Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Feeling like a failure

Anyone who believes in Him will not be disappointed (Romans 10:11).

Years ago, George Frederick Handel was alone in his room, weary and depressed. A few days earlier, his orchestra had been thrown into the street following a rehearsal. The next day, a concert audience ridiculed his music. Handel was sure that he was a failure, and that nothing remained except for him to give up music and leave London.

Suddenly, a knock at the door interrupted his self-pity. A friend stood there with the words for a new oratorio, and he asked Handel to compose the accompanying music. At first Handel refused—but when he saw the title of the piece, Messiah, and read the first few pages, the musician was struck by the love of Christ. He fell to his knees and prayed for the Lord’s help in writing a suitable score, then threw himself into three weeks of almost uninterrupted work. At the end, looking over the result of his labors, Handel said, "I have never been so happy as I am now." Later, when Handel’s Messiah was performed in Dublin and the Hallelujah Chorus finished echoing through the concert hall, the audience rose to its feet to enthusiastically honor the man who, not all that long ago, had deemed himself an utter failure.

Perhaps you feel like a failure—a failure as a student, a failure as an employee, a failure as a spouse or parent. Maybe you’ve been considering giving up—dropping out of school, quitting your job, filing for divorce...even committing suicide. Of course, I don’t know what has brought you to this point, but I can say this to you—don’t be in a hurry to make a life-changing decision. Think back over your life so far—how many decisions made in haste or based on strong emotion have turned out to be good decisions? My guess would be, not many. When things are not going well, it is tempting to throw in the towel and give up, but doing so is rarely the wise decision.

Have you ever heard the Hallelujah Chorus? It is one of the most beautiful pieces of church music ever composed. At the point when Handel was about to hang up his career, the Lord gave him an unprecedented opportunity to enrich the church and the world of music forever. What a tragedy, had Handel given up; what a tragedy if you give up before discovering if the Lord will present you with an opportunity to use your life to do something great for Him. Don’t be in a rush to walk away; instead, pray to Jesus every day to help you see clearly how He can bring success out of your failures.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The righteousness of God

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished--he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law (Romans 3:19-28).

The end of October celebrates the anniversary of the Reformation. The heart of the Reformation is understanding the righteousness of God. Correctly understanding God’s righteousness is what took the reverend doctor Martin Luther from being a guilt-ridden monk and made him a confident reformer and pastor of the Christian church. Correctly understanding the righteousness of God is what lifts us from the filthy muck of our sins and guilt and shows us the joyful truth that Jesus has cleansed us and made us presentable to stand before our God, unafraid of His anger.

Righteousness is not the same as holiness. God is holy—that means there is nothing evil or corrupt about Him. But righteousness is something different. Righteousness is about how God reacts to sin.

God is perfect, and He finds the imperfection of sin to be intolerable. We live in a world that is infested with sin everywhere you look; since it is so much a part of everybody’s lives, most people don’t get too shook up over sin--unless they are the victim of someone else’s sin. Then it becomes a big deal, because it now affects them personally. But for the most part, the people of our world don’t get too excited about violating God’s expectations (if they can get away with it).

The reason that God takes sin so seriously is because of what we read in 1 John 4:16. The evangelist tells us that "God is love". Such a simple phrase to describe such an important truth. God is love. Think about the implications. We know that God created everything; in Colossians chapter 1 Paul writes, "For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." Without God, no one would be alive. Without God, there would be no world to live in. And without God, no one would ever experience love.

How important is love? It’s more important than life--more people commit suicide because they feel unloved than for any other reason. Love is crucial in order for us to be happy—notice that more songs are written about love than about any other subject. Are workaholics praised for loving their jobs more than their families? Of course not. We’re kidding ourselves if any of us think that there is anything more important than love.

But let’s be clear—love is not just an emotion. Love is more than attraction or affection or finding happiness in the company of another. Love is service. Love is caring. Love is commitment to serving and caring for another person, even when that caring service leads to unpleasant things like visiting a sick friend in the hospital, disciplining a willful child, or admitting that you were wrong in order to save a marriage from divorce. Love is wonderful, but it comes with obligations—love can be hard.

God is the source of love. He knows better than any of us what true love entails, and it infuriates Him to see people act without love towards each other. When we get into fights over foolish, earthly things, we fail to show loving care. When we wonder what it would be like to have an intimate relationship with someone that we are not married to, we violate the commitment of love. When we cheat or steal from another person, we act without love. When we speak badly about others, when we plot and plan how to get the advantage over others, we are not serving in love.

And what is the effect of these loveless acts? Pain, anger, bitterness, loneliness, and despair. The very things you would not dream of doing to a person that you loved if you were in your right mind. But we are not in our right minds. God created mankind with right minds, but sin has twisted our thinking, corrupted our morals. There is an old saying that "you always hurt the one you love". It’s a true statement—everyone that we love, we love in an imperfect, twisted way, and it is the corruption of our tainted love that causes the hurt.

Is it any wonder, then, that God finds sin to be detestable? Every moment of every day, God looks in love on the humans He has created, and sees them trampling on his gift of love as they constantly hurt each other by their sinful thoughts, words and deeds.

I said earlier that righteousness is how God reacts to sin. To us, it would seem perfectly natural that God’s reaction would be to just incinerate the world and its people in cleansing flame and be done with it. But God is perfect in every way. He is perfectly holy, which means that He cannot tolerate sin. And our God is perfect in His love for us—He does not want to see anyone lost forever in the corruption and despair of sin’s control, and He has been willing to make whatever sacrifice is needed to remove us from the doom of sin.

