Thursday, June 29, 2006

God-pleasing religion

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).

A former missionary to India once told of an experience she had there in caring for a critically ill man. She had needed help in getting this person to a hospital, so she approached two "holy men" who were sitting nearby, intoning their devotions. She said that she would never forget the fire of resentment that blazed up in the eyes of one of these men as he replied: "We? We are holy men. We never do anything for anyone."

What a sad and distorted concept of holiness. This kind of thinking reflects a holiness of "purging". People purge themselves of stress through steam baths, purge themselves of negative thoughts through meditation. Purging is done to free yourself from the things in your life that make you unhealthy.

The problem with improving yourself through purging is that it isolates you. Steam baths and meditation will not free you from stress and negative thoughts if you are in the company of someone who is needy or a complainer. To achieve your self-improvement goals by purging, it is best that you be by yourself.

But living alone in a quest for inner perfection does not meet God’s standards for holy living. Through James our Lord tells us, Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. From God’s perspective, godly living involves two things: we are to keep ourselves pure of being polluted by this evil world that we live in, but we also are expected to come to the aid of those people who are dying from the pollution of sin.

There is only one antidote for sin-sickness: forgiveness from Jesus, the Son of God. Only His forgiveness gives us true freedom from dying in the pollution of sin. And what makes this especially wonderful is that Jesus gives us this cure for free—we don’t have to purge ourselves, Jesus does it for us at our request! Nor does this cure isolate us; since Jesus has done the work of purging us from sin, we can devote our energy to taking His offer of help to others.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Zigzagging through life

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14).

There is a parable for us in the story of a farmer whose dog followed him into town one day. As he was hitching his horse and buggy to a post in front of the general store, the storekeeper saw how hard the dog was panting, and criticized the farmer for making the dog run all the way while he rode in the wagon. The farmer responded, "That dog’s not tired from following me to town. What tired him out was all his foolish zigzagging. There wasn’t an open gate, a hole in a fence, or a tree stump that he did not explore. He is tired from zigzagging all over the place."

That’s the way far too many people live. They zigzag from one diversion to another, from one pleasure to another, from one thrill to another. They wear themselves out, but have no real idea of where all their running around is taking them. Late in life, the famous poet Robert Burns concluded that the biggest misfortune of his life was that he lived with no clear direction.

Jesus leads us along a narrow road to heaven. Satan knows that he cannot come onto that road and forcibly snatch us away from our Lord’s protection, so instead he sets up distractions off to the side of the road to catch our attention and tempt us to wander. Some temptations lure us into dangerous places where we get stuck and cannot free ourselves to return to Christ’s way. Some temptations are spread out by Satan in such a way that they draw us from one to the next, gradually leading us further and further away from the road to heaven, until we finally lose sight of it altogether and have no idea how to get back. And sometimes the devil spreads so many temptations along our way that, like the farmer’s dog, we get exhausted checking each one out, until we are too worn down to follow our Savior any more.

Like the farmer, Solomon calls such behavior foolish. The pleasures that Satan offers never live up to their hype; they just tease us enough to keep looking for more. But all that pursuing temptations results in is exhaustion, confusion, and despair. Jesus wants us to follow Him, because He knows the safest, most direct way to real happiness. You wander from His side at your peril.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Mercy and sacrifice

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.

While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and `sinners'?"

On hearing this, Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:9-13)

In this lesson, we see that once again the Pharisees ‘just didn’t get it’. There was the Messiah, right in front of them, and they couldn’t understand why He was doing what He was doing. Yet Jesus did not turn His back on the Pharisees; He wanted them to believe in Him. So Jesus gave them this instruction: But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' Jesus tells them to reread God’s words spoken through the prophet Hosea, and really listen to what those words say. If the Pharisees can understand these words, they’ll understand what Jesus’ work is all about.

Jesus issues this challenge to us as well. But go and learn what this means: `I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' That is what we will attempt to do in this devotion.

We start with looking at sacrifices. The Old Testament is filled with them. As a matter of fact, God even commands some sacrifices; in Exodus 20:24 He told His people, "Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle." Sacrifices were made for two chief reasons. Some sacrifices were offered to God as a way to thank Him for His gifts, especially for the gifts of children and good harvests--these were called Thank Offerings. But the most important sacrifice was the Sin Offering. Whenever an Israelite committed a sin, he had to bring an animal to the priests to be sacrificed. The sinner touched the animal to symbolize that his sins had been transferred to it. Then the animal was killed and the blood poured out on the altar of God. This spilling of blood settled the penalty for sin, because the penalty for sin is death. By the means of sacrifice, an animal died in the sinner’s place. A sinner who did not offer a sacrifice to repent was cast out and considered to be the same as an unbeliever, subject to God’s judgment for his sins.

The point of offering a sacrifice was to either ask God to forgive sins, or to thank Him for His generous mercy. But as the years went by, the Israelites began to take God for granted. Instead of offering sacrifices out of repentance or gratitude, most of the people ended up bringing sacrifices as part of their regular routine. Going to God’s temple was no longer something that they wanted to do; it became something that they did to ‘keep God happy’ since He had commanded sacrifices to be made. God intended sacrifice as a way to build a relationship of caring love with His people, but the Israelites turned it into nothing more than a duty of the Law.

