Thursday, January 31, 2008


You have given me hope (Psalm 119:49).

Do you ever feel as if things are hopeless? Are there times when it seems as if your life is nothing but pain, and there will never be an end to it? Are you reluctant to think about the past, because happy memories are overshadowed by regret and guilt? Do you feel trapped by your circumstances, with no apparent way out?

What has brought you to this point of emotional crisis? Have you been diagnosed with a terminal health condition? Have you treated a loved one so badly that they have left your life, wanting nothing more to do with you? Are you stuck in a dead-end job with bills piling up and no prospects for a better standard of living?

If you are like many others, you might imagine that you only have two alternatives—keep on dragging yourself through one endless day after another, or end the pain by suicide. But there is a third alternative—seek outside help. By outside help, I don’t necessarily mean your relatives or a government agency. While family can often be very helpful and supportive, you might not have that option—maybe you have no family, or the family you have either cannot or will not help you. And while there are many excellent government programs that offer a wide variety of assistance, you might have discovered that you don’t meet eligibility requirements for some reason. No, the outside help I am speaking of is the one place you can go and always be welcomed, loved, and cared for. I suggest seeking help from Jesus.

How can Jesus help? Since He is the Son of God, He has the power to change your life. He has quieted storms with a word, even commanded the dead back to life. Further, He has the wisdom to know the best way to help you and the best time to act. But your biggest need isn’t better health, improved relationships, or more money. Your most significant need is hope. When Jesus gives you hope, any other problem can be managed. What hope can Jesus give you? He can assure you that He loves you. He can assure you that He is willing to forgive and forget all the darkness of your past. He can assure you that when death arrives, it is not the end, only a transition to a life free of every pain that has made you miserable. God says, those who hope in me will not be disappointed (Isaiah 49:23). Jesus only asks that you trust Him; in return, He will replace the chill of your despair with the warmth of His hope.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Getting through life's intersections

Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always (Psalm 105:4).

It can be instructive watching how drivers deal with an intersection. Some creep up to the corner slowly; others sit at the intersection for so long that you wonder if they’re ever going to move. Some jam on the brakes at the last second, then stomp on the accelerator as they take off again; others barely slow down—they just roll through the intersection regardless of what might be coming. And then there are those who do as they were taught—they stop completely, they look both ways, and then they move on.

These behaviors illustrate the different ways people deal with making decisions. Some are exceedingly cautious; seeing a possible decision coming up, they slow down in an effort to put off facing it for as long as possible. When making a decision can no longer be avoided, they examine every possible outcome over and over, continually looking left and right for the slightest hint of danger. Fear of proceeding nearly paralyzes them. Others are reckless; either they are in a hurry or they simply don’t fear the consequences of their actions. Some come rushing up to a point of decision, give the situation only a moment’s thought, then plunge on ahead; others just charge through life, trusting in their instincts to keep them safe.

But God’s way is different. He does not want us to be terrified of each decision; such behavior shows that we do not trust Him to guide us or protect us. Nor does He want us charging through life without being cautious; since we are sinners, our first impulses are often the wrong ones. When faced with a decision, Jesus wants you to consider the situation carefully: what are your options? Do any of the choices violate God’s rules? (If you’re not sure, spend some time with the Bible or speak with your pastor). What are the potential benefits of each option? Of the possible outcomes, are there some that might result in pain of some kind—physical, emotional or spiritual damage, either to yourself or to others? Once you have looked carefully at the situation, it is time to pray—pray that the Spirit of God would lead you to the best path. Then give God a little time; don’t be in such a hurry that you cannot feel which way God is nudging you. At the same time, don’t ever be afraid to make a decision and proceed—remember, whenever you choose badly, Jesus is there to forgive you and help you pick up the pieces for another go.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

2008 resolutions

The word of the LORD came to me, saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations."

"Ah, Sovereign LORD," I said, "I do not know how to speak; I am only a child."

But the LORD said to me, "Do not say, `I am only a child.' You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you," declares the LORD.

Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, "Now, I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant" (Jeremiah 1:4-10).

We’re about a month into the new year as of today, so I’d like to ask you—how are you doing on your New Year’s resolutions? Have you lost 10 pounds yet? Has it been 26 days since you picked up a cigarette? Has your family noticed that you have been doing a better job of keeping your temper under control and being patient? Have you been successful in changing your life?

I suspect that many people in the world are not having much success in sticking to their New Year’s resolutions by this point. I’m guessing that some of you reading this didn’t even make a resolution on New Year’s Eve, because you have failed to keep resolutions in past years and you were afraid that you wouldn’t be able to stick with a new commitment in 2008 either. It is always difficult to change things, and the hardest thing to change of all is yourself.

It is because we have such a hard time changing ourselves that so many ‘self-help’ books are sold. There are books on how to lose weight, how to manage money, how to improve relationships, how to build a successful career and many, many more. Books like these are constantly being written and they always sell well—but have you ever wondered why there are so many? Obviously, it is because the majority of the time these books do not succeed in bringing about an improved life. If an author truly had the ultimate solution to weight loss, and every overweight person bought and used that book, sales would drop off rapidly for any future dieting books because everyone would now be at his or her ideal weight! The reason that dieting books are continually being written is because they only result in lasting success for a few people—the rest go back to the bookstore and put their money down for the next new book to offer hope for permanent weight loss. It is the same for any other kind of self-help book as well.

There are two reasons why self-help books don’t work—the author and the reader. Self-help books don’t work, first of all, because the people who write them are not perfect. No doctor is perfect—if a doctor never made an error in judgment, he wouldn’t need to carry malpractice insurance. The same applies to lawyers, psychologists, and any other kind of professional who makes a living by helping others. No professional, regardless of how well trained he or she is, can anticipate every potential problem; the professionals who designed the Titanic were certain that their ship design was unsinkable. Every professional can make a bad decision after a sleepless night, or while sick, or during a time of heavy stress. Every human being experiences lapses of judgment. How can we be confident, then, that any self-help book will really give us sound advice on every page?