The sacrifice that God made out of love for us was in sending His holy Son Jesus to be the bearer of our sins. The righteousness of God—His reaction to sin—demanded that two things be done. Sin must be punished severely, and mankind must be offered a way to escape God’s terrible punishment on sin. Jesus did both for us. From the beginning of time, God had in mind exactly how Jesus would satisfy the righteousness of God, and God announced this plan of salvation through the Law and the prophets, the writings of the Old Testament. Jesus came among us to take upon Himself God’s punishment of our evil deeds. Jesus Himself was sinless; Jesus Himself loved perfectly. And that perfect love led Jesus to accept every bit of His Father’s angry judgment upon human sin, a judgment that resulted in the death of our promised savior.

But Jesus’ death was not the end of the story. Jesus not only dealt with the pain of sin, He also overcame the death that is the result of sin. Paul tells us "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Death is the result of living in the grasp of sin. But since Jesus suffered for all of us the death that comes from sin, we need no longer fear death. Jesus Himself rose from the grave to prove to us that the power of sin is broken forever. With the power of sin destroyed, death lost its grip on Jesus. And we can hope for freedom from sin and death as well.

We can be free of the domination of sin and the eternal death that it brings by trusting in Jesus. Paul tells us, This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. This righteousness, this access to God through the work of His Son, is free; Paul continues, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.

"Justified" is a word you don't see used much anymore. To illustrate its meaning, consider the story of Merlin Carothers. He joined the army in World War Two, but got into trouble and was sentenced to five years in prison. Instead of sending him to prison, the judge told Carothers that he could serve out his term by staying in the army for five years instead, but if he ever left the army, he would have to return to prison to finish out the balance of his term. The war ended before the five years were up, so Carothers returned to the judge to find out where he would serve the remainder of his sentence. To his surprise and delight, Carothers was told that he had received a full pardon by President Truman. Carothers was told, "This means that your record is completely clear. Just as if you had never gotten in trouble with the law."

That is how justification before God works. Carothers had still committed his crime, but because of the presidential pardon his criminal record was torn up, destroyed. When we go to Jesus in faith seeking mercy because of our faulty love, God gives us His pardon; because the Son of God forgives us and represents us to His Father as His own brothers and sisters, God the Father treats us as if we had never sinned. And this incredible gift is free. We have done nothing to earn it; Paul reminds us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Jesus forgives us and guarantees us new life after death, purely because He loves us—loves us perfectly.

The righteousness of God is how God reacts to sin. The righteousness of God is His plan of salvation for the human race, the plan whereby sin is treated as the evil thing that it is, but man is offered escape from God’s just wrath. The righteousness of God has been played out in the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ. The righteousness of God is His free gift—to Martin Luther, to you, to me, to all who believe in Jesus as the only rescuer from sin and unending death.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).

Have you ever thought about your death?

Some people believe that when you die, it’s all over. No more pain, no more pleasure, no more stress, no more anything—they believe that when life ends, they end. I cannot imagine the terror these people must feel at the approach of death. It would make life completely pointless. Why dedicate yourself to anything beyond food and sex and sleep, if everything you’ve tried to achieve with your life ends when you die? What is the point of doing anything? What a dismal life that sounds like.

Personally, I cannot wrap my head around this idea. I find it impossible to imagine a time when I would no longer exist as a thinking, feeling individual. And I suspect that I am not alone in feeling this way. Many of us do incredibly dangerous things in our lives because deep inside, we don’t believe that we can truly be wiped out of existence. I think the reason that we feel immortal is because most of us realize on some level that our souls are indestructible, that they will continue to live on after our bodies cease breathing.

Other people believe that your soul does go on after death, but on to what? To be reincarnated in another body to live again? Was life so wonderful that you would want to suffer more rejection, more disappointment, more disease, more old age, more funerals? Personally, although I enjoy my life, there are parts I’d never want to go through again; reincarnation doesn’t sound like much to look forward to. Others think that there is a spiritual place where every deceased person goes, no matter what they said or did or believed in life. But I don’t find this notion comforting either; would I want to spend eternity with child molesters, rapists, and mass murderers who never regretted their heinous crimes? What kind of paradise would contain people who delight in causing suffering? Such a heaven does not seem like a reward to me.

Ah, but what about an afterlife where you have been freed of your inner demons, and everyone there with you has been set free as well? A place where those who delight in evil are not permitted to enter, where all frustrations and deadlines have ended forever, where there is nothing but joyful existence, an eternal now of happiness? I can imagine such a place, and I imagine that it would be wonderful. Thankfully, it is to just such a place that Jesus invites us.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006


Your word is truth (John 17:17).

Years ago, a black stone called basanite was used to identify precious metals. In order to test gold, you would rub it against the basanite; the color of the streak left on the black rock would prove whether you truly had a precious metal or merely "fool’s gold." Because of this use, basanite came to be called "touchstone." Since those earlier times, the word touchstone has come to mean any test or criterion by which the qualities of something else are examined. The touchstone is the one thing that you can always count on to reveal the truth.

We desperately need touchstones in our lives. State inspectors certify gas pumps because we fear being shortchanged by the oil companies. Nursing homes undergo certification reviews because we fear cover-ups of substandard care being given to our loved ones. Corporations have their books audited because we fear management misreporting profits to manipulate stock prices. Every day, we look to touchstones of one sort or another to reassure us that what we are being told is indeed true. But in a world of imperfect people who make mistakes both accidentally and deliberately, how can we have any real security? When we employ people to serve as our touchstones, how can we feel confident that they themselves will not be dishonest with us? Is there anyplace we can go for unimpeachable truth?

There is one touchstone that can always be relied upon as we struggle to make sense of life. That touchstone has been given to us by none other than God Himself. That touchstone is the Holy Bible. The Bible is God’s own words set down in human language. Praying to His heavenly Father, Jesus said: Your word is truth.