It is because the Israelites no longer saw God’s merciful love in sacrifices, that God eventually said, "Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me" (Isaiah 1:13).

At its heart, the Sin Offering was always about mercy. But when the Israelites could no longer see God’s offer of mercy in the sacrifice, God made the point more clearly: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." The sacrifice was the means by which mercy was given. The Israelites got wrapped up in paying attention to the means, but forgot about the mercy. Sacrifice without mercy is meaningless.

So what is mercy? Mercy is an act of compassion. In fact, mercy is an act of compassion that is not deserved. We usually think of mercy in connection with war—when one side has lost, they beg the other side for mercy. The leaders of the losing nation know that their conquerors could come in and destroy everything, and would feel justified in doing so because of their own casualties and war expenses. By asking for mercy, the losing nation asks the winners to put aside their anger and pain, and instead show compassion to the hurts of the loser. That is mercy.

Mercy is what God shows us. We have angered God with our sins, and we deserve His punishment. But instead God puts away His anger, and out of love for us shows us compassion. In the Old Testament, He did this by allowing the Sin Offering to remove the guilt for our sins. But the New Testament is about the ultimate Sin Offering, Jesus the Son of God. Jesus was sent by His Father to be our Sin Offering, our one and only sacrifice. We touch Jesus through the water of holy Baptism, through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper; we speak to Him through our prayers. When we ask Jesus to forgive us, the guilt of our sins is transferred to Him. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, died for those sins and everyone else’s sins, on the Cross of Calvary 2,000 years ago. His cross became God’s altar, and His holy blood was poured out on behalf of all human sin. Saint Peter writes, "For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God" (1 Peter 3:18). And Jesus rose alive from the grave of our sins, to prove that there is no sin left that hasn't been atoned for. Jesus’ sacrifice is complete; no other sacrifice will ever be needed again.

Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s mercy to us. But that mercy is given to us along with an obligation—God expects that His mercy will be the centerpiece of our lives. When God said, "I desire mercy," He meant two things. Of first importance, God wants us to seek His mercy. The Israelites were supposed to seek God’s mercy through sacrifices, but they turned sacrifices into a work they did, thinking that the work of sacrifices would please God. To prevent that mistake from happening again, Jesus did everything for us when He sacrificed Himself—there is nothing that we can do to get our sins atoned for except to trust in Jesus as our Sin Offering. When God says "I desire mercy," He is telling us to come to Him for mercy, for forgiveness, for a chance to start over again, our mistakes forgotten. And this is not a once a week thing, this is an every day, every hour coming to God. Is there an hour of the day where you do not entertain one single, selfish, sinful thought? Of course not. God wants us to be asking Him for mercy all day long, every day.

With God’s mercy lifting the burden of our guilt and giving us a fresh start, we are prepared to offer Jesus’ mercy to others. Here is where the Pharisees did not understand Jesus. They could not understand how Jesus could ‘lower’ Himself to show care and concern for people who were obviously living in sin. But Jesus tells the Pharisees that a doctor invests his time with the sick. Jesus’ point is that everyone who has experienced God’s mercy ought to be sharing that mercy with those in need of it. We do this by speaking about what Jesus did for sinful people. We do this by forgiving people who have hurt us, instead of carrying a grudge. We do this by visiting the sick and those in jail, giving aid to the poor, and lending a shoulder to those who are depressed. This, too, is what God meant when He said, "I desire mercy." God desires us to reflect His mercy to those who surround us in our lives. That’s what Jesus wanted the Pharisees to do, and it is what He wants us to do.

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings (Hosea 6:6). God was telling His people through the prophet Hosea that He wanted more from them than just showing up at church, listening politely and putting something in the plate. God is not satisfied when His people think of Him only as a weekly obligation. True worship of God is not confined to the Sanctuary of a church. God desires mercy, He desires to be acknowledged in our lives. God wants us to put Him in the center of every decision that we make. God wants our lives to reflect the fact that He defines our very existence. God wants us to acknowledge before everyone that He is our Maker, our Savior, and our Guide through life to heaven.

Have you built your life around Jesus? Is worship in church something that you look forward to as an amazing opportunity to receive the mercy of our God? Is Jesus’ mercy obvious in everything you say and do throughout the week? It is safe to say that everyone has room for improvement in this area. But mercy starts with God. Because of Jesus, every day, every hour can be a fresh start, freed from the guilt of the mistakes that we’ve made. Because of Jesus, we can find joy in life where before there was only regret. Because of Jesus we can believe in mercy, and offer mercy to everyone around us.

Each of us is a sinner. It was for each of us that Jesus came to offer the gift of mercy. Jesus said, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Jesus came for you. His mercy lives in you. May that mercy gladden your heart, and the hearts of everyone you meet.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Valuing Christianity

Gather together…you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those…who pray to gods that cannot save (Isaiah 45:20).

At an international gathering in New York, a young American struck up a conversation with a cultured young woman from Burma. When he asked about the religion of her country, she told him that most of her people were Buddhists. The young American casually said, "Oh, well, I don’t suppose that matters much. All religions are about the same anyway." The Burmese woman stared him in the eye and replied, "If you had lived in my country, you would not say that. I have seen what centuries of superstition, fear and indifference to social problems have done to my people. We need the truth of Christianity. When I became a Christian, it cost me something. I suffered loss of friends, income, and social standing. If your religion had cost you more, it might mean more to you, too. My country needs Christ."

