Friday, March 30, 2007

Lifted up

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. "Sir," they said, "we would like to see Jesus." Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

Jesus replied, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

"Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!"

Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, "This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:20-33).

When Jesus was brought to the Place of the Skull on Good Friday, the cross was laid down on the ground. Our Savior, who had been up all night, beaten and whipped, was made to lie down on that cross, His arms spread wide. After the large metal nails had been driven through His hands and feet, securing Him to the rough wood, the cross was pulled upright and fixed into place beneath the merciless Palestinian sun—our Lord had been lifted up from the earth, in order that He might die.

It sounds odd to our ears, to hear Jesus describe His crucifixion as being ‘lifted up.’ Ordinarily when we think of lifting something up, we think of positive things like lifting up our voices in praise, or lifting up our hearts in thankfulness. Good news is said to lift our spirits. When we are happy, we say that we are feeling ‘up’.

‘Up’ is the traditional direction of heaven. The Bible uses this kind of imagery everywhere. In Psalm 25 David prays, To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul; in you I trust, O my God; at the grave of Lazarus John tells us, 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" (John 11:41-42). When Elijah reached the end of his earthly life, Scripture records, As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). On the day of Jesus’ Ascension Luke tells us, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight (Acts 1:9). And God often appeared to men in high places. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush on a mountain. The 10 Commandments were given by God on a mountain. The Temple (along with Jerusalem) was built on a mountain. Jesus was transfigured on a mountain. Since the Bible directs our attention upward towards God, it is not surprising that we associate ‘looking up’ with good things.

But it is for precisely these reasons that it is appropriate to look up at the cross and find something good there as well. Scripture teaches us to look up to find God; when we look up at that person dying on the cross above us, who is it that we see? None other than the very Son of God Himself. Scripture directs us to look up for mercy; when we gaze upon our suffering Lord, we find in Him God’s mercy, because the suffering that Jesus underwent was the suffering that we deserved for our sin-corrupted lives. God our Father created us to serve Him, but we instead live lives of continual disobedience to the will of God; in order to spare us from our heavenly Father’s justified anger, Jesus stood in as our substitute. When we look up at His nail-pierced hands, His whip-lacerated back, His beaten head, His spit-upon face, the blood dripping from where the crown of thorns cut His forehead, when we see these marks we realize that all this was endured to spare us from our deserved punishment. Jesus accepted His Father’s anger at our disobedience so that we can be forgiven. When we look up at the figure on the cross, we do indeed find God and His incredible mercy.

The cross is a terrible thing, and yet it is also a wonderful thing. It is a terrible thing, because although our Savior was completely obedient to His Father, He nevertheless was sentenced to die—it was the greatest injustice of history that condemned Jesus to death. It is a terrible thing that our lives have been so filled with evil thoughts, words and deeds that our Lord had to endure such pain in order to free us from God’s wrath. But the cross is also a wonderful thing. No where else in history has God demonstrated His love for us in such a powerful, life-changing way. No other gift of God can come close to the miracle of love that allows all of our wrongs to be set aside and forgotten.

Looking up at the dying Savior is indeed a good thing, for us. But it is also a good thing from God’s perspective. Our God does not willingly send anyone to hell; the cross is proof of how far our Lord was willing to go to break our fascination with evil things and focus our devotion on Him alone. The cross is God’s way of calling us to Him; Jesus said, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself." Over and over throughout the Bible, God commands us to love Him, and to demonstrate that love by putting Him first in our lives. But these commands of God consistently fail to maintain our devotion; this is because commands do not create relationships; commands just set up opportunities for relationships to be shattered when the rules are broken. God’s Law does not save, it condemns. But love and forgiveness build relationships. When we learn that Jesus offered everything He had in order to provide us with forgiveness for our mistakes, we are moved to respond, not with rebellion, but in grateful love. When we experience the load of guilt for years of mistakes lifted from our souls, our response is to want to thank Jesus for this incredible gift; it is not fear of God’s Law that motivates us to try and do good works, it is thankfulness for all that Jesus did for us on the cross. This is how Jesus draws us to Himself—not through threats, but through the forgiveness which He earned the right to give on the cross.

There is a lesson here for our inter-personal relationships as well. What is at the center of most fights between husbands and wives? What is at the center of most conflicts between parents and children? All too often, it is a power struggle. God tells husbands that He holds them accountable for what goes on in their families, but frequently husbands misuse their authority and become dictators, with the result that their wives find ways to resist being ordered around. God tells parents that He holds them accountable for the raising of their children, but frequently parents misuse their authority, with the result that their children begin to hold them in contempt. Power struggles take homes that should be places of love and structure and turns them into chaotic prisons of resentment.

Jesus’ example to us is to draw us to Him through loving sacrifice and forgiveness. Let’s imagine two wooden poles connected by a clothesline. If one pole weakens and falls away from the other, the rope will pull the other pole down as well, but the poles will not end up any closer together when they hit the ground. However, if the weakened pole falls towards the second pole, the rope will pull the second pole closer, with the result that they end up falling into each other and supporting each other. Now instead of wooden poles, let us substitute a husband and wife, or a parent and child. Instead of clothesline, let us connect the two people with a relationship of love. Now, when one person feels as if the other is emotionally far away, he or she can tug on the relationship, trying to get the other person to move—but if he or she falls towards the ground away from the other person, all that will happen is that both will be pulled down, yet never end up any closer together. But if the one who feels wronged instead kneels towards the emotionally-rigid person, as he or she falls towards that other person the connection of love will pull both people towards each other, with the result that they end up falling into each other and supporting each other. Giving to another person in love is much more likely to win them over than by making demands in anger.

We are all weakened by sin. Our resolve to love and forgive is a brittle thing, all too easily broken by selfish impulses and a desire to protect our sinful pride. This is why we need Jesus living in us. Jesus said, I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you (John 14:20). When Jesus lives in us, He makes it possible for us to love and forgive in a way that we never could on our own. When Jesus lives in us, we begin to see that our own needs for attention and respect are not as important as the needs of those who look to us for love and forgiveness. Jesus shows our hearts that it is better to devote your love to others instead of insisting on being the center of attention; it is better to forgive another instead of insisting that your rights be respected. Jesus shows our hearts that the way to build relationships is to give, not demand.