The other reason that self-help books fail is because of the people who read them. One problem is attention span. Without scrolling up, do you remember how I titled this message? You just read it a couple of minutes ago. A study of children in school has suggested that during an academic year the average student only remembers 10% of what he or she is taught in the classroom. How effective can a 200-page self-help book be, if we only remember 20 pages of it?

Another problem is that we humans do not like to change. We get comfortable with our lives the way they are—changing causes us to become uncomfortable, sometimes fearful. I’ve known women who dated men who were abusive, yet they kept going out with these same sorts of guys even though other types of men were also interested in them. I’ve known people who hated their jobs, yet wouldn’t look at changing their careers. Why? I think it is because of an old saying that goes "better the devil you know than the devil you don’t." People often resist change because they fear that as bad as things are now, changing will only make things worse. How effective can a self-help book be if the reader does not believe that the suffering of dieting and exercise will be outweighed by the benefits of a lighter, stronger body?

Our attempts to improve ourselves so often fail because of imperfection. The experts give imperfect advice, and we neither fully understand nor whole-heartedly embrace that advice because of our imperfections. And so our lives continue on much as before, while we look for another solution to the problems that trouble us. But in Jeremiah we are offered an alternative. Our Old Testament lesson shows us a different way to improve our lives.

Jeremiah can very easily represent each of us. God comes to him and tells Jeremiah that he needs to make a change in his life—Jeremiah is going to have a new career as God’s representative to the Israelites. Now a career change is a scary thing. A career change will require new skills, new goals and priorities, a new daily routine, and meeting new people. Becoming a prophet of God will turn Jeremiah’s life upside down. If he is to be successful, Jeremiah will need to make a lot of changes—and frankly, the thought of it all terrifies him. Immediately, Jeremiah tries to tell God that he is not ready for such an important change in his life—this man, who is at least 20 years old, says I am only a child.

Under ordinary circumstances, Jeremiah would be justified in being nervous. How many of you reading this have received ‘job training’ that left you terribly unprepared for carrying out your new duties? How many of you have leafed through an employee handbook and didn’t understand half of what you read? How many of you have struggled with a new job because you weren’t quick enough, strong enough, or bright enough? On a new job most of us are initially incapable of doing things as well as the boss expects, and this tempts us to give up and look for another way to earn money.

But when God brings change into our lives, things are different. God does not give us imperfect advice or unclear instructions on how He wants things done. God is the source of all wisdom, and He has used the 66 books of the Bible to show us how to live harmoniously with Him and with each other. In 2 Timothy 3:16 Paul writes, All Scripture comes out of God’s mouth and is useful for teaching, warning, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. When praying to His heavenly Father, Jesus said: Your word is truth (John 17:17). Through the influence of the Holy Spirit, God made sure that the Bible was a mistake-free book that we may turn to confidently for wisdom.

But the Bible is not a self-help book; the Bible is instead a God helps book. God knows that we are imperfect; He knows that we have trouble paying attention, trouble understanding, trouble remembering, trouble staying the course over the long haul. We promise to change our bad habits and we fail. God knows that because of our imperfections, we let ourselves down, we let our loved ones down, and we inevitably let our Lord down. God knows that even with a perfect Bible in our hands, we cannot free ourselves of our imperfections, no matter how hard we try.

So God sent His beloved Son into our world, dressed in the body of a human. Jesus walked this earth to do what we cannot—He lived His life perfectly according to God’s expectations, and when He suffered and died on the cross He offered His perfect life in exchange for our imperfect lives. Jesus offers eternal life in heaven in exchange for eternal condemnation in hell. Jesus lived and died for us; in exchange, He only asks in return for our loyalty to Him alone.

When we are loyal to Jesus, our lives can be changed—changed quite dramatically! In the hands of an unbeliever, the Bible is just a book of words; but in the hands of a Christian, the Bible becomes God’s instrument of power in our lives. The Holy Spirit works through the power of God’s word, and when we read and believe in the word of God the Spirit works powerfully in us. Paul says it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13). This is why the Bible cannot be called a self-help book—the Bible is not a tool that we use to change our lives, it is the tool that God uses to change our lives. The Good News of the Bible is that it is not ultimately up to us to save ourselves; God knows that if salvation were up to us, we would inevitable fail and wind up in hell. Instead, we have the wonderful assurance that it is God who saves us through the atoning work of Jesus on the cross. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-10).

We see this in the calling of Jeremiah as God’s prophet. First God tells him, Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart. God reminds Jeremiah that He creates each and every person individually; God decides what each of our talents and strengths will be. Paul tells us, we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10). Jeremiah did not understand that from the moment of conception the Lord had given him the skills needed to do God’s assigned work. And this is true of you and me as well. We need never fear that God will ask us to do something we are incapable of, because He has already made us capable.

God also told Jeremiah, Do not be afraid…for I am with you. The author of a self-help book is not available to you if you have questions. A psychologist will not come to your house and help you deal with an urgent problem. But God tells Jeremiah not to be afraid because He will be with him. God tells you not to be afraid of going through changes in service to Him, because our Lord will also be with you every step of the way. Certainly, changing your pattern of living as a follower of Christ can sometimes be difficult, but remember what Jesus promised those who embraced a new life with Him: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light" (Matthew 11:28-30).

Finally God told Jeremiah, I have put my words in your mouth. By doing this, God was equipping Jeremiah for his job as God’s spokesman. Clearly, we too can expect our Lord to reach out and give us whatever we need to serve Him. But let us not think that these specific words were for Jeremiah alone. When God says I have put my words in your mouth, this applies to us as well. Of all the tasks that our Lord gives us, none is more important than the privilege of telling another person about Jesus’ love for them. Parents are commanded to raise their children in the Lord (Deuteronomy 31:12). All Christians have been given the command go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

Of course, when we hear these words it is easy to become intimidated. We want to respond as Moses did when God told him to go speak to the Israelites held captive in Egypt: "O Lord, I have never been eloquent…I am slow of speech and tongue." But God responded to Moses, "Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say" (Exodus 4:10-12). Similarly, Jesus reassured His followers do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:11). God makes it abundantly clear to Jeremiah and to us that when He gives us an opportunity to speak of Christ with others, we are to seize the moment with confidence that the Lord will be with us, helping us to say the right things.