Germany was the home of the Protestant Reformation; today its churches stand mostly vacant. England produced the much-beloved King James Version of the Bible; today scarcely 8% of the population attend worship to hear God’s Word. At the turn of the last century, America led the world in sending out missionaries; today, Christian churches around the world have identified America as a mission field. What has happened?

The church has always thrived when it is hard to worship. Communist nations like The USSR and China tried to stamp out Christianity, and the church has grown stronger in those countries. It has been a huge challenge to translate the Bible into the many languages of the African continent and get the Good Book into isolated villages, but Christianity is a vibrant, growing faith in that part of the world.

But in Europe and America, things are different. Free and easy access to Bibles and churches seems to have resulted in people taking these blessings from God for granted. I have seen Bibles gathering dust in used bookstores. The thought that God’s word could be so casually treated would shock Christians living overseas! In many countries between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, Christians risk arrest and beatings by going to church, while in our country people feel as if they are making a sacrifice by attending worship once a month!

God does not take us for granted—He offered up the life of His only Son to save us from living in misery and dying in eternity. Let us not take that sacrifice for granted.

Earning God's favor

When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy (Titus 3:4-5).

Have you ever heard of a do-it-yourself funeral? Some time ago, a 79-year-old newspaperman arranged such an event in Denver. The lips on the corpse in the casket were motionless on the day of his funeral, but the voice of the deceased man filled the air of the funeral home. Before his death he had recorded the message he wanted the people to hear at his funeral.

That Denver newspaperman may have been the first person ever to arrange a do-it-yourself funeral, but he was not the first to have a do-it-yourself religion. Throughout history, countless people have made only do-it-yourself preparations for their arrival in the afterlife. The sermon that they want to be preached at their funeral could probably be entitled "What a Good Boy Am I!" They took pride in their accomplishments and figured that they had certainly earned a place in Paradise.

The problem? God is not impressed by our accomplishments. The prophet Isaiah says all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). He said this because our efforts at doing good are always undercut by our inherent sinfulness. Sometimes our good deeds are done for the wrong reasons—to try and impress someone, or as an investment for calling in a future favor. Sometimes our good deeds are flawed by our inability to do a perfect job; how often are the things that you purchase completely free of any kind of flaw? And sometimes our good deeds are misguided; we don’t fully think out the consequences of our actions, and end up hurting or offending someone unintentionally. No, God has no reason to be impressed by our attempts to do good.

Thankfully, our ability to do good is not the criteria that God uses in deciding who to welcome into Paradise. In Titus we read he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. We are not saved by our actions; we only receive heaven by God’s willingness to forgive us for messing up our lives and the lives of others. When we go to Jesus with sorrow in our hearts and beg Him to forgive us, He is merciful to us, taking away the guilt of our sins through the blood He shed for us on the cross. We cannot enter heaven based on what we have done; we are welcomed into paradise based only on what Jesus has done for us.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ready for coming storms?

"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

"Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."

When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Matthew 7:15-29).

As hurrican season begins once again, the news media have been focusing public attention on the risk of losing home and business to storm damage. Many weather forecasters are predicting another active hurricane season, and the public is being warned to prepare. Images of last year's devastation are still fresh in the minds of many people.

Jesus uses this kind of imagery to teach about building wisely. Now, Jesus isn’t speaking of building houses; Jesus is talking about building your life. You know that the most important decision that you can make about building a house is choosing where to build. What kind of soil will give the best support for your building’s foundation? Jesus tells us that we should be even more concerned about what kind of base we build our lives on.

Let’s consider the ‘foolish man’ of Jesus’ illustration. Jesus said that he built his house on sand. What is this sand that Jesus talks about? Basically, people try to build their lives on three different kinds of sand. One popular kind of sand is the sand of false religion. This sand teaches different ways to find God and earn His favor. Some false religions teach that god is impressed by sacrifice; if you give up worldly pleasures like fancy food, sex, or the things that money can buy, god will be impressed by your devotion to him and will let you into paradise when you die. A variation on this is being willing to lose your life in a suicide attack, in order to impress god with your dedication to his goal of ridding the earth of the ungodly. Some even teach that if you live an exemplary life, you can eventually ascend to be a god yourself, in a future life.

Another popular kind of sand teaches that no one can really know who God is, or if He even really exists. But it doesn’t matter if God is real or not, because happiness can be found in other people. Love is all you need to be happy, and if love leaves a relationship, dump that relationship and find a new one. It doesn’t matter if sexual activity is part of marriage or not. Nor does the gender of your partner matter. It doesn’t even matter how many intimate relationships you juggle at the same time—the important thing is to find someone who will make you happy. A variation on this theme is the importance of having money, because money can buy good looks, fancy cars, and anything else that’s needed to attract a potential love partner.

A third kind of sand teaches that there is no God, so happiness must be found in the way that you live your life. You can be happy if you set goals for yourself and then achieve them, because you are proving that you are in charge of your life. Or you can be happy if you free yourself from all guilt and just be the kind of person that you want to be, regardless of rules or the feelings of others. A variation on this theme is recognizing that the world is an ugly, painful place, and that the best way to be happy is to escape the world through getting high or getting drunk—or if all else fails, by committing suicide.

