Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I am warm; I see the fire (Isaiah 44:16).

During the cold months, ice is a constant danger. It is easy to slip on ice and fall, resulting in bruises, sprains, or even broken bones. Driving on ice is hazardous; it is easy to lose control of your car, resulting in damage, injury or even death. And ice can disrupt your life even if you stay inside; accumulated ice can bring tree branches crashing down on your roof, and knock out electrical service for hours or even days.

Ice is hard, cold and slippery. When you think about it, ice is a pretty good illustration of what sin is like and how it affects our lives. Sin is slippery. When teasing someone, it is easy to slip and go too far. Sins committed occasionally can slip into regular habit. When you have something negative on your mind, it only takes one moment of carelessness to let some hurtful words slip from your mouth. The slipperiness of sin can get us into trouble before we realize it, or can stop ourselves.

Sin is hard. It toughens us to the point where we become unable to feel pleasure. People who abuse drugs find themselves taking larger and larger doses in order to get high; people who abuse sex find themselves experimenting with increasingly risky types of behavior. When sin hardens us, we become inflexible. Sin makes it hard for us to admit that we’re wrong or need to change; relationships are difficult because we’re unwilling to negotiate or compromise on things. Sin makes a hard life even harder.

And sin is cold. It chills hearts that should be warm with love; when sin dominates your life, it is hard to notice good things or appreciate them. The coldness of sin numbs our sensitivity towards others. We become so wrapped up with our hurt, our frustrations and our worries, that we are unable to sympathize with the pain of others, nor are we willing to set aside our concerns to help them with theirs. Sin chills our ability to relate to others.

Ice can be melted or chipped away, but only in small amounts and with a great deal of effort. The only complete solution for the problem of ice is the coming of spring. Sin in our world is just as pervasive as ice in winter; while sin can be melted or chipped away here and there by law enforcement or through participation in counseling, the only complete solution is found in Christ. Only the Son of God can warm our frigid hearts and free us from sin’s icy grip. It is Jesus who brings the warmth of God’s love to a world that is iced over by sin.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Getting tight with God

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7-9).

The path to God is not what most people expect.

We like to cozy up to people who are rich, famous, or powerful. Rich people live in mansions, eat delicacies, and throw lavish parties. Who doesn’t enjoy such things? And if a rich friend gives you an expensive gift, so much the better. Famous people have looks and talent; it’s fun just being in the same room with them. Being seen with someone famous is good for your reputation; who doesn’t enjoy getting a little of the spotlight? Powerful individuals fill you with energy and purpose; leaders make you feel as if you’re part of something important. On top of that, influential people are well connected; they can help you out by introducing you to the right people.

The rich, the famous, the powerful—we want to be close to them. But it’s hard to get noticed, so we try to make a good impression. We focus on looking our best, whether it involves a trendy hairstyle or dressing fashionably. When we talk, it’s a mixture of flattery and bragging. We look for ways to show that we are tough, smart, sophisticated, and funny. We want to be part of the inner circle, so we work hard to sell ourselves.

There’s no one who can top Jesus. He is the richest person in the world—everything belongs to Him. He is the most famous person in the world—His autobiography, the Bible, has been a best seller for centuries. Jesus is the most powerful person in the world—He can control the weather, cure any disease, even raise the dead! If you want to cozy up to riches, fame, and power, Jesus is your man.

But impressing Him is a problem. Jesus is God’s Son; seen from His perspective, we are nothing but filthy beggars. King David wrote, there is no one who does good (Psalm 14:1). Isaiah said, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). There is no way that we can impress God. He values righteousness; we are addicted to sin. We have nothing to boast about; we have nothing that God needs.

There is a way to impress God, but it’s completely different from anything we’re used to. In today’s Epistle lesson, we are told how Jesus impressed God. These verses tell us what God is looking for in those who would join His inner circle.

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions. Jesus is the Son of God, and He has always respected His Father’s authority. In Philippians chapter two Paul wrote, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; although He was God, He did not insist on be treated as God’s equal, but made himself of no account, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Jesus is equal to His Father in every way—eternal, all knowing, all-powerful—but he honored his Father by submitting to His will. That is why Jesus prayed. Jesus did not have to ask God for anything—Jesus is God, born in a human body. Jesus submitted to his Father by asking for His help.

He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death. Clearly, this refers to the night when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Scripture tells us, He…knelt down and prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done"…And being in anguish, he prayed even harder, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:41-44). Jesus showed submission to his Father by kneeling while he prayed. He showed submission by saying if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. And we can see how intensely he prayed; his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

What was Jesus so concerned about? What was the ‘cup’ that he wanted to avoid? That ‘cup’ was the cup of God’s anger at our sins. Isaiah chapter 51 speaks of those who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath…who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger. Ezekiel 23:33 mentions the cup of ruin and desolation. Ancient Greeks used to force convicts to drink a cup of poison when sentenced to death; in the same way, God has a cup of death filled and waiting for all who break His laws.

Jesus came to earth as a man so He could die for our sins. He came to drink the cup of God’s wrath so we could avoid tasting its poison. Jesus came to die because He loves us and wants to spare us from the hellish punishment that we deserve. But our Lord was not eager to drink the cup of suffering. He knew how awful it would be to suffer God’s punishment for every human sin. Just the thought of what was to come made Him start sweating blood. So he asked God if there was any other way to rescue us from sin, death, and Satan. But if there was no other way, then Jesus was prepared to do what he must—yet not my will, but yours be done.

