Saturday, March 29, 2008

Christian or non-Christian? The trade-off

What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14).

Life is full of trade-offs. In order to enjoy the blessings of marriage, you have to trade away a single person's freedom to date other people. In order to enjoy the blessings of having children, you have to reduce your spending on non-essentials. In order to gain seniority at your workplace, you have to hang in there instead of hunting for a different job when you are saddled with an unpleasant boss. In order to be a superior athlete, you have to accept the aches and pains that come from intensive workouts.

Being a Christian involves trade-offs as well. Paul tells us, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. This sounds pretty harsh; in order to be a Christian, I have to lose everything? Let’s put this trade-off into perspective.

What kinds of things is a Christian called upon to give up? Let’s start with material things. In his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, Martin Luther discusses our material needs: "What is meant by daily bread? Answer: Everything required to satisfy our bodily needs, such as food and clothing, house and home, fields and flocks, money and property; a pious spouse and good children, trustworthy servants, godly and faithful rulers, good government; seasonable weather, peace and health, order and honor; true friends, faithful neighbors, and the like." These are the things that our bodies need to remain healthy, both physically and emotionally.

But Paul writes: three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Paul went through times of hunger and poverty. Paul spent most of his life on the road, with no home to call his own. Paul was not married, nor did he have any children. Paul lived in a land where the government was run by corrupt rulers. Paul experienced nature at its worst. Paul experienced betrayal at the hands of false friends. Paul even had a recurring health problem, which he described as a "thorn in the flesh". Paul’s life was filled with turmoil instead of peace. To look at Paul’s life, we could claim that he was often without any of the material things that Luther suggests are necessary to carry on from day to day.

But the loss of these things did not trouble Paul. Instead, he wrote: I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Paul took the long view. How long do material things last? How long does a loaf of bread stay fresh? How many tornadoes can your house withstand? How many years can you milk a cow? How long can you be sure that your spouse or children or friends will live? How long can you depend on the government to keep its promises? You see, nothing in this world can be counted on to last until the day that you die. This is why Jesus said, Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

But the trade-off of being a Christian does not end there. In Galatians chapter 5 Paul writes, the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other…The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.

To be a Christian involves more than just sacrificing the comforts of life—it also demands that we give up the comfort of wallowing in sinful behavior. As a Christian, you are called to pull your attention away from making money and being the center of attention, and instead devote yourself to God and the care of your fellow man. Love is about reaching out to others, and love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).

This sounds like an awful lot to give up. Most people in our world are unwilling to commit to such a sacrifice. But consider where dedication to this world and its ways leads. Ezekiel 8:14 tells us, the soul who sins is the one who will die. Jesus tells us, the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21:8). We are all sinners; we will all die. If we pass into death without a saving relationship with Jesus, eternity will be nothing but endless pain and endless regret over what could have been. This is the trade-off for making personal pleasure the most important thing in our lives.

But the trade-off for the Christian is far better. In return for giving up bodily gratification and the easy life of giving in to one temptation after another, we are given blessings both now and in heaven. Here in life, we are promised that God will listen to our prayers; in Jeremiah 29:12 God says, call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. Here in life, we are assured that our Lord will give us what we need; in Matthew 6:31-33 Jesus said, do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. When we devote our time and efforts to serving God quietly, without seeking attention for ourselves, we are told that God will bless us; Jesus says, your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:4). As we live our lives in service to Him, we can be confident that God will give us the strength to endure anything; Paul says, I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).

But the best blessings await us at the end of life. For the faithful in Christ, death holds no terror because Jesus has returned from death to life, and He has promised to send His angels to bring us through death to join Him in everlasting life. For the Christian, death is not a terrifying unknown, nor is it the beginning of never-ending punishment; because of Jesus, death is the necessary step to be freed of the misery of sin so that eternity can be pure joy. And what can be said of heaven? Heaven is a place where there is no sickness, no weakness of age, and no death, because death has been defeated by our Lord. Heaven is a place where there is no conflict, no loneliness, and no fear, because our Lord has ended the power of sin. Heaven is the place were we can see our Jesus who has redeemed us, the angels who He had appointed to protect us in life, and all the loved ones who have gone on ahead of us through faith in Christ. When you compare what the Christian stands to gain in trade for the ephemeral pleasures of life, is it any wonder that Paul says, I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him?

Christ is the means by which we can make this trade-off. Without Jesus, God’s loving care in our lives and welcome to heaven would not be available to us. Because of our natural impulse to focus on ourselves and make personal pleasure our highest priority, God had rejected us as unworthy to be His children. Apart from God, our lives had no hope for the future, no promise that the futility of today would ever result in a meaningful tomorrow. But because He loved us, God sent His Son Jesus to bring us an alternative. Jesus was baptized as a man to stand with us as our representative, and when He was crucified on Good Friday, the punishment from heaven that He suffered was the punishment that had been earned by you and me. Jesus died under the burden of your sins, to lift God’s righteous anger from you. When Jesus said Father, forgive them (Luke 23:34), He showed us what He came to do, and what He continues to do for you every day. Whenever you pray to Jesus to forgive your sins, you have the assurance of Romans chapter 8--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. Every moment of every day, our dear Lord continues to represent you to His heavenly Father with the words Father, forgive them. It is only by being restored to God’s good graces by Jesus’ sacrifice of love that we have access to all the wonderful gifts of God—forgiveness, help, protection, and eternal joy in heaven. It is Jesus alone who makes the Christian trade-off possible. And so Paul writes, I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.

Of course, not every Christian is called upon to give up as much as Paul did. Abraham was a wealthy man the day he died, with a family from whom would one day be born the Savior Jesus Christ. Although Job lost nearly everything during his time of testing, God subsequently gave him twice as much as he had before. David, who had started life as a lowly shepherd boy, ended life as king of God’s chosen people. But we must be ready to give up anything if called upon to do so, and do it without looking back in regret, for Jesus says No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62).

