Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Spirit of life

Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, `Where are you going?' Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned (John 16:5-11a).

This weekend, we start the season of Pentecost. Pentecost is the second half of the church year. The first half is called the festival season—it begins with Advent and Christmas, continues with Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, and reaches its climax with Lent, Easter, and our Lord’s ascension into heaven. The festival season focuses on the most dramatic events of Jesus’ time among us.

The season of Pentecost shifts our focus to Christ’s Church here on earth. Pentecost is when God the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and equipped them for building a community of believers, a fellowship that has gone from a mere handful of followers huddled behind closed doors in Jerusalem, to billions of Christians living their faith openly around the world. Pentecost is the part of the church year where we look at what Jesus teaches us and see how it affects our lives out in the world.

Because of the sin that corrupts our thinking, we are not able to understand Jesus’ teachings properly, nor can we hope to live a perfect life according to the wisdom that He has brought down from heaven. This is why Jesus made the promise in today’s Gospel lesson—He has sent us the Counselor, the Holy Spirit of God. It is the Holy Spirit that makes it possible for us to be Christians, it is the Holy Spirit that brings us together into a fellowship of believers that Paul calls the body of Christ, the Church. And so today, the first weekend of the Pentecost season, we devote our attention to the builder of Christ’s Church, the Spirit of God.

The first thing to remember is that the Holy Spirit is a distinct Person within the Triune God. It doesn’t get any clearer than Jesus’ words of the Great Commission: 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 clear that Jesus regards the Spirit as a full-fledged partner in the Trinity. This point is borne out further by an incident recorded in Acts chapter five; there we read of a convert to the faith named Ananias. Ananias had told a lie to the other members of his congregation, in order to make himself look good. But when Peter confronts him, notice what Peter says about the Holy Spirit: Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit…You have not lied to men but to God." Peter also makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is just as much God as is the Father and the Son.

And yet the Spirit has His own unique relationship within the godhead. In the Apostles’ Creed, we speak of the Spirit ‘proceeding’ from the Father and the Son. What does this mean, exactly? Well, this statement is based on what Jesus Himself teaches. In John chapter 14, Jesus says: the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. And in John chapter 16, Jesus says: Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. From these and other passages, it is clear that the Holy Spirit comes to us both by the Father’s direction and by the Son’s—and so we say that He proceeds from the Father and the Son, that He comes forth by their mutual will.

What is the mutual will of the Father and the Son? That we be saved from sin and death, of course. The evil that twists our every thought and desire is born in us, and is inescapable. Because God only surrounds Himself with the beauties of perfection, sin is loathsome to Him and it makes us unworthy to be in His company. To die apart from God is to suffer dying eternally in hell. But such an outcome is not what God had in mind when He created us; His intent was for us to be perfect and to enjoy eternity seated around His feet. So God sent His Son to offer us escape from our inescapable sin. Jesus did this by being the perfect child of God that we should have been, and by diverting God’s anger at our sins to Himself, suffering the punishment that our evilness had demanded. By living and dying in our place, Jesus took away the tragic consequences of our sin and in exchange gifted us with His perfection, a perfection that makes us worthy to kneel before the Father without fear of His displeasure. Jesus and the Father were together committed to this ultimate act of love on our behalf.

So when we speak of the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son, it should not surprise us that the goal of His work among us continues to be the work of bringing life from death. One of the great truths of Scripture is this: the Spirit gives life (John 6:63). Already in the first verses of Genesis, the Spirit is involved in the creation of life: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. When mankind was created, the Holy Spirit discussed the matter together with the Father and the Son: Then God said, "Let us make man in our image" (Genesis 1:26).

In the book of Job, one of Job’s friends says: The Spirit of God has made me; the breath of the Almighty gives me life (Job 33:4). Here we see the idea that the Spirit of God is like a breath, like invisible but life-giving air. It calls to mind how Adam was given life: the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Genesis 2:7). That breath of life was the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit!

It is by the working of the Holy Spirit that God breathes new life into we who were spiritually dead because of sin. This has both immediate and long-term benefits. The immediate benefit is access to Jesus; it is the Holy Spirit who gives us the faith we need to be one with our Savior. 1st Corinthians chapter twelve tells us, no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit. It is only by the work of the Spirit living within us that we can recognize Jesus for who He truly is and trust in Him to lead us towards holiness of living. In Romans chapter 8, Paul tells us that Jesus works together with the Holy Spirit to offer us salvation: there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.

It is the Spirit of God that equips us, strengthens us, and leads us through life. The Spirit came down and remained on Jesus at His baptism, then led Him, fully prepared, to confront Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. At Pentecost, the Spirit enabled the disciples to speak in many different languages so that they could witness to the foreigners living among them. When unbelievers challenged Stephen, Acts tells us that they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. The Spirit guided Paul on his missionary journeys; in Acts chapter 16 Luke writes, Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to…During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. And you are well aware of the gifts that the Spirit promises to give those who ask: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). These are all ways by which the Spirit works in us directly.

In order to help us to live the new life of faith, the Spirit also provides other supports. The most important of these is the Bible. Although set down on paper by men, it was the Spirit of God who provided the inspiration; Peter tells us, Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation. For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (1 Peter 1:20-21). We can trust that everything in the Bible is true, because God the Holy Spirit caused these words to be set down for our learning. The only reason that we frequently fail to understand what the Spirit has given us is because sin clouds our ability to see the truth in all its marvelous perfection. The Bible is God’s instruction manual for life, the kind of life that has purpose and meaning and value and dignity, the kind of life that is aimed at eternity.

