Thursday, November 30, 2006

Patience, patience

Be patient (James 5:7).

If there is anything that describes modern Americans, it is that we are impatient. We want fast results from medical treatment. We use drivethroughs to avoid spending time looking for a parking place; in fact, most people would rather drive than walk because walking takes too long. Cell phones allow us to instantly reach another person, regardless of distance. And who has time to cook anything from scratch?

But there is a dark side to impatience. How many TV shows that you liked were cancelled after only a couple of weeks because they did not draw a big audience fast enough? How many of you have been aggravated by a little voice in the back seat whining "are we there yet?" How many people put aside money into savings each month, instead of impulsively spending every dime? How many wives and husbands have given up on each other after only a few years or even a couple of months of marriage?

Patience is a virtue. Patience preserves relationships; Solomon wrote: a hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel (Proverbs 15:18). In fact, if God wasn’t patient with us, we would have no chance at having a relationship with Him—Peter writes: He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). If God was the impatient type, He would have given up on you long ago.

So how can we be patient? It starts with love—1st Corinthians 13:4 says that love is patient. If you truly care about another person, you will not be quick to write him or her off. But patience also requires a forgiving heart; Paul advises: be patient, bearing with one another in love. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13). It is important to remember that you are a sinner. When you realize how patient God has had to be with you and all of your foolishness, it becomes easier to be patient with others and to forgive them their mistakes. And being patient has a wonderful payoff—long-lasting relationships which are only made possible by the realization that good things do come to those who are willing to wait.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Looking for sinners

The LORD God called to the man, "Where are you?" (Genesis 3:9)

When Adam and Eve sinned, they immediately tried to hide from the Lord. Of course, God knew what they had done; He knew which tree they were trying to hide behind. But rather than blast the tree and expose the cowering couple, God did something unusual—He called out: where are you?

God was seeking His wayward children; He wanted them to return. The Lord wasn’t calling Adam and Eve to come and get punished; He was calling to them to come back, because the relationship they had shared with Him was now broken. The Lord wanted them to come for forgiveness, so that the relationship they had betrayed could be restored.

Ever since that primordial day, mankind has continued to move away from God, but thankfully our Lord isn’t one to give up—He keeps moving forward, seeking we who flee His face! It is God’s nature to pursue sinners and call to them, even in spite of their efforts to avoid Him.

If we were to ask St. Paul how he ended up a saved man and an apostle for Christ, he would tell us that it was because the Lord God refused to give up on him. As a young man, Paul had opposed Christianity at every turn, arresting and seeking the death penalty for followers of Jesus. Paul believed that Jesus was a fraud and that Christianity was a false religion. But the Lord revealed Himself to Paul personally in blinding vision, resulting in Paul’s repentance and conversion. Even though Paul had spent years as an enemy of God’s people, the Lord did not give up on calling him to a new way of life. As a result of God’s persistence, Paul became an apostle and writer of half the New Testament.

No one seeks God on their own; Paul himself tells us there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God (Romans 3:11). It was up to Jesus to come looking for us; He said the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). It is only the initiative of a merciful God that accounts for the salvation of any sinner who finds forgiveness and eternal life through faith in the Lord Jesus. We are eternally grateful for a Lord who never gives up but continues always to seek us.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Advent of our King

As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go to the village ahead of you, and just as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, `Why are you doing this?' tell him, `The Lord needs it and will send it back here shortly.' "

They went and found a colt outside in the street, tied at a doorway. As they untied it, some people standing there asked, "What are you doing, untying that colt?" They answered as Jesus had told them to, and the people let them go. When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, while others spread branches they had cut in the fields. Those who went ahead and those who followed shouted, "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!" (Mark 11:1-10)

When we consider the beauties of the world around us, it often happens that we find comfort not in the great things but in the little. A snow-capped mountain peak can take our breath away, but it is the soft green curve of a small hill that tempts us to build a house there. We admire the huge, fragrant blossoms of the magnolia and the gorgeous sunflower, but it is the humble violet that we pick to stick in a little girl’s hair or put in a vase on the kitchen table. We are dazzled by the deeds of heroic men and women, astronauts and firefighters and scientists, but it is the warm glow of a faithful mother tenderly holding her children in her arms that makes us feel at peace.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we read of Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem a week before His death. He came as a king in glory, yet He also came in humility. Jesus did not ride a war-horse or a chariot; He rode a young colt. Jesus did not ride on a fine saddle, but on the dusty cloaks of those who had followed Him in His travels. And even though He entered the capitol city of God’s people being hailed as the one who would restore God’s kingdom, He came knowing that He was to suffer and die.

What a complete picture of what Jesus came to do.

Advent is the season where we prepare for Christmas, the arrival of our Lord Jesus to live in flesh among us. Advent is the season when we look at the prophecies of the Old Testament and see how Jesus fulfilled everything that God had promised He would do. Jesus is the living fulfillment of the Old Testament, and this week we have read how He fulfilled Zechariah chapter nine: Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

There are many parallels between today’s Gospel reading and Jesus’ birth among us. When Jesus made ready to enter Jerusalem, He stipulated that He enter riding a colt which no one had ever ridden. The colt was of a donkey, a common animal used for everyday work. This was not an animal fit for a king; a king would ride a war-horse. But Jesus was not coming to wage war against mankind; because of our inherent sin, mankind was already at war with God, fighting against His rule in our hearts. Jesus came as a peacemaker between man and God. This was a sacred duty, the most important religious work of all. And so it was fitting that Jesus enter Jerusalem on an animal set aside for religious work. Throughout the Old Testament, religious duties were reserved for animals that had reached proper strength but had never been used for ordinary work; such was the colt that Jesus rode into Jerusalem. God had set aside that animal to bring the Messiah to the place where He would save His people from their sins by dying upon the cross.

