Saturday, August 30, 2008

Abuse vs. discipline

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son."

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. "Make level paths for your feet," so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed (Hebrews 12:1-13).

Do you know an abused child? Some professionals estimate that, during the time it takes to read this message, as many as 50 children will be abused. Abuse of children is something that we need to be aware of.

You’ve seen it on the news. A parent who left her tiny child in the car with the windows rolled up on a hot day. A child who was locked in a closet for years. A baby who died from blunt force trauma at the hands of the father. A mother who offered her young child for sexual misuse in exchange for drugs.

How sad that these parents do not see their children as gifts from the Almighty. Psalm 117 says, Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from Him. When Eve bore her first child she said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man" (Genesis 4:1). Eve understood that birth is not just a biological process by which humans reproduce; birth is a miracle, the creation of a new human being, a miracle only possible with the help of God the Creator.

But as sad as it is to see children abused and neglected, it is even more frightening to see how Satan has used these crimes to alter our social consciousness and undermine Christian parents everywhere. What do I mean? Consider this. In the 1950s no one thought twice about spanking a child for doing something wrong, but now spanking is seen by many as a form of abuse.

What has happened is this: in every time and place, Satan has tempted people to use force to get their own way. We call this violence. Violence is when pain is used sinfully against another person. It is a common sin—that is why our God gave us the Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill. And Jesus showed that this command applies to more than just outright murder; in Matthew chapter 5 He says, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again…anyone, who says, `You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. Jesus forbids us to harm each other by using physical or verbal attacks; it is sinful to abuse another person with our fists or with our words.

But Satan was not satisfied with just tempting us to commit acts of violence. Lately, he has mounted a new attack against society, parents in particular. Satan has caused many people to look at the horrors of abuse and mistakenly conclude that a child can and should be disciplined without pain. In the last 50 years, there has been a growing movement in our country to identify spanking and scolding as abusive behavior. Already in 1979 when I was student teaching, the principal told me, "if you touch a child, I can’t defend you." Teachers are not allowed to touch children for fear of being sued for physical or sexual abuse, and they must be very careful not to raise their voice lest they be accused of verbal abuse. Years ago, a parent saw her child playing in the street; she rushed out, picked the child up, gave it a swat on the bottom, and took it in inside with her; a neighbor called Child Protective Services on the parent, who was only trying to impress upon her child how deadly serious playing in the street can be.

Satan has sold America the lie that children should not experience pain when they are disciplined. You can see the result: all across the country classrooms are in chaos, as uncontrolled student behavior forces teachers to resign or retire early. Parents are losing custody of their children in record numbers. Employers are getting young people entering the work force who have no concept of hard work or self-discipline. But every American child "knows their rights."

The problem is that most people do not understand the difference between abuse and discipline. For the Christian, this is not hard—abuse arises from sin, discipline is motivated by godly love. It is that simple. Abuse arises from sin, discipline is motivated by godly love. Let’s consider the difference.

I said before that violence happens when sin urges us to use force to get our own way. When you want to have your way at all costs, there is a temptation to become a bully. Perhaps you are tempted to beat someone up so that they will do what you want, or perhaps you would prefer to cause fear by making threats—threats to hurt someone, or threats to withhold your love or friendship from them unless they do what you want. Or perhaps you are tempted to bring another person under your control by belittling them—telling them how stupid or ugly or worthless they are. This kind of behavior is sinful; it is abusive.

But godly discipline is motivated by love and concern for another person’s well being. Godly discipline sees a child who talks back to people in authority, and recognizes that this behavior violates the Fourth Commandment. When this happens, the disciplinarian does what is needed to make the child realize that the behavior is sinful, and tries to train the child not to do it again. This might include a calm discussion or loss of privileges with an older child, but for a younger child, scolding or spanking may be the clearest form of communication. It depends on what makes the most lasting impression upon the child. Regardless of the technique used, the purpose is not for the parent to vent his or her frustration, the purpose is to steer the child away from habitual sinning.

Some parents struggle with the idea of causing pain to their children, whether it be physical or verbal. Let me assure you—pain is the inevitable result of sin. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); everyone sins, everyone suffers as a consequence of sinning. If we enter death as unrepentant sinners, we have an eternity of suffering to look forward to as a result.

This is why discipline is so important. We discipline our children to impress upon them the seriousness of sin, because we don’t want our loved ones to suffer an eternity of misery in hell. And we discipline our children because God tells us to. Wise Solomon wrote, Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him...Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death (Proverbs 22 & 23).

The writer to the Hebrews says, the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s discipline motivated by love. The Israelites did not trust God to help them fight successfully for a home in Canaan; God disciplined them by making them live in the wilderness for 40 years, yet during that time He never let them starve, He never let their sandals wear out from the constant walking, and when the people were truly humble and obedient to Him, He then led them into the Promised Land. Many years later, the people of Judah stopped worshipping God and turned to the veneration of false gods; the Lord disciplined them by allowing the Babylonians to take them captive to Iraq for 70 years, yet He protected His people from harsh persecution by making Esther a queen, and when the people were truly humble and obedient to Him once more, God allowed them to return and rebuild their destroyed homeland.

But if history teaches us anything, it is that no amount of discipline can ever stop us from sinning. The urge to sin is too deeply ingrained in each of us; in fact, the Bible tells us that we cannot escape the pitfalls of sin while we live. Romans chapter 6 says, anyone who has died has been freed from sin. This is why we need Jesus. Jesus said, if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins (John 8:24). Jesus is the Son of God who became a mortal so that He could suffer God’s punishment of our sins. Jesus was obedient where we are not; Paul writes being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death--even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:8) And even though He was obedient, Jesus still suffered. Hebrews chapter five tells us, even though Jesus was God's Son, He learned obedience from the things He suffered. In this way, God qualified Him as a perfect High Priest, and He became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey Him. Jesus, the Son of God, suffered during the course of carrying out His Father’s will, the saving of our souls from slavery to sin. If the Son of God had to suffer, holy and perfect as He is, then how can we expect to steer our children towards self-improvement without experiencing pain along the way?

