Friday, November 30, 2007

The Christmas Tree

`The days are coming,' declares the LORD, `when I will fulfill the gracious promise I made to the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.' (Jeremiah 33:14-16)

Over the years, the trappings of Christmas have grown and grown. For many people, you can hardly picture Christmas without Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, eight reindeer led by Rudolph, and a passel of elves (one of whom wants to be a dentist). Start playing White Christmas and the mind will start picturing snow, strings of lights, wreaths, and snowmen. Each year houses are decorated with scented candles, holiday banners, and Christmas villages made up of ceramic buildings and cotton snow. Thoughts of Christmas conjure images of oyster stew, hot apple cider, decorated cookies, and joyous parties. And it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without pestering loved ones for gift ideas, making lists, and dealing with busy streets and crowded stores as you do your holiday shopping. Christmas involves a lot of stuff.

But how many of these trappings of Christmas have to do with Jesus? True, gift-giving fits the theme of Christmas, because the Wise Men brought Jesus gifts and Jesus Himself is God’s gift to us. It is appropriate to make our homes look as nice as possible to welcome the arrival of our heavenly King. But what about Santa? Does an ornament of the jolly little elf praying at the side of the manger make him part of God’s plan of salvation that was set into motion on Christmas Eve? Do parties that end in drunkenness properly honor the Son of God who came to earth to die for our sins? Do we show good stewardship when we spend so much on decorations and presents that we have little left to give for feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and supporting mission work that brings the Good News of Christmas to those who live in ignorance? Not everything about Christmas is necessarily Christian.

One element of Christmas that almost every one of us treasures is the Christmas Tree. Those of you who were raised in German tradition probably have fond memories of the song Oh TannenbaumOh Christmas Tree. Every year we have one in church. Most of you put up at least a small one in your home. Much time is taken in finding the best tree and decorating it just so. But what Christian message can we find in a Christmas Tree? Does it depend on Christian ornaments, or can the tree itself be given a Christian meaning?

Today’s Old Testament lesson offers a possibility. In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David's line; he will do what is just and right in the land…This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.' Although this passage isn’t so familiar to us, it echoes the thought of Isaiah chapter 11 which we know much better: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him--the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD--and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.

Both Jeremiah and Isaiah speak of God’s chosen Messiah in terms of a branch. Jeremiah tells us that the branch would sprout from the descendants of King David, while Isaiah speaks of the branch growing out of the stump of Jesse—Jesse, who was King David’s father. These two prophets of God agreed that the One whom God was going to send would be the biological descendant of the house and line of David. This is an important truth—the Messiah who would bring God’s righteousness to us was to be a true human being, a man with parents and grandparents and ancestors going back to the time when God chose David to lead His people on earth as king. The Messiah was to be a man who was capable of suffering and dying.

Another important aspect of this prophecy is that the Messiah would have royal blood. God had promised David that rulership of God’s people would always belong to his descendents. The Savior sent by God would be of the house and line of David; He would be born with the earthly right to rule God’s nation as king. In our country, when the President grants a pardon, the criminal can never be punished or retried for his crime. So it is with a king. It is the king alone who has the authority to grant a pardon to a person sentenced to death. God’s Messiah was promised to have the authority to pardon His people for their wrongdoings, and overturn the sentence of death that their crimes have deserved.

But we must not overlook the third important testimony about the Savior found in our text. Speaking of the Branch, Jeremiah says: This is the name by which it will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.' In this place, the word LORD is not a title of respect; this word stands in for the personal name of God—Yahweh in the Hebrew, I AM in literal English. This is the same name by which God identified Himself to Moses through the burning bush; in Exodus chapter 3 we read: Moses said to God, "Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.' "

Remarkable! The Branch that has its origins in the family of Jesse and David is at the same time God, who has existed from eternity; Jesus spoke of this truth when He said, "I tell you the truth…before Abraham was born, I AM!" (John 8:58) This Branch, who inherited the right of kingship from his forefathers, is simultaneously named Yahweh, LORD, the royal I AM who created the world and who appointed Moses as His representative to govern the Israelites. Jesus is both God and man, the eternally living Son of God, who as a man suffered and died for our sins. Jesus is both the God who made us and the man who inherited the right to pardon our sins because He comes from the family of God’s chosen kings. Jesus is the human branch that bears the very name of God.

Jesus carries the analogy of the branch even further in the Gospel of John. In chapter 15 our LORD tells us: I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful…Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. Here, Jesus identifies the heavenly Father as the gardener who planted Him, and we in turn are branches that draw our lives from our LORD. In this teaching, Jesus shows us that we were given life for a reason. A farmer who plants an orchard expects to get a harvest; if a tree fails to produce fruit, eventually it will be cut down and burned, and the farmer will plant a new tree where the old one was. So it is with us. God did not create us so that we could just live our lives for ourselves, using up resources but producing nothing of value; such a life benefits no one, and God will cut such lives out of His orchard.

But we cannot produce good fruit on our own; Jesus says apart from me you can do nothing. Just as every branch must be attached to a tree to survive and bear fruit, so must we remain in Jesus in order to be invigorated with life and produce good works pleasing to God. Jesus promises to make our lives productive if we remain in Him and His words remain in us. This calls for two things. First of all, His words must remain in us; we must know what our LORD has said to us through Holy Scripture and believe that His message is true. This requires us to spend time with God’s holy Word, as we get to know it better through sermons, Bible study and devotional booklets. Second, we must remain in Him; we must make His priorities our priorities. Jesus said the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). This is Jesus’ priority, and if we are to remain in Him by sharing in His priorities, we too must be dedicated to looking for those people who don’t know Jesus, and arranging an introduction. These are the good fruits that Jesus enables we the branches to produce—a closer relationship with our LORD, and an outstretched hand of welcome to those who are dying because they are not drawing life from the True Vine, the righteous Branch that has sprouted from David’s line.

