Friday, March 31, 2006

Christians and conflict

"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

"He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Anyone who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward, and anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." (Matthew 10:34-42)

When Isaiah wrote about the coming Messiah, he described Him this way: "He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). The prophet Micah predicted, "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah…out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old…He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD…And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace" (Micah 5:2-5). And Zechariah wrote, "Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey…He will proclaim peace to the nations" (Zechariah 9:9-10).

Jesus’ disciples knew all these passages by heart. They fully expected God’s Messiah to bring peace to mankind, and as they came to believe that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, they also came to expect Him to bring peace to the people. What a shock, then, to hear Jesus say, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

Perhaps this statement of Jesus is shocking to you as well. And yet, history has proven that Jesus was right. The 2,000 years since Jesus lived among us have been filled with religious strife, conflict between Christians and non-Christians. These conflicts have been so painful that John Lennon even wrote a song called "Imagine" in which he suggested that a world without religion would be a world that could know peace.

The question before us is this: if Jesus is the Prince of Peace, how can it be that so much conflict comes to the world because of Him? The answer to this question lies in the fact that the Bible speaks of two different kinds of peace, only one of which Jesus brings.

The peace that Jesus brings is peace between man and God. When Satan rebelled against God and was thrown out of heaven, Satan determined to at least steal Earth away from God and make it his kingdom. To do this, Satan needed to enlist mankind as his army of occupation—an army of darkness. So Satan tempted Adam and Eve into disobeying God, and as a result every human being ever born of man and woman has inherited the natural desire to rebel against God’s loving leadership. God wants us to love Him and each other, to the point of denying our own desires if they get in the way of showing love; Satan wants us to love ourselves and our own comfort before all other considerations. Because of Adam and Eve’s first sin, we all are born with the desire to love ourselves more than anyone else, including God.

And so it is that from birth, all people are by nature soldiers in Satan’s army of occupation here on Earth. This means that every person is born an enemy of God, in a state of war with Him. But God has created each and every one of us personally, and He loves us as individuals. God does not want us to be at war with Him. But as long as we value Satan’s priorities—selfishness that serves no one’s needs but one’s own—we cannot enjoy the perfect life of peace that God created us for. So God sent His Son Jesus to give us peace. He did this by explaining how selfishness destroys love and makes it impossible to live with others in peace. There can be no peace between two individuals when they are selfishly competing with each other over earthly pleasures.

But Jesus did more than show us how peace can be found. Jesus suffered and died in our place to pay for our war crimes. When we follow Satan’s lead, we commit wartime atrocities against others—we commit sins, both against God and the people He has created. No war is over until reparations have been paid. But out of love for us, Jesus suffered for our atrocities. Because of Jesus, we can walk free from the war court of God and experience peace. This is the peace that Jesus gives—an end to being an enemy of God, an end to fearing God’s punishment for our war crimes. This peace even ends our fear of death, because we know that Jesus guarantees us unending peace in heaven with Him when we are soldiers who now serve in the army of light.

Because of Jesus’ offer of peace, every human being is faced with a decision: to accept Jesus as leader and be taken by Him into His army of light, or to reject Jesus and remain in Satan’s army of darkness. Without Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and peace, there is only one army to belong to—the army of darkness. But when Jesus extends His hand to lead us out of darkness, we enter a world where there are now two armies—two armies that are at war with each other. This is the sword that Jesus brings. When Jesus offers us peace with God, there is a price attached—peace with God means a declaration of war against Satan and his followers.

Jesus did not come to bring peace between the people of the world. Jesus did bring peace between people, but it is a peace that each of us shares with fellow Christians only. The peace that we have with each other is an extension of the peace that we have with God. When Jesus brings us into His army of light, we are soldiers together because we follow the same leader and we share the same priorities with our leader. Because we follow Jesus, we value self-sacrificing love and we realize how destructive selfishness is. Because we share Jesus’ priorities, we are united in common cause, and there can be peace between us. Of course, even though we are forgiven soldiers of Christ, we remain sinners inside until the day we die and we constantly slip back into periods of selfishness. Whenever we slip and fall, we hurt ourselves and we hurt each other. But Jesus always stands near, ready to pick us up, to forgive us, and to help us forgive our fellow Christians who have hurt us when they slipped and fell. The peace of God makes peace between Christians possible.

But there can be no peace between Christians and non-Christians. Paul says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Satan? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?" (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). Now, Satan would like us to believe that there can be some middle ground between light and darkness. Satan’s philosophers tell us that the world is full of shades of gray. It is suggested that it is dangerous to take extreme positions on issues of morality—far better to take the middle of the road, we’re told. After all, no one wants to be labeled a religious fanatic.

God has no patience for people who try and straddle the fence. In Revelation 3:15-16, God said these words to a church full of fence-sitters: "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth." When we have become part of His army, God expects us to be fully committed to His leadership—even when being a Christian puts one at odds with non-Christians. Jesus warned His disciples that the life of a Christian would result in broken relationships—'For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.'

Such conflict is tragic, but inevitable. In every one of our extended families, there are some who don’t believe in Jesus or see their need for Him in their lives—these relatives are members of the army of darkness, whether they realize it or not. And because their values are not God’s values, there are times when they cannot understand us. Conflict waits to strike. Perhaps a non-Christian father wants his Christian son to go golfing on Sunday morning; will the son choose to please his father, or to please God by attending worship instead? Who is most important in the son’s life? Or suppose a non-Christian woman asks her Christian sister to drive her to an abortion clinic and stay with her through the painful hours to come; will the Christian woman please her pregnant sister, or will she risk angering her by instead speaking God’s truth about the divine gift of life within her? Or suppose a Christian woman is approached by her non-Christian boyfriend about living together; will she agree in order to please him, or will she risk losing him by honoring God’s Sixth Commandment?