How do we live this way? How can we live our lives in such a way as to not be unduly fascinated with the distractions of this world? Paul says, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. Paul was the first to admit that he still had a problem with focusing too much on the attractions of a sinful life. But his advice is this: forget what you are leaving behind and strain towards the new future that Jesus holds out to you. Don’t buy things as if you will keep them forever; buy them to see to your immediate needs. Treasure your relationships with other people, but don’t make the focus of your relationships the temporary pleasure of having a good time; instead, nurture in each other those qualities that will steer you both towards heaven, so that death will not separate you eternally. Make an effort to expel from your life anything that interferes with church attendance or Bible study; avoid entertainments that tempt you to do things which God hates; reject as unacceptable anything that weakens your faith by teaching something different than the Bible. Make a conscious effort every day compare what you are told by sinful people with what God tells you in His holy Word.

Paul was not perfect at living this way; neither will you be. But if you keep coming back to Jesus for mercy, for strength, for leadership and for comfort, you have this promise: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8). Ask for forgiveness and it will be given to you; seek strength and leadership from Jesus and you will find it; knock on heaven’s door for eternal rest, and Jesus will welcome you in. This is the trade-off that comes from being a Christian.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Taking Jesus for granted

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows (Galatians 6:7).

Your faith—or lack of it—has a profound effect on how you live your life. If you have faith in your spouse’s skills as a driver, you can sleep peacefully during a long road trip. If you don’t have confidence in the electric company, every night you’ll be winding up a mechanical alarm clock. If you trust the officials who are calling a game, you can relax and focus on the coach’s plan and each player’s performance. If you don’t trust your employees, you will frequently stay after work to do your own quality assurance.

Faith is part of our daily routine. Faith gives us confidence to make decisions and allows us to enjoy life; when we are lacking in faith, we become paralyzed by uncertainty and lose sleep due to worry. Faith affects both our decisions and behavior.

This is why faith in Jesus is so important to us. Jesus promises heaven to all who believe in Him. This gives us peace at funerals; when we know that our Christian loved one is nestled safely in Jesus’ arms, we find something to smile about even as we shed tears of farewell. And when the doctor reports that our own medical condition is extremely grave, we don’t react with fear because we know that the grave is only a revolving door that opens into paradise.

But sometimes we abuse faith. It’s one thing to be confident; it’s quite another to take something for granted. Some people feel so confident that the company will pay them correctly that they write checks on a depleted bank account, assuming that their paycheck will be deposited in time to cover those bad checks. Many husbands assume that their wives will always love them no matter how they behave. And people also take Jesus for granted. They know that He promises to forgive sin, so they hardly think twice about doing whatever they want, figuring that they can always get forgiveness afterwards.

Such people confuse confidence with risk-taking. It’s seldom worth it to take foolish chances; relationships are at risk when you take someone for granted. This is especially true of our relationship with the Lord; remember His warning: Don’t fool yourself—God cannot be mocked. A man harvests what he plants. Our Lord knows full well when your repentance is sincere, and when you’re only saying that you’re sorry to try and avoid getting into trouble. Don’t take God’s mercy for granted; the last Person you want to make angry is the One who decides where you go when you die.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything (Hebrews 3:4).

Why do Christians oppose teaching the theory of evolution? Put simply, we don’t want teachers filling the heads of our children with lies. The Bible is clear—God created the world, and He did not do it through billions of years of trial and error.

Now I realize that many people don’t believe in the Bible and resist the idea of creation being taught in school. So I have a suggestion—let’s just not teach evolution. After all, it’s only a theory, not provable fact. And anyway, evolution is bad science—it ignores some very basic rules of nature, such as the fact that over time things tend towards disorder, decay, and chaos. Flakes of rusty metal do not evolve into a shiny nail. A heap of rotted wood does not evolve into a cozy little bungalow. Order does not arise from chaos—not unless it is acted upon by an intelligent outside force. We should not be teaching our children bad science.

But there is another, more important reason to stop teaching evolution. If you are nothing more than an accident of nature, what will happen to you when you die? Will you just cease to exist? If so, then what is the point of seeking long-term love, having children, or trying to build a better future? If you are an accident of nature that will soon disappear, what’s the point of anything beyond just having as much fun as you can until you die?

Believers in evolution have no reason to oppose abortion—after all, the fetus is nothing special, it’s just an accident of nature, a clump of cells that has no meaning. Believers in evolution should not oppose physician-assisted suicide—we put down a horse when it is suffering, and people are only slightly more evolved than domestic animals. If we are the result of genetic mutation, then what’s the harm in applying genetic engineering to humans or cloning them? Won’t we just manufacture better people?

I’m being sarcastic—but only to make a point. When you eliminate God as the giver of life, life loses its value. If we are only the result of countless beneficial birth mutations, then human life is nothing particularly special. And when life stops being a sacred gift from God, people will treat it cheaply. So please, for the sake of us all, let’s stop teaching the harmful junk science of evolution.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

He lives!

Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19).

It was early on Easter morning when a number of women went out to the tomb to embalm the body of Jesus, which had been laid to rest in haste late on Good Friday. While they were on their way, they wondered who they could find to roll away the stone which Joseph and Nicodemus had used to seal Jesus’ resting-place. They were surprised when the burial site came into view and it was obvious that the stone had already been moved aside. They were amazed when they reached the tomb and met an angel dressed in white who told them I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said (Matthew 28:5-6). That is the joy of Easter. Jesus is alive! And because He lives, we will live also.

But before we talk about the joy of Easter, we need to consider the price of Easter. We must go through Friday to arrive at Sunday; similarly, we must go through the crucifixion to arrive at the resurrection. We must talk about the price of Easter before we can fully appreciate the joy of Easter.

Jesus came into our world in order to perform a task. Saint Paul, writing to the Galatians, said when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Galatians 4:4-5). That was His task--to redeem those who were under the Law. Jesus put it this way: the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). Accomplishing this task wasn’t easy. It wasn’t accomplished by throwing some money at it—Saint Peter writes, you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 1:18-19).

Maundy Thursday found Jesus praying on His knees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He pleaded that He might be spared the suffering to come. Even in the final hours of His life, our Lord hoped and prayed that the Father might propose some other way to rescue mankind from the death of sin. When He realized that there was absolutely no other way save us, except by suffering His Father’s anger in our place, He prayed so hard for strength that His blood began to mingle with His sweat.