Making changes in your life can be scary, but Paul tells us we died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:2) Being a Christian calls for us to abandon old, self-centered ways and seek to adopt a lifestyle that serves God. Leaving behind the past can be just as hard as losing weight or changing jobs, but we have something far more effective than any self-help book—we have God, who promises to help us in living our lives according to His wisdom and who promises to forgive us for Jesus’ sake when we stumble and fall. May it be your ongoing resolution to live each day as a faithful follower of the Lord.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Political Correctness

Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you?" (John 6:61)

In recent years, many have bought into the teachings of ‘Political Correctness.’ The philosophy is pretty simple—never say anything that might offend someone. We’re told that Political Correctness is a way for us to show love and respect to others. And many Christians now think this way—after all, Jesus wants us to love and respect each other.

Yet ever since Jesus walked the earth, many have been offended by His words. Does this mean that Jesus was insensitive? Certainly not! But the holy Son of God never turned a blind eye to sin. Sin is poison to the soul, and Jesus’ purpose in coming was to end sin’s dreadful power over us. So Jesus always confronted sin head-on; no health problem can be treated until it is exposed, whether it is a problem with the body or the soul.

No one likes being told that they are doing something wrong, even if they are told in a loving, gentle way. And so Jesus and His followers have always been resented for speaking truths that many do not want to hear. This has never been as true as it is today—because of Political Correctness, the message of the Church is regarded by many as offensive. Sadly, some churches are caving in to Political Correctness; they are so afraid of angering people that they will bend over backwards to be inoffensive. How often do the pastors of today tell their people that God hates divorce? How many sermons denounce sex outside of marriage? How many clergy have the courage to announce that God disapproves of homosexual behavior? Where are the warnings against drunkenness, greed, or using God’s name as a curse word? Too many churches would rather keep their members feeling comfortable than challenge them to give up their sinful pleasures in honor of Jesus.

But the biggest scandal of Christianity is this—that Jesus alone is our means of forgiveness and our key to heaven. Many are greatly angered when told that their religion is wrong and cannot fulfill the promises that it makes. So to avoid giving offense, some Christian churches no longer emphasize the Savior’s words, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). But it is not loving to let people go on living ignorantly in sin; when we do not try to show them their sins and lead them to the only One who can save them, we have traded true love for Political Correctness.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Empty calories

Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).

Empty calories—these are calories that fill us up but provide little nutritional value. Soda pop and frosting are examples of empty calories—fun to consume, but they contribute very little to keeping our bodies healthy.

Have you ever attended the Church of the Empty Calorie? There are many of them in the United States. They can make you feel good, but they frequently miss the opportunity to really nourish your soul.

The Church of the Empty Calorie likes praise songs. Praise songs are typically filled with words like "I love You Lord," or "God is good." I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with such songs—but a steady diet of them is like a steady diet of frosting. Our singing to God can be much more diverse. Songs where we confess our sins and beg God for mercy. Songs where we ask Jesus for help in resisting temptation. Songs where we ask the Spirit of God to give us patience, strength and hope as we face the dark days of our lives. Many great hymns are based on passages of the Bible and help us to understand what they mean; such songs are like little sermons in themselves. Singing to God can be much more than just making joy-filled music.

The Church of the Empty Calorie usually offers sermons that help you feel good about yourself. And certainly Jesus wants you to know that He loves you. But look at the Bible—there is much more to Scripture than the words "God is love" (1 John 4:8). We are sinners—we need to be reminded that, by nature, we anger God instead of pleasing Him. Only when we realize this do we truly appreciate how wonderful it is that Jesus offered Himself in death to make atonement for our sins. And the primary reason God sends His Spirit to fill our hearts is to help us live lives of loving service to God and each other; our being happy is just the joyous side effect. Sermons should explore all the riches of God’s revelation, and not be restricted to a humanistic "I’m okay, you’re okay" type of message.

The Church of the Empty Calorie can be fun to attend, but it often fails to satisfy the needs of your spirit. Your body can’t live on empty calories; neither can your soul. If you find yourself craving something more substantial than you’ve been getting from attending church, contact me at the email address linked below—I’d be happy to suggest other places you might try for a satisfying worship experience.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The importance of words

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They replied, "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets."

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

Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:13-19)

Have you ever thought of words as being solid, permanent things? It sounds odd, I know—after all, spoken words cannot be seen or touched and written words can be erased. Furthermore, words can be contradicted or rewritten—the editors of a new edition of an encyclopedia often rewrite old entries, and a conservative newsman often reports daily events very differently than an announcer who is liberal. Words would not seem to have much in the way of permanence.

But words are much more permanent than you might think. A revised edition of a book might correct typographical errors, yet the first edition is the one that goes up in value. If you hear on the news that a man in town has been arrested for child molestation but he is later found innocent in court, are you more likely to remember the fact that he was acquitted or will you always regard him with disgust and fear because of the accusation? After a fight in which your loved one says something that hurts you deeply, when you offer forgiveness do you completely forget those hurtful words? If you grew up with the King James Version of the Bible, has any other translation taken its place in your heart? As you can see, words can indeed become a permanent part of our lives.

Because words can become a permanent part of us, forever changing how we think about God, the world, and the people in our lives, we must take words very seriously. Words have tremendous power. The person who said "sticks and stones can break my bones, but names will never hurt me" was a liar—the hurt from a harsh word can take much longer to heal than the bruise gotten during a shoving match. Words have the power to bring about dramatic change. It was by His spoken word that God brought forth light to dispel the darkness—in Genesis chapter one we read: God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. It was by His spoken word that Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead; Mark tells us He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!"). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (Mark 5:41). Words are so powerful that the Apostle John even identifies Jesus as the "Word of God" made flesh (John 1:14).