What Christian meaning can we give to the Christmas tree? Let’s try this. Perhaps we can look at the tree and see it as representing a branch that has grown into something that brings great beauty into our lives. Perhaps we can see the tree as representing Jesus, the righteous Branch that God gave us as a gift on the first Christmas two millennia ago. Maybe we can look at each branch of the tree and be reminded that they draw their life from the trunk of the tree just as we are the branches that draw life from our connection to Jesus. Maybe we can look at the pinecones or the ornaments and see them as representing the good gifts that God holds out to others through the strength and life of the branches that He nourishes. It just might be that the Christmas tree could represent God’s work in giving us life through Christ, and our mission work of holding out God’s blessings to those whose lives are empty and lifeless.

Just a possibility.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Railroad tracks

The righteous will live by faith (Romans 1:17).

When I was young, my family lived in a subdivision that was only a few blocks from the edge of town. After just ten minutes of walking, you could lose sight of any housing; you could be wandering through groves of trees and across fields of wild grasses.

I loved it. I loved the green leaves dappled by sunlight. I loved the butterflies dancing in the breeze. I loved the sense of adventure, wandering through places I hadn’t been before. I loved the sense of privacy I felt, surrounded by nothing but nature.

The reason that I could feel a sense of privacy was because these areas were not commonly traveled. Most kids in the neighborhood preferred playing in their yards or going to the ball field or the school playground. I could feel a sense of adventure because there were no sidewalks, no trails to follow. There was just one thing that gave evidence of man’s presence—a set of railroad tracks.

These steel rails did not spoil the adventure for me—far from it. The tracks only added mystery to the scene. Where did they come from? Where did they go? What kind of cargo traveled along them? The railroad tracks promised adventures farther away than my feet could take me, farther away than I could even imagine. Not only that, but they were a source of security; with tracks to follow back into town, there was no risk of ever getting lost. The tracks both tickled my imagination and gave me a sense of security.

Life can be like walking through dense woods or empty fields; we often find ourselves wandering with no obvious path to guide us. And although the world is beautiful much of the time, it can become frightening when light gives way to darkness and we find ourselves alone. But a line of railroad tracks has been laid through our world. These rails give us comfort by showing us that we are not alone. These rails give us reassurance that there is more to life than aimless wandering, that there is a purposeful direction we can follow. These rails give us hope, because although we cannot see where the tracks wind up, we know that they are leading to someplace important where safety can be found. These rails are faith in Jesus, faith that offers the comfort of His presence, the reassurance that our lives have direction and purpose when we follow Him, and the hope of an unseen but safe and happy home awaiting us in heaven.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Relaxing on the porch

The LORD is your shade (Psalm 121:5).

When I sit on my porch, smelling fresh green things and feeling the warm breeze on my skin, my mind drifts back to the porch at my grandparents’ house when I was little. It was on that porch that we would grill bratwurst and hamburgers and eat picnic meals. It was on that porch that Dad and Grandpa and I would watch lightning dance in the clouds and enjoy the smell of the rain pouring off the roof. My mind also drifts back to the porch on my parent’s home when I was visiting with a family of my own; it was on that porch that I could just sit and relax, the frustrations of life back home temporarily set aside. It was on that porch that Father would share stories with me that I had never heard before, stories a parent saves until the child has grown up. Sitting on my porch brings back many fond memories.

What can you learn from sitting on a porch? I have learned that a porch has no television, no telephone, no radio, no clock—and that is a good thing. On a porch, there is no hurry; you can relax and be soothed by the beauty of nature. A porch permits you to enjoy the sun without getting burned; it allows you privacy, yet doesn’t isolate you in a closed-up room. A porch is also a place for family to gather for meals and simply enjoy each other. And I have learned that a porch is a great place from which to watch thunderstorms; you can see the lightning, feel the thunder, and smell the rain, all without risking your health.

I imagine that heaven must be like the grandest porch ever. No frustrations, no deadlines or pressure—a place where we can relax and enjoy the existence that God has given us. Like a porch, heaven will be a place for family, because Jesus says that we are His brothers and sisters (Matthew 12:50), and He has taught us to pray to His Father as our Father (Matthew 6:9). Like a porch, heaven will be a place of eating together and enjoying each other’s company—in fact, the Bible often speaks of paradise as a large festive meal. Like a porch, heaven will be an intimate place where we will get to know God better, where He will explain things we were too immature to understand before. And like a porch, heaven will be a place of shelter where there is no discomfort, never a moment’s worry or concern. Even in the stormiest weather, I never for a moment felt afraid while with my father and grandfather on the porch, and I know that I’ll never be afraid in heaven in the company of Jesus and His Father.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Are you ready?

"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

"Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back--whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: `Watch!' " (Mark 13:32-37)

This Sunday is the last Sunday of the church year, the day we call the Sunday of the Fulfillment. The church year began last December with Advent, when we prepared for the first coming of our Lord Jesus as a baby in Bethlehem on Christmas. Since then, the church has devoted Sundays to Jesus’ baptism, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. The last few months have emphasized the work of the Holy Spirit as He has called people together into a Christian Church that looks forward to our Lord’s return on the Last Day. And now, we are at the end of the church year; we are at the Sunday that looks forward to the day when all of Jesus’ promises are finally, completely fulfilled with His Second Coming. This weekend we celebrate the Sunday of the Fulfillment.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus shares one of the most important teachings about the Last Day—Jesus tells us that no one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For that reason, He warns us: Be on guard! Be alert!

We humans are by nature curious. We want to know what the future will bring. We hate being kept in the dark. Children want to know what they will get for Christmas. Adults want to know when they will get a raise. People who are sick wonder when they will get better. People who are single wonder when they will meet their soul mate.

We want the security of knowing what the future will bring. Some people turn to horoscopes for the answers. Some people try to find secret codes in the Bible that will reveal dates for 'the millenium'. Some people even go to spiritualists to try and speak with the dead. But such activities are displeasing to our Lord. Trying to foretell the future shows a lack of faith in God. After all, the reason that people want to know about the future is because they are afraid of it. We are by nature pessimistic—we assume that bad things are going to happen to us, so we want to have enough warning to try and prepare ourselves. When we act like this, we show that we do not trust God. God reassures us, Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). If we believe that God has the power to do anything, and if we believe that God loves us so much that He won’t let us be destroyed by tragedy, then we have no reason to worry about the future. We have no reason to consult horoscopes or to look for hidden codes in the Bible. Our future is safe, because it is in God’s hands.

