Saturday, November 29, 2008

Trying to please everyone

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24).

I’m sure that you’ve felt the stress. Your boss wants you to stay late to meet an important deadline, while your son is scheduled to play at school the same evening. The man of your dreams wants a small private wedding while your mother is already planning something large and elaborate. Ever since they got divorced, your parents have tugged at you from opposite directions, trying to get you to take sides in their conflicts.

What makes these situations so stressful is that you don’t want to let anybody down. But in conflicts like these, there is no middle ground; no matter what you do, someone is going to end up feeling betrayed. All you can really do is stall for time—but every day that goes by only makes the situation worse. Trying to sit on the fence can tear you apart.

A lot of Christians feel this kind of stress. They have pledged loyalty to God’s Son, yet they still want to be on good terms with the devil. They like the idea of being special in God’s sight; they want to go to heaven when they die. But they don’t want to turn away from pleasures that Satan promotes—sex outside of marriage, participating in gossip, spending money foolishly. And so they try to have it both ways; some pick and choose which parts of the Bible they feel comfortable believing, while others just stay away from church and its uncomfortable message that sinful ways must be left behind.

But you cannot serve two masters. Regardless of your efforts, one will trump the other for control of your heart. Either you belong to Christ, or Satan pulls your strings. Trying to find some middle ground is a fool’s quest, doomed to failure. Trying to please God while indulging Satan will only fill your life with horrible stress and put your soul at considerable risk.

Make no mistake—every Christian does evil things, much to Satan’s delight. But the Christian finds no lasting joy in sin, only guilt for having betrayed the Savior. Jesus is quick to forgive those who love Him. But He does expect us to see sinful behavior for what it is—ugly and degrading and harmful. Love of sin is incompatible with love for Christ.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Give thanks? For what?

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

How can Paul write words like these? How can we be joyful all the time and give thanks in every situation?

Not since the Great Depression has America’s economy been this bad. People are losing their jobs, their homes, their investments. Credit for major purchases is hard to come by. The cost of necessities like food, energy, and medical care continues to rise. Many people have to delay retirement or cancel it altogether. Be joyful and give thanks? For what?

And what about disasters? People were still recovering from Katrina when Hurricane Ike smashed into the United States. This year a terrible earthquake struck western China. There have been raging firestorms in California. Environmentalists warn that the earth is growing warmer, and that vast areas of the world will experience dramatic climate change. Be joyful and give thanks? For what?

We are fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a lot of American men and women have come home crippled or in body bags. Terrorists carry out suicide bombings and are proud to take responsibility. People in Africa are victims of ethnic cleansing. Be joyful and give thanks? For what?

And what about you? How many of you reading this have been backstabbed by a friend you thought you could trust? How many of you have been taken advantage of, lied to, or cheated on? How many of you have been treated disrespectfully by your children? How many of you have dealt with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease? How many of you have lost someone special to the grave? Be joyful and give thanks? For what?

Paul wrote, be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. How could Paul be so unrealistic? Didn’t he understand how tough life can be? Actually, he did—Paul wrote these words knowing full well what it means to suffer. Listen as Paul details the hard times in his life, recorded in 2nd Corinthians:

Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers, but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty, and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?

Paul understood better than most how miserable life can be. He spent much of his final years in prison, locked away because the people in charge did not want him talking about Jesus. Yet even while confined in jail, Paul remained positive. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, he wrote. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).

Paul had seen the best and the worst that life has to offer. Yet he did not feel deprived or shortchanged during times of hardship. Paul was able to be content—more than that, he held joy in his heart, joy that enabled him to give thanks to God. How could he possibly feel that way?

All the things that make us sour and ungrateful are the temporary things of this world. Don’t have enough money? What value will money have after you’re dead? Hurt by people who treat you shabbily? In heaven all sin is gone; once you are there, no one can ever hurt you again. Suffering from harsh weather or poor health? When Jesus raises you from the dead to live on the new earth, your body will be perfect and the world will be free of tragedy.

I’m not downplaying the amount of hurt we can experience here on earth. Everyone suffers, some most horribly. But this earthly life is only a small part of our total existence. The Lord created us to live forever; our time on earth, while significant, is really no longer than the nine months you spent in the womb waiting to be born. Pregnancy ends in painful labor; our life on earth ends in painful death. But after nine months in the womb, a child is born to live a lifetime; after our earthly lives end in death, Jesus raises us to live with Him forever. Our time of suffering is only a small part of what is yet to come.

It’s easier to endure suffering if you know that it will come to an end. People sick with the flu take comfort from knowing that in a few days, the worst will be past. Cancer patients wait patiently for tests to show that they are in remission. Having a plan for victory helps military leaders cope with the reversals of war. Investors look at their long-range financial plans to find courage when stock prices are low. We find comfort in knowing that "this too shall pass."

And yet so much of the time we worry and make plans as if God is not part of the equation. God made the universe just by speaking. God parted the Red Sea so that His people could cross the seabed on dry ground, while the water stood piled up in walls to the left and right of them. God made the sun stand still for 24 hours so the Israelite army could win a tough battle. God caused barren women to get pregnant, paralyzed people to walk, blind people to see, and people with incurable diseases to become completely healthy. God lays it before us: Is anything too hard for the LORD? (Genesis 18:14) So why do we behave as if God cannot fix things?

Maybe we don’t think that God notices our problems or cares enough to get personally involved. But the Bible assures us otherwise. King Hezekiah asked God to save him from an untimely death, and the Lord extended his life by 15 years. When Ruth was widowed, God made sure that she met a loving man who would marry her and take care of her. The Son of God turned water into wine at a wedding, so the family would not be publicly embarrassed at failing to plan adequately for the celebration. After a day of teaching in the wilderness, Jesus made sure that the crowd of over 5,000 was well fed, despite only having five loaves of bread and two fish on hand. And God gave His own Son to the cross so that we could be forgiven all of our mistakes and shortcomings. God does care about us, and He gets personally involved in our lives.

