Saturday, June 30, 2007

Weathering the storm

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side." Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"

He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" (Mark 4:35-41)

I suspect that almost everyone has been through a terrible storm at some time in his life. Perhaps it was a hailstorm; maybe it was a downpour that resulted in flooding. You might have lived through a terrible blizzard that stopped all travel and took down the power lines; maybe you’ve even had a near brush with a tornado or a hurricane.

Think back on how you felt during that storm. Did you doze peacefully in bed, or did you clutch the covers, wondering if the windows were going to shatter? Did you curl up comfortably with a book, or did you hurry downstairs to make sure that the basement wasn’t filling with water? Did you put on some favorite music to listen to, or did you call others to be reassured that they were doing okay?

One of the most frightening things about a storm is that it makes us feel completely powerless. When flood water washes out a bridge, when snow is falling at an inch an hour in 45 mph winds, when you see a funnel cloud approaching, you realize that there is nothing that you can do. You can’t stop the storm. You can’t flee from the storm. You can’t protect yourself or your property from being damaged by the storm. All you can do is sit and wait for it to end.

A severe storm can be a religious experience. People who rarely go to church and hardly ever give God a thought suddenly become God-fearing Christians when they hear the shingles coming off the roof. And even regular church-goers find themselves reassessing the quality of their Christian life when the tornado sirens start blowing. Severe weather reminds us that it is not we who are in charge, it is God.

The disciples experienced such a storm. After a long day of preaching, Jesus needed some privacy and rest—His human body was exhausted. So Jesus had the disciples take Him in a boat across the Sea of Galilee during the night, while He slept in the stern of the boat. This should not have been a risky trip—usually the winds died down at night over the Sea of Galilee, which is why most fisherman did their work between dusk and dawn. Since the sea was usually calm at night, many of those who were interested in Jesus’ teachings got into other boats and followed Jesus and the disciples.

But when storms blow up on the Sea of Galilee at night, they are vicious storms. Jesus was in a boat with many disciples who were experienced fishermen, yet even these hardened sailors panicked as waves started filling the boat with water.

For the disciples, this storm was a religious experience. They had done everything they knew how to do, but their situation was only worsening. In desperation, they turned to Jesus—a man who was raised a carpenter, not a sailor. But they knew that Jesus had a special connection with God—perhaps He could be of some help. After all, they had tried everything else—what was left except to turn to God in some way? So they woke Jesus up with the accusatory words, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?"

It seems amazing that Jesus could have continued sleeping peacefully through all this, yet he did. But at his disciples’ urging, Jesus woke up, got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

Try to imagine it: in the middle of a ferocious storm, the wind howling, everything completely soaked. Then this one man stands up and says "Quiet! Be still!" Just like that, the storm subsides. The wind is gone, the waters are smooth as glass. Where there had been deafening noise, now there is an amazing quiet. All this at the simple command of a trusted friend and teacher, who now turns to His disciples and says, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?"

Jesus was disappointed. The disciples had been with him for quite a while now. They had heard His teachings and had left their careers to dedicate themselves completely to being His students. They had entrusted themselves to His care. They had seen Him turn water into wine at Cana, cure lepers and paralytics, and drive out demons from those who were possessed. Yet after all this, when the storm came they were afraid. They didn’t trust in God’s protection or they would not have been afraid. They did not trust in Jesus’ love for them or they would not have accused Him of failing to care about their situation. They had not fully embraced Jesus’ teachings about God’s mercy and the promise of heaven or they would not have feared dying. After all this time with Jesus, the disciples’ faith had only taken the smallest baby steps towards maturity.

In the end, the disciples’ problem is summed up with their own words: They were terrified and asked each other, "Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!" The disciples had not yet figured out that Jesus is God. They did not realize that Jesus was the Son of God manifest in human flesh, the same Son of God who made the earth and sustains it as Paul tells us in Colossians chapter 1: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together." As God’s creating Hand, our Lord Jesus has absolute authority over all created things, even over the forces of nature; it is no hard thing for Him to put an end to storms, no hard thing to cure diseases. No, the most difficult thing Jesus ever faced was His Father’s anger over our sins. The only time that Jesus was ever intimidated by a task was when He faced the prospect of suffering the hell that each of us has earned as punishment for our evil thoughts, words and deeds. That awful night in Gethsemane, Jesus sweated blood as He prepared for the ordeal to come on the cross of our sins. On that cross, out of love for us, Jesus endured all the punishment of God for every human act of disrespect, anger, lust, and greed. Jesus suffered insults, torture and death itself so that we can be spared from God’s righteous anger through three little words: "Jesus, forgive me."

The disciples asked Jesus, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" Oh yes, Jesus cares—the cross shows us just how much He cares!

The disciples’ experience in the storm serves as an object lesson for us. When the storm came, they did not immediately go to Jesus for advice or help—it was only when the storm reduced them to panic that they turned to their Master. We tend to behave the same way. When problems enter our lives, whether they be hurricanes or blizzards or economic problems or family discord, we don’t usually turn to God for advice or help until we have exhausted all other avenues open to us. We often think of God as a last resort, forgetting that God said, "call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me" (Psalm 50:15).

During the worst of the storm, the disciples accused Jesus of not caring about them. We tend to do the same thing. When things are going well, we don’t give Jesus too much thought—we are preoccupied with other things. But when troubles complicate our lives, we get impatient—why doesn’t God fix this for me right now? Is God sleeping? Doesn’t He care that I’m going through something terrible? I find it interesting that we expect God to be looking out for us 24/7, while most of us find it hard to give Him an hour or two of our time each week.

Of course, God is on duty 24/7. Jesus said, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working" (John 5:17). Without God’s constant attention and care, sin would completely destroy everything good and comforting in the world. Jesus slept peacefully in the boat that night because He had complete confidence that His Father had everything in hand. The fact that Jesus slept peacefully should have reassured the disciples! Jesus had several boats of people who had put their lives under His leadership—if He could sleep during the storm, it should have been evident that this man of God was confident that everyone on the lake would be cared for. If Jesus, the Son of God, was unafraid, certainly His followers should have nothing to fear.

God is in charge, and He has power over storms. Sometimes He uses storms to get our attention, to give us a religious experience. When He got fed up with Job’s whining, God spoke to him from out of a storm to make sure that He had Job’s undivided attention. Jonah would not listen to God until a huge fish swallowed him in the midst of a storm. Many times when we begin taking Him for granted, God allows storms of one kind or another to enter our lives so that we will start paying better attention to Him through regular prayer and worship.