How does this parallel Jesus’ birth? Let us consider Mary. Mary was no mere animal; she was a human being, a person whom God loved. This young woman, a woman with sincere faith in her God, had just arrived at the point in her life where she could assume the duties of motherhood. But God had reserved her from ordinary motherhood; He had set her aside for the religious duty of bearing the Son of God into the world that He was going to die to save. Mary was no queen; she was a common woman who was called upon to bear a most uncommon burden. And just as Jesus did not arrive in Jerusalem riding on a fancy saddle but on ordinary human clothing, our Lord was not born in a palace but at a traveler’s inn, where He was wrapped in common cloth and laid in a place where the animals were usually fed.

The second parallel between Palm Sunday and Advent is found in the name of Jesus. As He neared Jerusalem, the people began to quote Psalm 118 verse 26: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. They sang this psalm because they were convinced that Jesus was the One who was promised to come. Over the previous three years, Jesus had been fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 29: In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see. Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD; the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. By His words and deeds, Jesus had demonstrated that He was the One Who Is to Come, and the people shouted "Hosanna", which means "God save us!"

It is right that the people said that Jesus came in the name of the Lord. God Himself named Jesus; He sent an angel to Joseph to tell him, Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:20-21). The angel Gabriel told Mary, Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:30-33). Jesus came into this world as God’s designated representative.

But Jesus is more than God’s representative; Jesus said, "I and the Father are One" (John 10:30). In the Old Testament, God gave His personal name to Moses: Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you' " (Exodus 3:13-14). In the New Testament, Jesus claimed this same name for Himself when He spoke to the Jews: "Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad." "You are not yet fifty years old," the Jews said to him, "and you have seen Abraham!" "I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I AM!" (John 8:56-58). Jesus did not only come in the name of the Lord, He bore the name of the Lord!

The third parallel between Palm Sunday and Advent is the coming of the kingdom promised to David’s royal lineage. As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, the people cried out, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" Jesus was born of the house and lineage of King David; Jesus was the heir to the throne of God’s nation. The three wise men told Herod that they sought the King of the Jews, and they gave Jesus gifts fit for a king. And just as the crowds on the road to Jerusalem sang out praises to God for sending His salvation to them, God’s own angels sang similar praises in the presence of the shepherds of Bethlehem.

These praises were given to God for sending His Son to bring the kingdom of God to mankind. Mankind had sold itself into slavery to the kingdom of sin and death. Life in that kingdom had no meaning, because all that one could look forward to was suffering in life followed by suffering in hell. But the kingdom of God brought hope to the hopeless. The kingdom of God promised God’s strength and protection in life, and it promised eternal happiness in the Savior’s arms in heaven. Jesus came to make entry into this kingdom possible. Jesus is able to offer us heaven because He died to earn that right. Jesus suffered on the cross for our every wicked thought, word, and deed; all of God’s holy anger was laid on Jesus’ strong back so that we could be spared. Jesus was born in order to die, die the death that would have consigned us to hell. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem to die for us is what gives Advent it’s meaning, its value, its comfort.

It is just incredible, everything that God has done for us. He created a world for us to live on. In spite of all the terrible ways that we abuse this world, He keeps it alive, able to feed us and to serve our needs. Our God gave each of us life. He saw to it that we live and think and are healthy enough to be here to read His promises. Our God did not let us stumble through life blindly getting into trouble; He gave us adults who cared for us and taught us about right behavior and wrong behavior. Most importantly, our God sent His Son to teach us about His love and to die to rescue us from the eternal consequences of our wicked ways. And our risen Lord lives eternally at His Father’s side, offering forgiveness, love, and hope for the future through His words preserved in the Bible, through Baptism in His name, and through His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.

What monumental gifts! How could we ever dare approach God to accept these gifts, or to stutter our inadequate thanks for them? We feel like Isaiah; when God gave him a vision of the heavenly throne room, he cried, "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5). How could we poor, miserable sinners ever dare approach our God for His gifts of pardon and peace?

This is why Jesus did not come in the glory befitting a king, but in humility. We would feel uncomfortable entering a royal palace, but not a stable. We would be hesitant to touch a king, but not a baby in a manger. We would be terrified of standing in the presence of the Creator of the world, but we would welcome the friendly touch of the Son who rides upon an ordinary colt. Jesus brings us God’s tender mercy, not God’s terrible wrath. Jesus brings us God’s reassuring love, not His frightening glory. Jesus is God come to us, reaching out His hand to forgive, to strengthen, to lead.

This is the Advent of our King. Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Give Thanks

Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good. His love endures forever (1 Chronicles 16:34).

It’s been a tough year. The death toll in Iraq continues to climb, and no one has proposed an exit strategy that Americans can agree on. Fuel prices hit a record high, and the cost of medical care continues to skyrocket. Sickness has touched you or someone that you care about. People that you love have died or moved away. It’s been a tough year for everybody. How then can we stand before God on Thanksgiving and honestly tell Him thank You? Thanks? Thanks for what?

Let’s start with the fact that you are alive to read this. God does not guarantee long life to anyone. During the past 24 hours, over 150,000 people worldwide have died from various causes; the fact that you are alive today is a gift from God, pure and simple.

God has surrounded your life with beauty. Think of the colors you can see, the music that surrounds you, the textures brushing against your skin, the smells that gladden your heart, the pleasures brought by taste. Your five senses are saturated with God’s gifts of beauty every day; there is so much beauty in your life that you often fail to notice it.