Because of this, we can live with joy in our hearts. Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is about feeling pleasure and excitement. Joy is about confidence and peace. We are confident in God’s love for us. His love is so great that He sent His Son to die for us. Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). The bloodstained cross on God’s holy mountain is proof positive of His love for us. The blood of Christ removes the stain of sin from us, and fills our dying bodies with life that can never be extinguished. As a result, we can live with peace in our hearts, the peace of knowing that we are protected and cared for, loved and supported. Knowing that God is on our side because of Jesus, we can live each and every moment with joy.

Because of this joy, we can give thanks in all circumstances, just as Paul did. Paul had a chronic health problem that troubled him. In 2 Corinthians chapter 12 he says, Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. Paul found that hardship can be a blessing. When he was faced with a problem beyond human ability to solve, the only one he could turn to was God. The problems of life drove Paul closer to the Savior. When he learned to rely on God, Paul found peace of mind because he could stop worrying. As a result, Paul saw value in everything that made him turn to God for help; such troubles helped Paul grow in his faith. This is why Paul could say, give thanks in all circumstances. After all, we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).

You might not feel all that happy today. You might be suffering in some way or have an unmet need. But if you trust in God’s love and mercy, you can have joy in your heart. If you trust the Lord, you can be grateful even during times of hardship, because when you are weak, God’s strength can be seen clearly. King Solomon wrote, trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6). His father King David wrote, The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you (Psalm 9:9-10). These are words to live by and be thankful for.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Red and white

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18).

What’s your favorite color? Many people like the color of gold; for Midwestern farmers it is the color of a wheat field maturing in the sun, while for miners it is the color of wealth glittering in the dark. Other people like purple; it makes them think of opulence and privilege because it has often been associated with royalty. Black is a favorite color for clothing; black suits and dresses never go out of style.

My favorite colors are blue and green. I suppose it’s because I grew up in Wisconsin. Green makes me think of driving through the northern woods, trees lining both sides of the road with their branches meeting overhead. Blue reminds me of water—the sparkling streams flowing through the countryside and the waves of Lake Michigan extending to the horizon. Most of the pictures displayed by my screensaver are of forest trails, streams cutting through woods, or waves lapping at the shore—a cornucopia of greens and blues.

But for the Christian, there are two colors that stand out above all others. The first one is the color red—blood red, to be specific. Blood is a major feature of God’s covenants with His people. In the Old Testament, treaties were ratified by spilling the blood of a sacrificial animal. Abraham and his descendants underwent bloody circumcision to mark them as people who belonged to God. At Mount Sinai, Moses ratified God’s covenant with the Israelites by sprinkling them with blood. In the New Testament, Jesus died on the cross, thus establishing a new covenant between God and His people which was sealed with the blood of God’s own Son. In Holy Communion, Jesus offers us this life-saving blood through earthly wine, a miracle we cannot understand but which nevertheless offers us forgiveness, faith and spiritual strength. For the Christian, red is the color of our relationship with God.

The other important color is white. White is the color of purity. When the Book of Revelation gives us a glimpse of heaven, the people blessed to be there are wearing white. This is because they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). When we belong to Christ, His bloody sacrifice washes away every stain from our lives and leaves us white, purified, dressed appropriately to stand before God and sing His praises. For the Christian, white is the color of our wonderful future, living with Jesus and the saints in paradise.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Count your blessings

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the LORD promised on oath to your forefathers. Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you.

Observe the commands of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and revering him. For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land--a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the LORD your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 8:1-11).

Back in the days when the Pilgrims had settled in New England, they developed an annual custom. Each Thanksgiving Day, five kernels of corn would be put on every dinner plate. Before the big meal began, each person was required to name five things for which he or she was thankful. The five kernels of corn reminded them that during their first hard season living in Plymouth, that was their daily allotment of corn—five kernels per person, per day.

In today’s Old Testament reading, the Israelites had just finished 40 years of hard living in the wilderness. Now God was ready to bring them into the Promised Land, a country with flowing water, good soil, and plentiful mineral deposits—all things that were hard to come by in the desert. But before the people entered this inviting land, Moses warned them to be careful to always be thankful to God for what they had. Moses was concerned that the people might come to take their blessings for granted.

The Israelites already had a history of ingratitude. They had suffered as slaves in Egypt for generations. God sent Moses to free them, performing an unprecedented series of spectacular miracles in the process. By God’s power, Moses could make his hand become infected with leprosy and restore it to complete health, all in a matter of moments. Moses could turn his staff into a snake and back into a staff again. Moses struck the Nile River with this same staff, and every ounce of pure water in Egypt turned into undrinkable blood. God afflicted the Land of of the Pharaohs with plagues, none of which affected the area where the Israelites were living—He sent infestations of frogs, gnats, flies and locusts. The Lord caused all of the Egyptian cattle to die of disease. He infected all the people of Egypt with a skin disease. He sent a terrible hailstorm, the worst that anyone had ever experienced. He prevented the sun from shining in Egypt for three days, leaving the country in utter darkness. The Lord even caused the simultaneous death of every first-born Egyptian child—all this to convince the nation’s leadership to release God’s people from slavery.

Nor did the miracles end there. To protect the fleeing Israelites, God opened a dry path through the Red Sea for them to cross in safety, then allowed the waters to crash down and drown the Egyptian army that was chasing them. God visibly led the Israelites through the wilderness with a tower of cloud by day, and a tower of fire by night. There was never any doubt that God was with His people.

And how did the Israelites respond to all this? Did they give God thanks for their freedom? Did they thank Him for His public display of heavenly power on their behalf? Did they thank Him for visibly leading them every day? No—they grumbled that He was not feeding them properly. So God caused the morning dew to solidify into sweet bread every morning, and the wind to blow quail into the camp every night, so that the Israelites would not have to look for food.

When the Israelites reached the Promised Land of Canaan, Moses sent twelve men to scout it out. When they returned with their report, ten of the men claimed that the natives were too strong to fight against. Only two of the spies urged the people to trust in God and move forward. So instead of thanking God for bringing them safely to the homeland He had promised them, the people despaired and began to talk about going back to Egypt to resume their lives as slaves. This is when God became completely fed up. He turned against the people for their ingratitude and lack of trust, condemning them to wander in the wilderness until all those who were so ungrateful had died off. Because of their grumbling, the Lord took from them the promise of a permanent home and deferred it to the next generation.

