Thursday, August 31, 2006

Sheltering wings

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge (Psalm 91:4).

An article several years ago in National Geographic provided an interesting picture of God's wings. After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the inferno's damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched like a statue on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked the bird over with a stick. When he gently moved the body, three tiny chicks scurried out from underneath their dead mother's wings. The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings, instinctively knowing that the toxic smoke would rise. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies. Then the blaze had arrived and the heat had scorched her small body, but in spite of the horrendous pain leading to death, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.

Such a tableau surely makes us think of Jesus Christ. The Son of God once compared His love for us to the nurturing desire of a mother bird: I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings (Matthew 23:37). Our Savior loves us deeply—so deeply that He would do anything to protect us from the flames.

Yes, flames—for we were in danger of dying in fire, the awful fire of hell. Hell is a place of eternal suffering, where the fire that burns is never exhausted. Those flames are more terrible than you or I can imagine, because they are sent by God Himself, out of His hatred and loathing of sin. God is perfect, while sin is everything that opposes perfection; and so God promises everlasting destruction in the flames for everyone who chooses sin over Him.

But Jesus knew how terrible the flames are, and out of His deep love for us, He flew down from heaven to we who are grounded on earth and wrapped us in His loving wings. Instead of allowing the flames of God’s wrath to consume us, He shielded us by taking upon Himself the pain of those flames as He hung on the cross. He could have flown away and saved Himself the agony of God’s judgment at any time; the nails that held Him to the cross had no true power over the Son of God. No, what kept Him on the cross during the suffering leading to death was His love for us, a love that would not abandon us to the flames. Jesus died at the cursed tree of Calvary--died protecting us, so that we might find everlasting life in the shelter of His wings.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"--which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

What is hell? For many people hell is a place of fire, where demons with red skin and horns and pitchforks dance around in glee, poking and terrifying people who had done great evil in life. But what does the Bible actually say about hell? Fire is used to describe it—Revelation 21:8 speaks of a fiery lake of burning sulfur. But the Bible shares a few other terrible images as well. Isaiah 66:24 describes it as the place where their worm will not die—in other words, the people being punished there will be like the living dead, in a perpetual state of decay. And Jesus described hell as a place of darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, a place filled with despair because everything is frustratingly, continually wrong (Matthew 25:30).

But the best definition of hell is simply this—"hell is where God is not." Perhaps you don’t think that such a hell sounds all that terrible? Well, consider these statements of Scripture—God is love (1 John 4:8). Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17). In the place where God is not, there is no love; in the place where God is not, there is nothing that qualifies as perfect or good. Without love and perfection and goodness, what is left? Without love or perfection or goodness, how can there be any happiness or contentment or satisfaction? To be in a place where God is not is to be in a place of no comfort, no pleasure, no hope—all that remains is grief and terror and despair. That, my friends, is hell.

Hell is what awaits those who reject God and His perfect ways, because God is love, and every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights. To reject God is to choose instead to live in the horrible place where God is not. To spare us that terrible outcome, Jesus suffered hell for us—suffered our hell on the cross. Jesus is the Son of God; He has been with the Father since the very beginning. Yet, in order to suffer our hell for us, Jesus had to go to the place where God is not; that is why the Father abandoned Him to the agony of hell at Calvary. The proof? Listen to Jesus’ words, as He suffered in that place where God is not: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Had Jesus not cried those words on Good Friday on our behalf, we would be doomed to scream them for eternity.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The devil's ultimate temptation

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!"

Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:21-26)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says something to Peter that seems shocking to us. Jesus almost yells at Peter, saying "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." It is shocking to hear Jesus address one of his own disciples this way; it is even more shocking when you remember that just a short time earlier, Peter had been the first of them to identify Jesus as the Christ and had been declared blessed by our Savior for the faith in his heart.

What was so bad about what Peter said? How were his words a "stumbling block" to Jesus? The actual word that Jesus used was skandalon, which means "a thing that causes a person to stumble, a thing that gives the opportunity to sin." From this Greek word, we get the modern word "scandal". Jesus was accusing Peter of tempting Him to commit a sin! No wonder Jesus addressed Peter as Satan—at that moment, the devil was speaking to Jesus through Peter.

But what sin was Satan tempting Jesus to commit? Look back at what Jesus had just been saying—Matthew tells us, From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. The key word is must. Jesus must go to Jerusalem and suffer. Jesus must be killed. Jesus must be raised again on the third day.

Why did Jesus say that He must do these things? Two reasons. First, Jesus is the perfect Son of God. In Him there is no sin at all (1 John 3:5). And part of Jesus’ perfection as God’s Son is that He is perfectly obedient. Jesus’ Father is perfect; there has never been a decision that the Father made which Jesus would have any reason to question. And Jesus is perfect; He has never acted selfishly, never thought of rebelling against His Father’s wishes. For these reasons, Jesus was perfect in His obedience to His Father. Whatever the Father has wanted Jesus to do, Jesus has done willingly because He has complete trust and faith in His Father’s wisdom and love. So when the Father told Jesus that mankind would be saved from the curse of eternal death only if Jesus laid down His own life to pay for our rebelliousness, Jesus trusted the wisdom of His Father’s plan. Jesus obediently went to the cross because His Father told Him to. He must obey His Father.

