Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Close to God

Let us draw near to God (Hebrews 10:22).

Under the Old Covenant of Moses, people were not allowed to get too close to God. When God summoned Moses to climb Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, He was first given this warning: Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, `Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death (Exodus 19:12). Even Moses himself had to be cautious in approaching the Almighty; when he saw the burning bush, God told him Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground (Exodus 3:5).

This also applied to God’s Temple. The general public was only allowed into the outer courtyard; the inner court was reserved for priests alone. But even the priests were not allowed into the Most Holy Place, where the Ark of the Covenant was stored; this area could only be entered by the High Priest, and only on one designated day per year, and only after he had been ceremonially purified. In these ways, the Lord dramatically made the point that all people are fouled by sin, that God will not tolerate sinners coming close to Him. Even when the Lord came to His people on a mountain or in a temple, He visibly reminded them of how far their sin separated them from holiness.

But when the New Covenant was made known through Jesus, separation from God was put to an end. "Stay away" was replaced by "come near." Jesus sat down at dinner with sinners of every sort. He was surrounded by crowds eager to feel His healing touch. Under the Old Covenant, for a sinner to touch God was to be destroyed by God’s blazing purity; under the New Covenant, the touch of the Son of God removes the stain of sin and fills us with the warmth of heavenly love.

Jesus is the untouchable God born in a human body so that we can see His smile, feel His embrace, walk through life as His followers. Jesus is safe to touch, because by touching us He trades His purity for our sins, sins He died to put right. Jesus took our sins into Himself, and God’s blazing purity destroyed those sins as our Lord suffered on the cross. Now He holds out His nail-scarred hands to you, offering His holiness in exchange for your sins. You need only accept His touch to know the healing of His love. Our God wants you to be close to Him.

Friday, May 26, 2006

God's love on the move

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven."

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers (Acts 1:1-14).

In the Apostles’ Creed we say "He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead." But we don’t really think much about Jesus’ ascension. After all, Jesus’ work was done when He suffered, died, and rose from the dead, right? Jesus has redeemed us from our sins. His work is done. Now He can take it easy for a while.

But that isn’t correct. It is true that Jesus has finished the work of paying for our sins. But Jesus is still busy. God the Father doesn’t take time off; He is still creating new life every day, whenever a baby is born or a seed sprouts to life. God the Holy Spirit doesn’t take time off; He is still creating faith in human hearts every day, whenever a child is baptized or an adult listens with open ears to the word of God being preached in church, on TV, or over the radio. And God the Son doesn’t take time off, either.

When Jesus rose from the grave, He did not go to heaven immediately. Over a period of 40 days, Jesus appeared to people who loved Him and trusted Him. To these people only, Jesus gave convincing proofs that He was alive. In Luke chapter 24 we read: He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. It was important that Jesus’ followers know that He was truly alive again. Jesus had said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26). Jesus had to show that He was stronger than death, or all of His promises about unending life would have been meaningless. Jesus’ visible return from death gave all who follow Him proof positive that Jesus can rescue anyone from the clutches of death.

But Jesus still had more work to do, and so after 40 days He gathered His disciples and gave them their final instructions: "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Then he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Jesus returned to heaven. But why? Why didn’t Jesus just keep on living among us? Jesus told His disciples, "I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7). While Jesus walked among us, He taught about God to those who walked with Him along the dusty roads of Palestine; but now He has sent us the Counselor, and Jesus promised that "When the Counselor comes…he will testify about me" (John 15:26). "The Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you" (John 14:26). With the Holy Spirit teaching and testifying about Jesus through Christians all over the world, Jesus is no longer needed here. Jesus has other work to do in heaven on our behalf.

Just before his death Stephen said, "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:56). For most people, the right hand is the one they use for important jobs, jobs that require skill: writing, using a tool, even eating. It is an honor to be called a President’s ‘right-hand man’, because such a person is entrusted with important duties on the President’s behalf. So it is with Jesus; when Scripture tells us that Jesus is at the right hand of God, it is telling us that the Father has entrusted Jesus with important responsibilities.

First of all, Jesus represents our interests before the throne of God. Paul tells us, "Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us" (Romans 8:34). This means that Jesus is making sure that we can enter heaven. He died on our behalf, on the cross; all of the Father’s anger at our sins was inflicted upon Jesus. Now, when we come trembling before God asking to be forgiven for our sins, Jesus says to His Father, "I have suffered the punishment for their sins. I did so willingly, so that You would not punish them, but accept them into our kingdom." Because of Jesus’ mercy, the Father forgives and forgets our sins and calls us His dear children. Every day our Lord Jesus is busy in heaven forgiving our sins.

Secondly, we must remember Jesus’ words to His disciples in John chapter 14: "In my Father's house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you." Jesus is alive in heaven now, preparing a place for us to join Him after each of us dies our temporary, physical death. Just think: Jesus is personally preparing heaven for you.