In a world that can’t tell right from wrong, God’s word is truth. In a world where freedom has been divorced from accountability, God’s word is truth. In a world that claims there is no God, or that God cannot be known, or that all religions are different ways to approach the same God, God’s word is truth. The Holy Bible is the eternal, unchanging message of the eternal, unchanging God, words of truth written in black and white that stand in stark contrast to the confusing grayness of a world that does not want to admit that there are such things as moral absolutes. The Bible is the one and only touchstone that you can use with assurance that it will always reveal what is pure and truly beautiful.

Friday, October 20, 2006

End Times

"So when you see standing in the holy place `the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house. Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again. If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. At that time if anyone says to you, `Look, here is the Christ!' or, `There he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time.

"So if anyone tells you, `There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, `Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather" (Matthew 24:15-28).

When a pastor asks a group of his parishioners what book of the Bible they would like to have a study on, almost always someone requests the Book of Revelation. I think that people want to study Revelation for two reasons—first of all, it is written in a style that involves a lot of symbolism which makes it hard to understand. But more importantly, the Book of Revelation is about the End Times—the troubles that Christians will go through, the spectacular ending of the world, the punishment of those committed to evil, and the beginning of eternal peace and happiness.

It is natural to want to know more about these things. When we watch the news or read a paper, we are saddened by all the tragedies that are hurting people everywhere—severe weather, war, divorce, crime, dishonesty. We ask ourselves, "how much worse can it get? When will it all end? How will I get through it all?" We need the security of answers to these questions.

But the answers are not restricted to the Book of Revelation. Jesus Himself addressed these issues in the Gospels, and in today’s reading He speaks to His disciples about the end times. So let us examine what Jesus tells us through the pen of Saint Matthew about the last days of this earth.

In the verses just before today’s reading, Jesus had said these words: "Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come." These words clearly speak of the end times. Then Jesus says: "So when you see standing in the holy place `the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains." Here Jesus backs up and explains when the end times are going to begin. He warns His disciples that the end times will commence with `the abomination that causes desolation' entering the Holy Place, and He refers us to the prophet Daniel for details. The pertinent section is Daniel chapters 11 and 12, where the prophet speaks of a king who will pay heed to those who forsake the holy covenant. Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress. They shall abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that brings about desolation. Jesus reaffirms God’s word spoken through Daniel that a foreign government would take over God’s Temple in Jerusalem and desecrate it; this happened less than 40 years after Jesus spoke these words, when the Romans took Jerusalem away from the Jews and made it uninhabitable. The disciples seated before Jesus did not realize it at the time, but the Master was telling them that the end times would begin only a few decades in the future!

Jerusalem is a city of tremendous importance in the Bible. It was built on the mountain where God asked Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac, centuries before God would sacrifice His son at the same place (Genesis chapter 22). When God gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice in the place of Isaac, Abraham called the place "The Lord Will Provide", and Jerusalem was the place where the Lord did provide the sacrifice that spares all of us from death, His Son Jesus Christ the Lamb of God. King David built Jerusalem on this site, and his son King Solomon built God’s Temple there. Every day the priests of God offered sacrifices in the Temple for the forgiveness of God’s covenant people, pouring out the blood of animals to atone for each Israelite’s sins. These sacrifices were a pale shadow of the final blood-sacrifice of God’s own Son, who was sacrificed upon the cross to atone for all human evil, once for all. Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life, the place where the faithful found their connection with God.

But Jesus was going to make Jerusalem obsolete. When Jesus died to atone for every human sin, the sacrifices of the Temple would become unnecessary. When Jesus speaks of the beginning of the end times, He speaks of a time when it will not matter if the forces of evil destroy the Temple, because the Temple will no longer the source of God’s grace to His human children. Jesus told His disciples, "where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20). The grace of God comes through Jesus to His believers wherever they gather to worship Him.

And so Jesus tells His followers to be ready to flee Jerusalem when the desecration begins. Men resting on the flat roofs of their homes in the cool of the evening should not take the time to go downstairs and gather any valuables, but flee the city leaping rooftop to rooftop. Men working in their fields should not head back to the house to get traveling clothes. Jesus warns women to pray that the evacuation does not come at a time where they are pregnant or nursing, because flight would be so much harder under such circumstances. All should pray that the time to run not be during the rainy winter or on a Sabbath when neighbors would refuse to aid them (because a Jew is not permitted to work on the Sabbath).

This is how the end times began—but it was not all bad news. Because of the destruction of Jerusalem and the awful persecution in Judea, God’s children were scattered all over the world seeking safety—and as they traveled, they spoke of their faith in Jesus to the strangers that they met. Spurred on by the desecration of God’s holy place, His children fulfilled Jesus’ parting command to them: "Therefore 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).

Starting with verse 21, Jesus speaks about what it will be like to live in the early days of the end times. He says, then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again. We look at the horrors of our world—World War II being a recent example—and we find it hard to understand how Jesus could claim that the years following the destruction of Jerusalem would never be equaled again for the terror that they held. But we have to listen to Jesus’ words from the perspective of a Jew. Jesus was saying to the Jews listening to Him that, from their perspective, things would never be so bad again. One of the horrors of WWII was the Nazis’ extermination of millions of Jews, yet even this evil was not as traumatic as the loss of Jerusalem and its Temple, God’s house among His people. And this assault on the Jewish nation was permitted by God—permitted in order to punish the nation who had been extended God’s grace again and again only to keep on rejecting it, until the Son of God Himself was rejected and condemned to death for no sin of His own.

If those days had not been cut short no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. Even though God was punishing the Jews who persisted in rejecting Him, we see evidence of God’s grace. The Roman persecution could well have spiraled out of control and resulted in the deaths of everyone living in the country. But Jesus knew that there would be Jewish converts, Jews who became believers in Christ. And God would make sure that His children by faith would not be caught up in the punishment of those Jews who persisted in rejecting Him. For the sake of the elect—those promised salvation by God—those coming days would be shortened. It is just as true in the world today as it was then; God shows mercy to nations in spite of their wickedness, for the sake of the Christians who are living there.