The other reason that Jesus said He must do these things is because He loves us perfectly. Jesus has never put His own comfort or desires before the needs of anyone else. Jesus knew that none of us could live sinless lives; He knew that we rebel against God’s leadership every day. And because we are rebellious, God rightly calls us sinners and promises eternal torment in hell to those who refuse to give Him first place in their hearts. But God also loves those He has created, and He had promised that if the penalty for our sins of death and hell was paid, we could be forgiven and accepted into heaven. Since none of us could pay the supreme price for our sins, Jesus was willing to suffer hell on the cross and die to free us from the curse that our sins bring upon us. Jesus did not look forward to that terrible Good Friday—in the Garden of Gethsemane He prayed "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). Jesus knew that the agonies of hell that we have earned would be a terrible experience for Him to go through, nor was He anxious to embrace the curse of mortal death. But Jesus loves us, and our eternal happiness was more important to Him than His own momentary discomfort. Jesus asked His Father if salvation for man could be achieved in any other way, but if His suffering and death were the only option Jesus would do his Father’s will without complaint. Jesus loves His Father perfectly, and He loves us perfectly.

The Old Testament predicted that the Messiah would save mankind through His own suffering, and Jesus was that Messiah. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said these words about the Savior to come: "See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted…He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering…Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all… After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities…he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors" (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

This view of the Messiah was a very different one than the disciples wanted to think about. Peter and the others wanted Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom of glory, and they hoped for places of power and influence in that kingdom. This is not the way of the Messiah, or of those who follow Him. On the road to Emmaus after the resurrection, Jesus said, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" (Luke 24:26) Our world believes in a theology of glory—that people who are rich or powerful or influential are obviously pleasing God, otherwise He wouldn’t bless them as He has. People who believe this satanic lie have forgotten that Jesus said of his Father, "He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). Jesus never taught a theology of glory—rather, He taught a theology of the cross. Jesus taught that love is the fulfillment of God’s Law. Through Paul God tells us that "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). The love that comes from God is perfect; it is never self-serving, never limited. God’s love gives everything in order to benefit others. Such love may require suffering. Such love requires that suffering be accepted if it is the only way to help others. Such a love was Jesus’ love. Jesus held nothing back when He made the ultimate sacrifice for us out of perfect love.

And Jesus’ suffering was not without effect. Jesus went willingly to the cross because He knew that He must, and because He trusted in His Father. Jesus knew that His Father had promised to raise Him from the dead on the third day. It was this promise of rescue from the grave that gave Jesus the courage to face death without fear, just as Jesus’ promise of rescue from the grave allows us to face death without fear. Jesus was obedient all the way to death, even the horrible death of crucifixion for mankind’s sins (Philippians 2:8). And because of Jesus’ ultimate expression of perfect love for His Father and for us, God raised Jesus from the dead and exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

What blessings have come from Jesus’ obedience! We are given the privilege to confess our sins and be forgiven, and Jesus has become our loving leader and protector. Jesus’ obedience means peace in our hearts in life, and the security of heavenly citizenship when we die. Nothing Jesus has ever done compares in importance with His dying so that we might live eternally. It is no wonder that Satan did not want Jesus going to the cross. Satan desires us for his own, not because he cares about anyone, but only to spite God. Since Satan cannot rule in heaven, he seeks to strip God’s realm of future citizens. Satan tries to lure each of us into rebellion against God, but He was most interested in tempting our Savior. If Satan could have gotten Jesus to turn away from the cross, Satan would have won his greatest victory. Without Jesus’ death for our sins, we would all be unforgivable and destined to eternity in the devil’s "tender" care. But even worse, if Satan had convinced Jesus to abandon the cross, Jesus Himself would have become a disobedient Son—Jesus would have become a sinner, and God’s own Son would have been condemned to hell!

No wonder, then, that Jesus became so angry. To hear the ultimate temptation from the lips of one of His own disciples! "Don’t go to the cross, Jesus. You don’t want to suffer Your Father’s punishment for all human sin. You don’t want to endure all the hell that every human being has earned. You don’t need to go through all that. Be the king that You are entitled to be. You don’t need to serve Your people; by rights, they should serve You. You are great and they are mere worms—it would not be right to trade Your life for theirs. You want Your name—God’s name—to be respected. If You die as a criminal, who will respect Your name? And do You seriously believe that people will want to follow You, if part of the deal involves suffering for those whom they don’t even like? Offer them power and money and popularity--then You’ll fill Your kingdom."

This is the temptation that Jesus overcame when He said, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." In overcoming temptations like these, Jesus was preserving Himself as sinless, and He was keeping alive the hope that mankind could be bought back from the curse of sin and death. Of course Satan did not give up; even while Jesus hung on the cross, Satan prompted some priests to say "He saved others, but he can't save himself! Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe" (Matthew 27:42). Right up to the very end, Satan tried to get Jesus to forsake the suffering love of the cross—but our Savior loved His Father perfectly, and He loved us perfectly--and in His death, His perfection became our salvation.

Jesus did all this in order that He could forgive us. He forgave Peter for letting Satan use his lips. He forgives us for letting Satan use our lips, our hands, our imagination. Jesus suffered to give you this gift of forgiveness. Now He asks you to deny your own comfort and preferences and willingly love others, even when that love brings you some measure of discomfort or suffering. May the Holy Spirit give you the compassion and the courage every day to be an imitator of Christ, so that you can deny yourself and take up your own, much smaller cross, and follow Him.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The debt we owe

He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

At the close of the Second World War, Winston Churchill paid tribute to those who had served in the Royal Airforce; he said "Never have so many owed so much to so few." As we look up at Jesus nailed to the cross, blood dripping from hands and feet nailed against unyielding wood, we have to echo Churchill’s sentiment: "Never has all of humanity owed so much to one person."

What do you and I owe Jesus? We owe Him our very lives! God gave each of us life so that we could serve Him and each other in love. But all of us have failed to love as we should—failed to love God with every ounce of our being, failed to love the people in our lives as if they were just as important as we believe ourselves to be. Instead, we hoard our love and spend the bulk of it on ourselves. Need convincing? Think back to yesterday—how much time did you set aside for prayer to God? How many minutes were spent listening to your parents, your spouse, your children, your friends, or a stranger who was lonely? Compare that to how much time you spent thinking about your needs; compare that to how much time you spent talking about yourself, your joys, your problems. When you analyze who gets most of your love and attention, it turns out to be you.

