Saturday, September 29, 2007

Being holy

Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy (Leviticus 11:45).

In a recent survey, 21% of Americans said that they regarded themselves as ‘holy.’ This survey also revealed that 73% of Americans believe that a person can become holy regardless of his or her past, while half of those surveyed said they knew someone whom they regarded as holy. The study went on to ask those polled to define what ‘holy’ is. The majority admitted they didn’t have a working definition; some suggested that holiness is "being Christ-like" or "making faith your top priority."

What is holiness? The Bible tells us that God is holy, and that God expects His followers to be holy as well. Several times in Scripture, the words "holy" and "blameless" are used in combination; this shows us that to be holy is to be completely innocent of wrongdoing. Holiness is a state of unimpeachable perfection. To be holy is to be without sin.

Are you holy, as God defines holiness? Is your life completely pure, untainted by sin? Scripture says, all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious standard (Romans 3:23). Look back over your life all the way to childhood; can you in all honesty claim that you have never spoken an angry word you later regretted? Have you never even once insisted on getting your own way at the expense of someone else? No, the Bible has the right of it—we are all sinners, habitual offenders against God’s demand for holy living. And yet consider the words of St. Paul; in 1st Timothy 1:15 he says that he is the worst of sinners, yet in 1st Thessalonians 2:10 he writes: You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were, among you who believed. How can Paul admit to being a terrible sinner and yet at the same time speak of himself as holy and blameless?

Holiness only comes through Jesus. Hebrews 7:25-26 says He is able, once and forever, to save everyone who comes to God through Him. He lives forever to plead with God on their behalf. He is the kind of high priest we need because He is holy and blameless, unstained by sin. Jesus, who is holy and blameless, shares these attributes with us, as we read in Ephesians chapter five: Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy. Christ sacrificed His life on the cross for us, and the result is that Paul can say May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes (1 Thessalonians 3:13). It is only by the gift of Jesus that we can appear holy in God’s sight.

Friday, September 28, 2007


They left that place and passed through Galilee. Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." But they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms, he said to them, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me" (Mark 9:30-37).

In today’s Gospel lesson, our Lord began to speak candidly to the disciples about His approaching betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. As was often the case, the disciples didn’t really understand what He was talking about, but on this occasion things were slightly different: they were afraid to ask him about it. This was unusual. Typically, when the disciples didn’t understand something that Jesus said, they would ask Him to explain His teachings to them. But on this occasion they did not—they were afraid to ask.

The reason that the disciples were afraid of asking Jesus for clarification is that they didn’t really want to know. Up until recently, everything had been going great. Jesus had gone from being an obscure teacher to being a prophet that people were eager to listen to. As Jesus traveled, more and more people attached themselves to the group that followed Him. The disciples had begun to hope that when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the coming Passover festival, He would declare Himself the King of the Jews and organize a rebellion against the occupying Roman militia. Each day was better than the last, and the future looked rosy indeed.

But now, things take a dark turn. As they near Jerusalem, Jesus begins to speak of betrayal and murder and mystical things like bodily resurrection from the dead. These teachings are strange and frightening, not at all in keeping with the plans His disciples had for the future. No one likes to hear a loved one talking about the approach of death; no one wants to think that someone you’ve been close to for years would turn traitor to the group. Jesus is suddenly saying frightening, unthinkable things.

And how do the disciples react? Out of fear, they hide their lack of understanding. They don’t want to hear any more of this strange talk. They want things to continue according to their hopes and dreams for the future, and betrayal and death just don’t fit comfortably into that plan. When Jesus speaks about suffering, the disciples don’t want to hear it.

We can certainly relate to the disciples’ reaction. We don’t like to hear about suffering either. Many Christians have somehow gotten the idea that being a follower of Jesus automatically fixes all of life’s problems, guarantees an easy ride until we reach heaven. When the Bible tells us about suffering we don’t want to listen, we don’t want the details. We hope that if we ignore talk of suffering that it will somehow go away and never touch us. But Jesus doesn’t let us hide from reality. He told the disciples what was to come, and our Lord uses Holy Scripture to tell us what to expect as well.

The life of a disciple of Jesus is not promised to be an easy one. In Luke chapter twelve Jesus says: do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. Think of the families that you know. Many of those families contain a mixture of Christians and unbelievers. How well do these families get along together? Do you see the unbelievers resenting their Christian relatives for talking about religion and trying to get them to go to church? Do you see Christians being tempted or intimidated by their unbelieving relatives into skipping church for family activities, or being quiet about their faith in order to avoid emotional confrontations? These are the kinds of divisions that come about when some people have a relationship with Christ and other people don’t. Such divisions can bring suffering into the life of the Christian, as he or she worries about the souls of unbelieving loved ones.

Being a disciple of Jesus is difficult because unbelievers don’t understand Christianity and oppose God trying to steer their lives. Paul wrote, The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14). He also writes, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so (Romans 8:7). Because we Christians care about every human soul, we cannot help but try to bring Christ into the lives of every unbeliever, but many times such offers are unwelcome. Staunch unbelievers not only reject Christ, they reject us as well, and sometimes that rejection is more than a harsh "keep your religion to yourself." Sometimes rejection of Christ takes the form of active persecution, such as vandalizing churches, getting prayer and Bibles removed from schools, and even in some parts of the world the imprisonment and killing of Christians. The offer of the love of Christ can and does provoke attacks of retaliation from those whom Satan holds firmly in his hands.

Christians suffer in other ways as well. Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23). Denying ourselves is something that most Americans are not very good at. How many of you who are reading this spend way too much money on food, alcohol, cigarettes, clothing, or cars? How many of you have denied your own desires for pleasure so that you could give 10% of your yearly income to the work of the Church? How many of you have denied your desire to fit in with your friends when they engage in unchristian behavior? How many of you have denied yourselves by telling the truth when a lie would have been so much easier? None of us denies himself as he should, because denying yourself is to suffer.