What does it mean to build on these kinds of sand? Well, if you were reading carefully, you might have noticed a common theme: ME. How can I please god? How can I find love? How can I free myself from the aggravations of life that make me unhappy? The sand that Jesus warns us against building on is the sand called ME—my efforts, my wisdom, my feelings.

Jesus warns us about building on sand, because we face storms as we live our lives. We face illnesses and accidents. We face broken relationships and people who decide to hate us. We face people who try to use us for their own ends and then discard us when they’re through with us. We face poor harvests and job layoffs. We face our own inability to keep our promises and to meet our goals. We face the deaths of those we love, and we face the inevitability of our own approaching death. These are storms that can destroy a life, just as a hurricane can destroy a house. If a person has built his life on the sand of human strength and human wisdom, storms like these will tear his life apart and leave him with nothing but despair. The truth that such a person does not want to face is terrifying—no one is really in control of their life.

Thankfully, there is an alternative. Jesus said, Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. The rock that Jesus speaks of is He Himself! In Psalm 95 we read, "Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation." Jesus compares Himself to a rock, because a rock is strong, dependable, and unchanging—a perfect description of our Lord and Savior. Our Lord Jesus is strong—He is so strong that He could endure the damnation that our sins had earned while He hung on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was strong for us, because His love for us is strong—so strong that He would do anything, even die, rather than see us helplessly claimed by the Devil to be Satan’s playthings. Our Lord Jesus is dependable—we can depend on Him to forgive our sins, and we can depend on Him to love us. We can depend on Jesus to answer our prayers and to take care of our every need. We can depend on Jesus to bring a silver lining out of every dark cloud in our lives. Paul writes, "we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Romans 8:28). And our Lord Jesus is unchanging—He has always loved us, and He will always love us. Jesus is, indeed, the Rock of our Salvation.

How do we build on this Rock? Read again Jesus’ words: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. To build on the Rock, we must first listen to Jesus’ words. This is absolutely critical, because Paul tells us "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ" (Romans 10:17). To get faith, we must listen to the Word of God. Then, when we have faith, we have the righteousness of God that can only be found in Jesus: Paul writes, "This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe" (Romans 3:22). We don’t become righteous ourselves; it is Jesus who shares His righteousness with us. And because Jesus shares His righteousness, God finds us worthy of His love and His help. We can begin to build lives that can withstand stormy weather. Jesus enables us to make decisions in the building of our lives that will result in a strong, God-pleasing home. And when we mess up, making bad decisions that threaten to cause our lives to fall apart, Jesus brings us the promise of forgiveness and the opportunity to start over again. Paul writes, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16).

What a difference this makes in our lives! When bad weather comes, we are prepared for it. This is not to say that the storms of life will not cause some damage. We may lose some shingles, or have a window broken or a shutter loosened. We may cry tears of grief at the loss of a friend, or growl in pain at the hurt of betrayal, or toss and turn in our beds as we struggle with illness. The Devil, the world, and our flesh give us just as much grief as they do to those who foolishly built on sand. But even if life deals us some damage, our house does not collapse, our life does not fall apart. With Jesus’ help, we have built our lives on the Sure Foundation, the Rock of our Salvation. When we are weak, we know that God will give us ways to serve Him that don’t require our strength, only His. When we are betrayed, we know that God will help us to forgive, just as He has forgiven us. When we lose a loved one to death, we have the assurance that we will be reunited one day in heaven, standing together with our Savior. When we build on the Rock we can sleep securely at night, knowing that nothing can destroy our lives.

This is the difference between the foolish man and the wise man. The foolish man builds his life on the teachings and promises of the Devil, the world, and his own flawed wisdom. When the winds of earthly troubles begin to blow, the foolish man cannot rest peacefully because he fears that everything he has accomplished will fall apart around him. But the wise man builds his life on the teachings and promises of Jesus alone. When the lightning begins to flicker in the distant night sky and the echoes of thunder reach his ears, the wise man can rest securely knowing by faith that his life is built upon a sure foundation, and that Jesus will never let him fall.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


The suffering you sent was good for me, for it taught me to pay attention to your principles (Psalm 119:71).

A young man working for a recording company received an important promotion. The man he was replacing was retiring after a brilliant career in the music business. The young man met with his predecessor to find out the secret of his success. The old man explained simply: "two words: right decisions." "How do you make right decisions?" asked the young executive. "Experience," came the terse reply. But the young man persisted, "And how do you get this experience?" "Two words," answered the retiring man, "wrong decisions."

I once read that experience is the worst teacher—it gives you the test before you’ve learned the lesson. Life is full of problems and aggravations because we are constantly faced with situations we are not prepared for, and we find ourselves scrambling to do the best we can with too little knowledge and not enough skills. No amount of schooling can prepare you for every situation that you will face in life, and some problems come upon you so quickly that you do not have the time to carefully determine the best course of action.

What a blessing to have God on our side! He is as close as a quick whispered prayer; whenever my telephone rings, I say a quick prayer as I am reaching for the handset: "Jesus, please give me wisdom to say the right thing!" Our Lord is willing to guide and support us in everything we say and do; the problem is, we often forget to ask Him to help us until after we have impulsively made a bad decision.

