Friday, December 28, 2007

Horoscopes and wise men

Surely you have heard about the administration of God's grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to men in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God's holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God's grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God's people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence (Ephesians 3:2-12).

Have you noticed how many papers and magazines carry horoscopes? It amazes me that in a society where people are constantly being told to keep their religion to themselves, the religion of astrology is printed unchallenged even in TV Guide! And make no mistake, astrology is a religion. Anything that you rely on daily to make decisions as to how to live your life is a religion. That is why God forbids us to consult astrologers in Deuteronomy chapter 18: Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD. God wants us to trust in Him to take care of us, not to rely on the stars for guidance in how to live our lives.

It is interesting, then, to consider who the very first Gentiles were who came to worship the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. In Matthew chapter 2 we hear them say: "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." Of all the Gentiles, of all those people who were not members of the Jewish religion, the first to seek Jesus out were astrologers! They had studied the stars for signs about the future, and by the grace of God they found in the heavens a message of great importance—a message that told them to stop looking to the stars for hope, but instead to seek out the one person in whom all hope resides, the King of the Jews.

These Gentiles from the east, these Magi or "wise men", came to Bethlehem to become truly wise. Their knowledge from the stars was imperfect; they showed up in Jerusalem instead of Bethlehem, asking for directions. In order to find the Son of God, they first had to ask Jewish men who knew God’s holy word.; only after consulting Scripture were the wise men able to find the Babe in Bethlehem. But they did show their wisdom in this: it was not the stars that they came to Bethlehem to worship, it was the newborn King. The Magi had faith that there in Mary’s arms was the Holy One of God.

If not for the grace of God, those Magi would never have found faith in Jesus; the star that lead them to the Savior was a miracle provided by the Lord. That is the essence of Epiphany; Epiphany is all about God revealing Himself to those who are ignorant of Him. Jesus said, When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When he looks at me, he sees the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (John 12:44-46).

You and I are the beneficiaries of this gift of God. Odds are, you are a descendant of Gentiles like I am—people who were never members of Jewish society. Our ancestors were born outside of God’s covenant with the Israelites. And it was by the choice of our forefathers that this was so. Think back to the Great Flood—at that time, God eliminated from the earth every human being who lived apart from Him—the eight survivors of Noah’s ark were the only believers in God in the entire world! Our ancestors lived on the ark; our ancestors are descendents of one of Noah’s believing sons.

But something happened in the years following the Flood—many people chose to stop worshipping God. They stopped praying to Him, they stopped showing Him their thanks through offering sacrifices, they stopped valuing His wisdom and stopped living morally upright lives. They first became lazy in their faith, then they became selfish. Parents stopped giving God honor in their lives, and their children followed suit. Over time, the majority of people forgot who God was and began to look for help elsewhere—by offering sacrifices to the sun in the sky for life, praying to the clouds for rain, studying the stars for wisdom. By the time of Abraham, most people did not believe in the true God anymore. This is why God promised that the Savior to come would be a descendant of Abraham, not of someone else—because Abraham was a true believer who worshipped and trusted God. God set up a covenant relationship between Abraham’s descendants and Himself; He would be their God and they would be His people, so long as they remained faithful to Him. God would teach them how to offer acceptable sacrifices so that their sins could be forgiven, and one day He would send them a Savior that would settle the problem of sin forever. But God had not given up on the rest of the world, even though most people rejected Him; the Savior to come would be a Savior for the whole world. God told Abraham, through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed (Genesis 22:18).

In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul speaks of the mystery of Christ. The mystery is simply this: when so many of Noah’s descendants had deliberately turned their backs on God, and taught their children to do the same, why would God offer these Gentiles, these ancestors of ours, another chance at salvation? Doesn’t God say in Deuteronomy 5:9 that I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me? When God threatens increasing wrath on those who reject Him in sinful imitation of their parents, why would He offer these people forgiveness? Paul tells us that we were by nature objects of wrath (Ephesians 2:3).

But the mystery of Christ is that God’s forgiving love is greater than His punishing wrath. This is a mystery to us, because such grace is beyond our human capacity to understand. When someone wrongs us, our first instinct is to hurt them back, not forgive them. Because of our sinful nature, true love and the complete forgiveness that goes with it are at times incomprehensible to us. It is a wonderful mystery to us how God could send His beloved Son to die for people who didn’t want His loving sacrifice!

You and I are the beneficiaries of that wonderful mystery. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, all human sin has been made forgivable—including yours and mine. Paul says this mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus. We have been put on equal footing with the children of Abraham, the children who were offered a covenant relationship with God! It’s as if our ancestors never dismissed God as unnecessary in their lives, never walked away from Him. We are regarded by God as if our ancestors had remained faithful members of His chosen people throughout history. God said in Deuteronomy that His wrath would build on children who followed their parents in rejecting Him, but listen to the promise of grace that comes at the end of that verse: I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. This is the wonderful promise to us who are, by the mystery of Christ, co-heirs with the people whose families have never walked away from God.

Through Jesus, God has offered a New Covenant which supercedes the one made with Abraham and his children. Under the Old Covenant, we could only approach God with fear as we offered sacrifices for the forgiveness of our sins. But Paul explains that under the New Covenant, we may approach God with freedom and confidence. What a wonderful change! Under the Old Covenant, we could not approach God too closely because we are filled with sin, and His holiness would have destroyed us because of that sin. This is why Isaiah was terrified when God allowed him a glimpse of the heavenly throne room: "Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty" (Isaiah 6:5).

