Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Sex and violence

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Revelation 22:13).

For years, people have been concerned about sex and violence in the media. Sex and violence in books and magazines. Sex and violence in movies and on TV. Sex and violence in music and on the Internet. Everywhere we turn, sex and violence command our attention.

Sex and violence are primal—they speak to us about life and death. Sex is about the beginning of life; violence brings about the end of life. The two are closely linked. Quite often, the urge for sex is overwhelming when a person’s life has been placed in danger; the body feels a need to reproduce before it’s too late. This is why so many stories told for entertainment contain both sex and violence in close proximity to each other.

The media only gives us sexy and violent images because we find them interesting. Everyone is fascinated with life and death, because these are universal experiences shared by all human beings. The beginning of life is a profound mystery: how is the spark of life passed on to a fetus? How is it that we acquire a soul, the ability to reflect on issues of right and wrong, good and evil? The end of life is also a profound mystery: when our bodies die, what happens to the part of us that thinks and feels? Do we go on somehow, or do we just disappear forever?

Sex and violence fascinate us because they tap into something profoundly important—how life begins and what happens when life ends. But while the entertainment industry can tease us with these issues, they don’t offer us the answers that we crave. There is only one place we can go to make sense of sex and violence, birth and death—that place is God’s word. It is in the Book dictated by God Himself that we discover the truth of things. It is in the Bible that we are told how thinking, feeling human life comes about; Psalm 139 praises God, saying: you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. It is in the Bible that we are told what happens to our souls when life at last leaves our bodies; in John chapter 4 Jesus says, it is my Father's will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. God the Father gave us life, and He offers us life beyond the grave through faith in His Son. Sex and violence raise important questions, but it is God’s word that provides the answers.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Bringing peace to the world

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God's people and members of God's household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit
(Ephesians 2:13-22).

We live in a world that is rife with conflict and division. Our conflicts with countries in the Middle East are merely the most dramatic example of how division, fear and hatred divide our world.

You don’t have to serve in a branch of the military to see division and conflict played out. Within our own country, Democrats and Republicans disagree with each other so strongly that a recent session of congress devolved into childish name-calling. In fact, Washington has become infamous for it’s inability to get anything done due to the constant political squabbling that goes on there.

Let’s move a little closer to home. Consider the anger and resentment that arises at school board meetings. People who have been neighbors for most of their lives often treat each other shamefully when they do not agree on how our schools should be run, or how education should be paid for.

But conflict in our lives is even more personal than that. How many among your family and friends struggle with rebellious children, domineering parents, or abusive spouses? How many people in your life are divorced or have considered divorce? How many people in your life are living in families where sarcasm and insults have replaced hugs and words of love?

Our lives are awash in a sea of anger and conflict.

In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul speaks of conflict and how it is brought to an end. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul speaks about the conflict between Jew and Gentile that existed in the church at that time. In the Old Testament, God had selected the Israelites to be the nation that would represent Him to the rest of the world. The Israelites were to be noticeably different than every other culture, so God gave them specific instructions on how to eat, how to do business, and most importantly how to worship. These regulations demonstrated to the world that the Israelites were unique, and that their uniqueness came from their relationship with the Sovereign Lord. These rules were also designed to help the Israelites maintain their unique identity as God’s people, as they went about the task of preaching salvation to the world.

By the time of the New Testament the nation of Israel no longer existed, as the land had been conquered first by the Babylonians, then by Alexander the Great, and finally by the Roman Empire. The descendants of the children of Israel now called themselves Jews, and still thought of themselves as God’s chosen people. But the Jews had lost the desire to be God’s ambassadors to the world; instead, they put the label of ‘Gentile’ on every non-Jew and avoided contact with them. Indeed, the Jews believed that they would be tainted by contact with Gentiles, going so far as to refuse to enter a Gentile’s house. The Jews despised all Gentiles as barbaric people who wallowed in sin, having no idea who God was or what He expected. As for the Gentiles, as a group they didn’t give the Jews much thought. The Jews were just religious fanatics who pretty much kept to themselves, and that suited the Gentiles just fine.

But things changed with Jesus’ arrival as a man born of God and a Jewish woman. You see, as much conflict as there is in the world, it all really has its origin in a much greater conflict—the conflict between man and God. When God created Adam the first man, Adam was God’s friend. But when Adam disobeyed God, he cursed himself and all his human descendants with sin, with the inherited desire to ignore God’s moral instructions and do whatever feels good at the time. This created a barrier of hostility between man and God. For his part, God hates the selfishness that sinful man loves to wallow in. For their part, humans resent God for placing moral limits on their freedom to act as they wish. The result is a wall of anger that prevents a relationship of love and trust between mankind and God.