Jesus submitted to his Father completely, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. God sent an angel to strengthen Jesus there in the garden. Through that heavenly messenger, God assured Jesus that he would not be abandoned to the grave or allowed to see decay (Psalm 16:10); God would raise his Son back to life. Although he knew what death was, Jesus had never experienced it personally; as the Son of Man, God Himself would taste the death that every human fears. But Jesus trusted in his Father, because God is the one who could save him from death.

As the Son of God, Jesus knows everything. Yet although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered. You know that there is a difference between book learning and experience. You can warn a little boy to stay away from fire, but he won’t fully appreciate what hot is until he gets burned. You can read all sorts of romantic poetry, but you won’t appreciate what love is until you’ve felt it for the very first time. So it is with Jesus. He was always obedient to his Father, but that obedience never came at a significant personal cost. When the time came to suffer and die for our sins, Jesus’ obedience was put to the ultimate test. Satan was hoping that Jesus would rebel against God the way that all humans do. Instead, Jesus grew—he learned from experience the nature of true obedience.

The Bible says that this experience made [Jesus] perfect. It’s easy to read this the wrong way. Jesus is God—he was and is perfect. Peter writes, He committed no sin (1 Peter 2:22). Paul says, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might gain the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s Son became a man because he had work to do. He was to succeed where we have failed. God made us to be servants, but we want to take control of our lives and leave God out of the equation. God made us to love Him and each other, but we focus most of our love on ourselves. God made us to be caretakers of His wonderful creation, but we waste our resources and foul the environment; we hoard wealth for our private use, and destroy things for our sick amusement. God expects us to live up to His lofty standards—be holy, because I, the Lord your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:2).

The job of man is to obey the Lord—it’s a job everyone has failed at miserably. So Jesus was sent to obey God’s laws on our behalf. He submitted to God’s leadership the way we’re supposed to. Jesus was perfect in Himself; He became a man to be perfect for us. When He died, He said it is finished (John 19:30)—He had been perfectly obedient in our place, obedient all the way to a shameful death on the cross. He brought His work to perfect completion; and so the Bible can speak of Him as achieving perfection through His suffering.

He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him. We cannot achieve perfection, not on our own, not in this life. We are too much in love with sin and darkness and evil. Thankfully, Jesus has been perfect for us—we don’t have to worry that our failures will deny us God’s love, or keep us from heaven. Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserved for breaking God’s laws. Through Jesus, we have everything a person could want—access to the richest, most loving and powerful Being in the universe. We don’t have to impress the Lord to join His inner circle of dearly loved friends. We have much to be grateful for.

But how do you show your appreciation? By now, the answer should be obvious—God wants you to obey Him. Of course, none of us can ever obey God like Jesus did—He is perfect, while we are deeply flawed. Jesus trusted His Father completely; a lot of the time, we struggle with doubt. Jesus never disobeyed God; we procrastinate, take short cuts, argue with God or just ignore Him altogether. We can never please God like Jesus did. But we can try. We can spend time with God’s Word so we know how He wants us to behave. We can pray to Jesus, asking for His help. We can thank God for His goodness by looking for ways to obey Him. Jesus gave some concrete examples in Matthew chapter 25. When the Son of Man comes in his 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. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?' The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

How do we honor God for His generosity? We honor Him by obeying Him, with the aid and support of the Holy Spirit. Jesus summed it up this way on the night before He died: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:9-12).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pushing help aside

Love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and cling tightly to him (Deuteronomy 30:20).

It was almost one o'clock in the morning when the phone rang. Dr. Leon Winters awoke with a start. It was the hospital; they had a young boy who had been terribly mangled in a late night accident. Couldn't someone else handle the case? No—Dr. Winters was the best surgeon in the Chicago area; the severity of the trauma would tax even his skills to the limit. Dr. Winters got dressed as quickly as he could and headed for his car.

The quickest route to the hospital went through a rough area of town, but with time being a critical factor, there was no other choice. The surgeon almost made it through the worst of the neighborhood. Almost. Then, at a stoplight, his door was jerked open by a man in a gray hat and a dirty flannel shirt. "I've got to have your car!" the man screamed, pulling him from his seat. Winters tried explaining the gravity of his situation, but the man was not listening. With a squeal of tires, the doctor’s car was gone into the night. It took Winters 45 minutes to get a taxi.

By the time he reached the hospital, more than an hour had passed. He burst through the doors and rushed to the nurses' station, but the nurse on duty only shook her head. Too late. The boy had died about 30 minutes earlier. "His dad got here just before he died," the nurse told him. "He’s in the chapel. Go see him, would you? He is awfully confused. He could not understand why you never came." Without taking time to explain, Dr. Winters hurried down the hall and quietly entered the chapel. Alone in the room, a man knelt on the floor, quiet sobs wracking his body. As the doctor stepped closer, he noticed the father’s clothing—a gray hat and a dirty flannel shirt. It was the boy’s own father who had pushed away the one person that he needed the most.

Many people make the same mistake with Jesus. Every one of us is dying from sin—it poisons our relationships, weakens us with dangerous habits, and consumes precious time and money. Sin makes us unhappy, scared, and depressed. Sin eats away at every part of life, eventually resulting in certain death. Only one person can save us; that person is the Son of God. But many push Jesus out of the way; they are so focused on trying to solve their problems and find happiness that they ignore the only one who can provide what they need. Please, don’t make that terrible mistake; let Jesus take charge of your life, before it’s too late.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The ticking of the clock

I trust in you, O LORD…My times are in your hands (Psalm 31:14-15).