At that time if anyone says to you, `Look, here is the Christ!' or, `There he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible. The world has been filled with false prophets since Jesus’ time among us. We think of Muhammad, who claimed that Jesus was not the Son of God but only a prophet, and that Muhammad was chosen by God to reveal the truths that Jesus left unsaid. We think of Joseph Smith, who claimed that Jesus had a ministry here among the Indians of America and gave Smith the final words that lead to our ascension to godhood. These men, and so many others, have claimed to be the Christ, the one anointed by God to lead us to heaven. Some have even allegedly produced miracles—miracles that delude even the greatest philosophers and skeptics of the world, but not those who have the truth of the Word of God living within them.

Jesus next issues a warning to we who also live in the end times; He says "if anyone tells you, `There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, `Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it. For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man." Jesus is telling us that when He returns to bring about the final end, He will be impossible to ignore. When Jesus returns, we won’t have to go looking for Him among fanatics living in the desert or among cultists hiding in secret meeting rooms; when Jesus returns it will be like a bolt of lightning. Even if you are facing in the wrong direction, when lightning strikes you can see the whole sky light up. When Jesus returns, there will be no doubt among any living on earth that God Himself has come in all His glory to render judgment upon mankind.

Jesus concludes, "Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather." A carcass is a dead body. This puts us in mind of Ephesians chapter 2 where we read, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath." Those who fill their hearts with anything else than the love of Jesus are dead inside. Only a relationship with Jesus brings forgiveness for the sins that condemn us before God; if we choose to follow any other god, or no god at all, we are walking dead men, dead in our transgressions and sins. And what is attracted to dead bodies? Vultures. When people exclude Jesus from living in their hearts, vultures come—false Christs who offer false hopes of freedom from guilt and loneliness and death. Look at where the false saviors are—you will see them getting fat off of those who are dead inside.

So what have we learned about the end times? First, we have learned that the end times are now—we have been living in them our entire lives. Second, we have learned that God loves His children so much that He limits the tribulation of the end times so that we may remain protected. Third, we have the assurance that the Bible tells us everything that we need to know about our salvation; the next time that Jesus comes to speak in this world is when He comes to speak judgment on those who have rejected Him, and speak the warmest of welcomes to those who have put their trust in Him. Jesus summarized these points when He said in the Gospel of John (chapter 16 verse 33), "I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Dark thoughts

From the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all other sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander (Matthew 15:19).

In a science fiction story, a traveler passes through a small isolated country. She is surprised to find no people in the city; everything is taken care of by machines. Searching for signs of life, she soon discovers that there are indeed people, but each one lives alone in their own house at the edge of the town. The traveler tries to approach some of the residents, but they all back away in fear. Finally she finds one man who cautiously asks her, "Can you read my thoughts?" When she assures him that she cannot, he tells her why everyone lives in isolation. Years earlier, scientists had found a way to trigger telepathy in people. It was thought that if people could read each other’s minds, all conflict would cease because no one would misunderstand what another person was trying to communicate. Even better, everyone would immediately feel the pain that they were causing others; telepathy, they thought, would end all acts of violence. So every resident of this small nation underwent treatment to open their minds to each other. But there was an unforeseen result; there was no way to hide unpleasant thoughts. People were disgusted by what they learned of those they lived with, and they were too embarrassed to have others see what they were really like deep inside. Since the procedure could not be reversed, there was only one recourse—everyone moved far enough away from the others so that mind reading became impossible. Being able to see into another's heart only isolated the people from each other.

This is only a story, but it has the ring of truth. Each of us are filled with ugly thoughts and dark desires that we are reluctant to share with others. Sometimes we permit a glimpse into the dark places of our souls when we get drunk or become enraged, but most of the time we keep a tight lid on what lurks deep inside us, because we know that if others could see what we are really like inside, they would be repulsed. However, we cannot hide what’s inside us from God. Psalm 44 tells us: God…knows the secrets of the heart. What a terrifying thought! Every twisted desire is known to the Lord of the universe. But Jesus came among us to offer reassurance; although God knows how truly evil and repulsive we are, He loves us anyway. He sent His Son to address the problem of the darkness that taints us by dying in our place on the cross, shedding His holy blood to wash away the sin that stains us. Jesus lives in we who love Him, and when God looks into our forgiven hearts He does not see our ugliness, He sees instead only the beauty of Christ within us.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Who is heaven for?

There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:22).

A pastor was called to see a man dying of a terrible disease. This man, whom we'll call John Smith, had been raised a Christian, but in adulthood had had turned his back on the church. His story was that of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). His life was brought low by contracting a disease that caused everyone to shun him. With no cure to be had and his finances in ruins, John Smith hit rock bottom. In his misery, he though of the house of his heavenly Father, the welcoming home he had abandoned so many years earlier. His pride gone, he spoke with the pastor, who shared with him the words of our merciful God which can save for eternity every repentant sinner. John welcomed God’s offer of pardon and closed his eyes in death, at peace in the arms of Christ.