Another support that the Spirit gives us is the Church. All the way back in Genesis chapter two, God said it is not good for the man to be alone. Throughout history, people have sought the company of others. People gather for the joy of companionship, the comfort of mutual support, and the security of being part of a community. The Holy Spirit has built Christ’s Church to provide us with these same blessings. Christians gather together for the joy of companionship. We have things in common with each other that are hard to share with an unbeliever because they just can’t understand the spiritual component of our lives. We also have the feeling of belonging that comes from being part of a family; when we come to church for worship or study or to work for the Lord, it’s like going to visit the house of a favorite relative.

The Church also gives us the comfort of mutual support and a sense of security. We are constantly under attack—we are tempted by Satan to build our lives on something else than Jesus, we are pressured by people around us to accept their sinful choices as good and right and normal, we are seduced by the desires of our bodies to abandon Christ’s leadership so that we can indulge in every sinful desire for pleasure that comes along. It is because of these attacks, both from within and without, that we find ourselves suffering all kinds of pain—pain of bodies mistreated, of minds poisoned with destructive ideas, of souls wounded by betrayal. It is because we are attacked and wounded that we have been given the community of the Church, a place of retreat, protection, and healing. Here among our brothers and sisters in faith, we can cry without shame or embarrassment. Here we can talk out what confuses us and be reaffirmed in what God tells us is good and right and holy. Here we can find forgiveness for our mistakes, and can hold each other up as we turn to God for healing and the strength to persevere. This is what the Holy Spirit created the Church to do, what He has called each of us to do as members of this Church.

But the Spirit does not restrict Himself to giving us only short-term benefits. Having the Spirit of God in your heart yields a long-term benefit as well. Galatians chapter six tells us, A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. We are promised that those who are inhabited by the Spirit will be raised to live forever; Romans chapter eight: if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you. When we are united with God through the indwelling of His Spirit, He will welcome us into everlasting fellowship with Him and all our fellow believers in Christ. The community that we have been made a part of by the Spirit’s work here on earth--the Church--that community will continue to surround us with all its joys and benefits forever in God’s presence, a true communion of saints. The time that we invest in God’s house here is an investment that will carry into eternity!

The Spirit of God is every bit as essential to our lives as is the Father and the Son. Why is it that we spend so little time talking about Him? Because the Holy Spirit is the silent partner in the godhead; His role is not to call attention to Himself, but rather to focus our eyes on Christ, and through Christ, on each other as fellow children of God. But on this, the beginning of the season of Pentecost, we turn our attention to Him who gives life to our dead souls.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sleep well tonight

Do not worry about tomorrow…Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34).

An old farmer needed help; his kids had all grown up and moved away, leaving just him and his wife to keep the operation going. He tried hiring several different men, but none of them worked out. By the late in the year, the farmer was getting desperate. He interviewed one candidate after another, but none of them looked promising. Finally, one man said something that stuck out during his interview. When the farmer asked him, "What qualifies you for this job?" the man answered, "I can sleep at night." Although he wasn’t sure what the man was getting at, the answer showed a certain level of confidence; with harvest just around the corner, the farmer went ahead and hired the newcomer.

That night there was a powerful thunderstorm. The farmer woke up and ran to the bedroom where the new employee slept. He tried to wake the man up, but with no success; the guy slept like a log. Muttering to himself, the farmer got dressed, put on coat and boots, and went outside. It was dark and cold; the howling wind and sheets of rain soaked him to the skin. But the trip outside proved unnecessary; he found the barn doors closed and latched, the haystack securely covered, and all the equipment neatly put away in the machine shed. Since nothing needed his attention, he went back into the house, dried off, and returned to bed. As he lay on his back listening to the storm, he finally understood why his new hired man had said, "I can sleep at night." He could sleep because he took care of everything that needed to be done before he went to bed.

We don’t sleep well at night because we don’t use time wisely; we overextend ourselves and waste effort on things that are not very important. And so when bedtime comes, all we can think about are the loose ends that still need to be taken care of. You’re not going to get a good night’s rest as long as you are over-committed; learn to give a polite "no" to people who want you to take on more than you can handle. It also pays to get organized; instead of working on several projects at the same time and getting none of them finished, set priorities and get the most important things done first.

Above all, be grateful, because Jesus has completed all the work that He committed to do for you. Your sins are paid for. Your guilt is removed. You are a child of God and have a reservation in heaven. You can sleep well tonight, knowing that thanks to Jesus, the most important work is done.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Suffering and death

Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

Suffering and death. These are topics that we shy away from if at all possible. No one likes to suffer, and only extreme suffering can make a person look forward to death. Spending time with people who are suffering or dying makes us feel uncomfortable; we feel powerless to help and don’t know what to say or how to act. Most folks want to get out of a hospital or funeral home as quickly as possible.

God took away the curse of sin forever. But that accomplishment came at a terrible price—God’s own Son had to suffer and die. Our sin demands God’s righteous judgment—death, followed by punishment in hell. But on the cross, Jesus took our place. He assumed responsibility for everything that we’ve done wrong—every harsh word, every broken promise, every wasted opportunity to perform an act of kindness. Jesus accepted God’s punishment for your sins and mine; on that bloody cross, He suffered all the agony of hell that you and I deserve.