When we treat ourselves as of first importance, we break God’s laws of love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, 39). When you break earthly laws, you owe a debt to society—being a lawbreaker results in punishment. It is no different with God. When we break His laws of love, we owe Him a debt, a debt that can only be settled by divine punishment in hell. But on Good Friday something remarkable happened; God’s own Son, a person who never disobeyed God’s laws of love in any way, stepped in front of us. As His heavenly Father was about to sentence us to the worst punishment imaginable, our Savior—our friend—accepted God’s punishment in our place. In the court of the 70 Elders where He was insulted and beaten, in the governor’s palace where He was whipped and crowned with thorns, along the via dolorosa as He struggled to carry the cross, and at the Place of the Skull where He was nailed onto that cross and abandoned by His Father to suffer alone, Jesus paid the debt of sin that we owed to God. On Good Friday, Jesus suffered every bit of hellish agony that we deserved, so that our debt could be paid in full and we can be freed from both guilt and fear of God’s displeasure. "Never has all of humanity owed so much to one person."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Locked in darkness

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden…and they hid (Genesis 3:8).

Robert Louis Stevenson said that one of the most powerful lessons of his life was learned when as a child, he locked himself in a closet to hide from his father. It was terribly dark in that closet, and he soon became panicky and began to cry for help. It was a long time before his father finally came, and then a locksmith had to come and open the door. It was a very grateful and chastened little boy who was finally let out of the closet!

Although he did not realize it, Robert Louis Stevenson had done the same thing that our first parents Adam and Eve did. When they disobeyed God, they realized that He would be angry with them, so they tried to hide from Him. Of course, when you are trying to hide outside, you have to look for the place of deepest shadow. As Adam and Eve crouched in the darkest place that they could find, they had become captives—captives of fear, captives of the darkness that fear drives us into. And they could not undo the bad thing that they had done; their lives had entered a dark place from which there was no escape.

But God did not let Adam and Eve remain trapped in their foolish choice of darkness; He brought them out, confronted them with what they had done, and then He did two wonderful things. One of these things sounded worse than it actually was; God told the terrified couple that because of sin, they, and all of their descendants, would eventually die. This probably sounded like a curse to the young couple, but it was actually a blessing; had they been allowed to live forever, they would have faced an eternity of living as sinners. Never would there be rest from fighting temptations; never would there be relief from the pain inflicted by the thoughtless words and deeds of other sinners. Eternal life with sin would be a curse; but how could dying to escape sin be a blessing, when all sinners who die go to hell?

Death became a blessing in disguise because of God’s other wonderful act. There in the Garden of Eden, God promised that He was going to send a rescuer, a representative from heaven who would crush the power of sin, death and the devil. Everyone who put their trust in this Savior, no matter when or where they lived, would be rescued from the danger of hell when they left this world; instead, death would be the means by which believers could escape their sins (Romans 6:7) and find eternal happiness in heaven. That Savior was to be Jesus; He is the locksmith that frees us from being locked away in darkness.

Saturday, August 19, 2006


When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?"

They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ (Matthew 16:13-20).

"Who do you say I am?" Jesus asked this question of His disciples, and He asks it of His followers today. "Who do you say I am?" In reality, Jesus is asking us two things: do we know who Jesus is, and do we speak that truth out loud? "Who do you say I am?"

During the years of Jesus' ministry on earth, most of the people did not know who He was. When Jesus asked the disciples "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" He was given a variety of answers. Some thought that Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead to haunt Herod for his murder (Mark 6:14-29). Others thought that Jesus was Elijah returned to life, based on a misunderstanding of Old Testament prophecies. Some even thought Jesus was Jeremiah the lamenting prophet, because like him Jesus predicted doom for the unbelievers of Israel.

What all of these opinions had in common was that each of them made Jesus only a man. An extraordinary man to be sure, but just a man nevertheless. The problem, however, is that no man, not even an extraordinary one, can save himself from the curse of sin, let alone save anybody else. Sin is a universal condition of natural man; all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). The curse of sin begins even before we leave our mother’s womb; David wrote, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). No man naturally born has entered life free from the taint of sin, and because of this we are all by nature enemies of the God who created us. St. Paul writes, "the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God" (Romans 8:7-8).

If Jesus were indeed only an extraordinary man, He would have been an extraordinary sinful man. He would not have been able to lead a perfectly blameless life and thus please God and earn heaven; His life would not have had sufficient worth in God’s eyes to be offered in the place of anyone else’s life. If Jesus was only a man, even an extraordinary man, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins (1 Corinthians 15:17).

But Jesus is so much more than just a man. When He asked the disciples "Who do you say I am?" Peter correctly said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." So few words, such an important truth. Our God is a living God—He is real, unlike all the gods invented by people who do not accept the Bible as fact. Our God is living, and He is active—He creates life whenever a seed sprouts or a baby is born. He sustains life, giving rain to the land and healing to the sick and injured. And He cares for the people He has created. He did not turn His back on mankind when Adam and Eve threw away their perfect relationship with Him; when our first parents hid from God in fear, He responded by promising them a Messiah, a person who would be set apart for the great work of earning forgiveness for mankind and reinstating them as God’s own beloved children. This person would be called Christ, the Anointed One, the One Set Apart by God to do His work.

