Saturday, January 31, 2009

A spiritual journey

The LORD had said to Abram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

So Abram left, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he set out from Haran. He took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all the possessions they had accumulated and the people they had acquired in Haran, and they set out for the land of Canaan, and they arrived there.

Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of the great tree of Moreh at Shechem. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. The LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built an altar there to the LORD, who had appeared to him. From there he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. There he built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD (Genesis 12:1-8).

Of the many stories in Genesis, the call of Abraham is probably one of the best known. I’m sure that you have heard many sermons about the patriarch’s great faith in leaving everything behind to walk into the unknown, trusting in God’s command. But there are other important things contained in today’s Old Testament reading as well. So today, let us spend some time looking at several of the wonderful teachings that God shares with us through these eight short verses.

You will remember that God had already called Abram to leave his home city in Iraq; that is how Abram ended up in Haran, a place where Abram also had relatives. But Haran was not to be Abram’s final home; God told him, leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. Notice that God was well aware of the sacrifice He was asking of Abram; this 75 year old man, who had a wife but no children, was not only to leave the military protection of his country, not only to leave the comfort of living among people who shared his language and his culture, he was even to leave behind the emotional security of living with his relatives.

Why do you suppose that God asked such a thing of Abram? It was because Abram was setting out on a journey of faith. God was stripping away everything that could come between Abram and his Lord. When worries and hardships came, Abram and his wife would have no place to go for reassurance and security than the Lord Himself. Being utterly dependent on God, their trust in Him could only grow stronger.

Were he here with us today, Abram would challenge you to look at your life. Where do you go for security? Do you place your hope in the care that comes through government programs? Do you find your comfort by belonging to a group of people who think like you, who share your interests? Do you look to your relatives to take care of your needs? Or do you depend, first and foremost, on God? Do you pray to Him every day, sharing your hopes and fears, your joys and sorrows? Before you go to a doctor, do you ask the Lord to give him wisdom in making a correct diagnosis and prescribing effective treatment? Before you make a decision on whether to get married or buy a home, do you first seek heaven’s counsel? Is your relationship with the Lord the primary relationship in your life, or do you need to leave behind your country, your people, and your father’s household, as Abram did to be close to God?

God next told Abram, I will make you into a great nation. Notice that God was not promising to make Abram’s descendants into a great people, but rather a great nation. Abram’s descendants would become the nation of Israel, ruled by a line of kings that would one day find their ultimate expression in Jesus Christ, the King of all Creation. This is made even more clear by the following words: all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Now the Jews who do not accept Jesus as their Savior use this promise to give themselves a pat on the back; they believe that God blesses the entire world through its Jewish population. But this view is not properly focused. In Galatians 3:16, Paul speaks of Abram and his seed—seed being a euphemism for descendants. Listen to Paul’s understanding of God’s promises to Abram: The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say "and to seeds," meaning many people, but "and to your seed," meaning one person, who is Christ. It is clear, then—when the Lord said all peoples on earth will be blessed through you, He meant that all people would be blessed through Abram because Abram and Sarai would be the ancestors of the Savior!

But I want you to notice something—this is all a contingent blessing. God promised to bless Abram after Abram had obeyed God and gone to the place where God was sending him. It was only after Abram left all else behind and dedicated himself to God that these blessings would come to him. Did God have to have Abram and Sarai as Christ’s ancestors? Of course not—the Lord could have chosen any couple He desired. But God reserved this wonderful blessing for the couple who treasured their relationship with Him above all other commitments. It was to deeply committed believers that God gave the honor of inaugurating Christ’s human bloodline, a bloodline that would one day result in blood both human and divine, poured out from the cross of Calvary to atone for every human sin. The blood of Christ, true God and true man in one body, would become the means by which all who believe in Jesus can be rescued from slavery to sin and eternal death in hell. Through the biological seed given by God to a childless elderly couple, generations of children would be born, one of whom would also be the Son of God Himself, the source of blessing for people of every nation.

As a Christian, what do you expect from God? Many Christians feel as if they are entitled to blessings, simply because they’ve been baptized and confirmed; when life gets difficult, they wonder why God isn’t giving them everything that they want? But I ask you—should you expect blessings from God if you put your relationship with Him on the backburner six days of the week? Remember, God promised Abram blessings on the condition that Abram make his relationship with God his top priority. And also consider this: Abram’s life was hardly one of constant happiness; even after he left everything to tighten his bond with His Lord, he had struggles—military struggles, family struggles, even struggles with his faith. Just because God blessed him, that did not free Abram from all the problems that come from living in a sin-sickened body, among sin-sickened people, in a sin-sickened world.

There is one other blessing that God promised Abram; He said: I will make your name great. To understand the significance of this, you must remember that just before the history of Abraham, Genesis told us of the Tower of Babel. Up until that time, all mankind had spoken one common language; the problem began when the men of that day said, Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves (Genesis 11:4).

Abram is held up to us as an example of how we should look to God for everything meaningful in our lives; this is in stark contrast to what happened at Babel. There, mankind did not ask God in humility how they should live their lives—instead, they arrogantly set out to glorify themselves by building a huge monument to their pride. They were not interested in any name God would give them—a name like "humble servant"—they wanted a great name, chosen and inscribed on stone by their own sinful imaginations. Of course, you know how God responded to their hubris—He took the one worldwide language and splintered it into many different tongues, disrupting their plans and eliminating any future chance for mankind to stand united in pride against their Creator.

What a contrast this is to Abram. Abram does not seek a name for himself—he is content to trust and follow God in humility. It is because of this humble submission that God promises to make his name great—great as an example for us to aspire to. In addition, God promises that through Abram’s offspring, the people of the world, scattered by their many languages, will be reunited; in Galatians chapter three Paul writes, you are all one in Christ Jesus. Through his humble submission to God’s will, Abram was blessed to be the ancestor of the reunification of mankind through Christ.

What name gives you a sense of pride? Are you proud to be called a United States citizen? Do you find your identity in being of Germanic or Italian descent? Do titles like "boss" or "doctor" or "Dad" or "Mom" make you feel good about yourself? Or does your self-worth come first and foremost from the joy that Jesus has given you the name "Christian"?

The last point I’d like to address today has to do with Abram’s behavior once he arrived in Canaan. Notice what this man of God does, once he has given up all earthly attachments as secondary to his relationship with his Lord: he went on toward the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent…There he built an altar to the LORD. Notice what Abram builds; when he had chosen a place to settle down, he built a place to worship God. Notice also how Abram builds; he built an altar to the Lord, and he pitched a tent for himself. Abram did not build himself a fancy, permanent place to live; he knew that life here on earth is only temporary. Speaking of Abram, Hebrews chapter 11 tells us, By faith he made his home in the Promised Land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents…For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. The only permanent home Abram was interested in was his eternal home with God.