We don’t like to talk about suffering and death. We don’t like to see it or hear about it. And yet we are responsible for Jesus' cross; our sins made His sacrifice necessary. If Jesus had not suffered and died, there would be no forgiveness. We would have no relief from years of accumulated guilt. The only thing death could offer us is everlasting torment in the fires of hell.

Jesus’ suffering and death were terrible, but the result is great blessing for us. If you ask Him, Jesus will forgive you. The blood He shed on the cross will wash away your guilt and free you from being a slave to regret. Because God’s punishment for sin has already been carried out, you don’t have to fear going to hell when you die; Jesus has already gone there to tell Satan that he can’t have you!

Don’t be afraid of suffering and death. On the cross, Jesus made them into the greatest blessings of all time. Come to the foot of Calvary's cross to see what Christ endured for you there, and be touched by His incredible love for you.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

American religion

He said to them, "This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God (Luke 24:44-53).

This weekend, I’d like to tell you about a false religion. It is false, because it is not based on the Bible. It does not have an official name, but it is a popular religion—a great many Americans have been raised in it. In fact, many of your friends or relatives may hold to the beliefs of this false religion.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to call this false religion "Civil Religion" This religion has five main teachings about its god. First, people of this religion believe that god created the universe and continues to watch over it today. However, this creator is so far beyond our comprehension that no one can really know who or what god is. Mankind is constantly inventing new and different religions, because no religion can truly understand god; therefore, every religion has worth, because each reveals a different aspect of the deity.

The second teaching of Civil Religion is this: god wants all people to be good, nice, and fair to each other. We know this because most religions of the world teach the importance of treating our fellow human beings with respect, so this must be how god wants us to act.

The third teaching of this false religion concerns your goals for living: every human being should be happy and feel good about themselves. Therefore, you can live your life in whatever way makes you happy, as long as you do not treat others poorly.

The fourth teaching of Civil Religion is: god does not have to become personally involved in your life unless you need god to solve a problem that you are having. The rest of the time, god is content to just watch you as you enjoy your life.

And the fifth teaching is this: good people go to heaven when they die.

Now you may wonder how we know so much about a religion that doesn’t even have an official name or corporate headquarters. Well, the information that I’ve just shared with you comes from interviews conducted with typical college students who were asked to talk about their religious beliefs. This is what many Americans believe. This Civil Religion is taking over the beliefs of many Americans. And it is so very, very wrong!

Civil Religion is built on three false assumptions about God. The first is that God is unknowable, so a variety of religions are needed because each reveals a different aspect of the divine. Claiming that God is unknowable is simply not true. Speaking of Jesus, the Book of Hebrews tells us, The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being (Hebrews 1:3). When Philip said to Jesus, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us," Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:8-9). It is possible to know God—because God has revealed Himself to us through Jesus Christ!

What about the notion that all religions are valid ways to come to know God? In Matthew chapter 11, Jesus is blunt: no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. In John chapter 14, Jesus makes this exclusive claim: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. And at the end of Mark, Jesus laid it on the line: Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

Many people are offended by these words. They claim that Christians show a lack of love by saying that heaven is closed to anyone who is not pledged to Jesus. But the fact of the matter is that we are showing love when we warn unbelievers—because if they die without clinging to the Savior, an eternity of darkness and lonely despair is what awaits them. We want to spare them from this awful fate—so we tell them that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Heaven is open to all—but there is only one way to get in. Jesus said, I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved (John 10:9).

The second false assumption of Civil Religion is this: the purpose of religion is to make you feel good. This kind of thinking reduces God to a heavenly vending machine; when you need something from Him, pop in a prayer and out comes a miracle. The rest of the time, God is ignored, just as a vending machine is ignored when you aren’t hungry or thirsty.

There’s just one problem with this attitude towards God—it takes Him for granted. You who are married: how satisfied would you be with your relationship, if the only time your spouse showed any interest in you was when they wanted you to do something for them? That’s not a relationship. And although our God welcomes prayer, He wants more from you than just periodic begging. God wants to be part of your life, every day, all day. In 1st Timothy chapter 5, Paul tells us to pray continually—throughout the day, He wants us to thank Him for His goodness to us, tell Him about the things that thrill us, and ask Him for advice—in short, to converse with God as we would with a treasured friend walking hand-in-hand with us.

Although you might not realize it, the Lord is constantly at work in our lives; Paul says of Jesus in him all things hold together (Colossians 1:17). Without the Lord’s active attention, our world would instantly crumble into dust because of the corrosion of sin. Without God’s power, no babies would be born; without the Master’s touch, no illnesses would be cured; without the Spirit’s warmth, no love would reach out from one person to another. The Triune God is intimately involved in your life every day, whether or not you take the time to notice.

The assumption that religion must make us feel good has other dangers associated with it as well. Religion is not supposed to be about us, it’s supposed to be about relationships—our relationship with God and our relationships with others. If our relationships are healthy, we are often blessed with the result of feeling good—but that is not a necessity or even a priority. Consider what Jesus did to make right our relationship with God; the Lord was humiliated, abused, and killed because He regarded our eternal welfare as more important than His "feeling good." The sinless Son of God suffered and died for our sins, so that we could be placed in a healthy relationship with the Almighty; Jesus rose from the grave to live again, so that He could help us build healthy relationships with each other. These healthy relationships often make us feel good, but like Jesus, we must be willing to endure suffering when these relationships connect us to the pain of another person’s wounded heart. Religion isn’t about me, it’s about my relationships. Religion dare never become selfish.

