Saturday, December 30, 2006

The Word of God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, `He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' " From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known (John 1:1-18).

Don’t you sometimes wish that you could read another person’s mind? When your husband gets that blank look on his face, don’t you wish you knew what he is thinking? When your wife makes one of those vague comments that leaves you unsure what she’s getting at, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to unscrew the top of her head and take a peek inside? When you hold that little baby in your arms, frustrated that you don’t know what he is crying about, don’t you wish that your son could tell you somehow?

After sin, mankind’s biggest problem is that we can’t figure out what other people are feeling or what they want us to do for them. True, sometimes people let us know what’s on their minds, but other times they hint around and get mad at us when we don’t pick up on their hints. And quite often we don’t tell people what we really feel or want because we are afraid that our needs and desires will make us look weak, foolish, or self-centered. Such miscommunications leave many people feeling frustrated, unloved, and alone.

Our thoughts and our feelings lurk in our brains, invisible. There is absolutely no way for one person to figure out what is on another person’s mind, unless that person communicates using words. These words might be spoken out loud or written down, but the bottom line is this: without words, no one can know for sure what is going on inside anyone else.

In addition to giving us information, words have another use: they cause things to happen. Words motivate us; words call us to action. A politician uses the words of a campaign speech to influence us to vote for him. A counselor uses words to help his patients identify what is troubling them and design a plan to live a healthier lifestyle. Bosses use words to get their employees to work harder and faster and to produce better quality. Parents use words to give their children boundaries to protect them and to give them confidence in making good decisions on their own.

Words are powerful things.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is called the Word of God. Of all the names the Bible gives to Jesus, this one seems the oddest. What exactly does it mean that Jesus is the Word of God made flesh? Actually, it means a couple of things:

First of all, Jesus is how we know God. I pointed out earlier that no one can read another person’s mind; actually, I should have said that no human being can read another person’s mind. God, of course, can read minds. There is no sinful thought that we can keep hidden from Him; Matthew tells us, Jesus knew their thoughts (Matthew 12:25). In Jeremiah 17:10 God says, I the LORD search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve. God knows our every thought and desire; the problem is, we don’t have that same ability. We can’t search God’s heart or examine His mind, any more than we can read the mind of our spouse or child.

God knows our limitations, so He sent His eternal Son to be born in a human body in order to communicate with us. John writes, No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. That is much of what Jesus came to do—He came to us that first Christmas, so long ago, to make His Father known to us. No one can feel the Father’s hug—but Jesus hugged little children. No one can see God, but thousands of people saw Jesus. Jesus brings the Father to us that we might know His thoughts, know His heart, know His desires.

Jesus is the means by which God communicates with us. Jesus does the same work that words do—like words, Jesus lets us know what God is thinking and feeling. Jesus is God’s words put into human form. But Jesus is not fallible like us. Sometimes we fail to communicate properly. We choose the wrong words and end up giving the wrong idea. Jesus is not like that. Jesus always represents God perfectly, because Jesus is God. The Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Jesus lives in the presence of the Father; Jesus has been with His Father from eternity. Jesus knows the Father’s heart perfectly because they have been together forever, and because they are--together with the Holy Spirit--one God. When Jesus speaks for the Father, He speaks for Himself—He speaks for God. Jesus is the completely dependable, authoritative Word of God.

But just as with written words, the Word of God does more than reveal God’s heart to us; like our words, the Word of God causes things to happen. Remember how God created the universe? On the first day, God said, "Let there be light," and there was light (Genesis 1:3). God created light, created the universe, by the power and authority of His spoken word. Psalm 33 says, By the word of the LORD were the heavens made. Now, consider what John says of Jesus’ role in the creation: Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. Of course Jesus was involved in the creation of our world; Jesus is the Word of God, and God creates by the power of His word!

Human words have power only insofar as they influence our thoughts and feelings. But the Word of God, being God Himself, has power in Himself. Consider the miracles of Jesus. Jesus ended a storm on the Sea of Galilee with the words "Quiet! Be still!" (Mark 4:39). Jesus healed a paralyzed man by commanding him, "Get up, take your mat and go home" (Matthew 9:6). Jesus cured a man of leprosy with the words, "Be clean" (Luke 5:13). Jesus removed a demon from a possessed man by saying, "Come out of him!" (Mark 9:25). Jesus raised a child from death by saying, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!" (Mark 5:41).

There is real life-giving power in Jesus, the living Word of God. That is why we pay such careful attention to Jesus’ words. That is why many Bibles highlight Jesus’ words with red ink. Jesus’ words are powerful and effective. Jesus’ words can create faith in our hearts, as we see when Jesus’ disciples refused to abandon Him: "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:67-68). It was the words of Jesus that had created faith in His disciples, faith that Jesus spoke the very words of God. This is possible because God works through His words: Jesus said, "The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:10-11).

The Bible shows us over and over again how powerful the Word of God is, because we need to trust it. We are all infected with sin. Sin twists our thinking, makes us question whether there is anything that is true, anything that can be relied upon. Our experience as sinful people is that no one can be trusted to always tell the truth, no one can be relied upon 100%. So when Jesus tells us about what sin is, we tend to be unconvinced. Those things that Jesus labels as sins—well personally, I think they’re kind of fun; how can I be sure that I really need to ask for forgiveness for doing that? Like the song says, "how can something be wrong when it feels so right"? When Jesus tells us that He has made things right with God by dying in our place for our sins, and that we can have a passport to heaven if we trust in Him alone, we tend to be skeptical. How can I know that there is anything after death except eternal nothingness? And even if there is a God in His heaven, isn’t it a little narrow-minded to claim that there is only one way to get in? Our sinful nature distorts our thinking, so that the truths spoken by Jesus seem like untruths to us; this is what John meant when he wrote, The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

God spoke, and the world was made. Sin entered the world, and the truths of God became hard for us to hear as we began shouting sinful lies and half-truths at each other. But God did not stop speaking. The Word of God is eternal and eternally active; the Word of God was revealed through Moses and the prophets, and finally took on the characteristics of a man in order to speak to us directly, face to face. In Jesus, the words of God come from God’s own lips; at Jesus’ transfiguration the Father said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:15).

It is important that we listen to the Word of God. It is important that we hear Jesus say, "Friend, your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20). It is important that we hear Jesus say, "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24). It is important that we hear Jesus and believe Him when He says, "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" (John 11:25-26). It is critical that we hear Jesus and believe the truth of His words, because Scripture tells us, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).