God has power over every storm, but sometimes He is not quick to send that storm away. The single most important gift that Jesus gives us is the gift of faith in Him. Without faith in Jesus as our Savior, heaven is closed to us—Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Jesus loves us—but any miracle He performs in our lives is pointless if we end our lives in unbelief and hell. So Jesus only performs miracles when they serve to give us greater faith in Him. That is what Jesus did that night on the Sea of Galilee. Jesus did not end the storm to save the lives of His disciples—He ended the storm to increase their faith in His love and His power to save. Jesus only acts miraculously in our lives when it is a way to strengthen our faith in Him as our Lord and Savior.

As Christians, the only thing that we should fear is a soul going to hell. Paul wrote, to live is Christ and to die is gain (Philippians 1:21). While we live, we have the opportunity to speak of Jesus’ sacrifice of love on the cross with those who do not believe; we do this because we fear that they will end life in unbelief and hell, and our love for them as fellow creations of God moves us to spare them from that wretched end. But when our time to die comes, we do not fear death as the disciples in the boat did because we have Jesus’ promise, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11:25). For we who trust in Jesus, to die is to gain permanent freedom from self-destructive behaviors, poisonous relationships, and deteriorating health. To die is to gain unending peace and joy with our Lord in a place where no storm ever tempts us to fear again.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Living in a virtual world

I the LORD do not change (Malachi 3:6).

Over the past few years, video games have exploded in popularity. There are shooting games where you can be a fighter pilot pursuing enemy aircraft in the sky or a deer hunter stalking game in the woods. There are sports simulations that allow you to race in a NASCAR event or coach a pro football team. There are role-playing games where you can take on the identity of a mythical hero and go adventuring against the forces of evil.

Part of the reason that these games are selling so well is due to modern technology; the graphics and sounds are so convincing that it is easy to lose yourself in an artificial game world. But I think there is another reason that people spend so many hours playing these kinds of games—they give you a sense of control. When you play a computer game, you know what the rules are. You know what you can do and what you can’t do. As you get more experienced, you can become quite skilled in choosing the best strategy to win the game. And if you fail, you can always load a saved game or simply start over.

How different this is from real life! In real life, you’re never sure what the rules are because nothing stays the same. Each person you meet reacts to you in a different way, and no matter how well you get to know somebody, they are still apt to occasionally surprise you. The weather is unpredictable; a farmer can have a bumper crop one year and be flooded out the next. The economy is in constant flux—you can never be sure if your investments will show gain or suffer loss. Favorite food items at the grocery store become unavailable because of a marketing decision that is out of your control. And when you make a critical mistake in life, there are no ‘do-overs.’

This is why video games can be comforting—they are a place where the gamer can find consistency in an otherwise chaotic world. But there is another way to find security in the midst of uncertainty; God has said, I the LORD do not change. God’s love for you is constant. God’s care for you is dependable. God has said, "I will never fail you. I will never abandon you." That is why we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper, so I will not be afraid" (Hebrews 13:5-6). We don’t need to hide away in a computer-generated world to feel secure, because God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble (Psalm 46).

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Training for life

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25).

When I watch professional athletes demonstrate their skills I am humbled, knowing that I could never do what these talented individuals are accomplishing through their rigorous discipline and training. But God calls on you and I to be accomplished athletes as well. He doesn’t necessarily expect us to compete in track or join a baseball team, but He does expect us to go into strict training. The competition we are to train for is the game called life. Our Lord wants us to train for life the same way that an athlete trains for the championships—with single-minded determination.

Life has a goal—to receive the Crown of Life. That crown is bestowed by God when we die. The Crown of life is a special crown—it raises to life those who have died, raises them so that they can enter paradise. This is the most coveted crown of all—worth far more than any state championship or Super Bowl ring.

In sporting competitions, only one gold medal is awarded. Thankfully, there is more than one Crown of Life—in fact, there is a Crown of life for you, for me, for everyone who strives to win it. We are not in competition with each other to get into heaven; no, we are in competition with ourselves—the lazy, uncaring, selfish part of us that would rather give up the event and take it easy, and let eternal death claim us without a struggle.

To win the prize that God bestows, we need to take life seriously. To win the slalom, you need to stay on the course and not get tangled up in the flags; similarly, we need to navigate through life while trying to avoid getting entangled with sin. This is not easy—it takes effort and commitment. Thankfully, as we compete in life we have the best of coaches—Jesus the Son of God. He offers us the healthy diet of His teachings. He uses the Bible to show the way to the finish line. He encourages us and strengthens us, and when we fall He picks us up, wipes us off, and gets us back into the game. With Jesus as both our coach and our judge, we can win a victory that lasts forever.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Never-ending growth

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. All the trees of the field will know that I the LORD bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it (Ezekiel 17:22-24).

Ezekiel was called to be God’s prophet during the 70 years that the Israelites were held captive in Babylon. Israel had been a great nation under King David, and God had promised David that one of his descendants would be the greatest of all Israel’s kings. But David’s son Solomon eventually turned away from the Lord and began worshipping false gods, a pattern that was tragically followed by most of the kings and commoners that followed him. Eventually, God had had enough—He allowed King Nebuchadnezzar to sack Jerusalem and take the majority of the Israelites into captivity in his Babylonian Empire.

This captivity was to last for 70 years. During this time, the Jews eventually repented of ignoring God and rededicated themselves to His worship. But as the years dragged on in captivity, the Jews began to despair of ever seeing their home again. It was to address this fear that God raised up Ezekiel as a prophet. The words of today’s Old Testament lesson were spoken to the Jews as words of reassurance.

In this prophecy, God refers to a cedar tree. Cedars were considered noble, magnificent trees, and the cedar of this prediction refers to the kingdom of David, the kingdom as it was before apostasy corrupted the Israelites and brought dry rot into the great cedar. The top of a tree is where the potential for future growth lies; cut off the top of a tree and it will still grow, but it will grow more to the sides and lose it’s potential to reach the highest height. King Nebuchadnezzar had boasted that he had clipped the top from the tree of Israel when he deported the best and brightest citizens of the kingdom into his own empire to be planted among his people; in this prophecy, God counters Nebuchadnezzar’s boast by asserting that God had control of the true ‘tender sprig’ from the topmost shoots. Ezekiel reassured God’s people that the Lord was going to make a new planting from this tender sprig on a high and lofty mountain back home in Israel. This new planting from the cedar of King David would become a splendid cedar, bearing fruit and offering shelter to birds of every kind. The tree it was cut from, while once great, was drying up—but this new tree would far surpass every tree on earth.