Thirdly, we must also remember the angels’ words to the disciples the day that Jesus departed: "This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." Jesus left, but He will come back; He told his disciples, "And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am" (John 14:3). Even now, Jesus prepares to return in glory, to destroy the power of Satan and his followers forever.

Jesus does indeed have important things to do in heaven while we await His triumphant return. But just as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all busy, we also are to be busy. When Jesus left His disciples He told them, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." That is also His instruction to us. Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, the ends of the earth. We could say: my city, my state, the United States and beyond. We start at home. All around you are people who don’t know or don’t care that Jesus died for their sins and wants to give them His forgiveness. You need look no further than your school, your workplace, or the next house over. Jesus wants you to tell what you have witnessed by faith—that Jesus died, rose, and ascended so that He is positioned to take that person by the hand and draw him or her into heaven.

You may not live your entire life where you are right now; you might go off to school, or get married and move to a new community. But wherever you go, you will be living among people who will need you to be a witness to them of the mercy that Jesus Christ offers. This is how the word of God spreads—it travels with us wherever we go.

But wherever you end up living, there is one other thing our text reminds you to do. Luke tells us, "They all joined together constantly in prayer." This is very important. It is all too easy to get out of the habit of regular worship after a big change in life. Whether one is confirmed, graduates from high school or college, gets married or moves to a new community, it remains important to gather with other believers regularly to worship God. The writer to the Hebrews says, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25). Coming to worship God is not an obligation, it is a privilege. When each worship service starts, God forgives you your sins. Next, He strengthens your faith through the Bible readings, the words of the songs, and the sermon. He promises to listen to your prayers, as you ask God to take care of your needs and the needs of those you love. On some Sundays, Jesus even gives you His own body and blood in Holy Communion, to build you up against the assaults of the wicked world we live in. The only things you give to God are an hour of time, and perhaps something in the collection plate. If you think about it, church services are much more about God giving to you, than about you giving to God.

Jesus is alive in heaven now, working for you—granting you forgiveness and preparing your final, eternal home for your arrival. May this truth live strongly in your heart, here today and wherever you may be tomorrow.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Devoted love

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7-8).

Many people have been willing to die to protect a good person. A Greek story tells of the loyalty between two friends, Damon and Pythias. The ruler of Syracuse had sentenced Pythias to death. Pythias begged to be set free for a brief time so that he could put his affairs in order. Damon pledged his life as a guarantee that his friend would return, and Pythias did indeed return before the time set for his execution. The tyrant was amazed at the deep devotion these two men shared, and was so moved that he begged to be included in their friendship.

Damon and Pythias were both good men, and they were prepared to die for each other. But it is a much rarer thing to find someone who is willing to die for a person who is conceited, selfish, abusive, lazy, a liar, a cheat or a thief.

In this, Jesus is unique. He willingly went to the cross to suffer and die for people who hated Him, who had no respect for His Father’s Ten Commandments, who would in no way admit that they ever did anything wrong. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. He died for those who cried at the foot of the cross. He died for those who taunted Him as He suffered. He died for those who walked past on the way to market, and took no notice of Him. He died for those who lived so far away that they had not even heard of Him. He died for the criminals on the crosses next to Him, for the prostitutes of Jerusalem, and for the crooked politicians in the capitol. He died for me. He died for you.

And why did Jesus do this? Because in this selfless act, God demonstrates his own love for us. God our Savior…wants all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:3-4). By suffering and dying as He did, Jesus took upon Himself the wrath of God that our sins deserved. He suffered and died that we might be spared an eternity of dying in hell. And He performed this act of loving self-sacrifice for billions of people throughout history who in no way deserved such a gift of love. Jesus died for people you and I might never even consider spending time with, let alone dying for. Unlike us, His love is perfect.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Why go to church?

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' (Luke 18:13)

Listen to the words of a dead man, who was honest with himself and the world on the day that he died. His tombstone reads: "Anthony Benezet was a poor creature, and through divine favor was enabled to know it."

Why do people go to church? Some go out of habit—their parents always took them, and it just seems to be the right thing to do on Sunday mornings. Some go for the company—church is where you can have coffee and conversation with people you haven’t seen all week. Many go to church for a ‘feel good’ experience—they like praise music and an uplifting message. And then there are those who come to church because they know that they are sinners.

Psychologists want us to believe that it is unhealthy to have negative feelings about ourselves. Most people do not like to admit that they have done wrong, and resent being confronted about their mistakes. It isn’t much fun to go to church and be told that you are a sinner who needs to repent and be forgiven.