This is why Jesus said that even He did not know when the Last Day was going to be. When Jesus walked among us in human flesh, He was living the perfect life that God expects from each of us. Jesus was perfectly obedient to God, where we are rebellious. Jesus trusted God perfectly, where we fear that God won’t take care of us in our every need. Jesus lived a perfect life on earth because He knew that we cannot—because each of us is infected with sin from birth, our entire lives are characterized by rebellion and distrust.

Jesus was perfectly obedient and perfectly trusting, so that He could offer His life to God the Father in place of ours. Jesus was perfect in life so that we need not be. But how do you show trust if you know what the future will bring? If Jesus knew everything that was coming in the future, even the date of the Final Judgment, how could He demonstrate to God His Father that He trusted Him with His very life?

This is why Jesus voluntarily gave up some knowledge of the future. Jesus came among us to be the perfect child of God, the one person who had complete trust in God the Father as caregiver and protector. Since Jesus chose not to know everything, He needed to trust in His Father’s power and love, just as we are expected to trust in Him. God hides the future from us so that we learn to trust in Him; God hides the future to build our faith.

But sin gets in the way of our having a relationship with God in other ways as well. Jesus warns us that we must be ready for His return, because He knows that sin works to distract us. Many Christians struggle with the problem of falling asleep—because of their sin, they are dozing off. They are no longer living each day as if it might be their last. For example, many people take their relationship with Jesus for granted; they don’t give much thought to Christianity now, because they figure that there will be plenty of time for religion when they are too old to enjoy partying anymore. Such people have forgotten that when Jesus calls them to stand before Him, they must have an active relationship with our Lord if they want to receive His hand of welcome. If Jesus calls them at a time when they have let this relationship lapse, the only greeting they will get is "I tell you the truth: I don’t know you." Jesus issues this warning in Matthew 25: The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight the cry rang out: `Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' `No,' they replied, `there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.' But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. `Sir! Sir!' they said. `Open the door for us!' But he replied, `I tell you the truth, I don't know you.' Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. In this parable, the foolish virgins who have no lamp oil represent those people who don’t come to church or read the Bible, and so the light of their faith goes out without having any fuel to keep it burning.

For some sleeping Christians, the problem is distractions: working two jobs, making sure the kids get to all their extra-curricular activities, finding time for all the little extras that fill up each week. Allowing distractions to clutter up their lives results in less time for God’s Word—less time to go to church, less time to read the Bible, less time to converse with God through prayer. Earthly activities can compete with God for our attention. We are reminded of what our priorities should be in Luke chapter 10: Jesus…came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" "Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."

For other sleeping Christians, the problem is the weight of worry: the constant barrage of tragedies from 24 hour news channels, the problems their children face in school, the aggravations that they and their spouse have to deal with at work—all the bad news in their lives beats them down, numbs their minds, and leaves them so depressed that they give up and stop looking to God for the hope of relief. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked the disciples to support Him while He prayed, but Luke tells us when he rose from prayer and went back to the disciples, he found them asleep, exhausted from sorrow. Allowing worry and fear to turn into sorrow and despair can very easily deaden us to the hope that God will rescue us. At such times we need to be reminded of King David’s words in Psalm 56: in God I trust; I will not be afraid.

Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task. In these verses, Jesus tells that we are to stay sharp, because we don’t know when we will meet Him unexpectedly, face to face. But there is more—Jesus also tells us that we each have an assigned task, something that we are to be doing while we await His return. It is not enough that we merely stay awake—we are to be about our Master’s business. And what is it that we are to be doing while we wait for Him? Jesus has told us. In John chapter 6, He says "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." First and foremost, we are to believe what Jesus has told us. We are to believe Jesus when He says I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). We are to believe Jesus when He tells us I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26). We are to trust in the truth of Jesus’ words The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations (Luke 24:46-47).

In addition, we have something else to do: Jesus also 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). We are Christ’s ambassadors; God makes His appeal to unbelievers through us (2 Corinthians 5:20). It is we who have been burdened with heavy guilt over the people that we’ve hurt. It is we who were astonished that Jesus would offer to be punished for our guilt on the cross, in our place. It is we who are overjoyed that Jesus rose from the dead, proving that His love for us is greater than our ability to mess up our lives. It is we who have the joy of knowing that the mistakes of our past can be forgotten, so long as we turn that past over to Christ in exchange for a new start. It is we who can live each day in service to God, without concern about tomorrow, because the God who took away our sin and defeated death forever is in charge of every moment of our lives. The Good News of Jesus is personal—it changes your life, and it can change the lives of others, when they see how your life has been remade by God’s Word.

Jesus said, Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back. This is a warning, but it is also Good News. Our Lord did not go away forever; He has not abandoned our world to the forces of darkness. Jesus has promised to return. All that bad news that you see on CNN or read about in the paper will come to an end. All the troubles that you and your family face at school, at work and at home will finally be resolved. Jesus promises that one day, perhaps very soon, there will be no reason to fret about the future because when He returns, every evil impulse, every tragic event will be banished from our lives forever. Then the dwelling of God will be with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away (Revelation 21:3-4).

It will be a most wonderful day! Do not let Him find you sleeping.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Give thanks

It’s been a tough year. The slump in the housing market. Massive fires in California. Fuel prices steadily increasing. The mounting death toll in Iraq. Sickness has touched you or someone that you care about. People that you love have died or moved away. It’s been a tough year for everybody. How then can we stand before God on Thanksgiving and honestly tell Him "thank You?" Thanks? Thanks for what?

Let’s start with the fact that you are alive today. God does not guarantee long life to anyone. During the past 24 hours, over 150,000 people worldwide have died from various causes; the fact that you are alive today is a gift from God, pure and simple.

God has surrounded your life with beauty. Think of the colors you can see, the music that surrounds you, the textures brushing against your skin, the smells that gladden your heart, the pleasures brought by taste. Your five senses are saturated with God’s gifts of beauty every day; there is so much beauty in your life that you often fail to notice it.