But God did not abandon His people. For 40 years they wandered in the wilderness, visibly led by the Lord’s column of cloud by day and His column of fire by night. God continued to give them food from heaven every day. Miraculously, their clothing did not wear out and their feet did not swell up from the constant traveling. God enabled the wanderers to successfully defend themselves from the attacks of those who hated them. And gradually the people learned to be grateful for what the Lord gave them each day. Only then did God bring them back to Canaan, the fertile land He had promised their forefathers as a permanent home where they could settle.

Israel’s long-standing problem with gratitude teaches us two lessons. The first has to do with gratefulness in times of hardship. The Israelites had seen God do a number of incredible miracles as He freed them from slavery to the Egyptians, yet after only a few months of hardship in the desert all that was forgotten and the complaining began. We tend to be the same way. Who of you reading this can claim that God has truly ignored your needs? Are you badly malnourished? Are you without adequate clothing? Have you ever been sick and recovered? Have you been in an accident that could have killed you? Have you never had anyone to love you, befriend you, or care about you? Has there been there no evidence of God’s love in your life?

We often confuse what we need with what we want. It is easy to complain that we don’t have enough—especially when advertisers are constantly telling us that we need their products in order to be happy. But what does a human being actually need? Food, clothing, a place to sleep, and companionship. In terms of earthly needs, that’s all that is truly necessary. And if you look at the billions of people alive in the world today, most of them have little more than these few simple things—and they are able to find happiness and contentment with the little that they have.

When we feel like complaining, we need to imitate the Pilgrims and start counting our blessings. For the Christian, this is easy. God the Father gave me life, and He keeps me alive each day. He makes food and drink available to me. He provides me with clothing and a place to lay my head. God the Son gave His life for me. He forgives me for my mistakes, and gives me relief from my guilt. He protects me from Satan’s attempts to win me for evil or to make me give in to despair. He has opened heaven to me; because of this, I do not need to fear death, and I am reassured at the funerals of my Christian loved ones that I will see them again. God the Holy Spirit lives within me. He strengthens me when times are tough, dries my tears when I am sad, and encourages me when I am afraid. He gives me wisdom through the words of the Bible when I have decisions to make. He helps me to build relationships with others by admitting my mistakes and forgiving those who have hurt me. Because of Him, I am never alone.

When we count our blessings, we realize how much God has given us, and we can have confidence that He continues to care for us today. When we look at our lives from this perspective, it is easy for us to stop complaining and instead give thanks to God.

The other lesson we need to learn from the Israelites is pregnant in Moses’ warning to them: Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God. Moses was right to worry that his people would all too quickly start taking their new lifestyle for granted and forget about the God who had given it to them. Within a generation, God was once again punishing the Israelites for ignoring Him.

Affluence can be a trap. Luxuries can distract us from giving our attention to God. How many people skip church because of their recreational vehicles or fishing rods or golf clubs? How many people would rather stay in the comfortable bed of their warm house than go out into the cold to spend time in the Lord’s house? Look in your checkbook—how much money do you spend on hobbies and eating out and in making payments on a new car equipped with all the extras, and how much do you return to the Lord in thanksgiving?

Not only do possessions distract us, they also numb our sensibilities. How children have you seen who have received so many Christmas presents that they tear open one package, barely glance at the toy, then drop it to tear open another, all without a word of thanks? When we are richly blessed with earthly things, it becomes easy to take them all for granted. Gifts from God can start losing their specialness when we are constantly aswim in them.

Solomon was the richest king of Israel, yet God’s wisdom showed him the problems that can come from having the wrong attitude towards what God gives us. He said, give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, `Who is the LORD?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God (Proverbs 30:8-9). Possessions are always a source of temptation. Too few, and we are tempted to complain that God has not given us enough; too many, and we are tempted to take the gifts, and the God who gave them, for granted. Either way, we are tempted to not be properly thankful for what we have.

As you celebrate Thanksgiving this year, do not be like the Israelites. Do not grumble about what you don’t have. Do not take God and His gifts for granted. Instead, count your blessings, and thank God for each and every one. Show honor to the God who has loved you so much, and always will.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Your most valuable possession

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 (Matthew 6:19-20).

What is the most valuable thing that you own? Is it a house or a herd of cattle? Is it a car or a recreational vehicle? Is it a piece of antique furniture or a collectible signed by someone famous?
Sadly, the worth of such things can easily slip away. Time is one problem. As months go by, cars and RVs depreciate in value. Homes need regular maintenance or they become run down and hard to sell. Security raises another problem. An investment property can be hurt by vandalism. Precious antiques and collectibles can be stolen. And there is always the risk of an accident. Herds of cattle get thinned by illness and injury. Designer clothing can be ruined by a stain or rip.

Thankfully, there is one thing we possess that time will not depreciate. There is one thing we have that cannot be stolen from us. There is one precious thing that our clumsiness cannot ruin. That one special thing is a promise: If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved (Romans 10:9). Saved from what? Saved from being the devil’s mistreated plaything. Saved from being a helpless victim of your impulses and emotions. Saved from God’s anger for ignoring Him, anger that would otherwise result in being sentenced to hell. God promises to save you from these awful things if you are loyal to His Son Jesus.

This is a promise that can never perish, spoil or fade, because the Creator of the universe made the promise and He backs it up. It is a promise that will never lose its value, because God is eternal. It is a promise that cannot be taken from us, because God is stronger than the devil. It is a promise that we cannot screw up, because salvation is by God’s design and was made effective by Jesus’ blood shed on the cross—our flawed actions don’t enter into the equation.

The promise of salvation given you by Jesus is the most precious thing you have. Treat it with the utmost respect, because that is what it deserves. Don’t make the mistake of assigning anything else in your life a higher value.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The stuff that controls you

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).

Have you ever thought, "I need a new cabinet to show off my collection"? Have you ever told your spouse, "we need new curtains to go with the furniture we just bought"? Are you reluctant to throw things away because you might need them some day?