A Christian finds himself suffering because we must wrestle with God’s teachings, and some of those teachings we just don’t want to hear. In John chapter 6 we are told: On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?"… From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. Some people find Jesus’ teachings too difficult to accept and they stop following Him. Some people cannot accept that God is Triune—one God in Three Persons; such people find it easier to believe in a single god (like Allah). Some people cannot accept that Jesus has made full atonement for our sins; they feel that salvation is something that they must earn through their own efforts, and so they turn to religions that emphasize the importance of holy living. Some people cannot accept Paul’s warning, all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness (2 Timothy 2:12); because they cannot accept a religion that warns of eternal punishment for unbelief, they turn to teachings that avoid the subject of hell, like reincarnation. As Christians, we are sometimes uncomfortable hearing heavenly truths that we cannot fully understand or that frighten us.

But Jesus speaks candidly about suffering because it is through suffering that great blessings are found. Jesus suffered unimaginably for us—He left behind the perfection of heaven, a place where there is no need, a place where the angels and the saints universally adored Him as the Son of God, and came to live among us here in a world of sin, suffering and tragedy, a world where some hated Him and many couldn’t care less about Him one way or the other. His suffering increased as He was baptized to be our substitute, the one who God the Father would hold accountable for our sins. His suffering reached an unimaginable crescendo when He was declared guilty by Pilate and was nailed to a cross to die. During the awful hours of Good Friday, Jesus experienced something only those sent to hell experience—the total absence of God’s love, which moved Him to cry out: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34). And then Jesus suffered death itself, the inevitable consequence of sin.

But as terrible as this all was, it was a necessary suffering—necessary because Jesus loves us and was willing to endure anything to spare us from the eternal punishment that we each deserve for resisting God’s leadership in our lives. Because the Father’s anger was directed at Jesus, it is no longer directed at us. And when Jesus rose from the dead on the third day we were given proof: proof that the Father accepted Jesus’ atoning work for us as complete, proof that Jesus can make good on His promise to bring us safely through death to eternal life, proof that we can enter heaven freely because the Lord who forgives our every mistake in life will be there to take us by the hand to lead us into the glorious presence of His Father. Jesus’ suffering has resulted in the Father declaring Him the eternal King of all, and has given us the offer of salvation from the consequences of our sin-filled lives.

Jesus suffered, and the result was the greatest of blessings for fallen humanity. When we suffer for Jesus, we also receive gracious gifts from God. In Romans chapter five Paul tells us, we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Going through hard times builds our faith when we put our hope in Christ.

Another blessing that Christians receive from God is the leadership of the Holy Spirit as He takes up residence in our hearts. Life is complex and confusing, as we try to handle the pressures of relationships and career in a constantly changing world. How do we determine the right course of action when faced with a decision? How do we repair relationships that we have damaged through our own stupidity? We turn to God. He has given us the Ten Commandments as a moral handbook for making decisions that are pleasing to God, supportive of those we love, and healthy for our own well-being. He has promised to answer our prayers, and in the example of the Lord’s Prayer He has shown us that forgiveness is the only way that damaged relationships can be restored. Only Christians have Jesus’ promise, come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).

Another blessing that only Christians receive is the assurance that when we commit ourselves to God’s care, we need never worry. Jesus said, do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:31-34).

Of course, the greatest blessing that comes to the person who is willing to suffer the challenges of Christianity is reconciliation to the God who hates sins but who welcomes those who are holding hands with Jesus. When Jesus extends His hand to us, we have the chance to be free of every bit of guilt for every mistake in our lives; we are offered the freedom of a new start. And when Jesus takes us by the hand we need not fear death, because He will lead us through that brief darkness into eternal light.

Jesus warned His followers that there would be a cost of suffering involved in following Him, and they should consider carefully if they felt the benefits outweighed the problems before they committed themselves to Him. But I have to agree with St. Paul when he wrote, I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18). It is our nature to shrink away from talk of suffering, but it is through Christ’s suffering and our own much smaller challenges that we receive God’s wonderful blessings.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Help to do the impossible

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

It was an unusual sight. There on a street in Vienna stood an old man playing a violin. His youth and health had been given to his country through long years of military service; now, in order to earn a meager living for himself, the veteran was reduced to making music for pedestrians in exchange for coins tossed into an upturned cap lying at his feet.

The day came when the old soldier’s hands trembled so severely that he could no longer play his instrument. A passer-by stopped and said, "Friend, you are too old and too feeble—give me your violin." Reluctantly, the request was granted. Then the stranger placed the violin under his chin and began to play—play so beautifully that soon a crowd gathered around the two men. Coins poured into the soldier’s tattered hat. The new violinist emptied the money into the old man’s pocket and resumed playing, more sweetly than before. Again the hat was filled with money, which was turned over to the veteran. The stranger finally handed the musical instrument back to its owner and continued on his way.

"Who was that? Who is he?" the bystanders asked. Someone exclaimed, "Why, that is Bucher, the great violinist." And so it was. The master violinist had taken the man’s place; he had stood with the old soldier in his poverty, shared his public disgrace, played his music for the old man’s benefit and earned his living for him. Bucher made a sacrifice for that aged veteran, a sacrifice motivated by nothing but love.

This is what Jesus has done for us. He looked down from heaven and saw how we humans struggle with lives of poverty and disgrace. Sin makes us morally bankrupt; every day we disgrace ourselves by allowing unkind words slip from our mouths and by letting impure motives dictate our actions. Such a life offers no joy for today or hope for the future. So Jesus came down to our world to stand with us in our poverty and disgrace. He did the work that we were too feeble to do—He lived a life that was perfect in every respect, a life that has drawn and continues to draw countless people to listen to His words with joy and amazement. Then, on the cross, He suffered the torments of hell in our place and died, only to rise again on the third day; through His death and resurrection, Jesus brightens our tomorrows with the hope of everlasting life and joy. And He made this sacrifice for one reason only—His great love for you and me.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The power of words

The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12).

What kind of power do words have? A parent or spouse can tell you that you’re worthless, and you may end up believing it. You might hear that a neighbor has been accused of molesting children; even though it comes out later that the poor man has been falsely accused, you’ll probably still look at him differently from now on.

Words are powerful. The words of one man living overseas resulted in airliners being hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The words "I have a dream" gave the civil rights movement a rallying cry that eventually redefined how we Americans live together.