In each of these examples, we see the issue raised by Jesus: "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." The point that Jesus makes is plain: when we are put in a situation where we must choose between pleasing a person who was created by God, or pleasing God who is the Creator, Jesus expects us to make the decision that is pleasing to God. When such a decision is made among the company of Christians, there is no real problem, because our fellow Christians understand that God’s will must always be done. But when such a decision impacts a non-Christian, there will be hurt, a feeling of betrayal. The non-Christian, who is a soldier in Satan’s army, will regard us as a traitor, a turncoat. And you know that an army cannot abide traitors. When we are aligned with Jesus and follow His leadership in our lives, the non-Christians around us will naturally oppose us. They may beg us not to change, to drift away from our old, sinful habits that were so much fun. They may threaten to exclude us from their lives if we insist on living our Christian priorities. They may even deliberately try to hurt us, through abusive words or abusive acts. It is not because they don’t love us, it is because they hate our leader and where He is leading us.

Is there nothing we can do? Are we doomed to conflict in life because of our relationship of peace with God? Well, it is true that conflict with non-Christians will be a life-long problem. But there is always something that we can do. Jesus said, "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me." If we want peace with that parent, that brother, or that cousin who marches in the army of darkness, we must go to them and share the light of Christ’s Gospel with them. Darkness has nothing in common with light—the only way that peace will come about between a Christian and a non-Christian is for we, the Christian, to share the truth about Jesus and His saving work and how that work has impacted our lives. When we share God’s word, the Holy Spirit uses our witness to soften the unbeliever’s heart, making it receptive to Jesus. It may take more than one talk; it may take a lifetime of witnessing and reading from the scriptures to that unbelieving person, and even then he or she might still refuse to believe. But Jesus has made things crystal clear—we cannot have it both ways. We cannot be yoked together with unbelievers; if we want peace in our families, it can only come about when everyone shares in the peace that comes from Jesus forgiving our sins and bringing us back to God. Jesus has given you this peace; may He give you ample opportunity to share it with your loved ones.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


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

There is a science-fiction story about a city dweller who goes out for a walk. In this imaginary future, everything has been automated--including the police. As the man walks along, a mechanical officer glides up to him and asks the man his business. The pedestrian explains that he had wanted to get some air; the robot policeman replies "but your home has air conditioning." The man goes on to say that he wanted to see things; the mechanical man responds "but you have a television set." The encounter concludes with the pedestrian being forcibly admitted to a medical facility to be treated for his 'obvious' mental illness.

We are living in a society that isolates us more and more. The people who care for us will only touch us if they are wearing latex gloves. Parents use baby monitors and cell phones to monitor their children without having to actually be close enough to see them. Youth spend hours exploring virtual worlds inside of computer games instead of experiencing the wonders to be found by the lake or along the railroad tracks. Adults shape their opinions on moral behavior by watching situation comedies and television dramas instead of seeking God’s wisdom in church. Many of us experience more direct contact from plastics and metal and circuit boards than we do from other human beings. As a society, we have become more concerned about the condition of the air in our homes than in the condition of the soul living just down the street.

There is no substitute for direct contact with another person. Years ago, Simon and Garfunkel recorded I am a Rock, a song which pointed out that books of poetry cannot take the place of human interaction. Neither can cell phones, Internet chat rooms, computer simulation games or television. I find it fascinating that one of the most successful computer games is The Sims, where the player spends time developing relationships between computerized characters. This tells me that people are hungry for contact with others, but they often don’t know how to go about it.

God knows that we need human contact. That is one reason why He sent His Son to be born of Mary, a flesh and blood human being. Jesus is God cast in a human mold. Jesus is God made touchable. Jesus welcomed children into His arms to be blessed. Jesus touched people tenderly as He cured them of birth defects and disease. The fact that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and greets us in the flesh when we enter heaven teaches us that nothing can replace the importance of face to face contact with others. This is why Christians gather in churches to worship God together.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Dark Age

Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God (Matthew 22:29).

We tend to think of the Middle Ages as a time when people were very religious. Great cathedrals were built. Several crusades were organized to bring the Holy Land from the control of Muslims into Christian rulership. Christianity was the only official religion of Europe.
But the people of Europe were actually living in the Dark Ages. Elegant cathedrals were built more for the prestige of the city that constructed them than to honor God; most people went to services because they were expected to, not from a desire to become closer to Jesus. Many of the crusaders were motivated less by religion than they were in seeking personal glory in battle, and the opportunity to get rich from plundering Muslim strongholds. And although all Europeans were nominally Christian, most of them had never seen a Bible; even among the clergy of the church, many did not know God’s book; Martin Luther found that some could not even recite the Lord’s Prayer from memory.

In terms of Christianity, our modern world is sinking into a new Dark Age. Many people hold membership in a Christian church, but they rarely if ever go there to worship God. You have to wonder if they maintain their membership only out of a sense of obligation, as opposed to having a desire to truly grow closer to Christ. Much is said about whether or not prayer should be allowed in school, if the Ten Commandments should be displayed in our courthouses, if "under God" should be part of the Pledge of Allegiance—but how many of the people who are passionate about promoting God in these ways actually spend time with Him regularly in devotion or the study of His Word? There are more Bibles in print today than any other book, yet most of them sit on shelves gathering dust. It is disturbing to go into a second-hand store and finding Bibles lying among stacks of discarded books—not only did someone decide that he didn’t need or want God’s book, but apparently he couldn’t even think of someone else to give that Bible to!

How important is Jesus to you? How much time do you set aside for Him each week to pray for forgiveness? How much time do you spend honoring Him by telling others how much better your life is because Jesus is a part of it? How much time do you dedicate to deepening your relationship with Him by picking up His Bible and reading it? How does your time with Jesus compare to the time you spend on your family, your friends, or yourself? Jesus died to save you from God’s curse on your sins; are you living in His light, or are you slowly dying in the new Dark Age?

Friday, March 24, 2006

Beautiful poetry

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you."

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away (Isaiah 35:1-10).

American culture has changed quite a lot over the last 60 years. Some changes have been improvements, while other changes have not. One thing that American culture has been losing since WW II is an appreciation for poetry. Before the war, books of poetry sold well. A man who was courting a girl often gave a book of poetry to her as a gift. But these days, poetry doesn’t sell as well. Few are the men who would give a book of poetry to their girl, let alone read poetry to her. As a result, most Americans don’t really understand poetry anymore, outside of song lyrics.