Do you own the things in your home, or do they actually own you? The last time you looked for a new place to live, did you pass on an otherwise perfect location because your furniture wouldn’t fit or wasn’t the right style? Have you ever moved to a larger place simply because you needed more room for storage? How much of your monthly income is spent on building a collection or restoring some antique? When children come to visit, do you always watch them closely to make sure they don’t touch anything valuable or precious? Do you worry about your home catching fire while you are away on vacation? How big a premium do you pay for insuring your personal property?

Our possessions are just that—possessions. They should not possess us. But all too often, the things we own start influencing our decisions. While on vacation, a lover of rare books might annoy her family by wanting to stop at every ‘used bookstore’ they happen upon, as she looks for volumes her collection is missing. A sports fan might empty the den and completely redecorate it with sports memorabilia, embarrassing his wife who shuts the door whenever they have guests. When a teen falls in love with a blouse, she might spend a lot of additional time and money to get coordinating slacks and the perfect accessories. In each case, personal property starts dictating personal behavior—behavior that is obsessive, inconsiderate, or wasteful.

Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Luke 12:34). The things we treasure as important take control of us—they demand our attention and influence the decisions that we make. What do you want controlling you? Do you really want a dinette set telling you which house to buy? Or do you want the Son of God directing your behavior? Do you want your thoughts, words and deeds to be motivated by love? Do you want to be known for your patience, compassion and generosity? If you want a life that emphasizes these kinds of qualities, then Jesus needs to have first place in your heart.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Wake up!

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

Have you noticed that many restaurants use dim lighting? The same is true for most bars. If you have gone out dancing, I’m sure that you’ve noticed how low they keep the lights. And what is more romantic than an evening together in front of a glowing fireplace, with the lights turned off?

Dim lighting is used by restaurants, bars and dance halls to create a feeling of intimacy. When the lights are low, the only people that you can see clearly are those who are close to you; others are hardly noticeable in the darkness and are easily ignored. Furthermore, in the darkness things look better than they are; there’s an old joke that says "the closer to closing time, the better your date looks." This is due in part to alcohol, but it also has to do with the darkness. In dim light, it is hard to see wrinkles or gray hairs; when you cannot see many details, your imagination tends to fill in the blanks, making things look more appealing than they would under a bright light. I have sometimes joked that the reason a restaurant keeps its lights dim is so you cannot see what your expensive dinner really looks like.

But while darkness can give you a false sense of intimacy and hide imperfections, it also has a dangerous aspect to its character. Most crimes occur at night. Criminals use the darkness to hide their activities. In the darkness, no one can see a figure breaking into a house. In the darkness, it is hard to see clearly the face of a kidnapper or a rapist. Further, most people sleep when it is dark, and being asleep is when a person is most vulnerable to attack. Many people are victims of crime while they are asleep, and are not aware that they are being victimized until it is too late.

Paul speaks about the dangers of darkness. He speaks of us sleeping in the night, a night filled with deeds of darkness like orgies and drunkenness…sexual immorality and debauchery…dissension and jealousy. What exactly are the dangers of living your life in darkness?

One problem is that of loneliness. Darkness is isolating. In a poorly-lit bar, you might value being able to forget about everyone who is hidden in the shadows while you talk privately with someone you want to grow closer to; but at two in the morning, when you are alone in a dark room with only your fear and loneliness to keep you company, shadows take on a frightening character. The hours spent alone in a dark house are much harder to endure than when that home is filled with sunlight. Darkness isolates us, breeding fear and loneliness.

Another problem with living in darkness has to do with reality. In a darkened restaurant, your food and your companion can seem more attractive than they truly are because the darkness can hide unappealing details. In the darkness it is easier to deny reality and believe what we want. In one of the songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, the deformed Phantom sings these words to the beautiful girl he desires: Close your eyes, for your eyes will only tell the truth, and the truth isn’t what you want to see; in the dark it is easy to pretend that the truth is what it ought to be. We can make mistakes in judgment when we let illusion disguise unpleasant reality.

The third risk of living in darkness is that of out-and-out danger. When we believe ourselves to be safely hidden by the dark, it is far easier to give in to the temptation to do wrong because we are not afraid of being caught. Not only are we endangered by the urge to do something that can get us into trouble, but we are also put in danger from others who plan to do us harm while we are unable to protect ourselves, asleep and blinded by the dark.

Satan loves the dark. He loves to make us feel all alone, because then we fear that Jesus is not with us. If Satan can convince us that our Lord is uncaring and far away, he can weaken our faith in Jesus’ love for us and trick us into giving up on having a relationship with the only Person who can forgive our sins and reconnect us to God. By definition, hell is the place where we are cut off from God’s love, and Satan uses the isolating power of darkness to give us a taste of hell when we become convinced that we are all alone in the night.

Satan loves the illusions of the dark. Satan loves it when we live in a fantasy world. When we live in darkness, the truth of God is hard to see because shadows obscure the light. When the truth is hard to see, we fill in the details from our own sinful imagination and inner dark desires. Men convince themselves that when a woman says "no", she really means, "try a little harder." Women convince themselves that spreading gossip does no real harm, because it is best that the truth be out in the open for everyone to see. Teens convince themselves that getting drunk shows how mature you are. When life is lived in darkness, it is easy to ignore the damaging effects of orgies and drunkenness…sexual immorality and debauchery…dissension and jealousy. Darkness permits the fantasy that I won’t get in an accident on my way home from the bar, that I won’t get AIDS or become pregnant from tonight’s sexual encounter, that I am not to blame for the conflict going on in my family. When we confuse fantasy for reality, we commit sins while believing that we are actually doing nothing wrong. Satan loves such delusions, because when we fool ourselves into thinking that evil is good, we do not see any need to go to Jesus for forgiveness. The devil hopes that when we are deceived by the illusions of darkness, we will die with our sins unforgiven and he can claim us forever.