Thankfully, our Savior helps us in these situations as well. Jesus came to earth to make right what we make wrong. We make foolish decisions because we are imperfect; Jesus lived a perfect life for us, and He died to make compensation for all the times that our foolishness has angered God. Because of Jesus, we can be forgiven for messing up; because of Jesus, a new start at doing it right is available to us from the only Person who understands what doing things right really means. All we have to do is ask.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Paralyzed by fear

I will put my trust in him (Isaiah 8:17).

A traveler was driving past a farm during harvest season, and was surprised to see the farmer sitting on his porch, casually smoking a pipe instead of working in the field. The traveler approached the farmer and asked, "How’s your cotton coming?" The farmer replied, "Didn’t plant any—‘fraid of the boll weevil." "Well," the stranger went on, "what about your corn?" Again came the response, "Didn’t plant any—‘fraid of the drought." "And your potatoes?" the visitor asked. "Scared of tater bugs" was the reply. Finally the stranger asked, "Well, what did you plant?" "Nothing", replied the farmer, "I just played it safe."

Fear can paralyze us, prevent us from moving forward. People who procrastinate making a big decision are often delaying because of fear—"what if I make the wrong decision, and there’s no way to take it back?" They are like the man of whom it was said: "He made no mistakes, he took no wrong roads, he never fumbled the ball; he never went down ‘neath the weight of a load--he simply did nothing at all."

This is a terribly sad way to live. It is a way of life empty of joy. But Christians need not live like this. We have Jesus’ promise that He will listen to our prayers and lend to us from His wisdom; when we take time to read God’s words in the Bible, meditate on them, and pray for a clear-thinking mind, we can make decisions with trust that the Lord will be guiding us. And even if we do make a bad decision, we know that Jesus died so that our mistakes can be forgiven; when we mess up, we have confidence that Jesus will forgive us and provide another opportunity to do better.

The only way to overcome fear is to have trust—trust that God has the power and the compassion to ensure that things will work out okay for us. Paul wrote, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). God’s wisdom is not limited like ours—He can always find a way to bring something good out of a bad situation. With Him on our side, we can face each decision with confidence that if Jesus has us by the hand, things will ultimately work out for the best. We can go ahead and live life without being paralyzed by fear.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Three in One

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14).

In the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave his final address to the Israelites before he died. One of the great truths of the Bible that Moses spoke by the power of God was this: "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4). Later in the same speech, Moses quoted God as saying, "See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me" (Deuteronomy 32:39). King David prayed: "How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears" (2 Samuel 7:22). To Isaiah, God spoke these words: "Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior" (Isaiah 43:11). In the New Testament, Saint Paul wrote, "Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith" (Romans 3:29-30). And James added, "You believe that there is one God. Good!" (James 2:19).

It is the clear teaching of Scripture that there is only one God, one Supreme Being of whom we stand in awe, one Lord whom we love. And yet, Scripture also speaks of God in the plural. In Genesis 1:26, God is recorded as saying: "Let us make man in our image." After Adam and Eve fell into sin, God said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Genesis 3:22). When mankind began building the Tower of Babel, we read: the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other" (Genesis 11:5-7).

Right from the beginning, Holy Scripture teaches us that God is one, yet God is seen as three different persons. At the creation of the world, God is present in all three persons. Saint John tells us, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (John 1:1-3). John is writing about Jesus, the Word of God made flesh. Jesus was with God in the beginning, and was involved in the creation of the world. And one more person was present as well—in Genesis we read, "Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters" (Genesis 1:2). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit were all involved in the creation of the world.

Jesus taught that God consists of three persons. In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, "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). He also told His disciples, "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). And all three persons of the Godhead were seen at Jesus’ baptism: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:16-17).

Furthermore, both Jesus and the Holy Spirit are just as much God as the Father is. Jesus said, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30). Matthew testified that Jesus is truly God when he wrote, The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" --which means, "God with us" (Matthew 1:23). Paul adds, "For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). The Holy Spirit is also God. In Acts 5:3-4 we read, Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit…You have not lied to men but to God." How can this be? How can there be three persons, yet only one God? Frankly, we don’t know. We don’t understand how God can be three yet one at the same time. Nevertheless, it is the clear teaching of Scripture. God expects us to believe what He has told us.

Many years ago, the great Christian theologian Augustine wrestled with this very question. One day, as he was walking along a beach, he saw a young boy with a bucket, running back and forth from the shore to pour water into a little hole in the ground. Augustine asked, "What are you doing?" The boy replied, "I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole." It was then that Augustine realized that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his small, finite mind. Augustine realized the truth of Moses’ words in Exodus 8:10, "there is no one like the LORD our God."

In 2nd Corinthians chapter 13, Paul speaks of the blessings that come from our three-in-one God. He concludes his letter with the words, "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." This blessing neatly summarizes how God shows His love for us through the three persons of the Trinity. We have but one God, yet He blesses us in three different ways!