And yet Abram did build permanent structures; wherever he stopped for a time, he built altars at which to worship God. In Abram’s mind, this was God’s land, not his; so he took every opportunity to set up places to honor God for all of His wonderful mercies. In addition, Abram knew that while he would one day die, God would be with His people forever; since Abram believed in God’s promise of a mighty nation which would one day fill the land, he set up altars to always call his descendants to worship the God who had made their nation possible. For Abram, God was the only constant that truly mattered.

What about you? What do you treat as permanent? How much of God’s money do you spend on His house compared to yours? Which house is more valuable to you? Which deserves the most attention? Which house do you want to remain standing throughout the years ahead for the benefit of your children and grandchildren?

And what about your worship habits? When you are in a new city, whether you have just moved there or are merely visiting, is it your first priority to find a house of worship? Your vacation trips are never, I pray, vacations from time worshiping at God’s altar.

Abram’s life was radically changed by God’s call to follow Him. He gave up having his priorities dictated by government, society, and family. He acknowledged that if he wanted God’s blessings to fill his life, he would have to move—move not just away from how he used to do things, but move into a whole new way of thinking. He realized that pride in himself and his accomplishments would only get in the way of the great things God wanted to do through him—most especially, make available the gift of forgiveness for all sins. These changes showed themselves in Abram’s new life—a life where the worship and love of God eclipsed everything else, a life where earthly pleasures were treated as the temporary things that they are.

May the Lord Jesus forgive your misplaced priorities, and may He enable you to embark on a life-changing journey of faith, following in the footsteps of your spiritual ancestor, Abram, that you might receive all of the Lord’s wonderful blessings.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are you good enough to enter heaven?

`Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Luke 10:27).

Are you good enough to get into heaven? Let’s take a short quiz and see what we find out.

God says that you should not be jealous of what other people have. He says that you are not allowed to tell lies, steal, or break promises. He says that you may not hurt anyone by what you say or do or fail to do. He demands that you show respect to your parents, your elders, and everyone in a position of authority. So my question to you is this: have you obeyed God in your dealings with others? Have you ever talked back to a teacher? Have you ever spoken a racial slur? Have you ever treated another person as a toy to satisfy your sexual urges? Have you ever cheated on a test? Have you ever been jealous because your best friend got to date the person you were interested in?

How did you do on the first part of our little quiz? But wait, we haven’t done part two yet. God says that you are to make time every week to get closer to Him. He says that you are to use His name respectfully. He demands first place in your heart and life. So my question to you is this: have you honored God with your life? Do you pray to Jesus every day, asking Him to forgive your mistakes, thanking Him for the good things you have, and asking Him to guide your decisions? Do you ever swear or curse using God’s name? Do you get so busy with other things that you forget about obeying God for hours or even days?

Our quiz is finished—so how did you do? My guess is, not so well. God expects a lot for entry into heaven—in fact, He expects perfect behavior. Sadly, perfection is something no one is capable of. None of us are good enough to deserve welcome into paradise. This is why we need Jesus. He forgives us for failing to be perfect. He lived the perfect life needed to enter heaven, and offers us the benefits of His perfect life if we cling to Him and follow Him. He helps us to sort through moral compromises; Jesus shows us what perfection looks like, and He gives us the desire to seek it at His side.

We will never achieve perfection this side of the grave, but when we are pledged to Jesus, He shares His perfection with us, guaranteeing a safe arrival in heaven.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Rest from a hard life

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

Life is hard. When you are young, other kids pick on you. Homework can be confusing, and it is disappointing to be picked last when teams are chosen. Teenage life is filled with stress. The person you have a crush on doesn’t notice you. There is pressure to experiment with drugs or finish a date with sex.

It doesn’t get any easier when you reach adulthood. It’s hard to find a good paying job where you fit in and enjoy the work. Dating is a challenge—so many people are afraid of commitment, or have children from a previous relationship. Marriage is a risky proposition, because a lot of partners would rather file for divorce than work at making the relationship better. Buying a home can bury you so deeply in debt that nothing gets saved for retirement. Many parents struggle with guilt for being too busy to give their children their undivided attention.

Old age can also be challenging. There is a sense of loss that comes when your family moves away, and long time friends start dying one after another. It is hard to stay positive when you suffer from chronic health problems but can’t afford treatment because you live on a fixed income. Many feel as if all is lost when the only place they can live is in a nursing home. From youth to old age, life is hard.

Where do you find comfort when you lay awake at 2:00 a.m., worrying about what the coming day might bring, or soaking your pillow with tears because of a hurt that just won’t go away? Jesus says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. We carry a burden of guilt for breaking promises and disappointing others; Jesus gives us rest by forgiving us. We are weighed down with worries about the future; Jesus gives us rest by assuring us that everything is in His hands, and He will provide a silver lining in every dark cloud. Our hearts are heavy with grief over those we’ve loved and lost; Jesus gives us rest by giving us hope—hope that broken relationships can be mended by love, hope that when death finally claims us, we will be welcomed into a heavenly reunion with many people we long to see once more. Life is hard, but Jesus invites you to come to Him for rest. His arms are open; He wants to embrace you and comfort you. Don’t turn away from the relief He offers you.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How do you please God?

Listen to what the LORD says:

"Stand up, plead your case before the mountains; let the hills hear what you have to say. Hear, O mountains, the LORD's accusation; listen, you everlasting foundations of the earth. For the LORD has a case against his people; he is lodging a charge against Israel.

"My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me. I brought you up out of Egypt and redeemed you from the land of slavery. I sent Moses to lead you, also Aaron and Miriam. My people, remember what Balak king of Moab counseled and what Balaam son of Beor answered. Remember your journey from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the righteous acts of the LORD."

With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:1-8).

Children often do things that make their parents unhappy. Think back to a time when you caused a parent disappointment. I’d imagine that you tried to do something to make it up to them. Perhaps you made a card in which you said "I’m sorry" or "I love you." Maybe you offered to vacuum the living room or wash the dishes. Maybe you even offered to punish yourself in some way. Whatever it was, I am sure that it was a struggle for you, trying to figure out what you could do to make things better.