Your life has been blessed with people who care about you. This may include those related to you by birth, adoption, or marriage; it might also include friends that you’ve made over the years. But most importantly, Jesus loves you; Jesus loves you with such deep commitment that He allowed Himself to be put to death in your place, paying the penalty for your sins against God. Did He have to suffer and die for you? Have you done anything to deserve Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf? No. It is because of God’s undeserved mercy that you have the opportunity to exchange hell for heaven.

What do you have to be thankful for? Plenty! God has blessed you in ways beyond counting. Yet how often we fail to notice these gifts or appreciate them! It’s easy to overlook such simple things when we’re busy throwing ourselves a pity party. Did God promise us a lifetime of good health, a six-figure income, and loads of leisure time? Not at all. Does God owe us anything? Not at all. Everything that is good in our lives comes from Him, and they come as gifts, expressions of His unwarranted love for us.

It’s been a tough year. Nevertheless, if we stop with the self-pity and instead look carefully at all the wonderful things God has filled our lives with, it is evident that we have much to be thankful for. So tell your Lord how thankful you are; tell Him with your mouth and show Him with your life. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Genetics or environment?

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5).

As a person, you have been shaped by two things—your genes and the environment that you grew up in. Your genes dictated things like the color of your eyes and the texture of your hair; they also determined if you would develop poor vision or would have a higher risk of contracting certain diseases. The traits that are yours by genetics are inherited from your biological parents.

Your environment has also shaped who you are. Watching your parents interact with each other has shaped your beliefs about marriage; how your parents raised you has affected your feelings of self-worth and how independent you are. Your experiences with others have taught you lessons about openness and honesty, and have either made you more optimistic and happy or more pessimistic and negative. Every person who has touched your life has made some impression on who you are and what you believe.

But the most pervasive influence on your life, on any life, is the influence of sin. Sin is what separates us from God. Sin is the inability to understand who God is and what makes Him happy; sin is every thought, word and deed that opposes what God wants.

We are influenced by sin both from within and without. Parents can pass damaged genes on to their children, resulting in birth defects; in a similar way, your parents have passed on to you a defective spirit. Ever since the first people sinned, their souls were damaged—they lost the ability to understand God and to perceive spiritual perfection. And so their children entered life with a spiritual birth defect—they were stunted in their souls. This problem has been passed on to all human beings, including you. Sin is a part of you from the moment of conception. In addition, our lives are immersed in sinful behavior—on any given day, you see and hear many more examples of perversity than you do of God-pleasing conduct. Whether they realize it or not, the people in your life have been teaching you how to sin since the moment that you left the womb.

No doctor can cure a genetic defect; no therapist can remove the memories of evil things in your past. But Jesus Christ is the Great Physician; the Son of God can do what human beings can’t. He can restore your soul; He can bury your past and give you spiritual rebirth. No matter how much damage sin has caused in your life, Jesus can set things right—all you need do is humbly ask Him.

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!" When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him--and he was a Samaritan. Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well" (Luke 17:11-19).

Many years ago, a boat was wrecked in a storm on Lake Michigan at Evanston, Illinois. Students from Northwestern University grouped themselves into rescue teams to help. One student, Edward Spencer, saved 17 people from the sinking ship. After it was all over, he was so exhausted that he had to be carried back to his room. Yet the only worry that he voiced was, "Did I do my best? Do you think that I did my best?"

Decades later, the story of this rescue was being shared at a meeting in Los Angeles. A man in the crowd announced that the heroic student from Evanston happened to be right there in the room. Edward Spencer was invited to come forward; now an old man with white hair, he slowly climbed the steps to the speaker’s podium, while the room was filled with applause. Mr. Spencer was asked if anything in particular stood out in his memory. "Only this," the old man replied: "of the 17 people I saved, not one of them thanked me."

Such ingratitude is nothing new. In Luke, we see a notorious example from the life of Jesus. Jesus had been walking through the countryside, teaching about God’s kingdom of love. On this particular day, He was walking in an area populated by Galileans and Samaritans. Both of these groups were sneered at by the upper-crust Jews of Jerusalem. The people of Galilee were Jews, but they lived along major trade routes with other countries and they tended to adopt un-Jewish ideas and practices from the strangers that they dealt with. But in the eyes of any Jew, the Samaritans were much worse. These were the people who had come in and settled after many of the native Jews had been forcibly deported hundreds of years earlier. These foreigners had intermarried with the Jews who were allowed to remain, and their religion was so polluted with heathen beliefs that it was only barely Jewish. While a pious Jew could tolerate a Galilean, he would have nothing but contempt for a Samaritan.

Jesus was walking along the borderland between these two cultures, when His attention was caught by a group of ten lepers. In our modern world, AIDS is the dreaded disease passed along by human contact that has no cure; in Jesus’ time, leprosy was such a disease. Leprosy was a contagious disease of the skin. Those afflicted were required to live away from all other people and they could not be touched—to touch a leper was to become unclean and unable to worship in God’s holy Temple. Since lepers were cut off from everyone else, they banded together to find shelter and food. Under these conditions, it is not surprising for Jesus to find among these lepers both Galileans and Samaritans.

But even though they lived as social outcasts, these lepers had heard of Jesus and His miraculous acts of healing. So when Jesus enters the area where they live, these ten men call out for help. They do not approach Jesus; out of respect for His health and the health of those with Him, they maintain their distance. But their voices can be heard, and so they cry "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

This is a cry of faith. The ten afflicted men address Jesus as their Master, as someone who has power and authority. By addressing Jesus the way they do, they are announcing their belief that Jesus even has mastery over matters of life and death. They plead for mercy; they ask Jesus to free them from the living hell that their lives have become, living in sickness and isolation.