But this was just the beginning of His suffering on our behalf. In the court of the church, our Lord was accused of crimes that He did not commit. He was spit upon, slapped, and taunted. Under Pilate’s tender care, Jesus was crowned with thorns, beaten over the head, stripped, and whipped mercilessly. He was forced to carry His cross to the place of His execution. At the Place of the Skull they drove nails through His hands and feet, fastening Him to that cross to slowly die from exposure, exhaustion, dehydration and blood loss. But even all this was only the beginning of the price of Easter.

The suffering of our Savior involved much more than just physical suffering. Isaiah writes, the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6). Do you know what the price of just one sin is? The price for even the smallest sin is separation from God and eternal damnation. James tells us, whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10). Imagine what Jesus went through when the Father took all the sins of all the people who had lived, all the people who were living at that time, your sins and mine, and the sins of every person yet to be born, and punished His Son for all of these evil thoughts, words and deeds! As He hung on the cross, Jesus suffered all the torments of being abandoned by God to hell. No wonder that He cried out, My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) That’s the price of Easter.

Jesus paid the price of Easter so that we can now have its joy. Our Savior speaks these beautiful words of promise to us: Because I live, you also will live. There are many people in the world who are afraid of death. They are like the mother who said, "Oh no, I never take my child to a funeral. It makes me shudder to be there." They are like the man who had given no thought to the afterlife, and panicked when his doctor told him that he had terminal cancer: "Listen, I can’t die. I have no place to go." When the prospect of death rears its head, the non-Christian begins to worry about what will happen after death.

But we Christians have no reason to worry. We know that because Jesus lives, we will live also. That is His promise to us. It was while visiting Martha at Bethany that Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26). That’s the joy of Easter. God’s people don’t stay dead; they merely awaken in a better place where they will never die again. That is why St. Paul could say, Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:55-57).

What a glorious life that’s going to be! Human words cannot begin to describe it. Allowed a glimpse of Paradise, St. John tried to describe the beauty of heaven in terms of pillars studded with diamonds and streets paved with gold. In Psalm 16 King David says, you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand. Here in life, we often have times of pleasure and happiness. But we never have pure joy; there’s always some problem that takes away from our delight. Complete joy is reserved for those who reach heaven. Here on earth, pleasure always fades away eventually; but in heaven there will be pleasure forever.

That’s the promise of Jesus to all who believe in Him. Remember, it was to His believers that Jesus said, Because I live, you also will live. A time a separation is coming. Jesus has told us that on the Last Day He will separate the believers from the unbelievers as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The unbelievers will be sent to eternal punishment, but the believers will be welcomed to the eternal joy that God has had prepared for them since the creation of the world.

But the joy of Easter is that there are millions and millions and millions of people who believe. Nearly a third of every person living today identifies him or herself as a follower of Christ! Like the Centurion who stood watch at the cross of Christ, they declare: surely he was the Son of God! (Matthew 27:54) John writes that in one of his visions of heaven, he saw people of all nationalities and languages, a multitude which no one could count, all dressed in robes made white by the blood of the Lamb of God. That’s the joy of Easter.

We get a foretaste of this joy as members of the Church on earth. Since I have been pastor, I have conducted quite a few funeral services. The joy of Easter is that Jesus also spoke these words to each of those departed Christians--Because I live, you also will live. I can’t imagine trying to console a person who is facing death, or who has lost a loved one, if I did not have the promise of Easter to hold out to them in their time of sorrow. This is what the Church is really all about—helping people through this world, so that they might die in faith and live forever. That’s the joy of Easter.

But the greatest joy is that this promise is for you and me personally. Jesus is the Good Shepherd; He calls his own sheep by name and leads them. It is to each of us that Jesus gives the promise, Because I live, you also will live. It is to each of us as individuals that Jesus says, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. This is why we can say, yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me (Psalm 23). That’s the joy of Easter.

An Indian chief had been sick for a long time. He became so ill that he stopped letting anyone visit him in his teepee. A day went by, then two, then one week followed by another. All the members of the tribe wondered whether he had died. Finally they couldn’t stand any more waiting. During the night, one man silently approached the teepee and peered through the hole to see if the chief were dead. When he saw that the chief was still living, he whispered to the man in back of him, "He lives!"—and this man whispered to the Indian who stood behind him, "He lives!"—and so the message was passed from man to man until the entire camp was shouting with joy, "He lives!"

If Jesus is still dead, then as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, all preaching in His name is without purpose. If Christ is dead, then our sins are not forgiven, those who have died are gone forever, and of all people living we Christians are the biggest fools. But the women looked into the tomb and an angel said "He lives!" Apostles, preachers, parents and children have passed the message down through the centuries: "He lives!" That is the message of Easter today: He lives! This living, risen Lord is the One who gives us the blessed assurance that Because I live, you also will live. That’s the joy of Easter.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Avoid every kind of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

Why are we fascinated with evil? TV crime shows dramatize the most gruesome of crimes. The Internet is littered with websites depicting every kind of sexual perversion. Fans cheer the violence of professional wrestling matches. Books about scandals are always best sellers. If there is juicy gossip to share, someone is always ready to listen.

Evil is magnetic; you are repulsed, yet fascinated at the same time. But why is this so?

One reason that evil fascinates us is because it allows us to feel superior. You might be ashamed of secretly lusting after a co-worker, but when the boss is caught having an affair, you can pat yourself on the back for not doing something that stupid. You might feel guilty about continually screaming at your kids, but when a neighbor is arrested for child abuse, you can find some peace in knowing that you are a better parent.

But the main reason that we are fascinated with evil is because it speaks to the ugliness within us. We are all tainted with blackness—it is our birthright as humans. Ever since the devilish snake tricked Adam and Eve into disobeying God, all children have entered life with darkness in their hearts instead of light. And so when we see evil, we recognize it and are drawn to it like a moth to the flame. We are curious, wanting to know more. Is there a secret thrill that we’re missing out on?