Words can stir people to greatness. Words can provide the strength needed to hang on when things look bleak. The words "I do" can unite two lives as one. But words can also destroy; words can tear apart relationships, cause humiliation, and bring about armed conflict. There is nothing in this world so powerful as words.

This is also the teaching of the Bible. God created the world just by speaking the words, "let there be…" (Genesis chapter one). The words of God are so powerful that, out of nothing, they can bring forth light and life. God creates and maintains the universe by the power of His word.

But God’s word is not an impersonal force. God’s word represents Him to us in a very personal way. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14); God’s living and active Word came into our world as a baby and died on the cross to end our slavery to sin. The Word that died, and then rose from the grave alive again, is none other than Jesus the Son of God. God has opened the way to heaven for you by the power of His word.

God’s powerful word is present among us today. God’s word is in homes and hospitals and hotel rooms and bookstores. His word is preserved between the covers of the Bible. And although it only looks like ink on paper, the word of God is living and active. Every time these words are read, the Spirit of God works through them to chip away at unbelief and show how wonderful life can be when you walk with Jesus. God can turn your life around by the power of His word.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Deaf and speechless no more!

Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis. There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged him to place his hand on the man. After he took him aside, away from the crowd, Jesus put his fingers into the man's ears. Then he spit and touched the man's tongue. He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, "Ephphatha!" (which means, "Be opened!"). At this, the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly. Jesus commanded them not to tell anyone. But the more he did so, the more they kept talking about it. People were overwhelmed with amazement. "He has done everything well," they said. "He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak" (Mark 7:31-37).

Imagine yourself living long ago in a rural area. There are towns scattered here and there, but none of them are very large and most people live out in the country farming or raising animals. There is no electricity—no television, no telephones, no computers or Internet. There are no cars—you get where you want to go by walking, riding in a wagon or on a boat, so most people never travel more than a few miles from home their entire lives. There are no hospitals. Medicine is cooked from local plants over a fire. There are very few books, because the only way books can be made is by writing out each copy by hand—a tedious, time-consuming job. Since books are rare and expensive, most of the people who learn to read are those who work for the government, the church, or who run a large business in foreign trade. People learn by listening to a teacher and memorizing what he says.

Such a world was a tough place to live for a person who could not hear or speak. Most people never learned to read or write, so the deaf person could not communicate with others by exchange of written notes. There were no electronic aids to boost hearing and sign language had not been invented. A person dared not travel, because as hard as it was to communicate with people who knew you, it would be impossible to interact meaningfully with a stranger.

Think of living life in this way. You cannot hear the sound of birds singing, of water tapping on the roof or gurgling in a stream. You cannot hear the laughter of a child or words of love from your spouse. If you are sick, you have no way of explaining what feels wrong. Since education comes through listening, you cannot keep up on the news nor can you learn anything new except what you can pick up by watching others at your place of employment. You cannot work in any business that requires verbal communication between employees.

Such was the life of the deaf and mute man in today’s Gospel lesson. We are told that some people brought this man to Jesus—evidently he could not read or write, because he needed others to present his needs to the Lord. Likely he had no idea who Jesus was, what Jesus taught, or why he was being introduced to this stranger. He was probably filled with a mixture of excitement and fear—excitement over being the center of attention, fear of being among so many who he could not communicate with.

Our Lord shows His compassion immediately. Jesus pulls this agitated man away from the crowd to calm him and focus his attention on Jesus alone. Then our Lord communicates to the man what is about to happen. First He places his fingers within the man’s ears, as if to remove an obstruction. Then Jesus wets the man’s tongue with spit, as if to lubricate it. Finally our Lord looks up towards heaven, to indicate that it is God who will provide the miracle. Jesus has communicated reassurance and promise to this deaf, unspeaking man.

Then, the miracle. Jesus says one word: "Ephphatha!" (which means, "Be opened!"). And just as God said, "Let there be light," and there was light (Genesis 1:3), just as Jesus told the storm "Quiet! Be still!" and the wind died down and it was completely calm (Mark 4:39), by the power of His spoken word, our Lord worked a miracle: the man's ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly.

Can you imagine the joy that this man felt, suddenly being able to hear and to speak clearly? Can you imagine the excitement of the crowd, seeing this remarkable act of restoration? Scripture tells us that the people were overwhelmed with amazement—even those who had brought this man to Jesus were amazed at the quickness and completeness of the relief from his disabilities. It is only natural that those present should be moved to say, He has done everything well.

But the most wonderful part of this miracle is its’ spiritual aspect. Why did Jesus give this man hearing and speech? Out of loving compassion, of course—but of even greater importance is this: until Jesus opened his ears, this man could not hear about his need for salvation. He could not be told that he had been a sinner from birth. He could not be told that sin prevented him from being healthy, either physically or spiritually. Without his sense of hearing, this man could not be taught that his deafness and garbled speech were evidence of the imperfection of sin that infests every human being, imperfection that alienates us from our perfect God and our fellow man.

Even more tragically, without being able to hear this man had been unable to hear about Jesus. He knew nothing about God’s great love for imperfect people, a love that sent His holy, eternal Son to take on a dirty, painful human life so that our Lord could come to us and touch us with warm, gentle hands. This man was ignorant of the sacrifice that Jesus made by leaving heaven so that He could walk among us, forgive us, heal us and teach us. He had no way of hearing Jesus say that He was soon going to enter the great city of Jerusalem, where He would be betrayed into the hands of sinners, executed as a criminal, and on the third day return from death to unending life. Jesus was doing all this for that deaf man, and for every human being ever given life by the heavenly Father, because by doing this Jesus would satisfy His Father’s anger at our imperfections and be empowered to offer us forgiveness. It was vital that everyone know this important message—including this deaf man. And so Jesus gave him the greatest gift he could ever receive—our Lord enabled him to hear the promises of God that forgive sin and offer unending perfect life with God in heaven.

But Jesus did not stop there. Our Lord also gave this man the ability to speak clearly. And this is nearly as important a miracle as was the gift of hearing. Paul tells us in Romans chapter ten, if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Over and over again, Scripture tells us how important it is for each of us to speak about Jesus and His promises to everyone; it is through us that God reaches out to those who are lost in the despair of their imperfections. Paul wrote, We are…Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20). Jesus said, 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). Since God has chosen us to be the means through which people are brought into contact with Jesus, we dare not keep our mouths closed about Him; this is why Jesus gave the mute man the ability to speak. Jesus empowered him to speak so that he could tell everyone about the wonderful God who had given him a whole new life, a life that was now worth living.