Because words are powerful, we must speak when there is something important to say. When we have words that can permanently change the life of another person for the better, we must speak those words. In Romans 10:9-10 Paul tells us, 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. A Christian is not a silent man or woman who believes in secret; a Christian is a believer who shares Jesus’ words of life with others.

In today’s Gospel reading, Simon Peter says words of lasting importance. Jesus asks him to make a confession, a statement of an important truth. Jesus asks Simon to say out loud what be believes in his heart about his Lord. In response, Simon states a great, life-changing truth: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." In this short phrase, Simon Peter sums up who Jesus is, and what Jesus came to earth to do.

First, Simon calls Jesus the Christ. "Christ" means Anointed One. In Bible times, a person was set aside for important work by anointing them. In the name of God, oil was poured on the head of men to consecrate them as kings to lead God’s people or to ordain them as priests who would work for God in His Temple. By referring to Jesus as the Christ, Simon Peter was identifying Jesus as a man who was set apart by God to do a most important work—the work of saving mankind from sin, death, and the devil.

Second, Simon identifies Jesus as the Son of the living God. Jesus is not only a Son of Man chosen by God to reconcile fallen humanity to its perfect Creator, Jesus is at the same time the divine Son of God, existing with the Father from eternity, infinite in power and wisdom and love. Jesus is both fully man and fully God—not a hybrid or crossbreed, but truly two-in-one.

This is the central truth of the entire Bible. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. We have a God, and He is living today—this means that we have a place to go to for help anytime that we are in need! And we can be confident that this living God cares about us, because He cared enough about our eternal welfare to send His Son to personally represent Him to us. This Son was sent to do the work of the Christ. He was sent to tell us about God—that God loves us but that He will not tolerate the sin that every one of us dirties himself with on a daily basis. Jesus was sent to us as God’s Prophet.

The Christ was also sent to rescue us from the problem of sin. Our sin separates us from God, and if we die separated from Him, we will be separated from the only source of love for all eternity. So Jesus came to act as our Priest. Jesus offered to make settlement with God for our wrongdoings—He made this settlement by accepting God’s punishment for our sins as our substitute. Jesus suffered all of God’s anger at human sin as He hung on the cross, culminating with His death—the death-sentence that each of us has earned for ignoring God as we make our decisions as to how to lead our lives. Because Jesus acted as our Priest, we can come to Him for forgiveness and restoration to God’s loving favor.

Finally, the Christ was appointed to be our King. As our King, Jesus gives us protection from our enemy, the devil—Jesus offers us strength to withstand the temptation to do wrong and guarantees that the devil will not claim us for hell, so long as we remain faithful subjects of Jesus our King. As our King, our Lord also shows us how to live happy and fulfilling lives—Jesus instructs us how to love unselfishly, how to forgive, and how to live life with purpose. And as our King, Jesus has the power to call us back from death to life—as citizens of His kingdom, we are promised unending life in a place of perfection and joy.

Simon Peter said it all—with the words "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" Simon summed up what the holy Bible is all about. And this statement was so important that Jesus replied: "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." Simon’s statement of the truth about Jesus was so important that Jesus built the holy Christian Church upon it!

I said earlier that words can be powerful and permanent in our lives. Jesus illustrates that point by speaking of rocks. First, Jesus gives Simon the name Petros, from which we get the word for something rock-like, petrified. God the Father had revealed to Simon the one truth that can serve as a secure foundation for living life, and Jesus commemorates this revelation by likening Peter, now in possession of this great truth, to a solid rock. Then Jesus tells us that on this rock I will build my church, on this life-changing confession of the truth He will construct a society of believers for all the years to come. How strong is the Church? If the Church remains true in believing this truth and speaking it boldly to others, the gates of Hades will not overcome it; the forces hell will not be able to destroy the community of believers.

This Church established by Christ has an awesome responsibility: our Lord says I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. When God the Father gives us the knowledge of who Jesus is and what He has done, we are given a tremendous responsibility: our actions—or inactions—can impact who will enjoy access to the heavenly realms! What are the keys to the kingdom? What is it that allows entry into the eternal throne room of God? The key is simply this: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31). Faith in Jesus is the only key that opens heaven’s gates. And how does a person get his own copy of this heavenly key? In Romans 10:17, Paul tells us faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. This is why Paul tells us that we must speak to others about Jesus; the only way that anyone gets a key to open heaven is by becoming a believer in Jesus as their Savior. And if a person never hears of Jesus, how can they come to have faith in him? Paul asks, how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? (Romans 10:14)

This is the responsibility that you have as a member of Christ’s Church. You can tell what you know of Jesus to other people like Peter did; when you do, they are given the opportunity to come to faith and receive the key to enter heaven. Or you can choose to keep silent about Jesus, hoping that someone else will tell your friend or neighbor about the Lord; but when you make this choice you are hiding the key to heaven, putting the eternal happiness of another person at risk.

Above everything else, Christ's Church is built on a public confession of the truth about Jesus—that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. This statement of Peter is a rock, the only rock that can serve as a safe foundation upon which to build a life, the rock that anchors the Church and provides its strength in a world of confusion and heartache. Words are powerful things—they can destroy a life or redeem a life, as when Jesus says: Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20). May you always give thanks that God the Father has revealed this great truth to you, and may you always be proud to speak of the truth that has forever changed your heart.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Worry, worry, worry

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? (Matthew 6:27)

When I was old enough to understand the risk, I started to worry about the danger of nuclear war. As the years went by, however, I realized how ridiculous I was being—after all, what could I do to prevent such a thing from happening? There is no point in fretting about things over which you have no control.

What do you worry about? A harvest ruined by disagreeable weather? Soaring fuel prices? Another terrorist attack on American soil? We live in a society ruled by fear. Some communities no longer allow fireworks for fear of injuries resulting in lawsuits; many schools have removed monkey bars from their playgrounds for the same reason. Politicians fear speaking their minds because they don’t want to risk angering anyone who might vote for them. Every day, national news sources fill our heads with a steady stream of things to worry about.