Jesus always seeks to strengthen the faith of those who trust in Him. So instead of giving them an instant cure, Jesus tells the men to go and show themselves to a priest. Only a priest had the authority to declare that a leper was free of disease and could move back in with family and friends. Of even greater importance, only a priest could offer a sacrifice on the leper’s behalf to make him clean before God once more, and thus be able to start worshipping in the Temple once again.

By telling the men to present themselves to a priest for inspection, Jesus implied that they would be found clean by the time that they arrived. But to walk away from the Savior, still diseased, required an act of faith. They had heard that Jesus was able to cure leprosy, but if they left, would they be able to find Him again? However, each of these men had faith in his heart, faith that Jesus could and would make good on His promise, and so they left Him. Luke tells us, as they went, they were cleansed. Because they had faith, they received the blessing of Jesus.

But only a Samaritan, after realizing that he was cured, came back to thank Jesus. What of the other nine? We are not told what went through their minds, but they were men like us and we can hazard some guesses.

Some of them may have been so overjoyed at their cure that their first thoughts were of the future—reuniting with family and friends, moving back home, buying new clothes and getting back to work. They may have gotten so wrapped up in the blessings of life that they forgot about giving thanks until Jesus was long gone.

Some of them may have figured that a trip back to Jesus to thank Him was unnecessary. After all, when they had been declared cured by the priest, they would be giving an offering in the Temple anyway, so why take the time to double back and thank Jesus now?

Some of them may even have felt that since they were Jews and Jesus was a Jew, He was only doing what God had sent Him to do, to minister to the needs of God’s people—no need to thank someone for doing their job, is there?

But the Samaritan reacted differently. He did not let his new health distract him. He did not put off giving thanks ‘til later. He did not take this great blessing for granted. As soon as he saw that he was healed, the Samaritan turned around and came back to Jesus, prostrating himself in humility and thanking Jesus publicly.

In God’s eyes, we have all been lepers. All of us were born with a disease that no human physician could cure, the disease of sin. Like leprosy, sin cuts us off from contact with others. Sin causes us to hurt each other through harsh words, greedy selfishness, or thoughtless betrayal. We constantly desire to get our own way, and we make each other mad when we can’t agree on who should get his way. We hurt each other, and because of that hurt we stop trusting each other. When we stop trusting each other, we stop telling each other how we really feel, because we are afraid to be vulnerable. Eventually we stop sharing anything meaningful with others, and our lives become a lonely prison of distrust and fear. Sin isolates us every bit as much as leprosy or AIDS can.

But Jesus came to free us from our sickened isolation. Jesus became Master over sin by dying on the cross; sin’s power to do harm was exhausted on Jesus, who proved Himself stronger than sin. The curse of sin is death, and Jesus broke that curse by rising alive from the grave, alive never to die again. Because Jesus overpowered sin He is the Master of all, the Master who can show mercy to those who cry out, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

Jesus cleansed the ten lepers from their skin disease; as a result, they were able to walk the streets with their loved ones again, and even more importantly they were allowed to return to God’s Temple and sing praises to their Lord. When we plead for release from the oppression of our sins, Jesus cleanses us; with our sins forgiven, we have the courage to apologize to those who we’ve wronged, and we have the love to forgive the people who have hurt us. It is the forgiveness of sins that makes it possible to live together in trust, instead of living isolated in despair. But of even greater importance is the fact that Jesus’ forgiveness allows us to approach our holy God once more, and offer Him thanks for His great mercy towards us.

Jesus said, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine?" Our Lord expects a response from us for His blessings. Jesus does not expect us to repay Him for all that He has done for us—that is clearly an impossibility. But He does look for our gratitude and praise. Jesus does not want us getting so distracted by His blessings that we forget about the Giver of the gifts. Jesus does not want us to make Him a lesser priority in our lives, somebody that we’ll get around to thanking later. And Jesus does not want us to take His blessings for granted. Jesus looks to see if we are truly grateful for what He did on the cross for us. Jesus wants us to say thank you. We can say thank you by singing praises to Him in church. We can say thank you to Him when we give Him credit for our blessings as we talk about our lives with our neighbors and friends. We can say thank you to our Lord by making time every day to tell Him how important He is to us in prayer.

Jesus does not focus His attention on the wonders of this world—He focuses His attention on you. Jesus does not make you a secondary priority—your eternal welfare is His first priority. Jesus does not take you for granted—He loves you, He protects you, and He seeks to strengthen your faith through the offering of His gifts of Word and Sacrament. We thank you, Lord Jesus, for Your forgiveness, Your love, and Your care. May You be first in our hearts as we are first in Yours.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9).

War in Iraq. Conflict in Afghanistan. Threats from North Korea. Bloodshed in the Gaza Strip. Every time that you turn on the news, you hear of war, terrorist attacks, and angry death threats.

Some people think that we should pull our troops home, close up our borders, and work hard at defending our nation. Others feel that we should go attack the enemy before they come here and kill us. And there are still others who hope that peace can be won through diplomacy, financial incentives and education. But keeping our military at home did not protect us from the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sending our troops to the Middle East has not ended terrorism. And Hitler was not stopped by diplomacy. If anything, history teaches that no matter what tactic we try, wars continue to be fought and people continue to die.

This should not surprise anyone who reads the Bible. Speaking of what was to come, Jesus said: When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom (Mark 13:7). He also predicted, Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Matthew 24:12). The daily news proves to us that Jesus was right.