God the Father blesses us by loving us. Love is not just an emotion, an affection that makes the heart feel all warm and fuzzy. Love is caring for others; love is active service. God loves mankind. God loves to create life, and God wants each life that He creates to enjoy perfection. However, Satan introduced imperfection into God’s perfect world, and we humans have been only too happy to wallow in our imperfections ever since. Thankfully, God the Father was not willing to let things rest there. The Father created us to be perfect—to perfectly love Him, and perfectly love each other. Our heavenly Father did not want us to suffer under the pain that imperfection brings into our lives, nor did He want us to spend eternity in Hell, the place set aside for all things imperfect and thus unacceptable for entry into God’s home. But the Father also knew that we had fallen into a hole that we could not climb out of; every imperfect act that we took to try and fix our imperfection only made things worse--imperfection heaped upon more imperfection. So God demonstrated His love by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, to live among us.

God the Son blesses us by showing us grace. The word ‘grace’ means ‘an undeserved gift’. We deserve nothing from God. It was God’s decision to create each of us in our mothers’ wombs—life is a gift we had done nothing to deserve. God created us to dedicate every moment of our lives to Him, yet we all waste the bulk of our time creating problems for ourselves and then trying to crawl out of the hole we’ve dug ourselves into—we don’t deserve Jesus’ help. God gives, and we waste--God doesn’t owe us anything. But because God loves us, Jesus gives us the undeserved gift of mercy, a chance to leave our mistakes behind and start over again with a clean slate. Jesus made such new starts possible for us by dying for our sins on the cross as our substitute. Because we are imperfect, God would have consigned us to Hell at our deaths—but Jesus endured the torments of Hell in our place, so that our imperfections could be disregarded by God. When Jesus rose from the grave, He rose victorious over all the imperfections of sin; when we come to Jesus asking for mercy, a fresh start, Jesus stands between us and His Father, hiding our imperfections with His perfection. With our sins hidden in Christ, we are assured that God’s eternal home will also be our eternal home. It is by the grace of the Son of God that we are saved from the damnation of our sins.

God the Holy Spirit blesses us with fellowship. Actually, the word ‘fellowship’ doesn’t fully capture what the Holy Spirit gives us. Some Bible translations say ‘communion’, and this might be a better word. Communion is about being in complete harmony and unity. The Holy Spirit brings us into harmony and unity with God, and with each other as well. He does this through the gift of faith. When we hear or read God’s holy Word, the Spirit sets to work within us, helping us to trust that what the Bible says is true—that God really does love us, enough to send his Son to show us His grace, His undeserved gift of forgiveness. It is only when we trust in God’s love and Jesus’ grace that we personally experience forgiveness, and when we do, we come to love and trust our gracious Lord. The more that we love and trust God, the more we want to please Him, and the more we will study His word and gather in His worship. The more that we study His word and gather in worship, the more the Holy Spirit builds faith within us. As our relationship with God grows, we begin to share His priorities, and we grow closer in communion with Him. And as other Christians slowly grow to share God’s priorities, we find ourselves joined together in common cause, and we have communion with each other as well. This communion—this unity of belief and priorities in life—is the blessing of the Holy Spirit.

We worship the Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is no other ‘god’ like Him. There is no other God that created you, that gave you the undeserved opportunity to leave your mistakes behind and start over again, that rescues you from loneliness by bringing you into fellowship with Him and millions of fellow believers all over the Earth. Because you believe in Him, you have been triply blessed. Now, may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


Be joyful always (1 Thessalonians 5:16).

Two men famous in English literature were both lame. Lord Byron was made bitter by his handicap; he brooded on it and allowed it to drive him away from God and society. But Sir Walter Scott never complained about being unable to walk. His writings show the optimism and gentleness that characterized his personality. It is not surprising that Lord Byron once wrote a letter to Scott, which read in part: "I would give my fame to have your happiness."

A wise person once told me that there is only one thing in your life that you can truly control—your attitude. Both Byron and Scott were famous writers; both men were unable to walk. One man was bitter, the other optimistic. What was the difference between these two men? Their attitude. Byron let his problems poison his outlook on life. Sir Walter Scott, however, made the decision to focus on the good things that filled his days; he was determined not to let his disability cost him his happiness.

When you wake up in the morning, you have a decision to make. You can go through the coming day doing the natural thing—you can react with anger and impatience when troubles get in your hair. Of course, your resulting foul temper will lead you to snarl at everyone around you, making their day miserable too, and you will go to bed frustrated and unable to sleep. Or, you can make a different choice—you can decide to focus on the blessings that God scatters throughout your day. You can be grateful that you woke up to another day of life, a day in which you can receive Jesus’ love and reflect that love to others. You can slide around in bed, enjoying the soft warmth of the sheets against your skin. You can savor the taste of a cup of coffee or a glass of juice. You can enjoy the blueness of the sky or the whiteness of the snow. You can appreciate the sound of people laughing. No matter what problems get thrown in your face, there are plenty of good things in your life to give your day joy, if you only look in the right place. When you make up your mind to live this way, your joy will inspire the people around you, and when you go to bed, you can drift off to sleep with contentment in your heart. You may not be able to control what happens in your life, but you can decide how you will respond. The choice is yours.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Passport to joy

Tell Aaron and his sons, `This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace." So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them." (Numbers 6:23-27)

When you travel abroad, one of your most valuable possessions is your passport. It allows you to cross from one country into another, and grants you all the rights and privileges of your homeland regardless of where you are. But perhaps the most important aspect of a passport is that it serves as proof of your citizenship; without that proof, you will not be allowed to enter your home country.

