Saturday, September 30, 2006

The parable of the wedding banquet

Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.

"Then he sent some more servants and said, `Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.'

"But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.

"Then he said to his servants, `The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.

"But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. `Friend,' he asked, `how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless.

"Then the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

"For many are invited, but few are chosen" (Matthew 22:1-14).

Jesus begins by saying, "The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son." The king of this parable represents God the Father, who created heaven and earth and exercises His authority over both. The son of the king represents the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And the parable concerns itself with a wedding banquet that God the Father is organizing for his Son.

What is the nature of this wedding banquet? Is Jesus getting married? In a sense, yes He is. In several places, Jesus refers to Himself as a bridegroom. As one example, in Matthew 9:15 Jesus responds to criticism that His disciples are not in the habit of fasting like other pious men do; He says "How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast."

If Jesus is a bridegroom, who is the bride? For the answer, we need to turn to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5. There we read, Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this traditional wedding text, St. Paul compares the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship between Christ and His church. This point is made even more explicitly in Revelation 21:9-10 where St. John tells us, One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb." And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. Who are the residents of this city? Those who are forgiven by Jesus, who have a relationship of love and trust with God. The residents of the Holy City are the members of Christ’s church. The church is the New Jerusalem, the Holy City, the Bride of Christ, and the wedding banquet is being seated even now, as believers die and go to heaven. The feast will begin as soon as the Last Day has concluded.

Jesus next tells us in the parable, He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come. Then he sent some more servants and said, `Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.' But they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Here, Jesus speaks of the Jewish nation; He issues a prediction and a warning to the Jews who were His immediate audience. An invitation to the banquet had been sent long ago; God had told Abraham, "I swear by myself…that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore…and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me" (Genesis 22:16-18). When God said that through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, He was referring to Jesus, the most important offspring of Abraham’s line—it is through Jesus that all nations are offered God’s blessings. Abraham received the honor of having Jesus come from his family, because Abraham had listened faithfully to the Lord and trusted in Him—even when God asked Abraham to offer up his only son as a sacrifice, Abraham trusted in the word of God. Paul tells us, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness" (Romans 4:3).

But over the years, many of Abraham’s descendants became more concerned with the affairs of the world than with the promises of God. Jesus typifies these people by saying, but they paid no attention and went off--one to his field, another to his business. They made their time laboring in the field or the workshop more important than God; others would rather spend their time on recreation instead of hearing God’s word and thanking Him for His mercy.

Others of Abraham’s children remained spiritual, but they buried the truth of God’s word under layers of inflexible traditions and pride in personal piety. When God’s prophets tried to warn them that they were drifting away from humble submission to God, they rejected God’s servants, evening murdering some of them.

Jesus warned the Jews seated before Him that these patterns of ignoring God and of rejecting His call to repentance would continue, and that those who persisted in rejecting God’s grace offered through Jesus would face God’s judgment. Jesus said, The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. This happened less than 40 years later, when the Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem, the city that all Jews regarded as their holy capitol.

Which shows us an important point. God’s invitation is not a one-time thing. According to the parable, the king invited His guests at least three times; although we cannot put a number on God’s offers of mercy, we can say that He is generous and patient with stubborn humanity. But there does come a time when God’s patience runs out; it is foolish for anyone to take His mercy for granted.

Now the king says, `The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. Go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.' Here Jesus predicts what was soon to happen; because most Jews would reject the Gospel, the followers of Jesus turned their attention to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. In Acts chapter 13 we read, On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: "We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: " `I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.' "

So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, both good and bad, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. What comforting words! God’s servants bring His heavenly invitation to everyone, no matter how "good" or "bad" they appear to human eyes. No one has led such a wasted, evil life that they are ineligible for a banquet invitation.

Do we take from this that bad people are allowed to enter heaven? Jesus continues, "But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. `Friend,' he asked, `how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'

To understand this part of the parable correctly, we must understand what the wedding clothes are. In Isaiah 61:10 the prophet writes, I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For He has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness. The clothing that we are to wear to the wedding feast of Christ is the robe of righteousness. In Revelation 19:6-8 John writes, Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude…shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give Him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and His bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)

Notice that the robe of righteousness is a gift. He has clothed me; fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Righteousness is a gift of God. In the parable, the king’s servants invited common people in off the street—no commoner could afford to dress appropriately for a royal wedding. The servants gave each guest a present from the king—suitable clothing for the celebration. Our God gives each of us suitable clothing for the heavenly celebration—the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. When Jesus died as a penalty for our sins, He was rewarded by His Father with everlasting life and the authority to extend His righteousness to us. When Jesus forgives our sins, He covers them with a robe that He has made white by washing it in His blood, the blood of the Lamb of God (Revelation 7:14). It doesn’t matter how evil our lives have been—Jesus’ robe of righteousness covers up every sin, no matter how vile. The robe of righteousness is Jesus’ gift of the work that He has done for us—on our own, none of us can come to the banquet acceptably dressed.

`Friend,' the king asked, `how did you get in here without wedding clothes?' The man was speechless. In order to be welcome in heaven, we must be clothed in Jesus’ righteousness. Since that clothing is a gift freely given by God, no one has an excuse for coming before God soiled in his sins. The man was speechless. He had no defense, no excuse that he could offer. He had turned down the king’s free gift of wedding clothes, and for what reason? Pride? Indifference? It doesn’t matter. One cannot stand in the presence of the heavenly king stained with sin. "Then the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' Those who cannot live in heaven will forever weep in the dark loneliness of hell’s despair.

Jesus concludes His parable with the words, "For many are invited, but few are chosen." Jesus offers us both a promise and a caution. The promise is that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). The caution is that, although all of humanity is invited, only a portion will accept the robe of righteousness that God expects us to wear as members of Christ’s bridal party. Thankfully, we have our Lord’s promise that no matter how we’ve lived our lives, all can be forgiven, all can be covered in Jesus’ righteousness. Salvation is not up to us, and for that we are glad—none of us is competent enough to make wedding clothes fit for God’s inspection. Our white robe, our glorious dress, comes from Jesus, and His righteousness.

Thursday, September 28, 2006


Open your eyes! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in (Revelation 3:20).