In a sense, you and I have been deaf and mute as well. You’ve done it: Mom or Dad wanted to sit you down and talk about something important, but your mind went a million miles away and you didn’t hear a thing that they were saying. You started listening to a sermon, but soon your thoughts drifted to the ballgame or the meal or the chores to be done, and after church you realized that you didn’t know what the sermon was about. When we are asked to listen to important things, we very often become deaf.

It’s the same with talking. I’ll bet that you know people who have an amazing number of sports statistics memorized, but can’t remember any Bible verses from confirmation. How much of your daily conversation is devoted to sports, gossip or jokes, and how much of what you say is about Jesus? Most of the time, we would rather chit-chat about trivial things than about the things that are truly important in every person’s life.

Jesus wants to correct these problems. Jesus wants to take us aside where we can focus on Him without distractions, whether in church or in Bible study or in devotional time, so that He can speak His words to us and by their power open our ears and loosen our tongues. Just as Jesus had the power to make a deaf man able to hear, so does our Savior have the power to get our attention and teach us about the important things, things that we need to know to be assured of God’s eternal companionship and support. Just as Jesus had the power to make a mute man able to speak, so does our Savior have the power to give us the courage and wisdom to speak about Him to people who are confused and depressed because of their imperfect lives and desperately need someone to bring them a ray of hope.

Jesus is a miracle worker who does everything well. But the hardest miracle was not healing a man so that he could hear and speak; no, the hardest miracle was enduring God’s righteous anger at our sins so that we could be forgiven. Compared to that great feat of love, everything else is easy for our Lord—even getting each of us to listen to Him and to spread the Good News of His promises.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

God's all-embracing, transforming love

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed (Romans 12:2).

You might be a rebel; maybe you can’t stand it when other people try to tell you what to do or how to live your life. In spite of that, Jesus loves you and invites you to become part of His family, the brotherhood of all believers. But Jesus also expects something of you—He expects you to love Him with your whole heart, love Him more than yourself and your own agenda. Jesus wants you to follow Him, leaving behind your old ways and embracing God’s perfect design for life. He wants you to see that by showing respect to others, you are demonstrating that you love them and value their influence in your life.

Or, you might be prejudiced; maybe you can’t bring yourself to speak politely with a person of a different color, religion, or lifestyle. In spite of that, Jesus loves you and invites you to join His family. But the Lord expects you to set aside any hatred you may feel for others and treat them lovingly, just as Jesus reaches out to you in love.

Perhaps you are gay; you may feel attraction for people who share your gender or even be in a homosexual relationship. In spite of that, Jesus loves you and calls you to join the community that follows Him. However, Jesus wants you to acknowledge His design for human sexuality and turn your back on same-sex romantic relationships.

It could be that you are an habitual offender; you might have had several run-ins with the law and are unfraid to do what it takes to get what you want. Jesus loves you anyway, and opens His arms to welcome you. The Lord is willing to forgive you for your past, but He does call on you to turn your back on crime and seek to make an honest living from this day forward.

Or maybe you are addicted—to gambling, to alcohol, to drugs, to blowing money foolishly as soon as you get your hands on some. Regardless, Jesus loves you and invites you to come to Him for rest. Nevertheless, the Son of God looks for a change in your behavior, that instead of constantly pleasuring your body, you start to think about how you can use your resources to serve God and the community of Christians instead.

Jesus loves everyone just as they are, warts and all. But our Lord does not embrace your sins—He died to forgive them so that you can live a life that is free of their destructive influence. Jesus loves you too much to let you remain as you are, soiled by sin.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Home decoration

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

What kinds of pictures are hanging on your walls? What sorts of things are arranged for decoration on your shelves? What types of reading material lie on your coffee table? Your living space speaks volumes about who you are. A love of farm life might be revealed by a collection of ceramic chickens or toy tractors. A home filled with pictures of lighthouses and model sailing ships shows a fascination for the ocean. Heaps of books scattered on every available surface indicate a love for reading. The wall of my grandmother’s living room was covered with pictures of relatives, demonstrating her love of family.

What does your living space reveal about the things that are important to you? As you mull this over, I’d like you to reflect on this: where is Jesus in your home? A cross can remind you of the terrible sacrifice Jesus made to win you for His own; do you have a cross on display where you can easily see it? A picture of Jesus carrying a little lamb can remind you how our Good Shepherd guards us, cares for us, and leads us through a scary and confusing world. Do you have a picture on the wall that reminds you of Jesus’ loving care for you? The Bible is our Lord’s personal message to you, a collection of letters and poems that tell you how precious you are to Him; it is also an expression of His wisdom, given to help you see clearly when life is confusing. Is your Bible someplace that is within easy reach?

Having visible evidence of Jesus in your home is a part of your Christian witness. To let someone into your private space is a bit like letting them into your heart; that’s why people are generally reluctant to let strangers through the door. To be invited into a person’s home is a privilege, because you are being allowed a look at who they really are inside. This is why displaying your faith visibly in your home is so important; it not only reminds you of who you are—a forgiven child of God—but it also reveals this important truth to your guests. I’m sure there have been times when you showed off something you were proud of—a shelf of antique toys, a collection of sports memorabilia, a piece of fine art. But have you ever pointed proudly to a decorative cross and said, "This cross is so beautiful! It reminds me every day that Jesus loves me and is willing to forgive me!" Have you ever offered your Bible to a guest and told them, "You’ve just got to read this book! It’s the best book I’ve ever read! It’s changed my life entirely!"

What does your living space say about you? Where is Jesus in your home?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Meaning and purpose in life

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:4-10).

People have always struggled to find purpose for their lives. Ancient Greek philosophers debated about the purpose for mankind’s existence. The 1960s was a time when many people said that they needed to ‘find themselves.’ All over the world, people wrestle with the questions "why am I here?" and "What am I supposed to do with my life?"