Through the New Covenant brought about by Jesus, things are now different. Jesus is God made safe to look upon, safe to touch. Jesus is God dressed in the clothing of humanity, clothing that we can cling to with trembling fingers in our deepest need. Hebrews 1:3 tells us The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being; Jesus said I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Luke 6:19 tells us, the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. Jesus is God made flesh; Jesus is God’s power made safe to touch; Jesus brings God’s healing of the disease of sin to all mankind.

Jesus brought about this change by means of one, final sacrifice. Under the Old Covenant, God accepted various sacrifices from the people to make up for their wrongdoings and to improve their relationship with Him. People offered God the first-born of their flocks and herds, the first fruits of their harvests, and a tenth of all that God had given them each year. These sacrifices were offered over and over because they never solved the problem of sin, and sin is a daily part of every human’s entire life. But Jesus offered His life on the cross as the final sacrifice—Hebrews 7:27 describes Him as our once-for-all High Priest: Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.

Because Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for sin, we are freed from the Old Covenant demand for repeated sacrifices—we all gain the benefit of Jesus’ final sacrifice through faith in Him. Paul says God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood (Romans 3:25). What a wonderful New Covenant! We are not only united with the family of God as full co-inheritors of the kingdom, we also are freed from the pressures of the old sacrificial system. We are free to approach God any time, anywhere, without the need to first make a sacrifice. We can gather freely to worship God, because Jesus promised where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (Matthew 18:20). And when we give our donations to the Lord, we can treat it all as thank-offerings, none of it as an obligation. Under the New Covenant brought into effect by Christ, going to church is not a duty that we carry out to protect us from God’s anger, church is where we go to rejoice in God's blessings of forgiveness and love!

We experience church in a way that our ancestors did not. Those who worshipped the sun in the sky never heard that fiery ball say, "I forgive you." Those who prayed for rain never heard a cloud say, "You can trust me." Those who looked for wisdom in the stars never heard those stars say, "I love you." Such religions are foolish—they give no real hope, no security, no lasting comfort. Our ancestors rejected God for religions like these. God was under no obligation to offer them a return to the fellowship of the faithful; the fact that He continues to extend second and third and fourth opportunities to come back is a mystery of God’s incomprehensible love, a love shown to us exclusively through Jesus Christ.

This is the meaning of Epiphany for us, the descendants of Gentiles. Jesus came into the world to reconcile all people to God; Colossians chapter one says God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. The great mystery of Christ is that He died for you and for me; for your ancestors and mine; for your descendants and mine. May 2008 be a year of appreciation of this great gift, and may you always instill in your children an appreciation for this gift as well.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Seasonal Affective Disorder

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).

During the months following Christmas, some people become depressed. They have no energy; they eat more than they should; they sleep more than usual but rarely feel properly rested. They are suffering from a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The problem is lack of sunlight. January and February are the darkest months of the year, with the sun rising late and setting early. Scientists have found that the reduced amount of sunlight affects some people adversely. They lose their zest for life until the longer days of spring and summer return.

Increased exposure to light is the solution to the problem. People struggling with Seasonal Affective Disorder need to let more light into their homes and spend more time outside during daylight; some are also helped by regular exposure to extra-bright fluorescent lights. More time in the light tends to banish their depression.

This is even more true of our souls. Just like our bodies, our souls need light; without it, our spirits become depressed and we lose our zest for life. The light that our souls need is heavenly light, light that can only come from God. But because of sin, we live in perpetual darkness; sin is like a thick cloud that prevents God's light from reaching us.

Jesus is our light-bringer. 2,000 years ago He entered our dark world and started warming it with God's wonderful light. By His light, God's holy ways are revealed to us. By His light, our sin is exposed for the sick, dangerous thing it is. His light warms our frozen hearts and fills us with love--love for God and love for each other.

The light of God revealed to us by Jesus chases away depression. Jesus kept God's law for us so that we could stop being failures. Jesus died for our sins so that we could be freed from the guilt of our mistakes. Jesus rose from His grave so that He could lead us from our graves to join Him in paradise. All this is revealed to us by the light of Christ, the light which ends depression and replaces it both with joy and a new passion for living as a child of the light.

Monday, December 24, 2007

God reaches down to us

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us" (Matthew 1:22-23).

There once was a psychiatrist working in a mental ward who wanted to try out a new way of helping his patients. His idea was to live for a while among those patients, to be with them day and night for an extended period of time. And so he moved in behind the locked door, set up his bed in the ward, and lived the routine of the mental patients day after day. Their schedule became his schedule. Their environment became his environment. He experienced the food and the noise and the smells and everything else that they experienced all the time. He was there to help them with their medicine. He would always be around in the midst of their confusion to give a reassuring smile; even the most unpleasant person in the ward experienced his warm embrace. And in many cases he literally loved those mental patients back into reality and helped them to find meaning for their lives. Down on their level, he was able to raise them up to wholeness and give them a new start.

This is exactly what our "Immanuel" did for us. Two thousand years ago, He "moved in with us" here on earth and lived with us day in and day out. The challenges we face in keeping fed and clothed and housed became His challenges. The pressures we feel to keep our mouths shut and just accept things as they are were pressures that He experienced as well. Just like us, He faced the temptation to be arrogant instead of humble, lazy instead of busy, hateful instead of forgiving, greedy instead of generous. He experienced many of the ups and downs of life that we go through, including the death of loved ones, rejection by the leaders of popular cliques, and betrayal by His friends. He endured loneliness and abuse, both verbal and physical. He never had much money, and during His years of teaching He was constantly on the road with no permanent place to call home. He knows what it’s like for us because He’s been there. He even went so far as to die, just like we do, and then He rose from the dead so that He could love us back into a right relationship with our heavenly Father. He lives to give new meaning to our existence, and to assure us that an even better life awaits us beyond the grave. By coming down to our level, He raised us up to spiritual wholeness and gave us freedom from the mistakes of the past. This is the true gift of Christmas.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas light

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:2).