And Satan loves it when he finds us sleeping in the dark. He loves finding people who could be lighting up their lives by spending time with God, but who cannot find the energy to worship or pray or study their Bible and instead nod off into vulnerable slumber. It is while we are alone in the dark, with God’s Word shut off in an unused corner of our hearts, that the devil attacks. He attacks with cancer and heart disease. He attacks through the abusive words and deeds of those who we thought were close to us. He attacks through a constant stream of depressing news on the television and in the newspaper. He attacks by showing us things we should not or cannot have, and urges us to do whatever it takes to get them even if it bankrupts us, breaks the law, hurts our loved ones, or offends God. When Satan catches us asleep in the dark, he immediately tries to destroy our happiness and our future with any means at his disposal.

This is why Paul urges us to wake up. This is why he tells us to look at what we are thinking and saying and doing in the light of God’s truth, and abandon deeds of darkness. God’s light is coming, and there is no escaping the truths it will reveal. Jesus said, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Luke 12:2-3). When the Lord returns, all darkness will be banished by His glorious light, every evil thing starkly revealed in all its ugliness. Paul says, our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed—every day brings you one day closer to the moment when everything you have done in darkness will be revealed by the brilliant dawn of Christ’s return.

God does not want us to live apart from Him. He sent His Son Jesus to suffer death for our sins so that we could be returned to His loving arms, no longer cast out alone in the darkness of our sins. Nor does God want us to live under the dark delusions of sin; the Holy Spirit caused the Bible to be written for us, so that we could know what God's will is--His good, pleasing and perfect will (Romans 12:2). And the Lord does not want us to be lost in the dark on our own, vulnerable to Satan’s attack—that’s why He compares us to wandering sheep and Himself to the Good Shepherd who gives everything to protect His flock, as we read in the Gospel of John chapter 10: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Paul’s instructions to us are these: wake up from your slumber…Let us behave decently, as in the daytime…clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ. First of all, you need to wake up. Satan cannot sneak up on us so easily if we are alert. When you try to wake up while it is still dark, it is important to get the lights on; in order to be spiritually alert, you need to fill your life with God’s light. You can increase the amount of His light in your life by praying to Him more often and attending worship with greater frequency. The closer you try to be to God, the brighter His light will shine in you and the harder it will be for Satan to catch you unawares.

Paul’s second instruction is that we behave as if we are living in God’s light. We should want to see the world as it truly is—imperfections and all. The truth is important, and we must be careful to never accept illusions as a substitute for reality. The reality of the world is this: because of sin, everyone and everything is imperfect. Sooner or later, everyone and everything in our lives will disappoint us, maybe even hurt us. By the light of Christ, we can see in the mirror of God’s Law that we too are far from perfect, and that we too are responsible for bringing grief and pain into our lives and the lives of others. But seeing this truth is a blessing. When we see the many ways in which we are causing hurt by our sins, we are moved to turn to Jesus for His mercy and His wisdom. We learn to forgive others for being imperfect because we are imperfect too, and are only made lovable by Christ’s willingness to forgive us. It is God’s written word that enables us to see things as they really are; you can be better prepared to see through the delusions of this dark world by increasing the amount of time you spend studying the Bible.

Paul’s final instruction is to clothe ourselves in Christ. He wants us to be so close to the Savior that we are in constant contact with Him every minute of our lives. He is like a suit of armor for us, protecting us from the devil’s attacks. By being clothed in Christ, we are wrapped in His holiness, a holiness that covers up our sinfulness and makes us acceptable to stand before God. By being clothed in Christ, we are constantly in touch with our Lord, constantly reassured and warmed by His loving presence, never alone. We gained this garment of salvation when we were baptized, and Christ shares His righteousness with us again every time we come to Him humbly asking to be forgiven.

So, do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Thinking about sinful things is a poor investment of time and energy; remember that spending time in darkness leaves us feeling alone, confused about what is true, and vulnerable to the devil’s attacks. Furthermore, sin is not permitted in heaven, so the time and energy that we devote to sin is time and energy that leads us away from an eternal home in paradise. Instead, let us put aside the deeds of darkness. Let us behave decently, trying to obey God’s Law and seeking Jesus’ mercy when we fail. Our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; today you are one day closer to meeting the Lord face to face, to give an account of yourself to God. Will you slumber in darkness, or will you wake up and welcome the coming Light from heaven?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Are you a pack rat?

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19).

Increasingly, homes are being built with three car garages—and yet you still see cars parked outside, because those garages are often filled with other stuff. Many people try to solve the problem of garage clutter by purchasing a utility shed—or maybe two. But clutter is not restricted to garages. There are many products available to help organize your closets and kitchen drawers. There are containers designed to store things under your bed. And if you get really desperate for space, there are companies that will rent you a compartment in a secured facility.

This last option amazes me. I can see the need for a storage facility if you are in the process of moving or are doing major remodeling on your home. But some people use these services to store things that are out of season, or that they don’t have room for but don’t want to get rid of. My friend, if you have possessions that are gathering dust or are buried deep in a pile somewhere, you don’t need them—you’ve got too much stuff!

God gives us property to use for the good of others and to enjoy ourselves. If you own things that do neither, they are unnecessary. You need a place to sleep and eat and maintain good hygiene. You don’t need more bedrooms than you have people living in the home. You need enough clothes so that you don’t end up doing laundry every couple of days, wasting water on partial loads. You don’t need so many outfits that one closet is unable to hold them all. You need transportation for work, shopping, and going to church. You don’t need more vehicles than you have drivers in the home, and you could probably share rides with just a little planning. Art is meant to be appreciated; what good are paintings or decorative antiques that are stored away in the attic because there is no place to display them? A home theater system with a vast collection of CDs and DVDs is certainly impressive, but what good are they if you have no time to watch or listen?

Money spent on extravagances would be better off put into savings, used to support the church, or donated to a worthy charity. Our Lord expects us to use His gifts responsibly; hoarding things like a pack rat ties up resources that could be used in more beneficial ways. Take a look through your closets, attic and garage; what are you hanging on to that could be put to better use by someone else?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22).

People are afraid of blood. Some parents lose it when their child gets a scraped knee or cuts a finger. Some teenagers love scary movies but cover their eyes when fake blood fills the screen. Fear of blood-borne diseases has many people treating blood like a pathogen, wearing gloves and throwing bloody clothes away instead of washing them. Some people get queasy at just the mention of blood.