The purpose of discipline is not to give us a vent for our frustrations—that is abuse. The purpose of discipline is not to try and make our children perfect—that is impossible, because only Jesus can free us from sin. The purpose of discipline is to train our children to recognize sin for what it is—a poison that can kill the soul eternally. The purpose of discipline is to instill in our children the habit of turning to Jesus in any and every need—for help in wrestling with temptation, for forgiveness when sin overtakes, for hope and courage in the face of loss and despair. Solomon wrote, Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6). The way that we want our children to go is towards our Lord Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. We want our children to go towards Him, because St. John assures us: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son (1 John 5:11). So do not fear to discipline your children, even if it causes them pain; No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. So long as God’s love guides your actions, your children will be blessed as a result.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Personal struggles

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? (Romans 7:24)

I get frustrated with my body. It craves all the wrong items on the menu. It gets sick at the most inconvenient times. My vision is impaired. My skin gets dry and itchy. And we won’t even talk about hair loss or grayness. No matter how many times I take medicine or go to the doctor, my body keeps betraying me.

I also get frustrated with my soul. Sometimes I lose my temper. Other times I let worries drag me down. There are occasions when I spend money foolishly. Sometimes I have to force myself to do things that need getting done. No matter how many times I tell Jesus I’m sorry and ask to be forgiven, my soul keeps betraying me.

The common denominator is sin. Sin corrupts and sin kills. Sin permeates everything and everyone. It is because of sin that you and I get sick, suffer from various disabilities, and eventually die. It is because of sin that you and I fall into bad habits that we can’t break, treat our loved ones hurtfully, and end up consumed with guilt and self-pity.

I get frustrated, struggling with sin. I get tired of being sick or having to deal with a physical handicap. I kick myself for giving into temptations and letting selfishness hurt my relationships with others. And so I am grateful for the letters of St. Paul. He had the same aggravations that I do. He struggled with an unnamed medical condition; listen to what he says about it in 2nd Corinthians chapter 12: Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. But he said to me, "My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness." So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me…For when I am weak, then I am strong. Paul also struggled with the corrupt desires brought about by sin: I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway…I love God's law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:19-25).

Life is a constant struggle with sin. But Jesus conquered sin’s power on the cross, and with Him on my side, I know that the power of sin can never destroy me.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ever green

The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it (Psalm 24:1).

People can get passionate about the natural world around us. The members of PETA are well known for using shocking tactics in their crusade to protect animals from misuse. Greenpeace has been almost reckless in its attempts to protect whales from hunting. There are ecoterrorists who burn down new housing developments and plant bombs at car dealerships, while others sneak into zoos and laboratories to free animals from their cages. And concerns about climate change have many celebrities and politicians promoting a "green" lifestyle.

Certainly God wants us to take care of His marvelous creation; in Genesis chapter one He told the first humans, Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground. In Genesis chapter two we read, The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. From the very beginning, we have had a responsibility to manage the earth and everything that lives on it. Obviously, causing entire species to go extinct is not good management, nor is fouling the air or water with various forms of toxins.

But there is a point where good stewardship gives way to sinful fanaticism. The single most important form of life is humanity. Jesus did not suffer and die to save the environment; He suffered and died to save sinful men and women. The Bible says that this world will not be around forever; when Christ returns in judgment, this old, pain-filled world will be destroyed and replaced by a new, perfect creation. Efforts to save the planet are ultimately futile, because this world is destined for destruction.

People, on the other hand, are designed by God to live forever. When Jesus returns, He will raise everyone from their graves. Those who love Him will inherit the new earth; everyone else will be sent to a place of eternal darkness and despair. Since only human beings will live forever, the place where they spend forever should be our highest priority. Which is a more important use of our time: saving an endangered species from facing extinction, or saving a sinful man from facing hell? Which is a more important use of our resources: to preserve the life of an ecosystem by living green, or to preserve the life of a dying woman by introducing her to Christ?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The old covenant and the new

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:18-24).

The 66 books of the Bible are collected under two titles: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Some people refer to them as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. A covenant is like a treaty; it lays out terms of peace between two parties that had been at war.

Ever since Adam and Eve ignored God’s rules so they could do as they pleased, mankind has been at war with God. God is the king of the universe, and we all are subjects under His rule. When people ignore the king’s rules, they become rebels; lately, the news media labels such people as "insurgents". As you know from the news reports from overseas, insurgents are always at war with the government. This aptly describes the sinner’s rebellious relationship with God.

God will not tolerate rebellion; Adam and Eve brought a death penalty upon themselves and all of humanity. Because of human rebellion against God, we have lost His intended gift of living on this earth forever. Because of sin, everyone dies—some sooner, some later, but everybody eventually dies. Not only that, but our entire lives are made miserable by the things that lead to death—destructive weather, disease, crippling accidents and the onslaught of old age.

But our God is also a merciful God. Even though our lives are cursed with suffering because of sin, the Lord holds out twin offerings: an offer to help us through the difficulties of life, and an offer to find eternal relief from suffering by joining Him in heaven after our death. However, there are strings attached to this double offer. God expects something from us in return for His help and mercy.

And so we speak of covenants. A covenant is like a peace treaty, where God offers to stop punishing us for our sins in exchange for a pledge from us. The Bible can be said to offer two covenants with God—the covenant of Moses in the Old Testament, and the covenant of Jesus in the New Testament. Today’s reading from Hebrews contrasts these two covenants for us.

Hebrews describes the covenant of Moses this way: a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire…darkness, gloom and storm…a trumpet blast or…such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." This imagery takes us back to Mount Sinai in the wilderness. This was a mountain that could be touched, but only at the risk of one’s life; Sinai is where the Lord visited the earth, making it holy ground. If an animal touched the mountain, it had to be put to death; to touch holy things carelessly or unworthily was to invite instant death from the Lord. When the Lord spoke from Sinai’s heights, the mountain burned; dark clouds, thunder and lightning hid the Lord’s face from the people, lest they be struck dead by seeing God directly in all His glory. When the Lord spoke to the people, His voice was so powerful and terrifying that all of Israel begged Moses to speak to God on their behalf, because they believed that they would die of fright if God spoke directly to them again. The Bible tells us that God spoke to face to face with Moses as one would with a friend, but even Moses was terrified.

The old covenant emphasized fear. God revealed Himself as holy and untouchable. He demanded respect; you were not to misuse God’s name in conversation, nor could you touch holy things without permission. You had to give ten percent of your income to the upkeep of the temple and the priesthood. If you broke the Ten Commandments or any of God’s rules, you had to bring a sacrifice to the priests so that your sins could be forgiven. People who refused to accept God’s authority could be forced to leave or even be put to death. Moses summarized the covenant this way: the LORD will turn from his fierce anger; he will show you mercy, have compassion on you, and increase your numbers, as he promised on oath to your forefathers, because you obey the LORD your God, keeping all his commands that I am giving you today and doing what is right in his eyes (Deuteronomy 13:17-18). The covenant of God given through Moses was peace in exchange for obedience to the Law of God.