Nobody knows precisely when Jesus was born. Luke tells us who the rulers were in Palestine and Rome at that time, so we know that our Lord was born in Bethlehem within a couple of years either side of 4 BC. But the Bible does not tell us the day or even the month that Jesus was born. It was over three hundred years after our Lord ascended back into heaven before Christians were known to be celebrating the anniversary of His birth among us. We have no knowledge of why December 25th was selected as the date for Christmas.

But although we don’t know the month or day that Jesus was born, celebrating His coming to us in late December is certainly appropriate. We are just passing the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year in the northern hemisphere of the earth. For the past six months, the days have been gradually getting shorter and the nights longer; for the next six months, the hours of darkness will give way to ever increasing amounts of daylight.

Mankind has always understood the importance of light. Crops won’t grow without light. Without light, it is almost impossible to get work done. Studies have shown that when deprived of light, people are prone to becoming irritable and depressed. It is no coincidence that black, the color of darkness, is often associated with evil and the grief that evil brings about.

If there is any month of the year that is dark, it is December. But December is also the month where things turn around—where the encroaching night begins to be pushed back by the advancing light of day. What an appropriate time, then, to celebrate the birth of Jesus. In John chapter 8 Jesus says, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." Because Jesus is the light of the world, John begins his account of Jesus’ life with these words: In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. December is the month of darkness beginning to give way to light—there is no better time to celebrate God sending us His Son to bring light into our dark world.

And the world is dark, my friend. Not just dark because the nights are long, but because of people. Everywhere in the world, people live in moral darkness. This Christmas, many people are spending more money on buying presents than they are spending time with their loved ones. The news is already flooded with campaign lies and half-truths, and this will only get worse in the months ahead. Over the next three months, many people will once again cheat on their Income Tax returns. Every month, young men and women from our country are dying because they are trying to bring peace to people who would rather kill. All across our country, families are collapsing into chaos because parents have stopped demanding respect and hard work from their children. More and more people stay away from church, because going to church would force them to reevaluate their sinful behavior. You can even hear people who claim to be Christian who will say "Oh God!" as if our Father’s holy name is nothing more than a way to express being surprised. The world is a dark place, because most people do not put God first in their lives.

Our Lord Jesus is the light of the world—but what does that mean, exactly? How is life in the light of Christ different from life in the darkness of sin? A good place to start is to talk about love. John tells us quite simply, God is love (1 John 4:16). God is the source of all true love. Now it is obvious that unbelievers know love too; but without the light of Christ to reveal things as they truly are, most people are fooled into accepting selfish behavior as expressions of true love. Picture it this way: most bars keep the lights down low. This is supposed to create an intimate atmosphere for couples who are getting to know each other, but in truth, dim lighting makes it hard to see the flaws in another person. Everyone looks good in the dark. It is the pure light of day that reveals wrinkles, gray hair, and a beer belly.

In the same way, without the light of Christ, love tainted by sin can look like the real thing to a person living in darkness. Without Christ’s light, many women accept being brutalized as part of a normal relationship. In the darkness, it can appear acceptable to have sexual union with many different people, in or out of marriage. It can seem normal to maintain friendships only so long as you are getting some advantage from the relationship. It can seem appropriate to tell lies in order to keep a relationship healthy. It can seem wise to let people do whatever they want, so long as it makes them happy.

Living in the light of Jesus allows believers to see that love is something completely different. Jesus defines true love when He says God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son (John 3:16). True love requires action; true love demands personal sacrifice. God’s love for us was such that He could not stand by and do nothing while our darkened understanding of love led us to use and abuse each other; because He loved us, God had to take action to stop the constant infliction of hurts. So He made a sacrifice—God sent His only Son, the perfect Son who pleased Him greatly, and sent Him to live in a sin-darkened world, a world that resisted His message of true love because darkness cannot understand light. Indeed, darkness fears light, because light banishes darkness. At night, when you open your door, do you let darkness into your house? Of course not—you let light out to push back the darkness. This is why children of darkness fear the light of Christ. And because those who loved darkness feared the light, they resisted Him at every opportunity, eventually sending Him to a cross to die.

This is the sacrifice that God the Father made, because He loved us. When a Christian loves, then, it is with the understanding that love is giving, not taking. The Christian knows that true love is about keeping promises, telling the truth, giving comfort, and making yourself available when you are needed. The Christian knows that loving others means giving them what they need, not necessarily what they want. The Christian knows that when it is pure, love does no harm to its neighbor (Romans 13:10).

Darkness does not understand how relationships are maintained. Far too many people are always looking out for "number one"; their focus is on themselves instead of on the relationship. When a friend or family member hurts them, their first response is to get even somehow; perhaps they try to return the pain they feel by yelling at the offender or by saying something emotionally hurtful. Some respond with violence, either by striking the person who caused the hurt, or by destroying some of their personal property when they are not around. Others hold in their anger at being hurt and emotionally withdraw for hours, days, weeks or even longer; they may repay their hurt by refusing to discuss anything of emotional importance with the offender until they feel that he or she has suffered enough. The way of darkened relationships is to keep a mental ledger book and make sure that every mistake is punished. The way of darkened relationships is to never trust but always be on your guard, living in emotional isolation.

