s forgiving love looked like. Living in sin was his normal state of existence.

Jesus came to this blind man. Jesus came to him, because the blind man could never have found Jesus. Jesus bestowed on this man a miracle—He gave the man sight. But Jesus did not merely give the man eyesight; Jesus also opened his eyes to see spiritual things. In a remarkably short time, the man who had been spiritually blind all his life was at Jesus' feet, worshipping Him as his heaven-sent Savior! Because of Jesus’ power, the man not only could see Jesus, he could also see who Jesus was—the Son of God living among mankind.

The blind man, although a real person, also represents every repentant sinner. All people are born spiritually blind. If left in this state, they wander through life aimlessly, lost in the darkness of their sins. No sinner can ever find Jesus on his own. But Jesus seeks us out and offers us a miracle—the miracle of spiritual sight. With our new eyes of faith, we can see ourselves in Jesus’ light—we can see how repugnant our sins make us. With this realization, we are moved to repent of our evil ways and ask Jesus to show us mercy. Then Jesus takes us by the hand and leads us along a way through life that we have never seen before—the way of Christ, which leads to His Father in heaven.

Saint John contrasts the blindness of the man with the blindness of the religious leaders of the Jews, the Pharisees. The Pharisees were learned men. They had devoted their lives to studying God’s word, and they took pride in living their lives in strict adherence to their interpretation of God’s laws. As far as they were concerned, they were the ‘enlightened ones’ of Israel, those few who could see clearly how they could keep God happy, and themselves thereby blessed by Him. But these men who prided themselves on their ability to see clearly were, in fact, blind. They were blind, because although they knew their Scriptures inside out, they could not see that Jesus was the fulfillment of those Scriptures. Their blindness was starkly revealed when they interviewed the man who had been given eyes of faith by Jesus. When the formerly blind man said, "He is a prophet", their response was: "You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!" And they threw him out. The blind man had been given true sight, but the men who thought they could see refused to go to Jesus for their blindness to be lifted.

Why? Why is it that some people welcome sight, while others prefer blindness? It all depends on the condition of their heart. When Jesus came to the blind man, he was lost in a darkness that was both physical and spiritual. A life of blindness is hard, especially in a time and place where a man’s choices were to work, beg, or starve. The blind man had lived a life of suffering and humility—there was nothing about his life in which he could take pride. When Jesus came to him with an offer to restore his sight, the man was only too glad for the opportunity to see. He was not too proud to accept Jesus’ offer of unearned mercy.

But the majority of the Pharisees were a different matter entirely. They thought that they had it all figured out. They and their ancestors had studied God’s Scriptures carefully, trying to determine how every command of God could be lived out in a person’s daily life. When God ordered man to avoid working on the Sabbath, the Pharisees had calculated how many steps a man could take on Saturday before walking disobeyed God’s command and became work. Over many years, the Pharisees had drawn up hundreds of specific rules for living, as interpretations of God’s words in Scripture. Their purpose in doing this was to make it possible for them to live perfectly according to God’s Laws, by interpreting God’s Laws in such a way that a man could live his life in complete obedience to them. By thus ‘humanizing’ God’s Laws, a Pharisee could earn a place of honor in Jewish society and a seat in heaven by careful living. This appealed to a Pharisee’s ego greatly, because he could prove his worth to God and his fellow Jews.

Then along came Jesus, upsetting everything. Jesus taught the people that the Pharisees had lost the essence of God’s Law through their attempts to turn it into a legal code. Jesus taught that no human being was capable of living his life in a way that was pleasing to God. He accused the Pharisees of writing their rules of conduct for outward show only, saying: `These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me’ (Mark 7:6). Jesus desired a deeper devotion than mere outward show; He told the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well that "a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:23-24). This wasn’t the sort of worship that the Pharisees offered God. The Pharisees offered works that met their human interpretation of being ‘good’, while their hearts were filled with the sin of pride, the sin that tells God "I don’t need Your help—I’m good enough to get into heaven on my own."