Because Jesus was lifted up, mankind is drawn to Him wherever the Good News of Christ crucified is spoken about. As Jesus is lifted up in our hearts, we see God and the gift of His mercy free us from shame and guilt. And as Jesus is lifted up in our lives, He will use our witness to draw even more to Him, and unite us together as one people at the foot of His cross—one people united in spending their lives looking up at the face of salvation.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Marriage and romance

The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him" (Genesis 2:18).

It may sound incredible to you, but one of the major problems for marriages today is the emphasis on romantic love. The songs on our radios speak of wonderful, romantic, soul-fulfilling love. Store displays are filled with magazines devoted to the subject of new love in tender bloom, and many give assurance that their readers can have a perfect wedding. Celebrities like Tom Cruise gush over how wonderful the new love of their life is.

Americans are being peddled the idea that love is all about holding hands on a ferris wheel, intimate candlelight dinners, and walks along the beach under the light of a full moon. We do not hear songs about love seeing a couple through months of strenuous chemotherapy. Rarely do we see magazine cover stories about love flourishing in the face of bankruptcy. And how often do talk shows feature elderly couples whose life-long devotion to each other has never wavered?

Marriage is about more than thrilling, romantic love. Marriage is about promising to be there for another person, regardless of the circumstances. Marriage is about sharing good news as well as bad; vacations filled with fun, as well as long days seated by a hospital bed; the thrill of shopping for a new house, as well as the challenge of an empty bank account; the pleasure of sparkling conversation, as well as those times when depression has made your partner surly or unwilling to communicate.

Many couples break up when the first bloom of romance fades; they have been convinced that marriage is not worth participating in when the romance has fled. But continuing romance is not essential for a successful marriage. Romance is like nectar—just as nectar attracts a bee to a flower so that pollination can take place, so romance attracts men and women to each other to consider the possibility of marriage. Romance is an introduction, a way in which souls shake hands and start to get to know each other. But marriage is not built on a handshake and some small talk; marriage is built on a commitment to be a life-long friend, a companion and helper and cheerleader. Marriages only thrive when built on the kind of committed love that the Bible speaks of in 1st John chapter 3: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our fellow Christians. This is the kind of love that anchors relationships; this is the kind of love needed for a marriage.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Sex and marriage

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral (Hebrews 13:4).

One of the challenges facing marriages today is the challenge posed by sex. Sexual desire is one of the most powerful drives within human nature. The desire for sex has led many people into making hasty, poorly-thought out decisions. Homer’s poem The Iliad reflects this sad truth as it spins a tragic tale of one couple’s uncontrollable lust, which results in 10 years of bitter war between Greece and Troy!

We live in a world where the desire for sexual satisfaction has gotten out of control. Advertisers use sexual imagery to sell everything from aftershave to cars. Sites that offer pornographic images and intimate chatting are the most profitable businesses on the Internet. Prostitution is a legally recognized profession in much of Nevada and in many countries around the world. Sex is big business.

Because sexual satisfaction is a significant concern for many people, marriages often suffer. Sexual activity between husband and wife was intended by God as a way to deepen the intimacy between them; but as things stand today, many spouses feel as if their marriage is substandard if they don’t have a magnificent sexual relationship. Regrettably, some are even willing to leave their mate when the sexual spark loses its luster. They don’t realize that we all grow old, we all get gray, we all lose some muscle tone.

Researchers have found that during sex, the human body secretes a chemical that makes partners feel emotionally bonded to each other. Even science shows us that God’s intention for sex is to bind two people together. In Matthew 19:5-6, Jesus describes marriage this way: a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. When a man and a woman share physical intimacy, they become joined as ‘one flesh’; Jesus says, they are no longer two, but one.

Sex is misused when it causes separation instead of lasting unity. Sex is not about selfishly making sure that your needs are satisfied. Like every act of love, sex is about finding satisfaction by giving joy to the person you love. Marriages cannot survive when your first priority is making yourself feel good.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Lies, white lies, and the truth

Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, "What charges are you bringing against this man?"

"If he were not a criminal," they replied, "we would not have handed him over to you."

Pilate said, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law."

"But we have no right to execute anyone," the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"

"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"

"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?"

Jesus said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."

"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.

Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."

"What is truth?" Pilate asked. (John 18:28-38)

We live in a society that seems to take it for granted that people will lie. When listening to a politician’s campaign speech, few people really expect him to make good on his promises; it is understood by most that a politician will make whatever promises he must in order to get himself elected. Lawyers are a popular butt of jokes, because most of them are regarded as liars who will distort the truth as much as necessary to win their case. Few people expect a general to give an accurate assessment of how a war is progressing, assuming that he will distort the truth to reassure the homefolk and mislead the enemy.

Now I am not saying that all politicians, lawyers and military leaders are dishonest; what I’m pointing out is that when they are, Americans don’t often act surprised at the news. This is because falsehood has crept into every level of American life. Students are constantly devising new ways to cheat on tests, all the way up to the post-graduate level. Businesses use false or misleading advertising to boost sales. Job applicants lie about their qualifications in order to get hired for a job. Reporters emphasize some facts of a story and suppress others in order to sway public opinion. Singles lie about themselves in the hopes of impressing their date.

Lying has even become a comfortable sin for people who don’t mean to do harm. You’ve probably told more than one "white lie." A "white lie" is a lie that is supposedly spoken to spare another person’s feelings. When a woman asks, "does this outfit make me look fat?" how many husbands are foolish enough to respond, "yes"? When a friend is going through terrible emotional pain in considering a life-changing decision like whether to get a divorce, there is a tremendous temptation for us to not to tell the truth of how we feel, but to tell our agonizing friend what he wants to hear. Society has taught us that, when you love someone, lies are sometimes better than the truth.

But is it true that sometimes a lie is better because honesty is too painful? No, it is not. This is one of the devil’s clever lies. Nothing good ever comes from hiding the truth. Human relations are built on trust—how can you have a solid relationship with someone if you cannot trust that they will tell you the truth? Your husband says that he loves you—do you believe him? If you don’t, how can your marriage survive? How can you build a relationship with anyone who is dishonest with their feelings?