Ezekiel was speaking of Jesus. Jesus is the tender sprig taken from the uppermost limits of King David’s descendants. Jesse was father to King David, and Isaiah said of him "A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him--the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD--and he will delight in the fear of the LORD" (Isaiah 11:1-3). In this prophecy, Isaiah also compares Jesus to a branch growing from the family of David.

God said that this tender shoot would be planted on a high and lofty mountain, part of the mountain heights of Israel—this is a reference to Mount Zion, the mountain upon which was built Jerusalem, the Temple, and which was the location of Calvary; Jesus would be rooted in the place where God accepted sacrifice in order to atone for human sin. It was at the Temple that God promised to forgive anyone who was sorry for disobeying Him, and offered the life of a sacrificial bird or animal in place of their own life for their guilt. But these small sacrifices of life were merely foreshadows of the great offering that was yet to come, when the Son of God Himself would allow His holy blood to be poured out to make restitution before God for every human act of disobedience. When Jesus suffered and died on the cross of Calvary, He became the ultimate living sacrifice for human sin.

Jesus was put to death by sinful men so that our sins might be forgiven. When Jesus lay dead in the tomb over the course of three dark days, this new planting of the cedar tree seemed to have gone dry. But Jesus rose from the dead alive once more on Easter morning; He rose to prove that His power to forgive and bestow life is much greater than human sin and the curse of death that sin brings into our lives. Jesus is the Son of God—He has the power to remove the guilt of our rebellion from us, and He has the power to bring us back from the icy grip of death itself. The formerly green tree of Israel as God’s nation on earth has dried up and become history, but His new planting from the tip of that tree, the planting of Jesus on Mount Zion, has resulted in the flourishing of a new, greater tree.

Shortly before His crucifixion Jesus told His disciples, "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" (John 12:24). This is precisely what happened to Jesus. In life He was a single kernel of wheat; but through His death and resurrection, He has produced many seeds. It was Jesus’ death that that gives us freedom from the curse of sin and death—that is why we call the day He died Good Friday. It was Jesus’ love for us that motivated Him to make this ultimate sacrifice, and it is this love that draws us to Him in grateful joy. No act of love in our lives is greater than Jesus’ act of love that gave us His inheritance in heaven in place of our sentence in hell. It is through the loving sacrifice of Jesus, in giving us life through His death, that many cold and stony hearts are warmed and drawn to Him in love.

God promised that this planting of the tender shoot from the cedar of David would grow into a splendid cedar, a cedar that would bear fruit and provide a place of shelter for birds of every type. Jesus is the root, and the holy Christian Church on earth is the splendid cedar that is growing from it. Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5). Jesus was planted on Mount Zion, the final sacrifice for all human sin; but His Church has grown to spread it’s branches all over the world, a much more influential tree than the Kingdom of Israel ever was. Wherever there are Christians, there is fruit and shelter for birds of all kinds.

What is the fruit that we the branches are producing with the help of Christ? When we are in Christ, we bear the fruits of the Spirit. Paul tells us that these include "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). These are fruits that give us comfort, and enable us to be a comfort to those in our lives who are experiencing troubles. The fruit of love is a fruit that compels us to action; just as Jesus’ love compelled Him to sacrifice His life for us, so does love for others compel us to care for their souls by speaking of Christ with them, and to care for their bodies by sharing our possessions with those in need. The fruit of joy keeps us from getting depressed when we weaken in the face of temptation and let sin get control of us, because we know that Jesus has died to forgive every sin and has promised to forgive us when we turn to Him in genuine sorrow. The fruit of peace keeps us from becoming irritable when we are going through hard times, because we know that Jesus has endured far worse for us and is alive now to hold our hand and lead us to safety. The fruit of patience helps us to put up with those people in our lives who are difficult to get along with, but who need a Christian friend to show them that there is a better way to live. The fruit of kindness helps us to set aside our selfishness and do those little things for others that show them the reality of God’s love in their daily lives. The fruit of goodness helps us to recognize evil for what it is, and to reject it as something repugnant and unworthy of a child of God. The fruit of faithfulness draws us into God’s Word again and again through worship, Bible study and prayer, because it is only by continuing in God’s presence that we remain connected to the Vine that gives us true life. The fruit of gentleness helps us to be persuasive witnesses for Christ—not pushy or demanding or condemning, but inviting, reassuring, and comforting. And finally, the fruit of self-control helps us to withstand the temptation to abandon God’s way of doing things in exchange for doing things the fastest, cheapest, easiest way possible, regardless of the moral consequences.

What about the birds? The birds of every kind that come to nest in the branches of the splendid cedar of the Church are the people of the world in all their varieties—white, indian, hispanic, black, near-eastern, oriental. These are the people who don’t know Christ, but who see something welcoming among the branches of His great tree—acceptance, support, shelter from the troubles of life, and most importantly, salvation by the sharing of Jesus’ promise of forgiveness and rebirth. These birds of every type shelter from the storms of the world among our branches and grow strong, feeding on the fruits of the spirit that they find growing here.

Ezekiel promised the Jews that all the trees of the field will know that He dries out and brings down the green tree, only to replace it by causing the low dried out tree to grow tall and flourish. The growth of Christ’s Church on earth has not been a small, insignificant event—Jesus has changed human history through the influence of His Church. Christ’s Church is large and potent and effective in changing lives—it has done great things among all kinds of people, because Jesus is the Vine and He produces good fruits through we who are His branches. This is a message of hope, not only for the ancient Jews, but for you as well. God promised to make His Church great through Jesus, and you are part of that work. As a member of that Church, you are involved in the most important work happening in the world—the sheltering, feeding, and saving of souls. You are a vital part of God’s splendid cedar tree.

God promised, "I the LORD have spoken, and I will do it." God has kept and is keeping His promise. Never doubt it.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Buried alive

He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13).

One of the most dangerous jobs in the world is the occupation of miner. These men and women travel hundreds of feet under the earth to extract valuable minerals for our use. The dangers are many—death by fire when a pocket of methane gas explodes, death by black lung disease or cancer from breathing tainted air, death by asphyxiation when trapped by a cave-in.