Exposure to evil is dangerous—once an impure thought gets stuck in your head, it’s nearly impossible to shake it loose. This is why the Bible urges us to avoid all dark influences as much as possible. Thankfully, we are not alone in this struggle. Jesus is the light of God, the light that destroys the darkness of evil. When He enters our lives, He brightens the darkness shrouding our hearts. He inhibits our fascination with evil and helps us appreciate things that are good and right and holy.

You are surrounded by evil influences. But God has placed Bibles and churches throughout this evil world to fill us with His goodness. Look for Christ’s light; be choosy in what you watch, listen to, and read. Seek Jesus’ help to deny your sick fascination with evil; the eternal health of your soul depends on it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Too busy

Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them (1 Corinthians 7:31).

Our lives are just too busy. We work long hours so we can purchase a nice house with a large backyard, but by the time we get home from work we are so exhausted that all we want to do is sit in a chair and take a nap. We involve our kids in as many extra-curricular activities as possible, with the result that there’s not enough time left for homework. When the weekend finally arrives, we have such a long list of things to do that going to church gets squeezed from the schedule.

Somewhere along the way, we have bought into the lie that more is better. Participating in sports encourages teamwork, while students involved in music tend to have higher grades. You want the best for your child, so why choose between sports and band? Why not enroll your child in both?

You want your home to be a place where you can unwind and recharge. A little TV in the living room provides inexpensive entertainment—but wouldn’t a high definition unit with 5.1 Surround Sound do a much better job entertaining you? Any television costing over $1,000 should give you ten times as much pleasure as one bought for only $100, shouldn’t it?

We use our time and money to cram our lives with activities and possessions. But when you have more TVs in the house than people to watch them, what’s the point? If your kids are involved in so many activities that you only see them from the bleachers, how can that be good? There comes a point when all the stuff cluttering your life stops being fun and starts delivering unhealthy stress. When you don’t have the time to enjoy chatting as a family over dinner or relaxing together in the back yard, your family life is at risk. When you don’t have the energy to communicate with God through worship and prayer, your very soul is at risk.

Truthfully, less is more. It is better to do a few things well than many things poorly. Time with your family and friends is far more precious than filling every minute of the day with some kind of activity. Your relationship with Jesus is far more important than exhausting yourself making and spending money. Don’t let the frantic pace of modern life distract you from what is truly important—God, family and friends.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Embracing the past

In that day you will say: "I will praise you, O LORD. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation."

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. In that day you will say: "Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you"
(Isaiah 12:1-6).

People have short memories.

Think back to this past Christmas. The kids were so excited to open their presents! "That’s just what I’ve always wanted!" Hugs and smiles abound. But let’s move to today. Of those wonderful Christmas presents, how many are still in use? How many children have already started making wish lists for their upcoming birthday?

Or consider your job. Think back to the last time that you accomplished something impressive—put together a major deal or brought in a very successful harvest. At the time you felt good, and other people congratulated you on your success. But what about today? Does your boss treat you differently because of that deal you put together? Will that successful harvest change what you do in the field this year?

Or consider your spouse. Think back to what it was like when you were first dating. Think back to your wedding day. You were filled with excitement, getting to know this very special person. Every moment together was precious and treasured. The bloom of love colored everything going on in your life. But what about today? Is every moment with your spouse still special? Do you work hard to set aside time for each other like you did when you were dating?

There is a saying in Hollywood that "fame is fleeting." An actor can win all sorts of awards, but a few years later be all but forgotten. People are soon asking the question, "what have you done lately?" In our culture, we quickly get bored with the past; we are constantly on the lookout for new things to excite us. People get bored with their jobs, bored with their relationships, bored with their lives—and so they seek new careers, divorce and remarry, sell their house and move to a new one, all for the sake of bringing excitement back into their lives by introducing something new.

This happens in their faith life, too. People get bored with the same old hymns, the same old liturgy, the same old pastor. They often start shopping around for different church music, a different preacher, or a different church body to belong to, all for the sake of infusing worship with excitement. But let’s shuck right down to the cob—do people get bored of Jesus?

Because of sin, we have poor long-term memory. We get wrapped up in today and tomorrow, and forget about the past. But by living this way, we set ourselves up for continual frustration and disappointment as we repeat the same mistakes that so many others have. George Santayana said, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." People don’t devote much time or attention to the past, because it doesn’t seem as exciting as the new things of today or the promises of tomorrow. But is it really true that the things of the past are boring and irrelevant?

Imagine a country where there are people who are very rich, living alongside people who are very poor. In this country, the government is run by people who are more interested in political power, lavish parties and popularity than they are with justice. The leaders of the church are arrogant men, who decide for themselves what is right and wrong, often living lives that are shameful by God’s standards. International trade is an important part of the economy; because there is so much contact with foreigners, a businessman must be fluent in at least two languages. The country suffers periodic bouts of political unrest, which sometimes even results in acts of terrorism. Many people have little or no access to quality medical care. The average person is stressed about making a living, stressed about the future of the country for hid or her children, and does not have a good understanding of who God is, what He expects from them, or what He offers to them.

Does life in this country sound hopelessly out of touch with the life that you live? I doubt it. And yet, what I’ve just described is life in the nation of Judah at the time of Jesus.

What did Jesus bring to this country that got people so excited that they welcomed Him into Jerusalem like a king on Palm Sunday? He brought God to the people. Jesus was a man who was more than just God’s representative; in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). That Jesus was more than just a man was evident through His teaching. The crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Matthew 7:28-29). Jesus’ teaching was superior to all other men, because unlike all other men, Jesus was without sin. Jesus understood the Bible perfectly, because He Himself was the Word of God, cast in human form. When Jesus spoke, He spoke the pure words of God with no confusion or hesitancy, no fear of misrepresenting what God wanted to be spoken. And when the people were exposed to this pure Word of God, they got excited—excited like the person who finally has continuous access to pure drinking water after years of fouled well water or chemical-laced city water.

What else did Jesus bring to this country that got people excited about His presence? He brought compassion to the people. Jesus made Himself accessible to rich and poor alike. He was born in a stable so that poor shepherds could come and worship Him. He dined with prominent men and social outcasts alike, to show that He welcomed everyone to be with Him. He gave hope and healing to the sick and injured. He fed the hungry with both bodily nourishment and spiritual nourishment. Because Jesus offered hope in the midst of despair, people…came to him from everywhere (Mark 1:45).