Lies cause problems in other ways as well. In Exodus 20:16, God issued this command: You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor. When we think of this Commandment, we usually think about not lying under oath in a courtroom; God does not want an innocent man wrongly sent to jail, or a guilty woman set free unjustly. But the larger issue is one of reputation. An example: some years ago, a day care provider was accused of molesting the children in his care. The court eventually exonerated him from any wrong-doing, but how many parents do you suppose are now willing to entrust their children to his care? Even though the man was never convicted, the false testimony has most likely caused permanent damage to his reputation.

We commit this same sin when we gossip and spread rumors. When we are informed that another person has committed a sin, our first inclination is to get as many juicy details as we can and then spread that damaging information to our other friends. But by acting this way, we show our lack of love. In his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, Martin Luther wrote "explain everything in the kindest way." What he meant was that we should resist the urge to always believe the worst about other people, and open our minds to other possible explanations for the rumor that we’ve heard. Jesus gives us practical advice for dealing with the sins of others in Matthew chapter 18: If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that `every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Notice that the first thing Jesus tells us to do is to go to our sinning brother privately to discuss the matter; it is only when a person refuses to repent of a sin that we are to involve others. Spreading rumors and gossip that you have not personally confirmed in private violates Jesus’ command. In Proverbs 11:13, our God tells us A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret.

Lies do harm by blinding us to reality and thus placing us in danger. Suppose a job applicant lies about knowing how to operate a floor buffer during an interview. Accepting the lie, the boss does not train the new man on using the buffer; the first time that he then uses it, the man might well end up injured when the machine takes off on him. Or suppose a little girl picks out a mismatched outfit to wear; if her mother, not wanting to hurt her feelings, tells her that she looks fine, the girl has been set up to face ridicule and humiliation from her classmates when she gets to school.

But the worst way that lying can harm us is when we listen to the lie that tells us that we are not sinners, that all God wants of us is to do our very best. This lie is a damnable lie, because if you believe it, you are on a life path that will end in damnation. And yet it is one of the most pervasive lies in America today. Psychologists, sociologists and philosophy teachers tell us that all people are basically good, and only do bad things as a result of poverty, abuse or ignorance.

The Bible disagrees vigorously with these lies. We are not born inherently good; Paul writes in Ephesians 2:3-5, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And no matter how good we try to be, it will never be enough to please God; Scripture says that all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). This is because there is no one righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10). An unrighteous person cannot do a truly righteous act, a deed that is pleasing to God. Only a righteous person can act righteously, and only one person has ever lived on this earth who was righteous—God’s own Son, Jesus Christ.

The Bible calls Jesus "The Righteous One" because Jesus lived His life in perfect obedience to God’s perfect Law. Jesus came to live a life of perfect obedience so that He could offer His righteousness to His Father to stand in for the righteous lives we are unable to live; and part of that perfect obedience involved our Lord voluntarily going to the cross to die. Paul reminds us, being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8) Sin must be punished with death, and the only way that we could be spared the death that our lying, unrighteous lives have deserved was for the righteous Son of God Himself to obey His Father’s Laws in our place, and die the death that results when those laws are broken by us

Jesus never lied. Over and over again during His earthly ministry among us, Jesus said "Truly I say to you." Peter said of Jesus, He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22). And yet Jesus was crucified because the Pharisees believed that He lied when He said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). The Pharisees would not believe that Jesus was telling the truth when He said, Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me (John 14:11). And so Jesus was accused of blaspheming against God, accused of representing God falsely. But the Pharisees encountered a problem; Mark records, The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree (Mark 14:55-56). Our Lord Jesus was put to death by liars; He died to forgive us for lying.

Paul advises us, do everything in love (1 Corinthians 16:14). It is never God-pleasing to lie, but truth must always be spoken with love. Jesus never shied away from naming sin for what it was, but He always did so for the purpose of bringing the sinner to repentance so that Jesus could give him the gift of forgiveness. When we speak an unpleasant truth, it must be for the same reason. Love builds up, and truth spoken in love will ultimately result in building people up. Truth spoken in love will help us to grow closer to each other in trust, protect the reputation of God’s forgiven children, and keep us safe from ignorance that can result in harmful consequences.

Let us live our lives in the same spirit as David, who sang to God in Psalm 26: your love is ever before me, and I walk continually in your truth.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007


Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged (Deuteronomy 1:21).

Why are people so negative and pessimistic so much of the time? It’s because, deep down, they are afraid. Negativity comes from fear. Pessimism arises from fear that things will never get better. Discouragement results from fear that you will fail. When the things that we fear make us feel helpless, we often become angry, sometimes even violent; other times, feeling powerless prompts us to flee from what is making us afraid, trying to hide from it somehow. Fear gives rise to all sorts of negative attitudes and behaviors.

Fear can suck all joy out of life. How can you enjoy life when everyone around you is constantly complaining about how unhappy they are? How can you enjoy life when you’re expending most of your mental energy on worrying? If you let pessimism filter your view of life, it will eventually blind you from seeing opportunities, leaving you feeling as if there is no way out, no way to change things. When this happens the result is despair, the mind-numbing belief that there is no longer any hope.

Fear is a very old problem—as old a problem as sin. All the way back in the Garden of Eden, when the first sins were committed, our ancestors immediately hid themselves. Why? Because they were afraid--afraid of what was going to happen when God found out what they had done. Yet God responded to their fear in an unexpected way. Yes, He was truly angry. Yes, Adam and Eve were punished for disobeying Him; their lives would now be maintained only at the cost of hard, sweaty labor, and would eventually end in the grave. But their Lord did not strike them down for their sins, as they deserved—we are told that Adam lived for 930 years before he died. Instead, the heavenly Father gave them a promise to cling to—the promise of a descendant, a Son of Man sent from heaven to destroy the power of sin and free mankind from the suffering that evil brings. That Son of Man sent from heaven was Jesus, who came to earth to free us from fear by suffering in our place God’s punishment for our sins. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we can be forgiven--we need no longer fear God’s displeasure. In fact, God the Father adopts everyone who believes in Jesus and turns away from the love of sinning. When the Lord of all creation promises to care for us as His own dear children, what can we possibly be afraid of? How can anything cause us to worry? With God’s love filling our hearts, there is no reason to be negative or pessimistic, no reason to ever complain.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Does anyone understand how I'm feeling?

Encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5:11).

"You can’t understand what I’m going through!" A lot of people feel this way. They feel isolated, alone with their problems. They don’t believe that anyone else can possibly understand how they feel, what their life is like at this moment.

"You can’t understand what I’m going through!" With these words, the suffering person pushes away those who would offer help. They feel that any advice from someone clueless to their pain would only be a waste of time. In fact, they fear that having to explain their pain will only make the hurt feel worse—better, in the end, to just be left alone.

But you know what? Everyone knows what it feels like to have their trust betrayed. Everyone has been lied to. Everyone has been made to cower in fear by cruel words or the threat of violence. Everyone has had something stolen from them. Everyone has been insulted or treated with disrespect.

God gave the Ten Commandments to regulate our behavior, because it is our nature to act without regard for the pain that our choices might inflict upon others; and it is because of our unwillingness to obey the Commandments that every one of us knows what it’s like to be betrayed, lied to, threatened, stolen from, and disrespected. Sin is a problem common to all people, as is the pain that comes from being hurt by another person’s sinful behavior.

A woman whose husband has cheated on her might say to me, "You can’t understand what I’m going through!" Now it’s true that I am a man and that my wife has never cheated on me; nevertheless, I still know from experience what it feels like to be betrayed by someone whom I trusted implicitly. I can still sympathize with that woman’s feelings of betrayal and the fear of ever trusting anyone again. Sin levels the playing field for all of us. We all commit sins; we are all victims of the sins committed by those around us. This is why we need Jesus to walk with us, hand in hand, every day. On the cross, Jesus suffered the torment of every sin to win relief for us. Only He can forgive us for hurting others. Only He can give us true release from the pain of being victimized by sin.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! 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 2:5-11).

It is said that Peter the Great of Russia once set aside his royal clothes and went to Holland to learn the art of ship building for his people. Dressed in work clothes like any other laborer in the shipyards, he kept his identity secret as he learned his new skills; he worked as a commoner for the eventual benefit of his people. Peter the Great willingly did the most menial of tasks to preserve his anonymity, so that he could fully learn the ship-builder’s craft from the Dutch.

This illustration helps us to understand what Jesus did when He willingly left His throne in heaven to do His work among us here on earth. Paul tells us that Jesus was God by His very nature, yet He made Himself nothing by humbly taking on the appearance of an ordinary man. Isaiah tells us, He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him (Isaiah 53:2). Like Peter the Great, Jesus set aside the appearance of royalty and presented Himself to those who walked with Him as an ordinary man. The fact that Peter the Great wore common working clothes did not change the fact that he was a king; the fact that Jesus took the form of a common human being did not change the fact that He was the Son of God.

Why would anyone who has experienced royal privilege willingly give it up, even for a brief time? Peter the Great left his palace so that he could learn new skills that would benefit his people and increase the future wealth of his kingdom; the Son of God left heaven so that He could repair the relationship between God and men that had been broken by sin, and extend an invitation to everyone to follow Him back to heaven. Both Peter the Great and the Son of God willingly stepped down from their thrones to make the future a better place for their subjects.

What makes Jesus’ humility so important, however, is that our Savior held nothing back. From eternity, our Lord has been every bit as much God as His Father is; yet when the Father instructed His Son to take on human flesh and limit the use of His divine power while living on earth, our Lord didn’t hesitate for a moment. This is because He did not consider equality with God something to be grasped; when Jesus faced the choice between insisting on His rights as God’s Son, or humbly obeying His Father because He loved and trusted Him, there was no moment of hesitation—Jesus immediately submitted to His Father’s plan to save men from their sin.

That plan would call for an even greater act of loving trust, of humble submission, from our Lord. It was not enough for Jesus to come and teach us about God and how He expects us to live our lives—any prophet of God could do that. It was not even enough that our Lord came to live a perfect life on our behalf, so that God would be satisfied that His expectations for mankind had been met through Jesus’ efforts. No, the Father’s plan of salvation demanded that for us to be spared divine punishment for our wrongdoings, someone else would have to pay the price. Only a person who had no sin of his own could be punished on behalf of others. Only a being as great as God could endure the punishment of heaven for every earthly transgression. Only the Son of God, who through birth was also the Son of Man, could die for us as our substitute, and thus rescue us from the hell that our sin-filled lives have deserved.

But Jesus loved and trusted His Father perfectly, and so He was obedient—obedient even to death, even death on a cross. Jesus had been told to take on a human body, a body that could feel pain and suffer and die. Jesus had been told to limit the use of His divine power—He was not permitted to use that power to ease His suffering or speed His death. Everything that Jesus did was done in accord with His Father’s will—Jesus said in the Gospel of John, "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father" (John 10:17-18).

And so our Lord laid down His life—when Peter pulled a sword in the Garden of Gethsemane to try and protect Jesus, the Lord told him to put the weapon away and Jesus went willingly to trial, bound and humiliated. Jesus allowed Himself to be found guilty of being the worst sinner of all—because by this verdict our sins became His, and our death sentence became His. Jesus allowed Himself to be nailed onto a cross, the method of execution reserved for the worst of criminals, and He refused to use His power to come down when the religious leaders taunted Him, Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe (Mark 15:32). Jesus was obedient until all of God’s anger at human sin had been ended, at which time He said, "It is finished." And with that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30).

"It is finished". No more important words have been spoken in human history. With these words, Jesus tells the world that sin can no longer drag us helplessly to hell. With these words, our Savior tells the devil that God has provided freedom from living under satanic control. With these words, Christ assures us that when we repent of angering God and turn to Jesus for mercy, all the mistakes of our past are forgotten and our future is brightened by the promise of heaven.