But it is a blessing from God to be forced to face the truth that you are indeed a sinner. It is a blessing, because until your problem has been acknowledged you cannot be cured. No compulsive drinker can be effectively treated until she admits that she is an alcoholic. Similarly, no person can find relief from the guilt of his mistakes until he admits that he has messed up.
God uses His Church to confront us with the truth of our sins so that He can begin the process of freeing us from them. It is only when we acknowledge our responsibility for our errors, and the guilt that they burden us with, that we can see the need for help. When we admit that we have dug ourselves into a hole that we can’t climb out of, we are then ready to listen to Jesus. It is only then that we are ready to appreciate His dying on the cross to make restitution to God the Father for all our mistakes. It is only then that we are ready to turn over our guilt to Him and receive His forgiveness. It is only then that we are ready to start following Jesus’ teachings as the only pattern for our moral judgements and decisions. It is only when we are blessed with the knowledge that we are sinners and that our Savior gave everything to rescue us, that we really find satisfaction in going to church.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Send me?

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory." At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."

Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for."

Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:1-8)

There is an old legend—and it is of course only a legend—that after Jesus had ascended into heaven, the angel Gabriel asked Him, "Who is going to carry on Your work of teaching and preaching now?" Jesus answered, "I have left it to John and Peter and Andrew and the others." Then Gabriel asked, "What if they don’t do it?" Jesus answered, "I have made no other plans."

Jesus left the preaching and teaching of His salvation in the hands of sinful men and women--it's a frightening thought! There is nothing more important than a person’s eternal destiny. Whether he or she spends eternity suffering pain and despair in hell or enjoying love and happiness in heaven, that decision is made right here, right now, while that person is still drawing breath. That person you work with every day—will he or she join you in heaven one day, or will death separate the two of you forever? Has someone told that person about Jesus, the Son of God who forgives sins and promises unending life in heaven? If not, that person has only hell to look forward to after death.

Who will God send to such a person, to tell them about Jesus? Is God sending you? But how could God leave such an important job in your hands? You’re not trained as a parochial school teacher. You didn’t go to school to be a pastor. You’re sure that you are not the best person to represent Jesus to that man or woman at work. You don’t think that you know the Bible well enough. You’re concerned that you won’t know what to say. You’re afraid that you’ll mess things up, and end up offending that man or woman—then they’ll never come to church.

If you feel this way, Isaiah could relate to you. He knew exactly what you’re feeling, thinking about doing God’s work. Isaiah knew that he was not worthy to stand in God’s presence, let alone represent God to the people; when God appeared to him, Isaiah said, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty." Isaiah knew that the things that came out of his mouth made him a sinner in the sight of God; in Mark chapter 7 Jesus says, "What comes out of a man is what makes him `unclean.' For from within, out of men's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man `unclean.' " Have you ever heard someone swear or curse, and another person replied, "Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" That is exactly how Isaiah felt when he was shown God’s throne room.

But Isaiah did not have to be afraid. God was well aware that Isaiah was a sinner, and God had a solution. We read, Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." Just like that, Isaiah had been purified. The moment that he admitted his sinful unworthiness to God, Isaiah was freed from the guilt and punishment that sin brings. This happened because he had been touched by a live coal from God’s altar.

An altar is where a sacrifice is made. An altar is a place where lifeblood is poured out to pay for the crimes of another person’s sins. And on God’s altar, the altar of the cross, Jesus Christ submitted to the greatest sacrifice of all time. Jesus, who was the actual Son of God, who was just as much God as His Father, poured out His lifeblood to pay for the crimes of another person’s sins—He died to pay the price for your sins. And because of Jesus’ sacrifice, what was true for Isaiah is also true for you: "See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for." Like Isaiah, we no longer need fear God’s anger at our unworthiness. Because Jesus died for us and has returned from death to life, He has earned the right to forgive our sins. When we tell Jesus that we are unworthy sinners, He touches us with His forgiveness and our guilt is burned away as if touched by a live coal.

What a tremendous blessing! What incredible relief, to know that it is just that easy—tell Jesus in all truth that you are unworthy to stand before him, and He will give you worth. This salvation is a gift beyond measure—there is no way we can earn it, no way we can possibly repay Jesus for it. We can only stand in awe of what God has done for us, as Isaiah stood in awe of God in His holy temple.

But God was not done with Isaiah. While Isaiah was standing there, forgiven, awestruck, overjoyed in the great gift of forgiveness that he had been given, the Son of God speaks for the Father, Himself, and the Holy Spirit. The Lord says, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" Our Lord did not give Isaiah orders. God forgave Isaiah his sins, and now He lets Isaiah know that there is work to be done on the Lord’s behalf. How will Isaiah respond to the offer to help do God’s work? Isaiah’s excited reply is, "Here am I. Send me!"