Jesus is the very Word of God, who came among us as a man that we might hear and believe and have true, unending, perfect life. For your sake, I beg you—listen to Him.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Another year ends, a new one begins

"There is hope for your future," declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:17).

Another year is just about over. What did you learn these past twelve months? Are you wiser than you were a year ago? Are you happier? Are you more patient, more understanding, more forgiving than you used to be?

What has happened in your life? Did your family grow through weddings or births, or did it shrink because of death? Did you find work that you enjoyed, or was 2006 a year of transition for you? Have you enjoyed good health, or has the recent past been a struggle?

When New Year’s Eve rolls around, some people look back on the ending year with a touch of nostalgia; others are just glad the year is over with, and fervently hope that the coming months will be better. But the underlying question that no one can truly escape is this: what does it all mean? Why did 2006 unfold the way that it did? What real hope is there that 2007 will be any better?

2006 was filled with good and bad. The bad things happened because we are all plagued with evil desires and the inability to keep those desires under constant control. Bad things happened because of our dark desires, or the dark desires of those who victimized us. But the good things that we experienced came from God, the God who made us and who loves us. He showed His love through the hands and voices of those who served Him; He showed His love through the invisible care of His angels; He showed His love through miracles ranging from subtle to awesome, small to overwhelming.

The outlook for 2007 remains the same. It will be a year of terrible disappointments and gut-wrenching sorrow, because the world is filled to overflowing with sin. But it will also be a year of victory snatched from defeat, unexpected joy in the midst of sorrow, reassuring peace and hope found in the ruins of shattered lives. Sin will still be evident everywhere, but God will also be at work through His Son Jesus, forgiving the despairing, mending broken hearts, giving healing where doctors have given up all hope, and welcoming the dying into a place where they will never again know pain or sorrow. We can expect 2007 to be another year in which Satan tries to wear us down with evil, but the light of God’s grace in Jesus will rescue those who believe, and give them reason to live through the coming year with joy in their hearts.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Is Christmas over?

But Mary quietly treasured these things in her heart and thought about them often (Luke 2:19).

In a Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz, Lucy throws up her hands in utter despair and shrieks, "For months we looked forward to Christmas. We couldn’t wait till it came, and now it’s all over!"

Is Christmas a fraud? For a few brief moments there is a special glow in the air. Life is gentler, happier, more exciting somehow. For a few breathless moments, the world is a magic place where everybody loves everybody and problems melt away. But then the magic moment is past. The tinsel wasn’t silver after all, only aluminum foil. The problems all return, and the joy and laughter turn out to be only whistling in the dark. The warm glow of friendship disappears, and people become strangers again, passing each other by, unknown and unrecognized.

My friends, it need not be like this; you can have a Christmas that is more than a few days’ distraction from the onslaught of winter. Presents may all be opened, and many already exchanged. Trees may be taken down and lying outside waiting to be burned. But Christ is not gone, not if He is living in your heart. God’s gift of His Son is still shiny and precious and new. God’s gift of His Son saves you from enslavement to being foolish and impulsive; God’s gift of His Son frees you from the weight of your guilt over mistakes that have hurt those you love and left you feeling trapped in a cage of your own making. God’s gift of His Son is the gift that keeps on giving every day of the year—giving forgiveness, giving hope, giving strength, giving inner peace.

For the unbeliever, Christmas celebrations only last a brief time before they’re over—then it is on to the next holiday to find further distraction from the worries of daily life. But for the Christian, Christmas celebrates the anniversary of God giving the best gift of all—the living Hope of peace with God, peace with ourselves, and peace everlasting—a gift that gives joy to our lives every day of the year. Please join me in praying:

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for leaving the wonders of heaven to come and share Yourself with us. Come live in our hearts, and remind us every day of the wonderful gifts You bring us—gifts of mercy when we have done wrong, gifts of strength when we are weak, gifts of wisdom when we are confused, gifts of hope when thinks look bleak. Be with us always, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

The true meaning of Christmas

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this (Isaiah 9:2-7).

The writings of the prophet Isaiah contain many wonderful passages about the coming of our Lord Jesus, but the passage just cited is perhaps one of the most beautiful. In this section Isaiah sums up, in just 6 verses, what Christmas is all about. So let us turn our attention to the true meaning of Christmas according to Isaiah, prophet of God.

Isaiah begins, The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. Right away we think of the opening verses of the Gospel of John, where the apostle writes, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. Both Isaiah and John use the imagery of darkness to describe mankind’s lost and hopeless condition. Light gives life; a houseplant put near a sunny southern window grows, while a plant put in a dark basement shrivels and dies. Anything forced to live in perpetual darkness will similarly wither and die. In the Bible, darkness represents a life lived in ignorance of Jesus and His saving love; to live in spiritual darkness is to slowly wither in the shadow of eternal death. In the 23rd Psalm, David picks up this imagery when he writes, Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me. David had hope in the deliverance of the Lord, the same deliverance Isaiah speaks of when he writes, on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. David, Isaiah, and John all find hope in the light of life that God reveals to believers through His Son, Jesus Christ.

You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. God has increased the joy of His nation. God’s nation is the heavenly Jerusalem, the capitol of the Kingdom of God. This is a nation of perfect happiness, yet the joy of this perfect place has been increased even more. The reason for this outburst of joy? They rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest. Isaiah intends us to think, not of an earthly harvest, but the spiritual harvest that the angels of the Lord gather into heaven. It is the people of the world, who are hungry for the light of God’s love, that Jesus speaks of when He says, The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field (Luke 10:2). The nation of God rejoices as the harvest is brought in, as sinners see the light and are saved; Jesus said, I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent (Luke 15:7).

Heaven also rejoices as men rejoice when dividing the plunder. Our Lord Jesus has been fighting a war with Satan since Adam and Eve caved in to the temptation to sin. But when Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice of atonement for our sins, He swallowed up death in victory. By paying the blood-price for our sins, Jesus freed us from eternal punishment in Satan’s prison, freed us so that He could take us to heaven as His treasures of war seized from the defeated enemy. Heaven rejoices because we have been freed from the devil’s rule over our hearts.