Christ was obedient to death, even death on a cross, and because Jesus loved and trusted His Father perfectly, holding nothing back, our Lord has been raised in even greater glory than He had before He came down to live among 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. The Son of God only took the name "Jesus" when He was born among us. "Jesus" was a name that others had been known by earlier in Israel’s history. "Jesus" was not a name for God, not a name that would be prayed to or worshipped. But when Jesus bought us back from sin and death with His own lifeblood, the Father honored Him by elevating the name "Jesus" as a name worthy of worship and praise all over the world. And Jesus has been given authority to rule earth until Judgment Day, at which time He also has been given the authority to judge mankind. Jesus was perfectly humble, perfectly obedient, and see how His Father blessed Him!

Paul tells us, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. We too ought to be humble and obedient. We ought to be humble because we know that we have continually angered God with our lives, and that we are His children only by His undeserved mercy. We ought to be obedient because if we love and trust God completely, we are assured that He will never ask us to do something that will turn out badly for us. The problem is that, while we continue to live in sin-cancered bodies, we cannot be the perfect children of God that we were intended to be. Every day of our lives we wrestle with sin. Every day we are tempted to ignore God’s Word and do whatever feels good at the time; every day we disobey God because we don’t love Him enough or trust Him enough to be willing to submit to His leadership without reservation.

We are tempted to either take Jesus for granted, or to tuck Him away in the back of our minds and forget that He’s a part of our lives. As a result, we end up going about our lives sinning in comfort, either assuming that any wrongs we do don’t matter because Jesus will forgive us anyway, or else forgetting that we have done anything that even needs to be forgiven. Either way, when we lose our focus on Jesus we soon forget the impossibly high standards God expects of us, and we become proud of all that we think we’ve achieved. When Jesus ceases to be the center of our attention, we soon forget His example of loving trust and obedience and we live our lives more and more to please ourselves, not the Son of God who sacrificed so much to win our freedom from evil’s domination.

The way to keep Jesus squarely in focus is to devote time and energy to Him. Paul tells us in Romans 10:17, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. Jesus enters us and strengthens us through His words preserved in the Bible. Through God’s word, the Holy Spirit implants and nourishes faith in our hearts. When we are involved in regular worship and Bible study, God works within us to keep our focus on Jesus and what He has done for us, not on us and what gives us only temporary pleasure. The writer to the Hebrews says, Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:25). That approaching Day is the Day that Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead—and that Day is closer now than it has ever been before. All the more reason, then, for each of us to cultivate a habit of regular worship and time spent in devotion.

It is a common mistake to think that Confirmation ends religious instruction, that once you have been accepted as a communicant member of Christ’s church, you’ve had all the religious training that you need to finish out your life. Satan would like you to believe that. Satan would like you to stop going to church, to stop reading your Bible, because he knows that the longer you go without being strengthened by God through His word, the easier it will be to distract you from Jesus and His teachings and His forgiveness. The longer that you starve your soul by not feeding it with God’s words, the weaker that your dedication to Him will become, and you will be more and more tempted to pride and disobedience.

Jesus shows us that humility and obedience are worth the sacrifices that they can demand of us. Jesus was humble and obedient to death, and He is now exalted as king of the universe. If we allow God to take charge of our lives, and ask His forgiveness when we are stubborn, we are promised that we too will be exalted after death; we too will be raised to live with our God in perfect peace and happiness and honor.

May our Lord keep you securely in the faith that He has worked in your heart through Word and Sacrament. May you grow in your love and trust of Christ, and be humbly obedient to our Lord all the days of your life.

Someone to share our misery with

Since He Himself has gone through suffering and temptation, He is able to help us when we are being tempted (Hebrews 2:18).

It is said that ‘misery loves company’. And so countless numbers of unhappy employees use break time to pour out their frustrations to each other. They find solace from being reassured that they are not alone in their pain, that other people are hurting just as badly as they are.

But what kind of comfort can you really gain from finding out that another person’s marriage is also on the rocks? How does it help you to know that other people are also strangers to their children, because they have to work three jobs to keep their family fed? Does it really make you feel good about your situation, to hear that your friends are just as unhappy as you are?

Although you can get a feeling of camaraderie from trading tales of woe with others, such exchanges don’t provide you with what you really need—a ray of hope. It is much more helpful to spend time with a person who has successfully dealt with problems similar to your own, because they can give you hope that, like them, you too can experience better days in the future. Perhaps they can even pass on some advice from their experiences to help you through your present days of darkness and struggle.

But no matter who you talk to, the value of their advice will be limited. What they went through can never parallel your own situation exactly; solutions that worked for them may offer little or no help to you. There is only one Person who knows exactly what you’re going through. There is only one Person who can offer advice that is truly relevant to your situation. That one Person is Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He wove your DNA strands together in your mother’s womb; He created your immortal soul and attached it to your embryo at the moment you were conceived. He has witnessed everything that’s happened in your life, listened to every thought that’s crossed your mind. He knows you, knows what you’ve suffered, knows what you need. In fact, He knows your needs personally, because He Himself lived and suffered and died. And since He has gone through suffering and temptation, He is able to help us when we are being tempted; all we need do is turn our problem-filled lives over to Him.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007


Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things (Philippians 4:8).

Some years ago, researchers studied how frequently people complain. The results of this study surprised me. For the average American, 75% of what comes out of his or her mouth is a complaint. The amount of negative comments rises to 90% for those people regarded as grumpy. But astonishingly, even those with the most pleasant of personalities were found to spend fully half of their time complaining!

Complaining is so very easy to do. The weather can provoke any number of complaints: "The sun is awfully hot today." "That darned wind messed up my hair." "We could sure use some rain." Drivers have a whole litany of sour remarks: "Where did that idiot learn to drive?" "It’s going to take forever to get through this construction." "Gas prices went up again?" The workplace gives us endless opportunities to complain: "I can’t believe how much the government takes out of my check!" "No matter how hard I work, I never seem to get caught up." "The boss is just so unfair." And our homes are no haven from negativity: "If I don’t do it, it won’t get done." "All these channels, and nothing on." "Why do we always have the same things for dinner?"