How successful were the Israelites in keeping this covenant? They did very poorly. God sent prophet after prophet to the children of Israel, warning them that they were angering God by how they mistreated His covenant of peace with them—looking for legal loopholes, offering sacrifices for sins without sincere repentance in their hearts, and ignoring God’s rules when they caused inconvenience. God sent hardship after hardship to show the people that He was serious—famine, drought, foreign invasion—but the people never treated God’s laws seriously for long. Eventually the nation was destroyed, its people taken captive in Babylon for 70 years; yet even after this major lesson in humility, those who were allowed to return angered God by making the rebuilding of His temple a lower priority than the rebuilding of their homes and businesses. Over and over again, the threat of punishment failed to produce righteousness in the people.

Moses had said, if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). But it never worked. Time and again, the people failed to keep God’s law; they loved their sin more than they feared God. They could not make themselves righteous. If it were not for the fact that God had allowed them to offer sacrifices to pay for their sins, every Israelite of the old covenant would have died under God’s wrath; Moses himself was not permitted to enter the Promised Land because by his sins he had angered God. Even the man who brought God’s terms of peace could not live up to them.

But Jesus brought us a different covenant when He came to live and die among us. Hebrews describes it this way: you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. In the new covenant, Mount Sinai has been replaced with Mount Zion. Sinai was a physical mountain where God showed Himself; Zion and its capital of Jerusalem are a picture of the heights of heaven where the Lord rules in all His splendor. Thousands upon thousands of angels live there in perfect joy; the reason for their happiness is that they are privileged to serve God and live in His divine presence.

The covenant of Jesus allows us to enter His church, the church of He who is the first born. Jesus is the first born of the Almighty, the Son of God. Jesus is the first born of Mary, the Son of Man. He is uniquely man and God in one. And He is the first born of the dead. Jesus was a man so that He could die; Jesus was God so that the blood He offered on the cross would have the power to atone for every human sin. And Jesus rose from the grave alive to prove His mastery over sin and death; He became the first born of the dead, so that we can be assured that just as He has risen, we too may expect to rise again to eternal life with Him.

Because of the covenant of Jesus, our names are written in heaven; eternal happiness is promised to those whose names are written in God’s Book of Life. It is because of this that we do not fear God as the judge of all men; through Jesus we have been made righteous. Here is a difference between the old covenant and the new: our relationship with God is not based on fear. It is true, we must still respect God, and if we choose to ignore Him we should be very afraid. But in the new covenant, the Lord does not reveal Himself as frightening and untouchable; instead He reveals Himself to us in the person of His Son Jesus, in whom all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3), yet it is safe to look upon Him, listen to Him, approach close to Him. Jesus took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:16). Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Jesus promised, whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37).

In the new covenant, the emphasis is not on what we do, but on what God has done through Jesus. The entire Old Testament proves that we cannot make ourselves righteous, no matter how afraid of God we are. Instead, the old covenant teaches us how important Jesus is for our salvation, because we can only become righteous through His blood. 1st Corinthians chapter one says, Christ Jesus…has become for us wisdom from God--that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. And Romans chapter three tells us: now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. Theologians call this an alien righteousness—our righteousness, our acceptability to God, does not come from within us, nor is it a result of what we do; our righteousness is alien to us, it comes from outside of us—it comes from God as a gift through faith in Jesus. Our obligation under this new covenant is simply this—believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31).

The comparison of the two covenants concludes with these words: the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. You remember Abel—he was killed by his brother Cain, the first shedding of human blood in history. When the Lord confronted Cain over this death, He said Listen! Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground (Genesis 4:10). Abel had committed no crime, yet he had been put to death; his blood cried out for God to avenge him. This is the old covenant—God’s fearful wrath on lawbreakers.

Hebrews 9:22 says, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. The old covenant between God and man was sealed when Moses took the life of a sacrificial animal and sprinkled the people with its blood; this was the blood of the covenant. Notice the word sprinkled; Hebrews tells us that this is what Jesus has done to us with His holy blood, poured out on the cross—He has sprinkled us with His blood, the blood of the perfect final sacrifice that seals the new covenant between us and God, the new holy blood of the covenant. Jesus was innocent, yet He was put to death; but His blood is not like Abel’s blood. Abel’s blood called out to God for vengeance, but Jesus’ blood calls to God for mercy. This is the new covenant—God’s mercy on repentant sinners.

Many people in our world prefer to live under the old covenant—they teach a fearsome God who is swift to punish; they believe that if they just try hard enough, they can lead good lives that please God. Such people live lives of fear and uncertainty and self-loathing for their failures. But we live under the new covenant—we adore a loving God who is slow to anger and abounding in love (Joel 2:13); we know that we can never be good enough to please God, so instead we trust in His promise of mercy offered through Jesus’ blood. We can lead our lives in humble confidence, knowing that because Jesus loves us in spite of our sins, we can love ourselves in spite of our sins; and that when He forgives us, we can forgive ourselves as well.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Noble death

Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).

What makes death noble? When is death a pointless tragedy? These are questions as old as time.

The first death happened when Cain murdered his brother Abel. It was a pointless, tragic death. Cain was jealous of his brother. Abel had a good relationship with God; Cain did not. So Cain invited his brother to join him on a walk, and while they were alone together, Cain violently ended his brother’s life.

Since that terrible day, people have been killing each other for every sort of reason—fear, anger, greed, or national pride. Sometimes we kill in self-defense. Sometimes we kill to exact revenge. Sometimes we kill for the sake of justice. Sometimes we kill to end conflict and bring about peace.

With so many reasons given for killing, people often find themselves arguing—was that use of lethal force truly justified? Was that death noble or pointless? Was death the only solution to that problem?

In mankind’s long and bloody history, there was one death that was unquestionably noble. There was one death that was absolutely necessary. That death happened 2,000 years ago on the cross of Calvary. The Son of God came to wage war against sin, death and all the powers of darkness. He suffered unimaginable pain as He fought with Satan and his minions. But although He won the victory, Jesus’ life bled from His body leaving Him dead. His life was given as the ultimate sacrifice to win our freedom from corruption. Only God’s love for sinful humanity could lead to such a selfless act. Only God’s Son could achieve that stunning result. The death of Christ was both noble and essential.