For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Midian was the mighty nation that Gideon faced with a much smaller army. Any general would have said that Gideon faced impossible odds; but because God was with Gideon, his small force of 300 men killed 120,000 of the enemy and freed God’s people from the oppression of the Midianites (Judges 6-7). Isaiah predicts that in the same way, God was sending a Savior who, though appearing vastly outnumbered and overpowered, would shatter the yoke that oppressed God’s people. That yoke was the yoke of sin. A yoke is a burden that an animal carries, which weighs it down. We think of the Charles Dickens story A Christmas Carol; remember Marley’s ghost? He was forever burdened by the weight of the money that he lusted after in life; his sins of greed were an eternal burden upon him. All sin is a burden. That is why Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30). The yoke of Jesus is living a life that rejects sinful pleasures and follows Him in a life of loving service. The reason that His yoke is easy is because He bears it with us, walking side by side with us, shouldering almost all of the burden for us.

Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. Because of Jesus’ victory over sin and death on the cross, the end of the war with Satan is near. When Jesus died in your place, He destroyed the only weapon that Satan could actually harm you with; with your sins forgiven, the devil can no longer go to God and say, "That person is a sinner! That person deserves to be in hell forever with me." As soon as Satan tries to accuse a believer of anything, God replies, "it is true that person has sinned, but I have forgiven those sins at my Son’s request." Satan’s deadly weapon against us was our own sin, because sin deserves God’s punishment. But when Jesus forgives our sins Satan can not harm us, because Jesus has taken away our sin and the devil can no longer accuse us before God of doing anything wrong. The only weapon Satan has left is the weapon of temptation, and Scripture assures us, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Corinthians 10:13). Jesus said, And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day (John 6:39). Satan has lost the war, and very soon Jesus will return to send our Adversary to a place where he can never tempt us again; when that day comes, the clothing soiled by war will be taken off and burned because we will never struggle against God’s enemy again.

Now Isaiah identifies the person who will do these wonderful things for us. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. Our Savior will come to us as a lowly child, the child who inherits the rulership of the kingdom because He is the firstborn Son. The government will be on His shoulders; the responsibility of governing heaven and earth will be His. He will be called Wonderful Counselor. Every human king needs a few counselors to turn to for help in making wise decisions; every president needs his Cabinet officials. But this Savior who comes as a child needs no counselors, because He is the Wonderful Counselor—He is the living Wisdom from on High, who shines the light of truth on the earth. His wisdom is beyond our comprehension; only He understands the universe, only He understands the people of earth; only He can rule wisely from heaven. And so we pray to this Wonderful Counselor for good sense in making every decision in our lives, whether great or small, because only He can see clearly the best path to take, only He cares so much about each and every one of us that He is only too happy to share His wisdom with us through the words of Holy Scripture.

He will be called Mighty God. This ordinary-looking child will disguise our extra-ordinary, all-powerful God, a God who cannot be directly looked upon by sinful man, lest such a sinner die as a result. This child will be able to tell storms to be quiet, command fevers to leave the sick, call the dead out from their graves to renewed life. This child will be able to feed 5,000 people from five loaves of bread and two fish, and feed uncountable numbers of His followers with His own body and blood through the miracle of the Lord’s Supper. This child will be so powerful that He will withstand the hell demanded for every human sin, and rise from the grave those countless sins buried Him in. This child is our Mighty God.

He will be called Everlasting Father. This Son of God is not a lesser God than His Father; Jesus said, I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Like the Father, Jesus is everlasting; at the beginning of His Gospel about Jesus, John writes, He was with God in the beginning. Jesus was involved in our creation. Jesus is the cause of our salvation, the father of our faith. Jesus lives today, seated at His Father’s side, interceding for us for His Father’s mercy. Jesus will return in glory to bring the faithful to heaven. And Jesus shall reign over all creation forever; Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. This means that we can put our trust in Him, because Jesus isn’t going anywhere; our Savior will always be here to help us.

He will be called Prince of Peace. Jesus brought peace between man and God. Before we had faith in Jesus, we were allies of Satan and enemies of God; when Jesus worked faith in our hearts, He freed us from Satan’s domination and brought us into the army of heaven. Because we have joined the winning side, we can know a kind of peace that is impossible for anyone else. Because we are at peace with God, we know that our guilt is forgotten. Because we are at peace with God, we can afford to let go of old grudges and have peace with the family of God here on earth. Because we are at peace with God, we know that death, as unpleasant as it is, is no worse than the pain of childbirth, a pain that leads to a glorious, unending life in heaven. It is this child, the Prince of Peace, that makes it possible for us to live our lives in confidence, not fear.

He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. Centuries earlier, God made David king over the people of God (called Israel in those days). And God promised David that one of his descendants would rule God’s people forever. Jesus is that child. Through His human parentage, Jesus was a descendant of King David, the heir to the throne of rulership over God’s people. But God’s people are not just found in Israel any more; God’s people are the members of the Church Militant spread across the earth, and the Church Triumphant found above in heaven—and our Lord Jesus is King of both. His eternal reign has already begun, and it is based on justice and righteousness. It is our Lord’s justice that demands that all wrongs be redressed; those who refuse to repent and believe in Jesus as their king will be condemned forever. It is our Lord’s righteousness that compelled Him to sacrifice Himself for us, and it is our Lord’s righteous nature to forgive those who come to Him in humble repentance.

Isaiah concludes, The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. God’s love for us is not a passive love, not a quiet love. Our God loves us fervently and actively. God did not wait for us to come to Him; Paul tells us, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). While we were still enemies of God, God loved us and He did something about that love—He sent His Son to be born a baby and cradled in a manger, so that the sins that alienated us from God could be forgiven and we could love Him in return. God’s love reached out to us in Bethlehem, and it continues to reach out to us today. A zealot is passionate in pursuing the thing he loves, and our God loves us zealously—it was this zeal of the Lord Almighty, this passionate love, that rescued us from our sins and promises us peace in Heaven.

May the blessings of Jesus be with you this Christmas and always!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Bethlehem miracle

Turn to me and be saved…for I am God, and there is no other (Isaiah 45:22).

Early winter, 1755—the Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania. The pioneers were under threat of an attack by the Conestoga Indians, who were planning to exterminate the settlers. So they fled for refuge to the nearby town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a Moravian colony which had established a treaty of peace with the Conestoga. But the tribe had been aroused to such a frenzy of hatred that they broke the truce and planned a bloody attack on the village. As Christmas approached, signal fires flared brightly on the surrounding hillsides. Tribal drums rumbled a fearful rhythm. War whoops, echoing through the night, filled the settlers with horror.