Yes, Isaiah was excited. God had done such a great thing for him—how could he not want to give his hands, his feet, his lips to God in thanks? Isaiah dedicated the rest of his life to God to serve as His representative to the people of the earth. Isaiah’s "thank you" to God was to become God’s prophet. But not everyone is called by God to be a prophet. In the New Testament, Saint Paul tells us that God’s people are given the ability to serve in a number of different ways: "It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Which brings us back to you, and the person that you work with. Who will tell that man or woman about the joy and peace that comes from being forgiven by Jesus? You know what that joy and peace is like. You have been confronted by God and wondrously forgiven, just as Isaiah was. There is excitement within you, a desire to serve God in some way just as Isaiah ached to serve. But your excitement is muffled by fear that you are not up to the job, that you will let God down. Your fear of failure stifles your enthusiasm to serve.

First of all, you must remember Jesus’ words: "do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you" (Matthew 10:19-20). Jesus has promised us that the Holy Spirit can use our mouths to be an effective witness to others, regardless of how well prepared we are. So don't be afraid to talk about Jesus at break time, or while working side by side on the procuction line. Don't be afraid to speak of your faith with a friend while you are out shopping or walking the greens at a golf course.

But there is one other thing that you can do. You can study God’s word. You can commit yourself to regular Bible study. You can take religion classes at a Christian college. No matter what skills you have, the Spirit can use you to do heaven's work--but why not make yourself even more useful to the Spirit than you are right now by becoming even more skilled in the ways of God?

Our Lord says to us, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" It is my prayer that, motivated by the joy in your heart that comes from having your sins forgiven, you will be moved to say, "Here am I. Send me!"

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Experiencing heaven

The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me' (Matthew 25:40).

One Sunday morning many years ago, a pastor delivered an excellent sermon on the joy yjat the saints experience living in heaven. The next day he met one of the members of his church who had a question. "Pastor," he said, "you delivered a very fine sermon on the bliss of heaven, but you neglected to show us where heaven is to be found. Can you perhaps tell me now?"

The pastor replied, "It affords me great pleasure. Only a few minutes ago I came from yonder height visiting a sheep of my flock. There in a small dilapidated cottage dwells a poor widow with two little children. All three are ill, confined to their beds. They are without fuel, flour, and other necessary things. I would advise you to buy at once a supply of food and then go to that distressed family and offer them your help. When you arrive, read them the 23rd Psalm and kneel down before their beds to pray with them for their speedy recovery, and if you do not find heaven, I shall pay the bill."

The parishioner did as advised by his pastor. The next day he returned to the clergyman, his face beaming with joy, and said: "Pastor, I have for 15 minutes experienced the happiness of heaven. I only wish that others would follow my example."

Would you like to get a small taste of heaven while here on earth? Heaven is where God shows His love. Visit someone laid up in the hospital or confined in jail. Take some food or warm clothing to a family that is destitute. Show these people that God cares about them, and that He has sent you to show that care. Pray with them, and read them the 23rd Psalm: The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006


If You, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared (Psalm 130:3).

It can be interesting to walk through a cemetery and see what is carved on the tombstones. Some people put a lot of thought into what final words they want to be remembered by. They treat the inscription on their headstone as one last chance to communicate something important to those who survive them.

In the New York area, there is a cemetery with a grave that has just one word on the headstone: FORGIVEN. There is nothing else—no name, no date of birth, no date of death, no words of praise for the dearly departed—just the one word, FORGIVEN. And yet what greater message could possibly be written on our own final resting-place?

FORGIVEN. There is no word of greater comfort and hope. The unknown person in that grave had faced the end of life at peace, knowing that all the mistakes of his life had been wiped out. He died with no lingering regrets. And that person passed from life without fear of death, because he knew that with his sins forgiven, the gates of paradise were open to him. He knew that death was not the end of life for him, nor was it the beginning of eternal punishment in hell; because he was forgiven, he had an eternity of joy to look forward to in heaven. For the man who is forgiven, death is only a doorway to a better place.

FORGIVEN. This word is the sum and substance of Christianity. Jesus came from His Father in heaven to suffer and die for our sins, so that we can be forgiven. Forgiveness characterizes our lives; not only do we have joy because Jesus offers us forgiveness, we also have better relationships with each other because Jesus teaches us to forgive as He has first forgiven us. Our entire lives are filled with the harmony that comes from being forgiven and forgiving each other.

Going back to that headstone near New York: to the word FORGIVEN, I would add one more word: FORGIVING. FORGIVEN and FORGIVING belong together, just as our Lord put them together when He taught us to pray, "forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." These two words tell any unbeliever who reads them why we delight in being followers of Jesus.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).

Happy Mothers’ Day! Today we rejoice in the gift of mothers. Today we show honor to a special group of women who have set aside personal pleasures and convenience for the sake of their children. For nine months, they traded comfort and mobility for nausea, a restricted diet, back pain and constant poking by needles, culminating in hours of almost unimaginable pain. After the exhausting joy of childbirth, they gave up months of uninterrupted sleep for middle of the night feedings. Nor did the sacrifices stop there. During the school years, these women found themselves juggling their kid’s activities with everything else that needed to get done each week. There were financial strains from providing food, clothing, and medical care, not to mention tuition fees, band instruments, and uniforms. And when the children finally moved off on their own, there were still long nights lying awake with worry—worry over each hardship or setback that grown child was facing, wondering what help an aging parent could offer.