We waste far too much time worrying about things beyond our control. No one can adequately prepare for a hurricane like Katrina, a stock market crash like the one that triggered the Great Depression in 1929, or war with a nation that hates us. Worrying about the weather or the economy or foreign policy will only deprive you of sleep and the ability to enjoy today with your loved ones.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t plan for the future. Everyone should save money for retirement; everyone should have insurance to get them through an unexpected crisis. But planning is not the same as worrying. You set a plan into motion and you move on; worry, however, consumes your thoughts and distracts you from other matters that also need your attention.

Jesus tells us not to worry but instead have faith in Him. He is in control, and He loves you. When we worry, we are showing Jesus that we don’t trust Him as we should—we don’t trust in His love for us or that He has the power to see us through any tough situation that comes along. We waste the time God has given us when we worry; a far better use of our time is to take our concerns to Him in prayer, and then trust that He will guard and guide us each and every day.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Wounded hearts

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

Going through an awful experience can traumatize a person. I have known people who grew up during the Great Depression and were changed by it forever. One man could not throw anything away because he learned to never waste what little you have. A woman who had next to nothing as a child is now a power shopper, always buying new things. Another man is incredibly tight with his money; even though he retired wealthy, he always looks for free lodging with relatives when he travels and constantly grumbles over the price of food if you eat out with him.

Farmers can be traumatized after experiencing a bad harvest; businessmen can feel the same kind of soul-wrenching pain after losing a job due to company reorganization. Parents can be traumatized by the death of a child. Soldiers and police officers can be scarred emotionally from being attacked or by taking the life of another in the pursuit of their duties.

Being wounded emotionally can cripple how you live your life. Even if things are going well now, there is an assumption that disaster is just waiting to strike. Some are almost frantic in their desire to squeeze pleasure from every moment before the inevitable letdown occurs; others are so fixated on guarding against future problems that they cannot enjoy the good things they have today.

The devil wants us to be negative, to expect the worst, to constantly be defensive. When pessimism about your finances keeps you from supporting the church or giving to charity, you are thinking the way that Satan wants. When you refuse to reach out to others in friendship because you expect to be hurt or taken advantage of, the great Enemy of mankind is delighted.

If you are prone to thinking negatively, if you constantly expect the worst, you need the healing touch of Jesus. Only the Son of God has the power to reach into your heart and soften what is hard with defensiveness; only the Savior can replace pessimism with optimism. Jesus will work patiently with you; all He asks is your time—time together with Him in worship, time spent speaking to Him in prayer. If you let Him, Jesus will establish a relationship with you so that your suspicious heart can grow confident in His unfailing love.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What is Jesus like?

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope."

This is what God the LORD says--he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: "I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness" (Isaiah 42:1-7).

We have celebrated Christmas, where God the Father sent to earth a Savior from heaven. We have celebrated Epiphany, where we saw that this Savior was not sent just to the Jews, but to everyone. We know who this Savior is—He is Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. But we haven’t really talked about what Jesus is like. What kind of person is our Immanuel?

Through Isaiah the prophet, God the Father tells us of Jesus’ personality. He begins Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight. It is important that we understand that Jesus’ personality is pleasing to His Father. The way that Jesus conducts Himself, the way that He solves problems, His goals and priorities, all of these give His heavenly Father great delight. And it all starts with servanthood—the Father begins His description of Jesus with the words Here is my servant.

Servanthood is not a popular concept among humans. To serve implies being inferior to others, and no one likes to think of himself as inferior. Especially here in America, talk of servanthood is met with resistance. In our country we are taught that everyone is supposed to be equal—to serve another seems almost un-American! But such a view of life is built on sinful pride. Even Jesus’ disciples were not immune from this kind of thinking; in Mark chapter 9 we read: They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, "If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all." The night of the Last Supper, Jesus even went so far as to wash the feet of His disciples, a dirty job normally reserved for lowly servants; after He had finished, Jesus told them "Do you understand what I have done for you?…You call me `Teacher' and `Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:12-15). Jesus emphasizes the importance of loving service to others because He lives by this principle; 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 10:28).

It is this dedication to loving service that causes the Father to esteem His Son so highly. In John chapter 10 Jesus says: The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father. Notice Jesus’ attitude of servanthood. He was willing to do the dirtiest, most painful work imaginable—allowing Himself to be put to a shameful death by sinful men. Jesus performed this disgraceful work out of love for us, because our sin-filled lives would have led God to condemn us to the punishment of hell unless Jesus suffered that punishment in our place instead. But being the perfect servant that He is, Jesus did not just go off on His own to die for us—He only gave up His life with the permission of His Father. This inspired Paul to write: Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:5-8)

Going back to Isaiah, we next read: I will put my Spirit on him. We find this text fulfilled in Luke 3:21-22, where we are told: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." We might wonder: why was it necessary for God the Father to send the Holy Spirit to Jesus, when Jesus is God’s Son? The reason is that Jesus was born both true God and true man. The work of saving all mankind from sin would be very difficult, and where the divine nature of the Son of God was up to the task, the human nature of the Son of Man needed the Spirit of God to keep Him strong through the trials to come. Jesus had come as the perfect loving servant to do the Father’s will—to redeem all mankind—and the Father thus equipped Jesus with the Holy Spirit so that He could do this important work successfully.

Isaiah next records God saying: he will bring justice to the nations. Justice is the nature of God. Good must be rewarded and evil must be punished. But justice without mercy is a hollow justice. The whole point of justice is to protect love from the attacks of hatred; but if there is no love in justice, justice betrays its very purpose. This is what compelled Jesus to offer His life to save us. God loves good and hates evil. Since every human being is corrupted with the evil of sin, all that humankind is entitled to from God is His terrible anger. But since God is perfectly just, He is also perfectly merciful—so our Lord Jesus chose to make the sacrifice of accepting His Father’s punishment for our sins. He did this so that we could be offered the opportunity to live in God’s favor by seeking refuge in the arms of the Son with whom He is well pleased.