Christmas dawned, a Christmas of sinking fear. Yet there was still enough courage in the pioneer’s hearts to carry on a time-honored tradition; the people of Bethlehem, young and old alike, gathered to sing early morning praise to the newborn Christ Child. Eventually, the singing ended—seldom, perhaps, have songs of Christmas joy been sung under greater crushing weight—and the worshippers returned to the grim suspense of waiting for a Christmas Day attack. But scarcely had the fighting men of the village resumed their posts when, to their joy and astonishment, they watched the Indians break camp and disappear from sight into the distant, wooded hillsides. Miraculously, it seemed, the feared bloody massacre had been averted.

Later on, when peaceful relations had been reestablished, the reason for the retreat was revealed. While the chiefs were gathered in their council of war planning the attack, the wind carried the sound of the Christmas Carols to the wigwams on the hills, and those sweet melodies soothed the hearts of the enraged warriors. Thus on Christmas Day, as the settlers acknowledged allegiance to the Christ Child, they found deliverance and safety. And in that Pennsylvania Bethlehem, God blessed their Christmas faith as their families were spared and their individual lives saved.

Our triune God calls our attention once again this Christmas to the birth of His Son. And as He points us to the Babe of Bethlehem, He says, Turn to me and be saved…for I am God, and there is no other. Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Quality service

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28).

With Christmas almost upon us, most people are getting caught up in an annual American tradition: shopping for the best product at the best price. Consumerism drives us; we want clean, well-lit stores that are warm, with wide aisles and a large selection of goods to choose from. We want excellent customer service, from helpful employees to no-hassle refunds if we are disappointed with our purchase.

The trouble is, many people treat God’s churches as if they were stores specializing in the selling of religion. The best churches are expected to be in excellent repair, with every modern convenience. They should offer a wide variety of products, including both traditional and contemporary worship options, multiple Bible studies on a variety of topics, an assortment of groups to join, and so on. Preferred churches will give you excellent customer satisfaction, with preachers who are always available when you call the office and who never lead a dull worship service.

But what does a consumer do if he donates to the church, yet does not feel that he’s getting his money’s worth? What if he doesn’t like the musical selections? What if he is unhappy with the sermons? What if he doesn’t like how the congregation is being run? After all, it’s not like you can get a refund.

Perhaps the problem has to do with our attitude towards service. When we go into a store, we expect to be waited on; we want to be served. But when we go to church, two kinds of service are going on. First, God serves us—He serves us by taking away our sins through Jesus’ blood, which was poured out on our behalf on the cross of Calvary. He serves us by feeding us with His teachings, which are read from the Bible and discussed through the sermon. He serves us by listening to our prayers and responding according to His perfect wisdom. But then it is our turn to serve—serve Him by showing our gratitude through our songs of praise and our offerings to support His church. We serve Him by donating our time, whether it be as an officer of the congregation or a voter, a quilter or a Sunday School teacher, a groundskeeper or janitor, a choir member or a secretary. Instead of grumbling that the church looks dingy, you could offer to apply a new coat of paint. Instead of criticizing the pastor, you should pray to God to help him improve. Instead of complaining that there is no Bible study on your favorite topic, ask the pastor if he could prepare you to lead such a study yourself. Heed the words of St. Peter, who wrote: Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others (1 Peter 4:10).

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Honoring Christmas

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24).

Ah, the joys of our modern Christmas season! Pushing and shoving to get the last door-buster bargain. Children whining for every toy they see in the store. Rude, overworked clerks in the check-out line. People cutting you off on the road in their rush to get somewhere. Cursing in the kitchen when something is unexpectedly burned. Cursing in the living room when a string of lights is found to be all tangled up.

And there are the decisions to be made. Which family do we spend Christmas Eve with, and who gets Christmas Day? Do I take overtime hours or another part-time job in order to pay for all the presents? Do I try to get time off from work to see my child’s Christmas program? Is this the year to talk to my child about who Santa is? Do I give to charity this year, and if so, to which one and for how much?

Is this the way that Christmas ought to be?

Paul tells us, Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt. The power of the Holy Spirit is often compared to a fire—a fire that burns away impurity, a fire that fills us with the warmth of renewed life. But we can stifle that fire; we can push the Holy Spirit out of our hearts. We do this by treating the prophecies of the Bible with contempt.

One way in which we treat God’s prophecies with contempt is in our attitude towards sin. All of us sin many times every day. All of us witness the sins of others many times every day. Our lives are so awash with sin that it is easy to become hardened to it. I grew up in a house where bad language was not used. When I became a teenager, it bothered me to listen to the foul language I heard my classmates using. Whenever I read a paperback, my enjoyment would come to a stop if a character in the story used a swear word. But when I entered the working world as an adult, I heard so much bad language that I began to tune it out. It was not until I spent three years at Seminary that I became sensitive to foul language again. Now it bothers me once more when I hear cursing in a movie or at a social gathering. I am no longer hardened to that behavior.

When we become hardened to sins, we start treating them as if they are no big thing. One church body has even gone on record as saying that there are two kinds of sins—greater sins and lesser sins. According to them, only greater sins are worth losing sleep over; lesser sins are trivial. We tend to gloss over those sins that we think are minor; we don’t think to apologize for them, or bother to ask God to forgive them until Sunday morning during the Confession of Sins. Such sins could include snapping at your spouse or children when you’re frustrated, cutting off another driver in traffic because you are in a hurry, or shouldering another person out of the way at a bargain bin.

But what does Scripture say about "big" sins and "little" sins? When Jesus spoke about God’s expectations for holy living, He said: "I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished" (Matthew 5:18). According to Jesus, there is not even the tiniest punctuation mark in God’s written Law that can be safely overlooked or ignored. Saint James adds, "Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it" (James 2:10).

If this sounds like an impossible command to you, well it is. No one can keep all of God’s Laws perfectly, all day, every day, for his entire life. The sin that we are all born with makes such a thing impossible. That is why Jesus had to come to live for us, die for us, and rise again for us. Jesus had to live a perfect life free of sin so that He could offer that life to God in place of our tainted lives. Jesus had to assume responsibility for our sins and be punished for them by death so that we could be spared God’s holy anger and everlasting punishment. And Jesus had to rise from the grave to eternal rulership in heaven so that He can forgive us our mistakes and lift us to join Him there.