The third false assumption held by Civil Religion is this: good behavior earns God’s pleasure and results in heaven. But what does Holy Scripture say about our ability to please God by our behavior? Isaiah said, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). In Romans chapter 3, Paul notes that the following quote applies to us all: There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. He concludes that no one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight by their attempts to obey [God’s] law.

The reason that good behavior does not impress God is because, by His holy standards, no good behavior is ever good enough, never rises to the level of perfection. People who say that ‘God doesn’t expect more of us than we are capable of’ are fooling themselves, because God has said several times, be holy, because I am holy (Leviticus 11:45). To be holy is to be perfectly pleasing to God in every way—something clearly impossible for we who have been steeped in sin since birth. This is why the Son of God had to dress Himself in a human body and come into our world to live a perfect life—so that His perfect life could be offered to God in place of our very imperfect lives. Jesus met and satisfied the standard God had set for each of us, the standard of a life lived in perfect righteousness and holiness. To use a baseball term, Jesus stepped into our lives to serve as our "pinch hitter".

So if good behavior does not earn us heaven, what must we do to be saved? When asked this very question, Paul and Silas gave the following answer: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:30-31). Believe that Jesus is the Son of the only true God, cast in mortal mold. Believe that this Jesus was crucified for your sins and rose to end death’s power over you. Believe that this Jesus wants you to abandon your love of sin, that He will forgive you no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, and that He will lift you from your deathbed to join Him in paradise. Jesus promised, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).

Who do you worship? When Jesus ascended into heaven, His disciples worshiped Him as the true and only Son of God, Savior of the world. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, they built the Christian Church, a body of believers who worshiped the same Triune God as they did. Is this the God who you worship? Or have your beliefs been influenced by the false teachings of Civil Religion? I hope that you can say with Joshua, as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD (Joshua 24:15).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The challenge of living up to God's standards

I press on toward the goal, to win the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us (Philippians 3:14).

People like a challenge. When you watch a professional sporting event, the most enjoyable games are those where the outcome is in doubt right up until the end; blowouts are not much fun to watch, even if your team is the dominant one.

It’s the same when we play games with each other. Even when it’s just a friendly contest, we want to win and play accordingly. This is why people like to gamble; the need to win is increased when money is at stake. But no one likes a lopsided game; losers don’t like being humiliated, and winners feel let down if their victory was too easy.

This even extends to video games. Most are designed with several levels of difficulty; there are easier settings for beginners and casual players, while tougher settings are available for those who like a stiff challenge. If game is too easy or too hard, people get disgusted and stop playing.

This mentality can sabotage our relationship with God. We want and expect to be challenged. Yet when we read the Bible, God lays down a very difficult command: Be holy, because I the Lord your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:2). Talk about challenging! Who can be holy? To be holy is to live your entire life without breaking any of God’s laws even once—no lies, no words spoken in anger, no broken promises, no wasted food or money or time. Anyone trying to play by these rules will fail—fail so badly that eventually they will give up altogether.

Jesus offers us an alternative to being perfect—turn your life over to Him, and He will lend you His perfection. This gift of holiness will satisfy God’s law; it comes to us from the cross where Jesus suffered for our sins. But many people reject Christ’s offer; it seems too easy. If you rely on Jesus for getting into heaven, where is the challenge? What happens to your bragging rights for achieving the victory on your own?

When it comes to salvation, there is no third alternative—either you obey God perfectly, or you allow Jesus to save you. Any other strategy results in failure. Thankfully, our Lord doesn’t want us to be losers; He guarantees us victory over sin and the grave. If you crave a challenge, listen to the Son of God and follow Him; even with Jesus’ help, resisting the temptation to do wrong is a plenty big enough challenge for anyone!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Order from chaos?

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1).

Do you have a hard time believing that God exists? Let’s consider the world around us; maybe a look at science can help you with your doubts.

Walk through a junkyard. Everywhere you turn, there is rusted metal. Over time, iron that is exposed to the elements crumbles into rust. Nowhere do you see a heap of rust that gradually turns into a chunk of solid iron. If iron degrades as soon as it is exposed to the environment, where did the metal come from?

Consider the laws of science. A byproduct of work is the creation of heat; for example, a car engine gets hot while running. Gasoline contains potential energy; that energy is released by combustion. Most of the energy is used to make your wheels turn; the rest becomes heat and is lost. Now the Second Law of Thermodynamics states that once energy has been released, it cannot be restored to it’s former state; in other words, you cannot spin a wheel, apply heat and create gasoline. Once burned, the gasoline is lost forever. This being the case, how did gasoline come to be filled with potential energy?

Suppose you fill an egg crate with Ping-Pong balls, then lay it in the bed of your pickup. As you drive along the road, the balls started to bounce all over the place. How long would you have to drive around before they all bounced back into the egg crate? If motion and time turn order into chaos, how did highly complex and ordered things like human beings come into existence?

When science observes nature, everywhere it looks it finds entropy at work. Order crumbles into chaos. Weedy fields don’t change into well-manicured lawns no matter how long you wait for it to happen. Over time, erosion destroys even the strongest of mountains. Science based on observation shows that as time passes, things fall apart.

Evolution doesn’t explain how things came to be—the theory of evolution flies in the face of what can be proved through observation. Order cannot rise out of chaos. No, there is only one explanation for the creation of an ordered world; in the beginning, everything must have been made by God.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. "This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ, " he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women.