We tend to treat God the same way. We know when we’ve done something wrong, something that God doesn't approve of. And we know that having God mad at us is not a good thing. And so we try to figure out how to make things up to Him. Maybe you decide to come to church on Sunday instead of sleeping late like you had planned. Perhaps you put a little something extra into the offering plate. You might even wipe the dust off of your family Bible and read from it for a few days. Whatever it is that you choose to do, your reason is to try and get God to not be angry with you any more.

But what does God expect from us? How can we make Him happy, especially when we know that we anger Him every day with our sins? In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Micah tells us the three things that make God happy: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

To act justly. All right, so what does that mean? Let’s consider the word "just." "Just" is the root word for justice; it refers to obeying the law. To act justly is to make the choice to obey the law. But what laws are we talking about? God’s laws, obviously. One of the reasons that God gave us His Bible was so that we would know what His laws are. The Bible is filled with laws, although there are two places where God boils them down into short lists for us. The first summary was given on Mount Sinai (Exodus chapter 20): "You shall have no other gods before me…You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God…Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…Honor your father and your mother…You shall not murder…You shall not commit adultery…You shall not steal…You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor…You shall not covet your neighbor's wife. You shall not set your desire on your neighbor's house or land, his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." In the New Testament, Jesus boiled these commandments down even further, showing us the essence of God’s Law (Matthew chapter 22): `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. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. What is the law of God? That we love. Romans 13 says, love is the fulfillment of the law.

As laws go, that doesn’t sound particularly hard. After all, isn’t love what makes the world go 'round? Isn’t love the focus of most poetry and popular music? Isn’t love the basis of all relationships, and by extension the foundation of human society? How could it be hard to obey God’s law of love?

And yet it is hard. We don’t know how to love correctly. Perfect love is defined by Paul in 1st Corinthians chapter 13: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. How well do you love? Are you always patient, always kind? Are you ever guilty of being jealous, or of bragging, or acting superior to others? Are you ever rude or selfish? Do you have a hot temper or hold grudges? Do you ever take pleasure in another person’s pain? Are you always protective of others, always trusting of others, always hopeful, never giving up?

Is it easy to love as God expects? How are you doing when it comes to "acting justly"?

To love mercy. Once again, let us examine the word. "Mercy" is best understood in legal terms. When you have been the victim of a crime, justice requires that you receive satisfaction from the person who hurt you. If you were shot and left paralyzed, the criminal is expected to pay for your loss of mobility by losing his own freedom. That is justice. But suppose that the shooter told you that he was genuinely sorry, and desperately wanted to have another chance at living life right. You could demand that he be convicted and sent to prison; justice would be done. Or you could waive your right to justice; if you believed that the man genuinely wanted to change his life, you could have mercy on him and drop the charges. That’s what mercy is—dropping the charges, letting the wrongdoer escape without punishment due to your own generosity.

As we have seen, no 0ne has loved as God expects; we have broken God’s law, we have not acted justly. But our God has shown us mercy; he does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10). Out of His unimaginable generosity, God has exempted us from giving Him satisfaction for all our failures; instead, He sent His Son Jesus to make restitution for us. The price for disobeying God is to be rejected by Him, resulting in suffering the loss of all love from our lives forever. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). On the cross, Jesus suffered all of God’s punishment that our mistakes had earned; because He was tormented, we are freed of fearing God’s wrath. In no way did we deserve to be let off the hook; it was God’s choice, acting out of His generosity, to show us mercy.

And so God expects us to love mercy. We are to treasure His mercy given us through Jesus, and we are to extend that mercy to others as well, forgiving them just as God forgives us. In Colossians 3:13 Paul writes, bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. This is why Jesus taught us to pray, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 6:12). This is another reason why the Lord gave us His Bible: that we might know who He is, what He has done for us, and why He chose to do it at all.

To walk humbly with your God. Pride has been our downfall since the beginning. Remember how Satan enticed Eve into disobeying God? He claimed, you will be like God (Genesis 3:5). That’s why Eve disobeyed; she was not content to merely be God’s humble servant, she wanted to be His equal! Human history is littered with the corpses of men and women who wanted to be at the top—but notice Jesus’ words to His disciples: Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must become your slave. For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:26-28). In Philippians chapter 2 Paul says, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. And in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal's death on a cross.

To be humble is to reveal an accurate assessment of your worth. We are not humble by nature; no one wants to admit to making mistakes or needing help from someone else. But unless we humbly admit to our shortcomings, it is impossible for us to call out to God for mercy; this is why God despises pride. Pride causes us to reject God’s offer of mercy as unnecessary. This is another reason why the Lord gave us His Bible; it models humility for us. David was king of God’s own nation of Israel, yet listen to his humble confession in Psalm 51: Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love…cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…wash me, and I will be whiter than snow…Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. So speaks a king appointed to power by God Himself; this is what humility sounds like.

Humility leads us to admit our shortcomings so that we may receive God’s mercy; humility also enables us to serve others in love. When we let go of the false claims of pride, we find that we are not "too good" to lend a helping hand to others. When we admit that we are no better at keeping God’s Law of love than the other sinners who surround us, we find that we are just as capable of doing unappealing, humble duties as anyone else. When we walk humbly with our God, We can serve the needs of others without complaint, because we realize that no one has suffered so much in humble service as our Savior has for us.

What does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. If you want to please God, you must sincerely try to act justly, obeying His law of love; and because we all constantly fail in this, you must love our Savior Jesus for the heavenly mercy He has offered to us purely out of the generosity of His love. If you want to please God, you are to forgive others just as we have been forgiven by the Lord, and you are to rededicate yourself to loving them as God first loved us, helping them to experience God’s caring love through your hands and voice. But most importantly, if you want to please God, you must love Him who first loved us; heed the words of Moses, who said: Choose to love the LORD your God and to obey him and commit yourself to him, for he is your life (Deuteronomy chapter 30).

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What's the point of living?

God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

What’s the point of living? That’s the question asked by scientists who believe in evolution. That’s the question asked by people who are thinking about suicide. That’s the question mourners ask as they gather at a funeral home. What’s the point of living?

Some don’t believe that there is any point to life. Humans are just hairless apes, evolved from bacteria. There is no purpose to life except to enjoy it as best you can. You might as well eat, drink and live it up, because eventually you’re gonna die. What you get out of life depends entirely on what you put into it. If life becomes unpleasant, then there is no reason to preserve it.

Others believe that life should be used to make the world a better place. In their view, you can achieve immortality by the legacy that you leave behind. You can live on through the children that you raise. You can leave a lasting mark on the world by sponsoring important legislation, by creating a successful business, or by winning a war. You can change history forever by making a medical discovery or inventing some new technology. Life has value if you have personality, skills, or good luck.