But here comes another way in which we are tempted to treat God’s prophecies with contempt. It is so very easy to not take Jesus seriously. Perhaps it is hard to believe that Jesus really was God in the flesh. A lot of modern scholars would like us to believe that Jesus was only a human teacher, like Confucius or Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The tales of miracles, like turning water into wine, walking on water, or raising the dead, are just colorful stories, not so different from the magical feats attributed to Santa Claus.

But even those who do accept the miracles of Jesus as true are still liable to treat His work with contempt. It is easy to get drunk on Saturday night, repent of your sins on Sunday morning, and have a stiff drink when you get home from church to relieve the stress. It is easy to turn off the alarm Sunday morning and skip going to church because you just went last week. It is easy to let the offering plate pass you by because your wallet is empty from buying Christmas presents the day before.

Just how seriously did Jesus take our situation? Jesus lived in the glories of heaven, where there is no tiredness, no sadness, no pain. But Jesus gave all this up to live among us. Jesus worked long days and became exhausted, healing the sick and forgiving sins. Jesus wept over the sins of His people and over the death of those He loved. Jesus suffered blows, whipping, and nails through His hands and feet to make sure that none of us would ever suffer the kind of pain that we truly deserve because of our sins. This was no small thing that Jesus did; in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked in prayer for an alternative: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matthew 26:39). The cup of suffering would be so difficult to drink that even the Son of God asked for another way to save Mankind; but as there was no other way, Jesus willingly suffered on the cross and died—for you.

Jesus held nothing back in securing God’s mercy for you. It is nothing short of insulting to take Jesus’ sacrifice for granted by saying that you are sorry and then turning right around to repeat that same sin without a moment’s hesitation or a plea to God for help in resisting temptation. It is nothing short of insulting to begrudge Jesus an hour or two of your time each week, when He gave His very life for you. And how does your giving to the work of God’s kingdom reflect on the gratitude in your heart for all that your Lord has given you?

Saint Paul says, Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil. This is excellent advice during the holiday season. Test everything. Look at how you spend your time and your money; look at your behavior. As you prepare to celebrate the anniversary of our Lord’s coming, are your preparations God-pleasing?

How does Jesus feel about rude behavior while shopping? What does God say about our wanting more and more presents every year? What are God’s instructions about stewardship of wealth? What does God say about belief in supernatural beings other than Himself? What does Scripture have to say about letting church attendance slide in the rush to get ready for the holidays? Here are a few passages to refresh your memory:

In regard to losing one’s temper, Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment" (Matthew 5:21-22). On the subject of greediness, Jesus said: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). Regarding stewardship, Solomon wrote, "He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done" (Proverbs 19:17). When it comes to belief in supernatural beings, God said through Isaiah, "I am the LORD, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God…I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols" (Isaiah 45:5 & 42:8). And as to letting church attendance slip because life is busy? Consider Luke chapter 10, verses 38 to 42: As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

Paul tells us to hold on to the good. There are many good parts to celebrating Christmas, ways that treat God’s words with honor. Christmas is a time when charitable giving is at its peak—giving to support the needy is pleasing to God. Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matthew 25:40).

A part of God-pleasing stewardship is giving to support the work of bringing the Gospel to those who sit in the darkness of sin. Paul writes, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" (Romans 10:15). Giving to mission work helps make the delivery of this Good News possible.

Another God-pleasing part of Christmas is the gathering of family. After making Adam, God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18), and God made for him a wife; in this way, God created the first family. Jesus showed His approval of marriage by performing His first miracle at the wedding in Cana (John 2:1-11). In fact, God uses the imagery of family to describe our relationship with Him—He is our Father who art in Heaven, and His Son Jesus is our brother, through our adoption as sons and daughters by faith (Romans 8:23 & Matthew 12:48-50). We were created to be a part of a family—God’s family.

But the most important way in which we can honor our Lord at Christmas time, at any time, is to make time for Him in our lives. It is through the hearing of His word that the Holy Spirit creates and strengthens saving faith in our hearts. It is through the hearing of His word that we are reminded of our need for forgiveness and are reassured of God’s mercy. It is through the hearing of His word that we are given guidance for living a life that has meaning and purpose, by thanking and praising God, and by serving the needs of His other children in humility.

So as you look at your calendar and checkbook, trying to figure out how to distribute your time and money, as you try to decide what to say in your Christmas letters, telephone calls, and emails, test everything. Ask Jesus to help you to put your emphasis this Christmas on holding on to the good, and avoiding the temptation to treat His Word with contempt. Challenge yourself to avoid Christmas activities that weaken the presence of Jesus in your holiday celebration, and let the Lord put Christ in your Christmas.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Sex, sex, sex

The grace of God that brings salvation…teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

Americans are obsessed with sex. Many magazine covers feature sexy images; a lot of popular music contains sexual lyrics; sex is a major theme in much of our television and movie entertainment. Every day, we are bombarded by sexual imagery--and we have only ourselves to blame. Sex sells. As long as we respond to sexual themes with our attention and our money, businesses will continue to use human sexuality to boost their profits.

But constantly dwelling on the fulfillment of sexual desire leads to some very real problems. One is the issue of objectification. God designed the sex act to be an expression of love between two people, each giving pleasure to the other. But more and more, sex has become something selfish. Many people treat their partner as little more than an object, a human toy that exists only for the purpose of making them feel good. When sex with their partner loses its excitement, they are soon looking to hook up with someone else. Such a mindset strips all love from the act of lovemaking.

Another problem is the negative impact on marriage. God intended sexual activity to be reserved for the mutual joy of marital partners; sexual pleasure was a glue that held husbands and wives together. But in recent decades, sex has become an activity that a person often shares with many partners. You’ve probably had the experience of realizing, after you have sealed an envelope, that you forgot to put something like a picture in with the letter; but after you reopened the envelope, you found that the adhesive on the flap had now lost much of its strength. The same principle applies to having multiple sex partners—each time that the emotional bond formed by sex is torn apart, sex loses more its strength to hold two people together. In an era of sexual freedom, it’s no wonder that divorce rates are at an all-time high.