The Pharisees did not want to "see" their need for Jesus. To "see" Jesus’ teachings as correct, a Pharisee would have to admit to himself, and to everyone who had looked up to him as an example, that he had not lived a life pleasing to God, as everyone thought he had. To look at life by the light that Jesus offered would mean walking on a new path that the Pharisee hadn’t been able to see before in his spiritual blindness, a path of humble and loving submission to God. For most Pharisees, accepting Jesus’ unmerited gift of spiritual sight meant also accepting humiliation and a radical change in lifestyle. For most Pharisees, the cost of true sight was frighteningly high, too high. Living their lives in spiritual blindness, the darkness now seemed welcoming and comfortable and safe. Jesus threatened that comfort, that safety. And so the Pharisees rejected Jesus, and those who followed in His light.

And so judgment enters the world in Jesus’ wake. Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. He came to save it by the pouring out of His holy blood on the cross of Calvary, God’s own life given in place of the lives of sinners. Jesus, who never displeased God in any way, gave His life to appease His Father’s anger at our sin. Now that the Father’s judgment of death on human evil has been carried out, Jesus lives once more to represent us before His Father. We can follow Jesus into His Father’s divine presence without fear of punishment, because Jesus has already suffered all our rightful punishment. When we declare ourselves to be unworthy evildoers and trust in Jesus’ mercy, we have the joy of knowing that because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, the Father welcomes us before Him along with His Son. Because of God’s undeserved gift of mercy to us, which we receive through trust in Jesus, we are judged—"not guilty."

But although Jesus did not come into the world to condemn it, condemnation does come to those who reject His gift of grace. Sinners who love the darkness more than the light, sinners who don’t want to see their sinful ugliness or see a new way to walk through life, such sinners are in grave danger. They are in danger of the grave that opens to hell. There is only one path to heaven, and it can only be followed by those who walk in Jesus’ light, their eyes opened by their Savior. Every other path is a path of darkness that ends at the lip of Satan’s eternal Pit. Such is the path that most of the Pharisees walked. Such is the path that far too many people walk today. Jesus does not want to judge sinners as "guilty"—He has already paid the price for everyone’s’ sins. But God will allow no unholy thing into heaven, and we are only seen by God as holy when our sins are covered by Jesus’ blood. Without faith in Jesus, the verdict is "guilty".

But even for those who reject God like the Pharisees, time has not yet run out. Jesus spoke for the benefit of the Pharisees when He said, "those who see will become blind." On first reading, Jesus appears to be pronouncing final, eternal doom on those who refuse His gift of sight—and so He is. But Jesus says these words as a warning to the Pharisees and to everyone who has so far rejected His light. Jesus issues this warning because it is not too late to repent and receive true sight. Why does Jesus warn the Pharisees with these words of Law? Because He loves these sinners, and wants them to realize, before it’s too late, that they too are spiritually blind. This is the purpose of God’s Law: not to send people to hell, but to make them see their need for the Gospel of Christ. The Law only condemns those who persistently reject Jesus and the forgiveness of God that He brings. Jesus gives us sinners the Law so that we are prepared to receive the love of the Gospel. Jesus gives us God’s Law in our blindness to help us come to desire the sight that only Jesus can bestow, the sight that enables us to see our sins and repent, the sight that allows us to follow Jesus towards heaven.

Each of us was born a Pharisee. Each of us started life with a natural desire to find out how the world worked, so that we could learn how to manipulate the world to get our own way. It is in our sinful nature to want to approach God on our own terms. It is indeed good for us that our God is a patient God. There is no reason that He needs to put up with our arrogance—no reason except His infinite love for us. God wants to bless us, not threaten us. God shines His light on us to show us what we look like—sinful and unclean—because He loves us and wants us to understand that we need to change. God wants us to look upon our sins with disgust, and He wants us to look upon His perfect Son for hope and inspiration. God wants to bring every person to a place in their lives where they realize that their daily walk in darkness is leading nowhere. And just as importantly, God wants to bring every person to the realization that they cannot see the path they need to walk to come to God, unless they allow Jesus to light their way. Jesus removes our spiritual blindness so that we can see our sin and our need for Him. And if we do not stubbornly close our eyes again, we can ask Jesus to make us clean and acceptable to God, knowing that He will.

Jesus came among us to save us. Some have rejected Him and been lost; many have rejoiced in His light and have been saved. Thank You, Lord Jesus, for opening our eyes by means of Your grace to us; let our old, blinded ways never again appear as attractive to us as Your Way of Light.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Your vocation--serving Christ

Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

There is a picture that was painted by a Dutch artist which shows the interior of a kitchen. There is a person in the room, busily putting away pots and pans so that the kitchen is ready for the next project. But the figure in the painting is not a human being; it is an angel.