And yet blood is at the heart of Christianity. Christianity is the religion of forgiveness, and forgiveness is only made possible by blood. In the Old Testament, God forbade His people from drinking blood, giving the following reason: the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (Leviticus 7:11). Sin demands the death sentence; but in His mercy, God accepted the blood of animals as payment for human sin.

This was, however, only a limited solution to a much bigger problem. Every human being sins over and over again; not a day goes by that we do not break God’s laws and invite His wrath. Countless animals offered up their lives to pay for human sin, but the need for additional sacrifices only grew larger. Thankfully, in Jesus Christ God provided a permanent solution, a final sacrifice that would atone for all human sin throughout the ages. God’s own Son would offer His blood in place of ours, freeing us forever from the guilt of our wrongdoing. John writes, the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

The cross is an ugly, bloody thing, but that blood is beautiful when you realize the great good it does us. In his vision of heaven, John relates the following: there before me was a great multitude that no one could count…They were wearing white robes…These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation chapter seven). If you have ever tried to wash out a bloodstain, you must be shaking your head at the thought that blood could make anything white. But Jesus’ blood washes us clean of sin, gives us His purity, and makes us fit for a place in heaven. His blood is nothing to be feared; it the greatest blessing you will ever receive.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

God's undeserved mercy

"You have said, `It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' "

Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honored his name.

"They will be mine," says the LORD Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not (Malachi 3:14-18).

Through the prophet Malachi, God expresses His anger at the Israelites for their many sins. In chapter one, He confronts His people about their half-hearted commitment to worship and the cheapness of the offerings that they brought to God’s house. In chapter two, the Lord criticizes them for sampling the teachings of false religions instead of studying the Scriptures and for their willingness to treat divorce as something acceptable. Then in chapter three, God turns to the issue of human complaining: "You have said, `It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' "

I have a hunch that at some point in your life, you have voiced this same complaint. What is the point of serving God? I have given up all sorts of things for Him. I could have slept in on Sunday mornings. I could have watched football games instead of sitting in church meetings. I could have more money saved up or invested if I hadn’t put it in the collection plate. I could have avoided the humiliation of having to say that I was sorry when I could have lied and blamed what I did on someone else. I could have slept around instead of saving sex for after the start of marriage. I could have had so much more fun with my friends if I hadn’t insisted on acting like a Christian. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty?

And for all I have given up, done without, what have I gotten from God in return? How is my life any better than the lives of the unbelievers? Many unbelievers tell lie after lie, and they get elected to positions of political power. Many unbelievers are rich; they don’t let moral scruples interfere with doing business, and look at how they prosper! There are many who are Mormons or followers of Mohammed or who claim that there is no god at all, and their groups are growing while we Christians are constantly insulted and increasingly deprived of our religious rights. But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.

It’s true—the world is a frustrating place in which to live. But this does not mean that God is uncaring or that He is not in control. Remember Jesus’ words: You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45). Good things happen to bad people because God loves them too. St. Peter tells us, The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). In Acts 17:27, Paul says that God desires that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. It is said that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar; the good Lord is generous in giving honey to unbelievers, hoping that by showing them His love they might come to love Him in return.

This kind of behavior on God’s part frustrates us sometimes. We would much rather that God show His terrible anger and bring swift justice than to be patient and generous with mercy. But thank heavens that God does not act on a short fuse! If God punished sin as quickly and severely as we sometimes think He should, what would be the consequence for us? Don’t we sin every day? Don’t we give in to the same sinful temptations over and over again, year after year? Do we not sometimes insist for days, weeks, or even longer, that we are in the right, when deep down inside we know that we’ve done wrong? Of course. And how terrible it would be for us if God were swift and merciless in punishing us for our sins!

But He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. That is why He sent His only Son into this sin-sick word. Jesus came to us in patient, generous love. It is true that we frustrate Him—at one point Jesus said, O unbelieving and perverse generation…how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? (Matthew 17:17) And yet immediately following this expression of frustration, Jesus showed His continuing love for us by healing a child. Jesus’ love for us is so great that it led Him to patiently endure the agony of the cross, that He could win for us freedom from the domination of sin, it’s burden of guilt, and it’s sentence of everlasting death. And Jesus generously offers His gift of salvation to everyone, asking only that we pledge ourselves to Him alone as our leader through life.

However, it is a sad reality that many, perhaps most, choose to ignore or reject Jesus. And while Jesus is patient, there is a time limit attached to His generous offer of undeserved mercy. God says, you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. That distinction will be made plain at the Day of Judgement. Jesus said, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-32).

What will be the basis for making this distinction? In the revelation given him of the last day, St. John saw: each person was judged according to what he had done (Revelation 20:13). Jesus also speaks of this: a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear [the Son of Man’s] voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned (John 5:28-29).

Does this mean that Jesus will have some sort of scale before Him, where He puts all our sins on one side, all our good deeds on the other, and waits to see which way the scale tips? Absolutely not! If Jesus decided our eternal fate in this way, then we would all be bound for hell. Jesus summed God’s expectations for our behavior this way: `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38). If you look back on your life and compare how much of it has been totally dedicated to God and how much of it has been focused on yourself, you know that the scale must tip immediately towards damnation.

But Jesus will not evaluate our lives this way. When we ask Jesus to have mercy on us, the record of our sins is erased. In Isaiah 43:25 God says, I am he who blots out your transgressions…and remembers your sins no more. St. Peter urges, Repent…and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out (Acts 3:19). Paul speaks of baptism recreating us as newborn children, freed from the mistakes of the past: We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:2-4).

When Judgment Day comes and Jesus reviews every moment of our lives, there will be no record of any sin for those who believe in Him and seek His mercy; everything negative will be blotted out, wiped away. All that will remain is the record of our faith in Jesus, and no matter how little that record of faith is, it will be enough, because whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). And because of that wonderful generosity of our Lord, we will hear His invitation: Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world (Matthew 25:34).