This barrier is reflected everywhere in human experience. Couples divorce because selfishness makes compromise unattainable. Parents and children fight because parents assume that they are always right, and children hate being told what to do. School board members and congressmen squabble and waste time because no one can admit that someone else’s idea might be better than their own. Countries wage war because the other side has a different culture, different priorities and values, and don’t agree with us on how the world should be governed.

Sin made a complete mess of the world. Our God, the God of love, looked at all this hatred and division and fighting and felt sorrow that things had come to this. But our God’s love was so great that He did not just turn His back on us and ignore us, nor did He destroy us completely and start over. No, our loving God sent His only Son to be born as one of us, to bring peace where there was only conflict, hope where there was only despair.

Jesus was born a Jew—He came first to the people who God had chosen long ago to be His ambassadors to the world. But instead of welcoming Jesus and following Him, the religious establishment persecuted Him, slandered him, and arranged for Him to be executed as a criminal. The Jews were content with the way things were--they believed that God was happy with them as they were, although in reality they were self-righteous and uncaring of the souls of the world just outside their doors. The Jews were comfortable, and Jesus was frightening because He challenged that smug comfort.

And so Jesus was executed by crucifixion. But His death was all part of God’s plan of rescue to free humanity from anger and conflict and separation from God. Jesus’ purpose in coming to live and die among us was to end the need for laws and regulations to define a child of God. By living the perfect life that Adam had failed to live, Jesus became a New Adam for us; just as Adam cursed all his biological descendants through His failure to obey God, Jesus blesses all His children of faith through His perfect obedience to God’s Law. Because Jesus kept the Law in its entirety on our behalf, the burden of living under it has been lifted from our shoulders; this is why Paul writes that He abolished the law with its commandments and regulations. And by suffering and dying on the cross, Jesus took upon Himself our death sentence for our treasonous rebellion against God’s leadership. Because our sin has already been punished by means of Jesus’ death, we no longer have any reason to fear God’s presence in our lives. At the moment of Jesus’ death, the Gospel writers tell us the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). That curtain was hung in the Temple to prevent sinful mankind from looking into the Most Holy Place, the place in the Temple reserved for God alone; the fact that the curtain was ripped open at the moment of the Savior’s death visibly proves that the barrier between man and God had been removed, as we are told in Hebrews chapter 10: we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body.

Through His perfect life, atoning death, and triumphant resurrection, Jesus has ended the power of sin to separate us from God. The barrier that sin erects between us and God has been torn down by Jesus’ blood, which makes it possible for us to receive forgiveness for our sins; Paul writes in him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:7). Forgiveness is the only way to end conflict; no fight is ever truly over until forgiveness is requested and given. True peace only comes through the reconciliation made possible by forgiveness; that is why Paul tells us that Jesus Himself is our peace. Only through being forgiven by Jesus can we know peace with God.

That peace, that ending of hostilities, washes over into our human relationships as well. In Ephesians, Paul tells the members of the church that Jesus’ gifts of forgiveness and peace make it possible to end the hostilities between Jews and Gentiles. I wrote earlier that most Gentiles didn’t give the Jews much thought; but as Gentiles came to believe in Jesus and joined the new Christian Church, many Jewish Christians looked down on them as ‘second-class’ Christians. Many Jews retained their snobbery against Gentiles even after both had become Christian, and this created resentment. But Paul shows that this cannot continue. Jews used to be different from everyone else because of the rules of living given by God through Moses; but when Jesus satisfied God’s Law for everyone through His perfect life, both Jew and Gentile were freed of the past to be united together in a new kind of society—a society of Christians called the Church. This is what Paul meant when he wrote "[Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility... For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. Paul is speaking of one new kind of man—a Christian—arising out of the unity of both Jew and Gentile.

Peace between people is possible and God-pleasing, but true, lasting peace can only come through true forgiveness. This is why Jesus emphasized, forgive and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37). This is why Jesus taught us to pray, forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:12). Revenge doesn’t end hostility. Intimidation doesn’t end hostility. Only forgiveness can bring real peace.