The light of Christ shows that relationships cannot survive if they are built on judgment. If our relationship with God can only survive if He makes sure that we suffer for our every mistake, then eternity in hell is all we have to look forward to. We anger God every day with our immature temper tantrums, our casual lies, our delight in passing on gossip about others as if we are better than them. We anger God when we foolishly fritter away the money and skills and time that He has given us for the purpose of showing His love for others. If relationships are built on a pattern of retribution for every hurt, then we can expect no relationship from God, because Psalm 130 rightly says: If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?

Jesus came to earth to spare us from the judgment of God. Paul writes, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). God the Father diverted His punishment of our sins to Jesus, who suffered and died in our place. Jesus accepted our punishment so that we could be forgiven; John writes we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2). And the most remarkable part of Jesus’ salvation is that it is completely free—we need do nothing but believe in Him! We don’t have to do a certain number of good works every day. We do not have to make restitution for every thing that we do wrong. Jesus’ sacrifice has cancelled all our obligations to make settlement for our sins—Romans chapter three says that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Whatever good deeds that we do are purely acts of grateful thanks for God’s great mercy to us through Jesus; they are in no way repayment for our wrongs.

Christians living by the light of Christ understand that the only way relationships can survive for the long haul is through forgiveness. Without forgiveness, we would have no relationship with God; without forgiveness, no human relationship can endure. Forgiveness ends fights and feuds. Forgiveness makes divorce unnecessary. Forgiveness brings about deeper bonds of commitment, and improves the quality of intimacy between good friends. Forgiveness empties out the bile of lingering resentment that would otherwise slowly destroy a person from the inside.

Finally, darkness does not understand death. To people who don’t have the light of Christ, the darkness of death seems not so very different from the darkness of human life. For such people, death can appear to be a friend who brings release from suffering. When death is a friend, suicide seems like a good way to escape the problems of life. When death is a friend, a woman can rationalize aborting her baby by saying that she is sparing it from an unhappy life in a miserable world. When the darkness of death is a friend, life stops being a precious gift to be protected and nurtured at all costs.

The light of Christ shows death to be the evil thing that it truly is. When God created mankind, we were made immortal—it was never God’s plan that people should die. Death came as the consequence of sin; Paul writes the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). Jesus had to die Himself in order to break death’s eternal claim on us; in Hebrews 2:9 we read we see Jesus…now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. The result is freedom from death for us; Paul says our Savior, Christ Jesus…has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10). Jesus Himself said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies (John 11:25). Jesus’ promise to His faithful followers is that death is no more permanent for us than it was for Him; He said Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19). Jesus rose from the dead on Easter to complete the work that He began on Christmas—the defeat of sin, and the curse of death that sin brings.

When we live by the light of Christ, we see that life is a precious gift from God—so valuable that He allowed His Son Jesus to be put to death so that each human life could be preserved. The light of Christ shows us that deliberately ending God’s gift of life is unthinkable—all life is to be nurtured, protected, and given the best possible care. Death is the enemy, an enemy that we need not fear because Jesus has defeated it permanently.

Living in the light is infinitely superior to living in darkness; this is the great gift of God to us on Christmas. May the light of Christ grow brighter in your life and give you new life, just as the now lengthening days will result in the renewed life of spring.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Take a moment before making a decision

Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).

"Just do it." That’s the advice advertisers give us. "Just do it." That’s the kind of advice that often gets us into trouble. Making hasty decisions usually leads to bad results. Buying the first car that catches your eye without taking the time to shop around can be an expensive mistake. An impulsive decision to sleep with someone can result in a sexually transmitted disease. How many politicians have you seen get into trouble for speaking carelessly, resulting in a public statement where they try to control the damage by ‘clarifying’ what they meant?

We Americans are raised to be impatient. One-hour dry cleaning, drive-through windows and instant messaging are wonderful conveniences, but they chip away at our ability to take things slowly. Many video games demand the player to make split-second decisions. Many offices expect their employees to multi-task, with the result that no individual project is given the serious thought it requires.

We see the results all around us. The moment that the President finishes a speech, opponents are ready with a rebuttal, even though there has not been enough time to properly analyze his message. The news media give us only the bare bones of a story, believing that we don’t have the attention span needed for deeper consideration of the issues. People get married on a whim, try drugs without considering the consequences, get into fights because they let a moment of anger take control of them.

Our being in a hurry plays right into the hands of Satan. When we make snap decisions, we don’t take time to pray and ask God for advice; when we "just do it" we don’t wait for Him to guide us. In our hurry-up world, God calls on us to slow down; in the midst of our frantic multi-tasking, our Lord tells us to listen to Him.

If you are struggling with a decision, the fact that you feel torn should be waving a huge red flag. More likely than not, you are considering a course of action that will cause problems for someone else, is irresponsible, or will endanger the health of your body, mind, or spirit. Rather than ‘just doing it’, a far better course is to stop and pray, asking Jesus to guide you into making a wise decision.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Super heroics

When someone has been given much, much will be required in return (Luke 12:43).

People have always been fascinated with characters that are larger than life. In the ancient world, folks living along the Mediterranean wished they could be as clever as Ulysses. During the Middle Ages, people of northern Europe dreamed about being as brave as Beowulf. In our own times, many have wished they had the powers of Superman or some other comic book character.