That Christ is Jesus. Jesus is no mere man; He is the Son of God, born of a woman by God’s miraculous power, a person who is God and man in one. Born of God, Jesus did not inherit the curse of sin—He was born perfect. Born of woman, Jesus was God made flesh—God made touchable, approachable. In Jesus we can see God smile as He blesses us. In Jesus we can feel God’s strong arm and caring touch. Through Jesus we can hear God’s promise of salvation, if we only renounce our sinful passions and ask Him to make us His own.

It was essential that Jesus be truly God. Only by being God could Jesus’ life have infinite worth, more worth than all our sinful lives put together. Only the life of God’s own Son would be worth enough to make full restitution before God for every evil thought and deed that we are guilty of. When Jesus died on the cross, He did so out of love for us, out of a desire to free us from slavery to sin and eternity in hell. When Jesus rose triumphant from the grave, He did so because His victory over sin and death are complete. Only Jesus has final authority to forgive and to reconcile us to our Father in heaven.

"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." What a wonderful truth to know! But Peter did not figure it out on his own. True, Peter had been on the road with Jesus for many months, hearing His teachings and seeing His miracles, but many others had heard and seen Jesus too, yet they had not realized who Jesus truly was. No, Peter only put two and two together by the power of God; Jesus told him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven." No one can believe in Jesus unless two things happen. First, they must hear a Christian tell them the Good News of the Bible about Jesus their Savior; Paul writes, "how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard?" (Romans 10:14) Then the Lord works faith in our hearts, as we are told in Hebrews chapter twelve verse two: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith." It is only through God’s works of revealing Himself and creating faith that we can be blessed as Peter was—blessed with the truth about Christ that saves us from sin and death.

Knowing the truth about Jesus is the greatest blessing that we can ever receive from God. But Jesus asks something from us in return. "Who do you say I am?" Jesus asks. You have possession of a great truth—but do you share it? Do you tell people who Jesus really is? Why is it important that we "confess" our faith in Jesus out loud?

When we hear the word "confess", we tend to think of admitting to our sins as a part of asking for forgiveness. But to confess something is to actually say that you are stating the truth. When you confess your sins, you are saying that it is true—you really did commit those sins. But you can also confess your faith in God—when you confess that Jesus is your Savior, you are saying that it is true: Jesus is your only hope for peace on earth and happiness in heaven.

Confession of your faith is important. St. Paul says, "it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved" (Romans 10:10). Why is confessing so important? Consider what happened when some prominent people began to believe in Jesus. John records: "many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees, they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God" (John 12:42-43). These people were unwilling to stand up for the truth. They were afraid to announce an allegiance to Jesus and his teachings because they didn’t want to offend their powerful Jewish friends, friends that they needed in order to remain influential themselves.

Imagine being in a branch of the service and refusing to wear your uniform for fear of being shot at by the enemy. What commander would tolerate such behavior? We are soldiers in the army of God. We are at war with Satan and his minions. Our confession of our faith in Christ is our uniform, our pledge of allegiance, our flag. When we speak of Jesus, it reminds us of who we are—a church, an assembly of people who have been called out of the darkness of this world to walk in Jesus’ marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

But our confession of our faith is to be even more than that. How did you become a Christian? How was it that you were exposed to God’s Word, so that by hearing you could believe? A Christian brought you. Perhaps a Christian parent brought you to a baptismal font when you were an infant, to have your sins washed away by Christ and be welcomed into His church. Perhaps you were brought to church as a child, even when you would have rather stayed in bed or watched television, but your Christian parent or grandparent or aunt or uncle loved you too much to let you get away with avoiding time with Jesus. Maybe you dated or married a Christian, who pestered you until you went to church with him or her. Or maybe you found a Bible placed by a member of the Gideons just where you needed it, at a time when the world seemed a very dark place to you. Christ reaches out to human hearts through His followers; when you reveal Jesus to others as your Savior, that is your confession of faith, the same faith that Peter summarized with the words, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Our confession is this: we believe that Jesus is the only way to be free from sin and the only way to enter heaven. Because these truths are so very important for every human soul, we believe that they must be shared with all mankind, and shared correctly. That is why give our children religious instruction. That is why we fund the work of missionaries. That is why we support parochial grade schools, colleges, and seminaries. We do this, because one day each of us will die and find ourselves standing before our Lord’s throne. When He asks us, "Who do you say I am?" we want to be ready to say with full assurance, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." With this confession, access to heaven will be ours—and we want everyone we know to join us there as well.

Jesus told His disciples not to tell anyone that He was the Christ, because Jesus knew that the people would not want their Messiah to die on the cross. Even the disciples did not fully understand that the Messiah "did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:28). But after Jesus had completed His saving work on the cross, He told His followers "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20). This is His instruction to us as well—to go and confess our faith to all who will listen. May Jesus grant you the courage to speak of the faith He has given you, proclaiming that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Weak things

God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).

Napoleon once made this snide remark about religion: "I observe that God is usually on the side of the strongest battalion." But it is dangerous to taunt God. In 1812, the glittering military ranks of France and its tributary kings—an army numbering over 600,000 men—crossed the Niemen to invade Russia. They captured Smolensk, won the bloody battle of Borodino, and approached Moscow itself. It was then that God sent down on them the soft, feathery flakes of feeble snow. The snows of God, the soft snows that can be melted by nothing more than a warm breath from the mouth, were too strong for Napoleon’s mighty battalions. The French soldiers perished by the thousands, and the Russian Cossacks with their wooden lances routed the miserable, frozen, famine-stricken remnant that had not been slain by that cold, northern winter. God was not on the side of the strongest that time; Alexander of Russia knew to whom he owed the victory, even if Napoleon did not, and he had the following words from Psalm 115 engraved on his commemorative medal: "Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory."