Some people never come up with answers for these questions. They drift through life, sampling one religion after another, championing one cause after another, entering and leaving one relationship after another as they endlessly seek something that will fill them with purpose, make them feel alive and part of something important. Their lives are characterized by worry that they aren’t living up to their full potential, that time is slipping away from them.

Other people decide to give their lives meaning through some sort of great achievement. The pharaohs of Egypt built pyramids to keep their fame alive forever. Donald Trump named an office building after himself. Many millionaires set up scholarships or endowments that bear their names. By doing these things, they hope to give their lives meaning by permanently putting their mark on the world.

Many people choose not to face the question of why they were given life. Some are too lazy to seek the answer; others fear what might be expected of them. These kind of people avoid finding any meaning in life by frittering their time away with distractions. They might get drunk or get high so that their minds are too foggy to see the emptiness of their lives; others find comfort in the distractions of shopping or gambling. Some just zone out in front of the television or lose hours surfing the Internet.

And in the end, what is the point? What do these people achieve for themselves by acting this way? When people drift through life from noble cause to noble cause, relationship to relationship, does this result in a sense of purpose and peace? No—it only builds an ever-increasing pile of wasted opportunities and hurt feelings that add to the person’s anxiety that he is wasting his life. Not only does this person fail to achieve anything significant because he keeps changing his course, the ever increasing worry over a wasted life will actually shorten that life; a person who is lost and searching frantically for purpose ends up living a miserable life, likely capped off by an early death. A life of worry is pointless—Jesus said, "Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" (Matthew 6:27)

When people try to make themselves immortal, does this result in giving their lives lasting purpose? No. How many of you know the names of the Pharaohs who built the pyramids? How many of you know the names of your ancestors who lived at the time when America was discovered? How many students know anything about the person whose scholarship they applied for? King Solomon summed up the problem when he wrote, I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort...So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23). The blunt fact of the matter is that when we are called to leave this world, we lose the ability to influence future generations.

When people distract themselves with alcohol or through shopping or entertainment, can they find contentment in a life that has no meaning? No. Mindless pursuit of distractions only empties the wallet, ruins the health of the idle, and blunts interest in getting involved in the lives of others. Such people will likely end life short of money, lonely, and with impaired health. Paul writes, At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures (Titus 3:3). Pursuit of pleasure results in slavery to it, and Solomon warns: He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich (Proverbs 21:17).

Meaning and purpose in our lives can come from only one source—the God who created us. Paul tells us, The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth...he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live... in him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:24-28).

God not only gave us life, He also made each of us a unique individual, distinct from each other and individually precious to Him. God told Jeremiah, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart (Jeremiah 1:5). Jesus tells us, even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matthew 10:30). God is interested in us as individuals down to the finest detail.

God’s loving interest in us moved Him to send His Son Jesus to free us from sin so that we would not spend eternity separated from God, lost and without purpose. Paul tells us in the first chapter of Ephesians, In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ...In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace. Before you or I were even conceived God knew us, knew that we could never live up to His expectations because of the sinful nature all humans are born with. So God designed a rescue plan for us; He sent His perfect Son to take responsibility for our ungodliness and suffer the punishment that we deserved from God. With our sins atoned for by Jesus, God always accepts our pleas for forgiveness and welcomes us into His loving eternal presence at the side of His dear Son. In 2nd Corinthians 5:21 Paul says of Jesus, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Jesus suffered for every one of your sins so that you need never suffer God’s terrible anger. Jesus died and rose from the dead to assure you that death is not the end but only a transition to a new, better life. Jesus did these things for you. When Zacchaeus needed Jesus to forgive him and give his empty life meaning, Jesus said Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today (Luke 19:5). Jesus addressed this man’s needs personally, individually. Jesus addresses your needs the same way. You need never wonder why you are alive—you are alive because God created you and God loves you.

Not only that, but God gave you a purpose in life as well. Paul writes, we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Our lives are not empty of purpose—from before our birth, God has had things lined up for us to do. What are we to be doing? Scripture gives us the answer. Peter writes, you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Peter 2:9). Paul says, We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20). Jesus 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, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20). The good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do, are first and foremost to bring the Good News of Jesus’ offer of salvation to every person in our lives. We are to show our excitement at God’s great mercy to us, and we are to represent Jesus and His teachings to those who are without purpose in their lives because they have no relationship with God.

The other way that we do the good works of God is by faithful use of our hands and feet in caring for the needs of others. When speaking of the Final Judgment, Jesus gave the following illustration: Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me' (Matthew 25:34-40). We serve our Lord when we grow food to feed God’s children. We serve our Lord when we help provide water and electricity. We serve our Lord when we take in a foreign exchange student. We serve our Lord when we make clothing, when we care for the sick, when we are employed in protecting the vulnerable and caring for those lost in despair. When we do these kinds of tasks, whether as a volunteer or for pay, if we do them out of loving concern for others, they are good works dedicated to Jesus our King.

God has prepared opportunities for us to do good works. He has located us among people who need our witness and our help, and He has given us skills to be successful in doing what He has assigned us to do. A Christian need never wonder how he or she should be spending time—there is more than enough work to keep each of us busy in caring for the bodies and souls of the people who surround us every day. But God does not expect us to run ourselves into the ground; it has been the pattern from the beginning that man should take one day a week to rest. One day a week, God wants us to relax and recharge—and we recharge by listening to His word, placing our problems before Him in prayer, receiving strength through the Lord’s Supper, and finding encouragement through spending time with fellow believers. In this way, we are revitalized for the good works which God prepared in advance for us to do.

There is only one way to live that fills our lives with meaning. We can only know true peace when we have a relationship of love with God and dedicate ourselves to work in His service. When we live this way, we can look forward to Jesus’ welcome as we leave this life when He tells us, Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness! (Matthew 25:21)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A perfect future

"I am making all things new!" (Revelation 21:5)

I’ve always enjoyed the various series of Star Trek. I like the characters and their relationships. I am fascinated by the alien cultures. I enjoy watching adventures that boggle my mind with new concepts and take me to wondrous places. But there has always been one aspect of Star Trek that I find hard to believe. I’m not talking about the technology—for all I know, artificial gravity, warp drive and teleporters might all be possible someday. What I have a hard time with is the earth of Star Trek’s future—a world where planet-wide peace has been achieved and poverty has been eliminated. That is truly a work of fiction.