Having your mind dominated by sexual desire is not healthy for relationships; it results in broken hearts, loneliness, and a reduced ability to trust in others. Thankfully, there is another way to live. St. Paul writes: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). Spend time with Jesus, and He will teach you the full extent of what love can really be.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Happy Holidays

The angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

The last couple of years, there has been controversy over saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Some religious organizations have gone so far as to urge consumers to boycott business that won’t use "Christmas" in their advertising.

Businesses don’t want to offend customers, especially since merchandisers make 30% of their annual profits after Thanksgiving each year. "Happy Holidays" seems to be inclusive—it offers seasonal good wishes to everyone, regardless of their beliefs.

But the irony is that "Happy Holidays" is a statement soaked in religion. After all, the word "holiday" is only our modern way of saying "holy day." Long ago, people didn’t get time off from work unless it was to attend worship services. Such days were "holy days", days set apart for time with the holy God who created us, cares for us, and blesses us with His love. Over time, "holy day" became "holiday", a day when you were freed from having to labor (certainly there is irony here, as our modern holidays see many people working, especially if employed in food service or sales).

Christmas is indeed a "holy day." It is holy because Christmas celebrates an important anniversary—it recalls the time when God met humankind face to face. In Jesus, God took on the body of a human being, making Him someone we could see and touch, someone we could eat with and walk beside, someone we could listen to and see smiling at us. Jesus was born to people of humble means in a shelter for animals, coming into our world in such a way that even lowly shepherds, dusty from work, would feel just as comfortable in His presence as any wealthy intellectual from the distant east. God coming to live with His people—a holy event to be sure.

Of course, Jesus came to do something important. He came to share God’s holiness with us. He would do this by taking our place—suffering and dying on the cross for all the many ways we have disappointed God, angered Him, betrayed Him. God our Maker should have first place in our thoughts, words and deeds; but so often we barely give Him a thought as we go about our daily routine. It is our nature to focus on "things below", earthly things, at the expense of "things above", heavenly things. And so we anger God and invite His punishment. But out of His great love for us, God sent His Son to make things right on our behalf. All of God’s anger at us was expended on His beloved Son during the dark hours of Good Friday. Because of Jesus, we receive a wonderful exchange—God's wrath is replaced, through forgiveness, with His welcoming love. Speaking of Jesus, Paul writes: God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). A holy act indeed.

So if anyone tells you "Happy Holidays", don’t get offended. Smile and tell them "Happy Holy Days to you—God’s Son is born!" Christmas is most certainly a "Holy Day."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Prepare for the coming of the Lord

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" -- a voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:1-8).

As Noah went up the steps to enter the Ark, his last message to those who stood outside was not "God is in His heaven and all is right with the world!" Jeremiah was not put into a pit for preaching "I’m okay, you’re okay." Daniel was not thrown into the lion’s den for telling people to "visualize it and it can be yours." And John the Baptist was not beheaded because he preached "smile, God loves you." No, the message of all these men of God was a message that many did not want to hear: "Repent."

John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for the coming of our Lord. It is only fitting, then, as we get ready to celebrate the anniversary of our Lord’s coming into the world, that we consider John’s message on how to prepare ourselves. But John’s instructions for getting geared up for Christmas are not something that we enjoy hearing. Instead of telling us how to get ready to have a good time with parties and gift exchanges, John tells us that we should repent.

Hundreds of years earlier, Isaiah had announced the coming of John: a voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him' (Isaiah 40:3). John was sent to prepare people for the Lord’s coming; he was to do this by instructing the people to make ‘straight paths’ for Him. It is interesting that John did not speak of just one straight path, but many straight paths. This is because the straight path is not found in the physical world, it is found in the human heart. Each person must make a straight path to his own heart for the Lord to enter; that is why there are so many paths to make straight.

Scripture uses the image of straight paths to show contrast with human sin. Many times in the Bible, we read of iniquity—an example is from Psalm 51: Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. The word ‘iniquity’ refers to something that is uneven, crooked. Since our God is a God of perfection, the imperfection of crookedness is unacceptable. In English, to refer to someone as ‘crooked’ is to call him a criminal. The prophet Isaiah tells us that Jesus was sent to remove iniquity from the faithful: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). Isaiah tells us that like straying sheep, we have wandered off the straight path; because of sin our paths have become crooked and unacceptable to God.

Sin is what makes us crooked. Sin is our natural tendency to ignore the needs and wants of others so that we can follow our own agendas. The problem is, our personal agendas only benefit ourselves. We expect everyone else to do what we want to do, all the time; sin does not allow for compromise or taking turns. We expect everyone else to apologize to us after a fight, but we never want to say we’re sorry because we don’t want to admit that we could have been wrong; sin prefers pride over humility. We expect everyone else to support the church, talk publicly about Jesus, and run for church office, because we have done as much as we feel comfortable doing; sin tells us to take it easy and let others do the work.

Saint Paul tells us, 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). We were not created to pursue our own agendas. God has work lined up for each of us, and when we stray from His path to pursue our own interests, we become disobedient and rebellious. When we fail to do God’s good and gracious will, we sin.

John the Baptist tells us to make straight paths for Jesus’ coming. The way to have a straight path is to stop enjoying sin and to reject it in favor of God’s way. This happens when we repent. To repent is to have a change of heart. To repent is to look at your sins in a completely different way. Perhaps there is something that you routinely do, some sin that you have made peace with. Perhaps you often get drunk, but you have convinced yourself that it’s no big deal because you don’t drive yourself home drunk or beat your wife while under the influence. Perhaps you like to gamble, but you don’t worry about it because you limit how much you are willing to lose each time you go out. Perhaps you sleep with another person that you are not married to, but you believe it’s okay because you use protection to prevent the spread of disease and an unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps you like to participate in gossip, but it’s not a problem because you are careful about who you share secrets with.

A repentant heart looks at sins differently. A repentant heart remembers First Corinthians 3:16 --Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple. A repentant person knows that drunkenness damages his body, and that such behavior is a sin.

A repentant heart remembers the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus says, Again, [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. When one servant was found to have not invested the money he had been entrusted with, he was told: `You wicked, lazy servant!…you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest (Matthew 25:14-27). A repentant person realizes that all he has is on loan from God, and that it is to be used responsibly—gambling is not a responsible investment of God’s resources.