We must note that Jesus will not use a set of scales to evaluate the unbelievers either. When a person does not believe in Jesus, nothing that they do has any worth in God’s eyes. Paul warns, those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Romans 8:8). When unbelievers stand before the Throne of Judgment there will be nothing from their lives that can be used to back up a plea for Jesus’ mercy, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Instead, all that Jesus will consider is a lifetime of selfishness, hatred, lust and dishonesty, and the sentence will be terrible: Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).

Heaven and hell. Here is the ultimate distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not. Those who are righteous, because Jesus has gifted them with forgiveness, will enjoy eternity in heaven. Those who served God during their brief years on earth will experience unending joy, complete relief from worry and pain and sorrow, and will never be lonely again—because they will be with every Christian who has ever lived. Best of all, they will see Jesus as He really is, and know the delight of living in perfect love. But the wicked, those who spurned Jesus and denied that they needed His mercy, will be plunged into everlasting hell. Those who did not serve God will experience unending fear and pain and despair, an eternal existence made all the more horrible because there will be no hope for relief, not the least bit of love or care from anyone; their only company will be the horrible screams of the damned.

Let us not complain about God’s patience and generosity. It is because of His love that He tells us, They will be mine…in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. We are blessed with the Lord’s lavish mercy; let us never begrudge His goodness to others. When the right time comes, you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

The value of sports

Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training (1 Corinthians 9:25).

There are two types of sports; some involve teamwork, while others focus on individual competition. Both types of sports teach important skills. Games like football, baseball and volleyball emphasize the need for good communication and the ability to work together. Cooperative play also teaches the value of diversity; people with different skills are needed to fill the various positions on the team. As a teammate, you do not face things alone; when training is hard or a game is lost, the members of a team are there to encourage and comfort each other.

Individual competition has its benefits as well. Whether it be golf, tennis, or chess, such competitions teach the importance of self-reliance. When you compete alone, there is no one to pick up the slack for you; you must know what you are doing and be fully committed to giving it your best. You have to be well rounded, able to execute every move of your chosen sport. And individual competition teaches you to be flexible, able to adapt quickly to any situation that arises since there is no one else to back you up.

The lessons taught by such sports are valuable to the Christian. Following Christ is not always easy; we need the skills of both a team player and a solo athlete.

Christians need to be team players. We need to embrace diversity; Paul says that the Church is like the human body, a group of different parts that need each other in order to survive and be effective (1 Corinthians chapter 12). Christians need to communicate with each other, offering encouragement in times of stress and giving comfort when tragedy strikes. And we need to hold each other accountable for the times when we sin, because it is easy to kid ourselves into thinking that such behavior is no big deal.

But belonging to a church does not get you into paradise. God does not issue team passes for a place in heaven. Salvation is offered on an individual basis; it rests on your relationship with the Son of God. So it is important to know the Savior—who He is and what He says to you. It is important to take personal responsibility for your sins instead of trying to blame someone else for your shortcomings. The church exists to help you in your Christian walk, but in the end salvation is a personal issue between Christ and you.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

God and election results

"There is hope for your future," declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:17).

The elections are over. How satisfied are you with the results? Did the people you supported get elected, or were they defeated? Did a majority of voters agree with you on the various ballot measures? Are you happy or disgusted?

The people who won will now say that it is time for us to set aside our differences and work together for the sake of the future. And I agree. But how is that even remotely possible? With all the negative campaigning, all the lies, all the words of hatred and fear mongering, how can America find peace through unity?

Jesus gave us the answer 2,000 years ago on the cross—He said, Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing (Luke 23:34). The Son of God suffered and died for one reason—to forgive our sins so we can be united in love. And He calls on us to follow His example—Jesus said, Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy (Matthew 5:7). Paul wrote, Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13).

Forgiveness is essential in order for relationships to have a future. Forgiveness leads to reconciliation. And forgiveness is what this country needs to heal the wounds of a divisive election. Most candidates and their supporters have told lies and warped the truth in order to get elected. It is time for every person who is guilty to ask Jesus to forgive them. Then, bolstered with God’s love, they need to reach out and apologize to those they hurt. The more this happens, the quicker our political wounds can start to heal.

The worst part of these past months has been the fear mongering—the thought that if voters got it wrong, America is doomed. I’d like to remind you of something quite important—your votes can’t wreck the future. The results of this election can’t wreck the future. Regardless of what we do, God is in control. He is infinitely wise, infinitely loving, and infinitely powerful. There is no mess we can make that He cannot clean up. So if you are concerned with this year’s election results, pray to God and entrust the future to Him.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—[only] God knows. And I know that this man…was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

People have always wondered what heaven is like. Even false religions offer speculation about what life after death is like. And some of these ideas can get pretty wild.

Some Native Americans called their version of heaven the Happy Hunting Grounds. There, buffalo, deer and all manner of game are so plentiful that no man need ever worry about keeping his family well fed and cared for. According to the teachings of Buddhism, you must be continually reincarnated to live life on earth over and over until you lose all interest in being an individual with personal goals and desires; when you finally are ready to stop being distinctly you, you will lose your personality and be absorbed into Nirvana, a place of quiet, passive existence. Some Muslims teach that men who sacrifice their lives in war against unbelievers will find their heaven filled with virgins awaiting their touch. The Vikings called their heaven Valhalla; here, warriors could fight and die each day, yet be reborn completely whole the next morning so they could always enjoy proving their manhood through mortal combat.

As odd as these may sound, Christians have also come up with some unusual ideas about heaven. Some people have the notion that when they die God will turn them into angels, give them wings and a harp, and they will spend eternity singing among clouds. There are any number of jokes about St. Peter meeting people at the gates of heaven and quizzing them before they are allowed to enter. Movies have been made around the idea that sometimes people get sent back to earth to take care of unfinished business before they are allowed final rest.

None of these ideas are found in the Bible. As a matter of fact, the Bible really doesn’t tell us all that much about heaven. But since we are celebrating All Saints’ Day this weekend, let us take some time to find out what holy Scripture does tell us about where our dear departed are today.