Why do I believe this? Because of what Jesus has told us about the future. Will the earth ever know peace? Speaking of the last days before His return, the Lord said: When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things are inevitable (Mark 13:7). Jesus warns us that warfare and international saber rattling will always be a part of the human experience here on earth. And as for bringing an end to poverty, Jesus told His disciples: You will always have the poor among you (John 12:8).

There will always be international conflict, and there will always be people who are suffering in need. This isn’t pessimism, this is simply acknowledging human nature. Humans are sinful; we want to have our own way, whatever the cost. Those who can get away with it will hoard things for themselves, leaving others in need. Those who meet opposition in pursuing their goals will get angry and turn to violence, if necessary, to get their own way. Our sinful nature makes poverty and war inevitable.

We can give thanks that Jesus came into our evil world to start the process of setting things right. Jesus paid the price of human injustice by being convicted for our sins and being sentenced to death for our crimes. His sacrifice on our behalf offers forgiveness and escape from being helpless pawns to our sinful desires. Jesus helps us set aside rage and selfishness, moves us instead to acts of love and charity. And when the Lord returns to bring this present age to an end, the only ones He will allow to live on His new earth will be those He has forever cleansed from sin, children of God who love peace and love sharing God’s gifts. The perfect future earth of Star Trek is not a fantasy, but it won’t arrive until Jesus delivers it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A never-ending story

You have the assembly of God's firstborn children, whose names are written in heaven (Hebrews 12:22-23).

If you like reading fiction, perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in recent years. With increasing frequency, authors are writing series of books, instead of stand alone novels-- series that feature the same characters over and over again.

This trend is not confined to the pages of literature. Unless every character is killed off by the end of a popular movie, you can expect a series of sequels to be made in the years that follow. When a popular TV program comes to an end, there is usually an attempt to spin off one or more of the characters into a show of their own.

Some claim that this happens because creativity is hard—it is difficult to create fresh characters and innovative story lines. It is both easier and more profitable to just crank out another story about a favorite detective or secret agent or deep space explorer.

But I think there is something else at work, another reason why people prefer series over self-contained novels or one-shot movies. Remember the large audiences that tuned in for the final episodes of shows like M*A*S*H and Friends? For years, these groups of characters had come into peoples’ homes every week for a visit; when the shows ended their runs, many felt as if they were losing a long-time group of friends. That, I think, is why series are so popular; the audience becomes attached to the characters and does not want to see their story ended. The end of a series can be like having a good friend die or move to another state.

As human beings, we form attachments with other people. When we like someone, we want them to become a permanent part of our life. This is why we hate it when a friend moves away; this is why we grieve when a loved one dies. We don’t want our precious relationships to end! This is one reason why it’s so wonderful being a Christian. Our Lord Jesus loved us so much that He was willing to suffer and die for our sins, making us eligible to be God’s friends; He came back from death to offer us renewed life beyond the grave, life in a place where we will never again have to say farewell to each other. Jesus is the Author of life, and the story He writes for us is one that will never come to an end!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Conversion--how does it happen?

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him."

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. "You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:60-69).

Today’s Gospel reading starts with this statement: On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" These words are in reference to Jesus having said, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day…Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven" (John 6:53-58). Many of Jesus’ followers could not wrap their minds around the idea that in some supernatural way, God expected them to live off of Jesus’ body and blood. They also resented Jesus’ claim that apart from Him, they were dead and lifeless in God’s eyes. But the final straw came when Jesus said, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." When Jesus said this, we are told from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.

What is the big deal? Why did Jesus twice say that a person only comes to Him by the power of God, and why did this repeated assertion drive away many who were following Jesus? It has to do with human pride. We know that we are imperfect; we know that we make frequent mistakes. We know that Jesus came to earth to live the perfect life that we are incapable of living, to satisfy God’s expectations for us. We know that Jesus allowed Himself to be punished and killed to absorb God’s intended punishment for our wrongdoings. As a result of Jesus’ substitutionary life and death, we are freed from fearing God and are offered a relationship of trusting love with Him instead. We know that we had no hand in any of this—it was all Jesus’ work done for our benefit.

But our pride wants God to throw us a bone. Our pride would like to claim that, in some small way, we contributed towards our salvation. Our pride would like us to believe that while Jesus opened the door to heaven for us, it is up to us to walk through that door. Jesus may have done 95% of the work, but we would like to claim just a measly 5% of the credit for getting into God’s good graces.

One way we can feed our pride is by saying that we made the decision to believe in Jesus. Such a statement empowers us, makes us feel good, because then we are the captains of our own destiny—whether we end up in heaven or hell, at least the decision was up to us. We had the power to choose. What a blow to the ego, then, to hear Jesus tell us that it just doesn’t work that way.

We like to believe that we have something called "free will", but free will is largely an illusion. True, you can choose which clothes to put on in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, which road to take to get to work. But did you truly have free choice? Aren’t your dressing and eating choices limited by what you can buy in the store? Isn’t your route to work limited when roads are under construction? None of us has truly free will, and this is especially evident when we speak about our relationship with God.

The Bible is very clear: we are born sinful, we enter life at loggerheads with God’s attempts to lead us. In Psalm 51 David says, "Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me", and in Psalm 143 he prays, "Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you." Paul describes what a frightful situation this causes us to be in when he writes, "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 8:7-8). In Ephesians 2:3 he writes, "we were by nature objects of wrath". When in this condition, God’s teachings make no sense; in 1 Corinthians chapter 2 Paul says "The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."

How can a person come to faith in something that seems foolish to him? Only by a miracle of God. Jesus said, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (John 6:44). It is God’s power, acting through the Holy Scriptures, which stirs the beginnings of faith in our hearts; Romans 10:17 says, "faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ." God has said, "As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it" (Isaiah 55:10-11). God has promised that the preaching and teaching of His word will be backed up with His power, a power that can penetrate minds befogged by the foolishness of human teachings.

When God’s word penetrates our thick skulls, the effect is wonderful. In Ephesians chapter 2 we read, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast." Notice the words "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God". Paul is crystal clear—our faith in Jesus is a gift from God. And this is a gift that keeps on giving, because it is by means of the gift of faith that we receive forgiveness of sins and access to the loving embrace of God!