But the most important thing that Jesus brought to this country that got people excited was mercy. Jesus brought forgiveness for sins to the people. Then, like now, people were burdened by the mistakes of their lives. People were worn down by holding old grudges. People were suffering in marriages where hurt could not be let go over a past indiscretion. People were struggling through years of being alienated from a brother or sister. People felt guilt at allowing a loved one to go to the grave without first mending a damaged relationship. People worried that they were too evil for God to ever consider letting them into heaven when they died.

We don’t like to think about the past, mainly, because it is filled with hurts that we can do nothing to erase. We can’t take back those words that we never should have spoken. We can’t erase the pain of being hurt by another person. We can’t change the fact that a loved one has died. So we try to forget about the past and focus instead on today and tomorrow. But in ignoring the past, we not only forget the bad, we also lose touch with that which was good.

Jesus changes all that. Jesus makes it unnecessary for us to turn our backs on the past. He did this through the cross. Jesus suffered and died on that cross as our substitute; all the anger and punishment that we were due for our mistakes was accepted and experienced by Jesus in our place. Jesus suffered hell for us on the cross. And He did all this out of love for us. Because the mistakes of our sins have been punished completely in Jesus, and because He has risen to renewed life from the grave, He is in the position to offer us forgiveness, full and free. When we come to Jesus and ask to be free of our guilt for what we have done, He gives us a wonderful gift—freedom from the hurts of the past.

It is true that we can’t take back words that should never have been spoken; but by Jesus’ mercy, we have the relief of knowing that God forgives us for them, and we are given the courage to apologize sincerely for bringing hurt into another person’s life. It is true that we can’t erase the pain of being hurt by others; but by Jesus’ mercy, we have the desire to let go of old grudges and echo the words of the martyr Stephen, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them" (Acts 7:60). It is true that we cannot end the sense of loss brought into our lives by the death of a loved one; but by Jesus’ mercy, we have the assurance that death is only a temporary separation for believers in Christ, because Jesus promised: whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be (John 12:26).

Because of Jesus’ mercy, we need not turn our backs on the past. Instead, we can reflect on our lives, rejoicing in all the times and places where Jesus has brought us release from old pains and guilt. Isaiah says, Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you. We will not feel joy like this if we try to forget the past by replacing it with the temporary thrill of the new. Instead, as we grow older, we should remember all the good things that God has done for us, in making our lives so much better than they would otherwise have been. Each year adds new reasons to be grateful to Jesus for all the goodness that He has brought into our lives. It is only by facing up to the mistakes of the past, and trusting in Jesus’ mercy, that we can continually express the kind of joy in our lives that Isaiah holds before us.

Words from God’s own mouth. The compassion that comes from being loved by the Lord. Release from old hurts by the mercy of Christ. Are these old and boring, or new and exciting? Some 2,600 years ago Jeremiah wrote, Because of the LORD's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23). God’s care and mercy is very old, and yet it comes anew to us every day. And as to the message of grace being boring? Jesus said, I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep…whoever enters through me will be saved…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:7-10). I can’t think of anything more exciting than that! So give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the LORD, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. Shout aloud and sing for joy, people of Zion, for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A matter of perspective

The Lord is near to all who call on him (Psalm 145:18).

Anyone who wants to create pictures must study perspective. Perspective is what makes things which are far away look small, and things that are close to you look big. If you don’t understand how perspective works, the pictures you create won’t look right.

Of course, some artists love to break the rules of perspective in order to create an interesting visual. M.C. Escher is famous for drawings that appear to violate the laws of nature. In one picture, a man climbs a staircase which circles back on itself, a stairway with no bottom or top. This realistic-looking impossibility is the result of every step being drawn from a slightly incorrect perspective.

Many special effects on TV and in the movies play tricks with perspective. Doorways are sometimes made shorter than they would be in real life; when the audience sees the leading man barely miss hitting his head as he enters the room, he appears to be taller than he really is, making him seem more of a hero.

These illusions work because of how we use perspective to look at things. What this tells us, though, is that we cannot always trust our eyes to be seeing things as they really are. Someone who is clever can fool us by playing tricks with perspective.

The devil is a master at this; he constantly messes with how we see things in order to mislead us. Heaven is where we all want to go, and Jesus stands at the open gate beckoning us onward. But most of us don’t expect to die anytime soon, so the shining gate of heaven appears small in the distance. When we start thinking this way, Satan is quick to hold up a distraction right before our eyes to capture our attention. Under these conditions, money can appear to be more important than the church; popularity can seem more important than moral living; having control can appear to be more important than serving others out of love. When we think of Jesus as someone who is distant from us, it is easy for trivial things to look large and important because we hold them close to us.

But Jesus is larger than anything else—He fills the universe with His power and glory. He is also more important than anything else, since all of creation is under His control. Don’t let the devil fool you with his clever illusions—no matter how things may appear, Jesus is large and He is in charge.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Finding your direction

Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life." (John 14:6)

In the earliest days of sea travel, mariners never sailed out of sight from land. When you are completely surrounded by water, it is easy to lose your sense of direction. So the first sailors hugged the coastline as they transported their passengers and cargo.

Eventually, navigators developed instruments which guided them far out into the ocean and kept them from getting lost. But these instruments would have been of no use whatsoever without an important feature of the night sky—Polaris, the North Star.

Of all the stars in the sky, the North Star is the only one whose position never changes. From the first minutes of dusk to just before sunrise, Polaris always marks due north. By using Polaris as a reference, a captain can pinpoint his ship’s location on his nautical charts.

Christ is our North Star. When we were born, we set out on a journey across the ocean of life. Before too long, the coastline was lost to us and now we find ourselves sailing over trackless seas, unsure of which way we should go. Sometimes we get so confused that we travel in circles, making the same stupid mistakes over and over again. Sometimes we drift into dangerous currents that hurl us into the rocks of disaster, despite all our frantic efforts to change our course.