Do you ever feel as if time is running out?

Now, I’m not talking about deadlines to finish a report, get taxes filed, or have everything ready for your party guests. What I’m talking about is the feeling that your time on earth is limited. For example, I love to read books. When I was in high school I could knock off two novels a week and still get all my schoolwork done. As life got filled with work and family, my time to read diminished, but my shopping habits did not. As a result, I now have hundreds of books waiting to be read, and I wonder if I will ever get to them. While I still love to browse at bookstores, I am hesitant to make a purchase unless I am sure that the book will go right to the top of my reading pile. I am increasingly aware that my time is limited, and it is affecting the decisions that I make.

Do you look at your finances and worry that it’s too late to save enough for retirement? Are you worried that in only a couple more years, your kids will move out on their own and leave you with an empty house? Have you always dreamed of a different career, but you worry that you’re getting too old to make the change? Are there places you’ve always wanted to go that now look hopelessly out of reach? Does your health make you wonder if you will live long enough to see your grandchildren or great-grandchildren?

Time is a finite commodity—you have a fixed amount of days on earth, and that total is non-negotiable. Sooner or later, everyone gets to a point where we start realizing that there is a finish line and it is approaching faster than we’d like. At that point our priorities change. For years we have let the minor crises of daily life push what is truly important into the background; now that we can hear the ticking of the clock, we are filled with a new sense of urgency. It’s time to get serious—serious about reaching for your dream, serious about enriching your personal connection with others, serious about changing your life for the better.

Facing the later stages of life can be stressful. Thankfully, death is not the end; it’s only a transition. Jesus promises everlasting life to everyone who trusts in Him. Death will not be the end of our work or our relationships; they will continue on in paradise! So don’t panic if time seems to be slipping away; in Jesus there are limitless tomorrows.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Look and live

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived (Numbers 21:4-9a).

A lot of people have little use for the Old Testament; at most, they might read the Psalms or parts of Genesis. But the Old Testament makes up 3/4s of the Bible, and it is very important. It tells us why we need a Savior. It tells us how to identify Him in a world that’s full of false religions. It explains why Jesus had to die on the cross. It assures us of the resurrection and life everlasting.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a case in point. In six short verses, we are shown much more than just a miracle in the desert. God used this incident to teach us about sin, faith, and the Savior who comes from heaven.

The people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!" This is one ungrateful bunch of people. They had been slaves in Egypt. They were forced to work long hours for scraps of food. If they had too many children, some were dragged off and killed. Then God sent Moses to free them. God afflicted Egypt with ten horrible plagues, none of which hurt the Israelites; as a result, the Egyptians gave all sorts of valuables to God’s people and begged them to leave. God parted the Red Sea, so the Israelites could cross safely on dry ground. He led them through the wilderness with a pillar of smoke by day, and a pillar of fire by night. Every morning, God made sweet cakes condense out of the morning dew, so the people always had good tasting, nutritious food.

But the people grew dissatisfied. God had given them freedom, He fed them every day, and He showed them what direction to go. But that wasn’t good enough. They wanted more comforts. They wanted more variety in their diet. They even called God’s sweet cakes "miserable food"!

Boy, are they like us! We’re never satisfied either. Grocery stores full of choices, and we complain about the selection. Closets full of clothes, but we have nothing suitable to wear. Every week there are job openings in the classifieds, yet people file for unemployment because they are picky about the kind of job they’re willing to do. Others feel sorry for themselves because they’re lonely, yet they won’t go to a hospital or nursing home to visit those who are confined there. No matter our situation, things are rarely good enough for us. So we grumble, whine, and complain. We act as if we are entitled to whatever we want.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. We’re not entitled to anything. God made us—we owe Him, not the other way around! Scripture says, He…gives all men life and breath and everything else… in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:23-28). Such generosity deserves our gratitude. We should focus on what we have and be thankful; instead, we focus on what we don’t have, and complain. We act like spoiled little children, who have no regard for anyone but themselves.

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. When you see a snake, it ought to remind you of mankind’s fall into sin. The devil spoke through a snake when he tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God. The first couple had everything a family could want—a beautiful place to live, plenty to eat, easy and pleasant work. But when they listened to Satan, they became dissatisfied. They wanted more than God had given them, and they were willing to break His law in order to get it. As a result, they were cursed with pain and death—they and every generation to follow. And so the snake has come to represent sin—sin that hurts us and results in death.

But why does God punish sin with pain and death? Look at what happened in the Israelite camp. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you." Punishment leads to repentance. If God had ignored the complaining, it would only have grown worse. But when the Lord inflicted pain and death, the people changed their behavior. This is a lesson every parent should take to heart—the correct use of punishment is to bring about a change of attitude. The Bible tells us, do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son…God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12:5-11).

God punishes our love for sin so that we turn to Him instead. The people came to Moses and said, "Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." This is what God was waiting to hear. They stopped treating Him with contempt; instead, they came to Him in humility, asking for His love. They realized that they were treating their heavenly Father shamefully; now they started giving Him the respect He deserves.

God lets troubles assail us for the same reason. Much of the week, we ignore God. We don’t pray, we don’t read His Bible, we don’t take His priorities into consideration as we make decisions. We act as if He doesn’t exist. Even worse, we often complain that He isn’t giving us enough of what we want. We treat Him like a punching bag for our frustrations, instead of respecting Him as our holy Father. And so God punishes us. He lets bad things happen to our health, our family, our reputation, our property, or our success at work. He does it to make us stop and think about what we’re doing. There’s an old saying that goes, ‘when God lays you in a hospital bed, you are forced to look up towards heaven.’