Your life has been blessed with people who care about you. This may include those related to you by birth, adoption, or marriage; it might also include friends that you’ve made over the years. But most importantly, Jesus loves you; Jesus loves you with such deep commitment that He allowed Himself to be put to death in your place, paying the penalty for your sins against God. Did He have to suffer and die for you? Have you done anything to deserve Jesus’ sacrifice on your behalf? No. It is because of God’s undeserved mercy that you have the opportunity to exchange hell for heaven.

What do you have to be thankful for? Plenty! God has blessed you in ways beyond counting. Yet how often we fail to notice these gifts or appreciate them! It’s easy to overlook such simple things when we’re busy throwing ourselves a pity party. Did God promise us a lifetime of good health, a six-figure income, and loads of leisure time? Not at all. Does God owe us anything? Not at all. Everything that is good in our lives comes from Him, and they come as gifts, expressions of His unwarranted love for us.

It’s been a tough year. Nevertheless, if we stop with the self-pity and instead look carefully at all the wonderful things God has filled our lives with, it is evident that we have much to be thankful for. So tell your Lord how thankful you are; tell Him with your mouth and show Him with your life. Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever (Psalm 106:1).

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Yielding control

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

We all strategize for success. A man plans carefully how to win a girl’s heart; he gives a great deal of thought to each aspect of dating, like what he should wear, where he should take her, what sorts of things he should talk about, and whether it is too soon to give her flowers or look for a kiss. He’ll even think carefully about how long he should wait before he calls for another date. He approaches the conquest of her heart with the careful planning of a general on campaign.

Similarly, a woman entering college plans carefully for the life she wants in the future. She may wish to become a high-powered executive, or she might prefer to build a small business of her own; she might want to start a family early in life, later in life, or remain focused exclusively on her career. All these things she takes into consideration as she decides which courses to enroll in and what academic degrees to pursue. She plans for her future like an accountant designing an investment portfolio.

We like to be in charge. We want to have a firm hand in shaping our tomorrows. This makes it hard for us to follow Jesus. Our Lord expects us to follow Him with complete trust and full obedience. He expects us to be obedient because His Father gave us life and Jesus died to make us His own. Our Savior expects us to trust Him because He is God’s Wisdom made manifest to us, perfect understanding coupled with perfect love. As children of God, we have no right or reason to question Jesus’ leadership.

But that is not good enough for us. Trusting someone else, no matter how authoritative and trustworthy they might be, is often scary. So many times we have trusted, only to be hurt in the end. Not only that, but it hurts our pride to fall into line and follow. Each of us thinks, at least some of the time, that we know best what will make us happy. And when we are blocked from getting our way, we feel that an opportunity has been missed and we grow disillusioned with our leadership; it doesn’t occur to us that maybe we are better off for having been denied something foolish or ultimately harmful.

Jesus doesn’t give us all the answers that we want—often times He is maddeningly quiet. But He has told us where He is leading us—if we stick with Him, we will enter heaven. But to wind up there, we must do the hard thing: trust Jesus and obediently follow.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Being thankful

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).

I’d like to tell you about an evil man. His name was Nero Claudius Caesar, and he was the fifth emperor of the Roman Empire. Nero had his mother and first wife put to death, he spent many nights out carousing in the streets of Rome, and he spent so much money on unnecessary building programs that there were many plots on his life, organized by senators and generals alike. This man, who was leader of one of the three largest empires in the world, believed that he was a brilliant actor and insisted that theaters let him have roles in their plays—including playing the part of a pregnant woman. He ignored the stirrings of discontent and civil war within his lands. And worst of all, Nero was responsible for the Roman government’s new policy of persecuting Christians as undesirable citizens.

Why am I telling you about such a despicable man? Because Nero was the emperor at the time when Paul wrote, I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone--for kings and all those in authority. Paul was telling his readers to pray and give thanks for the government, when that government was controlled by a human monster. Paul urged support of the very leadership that would order his own death in just a few more years.

Have you ever resented your government? Have you ever felt that the taxes were too high, or that your tax dollars were being spent on the wrong things? Have you ever felt that the president or a member of congress was a crook, and had no business holding office? Have you ever felt that congress passes too many stupid laws, and allows people with power or money to do what they want?

If you have ever felt this way, then Paul’s words may make you feel just as uncomfortable as those same words made Christians feel during Nero’s rule. When the government seems to be going in the wrong direction, when it is making our lives difficult, it seems ridiculous to give God thanks for it. How can Paul tell us to thank God for something that is so imperfect?

The answer comes in the next phrase of the Epistle: that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. Our world is corrupted top to bottom with sin. Every human being is constantly swayed by bad reasoning, impure desires, and reckless impulsiveness. It is no surprise that every government is filled to some extent with corruption—the people who make up the government are corrupt themselves. But think of the alternative—knowing as we do that all people are sinful, and that non-Christians are under the influence of Satan, how much worse would our lives be if there were no government? Imagine if there were no police to protect our churches from vandalism? Imagine if there were no military to protect our communities from terrorist attacks? God instituted governments, not to be perfect, but to try and exert some control over all of us who are imperfect, and to protect us from the worst of each other’s sins. Paul writes, This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. The reason that God gives us government, spoiled though it is by sin, is so that we may have some protection as we live our lives witnessing to others about Jesus, the Son of God who died for all human sins so that we can be forgiven and freed from the domination of our evil impulses. Without government, we would all be holed up in our houses, afraid to go outside and talk to anyone about anything. God’s message of salvation would never find its way out of our homes and into the lives of others.

Being thankful can be very hard. Because of our sinful nature, we tend to look for the evil in things, not the good. Knowing that everyone leans towards selfish, destructive behavior, we are always on the defensive, looking for signs that other people can’t be trusted and worrying that they will hurt us somehow. Because of this, it is much easier to see the evils corrupting a government than it is to see the good that God does through that same government.

What does it take to have a thankful heart in an evil world? First of all, it takes work. We must develop the habit of looking for the good in everything, and not immediately focusing our attention on the bad. In his explanation of the 8th Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther said "put the best construction on everything"; the great reformer advises us to always be looking for the good and not to make evil the focus of our attention. When we see the good things that God is doing in the midst of sin, we will be moved to thankfulness.