Is it safe to assume that God is always on the side of the strong? Not at all. God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. Jesus the Son of God was the prince of heaven, yet He did not enter our world by being born in a palace. He did not travel by royal carriage. He did not choose the intellectual elite to be His inner circle of students. He did not die the dignified death that one would expect of a powerful ruler. Instead, Jesus was born to common people in the storage shed of a roadside motel. He got where He needed to go by walking on dusty, unpaved roads. When He organized His church to continue His work after His departure, He chose men who worked with their hands to be the ones who would pass on His teachings, and He asked widows to support the ministry financially. He met the end of life with a mock trial that found Him guilty of things that He never did, but sentenced Him to a torturous, humiliating death anyway; even the grave He was buried in was a last minute gift from one of His followers.

God detests those who revel in having power. And so the Lord often reveals Himself to us through weak things, because in so doing He is showing us that He also loves and cares for we who are weak, and seem to be of little importance to the world around us.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

An hour for God on Sunday

My people come to you…and sit before you to listen to your words, but they do not put them into practice (Ezekiel 33:31).

There was a little boy who got a dollar a week for his allowance. During the Sunday morning children’s sermon, the minister asked the kids how they spent their money. The little boy said, "I give five cents to Sunday School; the rest I spend on gum." When asked why he spent most of his allowance on gum, the boy replied, "we chew gum all week long, but we only have religion on Sunday".

You might smile at the child’s answer, but it reveals a sad truth about many people; for them, religion is what you do on Sunday morning. They treat God like they treat the IRS; every once in a while, you have to spend some time and money to keep the Big Guy happy. The rest of the time you know that they exist, but you don’t give them much thought.

How does such an attitude play itself out in a typical week? On Sunday morning such people thank God for all the good things that He has given them; the rest of the week they rarely make a point of thanking God for anything. On Sunday morning they donate money to God for maintaining the church and sending out missionaries; the rest of the week they don’t think about church or missions, trusting that by their Sunday morning giving they have turned over their responsibility for church maintenance and growth to someone else. On Sunday morning they tell God their needs and their fears, their joys and their sorrows in prayer; the rest of the week,they share what’s important to them with lovers and friends, but not with God. On Sunday mornings they ask Jesus to forgive their sins and they pledge to forgive others in the same way; the rest of the week they do whatever they want with little thought to obeying God’s rules, and they carry grudges against others that cloud their week with anger and resentment.

What good is a low-carb diet if you only follow it on Sundays? Will it improve your health or help you to lose weight? Can you build a family if the only thought or attention you give them is for one hour each week on Sunday morning? How close a relationship could you possibly have with your spouse and children? And yet so many think that one hour a week is all the attention that they need to give to their relationship with God. My friend, if you want Jesus to change your life, you must allow Him to be a part of your life all week long.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

"Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."

"Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water."

"Come," he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God" (Matthew 14:22-33).

"Why did you doubt?" That is the question that Jesus puts to Peter, and it is the question that our Savior puts to us whenever we become slaves to worry and fear. When you have walked with the Son of God, why do you ever have moments of doubt?

It is amazing the think that Peter could have a lapse of faith. By this point in their time together, Peter had witnessed many of Jesus’ miracles. Jesus had removed a crippling fever from Peter’s mother-in-law. Peter had been in a boat with Jesus when He ended a storm by telling the wind and the waves to be quiet. Peter had seen Jesus drive a host of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs. Peter had seen Jesus heal a paralyzed man, restore sight to the blind, and raise a little girl from the dead. And just a few hours previously, Peter witnessed Jesus feeding well over 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. This was such a compelling miracle that the people who had been fed were considering making Jesus king in Jerusalem by force. It was because of these plans that Jesus hurried the disciples off in a boat while He dismissed the crowds—Jesus didn’t want the Twelve to get caught up in earthly politics.

So Peter and the other disciples set out onto the Sea of Galilee in a small boat shortly after dark. But all too soon, the weather made an ominous change. The wind came up and the Twelve end up rowing into rough seas. They rowed all night; by about 3:00 in the morning (the fourth watch of the night), they had only gotten 3 ½ miles from shore (John 6:19). By this point, they were cold, wet, and utterly exhausted. And then—an apparition, or so they thought. The disciples saw a human figure calmly walking across the water towards them, in the midst of the stormy seas. Their immediate reaction was one of superstitious panic—they assumed that death was coming for them. They cried out in fear.

But the figure was no supernatural bringer of death; it was Jesus. Jesus had been exhausted as well. Just a day ago He had been told that Herod had beheaded His cousin, John the Baptist. Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee with His disciples for quiet time following this disturbing news, but the people had followed, and Jesus had healed them, taught them, fed them. When they began planning to make Him an earthly king over His objections, Jesus knew that Satan was tempting Him to turn away from the coming disgrace of the cross and instead rule in earthly power and glory. Jesus sent the people away, thus resisting the temptation to be a popular earthly ruler. Then, exhausted from sad news, long hours and Satan’s temptations, Jesus withdrew privately to pray to His Father and receive renewed strength.

Now Jesus came, refreshed, to rejoin the disciples. As soon as He heard their cry of fear, He called out "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." Notice how Jesus referred to Himself. He did not say, "It is Jesus coming to you." He said, "It is I." This was the most comforting thing Jesus could say. In the Old Testament God was known by many names, but His personal, most holy name was Yahweh, which means "I AM". When God sent Moses to the Israelites who were slaves in Egypt, we read in Exodus 4:13-14: Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.' " Jesus used the divine name I AM in reference to Himself several times in His ministry; in John 8:58 we read, "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I am!" So when Jesus called to His disciples "It is I", He was subtly saying that the reason they should have courage and not be afraid was that God Himself approached them.