War and conflict are inevitable because sin corrupts every human being, and it is only by having Jesus working within us that Satan’s influence can be resisted. But in a world where so many reject Jesus, and even Christians are prone to foolishly ignoring His leadership at just the wrong moment, what is the point of even trying to broker peace? We try, because Jesus wants us to. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. To be a peacemaker is to imitate Jesus. Jesus is the ultimate peacemaker; He made peace between God and we who had rebelled against heaven by shedding His holy blood on the cross, a sacrifice that took away our guilt and restored us to citizenship in the eternal kingdom which God rules. Jesus died for us to bring us peace with God, even though He knew that many people would reject His offer of peace and choose to die fighting against Him. Jesus gave everything in the cause of peace, and looks for the same commitment from us. Our Lord rewards those who seek to bring about peace, even when bloodshed looks inevitable.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006


Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ's body. We are all parts of his one body, and each of us has different work to do. And since we are all one body in Christ, we belong to each other, and each of us needs all the others (Romans 12:4-5).

Some time ago, the Discovery Channel aired a program on Japanese honeybees. It seems that the Japanese honeybee has a fearsome predator, the Giant Japanese Hornet. When one of these hornets finds a honeybee nest, it will kill a few bees and take them back to its nest to feed its larvae. But it then returns to mark the hive with a scent which attracts other hornets. It only takes a few additional hornets to slaughter the honeybees.

But the honeybees have a way to kill the hornets. They don’t use their stingers; instead, when a hornet is attempting to mark the hive, over 100 worker bees gather near the entrance and taunt the hornet with an aerial dance. The bees then dart into their nest, the angry hornet following. However, once inside the hive, the hornet finds itself surrounded by 500 angry workers who jump on him and enclose him in a ball of honeybees about the size of a clenched fist. This clump of bees starts vibrating, raising the air temperature around the hornet to 115 degrees, a temperature lethal to the invader but not to the bees. The hornet dies, the hive is left unmarked, and the colony is saved.

As Christians, we often face giant hornets, problems that are just too big for us to handle alone. Thankfully, we don’t have to. God’s Holy Spirit has gathered Christ’s followers into communities that can work together for mutual protection and support when giant hornets come into our lives. These communities are the churches of Jesus. When you are unable to put a plate of food in front of your child for dinner, the people of Christ’s church are there for you. When you need someone to be your buddy to hold you accountable as you struggle with addiction to alcohol or gambling or pornography, the people of Christ’s church are there for you. When you are in despair because of abuse or divorce or a life-threatening medical diagnosis, the people of Christ are there for you. Of course, this works both ways. As a follower of Jesus, the Holy Spirit has called you to be an active member in the community of believers. You must be ready to band together with your spiritual brothers and sisters to help when one of them is faced with an overwhelming problem. The members of the church need your involvement, that together you might hold each other up in love.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Getting into heaven

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

"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.'

"Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

"They also will answer, `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

"Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life" (Matthew 25:31-46)

In this reading, Jesus gives us a picture of the coming judgment of all Mankind. But this is not just information for the curious; Jesus tells us how it will be so that we can make ready. So today we will look at Jesus’ words and consider how our deeds in life will be judged by our holy Savior when He calls us to account.

Scripture tells us to serve the Lord. This presents us with a problem. God is invisible and untouchable—how can we serve Him? God created everything—how can we give Him anything that is not already His? God is perfect, while we are corrupted by the taint of sin—how can anything we do be good enough to please God? God commands us to serve Him, yet it seems as if serving Him would be impossible.

In these words from Matthew, Jesus explains how we can serve God. Jesus says, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.' God cannot be seen or touched, but His children can. Jesus is the only Son of God, but God has many other children as well—children by adoption through faith in Jesus. Paul writes in Romans 8:23-24, "we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved." And because we are God’s children by adoption, Jesus becomes our brother. Right now, we cannot see or touch our Lord Jesus, but we can see and touch His brothers and sisters; right now, we cannot serve our Lord directly, but He assures us that we can serve Him by serving the other members of God’s family of faith.

And what service does Jesus praise the faithful for? Service that anyone can do. It doesn’t matter if you are rich or poor, it doesn’t matter if you are a talented artist or speaker or are good with your hands. Anyone can offer food to someone who is hungry. Anyone can offer a glass of water to a thirsty worker. Anyone can offer a stranger a warm corner to sleep in or a spare coat to get through the winter. Any one of us can sit with a sick person in the hospital; any one of us can visit a prisoner in jail. All these actions can be summed up in God’ words love your neighbor as yourself (Galatians 5:14).

Is Jesus implying that we earn our entry into heaven by our good deeds? Not at all. Scripture is very clear that our actions in life in no way earn "brownie points" with God. In Romans chapter 3, Paul writes: we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. We are not saved by following God’s commands; God tells us be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:44). But Solomon, with His God-given wisdom, wrote: there is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins (Ecclesiastes 7:20). It is the clear teaching of God’s word that no one can be saved by living a perfectly God-pleasing life, because such a thing is humanly impossible. Paul adds in Ephesians chapter 2, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast.

Good works do not earn us entry into eternal life. Only faith in Jesus gives us this most precious of gifts. We maintain that a man is justified by faith. Faith in what? Faith in Jesus, the Son of God who took on the form of a human being so that our eternal Lord could die in payment for our rebellion against God’s perfect standards. Our rebellion—our sin—made us enemies of the God who created us and who loves us. God demands holiness and punishes evil with the fires of hell. Evil is what the cursed do with their lives. Evil is living life selfishly, refusing to give food to the hungry, water to the thirsty, refuge to the homeless, clothing to the destitute, care to the sick and the imprisoned. Evil is "me first" and "to hell" with everyone else.