Isaiah was a prophet of God who wrote in poetry. In order for us to fully understand Isaiah’s message, we not only need to know what the Bible teaches about God, we also have to understand how poetry works. As Isaiah uses it, poetry is about word pictures. Isaiah creates images in our minds by the skillful use of words and phrases. Isaiah takes abstract ideas like salvation and life, and dresses them with shapes and colors so that we can understand them. God inspired Isaiah’s poetry in order to make the invisible truths of God visible to us.

In Matthew 11:2-11, Jesus quotes from Isaiah to prove His credentials as the Messiah to John the Baptist. John had been put in prison for telling the local king that he was living in sin. As John languished in prison, he began to sink into despair. As he grew more depressed, John began to wonder if the Jesus he had baptized really was the Messiah. How long would it be before Jesus would set His people free? How long would it be before Jesus set him free? But Jesus hadn’t come to end Rome’s political oppression of Israel. Jesus had come to set people free in a different way. Jesus made this point to John by quoting from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus was setting people free, just as Isaiah had predicted.

So, what did Isaiah predict about Jesus’ ministry? Well, first we are told that "the desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the LORD, the splendor of our God." What are the desert and the parched land? These are the places where God’s people dwell. The parched land is the world we live in. It is parched because it doesn’t have the water that gives life. Without water, everything withers and dies. That is what sin has done to the world. Sin has dammed up the waters of life, leaving creation a desert that thirsts for the loving touch of the Giver of Life. Nothing thrives in this desert except the jackals, scavengers who prey on those who haven’t yet died of thirst. The jackals are Satan and his followers; their prey are the souls of men dying from lack of the Water of Life.

But when Jesus comes into the world, He brings the Water of Life. Jesus said, "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" (Johh 4:14). When Jesus died on the cross, we read that "one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water" (John 19:34). In a spiritual sense, that water has never stopped flowing from Jesus’ side. In Revelation 22:1-2, we are told "Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." This Water of Life is a word picture—poetry, if you will. The Water of Life is a way for us to visualize the saving work of God through Jesus Christ, which washes away our sins, making us clean and acceptable to God.

When Jesus entered our world, He began to pour out His Living Water. Throughout His ministry, Jesus forgave the sins that separated people from the love of God. When Jesus died on the cross, the Waters of Life came out in a torrent as our Savior died to free everyone from the curse of sin and eternal death. These Waters of Life began to spread all over the face of this parched world as Jesus’ apostles preached the Good News of salvation to every tribe and nation. And as the Waters of Life have spread, faith in Christ has spread. The deserts of the earth are becoming fruitful farmland. Places untouched by the Word of God, used as sanctuaries for Satan and his jackals, are less than at any time in human history. The Gospel of our Lord has penetrated to the remotest corners of the world, daily turning deserts into fields ripe for harvest. Isaiah can truly say, "Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow."

We need to focus on this good news. Satan tries to defeat us by scaring us with bad news, like how poorly church is attended in Europe and the United States. Every night, the news is filled with reports of deaths caused by religious extremists, and threats of more of the same. But we must not give heed to Satan’s scare tactics. Isaiah says, "Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." Jesus first came into this world to save us from our sins. Jesus will return to this world to save us from the sins of Satan’s followers. Jesus wants everyone to be saved, but make no mistake: those who reject Jesus will feel the everlasting judgment of our God. Satan and his minions will lose. Therefore, there is absolutely no reason for us to live in fear.

Isaiah says "Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy." Jesus certainly did all this things during the years of His ministry among us, but it would be a mistake to think that Jesus’ healing work stopped two millennia ago. Jesus continues to grant us healing today. Every medical advance, every new vaccine developed, has come about solely because Jesus cares about His children and wants to ease their suffering. And Jesus does not restrict Himself to acting through the hands of doctors; every day people recover from illnesses to the astonishment of doctors who had given up hope. God answers our prayers, and James assures us that "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16).

But when we speak of Jesus’ healing, we must never separate it from His forgiving of sins. All sickness and deterioration of health is a byproduct of the death that sin brought into God’s perfect world. Disease and decay are symptoms of the sin that taints everything in the universe. When Jesus came to minister to us, His first concern was the state of our souls. Jesus did not want us to be condemned eternally, along with those who willingly side with Satan. Jesus suffered the death of our sins on the cross so that He could forgive the sins of everyone who trusts in Him. As a result, we who believe now have entry into the heaven that our sins had denied to us. Some Christians may be physically blind, but all Christians have been given the ability to see their salvation. Some Christians may be deaf, but all Christians have been given the opportunity to hear God’s saving Word. Even the heart of a Christian confined to a wheelchair can leap for joy in thankfulness for his forgiveness. Even the heart of a mute Christian can sing praises to the Lord our Savior.

"And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and the ransomed of the LORD will return." For the Christian, there are only two roads through life, two ways to live. There is the Way of Death, and there is the Way of Life. Jesus provided us with the Way of Life, the Way of Holiness. Jesus created the Way for us, as a scout leader blazes a trail through the wilderness for his troop. But this isn’t just a trail; Jesus’ way is a high way, a path that is above the ways of this world. Unholy, wicked people will not be able to walk upon it, because the Way can only be seen by the eyes of faith. All mankind is blinded by sin; only those whose eyes have been opened by Jesus can see His Way in order to follow Him. The Way of Holiness is a word picture for living life under God’s directives. The Way of Holiness is a lifestyle of repenting our sinfulness, trusting in the forgiving love of Jesus, and asking Jesus to help us live our lives in service to Him. And God promises us that He will keep us safe while we are upon the Way. Jesus said, "My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:27-28).