Of course, Peter now felt foolish for being afraid, but at the same time he also was overwhelmed with wonder, seeing Jesus walking on the water. When Jesus had sent Peter and the other disciples out on their first missionary journey, He had given them power to cure diseases and drive out demons. So Peter, full of faith, asked Jesus to make it possible for him to leave the boat and come to the Lord. Jesus, who always desires to increase faith in His followers, agreed—and Peter began to walk on the water towards His Savior! But then Peter did a foolish thing—he let himself get distracted by the wind, the waves, and the spray. He stopped looking at Jesus and turned his attention to the storm surrounding him. As soon as he did this, Peter began to sink into the waves. Panicked, he cried out for Jesus to save him. Immediately, Jesus reached out and rescued Peter, and they returned to the boat. When they were both aboard, the wind quieted, and St. John tells us that immediately the boat reached the shore where they were headed (John 6:21). Miracle upon miracle! No wonder that the disciples worshipped Jesus as the Son of God.

As He rescued Peter, Jesus asked him, "Why did you doubt?" Why indeed? After all the miracles that Peter had been witness to, why did he doubt? Matthew tells us the answer. Matthew, the writer of this Gospel, was there in the boat with Peter, and he tells us: when he saw the wind, he was afraid. The problem was that Peter took his eyes off Jesus and turned his attention to the bad weather surrounding him. In spite of all the incredible things Peter had seen Jesus do, he could still be distracted and frightened by the storm. Peter did not lose his faith—after all, he cried out to Jesus for rescue—but his fear of the storm weakened his faith enough that he began to sink.

As with Peter, so with us. We too have experienced the miracles of Jesus. Through the waters of holy Baptism, Jesus forgave our sins and sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to build faith in the promises of God. Forgiveness is a miracle. Faith is a miracle. Only a miracle of God could forgive us for our innate selfishness and stubbornness. Only a miracle of God could cause us to trust in a Savior who is only heard through the words of Scripture, who is only touched through the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. We have all been beneficiaries of the two greatest miracles of all—the death of the Son of God that paid the price for every human sin, and Jesus’ return from death to eternal life, guaranteeing our return to eternal life after our temporary, physical deaths.

Like Peter, we are awed by the miracles of Jesus. Like Peter, our love of Jesus makes us want to draw near to Him. But also like Peter, we often find ourselves surrounded by stormy seas. We find ourselves without enough money to pay the bills, we find ourselves struggling with disease, we find ourselves in troubled families. When we were looking steadfastly at Jesus, we were not scared. But when we start paying more attention to our problems than to the Savior who bids us come to Him, we become frightened. Our faith begins to falter and we begin to doubt. We start to doubt that we can ever be happy. We start to doubt that we can ever be at peace. And as we begin to doubt, our fears start to swallow us up until we feel like we are drowning in them.

Jesus was near to Peter through it all. The moment that Peter called out to Jesus for help, his Savior was there, holding his hand until the storm was calmed. Jesus is always near you as well. The moment that you cry out to Jesus for rescue from fear and worry, He is there beside you, holding your hand, giving you His strength until He sends the storm away. Jesus asks Peter and He asks you: "Why did you doubt?" Peter knew that his Savior was near. Peter knew that Jesus could rescue him. You know these things as well. But like Peter, we get into trouble when we stop fixing our eyes on Jesus, and let the cares of this world distract and worry us.

Anyone who has plowed a field or mowed a large yard knows that the only way to keep going straight is to find a landmark at the edge of the property and then stare at it while you move towards it. If you don’t pick a landmark, if you plow or cut while looking just in front of you or to either side, you will end up with a crooked row. Jesus is our landmark as we work our way through life. Only by keeping Jesus as the focus of our attention, through regular worship and Bible study, can we end up where we want to be—at heaven’s gates. And we have the assurance that whenever we lose sight of Jesus, whenever we start to go wrong and call to Him, He will come to us, He will straighten our path, and He will start leading us towards heaven once more.

So take courage, and don’t be afraid. The Son of God loves you, He cares about you, and He is always near. He bids you come to Him, and when you fall He lifts you up and leads you on. He only waits for you to call to Him for help. Our God promises, "call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me" (Psalm 50:15).

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Graveside reconciliation

When we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son (Romans 5:10).

A man was legally separated from his wife and living in a different town for a number of years. On a business trip, he stopped to visit the grave of their son. While standing there, reflecting on his former relationship with his wife and the home that they had made together for their son, he heard footsteps behind him. Turning, he saw his wife who had also come to visit the grave. Because of the hostility that had built up between them, his first impulse was to leave. But something about standing by the grave of their son held him, and he stayed and began to talk. As they talked about their son, the defensiveness and bitterness slowly emptied out of his heart. At that place of death, seeds of reconciliation were planted.

God created us to have a committed relationship with Him. But although God has always remained faithful to us, we have treated Him shabbily. We have cheated on Him by making other things in our lives more important than God—our families, our jobs, our hobbies, our bad habits. Each time something keeps us away from worshipping the Lord, studying His Word or spending time in prayer, we act like an unfaithful spouse, tearing down our committed relationship with Him.

Our sins have separated us from God. But we are drawn to the grave of the Son He loves, the Son who suffered and died the cruelest death imaginable. Jesus was beaten, whipped, spat upon, nailed to a cross and died—and this all happened to Him because of you and me. Our Savior accepted all this mistreatment because He loves us, loves us so much that He was willing to do whatever it took to reconcile us to His heavenly Father. Jesus was willing to die for us so that, at His grave, we might be reconciled to God.