Jesus brings justice that is shaped by love. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23); none of us deserves any mercy from our Lord. But Jesus chooses to offer us hope before the coming Judgement. It is not Jesus’ style to yell at us for all our mistakes; Isaiah records: He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. Scripture only records Jesus acting in anger when He clears the Temple of those who were misusing God’s house as a place to conduct business (John chapter 2). No, Jesus’ style is to calmly confront us with our sins, show us our need to change our ways, offer us His forgiveness, and urge us to follow His leadership through life. Jesus never acts impulsively; Jesus’ behavior is never out of control. Every action, every word that comes from His lips is carefully designed to draw our attention away from fascination with worldly things so that He can speak to us of heavenly things.

Does all this make Jesus sound tender and caring and loving? It should, because His Father tells us: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. A reed is a fragile plant stalk; when it becomes bruised, it is very easy to accidentally break off the end of the stalk entirely. Jesus is never careless; Jesus is never thoughtless. All too often, we are like fragile reeds—life bruises us and we feel as if just one more problem will break us in half. But Jesus is tender with us—when we are bruised by life, He takes care to see that while we may be bruised, we will not be broken. Jesus stands beside us, holds us up and gives us His support until the bruises heal.

A smoldering wick makes us think of a burning candle. You know how easy it is for even a small puff of air to blow out a little flame. When a wick is merely smoldering, when the flame is not much more than a dull orange glow, it takes next to nothing to extinguish the fire entirely. Our faith can sometimes seem like a smoldering wick. There are times in almost every Christian’s life when God seems far away, uninterested in your problems and unresponsive to prayer. At such times it becomes easy to doubt your faith, doubt that God really loves you, doubt that He exists at all. During such dark times, the Christian’s faith seems to be on the verge of going out. But the Father reassures us that even in the times of our greatest weakness, Jesus is present and Jesus does care. When our faith is smoldering, barely hanging on to a dull glow, Jesus does not give up on us in disgust at our weakness; our Lord does not snuff out the embers of a weak faith. Rather, our Lord is patient; He nurtures our faith over time, gradually building it up into a strong flame, just as campers must use patience over time to build a campfire from nothing more than a tiny spark. Jesus is always attentive to prayers like the one recorded in Mark chapter 9: Immediately the boy's father exclaimed, "I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!"

Our reading continues: In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. Our Lord Jesus is faithful—He is faithful to His Father and He is faithful to us. Jesus brings justice into our unjust world—a justice that satisfies the requirements of holiness because unrepented sin is punished, a justice that serves love by being merciful to those who repent of their wrongdoings and cling to Jesus for mercy. And because of the Father’s gift of the Holy Spirit, Jesus never becomes discouraged in His work. We often become frustrated, even depressed, over the state of morals in this world. We become discouraged when we look at how many people don’t make time for Christ in their lives on any kind of regular basis. But Jesus doesn’t look at numbers; Jesus looks at each individual soul. Jesus doesn’t count how many people live their lives in the shadow of hell; instead, He focuses on the salvation of each individual man, woman, and child, and rejoices when any person rejects the allure of sin and turns to Him for forgiveness. Jesus never falters or becomes discouraged, because every day there are many additions to the membership of His kingdom.

Finally, God says of Jesus: In his law the islands will put their hope. An island is usually a remote place, a spot cut off from what is going on in the rest of the world. We are reassured that even in the isolated places, even in the islands, people are placing their hope for a meaningful life and rescue from the grave into the hands of the Savior who they know will judge them with mercy. Jesus’ teachings, Jesus’ promises, Jesus’ help are everywhere, among all people. This shows the importance of living in a relationship with Jesus—His work, done on our behalf to please the Father, is so important, so valuable, that God has sent news of it everywhere, and everywhere that the name of Jesus is spoken, there are people who rejoice in the Good News.

What is Jesus like? He is everything that we desire to be—He is obedient to His Father, He serves the needs of others before taking care of His own needs, He is never confused in figuring out the right thing to do, He is never carried away by His emotions. Jesus is dependable, patient, honest, caring and supportive. He is never discouraged by the tough times; He finds joy in every person who renounces pride and asks for forgiveness. This is what our Lord Jesus is like. This is the Son of Man who delights the heavenly Father. This is the Son of God who is committed to your welfare. This is the person that we all want to become more like.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (John 4:38).

People are, by nature, lazy. Why were tractors invented? Because they made farming less back-breaking. Why were washing machines invented? Because they made doing laundry less time consuming. Most inventions are the result of people wanting to make life easier, less demanding of time and effort.

But wanting life to be easy has created many problems for our nation. Students rebel against doing homework. There are people who would rather accept government assistance than try to earn a living. Employers constantly lose profits because workers arrive late, leave early, and take longer breaks than they are scheduled for.

Laziness afflicts the Church as well. People won’t join a church if they are asked to go through instruction first. Couples are reluctant to participate in premarital counseling. Kids in confirmation don’t want to memorize Bible verses. Adults can’t find the time to attend Bible study and refuse to serve on a committee. There’s too much going on in my life, they might say, but really it boils down to this—they don’t want to make the effort.

Of course, our efforts cannot earn us access to heaven. Paul reminds us over and over again that salvation from sin and death is Jesus’ free gift to everyone who loves Him. Jesus did something unimaginably painful and demanding for us when He died to pay for our sins; He did something that only God could do, and as sinful mortals we certainly cannot repay Him. But we can honor Him by showing our gratitude.