Why? What motivates a mother to sacrifice so much of her life for her children? The answer, of course, is love. But I'm not talking about a mushy, sentimental love. I'm not talking about a love that depends on feelings of warmth and affection. The love of a mother is a devoted love, a love that makes a life-long commitment to another person. This kind of love will change a stinky diaper even at three in the morning. This kind of love will put dinner on the table even while a child is throwing a tantrum. This kind of love will buy a new set of clothes for school even though playing ball in the house broke the TV. A mother’s love cares for her children, even when they are not very likable.

A mother’s devoted love is an expression of the kind of love God has for us. Much of the time, we aren’t very likable. Our lives are filled with stinky messes that we are responsible for but can’t clean up. We throw temper tantrums when God doesn’t give us everything we want. And what God does give us we misuse and abuse, with the result that we often ruin His wonderful gifts. Yet God loves us anyway. Even though we sin repeatedly, He comes and fixes what we’ve messed up. Even though we yell at Him, He still sees that we are fed. Even though we misuse His gifts, He still makes sure that we have clothing and a place to live. Even though we are often unlikable, God continues to shower us with His love.

All the blessings of motherhood come as a gift from God. This even applies to conception. You sometimes hear about unplanned pregnancies or children coming about as the result of an accident. But from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as an accidental, unplanned, unwanted baby. Read the account of the very first pregnancy in human history: Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man" (Genesis 4:1). Eve said something profound—she realized that the only reason she was able to conceive and give birth was because God made it possible. Babies are only conceived by a miracle of God, as He combines the DNA of the mother and father and attaches a soul to this new human being. This means that a woman only becomes a mother if God chooses to bless her in this way. In other words, women only become mothers by God’s gracious action.

How great a blessing is motherhood? When Adam and Eve sinned against God and each other, they made it necessary for God to send a Savior into our world. Now God could have just caused Jesus to appear on earth as a grown man, ready to bear our sins on the cross and offer us forgiveness through the sacrifice of His blood. But instead, our heavenly Father caused a virgin to conceive and bear a son—thus Jesus was both Son of God and Son of Man. The Father wanted His Son to experience human life fully, so that He could be completely sympathetic to what our lives are like from cradle to grave. An essential part of that experience was to grow in the womb, experience the pain of childbirth, be held in a mother’s tender arms, grow up in a family with a Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters who loved and respected both God and each other, participate in all the things necessary for a family to function as a unit, and experience being loved not for what He did but for who He was. This had always been God’s plan for bringing up the children He gives us, and for Jesus to fully experience what it means to be human, He needed such a childhood. God chose the office of motherhood to bring the Savior into our lives.

It is a good thing that motherhood is such a blessing, because it certainly comes at a cost. When Adam and Eve were confronted over their sins, they made matters worse by trying to shift the blame instead of taking responsibility for their actions. As a result, each received a curse from God. In the case of Eve we read: To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children" (Genesis 3:16).

This is the curse of sin—pain. Pain, which if left untreated, eventually results in death. Because of our rebellion against God and His laws, our lives are filled with discomfort, fear and frustration. Even when the result is something wonderful, struggle through suffering is the price of achievement. Mothers struggle through suffering to bring children into the world; a successful birth makes all the pain worthwhile.

So it is with our salvation. Jesus came into this world for one purpose—to free us from the curse of sin so that we can be joyful members of God’s holy family, both here in life and after our bodies have experienced death. But sin made Jesus sweat to achieve His goal—sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:44). Sin made Jesus suffer unimaginable agony as His body was crucified by men and His soul was rejected by His Father for being stained with our sins. Jesus literally went through hell because of us to achieve His goal—a rebirth of humankind. Through the suffering and death of God’s Son, the curse of sin was taken from us and brought to an end in Him. When His suffering was over, the Lord rose from the dead, delivering new life for all who accept the invitation to follow Him. The new life produced through His pain is life free from guilt because forgiveness is ours for the asking; this new life is an everlasting life, because when we die, our Lord has promised to lift us from our graves just as He rose from His. In this world, no good thing can be achieved without going through pain, and the Savior went through the worst pain of all to give us the greatest gift of all—life eternal in His name.

God wants us to honor our parents; this is so important that an entire Commandment is devoted to the subject: Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 5:16). Did you catch that last part? Read it again: that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you. There is a clear implication here: if respect for Mom and Dad goes away, society will be harmed; life in such a country will not go well. If children grow up having no respect for their parents, they will not respect their teachers either. As the years go by, their disrespect will extend to civil authorities, religious authorities, even to a husband or wife who would dare suggest that they might on occasion be wrong. And if respect for Mom and Dad does not exist, how can a child grow up respecting the God who provided life through those parents?