The Way of Holiness has a definite destination. Isaiah writes "They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away." Zion is the capital city of God’s kingdom; by the Way of Holiness, Jesus leads us to heaven. The faithful will enter Zion with singing. We will arrive with the same kind of excitement that a car full of travelers has, when after hours and hours of driving the home of their loved ones finally appears ahead in the darkness with lights glowing warmly in welcome. The glory of the Lord will surround us; gladness and joy will wash over us, driving away all sorrow and tearful sighs. We will be home in the embrace of the Savior who loved us enough to die for us, and we will never have to say good bye to any loved ones ever again. The journey will be over forever.

Isaiah paints a beautiful word picture for us, both of what Jesus has done for us, and what He is going to do for us. Jesus has set you free from the oppression of sin and eternal death. If you repent of your sins and trust in Jesus, He has promised that your road of life will end in heaven. May this picture linger in your mind, and help you keep your life in proper perspective this Lenten season.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What can money buy you?

How do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul in the process? Is anything worth more than your soul? (Matthew 16:26)

A ship with about a hundred passengers was wrecked on a South Seas island. Thankfully, all lives were saved, together with sufficient food for several months’ existence and several sacks of seed for springtime planting. But the men had hardly assessed their situation when someone discovered gold on the island. The men began to dig and pan furiously, heaping up gold for themselves and forgetting all about the seed and the need to plant and harvest. When the fall winds began to blow and the cold of winter settled over them, they all died of starvation.

It is hard to understand such foolish behavior, but many today are no wiser. We are all living on an island called Earth. Winter is coming, the time when our bodies will succumb to fatal injury or terminal disease or old age. When winter comes, our souls will either suffer an eternity of dying with Satan in hell, or an eternity of joyful life with Jesus in heaven. In His mercy, our Lord has given us containers of seed—these containers are called Bibles. The seed is His live-giving Word. In order to have continued life come winter, all we need do is to tend the growth of this heavenly seed in our lives. Jesus says, the one who feeds on me will live because of me (John 6:57).

But this Earth is full of pretty gold, and it appeals to our greed. It is so tempting to concentrate on making money and buying things that many forget about taking time to nourish their souls. But you cannot eat gold. Money and the things it buys cannot keep your soul healthy. Jesus said, You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).

If you want to survive the coming winter of your life, now is the time to tend the field. Now is the time to ask Jesus to forgive you for ignoring Him. Now is the time to worship God the Father in His house. Now is the time to study the Bible of the Lord Almighty on your own or with a friend. And don’t worry if time seems short, if you already feel the icy touch of winter in your bones; so long as you are alive, there is still time for Jesus to plant new life in you. The criminal on the cross next to Jesus did not repent and believe until mere hours before his death, yet Jesus told him, I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43). No amount of gold can give you that promise.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength (Isaiah 40:31).

Many have found that suffering leads a person to nobler qualities and higher achievement. Cornelius Ryan was the author of The Longest Day, The Last Battle, and A Bridge Too Far. He collaborated with his wife on his last book, A Private Battle. In this book, they described his personal 4½ year battle with cancer, which he was struggling with as he wrote A Bridge Too Far. Hope had alternated with despair. Pain became a constant companion. Incontinence stripped away his dignity. Progressive weakness led to helplessness and dependence. Ryan was no unrealistic Pollyanna, nor did he minimize the severity of his condition; yet in the midst of his ordeal, he made the following observation: "No one seems to realize that pain makes the mind sharper. Ironically, I think I am writing better with cancer than I did without it." Reflecting on how his disease had impacted their marriage, Ryan’s wife wrote "I think I loved my husband in his years of sickness more than at any other time in our marriage. The way he handled his illness, the fierce courage with which he fought it, submerged my sexual desires as my pride in him increased."

No one likes to suffer, and our desire to minimize suffering has led to wonderful advances in medical research. But it is unrealistic to expect to live a pain-free life. There is no cure for Muscular Dystrophy or Multiple Sclerosis. There is no cure for arthritis or diabetes. There is no cure for Alzheimer’s Disease or AIDS. Nor is there any way to guarantee that we will not be made blind or deaf or paralyzed due to an accident or an act of war. For all of our advances, suffering remains a very real part of everybody’s life.

Often, the only thing that you can do about suffering is decide how it will affect your outlook on life. You can decide to throw yourself a pity party and wallow in your pain. You can decide to become bitter and inflict your pain on everyone around you. Or you can turn to Jesus for help. You can ask Him to help you endure the pain with a positive attitude; suffering can help you look at your priorities in a new light. You can ask Him to show you ways that you can serve Him within the limitations your health has saddled you with; suffering can lead you to serve Jesus in ways that you never considered before. Most importantly, you can ask Him to help you recognize your sins and forgive you for them, because sin is the root cause of all suffering; it was our sins that caused Jesus to suffer hell itself on the cross for us, a much worse suffering than you or I will ever know. Suffering can be beneficial when it causes us to turn to Jesus on a daily basis and look to Him as our support system. With the weight of our sins lifted from our shoulders, and with Jesus supporting us with His love and strength, any suffering that afflicts us becomes much easier to bear.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Drowning in a cold, shark-infested ocean

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: "Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is `the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.' Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:8-12)

How could a person be drowning and not realize it? How could a person be struggling to stay alive in shark-infested, freezing ocean water and not realize the danger he is in?

Yet many, perhaps even most people alive on the earth today are slowly dying in such an ocean, and a great many of them don’t even realize it. Yes, there are those who know that they cannot swim, and are panicking every time that they slip beneath the surface and take a gulp of salty water; these are the people who are wrestling with guilt or the trauma of tragedy, and realize that they need help or they will not survive. But there are many more who are slowly going numb from the freezing water and do not feel the life slipping away from them; there are many who do not see the shark slowly approaching unseen, just below the surface—these are the people whose lives seem to be going along just fine, although they do not devote much thought to matters of conscience or to the fate of souls after death.

There are many people who are dying every day in the ocean of their sins.

The tragedy is that rescue is available. There is a strong hand reaching out from a large boat that desires to pull them from the ocean to safety. That strong hand belongs to Jesus, and the lifeboat is His Church. But while there are those who are drowning who are grateful for the offer of rescue, there are so many others who do not realize the danger that they are in, and dismiss Jesus’ hand as unnecessary. They don’t realize their need for rescue.