Christ is our North Star. When things are at their darkest, He shines the brightest. Even if we don’t know where we are, He shows us the way we should go. Like Polaris, He is unchanging—He always points us in the right direction. To help us navigate past danger, He has given us charts, His words printed between the covers of the Bible. He even gives us the instrument we need to plot our location and course—He gives us the Spirit of God through the miracle of Holy Baptism.

With star, charts and the Spirit’s help, our voyage through life can avoid ending in calamity. Guided by Jesus, life can be lived with confidence that we will end up exactly where we should—in the safety of heaven’s harbor, with our Master waiting on the dock to greet us.

Friday, March 07, 2008

"Save me from an evil death"

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, `For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?'

"`Sir,' the man replied, `leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.'" (Luke 13:1-9)

One of Martin Luther’s prayers to God was, "Save me from an evil death." What would you consider to be an "evil death"? Slowly wasting away from cancer? Your mind becoming lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s? Years confined to a bed as MS or MD steal your strength? I imagine that, like most folks, you would rather die quickly, than slowly over time.

But Martin Luther defined an "evil death" as something different. For Luther, an "evil death" was a death that came suddenly, unexpectedly. Why did he regard such a death as evil? Because when death comes suddenly there is no time to prepare for it. When a person dies suddenly, there is no chance to make sure that the last will and testament is up to date, no chance mend fences with people over old hurts, no chance to gather loved ones near to tell them how much joy they have added to life. When a person dies suddenly, there is no opportunity to review life and seek God’s mercy for unrepented sins. For Martin Luther, a blessed end is a death that allows time to take stock of your life, and try to settle any unfinished business.

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus challenges you to examine your life and ask yourself the question: if I should suddenly die today, are my affairs in order? As things stand right now, what would I say to God if summoned before His throne in heaven to give an account of my life?

Our text begins with Jesus receiving word of a terrible tragedy. Pontius Pilate was the man appointed to govern Palestine in the name of the Roman Empire. Pilate was not a native—he had no interest in Jewish culture or religion. His job was to keep the peace—a job that the Jews did not make easy for him. The Palestinians resented being ruled by foreigners who prayed to false gods, so there were constant attempts to force the Romans out of the country. But Pilate was a cruel, ruthless man. Whenever insurgents were identified, Pilate immediately had them put to death. In this particular case, the rebels were caught by Pilate’s men in the Temple. On Pilate’s orders, the soldiers killed the Jewish rebels in God’s house, as they were offering their sacrifices—thus the statement that Pilate had mixed their blood with the blood of their sacrifices.

Of course, this act of brutality, taking place in the most important place of worship in the entire country, outraged the Jews. But it also raised a question in their minds—by allowing this horrible thing to happen, was God punishing those Jews who had died? Had they angered God somehow, and this was God’s punishment for their crimes? It was typical for Jews to think this way; when Jesus met a man who was blind from birth, He was asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (John 9:2) In Jewish thinking, when good things happened to you it was evidence that God was pleased with you, and when bad things happened to you it was evidence that God was angry with you.

But Jesus makes it clear that you cannot draw conclusions about a person’s relationship with God from the tragedies of life. He says, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!" Paul tells us that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). James tells us that whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it (James 2:10). It doesn’t matter if you commit one sin or one hundred—as soon as you sin, you are made imperfect, and Jesus’ expectation is very clear: Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48).

Jesus’ point is this: everyone is imperfect because everyone sins. Paul writes, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that 18 people died when a building collapsed had nothing to do with God punishing their sins with death—if God killed people because they were sinners, there would be no one left alive! Tragedy is not proof of God’s displeasure. Psalm 103 says he does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities.

So why do tragedies happen? Tragedies happen because of sin. Sin is rebellion against God and the way that He wants things to be done. Mankind cursed itself with sin by rejecting God’s leadership. And while God was perfectly justified in adding the curse of His anger to our curse of sin, He spared us and instead cursed the world we live on; in Genesis 3 God says, "Cursed is the ground because of you." These two curses—the curse of sin that each of us are born with, and God’s curse on the earth as a consequence of our sins—these two curses of sin are the cause of the tragedies in our lives. The cursed earth gives rise to floods, drought, windstorms, earthquakes and insect infestation. Cursed humanity gives rise to fighting, disloyalty, dishonesty, laziness and greed. In such a world, men hungry for power murder those who oppose them; in such a world, building materials decay with time and collapse. Because of sin, tragedy can come to anyone at any time.

Because of this, Jesus issues us a wake-up call. He says, unless you repent, you too will all perish. The key to understanding Jesus here is by knowing what He means by the word "perish." Up until now, Jesus had been talking about physical death; but when He uses the word "perish", Jesus has changed the focus to what lies beyond the grave. We will all live forever. We will either live on with God, or we will live on apart from God. Speaking of the resurrection, Jesus 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 5:28-30). Every soul and body will be reunited—but while this will result in joy for some, it will be a terrible curse for those who have rejected Christ. Eternity in hell is described in Revelation as the "second death"—John writes: the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral…and all liars--their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death (Revelation 21:8). When Jesus says unless you repent, you too will all perish, He is warning us of the eternal ramifications of choosing to live in sin instead of seeking God’s mercy in Christ. In Revelation chapter 2 Jesus promises, Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life…He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.

Jesus tells us that, in light of the fact that tragedy can strike at any time, we should examine our lives right now to determine if we are ready for death. If you died today as the result of a terrorist attack, if you died today in a car crash, are you ready to face Christ as He sits on the Judgment Seat? All those people who are on the "outs" with you—have you tried to make up with them? All those people who have made your life worth living—have you told them how much they mean to you? And most importantly—all the ways in which you have ignored God as you’ve lived your life: do you regret that you’ve lived that way? Have you told Jesus in prayer that you are sorry, that you want the opportunity to start living a different kind of life, one dedicated to following Him? God loves us, and in Christ He forgives us, but He does not guarantee that our lives will continue beyond today. Sin can bring a sudden end to life at any time. Are you ready for that eventuality?