A repentant heart remembers the Sixth Commandment, you shall not commit adultery, and the 8th Commandment, you shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. A repentant person realizes that any sexual union outside of marriage is a sin, and that any words spoken about another person that damage his reputation violates the command of God. A repentant person does not make peace with his sins, he acknowledges them for what they are, and turns his back on them completely.

At this point, we need to make a distinction between repentance and walking on a straight path. Repentance is about acknowledging our crookedness, our iniquity; repentance is about rejecting sin as the way that we prefer to live our lives. But repentance in no way gives us the ability to live a sinless life. For example: while on a trip, you might find that your car starts to only drive in circles. When you stop and get out, you discover that it is because a front wheel has become broken. Now, just because you know that you can’t finish your trip with a broken front wheel, that in no way enables you to drive the car straight down the road. It is the same with sin and repentance. Just because you know that a life lived in sin cannot get you to heaven, that does not mean that you can live your life without sinning.

Which is why John the Baptist wanted the people to prepare for the Lord’s coming. He did not tell the people to make straight paths so that they could go out to meet Jesus; John told them to renounce the crookedness in their hearts so that Jesus could enter them. Jesus desires to live in our hearts. Jesus wants to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all our iniquities. Jesus enters our lives to help us see the straight path through a crooked world, a path that He walks with us, hand in hand, that leads out of trouble and into happiness.

Jesus can forgive us and lead us to heaven because of what He did for us the last time that He walked here among us. Jesus was born into our world two millennia ago to die. He did not have to die; the Son of God was perfect, holy, righteous in His relationship with His Father. But Jesus chose to die in order to save us from the terrible consequences of our iniquities. The name ‘Jesus’ means "God saves", and that is exactly what He did for us. The LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Paul tells us, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus died under the weight of our sins; the curse that we had earned put Him to death.

But the result has been nothing but blessing for us. Because of Jesus, God’s promise through Jeremiah has been fulfilled: I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more (Jeremiah 31:34). Because of Jesus, David was able to say, as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). And because Jesus did this great act of love for us, Paul writes: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11). Because of Jesus’ sacrifice of love, He reigns forever as our King and we will live forever as His beloved subjects in His perfect kingdom.

John the Baptist wanted the people to realize that they were sinful, that they needed a Savior from sin and its’ curse of death. It’s like buying an older home. No one pays for termite treatment unless an inspection turns up evidence of infestation. In the same way, no one gets excited about the coming of our Savior unless they see in themselves the infestation of sin; the only people who anxiously await the coming of the Savior are those who know that they need help in escaping their crooked iniquity.

When John began his ministry in the wilderness, many people flocked to see him, some walking from as far Jerusalem, which was 4,000 feet up in the mountains and 20 miles away. They came because it had been 400 years since God had sent a prophet, and they were anxious to hear what this representative of God had to say. Yet less than three years later John lay dead, beheaded, because Herod’s wife did not like it that John had told her to repent of her improper marriage to her brother-in-law. John’s message to his listeners is "repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near." Your Lord Jesus draws near. Every day that you live, you draw a day closer to that final day when you will stop celebrating Jesus’ birth among us because you will see Him yourself, face to face. This is not a message that we like to hear at any time of the year, let alone just before Christmas. But John’s plea is that you use this Advent season to reassess your sins and make straight paths for your Lord, that He might forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all your iniquity.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A continual appetite for more

Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony (Proverbs 23:2).

The news is constantly reminding us that Americans are getting fatter and fatter; overeating is becoming a national health problem. But gluttony is more than just over-eating; gluttony is a problem with how we treat pleasure. It is natural to want to feel good; there’s nothing wrong with a desire to enjoy life. But sometimes we take our pursuit of pleasure to unhealthy extremes. St. Paul suggests a little wine to settle an upset stomach, yet he criticizes drunkenness because when drunk it is far too easy to say and do things that will hurt others. A little something sweet after a meal is nice, but carried to an extreme, consumption of sweets can lead to diabetes. Too much of anything—salt, carbohydrates, fat—can permanently damage your health.

A pursuit of pleasure to the point of excess can also taint relationships. Some people want so much from their partner that they become clingy or demanding and end up driving their partner away; they want more from the relationship than that person is willing or able to give. An ‘all-consuming’ love is not healthy, it is essentially selfish.

Gluttony can even extend to material things. Some people have to wear the trendiest fashions, while others have to buy the newest technological gadgets. Gluttony can take the enjoyment of a sports team and turn a room into a virtual shrine filled with every type of memorabilia. Gluttony can result in obsessive behavior and an empty bank account.

Even worse, the effects of gluttony go beyond oneself. People who consume too much are reducing the resources available to others. A person who needlessly damages her health drives up the cost of everyone’s health insurance by her increased claims for medical care. A person who squanders every dollar on clothes or technology leaves little in the way of an inheritance for his children.

The glutton can never have enough of the things that make him feel good. But what will happen when the body feels more pain than pleasure? Will life then lose it’s meaning? The only lasting pleasures are found with God; Psalm 16 ought to be your prayer: You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Spiritual laziness

Never be lazy in your work, but serve the Lord enthusiastically (Romans 12:11).

A person who is lazy is focused on leisure time. This can take the form of ‘goofing off’ when there are things to be done; it can also cause a person to rush through her responsibilities in order to finish up as soon as possible and relax.

What’s so bad about being lazy? Consider the employee who has to stay late, finishing another person’s work. Consider a child who is sent to bed early so that dad can relax in front of the TV undisturbed. Consider the teenager who is never given a reason for being told ‘no’ because mom doesn’t want to take the time to explain her reasons. Consider a person who votes against a referendum without taking the time to find out why the measure was proposed in the first place. Laziness hurts others.

But the worst kind of laziness is spiritual apathy. What happens when your desire to stay in bed keeps you home from church? What happens when you decide that studying the Bible is too hard, that reading some light Christian literature is more fun? What happens when you are just too busy enjoying yourself to find time to pray?

If going to church is not a priority, you are separating yourself from the source of your spiritual energy. You are not hearing the word of Christ, which is the power of God to renew your life. You are missing opportunities to show your gratitude to God through songs and offerings and acts of service. You are missing the interconnectedness that comes with being part of God’s family of believers.

When you set aside the Bible for light Christian reading, how do you know that what the writer is saying agrees with what God says? Only the Bible is inspired; only familiarity with God’s word can help you evaluate the quality of other Christian literature. While there is nothing wrong with such reading, it should never replace your time immersed in God’s holy word.