This man’s situation was well known in the community, and there was some consternation when it was announced that he would be buried in the church cemetery. One prominent member of the congregation confronted the pastor shortly before the funeral. "Pastor, you are not going to bury that good-for-nothing piece of trash, are you?" he asked. The pastor replied, "Do you mean Brother Smith? Certainly I am going to bury him." Upon hearing this, the prominent church member declared "Well, if this man went to heaven, I do not want to go there." The pastor answered, "Don’t worry, Mr. Goodman, you won’t be joining him." "What?" Mr. Goodman sputtered, "this miserable wretch is permitted to enter heaven, while I am kept out?" The pastor explained, "If what you have just said is truly the content of your heart, then I’m afraid it’s so. Remember, brother, there is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

What qualifies a person to enter heaven? Conventional thinking would suggest that God takes into heaven those people who really try hard to lead good lives. But how then do we explain Jesus’ words to the career criminal on the cross next to Him the day of their execution: "I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43)? That criminal only repented of his evil ways in his last hours; there was no opportunity for him to try and make up for all the wicked things he had done. But living a good life is not what opens paradise to us—those golden gates are opened solely by the nail-scarred hands of Jesus. Jesus opens heaven to every person who turns his back on sin and trusts in the Savior for mercy. All have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard. Yet now God in his gracious kindness declares us not guilty. He has done this through Christ Jesus, who has freed us by taking away our sins.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

God's blessings

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:1-12).

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks to His disciples about people. Specifically, our Lord speaks of the kinds of people that His heavenly Father has promised to bless. But why is Jesus telling the disciples all this? What is Jesus trying to teach about the blessings of God? Let us look at the Beatitudes of Jesus and see if we can discover the common teaching that holds them all together.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This first Beatitude seems strange to us—how can Jesus promise the kingdom of heaven to those who are poor in the spirit of God? Isn’t heaven reserved for those who are strong in the spirit? First of all, we must remember that Jesus treasures any person’s faith in Him, no matter how small or weak that faith may be. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said of Jesus, "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations…A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out" (Isaiah 42:1-3). Jesus treats each of us with the utmost delicacy and care. If life has made us damaged goods, a bruised reed, He will be careful not to break us. If our faith is only a weak flicker, a smoldering wick, He will be certain not to snuff it out. Such is Jesus’ love for the weak and hurting.

On the other hand, those who regard themselves as the best of those who serve God are at risk. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day thought that they had God in their pocket—they knew the teachings of the church, they were careful to act holy at all times, and they were proud of it. They weren’t interested in listening to Jesus. because as far as they were concerned there was nothing else that He could teach them. But these people angered God; Jesus said to them, "on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness" (Matthew 23:28). The hypocrisy was that they thought themselves to be holy, when Ecclesiastes 7:20 clearly teaches, "There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins." People who think that they have God’s favor because they are leading good Christian lives are much farther away from God than those who, in the weakness of their faith, cry out, "Lord, I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. We must be careful with this Beatitude; many people do mourn, but not all of them will be comforted. Hell is described as a place of unending torment; certainly everyone who is sent to hell when they die will not be comforted. Only heaven is described as a place free from mourning; in Revelation 21:4 the angel tells John: "There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." The mourners who will be comforted are those who believe in Jesus as their savior. When a non-Christian attends a funeral, he cries tears of despair, because he cannot know for sure if he will ever see his dear departed friend or relative again. When a Christian mourns at a funeral, he does not shed tears of despair because he has faith that Jesus, who rose from the dead, will cause all believers to rise and join Him in eternal bliss. The tears that a Christian sheds are in response, not to the pain of eternal death, but to the pain of temporary separation from our loved ones.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Who thinks that they are in control of earthly affairs? Politicians, military leaders, terrorists. Who seeks to control the earth through their influence or their popularity? Hollywood stars, university faculty, news reporters, and activist organizations. These people assert their power or influence to lead others because they believe that their opinions, their morals, their ways of doing things are superior to everyone else’s. They desire the reigns of power because they are arrogant.

The meek do not seek power over others. The meek realize that they are flawed human beings, tainted by sin from the moment that they were conceived in the womb. Such people do not try to lead others because they know that, being sinners, any decision they make will be made imperfect by sin. They know that they are not fit to lead others.

God promises possession of the earth to the meek. God does not make this promise to those who are arrogant, because God hates arrogance; Scripture says, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:6). God promises leadership to the meek because the meek do not make decisions based on their own flawed wisdom; the meek turn to God for leadership in their lives. When the meek lead, it is actually God who leads through them.

But when will the meek lead? In Isaiah chapter 65, God tells us what will follow the Final Judgment: "Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind." This new earth will be only for the meek, those who look to God for wisdom and leadership. Those who trusted in their own frail human wisdom will have no place in God’s new creation.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Righteousness comes only from God. Righteousness is God’s gift of mercy, of our being "made right" with the God who hates sins but loves sinners. Righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, who died under the weight of our sins so that we could escape the punishment of God that He accepted in our place. People who know that they need God’s mercy hunger for it, thirst for it. And Jesus promises that those who seek God’s mercy through Him will have it—have it to the full.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. To be merciful to others is to forgive them when they commit a sin. Being merciful is hard—Jesus’ mercy towards us took Him to the cross and nailed Him there, so that our sins against God and each other could be forgiven. Showing mercy is not easy, but Jesus has forgiven us and sends His Spirit into our hearts to help us be forgiving. Jesus promises, "if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you" (Matthew 6:14). The merciful are blessed because the Spirit of Christ already dwells within them, and their sins are remembered by God no more.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. This is astounding. If it is true as Scripture says--that we are all sinful and unclean in God’s eyes--how can Jesus suggest that there is anyone who is pure in heart? But pureness of heart is something that we all have access to on a daily basis. Saint John writes, "If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). We Christians know that we sin constantly, and we confess our sins to God in prayer every day. When we ask for forgiveness and a new start, Jesus purifies us from all unrighteousness; He removes the guilt of our evil deeds and restores us to a perfect relationship of love with our heavenly Father. This is how we can all be pure in heart. And the joyous promise is that the pure in heart will be admitted to heaven and will get to see God face to face!