If you were taking a ride in a submarine, you might think that so long as the hull remains watertight, you could travel to the deepest parts of the ocean. If you actually tried this, however, you would soon discover how badly you were mistaken. Submarines cannot go too deep; if they do, the weight of the water above will crush them like an empty soft drink can crumpled by your hand. If you want to go really deep, you need to travel in a specially designed deep-sea submersible, fortified by thick armor to resist being crushed at great depths.

Suppose that you did board a heavily shielded research vessel and headed down into the deepest abyss of the ocean. Do you know what you would find there? Fish! Fish with skin only a few millimeters thick. How can fish survive the immense pressure of the deep without protection? The answer is simple: the fish are filled with internal pressure, enough to withstand the water pressure surrounding them. A submarine, filled mostly with air for the crew to breathe, does not have sufficient internal pressure to resist being crushed at great depths.

When confronting the pressures of sin, some Christians try to live like a submarine, shielding themselves from the outside world; they strap themselves into a narrow space where they believe that they are safe from external pressures. They make rigid rules which are designed to reinforce them against temptation. But the deeper that each of us goes into life, the more inadequate such an approach becomes. The pressure brought by sin becomes too great, and eventually we crumple under temptation.

This is why we need to be like the deep-sea fish, filled with positive pressure within ourselves. Rather than simply resisting the pressures of temptation, we need to combat them by building up positive spiritual pressure inside us. We do this by recognizing that the values which the world would impose upon us are nothing but air; they have no substance which can resist evil. Instead, we must heed Jesus who said: Open your eyes! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in. When we let Jesus come into our hearts, we are filled with the power of God Himself, a power that can never be crushed by pressure of sin.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them (Exodus 20:4).

When God gave this commandment to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, the worship of idols was a real problem throughout the world. Strictly defined, an idol is a physical representation of a god. It is a statue or a carving or even a painting of something that people pray to or treat as the most important thing in their lives. In the ancient world, most religions involved the worship of idols.

But idols exist in our modern world as well. For years, Japanese people have been fixated on what they call "idol singers", performers so popular that their fans can scarcely concentrate on anything else. People in Hollywood have created their own twist on this and called it "American Idol." The idea, of course, is that these idols will be so popular that the American public will ignore all other activities in order to watch them.

An idol, as God defines it, is anything that commands the respect and attention that we should be giving Him. Who gets most of your disposable income—God or your own addiction to cigarettes or alcohol or gambling? Which gets the higher priority—time spent in church or time devoted to fishing? What dictates your moral boundaries as you make ethical decisions—the Ten Commandments or your political party? What gives you peace—praying to Jesus or being reassured by your horoscope?

God forbids us from giving our attention to idols. Nothing is more important than God—He gave you life and He sent His Son to the cross to free you from sin and eternal death. To treat anything else as more important is commit the worst sin of all, because the First Commandment says: you shall have no other gods before me. An idol competes with God for your attention; that makes it supremely dangerous to the eternal resting-place for your soul.

Do you have idols? Your business? Your family? A position of leadership in the community? What about a commitment to political correctness? Animal rights? A favorite sports team? A hobby? A boat or RV or cabin by the lake? What consumes your time and energy and resources? What guides you in distinguishing between acceptable and unacceptable behavior? If your answer is anything other than God and His Son Jesus Christ, I urge you to consider carefully if you have an idol in your life.

Friday, September 22, 2006

War in heaven

And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short." (Revelation 12:7-12)

Americans love to read about war. There are countless books that have been published about the Civil War, World War One, World War Two, Vietnam, and the recent wars on terrorism. People are also fascinated with revolution—America’s own Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, and the overthrow of the Russian monarchy by the Bolsheviks, to name but a few. And American Christians love to read about Satan’s battle with the Archangel Michael, and the devil's expulsion from heaven.

We are fascinated with war, I think, because it crystallizes for us who the enemy is. There was never any doubt that Hitler and his Nazis were the enemy, and we knew where to go to fight them. The same was true for the Empire of Japan. And the war of good versus evil is nowhere else so clearly laid out as when we see the forces of heaven in combat with the forces of hell.

Regrettably, much of what has been written about Michael and the angelic army has strayed quite a ways from what God tells us in the Bible. So to begin with, let us look at the words of Revelation and see what they tell us about the time and nature of this "war in heaven".

It is always dangerous to interpret a Bible passage separately from the verses that precede and follow it. Looking at Revelation chapter 12, we read in verses 4 to 6: The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. From today’s reading we know that the dragon is John’s picture-name for Satan; the devil is called a dragon to remind us of the serpent that he controlled when he tempted Eve to sin in the Garden of Eden. Since a dragon is the largest, most dangerous type of serpent, John describes our most dangerous enemy by calling him a dragon. The woman was about to give birth to a male son, who will rule the nations. This male child is Jesus, and the woman is Mary. The dragon was ready to devour the child, but God acted to save Him by rescuing Him from the grave and taking Him to His own side to live forever as the king enthroned over heaven and earth.

Following these events, we are told of a conflict in Heaven. It should not surprise us that Satan had a presence in heaven up to this point; at the beginning of the Book of Job we read, One day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them. The LORD said to Satan, "Where have you come from?" Satan answered the LORD, "From roaming through the earth and going back and forth in it." Although God knew that Satan served his own interests and not heaven’s, open rebellion had not yet occurred, and Satan still had access to the throne of God. What Satan was doing was going down to earth to tempt people to sin, as he had tempted Eve. When he succeeded in getting someone to sin against God’s commands, he then hurried to God to tell Him all about that human’s sin, and demand that God be just and condemn that wretched sinner. This is how the devil got his name—The Accuser.

But after Jesus was born and took on human form, the devil got worried. Jesus became God and Man in one in order to earn forgiveness for Mankind, and with forgiveness the devil would no longer be able to successfully accuse us of sin. So Satan tried his hardest to get Jesus to sin, to doubt His Father, to turn away from death on a Roman cross. But Jesus was the perfectly obedient Son of God, and He would not disobey His Father’s command—out of love for His Father, and out of love for us, Jesus allowed Himself be killed as a criminal for our crimes against God and against each other.