Jesus goes on to tell a parable. A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, `For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' `Sir,' the man replied, `leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' In this parable, the owner of the vineyard is God the Father; the tree that He expects fruit from represents each of us. John the Baptist told us that we should produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Matthew 3:8). The fruit that God looks for in our lives is humility, sorrow over sin, a need for fellowship with God, and a desire to share the Good News of salvation with others. When there is no evidence in our lives of a relationship with God, we are like a barren fruit tree—a plant that uses up resources for no purpose. A human farmer will eventually cut down such a tree, and so will God—if a person’s life is not advancing God’s kingdom on earth, our heavenly Father has no reason to prolong that life.

But we have a man who works to bring worthwhile fruit out of our wasted lives. This man is Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man. It is Jesus who pleads with the Father to give Him a little more time with us, to loosen the packed soil of our hard hearts and fertilize us with faith in Him as our Savior. Jesus wants us to grow into healthy, productive Christians, so that we will not be cut out of God’s vineyard, and so that others can find nourishment for their souls by our influence in their lives. Jesus made all this possible by producing the fruit of a perfect life in our place, and suffering the Father’s anger on the cross for the barrenness of our sin-stunted lives. Because of Jesus’ perfect life and sacrificial death, the Father gives us another chance to produce fruits in keeping with repentance. But that opportunity is not promised to be a long one. When the thief on the cross next to Jesus finally repented of his sins and asked, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom, our Lord replied: I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).

When you heard Jesus speak about the collapse of the tower in Siloam, killing 18 people, did you think of the deaths on 9/11 at the World Trade Center? I wonder how many of the people who died that day were ready to leave this life? How many of them had tried to find peace in troubled relationships? How many of them had spoken of their love to those who were special in their lives? How many of them lived each day in a relationship of repentant love with Jesus Christ? Sin ended their lives abruptly. The same could happen to you. Jesus warns you to repent and be ready, because He loves you and doesn’t want you to be caught unprepared. May the Lord preserve you from an "evil death".

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Attending church? So what?

Worship the LORD with gladness (Psalm 100:2).

Why are there so many people who don’t like going to church? I can think of several reasons.

When you go to church, you are reminded that you are a failure. Jesus says, Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). But who of us can claim to be perfect? Every day we break God’s rules—we snap at members of our family, we listen to gossip, we take longer lunch breaks than we’re scheduled for. In countless ways both large and small, we anger God by what we do and what we fail to do. And since no one likes to be reminded of their failures, many people skip going to church because they don’t want to have to face their guilt.

Some people look at church as necessary for others but not for themselves. They don’t believe that they are failures—in fact, they are proud of how good and upright they are. For them, church is a waste of time because they are already leading God-pleasing lives—this in spite of the fact that Scripture says, all have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard (Romans 3:23).

Some people know that coming to church is important, but they drag their heels anyway. For them, attending worship is like going to the gym. They see the church as a place to exercise your spiritual muscles and get into better mental shape. But sometimes they just don’t have the energy for a workout; after a tough week, they’d just as soon stay home and relax.

But worship is more than being reminded that you’re a failure. There is more to church than toning your spiritual abs. First and foremost, church is where you go to receive something free. Church is where you hear Jesus tell you, Take heart…your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2). When you attend worship, your failures become a thing of the past. Church is where you hear Jesus say, I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). When you attend worship, you receive strength and courage to face the challenges in your life. And church is where the Savior promises, I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). When you attend worship, you are given hope that can see past the darkness of death to the light of eternal life.

Coming to church isn’t an obligation or a waste of time; attending worship is an opportunity for Jesus to fill you with Himself and bring joy into your life!

Monday, March 03, 2008

Minimum or maximum?

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD (Psalm 84:1).

There are two kinds of Christians. Some are members at St. Minimum Christian Church, while the others belong to St. Maximum Christian Church.

The people who attend St. Minimum have many questions on their minds. How often do I have to go to church? How many times each year do I have to go to Communion? How much money do I have to donate? I pray at supper and at bedtime—is that enough? I was on a committee last year—do I have to serve on one this year too?

The people who go to St. Maximum also have questions about their walk in the faith. What can I do to help with Sunday School? How many times will the Sacrament of the Altar be offered each month so that I can get strength for my faith? Can I help organize a weekday Bible class for people who work on Sundays? Is there something new we can do to reach out to the unchurched in our community?

You would expect St. Minimum to have more members than St. Maximum—after all, our sinful nature doesn’t want to put much effort into things that are religious. But people who gravitate to St. Minimum usually don’t attend for very long. When you regard church as something that’s too demanding of your time or money, you’ll soon become a name on the membership roll that no one ever sees in person.

The church with a healthy membership is St. Maximum. People who go here are excited about church. Sunday morning is a joyful time as they are reassured of Jesus’ forgiveness. They look forward to better understanding His teachings through sermons and Bible study. They can’t wait to show their gratitude to God through song and offerings. And they want to share the blessings of Jesus with others. They pester friends and relatives to come with them to worship. They are always thinking about ways the church could do new things to support different people in their needs. They feel valued because they know the church needs them. People who belong to St. Maximum are usually active members to their dying day.

Which type of Christian are you? If you aren’t one already, St. Maximum is still accepting members!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Analyze your lifestyle

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! (Philippians 3:17 - 4:1)

With these words, Paul shows us the difference between those people who live as "enemies of the cross of Christ" and those who live as citizens of heaven. As we think about these two lifestyles, I challenge you to look at your own life and answer the question—which kind of lifestyle describes your life? Do you live like an enemy of the cross of Christ, or do you live as a citizen of heaven?

Paul tells us three things about the lifestyle that opposes the cross of Christ—for people who live this way, their god is their stomach, their glory is in their shame, and their destiny is destruction. Let’s take these one at a time.

Their god is their stomach. Your "god" is that thing which dictates how you live your life. If your God is the Triune God, you will live your life as if loving others is more important than seeing to your own pleasures. You will refrain from killing, stealing, or showing disrespect to your parents, because your God has told you that this is how you are to live.