In fact, it is essential for us to see God as the one responsible for all good in our lives, because when we do not see God, we do not see a reason to be thankful. If I am crossing a street and am narrowly missed being hit by a car, will I be thankful if I don’t see God’s power in saving my life? Of course not—I’ll just say that I was lucky. When we credit good things to "luck" or "being in the right place at the right time", we have no reason to be thankful, because we don’t see the good in our lives as a gift. To be thankful requires looking for evidence of God’s loving activity in our daily lives.

The third thing that is required for having a thankful attitude is acknowledgment of our sins. If we do not think of ourselves as wretched sinners who deserve nothing from God, we will not be thankful. If we think that we are pretty decent people, then we would of course expect God to reward us with good things in our lives, and if we are getting what we deserve, we have no reason to give thanks. But when we look at God’s Law honestly and admit that we continually fail to live up to His holy standards, then every good thing from God is obviously an undeserved gift, and we are properly grateful for them all.

There are benefits to developing an "attitude of gratitude". First of all, such an attitude keeps us happy, because our focus is no longer always on what we don’t have. Instead, we are focused on every good thing in our lives as something special, something that we had no right to expect. Every day becomes a birthday, as God gives us presents—presents of waking up in a bed instead of on the ground, being able to wash up in a heated room with indoor plumbing, having more than one set of clothes in the closet to choose from, finding food in a kitchen instead of having to look for it in garbage cans.

Another benefit of having a thankful heart is that it helps us to be reassured of God’s continual loving presence in our lives. When we develop the habit of looking for God’s hand in every good thing that comes our way, we are amazed at how much He is involved in our lives every day. You will realize that it is God who gave you vision to see the sun in the sky; it is God who gave your body the strength to recover from a nasty cold; it is God who enabled you to say "I’m sorry" and patch up a broken relationship; it is God who made you look up so that you could see a warm smile on a stranger’s face when you were feeling blue.

When we get in the habit of looking for God’s loving presence in our lives, it becomes hard to worry about today—because our lives are filled with proof that God was serious when He said Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). When we can’t figure out how we are going to deal with a problem, we are reminded that God has blessed us every day, and today will be no different. We have the security of knowing that we don’t always have to come up with the solution, because so many times in our lives God gave us something good that it never occurred for us to ask for, something that we never anticipated could make our lives better.

But the most important benefit of cultivating a thankful attitude is that when we live this way, we are not so prone to take God’s good gifts for granted. The greatest gift of God is the gift of His Son Jesus, who was humiliated, beaten, and put to an agonizing death to make settlement for our inborn corruption. Jesus did not deserve to suffer and die; He did nothing wrong. We deserve God’s anger for our greedy hearts that are never satisfied, no matter how many good gifts our Lord showers us with. We deserve God’s punishment for our cold hearts that are so rarely moved to gratitude for God’s presence in our lives. But Jesus loves us, and that love led Him to the agony of the cross so that we could be spared from our "just desserts". Because of Jesus, we can ask for forgiveness with confidence that it will be given. Because of Jesus, we can be sure that God will give us everything that we need to serve Him with our lives. Because of Jesus, we can face death without fear, knowing that because Jesus beat death and lives forever, we too will come back from death to spend forever with Him and every other forgiven Christian.

Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection is God’s greatest gift to us, because it cost Him more than any other gift to give. Dying on the cross, Jesus suffered our hell for us. God the Father watched His only Son suffer this punishment; indeed, the Father was the one who caused His Son to suffer as He laid our punishment on the Righteous One. The Holy Spirit, who had been with Jesus throughout His ministry, was not allowed to ease our Savior’s suffering; the Comforter from God was not permitted to give comfort to the one person who needed it the most. The gift of peace with God was the most expensive gift ever given, and it is a gift that we never dare take for granted. It is only the thankful heart that comes before God every day and honors His love by saying "Thank You for my salvation."

Living in an imperfect world, it can be hard to be thankful. But when you find nothing in your life to be thankful for, ask yourself—has God stopped giving you the blessings of His love, or have you stopped paying attention to them? God’s love is in your life every day—and when you remind yourself to look for it, you will see plenty of reasons to be thankful.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Voting with your wallet

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously (Matthew 6:33).

People frequently complain about low voter turnouts for various elections. But in our country, everybody votes, and they do so almost every day. Americans vote with their wallets.

Every time you go into a store and make a purchase, you are telling merchandisers what they should stock their shelves with. If most shoppers buy apples but only a few pick up kiwis, a grocery store will adjust what it offers accordingly. If most shoppers in town are buying casual clothing, you won’t find much of a selection when you are in need of formal wear.

The same principle applies to entertainment. If magazines sell better with sexy models on the cover, expect more of the same. If video games sell better with graphically violent content, then more of this type will be produced. People often complain that there aren’t enough good family movies, but if such movies are poorly attended when they do come along, movie studios have little incentive to make more.

This is capitalism—supply and demand. Manufacturers, publishers and studios crank out what Americans are willing to spend money on. If we don’t support something with our wallets, it will become hard to find—it might even go away entirely. I can think of any number of grocery store items I grew up with that are no longer sold. Some of my favorite TV shows have been canceled because they did not find a large enough audience. How we spend our money determines what is available to spend our money on.

You have a limited amount of dollars to spend, so each time you make a purchase, you are voting on what’s most important to you. Your spending habits reveal your priorities—what you value and what you are willing to do without, if push comes to shove. So think carefully each time money leaves your hands—what are you supporting? Are you voting for Jesus’ ministry by donating to one of His churches? Or are you backing the devil’s work by voting for products that glamorize violence, degrade sexuality, or lead to addiction? When you open your wallet, write a check or swipe a credit card, who is getting your vote—Satan the destroyer, or Christ the Savior?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Seeing clearly what really matters

Your word is truth (John 17:17).

Animated movies and TV shows are regarded by most people as best suited for children. Black and white programs are seen as relics of an earlier, simpler time. Most adults believe that serious entertainment must be shot live and in color.

Why is animation regarded as childish? It’s because animation depicts a world that is not as complicated as the one we live in. An animated feature is not as visually detailed as the complex world that bombards our senses every day; the selection of colors is limited, the amount of objects in motion is restricted to only those elements essential for telling the story. In most animated fare it is easy to follow the story line, because unnecessary details are usually omitted. Since animation is visually easy to understand, we assume it is intended for children who cannot grasp more complicated imagery.