But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus." When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go.

As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men.

When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible (Acts 17:1-15).

When Mrs. Obama met with England's queen recently, there was a lot of discussion regarding royal protocol. Periodically, we get news about princes William and Harry and what's going on in their lives. But why should we care about such things? Why should anyone care about the lives of the nobility?

We are interested in such things because we hold people of nobility to a higher standard than other folks. To be a noble is to be a member of the ruling class, part of a group of people who are leaders in their country and influence the wider world beyond their borders. People of nobility have greater responsibility than ordinary citizens, and so we expect them to be equipped with superior qualities in order to carry out their duties. Further, we expect people of the nobility to act noble. The dictionary offers this definition: "Having or showing qualities of high moral character, such as courage, generosity, or honor". And so people are scandalized when members of the nobility show disregard for tradition, break laws, or put their personal pleasure ahead of the needs of the people. We hold the nobility to a higher standard.

In today’s Scripture lesson, Luke, who wrote the Book of Acts, shows us two cities in Europe, and compares the people living in each. The first city is Thessalonica, the second is Berea. Luke tells us that the people of Berea were of more noble character than the Thessalonians; in other words, they did a better job of acting like the nobility, like leaders in the kingdom. What was it that caused the Bereans to earn this praise from Luke?

Consider what happened in Thessalonica. Paul and Silas had come to tell people about Jesus Christ—about the Son of God incarnate in human form, who suffered God’s punishment for all of humanity’s sins so that we could have the joy of being forgiven for our wrongdoings. Using the Old Testament Bible of the local church, they showed how Scripture had predicted Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection, a resurrection that had ended the power of the grave to hold His devoted followers. Paul and Silas came to town to announce that Satan had been dealt a mortal blow at Calvary’s holy mountain, that hell was no longer a danger for those adopted by God as His children through faith in Christ Jesus. Paul and Silas came with incredible news, incredible Good News, news that can completely transform lives from hopeless despair to blissful hope.

And how were they received? Some people were persuaded and joined the brotherhood of the faithful, but others became insanely jealous, resenting that the Gospel was winning hearts and changing lives. They organized a mob and incited a riot in the city, causing so much chaos that the apostles left town rather than put any innocent lives in danger. By allowing this to happen, the Thessalonians demonstrated that, as a group, they were not very interested in the teachings about Jesus Christ.

But the Bereans reacted differently. Acts records, they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Here is the difference: the Thessalonians did not respond with great eagerness, they did not examine the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Most of the Thessalonians were indifferent or hostile to the apostles’ teaching, but even among the converts there was no eagerness, no searching of the Scriptures; they were content to show up for services at church and listen, but nothing more than that; they were not excited about coming to worship; they did not go home and discuss the sermon or read from their Bibles to verify for themselves the wonderful truths that had been shared with them. They were unenthusiastic ‘Sunday morning Christians’—nothing more.

The Bereans, on the other hand, received the message with great eagerness. For them, church was not an obligation, not part of the week’s routine—they viewed it as an opportunity, a wonderful opportunity to gather with fellow believers and share in the joy of hearing God’s promises of salvation. They loved to sing songs of praise; they looked forward to joining together to lift their concerns to God in prayer. And their eagerness did not end at the church door; they…examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Daily, they were in the Word of God. Daily, they studied the Bible, singly or in small groups. They were hungry to understand everything that the Bible offered to teach them; they were thrilled to be among the privileged few who had been given keys to the kingdom of heaven. This is what caused them to be described as having noble character. And notice the effect—when religious extremists came to Berea to try and stir up trouble, this time they were far less successful—while Paul did leave for the coast to avoid being a lightning rod for trouble, Silas and Timothy remained in Berea, building the enthusiastic church founded there by the Gospel of Christ.

Christians are of the nobility. Christians are a part of the ruling class. We were not born as nobility, but we have been adopted into it. Romans chapter 8 tells us, those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God…Now if we are children, then we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. What are we heirs of? Why, nothing less than the Kingdom of God! You are a citizen of the holy kingdom today, because Jesus asserted the kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21). And we are more than just citizens of the heavenly kingdom, we are leaders; in 2nd Timothy chapter two Paul writes, If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him. This is why Peter can say you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (1 Peter 2:9).

Since we are of God’s nobility, we have certain responsibilities. We expect earthly nobility to live to a higher standard, and that is true for us as well. We are called to be of more noble character than the Thessalonians; we are expected to be more than complacent ‘Sunday morning Christians’. Some churches post a sign at the door or the apron of the parking lot; as you leave, it reminds you that you are entering the mission field. It’s a wonderful sign, but you know what? You shouldn’t need that reminder! If you are excited about your faith like the Bereans, you don’t need a big metal Post-it Note to keep Jesus and His work front and center in your lives. If you are of noble character, you realize that you have the responsibilities of leadership in the Kingdom of God; you are Christ’s voice and hands and feet, participating in the work of his Church by bringing His love and His care to everyone you meet. You realize that you have an obligation to try and live a moral life guided by Christ, because your life is a living example to those who do not know Jesus. You realize that when you screw up, as we all do, you need to be the one to take the initiative and admit your mistake and ask for forgiveness, thereby demonstrating that we are only as noble as the grace of God enables us to be.