Then there is the Christian view. For us, all human life has value. We look at life from God’s perspective, a perspective that He shares with us in the Bible. In God’s view, life is not defined by how much fun we have or what kind of impact we have on the world around us. God sees us as His children, and that is more than enough to give our lives importance. We were made for a purpose—to love our heavenly Father and love each other. Since we are often unsure how to love as the Lord wants us to, God uses the Bible to spell it out—thank God for the gift of life, honor Him with your obedience, and love others by caring for them in every type of need. And if the words of Scripture are not clear enough, God sent His own Son as a living example of what true love is. In Jesus, we see that love can pull people back from doing wrong, and offer forgiveness when they are sorry for causing harm. In Jesus we see that love is generous, because God sent His only Son to die on the cross so that we might escape the punishment our sins deserved. Through Jesus, God shows us that everyone has a reason to live—because everyone is a child of God, and can reflect His love in their lives.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A good ending

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

I generally prefer a series of books to a single novel. I also prefer TV series over individual movies. In most cases, a stand-alone book or movie does not allow you to really get to know the characters—not like a good series does. It takes time to explore the different facets of a character and the world that person lives in. It takes time to grow close to a fictional character.

Which is why people feel bad when a series ends. Millions of readers are sad that there will be no more adventures for Harry Potter. Others miss having new visits with the Friends who met each week at Central Perk. There was sadness when L. Frank Baum died, because he could no longer take us to Oz. Many were sad to see Mary Tyler Moore and M*A*S*H go off the air; they felt like they were saying goodbye to a group of friends they would never see again. Single novels and one-off movies cannot generate that kind of emotional attachment.

And yet there is a certain satisfaction that comes when a series has ended well. People were very frustrated at the last episode of the Sopranos, because it left things hanging; the same problem plagues series canceled due to low ratings or a series of novels left unfinished because of the author’s death. But the final Harry Potter book left its fans feeling good about the journey they took through the series; when M*A*S*H ended, viewers were glad that the people they had grown to love were getting to go home. When a series ends well, we can feel good about saying goodbye.

So it is when someone dies. Some deaths are tragic—a young person dies and we grieve for potential that was never fulfilled. Some funerals are heavy with regret over paths not taken and opportunities that were missed. But some funerals are a mixture of sadness and satisfaction—sadness because a loved one is gone, satisfaction because they ended life well. A life can end well when it was lived in partnership with Jesus. Many people wander through life with no idea of who they are, what they’re supposed to do, or where they are going. Not so the Christian. Jesus tells us who we are, why we are on earth, and where we’re going when we die. He is the author of life, and when He writes our final chapter, it will be a time where those who gather at our funerals have something to smile about amidst the tears. Jesus fills our lives with love, from the first chapter to the last.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Questions about baptism

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus replied, "Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented.

As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:13-17a).

When we reflect on God’s gift of holy baptism, three questions come to mind. The first question is: why do I need to be baptized? The second question is: when we are washed clean by baptism, where do our sins go? And the third question is: since God takes away my sins by baptism, why do I still need to tell Him every day that I am sorry for my sins?

The first question, "why do I need to be baptized", is easy. We get baptized because God tells us to. During Jesus’ ministry on earth, the religious elite refused to be baptized, prompting Luke to write: the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized (Luke 7:30). Jesus told His disciples, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). It is quite simple: you cannot belong to the Lord if you reject being baptized in His holy name.

Our Lord commands us to be baptized because He cares about our well being. We need to be baptized because we are soiled with sin. To be holy is to be without any blemish or defect. God is pure and holy; He wears His righteousness like a brilliantly white robe. When Jesus revealed just a hint of His glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, we are told, His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light (Matthew 17:2). This is a glimpse of what holiness looks like.

In God’s eyes, we are not robed in holiness; our spiritual clothes are covered head to toe with the ugly blotchiness of sin. Sin is the failure to be holy; sin is any emotion, idea, word or choice of action that deviates from what God approves of. Jesus summed up God’s expectations with these words: `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. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Matthew 22:37-39). We sin in every moment when God takes second place in our lives; we sin whenever we put our happiness and comfort ahead of the happiness and comfort of anyone else. And each time we sin, we add a dark stain to our spiritual appearance.

You know how mad your mom got when you tracked mud into her clean house; in the same way, God will not tolerate the filth of sin in His heavenly home. Anyone who is soiled with sin is locked out of paradise, leaving the cesspool of hell as the only place to go at the time of death. Of course, you know that your mom wanted you to come into the house to eat dinner with the family, it’s just that you had to leave your filthy clothing outside. So it is with God. Our heavenly Father wants you to join Him in His home, to dine together with Him and all the children of God forever—but you can’t come in if your are dirty with sin.

Which is why we need baptism. Baptism removes the stain of sin from us. Listen to these wonderful words spoken to Saul by Ananias in Acts chapter 22: `The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will…You will be his witness to all men…And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.' Later, writing to the Ephesians, Paul said: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word. And in Titus we are told, when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared…He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. Baptism is a washing done by God, where the Holy Spirit uses water to miraculously remove the stain of sin from us. The result is a completely new appearance for us. Isaiah writes, I delight greatly in the LORD; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness (Isaiah 61:10). This theme is also picked up in Revelation chapter 7, where John had this vision: there before me was a great multitude that no one could count…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. As you can see, being dressed in spiritual clothing made pure by the Lord results in a joyous welcome into heaven.

This is why babies are brought to the baptismal font wrapped in a white blanket; that blanket symbolizes the pure white robe of righteousness given us by our Lord through water and His Word.

The second question is: when we are washed clean by baptism, where do our sins go? That question brings us to today’s Gospel lesson. Did you realize that Jesus was baptized twice? The first time that He was baptized, it was in the Jordan River. But later, during His ministry, Jesus said, I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed (Luke 12:50). He referred to it again when two of His disciples wanted His promise of a place of honor at His side in heaven: "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?" (Mark 10:38). It is through this statement that Jesus reveals when His second baptism would take place. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). The cup Jesus referred to was a spiritual drink made from God’s grapes of wrath, His anger at all human sin. Jesus was appointed to drink that bitter cup down to the dregs by suffering for our sins on the cross. The cross is where Jesus drank the cup, and it was on the cross where He was baptized for the second time—this is what He meant when He asked, "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"

In a way, you can think of Jesus as a sponge for sin. For us, baptism is the way that our sins are washed off. But what happens to that sin-polluted water? When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, He soaked up all our sins; He took them into Himself. Three years later when He went to the cross, Jesus underwent His second baptism. Jesus bled—bled from the whipping, the crown of thorns, the nailing to the cross. And as Jesus bled, His holy blood washed Him clean of our sins. God the Father reached down from heaven and squeezed every one of our sins out of Jesus, crushing Him to death in the process. Baptism takes our sins into Jesus, and Jesus took them into the grave with Him where they are buried forever. And so Paul can say, 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 6:3-4).