We are all naturally selfish. We are all by nature headed towards hell. But Jesus became a man among us to accept all of God’s punishment for our sin. When He died on the cross, Jesus endured all of the fires of hell that we were rightfully due. Because of Jesus we need not fear God’s anger at our failings. Because of Jesus we need not fear God’s judgment of our lives. Jesus has taken God’s anger away from us.

But as we can see from today’s Scripture reading, not everyone receives the benefit of Jesus’ sacrifice. There are many who will be called ‘cursed’ and condemned to unending flames. Why? How are they different from the righteous? The difference is, we have faith in Jesus. We know who Jesus is, we know what He has done for us, and we live our lives built on His promises of forgiveness and eternal joy after physical death. And this faith, this ability to understand and trust in Jesus’ promises, is a gift of God—Paul says, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. God not only promises us forgiveness and eternal life, He even gives us the ability to believe in His promises. It is this faith that sets us apart from those who will be called cursed. They will be called ‘cursed’ because they chose to reject the gift of faith and with it, forgiveness and eternal life.

So if good works do not earn us eternal rewards, why does Jesus bring them up at our time of judgment? Good works do not save us, but they are evidence that saving faith lives within us. Jesus said, Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them (Matthew 7:17-20). Jesus uses a fruit tree to illustrate an important concept: just as a good tree can be identified by the good fruit that it bears, a man of faith can be identified by the good works that he performs. Good works are evidence of living faith. James adds, What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).

On Judgment Day, when Jesus speaks of the good deeds of those He has made righteous, He is not telling them how they earned heaven. By reviewing the list of our good works, Jesus is pointing out the evidence that saving faith has lived in our hearts. And when Jesus condemns the cursed for lives empty of good works, He is damning them because there is no evidence that saving faith lived in their hearts. Faith in Jesus alone determines whether heaven or hell is our final destination. Scripture says, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:17-18).

Jesus tells us of the Final Judgment so that we may make ready. Faith in Christ is the key to entering heaven. How do you know if you have a saving faith? Jesus tells us to look at how we live our lives. Do we love our neighbors? Do we, at least on occasion, go out of our way to help a brother or sister in the faith? Do we do things for others out of love, or only because we will eventually seek a favor in return? Do we look at our selfish acts with disgust and ask Jesus to forgive us? Do we act as if death is the end, so we must squeeze every bit of pleasure out of life that we can? Or do we live confident that death only leads to paradise, and so we can take a pass on temporary, sinful earthly pleasures? Do you see evidence of your life bearing just a little ‘good fruit’?

None of us bear the kind of good fruits that we ought, because we are by nature sinners. Jesus and James caution us that if we can see no evidence of good works in our lives at all, we had best take the time to really think about our priorities while there is still time. But Jesus reassures us that His grace more than compensates for our weakness. When the thief on the cross said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:42-43). That thief had wasted his entire life producing evil fruits, evil deeds; yet at the end He accepted Jesus’ gift of faith and showed just one good fruit—He asked Jesus for mercy. And in response to that one good fruit, which grew from faith, Jesus said: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Looking up

Look up at the heavens and see (Job 35:5).

If you put a buzzard in a pen eight feet square and entirely open at the top, the bird--in spite of his ability to fly--will be an absolute prisoner. The reason is that a buzzard always takes off from the ground with a running start of at least ten feet. Without this amount of runway the buzzard will not even attempt to fly, but will remain a prisoner in a small jail with no top.

A bumblebee, if dropped into an open jar, will be trapped there until it dies. It never sees the means of escape at the top, but persists in trying to find a way out through the sides of the jar near the bottom. It will seek a way out where there is no possibility of success, until it perishes.

A lot of people like the buzzard and the bumblebee. They feel trapped by their problems and frustrations, not realizing that their means of escape is right there above them. Consider the buzzard; because she doesn’t think that she has enough running room to take off, she doesn’t even try. Many people, discouraged by their problems, give up trying to find solutions; they conclude that their situation is hopeless. As for the bumblebee, his problem is that he looks for escape in the wrong places—he insists on seeking a way out at the bottom of the jar, never once thinking of looking up for freedom. Many people become so fixated on their problems that they batter themselves bloody by continually trying to change the unchangeable, not willing to abandon the struggle and consider a different way to achieve their goals.

Both the buzzard and the bumblebee need to look up to find hope. If the buzzard believed that she could take off and escape even with a shortened runway, she would try it. If the bumblebee looked up, he would see that there was another way to reach his goal. People hemmed in by problems also need to look up. Those who are living in despair because things look hopeless can find a renewed, positive attitude by looking up to Jesus Christ, who encourages you to try what seems impossible because He said all things are possible with God (Mark 10:27). Those who are only succeeding at hurting themselves by fighting hopeless battles can find new possibilities by looking up to God the Father for direction, for He has promised: I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth (Isaiah 42:16).

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Making decisions

No matter which way I turn, I can't make myself do right. I want to, but I can't. When I want to do good, I don't. And when I try not to do wrong, I do it anyway (Romans 7:18-19).

Every day is filled with decisions: What should I wear? What should I eat? Of the many things I have to do today, which are the highest priority? And then there are those big decisions that we wrestle with less frequently: What career do I want to train for? Should I marry this person? Should I buy this car or this house?