There are people on government assistance who are content to cash their checks and take it easy. But what if they got involved in some community work as a volunteer, as a way to express their thanks to the country that is helping them? In a sense, we are all Welfare recipients—without the gift of God’s mercy offered through Jesus, we would be eternally dead in our trespasses and sins. We receive God’s welfare check every time Jesus forgives us. But while we cannot pay Him back, we can show our appreciation by doing volunteer work—by telling our friends and loved ones about Jesus, by getting involved in the work of His church and supporting it with our time and money. When you work hard for Jesus, He looks at your efforts as an expression of love and devotion.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Don't settle for mediocrity

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

The educational system of the United States used to be the envy of the world. Yet today, American students as a group lag behind those trained in many other countries, particularly in Europe and the Far East. American students spend less time on homework, study fewer foreign languages, and are overall less proficient in math and the sciences than their counterparts growing up overseas.

I think the problem is that we Americans have developed a culture of mediocrity. When I was young, kids were made fun of if they were too smart—no one wanted to be labeled the ‘class brain.’ Kids with learning disabilities were also made fun of, and over the past decades we Americans have worked hard to develop sensitivity so that we treat each other with respect instead of ridicule.

But things went off course. Because we don’t want anyone to feel like a failure, some schools are eliminating anything that might show excellence in a student’s performance. Instead of containing grades, report cards only list pass or fail. Ribbons are given to everyone who participates in an event, even if they finish last. In our eagerness to make sure everyone feels like a winner, we are removing any incentive to compete and excel.

Christianity has sometimes gotten suckered into this way of thinking as well. It is true that salvation is a free gift of God through Jesus’ blood shed on the cross. No one can earn access to heaven by trying hard to live a good life, because none of our sinful lives can ever reach the level of perfection that God expects. For this reason we need Jesus to make things right for us, which He has done freely for everyone. But the Bible does not tell us to take it easy now that Jesus has saved us. We are urged to strive for excellence. Paul compares the Christian life to an athletic competition: All athletes do their training with discipline. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize (1 Corinthians 9:25). Peter urges us to not be content with entry-level Christianity: he says grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

When you strive for excellence in being both a well-informed and active servant of Christ, you demonstrate how much you respect and love Him.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Why do so many people reject Christ?

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene--during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation.' " (Luke 3:1-6)

Think of every person that is in your life—all your relatives, all your neighbors, everyone at work, the people that you meet as you go shopping. How many of these people believe in Jesus? How many of them are Jews, Muslims, or Hindus? How many of them believe that there is some divine power in the universe, but they have no name for that mysterious force? How many of them don’t believe in any kind of god or afterlife at all? And of those who do claim to be Christian, how many of them take their faith seriously? How many of them read a Bible or attend church on a regular basis? How many of them are concerned about angering God and routinely ask Jesus for forgiveness? How many people do you know that just don’t give much thought to spiritual matters until someone that they love is dying?

There are billions of people in the world today who don’t believe in the promised Messiah of God. Things were no better in the time of John the Baptist. You know how small the country of Israel is today. In John’s time, Israel was even smaller, and with a much lower population. The majority of the people who knew the Old Testament and believed in the promise of a Savior from heaven lived in that one little country. One estimate suggests that at the time of Christ, only 2% of the world’s population were Jews; only 2% of the world had knowledge of the true God!

The fact of the matter is that unbelievers have always outnumbered we believers by a large margin. This should not surprise us, because Jesus said: Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14). The fact that so many Christians exist today is a testimony to the persistence of the Holy Spirit, who plants faith wherever Christians live and worship and take pride in the God who has forgiven them and given them a reason to live. The fact that so many people dismiss Christianity as undesirable is a testimony to how unwilling men and women are to take responsibility for the evil impulses that seek to drive their every decision.

With most of the world gleefully wallowing in sin, how can the Bible tell us that all mankind will see God's salvation? Does this mean that whether or not you believe in Jesus, God will take you to heaven anyway? Certainly not! Scripture tells us repeatedly that faith in Jesus is essential for entering heaven. Jesus Himself said, 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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:16-18). Faith in Jesus is essential, because Jesus is the only one authorized by God to represent us to the heavenly Father. In 1st Timothy 2:5, Paul writes there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. In Romans 8:34, Paul tells us Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.

Jesus is allowed to represent us because He paid the penalty for our sins. Sin can only be forgiven by the spilling of blood; in Leviticus 17:11 God said it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life. This is why Jesus was born in a human body on the first Christmas; Jesus, the eternal Son of God, put on a human body so that He could give His blood as the offering that makes forgiveness possible for us. None of us have enough blood to pay for every selfish thought, every cruel word, every misspent hour that fill our lives; we could spend eternity in hell and never suffer enough to pay for all our crimes against God and each other. But Jesus was different. By being a man, Jesus could shed blood for us, and by being God, Jesus’ blood had the power to do what your blood and mine cannot do—atone for every sin of every person in all of human history! Of all God’s incredible miracles, none is greater than the miracle of one death redeeming billions of lives.

Regrettably, even though Jesus won forgiveness for everyone, most do not know about this gift or do not want it. There is a string attached to Jesus’ offer—we are called to reject sin as a lifestyle and embrace Jesus and His teachings instead. Paul issues this challenge in Romans 6 verse 2: We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? John writes No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God (1 John 3:9). Let's be clear--neither of these apostles are telling us that we can lead perfect lives as Christians; in Romans 3:23-24 Paul explains 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. John writes, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9). A Christian is not called to lead a perfect life, because that is impossible. But a Christian is called to reject a sinful lifestyle as something that is repugnant to God. Christians are expected to call upon Jesus every day to help them in resisting the temptation to do wrong, not to spend their lives gratifying every lust and desire. Believers are to have a different attitude towards sin than unbelievers.

And that is what makes Christianity unappealing to so many people. There is a saying that goes "the only way to get rid of temptation is to give in to it." That is the teaching of the devil. That is the desire of your body. No one likes to struggle. No one likes to suffer. But resisting the desire to commit a sin is a struggle, we do suffer when we fight temptation. And because of this, many people want no part of Christianity. We struggle with temptation and suffer because of it, because we love Jesus and are grateful for His suffering and death to spare us from the suffering of hell. Because of our love and our gratitude, we do not want to keep on committing the sins that cost Jesus His life. But those who don’t know Jesus, those who don’t love Him, those who don’t appreciate the sacrifice He made for them, those people see no reason to make a change in their lives.