When Jesus died, all of God’s punishment for every sin was meted out. There is no punishment for sin left in God, for those who put their trust in Jesus’ all-availing sacrifice. God the Father was so pleased with His Son’s perfect obedience and perfect love that He raised Jesus from the dead and gave him all authority over heaven and earth. But all this was too much for Satan. Satan is Jesus’ complete opposite. Where Jesus is obedient to God, Satan is disobedient, looking for ways to get around God’s laws. Where Jesus loves others completely, Satan only loves himself. When Satan tempted Adam and Eve, what he did was to encourage them to think as he thought—love yourself, and disobey God if His laws get in the way of your selfish desires.

There was no place in heaven for Satan. With our sins forgiven in Jesus, there was nothing left for him to accuse us of. And for Jesus to now be king was galling to Satan—in the desert, Satan had shown Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. "All this I will give you," he had said, "if you will bow down and worship me" (Matthew 4:9). Satan wanted to be in charge, and now he was to be subject to God’s Son? It was inevitable that conflict resulted.

There are writers who claim that the war in heaven happened before Mankind’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden. But aside from the Book of Job, we must also consider the voice from heaven that John heard: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death." Clearly, the power to overcome Satan and remove him from the presence of God’s throne is the blood of Christ, blood which was shed on the cross. It is Christ who bought salvation from the punishment for our sins. It is by Christ’s power and authority as king that Satan and the angels who sided with him were deported from heaven, never to return. It is because of this deportation that the voice cried out, Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! No believer in Christ need ever fear being accused by Satan before God again. Paul says in Romans chapter 8, Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

It was by Christ’s power and authority that Satan and his followers were evicted, but Michael was delegated the responsibility of carrying out the king’s orders. In Jude, we read that Michael is an archangel—a leader among angels. Nevertheless, even he does nothing without the consent and by the command of God. Michael and his angels act only to carry out the will of the king of heaven. This is like Jesus’ parable of the Wedding Banquet; at the end of the parable, there is a man who tries to crash the celebration, but he has refused to let the king’s servants dress him appropriately for the occasion. We read: Then the king told the attendants, `Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth' (Matthew 22:13). Like the attendants in the parable, God’s angels act to carry out their king’s commands.

So far, this has all been uplifting and hopeful. But then we read, "But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short." Satan has been barred from heaven. Satan is in no hurry to enter hell for eternal torment. So Satan encamps on earth, and spends his time making life as miserable as he can for God’s chosen people. The devil is furious—he can no longer accuse us before God, he has no hope for rulership in heaven, and he knows that the tortures of hell are not far off for him. So he acts out of spite. He lashes out like the mortally wounded animal that he is, bringing pain and suffering wherever he can. He knows his time is limited, so he works all the harder to hurt God’s children in the time that he has left.

But this state of affairs need not concern us too much. Yes, we must be on our guard, because Saint Peter warns us: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). But God reassures us that we can have victory in our struggles with the devil—John recorded, They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. This is how we can prevail over Satan. First, we have the blood of the Lamb. Jesus, the unblemished Lamb of God, was sacrificed for us—His blood atones for our guilt before God. With all our sins forgiven, Satan has no power to call condemnation down on us, no way to make us his eternal slaves. We have access to the power of Jesus’ blood through faith in Him, and through the wine of Holy Communion, a wine that gives us a taste of Jesus’ own true blood, according to His promise.

Second, there is the word of our testimony. John tells us that Jesus is the living Word of God—Jesus speaks of everything that God wants us to know about Him. When Jesus lives in our hearts through faith, God’s own Word lives in us. Remember how Jesus withstood Satan’s temptations in the desert (Matthew chapter 4)? Every time that the devil tried to get Jesus to sin, Jesus responded "It is written", and He then quoted the Holy Scriptures to Satan as His defense. Satan is the Prince of Lies and misdirection; he cannot stand firm in the face of God’s pure truths. The Scripture is our sure defense as well. Whenever we are pressed by Satan with temptation, we have the Word of God to turn to. We can quote those memory verses that we learned in confirmation class, or we can use our Bible’s concordance to find one of the many verses that speaks to our needs. Opposed by God’s living Word, Satan will back off. Jesus did not use any power of His own to resist Satan in the desert—He only used the same divine power that we all have access to, God’s own inspired book: the Bible.

So let Satan rant and rave, let him lash out in impotent fury. The worst that he can do is stir up his followers to kill us; but since we know that Jesus has made heaven ours, we know that we are safe because once in heaven Satan can never approach us again. That is why the voice from heaven said, they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. All our lives, we walk a path towards death; this journey is not always pleasant, but we do not shrink away from the prospect of death because it frees the Christian from Satan’s attacks forever. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts (Hebrews 4:7).

I grew up in a small city. When I went away to college, I moved to a much larger city which had sounds in the night that I had not heard before--sirens, screeching tires, even the occasional gunshot. There were also new smells, especially the bitter odor of air pollution from the large factories scattered throughout the area. But in time, I grew used to these sounds and smells—eventually I could sleep through the night without noticing them.

When I got engaged, it was to a farmer’s daughter. The first night that I spent at her family’s farm was tough—there were sounds and smells that didn’t let me get a good night’s rest. The clanks of animal feeders, the sounds of the cattle, the smell of manure—all these things were strange and new, yet my fiancée and her family acted as if these were ordinary, unremarkable. Their sleep was undisturbed.

The more we are exposed to something, the less sensitive we become to it. People learn to ignore the noise of living by an airport or along railroad tracks; they adapt to living by animal confinements or factories. But we can also become deadened to sin. Back when I was confirmed, I was jolted by every curse word that I heard at school or read in a book; these days, I am still offended by coarse language, but it does not shock me the way it used to. I have become somewhat desensitized to it. In fact, our whole society is becoming desensitized to sin—we are constantly bombarded by depictions of homosexuality, and it gradually seems less offensive. We are constantly exposed to violence, to the point that video games routinely include the shedding of blood as part of the entertainment.

Each of our lives is like a house. Sin is the rain, the wind and the hail that gradually weakens the shingles that protect us from death by exposure to the elements. Every time that we go to Jesus for help because sin is ruining our lives, the carpenter’s Son comes and fixes our damaged roof. But what happens if we learn to sleep through the noise of the storms? What happens when our sins stop disturbing our rest? If we become desensitized to sin, we won’t think about asking Jesus for forgiveness, we won’t ask Him to come and fix our lives. If this happens, we place ourselves in danger, because eventually the constant wear of sin will strip away everything Jesus had given us to protect us, and we will find ourselves dying the death that comes from exposure to the chilling touch of sin.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Our court-appointed defense attorney

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).