This last form of death seems to me to be the most horrifying. An unexpected tragedy cuts you off from light, from fresh air, from any contact with loved ones on the surface. Imagine being trapped in the darkness, with uncountable tons of rock and earth between you and freedom. Isolated in the dark, each breath increasingly hard to draw. A terrible way to face the end of life.

In a sense, this is what sin does to us. We are buried by our guilt—guilt over all the things we have done to hurt the people that we love. We are buried by our regrets—regrets over all the times we could have shown our love to someone precious to us, but we let the moment slip away unused. We are buried by the consequences of our actions—a huge mountain of debt arising from foolish spending, or an addiction to something that we just cannot shake. Our sins bury us—and with each passing year, the enormity of our foolish behavior buries us deeper and deeper.

A miner trapped underground has only one hope—that rescuers will find him before air and life run out. What a precious moment it is when the sound of tapping is heard, when a ray of light breaks through the darkness, when life-giving air caresses a dirt-smeared cheek! This is the joy we feel when we are rescued from dying trapped in the darkness of our sins. We are not alone anymore. We are not trapped in the dark anymore. God has sent His Son Jesus to rescue us. He has broken His way in through our sins. He has brought us the light of God and the breath of life. He has opened a path for us to leave the place of death and join our loved ones in the warmth of eternal light.

If you feel as if your mistakes have left you buried alone in a terrible dark place, don’t give up—reach out your trembling fingers to Jesus, and He will pull you free.

He served your sentence

God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Some years ago, an 18-year-old high school student was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. The young son of a farming family had stabbed one of his teachers, inflicting a wound which resulted in death. The student felt terrible about what he had done, and the members of the jury felt terrible about having to sentence him to prison at such an early age. Yet sentence him they did—one to seven years in the state penitentiary.

As the courtroom drama concluded, each member of the jury approached the young convict to shake his hand and wish him well. Seven of the jurors were openly weeping. Some embraced the young man, and one even said, "God bless you, my boy." The student, who had remained poker-faced during the nine-day trial, had tears in his eyes. The jurors were moved to sympathy and compassion over the fate of the boy, but there was one thing that none of them did; not a single one offered to serve his jail time in his place.

One can hardly imagine a situation where a person would serve as a member of the jury, find the defendant guilty of murder, sentence him to prison, and then offer to take his place there. And yet, as unbelievable as it sounds, this is exactly what Jesus has done for you. The Son of God knows that you and I are guilty of breaking God’s laws, that we are in fact repeat offenders. Our Lord knows that we are fully deserving of eternal incarceration in the prison of hell. But Jesus was moved to sympathy over your plight; He loves you with an everlasting love, a love that moved Him to make an astounding offer—to serve your hellish prison sentence for you! He did this in the cross; during hours so terrible that the earth itself went dark, all of the hell that you deserved, all of the hell that I deserved, all of the hell that was coming to everyone was concentrated into an unimaginable load of suffering that Jesus accepted as His own. Jesus died to satisfy the requirements of justice, died so that you and I might hear a wonderful verdict: "You are free; your guilt and your punishment have been assumed by Jesus. Your record is clear. You are free." And even more wonderful is the news that Jesus has risen from the grave that our sins laid Him in; His ongoing life is proof that our crimes are fully repaid. Because of Jesus, we are lawbreakers no longer; God declares us innocent because of our relationship with the Savior who died out of love for us.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, "Who do people say I am?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets."

"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ."

Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him. He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan!" he said. "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:27-35).

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks about the price of loyalty. Either we follow Jesus, or we get hopelessly lost following our own sin-twisted path. Either we dedicate ourselves to Jesus’ priorities, or we dedicate ourselves to our own sin-sickened priorities. Either we put ourselves at risk for Jesus’ sake, or we ignore our Lord in order to curl up into a little ball and try to protect ourselves. Jesus is very clear—it’s either Him or us.

Jesus does not sugarcoat this truth; the stakes are too high. There is only one way to heaven, and Satan does everything in his power to divert people from that path. Jesus said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). To see heaven after death requires complete commitment to Jesus now while we are living, and the devil works feverishly to weaken that commitment by tempting us to lavish our attention on ourselves instead. The devil wants us to make our own comfort our first priority.

In the early days of the Church, the devil often distracted Christians through persecution. Persecution is when non-Christians use intimidation to make Christians back away from being wholly dedicated to Jesus. The early Christians were no threat to anybody; they taught about the love of Jesus, they helped the poor, and they lived peacefully under the rule of the Roman government. But Satan stirred up unbelievers to hate Christians. Jews became jealous because the Christians were winning converts from their religion. Roman emperors who thought of themselves as gods and demanded to be worshipped were angered that the Christians would only pray to their own ‘Triune God.’ Tradesmen who made a living selling religious idols and charms resented the loss of business that happened when people turned from superstition to Christianity.

Such hatred resulted in bloody persecutions. Christians were arrested and hauled before tribunals, where they were given a choice: say that they were misled, that Christianity was a false religion, and they could go free; or, insist that their allegiance was to Jesus before everything else, and they would be put to death.

Many Christians, fearing for their lives and the lives of their loved ones, renounced their faith—but many more stood firm, and were killed in increasingly gruesome ways. As more and more Christians went to their deaths without fear, those who persecuted them made the methods of execution increasingly horrible, but to no avail. Those who died because of their faith loved their Lord; they lived their lives in memory of Jesus’ words, Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33).

Those persecuted Christians were willing to set aside everything for their Lord Jesus, even their very lives; it is to such people that Jesus promises, whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it. Jesus expects complete loyalty from those who follow Him; He said if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. But there is a reward for such complete loyalty—eternal life and eternal happiness in the Lord’s presence in heaven. Paul put it this way in Romans chapter 8: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.

What moved these men and women to such complete devotion? Nothing less than a miracle of God. Paul wrote, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Romans 8:7). He also wrote, you were dead in your transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1). Those early Christians understood that they had been living in a hopeless situation—unable to please God in even the smallest way and condemned to eternal death in hell for that reason. But our God is the God of ‘second chances’; Daniel wrote The Lord our God is merciful and forgiving, even though we have rebelled against him (Daniel 9:9).