We are drawn to the fantasy of the super hero, I think, because so much of the time we feel weak and helpless. We don’t know how to achieve our goals or how to escape a painful situation. We don’t have the power to rescue ourselves or give others the help that they so desperately need. Wouldn’t it be nice to be exceedingly clever, amazingly strong, or incredibly fast?

Perhaps you are familiar with Spider-Man. The lesson he learned through personal tragedy was this: with great power must come great responsibility. This is the teaching of Jesus; He said, When someone has been given much, much will be required in return.

The point is this. God has given each of us different skills and abilities. Some people seem to be more blessed with skill and aptitude than others. But before you start feeling jealous, consider this: that person so blessed by God has been equipped to deal with greater challenges than you will probably ever have to face. Look at Superman—he has to fight enemies that could squash lesser heroes with ease.

We don’t need to be ‘super’ to get through life; the Bible assures us that God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Corinthians 10:13). In addition, we have the assurance that God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1). Sometimes God provides a way to escape evil’s attempts to harm us; other times He lends us His strength to see us through hard times. We don’t need to be super smart, super strong, or super fast, because our God will fight for us, and Jesus’ help is more than enough to save us every time.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Ephratha, the virgin birth, and living securely

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth (Micah 5:2-4).

This week's Old Testament lesson is familiar to us because it is the one place in the Old Testament that specifically predicts the town that Jesus was to be born in. But the prophet Micah had much more to say about the coming Messiah than just the name of His birth place; in just these three verses, God tells His people a great deal about the Savior that would be coming 700 years after Micah wrote these words down.

Micah begins by being very specific about Jesus’ birthplace. It is important that Micah be precise, because two of the ways to correctly identify who the Messiah is have to do with His background. The first identifier has to do with Judah. Judah was the fourth of Jacob’s twelve sons. His name means "May God be praised." Over time, Judah came to be the leader among his brothers. God promised Judah that his descendants would continue to be leaders among the Jewish people until the time that the Messiah came; in Genesis 49:10 we read, The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler's staff from between his feet, until He comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is His. A ‘scepter’ is a decorated rod that represents the right to rule, just as a crown does; this verse is a poetic way of saying that the descendants of Judah would be given leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel until the final king came, the king to whom the scepter of rulership truly belongs, the king who will be obeyed by peoples all over the world, the king Jesus Christ.

God had promised the country of Canaan to Jacobs’s descendants as their homeland, and eventually the land was divided up between the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons. The descendents of Judah received the area where both Jerusalem and Bethlehem were built. Bethlehem would be the town of King Jesus’ birth, and Jerusalem would be the place where He died to offer kingly pardon for all human sin. But just as today there is more than one city named Madison, so in the Old Testament there was more than one town named Bethlehem. So Micah identifies the birthplace of the Savior both by it’s current name and by it’s ancient name—Ephrathah. The town had been called Ephrathah back when Jacob’s wife Rachel died—Genesis 35 records: So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And when Samuel later records the facts about King David’s birth, he tells us: Now David was the son of an Ephrathite named Jesse, who was from Bethlehem in Judah (1 Samuel 17:12). Because King David was born in Bethlehem, it later came to be known as the "City of David."

Micah was careful to point out that God’s ruler over Israel was going to be a descendant of royalty—a native of Judah’s tribe, born in the city of King David. There was to be no doubt that the Messiah would be true royalty, fit to lead God’s people as their king.

Through Micah, God also tells us that this king was not going to be an ordinary man; Micah records whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. How can a king, who won’t be born for another 700 years, have His origin in the ancient past? This is only possible because that newborn king, born in Bethlehem, is also the Son of God, given life by His Father before the world was made. The king who would be a descendant of Judah and King David would simultaneously be the Son of God, heir to the eternal throne of His Father, the Prince of Peace. Jesus would be royalty, both by human descent and by divine right of inheritance as the Son of God.

This king was coming into our world for one purpose—God the Father says, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel. Jesus was not coming to serve His own interests; Jesus was coming to rule Israel for God. Everything that Jesus did in His time among us was done to carry out His Father’s wishes. Jesus said, I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (John 6:38-40).

Do not think that Jesus did this work grudgingly; Jesus was not a Son who only did His Father’s work reluctantly. No, Jesus and His heavenly Father were in complete agreement—they both loved mankind, they both hated the sin that mankind finds so irresistible, and they both agreed that we must be offered a way to escape from the entanglements of sinful pleasures before the web of our sins tightens to the point of choking the life from us. Jesus and His Father were in complete agreement that the only way to rescue us from the hell that we have earned by sinning was for the Son of God to put on the clothing of humanity and suffer God’s punishment for our sins in our place. This shows the extent of our Savior’s love for us; this shows the extent of the Father’s concern for us, because Jesus said, Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (John 14:9).

Our text continues, Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. First, God located where the birth of the Messiah would take place; now He gives hints as to when this birth would take place. One condition is that the rest of his brothers [will] return to join the Israelites. God warns the Israelites through Micah that they have angered Him by living in unrepentant sin, and the time is coming when He will withdraw His protection and allow many of the people to be captured and taken away into captivity. Hosea, who spoke for God at the same time as Micah, gave this warning: Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed" (Hosea 4:1-2). The people lived in wickedness and felt no shame over it—therefore, God would issue them a "wake-up call" by allowing the Babylonian Empire to successfully invade the land and take most of the populace hostage for 70 years. But when this time of crisis finally resulted in remorse and contrition, God would free His captive people and bring them home to be reunited with those left behind—Micah 2:12 says I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob; I will surely bring together the remnant of Israel. I will bring them together like sheep in a pen, like a flock in its pasture; the place will throng with people. This is what God is referring to when He speaks of the rest of his brothers returning to join the Israelites. The Messiah would not come until after the end of the Babylonian Captivity.