Why do we complain so much? Some people believe that complaining is healthy—a way to blow off steam. But when 75% of what you hear from others is pessimistic, it is going to be exceedingly difficult for you to maintain a positive outlook. Master propagandist Joseph Goebbels once observed, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." If you are constantly being told that something is unsatisfactory, eventually you will come to see things pessimistically and join in the chorus of complainers. Complaining does not make you feel better by blowing off steam; rather, it only pulls others down to join you in feeling bitter.

Through the apostle Paul, God offers an alternative to complaining: fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Brooding on your problems does not solve them or make you feel better about them; if you truly want to feel better, our Lord invites you to look to Him to be uplifted.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A snake on a pole

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived (Numbers 21:4-9).

The Israelites did a lot of complaining during their years in the desert. They had been slaves in Egypt until God sent Moses to free them and lead them to Canaan, the land promised to their ancestors. But the trip through harsh desert terrain was difficult, and the people accused God of taking them into the wilderness to starve when they could have stayed in Egypt and at least have eaten their slaves’ rations. In response, God began sending the Israelites manna; we read in Exodus chapter 16, in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread the LORD has given you to eat. This is what the LORD has commanded: `Each one is to gather as much as he needs. Take an omer for each person you have in your tent.' " The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed...The people of Israel called the bread manna. It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey. Through the miraculous appearance of manna, God made sure that His chosen people remained well fed.

But the Israelites found other things to complain about. When they finally arrived at the edge of Canaan, they sent twelve spies into the land to assess its defenses. When ten of the twelve spies claimed that Canaan was too well fortified to conquer, the people complained that Moses had led them from a safe life of slavery in Egypt to death by violence in Canaan, and many wanted to return to Egypt. Because they rejected God’s gift of a land of their own and did not trust Him to protect them in war, God sentenced the Israelites to wander for 40 years in the desert until all those who did not have faith in God had died on the journey.

At the time of today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites had been walking in the desert for years. Yet they still had not learned their lesson about complaining—indeed, on this day their complaint was the most insulting of all their years in the wilderness. They complained to Moses, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

Once again, the Israelites show their lack of faith in God. They suppose that all God and Moses have in mind is to let God’s people die of hunger and thirst in the desert. But the thing that truly makes this the most ungrateful complaint of all is their final words: "And we detest this miserable food!"

That ‘miserable food’ was the manna that God had faithfully given them ever since they had entered the desert. That ‘miserable food’ was the food that didn’t taste like bland rice cakes or unleavened bread, but like wafers made with honey. That ‘miserable food’ would be described this way in Psalm 78: Yet he gave a command to the skies above and opened the doors of the heavens; he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat. The Israelites despised the gracious mercy of God, given to them through a daily, visible miracle.

In response to this great insult, the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The original Hebrew language translates literally as ‘fiery snakes’ because of how their poisoned bite burned. It didn’t take long for the people to adjust their attitude and repent; they said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." But God did an interesting thing—He did not take the venomous snakes away. Instead, He had Moses make a snake out of bronze and put it on a pole. The people were then instructed to look at the snake on the pole—if they did, they would not die from the snakebites.

Why did God offer relief in this unusual way? Jesus gives us the answer in St. John chapter 3: Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. To understand the bronze snake on the pole, we must seet it superimposed over the cross of Christ.

First, the snakes. We meet our first serpent in chapter 3 of Genesis, where Satan speaks from the disguise of a snake in order to tempt Eve into rebelling against God. Ever since that event, mankind has had an instinctive dislike for snakes. For the Israelites, the snake represented the power of Satan and sin, the power that curses us and sentences us to hell. The snakes that invaded the Israelites’ camp caused death by their bite; the Israelites surely understood that God chose to punish them in this way to remind them that the venom of sin results in painful, eternal death.

Why a bronze snake? First of all, bronze is a metal that has red highlights to it; in the bright sun, the bronze snake would have had a burning quality to its appearance which would remind the Israelites of the venomous bite. But the bronze serpent, being made of metal, was powerless to kill; it hung in symbolic death upon a pole. This bronze serpent was no longer a bringer of death—in fact, God had made it a bringer of life. Anyone who looked at it would, by God’s decree, be spared from the death inflicted by the snakes. Life came to anyone who had faith in the promises of God, and looked upon the bronze snake believing that he would be saved.

Through this action, God was telling the Israelites a great deal about the Messiah who was to come. In the Israelite camp, death by snakebite was everywhere; in our modern world, death by the poisonous effects of sin is everywhere. In the Israelite camp, God did not send the snakes away, but He did provide a way to be safe from death by snakebite; today, God does not send sin away, but He has provided a way to be safe from the eternal death that being poisoned by sin will result in. In the camp, the way to avoid death was to trust God’s promise of rescue and look up at the snake on the pole in faith; in our lives, the way to avoid hell is to trust in God’s promise of rescue and look up at the Son of God on the cross with faith.

The only way to be rescued from certain death is by the mercy of God. The Israelites would certainly have died in the wilderness if God, in His mercy, had not fed them miraculously with manna. We would certainly end our lives in hell if God, in His mercy, had not sent us His Son Jesus Christ to give us renewed life. In the Gospel of John, Jesus compares Himself with the manna of God; in chapter 6 He says, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world... I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." Jesus is the gift of God that gives life beyond the grave. Jesus is the sinless Son of God who took on the form of sinful man so that He could take our sins upon Himself and put their power to death on the cross. The Israelites looked up at the bronze snake on the pole, and saw the power of the snakes’ bites brought to an end; we look up at our Savior on the cross, and see the power of sin to condemn us brought to an end.