Paul uses the imagery of us being dead--you were dead in your transgressions and sins. This is a useful analogy. A dead person cannot choose to become alive—it takes an act of God. Consider Lazarus; Lazarus had been dead for four days when Jesus arrived at his tomb. Yet when Jesus said, "Lazarus, come out!" Lazarus walked out into the sunlight alive. Did Lazarus restore himself to life? Certainly not! The command of Jesus to come out gave Lazarus the ability to do so. Similarly, when we hear Jesus say "Repent and believe the good news!", this is not Jesus instructing us to make a good choice, this is Jesus giving us the ability to respond to His call. Just as Jesus summoned Lazarus physically from death to life with His words, so does Jesus summon us spiritually from death to life with His words (John 11:17, 43 & Mark 1:15).

Do we decide to believe in Jesus? No—it is God’s work within us that makes us open to the truths of the Gospel. Paul writes, "my dear friends…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:12-13). Can Paul say it any more plainly? "It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose", which includes working out your salvation with fear and trembling. And John tells us, "Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (1 John 1:12-13).

This teaching offended many of Jesus’ followers, who subsequently left Him. It wounded their pride to be told that everything, even coming to faith, was God’s doing, not their own. But I find this teaching to be reassuring. Like you, I am a sinner—and my sin keeps my faith from being as strong as it should be. We can all relate to the father who brought his son to Jesus for healing: Jesus asked the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?" "From childhood," he answered…"But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us." "`If you can'?" said Jesus. "Everything is possible for him who believes." Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!" (Mark 9:21-24). That boy’s father had a faith weakened by sin, a faith all too much like our own. Now, if my salvation depended 95% on Jesus for opening the door to heaven for me, and 5% on my ability to step through, well frankly I’d be worried. I’m not convinced that my sinful tendencies would allow me to succeed in doing even 1% of the terribly important work of finding God. I find it immensely reassuring to know that my Lord has done it all—forgiven me, renewed me, and given me faith to trust in the reality of God’s love and help. When we let go of our pride and acknowledge that only Jesus can call we who are dead back to life, we have the assurance that salvation is ours without a doubt, because God is perfect and He has seen to every detail.

I leave you today with Paul’s words to Titus, recorded in chapter 3: "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He 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, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life."

Thursday, September 06, 2007


A single day in Your courts is better than a thousand anywhere else! (Psalm 84:10)

Entertainment is big business. Think about how much money is paid to movie and TV stars. Think about the salary a professional athlete can expect to earn. Think about the gross receipts generated by just one large concert.

What does entertainment cost you? How much do you spend on purchasing music or movie tickets? What kind of expenses do you run up for having an Internet connection or pay TV? How much of your paycheck gets spent on passes to sporting events? When you add up how much you spend on such things, you can see why the entertainment industry is so profitable.

But why do people want to be entertained? After all the bills have been paid, why spend what little money is left on entertainment instead of investing it for the future? We want to be entertained because we seek distraction. Work can be exhausting. Being a spouse and parent is frequently demanding. Every day is filled with problems and frustration, with the result that we feel battered and bruised, both physically and emotionally. Entertainment offers a break from that. Entertainment allows us to rest our bodies while we watch someone else do all the work; entertainment distracts us from our cares by making us laugh, or by showing us someone else with problems who we can root for, someone we can celebrate with as they achieve successes that we can only dream about.

The problem is, entertainment doesn’t solve our problems, it only encourages us to ignore them for a while. Not only that, entertainment drains our pockets of resources that could be better spent elsewhere. Back in the early days of our country, there wasn’t much entertainment to be had—no radio or TV, no movies or professional sporting events. Nevertheless, our ancestors had something that helped them deal effectively with the stresses of life; they had the community church. They had a place where they could leave the cares of the world outside on the steps while they received the words of Jesus, words that offered forgiveness and repaired relationships, words that offered strength and hope in the face of every problem. Church doesn’t distract you from your problems—it gives you what you need to face them with confidence. Church is not entertainment—it is God’s offer to pepare you for a better tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Gems in the rough

Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Corinthians 4:17).

Do you know what a "lapidary" is? A lapidary is a professional who cuts and polishes gemstones. It’s a job that requires a trained eye and a steady hand.

Some years ago, the most magnificent diamond in the history of the world was discovered in an African mine. This gem was presented to the king of England to become a part of his royal crown. But first, that huge diamond had to submit to the hands of a lapidary. It was sent to a gem cutter in Amsterdam, who was given responsibility for taking the most valuable sparkler in the world and bringing out its full potential.

A diamond like no other, irreplaceable. The lapidary studied the gem, analyzing its makeup. Imagine the responsibility. Imagine the pressure. If a mistake were to be made, this unique thing of beauty would be marred forever. He marked a certain spot, took his tools, and then with one hard blow, split the superb jewel into two pieces.

Was the lapidary reckless, striking the diamond that way? Did disaster result? No--because the man knew his business, that diamond in the rough became a thing of exquisite beauty, fit for the crown of the king.

In a way, God is like a lapidary. We come into this world irregular and sinful; the beauty God had intended for us can scarcely be glimpsed because of all our rough edges. Nor are we easily changed—like a diamond, we are set in our sin, too stubborn to admit any need for change in how we live our lives. But God can see what we cannot—His professional eye can perceive exactly what it takes to reveal the potential for beauty, a beauty only His work can reveal in us. And so God chisels away at our rough edges, a chiseling that goes on all through life as He works to make us attractive to Him. Sometimes that chiseling includes some hard, stinging blows; when such come, we wonder if God has made a mistake because we hurt so much. But the Lord only does what is necessary to break through our stubborn hardness, so that we will show the sparkling beauty of His light as it reflects and refracts through the facets that He works in us. He knows exactly what we need from Him, so that we might one day sparkle in His royal crown.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Bread from heaven

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6:51-58).

When I was growing up, I was taught that there are four basic food groups that one needs to eat from in order to have a balanced diet. Years later, when I was teaching students how to do meal planning, the USDA came out with the food pyramid which added a fifth food group. And just a couple of years ago, while I was waiting in a hospital, I noticed a chart that now lists six food groups that are recommended for a healthy diet.