In order to free us from the delusions of sinful thinking, God sent His Son Jesus to live among us in the form of a man. During His years on earth, Jesus taught His followers how to distinguish between the truths of God and the slippery lies of sin; He taught them that human wisdom, which is created by minds that are twisted by sin, is actually foolishness and leads us to rely on ourselves for the answers to life’s problems. Only God’s words can be trusted for wisdom that leads to everlasting life, words spoken by Jesus and by the prophets and apostles of God who spoke under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

But wisdom alone is not enough; even the wisest man still makes mistakes, still angers God with sin every day. So Jesus accepted the role of being our scapegoat, the one who God would punish for our foolish errors. God heaped the responsibility for all our crimes of heart, soul, and body on Jesus as He hung upon the cross, and vented all of His righteous anger at His Son as the bearer of our sins. Jesus suffered the agonies of hell for us that day, so that our sins can now be lifted from us simply at our humble asking.

This is the miracle of God that put such devotion in the hearts of the persecuted Christians. Only a miracle could transfer God’s punishment of our sins from us to another; only a miracle of God could give life to we who were spiritually dead. A miracle is, by definition, something that only God can do—and His greatest miracle of all time is our restoration to being His dear children through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice on our behalf. Having been dead inside, having lived with fear of God and death and hell, those early Christians could not bear the thought of ever going back to that existence again, no matter what sorts of threats they might face as a consequence. And, knowing by the power of the Holy Spirit living in them that heaven is a reality for the believer in Jesus, they were enabled by God to withstand Satan’s every temptation to renounce their Lord, even in the face of death.

Christians continue to be persecuted today. In many countries dominated by Muslims or Hindus, Christians are threatened, beaten, imprisoned and murdered—all because of their faith in Jesus. But persecution is alive and well right here in America as well; it just isn’t so obvious. Remember, persecution is the use of intimidation to make a Christian back away from being wholly dedicated to Jesus. With that in mind, let’s briefly consider how persecution thrives in the United States:

America is supposed to be a country where everyone is free to say what he wants; yet spoken prayers have been outlawed in our schools, the Ten Commandments cannot be posted in courthouses, and if you want to speak against abortion as a violation of God’s law, you cannot go near an abortion clinic. Violation of these laws can result in being treated as a criminal.

Persecution happens in subtler ways as well. In America, everyone’s opinion is supposed to be of equal value. Yet if you dare to tell another person that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven, you are likely to be accused of being narrow-minded. If you try to help people recognize as sinful those behaviors that cause separation from God, like acts of homosexuality, you will be labeled as ‘intolerant of alternative lifestyles’. In a country where everyone is supposedly entitled to his opinion, it is a social crime to disapprove of another person’s beliefs or lifestyle. Daring to speak out in favor of Biblical morality will invite the anger of those who love living in sin, resulting in threatening phone calls, hate mail, and vandalism.

It even happens among our families and friends. How many of you have a relative who makes jokes about your dedication to living as a Christian? How many of you have a friend who tries to get you to skip church to go golfing or hunting or fishing? How many times in your life have you felt embarrassed about being a follower of Jesus?

The net effect of all this is that sometimes you may want to hide the fact that you are a Christian. Do you want your child to get into trouble for praying out loud at school? Do you want to get your house egged because you said publicly that homosexual acts are sinful? Do you want to have your best friend sulk when you won’t go hunting with him on Sunday mornings? Do you ever feel embarrassed by being a Christian? Such things are evidence of intimidation. Such things are evidence of persecution. Such things are Satan’s efforts to tear down your loyalty to Jesus.

Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Jesus did not just mean that we must be willing to sacrifice our lives; He meant that we must be willing to stand up and be counted when the going gets rough. The cross He calls us to bear for Him is the burden of enduring the hatred of those who hate Jesus; the cross He calls us to carry is the cross of ridicule, cold stares, angry words, and all the other threats that are intended to make us fear that following Jesus just isn’t worth it.

But we can endure because following Jesus is worth any hard times Satan brings into our lives. No human being can teach us how to please God; no human teaching can take away our guilt for our mistakes. Only Jesus can fix what sin has broken. Only Jesus can lift the burden of guilt and give us a fresh start on life every day. Only Jesus can lead us through a world of pitfalls to the gates of heaven, and only He can raise us from the dead to enjoy life forever in perfect peace and happiness.

Deny Jesus in order to protect ourselves from persecution?—foolish and unthinkable! Deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him?—absolutely!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

God is close

[God] is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27).

I am frequently amazed at how connected people are becoming in our age of modern technology. With your computer and an Internet connection, you can travel around the world at very little expense. You can visit the online journal of a complete stranger and let him take you along on his vacation to Singapore. If you can’t find someone who shares your interests in your neighborhood, go online and you will find a virtual community of like-minded individuals willing to chat with you. Unsure what to make of events in today’s news? There are any number of bloggers who would love for you to read their opinions. And if you are willing to part with some cash, you can even take a university course from the comfort of your own home.

Modern cell phone service offers connectivity that is even faster, more portable, and more personal. No matter where you go, you can talk, send text messages and transmit pictures. Cell phones are used to check in on the kids, get updated shopping lists while at the store, do business while sitting in traffic, find friends while out and about, and just talk about nothing in particular whenever the whim moves you.

Interconnectedness is not cheap, whether you are buying a computer or racking up large amounts of minutes every month with a telecommunications provider. But Americans love being connected, and usually seem able to find a way to pay for such services.

Yet I am also dismayed at how disconnected people are becoming. Even though there is more talk and chat and text messaging going on between people, communication with God seems to be in decline. This is truly a sad state of affairs. In a world where people search for meaning and purpose, the person they increasingly ignore is the only one who can give them the answers they are looking for. In an age where people are terrified of being isolated and alone, they ignore the one person who offers to always be with them. In a world where people constantly seek new relationships to replace those that they have foolishly broken, they ignore the one person who can forgive the mistakes of the past and bring about lasting reconciliation.

You don’t need any special equipment to contact Jesus; just find a quiet place and approach Him in prayer. He is always near; He is always willing to listen.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Looking for loopholes

Oh, how I love your law! I think about it all day long (Psalm 119:97).

People are always looking for loopholes in the law. Some lawyers make a career out of getting convictions overturned based on a technicality. Not that long ago, the nation of Israel passed a law that allows patients to be euthanized by computer. You see, Jewish law prohibits doctors from ending a patient's life for any reason; so in order to "pull the plug" on a terminally ill person, they have decided that it breaks no law if life support shuts down in response to a timer. Technically, the doctor did not end the patient's life--rather, a machine did it.