The blood of Jesus serves as our spiritual passport. When we pledge allegiance to Jesus, He shares His righteousness with us by sprinkling us with His blood, the blood that seals the New Covenant between God and man. That holy blood was offered by Jesus in compensation for our sins, and it washes away the guilt of everyone who accepts this precious gift from heaven. The result? We have Jesus’ name written on our hearts, proof positive that we belong to the Son of God and are citizens of His eternal kingdom.

This is important, because we are not truly citizens of this world. In Hebrews chapter eleven, after talking about some of the saints of the Old Testament, the writer makes this point: they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. Peter picks up this thought when he says, Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11). This is why Jesus’ passport is so important to us. We are strangers in a hostile foreign land. When an American is in trouble, his passport guarantees the help and protection of the ambassador; when a Christian is in trouble, our heavenly passport guarantees instant access to Jesus, God’s appointed representative, who will always help and protect us. Even more important, though, is having that wonderful passport on the day that we disembark from our journey through this life and ask permission to make our permanent home in God’s kingdom. With Jesus’ blood marking us as His own, the Son of God will welcome us with the words Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world (Matthew 25:34). But if we dare approach God’s chosen ambassador without that heavenly passport, we will be turned away with the awful words, I tell you the truth, I don't know you (Matthew 25:12). Only by having the name of Jesus written on our hearts will we be permitted to enter the glories of heaven, with a smile on our face and a song of joy on our lips.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Spirit of God

"Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?' Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned." (John 16:5-11)

When is the last time that you prayed to the Holy Spirit? If you are like most Christians, you probably can’t remember. We don’t pray to the Spirit very much. We pray to Jesus; He came to open the way to God, and we pray to Him to represent our needs before the Godhead. We also pray to God the Father, since He is the giver of life and of all good things. But it is only rarely that we pray to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it is because we don’t really understand what it is that He does.

In the verses quoted above, Jesus describes what the Holy Spirit does. Jesus says, "he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned." To properly understand Jesus, we must know what He meant by the word "convict". The Greek word used means ‘to show someone his error, to convince someone of the truth of his situation, to reveal or to make clear.’ Perhaps the best way to translate this word would be to say that the Holy Spirit’s job is to strip away all human delusions and show people things as they really are.

The first thing that the Holy Spirit does is to confront the people of the world about the reality of sin. Most people have no concept of what sin is. Some don’t believe in God, so they don’t worry about angering Him by disobeying Him. Others consider themselves to be spiritual, but believe that each person has to decide for himself what is a ‘right’ way and a ‘wrong’ way to live. And some people know that what they are doing displeases God, but they love their sin so much that they choose to risk God’s anger by continuing to live in their sin.

The Holy Spirit strips away human delusions about sin. The Holy Spirit confronts people with the harsh truth that there is indeed a God who created us and who will judge our lives. This God created every human being to live life believing in God and to serve God’s other children in love. When we ignore God and His intentions for our lives we anger Him, because ignoring God is sin, and God will not tolerate sin. When life ends, if we have ignored God, He will ignore us and bar us from the joys of heaven forever. When it comes to sin, God accepts no excuses, He cuts no deals, He makes no compromises.

When the Holy Spirit confronts a person with the unyielding truth of God’s Law, one of two things happens. Some people become angry at being told that their lives are unacceptable to God. They are so comfortable in their sins that they reject God’s claim of ownership over their lives. They deny that God exists, or that they are displeasing Him. To such people God says, "They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees" (Leviticus 26:43).

But other people react differently. When they hear that God is angry at their corrupt lives, they become fearful of God’s anger. Such people ask in their hearts, "What must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30) When the Holy Spirit finds this response in a human heart, He performs His second work: He strips away human delusions about how to please God, and reveals Jesus Christ.

It is natural for us to want to ‘earn’ heaven by our own good deeds. We are creatures of pride—we want to think that we can earn God’s favor, and that heaven is a reward for the ‘best of the best.’ All of the false religions created by sinful humankind emphasize living a holy life to earn eternal rewards. But the Spirit confronts us with the reality that true righteousness cannot be gained through our hard work; Isaiah 64:6 says, "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." Paul adds, "God credits righteousness apart from works" (Romans 4:6). The Holy Spirit takes the greatest joy in showing us that righteousness can indeed be ours, but only as a gift of God. When Jesus was asked, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:28). Jesus said this because man cannot make himself righteous; sin infests each of us until we die. It is Jesus Christ who is the Righteous One of God. When we believe that righteousness can be found in Jesus, when we trust that He is willing to extend His righteousness to us if we repent of our sins, "he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Jesus makes us acceptable to God by putting His righteousness over us like a coat; Isaiah 61:10 says, "he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness."

We are only acceptable to God when, by faith in Jesus, we share in His righteousness. This righteousness did not come cheaply. There was tremendous anger in God at being ignored by sinful mankind. But Jesus, the Son of God, suffered all of God’s anger so that we would not have to. Jesus suffered on the cross to satisfy God’s anger at our sin, and He died and rose so that when we die we too will rise from our graves, separated by death from the curse of sin forever. In Jesus, all sin is forgiven. That is why Jesus said of Holy Spirit "he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin…because men do not believe in me." In a sense, there is only one sin: not believing in Jesus. John 3:18 says, "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." If a person believes in Jesus, all his sins are forgiven through our Savior; but if a person rejects Jesus, the guilt of every other sin is added to the sin of unbelief.