In 1977, Disney Pictures released a musical called "Pete’s Dragon"; it concerned itself with an orphaned boy who tries to flee from the evil care of his foster family because they treat him like a slave. In a seaside cave he discovers a dragon named Elliott and becomes best friends with this gentle giant. At the end of the film, all seems lost as the evil foster family shows up with a legal document proving their authority to take Pete away with them. When Pete’s dragon comes to rescue his friend, the villains defiantly wave their legal papers in Elliott’s face, but to the joy of the movie audience, Elliott promptly incinerates the papers with a puff of his fiery breath.

This climactic scene from a children’s movie can serve as an illustration of the day when you stand before God for judgment. You have just died; you have been brought before God to have your eternal destiny decided. We can picture it like a courtroom. Behind the judge's bench sits God the Father. Satan is the prosecutor and you are the defendant. Satan comes forward with a legal document—it accuses you of every crime that you have committed throughout your life. Satan reminds God that the laws you have broken are the laws established by none other than the Mighty Judge Himself. You are accused of many things—fudging on the truth, disobeying your parents and teachers, saying hurtful words to others, and many, many more. The recitation of crimes is seemingly endless. Finally, Satan stops reading. The Devil does not need to call any witnesses; the divine Judge, who sees all, already knows the charges to be true. With an arrogant flourish, Satan demands that you, the defendant, be found guilty on all counts and be remanded to the prison of hell, to be held in solitary confinement forever.

Then it is Jesus’ turn. Jesus is the court-appointed defense attorney, willing to represent everyone who will accept Him as their advocate. Thankfully, in life you had accepted Jesus’ offer to be your counselor. Now, the Son of God steps forward. He smiles at you reassuringly. He holds out a nail-scarred hand, one of the hands that was affixed to the cross. A drop of blood drips from the wound and lands on the Devil’s list of your crimes. Instantly, the entire paper bursts into flames; all that remains is illegible ash. Jesus turns to His Father and says, "the blood I shed on the cross has done away with all these charges—I move for acquittal." And then, even though you were indeed guilty of everything the Devil accused you of, because of Jesus the Judge will say "I find you not guilty. Welcome to paradise."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Quality of Life

For I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:19-27).

We live in a world that is very concerned about something called "quality of life". Millions of dollars are spent on government programs that are designed to improve the "quality of life" for disadvantaged Americans. Doctors who diagnose possible birth defects in a fetus often ask pregnant women to consider abortion on the basis of whether or not their baby can realistically expect to enjoy "quality of life". And many families wrestle with the question of what to do about the life of a terminally ill loved one—does the cancer patient or the victim of AIDS have "quality of life"?

What is "quality of life"? Ask ten different people and you’ll get ten different answers. Some will emphasize personal comfort—they don’t want to be in pain, they don’t want to be living in poverty. Others will speak of fulfillment—they want to have a purpose for getting out of bed in the morning. Many will speak of relationships—they don’t want to live their life alone. But at the root of every person’s answer, I suspect that you’ll find a similar sentiment—"I want to be happy."

Saint Paul wrote today’s Epistle while he was in prison. By many people’s standards, he was not experiencing "quality of life". But the tone of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is one of joy and contentment. Paul is not weighed down by his circumstances; in fact, he actually finds things to rejoice in.

In order to understand where Paul is coming from, we need to consider one of his most personal, most joyous statements—he writes to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. What a remarkable statement of faith! It is so deep that at first reading most of us fail to understand the true depths of Paul’s relationship with our Savior. Just what does Paul mean, to live is Christ and to die is gain?

To live is Christ. A simple sentence, but so rich in meaning. Paul is saying that Christ defines his life in every way possible. Some people look at life and see only hopelessness. The world around them is filled with anger, broken promises, and the inevitable deaths of those they love. They see sickness and lawlessness and hypocrisy, and they wonder why they should go on living. They see the effects of sin, and they experience the misery that sin brings.

Paul saw sin as well. Paul experienced the effects of sin in a very personal way; in the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, he wrote I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it…What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? But Paul did not give in to despair—instead, he next wrote Thanks be to God--through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Paul gave thanks to God, because our heavenly Father sent Jesus to die for our sins. All of the Father’s anger at our evil ways was inflicted on Jesus, the perfect Son of God. Jesus suffered our rightful punishment, so that we need not be slaves to sin and enemies of the God who hates sin. Because of Jesus the Christ, citizenship in God’s kingdom of heaven is available to all who turn away from the pleasures of sin and instead embrace the forgiving love of Christ.

Paul still committed sins, of course—we all fall prey to sin every day that we are alive. But Paul found joy in life because he believed with absolute certainty that Jesus had risen from the grave and lives eternally. And because Jesus lives, He is always there to forgive, to comfort, to strengthen, and to lead. Jesus’ life had been all about serving the needs of others; His death on our behalf was the ultimate expression of loving service to others. When God revealed this truth to Paul, it had changed his life. Paul now looked at his life as a way to say "thank you" to Jesus for the undeserved blessing of forgiveness and heavenly love. For Paul, to live is Christ. To live is to dedicate every waking moment to Jesus.

Every day should be lived in thankfulness. Paul had excellent reasons to grumble—he was attacked by mobs, he was beaten, and he was imprisoned, all for no other reason than that he preached about Jesus. But Paul did not grumble or complain, and he urges us in Ephesians chapter five to Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). The hope that Jesus brings gives us no reason to grumble or complain about our present circumstances.

For Paul, to live is Christ also meant that all his time and energy centered on serving Jesus. That meant that he studied the scriptures and prayed regularly, looking for Jesus to guide him in all his decisions. Lead by Jesus, Paul applied his energy in many ways. He announced the grace of God offered through Jesus to every stranger that he met. He spent time helping other Christians learn how to work together in the church, instead of wasting time with needless squabbling. He helped those in need, by organizing a famine relief drive for the brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. And when Paul worked at making tents, it was only to feed himself so that he could continue to do the most important work of serving Jesus by serving God’s children. Jesus came to serve others; Paul took very seriously Jesus’ words whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:43-45).