When I heard this story on the news, I just shook my head. How can the person who programmed the machine to shut down be considered exempt from the law prohibiting mercy killing? A machine only does what a person sets it up to do. But the medical establishment in Israel is satisfied that they have found a loophole that allows them to break the law without being held responsible.

This is only one example of what we all try to get away with. We justify our lies by thinking that we are really protecting someone's feelings by keeping the truth from them. We make excuses for speeding by claiming that less time on the road means more time at home with the kids. For us, the ends often justify the means.

Jesus tells us that there is no difference between intent and action. In Matthew chapter five He said, You have heard that the law of Moses says, `Do not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.' But I say, if you are angry with someone, you are subject to judgment...You have heard that the law of Moses says, `Do not commit adultery.' But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart. In Jesus' day, many prided themselves on keeping the letter of God's Law, even though they did not honor its intent. To them Jesus said, Hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs--beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people's bones and all sorts of impurity. You try to look like upright people outwardly, but inside your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:27).

God's laws are perfect--there is no reason to try and find loopholes in them (unless you are trying to get away with sinning). God's laws teach us how to honor the Lord and support each other; they were given to us to improve the quality of our lives. We should treasure God's laws for the wisdom that they offer us; we should be prompted to tell God: Oh, how I love your law!

Friday, June 08, 2007

Spiritual dehydration

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive (John 7:37-39).

There are people who wonder what being a Christian is supposed to be all about. They have heard the words of Jesus and have come to believe in Him as their rescuer from sin, death and the devil, but they have unanswered questions. They think, "so I believe in Jesus and will go to heaven—great! But what do I do right now? The Bible tells me that I can’t impress God by the things that I do—only belief in Jesus guarantees me life after death. So what am I supposed to do with my life, being a Christian? If I don’t have a list of things that I need to do to win God’s favor, what am I supposed to do with the days of my life? How is the life of a Christian different from the life of an unbeliever?

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of how a Christian’s life differs from the life of anyone else. He tells us, Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him. As Christians, we are sources of living water; we bring life to those who do not believe. But just what is this living water, where does it come from, and how is it that we have it to give away?

In Jeremiah 17:13, the prophet prays to God with these words: O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water. Jeremiah compares the life that God gives to "living water." Now, "living water" is fresh, running, healthy water; it is the opposite of dead, stagnant water, the kind of water where bacteria flourish. Stagnant water makes a person sick, if he drinks it—living water, on the other hand, refreshes and preserves life. Jeremiah speaks his words poetically; he uses the image of cool, refreshing, living water to describe the life and hope that God gives to those who trust in Him.

Jesus picks up on this imagery in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John. When speaking with a Samaritan woman at a well in the heat of the day, He told her, "If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water." When the woman showed her lack of understanding, Jesus went on to explain, "whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." Here, Jesus equates living water to the life that God gives through faith in Jesus, life that can survive the death of the body because Jesus has removed the poison of sin from it.

Water is essential for human life. Deprive a person of water, and eventually he will dehydrate and die. Water makes life possible. Without water in your arteries and veins, your blood would be too thick for your heart to pump oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Without water, your body could not rid itself of the toxic build-up of waste. Without water, your skin could not produce sweat and your body would become overheated. Without water, the balance of chemicals in your brain would be upset, disturbing your personality and your ability to think clearly. A person will die more quickly of dehydration than he will of starvation.

Just as water makes physical life possible, so does Jesus make spiritual life possible. God creates each human soul. God gives each human soul vitality by showering it with love through family, friends, and members of His Church. But when we allow sin to keep us away from those who love us, when we ignore or push away God and the love He wants to give us, we begin to dehydrate. Just as physical dehydration causes the body to start shutting down, so does spiritual dehydration start causing the soul to go numb and start shutting down. Just as physical dehydration distorts our personalities and our ability to think clearly, so does spiritual dehydration make us bitter, twisted, and unable to see the truth of things in our lives.

Jesus came among us in the flesh to save us from spiritual dehydration. He brought living water for us to drink, water that restores health and preserves life. That living water is available to us through belief in Jesus; all we need do is trust that the water He holds out to us is living water, not stagnant, poisonous water. All we need do is turn our backs on choosing to dehydrate in our sinful foolishness, and welcome the offer of forgiveness and life drawn from God Himself.

Jesus made this offer of life possible. When we rejected God’s living water, we angered Him—we angered Him because He gave us both physical and spiritual life, and we rejected Him through our sins, the sins that prefer the stagnant waters of human teachings and priorities over the living waters of God’s love and guidance. But in spite of His anger at our sins God still loved us, and He appointed His Son Jesus to give us access to the living waters once more; He did this by dying for our sins on the cross. Through His death Jesus became the source of living water for us, as we read in chapter 19 of the Gospel of John: But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. It is Jesus’ blood that makes the living water to be a life-giving water; this is why we read in Revelation 22:1, Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

Jesus said, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink." But when we drink, something remarkable happens. When we drink from Jesus’ words preserved in God’s holy Bible, the Holy Spirit comes and builds faith in our hearts. In 1st Corinthians chapter 12 Paul wrote, no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. When we turn our backs on spiritual dehydration and trust in the living water’s power to restore our lives, it is because the Holy Spirit has been at work within us, showing us our thirst, our need for salvation.

As we are filled with living water, we are filled with the Holy Spirit; but the Spirit is infinite where we are not, and so He bursts forth from us in streams of living water, waters which flow from within us. At the beginning of this meditation, the question was asked how is the life of a Christian different from the life of an unbeliever? This is how—the Holy Spirit, like streams of living water, flows from the Christian to bring life to all who surround him. It is the purpose of the Spirit of God to create spiritual life through faith where there is now only spiritual death; consequently, one thing that sets a Christian life apart from an unbeliever’s life is that he speaks about Jesus to others. Jesus brings us life, love, comfort, strength and hope—how can we not share with others the happiness and reassurance and security that we have?

How does this sharing take place? Through everyday conversations in everyday places. When given a compliment on a job well done, the unbeliever says, "thank you"—but the Christian will instead give glory to God by saying, "I had Jesus’ help." When telling of how he avoided tragedy in a dangerous situation, the unbeliever says, "I was lucky"—but the Christian will instead thank God by saying, "the Lord was protecting me." When feeling depressed, the unbeliever will complain, "I don’t know what I’m going to do"—but the Christian will instead express confidence in God by saying, "I need to pray about this."