The other indicator would be the time when she who is in labor gives birth. Since children are being born all the time, there must be something remarkable about this particular pregnancy that people would see it as a sign of the Messiah coming. Isaiah, another prophet of God living in Micah’s time, speaks of such a remarkable pregnancy—he predicts: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14). The most significant announcement that the Savior of God has come is when a virgin will miraculously become pregnant and give birth to a boy, a boy who has no human father, only a heavenly one. A child both of man and of God.

This all comes together for us in Luke chapter one: God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end." "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God." And in chapter two, Luke continues: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Micah continues: He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. How unlike other kings would this king be! Other kings come in power to be served; Jesus said, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Jesus doesn’t use His scepter of royal power to drive us before Him with blows; rather, He leads us like a shepherd, guides us to safe pasturage, protects us from demonic predators, and rescues us when we foolishly wander away and become lost. Jesus is well equipped to protect us because He has the strength of the LORD; as God’s Son, He has infinite power to support His infinite loving care for us. And He has the authority to lead us, because He has the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; the heavenly Father has given Jesus the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11). Yet in spite of all this royal power and privilege, Jesus presents Himself to us as our shepherd—no wonder that shepherds worshipped Him as well as kings from the East.

Our text concludes: And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. We do live securely, surrounded though we are by sin and temptation, because Jesus’ greatness is reaching the ends of the earth. All over the world, people know that next week is Christmas—all over the world, people speak the name of Christ, the Anointed One, when they make their plans for the holidays. All over the world, people see the image of the cross, the symbol of God’s sacrifice of love for fallen humanity. Our LORD’s greatness may not be honored everywhere, but it is visible everywhere, and this gives us security because we know that God has kept His promises and God continues to keep His promises—promises of mercy on those who repent and put their trust in Jesus’ name, promises of freedom from sin and the evil that seeks to entangle us, promises of eternal joy in the presence of the Babe of Bethlehem.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A damaged ecosystem

The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 11:7).

Have you ever wondered why God made mosquitoes? It’s a question that I’m tempted to ask whenever hordes of the little bloodsuckers chase me out of the yard back into the house. Mosquitoes can ruin an otherwise perfect summer’s day.

Sometimes we look at the world around us and wonder why things are the way they are. Why do my gardening tools get rusty? Why do dandelions take over my lawn? Life is full of frustrations, and sometimes we’d just like to know why.

Actually, the answer has been available all along. It is found in the pages of the Bible. In the beginning, God made everything perfect. There was no death. This boggles our minds—how could the ecosystem work if there is no death? Sadly, we were not permitted to find out because Adam and Eve quickly ruined things by sinning against God. Because they disobeyed God’s orders, the world was cursed. Now moths and rust destroy our goods. Now there are weeds and pain and death. Because of sin, the very laws of nature established by God have been corrupted, making the world a very different place than what was originally designed.

We regard mosquitoes as useless pests; we wonder why God created them. But in the beginning, mosquitoes were not pests—sin has changed them and their environment. When God originally made mosquitoes, they served an important role that sin has now obscured.

But there is hope for the future. The perfection that has been lost will one day be restored. The first time Jesus came to earth, He overcame the corrupting power of sin by His sacrificial death. The next time Jesus comes, He will remake the world as it was before sin ruined things. The laws of nature will be reset, as Isaiah tells us: The wolf and the lamb will feed together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. Imagine it—carnivores turned into herbivores. A world where there are no hunters or prey. A world where mosquitoes do not ruin a pleasant summer’s evening. That’s the world lost to us because of sin. That’s the world coming to everyone who loves, and trusts in, Jesus.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Peace of mind

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me (John 14:1).

What benefit is there to being a Christian? I would say that one huge benefit is having peace of mind.

Many people wonder why they were born. Maybe it seems as if no one really needs you. Maybe it seems as if nothing you do ever turns out right. But Christianity offers reassurance. Jesus loves you; His tremendous love moved Him to die on the cross in order to make sure that you can be His precious friend. Even if no one else cares about you, you are loved greatly by the Son of God. Not only that, our Lord created you; your conception was no accident. You were designed to serve the Lord, and He has given you everything necessary to work effectively for Him. You may not as yet have figured out what your servant skills are, but when you follow Jesus you can be certain that your life has purpose and meaning.

All of us struggle with feelings of guilt. Our lives are filled with bad choices and missed opportunities. We have hurt others by speaking thoughtless words and by keeping silent at the wrong times. But Christianity offers a solution. Jesus gave His life on the cross to make up for your mistakes. The cross of Christ symbolizes forgiveness for the past and healing for today. Jesus awaits your cry for mercy; He wants you to come to Him to be forgiven. And when the Son of God forgives you, you can forgive yourself.

But the place we most need peace of mind is when death shatters our lives. Whether it be the death of a loved one or the specter of your own approaching end, death causes terror as nothing else can. When life ends, what then? When I die, what will happen to me? Where will I be? Will I be happy? Will I suffer? Will I cease to exist altogether? Will I ever see my loved ones again? When death upsets our lives, that is the time when Christianity offers the greatest peace of mind. Jesus died and came back to life. He has shown that He has absolute power over both life and death. He tells us that we should not fear dying because He stands at the threshold, ready to take us to a place where everything is perfect and no one will ever die again.