Moses prayed for the people. The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live." God was waiting for a prayer asking forgiveness. And as soon as it came, the Lord acted. He had Moses make a snake out of bronze and set it up on a pole; the people who looked at it survived the snakebite. What an unusual solution to the problem! But it is a solution that teaches us many things.

God had Moses put a snake on a pole to help us understand the cross of Christ. Centuries later, Jesus told Nicodemus, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15). After that, Jesus told His followers, "when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself." He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:32-33). When Jesus speaks of being lifted up, He means being lifted up on the cross. In the desert, the snake was raised up on a pole so everyone could see the way to be saved from painful death; on Calvary’s holy mountain, Jesus was lifted up so that all mankind could see God’s offer of forgiveness and everlasting life.

Notice that the people were not purged of snake venom. They were not instantly made healthy and comfortable. The benefit they received was life. By gazing at the snake on the pole, they survived the poisoning. This teaches us about our relationship with Jesus. When we gaze on Him hanging from the cross, our sins don't disappear; we remain sinners until the day we die. The benefit we get is this—we will survive being poisoned by sin. Its venom will not kill our souls, sending us to hell. Because of Jesus, we will live in spite of sin, and when our bodies die, we will join Him in paradise, freed of sin’s destructive power forever.

Notice also that salvation was a matter of faith. The ones who lived had to believe in God’s cure. If someone thought that going to see the snake on the pole was foolish, he would stay in his tent and die. If you don’t believe in God’s promises, it’s all the worse for you. So it is with Christ. God hung Him on the cross so that anyone who looks on Him in faith might survive the poison of sin. But many think the message of the cross is foolish. They don’t see how faith in God can do anything to help them with the troubles that they’re going through. The cross of Christ means nothing to them, and their souls will die, poisoned by wrongdoing and guilt.

Notice the color of the snake. It was made of bronze. Bronze is a metal with red highlights; in the desert sun, it would have looked fiery in color. To the bitten Israelites, that fiery glint made them think of how they burned from the venom coursing through their veins. To see a snake hung defeated on a pole would give them hope of recovery from the serpents’ bites. But this also makes us think of Jesus as He was dying on the cross. He was covered in blood—blood from the thorny crown jammed on His head, blood from His back that had been whipped mercilessly, blood from His hands and feet where the nails hand been pounded through into the wood that suspended Him above the earth. Jesus was covered in blood, blood that washes away our sins, so we can live with joy because we are free from guilt and regret. On the cross, stained red with God’s blood, the power of sin was killed along with Christ.

Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived. God sent His Son to live among us in human flesh, and hung Him on the cross to suffer and die for our sins. When anyone bitten by sin looks up the cross in faith, he lives. Paul writes, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18). Life can seem like a long, tough journey through the wilderness. Life is hard enough—don’t anger God further by grumbling that He doesn’t love you like He should. He loves you plenty; He loves you so much that He put His Son on a pole, bloody in this world’s fading sunlight, that you might gaze on Him and live.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Sing and make music

My heart is steadfast, O God; I will sing and make music with all my soul (Psalm 108:1).

Music is a very important part of human life. Most radio stations include music as part of their programming. Many businesses play music in the background over a speaker system. In TV shows and movies, moments of transition, action, or deep emotion are always accompanied by a musical score. Most schools include a music department and offer concerts for the public. Musical groups tour the country and often play at community events. Some people download music to their computers, ipods and cell phones; others have large collections of records, tapes or compact discs. Music is woven into the very fabric of our culture.

Music can affect our emotions. Some businesses use music to influence employee productivity, using soothing melodies to reduce stress or faster rhythms to encourage a brisk work pace. Movies and TV shows use music to enhance the emotion of a scene, whether it be heart-pumping action, heart-crushing sadness, or a moment of tender love. Lots of teenagers use music to help them cope with times of anger, sadness, or fear. And the right mix of background music can liven up any party. Music can also help with education. Youth who are involved with a music program tend to perform better academically. Music can make it easier to commit information to memory—that’s why children are taught to sing their ABCs.

Music affects our emotions and helps us to learn—it is no wonder that music plays such an important role in the Church. If you go to worship in a foul mood or are preoccupied with troubling thoughts, you won’t get much out of the service. Music can help with that—it can influence your emotional state and get you into the right frame of mind for being attentive to God. Sometimes the sermon doesn’t connect with you; maybe the pastor used too many big words or you couldn’t follow his train of thought. Music can compensate for that—the hymns you sing are little sermons set to music, making it easier for you to remember what the Church teaches about our sin and God’s forgiveness offered through His Son Jesus.

Church music is not a nice extra—good devotional music is an essential part of worship. So when you are invited to open your mouth and sing, don’t be embarrassed and keep silent—God gives us music to gladden our hearts and draw us closer to Him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sleepless nights

All night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears (Psalm 6:6).

I often look at my sleeping cat with envy. She can just plop down anywhere and take a peaceful snooze. I find it hard to take naps—even when there’s time for one, I usually doze without actually falling asleep. When I go to bed at night, I have to have darkness and quiet before I can drift off; sometimes the process of getting ready for bed wakes me up enough that I have to read for awhile in order to get groggy again. And if my wife gets up in the morning before I do, I might as well get dressed because I can’t fall back asleep.