Sharing also takes place during times of crisis. When an unbeliever tries to comfort a loved one immersed in tragedy, he says, "I’m here for you"—but when a Christian comforts a loved one, he prays with her, reads Scripture to her, and shares with her times when he himself experienced the power of Jesus working in his life, even if he didn’t recognize it at the time.

And, of course, sharing happens through Christ’s Church. Sharing happens when you invite an unbelieving friend to come to worship or Bible study with you. Sharing happens when you contribute to the church, in order that clergy and missionaries be supported in proclaiming God’s Word. Sharing is supported when you serve the Church as a voter or an officer of the congregation.

Another job of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen the faithful. It is Christian to build up others, to strengthen them and support them as brothers and sisters in Christ. Unbelieving members in a bowling league spend time trying to impress each other—but Christians spend their time complimenting each other. Unbelieving members of a business office spend time criticizing each other—but Christians spend their time forgiving each other. Unbelieving members of a high school clique spend time getting into trouble as a group—but Christians spend their time helping each other to resist the temptation to do things contrary to God’s desires.

Finally, the presence of the Holy Spirit within us shows itself in how the Christian acts as he lives his life. In Galatians chapter five, Paul contrasts the character of the sinful nature with the character of the person in whom the Holy Spirit lives; the acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

When Jesus said streams of living water will flow from within him, He did not mean that we are the source of the living water; it is the Holy Spirit, living in us through faith, that fills our lives with renewed life, and reaches out through us to touch others with life. This is why Paul wrote, We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20). The life of the Christian is radically different from the life of the unbeliever—it is a life characterized by care for the souls of others, not just care for their bodies; it is characterized by giving of ourselves, our time, and our resources, instead of loafing in selfish greed; it is characterized by a struggle against temptation, instead of wallowing in every filthy habit invented by men. Living as a Christian is not a perfect life, because we constantly fail to serve our Lord as He expects us to; but we live life with the confidence that every sin can be forgiven, the security of knowing that we are loved, and the hope that God will do great things for those we love through us.

The Christian life is very different than the unbeliever’s life, and because of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life is a wonderful life.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

"Under God"..."In God we trust."

You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3).

There has been a lot of talk lately about God and government. Should our Pledge of Allegiance include the words "under God"? Should our money say, "in God we trust"?

I would like you to consider this question: which "god" does the Pledge refer to? Who is the "god" in whom our people trust? Is it the God of Abraham? Is it the Triune God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Is it the god of Mohammed? Who exactly are we talking about here?

Frankly, our Pledge is vague—so is our currency. The fact of the matter is that a Jew and a Christian and a Muslim could all say with equal conviction that our Pledge and our money are dedicated to the "god" who they worship. This is equally true of Mormons, Hindus, and every other religious group. All religions have some great power that they call "god"—so when you speak about "god", you need to get more specific.

When we pledge our allegiance to America, which "god" is America beholden to? Which "god" do we trust in to keep our banks solvent? Jews and Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Mormons would all give you different answers. They would each say "god", but the "gods" they refer to are quite different from each other. They are different in their personalities, their goals, and how they interact with us.

When I pledge allegiance, the God to whom I submit is the Triune God who has revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The God in whom I trust is the one who hates sin but has pity on the sinner, who sent His Son to die for all the many ways in which I have angered Him by my selfishness and an inability to look away from evil’s temptations. My allegiance is to the God who said, I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God (Isaiah 4:6). I trust in His Son Jesus who said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). I believe in the God who so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

When you speak the Pledge of Allegiance or read the motto on your money, which "god" are you thinking of?

Monday, June 04, 2007

Addicted to...

O LORD, hear my prayer…come to my relief (Psalm 143:1).

A few years ago, a scientist did an experiment in which he made cocaine available to monkeys. They would pull a lever and the feeding tray would give them a hit of cocaine. Soon the monkeys got addicted to the coke. But then the scientist began to withhold the next fix. How many times do you think the average monkey would keep on pulling that lever, desperately looking for another dose of the drug? About 12,800 times! The monkeys would keep pulling that lever over and over—Gotta have it…gotta have it!

You and I are addicts too. We are addicts to sin. Some people are addicted to gossip—they spend hours on the phone trading stories about other people’s problems. Some are addicted to worry—they constantly obsess over every little detail and clutter their lives with lists. Some are addicted to drama—they cannot let a day go by without injecting unnecessary conflict into at least one relationship. Some are addicted to laziness—their days are little more than a string of excuses for putting things off. Some are addicted to shopping—their homes are either a show place where everything is always new, or else a bewildering museum of collectibles.

The life of a sinner is lived to the beat of Gotta have it…gotta have it…gotta have it! When we don’t get our fix of sin, we can’t concentrate on what we should be doing. Sin makes us little different from those monkeys addicted to cocaine, desperately pulling a lever to get another hit.

How can you break the habit? You can’t. An alcoholic is an alcoholic for life. But we can learn to live with our addiction and to find success wrestling with it. That possibility for a better life comes by giving our lives over to Jesus. He lived here on earth. He faced the same types of temptations that we do. Although He never succumbed to the enticement of evil, He understands how it gets its claws into us and He sympathizes with our addiction. Jesus lived the sin-free life that we cannot, and died in our place to end sin’s domination over our behavior. When we welcome Jesus into our lives, He shows us how to stay focused on behavior that is good and healthy, and strengthens us when our need for another fix of sin makes us weak in the knees. Jesus is with us 24/7, holding us accountable to stay clean and forgiving us when we cave in. No one is better a friend.

Saturday, June 02, 2007


Those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, "Abba, Father." The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:14-17).

June 3rd is Trinity Sunday, the Sunday of the church year when we try to understand that which no human can understand—the Trinitarian nature of our God.

In Deuteronomy 6:4 Moses tells God’s people, Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. At the time of Moses, most people believed in many gods—gods of the sun, gods of the moon, gods of fertility, gods of the harvest, gods of the storm, gods of the sea, even gods of traveling and commerce. Since gods like these were often related to each other, most people would worship all the gods instead of just one, lest they offend a god and risk divine retribution. Thus, most people offered sacrifices to any number of gods throughout the year.