Jesus said, blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9). To make peace, one must be willing to offer forgiveness. The person who forgives others acts like Christ, he imitates the Son of God—and so he will be called a son of God. How many wars would take place if leaders on both sides would admit to each other that they have made foolish decisions and ask for forgiveness? How well would congress work if all senators and representatives asked God jointly in prayer to guide their decision-making? How would school board meetings go if every harsh word or heated opinion was immediately apologized for? How many divorces would be avoided if every husband and wife owned up to their own shortcomings and together asked Jesus for forgiveness and the leadership of the Holy Spirit in their lives?

You and I live in a world of anger and barriers and conflict. You and I have been given the unity and peace that the world cannot fully understand or appreciate—the unity and peace that comes from being reconciled to God and each other through the forgiveness made possible by Christ. You can have peace right now in your life with every Christian in the world—all it takes is a willingness to forgive as you have been forgiven. But what about peace with those who do not hold Jesus in their hearts as the only way to be reconciled to God? Is true peace possible with agnostics or atheists? Mormons or Jews? Muslims or Hindus? Yes, peace is possible, but only when they too have been added to Jesus’ fellowship of believers; until He lives in their hearts, they remain divided from God by the hostility of sin, and we cannot expect peace where Christ does not rule in love. So if peace is what you want, my friend, be a peacemaker—introduce the forgiveness of Christ to someone who does not yet know the peace of God, which transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7).

Thursday, July 26, 2007

What makes you special?

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1)

Who are you? How do you define yourself? What makes you special? What gives your life value and meaning?

Some people feel special because of their accomplishments. They identify themselves as a great athlete or a superb salesman or a technical quiz. Their life feels like it’s worth something because of the salary they pull down, the property they own, the position of leadership they have achieved. Other people find their meaning in life through relationships. They identify themselves by their nationality, their school, or their family. Their life feels like it’s worth something because they are a loyal American, or a booster of their high school, or a successful spouse and parent.

But what happens when these things go away? Who are you if you suddenly lose your job of twenty years? Who are you if your school closes? Who are you if advancing age steals your health, your savings, or your memory? Who are you if you are the only surviving member of your family?

You can’t find lasting meaning in earthly things, because everything around us eventually goes away. If you want your life to have permanent meaning and unchanging value, you have to seek your identity elsewhere.

Let me tell you who I am. I am an evil person. My daily reality is one of frustration and disappointment because I think things I shouldn’t think, say things I shouldn’t say, do things I shouldn’t do, and let opportunities to do the right thing slip away unused. Yet in spite of this, I am a person loved by God; He made me, and He made me unique—there is no one else like me. Because of his love for me, He sent His Son to suffer and die so that I can be forgiven for being evil. He has given me the companionship of His Spirit to comfort me when life is hard and show me how to live a life of value—serving God by sharing His love with others. I am an adopted child of God, and that will never change, because God lives forever—and so will I! That’s who I am—who are you?

Monday, July 23, 2007

God and man in one

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).

Have you ever looked through the edge of a piece of glass? Hold a thick piece of glass up to your eyes and look into it through the beveled edge. Inside, you can see repeating images of edge lines stretching away into the distance, an optical illusion created by reflecting light.

The reason that you can see anything at all when you do this is because there is more than just glass alone—there is also light. Inside that object you are holding, two things are present—glass and the light which is passing through it. And while they are both there in your hands together, neither loses its characteristics—the glass is still glass, the light is still light.

In a similar way, Jesus is made up of two natures. In the person of Christ, there is both man and God. And it is important to note that neither His manhood nor His Godhood lose their characteristics—Jesus is both completely human and completely divine.

Tough to understand? You bet. Yet this is what the Bible clearly teaches. Jesus is not a demigod like the fictional Hercules, half god by his father Zeus and half human by his mother Alcmena. Jesus is not a diluted or watered-down God. Jesus is both fully God and fully human.

Why did Jesus need to be fully human? His mortality was necessary so that He could do things that God cannot do. God cannot stand in for humanity to keep the Law He Himself has laid down; Jesus had to be a man so that He could serve as our representative, keeping the Law perfectly in our place. God cannot suffer and die; Jesus had to be a man so that He could accept the punishment for sins that we had coming to us. But Jesus also had to be fully God. Only God is infinite, without limits. Only a life of perfect obedience lived by God could have sufficient merit to stand in for what God expects of all humanity. Only the suffering and death of God Himself could bear all the punishment for sin coming to every human being that has ever lived or ever will live. Jesus needed to be fully human so that He could stand with us and for us; Jesus also had to be fully God so that the life He lived and the death He died could be credited to us and make us righteous in God’s sight.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Times of weakness--a blessing?