Does this sound too hard? It’s not. It’s not too hard, because like earthly nobility, we have resources beyond that of the common man or woman. But our resources are not a degree from a prestigious academy or the behind-the-scenes support of a series of professional advisors; no, our resource is the most comprehensive authority there is on what is good and right and just. Our resource is Holy Scripture, God’s words written for our learning. We have the same wonderful resource that the noble Bereans had, only better—because while they only had the Old Testament to study, we have the New Testament as well! They only had the words of Paul and Silas and Timothy; we also have the teaching of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter and others. In a world where no one can agree on what is right and what is wrong, we have the security of God’s own words preserved by His prophets and apostles, words which tell us in no uncertain terms what we must do to be saved: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household" (Acts 16:31). It’s all there—all we need do is study these truths as the Bereans did, and they can be ours, the preparation we need to assume the responsibilities of nobility.

In many ways, the Christian Church here in America seems to be in retreat. Prayer has been chased from our schools, the Ten Commandments from our courthouses. Publicly reading Bible verses stating that homosexuality is a sin has resulted in Christians being arrested for committing a ‘hate-crime.’ A jury’s sentence of a convicted murderer has been thrown out because Bible verses were read during deliberations. Why is Christianity being pushed from the public arena? Could it be that too many Christians are like the Thessalonians, content to attend church periodically, but not moved to public display of their beliefs? Would things change if more of us were of noble character like the Bereans, getting excited about our faith, devoting our time to growing stronger in it, and resisting the pressures brought by anti-Christian extremists who want to shut up we who are God’s ambassadors and make us go away?

You are of the nobility; you are a child of the King of the universe, a child by adoption through the waters of Holy Baptism. And because we are nobles, let us behave nobly as Paul describes such behavior in Philippians chapter two: be like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. But above all, remember that it all starts with the attitude demonstrated by the Bereans: they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day. This is the source of your noble character—a passion for the Good News of Christ, that your sins have been forgiven, the devil defeated, and death overcome. When it is this that thrills you and gives shape to each day of your life, you will be of more noble character, and it will show in your life as a leader in the kingdom of God.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Angels and demons

He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands (Psalm 91:11-12).

Do you believe in things that you cannot see? Of course you do. You can’t see the air, yet you breathe it constantly. You can’t see gravity, but you measure its effects when you step on a scale. You can’t see love, yet I’m sure that you’ve experienced it in one form or another for most of your life. Invisible things are real, and they have a profound effect upon us every single day.

This is also true of angels and demons. Normally these beings are invisible, although they can reveal themselves if they choose to. But although they are unseen, they are very real—and very powerful. They are all around us, and they frequently have an impact on our lives.

Angels and demons are exactly the same in all respects save one—angels serve God, while demons follow Satan. Demons started out as angels, but chose to side with the devil when he challenged God’s authority. Now they are doomed; when Christ returns on the last day, Satan and his demons will be locked in hell forever. But the demons are sore losers; so until the day when Jesus comes back, they work hard to cause as much pain and misery as they can. They are spiritual terrorists, doing whatever they can to make people scared and miserable. They cause disease. They arrange accidents to happen. They make harmful things look appealing; they make degrading behavior look like fun. Whenever we have a choice to make, they give us subtle nudges towards the worst possible choice.

Thankfully, God’s angels are on our side. Our Lord has directed them to look out for us. Scripture says that every child has an angel watching over them. The prophet Elisha showed his servant that an army of angels surrounded them, keeping the two men safe from enemy attack. Angels protect us from danger. Have you ever been in a life or death situation, yet managed to escape unharmed? That was the work of an angel, shielding you from injury. Angels try to keep us from making choices that cause harm to ourselves or the people around us. Have you ever been interrupted just as you were about to say or do something bad? That was an angel, giving you a chance to reconsider your actions. Although you cannot see them, these servants of Christ are constantly at work trying to help you; they are just one more proof of how much Jesus loves you.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Break time

They all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14).

We all need to take a break every now and then. Employees who never take vacation time are at risk for suffering burnout. Trying to work long shifts without a break lowers productivity and increases the risk of accidents. Even when things were perfect in the Garden of Eden, God intended us to rest one day out of seven.

But taking a break from some things can be harmful. Taking a break from your scheduled medications can slow your recovery, maybe even put your life at risk. A mortgage company will not look kindly on your decision to take a break from making payments. Children need their parents all the time, not just on weekends. And a diet won’t do you much good if you take breaks from it.

The most dangerous vacation of all is taking time off from God. Our Lord and Master has high expectations for human behavior. He expects you to always show respect to your elders and people in authority. He forbids you from saying angry words that cause other people hurt. He expects you to keep every promise. You are to always tell the truth, never take anything that doesn’t belong to you, and not waste time longing for things that God hasn’t given you. When you need something, God wants you to ask Him for it in prayer, and He expects to be thanked for the good things He gives you. Everything you say and do is supposed to show respect for God. To break any of God’s rules is to invite His judgment, and His rules are in effect all the time; you dare not take a break from obeying God.

Of course, no matter how hard we try, we fail to honor God’s laws as we should. We sin over and over again every single day. As a result, we need Jesus constantly. Only He has the authority to forgive us; it would be foolhardy in the extreme to take a vacation from the only One who can save us from God’s punishment in hell.