But our God wanted to make it clear that He alone is deserving of worship and devotion. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not just ‘one more god’ to add to the list of those to be worshipped. There is only one God who created the heavens and the earth; there is only one God who knits DNA strands together in a woman’s womb and attaches a soul to it, creating a unique new human being. There is only one God who has the power to suspend the laws of nature—laws He Himself created—so that those who love Him can experience miracles in their lives. There is only one God who creates and preserves. Through Isaiah He said, "Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one" (Isaiah 44:8). And because He alone does all these things, our God said through Moses, "You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments" (Exodus 20:3-6).

It is a central teaching of the Bible that God is single, God is unique. And yet the same Moses who was ordered to write, The LORD our God, the LORD is one, also wrote Genesis under the inspiration of God, and there we read, Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness"... So God created man in his own image (Genesis 1:1:26-27). Isn’t it interesting? God speaks as if He is not alone, yet a moment later, God is referred to in the singular once more. And we get another example of this at the Tower of Babel when we read, the LORD came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The LORD said, "If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other" (Genesis 11:5-7). Once again, the Lord is referred to in the singular, but is quoted as conversing as if not alone. How do we explain Moses writing this way?

The fact of the matter is that the Trinity is evident right from the beginning of the Bible. In verse two of the first chapter of Genesis Moses records, Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. Just one verse after we are told that God created the heavens and the earth, we are immediately introduced to the Holy Spirit. In Isaiah chapter 63 verses 8-10, God the Father speaks through the prophet about both His Son and the Holy Spirit: He said, "Surely they are my people, sons who will not be false to me"; and so he became their Savior. In all their distress he too was distressed, and the Angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old. Yet they rebelled and grieved his Holy Spirit. The Angel of His presence who saved God’s people is, of course, a reference to our Lord Jesus, who had no physical body until He was born to die for us.

The three persons of God were seen most clearly at Jesus’ baptism where we read, When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (Luke 3:21-22). And Jesus affirmed the reality of the Trinity once more just before He returned to heaven when He said, "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).

It is the clear teaching of the Bible that there is only one God to be worshipped, yet God exists as three Persons. Does this mean that only the Father is God, but not the Son or the Holy Spirit? Certainly not! Paul tells us this about baptism: "[God] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior" (Titus 3:5). The salvation brought to us through baptism is a salvation made possible by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit working together—all three persons share in the forgiveness of sins, which is the prerogative of God alone.

Many people in history have wanted to claim that neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit are truly God, but the Scriptures prove otherwise. Moses told us to worship God alone, yet Jesus was rightly worshipped by the wise men from the east (Matthew 2:11), the man who had been blind from birth (John 9:38), and by His disciples (Matthew 14:33). Paul says of Jesus, 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). As to the divinity of the Holy Spirit, we read of an incident in Acts chapter 5: Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit...? You have not lied to men but to God." There is no question in the Bible that Jesus and the Holy Spirit are every bit as much God as the Father is.

And yet there are not three Gods, but one God, as the Athanasian Creed tells us. How God can be three and yet only one at the same time is one of the great mysteries of Christianity, a reality that is beyond our limited ability to understand. But the Trinitarian nature of our God is one of the things that demonstrates His uniqueness, one of the things that sets Him apart from the so-called ‘gods’ invented by the minds of men who did not know the true God, but desperately needed something more powerful than themselves to believe in.

The Trinitarian nature of our God is, I think, why we were created, and why we have been saved. God never existed in silence. Our Triune God has always had three persons who discussed things among themselves. Our God is not a god who enjoys isolation and quiet, He is a God who enjoys company and conversation. A single god existing forever in silence might create men and women out of boredom so that they could amuse him, but having existed forever without companionship He could never treat his creations as anything but toys. But our Triune God, a God of relationships, created men and women to share in the love that exists between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; He created us to speak to, to listen to, to spend eternity with together. Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:13-15).

If a child breaks a toy he may be sad for awhile, but eventually he moves on to other toys that still work right. But if a child has a fight with a friend, he is brokenhearted until the relationship has been patched up again. So it is with God. If our god was an eternally lonely god who made us out of boredom, he wouldn’t concern himself with our welfare—if we became defective, he would just discard us and make another man or woman to entertain him. And if our god was only one of a whole group of gods, why not let some other god worry about whatever mess we’ve made of our lives?

But our Triune God, our God who is one yet three, took a different approach. When we became defective because of our sins, God loved us too much to just toss us aside like a broken toy and replace us. When we angered our loving God by failing to love Him or each other as we ought, our God took action to repair the damage that we had caused because there was no one else capable of putting things right. There is only one God who can forgive sin, only one God who can work the miracles of faith, of forgiveness, of life after death. That one God is our Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Paul explains the role that each Person of the Trinity plays in our lives in today’s Epistle lesson. The Spirit leads us into becoming sons of God. It is His influence in us that enables us to believe that there is a God, a God who we can turn to for help and safety and eternal citizenship in His kingdom (called heaven). It is by the trust that the Spirit stirs within us that we can come to this awe-inspiring God and address Him with the endearing name of Father.

A father is essential for human life. No human being is born without the creating act of a father. It is the father’s role to protect his children, to see that they are fed and clothed, that they are trained to be come responsible members of the family and the community. This is what our heavenly Father does for His children—He gave us life, He protects us from danger, He strengthens us in the face of adversity, and He provides a home where we can live happily forever--because as His children, we are His heirs.

But none of this would be possible without Jesus. He suffered so that we would not be disinherited. Our God is a God of love, and no unloving person can inherit a place in heaven. For us to be welcome there, we had to be purged of the sin that taints our ability to love. Jesus did this great miracle on the cross, where His love moved Him to exchange His life of perfect love for all our lives of tainted love--and the sin of our twisted, selfish love killed the Son of God. But because Jesus is true God, death could not end His life permanently and He rose from the grave alive once more. Now He is eternally alive to forgive we who are willing to share in His sufferings, by rejecting the sin that holds so much fascination for us. We suffer with Jesus by following Him in a life that rejects the joys of sin, in exchange for the much greater joys of eternal life and eternal companionship with the Triune God of love—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You have been baptized by one God, but three divine Persons have taken away the guilt for your sins and have made you a promise that if you remain faithful until the end of your life, you, as an heir of God, will receive a crown to wear as a son of God in His eternal kingdom. You have been personally blessed by God, not just once, but three times over. May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him through the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. Amen.

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