First, let's be clear about what we mean by heaven. When Paul was given a glimpse of the afterlife, he describes himself as being taken to the third heaven. What are the other two? The first heaven is the atmosphere above us. The Bible often refers to the sky as heaven; one example is found in Acts chapter 14 where we read, [God] has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons. The second heaven is the vast universe beyond our world, filled with stars and planets. Speaking of the Day of Judgment Isaiah writes, The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light (Isaiah 13:10). It is these two heavens that Peter speaks of when he warns, The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:10). When God returns in judgment to purify His creation from all sin, the sky and the universe beyond it will be destroyed and remade in perfection.

But it is the third heaven that interests us. The third heaven is the invisible heaven, the home of God and of the saints who are now in glory. This is the heaven that God allowed Paul to sneak a peek of. How frustrating for us that Paul comes away from this wonderful experience and can only say that He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell.

Why inexpressible? Because we are only created beings, we cannot understand things that are beyond this world. In Isaiah 55:8-9 God tells us, my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Acknowledging this, King David wrote these words in Psalm 131: My heart is not proud, O LORD…I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. We cannot understand God or His home; because of our human limitations, Paul could not find the words to describe for us what heaven is like.

Paul also said that there were things he was not permitted to tell. Being mortal is not our only limitation. Our minds are also limited by our sinful condition. God takes from His infinite wisdom and shares portions with us in His Bible, explained in the simplest of terms so that we might understand. But even the clearest teachings of Scripture become distorted by misinterpretation due to the sin that muddies our thinking. Consider: God gave us one Bible—but how many organized church bodies are there, each of whom understands that same Bible differently? If sin causes us so much confusion about the simplest of God’s teachings, what would happen if He tried to show us the glories of eternity? Thus, because of our sinful inability to understand God clearly, Paul was told not to speak of things that would only be misinterpreted.

Thankfully, our Lord does share a few things about heaven with us. First of all, it is a real place; Jesus said, There are many rooms in my Father's house. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? (John 14:2) Notice that it is a place that God wants to fill with people; in the parable of the banquet, at one point a servant says Sir…there is still room, to which we hear the wonderful reply: Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full (Luke 14:22-23). God wants to share the inexpressible glories of His home with as many people as will accept His invitation. There is still room for you, for me!

Heaven is often described in terms of a reward. In the Beatitudes Jesus said, Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10). This same thought is picked up in Revelation chapter 7 where John writes, I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands… "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." Heaven is the place where God blesses those who stick by Him when life makes it hard to—when people make fun of you for being a Christian, or accuse you of not being any fun to hang with because you take your religion way too seriously.

Revelation chapter 7 goes on to tell us why heaven is such a great reward. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water…He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain. Heaven is the place where sin has never left its corrupting touch; sin leads to death, and without sin there is no death in heaven. Nor are there to be found any of the things that lead to death—famine, drought, severe weather, disease or disabilities. There is nothing in heaven that can cause pain or disappointment; in heaven, there is no reason for tears to ever be shed.

Since there is no sin in heaven, we need not fear other people causing us pain there. There will be no bullies. No one will tell us that we are stupid or worthless. There will be no bad conduct in heaven—no lies, no hatred, no jealousy, no betrayal, no disrespect. Those who embraced their sinful way of life to the very end will be sent away to hell, to be separated forever from God’s faithful people. In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus tells us that there is a great gulf which separates hell from heaven, and that no one who has been sent below can ever come near to spoil to joy of those who are blessed in paradise (Luke chapter 16).

In order for anyone to enter paradise they must be freed of sin, because no sin is permitted in heaven. Since we are all conceived in sin, the only way that we can be freed of its taint is for God to take it away from us. This He did, through the sending of His Son Jesus into the world. Jesus suffered and died for our sins, lifting from us the burden of guilt for them, and taking upon Himself the responsibility to make right what we had done wrong. When we have a relationship of trust in Jesus, our sins are removed and we are eligible to enter the joys of heaven.

Think what it will be like! No more struggling with temptation to eat too much, drink too much, work too hard or sleep too long. No more problems with addiction. No more times where we speak without thinking and accidentally hurt someone. No more disturbing thoughts or dreams. No more anger or anxiety. No more shame. With the sin purged from us we will be new beings, yet we will still be distinctly ourselves; Jesus promises He who overcomes will…be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father (Revelation 3:5). In heaven, you will still be uniquely you.

We will be reunited with those we loved who died in the faith, and they too will be sin-free. How wonderful to enjoy the company of those we have loved, and never have to worry about angry words spoiling the moment! In addition, we will finally get to meet the people of the Bible whose stories we have read and treasured since childhood—Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Ruth, King David, Daniel and so many more; Jesus said, many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 8:11).

What will we be doing in heaven? Revelation 22:3 says, The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. Part of that service will include worshiping God along with the angels, as St. John tells us: Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!" (Revelation 19:6)

But whatever we are doing in heaven, it will not seem like work because Jesus frequently compares our existence there to the joy of a wedding celebration. In this imagery, Jesus is the groom and we are His bride, finally united with Him forever. Revelation chapter 19: Then the angel said to me, "Write: `Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!' " Whatever else heaven is like, first and foremost it will be the best kind of celebration, like a family gathered together for a holiday dinner after far too many years spent apart.

But as wonderful as all this is, I still have not described the best part. The best part by far is to finally see our Lord Jesus face to face, to be able to touch His nail-scarred hands, to be embraced in the warmth of His loving arms. John writes, Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2). When Moses was given a fleeting glimpse of God, his face reflected the light of God’s glory for days afterwards. We cannot begin to imagine how wonderful it will be to live always in our Savior’s presence.

Getting into heaven is both easy and hard. It is easy in that all we need to enter is faith in Jesus Christ; Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16). The hard part is that we must die so that Jesus can rid us of our recurring sins permanently: anyone who has died has been freed from sin (Romans 6:7). But knowing what awaits us takes much of the terror out of death, because death lasts but a moment while union with Jesus is eternal. The departed saints of the Church have faced death and are enjoying the blessings of heaven today; remain faithful to Christ, and death will be the door to paradise for you as well.

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