Black and white photography was around for many years before the ability to film in color was developed, because the technology needed to capture and reproduce colored images is much more difficult. As soon as color became economical, black and white film-making was abandoned as old fashioned. Yet there are movie critics who treasure black and white classics and resent efforts by movie studios to colorize them; they point out that black and white images communicate ideas more forcefully than when color is added. The stark contrast of light and dark, without the distraction of color, allows a filmmaker to more quickly get across the emotional tone he’s trying to create.

Both black and white films and animation reduced the complexity of the world we see and help us understand what’s going on with greater ease. Both do away with visual elements that cause needless distraction, and bring us quickly to the heart of the matter. God’s Word does the same thing. Our world tends to be confusing, but God sees everything in black and white—either something is good and God pleasing, or it is evil and serves the devil. Some believe that thinking this way is simplistic and judgmental. They argue that no one can be sure of what is right and wrong; but the result is that they are often paralyzed, unable to decide on the best course of action in a world shrouded by murky shades of gray. Christians find comfort in knowing that good and evil are clearly different from each other. The believer can make decisions with confidence when guided by God’s Word, a printed word that communicates clearly in black and white.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Good Book

"The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart," that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: that 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. As the Scripture says, "Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame." For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile--the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:8b-17).

We take the Bible for granted.

Publishers tell us that there are more copies of the Bible in print than any other book. Most Christian homes have at least one Bible in them, and many have two or more copies of the Good Book stashed away someplace. And even if your home doesn’t have a Bible, every bookstore sells them; every church has stacks of them available for your use.

With so many Bibles surrounding us, let me ask you: how often do you pick a Bible up and read from it? Do you read a few verses every day? Do you open a Bible and read from it at least once a week? Are you in the habit of picking up a Bible at least once a month?

Do you know where your Bible is? What kind of books or magazines is it piled together with? Are its pages creased from heavy use? Is there dust on the cover?

When is the last time that you gave a Bible as a gift to someone that you cared about?

If we are honest with God and with ourselves, we must admit that we take His Holy Scriptures far too much for granted. God has blessed our society with overwhelming access to His Book of Life. There may be parishes where there is no pastor, or where he can only preach every other week because he is serving such a large area, but there is no place in our country where God has not laid out His Word for our use. We have such easy access to the written testimony about our Lord Jesus that we often regard its presence in our living rooms as no more remarkable than having a newspaper or a TV Guide on the coffee table.

My friend, it wasn’t always so.

Prior to the creation of the printing press in Martin Luther’s time, people did not have copies of the Scriptures in their homes. Before Gutenberg’s wonderful invention, every copy of God’s word had to be copied by hand, making the Bible a rare and expensive book. Only churches had copies of these precious writings; if you wanted to hear God’s Word, you could only do so in a church; in fact, some churches went so far as to chain their Bibles to the reading stand to prevent their being stolen!

Language was another problem. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of the Jews, while the New Testament was written in Greek, the language that was spoken by most people who lived near the Mediterranean Sea. Eventually all of the Bible was translated into Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire, and all church Bibles were copied from this Latin translation for a thousand years and more. But Latin was not the language of most Europeans; if you were German or Scandinavian or English or Russian, you could not read the Latin edition of the Bible. And if your priest followed the custom of reading the Scriptures in Latin during worship, you could live your entire life as a Christian without ever hearing Jesus speak to you directly in words that you could understand.

Think of it: living your whole life and never hearing Jesus say, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16). Imagine never hearing our Lord promise, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). Try to picture a life without the words "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26). Imagine going to a funeral and being unable to understand the words "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…" (Psalm 23:1)

Sermons can be wonderful things. Sermons take God’s teachings and break them down for us, to help us understand the Bible better. And God’s people in Germany, Scandinavia, England and Russia understood the sermons of the priests; they were hearing about the promises of God in their own languages.

But all people are tainted with sin. Our fallen nature clouds our reason, makes our understanding imperfect. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter three, the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. Even Paul, blessed as he was with the Holy Spirit, had to write Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully (1 Corinthians 13:12). Until we are freed of sin by death in Christ, every thing we think, say and do is corrupted by sin. This is as true for pastors as it is for anyone else. Every pastor studies the Scriptures and prays to the Holy Spirit for guidance in writing a sermon that is free from all error, but realistically all of us who preach know that at times we make mistakes, because like you we are sinners. And thus we can never assume that our sermons give perfect treatment to God’s perfect Word.

But God’s Book of the Word is different. Peter tells us, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). This is why Paul writes All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Unlike sermons which are written by sinful men, the Bible is God’s own words set down by those who wrote under the authority and power of the Holy Spirit of God. Unlike human sermons, God’s Holy Scriptures are perfect and filled with life.

Speaking about the written word of God, Jesus said these are the Scriptures that testify about me (John 5:39). Near the end of his Gospel, John writes Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. This is the one and only purpose of the Holy Scriptures—to reveal the Lord of Life to us, so that we might believe that He died to save us from our sins and rose from the dead to take us to be with Him in heaven. This is the only record of the great work that God has done for us, and the only place where His wonderful promise of salvation is recorded for our peace of mind. Because of the Bible’s unique and eternal importance, the Holy Spirit has ensured that the Bible makes no mistakes in bringing God’s words to us.

Imperfect sermons were a significant problem in Luther’s time. The clergy of the church were making many mistakes in their preaching and teaching, and this was why Luther wanted the Bible to be translated into German. Luther believed that if the people could read the Word of God for themselves, they would be able to tell when a preacher made a statement in error; but without access to God’s perfect Word, there was no way for a believer to be able to tell truth from falsehood.

With the introduction of the printing press, it was finally feasible to reproduce the Bible in large quantities. This new technology was used to get Luther’s German translation of the Bible into print, and ever since that time Protestants have continued the important work of translating God’s Holy Scriptures into the languages of people who are hungering to know Christ personally by hearing His words.

And how has humanity reacted to having the Word of God available to read at home? As was said earlier, more copies of the Bible have been printed than any other book in human history. The Bible is filled with the message of hope, peace and everlasting life; the Bible is filled with forgiving, sheltering love. The Bible is filled with truth. Such a book is a true Godsend to a world filled with despair, fighting, and death; a world that harbors grudges and encourages selfishness; a world where people don’t know right from wrong because they are ignorant of the truth.