The third question is: since God takes away my sins by baptism, why do I still need to tell Him every day that I am sorry for my sins? Consider this: if you fell out of a ship into the ocean and were thrown a life preserver, what good would it do if you decided that you didn’t need it? If you didn’t cling desperately to that life preserver, eventually you would drown. So it is with baptism. Our Lord gives you the promise that you are saved from the death brought by your sins, because He is there for you every minute of every day; but if you get bored with church, if you decide that you don’t really need Jesus because you’re basically a pretty good person, if you get distracted with all the stuff going on in your life and forget about praying, you are letting go of the life preserver. It is still there, it is still able to save your life—but if you ignore it, it will do you no good.

Or think about it this way: when you take out a life insurance policy, it will do you no good if you fail to make the payments. When you void the contract, your protection disappears. Like an insurance company, God guarantees your future in heaven through baptism. And this contract does have terms to be met. Jesus said, Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15). To maintain the blessing of baptism, the Lord asks only two things of us—that we seek forgiveness for our sins, and that we believe in the One who offers us God’s forgiveness. He doesn’t expect us to behave perfectly; our Lord knows that is impossible for us. But He does expect us to change our attitude towards sin. Speaking of baptism, Paul writes: We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Romans 6:2) The apostle shows us that the mere thought of sinning should fill us with horror and disgust. If we really despise sin (as we should because of our baptism), then each sin we commit should fill us with remorse and drive us to our knees in sincere repentance. Of course, this is only possible when we have a real relationship with Jesus; sorrow over sin is wasted if we do not believe in God’s Chosen One, the One whose death makes forgiveness possible. God expects our love for Jesus to guide our lives. When we truly appreciate everything that Christ went through for us, grateful love is the obvious response. Such grateful love moves us to show our appreciation by spending as much time as we can with Jesus in worship and prayer. When we are not sorry for doing wrong, when we do not really care that our sins nailed Jesus to the cross to suffer and to die, we then break the terms of God’s contract, His covenant with us, and His guarantee of heaven becomes null and void. We honor the terms of God’s covenant of forgiveness by repenting our sins and treasuring our relationship with His Son Jesus.

At Jesus’ first baptism, His heavenly Father spoke these words from heaven: "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." There is only one way to hear God say words of approval to us: we must be baptized in the name of Jesus, and we must live lives of continual repentance and faith in our risen Savior. When we are baptized, our Lord gives us His robe of righteousness, a robe that He keeps washing clean with His holy blood every time we come to Him in sorrow for our misdeeds. When we live in this way, we have the promise of Nathan the prophet: The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die (2 Samuel 12:13). Instead of suffering unending death, we have the promise of life in heaven when this miserable life of sin has ended. That’s why many churches place a white cloth over the coffin during funerals; that white pall reminds us of God’s baptismal gift of His robe of righteousness, a white robe that has guaranteed the departed Christian a joyous welcome into heaven.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Black, white, and shades of grey

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 (Romans 7:19).

Actors often say that they would rather play a villain than portray the hero. Villains are more interesting as characters. What drives them to behave the way they do? What redeeming qualities do they have, if any? What can we learn about human nature, about ourselves, from understanding them?

In my opinion, flawed characters are the most fascinating to watch. There is nothing interesting about an evil psychopath—characters like Jason Voorhis or Michael Meyers are objects of fear, little more than vicious animals that walk on two legs. At the other extreme, heroes who never have a moment of doubt or hesitation are not interesting either—we cannot relate to them, we can only look up to them as examples of good behavior. The most interesting characters are those who walk in shades of gray—Rick Blaine in Casablanca, Darth Vader in Star Wars, Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. We are fascinated by characters who have both light and darkness within them—heroes with a fatal flaw and villains who have a chance at redemption. We find these kinds of characters interesting, because they are like us—a mixture of both good and evil.

In a comedy, you’ll sometimes see a character struggling with a tough decision. Sitting on one shoulder, a little white angel whispers good advice into one ear; on the other shoulder, a little red demon suggests a darker course. Although intended for laughs, this old cliché speaks of a truth everyone can understand—the constant struggle we have between doing right or committing evil. Since this is a problem we all have in common, we are interested to see how fictional characters resolve moral struggles.

We walk in shades of gray. All of us have fatal flaws; all of us have a chance at redemption. But while morally gray characters can be interesting for actors to portray and fascinating for us to watch, it is no fun to be one. It is no fun to be tormented with doubts as to whether you’re doing the right thing. It is no fun to constantly wrestle with temptation. When every day is filled with doubt, there is little room left in your life for joy. Jesus wants to free you from this struggle; follow Him, and you can walk in the light.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Grace under pressure

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

Nobody likes stressful situations. The boss wants your report before you go home for the day, but the phone won’t stop ringing. You have scrimped and saved to buy a new car, but then the dentist says that your child needs braces. You invest countless hours in organizing a family reunion, then the day it is scheduled you end up sick in bed.

Times of stress can reveal a lot about us. People who are normally sweet tempered and patient can fly into a rage when dealing with tight deadlines, money shortages, or emotional problems. Like alcohol, stress exposes what we are really like inside; when you are under extreme pressure, it is hard to put on an act for others.

If you really want to know yourself, think back to how you responded when one of the kids dropped a glass and it broke. How do you react when someone calls you a name? How do you behave when your morning is filled with one little thing going wrong after another? Those times of stress reveal who you really are instead of who you pretend to be.

We like to think that we are generous—but when money is tight, so is our fist. We like to think that we are patient—but when time is short, so is our temper. We like to think that we are kind—but when someone hurts us, our first impulse is to spread that hurt around. I wonder if God sometimes allows stress into our lives to strip away our delusions of how nice and well behaved we are. God is not fooled by our play-acting; He knows good and well what kind of toxic thoughts bubble just beneath the surface, the inner blackness that we all try to hide. But that blackness needs to be exposed so that it can be dealt with. We cannot be forgiven until we realize that we need to be forgiven. And nothing illustrates the need for forgiveness like our behavior when things are going wrong.