Jesus rescues us from three things. The first is drowning in the guilt of our sins. Each of us has a conscience—the conscience is God’s gift that warns us of spiritual danger. When we do something that hurts others or puts ourselves at foolish risk, our conscience tries to warn us of the danger. When we ignore our conscience, it nags us with feelings of guilt over what we have done. As we fill our lives with selfish and self-destructive behaviors, our burden of guilty feelings grows. Often, we try to alleviate the burden by trying to make up for our mistakes, but there are never enough words of sorrow, never enough expensive gifts, that can remove the memory of what we have done. Eventually we feel as if we are drowning in guilt, unable to know a moment’s peace.

Jesus rescues us from guilt. Jesus suffered far more than we can imagine to settle the scales for us, to make up for what we have done wrong. Jesus did this on the cross, and He did it so that He can forgive us for our mistakes and lift our load of guilt. Jesus rescues us from drowning, and breathes new life into us.

The second thing that Jesus rescues us from is the chill touch of death. Death wants to drag us down into a watery grave, never again to resurface to see light and the warmth of life. People fear death. People fear dying because they don’t know what to expect afterwards—will they go to some kind of paradise? Will they be punished for their mistakes by being reborn again into a new body, suffering life after tragic life until they "get it right"? Will they cease to exist altogether, rendering everything that they have accomplished in life meaningless? The fear of the unknown brings fear of death.

Jesus has revealed to us what happens at the time of death. Those who believe in Him as their Rescuer will be brought to heaven to live in the warmth of God’s love and care forever; those who had no relationship with Jesus at the time of their death will be rejected by God and sent to hell for eternity, a place that contains no comfort or happiness, a place that is characterized in the Bible as a prison of unending suffering and anguish. Jesus assures us that death is only to be feared if we reject Him as our Lord and Savior; Jesus said, Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:18).

The third thing that Jesus rescues us from is the control of the great enemy, the devil. Satan rejected God and was thus ejected from the paradise of heaven; in retaliation, this spiritual terrorist dedicated his existence to luring humanity away from God, because the only way that he could hurt God was through hurting God’s human children. He does this by telling us lies, by contradicting or misinterpreting what God tells us is good and right. Satan is like the great shark swimming unseen beneath us, whose mouth is full of lies like row upon row of jagged teeth, eager to eat away at us until we can longer distinguish between what is helpful or harmful, true or false, right or wrong.

Jesus faced the great enemy head on during His life among us. Satan tried to trick Jesus into abandoning us through several temptations, concluding with the temptation to come down from the cross before He had suffered the price for every human sin. But Jesus resisted Satan—He resisted the enemy by quoting the Scriptures to him and by seeking strength from His heavenly Father through prayer. Jesus rescues us from Satan’s attacks by giving us the Holy Bible as our defense against falsehood, and by enabling each of us to pray to God directly for strength in the face of the jaws of temptation.

Saint Peter said, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Salvation is rescue—rescue from guilt and hell and Satan. And Peter tells us that this salvation only comes to us in one way—through Jesus the Son of God, anointed and set apart to be the Savior of all mankind. There are two reasons why Jesus is the only one through whom we can be saved:

First, Jesus is God’s designated representative. When Jesus’ true glory was glimpsed by the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration, God the Father said of Him, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5). Jesus is whom the Bible is all about. God inspired the many writers of the Old Testament to talk about only two things: why we need a rescuer, and who that rescuer was going to be. God had the prophets write these things so that when Jesus arrived among us in the clothing of humanity, people would understand why it was so important to listen to Him. Jesus’ words reveal God; Saint John goes so far as to name Jesus as the Word of God. Jesus said, anyone who has seen me has seen the Father... Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me (John 14:9-11). And after Jesus rose from the dead and returned to heaven, God inspired the writers of the New Testament to preserve Jesus’ words for us and to show how the life, death and resurrection of the Lord has meaning for each and every one of us. God reveals Himself to us through Jesus alone, and the Bible was given by God to allow people throughout history to personally listen to our divine Rescuer.

The other reason that Jesus is the only name by which we find salvation is that Jesus did what no other teacher has ever done. Jesus not only taught us about God and what He expects from us, Jesus also did the work of saving us from our guilt, eternal damnation, and the lure of the Enemy. Jesus did this work through the shedding of His holy, innocent blood on the cross for our sins; Paul writes, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding (Ephesians 1:7-8). John tells us, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2). Jesus did what no other great teacher has ever done. The Buddha, Muhammad, Confucius, Joseph Smith—none of these men gave their lives to save the souls of others. They may have been influential teachers, but all of them told their followers that each man has to make his own way through life, each person has to chart their own course and fix their own mistakes. In the end, each of them said "get out of the water or you’ll drown!", but none of them personally pulled a single victim out.

Our world is filled with people who are drowning in guilt, who are sinking into the clutches of everlasting death, who are being chewed to pieces by the devil’s vicious attacks. Satan’s messengers are everywhere: they advise us to visualize our goals and work hard to attain them, and we can be successful. We are told not to worry about the future, but to live each moment to its’ fullest before old age and death confront us. We are told that no one has a patent on spiritual truths, that there are as many ways to find God—whoever He is—as there are individuals (and if you choose not to believe in a Supreme Being, well, that’s okay too). Two-thirds of this world’s population have no idea who Jesus Christ is, or what He did for them in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, or what He wants to do for them today. Two-thirds of the people in our world have no idea how to get free of guilt, how to face death without terror, how to resist the constant urges of their human nature to indulge in every kind of selfish and self-destructive behavior.

Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. You and I have that Name. You and I have been rescued from sin, hell, and Satan’s domination. If your best friend was sick and her car wasn’t working, you’d help her get to the doctor’s office, wouldn’t you? When people are in need, you offer your help, don’t you? I invite you to take stock of the people in your life. Do you have a friend who is tortured by years of guilt? Do you have a relative who fears the approach of death? Do you know a co-worker who struggles with addictive or compulsive behavior? Do these people know that Jesus holds out His hand to rescue them? Do they believe that they have done wrong in their lives, but that all can be forgiven by faith in Jesus’ blood? Have they heard that a life without Jesus is a life of suffering without comfort, ending in a death without hope?