Are there mothers who fail their little ones? Certainly. There are women who abuse their children or neglect them or even abandon them. There are women who are so emotionally cold and distant or preoccupied with themselves that they are absent even though they live in the same house as the rest of their family. But we celebrate Mother’s Day anyway, because no matter what their failings, it was a mother who made your life possible by her willingness to give birth to you—even though every mother is a sinner, God still blessed you by her labors. And before you start wagging your finger at your mom, take a close look at yourself—how much unnecessary suffering have you caused her by doing something stupid and getting hurt as a result, causing her to worry or saddling her with another bill from the emergency room? How much needless pain have you inflicted by mouthing off or yelling at her or telling her lies? How much grief are you responsible for because you stole from her or treated her possessions carelessly? How many times have you been so wrapped up in your own little world that you didn’t see the pain behind her eyes or realize how lonely she has been since you started a life outside of her home? The fact is, we are all sinners, and we all need Jesus’ help to forgive and love each other as we should.

So thank God for your mother. Tell your Mom how much she means to you. Back up your words with actions—spend time together talking or walking or doing something that she loves. Offer your hands to do the things she hasn’t the strength to do on her own, offer your feet to run the errands she just doesn’t have the energy for. Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. That’s the way mothers show their love; that’s the way God shows His love to you.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Love one another

All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another (John 13:35).

In the decades following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the love His followers showed for each other was noted by many. The famous Roman lawyer Marcus Minucius Felix became a convert to the faith, and he wrote the following words about the Christians of his day: "They loved one another, even before knowing one another." Of course, there were unbelievers who scoffed at what they saw of Christian behavior; Lucian, who also lived at that time, wrote, "Their Master has made them believe that they are all brethren."

Our Christian love for each other is otherworldly. True expressions of the love of God seem heavenly to some and ludicrous to others. Lucian was a member of a society where rich politicians were far better than poor farmers, and even farmers were better than wretched slaves. And certainly no foreigner could ever be considered the equal of a citizen of the Empire! To his way of thinking, it was ignoring reality to claim that an immigrant and a native-born Roman had anything in common. Christians were fools to treat the poor and the rich alike; it gave the powerless nothing but the illusion of self-worth, while it deceived the powerful into willingly giving up their rights of privilege for no good reason.

But although he lived in the same culture, Marcus Minucius Felix saw things differently. He was amazed and delighted that Christians showed genuine love for each other, even before they knew each other well enough to realize who was rich and who was destitute. To the Christians, wealth and social position meant nothing; they knew that in Jesus’ eyes all souls are of equal value. Saint Peter said, I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:34-35).

Jesus said, all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And it is true. The visible bond of accepting love identified people as Christians just as surely to Lucian as to Felix; even unbelievers can see that people united by non-judgmental love must be followers of Jesus. This is why we Christians must make every effort to love each other and care for each other, regardless of our backgrounds; when we spend our time criticizing each other and fighting among ourselves, we are not showing the world who we belong to.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Flying high

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:29-30).

You have watched kites flying in the wind. Would you say that the kite string is a burden, something that weighs the kite down? No, the string is there to control the kite. A kite will not fly unless it is in partnership with a string. The string and the kite are yoked together. You cannot cut the string and expect the kite to soar up into the heavens; when the restrictive string is cut, the kite will crash into the ground.

In the same way, the yoke given to us by the Lord Jesus is not burdensome. When we become yoked together with our Lord, we are restricted from enjoying sinful pleasures. But if we let go of Jesus’ yoke, we will not soar up to the heavens; rather, uncontrolled sin will dash us to our graves. We cannot fly unless we are tethered to our Lord Jesus, who keeps us up in every kind of weather, on good days and when life becomes stormy. Living life under Jesus’ gentle but firm control is not burdensome, it is exhilarating! With Jesus in control, we know that we are safe from sin, death, and the attacks of the devil.

A kite string is very light; held in your hand, the string weighs only ounces. Yet that small amount of material can keep the kite aloft indefinitely. The yoke that Jesus lays on us is similarly light; it is light because in our relationship with the Lord He does most of the work, just as the person holding the string does most of the work in keeping the kite flying. He died for us; He forgives us; He builds faith in us; He strengthens us; He encourages us; He heals us; He protects us; He lifts us from our graves and takes us to heaven. And what do we do? We thank Him for our vibrant flight through life, tethered by His Law and Gospel. We invite others to come and meet Him. We help each other as we have the opportunity. That’s all we do, and in even that small amount of work, the Lord is busy supporting and encouraging us as we offer love in response to His love.

The yoke of being under Christ’s control is easy, because that control keeps us soaring through life; it is only by being connected to the Savior that we are kept from crashing into the eternal blackness of the grave.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Noble character

When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, " he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men (Acts 17:1-12).