Jesus will forgive you for being angry and greedy and bitter. But you must be honest—honest with God and honest with yourself. You need His help in order to be patient, generous and kind during times of stress. You can only have grace under pressure if you have the grace of God living within you.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Wandering from the path

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, `A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel." Then John gave this testimony: "I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, `The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.' I have seen and I testify that this is the Son of God."

The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, "Look, the Lamb of God!" When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, "What do you want?" They said, "Rabbi" (which means Teacher), "where are you staying?" "Come," he replied, "and you will see." So they went and saw where he was staying, and spent that day with him. It was about the tenth hour.

Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, "We have found the Messiah" (that is, the Christ) (John 1:29-41).

Many years ago, a farmer went to town to buy supplies and his dog tagged along. As the farmer was hitching his horse and buggy to a post in front of the general store, the storekeeper noticed that the dog was panting hard; so he criticized the farmer for making the dog run all the way while he rode in the wagon. But the farmer responded, "That dog’s not tired from following me to town. What tired him out was all his foolish zigzagging. There wasn’t an open gate, a hole in a fence, or a tree stump that he did not explore. He is tired from zigzagging all over the place."

Many people live their lives this way. They zigzag from one diversion to another, from one pleasure to another, from one thrill to another. They wear themselves out, but have no real idea of where all their running around is taking them. Late in life, the famous poet Robert Burns concluded that the biggest misfortune of his life was that he had lived with no clear direction.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we read of two men who were looking for someone to follow. One was Andrew, the other goes unnamed, but may very well have been the John who wrote this Gospel account. Although they had a trade as fishermen, they were not with their boats at the Sea of Galilee; they had come south to study at the feet of John the Baptist. They had arrived at the conclusion that a career as fishermen was not fulfilling their inmost needs; so they had come to God’s representative seeking a new direction for their lives. It was while they were learning from John that he introduced them to Jesus. When Andrew and his companion were told that Jesus was the Lamb sent from God to take away the sin of the world, they immediately began to follow the Lord, hoping to be accepted as His students.

Which brings us to my question for you this day: why follow Jesus? Who do you want to be like, as you live your life? Do you want to be like the farmer’s hound who exhausted himself by chasing from one distraction to another? Or do you want to be like Andrew, leaving every worldly thing behind in order to follow the Savior? Why should anyone follow Christ?

Consider what John told these two disciples about Jesus. First, he calls Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Under the covenant of God given through Moses, a person’s sins could be removed through the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb. The repentant sinner would lay his hands on the lamb, symbolically transferring his guilt to the animal; then the priest would kill the lamb and the man would be forgiven, because the lamb had died for his sins in his place. This procedure would be repeated many times throughout a man’s life, because until the day that he dies, each human being continues to sin.

But Jesus came down to earth to inaugurate a new covenant. Under the covenant given through Jesus, only one Lamb would be needed, only one death would be required. The Son of God became a flesh and blood human being so that all our sins could touch Him, be worn by Him like a funeral shroud. Jesus the perfect Lamb of God carried the burden of our sins to the cross where He died in our place, freeing us from all of our sins forever.

Since Jesus no longer walks among us in the flesh, how is it that we can touch Him with our sins? John gives us the answer: He…will baptize with the Holy Spirit. This is how Jesus transfers our guilt to Himself—He takes responsibility for our sins by washing us with the Holy Spirit in the water of baptism.

John told the disciples one other thing about Jesus; he said: A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me. Jesus appeared on the public scene after John had announced His coming; in this sense, Jesus came after John. Yet Jesus is the eternal Son of God; He has existed since before the creation of the world and is far older than John; in this sense, Jesus was before John. And so Jesus surpasses John, because Jesus is the Son of God while John was only a man. John would die and teach no more, but Jesus the Eternal One would rise from His grave, victorious over our sin and the death it leads to, alive forevermore to keep on leading His followers to their final destination, the gates of heaven. That is why John wanted Andrew and his friend to leave him and start following Jesus, because only the Lamb of God could free them from their sins and love them eternally in paradise. That’s why we should follow Jesus.

But following Jesus is not always easy or fun. The road to heaven that Jesus leads us along is a narrow road, one easy to lose sight of if we let ourselves become distracted. Satan knows that he cannot come onto that road and forcibly take us away from our Lord’s protection; Jesus assures us: My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27-28). Since the devil cannot challenge Jesus directly for control over us, he instead sets up distractions off to the side of the road to catch our attention and tempt us to wander away.

Some temptations lure us into dangerous places where we get stuck and cannot free ourselves to return to Christ’s way. A car that goes off the road can become so badly mired in the mud that only a tractor can pull it free; in the same way, Satan tries to lure us away from Jesus to a place where we become hopelessly stuck. There are some mistakes we make that change our lives forever: driving drunk and ending another person’s life; sex with someone we are not married to, resulting in divorce or AIDS; committing a crime and ending up with a prison record. These are traps that can completely derail a life, and many never recover from such mistakes; only by crying out to Jesus and asking for His help can we have any hope of being freed to follow Him once more. Sadly, the devil tricks many into believing that once they have gotten so badly stuck in the mud, Jesus can no longer hear them--and so they suffer alone, fearing the deepening cold darkness.

Some temptations are spread out by Satan in such a way that they draw us from one to the next, gradually leading us further and further away from the way to heaven, until we finally lose sight of it altogether and have no idea how to get back. A child can easily become lost when she chases a butterfly into the woods, then goes in another direction to smell a pretty flower that catches her eye, and goes further yet to watch a squirrel scamper among the trees. In a similar way, Satan lures us from one sin to another. It might start with a small lie to your parents about your homework—but then, when you successfully get away with fooling them, the lies start to become bigger. You might lie to the coach about your grades in order to play; you might lie to your girlfriend that you are not dating others at the same time. As you get older, the habit of lying can affect how honest you are with your resume, your tax returns, even how honest you are with your wife and children. Eventually you will trust no one at all, because you know how easy it is to lie; then, when you are all alone because no one trusts you enough to have a relationship with you, how will you find your way back to Christ? If the devil has taught you to trust no one, would you even respond when you hear Jesus’ voice calling to you to come back to Him?

And sometimes the devil spreads so many temptations along our way that, like the farmer’s dog, we get exhausted checking each one out, until we are too worn down to follow our Savior any more. It’s not that we lose sight of Jesus completely; it’s just that each week is so full of things to do that it becomes hard to find time for prayer or personal devotion. After all, you have to make time to go hunting or fishing or golfing, even if those activities cause you miss church occasionally. You can’t miss out on all those great sales, even if they reduce the amount of money you have left to put in the offering plate. And since you know that Jesus will forgive you anything, what’s the harm in letting your temper go when you are mad? What’s the harm in reading your daily horoscope? What’s the harm going along with a non-Christian friend to her house of worship? But when we waste our time and energy on things that distract us from following Jesus, we act like the farmer’s zigzagging dog, and we run the risk of so exhausting ourselves that we cannot finish our journey, following Christ to heaven.