This painting reminds us that our calling to be a Christian can be fulfilled in the most ordinary of surroundings. You don’t have to be a member of the clergy to serve God. You don’t have to be a lay leader in the parish. You can serve God in the ordinary day-to-day activities of your life. Paul advises, whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. You can serve our Lord by donating to the food pantry. You can serve Jesus by teaching your children the Ten Commandments, the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. You can serve God by earning money to feed and shelter the family He has entrusted to Your care.

This is why it is important to remember who your heavenly Master is whatever you are doing. If you are lazy at work, it reflects badly on the God you claim to honor. If you treat a customer poorly, it disgraces the cross of Christ that you wear on your necklace. If you scream at your children, what are they learning about the God who you represent as the parent appointed by heaven to be spiritual leader in the home?

When you cook a meal, cook the best meal that you can, because when you feed your family you can be showing them God’s loving care through your hands. When you are at a game, demonstrate good sportsmanship, because your behavior can demonstrate how the Holy Spirit helps us to work together in harmony. When you get mad at your parents or spouse or children, forgive them, because in this way you show the same mercy by which Jesus has forgiven you and made you a member of His family forever. Please join me in praying:

We thank You, heavenly Father, for giving us so many different ways to serve You. We thank You for evangelists and missionaries and teachers. We thank You for farmers and homemakers and construction workers. We thank You for doctors and nurses and pharmacists. We thank You for sales clerks and bankers and truck drivers. All of these professions, and so many more, allow Your people to thank You with their love by serving others as Your hands and Your voice. Help us to dedicate every waking moment to You. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Competing in the Game of Life

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).

When I watch the winter Olympics, my favorite events are those involving figure skating. I am struck by the beauty of the artistic programs. I am awed by the jumps and spins. I am impressed by the condition that the athletes are in. And I am humbled, knowing that I could never begin to do what these talented individuals are accomplishing through their rigorous discipline and training.

God calls on you and I to be Olympians as well. He doesn’t necessarily expect us to go out for ice hockey or skiing or curling, but He does expect us to go into strict training. The event we are to train for is the event called life. Our Lord wants us to train for life the same way that an athlete trains for the Olympics—with single-minded determination.

Life has a goal—to receive the Crown of Life. That crown is bestowed by God when we die. The Crown of life is a special crown—it raises to life those who have died, raises them so that they can enter paradise. This is the most coveted crown of all—worth far more than any gold medal.
In each Olympic event, only one gold medal is awarded. Thankfully, there is more than one Crown of Life—in fact, there is a Crown of Life for you, for me, for everyone who strives to win it. We are not in competition with each other to get into heaven; no, we are in competition with ourselves—the lazy, uncaring, selfish part of us that would rather give up the event and take it easy, and let eternal death claim us without a struggle.

To win the prize that God bestows, we need to take life seriously. To win the slalom, you need to stay on the course and not get tangled up in the flags; similarly, we need to navigate through life while trying to avoid getting entangled with sin. This is not easy—it takes effort and commitment. Thankfully, as we compete in life, we have the best of coaches—Jesus the Son of God. He offers us the healthy diet of His teachings. He uses the Bible to show the way to the finish line. He encourages us and strengthens us, and when we fall He picks us up, wipes us off, and gets us back into the game. With Jesus as both our coach and our judge, we can skate to victory everlasting.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A refreshing drink

So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob's well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about the sixth hour.

When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, "Will you give me a drink?" (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, "You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?" (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water."

"Sir," the woman said, "you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and herds?"

Jesus answered, "Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."

The woman said to him, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water."

He told her, "Go, call your husband and come back."

"I have no husband," she replied.

Jesus said to her, "You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true."

"Sir," the woman said, "I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem."

Jesus declared, "Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth."

The woman said, "I know that Messiah" (called Christ) "is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us."

Then Jesus declared, "I who speak to you am he."

Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, "What do you want?" or "Why are you talking with her?"

Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, "Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?" They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman's testimony, "He told me everything I ever did." So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. And because of his words many more became believers.
They said to the woman, "We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world."
(John 4:5-52)

Jesus here talks about Living Water, the Water of Life. It is water that only Jesus can give, and the person who receives it never goes thirsty again. As a matter of fact, this Living Water becomes active in the recipient, welling up to the blessed reality of everlasting life. But the Gospel writer John never tells us exactly what Jesus was talking about when He told the Samaritan woman of the water He was willing to give her. Just what is Living Water?