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Saint Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament, and nearly half of the Book of Acts is about him as well. In fully half of the New Testament, God uses Paul to speak to His Church about our salvation in Christ. Many congregations around the world have named themselves after Paul, including the prestigious St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. St. Paul even has a city named after him in Minnesota.

Paul was well educated. He had been trained as a Pharisee, a man who spent most of his time studying the Old Testament and trying to live a God-pleasing life according to its teachings. And Paul was also a citizen of the Roman Empire; while a Jew, he also was interested in the goings-on of the wider world around him. Paul’s education and interests show him to be a very learned man.

Paul had the background, the education, and the way with words to be a great asset to the ministry of Jesus’ Church, but Paul had a problem: he had quite an ego. Paul knew that he was special, and he took pride in it. Late in life he wrote, I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers (Galatians 1:14). When many people began converting to Christianity, Paul not only saw danger in his fellow Jews defecting to this new religion, he assumed a leadership role in ferreting out these traitors and bringing them to trial. Speaking of his past life Paul said, I persecuted the followers of [Jesus] to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as also the high priest and all the Council can testify (Acts 22:4-5). Paul had wanted a role of leadership among the Jews because he felt he had the best of qualifications. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless (Philippians 3:4-6). Looking back on his younger life, Paul could see how the sin of pride had taken control of him.

But everything changed for Paul on a trip to Damascus, where he was planning to arrest even more Christians and put them on trial for teaching a ‘false’ religion. Jesus Himself appeared to Paul in a blinding light and showed Paul that it was not the Christians who were in error, it was the Jews who rejected Jesus as God’s Savior to them. From that moment on, Paul threw himself into the service of Christ with every bit as much fervor as he had previously given to the work of the Pharisees. He did this new work out of gratitude to Jesus, for showing him the error of his ways and for giving him the opportunity to help the Church he had previously been attacking.

Sometime later, Paul received another visitation from God—this time, Paul was permitted to take a glimpse of heaven itself. This was such a wonderful and undeserved experience that Paul said nothing of it to anyone for 14 years. It was not until he wrote 2nd Corinthians that Paul spoke of this remarkable vision; in the verses immediately before today’s Epistle reading he writes, I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know--God knows. And I know that this man--whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows--was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say.

After 14 years of silence, why does Paul speak of his heavenly vision now? Because of what followed soon after: To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Paul tells the Corinthians that 14 years earlier he had been permitted a look at heaven, but this wonderful experience was followed by his receiving something that he calls a ‘thorn in the flesh.’ This thorn, whatever it was, was given to Paul by God to prevent him from becoming conceited following his singular look into heaven.

God knew Paul very well. Paul had a life-long struggle with pride, and it would be all too easy for him to start thinking that, because Jesus had spoken to him personally on the road to Damascus and later given him a look into heaven, he was a man superior to any other in God’s eyes. Pride was a major weakness in Paul’s character. But God had work to do for a man with Paul’s talents, and so God took steps to keep him from becoming prideful again. God permitted Satan to put a ‘thorn’ in Paul’s flesh to keep him humble.

This sounds odd to us. Were God and Satan working together? Not at all. For a parallel situation, consider Job chapter 2: On another day the angels came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And…the LORD said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason." "Skin for skin!" Satan replied. "A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face." The LORD said to Satan, "Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life." So Satan went out from the presence of the LORD and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. Then Job’s…wife said to him, "Are you still holding on to your integrity? Curse God and die!" He replied, "You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" In all this, Job did not sin in what he said. You will recall that the Book of Job teaches us that God and Satan both compete for a man’s soul—our Lord to save it by building faith in God, Satan to destroy it by tearing down faith in God. In these verses, we see God and Satan using the same event for different purposes. Satan thinks that by getting permission to make Job sick, he can tempt Job to conclude that God doesn’t care about him—but God uses the same event to test Job’s confidence in our Lord’s commitment to his future, and Job comes out of this time of trial with a stronger faith.

In the same way, God uses Satan to keep Paul humble. Satan thinks that the ‘thorn’ that he afflicts Paul with will cause Paul to give up on God as uncaring, but God, in His infinite wisdom, knows how much Paul can take and just what is needed to keep Paul from becoming useless to the Church due to conceit. Thus Satan willingly, if ignorantly, serves God’s will in this matter.