Reconciliation is what Christianity is all about. God hates divorce, because to file for divorce is to say there is no hope for the relationship; forgiveness and a new start are impossible. But God is not willing to divorce us; He sent His Son to an awful death so that by that death we might have forgiveness and a new start, reconciled to God. With Paul, I urge you: Be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20). Come to His Son’s grave, let go of your defensiveness and bitterness, and start talking—talking about God’s Son and the wonderful opportunity that He offers you. Be reconciled to God, and to anyone else you are separated from.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The cross

They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day (Acts 10:39-40).

In the year that our Savior died by crucifixion, the cross was a symbol of shame. Although it was widely used as a method of execution by the Roman Empire, it was such a horrible, humiliating way to die that it was illegal to crucify a citizen of the Empire using that method. But since Jesus won the victory over sin, death and the devil on that cursed piece of wood, the world has come to look at it differently. No longer is the cross a symbol of shame; it has come to be regarded as a thing of beauty. The cross is found on the flags of nations and disaster relief agencies. It has been worked into the golden scepters of rulership held by kings. The cross has become a favored piece of jewelry, and it marks hope for the resurrection from the dead on countless graves around the world.

The cross, a dry and dead tree on Golgotha’s hill of execution, sent its roots deeply into our world; it has blossomed and spread its branches so that today countless sinners like you and me can find rest in its shadow and refreshment from its fruits. In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott writes: "The cross enforces three truths about ourselves, about God, and about Jesus Christ. First, our sin must be extremely horrible. Nothing reveals the gravity of sin like the cross. Second, God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension. Third, Christ’s salvation must be a free gift."

These are three excellent observations. The cross symbolized death, the kind of death reserved for only the worst of criminals—that our Lord would accept the cross as His earthly throne shows us how truly terrible our sins are by God’s reckoning. That Jesus would be willing to go to that cross on our behalf is a miracle beyond all human understanding; we can scarcely conceive of such a deep and committed a love, a love that would do that in order to see us spared. Such an incredible sacrifice is completely beyond our power to demand from God or to repay Him; the cross is proof that God’s offer of freedom from sin through Jesus must be His gift of love to us, a gift freely given.

Until we are permitted to see our Savior face to face when He returns, there can be nothing more beautiful than the cross that He sanctified by His death.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hope in depressing times

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).

The news has certainly been depressing lately. Terrorist attacks and the Israeli/Lebanon war. Drought in the Midwest and flooding in the South. We live in a time of uncertainty and fear. What can we do? What will the future bring?

The world is filled with trouble. Famine, disease and storms. Crime and war and poverty. Many ask, "Where is God? Why does He let this go on? How did things come to be this bad?"

The Bible tells us why things are so bad. The answer has been there since the beginning of history, but most people don’t want hear that answer—the truth is too unpleasant. We are to blame. The earth is in the mess it’s in because of us and our ancestors. It all started with Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve were created perfect by God, and they lived on a perfect earth. But when they listened to Satan’s lies and disobeyed God, Adam and Eve became sinful and they passed the inheritance of that sin to every human child ever since. Since people are sinful, we act selfishly and irresponsibly. We fight over land, over money, over relationships. People murder, steal, commit adultery, lie and cheat. People wage war and they selfishly hoard their riches, resulting in wealth for a few and poverty for most.

But it does not end there. God was justly angered at Adam and Eve. He could have punished them for their rebellion, but if He had, they would have died right then and there and we would never have been born. So instead God said, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:17-19). Because of mankind’s sin, the entire earth was cursed—cursed with death and the things that lead to death—stubborn fields, extreme weather, pests and vermin, disease and decay.

Why is the earth the way it is today? It’s not God’s fault—it’s our fault.

But our God is merciful. By rights, Adam and Eve should have been struck dead and sent to hell; by rights, each of us has earned eternity in hell many times over. But God did not give up on Adam and Eve, and He has not given up on us. God promised our first parents that one of their descendants would defeat the power of Satan and free mankind from the curse of sin and death. That descendant was Jesus, the Son of God born into human flesh.

Jesus defeated sin by living a perfect life—the perfect life that God had expected from every one of us. Jesus defeated Satan by willingly dying for our every sin—with our sins punished in Jesus, Satan has no claim by which he can take our souls to hell. And Jesus defeated death by rising from His grave to eternal life and eternal rule in heaven—so we know that Jesus has final authority over everything, even death itself.

Jesus did all this out of love for us. Our sins are forgiven; Jesus promises His love here in life and hereafter in eternity to everyone who puts their trust in Him. And the benefit of this love is stated by Paul in Romans: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him."

How is this possible? We look around us at the world, and we see Christians suffering from the same problems as non-Christians. Where is the hand of God? Well, to begin with, we must remember that Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:44-45). Jesus Himself tells us that God cares for all mankind; He wants everyone to live, so that they might come to saving faith. Romans 5:8 says, "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Every mercy of God shown to us is a blessing, and every mercy shown to a lost sinner is an invitation to seek the God who has been so generous with His gifts.

But what about the hard times? We can understand that God allows some trouble to enter the life of the unbeliever, because hard times can make a person receptive to the invitation of the Gospel. When a lost sinner undergoes hardship and then hears Jesus say, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," that person is ready to ask, "What must I do to be saved?" He is ready to hear the simple truth, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." (Matthew 11:28, Acts 16:30-31)

But what about us? Why do Christians suffer alongside non-Christians? Paul reassures us that we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him. Going through tough times can mold us into better Christians: earlier in Romans Paul writes, "we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (chapter 5). It is a sad truth that when things go well for us, we often begin to take God for granted. The Old Testament history of Israel shows us a continuing cycle of good times undermining commitment to God, God applying His chastening hand to His wayward people, their repentance, and a renewed commitment to putting God first. We are no different. When God allows tough times to come upon us, it is as He said through the prophet Zechariah: "I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, `They are my people,' and they will say, `The LORD is our God' " (chapter 13 verse 9).