The Samaritan woman thought she knew what living water was. Living water was water that moved, water that was continually refreshed. Water that didn’t move, water that didn’t get refreshed, she would call stagnant water. Living water would be found in springs, rivers and lakes. Stagnant water would be found in ponds and at the bottom of most wells. Living water was the best water one could find; because it was constantly moving, impurities were continually being washed away. Stagnant water was considered inferior water, because it was more likely to become contaminated. The Samaritan woman got interested when Jesus told her that He could give her living water that would forever end her thirst. She had a mental picture of the best water of all, living water, being constantly available right in her home—indoor running water! No more going to the well to carry heavy jars of water home in the heat of the day.

But this type of living water wasn’t what Jesus was talking about. Jesus was talking about a Living Water that could take up residency inside of a person. Jesus was talking about a Living Water that kept filling a person every day, so that he never went thirsty. Jesus was talking about a Living Water that was free but for the asking, a Water that would guarantee its drinker eternal life. No earthly water could do these things.

We can figure out the nature of this Living Water if we consider everything Jesus said about it. First of all, how does one get Living Water? Jesus said "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." He is saying that a person has to know who Jesus really is—the Son of God—before he can ask for this Living Water. The person must trust that Jesus can and will give Living Water to those who ask for it. In other words, the person must have faith in Jesus Christ.

What does the person who believes in Christ hope to gain from the gift of Living Water? Two things: that he shall never thirst again, and that by living on the Water of Life he will receive eternal life. The Living Water of Christ removes thirst forever. Obviously, this is not in reference to physical thirst. We are thinking about the kind of thirst that Jesus spoke about in the Beatitudes: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (Matthew 5:6). The thirst Jesus speaks of is a strong desire to be in a loving, nourishing relationship with our Creator God. Jesus says that His Living Water will once and for all time satisfy this thirst in us. Further, this Living water will "become…a spring of water welling up to eternal life." With Christ’s Living Water within us, we are found to be acceptable for entry into heaven. We had been cast out of God’s presence, because our corrupted sinful nature led us to turn from Him and drink instead from the death of dried up wells; through the prophet Jeremiah, God said: "My people…have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jeremiah 2:13). Miraculously, Jesus’ Living Water brings new life where there was nothing in us but a parched desert of death. And the new life brought by Jesus’ Waters of Life is pleasing in God’s sight.

Let’s review the evidence. The Living Waters are only available to those who trust in Christ. These waters put us into a right relationship with God, and they guarantee us everlasting life. The Living Water that Jesus speaks of to the Samaritan woman is nothing else but God’s promise of salvation through the merits of Jesus’ suffering and death in place of sinful man. This promise belongs eternally to everyone who repents of his sins, because he trusts that Jesus has earned both the right to forgive them and the authority to escort forgiven believers into the eternal joy of heaven.

What a tremendous gift that Jesus offered the woman at the well! He told her that if she just had a trusting relationship with Him, her needs would be met—her need for God’s love in her life now, and her need for the assurance of God’s mercy on the day of her death. Yet the woman doesn’t understand what Jesus is offering her. She still thinks—or at least pretends to think—that Jesus is only speaking of natural water. So Jesus ups the ante—He asks her about her husband, knowing that in her response she will admit to the greatest sin troubling her soul. She is no longer married to her first husband. She has married and divorced five times, and is now living with a man outside of marriage. She has casually disregarded God’s expectations regarding marriage: "man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (Matthew 19:5). Jesus goes on to tell us: "anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery" (Mathew 5:32). The Samaritan woman was leading a life buried under the weight of the sin of adultery—the proof of the burden is in her drawing water from the well in the heat of noontime, to avoid the disapproving glares of the other women of the town (who would gather in the morning to draw water before the day became hot).