Today’s Gospel lesson assures us that all mankind will see God’s salvation. Since we know that unbelievers will go to everlasting punishment, while believers are welcomed to everlasting joy, what is this sentence referring to? In several places, the Bible tells us that everyone will indeed see God’s salvation; in Matthew chapter 24, Jesus said: At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. Jesus also said, a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned (John 5:28-29). In Revelation chapter one we read: Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.

This is the meaning of the sentence all mankind will see God’s salvation. On the Last Day, every person who ever lived will be raised to life to stand before God and give an accounting of their life. For we who are believers this will be a wonderful time, because our sins have been forgiven; Jesus’ word to us will be Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world (Matthew 25:34). But for the unbelievers this will be a terrible time, because every unforgiven sin will condemn them; Jesus’ word to them will be, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41). And as terrible as condemnation to hell will be, the worst part of it will be the knowledge that God had offered them mercy in life but they had dismissed it. They could have joined us in heaven, but they were too busy enjoying themselves to re-evaluate their lives. On the Last Day all mankind will see the undeniable truth of God’s salvation, but for those who died in unbelief it will be a truth realized too late, and their foolish rejection of that truth will haunt them for eternity.

John the Baptist preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was soon to come with an offer that would have eternal ramifications: repent and be forgiven, or ignore Jesus’ offer and end up condemned. John taught that facing Jesus is the defining moment in every person’s life. To accept Him is to trade ignorance for unchanging truth, uncertainty for reassurance, guilt for forgiveness, broken relationships for reconciliation, eternal despair for eternal happiness. Jesus offers the opportunity to trade eternal slavery to sin for a brief mortal struggle with temptation, followed by an eternal rest from suffering. This offer has been made to everyone—to all mankind. It is offered to everyone through the words of Christ, words preserved for each of us in the Bible so that we can share the invitation with everyone in our lives.

We are in Epiphany--the days following Christmas when Jesus began to reveal God's marvelous light to a world darkened by sin. Can there be anything more appropriate than sharing the gift of Christ with others? What better gift can we give Jesus than to fill His church with guests? What better gift can we give the unbelievers in our lives than the offer of Jesus’ forgiveness and peace? Jesus has given you the gift of eternal life; please, offer that gift to those who are dying in this winter darkness. Involve an unbeliever in your celebration of God’s great gift of salvation through Christ. It is His gift for all mankind.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The blame game

Show proper respect to everyone (1 Peter 2:17).

You’ve seen it happen. A teacher has problems with a difficult student; maybe the youth won’t apply himself, maybe he is unruly. So the teacher tries to correct the problem; a low grade for poor work or detention for disrupting the class. But then the parents of the child come down to school enraged, demanding to speak with the principal or superintendent. How dare that teacher treat their child this way? And if they are intimidating enough, the school administration caves in and the teacher is the one who gets punished, not the student.

This kind of thinking is everywhere in our society. When there is a problem, it is the professional who gets blamed. If a police officer has to shoot to apprehend a criminal, it is the officer who is suspended pending an investigation of his actions. When a member of the clergy tries to push youth to work hard in preparation for confirmation, parents line up with their kids, accusing the church of having expectations that are too high.

Whose side are you on? Ever since Watergate, Americans have been quick to assume the worst about anyone in authority. But an important Biblical principle has been forgotten—that God tells us to respect people in authority instead of opposing them. The Fourth Commandment tells us to honor our parents. When you spend time looking through Scripture, you’ll see that God also commands that respect be shown to those older than us, to those who teach us, and to government officials. In fact, the only time we are permitted to disregard the words of such people is if they tell us to do something that opposes God’s will.

The oldest game in the world is the blame game—it started in the Garden of Eden when Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. We all sin constantly, and we don’t want to accept responsibility because we don’t want to be punished. So a kid will blame his brother for making the mess; and when he gets old enough, that same kid will blame the teacher for his own failure to perform well in the classroom. But before any parent automatically jumps to their child’s defense, remember how God wants us to respect not only parents, but teachers and other people in authority as well. Don’t let love for your children get you caught up in playing their blame games.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Trying to ignore the mess

I will cleanse them of their sins against me and will forgive all their sins of rebellion (Jeremiah 33:8).

If there’s anything that annoys me about using public restrooms, it’s finding a toilet that hasn’t been flushed. I’ve never been able to understand what’s so hard about taking a moment to press one little lever. But I’m not the only person bothered by this problem—increasingly, public toilets are being equipped with motion sensors that do the work of flushing for us.

This kind of problem is not restricted to restrooms. When someone causes a spill in a grocery store, more often than not they will just leave the mess for an employee to clean up. People throw cigarette butts out of car windows so that they won’t have to deal with emptying an ashtray. Every morning, bar owners have to clean up trash left on their sidewalks by the previous night’s customers.

People don’t like dealing with the messes that they’ve made. It can be unpleasant and embarrassing. Many would rather ignore the mess, hoping that no one will make a connection between them and the problem that they’ve caused. Others just can’t be bothered with attempts at tidying up—after all, cleaning isn’t nearly as much fun as making the mess in the first place.

Too often, this is our attitude towards sin. Every time we disobey God, we make a mess of things. Sometimes we are too embarrassed to take responsibility for our actions; we stick our hands in our pockets, whistling nervously as we edge away, hoping no one will connect that sin to us. Other times we cannot be bothered to try and make things right—who wants to put a damper on the fun by acting responsibly?

But there is nothing that will flush away our smelly mess for us. The heaps of trash we make by our bad behavior only become increasingly disgusting the longer we try to ignore them. And when we finally get desperate enough to try and take care of the garbage ourselves, we quickly find that we don’t have what it takes to do the job properly. Only the janitor has what is needed to restore a sanitary level of cleanliness; we have to admit what we’ve done to Jesus and ask His help to clean things up. Only Jesus can forgive our sins; only Jesus can ensure our spiritual health by cleansing us with His blood, shed on the cross.

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