We make decisions all the time. Sometimes we even do it wisely, first gathering information and considering the repercussions before choosing a course of action. But sometimes it seems as if our options are limited, that no matter what we decide something bad will result. When faced with such a situation, we realize that we have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

Many are convinced that humans have the capacity to do both good and evil, that the choice is up to each of us. However, that is not what the Bible teaches. According to God’s Word, we do not have truly free will. ‘Free will’ implies that you can see all the options and then choose accordingly—but sin makes this impossible. Because of our sinful nature we are born spiritually blind, unable to see those choices that please God. All we see are the evil possibilities, some less evil than others, but none of them pleasing to God. And so our ability to make decisions is limited to constantly seeking the lesser of two evils.

Jesus offers us something better. When our Lord takes up residence within us, He shares with us His ability to see spiritual things clearly. Jesus shows us the options that we could not see as blinded sinners and urges us to embrace these options. Of course, to the way we are accustomed to thinking, these new and righteous choices often look strange or frightening or too hard, and so we are constantly tempted to disregard Jesus’ way for the comfort of choosing between the devilish ways that we are familiar with; thankfully Jesus hangs in with us, and when our foolish decisions bring things crashing down on us, He is there to accept our apology, forgive our stupidity, and give us another opportunity to make a God-pleasing choice.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The dead shall rise

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:

We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts. Open the gates that the righteous nation may enter, the nation that keeps faith. You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you. Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD, the LORD, is the Rock eternal…

Yes, LORD, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; your name and renown are the desire of our hearts. My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness…

LORD, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us. O LORD, our God, other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone do we honor…

But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead. Go, my people, enter your rooms and shut the doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until his wrath has passed by. See, the LORD is coming out of his dwelling to punish the people of the earth for their sins. The earth will disclose the blood shed upon her; she will conceal her slain no longer (Isaiah 26:1-4, 8-9, 12-13, 19-21).

What do we know about heaven? We know that God rules the universe from heaven; in Psalm 103 we read "The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all." We know that there is true safety in heaven, because Jesus said "But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matthew 6:20). We know that angels live in heaven; Jesus also said "See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven" (Matthew 18:10). Jesus is there to welcome us, as Stephen saw in a vision just before his death: "But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55-56). It is a home for us; Jesus promised "In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you" (John 14:2). It is a place of rest from our earthly struggle with sin; "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on…they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them" (Revelation 14:13). It is a place where we will serve God: John saw in his revelation that "The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the [heavenly] city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light" (Revelation 22:3-5). And of course, it is the place where we will worship God for saving us from evil: "Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!" (Revelation 19:6-7). Heaven is a wonderful place; on the cross, Jesus said to the repentant thief "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).

Heaven is the goal of every Christian’s life. Although we are by nature afraid of death, we know that death is worth going through in order to be held in our Savior’s waiting arms in heaven. No matter how good life has been to us, we all carry the scars inflicted by betrayal, disappointment, sickness and tragedy. There comes a point in the Christian’s life when he says "Enough. Lord, I’m ready. Take me into your eternal kingdom." We all long for heaven as the reward for surviving a lifetime of battling sin as a soldier in God’s army.

So why should we look forward to the resurrection of the dead? Isn’t heaven good enough for us? After a lifetime of struggle and pain, why would anyone want to live again? Just think of what sin has done to life in this world. Wars and terrorism. Poverty and hunger. Miscarriages and abortions. Weeds and drought. AIDS and cancer. Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Diabetes and cataracts. Arthritis and mental retardation. Crime and drugs. Rust and mold. Moths and termites. The list goes on and on.

There are many people who believe in reincarnation, the idea that you live life on this earth over and over again. Who would want to believe in such a thing? Would you want to risk being reborn into an abusive home? Would you want to face the terrors of going on a first date again? Would you want to bury another parent or spouse or child? Would you want to face another layoff, or live through more days of borderline poverty? Would you want to see more loved ones go through divorce, or suffer it yourself? Would you want to grow old, lose your sight or hearing, or face death again? Coming back for another life doesn’t seem like anything to get excited about.

Yet Jesus rose from the dead; Paul writes "But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Corinthians 15:20). It was important that Jesus rise, to show His power over death. Death has a claim on all of us from the moment that our lives begin; David writes, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me" (Psalm 51:5). Sin is the bringer of death; James writes "sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death" (James 1:15). On our own, we have no way to successfully resist the sin which rots us from the inside. Our sinfulness distorts our thinking, so that we cannot see how to live a life that would please our holy God. So God sent His perfect Son Jesus to be born of human flesh by Mary, but also by the Holy Spirit of God; by such a birth, Jesus was born sinless. Since Jesus was both true God and perfect Man, He could do two things for us. As perfect Man, He could lead a perfect life; as true God, He could give that perfect life infinite value. Jesus lived a perfect life of infinite value so that it could replace all of our sin-tainted lives and satisfy God’s expectations of us. As the perfect Man, Jesus loved us so much that He suffered and died to pay to price of God’s anger at our sins. Yet as true God, Jesus’ loving sacrifice for us also had infinite worth; no matter how much sin this world has known, the value of Jesus’ sacrificing love is greater. Jesus took every bit of His heavenly Father’s holy anger that was directed at us upon Himself; there is no anger left in God for those embraced in Jesus’ arms. Jesus rose from the dead, because His love is greater than all the death our sins have earned.