To die is gain. Until we die, we are tainted with sin. We are forgiven, yet we still sin over and over again. Only death releases us from sin forever. Only death ushers us into our Savior’s presence, where we may finally see Him eye to eye. And if we know who Jesus is, if we have a relationship of love and trust with Him, this will be a most glorious meeting! Paul looked forward to seeing his Savior more than anything else. Our Lord invites us to a place where there is no disease, no feebleness of old age, no death. There is no fighting there, no bigotry, no laziness, no loneliness. In heaven there is no sin, no temptation to do evil. There is only the love of God and the perfected fellowship of all believers.

Paul says that if he were forced to make a choice between serving Jesus on earth or enjoying heaven, the decision would be hard. Heaven is perfection, but continued life on earth is continued opportunity to say thank you to Jesus by being His servant to people who need to be touched by God’s love. In the end, Paul decides, it is better to serve for now, to seize every moment that God gives to show His love in a world that stumbles in the darkness of sin.

So what about "quality of life"? If we define "quality of life" as having a reason to get out of bed in the morning, then every Christian has "quality of life". God gives us our reason to live. Our Lord has given us things to do for Him in life, according to Ephesians chapter 2, we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

If we define "quality of life" as freedom from loneliness, then every Christian has "quality of life". God has promised: Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). And when we thank our Lord by serving others in their need, we are together with God’s other children, sharing the blessings of His love together.

If we define "quality of life" as not living in want or need, then every Christian has "quality of life". We in America have so much compared to people in other parts of the world, that we often forget that computers and cars and private homes and college educations are luxuries, not necessities for living. God promises to give us what we need to stay alive and serve Him; He often gives us more, but His promise is to take care of our needs. Our Lord tells us: Do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:31-33).

There are some who would object to what I’ve written. They would say that no one should have to live with a serious birth defect, in severe poverty, or in constant pain. To such people I would hold out Helen Keller, who did great things in life despite being both blind and deaf. I would remind them that God creates all life, and every life is precious to Him—Jesus said, Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:29-31). The fact is, even when we are burdened with affliction, we can be useful to God. Consider Jesus’ words when He spoke of the Final Judgment: Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' "Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' "The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' (Matthew 25:34-40). Just think: if you find yourself confined to a hospital bed, God can use your situation to allow others to serve Him by serving you! Even a Christian who is an invalid can be a way for God to show blessings to His people. And as to Paul: I would like to remind you that even while he sat in prison, he wrote Philemon, Colossians, Ephesians, Philippians, and 2nd Timothy! Much of the New Testament was written by God through a man who many would say was not experiencing "quality of life".

God’s love serves others in their needs. Jesus suffered death itself because we needed Him to die in order that we could live in heaven. Jesus shares His love with us; He forgives our sins and He enables us to reflect His love, although imperfectly, to others. As long as we are alive, God gives us opportunities to share His love. As Christians, we share that love with others in their need, and we do it thankfully, grateful for every opportunity to say "thank you" to our Lord for all that He has done for us. Heaven will be wonderful, but like Paul, let us never tire of doing good on Christ’s behalf. Jesus defines our lives—our "quality of life" is found in Him alone.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Useful service

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms (1 Peter 4:10).

Florence Nightingale was born in the spring of 1820 in Italy. She almost single-handedly took the nursing profession from a crude "Middle Ages" mentality to the high esteem in which it is held today. However, her entry into this care-giving field was not without problems.

Florence’s parents were upper-crust British folk, with all the expected trappings. They spent their lives travelling, entertaining, and being served by maids, valets and coachmen. When Florence and her sister came of age, her mother added six bedrooms to one of their mansions in order to increase the social and marital possibilities of the new debutantes.

Florence, however, had a higher calling. When she looked at those extra rooms, she saw places that ought to be used for the care of the sick. She once wrote, "Since I was 24, there never has been any vagueness in my plans or ideas as to what God’s work was for me." Her parents opposed this calling, claiming in disgust that her ambition was to be nothing more than a simple kitchen maid. But Florence hung her nursing cap on this inspiration: Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.

God has given you a gift as well. It might not be as immediately obvious or dramatic as Florence’s gift for nursing, but God has equipped you to do something special. Maybe you are good with flowers; perhaps you have a knack with children. Some people are adept with numbers, others can get a stain or wrinkle out of just about anything. Maybe you have strong arms; maybe you are good with small engines or computers. The point is, God has given you a skill that can be used by Him to serve His church and the Christians who belong to it.

Are you using your skill in God’s service? People with green thumbs can decorate the church or maintain its flowerbeds. People who have a knack with children can help with Sunday School or in the nursery. If you are competent with numbers, perhaps you could serve as treasurer; if you are good with laundry, you could care for the altar cloths and vestments. Strong arms and a mechanic’s touch are always needed for keeping the church and its equipment in shape, and every parish office appreciates those who can use computers. There are many ways to serve God; what has He equipped you to do?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Drifting away

Restore us, O LORD, and bring us back to you again! Give us back the joys we once had! (Lamentations 5:21)

Ask a rancher how a cow gets lost and chances are he will reply: ‘Well, the cow starts nibbling on a tuft of green grass, and when it finishes it looks ahead to the next tuft of green grass and starts nibbling on that one. Eventually it nibbles on a tuft of green grass next to a hole in the fence, and then goes on to the next tuft it sees on the other side. Before you know it, the cow has nibbled itself into being lost.’

The point is that people don’t usually realize they are drifting away from the security and love of home until it is too late. Many workaholics are shocked when their spouse files for divorce and custody of the children; they didn’t realize how the ever increasing hours spent in the office or on the road had been gradually stealing more and more of their time away from their family, until the neglected relationship withered and died.

This happens to Christians, too. A person is baptized and confirmed in the church, but then attendance starts to drop off; there are other things to do that start getting in the way of coming to worship or studying the Bible or even praying. Life seems to get too busy, too exhausting, to shoehorn in time for God. And anyway, He will understand that you are just too busy to spend quality time with Him right now; maybe in a few weeks, when things slow down…and one day you find that you have abandoned God and His house.