Blessedly, there is even more. Jesus rose from the grave alive—rose to give proof positive of His victory. And His resurrection from the grave gives us hope as we visit the graves of our loved ones. Because Jesus lives, so shall those who followed Him. No matter how or when death comes, the dead in Christ will live and love forever.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


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).

Have you gone on a vacation yet? The summer break from school is almost at an end. Pretty soon the weather will turn colder. It will be time to put away boats and trail bikes. Labor Day is coming up, and most Americans will stop dreaming of fun and travel until next Memorial Day.

Why do we need a vacation? Why do we crave a change of scenery? I wonder if hungering for vacation shows unhappiness with the life we are living? If your whole summer hinges on your vacation plans, what does that say about the quality of your life? Are you happy with your job? Are you happy with your family, your home, your circle of friends? Are you happy with your daily routine? If you are not, going on vacation will not make the problem go away. A vacation can offer temporary relief from being unhappy, but when you return home your daily routine will still be waiting for you, unchanged.

There are some people who don’t get excited about vacations. They love their work; they love being right where they are. When you are happy with how you are living, there is no desire to take a break from it.

God designed each of us differently. Each of us has a unique set of interests, abilities and skills. But these qualities were not assigned randomly; God hand-crafted each of us the way He did for a reason. God placed each of us on earth to do something special, and He made sure that by our birth and upbringing, each of us is uniquely suited to carry out the tasks He has lined up for us.

Most people don’t make much of an effort to find out what God wants them to be doing with their lives. There are so many exciting ways to make money and spend time that it is easy to live life without giving much thought to its meaning. But vacation time can serve as a wake-up call; if you are desperate to get away and dread the day when vacation ends, it is time to ask yourself—am I really happy with my life? If the answer is no, maybe you aren’t using your God-given abilities the way they were meant to be used.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The absolute worst

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me faithful, appointing me to His service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners--of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen (1 Timothy 1:12-17).

What is the worst thing that you have ever done? Have you blown off someone you care about because you were preoccupied with your job or hobby? Have you told a lie that got you off the hook, but got someone else into trouble? Have you shoplifted or stolen something from work? Have you cheated on your spouse? Has your carelessness or bad temper resulted in someone getting hurt? Have you made your mom or dad’s life miserable?

Have you lived your life as if God doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care what you do?

Everyone has a past. Everyone carries around a lead ball of guilt in the pit of their stomach over something that they should not have done, or something that they failed to do. In fact, people carry quite a few loads of guilt because when we do something wrong, sometimes it is spectacularly big and messy—but more often, what we feel guilty for is doing the same wrong thing over and over again, and we hate ourselves for our repeated weakness.

As you carry your load of guilt year after year, the weight of it seems to increase. Eventually, the numbing pain of regret can suck the joy out of living. And no matter what you do, no matter how many times you say that you’re sorry, no matter how you try to make things up or punish yourself, nothing can change what you did—you can’t change the past.

Saint Paul knew exactly how that felt. In our epistle lesson, he called himself the worst of sinners. And Paul was not exaggerating when he admitted this. Paul lists his crimes: I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. Paul was a blasphemer; he had heard the teachings about Jesus Christ and decided that they were lies. Christians taught that Jesus was the Son of God, born in human flesh; Paul denied that Jesus was anything more than an ordinary man. Christians taught that Jesus performed miracles by the power of God; Paul suspected that if Jesus had indeed performed any miracles, it must have been with the help of Satan. Christians taught that Jesus suffered and died on the cross to make payment to God for every human sin; Paul believed that Jesus died the kind of horrible death appropriate for a false religious teacher who was seducing gullible believers away from the true religion. Christians taught that Jesus had risen from the dead and gone back to heaven, where He forgives believers for their sins; Paul was convinced that Jesus was still dead, that His disciples had merely stolen His body from its grave and lied about the resurrection to keep His teachings alive. Paul declared as lies everything Jesus said and did.

Paul was also a persecutor. It infuriated him that people were converting to the false religion of Christianity. Bad enough that these so-called Christians were going to go to hell; how dare they endanger others with their damnable lies? So Paul took an active hand in trying to shut down Christianity. He traveled from city to city, looking for people who believed that Jesus was the living Son of God; and when he found a group of believers, he had them arrested and taken to Jerusalem to be put on trial for embracing heresy.

And Paul was a violent man. Hear his own words of regret, written late in life: I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death (Acts 22:4). Paul admits that he sought the death sentence for those Christians who would not abandon their faith in Christ. That is how much Paul hated Jesus and His followers—he wanted to erase from the earth every last trace of them.

Was Paul the ‘worst of sinners’? He certainly had good reason to feel that way. Is there anything in your life that can possibly be worse than hating God’s Son and trying to organize the destruction of every living Christian? No matter what you have done, I think that Paul’s sins have got yours beat.

And yet, in spite of this incredible load of sin, Paul was not crushed with despair. In fact, he was thankful! He said, I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that He considered me faithful, appointing me to His service. Paul had been a hard nut to crack, but crack him is just what the Savior did. Jesus confronted Paul personally in a vision, proving to him that everything taught about Jesus is indeed true—that He is the Son of God, that He is holy and sinless, that His suffering and death did make restitution for all human sins, and that He is alive forever, triumphant over sin, death and Satan. Jesus confronted Paul with the truth, and Paul was a changed man—he admitted his errors, he apologized for his evil ways, and he dedicated the rest of his life to the Savior’s service.

Why would Jesus waste His time with such a sworn enemy? Why didn’t Jesus just strike Paul dead and let him rot in hell? First of all, hatred is not what motivates Jesus. Speaking of Himself, Jesus said the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus came into our world and underwent His suffering on our behalf because He loves us; in Ephesians chapter 5 Paul writes, Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. And Jesus did not do this for only a select few; our Lord 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 (John 3:16).

There is also an additional reason why Jesus personally challenged Paul to turn and follow Him. Paul says, I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display His unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on Him and receive eternal life. Paul was known far and wide as a hater of Christians; his sudden conversion to the faith would accomplish two things to benefit the church. First of all, it made people sit up and take notice; that an intelligent, passionate man like Paul could completely change his opinion so quickly was a powerful testimony that the teachings of Jesus are truly life altering. Paul’s notorious background and dramatic conversion demonstrated the power of Christ to rehabilitate lives.