Let’s imagine that we lived 2,000 years ago in ancient Greece. Spring has come and it’s time to think about your summer vacation. If you were to go to a travel agent, where would he recommend that you go? Well, Greece can get pretty hot in the summer, so a seaside city would be a good choice—as a matter of fact, Thessalonica might be a nice destination. Thessalonica not only received the benefit of sea breezes, it was the capital of the province of Macedonia, the largest and most prosperous city in the area, with 200,000 residents. There would be lots to see and do there.

This all sounds great, but you have one concern: you and your family are Christians, and you know that at this time in history, Christian congregations are few and far between. So you ask the travel agent about opportunities for worship in Thessalonica. The agent shakes his head. "Thessalonica has some Christians, but not very many", he says. "If fellowship with a strong Christian community is important to you, the nearest place you could go from Thessalonica would be Berea. But I have to warn you, Berea isn’t much to see; it’s a smaller city about 50 miles south of Thessalonica, and it isn’t even on a major road. Are you sure that Christian worship is really an important part of your vacation?"

It’s interesting—Thessalonica was a major city, a hub of trade. Thessalonica would have been a great place for Paul and Silas to establish a large, active church. There was a very large population. There were traders and travelers coming and going every day. Thessalonica could have been a center for mission work throughout northern Greece. But things didn’t work out that way. Some people did come to faith, but not in the numbers that Paul and Silas hoped for. It didn’t take long for opposition to rise up and force the apostles out of the city.

The problem was the community of Jews living in Thessalonica. They became jealous of Paul and Silas. They became jealous because they had built their lives around worldly priorities. The Jews of Thessalonica valued status, influence, popularity. In other words, they needed to feed their egos every day. Then along came the apostles, and suddenly people in town were listening to these two strangers. Their message was an attractive one, one that did not discriminate between man and woman, between Jew and Gentile. Their message was not about how to get ahead in society, but how to experience forgiveness and love. Their message was not about influencing others, but about serving others.

Paul and Silas were teaching about Jesus, the Son of God. The apostles were teaching that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Scriptures, Scriptures that God had instructed holy men to write over the course of more than a thousand years. These Scriptures told that all people are born rebellious, hostile to God and anyone else in authority over them. These Scriptures also said that God loved each and every rebellious person, just as a father loves his son in spite of the boy’s bad behavior. But God is more than our heavenly Father—He is also the king of creation, and no king can tolerate rebellion against His rule. Rebellious behavior must be punished, so that the kingdom can be a place of perfect happiness for its citizens. No man or woman could survive God’s just punishment, because rebellion is punishable by death; so Jesus, the perfectly obedient Son of God, volunteered to stand with rebellious mankind as one of us in order to take God’s death sentence in our place. Jesus, the Obedient One, was punished for our rebelliousness. Jesus gave up His life so that when we die, we will not face an angry heavenly king who will throw us into hell for being rebels. Jesus rose from the dead to prove that we no longer need to fear death; when we ask Him, He is happy to forgive us for our rebellious ways so that when we die, we will face a loving Father who will welcome us into heaven as His beloved children.

The Scriptures had promised that the Son of God would come and do all these things; now, Paul and Silas told the people that the promises had indeed been kept. Jesus had lived, died, and returned to heaven alive once more. God, the king to be feared, was also God, the Father to be loved and depended on--when a person loved and trusted in His Son Jesus. This message of loving reconciliation was winning the hearts of people—winning them away from the Jews. So the Jews were jealous. And because of their jealousy, the Jews were not interested in listening to the Gospel. They were not interested in checking for themselves to see if Jesus really had fulfilled the Old Testament writings. All that the Jews cared about was that they were in danger of becoming ‘old news’. And so they rounded up some young toughs who had too much time on their hands and incited a riot in order to make the apostles look bad. The two apostles had come to teach the Thessalonians about the freedom that Jesus brings, but they had to post bond to move freely themselves.

But Berea was a different story. This city, isolated from commerce and the ways of the world, welcomed the apostles. Saint Luke tells us that they were of more noble character than the Thessalonians. In the first place, the Jews in this city were not wrapped up in feeding their egos. These Jews held to the teachings that God had given to them in the Scriptures. These Jews gave first priority to reading God’s word and trying to thank God for His loving care by loving each other and their Gentile neighbors. Since their focus was on God and their neighbors instead of themselves, they did not become jealous of Paul and Silas when they brought the Good News to Berea. Instead, they received the Good News eagerly. But the Bereans were not blindly trusting. They listened to the apostle’s claims that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of Scripture, but they also tested the truth of the apostles’ words by examining the Scriptures themselves to make sure that Paul and Silas were accurately representing God. The Bereans were so interested in the promises of the Gospel that they met every day to listen and study, to make sure that they were hearing God’s own truth.