When Jesus shows miraculous knowledge about the sordid details of her life, the Samaritan woman realizes that she is speaking with a representative of God. Ashamed of her sins, she tries to change the subject by asking Jesus’ opinion about where one ought to worship. But Jesus brings things right back to her when He says: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth." Jesus tells her that if she wants to be in a right relationship with God, she must begin with the attitude in her heart. To worship God in spirit is to be devoted in one’s heart; just going to church to say the right words is not enough. To worship God in truth is to admit that the ways of the human heart are sinful, selfish and abhorrent to God. To worship God in spirit and in truth is to be aware of your sins and God’s expectations everywhere in your life—at church, at work, at home, at play—and to realize that you need God’s help to turn away from sinful thoughts, words and actions. To worship God in spirit and in truth is to repent of your sins and humbly ask God to help you live a life pleasing to Him. Jesus has just told the Samaritan woman that if she is to worship God rightly, it is time to see her sins for what they are—and repent.

The Samaritan woman has been made ready for Jesus’ Living Waters. She has admitted to her sins, and has heard of the gifts that salvation can bring to her. When she mentions the coming Messiah, Jesus tells her: "I who speak to you am he." She knows that she has met the Savior, and heard the words that can give her freedom from her fear of God and her fear of everlasting death. By listening to Jesus’ words of promise, faith has been kindled in her heart--a faith which will start to fill her soul with waters that will quell her thirst forever and well up to everlasting life. She had been thirsty, but didn’t realize her thirst until Jesus held out the offer of Living Water to her. Now that she had the water, it welled up and began to overflow—she went immediately into town to share her wonderful experience, in the hope that others would come to share in the Messiah’s Living Waters.

The woman at Jacob’s Well was thirsty in a way that she didn’t recognize until she met Jesus. What about you? Are you thirsty? Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness, for a right relationship with God? Do you ever worry that God doesn’t love you anymore? Do you lay awake at night sometimes, wondering what will happen to you when you eventually die? If you are thirsty, you shouldn’t be surprised—indeed, you should be glad. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." If you are aware of your thirst, aware of your need for Jesus’ Living Water of salvation, Jesus stands ready to fill you to the brim and beyond. All He asks of you is to bring your sins before Him in humility and ask for His forgiveness. King David reassures us that "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise" (Psalm 51:17). When we bring all our mistakes before Jesus and ask Him for another chance, we do so in confidence since Saint John also 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 meet Jesus in His Word, whether heard in church or read in an online devotion, He gives us faith in His promise of salvation, and this Living Water brings forth new life in us. Filled with the Water of Life, we are enabled to worship God in spirit and in truth, because Jesus’ Living Water continues to well up in us wherever we are: at work, at home and on vacation. The Living Water within us constantly reminds that however many times we fail to live up to God’s expectations, we can come to Jesus and receive forgiveness. And with Jesus’ salvation welling up in our hearts, we can face death with calmness, knowing that Jesus is waiting to take us by the hand and escort us into heaven.

The Samaritan woman was filled with hope by Jesus’ words, and she spread that hope to everyone she knew. May Christ’s Living Waters well up in you, that you might worship God in spirit and in truth--and may the Living Waters that Christ has given you overflow into the lives of everyone you know, so they too might meet Jesus in His Word and see Him as the Savior of the world.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Your guilt--buried!

Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows (Isaiah 53:4).

In his book The Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan presents a striking scene. He describes a Christian who is trying to escape the evils of the world, but is burdened with a large bundle he is carrying on his shoulders. The man arrives at a hill; on top of the hill stands a cross, and at the foot of the hill lies an open grave. As the man approaches the cross, his heavy burden is suddenly released from his shoulders, and it rolls downhill until it disappears into the open tomb.

This story gives us a wonderful picture of what our Savior is willing to do for us. Jesus, the Son of God, suffered and died on a cross to pay the penalty that we have incurred by all the ways that we have angered God. Jesus was buried in the grave that we deserved as just punishment for our careless disregard for God and our callous treatment of His children, our fellow Man. But Jesus rose from that grave alive, proving that all of God’s punishment of our sins has been carried out to completion and that death is not the end for those who believe in Jesus.

We carry around a heavy load of guilt and worry. We are burdened with regrets over the past, about things we should not have said and things we should have done. We are stressed about the present, wondering how we can correct the mistakes that are now making our lives miserable. And we worry about the future, wondering how we can find the strength to make it through another day.