If they haven’t heard of Jesus, if they don’t know what He offers to those who are dying in the ocean of their sins, can you in love abandon them to their death? Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. You have Jesus. You have hope for the future. You are given strength for the day. May our Lord Jesus move you to reach out with Him, in love, to those who are perishing.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Teach your children well

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up (Deuteronomy 11:18-19).

What is your favorite thing to talk about? Many people enjoy talking about sports; they have an amazing memory for statistics. Others like talking about cars or trucks; visiting with them can be like spending time with a mechanic. And there are people who are fascinated with politics and social issues; they know an amazing amount about public policy, the law, and the voting records of politicians.

People who are passionate about something spend a lot of time talking about it, especially with their children. So I ask you: what do you talk about the most with your children or grandchildren? Is it sports? Is it cars or trucks? Is it politics or a social problem? Or is it Jesus?

You can measure how important Jesus is in your life by how much you think about Him and talk about Him. When you are faced with a problem, do you first pray for God to share His wisdom with you? When you are involved in an activity where your hands are busy but your mind is not, do your thoughts wander to the teachings of the Bible? Do you feel that the most important thing that you can teach the youth in your life is to know the Lord?

Through Moses, God said fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. God wants us to be thinking about Him with the kind of passion that we devote to our favorite pastimes. He wants us to remember Bible verses the way that some can remember sports statistics or engine specifications. He wants us to be as passionate about our religious beliefs as some are about foreign policy or the environment. The Lord wants us to value our relationship with Him as the most important thing in our lives, and to make the sharing of that relationship with our youth the top priority of the brief time we have with them before they grow up and move away. When we live like this, we honor God’s command: Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:5).

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Watch your mouth!

Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil (1 Peter 3:10).

It happened during World War II at Guadalcanal. A detachment of American GIs were startled by an announcement that they found posted at their mess hall. It read, "American soldiers are requested please to be a little more careful in their choice of language, especially when natives are assisting them in unloading ships and trucks and in erecting abodes. American missionaries spent many years among us and taught us the use of clean speech. Every day, however, American soldiers use bad words, and the good work your missionaries did in our midst is being undermined by your careless profanity." The soldiers were further shamed to see that this note was signed by a Polynesian chief.

Many Americans don’t give much thought to what comes out of their mouths. They use vulgar words for human waste to express disgust. They use crude references to sexual acts to tell off someone they are mad at. They use God’s name as an exclamation of surprise. They call down curses from God on persons or situations that frustrate them.

A person who uses bad language is insulting God. God’s name, revealed to us by His grace through the Bible, is reduced to an adjective expressing strong emotion, the same way that references to crude sexual activity and the elimination of bodily waste are used. And when people call upon God’s name to send to hell those they are mad at, the seriousness of God’s eternal punishment of sins is trivialized. Foul language demeans God’s dignity and authority in our world.

Paul says that as Christians, we are God’s ambassadors. What we say represents our Lord to others. When we use language that is crude or shocking, we give the false impression that our holy God is unconcerned with the quality of our mutual relationships. When we use God’s name in a trivial way, we are suggesting that a person doesn’t need to take God seriously. When we call down damnation upon others, we depict our God as a God of vengeance, not as a God of love. Please join me in praying,

Help us, Lord God, to respect Your holy name in everything we say. Help us to bite our tongues instead of calling down curses of damnation upon others. Lead us to express our emotions without resorting to offensive language. Keep us mindful that everything we say reflects on You, the holy God of love. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

Friday, March 10, 2006

From death to life

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?"

I said, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know."

Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, `Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the LORD.' "

So I prophesied as I was commanded. And as I was prophesying, there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone. I looked, and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them.

Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' " So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feet--a vast army.

Then he said to me: "Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.' Therefore prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.' " (Ezekiel 37:1-14)

The Old Testament is filled with many dramatic images, but Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of bones is one of the most compelling. Let me set the stage for you. After King Solomon died, the ten northern tribes of Israel split off from the southern two tribes and formed their own nation. For hundreds of years, the two kingdoms existed side by side—the kingdom of Israel to the north and the kingdom of Judah to the south. Eventually, the northern kingdom of Israel turned away from God and was punished with destruction by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah continued on. Judah was the part of the nation that still contained Jerusalem, God’s Temple and the priests of God. But eventually Judah, too, turned away from God. And so God sent the Babylonians to punish Judah, by destroying Jerusalem and taking all of the nation’s leadership into exile throughout the Babylonian empire. There they were kept for 70 long years, as God waited for His chosen people to humbly turn to Him once more for help.

The loss of their country and the Temple of God broke the pride of the Jews. As they unwillingly lived for year after year in a foreign country, they began to turn to God once more in prayer. But as the years went by without release, despair crushed the hearts of the Jews. Many feared that they had alienated God forever, that He would never forgive them and accept them back as His special people. The Jews became dead inside, losing all hope.

It is to these people that God sent Ezekiel as His prophet. Ezekiel came to the Jews to help them understand how they had offended God. Ezekiel was also sent to the Jews to tell them that God was willing to forgive them and restore them as His chosen people. That is what Ezekiel’s vision from God is all about.

Ezekiel was shown a valley of dry, dislocated bones. That they are noticeably dry indicates that the bones are long dead. Whose bones are these? The Lord tells Ezekiel that they are the whole house of Israel, all those people who had belonged to God. How did they meet their death? God said that they were killed. They were killed because of their sins, killed because they had abandoned God for a life of indulging sin. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and in this vision Ezekiel sees the terrible consequence of life lived apart from God. Without a loving, trusting relationship with God, there was no life in these bones. And because the Jews took pride in their nation instead of pride in their Lord, God had scattered them in exile throughout the world, just as their bones were scattered in Ezekiel’s vision. When there is no unity with God, there can be no true unity among men.