No one knows what the ‘thorn in the flesh’ was. All we do know is this: a thorn, stuck in the skin where it cannot be removed, is not crippling but it is aggravating and distracting. Whatever Satan afflicted Paul with, it was something that was a constant source of frustration, and by the time that Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians he had suffered with it for 14 years! It was troubling enough that Paul pleaded with the Lord three times for relief—and given that Paul was never a whiner, the suffering must have been considerable.

The heart of today’s Epistle lesson is the reply that Paul received from God: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." This is deep. Through Paul, God is telling us that it is to our advantage to be weak, because that is when God’s power is most evident in our lives. And Paul serves as the perfect example of how this works:

Paul’s weakness is a tendency to pride, but we all have this tendency as well. When we finish a project, we all want to brag about what a good job we did (at least a little). But when we brag, who gets the credit for a job well done? God, or us? Even though we think that we did the work, who provided the metal from the earth, the wood from the tree, the plastic from the petroleum deep underground? Who gave us the intelligence to do the work, and the dexterity and the strength to carry it out? Who truly deserves the credit for what we accomplish—us, or God?

When we are strong, we like to take credit for the good ideas that we come up with and for the good things that we do. Our pride leaves God ignored and uncredited. But when we are weak, when our bodies are limited by diabetes, heart disease, or cerebral palsy; when our senses are dulled by cataracts, hearing loss, or carpal tunnel syndrome; when our minds are limited by senility, mental retardation or mental illness—when we are weak and seemingly powerless to accomplish anything worthwhile, that is when God’s power shows itself most fully in our lives. When we are weak, every good idea, every good work that comes out of us is clearly a miracle, clearly evidence of God’s power in our lives. When we are weak, we cannot take the credit for what God is doing through we His instruments. When we are weak, it is easy to remember that we are merely gloves on God’s powerful hand, gloves that have no ability to do anything if we are not used by our Creator in doing His work.

The ultimate expression of God’s power being made perfect in weakness is when our Savior died on the cross to pay for our crimes of sin against God. Never did Jesus look so helpless. Never did God’s plans look so close to ruin. Satan must have been jumping up and down with glee as the Son of God, sent to save us from the control of sin and death, hung dying on the cross, rejected by God as the worst sinner of all. But as usual, Satan didn’t have a clue. That moment of weakness was actually a moment of triumph. By suffering in our stead, Jesus made it possible for every believer to avoid eternal punishment with Satan in hell. By dying for us, the all-powerful Son of God tricked death into accepting in our place the only person that death could not contain, because the Son of God is too powerful to remain dead. At the moment when God’s plan of salvation appeared doomed, victory was actually at hand. When Jesus said It is finished, He did not mean that Satan had thwarted God, He meant that God had defeated Satan, because Jesus fought the Foe in our place, and where we would have failed, His perfect, radiant love triumphed over Satan’s coal-black hate.

Paul writes, Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Through faith, the apostle was able to see that every hardship in his life was an opportunity for Jesus to show His love and His power without Paul’s human pride trying to take any of the credit. Because Paul wanted Christ’s glory to be evident in his life, he came to see the ‘thorn in his flesh’ as an opportunity for great things to happen, not as an impediment. May our Lord Jesus enable you to look at the challenges in your life in the same way, focussing on the good things Christ is doing in you and through you, instead of dwelling on whatever you believe is limiting you. Jesus’ grace is sufficient for you, because His power is seen perfectly through your weakness. May you always say with St. Paul: I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Evil--as close as your face in the mirror

No one is good--except God alone (Mark 10:18).

What is evil? Some people define evil in terms of perversion—evil people get excited when witnessing pain or fear in others. Others equate evil to blatant disregard for another person’s rights—evil people don’t care about the repercussions of their actions. But the Bible defines evil in relation to God. God is the very picture of goodness; Jesus said: No one is good--except God alone. Anything that opposes God is, by definition, evil.

God’s laws look simple: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:30). These are God’s Laws of Love. To disobey them is to do evil. But have you really thought about what that means?

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Your relationship with God is to be your highest priority at all times. If God is most important to you, you would never skip church to stay in bed or go hunting. If God is most important to you, you would never let a day slip away without spending time together in conversation—listening to God by reading His Book and speaking to Him at length in prayer. If God is most important to you, you would dedicate as much time as you could to serving Him with your talents and generously support His initiatives with your money. Any time God gets less than your first and best, you are opposing His will—you are doing evil.

Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31). You are to treat the needs of others as equal to your own. You are to share unselfishly of yourself and your resources. You are to treat others as your equals, respecting their opinions and giving their ideas serious consideration. When you find yourself in competition with another person, you should be ready to compromise so that you both make out equally well. Any time you treat other people as inferior to yourself or give them short shrift, you are opposing God’s will—you are doing evil.

By God’s standards, we all commit evil acts, and we commit them constantly. Knowing this gives us a renewed appreciation for the forgiveness that God offers to us through His Son Jesus. We truly need the Lord’s mercy every day.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Confronting sin

If someone is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path (Galatians 6:1).

When you are in conflict with another person, when do you give in and let them have their way? When do you compromise? When do you stick to your guns no matter what?

The question that you need to ask yourself is this—"why is it important that I win this fight?" It’s tough to ask this question; it’s even tougher to answer it truthfully. But I believe there are only two fundamentally different answers to this question.

When you ask yourself "why is it important that I win this fight", one type of answer involves the word "I". "If I don’t win this, I will be hurt, I will be taken advantage of, I will lose something precious to me, I will be left vulnerable." If your reason to win is focused on your own welfare, I would like to direct your attention to Jesus. The Lord said, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39). Jesus showed us His commitment to this principle at Calvary; when He was unjustly crucified, He did not retaliate—He simply prayed, Father, forgive them (Luke 23:34). If your desire to win a fight is based on your own needs, you ought to step back and reconsider your priorities.

When you ask yourself "why is it important that I win this fight", another type of answer has to do with the welfare of the other person. "If I can’t change his mind, he’ll hurt himself or someone else." If your reason to win is focused on the welfare of the other person, you are much more likely to be on the right path. Your primary concern should be the same as that held by Jesus—turning souls away from everlasting condemnation. Jesus was so concerned about this that He went to the cross to die, making it possible for us to be forgiven. We are called to bring that Good News to those who are struggling with evil thoughts, words and behaviors. Of course, no one likes being told that their priorities are wrong, that the words they speak are hurtful, that their choices are causing injury and leading to hell. So we can expect to have a fight on our hands, trying to persuade those we care about to abandon the sin that results in God’s fearsome judgment. But this is a battle worth fighting, because a person’s soul is at stake.

Generally speaking, we should consider backing off from conflict, unless that conflict comes from trying to steer people away from God’s anger and towards His mercy. But even then we are cautioned to be gentle and humble as we confront, never arrogant or self-righteous. Remember: ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I.’

Saturday, July 07, 2007

God and wallet

And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints. And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will. So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. But just as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us--see that you also excel in this grace of giving.

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality (2 Corinthians 8:1-14).

Two members of a congregation were leaving worship services one Sunday morning. Once they crossed the street, one of the men began to complain bitterly: "Well, we heard it again this morning. We’re supposed to give willingly, give regularly, give generously. Give, give, give! When will all these appeals for money come to an end?"

His friend stopped, turned to him and said, "Bill, you remember my son Jim, don’t you? When Jim came into this world, he cost me quite a tidy sum. I had to pay the doctor’s bill and hospital charges; I had to buy a crib and baby clothes for him. Money was constantly spent on feeding him, getting medicine for him, and replacing his clothes as he grew. When he started school, that added costs for transportation and school supplies, not to mention school activities. In due time, the dentist told us that he would need braces—boy, that was expensive! And then he went away to college—you can just imagine what that cost! Well, as you remember, just a few weeks before he was to graduate, he became critically ill. We tried every treatment that the doctors could think of, but it pleased our good Lord to take Jim home to heaven. Bill, ever since we buried our boy, he hasn’t cost us a single additional cent—no, not one cent!"

When we think about giving to the Church, all too often we think of it as a duty, a chore. When we give with this kind of attitude, we forget that Christian giving is always motivated by love. The father in my illustration did not spend money on his son because it was a duty or a chore—he spent his money on his son because he loved his boy. It was a tragedy for this man to reach a point in his life when he no longer had a son to lavish his love upon. For that father, giving money was just a component of giving love.

In today’s Epistle reading, Paul speaks about the giving that was going on in the churches in the area of Greece called Macedonia. Paul speaks about their giving, because it serves as a model of what Christian giving can look like. But right from the start, Paul is careful to make one thing very clear—credit for this kind of Christian giving belongs to God alone. Paul wrote, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. What Paul is about to describe is something remarkable and wonderful, but the Christians of those churches do not deserve the credit for this—it only came about through a miracle of God working in human hearts.