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Why is peacemaking of such importance? Because that is what Jesus came to earth to do. God hates sin, and the people of the world have joyously embraced sin. There was no relationship between God and man; sin made us enemies of God. But Jesus died to reunite us with God; with our sins forgiven, God no longer has reason to look on us in anger. Jesus has made peace between His Father and us.

Being a peacemaker is like being a "little Christ". But as important as diplomats and ambassadors are, the truly blessed peacemakers are those who try to bring peace between God and one of His lost children. In Jesus’ eyes, the blessed peacemaker is the one who involves himself in another person’s life in order to tell that person about God’s mercy, God’s love, and God’s wisdom for living—all offered through faith in his Son. The person who brings the words of Jesus into the heart of conflict is a true peacemaker.

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Our own weak, sinful nature is not our only enemy in this life. We also must contend with the temptation to do wrong that comes from our friends, neighbors, and co-workers who don’t know Jesus, and don’t realize that many of the activities that they enjoy are evil in God’s eyes. When we refuse invitations to abandon God and enjoy the dark pleasures of sin, some people begin to resent us. They try to make sure that we can’t spoil their fun by awakening their conscience. Some might make fun of our beliefs; others might try to intimidate us into keeping God’s word to ourselves. People who try to stop us from speaking of Christ are persecutors, and whether they know it or not, they are doing the bidding of God’s enemy the devil.

Jesus tells us that being persecuted for being a Christian is a good thing. This is because the devil sees our Christian witness as a threat to his followers. If we say nothing about Jesus, those who ignorantly live in sin will be condemned to the devil’s prison when they die. But when we speak of Jesus to others, the devil worries that they might repent and trust in Jesus to take them to heaven. When we speak of our faith, we are a threat to the devil’s plans, and he tries to shut us up. Those who are persecuted by the devil’s followers are blessed because the persecution is proof that they are living their Christian faith for all to see; they are members of Christ’s holy kingdom.

This is what Jesus taught His disciples in the Beatitudes. They all revolve around one recurring theme: reliance on God and His Son Jesus Christ. The poor in spirit are blessed because they know that they need God. The mourners know that only God can end their time of sorrow. The meek realize that only God has the wisdom to lead them through life. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are aware that only God can fill their need. The merciful are only able to forgive because Jesus first forgave them. The pure in heart depend on Jesus’ forgiveness to take away their impurities. The peacemakers merely reflect Christ’s ultimate act of making peace between man and God. The persecuted stand on the wall of God’s kingdom, holding out the light of His love to invite those lost in the darkness of sin; the world tries to shoot them down and extinguish the light, but God’s walls protect them as they bravely display the light that He has given them.

Jesus shared these teachings with His disciples to make a very important point: those who desire blessings must rely on God. The arrogant and proud do not receive blessings. Those who have no need or time for God are not promised blessings. Those who are blessed are those who know that they need God, who beg Him for mercy, who entrust themselves to His leadership and His work. Jesus wanted His disciples to know that they needed Him, and that by needing they were not weak because God would bless them through their need. That is Jesus’ message to you as well. Paul wrote, "when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). When you are weak, that is the time that God can act strongly in you. When you are weak, that is when you will be truly blessed.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

A seven course meal

You are like babies who drink only milk and cannot eat solid food. And a person who is living on milk isn't very far along in the Christian life…Solid food is for those who are mature, who have trained themselves to recognize the difference between right and wrong (Hebrews 5:12-14).

A Sunday School teacher told her students the Bible lesson for the day, and then went on to speak of all the wonders of creation. She asked, "What’s about a foot long, has a bushy tail, climbs trees, and saves nuts?" None of the children would respond. Three times she repeated the question, looking for the obvious answer. Finally, one little boy gathered his courage and spoke up: "It sounds like a squirrel to me, but I’m sure it’s supposed to be Jesus."

This incident shows us how superficial Christians can be. Ask a child what he learned about in Sunday School, and he’ll probably say "Jesus." Ask an adult what the sermon was about, and he too will probably say "Jesus." On one level, this is a good thing—there should never be a class or service in church that is not centered on Jesus. But Christianity is a rich and deep religion, built on the richness and depth of the 66 books of the Bible. There is much more to the faith than "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." Do you know why Genesis records Abraham’s many faults, even though Scripture holds him up as an example of great faith? Do you know what the first Passover meal eaten in Egypt teaches us about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins on the cross? Do you know why the Psalms were written? Do you understand what Jesus was teaching about how to pray, when He provided the example of the Lord’s Prayer? Are you and I born with the ability to make a choice between doing good and committing evil? What happens to you when you are baptized or receive Holy Communion? Do you know what heaven and hell are like? How will Jesus determine who goes where?

At heart, Christianity is summed up by John 3:16. But to ignore the rest of what God has revealed to us is like being invited to a fancy dinner and only eating the main course—why would you turn down a chance to sample everything on the table, from hors’derves to dessert? Through all of the courses offered, the cook has prepared a well-balanced meal designed to meet all of your dietary needs; similarly, the Bible has been written in all its richness and depth to provide well-rounded nourishment for your soul. I invite you to look for more than just the ‘main course’ as you spend time with our Lord.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Pray continually

Pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

How do you "pray continually"? When you read these words, do you think of a monk living in monastery, head bowed and hands clasped in prayer as he kneels for hours in a small, austere room? Do you say to yourself, "I could never be in prayer all day"?

I’d like you to think of continual prayer in a different way. Imagine living together with a loved one—a parent or sibling or spouse. After living together for a long period of time, it is likely that the two of you no longer talk constantly. As a matter of fact, you might only have a lengthy conversation over dinner. But you do communicate throughout the day, even though these exchanges are often brief. You might request an opinion on which shirt to wear with your slacks. You might ask for help with a stubborn jar lid. You might share a few words of amazed disgust over a disturbing story you hear on the news. Throughout the day, you are always aware that your loved one is near, and you take comfort from being able to exchange a quick word without having to dial a number or put a stamp on an envelope.