At he heart of the Israelites’ constant complaining was the problem that they did not believe in God’s love for them, nor did they trust in His power to save them. So God gave them a rescue that only worked for those who had faith in Him—if you did not believe that your life could be saved by doing something as foolish as looking at a metal snake on a pole, you were doomed to a painful death. There is a lesson here for us. We live in a world that does not believe in God’s love or trust in His power to save; God has provided us rescue, but it is a rescue that only works for those who have faith in Him. If a person does not believe that his life can find eternal love and purpose by doing something as foolish as looking at a holy man dying on a cross, he is doomed to a life empty of purpose and an eternity void of love. He will look at the manna that God offers to feed him, and dismiss it as ‘miserable food’. But for we who look at that cross with love in our hearts for the Son of God who gave everything for us there, we have the assurance of purpose-filled lives and unending love beyond the grave. We see in Jesus the bread of life, and we gratefully feed on that bread through hearing His word, reading His Bible, and receiving His body and blood through the bread and wine of holy Communion. We do not ‘detest’ the bread from heaven, we treasure it, because Jesus declared, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). We are thankful that the Son of Man was lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A life out of control

When people are saying, "All is well; everything is peaceful and secure," then disaster will fall upon them suddenly (1 Thessalonians 5:3).

Not far from Kansas City lies the little community of Excelsior Springs. Like most small towns, it was built near a railway line. Some years ago, that railway line nearly became the scene of a tragedy. A passenger train was travelling through the area at a dangerously high speed; it did not slow down for curves or crossings, nor did it respond to any signal lights. The fireman became alarmed; he tried to get the engineer’s attention by grabbing his arm, only to discover to his horror that the man was dead at his post. He had to pry the dead man’s rigid fingers from the wide-open throttle in order to bring the train under control before disaster resulted.

We can scarcely think of a more dramatic situation. A long train filled with passengers blissfully ignorant of the danger they were in. Hundreds of people casually chatting or eating or reading or napping, thundering along the rails at perilous speed with no intelligence in control, only a lifeless body.

Sadly, there are many people barreling through life, like that endangered train. They are carrying within themselves the priceless cargo of an immortal soul, a soul so loved by God that He sent His holy Son to suffer and die to protect it from harm. Yet they race madly through life, heedless of danger. The treacherous curves of sin don’t cause them to slow down, even though sin could derail their lives and even result in death. In their mindless rush, they charge through the intersections where other peoples’ lives cross their own, yet they don’t notice the danger their reckless behavior puts those other people in. They ignore the signals that try to warn them of the danger they are in—the warning signals of God’s Laws, flashing at them from Bibles and preachers and concerned Christian friends.

There is only one way to save such people from ending life in a disastrous wreck; they need someone to take control of their recklessness, someone who can apply the brakes, who will obey the signals and always be alert to danger. That person is Jesus. Only He can come on board with us and take control of our lives; only He is willing and able to live in us continually, to make sure that we arrive safely at our heavenly destination.

Monday, March 05, 2007


Pray…that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored (2 Thessalonians 3:1).

For the past few devotions, I’ve been talking about appropriate reading material for Christians. I cannot leave the subject without a few minutes devoted to censorship.

I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil (Romans 16:19). With these words, Paul gives us a practical guideline to shape our reading. We should not read anything that glamorizes evil. Depicting evil behavior as fun and free of consequences only encourages people to sin.

At the same time, we must be free to read what others think. You need to know what the candidates believe in order to choose the best person for political office. You need to know what the school is teaching in order to protect your children from any curriculum that contradicts the Bible. You need to know what non-Christians believe, so that you can be a more effective witness for Christ when speaking to them of the faith. This is one reason why Christians oppose censorship.

Are there books that are evil and should not be read? Of course. Much that is written serves no purpose except to make excuses for evil or try to entice us into approving sinful behavior. But when books are banned, who is given the decision-making power? At one time or another, all of the following books have been banned somewhere in America: Tom Sawyer, Gone with the Wind, Lord of the Flies, The Grapes of Wrath, From Here to Eternity, Of Mice and Men, Silas Marner. Yet many Americans treasure these books for the look they provide at society and the human condition.

Depending on who is in charge, censorship can limit the spread of ideas that some feel are dangerous. Before the birth of Christ, the Emperor of China burned almost every writing of Confucius, because Confucian scholars opposed his rule. In the Middle Ages, Galileo’s book on astronomy was banned for suggesting that Earth was not the center of creation. 200 years ago, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man was prohibited because it claimed that all men have equal civil rights. And unbelievers have been burning Bibles from the days of the early Roman persecutions right up to modern times. This is the other reason why Christians oppose censorship; it is not that we approve of smut and falsehood being published, but because we want God’s holy word to be available to everyone without hindrance from those who oppose His teachings.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Loving Father, angry Son?

When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

His disciples remembered that it is written: "Zeal for your house will consume me."

Then the Jews demanded of him, "What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?"

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."

The Jews replied, "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?" But the temple he had spoken of was his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (John 2:13-22).

A lot of people don’t like the Old Testament. Have you ever noticed how many Bibles are for sale that are New Testaments only, or New Testaments with just the Psalms? There are quite a few reasons why people don’t like reading the Old Testament: too much history, too many names that are hard to pronounce. But I think the main reason that people don’t like to read the Old Testament is that they have the idea that God, in the Old Testament, is a stern judge who is constantly punishing sinful people through plagues, drought, foreign oppression or outright death. Who wants to read about an angry God like that, when in the New Testament you have Jesus, the sweet, loving, gentle Son of God who forgives every sin and comforts us in the bad times? For many, the Old Testament is scary while the New Testament is reassuring. Jesus just isn’t like His Old Testament Father.

Of course, this is a terrible misunderstanding of both the Old and the New Testament, as it is a misunderstanding of who God the Father and God the Son are. The New Testament does not replace the Old Testament, it fulfills it. God the Son does not offer us mercy because He is different than His Father—Jesus offers us forgiveness because that is what His Father sent Him here to do. God did not change, somehow, during the 400 years between the ending of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New—God said plainly in Malachi 3:6, I the LORD do not change.

The God of the Old Testament is shown to get angry, but it is always anger tempered by mercy. When Adam and Eve cursed themselves and all humanity with sin by going against God, God told them, dust you are and to dust you will return (Genesis 3:19). Now a death sentence doesn’t sound like a statement of mercy, but consider the words of Paul in Romans 6:7--anyone who has died has been freed from sin. If God had allowed Adam and Eve to live forever as they were, they would have lived eternally as sinners. Can you imagine the amount of hurts you could be responsible for if you lived to be a thousand years old? There are teenagers who commit suicide because they can’t stand any more emotional pain after only living a decade and a half--can you imagine the amount of pain you could suffer at the hands of others over a period of two thousand years? When you think about it, God was acting in mercy when He put a limit on how long we can live under the curse of sin.