Paul tells us that the churches in Macedonia were experiencing tough times. He describes them as being in extreme poverty, and to make matters worse, they were undergoing a severe trial—they were being persecuted by officers of the government. Imagine belonging to a congregation that has no money saved up, no assets to borrow against, and to top that off, the government is harassing you as well. One would expect despair and bitterness in such a place.

But Paul tells us that, miraculously, these churches were filled with overflowing joy. They were so filled with joy that they were begging the apostle to accept their donations for the work of caring for Christians in far-away lands, even though they could hardly afford to give Paul anything. He says that they gave even beyond their ability. This was done entirely on their own—no one had asked them to give like this, because the level of their poverty was well known. But their joy was so great that it naturally overflowed to others.

How could these poverty-stricken, persecuted Christians know such joy? Only through a miracle of God. Paul describes that miracle this way: For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. Paul is speaking of Jesus willingly leaving the glories of heaven to live among us as a man. In heaven, Jesus had the love and respect of everyone around Him. In heaven, anything that Jesus wanted was instantly accessible to Him. Here on earth, things were very different. Here, Jesus was despised and rejected by many. Here, Jesus voluntarily gave up having every comfort instantly available.

Jesus did all this out of love for us. Although we do not speak in terms of money, it cost Jesus to subject Himself to scorn and ridicule. It cost Jesus to accept a verdict of "guilty" for crimes He was innocent of, in a corrupt human court of law. It cost Jesus to accept beatings, being nailed onto a rough wooden cross, and being left out in the sun to slowly die. It cost Jesus greatly to suffer His heavenly Father’s rejection as He hung dying on that cross, as we know from His anguished cry, "My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

The cost to Jesus was the price of paying for our transgressions. Every time that we knock God down to second or third priority in our lives, we anger Him. Every time we make decisions that favor our comfort over the needs of others, we anger Him. Every day of our lives is filled with missed opportunities to speak about Jesus with an unbeliever; every day of our lives is filled with decisions to break the Ten Commandments when they prove to be inconvenient for us.

We deserved God’s anger, not Jesus. But Jesus loved us so much that He wanted to spare us from the hell that we had earned by our sinful selfishness. So Jesus accepted the sentence of "guilty" in our place, even though He was innocent. Jesus paid the hellish cost for our angering God on the cross, and when He said it is finished, those sweet words have given assurance to every Christian that we are forever freed of God’s anger, because Jesus has completely settled the debt for us (John 19:30). For us, salvation comes cheaply: ask Jesus for mercy and trust that He forgives you, and heaven is yours. Jesus paid for our sins so that heaven could be ours for free.

What a wonderful gift! No fear of God’s anger, no fear of eternity agonizing in hell. No wonder the Macedonian Christians were filled with overflowing joy! In spite of poverty, in spite of persecution, they had the certain knowledge that when the temporary aggravations of life were over, they were welcome in heaven. Moreover, they had the assurance of God’s love and assistance here in life as well—they knew that no matter what kinds of problems each day brought, Jesus was right there beside them, ready to help.

This filled the Macedonian Christians with joy, a joy that needed a way to express itself. Just as a father shows love for his son by feeding him, clothing him and educating him, so did the Macedonian Christians want to show their love for God by loving His other children of faith through feeding them, clothing them and educating them. So, in spite of their poverty, they gathered every coin they could find and sent them to Paul for use in the work of the Church. They gave out of joy and love.

When a person gives so much to God that it "hurts the wallet", that is an act of worship to God. When we give to God, our attitude is often like this: "I need to look out for my future, so I’ll only give God what I can spare". Such an attitude puts our trust in the future into our checkbook. But when the Macedonians gave more than they could afford, their attitude was this: "God is in charge of my future, so I don’t need this money for insurance against tomorrow’s problems—God will take care of me". This kind of giving shows reliant trust in God and love for others—an act of worship pleasing to our God.

In Malachi chapter 3, God chides the Jews for not trusting in Him enough to give generously to His Church: "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, `How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty.