But the exile had served God’s purpose. The Jews had been brought to the point where they cried, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off." The fallen people of God had finally realized the folly of their sinful ways, and saw nothing in their future but despair. They had become humble, and were ready for the Lord’s mercy. The Lord asks Ezekiel, "Son of man, can these bones live?" Ezekiel’s answer, "O Sovereign LORD, you alone know", indicates that only God’s power can bring life to these dead bones. So God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the dead bones. What a strange scene this pictures. How can the words of a man have the slightest impact on a valley of the dead? But our almighty God created the universe with the words "Let there be…" (Genesis 1:3 ff). God’s words have the power to accomplish His will. So Ezekiel speaks God’s words, and a rattle echoes throughout the valley. But this is no death rattle; this is a sound of restoration, of life returned. The bones reassemble, and flesh covers them once more. Through Ezekiel’s vision, God promised the Jews that they would be reunited as a people, living in the land God had promised to Abraham a thousand years earlier. God’s people would be scattered and alone no more.

But this was only half of the promise. Even though the people were restored physically, Ezekiel noted that there was no life in the vast army of the people of God. All that stood before him were soulless zombies. Then God told Ezekiel, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe into these slain, that they may live.' " So Ezekiel did as the Lord told him, and the Lord sent His breath of life, His Holy Spirit, among the people He had raised up from death. And with the Spirit of God, the life-giving breath of God within them, they lived. Through this part of Ezekiel’s vision, God promised that a time was coming when His Holy Spirit would live in His people, making it possible for them to know that it was God alone who restored hope to their lives.

And God made good on His promises. It was not much longer before the Persians conquered Babylon and allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild both Jerusalem and the Temple. But God’s people had to wait a little longer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into their hearts. The Holy Spirit was not given to God’s people until Jesus sent Him to the founders of His church on Pentecost, shortly after Jesus had ascended into heaven. But both promises in Ezekiel’s vision have come to pass.

But Ezekiel’s vision means more to us today than just a history lesson. Ezekiel’s vision shows us our modern world as well, and how our Lord continues to work among us. All humans enter life spiritually dead. King David wrote, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). With sin in control of our lives, we were dead in God’s eyes, just as the bones in the valley were dry and without flesh. With sin making us selfish, we were all disconnected from each other, as the dry bones in the valley were disconnected and scattered. It is our Lord’s fervent hope that the people who live their lives isolated and dead inside will eventually realize the hopelessness of their condition and cry, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off."

It is when we realize how pointless a life of sin is, and how helpless we are to bring about real change in our lives, that Jesus comes to us. Jesus is the Son of God; He lives forever, and has always been standing near. Jesus waits patiently for us to let go of our pride and admit that we need help to fix the mistakes with which we’ve filled our lives. When the burden of our selfish mistakes finally moves us to say, "Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off," Jesus offers us comfort through His word. He sends us His word through the mouths of those He has called to speak for Him, just as He sent the Jews His words through the mouth of Ezekiel. The comfort He sends us is this: "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). The holy Son of God took on the responsibilities of humanity for one purpose only—to benefit us. Jesus chose to be responsible to God where we failed to be responsible, and to endure the punishment of God for taking pride in ourselves instead of taking pride in our God. Because Jesus lived a life of perfect responsibility, and because Jesus has endured God’s anger at our misplaced pride, we can be forgiven for being irresponsible and prideful. When we set aside our pride and humbly ask Jesus for forgiveness and help, He assures us that God loves us and welcomes us. Jesus gives us unity with God, and unity with every other forgiven sinner. And Jesus gives us help, for "Our help is in the name of the LORD" (Psalm 124:8).

Through the mouths of God’s representatives, Jesus’ words gather the scattered bones of sin-deadened people together in unity—the unity of the one true Church. Through Jesus’ words proclaimed by that Christian Church throughout the world, the Holy Spirit comes and enters countless hearts, making those dead in sin to be alive in Christ—a vast army. You are part of that army. You have been made alive by the gift of Jesus’ righteousness, earned on the cross where your sins put the innocent Son of God to death. You have been united with your brothers and sisters in Christ through the common faith and love given you by the Holy Spirit. It is your bones that God’s word has brought together and made alive. You were dead, but by the free, loving gift of God, you are now alive. You are alive and a part of the Christian community, in order that you may do the good works, which God prepared in advance for you to do (cf. Ephesians 2:10).

Dead, an army is useless. Alive and united, an army can accomplish great things under a great leader. Christ is your leader. He has raised you and united you with believers all over the world. Go, and follow in His service, always giving thanks that He was willing to die that you might join in serving Him in love. Go and follow Him, knowing that He has promised to settle you in your own land—a land where there will be no pride, no selfishness—a land ruled by God, that we call heaven.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Who stands with you and for you?

God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Rolf Hochhuth wrote a play about the Holocaust called The Deputy. In this play, set during World War II, a young priest discovers the truth about the Jewish extermination camps. He makes it his personal mission to put a stop to the government’s orders to slowly exterminate an entire people. He appeals to everyone in authority, finally even to the pope in Rome, but all turn a deaf ear to him or offer up excuses that relieve them from any responsibility. When he has finally exhausted every avenue of protest open to him, the hero of the play sews the identifying mark of a six-pointed star on his sleeve; he then presents himself at an extermination camp, where he enters the ovens to die with the people whose cause he has adopted as his own.

When Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River, He identified Himself with sinners. Like the hero of Hochhuth’s play, He committed Himself to standing with us in our darkest hour. Jesus accepted the punishment coming to us for our sins; He submitted to the death coming to us for rebelling against God’s authority. But Jesus was not like the hero of the play in an important way; Jesus suffered in our place to spare us from suffering, He went into death so that all sinners could have life and have it more abundantly. The hero of the play suffered and died with those he loved; Jesus suffered and died in the place of those He loves. Please join me in praying,

Lord Jesus, we thank You for coming to our world to stand with us in our troubles. You were tempted to be selfish and angry and lazy just like we are, but You never sinned. You lived a perfect life to show us how wonderful life can be. But we thank You most of all for standing before us as our guardian and our shield. Your heavenly Father’s anger blazed against us for our evils, but You stood between us and the Father; You took all of His anger directed at us upon Yourself. For our sakes You suffered and died, so that we might be forgiven and live. We can never thank You enough, Lord Jesus; we can only ask You to keep on forgiving us and help us to keep to Your ways while we live on this sinful earth, which Satan has made into a miserable concentration camp. Come soon, Lord, to free us forever. Amen.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The true nature of Jesus

God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things…by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross (Colossians 1:19-20).