A Christian’s life is not free from problems, but the peace of mind is priceless.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Cleaning up for company

Do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature (Romans 13:11-14).

As we look forward to the holiday season, it is time to get ready for guests. Many, if not most of us, will have company over at some time in the next several weeks. It may be college students returning home from school. It may be parents or grandparents gathering to open presents. It may be friends who are coming to enjoy a festive dinner. It may be co-workers who have been invited over for drinks and conversation. One of the best things about the holiday season is the opportunity to gather together with those we love and celebrate together.

But having guests over involves work, and some guests require more work than others. It is one thing to prepare for an evening’s party or a Sunday dinner; it is quite another to get ready for a guest who’s going to stay for a few days. Preparing for a visit of a few hours calls for cleaning the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and the bathroom, but that’s about it—bedroom doors can be closed to hide messes that we don’t want to deal with. But when a visitor is coming from a distance and will be staying with us for a while, getting ready takes a lot more work. Old mail must be gone through and thrown away. Clothes in the mending pile must be dealt with and hung up. Photo albums must be organized. The medicine cabinet needs to be gone through. Toys need to be stored away. Every room needs to be cleaned and organized.

Having a houseguest can be demanding on us. It would be embarrassing to have a guest who was up late if you came home drunk and spent the next several hours vomiting in the bathroom. It would be embarrassing to have a guest accidentally come across pornography in your house. It would be embarrassing to have a guest overhear you and your spouse screaming at each other in a vicious argument. Having a houseguest around constantly reminds us that we all have habits we’d prefer to keep secret from others.

In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul speaks of getting ready to receive a houseguest. That houseguest is Jesus. Paul advises us to put our houses in order as we prepare to welcome our Lord into our world and into our lives. Jesus is not interested in only visiting with us for a few hours and then leaving. The Son of God would like us to welcome Him into our homes for a long visit, a visit that will last until the day that He takes us from our earthly homes to be His guests in His heavenly home. Jesus would like to be a permanent part of our lives.

When we welcome our Lord, He takes up residence in our hearts. But our hearts are full of things that we’d prefer to keep secret—ugly, distasteful things. Paul mentions only a few: orgies and drunkenness…sexual immorality and debauchery…dissension and jealousy. Having such things in our hearts at the same time as our Lord Jesus leads to embarrassment for us and shabby treatment of our royal guest. Jesus is present in your heart when you get drunk. Jesus is present in your heart when you fantasize about a person you are not married to. Jesus is present in your heart when you hurl bitter words at the members of your family. When these things happen, Jesus is the guest who sees you passed out on the floor, comes across your pornography, listens as you spew hatred at those you claim to love.

How embarrassing. How discourteous.

Paul advises us to do a thorough housecleaning for our treasured houseguest. He calls on us to behave decently, to cultivate good behaviors. Having a houseguest can prompt us to being more thoughtful of what we think, do and say. Do you give up smoking when you have company? If you do, your body is all the healthier for it. Do you remember to say "please" and "thank you" and "may I" when you have company? If you do, everyone benefits from greater peace and respect in the household. Do you bite your tongue and hold in angry words when there is a guest present? If you do, your relationship of love with your family is strengthened by your forbearance. Having a guest stay over encourages us to be on our best behavior, and this can result in better relationships and less stress in our homes.

So it is with Jesus. When we are aware of His presence in our hearts every day, we want to be on our best behavior. Knowing that Jesus is in our hearts, we don’t want to make His stay unpleasant. We don’t want to fill our hearts with disrespect, anger, lust or greed. We don’t want to throw our sins in Jesus’ face as if He couldn’t care less about what we do with our lives. Do you swear in front of your grandmother? Of course not—and neither would you swear in front of Jesus, if you always remembered that He is a houseguest in your heart every moment of every day.

But there is a problem. We can’t be on our best behavior all the time. Sooner or later we slip. Sooner or later you are offered one more drink than you should have, and you make the mistake of deciding that you can handle it. Sooner or later you see a very attractive person at work or while shopping, and you take a moment to fantasize about what it would be like to share an intimate moment with that person. Sooner or later you are faced with one frustration too many, and you blurt out a curse or an insult. Sooner or later every one of us messes up, and places something sinful right next to Jesus in our heart.

Thankfully, Jesus isn’t like other houseguests. Jesus is not easily insulted or offended. Jesus is the one who taught His disciples: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also (Luke 6:27-29). Jesus Himself lives this way, and for that we are eternally grateful. We mistreat Jesus when we ignore His presence in our hearts and do as we please. But Jesus does not abandon us when we offend Him; Jesus stays with us and offers His mercy to us instead. As long as we believe in Jesus as the only person sent by God to be our Savior, we are promised that He is willing to forgive us for every time that we strike Him in the face with our sins.

Jesus is the perfect houseguest. He is always good company, inspiring us to try and be better hosts. He always accepts our apologies for our shabby hospitality. And He doesn’t take our homes for granted. Our Lord is like the guest who takes his own luggage up to the guestroom and helps with the dishes. Jesus not only lives with us, He also takes an active interest in helping us with our lives. Our Lord knows that sinful desires and behaviors fill our lives with stress and unhappiness. Jesus wants to change all that. Our Lord wants to help us to clean our lives of everything that is harmful—impulsive decision making, addictive behaviors, and a throw-away mentality that discards the blessings of the past for the thrill of the new. Our Lord wants to help us to make well-thought-out decisions that always respect God’s holy Law. He wants to help us to do things because they are important, not just as a matter of routine. He wants to help us to develop beneficial habits of working hard, eating healthy, and showing Godly love whenever we enjoy the company of others. Jesus wants to show us a new way to live, a way that is healthy and leads to contentment, a way that is summed up in two commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).