Examining your giving to God is a way to assess your faith. Paul told the Corinthians, just as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us--see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. Look at your budget. What percentage goes to food and clothing and medicine? How big is your house payment—and is your house bigger than you really need? What percentage is spent on car payments and business equipment—and is your car an economy car or a luxury vehicle? What percentage of your budget is spent on luxury items like cigarettes, alcohol, eating out, or gambling? What costs do you have in maintaining a cabin or a boat? How much do you spend on adding to a collection of antiques? Then, compare all that to your giving to the work of God through one of the many organizations that represent His Church.

I ask you this, not to make you feel guilty, but to make you reassess your priorities. How important to you is Jesus’ sacrifice for your sins? How much joy fills your heart at the knowledge that God loves you, God forgives you, God lends you His aid every day, and that you will have eternity with Jesus and all the Christians who have gone into death before you? What does your giving say about the priorities in your heart?

Years ago, Henry Thornton, always a generous supporter of his church, once sent a check for $100 to the church treasurer. Soon after, he was notified by telegram that he had lost $10,000. Feeling the sting of his loss, he asked for the return of his check—and made out a replacement in the amount of $1,000. He said, "God has just informed me that I may not possess my property much longer and that I must use it well." It is not so much what we give to the Lord, but what we keep from Him, that makes us poor.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

I'm right, you're wrong

All that I know now is partial and incomplete (1 Corinthians 13:12).

For a country that claims to want peace, we sure do a lot of fighting. Republicans versus Democrats. Liberals versus conservatives. Management versus labor. Wives versus husbands. Whites versus Blacks versus Latinos. Muslims versus Christians versus atheists. The list could go on and on.

Why do people squabble so much? It’s because each of us wants to get our own way. In fact, America has increasingly become a place where it’s ‘my way or the highway.’ There was a time when political parties could find common ground through compromise; there was a time when husbands and wives worked through their problems instead of filing for divorce. America has long been billed as the great melting pot, where our differences combine to make us stronger; however, we have degenerated into a nation of individuals who are only concerned about themselves.

How do you end conflict? In his song ‘Imagine’, John Lennon suggested doing away with everything that divides people into competing groups—national identity, private ownership of property, even religion. The truth that Lennon did not see was that we are all inherently self-righteous—each of us believes that when we disagree with someone else, they are wrong and we are right. How can you end conflict when everyone is *right*?

Admitting that you are wrong is not an easy thing, but it is essential for building relationships between people. We need to accept the possibility that at any given time, we are not as completely right as we think we are. The Bible warns us that our minds are fogged by sin, making it impossible for us to see the truth of things clearly.

Truth can only be found in God, and He reveals it to us through His Bible. Yet even as brightly as the truth shines from its pages, the sin that clouds our thinking makes God’s clear revelation look fuzzy and indistinct, like headlights on a foggy road at night. This is why the Bible is repetitive; the Lord gives the same teachings over and over, trying to show us the truth from different angles so that we can see where we have failed to understand Him correctly. When it comes to deciding who is right and who is wrong, the only way we can be confident of finding the truth is by consulting God’s infallible word.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

No pain, no gain

God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:10-11).

Some years ago, the royal family of Greece got to know a special young man. This boy was the eldest son of the American ambassador, and while the lad was mentally brilliant, his body was afflicted with a disorder that crippled his motor functions. Queen Fredericka grew fond of the boy and often invited him to the royal palace to play with her children. One day, young prince Constantine said to his American friend, "My sister and I have been talking about you, and we have decided that you must be the favorite pupil of Jesus." "What do you mean?" the crippled boy asked. The prince replied, "Well, you know how it is. In school the best pupil is always given the hardest problem to solve. God gave you the hardest problem of all, so you must be His favorite pupil."

Health problems are very discouraging, whether they are afflicting you or someone that you love. Suffering causes us to reflect on our relationship with God and ask some hard questions. Some become angry with God, feeling that He is treating them unfairly. Some question God’s love for them, wondering how He could allow them to suffer so. And some wonder what they have done wrong, that God is punishing them in this way.

As we search the Scriptures, however, we find another explanation for why God sometimes allows our health to fail. Sometimes God permits suffering to improve our character as His children. In Romans chapter five Paul writes: We can also rejoice when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us--they help us learn to endure. And endurance develops strength of character in us, and character strengthens our confident expectation of salvation. And this expectation will not disappoint us. Hebrews tells us, God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Going through hard times does not necessarily mean that God is angry with you or doesn’t care about you; consider the possibility that you can be a better Christian than you are right now, and God is challenging you to grow into that person. Every athlete in training knows: no pain, no gain.

Blog Top Sites
Blog Directory & Search engine
Blog Directory