We often take the Bible for granted, but many do not. A missionary from Russia recently spoke of how Stalin had Russian Bibles collected and burned, and how the Christians wrote down as many pieces of the Bible as they could from memory so that they could have the comfort of God’s Word and share it with others until the day came that complete Bibles could once again be obtained. Those Russian Christians treasured their Savior’s words so much that they committed large portions of the Bible to memory; how many Bible verses do you know by heart?

There is only one way to be freed of sin, only one way to find release from the mistakes of the past and be given a new start on life—through faith in Jesus, the Son of God. Paul tells us that the Bible is the means by which the Holy Spirit brings that faith to us: how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? … Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. This message of freedom from the curse of sin and restoration to the family of God is the best of news—we call it the Good News, the Gospel of Reconciliation. There is no message more wonderful than the message of the Bible; that is why Paul says, How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!

My friend, that is what mission work is—bringing God’s Good News to someone else. We do mission work when we support the translation of the Bible into another language. We do mission work when we support the Gideons in placing Bibles. We do mission work when we take a Bible to a friend who does not know Jesus and say: "I’d like to introduce you to a friend of mine. He’s done more to make me feel safe and contented than anyone I’ve ever known, and because I love you, I want to share Him with you." That is mission work that every one of us can do.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

God and time

You established the sun and moon…you made both summer and winter (Psalm 74:16-17).

The twelve months of our calendar get their names from the ancient Romans. January honored their god Janus, the two-faced god who looked both backwards and forwards. February was named after Februa, a festival of purification. March belonged to Mars, the god of war. April was sacred to the goddess Aphrodite. May was dedicated to the goddess Maia and June the goddess Juno. July honored Julius Caesar, while August did the same for Caesar Augustus. September, October, November and December come from Latin words for the numbers 7, 8, 9, and 10. Under the Roman system, half of the calendar was dedicated to various gods and their worship.

The seven days of the week also reflect ancient religions. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday come from the old Roman calendar; Saturday was named for the god Saturn, Sunday honored the sun, and Monday the moon. Scandinavian gods account for the rest of the week; Tuesday was named after Tyr, the god of war. Wednesday upheld the name of Wodin the skyfather, Thursday was dedicated to his son Thor and Friday to his wife Frigg. The seven days of the week were named to honor gods and the forces of nature.

Is there any Christian influence in our calendar? Yes! The fact that each week has seven days is rooted in the Bible. In Genesis, we are told that God made the universe in six days and rested on the seventh; ever since, weeks have consisted of seven days.

One other place where Christianity has impacted our calendars is the birth of Christ. Our system of numbering years uses Christ’s birth as its starting point. Although the exact year is open to debate, many believe that 2,007 years have passed since Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Historical dates before the Lord’s birth are designated BC which stands for "Before Christ." Dates after the nativity are labeled AD which stands for anno domini, a Latin phrase meaning "the year of our Lord."

There are people who want to change this; they want to remove Christ from the calendar. They want ancient dates to be labeled BCE, Before Common Era, and they want modern dates to be labeled CE, or Common Era. The irony is, however, that unless many more changes are made, our calendars will still honor Roman and Scandinavian gods, they will still set work weeks according to the Bible, and our years will still be reckoned from when Jesus arrived in the world, an event that changed everything for all time.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The lure of money

People who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction (1 Timothy 6:9).

Years ago when men went to Alaska in search of gold, some prospectors penetrated far into the interior of the state. There they found an isolated miner’s hut, as quiet as a grave. Entering it, they discovered the skeletons of two men and a very large quantity of gold heaped on a rough table. They also found a letter describing the events leading to these deaths. The deceased men were so eager to get rich that they ignored signs of an early winter setting in. The more they mined, the more gold they found. Then one day, a fierce snowstorm swept over their mining site. They could not travel because of persistent blizzard conditions. Their food ran out. Their cabin was so small that there was no room to get any exercise. Eventually they became so weakened that they lay down to die, surrounded by the gold that had trapped them there.

There are many people like those miners. They work hard to make money so that they can buy whatever they want. They work hard to climb the organizational ladder so that they can have the thrill of calling the shots. They work hard to be the best looking, most admired person they can be so that they can have their egos stroked by being the object of everyone’s attention. But in their obsessive quest for more, more, more, they fail to notice the warning signs of a fast approaching winter. They don’t pay attention to their blood pressure. They are too busy to attend the funerals of friends they graduated with. They cover up wrinkles with makeup or disguise them through plastic surgery. They ignore the approach of death, and when a hospital bed or nursing home refuses to let them go, what good is their money, achievement, or fame? Can you buy life when your body is worn out? Can you order death to stay away? When only hours of life remain, are the kind of people you want at your side the sort who only care about your good looks and impeccable fashion sense?

Relationships are what give meaning to life. No amount of money, influence, or admiring looks from strangers is worth more than the love of a person who appreciates you for who you are. There is nothing more valuable than someone who will accept you, forgive you, and challenge you to improve in every way. And the person who loves you like this better than anyone else is Jesus, God’s Son. To look anyplace else for true happiness is to pass up a golden opportunity.

Saturday, November 03, 2007


Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).

This week we celebrate All Saints’ Day, the day in the Church year that focuses our attention on those who have gone before us into heaven. But what exactly is a saint, and how does a person become one?

As we look back in the Old Testament, we see the first reference to saints in 1st Samuel chapter two, where Hannah is singing a hymn of praise to God. At one point she says, "For the foundations of the earth are the LORD's; upon them he has set the world. He will guard the feet of his saints, but the wicked will be silenced in darkness." Interesting, isn’t it? It sounds as if Hannah considers the saints to be living persons. But she is not the only one to speak this way. In Psalm 30, David urges Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. Clearly, David considers some living people to be saints.

This understanding of sainthood is found in the New Testament as well. In Acts chapter 9 we read as Peter traveled about the country, he went to visit the saints in Lydda. And Paul begins his letter to the Philippians with these words: Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi, together with the overseers and deacons.