A couple of years ago, a medicine I was taking gave me bad dreams—the kind that wake you up at 3:00 am and keep you from getting a good night’s rest. Sometimes heartburn has kept me up; other times nausea or a hacking cough have prevented me from getting the rest I needed. But of all the things that make it hard to sleep peacefully, the worst one by far is anxiety.

I’m sure you’ve experienced it. You want to go to sleep but you don’t, because you just can’t shut off your brain. You keep going over the mistakes you made earlier in the day; you replay situations in your head, trying to figure out what you could have said or done differently. Or you fret about tomorrow, making lists of what needs to be done, rehearsing how you’re going to confront a problem, or making contingency plans in case things totally fall apart. By the time that morning comes, you are tired, crabby, and ill prepared to face the challenges of the day.

Sleep is vitally important. While you sleep, your body flushes away toxins and devotes its’ energy to healing. While you sleep, your mind sorts through the chaos of another day and files things away in memory—sort of like rebooting a computer. Now, you know that if you leave a computer running for days without shutting it off or rebooting, weird things start happening; the same is true of a mind that doesn’t get the rest it needs.

You can fall asleep by taking a pill or drinking alcohol, but these remedies don’t deal with the mental turmoil keeping you awake. For mind-healing rest, you need to relax and let go of your problems. You need Jesus. He can forgive you for the mistakes that burden you with guilt. He can lend you wisdom and strength to face the challenges of the coming day. When you can’t sleep, it’s a great time for the Bible and for prayer.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Many people give up something for Lent. Some won’t eat meat on Fridays. Others give up chocolate. Some stop drinking alcohol or soft drinks. Others pledge extra money to the church that would have otherwise been spent on some form of entertainment.

Why give up something during Lent? It is a way to show respect for Jesus, who sacrificed Himself on our behalf. Jesus is the Son of God; He deserves to be honored as the King of the universe. Yet Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested on false charges. He subjected Himself to slander, humiliation, assault, and a verdict of death, none of which He deserved. He died slowly and painfully, stripped of dignity and bereft of compassion. He endured it all for us. Such a powerful display of love calls for some kind of response.

During Lent, some deny themselves in order to feel closer to Jesus. While no one can really understand the hell Jesus went through on Good Friday, we want to share in His sufferings—it’s what friends do. We honor Jesus’ sacrifice by giving up something that we enjoy; it helps us relate to His suffering. Such behavior is appropriate because Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24).

Others give up something for Lent as a way to show Jesus their gratitude. The Lord gave up His dignity, His comfort and His very life, all so that we can be saved from sin, death and hell. Such a gift deserves some kind of thank you. That’s why followers of Jesus give up something that feels good during Lent; it’s their way of saying, ‘Lord, You sacrificed so much for me; now I’m going to give this up for You, to show my gratitude."

A third reason for denying yourself pleasure during Lent has to do with avoiding distractions. Before Jesus went to the cross, He prepared Himself with an evening of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; Satan was going to attack Him viciously over the next 24 hours, and Jesus wanted prepare Himself. Many Christians use Lent as a time to take a good, hard look at themselves—their failures and their weaknesses. It’s a time for reflecting on the important things in life—we don’t want to be distracted by trivial stuff. And so we give up those pleasures that keep us looking in the wrong direction—towards ourselves in the mirror, instead of towards Jesus on the cross.

You don’t hear much about sacrifices any more. Maybe you’ve seen King Kong, where villagers capture an American girl and offer her to the huge gorilla that they fear. What they were doing was offering a sacrifice; they were giving away something precious—a human life—in order to keep the angry monster happy, so it would leave them alone.

For thousands of years, people have offered sacrifices. The world can be a scary place to live in—you never know when violent weather will destroy your home, drought will take the harvest, or disease will thin the herd. Until recently, childbirth was dangerous for both mother and baby, and infant mortality rates were high—many kids never reached adulthood. People did not have hospitals or insurance plans to help them get through a crisis. So they turned to any number of different religions—they prayed to the sun in the sky for light, they asked the water spirits for rain, they pleaded with the goddess of fertility for many healthy children. They needed supernatural help desperately, so they wanted to keep these powerful beings happy. As a result, they offered sacrifices. The first cuttings of the harvest were burned on an altar as a gift to the goddess of the fields. And a couples’ first-born child might be burned on an altar as a gift to the being who controlled life and death. People gave up something precious, hoping that in return good spirits would bless them and evil spirits would leave them alone.

Of course, there is only one God—the God who created Adam and Eve, and promised them a Savior who would come to free us from sin, defend us from Satan, and raise us from death. All those sacrifices made to other gods and spirits were simply a waste that accomplished nothing at all. But the sacrifice made to our God is different.

When we break God’s laws, we incur a penalty—death, followed by punishment in hell. And we’re all guilty—Scripture says, all have sinned and fall short of God’s righteous standard (Romans 3:23). By sinning, we have earned God’s terrible punishment. Thankfully, He has arranged a way for us to dodge the bullet—we can escape the consequences of our bad behavior through a sacrifice. On the cross, God’s own Son endured the punishment incurred by our lawbreaking. He was a sacrifice of incalculable worth, so valuable that His suffering and death paid the penalty for every human sin. The death of Christ on Good Friday is the only sacrifice you’ll ever need to be sure of God’s love for you.

When Jesus died on the cross, He atoned for our sins. ‘Atoned’ means that He paid the penalty we deserved for breaking God’s law.