The farmer calls such behavior foolish. The pleasures that Satan offers never live up to their hype; they just tease enough to keep us looking for more. But all that pursuing temptation results in is exhaustion, confusion, and despair. Jesus wants us to follow Him because He knows the safest, most direct way to real happiness; this is why we pray, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. We want Christ to be our leader, because any other path leads to the unnecessary tragedy of dying alone in the cold darkness, separated from our Savior’s love forever. You wander from His side at your peril.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

True beauty

Your eyes will see the King in His beauty and view a land that stretches afar (Isaiah 33:17).

When I was a teenager, we lived in a subdivision just outside of town. One side was bordered by a pasture, the other side was a bluff overlooking a stream. In between these borders, a paved road looped among groves of trees, and along either side of the lane were homes with carefully manicured lawns.

With one exception. One homeowner’s yard was very different. It had no grass. A split rail fence ran along the edge of the road; behind it were trees and rocks and wildflowers. There was no landscaping—the yard looked wild and untamed. Probably the entire subdivision had looked this way before being developed.

I liked that yard. I thought the variety of trees and plants were interesting. But the neighbors hated it. They hated the weed seeds blowing onto their lawns. They hated how this one yard looked so out of place among all the neat and smooth fields of grass that everyone else had. And maybe they were a little jealous of how easy such a yard was to maintain.

I have nothing against large green lawns—I think they look nice, and they make good playgrounds for the kids. But are they worth the work—seeding and weeding and fertilizing and cutting? Are they actually prettier than the landscape which God provides—trees and wildflowers and the occasional rock, arranged organically instead of being laid out on a grid?

We think that we know what is beautiful. But no palace has ever looked as magnificent as a sunset over sparkling water. No painting can adequately reproduce the vibrant colors of a butterfly sitting on a flower. No fashion model on a runway can rival the beauty of a baby’s smiling face. No human effort, no matter how artistic, can rival what God has done with the world as His palette.

So it is with Holy Scripture. The Bible is far more than a piece of beautiful literature; it is God’s own words offered to mankind, words that no human writer could hope to equal. The Word of God is magnificent, compelling and awe-inspiring, just like everything else of His design; to read it, really read it, is to see the most beautiful thing in God’s beautiful world.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Winter survival kit

Bring joy to your servant, for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul (Psalm 86:4).

January and February are the darkest, coldest months of the year. When snow falls, most of the time we have to shovel it because it is not likely to melt anytime soon. Snow storms and icy conditions force us to change our plans. We get tired of brown fields and dirty snow in the ditches; only evergreens give us color, but they are few and far between.

Sometimes our lives seem as if they are stuck in the dead of winter. Depression steals away color, leaving only dirty browns and drab grays. Like a winter storm, illness comes suddenly and we are left dealing with the effects for a long time afterwards. There are times when it seems as if all love has fled our lives, and we feel cold and alone. We make plans for the future, only to have something unexpected come along and ruin everything.

Experts tell you to prepare for winter. You should have extra food on hand that doesn’t need to be kept refrigerated or heated up to eat. When you travel, you should slow down and allow extra time; you car should have a flashlight, blankets, a shovel, and cat litter for traction. And you should make time to get outside and enjoy the sunlight whenever possible, because you need sunlight for both physical and mental health.

In the same way, you can get through the wintry periods in your life with good planning. Avoid depression by putting color in your life—make time for hobbies, go visit someplace you’ve never been before, or strike up a conversation with a stranger. Don’t let nagging symptoms grow into major health problems; go see a doctor promptly if you aren’t feeling right. When you make plans, try to anticipate problems and have in mind a couple different ways to achieve your goal—that way, if events block one path, you won’t feel as if all is lost. You need to slow down so that life doesn’t overwhelm you with its demands.

Most importantly, you need light—the light of Christ. You need to know that He loves you and that you are not alone in the cold. You need the warmth of His love, and the hope that with His help, things will get better. So read His Bible. Join with other Christians in worship. Make a habit of praying to Him every day. For the wintery times of your life, there is no better survival kit than the Son of God.

Friday, January 02, 2009

The prospects for 2009

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

Another year has ended. What did you learn during these past twelve months? Are you smarter than you were a year ago? Have the new skills that you’ve learned made your life less complicated? Are you confident that when emergencies arise, armed with the knowledge you now have, you will be able to meet them without making a mistake?

Are you wiser than you were a year ago? Have you improved in your ability to look at the problems in your life and understand what is causing them? Have you learned to take time to analyze each situation instead of making rash decisions? Are you better at making choices that have long-term benefits, instead of simply taking care of the immediate problem?

How have your people skills improved over the past year? Are you a better judge of character, able to spot when people are lying to you, or hiding the fact that they are hurting inside? Are you more patient, more understanding, more forgiving than you used to be? Are you more inclined to speak words of love out loud, or to show the contents of your heart by acts of giving?

Are you happier than you were last year? Are you more content with your financial situation, the state of your family, or your health? Are you happier with the way your community, state and nation are being run?

What has happened in your life? Did your family grow through weddings or births, or did it shrink because of death? Was it a quiet year, or were you faced with some hard decisions? Was it a year of peace and stability, or a year of stress and chaos?

When New Year’s rolls around, some people look back on the ending year with a touch of nostalgia; others are just glad that the year is over with, and fervently hope that the coming months will be better. But the underlying question that no one can truly escape is this: what does it all mean? Why did 2008 unfold the way that it did? What real hope is there that 2009 will be any better?

2008 was filled with good and bad. The bad things happened because we are all plagued with evil desires and the inability to keep those desires under constant control. Some bad things happened because of the dark desires of people who we have never even met. Friends and loved ones have died overseas because there are individuals over there who hate Jesus, hate freedom, and are willing to kill anyone who does not agree with them. People we have never met drive up the cost of the goods we purchase by shoplifting instead of taking out their wallets and paying.

Some bad things happen because of the dark desires of people we love and trust. People have had their lives shredded by a partner who cheated on them or filed for divorce. Children have been abused or neglected by parents who could not control their anger, or were emotionally unavailable because of addiction, or just couldn’t be bothered with the responsibility of being a parent. Friendships have been destroyed by the betrayal of repeating something that is sensitive and private.