During the early years of the Christian Church, a man named Arius began teaching that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not truly God the way that His heavenly Father was. In Arius’ view, Jesus was a bit less than God; the Father had created Him, along with everything else. This false teaching appealed to many people, who could not understand how Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit could be three different Persons and yet be equal together as only one God.

Eventually, even one of the emperors of the Roman Empire came to believe Arius’ false teachings. One day, this ruler elevated his son to share his throne with him. Several bishops of the church came to congratulate the emperor on this noteworthy occasion. One of the bishops, Amphilochus, had suffered much persecution for opposing Arius’ followers. He approached the emperor, offered a very nice address, and turned to leave. "What!" cried the ruler, "do you take no notice of my son? Do you not know that I have made him a partner with me in the empire? Is this all the respect you pay to a prince that I have made of equal dignity with myself?" At this, the bishop looked the emperor in the face and said, "Sir, do you so highly resent my apparent neglect of your son because I do not give him equal honor with yourself? What must the eternal God think of you, who have allowed His coequal and coeternal Son to be degraded in His proper divinity in every part of your empire?"

When Jesus healed a paralyzed man, He told him "Friend, your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20). Religious men who were watching this were offended; they said, "Why does this fellow talk like that? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Luke 5:21). They raised an excellent point--only God can forgive sins. So the question is, can Jesus forgive sins? If He is truly God, then of course He can—but if He is a lesser being, a creation of God as Arius claimed, then He is not truly God, and He cannot forgive anyone’s sins.

If Jesus is less than God, then what was the point of His being insulted by the Jews and beaten by the Romans? If Jesus cannot forgive our sins, then what purpose was there in His dying on the cross? Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection only has meaning for us if He is indeed fully God as well as fully human. Only the death of God could make sufficient restitution for thousands of years of human evil. It is only because Jesus is God that we can find comfort in His words, "Friend, your sins are forgiven."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The plain truth

Then the disciples came to Him and asked, "Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?" (Matthew 15:12)

Some people claim that the reason they don’t like church is that all the preacher talks about is sin, sin, and more sin. This isn’t surprising; no one likes to be criticized. We don’t like it when the boss gives us low marks on a performance appraisal; we don’t like it when we get a bad grade in school; we don’t like it when a friend disagrees with our opinion.

But when it comes to matters of life and death, we don’t want to be buttered up. Suppose that you went to the doctor because you were running a 105-degree fever, and he tried to make you forget about the problem by telling you that your red cheeks enhanced your natural good looks. You’d undoubtedly get mad and say, "I’m paying you to cure me, not flatter me." When you are sick you need an accurate diagnosis, even if it is unpleasant to listen to; otherwise there is no hope for effective treatment.

You and I are both ill with a terminal disease. Like every other human being, we are infested with a cancer that has a 100% kill rate—God calls this cancer "sin." The symptoms of this disease are many; they include an unwillingness to admit that you have made mistakes, a tendency to hold grudges, hatred for people who aren’t like you or don’t agree with you, unwillingness to commit yourself to anyone or anything, reluctance to open yourself up to others, and an insistence that you always be in control of everything. The effect of this disease is isolation from others and eventual death—death not only of the body, but the horror of spending eternity dying in hell, unloved and alone.

Is there a cure for this disease? Absolutely! Jesus, the Son of God, has been called the Great Physician because He correctly diagnoses our condition and prescribes the only effective treatment for sin—His forgiveness. Jesus has set up clinics all around you—they are called His churches. And if you cannot get to one of His clinics, He has many nurses, called preachers, who are ready to make house calls. But although our Lord and His nurses have pleasant bedside manners, do not expect flattery—to treat the infection of your sins, they will speak candidly with you about those sins, so that you might have the medicine of Jesus’ forgiveness that results in everlasting life in heaven.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Chiseled features

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when He appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).

Like Michelangelo’s partially completed statues, we are all unfinished products—spiritually. As we take time for the Lord’s Word and Sacrament on a regular basis, we are giving the Holy Spirit opportunities to work on shaping us like a master sculptor. It is His desire to make us look more and more like Christ, so He continues to chip away at every sinful part of us that causes disfigurement. Sometimes He may have to cut or chisel deeply to achieve His desired results. Bulges of pride may have to be hacked away until God-pleasing humility is revealed. Sharp edges of greed may have to be broken off so that generosity and charity are revealed. Ugly jealousy and envy must be sanded down into contentment. Lumps of heard-heartedness need to be smoothed into mercifulness and a willingness to forgive.

Of course, we are so far from Christ’s ideal that our all-too-short human lifetimes are not nearly long enough for the Holy Spirit to finish His refining work. Although Jesus has died to atone for our sins and has made us His own, we still struggle with sin every day and every battle that we lose puts another blemish on our spiritual faces that the Spirit must work to remove. His work of sculpting us into Christ’s perfect image will not see completion until we leave all sin behind at death and finally enter the perfection of heaven. But in the meantime we willingly accept the occasional pains that come with having our ugly behaviors changed, because all humans value beauty and Christ is the most beautiful of all. Please join me in praying:

Dearest Lord Jesus, we praise You for Your perfect beauty, the beauty of the very Face of God. We thank You for Your generosity in wanting to share the beauty of this perfection with us. Forgive us, we pray, for choosing so often to make ourselves ugly with our sins. Create in us a desire to seek Your beauty through spending time reading and listening to Your words. Send Your Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament to bring the beginnings of perfection into our ugly lives. Give us patience and strength to endure the Spirit’s work of changing us into reflections of Your beauty. In Your name we pray, amen.

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