Second, Paul’s ministry as a teacher of Jesus served as a wonderful example of God’s mercy. Paul was the most feared man among the Christians of his day—yet Jesus forgave him. Jesus forgave Paul for the blasphemy against God’s Son, his persecution of Jesus’ followers, and even for the innocent deaths he was responsible for. Jesus forgave Paul completely and gave Paul a new life—a life as a living example of God’s mercy. By the end of his remaining years, Paul had written virtually half of the New Testament—this from the man who had entered adulthood believing that Jesus was a fraud!

So, what about you? What about your burdens of guilt? Is anything in your life worse than what Paul did before Jesus confronted him? It’s unlikely. You may feel like the worst of sinners, but you’re not. But even if you truly are the worst of sinners, Paul and I still have Good News for you: Jesus stands ready to forgive you for it all. Jesus forgave Paul, the worst of sinners, and gave him a life that honored God to its final breath. If Jesus could forgive the worst of sinners, He can certainly forgive you.

Jesus is confronting you about your sins. He knows what you have done, or failed to do. He knows how badly you feel about your mistakes. He knows that you crave release and a new start. Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart. He wants you to open up to Him. He wants you to tell Him that you have done wrong, you’re sorry, and that you want Him to wrap you in His arms, forgive you, and take the weight of your guilt from you. Jesus says, Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Jesus is the living Son of God; only He has the power to release you from the past. Jesus is the Son of Man who died to pay for your sins; only He has the authority to tell you, Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20).

Jesus is with you; He waits for your tears so that He can dry them. Jesus is with you; He waits for your confession so that He can forgive you. Paul said, The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus; repent of your sins and accept Jesus’ invitation to belong to Him, and these gifts will be yours as well.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Religious intolerance

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44).

You dare not criticize the Muslim religion, or you will be called intolerant. If you say anything negative about Judaism, you will be labeled a bigot. But when Christianity is attacked, no one seems to protest.

Some people claim that Christianity is a hoax, a religion designed to get cash from the gullible. Others say that although it contains some worthwhile teachings, Christianity is built on myth—if there really was a man named Jesus, he certainly did not perform any miracles or rise from the dead. There are people who claim that Christians are bigoted, out of touch with the modern world, or are dangerous fanatics.

Insulting Christianity is nothing new. Back in the time of the Roman Empire, Christians were seen as disloyal to the government because they refused to pray to statues of the emperor. When Christians spoke of eating Christ’s body and blood during communion, non-believers called them cannibals. When the government needed a scapegoat for failed public policy and military reversals, Christians were blamed and thrown into the arena to be mauled by wild animals for the pleasure of cheering crowds.

Unquestionably, Christians have done some terrible things—the Crusades, the Inquisition, and many witch-hunts were done in the name of Jesus, yet we can be sure that Christ never sanctioned the evils brought about by these events. Likewise, the histories of both Muslims and Jews are filled with considerable blood. This simply proves that all humanity loves sin and needs a Savior; we need the blood of Christ, shed on the cross, to purge away our thirst for blood.

It is fascinating to me that Jews and Muslims immediately get defensive when attacked, whether it be over political matters, accommodating religious beliefs in the workplace, or even in regard to telling jokes. Yet when the Christian faith is attacked, there is no demand for a public apology, no one voices concern that the Christian is being treated insensitively. Why must we respect Muslims and Jews, but accept bashing of Christians without complaint? Perhaps it is as simple as this command from Jesus: Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also (Matthew 5:39).

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Pride only breeds quarrels, but wisdom is found in those who take advice (Proverbs 13:10).

Our country is getting more and more polarized. On one side you have people like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly, while on the other you have names like Al Franken, Rosie O’Donnell, Bill Maher and Michael Moore. Are these people interested in dialogue and working together to find solutions? Hardly. Their energy is spent on criticizing everyone who doesn’t agree with them. Each group would like you to believe that they have all the answers, and that the opposition is completely and utterly wrong on each and every issue.

I frequently get emails forwarded to me that promote this kind of thinking. Some make fun of career politicians, while others make fun of political activists. Some criticize the policies of our government, while others criticize efforts to change our nation’s foreign and domestic priorities. In every case, one side is portrayed as patriotic while the other is out to weaken us or take away our freedoms. The author of the email takes great care to build his or her case, while completely ignoring any valid points raised by the other side.

For the Christian, two things come into play. The first is this: how do the positions of each side square up with God’s will as revealed in the Bible? What dies Scripture say about the conditions under which you can end another person’s life? What is God’s design for marriage and sexual relationships? What does God want us to spend our money on? How does He want us to use our time? Usually, the issues that polarize America are moral issues. And the only one who can give you the right answer is the only person who is without sin—Jesus, the Son of God.

But sometimes the best choice for public policy is unclear—no matter which way you look, no path forward looks better than another. That’s the effect of sin—it often blinds us to seeing the right way to go. At such times, stubborn partisanship serves no one—when there is no good answer, then we all need to stop bickering and start cooperating, sharing ideas and using the skills God has given us to create a plan and see if it works. If we can set aside pride and humbly admit that none of us has all the answers, then we can try things—and if we fail, we can admit that we got it wrong and try something else.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Going the wrong way

The word of the LORD came to Jonah son of Amittai: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before Me."

But Jonah ran away from the LORD and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish to flee from the LORD (Jonah 1:1-3).

Jonah lived during the years when Israel had seen its best days and was sinking into spiritual and economic decline. The golden age of David and Solomon was past. The kingdom had split into two competing nations, Israel and Judah. It was the time when the prophets Elijah and Elisha opposed king Ahab and queen Jezebel, who were encouraging the people to worship their false god named Baal.

It seems that immoral behavior, belief in false religions, and fascination with evil were commonplace everywhere. Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, was a cesspool of corruption. Assyria was a major world power of that time. The power and influence of Nineveh was known from Europe to India to Africa. And yet Nineveh was so degraded that the Lord spoke to Jonah, telling him "Go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it, because its wickedness has come up before Me."