Scripture gives us many examples of how God works good for those who love Him, even in the midst of great trouble. In Genesis we read of young Joseph, favored son of Jacob, whose brothers became so jealous of him that they sold him into slavery and reported him dead to their father. Joseph was taken to Egypt, where he was falsely accused of sexual assault and imprisoned for many years. Yet because God had given Joseph the ability to interpret dreams, Joseph came to the attention of Pharaoh and eventually became second in command over all of Egypt. When famine drove his brothers to Egypt looking for food, Joseph was positioned to care for the needs of his family. He told them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children" (Genesis 50:19-21).

Another example comes to us from the Book of Acts. After Jesus had ascended into heaven, His followers stayed in the vicinity of Jerusalem as they did their preaching and teaching. But after the stoning of Stephen, we are told "a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went" (chapter 8). Even though the persecution caused much suffering, even death, because of it the preaching of the Gospel began to spread all over the Roman Empire, and eventually the entire world.

Of course, the best example is the death of Jesus Himself. When the Sanhedrin met to discuss what to do about Jesus’ growing popularity among the people, John tells us: Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one (John 11:49-52). The Jewish leaders intended nothing but evil for Jesus when they sought His death, yet God turned their murderous act into the greatest miracle of life and healing in the history of the world.

There is no trouble or hardship that cannot be turned by our loving God into a long-term benefit for us. Of course, we must sometimes take the long view. Sometimes "the good of those who love him" can be seen now, but other times the benefit may only be seen years in the future. In fact, the ultimate good for those who love Him is not seen here in life at all, because the purpose for every gracious act of God is to bring us safely into heaven to live with our Savior forever.

The bleakest time our world has ever seen was Good Friday afternoon, when darkness shrouded the earth. During this terrible time, the Lord of Life slowly and painfully died to remove your every sin, that you might have life and have it to the full (John 10:10). Since God could bring the light of life eternal out of those darkest of hours, He can certain bring good out of any time of trouble that you are currently enduring. No matter what life brings you, remember that God is in charge, and that you have this promise: "Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall" (Psalm 55:22).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Justice + love = Christ

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Have you ever come across the phrase "whipping boy"? That expression had its origin with King James of England. In the 17th century, the king had a son named Charles. Charles was a spoiled brat; however, since he was a prince, no one was allowed to punish him or correct him. So his father appointed another boy, William Mayer, to be Charles’ playmate and whipping boy. Whenever Charles misbehaved, William was punished. He received the whipping that Charles deserved. This procedure soon became a custom among royalty, and from it we get the phrase "whipping boy."

The whole concept of a whipping boy sounds grossly unfair to us. And yet, our society is eager to embrace the concept. When a child has problems in school, do the parents discipline their child? No, they blame the teacher for their son or daughter’s failure; the teacher becomes a whipping boy. When a person makes poor choices regarding his diet and becomes fat, does he take responsibility for his problem? No, he takes his favorite fast food restaurant to court, blaming the company for causing his obesity. The restaurant becomes a whipping boy.

The lot of a whipping boy is pain and suffering, along with the humiliation of injustice; the whipping boy does not deserve the bad treatment that he receives. But there is one whipping boy that did his job willingly, one whipping boy who did not resent the pain he endured for others. That whipping boy was Jesus, the Son of God.

God the Father is a just God; that means He values justice. Justice demands that when crimes occur, those crimes be punished. Sin is the crime of disobeying God. To disobey God is to incur His divine punishment, a terrible punishment that casts us away from Him forever. But our just God is also a loving God, and He provided a way for us to escape the just punishment for our sins; He sent His Son Jesus to be our whipping boy. As He suffered on the cross, Jesus was whipped by God for every one of our crimes against heaven. Because Jesus was whipped, beaten, insulted and executed, we are spared the just consequences of our actions; we are spared because Jesus pleaded from that cross, Father, forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). It is from the cross of Calvary that we receive the proof of both God’s justice and His love for us.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Blooms in the desert

Because of his great love for us, God…made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions (Ephesians 2:4-5).

A desert valley in southern California is hot, barren, and desolate. Only the hardiest Native Americans had lived there—the Spaniards passed it by, and the state’s early growth had hardly touched it. The only sizable body of water was the Salton Sea, and it is as useless as the name would suggest. Then, around the year 1900, some promoters got an idea. They knew that the valley would bloom if water could be brought into it. So they gave it a new name, "Imperial", to attract potential farmers. And in 1901 they brought the first irrigation into the valley. Now, with one of the longest growing seasons in the United States—more than 300 days—and over a million acres irrigated, Imperial Valley produces cotton, dates, grains and dairy products, and is one of the most important sources of winter fruits and vegetables for the northern United States. All this productivity from a barren land—who could have anticipated it? Only a few wise developers.

The story of Imperial Valley is, in many ways, our story. By nature, we are barren and desolate, just as that hot desert valley was. When we were newly born, we were already dead inside—dead spiritually. We did not enter this world with a love of God inside us, and without the Giver of Life, we were dead—dead in our transgressions.

But God looked at us with the eyes of a developer. He saw potential in the valley of death that characterized our lives; He saw that, with the Water of Life, He could turn our desert into a lush, life-nurturing valley. So God sent His Son to bring life into we who were lifeless; Jesus was the irrigating stream that brought hope for the future. Jesus said, whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14).

When Jesus irrigates us with the Water of Life, our lives are completely transformed. Instead of being dead inside, our souls glow with vibrant life. Instead of sucking the joy out of the lives of those surrounding us through our selfishness and negativity, we bring joy and growth to others by our willingness to give and our positive, life-affirming attitude! Jesus said, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). Our Lord can take even the most barren life and make it a rich source of blessings for others.

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