Jesus can free you from those burdens. It was on the cross that Jesus offered Himself in compensation for all your mistakes; ask Him for forgiveness, and the Lord will remove your guilt. Your mistakes will roll down into Jesus’ grave, where they will lie dead and buried forever. This frees you to stop agonizing over the past so that you can be happy and productive today. And with the knowledge that your Savior will always forgive you, you can face the future with confidence, because nothing can separate you from the love and mercy of God's Son, Jesus Christ. Please join me in praying:

Lord Jesus, we thank You for loving us so much that You gave Your very life in exchange for ours. Please forgive us for our mistakes and free us from our guilt that we may serve You and each other in joy. Amen.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The spiritual meaning of marriage

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Ephesians 5:25-26).

Marriage is very important to God. Jesus showed His support for marriage by performing the first miracle of His public ministry at a wedding. At the very start of human existence God concluded that it is not good for the man to be alone, and thus created Eve to join Adam in the first marriage.

There are several reasons why marriage is so important. Aside from providing mutual support and companionship, God’s gift of marriage also provides the context to carry out the command be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it (Genesis 1:28). God designed marriage as the nursery through which children are to be conceived and raised.

But it is in Ephesians where the most important purpose for marriage is described. Marriage is an earthly picture of our relationship with God. Already in the Old Testament, God compares Himself to a husband and His people the Israelites to His bride. This image is used throughout the Bible, all the way into Revelation where we read: I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband (chapter 21 verse 2). Over and over again, the Bible casts God as the husband and the people of God as His bride.

Which is why cheating on a spouse is such a terrible thing. When husbands and wives cheat on each other they not only betray their spouse, they also betray their relationship with God. Look at how God describes the unfaithfulness of His people in the Old Testament: they were unfaithful to the God of their fathers and prostituted themselves to the gods of the peoples of the land (1 Chronicles 5:25). God frequently uses marital language in describing our relationship with Him; how we treat marital relationships is therefore a reflection of how we treat our relationship with God.

Let’s look at family relationships spiritually. Sex outside of marriage; this suggests that we want the benefits of a relationship with God without making a commitment to Him. Conceiving and raising children outside of marriage; this suggests that it is okay to bring up children without the daily guidance of their heavenly Father. Divorce; this suggests that there are many 'true' gods to choose from, and if I don’t like my relationship with the heavenly Father through His Son Jesus, I can safely leave that relationship and find eternal happiness with some other religion. Gay and lesbian marriage; this suggests that I don’t need God as my groom; my life can be just as fulfilling with a human partner, someone who is the same as me.

Premarital sex, children born outside of marriage, divorce and gay marriage—not only does the Bible specifically identify such choices as opposed to God’s will, but embracing such behavior reveals a damaged relationship with the God who only wants the best for us.

Saturday, February 04, 2006


Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."

Jesus answered, "It is written: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "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.' "

Jesus answered him, "It is also written: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' "

Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. (Matthew 4:1-11)

Barb is a young divorced woman with two pre-school children. Her ex-husband has stopped paying for child support. Barb works as a cashier in a department store. Every Friday, with unpaid bills piled on her kitchen counter, Barb debates with herself whether to take a small amount of cash from her register to help her put food on the table.

Carl is an impulsive spender. When Carl sees something that he wants he buys it, even though he and his wife are on food stamps. Every time Carl sees something he just has to have, he wrestles with his conscience. He soothes his conscience with the thought that since he is a Christian, God will make everything turn out okay for him in the end, even if he does go ahead and spends too much money.

Jim has been an honors student, but he has been labeled a "brain" by his classmates and has no friends. The head cheerleader stops him in the hall one day after class and asks to come over to his house to copy his homework, because she is in danger of getting kicked off the squad for low grades. All the way home, Jim weighs which is more important to him--integrity or popularity.

These three people are wrestling with temptation. Temptation is dangerous because it can lead us to betray our relationship with God. Barb’s temptation is to stop trusting God to feed her children. Carl’s temptation is to assume that God will bail him out without even trying to resist the temptation to spend money foolishly. Jim’s temptation is to exchange God’s favor for the favor of others—specifically, the favor of the head cheerleader. In each case, the temptation appears to offer a quick solution to a problem—food now, something that makes me feel good now, popularity now. But giving in to temptation does not provide any solutions—in fact, giving in to temptation makes things worse. If Barb stops trusting God and starts stealing to feed her children, God may abandon her to her solution and she will find herself stealing over and over again until she is caught. If Carl continues to take God for granted by assuming that God will bail him out of needless debt, God will likely allow Carl to find out how much work and humiliation is involved in going through bankruptcy. If Jim decides that it is better to please men than God, Jim will go through life constantly selling himself but never finding any self-worth. Giving in to temptation does not solve anything, it actually makes matters worse by damaging our relationship with the only one who can help us—our God.