We also need to be coached. It’s easy to get so wrapped up in our problems and desires that we forget about God and His laws. We need constant reminders of what God expects; we get those reminders when we attend church and read the Bible. Taking a break from Word and Sacrament only sets us up for failure. If you have been away from God for awhile, I need to tell you that break time’s over—it’s for your own good.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Are you a good manager?

"Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents of money, to another two talents, and to another one talent, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The man who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more. So also, the one with the two talents gained two more. But the man who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money.

"After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The man who had received the five talents brought the other five. `Master,' he said, `you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.' His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

"The man with the two talents also came. `Master,' he said, `you entrusted me with two talents; see, I have gained two more.' His master replied, `Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!'

"Then the man who had received the one talent came. `Master,' he said, `I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed. So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.'

"His master replied, `You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

"`Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents. For everyone who has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth'" (Matthew 25:14-30).

Christian stewardship is about much more than money; it is about everything that God has given you. And so the proper management of money is only a small part of my message for you today.

What has God given you? First of all, He has given you life, and how much life He has given you is measured by time. God has also given you the ability to do things, some better than others. Your abilities can be gauged by how skilled you are at doing different things. And, of course, God has filled your life with material goods—and the way that you measure how much of these God has given you is by adding up how much money they are worth. To properly understand Christian stewardship, we must consider all three together. But first, a few words about stewardship itself.

When the Europeans arrived in North America, they started buying land from the Native Americans for ridiculously small amounts of money. The colonists were surprised that the locals were willing to settle for so little compensation. But the Indians did not understand that the White Men meant to take ownership of the land permanently. To the Native American way of thinking, no one could actually "own" pieces of land; the earth did not belong to anyone. So in many cases, the Indians thought that they were merely receiving rental money for use of the land.

The earth and everything living upon it belongs to God; Genesis says In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God made everything; everything is His. When Adam and Eve were given life, God did not give them unconditional control of all that He had created; instead, we are told The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. This is what stewardship is—taking care of things that belong to someone else. You do not truly own your home, your car, your clothes—the earth is God’s, and everything made from the earth is His as well, because He provided the skills that were used to turn raw materials into finished goods. Even you belong to Him, because 1st Corinthians points out: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. Your soul was placed in your body by God, and the blood of His Son bought your soul’s freedom from the sin that results in eternal death. There truly is nothing in your life to which you can claim ownership.

Since everything you have belongs to God, the question becomes: how are these gifts appropriately used? Let us start with time. Time is the ultimate gift; without time, our lives would be over long before being delivered from our mothers’ womb. Without time, there would be no opportunity to use our abilities, no way to accumulate or spend money. Time is the most precious gift of all. So let me ask you: how do you use the time God has given you?

When we think about the passing of time, we tend to think of "quality of life." We don’t like to spend time being uncomfortable. Medicines are advertised as being able to bring "quick relief." We want our time on earth to feel good.

But how good did Jesus feel as He suffered and died for us? Why did He tolerate the verbal abuse, the beatings, the piercing of His skin by thorns and nails and spear point? Why didn’t He just step down from the cross instead of enduring the agony of His Father’s hatred of our sins? It was because of love—committed love. Jesus loved each of you reading this so much that He dedicated His time on earth to your salvation, no matter how unpleasant that time became.

What does this tell us about stewardship of time? It tells us that time is to be used to love and care for others, no matter how unpleasant or painful that care might become. It tells us that our time is spent in a God-pleasing way when we hold the hand of a hurting friend and let him pour out his pain to us. It tells us that long hours spent patiently teaching and encouraging others is how God uses us to strengthen sin-sick souls. It tells us that time spent telling others about the love of Jesus is an investment in eternity. How many hours of your week are spent in the care of others? How many hours are spent lounging in bed or zoned out in front of the television or engaged in idle gossip?

God has also designed each of us to be good at doing certain things. Some are good at math, others are comfortable with public speaking. Some have a green thumb, others can get a stain or wrinkle out of just about anything. There are those who have a knack with children, while others have a gift for design. Some are blessed with a strong back, and others have the ability to concentrate in spite of distractions. Ephesians 2:10 tells us that we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. The Lord made each of us unique, blessed with the particular skills needed to do the work He created us to do in His service.

So I ask you: what are you good at doing, and are you putting that ability to work for the Lord? If you are good at math, you are equipped to serve a term as church treasurer. If you are comfortable with public speaking, the Lord may have designed you to teach in a parochial school or preach in a congregation. If you have a green thumb, you could volunteer to be in charge of flowers for the altar, or plant and maintain flowerbeds around the church. If you can get a stain or wrinkle out of anything, you should consider caring for the altar cloths and pastor’s vestments. If you have a knack with children, the Sunday School needs your skill. If you have a gift for design, you could help make banners for the church. If you are blessed with a strong back, you help take care of church property by scooping snow and cutting grass, by scraping and painting, by cleaning and polishing. And if you are able to concentrate in spite of distractions, you can offer your help as part of a prayer chain for the membership. Whatever skills God has given you, they can be put to use in His service. How many of your skills are you putting at the Lord’s disposal? How many of them are being used to do things that God would not approve of?

And, of course, there is the God-pleasing stewardship of money. All the way back in Genesis, we are told how Abraham gave a tenth of everything he had to Melchizedek, priest of God. When Moses received God’s law at Mount Sinai, the Israelites were required to give one tenth of their wealth to the support of God’s Temple. Because of this, we tend to think that what God wants from us is 10% of our income.