Breaking God’s Law is a big deal. God designed the world to be perfect—everything in balance, everyone living together in harmony. But mankind messed it all up. God’s law says that we are to love Him and each other; instead, we let greed and pride and anger rule our hearts. We don’t love as we should, and the result is crime and war, abortion and divorce, poverty and waste.

Our disobedience hurts our fellow man, the environment, and us. Our sin causes pain and disappointment and fear. No wonder, then, that God punishes those who break His laws. But God still loves us, despite our faults—that’s why He sent His Son to suffer in our place, to atone for our sins. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are spared God’s terrible anger.

Jesus suffered and died as our substitute. Isaiah says, he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). But why did Jesus have to die? Was there no other way to settle the account?

We don’t like the sight of blood. It makes us squeamish. But blood is very important. God says, 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 17:11). The penalty for breaking God’s law is death, the loss of your lifeblood. That’s why Jesus had to bleed and die; He gave His life so ours could be spared.

This is why we talk about Jesus’ blood being shed for us on the cross. His blood is a gift of life for everyone dying under the curse of sin. God’s word says, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22). Jesus had to die so we can receive God’s pardon for our sins. Hell is too terrible to think about; that’s why we ought to be grateful that Jesus suffered in our place. He loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.

Jesus died to redeem us. ‘Redeem’ means to buy back. Picture it this way. There was a boy who spent weeks building a model ship. It was the kind that has sails and rigging, all sorts of tiny knots and little pulleys. It was a complicated model, but the boy was careful and took his time—in the end, he had a ship to be proud of.

Excited with the results, the boy took his ship to the city park. He wanted to float it in the water outside, so he could take some authentic looking pictures. But as he was lining up the camera, the wind picked up and his ship sailed away. Before he could catch up, it was lost to sight.

A few weeks later, the boy was walking by a pawnshop downtown when he saw something amazing—there was his model ship in the window! He had done a good job building her; the asking price was steep. So the boy hurried home and scraped together all the money he had. Then he returned to the pawnshop and bought back the ship that really belonged to him.

That boy loved his model ship—loved it so much that he not only built it carefully, but He paid for it a second time in order to get it back. So it is with Jesus. We are precious to Him—He designed our bodies and He filled us with life. But we sailed away; we let the winds of life blow us wherever they wanted. We ended up in Satan’s pawnshop, alone and unloved. But then Jesus came along and bought us back. He spent everything He had—He gave up His life in order to make us His. He redeemed us from the devil’s control at the cost of His own life. That’s how much He loves us.

Or think of it this way. We are God’s children, but we didn’t like His rules so we ran away from home. Satan kidnapped us and refused to let us go. So Jesus offered Himself to the devil in exchange for our freedom—and Satan used that opportunity to have Jesus arrested, insulted, beaten, ridiculed, and put to death. Jesus knew perfectly well what He was getting into, but He swapped places with us anyway—He was willing to do anything to get us out of Satan’s clutches. Jesus paid your ransom price; how are you using the freedom that He paid so dearly to give you?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Being a good neighbor

Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:29)

One rainy day, a man went into the city on some errands. On his way home, he saw a car pulled over on the shoulder, emergency lights flashing. A woman stood by the door, soaked to the skin. The man pulled over and got out. As he did so, two men ran out from behind the car and jumped him. The three criminals beat the man, took his wallet and stole his car, leaving him unconscious and bleeding at the side of the road.

Soon another car came along. The driver was a minister; when he noticed the man lying on the shoulder he slowed down to get a better look. Just then his cell phone rang; seeing headlights in his rearview mirror, the minister took the call and drove on, figuring that the next driver would stop and see what was going on.

The driver in the next car was a social worker. She had had a long and challenging day; exhausted and irritable, all she wanted was to get home and make her kids dinner. When she saw the man lying by the ditch, she started to slow down. But after a moment’s thought, she sped up and drove by—she didn’t have the energy to get involved, her kids were waiting for her, and she was a little worried for her safety. She was sure that someone else would stop and offer to help.

A little later, another set of headlights appeared. This car slowed, then came to a stop. A man stepped out into the rain and knelt by the bleeding victim. Finding a pulse, he tore some strips of cloth from his shirt for a makeshift bandage. He helped the injured man into his car, even though blood dripped on the front seat. He drove to the first farm place that he saw and took the man inside. 911 was called, and the helpful stranger did not leave until he had given his statement to the sheriff and the ambulance was on its way to a hospital.

Who was this man who had taken the time to help? The kind stranger was an illegal alien originally from Mexico. He ruined his clothes, got bloodstains on his upholstery and risked being identified by the law, all for the sake of a man he didn’t know. The illegal alien showed compassion to a total stranger, even when it was not convenient. Our Lord Jesus tells us, Go and do likewise (Luke 10:37).

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Forgiving a terrible hurt

Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13).

On February 9th, 1960, Adolph Coors was kidnapped and held for ransom. Seven months later he was shot to death and his body was left on a remote hillside. The killer was eventually caught, convicted, and sent to prison. Adolph Coors had a son who was fifteen years old at the time of the murder. The teen was devastated by his father’s death; the two of them had been very close. Young Ad grew up with an enormous hatred in his heart. He joined the Marine Corps; after his enlistment was up, he started working in the public sector. Yet through all those years his heart remained filled with hatred for the man who had killed his father. A bitter thought continually ran through his mind: "Oh, if I could only have caught him before the police did."