This was a tough assignment. No one from Nineveh had asked Jonah to come preach to them; to Assyria, Israel was a poor backwater country populated by a people in decline. Besides, Jonah would be a stranger in a strange land, standing alone among a people known for their ruthless cruelty as he told them that they must change their ways or be destroyed. Not an inviting prospect; Jonah didn’t want to go. So Jonah decided to get out of town. He figured that if he got busy doing something else, God would leave him alone and send somebody else instead. Jonah set out in the opposite direction—instead of heading east to Nineveh, he hurried to the port city of Joppa, where he boarded a ship heading west towards Tarshish.

We too are tempted to try and run away from the harder tasks that God assigns to us, especially when He wants us to do things for Him that are religious and spiritual. Just like Jonah, the Lord has told us to go and speak to others about their need for God. Jesus said, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20). These words are addressed to every person who is a Christian. You know what the word go means, and you know what the word teaching means. But I imagine that you have told the Lord something along these lines: "Lord, I’d like to do what You want, but I can’t do that. I’m not good at teaching; I don’t speak very well. Anyway, I can’t afford to go to school to become a person who teaches religion. I’ll tell You what—Lord, I’ll use the talents You have given me to earn money, and I’ll give You some of that money to support someone else in going and teaching in my place."

It is true that we all have different gifts, and not everyone has the God-given skills to be a preacher or teacher; Paul tells us so in Ephesians. And God does expect the rest of us to financially support those who go out and teach in His name. But maybe God wants to train and send you as His teacher; by offering the Lord your money instead of your God-given talents, have you, like Jonah, been fleeing towards Tarshish?

And what about Sunday morning? The Lord has not forgotten that you promised Him your earnings to send others in your place. When the collection plate is passed, is your offering large enough to send someone else? What percentage of your income does it represent? When you decide how much to give to the Lord, are your thoughts directed towards Nineveh or Tarshish?

Just as the Lord told Jonah to preach to Nineveh, so He expects you to witness to the people of this world. Jesus said, you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). By you, He means every Christian. By Jerusalem, our Lord means your hometown. To be a witness means telling people that Jesus, the Son of God, left the glories of heaven to be born into poverty, that He lived without sin and dedicated every moment of His life to serving God and serving the needs of humanity. To be a witness means telling your relatives that Jesus was crucified and died for the sins of all people. It means telling your friends that Jesus rose from death to live forever in heaven, where He presents our requests for mercy to God the Father. It means telling your coworkers and neighbors that the Lord is returning for a final judgement, and that all who trust in Him will live with Him eternally. Our Lord wants you to tell others what He means to you, and to invite them to come with you to church activities where they may deepen their relationship with God together with other Christians. God’s assignment to you is just as clear as it was to Jonah.

What will you do with this assignment? Will you make time for the Lord each Sunday your top priority? Will you commit yourself to showing God’s love as you work and socialize with others? Will you volunteer your time to sing in the choir, teach Sunday School, or serve as a church officer? Will you set your feet towards Nineveh, or do you still want to set sail for Tarshish?

Jonah went down to Joppa, paid his fare, and boarded the ship. As the coastline faded from view, Jonah heaved a sigh of relief—perhaps he felt he had escaped God’s will. Jonah went below decks and fell into a self-satisfied sleep.

But God sees everything, and no place is beyond His reach. The Lord decided to see just how stubborn Jonah would be. Soon, the wind came up. The waves grew higher and higher. Water began flooding the ship, threatening to sink it. The sailors threw all unnecessary equipment overboard to lighten their vessel. They prayed to their false gods. But nothing helped. The captain woke Jonah and told him to pray to his God as well, but God did not answer Jonah’s selfish pleas.

It finally dawned on Jonah that his behavior was responsible for their current situation; God had caught up to him. Although he had feared speaking of God with the Ninevites, he spoke openly of the Lord with these sailors: I am a Hebrew and I worship the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land (Jonah 1:9). He admitted to them that he had been trying to run away from the Lord, and that this terrible storm was the result. Regretting what his sin had resulted in, he said: pick me up and throw me into the sea…and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you (Jonah 1:12).

But the sailors did not want to anger God further by throwing Jonah into the sea to drown; instead, they rowed with all their might to try and reach land. But God prevented them from making any progress, so they prayed that the Lord would not hold them guilty for Jonah’s blood, and threw him into the surging waves that engulfed them. As soon as the deed was done, the storm died away—the sailors feared the Lord even more and offered a sacrifice to Him, committing themselves to His worship.

But what of Jonah? The Lord was not done with him yet, so He arranged a miraculous rescue for this errant messenger—a huge sea creature swallowed Jonah whole and alive. For three days, Jonah survived in the belly of the creature, and these were the most important days of his life, for the Bible says, Jonah prayed to the LORD his God (Jonah 2:1). This was the turning point in Jonah’s life. Yes, Jonah had been a believer, but he was one who tried to slip by without having to do any work for the Lord. God had to treat him rather roughly to teach him that this is not how God’s people behave.

So Jonah prayed. He prayed for forgiveness. He gave thanks to God for his salvation, and he promised that he would go to Nineveh, and from now on he would be obedient to the Lord. And God forgave Jonah; on the third day the sea creature spit him out along the shoreline. And as Jonah cleaned himself off, enjoying the feel of solid ground beneath his feet, the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: "Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you" (Jonah 3:1) This time, Jonah obeyed—he headed east to preach in the capital of Assyria.

Jonah had learned his lesson the hard way. He had learned that you can’t run away from God or the tasks that He gives you. Think of how much more pleasant Jonah’s life would have been, had he only obeyed God right away. This is still true today—it is so much more enjoyable to willingly do what God asks of us, rather than make Him pressure us. Immediate obedience to God is always the best way.

The message that Jonah brought to Nineveh was a stern one: "because of your wickedness, 40 days from now, your city will be destroyed!" But to his surprise, Jonah’s words did not fall on deaf ears, nor was he arrested and tortured. Instead, the king and the people believed God’s message to them. They set aside their fancy clothes and sat in ashes to show their genuine sorrow over having angered God. When the Lord saw that they had regretted their evil ways, He forgave them and spared the city.

Now you would think that Jonah would thank God and rejoice. He had preached. The people had repented. The city was spared. But Jonah was not happy. On the contrary, he was aggravated with the Lord—angry, because God had been merciful and forgiven the wicked when they repented!

This seems incomprehensible—but aren’t we like Jonah sometimes? Have you ever wondered why doesn’t God just destroy all the evil people in the world? Why do the godless prosper? Why does God expect us to forgive people who have hurt us, when they are not even Christians? But through Peter the Lord tells us, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). It can take a long time for some people to recognize their sins and repent—years, decades, maybe even a lifetime. Yet every person who has come to faith late in life will tell you how grateful they are that Jesus was patient with them during their years of sinning, that He did not give up on them and destroy them. Certainly Jonah, of all people, should have understood this.