Holy Scripture has recorded three ways in which Satan tempted our Lord Jesus, and how Jesus withstood each of those temptations. The first temptation attacked Jesus’ trust that His heavenly Father would provide for His every need. Jesus had been led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where He had nothing to eat for 40 days. Others had endured fasts like this; Moses had spent 40 days on Mt. Sinai in the presence of God without anything to eat, and it took Elijah forty days to walk to Mt. Horeb to speak with God, 40 days in which he ate nothing. In both cases, God took care of His servants’ physical needs. At the end of the 40 days of fasting, Satan tempted Jesus to stop depending on His heavenly Father to provide food; Satan suggested that Jesus take matters into His own hands and make bread from the stones at His feet. This is a temptation that the Israelites had failed as they followed Moses; instead of trusting God to feed them in the desert, they complained that God had brought them into the desert to kill them by starvation.

But Jesus resisted the temptation. He did not argue with Satan, nor did He bargain with Him. Jesus merely quoted what His heavenly Father had said through Moses over a thousand years earlier: `Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.' Unlike some popular evangelists of today, Jesus put trusting God in the place of first importance before personal comfort. Jesus succeeded in resisting the temptation of the stomach, the temptation that God’s people failed to resist in the desert and continue to fail to resist today.

The second temptation attacked Jesus’ humble relationship with His heavenly Father. Jesus and Satan both knew that Jesus would have a hard time convincing people that He truly was the Son of God. So Satan miraculously took Jesus to the peak of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Temple of God was the largest building in the city, situated at the highest point within the community; every day, hundreds of people came to this important location. Nowhere in Israel would Jesus have a larger audience. Satan then suggested that Jesus jump. Satan even quoted Scripture to Jesus to encourage Him—certainly Jesus’ loving heavenly Father would not allow Jesus to be hurt by the fall. Satan suggested that Jesus take advantage of His Father’s love and win the hearts of the crowd below with an incredible miracle from heaven. Satan wanted Jesus to take His Father for granted. This too is a temptation that the Israelites failed in the desert as they followed Moses; when they were without water, they demanded that God prove His presence among them by miraculously giving them water right then and there.

But Jesus resisted this temptation as well. Once again, Jesus quoted His Father’s words spoken through Moses: `Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' Satan tried to misuse the Scriptures against Jesus, but Jesus is the Word of God put in human form—there is no way that Satan can fool Jesus by misapplying Scripture, as some televangelists try to fool God’s people today. Jesus succeeded in resisting the temptation of taking God’s love for granted, the temptation that God’s people failed to resist in the desert and continue to fail to resist today.

The third temptation attacked Jesus’ commitment to God. Jesus and Satan both knew that the task of turning sinners to the worship of Christ would be very difficult and demanding. Jesus knew, in fact, that it would require His suffering to the point of death. So Satan again used his powers to give Jesus a miraculous view of all the nations of the world, of every person that Jesus had come to earth to save. Then Satan suggested that Jesus take the easy way out. Rather than go through all the suffering and pain of the cross of Calvary, rather than save the peoples of the world according to the Father’s plan, why not save the world Satan’s way? It would be so much easier. Satan would ask only one small thing—a single act of worship, of devotion, from Jesus. Satan wanted Jesus to serve his interests, not God’s. The Israelites failed this temptation in the desert when they made a golden calf and worshipped it, while Moses was on Mt. Sinai speaking with the Lord.

Jesus, who had to this point been patient in affliction, now became truly angry. Once more quoting Moses, Jesus said: "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: `Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.' " God demands absolute loyalty; Jesus would cut no deals with Satan in order to gain worshippers, unlike some modern clergy who are willing to embrace same-sex marriages, abortion, and euthanasia in order to win converts. Jesus succeeded in resisting the temptation of divided loyalties, the temptation that God’s people failed to resist at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and continue to fail to resist today.