Why did Jesus do all this? We know that Jesus loves us, but what is purpose of His suffering, death, and resurrection? Jesus said "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full" (John 10:10). Our God is the God of love, and God’s love is a giving love. "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). The reason that Jesus came into this world on our behalf was to give us life. For Jesus, death was only a temporary situation; the same is true for us. And while it is true that our spirits live on in heaven after our bodies die, this isn’t the way God intended for us to be! In Genesis chapter 2, how did God create the first man, Adam? Did God create a soul, and then send it down to earth in search of a body? No! This is how God created Adam: "the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being." Adam became alive when God put life into flesh. And the same is true of every baby ever since. Each time a child is conceived in a woman’s womb, it is a new, unique creation of God, a living being who God loves and cares for personally. There are no ‘baby souls’ up in heaven waiting for the next available body, nor are there any souls of the dead waiting in line for another chance at life. When a man and a woman come together, God uses their act of love to bestow the gift of a new life; a new person for both Jesus and the parents to love.

God never intended for Adam and Eve to die; God never intended for our souls to be torn from our bodies at death. This is why death terrifies us so much—we know, in the core of our being, that separating the soul from the body is wrong. And although Jesus has saved our souls from eternal death in hell, God is not quite done yet. Jesus came back to life from death not only to prove His victory over death, but to extend that hope to us as well. God promises that, after the Day of Judgment, we will physically rise from our graves: "But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy." This is no empty promise; Jesus has proven His power to call the dead back to life. In John 11 we read these words: "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again." Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day." Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" "Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world"… When Jesus saw [Mary] weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied. Jesus wept…Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."

Jesus wept when He came to Lazarus’ grave. He wept because He knew that man was not created to die. Even though we believers are welcome in heaven, God wants us to live the lives He always intended for us to have. So God has promised that our souls and bodies will be reunited, together forever as they were meant to be. But these won’t be our bodies as we have them now, full of disease and scars and the effects of aging. No, our bodies will be free of the effects of sin; Paul writes "Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality" (1 Coeinthians 15:51-53). In Philippians chapter 3 Paul adds "But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body." Nor will we be living in a world corrupted by sin. Jesus said "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35). The earth will be replaced with a world perfectly pleasing to God and His people; Peter writes "But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness" (2 Peter 3:13). We don’t know what our life will be like in this new, perfect, eternal world. We know that it will be different, because Jesus said of it "At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven" (Matthew 22:30). But we do know that we will be alive, free from sin and sickness and fear of hurt. We will be with our Savior, who will rule us in unending love. And we will be reunited forever with all our faith-filled loved ones who are enjoying heaven right now.

All of this—forgiveness, heaven, a perfect body on a perfect earth, eternal life with Jesus—is ours by God’s gift of faith. When we hear or read God’s word, the Holy Spirit builds faith in our hearts. Faith that knows grief over our sins, faith that begs Jesus for forgiveness, faith that has confidence that our Savior has repaired our relationship with His heavenly Father. God not only gives us the gift of faith and the salvation we receive through it, God also gives us gifts to strengthen our faith. God gives us churches where we can hear His word preached every week. God gives us copies of His Bible so that we can study His word in groups or alone at home. God gives us Holy Baptism to give us a visible seal of His promised salvation. Jesus even gives us His own body and blood through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. He gives us this Communion so that our faith may be strengthened; He also gives us Communion so that we have unity with all our fellow believers, living and dead. When you come to eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, you are united at table, through Jesus, with all the loved ones separated from you by miles and years—you are at table with your Lord and your family, even those in heaven. All these gifts God gives you, because He loves you and wants to make certain that you never leave His side.

On this year's remembrance of the saints, I ask you to not be sad. Your departed loved ones are not dead, but only sleeping. They are resting comfortably in the arms of their savior, as you too will do by faith one day. And while you wait with the Church for Christ to come again into the world, this time in glory, I remind you of the words of Job: "And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!" (Job 19:26-27)

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think (Romans 12:2).

Depending on how you were raised, being ‘counter-cultural’ could be an insult or a compliment. Being ‘counter-cultural’ means that you don’t ‘go with the flow’; instead, you ‘march to the beat of a different drummer.’ In the '60s, many Americans were shocked when their children opposed obeying the government’s directive to fight in Vietnam; they were horrified by anti-establishment music and wild fashions. Women burned their bras, while men grew their hair long. Everywhere, it seemed, people were behaving in ways that did not meet the standards of prevailing American culture. And those who were labeled as ‘counter-cultural’ were insulted, arrested, and persecuted by the larger society surrounding them.

There is tremendous pressure in American to conform. In high school, no one wants to be the outsider; peer pressure leads people to dress similarly, talk alike, and behave the same way as everybody else. There are neighborhoods where an association tells every homeowner how their yard must be kept and what colors they can choose from to paint their house. People who are out of step are not tolerated.

And yet, in this world of conformity, Jesus Christ calls you to be ‘counter-cultural.’ Christianity is by definition ‘counter-cultural.’ The Bible says that the whole world is under the control of the evil one; this is why Paul tells us not to copy the behavior and customs of this world. We live in a culture of death, where abortion is legal and viable fetuses are treated as stem-cell factories for medical research. We live in a culture of irresponsibility, where you can go to court and make someone else liable for your problems. We live in a culture of moral relativity, where behavior is defined as right or wrong based how it makes you feel. But Jesus teaches us to be ‘counter-cultural.’ He teaches us to treat every human life as a sacred creation of God. He teaches us to take responsibility for our actions so that He can then forgive us and provide us with a new start. He teaches us that in a world that prefers moral grayness, things are black and white, good or evil, and that life and happiness are only found in the purity of God’s truth. Christians are a minority in this world. We are not the prevailing culture—and so our lifestyle labels us as counter-cultural. This is why we are pressured from so many directions to stop being Christians and just conform. But Jesus challenges you to dare to be different.

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