This is what made the Bereans of noble character: they built their lives around God’s word, they made sure that it was taught rightly in their midst, and they took delight in what God was doing for them through His Son Jesus. The Bereans did not take their religion for granted. They did not measure its worth in terms of political influence or social acceptance. The Bereans treasured God’s promises because they knew that God’s kingdom is eternal, while the kingdoms of earth are temporary. Living to please politicians and social cliques will only yield short-term rewards; living in the promises of God extended through Jesus Christ will result in unending pleasures and peace.

So I ask you: are you a Thessalonian, or are you a Berean? Do you take your Christianity for granted, or do you build your life around God’s word? Do you go to church because you feel that you have to, or do you attend because you know that church is where God gives to you—gives you forgiveness, peace and life through His words and through His sacraments? Do you go to church just to listen, or do you also study God’s word so that when you hear false teachings, you can immediately know them for what they are? Are you a Thessalonian, or are you a Berean?

If you are a Berean, then I thank God that you are, because the Church needs more people like you—you are a blessing from God. But if you are afraid that you might be a Thessalonian, remember what Jesus said: "God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him" (John 3:17). Jesus did not come to condemn you failing to be the kind of person that you ought to be; Jesus came to make you a Christian. All true Christians—all who trust in Jesus alone for rescue from eternal death—will inherit heaven as children of the heavenly Father. Saint Luke singled out Berea as an example to us all, but don’t forget that people were saved in Thessalonica too.

It is my prayer that in your life you may become more and more like the Bereans—building your life around the word of God, receiving His gifts of Word and Sacrament with eagerness, and studying the promises that He has made to you, that your faith may be secure.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

America: blessed by God?

Righteousness exalts a nation (Proverbs 14:34).

During the days of Britain’s greatest influence around the world, a chieftain from Africa came for an audience with the queen. He asked her what the secret of Britain’s greatness was. In response, the queen handed him an English translation of the Bible; she said, "Here is the secret of Britain’s greatness."

Today, Britain has no vast overseas empire. Is it a coincidence that in England, less than 8% of the population goes to church any more? A study of the decline in church attendance suggests that by the year 2030 there will no longer be Christian churches in England—the same England whose king, in the year 1611, authorized the publication of the much-beloved King James Version of the Bible.

In the Book of Judges, God shows us what happens to countries that abandon God; each time that the Israelites started ignoring the Lord, tragedy befell the nation—foreigners brought violence and death to the Israelites in their own country, in their own cities, in their own homes. Because the people had abandoned God, God stopped defending their nation from its enemies.
I fear that same future for America. We have allowed judges into positions of power who have legalized abortion and gay marriage, who have removed God from courthouses and schools. We have elected politicians who put money and personal power ahead of God-pleasing morality. Nation-wide, attendance at Christian worship services continues to shrink, while non-Christian groups like the Mormons, the Islamics, and followers of New Age mysticism gain members.

Look at our country today. Under constant fear of terrorist attack. A struggling economy. An educational system that has deteriorated to tenth place in the world. Washington D.C., our capitol, has the highest murder rate of any city in the nation. We are constantly facing the problem of prisons being overcrowded. America didn’t used to be like this. What has changed since the end of WWII, when our country was riding high? Could it be that God has stopped protecting us because as a nation we are increasingly abandoning Him?

I fear that it may be so.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The nature of false "gods"

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

A man was travelling through China on a business trip. One night he was having trouble sleeping, so he got up and opened his window for a breath of fresh air. It was a clear night and the moon was shining brightly. As the man looked out into the courtyard, the moonlight enabled him to see a row of carvings depicting ancient Chinese gods. Even in the cheery light of day the faces were hideous and terrifying; but at night the baleful moonlight and dark shadows only served to magnify the horror that they aroused in his heart. He had a hard time getting back to sleep.

The so-called gods of all heathen religions are ultimately terrifying, each in their own way. The gods of ancient Egypt had the heads of animals. The gods of the Aztecs demanded human sacrifice. The gods of ancient Greece were given to fits of rage, dangerous jealousy, drunken orgies and sexual depravity. Some religions teach their followers to kill unbelievers as a way to please their god. Other religions teach that the only way to enjoy eternal happiness is to first find some way to make yourself perfect. And the religion of atheism teaches that life has no meaning at all; you live a life of suffering and then you die.

These religions are not built on love. Where is the love if you are frightened of your god? Where is the love when your god orders you to kill? Where is the love when your god tells you to find your own way to paradise? Where is the love when you are told that your life is an accident of evolution and has no meaning or purpose beyond food and sex and sleep?

Only the Christian God is a God of love. Only God the Father loved us so much that He sent His perfect Son to die for us, so that we can be forgiven for angering Him with our misspent lives. Only Jesus Christ offers us everlasting life with Him as a gift, with no demand that we do anything to earn it. Only the Holy Spirit offers us the hand of God to lift us from confusion and despair and help us to live lives of purpose, showing God’s love to those who don’t know Him. Only the God of the Bible, the Triune God, offers true contentment and everlasting happiness.

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