Isn’t it interesting that nutritionists want us to eat such a large variety of food, when so many people in the world actually have very limited menus. In Asia, for instance, most poor people rarely have more than rice and a few vegetables for every meal. When the great potato famine hit Ireland over a century ago, many people starved or had to migrate to America because potatoes were the bulk of their diet. And in America, where the food selection is very diverse, many deliberately avoid meat, an entire block of the food pyramid.

For many people in many places, bread has served as the major portion of their regular diet. In fact, bread has been so important in feeding people throughout the years that we have taken to calling it "the staff of life." Bread is basic nourishment; bread is inexpensive, easily made, and serves to keep body and soul together even when times are tough. Bread is the food of Everyman.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus identifies Himself as the bread come down from heaven that gives eternal life. This puzzled the Jews who were listening to Jesus’ teachings—they could not understand how Jesus could give them His flesh to eat. What would not be clear until the night that Jesus was betrayed is that Jesus comes to us with His body both spiritually and physically.

Human beings need to eat to stay alive. Food keeps us healthy and gives us the energy to carry out our work. Deprive a person of food and he begins to starve. In fact, as a person sinks deeply into starvation, he loses interest in eating as his body starts to shut down. As starvation worsens, the victim loses awareness that he is slowly dying—he just loses more and more energy and lets time pass by without the strength or desire to do anything that requires effort. If this situation is not reversed, eventually life comes to an end.

As with the body, so with the soul. The soul is the everlasting part of us, the part that hopes and dreams and loves and plans. But God does not consider a soul to be alive unless it trusts in Jesus as the source of life. In Ephesians chapter 2 Paul writes, "you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world." Paul teaches us that even though we are alive, our souls are at the same time dead if they are controlled by the sin of rebellion against God. Our souls do not become alive until Jesus brings faith into our hearts, a faith that is horrified by the truth of our dead condition and looks to Jesus in trust for mercy and the gift of spiritual life. Paul writes, "because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4).

But a living soul must be fed to keep it healthy, or like any other living thing it will begin to starve and eventually die. To remain alive, the soul must be fed—and it is for this reason that Jesus said, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4). Jesus is that Word of God—Jesus declared Himself "the Bread of Life." For our souls to remain healthy, we must eat the bread of life—we must take the words of God, the Good News about Jesus, into ourselves on a regular schedule. We do this by exposing ourselves to God’s word. We feed on the bread of life by worshipping in church, by participating in Bible study, by reading the Bible at home and by making devotions a part of our daily routine. When we don’t do these things, when we absent ourselves from the Word of God, our souls begin to starve. When our souls starve, we lose the energy and strength to do things for God and for our neighbor; we become listless and weak. If we stay away from God’s Word long enough, we will stop experiencing spiritual hunger altogether and our souls will die without our noticing, just as a starving man dies without hunger pangs. This is why the writer to the Hebrews urges us, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another" (Hebrews 10:25).

Jesus is our source of life. Jesus was born in Bethlehem; the name Bethlehem means "House of Bread." God chose Jesus’ birthplace to communicate an important truth about His Son to us; Jesus is the one essential thing we need to live. Jesus is bread for our souls. He is not an optional side-dish to give extra flavor to our lives. Jesus is not an expensive entrée that only wealthy people can afford. Jesus is bread, the staff of life, easily available to everyone regardless of their background. Jesus was born in a stable so that everyone, even lowly shepherds, could feel welcome in His presence. Jesus did His ministry walking from town to town, so that people could hear His welcoming voice regardless of where they lived. Most significantly, Jesus ate with sinners and died on a cross between two criminals to show that His love and His sacrifice for sins was for everybody, regardless of the mistakes tainting their lives. Jesus is the one essential source of life available to Everyman—He is the Bread of Life.

Jesus goes on to say these remarkable words: "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me." These words take on a whole new dimension on Maundy Thursday, when Luke tells us he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you" (Luke 22:19-20). In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus takes His teachings on the bread of life a step further—our Lord provides a way for us to receive His body and blood not only through listening to Him, but by actually touching Him as well.

There are many who have trouble believing that Christians actually receive Jesus’ body and blood through the bread and wine of Holy Communion. But Scripture is clear—Paul writes in 1st Corinthians chapter 10, "I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf." Paul makes it very clear that as we eat the bread and drink the wine, we are being connected with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus, a body that was put to death for our sins, blood that was poured out to offer us forgiveness. Paul adds, "whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself" (1st Corinthians 11:27-30). The body and blood of Jesus are holy and sacred; taking communion thoughtlessly or ignorantly is an insult to the Son of God who died to save us. If Jesus’ body and blood were not truly offered to us in Holy Communion, why would Paul warn us so strongly about proper reception of this great gift?

Jesus said, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him." When Jesus later introduced the Holy Sacrament, He provided us with a wonderful way to be assured that we do indeed receive His body and blood, and thus have Christ within us. And when Jesus lives in us, we are promised eternal life—souls that never lapse back into death, and bodies made new and restored to us on the last day. By giving us bread and wine as the means by which we receive His body and blood, Jesus vividly makes the point that we need Him to remain healthy in the fullest sense of the word.

We need Christ’s nourishment for quality of life. When Jesus feeds us through Word and Sacrament, we are made healthier, more resistant to the disease of sinning. When we are nourished by our Savior, we are strengthened and energized for going out and working for our God. At times, Jesus compares His followers to farmers who work in the field to bring in the harvest; we do this work by telling people about Jesus and by showing His love to them by our willingness to help them survive the problems of life and grow into mature Christians. Farmers can work up quite an appetite—perhaps eating as many as six meals a day. If we are to work for God in His field, planting and nurturing new Christians, we too must be well fed or we will quickly tire from the work; we must be fed large amounts of God’s Word on a regular basis. How wonderful it is that Jesus has made Bibles so common that every home can have one. How wonderful it is that our Lord has planted congregations everywhere in this country for our convenience. How wonderful it is that our Savior comes to us in His body and blood through the elements of Holy Communion, so that we can be certain of His loving presence in our lives. How wonderful it is that our Lord Jesus gives us Himself, the Bread that came down from heaven.

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