And what happens when you stop praying? You are giving God the silent treatment, refusing to answer His call, ask for His help, or share the contents of your heart. On earth, such behavior ends relationships; giving God the silent treatment can have eternal ramifications even more serious. So don’t let sloth overtake you; instead, be zealous for the Lord, passionate in your desire to be with Him and to serve Him.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Comfort for God's people

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."

You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!"

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young (Isaiah 40:1-11).

Comfort, comfort ye My people. This is the command that God gave to His prophet Isaiah, to go and give comfort to God’s holy people. What a wonderful command—to be told to announce Good News to those who faithfully wait on God for His blessings. This was a command that Isaiah was happy to follow. This is a command that every preacher of God’s holy Word enjoys carrying out.

God’s people need to hear words of comfort. Our world bombards us constantly with bad news. Pick up a newspaper—more likely than not, the largest headline is bad news. Turn on the radio and television, and you will soon get a newsbreak—and newsbreaks rarely feature good news. There are some radio stations and cable networks that even specialize in 24 hour-a-day news; if you want to get depressed, just leave these kinds of programs on all day long.

But you don’t have to turn to the media for bad news; bad news comes right into your house whenever the kids come home from school, your spouse gets home from work, or you get a phone call from a friend. There’s a bully at school. The business is losing money. Your best friend from high school is getting a divorce. This bad news is personal.

The non-Christian blames bad news on bad luck, but we children of God know that there is no such thing as luck. God created the universe, and He is at work every day to keep it running. Jesus said, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working" (John 5:17). Jesus also said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father" (Matthew 10:29). Even the brilliant Albert Einstein said, "God does not shoot dice." Because we know that God is in control, the bad news in our lives makes us wonder: is this happening because I have made God mad? Is God punishing me for something?" Bad news makes us worry. We worry how we are going to deal with our bad news, and we worry if God will allow us to escape from our troubles? If God has sent bad news into our lives as a punishment, what hope can we have that tomorrow will be better?

It is natural for us to fear God’s anger. In the Garden of Eden, as soon as Adam and Eve had sinned, the first thing that they did was to hide from God. They hid from Him because they feared His anger at their disobedience in eating from the forbidden tree. Ever since then, people have been afraid of God's anger. We have been afraid because all of us have disobeyed God’s commands and have earned His rightful punishment. And when we read the Old Testament, we see what God did to the nation of Israel, His nation, when they repeatedly disobeyed Him—He allowed foreign nations to defeat their armies, destroy their cities, and force the people to work in foreign lands. God hates sin, and when things go badly in our lives, we begin to fear that He hates us.

But God told Isaiah to announce comfort to His people. The reason that they can be comforted is that their sin has been paid for. By the power of God, Isaiah is given a look at the future, and what a future it will be! God will send someone to pay the debt that our sins have incurred before God. Later, in chapter 53 of Isaiah, the prophet speaks as if Jesus had already lived, died, and rose again: he says, "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all."

What a comforting message! We do not have to fear God’s anger, because all of His anger was taken out on His Son Jesus who came to be punished in our place! Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the fires of hell can be avoided; all that is asked of us is that we welcome Jesus into our hearts as our Lord and Savior and ask His help in rejecting our desire to do evil. Jesus shows us the heart of God—powerful yes, so powerful that He could escape the grip of death itself. But Jesus does not use that power to bully us into leading respectable lives, He doesn’t drive His sheep before Him with angry blows from His staff. No, Jesus uses His power to clear a safe path for us so that He can lead us to heaven—and when the way is long and difficult, He picks us up in His arms and tenderly carries us close to His heart. Jesus is a loving shepherd to His sheep.

This message of comfort forces us to look at the bad news in our lives in a different light. Since Jesus loves us and forgives us, the bad news that we experience must not be the result of God’s anger. Indeed, King David wrote in Psalm 130: "Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD; O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy. If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared. I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins." David reminds us that no one could survive God’s anger at human sin; If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? The reason that bad things happen is not because God is punishing us for our sins; bad things happen because the world is full of sinful people who are doing sinful things. The very ground itself was cursed because of mankind’s sin; God told Adam, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:17-19). Sin caused there to be weeds. Sin caused there to be floods and droughts and pestilence. Sin brought disease and death into a world that God had made perfect.

So why doesn’t God shield His children from the sin that surrounds us? He does—to a certain degree. Saint Paul tells us, "God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians 10:13). But God does not completely shield us from the effects of sin. Sometimes our Lord allows hard times to come upon us to test our faith and to strengthen our relationship with Him; the entire book of Job serves as an example. Through the prophet Zechariah God said, "I will refine them like silver and test them like gold. They will call on my name and I will answer them; I will say, `They are my people,' and they will say, `The LORD is our God' " (Zechariah 13:9). Other times, God allows bad news to trouble us to get our attention; when Jonah resisted going to preach to the Ninevites by setting sail in the opposite direction, God put a storm in his path and used a huge fish to start Jonah going in the correct direction again. It was the same with the Israelite nation; when they turned their backs on God, God did not destroy them—their captivity in Babylon was a wake-up call, a call to repent and return to God’s loving leadership.

So we have this comfort: Jesus has paid off our debt of sin to God, and because of this we know that whatever troubles we experience in life only serve to draw us closer to God, to depend on Him more. But the comfort goes beyond even this. Through Isaiah God says, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." Nothing in this sin-corrupted world is permanent, but God is. No one can be depended upon to always be there when we need them, but God can. The word of our God stands forever. Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35). Those words are words of promise; those words are words of power. Those words are words of comfort and assurance, words like: "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" (John 11:25-26). We have the comfort of knowing that our Lord Jesus can be depended on to always be there for us, no matter what is happening in our lives.

And finally, we have this comfort: through Isaiah God said: the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. That glory of God was made visible to us in the body of our Lord Jesus Christ. Saint John tells us, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known" (John 1:18). Jesus has made our invisible God visible to us. Jesus has made our untouchable God touchable, as He took little children in His arms and blessed them. Jesus has made our holy, unapproachable God approachable to us, by being born as a lowly baby in a lowly stable attached to a lowly traveler’s inn. Jesus revealed the glory of God to us, and God’s glory is this: that His love for us is so perfect that He would do anything—even send His Son to die—so that we could live free from the fear of sin and its curse of eternal punishment.

Now that’s comfort!

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