The Holy Spirit reveals Jesus Christ as our only hope for righteousness and rescue from the eternal death brought by sin, but not everyone accepts this truth. Some reject salvation because they reject Jesus as the only way to heaven. Their misplaced pride does not allow them to accept the charity of God offered through Christ. But others are glad to hear the Good News of Jesus. In them, the Holy Spirit plants the seed of faith; He gives them the ability to believe that everything the Bible says about Jesus is true. Paul writes, "For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ…to believe on him" (Philippians 1:29). This is the Holy Spirit’s most joyful task—to build in the human heart saving faith in Christ .

The Spirit’s third task is to confront the people of the world with the truth that God judges righteously. For a long time, Satan and those who follow him have opposed God. Satan and his followers have worked tirelessly to persecute Christians, to get laws passed that prevent prayer in schools, to cause some foreign governments to declare Christianity an illegal religion. Satan and his followers have gotten our schools to teach that man evolved from animals instead of being created in the image of God; they have led our society to believe that truth and morality are up to each of us to define for ourselves.

Jesus has beaten Satan. When Jesus died on the cross, He died the death that would have sent us to hell and into Satan’s eternal control. When Jesus rose from the dead, He proved that Satan has lost control over the power of death, the power to claim us. Satan and his followers still harass us, still seek our souls for their own, but Satan cannot claim the soul of anyone who trusts in Jesus, because Jesus has proven His superiority over Satan.

For some, this is not good news. To those who reject Jesus in order to wallow in their sins, the Holy Spirit announces in no uncertain terms that they have allied themselves with the loser. Satan is condemned to eternity in hell, and those who prefer his priorities in life will join him there.

But for we who trust in Jesus, the reality of the Judgment is good news. It is good news, because we have the security of knowing that Satan cannot tear us away from our Savior; 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). And it is also good news because we do not need to fear God’s judgment of us. John writes, "Whoever believes in him is not condemned," and in Hebrews 10:17 God says: "Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more." We need not fear God’s judgment because of Jesus; John writes "if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 2:1-2). Because of Jesus, when we die we can look forward to unending happiness in the Kingdom of God. This is the truth about the Judgment that the Holy Spirit reveals to us.

It is surprising, after all, that we do not pray to the Holy Spirit more than we do. Although the Father created us and the Son died to remove the guilt of our sins, it is the Holy Spirit that brings salvation to us. It is the Spirit who points out our sins and our need for a Savior. It is the Spirit who shows us Jesus in all His glory and makes it possible for us to trust that Jesus can take us to heaven. It is the Spirit who reassures us that we need not fear God or death, so long as we have Jesus in our hearts. Without the work of the Holy Spirit, we would have no relationship with Jesus.

Perhaps we do not pray to the Holy Spirit because we never hear Him quoted in the Bible. We hear the Father quoted. We hear the Son quoted. But although the Holy Spirit is never quoted, He does speak to us. Every time the Bible is read, the Holy Spirit speaks—He speaks through the words of Scripture, which men wrote down under His supervision: Peter writes "Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 20-21).

It's okay not to pray to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit came to help us give glory to Jesus and His Father, so it is natural for us to pray to them more often. But never forget the work of the Holy Spirit, because without Him, you would still be lost in your sins instead of being a forgiven child of God.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Separation of Church and State

Righteousness exalts a nation (Proverbs 14:34).

"Every thinking man, when he thinks, realizes that the teachings of the Bible are so interwoven and entwined with our whole civic and social life, that it would be literally impossible for us to figure ourselves what that life would be if those standards were removed. We would lose almost all the standards by which we now judge both public and private morals; all the standards which we, with more or less resolution, strive to raise ourselves."

The words quoted above came from President Teddy Roosevelt. The man made an excellent point. Much is made these days of how religion should not impact our shared society, especially as it is expressed through government. There should be no room for prayer in school, no posting of the 10 Commandments in courthouses, no references to any sort of god in our pledges or on our money. But what would be the implications if we truly removed all religion from the public arena?

First of all, the government could no longer close their offices for Christmas. After all, by virtue of its very name, Christmas is the annual celebration of Christ coming into the world to save us from our sins. Government services should be available on weekends, because staying home from work on Saturday or Sunday are customs associated with weekly worship. Since our body of laws is built at least in part on the 10 Commandments, all public statutes must be scrapped and redesigned from the bottom up with the consensus of the American public. Trials could not begin with taking an oath on the Bible, and congress could not open with prayer. Since the cross is a symbol of Christianity, crosses would have to be removed from every cemetery operated by the government or any branch of the military. Veterans should not officially represent their units at religious funerals, nor should chaplains be allowed offices on military bases.

Ridiculous? Perhaps. But my point is this: religion is inherently a part of who we are. When people go to work, even in government offices, they cannot leave their religion at home on the table. Americans have been injecting their religious beliefs into the development of our society since this nation was founded. Our Constitution was designed to guarantee that the United States government would not force people to be Christians, Muslims or atheists, nor would it give any religion preferential legal treatment. But the Constitution is not about removing religion from our lives—that is religious oppression, something our founding fathers fled to America to escape.

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