By resisting these temptations, Jesus accomplished three things for us. First of all, Jesus lived His entire life obedient to the Father’s Law. At no point in His life did Jesus ever sin; He never failed to trust in God for all things, He never took God’s love for granted, He never served anyone’s interests except God’s—Jesus was completely trusting, completely humble, completely loyal. Jesus led this perfect life for us, because our sinful nature makes it impossible for us to live this way. We are God’s modern Israel, and like the Israelites that followed Moses, we turn away from God again and again. But we are comforted to know that Jesus lived His perfect life for us, so that we no longer have to be perfect in order to enter heaven. Jesus is our perfection.

Second, by remaining holy and innocent throughout His life, Jesus was worthy to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Our sins of faithlessness, arrogance, and divided loyalties are crimes against God, crimes that must be punished with the spilling of blood. Jesus came to spill His blood for our sins. Because Jesus was perfect and without sin, God was pleased to accept His blood in place of ours. Because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice, our crimes before God are forgotten—all it takes are three little words: "Jesus, forgive me." Jesus can bring us forgiveness of sins because He successfully resisted every temptation to put Himself first, instead of putting His Father first.

Third, by resisting these temptations, Jesus showed us how we too can resist temptation. Every time Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus quoted the Scriptures as His defense. Jesus did not argue with Satan; He did not cut deals with Satan. Jesus’ defense was the Word of God, which He knew and used with confidence. Notice that at no time did Jesus use any of His divine power to resist temptation. Jesus prevailed against Satan’s attacks using exactly the same weapons and armor that we have: the Holy Scriptures. This is why it is so important that we know God’s Word. Our Lord’s Bible is the only defense we need to stop Satan from luring us away from God and everlasting life.

But the sad thing is, until death we all remain sinners. And as sinners, we don’t devote the time we should to the study of God’s Word. As sinners, our thinking is clouded and our judgment is faulty—sometimes we read God’s Word and our inner sin causes us to misunderstand the meaning of what we’ve read. Our sins can suggest that we read other things instead of the Bible—like the sports page, or a trashy romance novel. Our sins can cloud our understanding, so that false teachers can lure us into their false churches. But don’t despair—Jesus forgives our every sin. When you get frustrated with how you keep caving in to the same temptations over and over again, remember Paul’s words in Romans chapter 7: "For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it." And when you begin to worry that Jesus is tired of forgiving your repeated sinning, remember His instructions to Peter: "Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times" (Matthew 18:21-22). The point that Jesus makes to Peter, and to us, is that the forgiveness that comes from God’s love is unlimited.

Jesus came into this world to resist temptation for us. Jesus died in our world to free us from the death that caving in to temptation can bring. Jesus rose from the dead so that He can help us resist temptation, and forgive us when we fail. We thank you, Lord Jesus, for doing what we could not do, and we ask You to help us, every day, to resist Satan and cling to You alone.

Friday, February 03, 2006


The hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes--so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them (Acts 28:27).

An old farmer up in New England was standing outside his place, leaning on a fence. A smooth young fellow from New York City rolled up in a shiny car and asked the way to half a dozen different places, one after the other. To each request for directions, the farmer had nothing but the same gruff reply: "I don’t know." Finally the young man, thoroughly exasperated, put his car in gear while muttering, "You don’t know much, do you?" To which the farmer straightened up with a twinkle in his eye and drawled, "Anyway, I ain’t lost!"

We live in a world of information. Between Internet service, 24/7 news channels on television, newspapers, magazines, libraries and radio broadcasts, people have access to more information than at any time in history. But for all of that knowledge, there are many politicians, sociologists, educators and philosophers who agree that our generation is more confused and lost than any known to history.

What good is it to have a college education if you don’t know how to live your life in service to others? What good is it to be able to earn a high income if you don’t know how to forgive your spouse? What good is it to build a space station if you don’t know how to build peace between warring people? What good is it to know how to clone a human if you don’t know that life is sacred? What good is it to be able to add ten years to a person’s life through advances in medicine if those years are lived alone and in ignorance of Jesus’ love?

Having knowledge does not guarantee wisdom. Being educated does not guarantee that one will make smart choices. A friend of mine once said: "all a computer does is let you make your mistakes faster." In an age of limitless possibilities, we have more possibilities than ever before to get lost, make mistakes. People are committing crimes today that were impossible to commit even 50 years ago. This is why, more than ever, we need Jesus—we need His wisdom, His compassion and His strength. His message has not changed; believe in Him, reject sinful things as poisonous to your eternal health, and dedicate yourself to caring for God’s children wherever you might be. Let Jesus take you by the hand, and you will never be lost.

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