Prayer can be like that. In fact, prayer should be like that! God is with us constantly; He is privy to every moment of our day. What would your prayer life be like if you were always aware that He is in the room with you? You would have at least one lengthy conversation with Him each day, as you reflect on the joys and sorrows that fill your heart; this conversation might take place as you are digesting a meal, or when you are waking up to face a new day, or as you are settling into bed and are trying to put into perspective the events of the day just passed. But you will also find yourself chatting with the Lord as the events of the day unfold. In the morning you might say "Heavenly Father, the sky is so beautiful this morning—thank you for letting me see it!" As you see an emergency vehicle go by with its lights flashing, you might pray "Lord, please give them success." When you make a mistake that causes hurt to someone, you could say "Jesus, please give me the courage to say I’m sorry, and please, please help them to forgive me too." When the news tells of a missing child, you could ask "God, bring her home safely". When someone who seems upset wants to talk to you, you can silently pray "Spirit, give me wisdom!" And when you are feeling lonely, you can ask "Master, just hold me, please." When you say things like this throughout the day, you are "praying continually."

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Separation of Church and State

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"

But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

"Caesar's," they replied.

Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Matthew 22:15-21).

In this lesson, Jesus instructs us on the relationship between Church and State. We in America have been taught, growing up, that there is a separation between Church and State. But it has always been a source of controversy, trying to decide how that division is supposed to work.

These same tensions existed in Jesus’ days among us. The Roman Empire had conquered the Jewish homeland many years earlier, but the Jews still resented being occupied by foreigners who did not understand or respect their religion. They certainly did not like paying the Roman poll tax, which went to support the government and militia that controlled their country. And the Jews despised Roman collaborators, people of their own nation who worked willingly with the Roman government. Distressingly, the Jews own royal family, the Herods, had agreed to be Rome’s puppet rulers in Palestine.

This, then, is the background for the attempt to trap Jesus. Jesus had been growing in popularity among the people, and the Pharisees did not like it one bit. Until Jesus came along, everyone looked to the Pharisees as examples as to how to lead a godly life. As Jesus gained fame, the Pharisees saw their influence among the people begin to dim. Something had to be done; Jesus had to be discredited somehow.

Normally, Pharisees and Herodians hated each other. The Herodians supported the royal family’s dealings with Rome; the Pharisees saw paying taxes to foreigners as sending God’s money into the hands of pagans. But these two groups made common cause to trip Jesus up publicly—politics do, indeed, make strange bedfellows.

They start with flattering Jesus, making a big deal out of how Jesus adheres to the truth and is not swayed by the opinions of powerful or influential people. They then present Him with a "yes" or "no" question—should a Jew pay the Roman poll tax or not?

They think that they have all the bases covered. If Jesus says no, that Jews should not pay taxes to a pagan government, then the Herodians can report Jesus as an insurrectionist and have Him arrested. If Jesus says yes, the Jews should pay the poll tax, then many of His followers will regard Him as selling out true religion and will turn away from Him as their teacher. And if Jesus remains silent on the question, it will appear that He really does care about the opinions of the powerful and the wealthy, and again, many will abandon this so-called "teacher of the truth".

But Jesus knows immediately what is going on, and refuses to be forced to choose from among the options presented by the Pharisees. Instead He calls for a coin, the kind used for paying the taxes in question. He directs their attention to the face on the coin. The face is Caesar’s, the emperor of the empire. Only Caesar’s government has the authority to make these coins, and the emperor’s face proves that the coin represents Roman authority. Like any government, Rome created its money and established its value for trade.

Jesus said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." A truly remarkable answer. Jesus escapes the trap that the Pharisees had crafted for Him, and at the same time He teaches us an important truth about the relationship between Church and State.

Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Here in today’s world, we could just as well say, "Give to the government that which is due to the government." And what all does that entail? Well, the government makes several demands on we the citizens. Most obviously, we are assessed taxes to pay for government services. Our taxes pay for the protection provided by the police, the military, and health inspectors, to name only a few. Our taxes also pay for the education of our children. Our taxes provide support to those who have little or nothing due to natural disaster, and those who cannot earn a livable wage due to their health. Our taxes even pay to provide us with passable roads so that we can get to work and earn our living.

But our government requires more from us than just taxes in exchange for services. Our government is a participatory government—we are all expected to chip in our time and abilities. In time of war, those who are fit are expected to serve in the armed services and protect our fellow citizens. When called, we are expected to serve on jury duty and see that our fellow citizens receive justice. And when elections are scheduled, we are expected to study the issues and cast our vote, to see that all Americans have the best possible government to live under.

These, then, are the things of the State: our time and our money supporting the government in protecting us, teaching our children, caring for those in need, and trying to make sure that freedom and justice are preserved among us.

…and to God what is God's. What, then, are the things of God? What does God expect from us? Jesus answered this question when He said, `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Matthew 22:37-39). Let us consider what these commandments entail.

Loving our God completely means, first of all, to trust in Him completely. When God tells us that we were conceived in sin and were born as atheists, we believe Him. When our heavenly Father tells us that the only way to be embraced by His love is to ask His Son Jesus to forgive us, we trust that He is telling us the truth. When Jesus tells us that the blood He shed on the cross as He died has paid for our sins and frees us from guilt, we accept His Good News with confident joy. When the Spirit of God reminds us that Jesus has risen from death and has opened heaven to all who put their trust in Him--even when our faith is just a weak and flickering flame--we live our lives knowing that death is not an end to be feared, but a momentary unpleasantness on our way to unending joy and peace.