Some bad things happened because of our own dark desires. When we spend money foolishly, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the problem of indebtedness. When we abuse our bodies through smoking, overeating, or sleeping around, we have no one to blame but ourselves for getting cancer or heart disease or AIDS. When we treat our loved ones as if they only exist to make us happy, we have no one to blame but ourselves for eventually finding ourselves abandoned and alone.

But the good things that we experienced in 2008 came from God, the God who made us and who loves us every day. He showed us His love through the hands and voices of those who served Him: a card of encouragement sent in the mail. An offer of help from someone with changing a flat tire along the road. A friend who loved us enough to tell us that we were acting like an idiot. All these acts of kindness were done by people, but were prompted by God out of love for us.

God showed us His love in 2008 through the care of His angels; each time that a small boy was lost, but someone looked in just the right place at just the right time to find him before something bad happened—it was an angel who kept that child safe, and guided an adult to the rescue. Each time that you were seriously considering saying or doing something that you knew you shouldn’t, when suddenly something happened to distract you—that was an angel acting to draw your attention away from the temptation. Because they are invisible, you cannot see God’s angels protecting you from the attacks of the devil, the dangers of the world, or your own dark desires—but they are there, at work constantly.

And, God showed us His love in 2008 through miracles--miracles ranging from subtle to awesome, small to overwhelming. How can people believe in a God who cannot be seen, touched, or experienced in any physical way? It takes a miracle—the miracle of faith. It takes a supernatural gift of God to assure people that He really exists, really loves them, and is really involved in their lives every day. Faith is not something that we can create on our own; St. Paul writes, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

How do Christians receive the gift of faith? Through another miracle, the miracle of baptism. To our rational, scientific minds, it seems impossible that a child’s life could be changed by the application of water and the words "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And yet lives were changed in 2008, changed forever through this sacrament. In Romans chapter 6 we read, we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Only a miracle of God could use such simple things as water and God’s spoken Word to free us from evil’s stranglehold and live instead as followers of Christ.

How does Christ build this faith in His followers? Through another miracle, the miracle of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord gave the following instructions the last night He ate with His disciples before His death: While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28). Throughout 2008, countless Christians met together to honor His command do this in remembrance of me (Luke 22:19). And when they gathered together, they received more at the Communion rail than just bread and wine—by Jesus’ promise, they miraculously received the Savior’s own body and blood as well. They received the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die (John 6:50); they received the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. And by this miracle their faith was strengthened—strengthened to face the hardships of 2008. Doesn’t it amaze you, how some people can have hope when things look hopeless, peace in the midst of chaos, calmness in the face of tragedy? Such behavior is evidence of a miracle—the miracle of a strong faith in Jesus.

This is especially important when a loved one is facing death. It is natural to cry in fear or scream in frustration, to beg God for a reprieve or curse Him for taking away a precious life. How then can we account for the Christian who welcomes death, not because she is in terrible pain and only wants release, but because she has lived a full life and wants to see her Savior, and those she misses who died years ago in the faith? How can anyone face death with open arms and peace in her heart? It is only possible by a miracle of God. Only the promises of God can give comfort in face of death, comfort that paradise is waiting and Jesus stands at the entrance, His arms open wide, a smile of welcome on His lips and the warmth of love glowing in His eyes. Only a miracle of God could lead St. Paul to say, to me, living is for Christ, and dying is even better (Philippians 1:21).

Yet the greatest miracle of all is this: God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). God is holy; He hates sin. How inconceivable it is that God would even consider forgiving us for doing everything in our power to make Him hate us! How unbelievable it is that the Maker of the universe would send His own perfect Son to die for our sins so that we could be spared the punishment of hell! What greater miracle is there than God’s love for us? What greater miracle is there than that His Son, immortal, all-powerful, and glorious, should take on humanity’s form to experience humiliation, pain and death? What greater miracle is there than God’s Son rising from the grave victorious over our sin and the death that it leads to? What greater miracle can there be than the Almighty King of creation saying these words to you: "Friend, your sins are forgiven" (Luke 5:20).

2008 was filled with good and bad. The outlook for 2009 remains the same. It will be a year of terrible disappointments and gut-wrenching sorrow, because the world is filled to overflowing with sin. But it will also be a year of victory snatched from defeat, unexpected joy in the midst of sorrow, reassuring peace and hope found in the ruins of shattered lives. Sin will still be evident everywhere, but God will also be at work through His Son Jesus, forgiving the despairing, mending broken hearts, giving healing where doctors have given up all hope, and welcoming the dying into a place where they will never again know pain or sorrow. We can expect 2009 to be another year in which Satan tries to wear us down with evil, but the light of God’s grace in Jesus will rescue those who believe, and give them reason to live through the coming year with joy in their hearts.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

You are what you eat

Then he said to me, "Son of man, eat this scroll I am giving you and fill your stomach with it" (Ezekiel 3:3).

Now that the Christmas season is over, many people are hesitant to step on their scales. All the wonderful Christmas cookies and other fattening treats have resulted in some unwanted extra pounds. And so January is a time when many Americans start watching carefully what they eat.

Perhaps you’ve heard it said that ‘you are what you eat.’ That is certainly true—what you put in your mouth directly affects your metabolism and overall health. But this is also true of your mind—you are what you read and listen to. A reviewer once had this to say about a show that he’d just seen: "I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me." Everything we feast our eyes and ears on becomes a part of us.

We need to be selective as to what we fill our bellies with; this applies to our minds as well. I had some cousins who grew up in Wisconsin like I did. One day, their father took a job in West Virginia and they moved away. Just one year later, when they came back for a visit, every one of them now spoke with a thick Appalachian accent! Listening to the way other people talked changed how they communicated, and very quickly. Joseph Goebbels, propagandist for Adolf Hitler, observed that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will come to believe it. If you continually read publications that stray from the truth, eventually you will be persuaded to believe their lies. What we read and listen to can change what we think and how we act.

If you want your body to be healthy, you are careful about good nutrition. If you want your soul to be healthy, you must exercise similar care. Satan would love to fill you up with spiritual junk food—teachings that sound nice but offer nothing of substance. But you need a well-balanced meal for your soul to be properly nourished. You need to see that God expects perfection, and none of us come even remotely close to living according to the pattern He has laid out in the Bible. You need to hear that God sent His Son to be born as one of us, so that He could suffer the punishment and death that we all deserve from God for our failings. You need to realize that God sent His Son to be your friend, your teacher, your leader, and your source of lasting joy. You are what you fill yourself with, and the Bible says of Jesus, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

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