But if your god is your stomach, your priorities in life will be different. If the most important thing to you is to feel good, then your decisions will be to embrace what gives you pleasure and avoid that which brings inconvenience or discomfort. When a person’s god is the pleasuring of their body, laying in bed for another hour’s sleep is going to win out over the sacrifice of getting up to go to church and worship God. When a person’s god is their stomach, there is nothing wrong in getting drunk, smoking, overeating or getting high, because all these things give immediate pleasure. When a person’s body is their god, there is no reason to wait until marriage to have sex, because their god has taught them, "if it feels good, go ahead and do it."

Such a life contrasts sharply with that of the person who regards himself as a citizen of heaven. The person who treats his or her lust for pleasure as the most important thing in life pays little attention to the future. He or she doesn’t think about the harm that alcohol or nicotine or methamphetamine will do to their bodies as the years go by; they don’t worry about high blood pressure or diabetes or cancer. They don’t consider that Jesus, who died a horrible death on the cross, paid an awful price to win them freedom from addiction to the harmful things of this world. The citizen of heaven, on the other hand, focuses most of his or her attention on the future. Such a person does not regard this sin-filled world as their permanent residence; he or she thinks about life in this world as a journey on a ship, where the final destination is heaven. Heaven is the country where such people plan to live forever; their King is the King of heaven, and although they are not living in heaven yet, they choose to live their lives according to the laws of that distant country, not according to the ways of the ship that they are passengers on, the ship called earth. In speaking of the faithful men and women of the Old Testament, Hebrews chapter 11 says: All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one.

The person who is a citizen of heaven is concerned with being a good citizen. Their King Jesus has said, If you love me, you will obey what I command (John 14:15). And what has the King commanded? Simply this: 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). Such commands are completely opposed to the desires of the body for pleasure. The body resents the sacrifices involved in having and raising a child. The body objects to hard-earned money being donated to proclaim the Word of Christ. The body resists setting aside time to listen to God in worship or in Bible study. But the citizen of heaven knows that children are a gift from God, and that He expects them to be raised as solid Christians—in Deuteronomy 6:6-7 God says: These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. The citizen of heaven knows that everything he or she has is a gift from God, loaned to them for use in service to God—in Luke 6:38 Jesus says, Give, and it will be given to you. The citizen of heaven knows that God expects us to devote time to Him on a regular basis; on the Mount of Transfiguration, God the Father said of Jesus: This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him! (Matthew 17:5)

Their glory is in their shame. People who live like enemies of the cross of Christ are proud of things that a Christian would find shameful. Such people are proud of being gay or lesbian, and expect everyone else to honor their sinful behavior. Such people promote abortion as giving women "the power of choice". Such people encourage the news media to pry into peoples’ private lives and announce to the world their every shortcoming, because people "have a right to know." Such people praise excessive shopping as a way to make oneself feel good. Such people honor those who are willing to do whatever it takes to be beautiful, trendy, or powerful.

Such a lifestyle is very different from one based on the pattern that Christ gave us. In 1st Corinthians 6:18 Paul writes, Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. The pattern of life that Jesus gave us regarding sexual orientation and marriage is this: Haven't you read…that at the beginning the Creator `made them male and female,' and said, `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matthew 19:4-6). In Psalm 139 David writes, You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. The pattern of life that Jesus gives us regarding abortion is implicit in these words: Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these (Matthew 19:14)--to which God the Father adds, You shall not murder (Exodus20:13). In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus speaks of the importance of privacy when He says, If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. The pattern of life that God gives us regarding confidentiality is summed up in Proverbs 11:13, A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret. As for finding happiness through shopping, Jesus is quite clear: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21). And as to the importance of gaining popularity through being attractive, trendy, or influential, Jesus establishes this pattern for us: If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).

Their destiny is destruction. This is the result of living a lifestyle that is hostile to the cross of Christ. Such a lifestyle is ultimately unfulfilling. The person who is focused on pleasure becomes an addict, always looking for another piece of chocolate, another drink, another sexual partner. The person who glories in his or her shame is constantly on the defensive, shrilly challenging anyone who disapproves of the decisions that they make in pursuit of their sinful lifestyle. But the dissatisfaction of a wasted life is nothing in comparison with the torment of eternity in hell. Jesus describes hell this way: their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched (Matk 9:48). This is figurative language, but it is grisly—the image that Jesus creates is of a body being eaten by maggots, a body being burned by fire—a body that undergoes terrible suffering that never ends, because that suffering body is never allowed to find relief through death.

How different a destiny this is from the destiny of those who eagerly await the return of the Savior. For these blessed people, eternal life is pleasure, not pain. God described heaven this way: There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4). There, the redeemed will be able to look at God and see Him in all His wonderful glory. There, the saved will be reunited with every loved one who died as a believer in Christ. Holy Scripture often describes heaven in terms of a wonderful banquet that never ends. One such example we find in Isaiah chapter 25: the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine--the best of meats and the finest of wines…He will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces.

At the beginning of this meditation, I challenged you to evaluate your own life as we contrasted the lifestyle that leads to hell to the lifestyle that is influenced by the cross of Christ. How did you do? Based on this comparison, are you confident that your lifestyle is up to God’s standards? Or was this a humbling experience? Have you discovered that some of your lifestyle choices are at odds with what Jesus desires from you? If you have been honest with yourself, I daresay that like me, you have precious little to be proud of. We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We deserve nothing but God’s divine anger for our shortcomings.

But Jesus knows that we cannot be perfect, no matter how hard we try. So He came to earth to be perfect for us; through His sinless life, Jesus met God’s expectations for a perfect life on our behalf. And then, since we each have earned eternity in hell because of our misplaced priorities, Jesus allowed Himself to be insulted, tortured and put to death, suffering for us all of God’s righteous anger at our sins. Because of Jesus’ obedient life and sacrificial death, we are spared God’s anger for all the times that we have chosen a lifestyle that labels us as enemies of the cross of Christ. Because of Calvary our past mistakes can be erased, and we can start today anew as citizens of heaven--people who follow the pattern of life given us by our Lord, people who wait in eager expectation of our Savior’s triumphant return. All this can be ours when we ask Jesus to forgive us, and place our hope for the future in His hands alone.

Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!

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