Jonah went out of the city and set up a shelter for himself; there he waited for the arrival of the 40th day. He couldn’t bring himself to believe that the Lord was really going to let that wicked city off the hook. During his wait, the Lord caused a large leafy plant to sprout up overnight at his campsite. Jonah was glad for the generous shade it provided in the hot climate. But the next day, God sent a worm to eat into the plant and kill it. Jonah felt utterly miserable. He was hot. He was angry that God had relented punishing the Ninevites. He was upset that the worm had killed the shade plant. Then the Lord spoke to Jonah once more. He said: "You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?" (Jonah 4:10-11)

Mankind is God’s special creation. Mankind was created in God’s image, with an immortal soul. His great and unending concern is to win us back, to save our souls for eternal life with Him. That’s why God spared Nineveh. That’s why God permits our sinful world to continue to exist, that some might be saved by the preaching and teaching of the Gospel of Christ. The great lesson of Jonah’s life is that God is generous, patient, and forgiving. He forgave both Jonah and the people of Nineveh when they repented. This gracious God never changes. In 1st John 1:9 we read, If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we, at times, have acted like Jonah, or even like the people of Nineveh, He also forgives us as He forgave them. Ask the Lord for His mercy, and to help you lead a life that goes, not away from Him, but towards Him.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Blessed is the man who fears the LORD…He will have no fear of bad news (Psalm 112:1, 7).

I’m not much of one for spending a lot of time on the news. When I was growing up, my parents subscribed to both of Milwaukee’s daily newspapers, but I hardly ever looked at either of them. I’ve never watched shows like 60 Minutes or the 700 Club. I watch local and national news programs several times most weeks, but there are some days when the only news I get is from the radio as I’m eating a meal or driving to an appointment.

It’s not that I don’t care about what’s going on in the world; I restrict my diet of news simply because there is far too much of it to take in and remain mentally healthy. The bulk of what’s reported is demoralizing—terrorist attacks, tainted food, political corruption, people afflicted with incurable medical conditions, homes destroyed by tornadoes and wildfires and hurricanes—the list just goes on and on. If you let it happen, the news can convince you that things are spinning hopelessly out of control.

What good does all this knowledge do you? Can you find or capture a terrorist leader? Can you overturn a judge’s bad decision? Can you cause the cost of oil to go down? Jesus said, who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest? (Luke 12:25-26) Sometimes newspeople try to worry us about things we simply can’t control. Such news does far more harm than good, and for the most part should be avoided. My mother remembers listening to the radio on December 7th, 1941 when Pearl Harbor was attacked; the newsman reported what had happened, and then the radio network just went back to normal programming. Contrast that to the reporting of the 9/11 terrorist attack, coverage so pervasive that there was no way to get a moment’s relief from it.

But some news is worth paying attention to. It is good to know what politicians are up to, so you can vote wisely during the next round of elections. It is important for the safety of your family to find out when a dangerous product has been recalled. And it is always good to know when someone needs help—being aware of another person’s troubles gives you the opportunity to pray for them. The news can serve a useful function, when there is something you can do in response to it.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Memory touchstones

Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere (Psalm 84:10).

Some people like to collect antique toys or dolls. Some like to collect old baseball cards or comic books. Some like to collect vintage glassware or classic art. Almost every city has at least one shop where you can explore relics from the past and add to your collection of memorabilia.

When asked why they seek out antiques, some collectors might tell you that things were made better in the past, that artists took greater pride in their work, or that a collection of antiques is an investment that will grow in value over time. Others will speak of the excitement that comes from locating something rare, or getting a valuable item at a bargain price from a seller who doesn’t realize what it's worth. But collecting is mainly about one thing—happy memories.

When a collector picks up an old doll, she can remember where she was when she bought it. When a lover of old books sits down to read, he can recall what the weather was like the day he brought that volume home. For the collector, an antique is like an album of old photos, only better—because your memories include sounds and smells as well. Just one collectible can take you back to a day you hadn’t thought about for years, and remind you of good times you had almost forgotten.

The things you collect reflect what’s important to you. Items that call up pleasant memories are kept and displayed. Reminders of dark times are hidden away or disposed of. What do the things you’ve collected say about you? What kinds of memories do you treasure most?

Does a church building figure into your collection of memory-holders? Is there a communion rail where you took your confirmation vows and tasted the Lord’s Supper for the first time? Is there an altar where you spoke your wedding vows? Do you remember the font where you had your children baptized? Is there a church cemetery where you entrusted a loved one into Jesus’ eternal care? If you value important memories, then the church needs to be a part of your life, from the beginning of life all the way to the end.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The rewards of loyalty

But Ruth replied, "Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me" (Ruth 1:16-17).

Elimelech and his wife Naomi were godly people who lived near Bethlehem, the place where our Savior was born. God had blessed them; He had given them two sons, Mahlon and Kilion. God had given this family a farm, and much happiness to go with it.

But the Bible says, every branch that…bear[s] fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:2). The Lord allows tough times to come into our lives to test our devotion to Him, and this happened in Naomi’s life. There was a famine in the land of Judah. Before long, the family’s savings were used up. Elimelech was forced to move his family so that he could continue to feed them. Land was still fertile in the land of Moab, a country just south of the Dead Sea, so it was there that the family went.

Life in Moab was a mixture of sorrow and joy. Elimelech died, but Naomi’s sons found wives among the Moabites, Ruth and Orpah. The family lived in contentment for a decade; then sorrow came again. Both of Naomi’s sons also died. This left her alone in a foreign land with only her two daughters-in-law.

In our day, it can be hard for a widow to make a living; it was much tougher in Naomi’s time. When Naomi heard that the famine in Judah had come to an end, she decided to move back to her homeland where she might find some support among her relations. Ruth and Orpah announced that they would go with her.

But Naomi, a devout and God-fearing woman, felt that it would be selfish on her part to ask these two younger women to accompany her. They could probably do better in their own land, and she, with God’s help, would make out all right on her own. She encouraged Ruth and Orpah to stay in Moab and, since they were young, to remarry.