Then in 1975, Ad became a Christian. He became very active in Prison Fellowship and in visiting the penitentiary—the very same penitentiary that housed his father’s killer. The leader of his group, Dale Morris, asked him one day, "Have you forgiven the man who killed your father?" He answered, "Yes, in my heart I have forgiven him." Dale persisted: "Have you been to him personally and have you forgiven him, and not only that, have you asked him to forgive you?" At that point, young Ad grew angry and said, "Why should he forgive me?" Morris answered: "Because you hated him for so long."

As a result of this conversation, Ad Coors prayed to God and reached an important decision. He went to the prison carrying a Bible for his father’s killer; in that book he wrote the following words: "I’m down here to see you today. As a Christian, I have been commanded by my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ to ask for your forgiveness. I forgive you for the sins you have committed against our family, and I ask you to forgive me for the hatred I have had in my heart for you."

The visit brought Ad a freedom he had never experienced before. Eventually he was able to say these remarkable words about his father’s killer: "I am able to love that man, Joseph Corbin, because of the love Jesus Christ has given in my life."

That, my friend, shows the power of forgiveness to change lives. That is the power which Christ gives to those who love and trust Him.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Is God in control?

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life (John 11:47-53).

Have you ever questioned whether or not God is really in control? As you watch the news, as you read the newspaper, as you get phone calls or emails from loved ones who are facing awful problems, do you get frightened? Are you tempted to wonder if Satan and the powers of darkness are having their way with the world, unchallenged?

If you have ever had such doubts, today’s message is for you. Our Gospel reading is filled with hope and security, in spite of the awful things that evil men are planning. In spite of their intentions, God brings everlasting good out of their dark plotting.

The religious elite of Jerusalem were the priests who served God by running His Temple, and the Pharisees--men who prided themselves on publicly living God-pleasing lives as an example for sinners to aspire to; these men were mostly concentrated in Jerusalem, and had built secure, comfortable lives for themselves as men of influence and respectability. There were only two things that made their lives difficult. One was the occupying Roman garrison, run by the hated foreign governor Pontius Pilate. The Romans were a source of constant irritation. They insisted that the Jews obey laws established by far away Rome; their soldiers worshiped their heathen deities in the very city of God’s holy Temple, and to add insult to injury, they taxed God’s people and spent that Jewish money to support the army occupying their country. But the religious leadership had brokered a deal with the Romans; if the hated foreigners permitted the priesthood and the Pharisees to have day to day influence over the peoples’ lives, they in turn would make sure that the people would not rise up and cause problems for the occupying Roman army. In this way, both sides benefited—governor Pilate could easily maintain the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome’s rule, and the religious leadership would retain authority and prestige among the Jewish populace.

The other source of problems for the religious leadership was Jesus. Just before today’s Gospel reading, Jesus had arrived in Bethany where He raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. At first, Jesus had confined the bulk of His ministry to the northern province of Galilee, only coming to Jerusalem for the annual Passover celebration. While He restricted His teachings and miracles to the back country, the religious leadership in Jerusalem wasn’t overly concerned; Galilee was known for it’s willingness to accept a variety of strange new ideas, being as it was a crossroads for trade and far from the orthodox influence of the capital. Presumably, Jesus’ teachings would eventually be swept away by the next new idea to come through Galilee from some foreign land.

But recently, Jesus had been making His way to Jerusalem, preaching and performing miracles as He went. Now He had arrived in Bethany, a town less than two miles from the capital, and it was there that He preformed His most spectacular miracle yet—He raised from the grave a man dead and decaying for four days! Jesus was creating a stir among the people of Jerusalem; many were openly wondering if He was going to declare Himself God’s chosen Messiah and lead them into revolt against the occupying Roman military, in order to restore the Kingdom of David.

The chief priests and Pharisees were understandably concerned. If Jesus stirred up a rebellion, Rome would crush Jerusalem ruthlessly; even if the priests and Pharisees somehow lived through the carnage, Pilate would never again trust in their ability to keep the people peaceful, and they would lose all their special privileges. And so they met in private session, analyzing their options: "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation."

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." Caiaphas’ reasoning was simple and logical—the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one. If Jesus could be removed from the public scene, the people would eventually settle down and fall back into the routine of looking to the Pharisees and priests for leadership. The religious leaders could then keep the people submissive to Roman rule, and thus protect the nation from destruction at spear point. Yes, it was obvious—if Jesus died, all of God’s people would ultimately benefit. This having been decided, they began looking for ways to end Jesus’ life.

It certainly appeared as if Satan was firmly in control; God’s archenemy seemed to have the religious leadership in his pocket as they plotted how to do away with God’s own Son. But how much was Satan really in control? Listen to this startling analysis of Caiaphas’ words: He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. In the midst of plans being hatched to preserve a lifestyle of luxury and prestige, God speaks! God speaks through the mouth of the high priest, and announces His plan for the salvation of mankind!

Caiaphas unknowingly speaks a divine a truth: it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish. God’s holy law had condemned the entire world to death. All have sinned; all have earned God’s sentence of everlasting punishment in hell. We all act like the chief priests and the Pharisees; we all strike deals with the enemy, the forces of darkness. We don’t want to lose the comfort of our friends, so when they do something that we know angers God, we keep our mouths shut—and if they invite us to join them in their sinful behavior, we even agree to participate, in order to preserve our friendship. We don’t want to lose the comfort of our lifestyles, so when we become aware that the company we work for overprices its products or sells shoddy merchandise, we don’t quit or take it to management—we quietly do what we were hired to do, to keep pulling in that nice paycheck. We don’t want to lose the comfort of our sinful habits, so we try to act extra good from time to time, thinking that by doing good things for others we can make up for the sinful pleasures that we just can’t bear to part with. We don’t want to lose our comforts, so we make deals of accommodation with the devil—after all, the only one who need suffer is God.