Do you need more proof that the God of the Old Testament is a God of love? As soon as Adam and Eve rebelled against Him and cursed themselves with sin, God promised to rescue mankind from sin by sending a Savior—God said to Satan, I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15). In this prediction, God told Satan that a descendant of Eve would oppose every follower of the devil’s, and even though Satan would cause that descendant great pain, He would triumph over the devil and crush him. This promise, directed towards Satan, was spoken in front of Adam and Eve to reassure them that even though they had been tricked into being the devil’s pawns, he would not have the final say over them or their children.

The God of the Old Testament forgave sins. Returning to Malachi, we hear God say, "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you," says the LORD Almighty. That, my friends, is an offer of grace. That is a call to repent and be forgiven. The God of the Old Testament does indeed hate sin and punishes it—but He is also a God of mercy who seeks our repentance and offers us grace.

What about Jesus? Did He turn His back on the Old Testament in order to give us a different relationship with God? In Matthew 5:17-18 Jesus says, Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 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. Is Jesus different from His Father? In John 14:10-11 we hear Jesus say, Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? 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. Jesus makes it clear that He is not changing God’s attitude towards sin or His approach towards sinners. People who think that Jesus is a warm and fuzzy Savior who could never punish an unrepentant sinner have not read their New Testament very carefully.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see Jesus enter the first courtyard of the Temple complex and find it full of penned animals, caged birds, and merchants who exchanged foreign currency for a percentage. All Jews received forgiveness by bringing sacrifices to the Temple, but those who traveled a long distance had a hard time bringing a sacrifice on the road with them; as a convenience, sellers of animals and money changers paid the Temple a percentage to set up in the outer court, which every pilgrim would pass through. This outraged the Son of God. Although God is everywhere, the Temple was set aside as the place where God’s people would be reminded of His influence upon their lives. The atmosphere of the Temple should provoke thoughts of regret over sin and thankfulness that God permitted forgiveness by means of sacrifice; what Jesus found, however, was a place where the prospect of forgiveness had been reduced to something that could be purchased for the right price.

We are shown a side of Jesus that we don’t often see—He grabs some ropes used to tether the animals and makes a whip, then uses that whip to drive out the merchants and their wares! He kicks over the exchange tables, scattering coin to the ground. Amazingly, no one organizes a defense—Jesus, alone, drives every greedy man from the courtyard—the burning of the Son of God’s holy anger removes any inclination to fight back. Jesus states His case bluntly: How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!

We are not used to seeing a violent Jesus. But Jesus is His Father’s Son, and His Father flooded the entire earth because of rampant sin, sparing only eight people in the ark. God does not tolerate the unholiness of sin, and although Jesus wants to rescue us from that sin, He will not accept us if we refuse to give it up. It is Jesus who will judge mankind on the Last Day; it is Jesus who will say to the unrepentant, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

Jesus and his Father are one—one in hatred of sin, one in the desire to free us from the curse of sin. When the Temple officials confronted Jesus over His actions, they demanded a miraculous sign to prove His authority. In response Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." John adds, the temple he had spoken of was his body. A temple is a physical place where God dwells among His people. For hundreds of years, the Temple in Jerusalem had been God’s visible dwelling place; now however, Jesus reveals that His own body has become God’s temple. All the power and majesty of the deity was and is found in the fleshly body of the Son of Man who was also the Son of God. Jesus came to replace the Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus came to be the final sacrifice for all sins, which would make the Temple and its sacrifices unnecessary. And Jesus knew that this new Temple would be torn down; when He said, Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days, He was speaking of His death on the bloodied cross come Good Friday, and His resurrection from the dead on Easter morning.

Jesus’ crucifixion was the ultimate act of God’s love for us. An eternity of God’s anger is what we were due for being sinners, but Jesus endured all that anger in our place on the cross. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we need not fear God’s anger--as long as we repent of our sinning and ask Jesus to be our moral compass through life. And because Jesus rose from the dead glorified, His human body is no longer limited by the laws of space and time. Jesus says, where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20). Just think—Jesus is the living Temple of God, the place where we can find forgiveness and a new lease on life. This Temple comes to us, whenever we gather in His name! We don’t have to go and find our Lord—He comes to us with His gifts of mercy and love.

It is important to remember that God hates sin but loves those who are under the curse of sin. If we don’t understand how much God hates sin, we don’t understand why Jesus had to suffer so much for us. If we don’t understand how much God loves us, we don’t understand why Jesus was willing to suffer so much for us. God the Father and God the Son, together with God the Holy Spirit, are united in purpose—to free us from sin, before sin and its willing prisoners are condemned for all eternity.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Appropriate books for children

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

Over the years, literature written for children has been criticized for inappropriate content—magic portrayed as good and useful, inappropriate language, glamorized violence, and sexual themes. Examples include the Harry Potter books (for glamorizing magic), Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn (for using offensive language), comic books (for glamorizing violence), and books like Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate (for dealing with sexual lifestyle choices).

When we take up the issue of what is appropriate for children to read and what is not, there are two things to consider. First, is the book in question appropriate for any Christian to read? If a book promotes something that God says is evil, then no one should read it, regardless of age. Books that glamorize evil instead of showing the tragedy it results in should not be found in the hands of anyone who loves God. On the other hand, literature that shows the dangers of evil can be useful to warn us away from temptation, whatever our age.

Which leads us to the other consideration: when is it appropriate for a youngster to read a cautionary tale? At what point in life should a little one be warned of evil? It is a sad thing to say, but children can be victimized by sinful behavior from the moment they are born. Even very little children are warned to not get into a car with strangers. Before they begin school, children are being taught by other children to fight, lie, swear, steal, and commit vandalism.

Books that serve as cautionary tales are appropriate for children, so long as they treat the subject with sensitivity and do not glamorize it in any way. Children need to be warned of evil because we are all born with it in us, and we all live in danger from it every day. Just be sure that your children know that Jesus died to forgive their sins and rose from the grave to protect them from evil.

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