Does this describe you? Have you fallen out of the habit of attending church or reading the Bible or praying? It is not too late to turn things around. God does not want to divorce you; so long as you still draw breath, He wants you back in His loving arms. Start by praying—pray today. Tell the Lord that you are sorry for neglecting your relationship with Him, and ask Him to forgive you for Jesus’ sake. Set aside time every day to pray, a time when you won’t be distracted--maybe while driving to work or as you take a shower. Next, find a house of worship and go. If you are too embarrassed to go back to the congregation you have been absent from, go to a different one—just get yourself into a place where you are surrounded by fellow believers in Jesus Christ. And finally, blow the dust off your Bible and start reading it—start with one of the four Gospels, and let Jesus remind you how wonderful it can be to spend time with Him.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Forgiving others for hurting you

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.

"The servant fell on his knees before him. `Be patient with me,' he begged, `and I will pay back everything.' The servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

"But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. `Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.

"His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, `Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'

"But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.

"Then the master called the servant in. `You wicked servant,' he said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

"This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart" (Matthew 18:21-35).

How many times have you been lied to? How many times has someone spread false rumors about you? How many times have you been yelled at for no good reason? How many times have people cheated you or stolen from you? How many times has someone you loved betrayed your trust in some way?

How often have other people sinned against you?

If you took the time to add them up, I’m confident that you would end up with a very large number of wrongs that you have been victim of. Now, let me ask you for another number: how many times have you forgiven someone? How many times have you said the words out loud—"I forgive you." How many times have you let something go, rather than carry a grudge?

Have you forgiven as many sins as have been committed against you?

Forgiveness is hard. Consider Peter’s attitude towards forgiveness. Peter had been trained by the religious teachers to believe that he was only obligated to forgive another Jew a maximum of three times—he need not forgive again if the same man sinned against him a fourth time. But Peter had been Jesus’ disciple for many months now, and Peter had been taught that followers of Jesus must be forgiving of others. So Peter, thinking himself quite generous, asks Jesus, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

Jesus corrects Peter by saying, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times." Shocking! Compelled to use this standard, how could a man keep track of how many times his brother had sinned against him? But the point that Jesus makes is that Peter should not be trying to keep track of how many times he’s been sinned against. If Peter is keeping track of the wrongs that he has suffered, he is not truly forgiving them. In 1st Corinthians 13:4-5 we are told "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." Jesus illustrates this point with a parable.

Jesus describes a king who decides to settle accounts with those who have been acting as administrators in his kingdom. The first man to come before him has messed up big time—he has incurred the astronomical debt of 10,000 talents. In our present economy, he was in debt to the tune of two and a half billion dollars! And as the man appointed by the king to be in charge, he was now being held personally responsible for the money that he had lost.

Talk about an impossible situation! In a panic, the man pleads for time to repay, but both he and the king know how ridiculous this offer is—there is absolutely no way that the man could ever repay the money that he owes his king. But the man’s desperate plea for mercy touch the king’s heart, and the servant's master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

Canceled the debt. Imagine what the servant must have felt at that moment. No book of payment coupons. No second loan on the house. The debt was canceled, gone, forgotten, never to be mentioned again. All the fear of the king’s coming wrath—gone, just like that. All the worrying about how to make things right—ended. The money was still mismanaged, the government checkbook still showed a loss, but the servant was no longer held accountable for it—the king stood the loss. The servant’s debt was forgiven.

This describes our forgiveness before God so wonderfully. We have run up an immense number of sins in our lives. Pretend, if you will, that you only sin once every waking hour, every day. That sin could include telling a white lie, listening to a bit of gossip, or talking to a friend on the phone while your baby’s diaper needs changing. Those hourly sins could include making a nasty comment to someone that you are mad at, trying to get a child to do what you want by making them feel guilty, or wasting time feeling sorry for yourself. Your list of sins might include every pound that you are overweight, every cigarette that you smoke, or every minute that you are drunk, because your body is God’s temple and you are mistreating that temple by abusing its health. And let us not forget the time spent living together outside of marriage, time spent breaking the law by speeding, or time spent watching television instead of telling an unbeliever about Jesus Christ. Let’s add them up, shall we? If you only sin once an hour for 16 hours a day, by the time you start high school you have sinned at least 70,000 times! By the time you reach 30, the number rises to 175,000. By the time you retire, your load of sins exceeds 409,000.

Of course, such numbers are meaningless. We are sinners by nature—every moment that we are alive, we exist in a state of sin. Numbering them is impossible. I only gave you the numbers I did to show you how immense a load of sin we incur as we live our mistake-filled lives. That is why Jesus’ forgiveness is such a wonderful gift! We have accumulated a debt before God that is just as hopeless as the debt of the servant in the parable. We make mistakes constantly, and we worry about how we can set things right. We can’t. Only Jesus can set things right. Jesus allowed Himself to be beaten, humiliated and brought to the brink of death itself, so that He could settle our debt for us. In His suffering and voluntary death, Jesus paid off our moral bankruptcy. Now, when we come to Him burdened by guilt over all our sins, Jesus forgives us, truly forgives us. He cancels all our debt, and forgets it completely. Our God promises "I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more" (Jeremiah 31:34).

What a relief! What a tremendous load has been lifted from our shoulders! No more worrying. No more fearing the future. When we come to Jesus and ask for mercy, He takes all our guilt away. The sins still happened, but because of Jesus, God the Father does not hold us accountable for them any longer. Even though we are corrupt sinners, because of Jesus’ mercy, God sees us as pure, holy, and acceptable to be His children. This is the gift of grace that we only receive through faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior.

But Jesus’ parable does not stop there. What response arises from a man whose impossible debt has been completely forgiven? Jesus illustrates one possibility. The servant of the parable tracks down one of his peers, a man who owes him about five thousand dollars. He tries to intimidate the man into immediately paying off his debt, and when he can’t get his money, the servant has the man thrown into debtor’s prison. Word quickly gets back to the king, and the servant soon finds himself worse off than before. `You wicked servant,' the king said, `I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. This man, who had received such a tremendous gift of grace, now found himself not a slave, but tortured until he could pay off a debt that was forever beyond his means.

I want you to notice something. The first time that the servant was called to account, the king had no special words of condemnation for him. But later, after misusing the king’s charity, the servant was now called "wicked". The application to us is plain: we who have been forgiven much, dare not refuse to forgive each other our much smaller debts. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to say "and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." The Kingdom of God is built on forgiveness; no human being would be a citizen in the Kingdom if it were not so. For us to refuse to forgive is to renounce what the Kingdom of God is all about.