Trusting in God’s promises also prompts us to pray. God has promised to answer our prayers to Him, and so we pray every day. We thank Him for His goodness. We ask Him for His guidance in making decisions, both large and small. We ask Him for relief from sickness, financial need, and oppression by the representatives of evil. We ask His aid in mending broken relationships with others, and we ask Him to widen our circle of family and friends.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is patterned on the love of God. Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). That is what Jesus did—we are all His friends, and He laid down His life so that we could escape eternal punishment. This is what God seeks of us—that we love without consideration of what that love will cost us.

The currency of God is different than human currency. When you hand over money, you expect to receive something of equal value in return—goods or services. Even when you deposit money in a bank, you expect to be able to draw it out again in the future, hopefully with interest. We tend to treat our interpersonal relationships the same way. We give a person a compliment or give him our attention while he is talking about something that is important to him, with the expectation that at some future time he will compliment or listen to us. We put up with a friend’s tirades, assuming that she will let us blow off steam sometime. We help a neighbor put up a fence, assuming that we can call on that neighbor’s help if an extra hand is needed fixing the combine during harvest. But love inspired by God does not operate this way. Godly love is concerned with serving another person in her needs, with no thought of ever receiving anything in return. Such love is not an investment, it is charity, a gift from the heart with no strings attached.

These are the things of God: regular worship of our Lord, repentance for our selfish sins, trust in His promises, devotion to His ways, and loving care for all His children of faith living here with us.

Where, then, is the problem? How can Church and State be in conflict? God established the power of government, as St. Paul tells us: The authorities that exist have been established by God (Romans 13:1). Conflict only arises when a government tries to exert authority over the things that are God’s. When the government tries to compel us to worship false gods, or to keep silent instead of preaching about the one, true God; when the government tries to get us to lead our lives as if personal gain is a higher priority than service to God and to each other; only when the government oversteps its bounds are we to say with the Apostles, "We must obey God rather than men!" (Acts 5:29).

"Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." Give to the government your time and your tax money; do your part to participate in protecting America, educating its children, seeing that justice is done, and that freedom is preserved. Give to God first place in your heart; seek His forgiveness, rejoice in His mercy, serve in His Church regularly and willingly, and serve His children with a giving heart wherever you encounter them. And remember the words of 1 Peter chapter 2: Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. For it is God's will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men. Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God. Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Where is Jesus, and what's He doing?

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (Luke 24:50-52).

Jesus’ ascension into heaven meant triumph and joy for His disciples. Ordinarily, the earthly departure of a beloved leader brings sorrow and grief to his or her followers. We think of the great philosopher Socrates who, having drunk the poisonous hemlock, tried in vain to ease the despair of his grieving followers. Perhaps you can remember when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and how sad and bleak our nation was in the days that followed. Or recall the grief in England and around the world the day that Lady Diana Spencer was killed in a car crash.

Jesus’ return to heaven, however, was not an occasion for sadness. When Jesus left this earth, it was not an end but rather a new beginning. True, the disciples could no longer sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to Him as they had for the previous three years, but they no longer needed to—Jesus had given them everything that they needed to 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 they knew that they were not really on their own as they went forth to do this critically important work, because Jesus had said be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:19-20).

We are not sad that Jesus has returned to heaven; we are joyful. While He was on earth, only a small group of people had access to Jesus at any given time; but enthroned as He is in heaven, our Lord is instantly available to us all, wherever we may be! Jesus promised, where two or three gather together in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20). We are glad that Jesus is in heaven because of what He is doing for us there; Paul writes: Christ Jesus…is the one who died for us and was raised to life for us and is sitting at the place of highest honor next to God, pleading for us (Romans 8:34). Jesus is in heaven, listening to our prayers—and when we tell Him that we are sorry for messing up, He is where He needs to be to make sure that we are forgiven! In addition, Jesus said that while He is in heaven, He is going to prepare a place for you, and that He will come back and take you to be with Him (John 14:2-3). Our Master has gone ahead of us to heaven, but it is cause for rejoicing, not sorrow.

Purpose in life

We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

In human history, what attack has resulted in the greatest loss of life? The atomic strike on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of WWII? That event resulted in the eventual death of some 200,000 people. But there was an even worse assault on human life hundreds of years earlier, an assault that killed over 25 million people. I am speaking of the attack of the Black Death.

The Black Death, otherwise known as bubonic plague, entered Europe from China and central Asia in 1347, when the Kipchak army, besieging a Genoese trading post in the Crimea, catapulted plague-infested corpses into the town. From there, the disease spread to Mediterranean ports of trade and eventually throughout the continent. The plague was highly contagious and extremely deadly—on average, one out of every three Europeans died from contracting it.

In the year 1516, plague broke out in Wittenberg, Germany. It was here that Martin Luther was living, and his daily life soon came to include caring for the sick and dying. Friends urged him to leave the city, fearing for his health, but in a letter Luther responded as follows: "The plague is here and is beginning its destructive work, chiefly among the dear youth. You advise me to flee from Wittenberg. I am confident that the world will not collapse even if Brother Martin were to die. Because of my duty to remain here, I cannot flee till the duty that has called me here commands me to depart."

Martin Luther placed himself in harm’s way for the sake of duty. God had given him skills that were needed by the plague victims; as a clergyman, Luther had been prepared to listen to their fears, tell them of Jesus’ own suffering and death, forgive their sins as Jesus’ appointed representative, and comfort them with the Savior’s promise of eternal life in paradise. Luther knew that God had placed him then and there to be the voice and hands of Christ to those who were suffering the terrors of the plague; Luther believed the word of God which says we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

You are God’s workmanship as well. You have been created in Christ Jesus to do good works. Whatever duty the Lord has assigned to you, do it without fear, for God will support you in doing what He has created you to do.

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