So how does the Bible define a saint? The answer can be seen easily in the first verse of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus. Paul tells us that anyone who has faith in Christ is a saint. You do not have to die to be a saint. You do not have to perform miracles to be a saint. The Church does not make you a saint. Because of your faith in our Lord Jesus, God has declared you a saint.

But what about heaven? Isn’t heaven filled with saints? Of course it is. Since all believers in Jesus are saints, and our Lord takes the souls of all believers to heaven, heaven is filled with saints. Whether you are alive or dead makes no difference—sainthood is a gift of God that we receive by faith.

Some people pray to saints in heaven; where did this notion come from? Centuries ago, when Germans were little more than barbarians, they practiced a religion that included ancestor worship. They would pray to their deceased parents, grandparents, and to great heroes from their past. They believed that the spirits of the deceased were interested in their lives and could still exert some influence on the world in a supernatural way. The Germans also prayed to a variety of gods, but they believed that your own ancestors would be more sympathetic to your needs than a god would be.

These were the Germans who overthrew the Roman Empire. With the destruction of the government, the Christian churches of Europe found themselves unprotected from barbarian attack—so they made greater efforts than ever before to become accepted as part of the German way of life. As the German warlords were introduced to Christianity, one teaching that they particularly liked was the idea of saints in heaven; to the Germans, this sounded like their belief in ancestor worship. In their effort to win over the Germans, churchmen did not protest too loudly when these new Christians began praying to the saints of the Bible instead of to their own Germanic ancestors. The church leaders tolerated the German’s misunderstanding for the sake of peace. And, over time, the church began to teach that there were some deceased people in heaven who could answer prayers. Of course, not just anyone could do this, only people who were so holy that they could perform other miracles as well. And eventually, the modern catholic understanding of sainthood became official church teaching.

Martin Luther rejected this understanding of sainthood as part of the Reformation. He looked to 1st Timothy chapter 2 where Paul writes, there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men. Luther saw that praying to anyone besides Jesus is wrong, because such praying ignores the Mediator whom God had appointed as our only way of approaching Him. Furthermore, there is nothing in the Bible supporting the idea that the saints in heaven are aware of what is going on in our daily lives, or that they can exert any influence on earth. The Bible teaches that we are to put our trust in God alone—to place our trust anywhere else is to commit idolatry, the worship of false gods.

Today’s Epistle lesson shows us the true benefits that we receive from the saints who now rest from their labors. The writer to the Hebrews says, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Who comprise this great cloud of witnesses? This statement refers to all of chapter 11 of the book of Hebrews. In that chapter, we are reminded of these men and women of faith who now reside in heaven with the Lord: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, Samuel and David. These people are only a sampling of those who were saints in life who are now saints in heaven.

Were these men and women perfect people? No. Noah got drunk. Abraham despaired of God giving him a son through his wife, and fathered a child by a serving woman. Jacob used trickery to get the birthright and the blessing that were due to his brother. Joseph started life as a braggart. Moses disobeyed God’s explicit command. David got another man’s wife pregnant and arranged for her husband’s death to cover up the indiscretion. Similarly, the New Testament pulls no punches in showing us how Peter denied knowing Jesus and how Paul persecuted the early Christian church. The Bible is harshly honest in showing us the weaknesses of God’s saints. But God preserves the record of these weaknesses for our comfort. Have you ever felt guilty about cheating someone? Jacob did, and God forgave him and took him to heaven. Have you ever felt guilty about having sex outside of marriage? Abraham and David did, and they both received mercy and eternal life. Have you ever felt guilty about hiding your Christianity around others? Peter did, and our Lord restored him as first among the apostles and a founder of Christ’s Church on earth.

One reason that the Bible has preserved details of the lives of the saints is to give us comfort. Even the people closest to God were still sinners; even they needed to be forgiven. In our moments of despair, we are reassured that we too can be forgiven by Jesus, because there are men and women in heaven who have been forgiven for sins every bit as bad as ours.

Another reason that the Bible tells us of the lives of many saints is to provide us with role models. Abel’s life demonstrates how important it is that we offer our sacrifices to God with the right attitude. Noah’s life shows us how important it is to trust in God. Abraham’s life teaches us that God listens to our prayers. Joseph’s life is an example of how God can bring wonderful blessings out of seemingly hopeless situations. Rahab the prostitute reassures us than no life has been so misspent that God cannot wipe out the past and provide a new start. The lives of the saints show us how God’s love offered through Jesus can improve us, point us in the right direction, and rescue us from the despair that sin inevitably causes. This is why our lesson states therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The third reason that the Scriptures tell us of these saints is to give us hope when things look bleak. Many of the saints suffered greatly during their lives, yet none of them gave up on God. And because they steadfastly put their trust in the Lord, they were received into eternal life; in Hebrews chapter 11 we read: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. This is the same reward that Jesus promises us all in Revelation chapter 2 verse 10--Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.

The theme of the saints is faith. Men and women are declared saints of God because of their faith in Jesus, the Mediator sent by God to die for our sins. The saints of the Bible were sinful, imperfect people, but because they had faith in God’s mercy they were forgiven and accepted into heaven. Their lives model for us how important faith is, and what a life of faith looks like; we read in Hebrews chapter 11, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. Faith is what God strengthens in us as we read about the lives of the saints; it gives us the assurance that God will be with us through all the times that we fall flat on our faces, all the times that the devil trips us up, all the times that the worries and problems of the world make our lives seem pointless. God’s gift of faith, strengthened by the examples of the saints, gives us the confidence to face life’s challenges because we know that Jesus forgives us, Jesus walks with us, and Jesus will soon put an end to suffering and take us to join the saints with Him in heaven.

We don’t pray to saints but we do honor their memory, because God uses the lives of the saints to encourage us in our Christian walk. All of us know saints whose lives have served as an example to us of God’s grace. They may be parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles; they may be a pastor, a teacher or a friend who always seemed to be walking close to God. Whoever those people are, they stand side by side with the saints of Holy Scripture, united together in eternal joy as they rest from their labors in the embrace of our Lord. I pray that as you live the life of a saint, God will use you to strengthen the faith of others, just as the saints in heaven have served to strengthen your faith.

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