It is easy to withhold forgiveness. Sometimes we just bite our tongue, but we hold the hurt in. Years go by where we never forgive the sin that was committed against us, but we give no clue that we still harbor a grudge, and the other person mistakenly thinks that all is well between us. Other times, we say that we forgive, but we don’t really mean it—we just say the words to make everyone happy. But the proof of our buried anger comes out when, in the middle of an argument, we dredge up old hurts as if they had just happened yesterday. And sometimes we say that we forgive and we even think that we mean it—but when we are reluctant to trust the person who hurt us as we used to trust them, we show by our actions that we have not truly forgiven them, because we have kept a record of wrongs in our heart.

True forgiveness only comes from Jesus; only He can help us to forgive as He has first forgiven us. Only Jesus can give us the genuine heart of love to say "I forgive you", even when the person who has hurt us doesn’t want our forgiveness. Only Jesus can help us resist the temptation to keep dredging up old hurts when we argue, old hurts that we want to use to hurt others as we’ve been hurt. Only Jesus can give us the courage to trust someone we’ve forgiven, trust them as if they had never betrayed us. Only Jesus can help us to forget the hurts of the past.

Forgiveness is not easy. Forgiveness means accepting hurt, and refusing to return that hurt in kind. It hurt Jesus tremendously to forgive us—it hurt Him to the very point of death. But Jesus was willing to bear that hurt so that our huge debt of sin could be canceled. That is what the Kingdom of God is all about—the forgiveness that is the proof of perfect love. Jesus stands ready to show you mercy. Jesus waits you to come to Him and ask that your debt be canceled. Jesus is even willing to forgive your reluctance to forgive those who’ve wronged you. All He asks is that you trust in His mercy, and trust that His way of forgiveness is the way to our Father who art in Heaven.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Called back from the brink of disaster

Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live (Isaiah 55:3).

The St. Louis Zoo had just opened "Big Cat Country," which allowed tigers and lions to come out of their cages and roam in a large enclosure. Visitors could observe them from an elevated skyway above their habitat. A mother with small children was walking up one of the skyways when a blanket got caught in the wheel of her stroller. The mother stopped to untangle it while her sons, ages three and five, went ahead. When she was ready to move on, she looked for the boys and discovered to her horror that they had innocently walked through a small gap in the fence and had climbed up on some rocks towering 20 feet above the lion pen. They had been told that they would be able to look down on the lions, and they were doing just that from their hazardous vantage point. Pointing to the lions, they called back to their mother, "Hey, Mom, we can see them."

The boys had no concept of how much danger they were in. The mother saw it immediately, but what could she do? The gap in the fence was too small for her to get through. If she screamed, the boys might panic and slip off the rock. So she knelt down, spread out her arms and said, "Boys, come get a hug." And they came running.

In the Lord’s Prayer we say "forgive us our trespasses." To trespass is to go through a fence that was designed to keep us out. God put fences in our lives to protect us from danger. His fences are the Ten Commandments, and they were designed to protect us from falling into the pit of hell where the devil prowls like a roaring lion, waiting to tear at us for all eternity. We squirm through God’s fence when we ignore Him, when we show disrespect to those who are in authority, when we act in anger, when we indulge in sex outside of marriage, when we cheat on our tax returns, when we participate in gossip, when we waste all our money on things to make us feel good. When we act in these ways we become trespassers, people who foolishly wander into dangerous situations we do not fully comprehend or appreciate.

But Jesus calls us back to the safety of His arms. His arms stretched wide for us on the cross where they bled because of His love for us, a love that would endure anything to save us from the danger our foolish trespassing has placed us in. Jesus calls us back from the edge of a terrifying drop into hell; He calls each of us by name, offering us the security of his love.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Because I live, you also will live (John 14:18-19).

A deadly earthquake killed thousands of people in Central America. In the midst of the confusion a father rushed to the school where his son had gone that morning and discovered that the building was flat as a pancake. Standing there looking at the wreckage, the father remembered a promise he had made to his son: "No matter what, I’ll always be there for you." Tears filled his eyes; it looked like a hopeless situation. Then he remembered that his son’s classroom was at the corner of the building, which meant there might have been some protection. He went there and started digging through the rubble. Other grieving parents came, but they all said, "It’s too late. They are dead." Even a police officer and a firefighter told him that he should go home. It was useless, they said. But the father continued digging for his son stone by stone. He dug for 8 hours, then 12, then 24, and then 36 hours. Finally in the 38th hour as he removed a boulder, he heard his son’s voice. He screamed his boy’s name, "ARMAND!" A small voice answered, "It’s me, Dad." Then the boy added, "I told the other kids not to worry. I told them that if you were alive you would save me, and if you saved me they’d be saved too. You kept your promise. You said, ‘No matter what, I’ll always be there for you.’"

We Christians are like little Armand. We live in a world that has been wrecked because of sin. The wreckage of that sin crushes us, suffocates us in the dark and makes us feel as if we are trapped with no way out.

But like Armand, we are not afraid. We do not give in to despair, because we know that our Lord Jesus has made us a promise: I will come to you. Because I live, you also will live. Jesus rose from the death that our sins had inflicted upon Him; He rose and ascended into heaven, and He is alive right now. And because He lives, He can guarantee us rescue from being trapped by this world’s fall. Because Jesus is alive, we can have complete confidence that He will come to where sin has trapped us in the dark and open the way for us to find light and life.

We should be like Armand in one other way. He assured the other children trapped with him that his father could be counted upon not only to save him, but all of them as well. Many people in your life feel trapped in the dark, but are in despair because they have no hope for rescue. Be an Armand to them; tell them that because Jesus lives, you know that you will be rescued, and that Jesus will move heaven and earth to rescue them from sin and death as well.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

God and government

Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "Do not commit adultery," "Do not murder," "Do not steal," "Do not covet," and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:1-10).

Very soon, our nation will be observing the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the thousands of lives that were affected. Almost from the beginning, evil acts have been a part of our world. Adam and Eve’s first son Cain murdered their second son Abel in cold blood. Cain feared the repercussions of his crime—he said to God, "My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me." God had to reassure Cain, "Not so; if anyone kills Cain, he will suffer vengeance seven times over." Then the LORD put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him (Genesis 4:13-15).

Even before Adam and Eve had died, there was already a need in the world for government to control human behavior.