In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul writes: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Jesus cannot be deceived. When we have dinner guests, we can hide a mess by closing the bedroom door. But Jesus is our houseguest; He lives with us and knows everything about us. We cannot come to church for one or two hours a week and pretend that the rest of our week escapes His notice. We cannot fool Jesus into thinking that we are sincerely sorry for our sins when we go home from church with no intention of trying to live better lives. If we want to have the kind of home that Jesus deserves as our visiting king, we can’t just hide our sins, we must start facing them and ask Jesus to help us in throwing out our old wicked habits.

Advent is the season where we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s arrival on earth to free us from sin, death and the devil. While it is true that Jesus has lived in your heart ever since you were baptized in His name, Advent is a good time to look at your life and do a little housecleaning. What kind of place do you want to offer Jesus for His stay? Do you want to offer Him a seat at a dinner table where everyone bickers and glares, or do you want to seat Him at a table where family members respect each other and enjoy each others’ company? Would you take your Savior out for an evening of fun at a bar, or would you rather that He join you at a skating rink? Would you like the Lord to spend the evening with you watching a TV show filled with coarse words and suggestive language, or would you prefer to take a quiet stroll with Him under the moon and the stars?

Jesus is the best houseguest that anyone could ever have. He inspires us to be our best, not our worst. He forgives us for our every failure. He brings peace and lower stress into our homes by helping us to forgive each other, and by giving us advice on how to lead lives that are emotionally and physically healthy. And best of all, while He only lives with us for a few decades at most, He invites us to be His houseguests forever. It is my prayer that you will do everything in your power to make Him welcome in your life, because He is the best guest you will receive, this month or any other.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


We have been made right in God's sight by the blood of Christ (Romans 5:9).

In the city where I grew up, the north side of town was separated from the south side by a river. There were only four bridges that crossed that river—two downtown near the harbor, one at the edge of the industrial district, and one out near the residential area where we lived. Since the city was a port town with docks along the river, the two downtown bridges were the kind that opened to allow river traffic to get through. This meant that whenever a ship arrived or departed, traffic through the heart of the city largely came to a stop.

This gave me a real appreciation for bridges. I was fascinated by the beauty of their design. I marveled at how something as large and heavy as the downtown bridges could tilt up into the air. And I saw what a mess life became when the bridge you needed was unavailable for use.

Regardless of where you live, there is one bridge that is absolutely essential in your life. That bridge is Jesus the Son of God. Sin has opened a gorge that separates us from God, a gap impossible for us to cross. God is holy; we love the thrill of sin. God is love in all its generosity; we prefer to be selfish. God will not set aside perfection to tolerate us as we are, and we do not have it within us to live according to His righteous standard of conduct.

Jesus is God’s bridge by which we might approach Him. Jesus makes it possible for us to walk away from a world of sin and enter the perfection of heaven. He built the bridge by assuming responsibility for our sins and dying for them in our place. He allows us to cross when we come to Him with heavy hearts, seeking His forgiveness and a new start at living life according to God’s priorities.

My hometown has several bridges, but there is only one bridge to heaven. There is no other way to reach God’s side than by the bridge Jesus made by His own sweat and blood. Many people try to build their own bridges, but sin clouds our thinking, weakens our efforts, undermines our accomplishments. No one can produce the perfect life needed to reach out and touch God—our only hope for success is by crossing on the way that Jesus has built for us.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (Psalm 119:105).

There’s nothing like taking a quiet walk along a city street at night. The heat of the day has been replaced by a cool, gentle breeze. Leaves rustle sleepily as you walk under the branches of a tree. In the distance there might be the solitary bark of a dog or the sound of some vehicle on the move, but in your immediate vicinity there is only calmness and peace. Essential to the pleasure of this walk are the city streetlights. They let you see where you are going. Darkness that would normally be frightening is dispelled just enough by their soft light to become a soothing shroud of privacy and tranquility.

There is something almost magical about streetlights. On a foggy night, they are surrounded by a hazy glow that is beautiful to gaze at. On a rainy night, they cast sparkling reflections from the puddles in the street. On a hot and muggy night, they draw away many of the insects that would otherwise be pestering you.

It is easy to take streetlights for granted. On a night when the power goes out, it is astonishing how dark everything is with no lights casting shadows through your windows. When the streetlights go out, the world takes on a sinister cast.

Sin has filled the world with darkness. But God has placed streetlights everywhere. These streetlights are His Churches. He gives each of them the light bulb of the Bible and the electricity of the Holy Spirit; with these gifts from the Savior, each congregation is equipped to shine some light into the darkness that surrounds it.

The churches of Jesus act like streetlights for us. When we are headed in the wrong direction, they help us find our way through the darkness. Even when things are foggy and we can’t see the light of Christ as clearly as we should, the beautiful glow of His love still draws us to Him. When everything seems rainy and dreary, we are still given sparkling reflections of God’s light in the puddles. When troubles surround us like annoying insects, the light of Christ can take our griefs away.

It is easy to take these heavenly streetlights for granted. But imagine the darkness, were they to go out. How dark and sinister this world would be without God’s love streaming through the doors and windows of His Churches. Thankfully, this is something we need not worry about happening, because Jesus has promised that until the day of His return, we will never be without the light He gives through the streetlights that are His churches.

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