Hell awaited each of us for our sleazy dealings with the enemy. But the God of justice is also the God of mercy—and so He prepared for us an opportunity to be freed of all the back room wrangling that had made us the devil’s pawns. He sent His son Jesus to die in our place. It is far better that this one man die for us, than we all perish in everlasting flames. And so Jesus was arrested, tried and found guilty, not of any crimes He had committed, but for ours. Jesus was insulted, slapped, beaten, whipped and humiliated in our place. He had nails driven through His hands and feet and was executed like the lowest form of criminal scum--in our stead. As He hung on that cross, He suffered all the fury of God’s anger at sin, every bit of the hell that had been reserved for you and me. Jesus died on that cross, one man whose death gifted each of us with a new opportunity for eternal life. It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.

Is God in charge? In the middle of a secret meeting that plotted the Savior’s death, God spoke of His offer of salvation through the voice of a man who was as far from God as anyone could be. In the Garden of Gethsemane, God took Judas’ betrayal and turned it into the opening act of a drama that would free all of mankind from the curse of sin and death. The 70 elders of the Sanhedrin were opposed to any plan of salvation that involved Jesus; Pilate and his soldiers couldn’t have cared less about the desires and plans of the Jewish God. Yet in spite of all the evil people who eagerly embraced Satan’s whispered suggestions, God brought about the greatest miracle of all history—He ended mankind’s helpless slavery to sin, death and the devil forever. He did this by sacrificing His own divine Son as the ultimate offering for all human sin.

God can bring good things out of any situation, no matter how awful or dark. A child conceived in rape can grow up to become a wonderful preacher of God’s righteousness. A Christian peacefully facing eventual death by cancer can be the inspiration for a relative to seek the Christ who has given such a profound confidence in the coming joys of heaven. God can use the poverty resulting from a job loss or a poor harvest to strip away worldly things that are a sinful distraction and lead a man and his family into trusting exclusively in the care of the Almighty. No matter how much evil Satan plots and plans, God can bring about a good result for those who love and trust in Him above all else.

God is always in control—the victory of the cross is all the proof you need.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Hard decisions

Send forth your light and your truth, let them guide me (Psalm 43:3).

Are you facing a tough decision and you don’t know the right thing to do? Break it down into three steps.

First, you need to evaluate your options. Normally, we think about risk—what’s the risk if I do this or don’t do that? How will my choice affect my wallet, my relationships, or my health? But focusing on personal risk ignores a more important question: what moral issues are at stake? As you consider your options, which of them could have an impact on other people? Do any of them go against God’s rules? Every difficult decision has, at its core, a moral dilemma.

This leads to the second step—try to find out what God has to say on the matter. For this step, I recommend getting a devotional book that arranges Bible passages under different topics, so that you can find what you need quickly and easily. Books like these are not expensive—I can usually find them for about five dollars at Christian bookstores. Alternatively, you could visit a church or public library and see if they have this kind of book on the shelf. Of course, there are other options; you could sit down with a pastor or someone else who knows the Bible well. Or you could just open a Bible and start reading; many people have done this and been surprised at coming across something they needed to hear at just that moment in time—a credit to the working of the Holy Spirit.

The third step is to pray and ask Jesus to lead you into making the best decision. Don’t just ask once and then make your choice; ask several times over a period of days. Sometimes the option we are leaning towards is not the direction God would lead us; when this is the case, we need to pray repeatedly so that we are focused more on God than ourselves. We want to give Jesus time to clear our minds so that we can start sharing His priorities.

Making an important, emotional decision takes time. Often, we would rather just make a hasty decision and be done with the inner turmoil. But hard decisions deserve hard work to get them right. Make the effort; involve God in your problem solving, and hard decisions are much more likely to bring good results.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Love vs. lust

God is love (1 John 4:16).

I’m not sure that most Americans know the difference between ‘lust’ and ‘love.’

Lust is about hormones. Lust is the body’s desire for sex. It is triggered by many things. Captivating eyes and a winning smile. Silky hair and the right aftershave or perfume. A fit body and good fashion sense. Confident body language and an air of mystery. These kinds of traits trigger sexual interest and a desire to pair up.

Love is about the spirit. Love is the soul’s desire for a deep and lasting relationship. Love grows over time. Love develops from getting to know another person. Love can blossom between strangers chatting on the Internet. Love can develop between two people who have been friends since childhood. Love can arise between people who work together every day.

Love grows because of communication. Love requires two people who are willing to invest time in the relationship. Love needs partners who respect each other’s feelings and offer support in times of emotional turmoil. Love depends on a willingness to talk about important things like hopes and dreams, morals and faith.

Love is about feelings—the feeling of self-worth because you are valued and needed, the feeling of security because you are not alone. But love is also about making decisions—deciding to help another person even when you are mad at them, deciding to stay with that person even when another potential love interest comes along. Love is about heart and mind working together to forge a life-long relationship of care and trust with another person.

Love might grow out of lust, but many times it doesn’t. Some people never have a deeper relationship than two animals who are in heat. By the same token, people can fall in love and only then develop sexual cravings for each other. In this happy situation, sex is not the basis for the relationship, it is merely icing on the cake.

God is love, and He created us to be in love—not in lust. Lust can be fun, but only love can bring true happiness, happiness that will last a lifetime and beyond.

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