Every human being is sinful; everyone has the natural desire to turn away from goodness and do evil. We read in Ecclesiastes 7:20, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." Some of this evil, men keep hidden inside—envy, jealousy, lustful thoughts. Other evils are seen by only a few—adultery, gossiping, theft, disrespect of parents. Some evils are obvious to all—murder, slander, rebellion against all authority, hatred for God and His church. Sins that are kept hidden in the heart only damn the one person, but most sins also hurt others—many times, they hurt Christians.

Thankfully, God has provided a solution to sin and the hurt that it causes. God sent His Son Jesus to teach us about love. Love does no harm to its neighbor. Love is the opposite of evil. Evil is about taking, love is about giving. Evil is about hurting, love is about healing and protecting. And Jesus tells us: "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

Jesus did more than teach about love. Jesus lived a life of love, and when He died He made His life a gift of love to every sinner. Jesus gave up His life in exchange for our lives; He suffered hell on the cross, so that when we die hell might have no claim on us. Jesus’ love fulfilled God’s Law for us, making us holy and acceptable to God. Paul writes, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2). All we need do is admit that we are sinners, and trust that Jesus will forgive us and bring us to His Father in heaven when our lives are at an end. Scripture says simply, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:31).

Jesus died for all sinners, but the sad fact is that many refuse His gracious offer of salvation. Some people are prideful—they resist the idea that they need a Savior because they don’t see anything evil in themselves. Others resist the idea of receiving heavenly citizenship for free—they think that they must earn heaven by the way they live their lives. Some reject Jesus because they believe that a God of love could not hate sin enough to send anyone to hell, so no savior from sin is needed. And there are those who don’t believe that there is a god of any kind at all.

People who reject God and His teachings still have a conscience, because mankind was created in the image of God, and Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—a knowledge that we have all inherited as well. But the temptation to sin trips up everyone, even Christians—and without faith in God to help in resisting temptation, the non-Christian lives his life a slave to sinful impulses. And so it is that the world around us is filled with evil acts—murder, adultery, theft, and perjury. The world is often a very dangerous place to live in.

But Jesus loves His children, and He cares for them. The Bible teaches us that God sends his angels to protect us, but they are not the only protection that He provides. God also instituted governments to protect His people from uncontrolled sinning. Paul says, there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. These governments have been established to bring fear to those who are plotting to do evil, for they do not bear the sword for nothing. The word for "sword" that Paul uses in this passage refers to a Roman weapon that was often used in the execution of criminals. It is clear that Paul expects the government to use lethal force, when necessary, to keep evil under control. This is why we have armed servicemen, armed militia, and armed officers of the peace.

Governmental protection is important for two reasons. First of all, our branches of the military and our law-enforcement agencies keep us as safe as possible from crime and from the persecution of those who hate Christians. But perhaps even more importantly, the government makes it possible for us to spread the word of Jesus by protecting our right of free speech, our right to freedom of religion, and our right to peaceable assembly. Paul enjoyed certain protections under Roman Law as a citizen of the Empire; he traveled in relative safety through many provinces on his missionary journeys because the Romans kept the roads safe from bandits, and he appealed to the government for protection when Jewish extremists tried to kidnap and murder him. Paul could see the benefit of having a government, even if that government was not run by Christians.

Of course, not every government does a good job of being God's servant to do you good. Stalinist Russia treated Christians quite badly, as has Communist China. In the Bible, Pharaoh stubbornly kept God’s people in harsh slavery in spite of the plagues that God sent against him. But God does not place evil men into office; rather, He creates the office itself, and gives it the power of His own authority. As an example: in our own country, a person might not respect the man who is president, but he can and should still respect the office of the presidency.

Even when evil men run the government, God expects us to submit to authority. The only time that disobedience is allowed is when the government tries to make us act contrary to the word of God. When this kind of conflict arises, we agree with the Apostles that "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29) As an example, consider Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—three men who refused to pray to the Babylonian king as if he were God. They did not disobey the government in any way, save one: they would not commit the sin of idolatry by praying to the king. And when King Nebuchadnezzar ordered their deaths by fire, they did not resist arrest, trial, or execution—they remained submissive to the government, and entrusted their souls to the Lord, who caused their lives to be miraculously spared (Daniel chapter 3).

Even our Lord Jesus was submissive to a corrupt government. Pontius Pilate had no legitimate grounds upon which to order Jesus’ crucifixion—Pilate only gave in to the demands of the Jews to protect his position as governor. Yet by submitting to the government—even one with corrupt leadership—Jesus ended up bringing the greatest blessing of all time into our lives. By submitting to an unjust death sentence, Jesus won salvation for every repentant sinner.

This illustrates an important point. Paul tells us, "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" (Romans 8:28). God has established governments throughout history and He can make them serve Him, even if they don’t realize that they are doing so. As an example, in Judges chapter 10 we read, Again the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the LORD. They served the Baals and the Ashtoreths, and the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites and the gods of the Philistines. And because the Israelites forsook the LORD and no longer served him, he became angry with them. He sold them into the hands of the Philistines and the Ammonites, who that year shattered and crushed them. For eighteen years they oppressed all the Israelites on the east side of the Jordan in Gilead, the land of the Amorites…Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD, "We have sinned against you, forsaking our God and serving the Baals." The Philistines and the Ammonites were enemies of God’s people, yet He used them to punish His peoples’ sins—and they never realized that they were tools in God’s hands.

God instituted marriage. Not all marriages are perfect—many are disgraced or destroyed by abuse, adultery, or unforgiving hearts. But the evil acts of some husbands and wives do not destroy the institution of marriage, which was created by God. The same is true of government. Evil men and women may abuse their authority, but we are called upon to respect the offices of government just as we are to respect the sanctity of every marriage. We respect government because lawbreakers are subject to punishment, but more importantly we respect government because of our conscience—we respect that which God has established.

The events of 9/11 were a tragedy that will never be forgotten. Some people have asked, "where was God that day?" My answer is that God was there—His presence was felt in many ways, and one of those ways was through the hands of policemen, firemen, the National Guard, and the other representatives and employees of our government who were faithful in carrying out the job our Lord had given them—protecting and guarding His people. That work has been continued by our president, our congress, and our armed forces. Many of them are not Christian. None of them are perfect. But they are employed by God on our behalf, and our Lord expects that we pay them the respect they are due.

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