There was a lot of weeping during this frank discussion, and Orpah finally kissed her mother-in-law farewell. But Ruth could not abandon Naomi. They embraced, and Naomi tearfully tried to dissuade Ruth once more from coming with her. But Ruth was firm in her loyalty; she said, Don't urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.

Certainly, this involved making a sacrifice. It meant leaving her home country; it meant leaving her other relatives and friends. But Ruth was ready to make this sacrifice—after all, she had received a great deal from her mother-in-law. Naomi had introduced Ruth to the true and living God. Ruth had found the promise of salvation through belief in the Messiah who God had promised to send in the future. Ruth had found peace of heart and the hope of everlasting life; through Naomi, she had been led to God. She loved both God and her mother-in-law, and where such godly love exists, sacrifice and loyalty usually follow.

Ruth’s declaration of loyalty has often been used as a wedding text. It has much of importance to say. For example: "your God will be my God." When those of you who are single start getting serious about a person you’ve been dating, ask yourself: on my wedding day, can I honestly say to that person ‘your God will be my God’? If not, you ought to think seriously about how truly united the two of you can be. In 1st Corinthians chapter 7, Paul tells us that an unbeliever can be sanctified by the faith of a believing spouse, but he then adds the caution, How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Consider also the words, "your people will be my people." There are some who are so naïve as to think, "I’m marrying my true love, not their family." But the tie between parent and child is so close that no marriage can truly sever it; when a man and a woman take their marriage vows, they are inevitably saying, "your people will be my people." For better or worse, your spouse’s parents and siblings become your relatives. Again, if you do not feel that you can accept this, it is best that you start dating someone else.

Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay…Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. "Until death do us part"—that is the promise of the marriage ceremony. Weddings are beautiful—the dresses, the hairdos, the flowers, the bridesmaids and the groomsmen. But these are not the things that make a wedding truly beautiful; the real beauty of a Christian ceremony is when two people, washed clean of their guilt by the blood of Christ, love God so much that they cannot imagine entering into marriage without Him as a full third partner. The beauty of Christian marriage is the vow of Christian love—a heavenly love that is not focussed on what each spouse can gain from getting married, but rejoices in giving love to the other person, understanding them, protecting them, and helping them grow, just as Jesus’ first priority is to love and take care of us.

When Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem, life was very real and very difficult. The two women weren’t offered much in the way of help. When Naomi walked down the street to the market, I imagine that people whispered to each other, "Is that Naomi?" Certainly, the sorrows and the travelling must have aged her. She carried the burden of responsibility for seeing to Ruth’s needs in a community not her own.

God’s law stipulated that farmers were not to pick up wheat that was dropped during harvesting, nor were they to be too careful as they cut the corners of their fields. In this way, food was left for the poor and the foreigner. Ruth wasn’t too proud to consider herself as a poor foreigner, so she went out to see what leftovers she might find in someone’s field. As it happened, she ended up at the farm of Boaz, a wealthy bachelor and a kinsman of Naomi. When Boaz learned of Ruth’s loyalty and devotion, and saw her humility, his heart went out to her. He even told his workers to drop some wheat on purpose where Ruth might come across it. Day after day, Ruth came to Boaz’ field for food—and whether Boaz knew it or not, for the first time in his life he was falling in love.

Naomi saw that Boaz had taken a shine to Ruth. She also knew the Law of Moses—if a husband died without leaving any children, it became the duty of the nearest available kin to marry the widow. So Naomi devised a plan—Ruth should go to Boaz and ask if he would marry her as her kinsman-redeemer. Boaz was a God-fearing man and a gentleman; even though he loved Ruth, he first went to another relative who was closer kin than he was, and therefore had the first right of marriage. But when they met before the local magistrate, this other relative took off his shoe and handed it to Boaz. This was the custom of that time and place which said, "I waive my rights."

And so Boaz and Ruth were married. Her financial worries were over. And the Lord blessed them—they were given a child named Obed. Obed eventually became the father of Jesse, who in turn had a son named David, who became king of Israel. And generations later, Ruth’s family line would result in a baby born of man and God, a baby named Jesus.

There are three people in the story of Ruth from whom we can learn important lessons. The first is Orpah. Orpah went back to her own people and their false gods. She represents a lot of folks. They are found in all of God’s churches—people who would like to go with God’s people, but can’t quite bring themselves to abandon their attachment to worldly things. They join a church because someone they love wants them to, and it’s kind of nice to belong to a church. They attend church at least somewhat regularly, until Jesus asks for self-denial or personal sacrifice; then, like Orpah, they go back to their old way of life.

Ruth stands for those Christians whose decision is final—those who really mean it when they say in their Confirmation vows that they would rather die than ever walk away from their relationship with Jesus. On that day, they said to the members of the church, "your God will be my God." Orpah represents those who are content to just sit in church; Ruth represents those who desire to follow Jesus as His disciples, wherever He might lead them. People like Ruth know that through Jesus, God has forgiven them for all of their wickedness, and He has done this for a purpose—that we be enabled to care for others, as Ruth cared for her mother-in-law. Jesus meets us in church, but He also leads us out to serve as His hands and voice in the godless land of Moab that is our modern world.

But although Ruth had a book of the Bible named after her to honor her for her loyalty, the real hero of the story is Boaz. Boaz is the kinsman-redeemer, the person who rescues Ruth from dying alone in poverty. Boaz represents Christ. Jesus Christ is our kinsman-redeemer. He is our kinsman, because He was born a flesh and blood member of the human race through His mother Mary. He is our redeemer, because His Father is God Himself, meaning that Jesus had the power to do what no mere human could ever do—die in the place of every sinful human being, to buy our souls from the control of sin. By purchasing our lifeblood with His own, He redeemed us—guaranteed that we would not live in the misery of spiritual poverty, or die the unending death of hell.

Ruth was a woman of loyalty, and God rewarded her loyalty through the offer of life with Boaz. Ruth did not end up in the field of Boaz by accident; God led her there. It wasn’t by chance that Boaz loved her; God kindled love for Ruth in his heart. And it was no accident that Ruth became an ancestor of Jesus; it was arranged by God. God blessed her for her loyalty.

God rewards our loyalty to Him as well; He offers us unending happiness and life through a committed relationship with His Son Jesus. Loyalty is the subject of the fourth commandment: Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you (Deuteronomy 5:16). Martin Luther wrote, "[God] promises grace and every blessing to all who keep His commandments." It is this kind of commitment that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of John: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:26).

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