But consider the account of the widow’s mite. In the Temple courts, Jesus and His disciples witnessed a widow, a woman with no means of support, as she put her last two coins into the treasury to be used in God’s work. Jesus praised this act of giving, a gift of not 10% but 100% of all the resources she had. That unnamed woman understood the purpose for which God had given her money—God lent it to her so that she could support the work of bringing the Good News of salvation to people dying in their sins.

All that you have—your property, your investments, your money—all of it has been lent to you so that you can be equipped to serve God. You have food and clothing and a roof over your head so that you can be healthy and thus serve God with your abilities. You have money to send your children to college so that they can develop their skills for God’s use. In addition, God gives you enough money so that you can share it with those who are in need. But the poverty-stricken widow in the Temple reminds us that the single most important use for money is in supporting the soul-saving work that the Church does as Christ’s voice on earth. Rest assured that nothing we do on earth will have any lasting value, except that which is dedicated to things eternal.

So look in your checkbook. How much money is spent on God? How much money is spent keeping your family alive and training your children to serve the Lord? And how much is spent on frivolous things—recreational equipment, fine jewelry, collectibles? How much is spent on things that damage the body that God gave you to serve Him with—things like cigarettes, alcohol, or illegal drugs? How much is spent on sinful pleasures like pornography, or on gambling, the very antithesis of good stewardship? All that you have belongs to God—do you return to Him even ten percent? Five percent? One percent?

It should now be obvious that stewardship is not something that you just do on Sunday morning; stewardship is how you live your life. Stewardship is about not wasting the resources that God has given you. In the parable of the talents, Jesus makes it clear that He expects us to use the gifts He has given us to bring about increase. But Jesus is not concerned with us becoming millionaires--money has no worth in heaven. No, what He wants us to grow is His Church on earth, an ever-increasing fellowship of sinners who turn to the Master in sorrow over their failings, and receive the joy of eternal life through His tender words of forgiveness. The Church is Christ’s kingdom, and the work we do in support of it will last into eternity.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

The gift of children

Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him (Psalm 127:3).

As Mothers' Day approaches, I'd like to ask a simple question: why have a baby?

Sometimes couples see their marriage unraveling. They think that having a baby will draw them closer together. Sometimes a man or woman feels inside because they grew up in a family that was not very close. By having a baby, they hope to build the kind of family they missed out on in childhood.

But neither of these reasons are good ones for having a baby. In each case, the child is regarded as the solution to a problem. But what happens if the couple has a baby, but they end up divorcing anyway? Is it the baby’s fault? What if the man or woman gets a child, but still feels unfulfilled? Is having more babies the solution?

Sadly, many people distort the relationship between parent and child. God doesn’t give us children to save a troubled marriage. God doesn’t give us children to help us meet some inner need. Babies are not born to fix our lives. To treat them this way is to put an impossible burden on their vulnerable hearts.

Children are a gift from God. No child would be conceived if God did not wish it so. But God gives us children to care for, raise, and shape. Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6). God gives us children so we can show His love to them, acting as His voice and hands. Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…Teach them to your children (Deuteronomy 11:18-19). When God blesses us with a child, He gives us the privilege of caring for a soul that He created.

President John F. Kennedy once said, "ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." These words remind us that the greatest good comes from service. Jesus said, even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). If children are important to you, then I would like you to reflect on this challenge: "ask not what your child can do for you; ask what you can do for your child." Remember that the greatest rewards come through humble service.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Haunted by past mistakes

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

Do you feel good about yourself? Have you earned the kind of grades in school that you were capable of? Have you done the kind of work that earns promotions from upper management? Are you satisfied that you have been the best friend, lover and parent that you could be? Can you look back at the decisions you’ve made over the years and feel good because they were the right ones? Is your life everything you hoped it would be?

If you answered ‘yes’ to all these questions, then I congratulate you on a life well lived. But if you’re like me, you have accumulated some regrets. You’ve failed people that you care about. You’ve failed yourself. And no matter how hard you try, there is no way to go back and make those failures right. All you can do is learn from the past and try to do better in the future. At least, that’s what most people say.

But how comforting is that notion, really? I know folks who carry the weight of past mistakes around with them like a sack of wet cement. Sure, they try and learn from their mistakes, but that doesn’t ease the guilt for the pain they’ve caused, nor does it take away regret over paths not taken. How do you apologize to someone when they’ve moved and you don’t know how to find them? How can you get back the job you were fired from? How can you make up for the years that slipped away while you were drunk or high on drugs? Not only that, but how often do you find yourself repeating the same old mistakes? Have you really learned from the past, or are you a slave to your bad habits? No, there is little comfort to be had from trying to learn from the past and just moving on.

To be free of regrets, the mistakes of the past must be faced and dealt with. But how can it be done? You can’t take back hurtful words or punches to the face. You can replace stolen property, but how can you restore someone’s trust in you? Honestly, it would take a miracle. But don’t despair—miracles do happen! Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was and is the greatest miracle worker of all time! He has freed people from birth defects and untreatable illnesses. He has ended storms with a word of command and raised the dead back to life. But His greatest miracles of all take place within the human heart. He makes hard-headed skeptics to believe in Him, even though He remains unseen. He sets aside God’s judgment on sinners who come to Him for mercy. He makes it possible for us to forgive each other and leave the past behind. So ask Jesus to forgive you and take away your guilt. Only He has the power to set you free; only His love can rid your heart of the deepest pain and replace it with joyful hope for better days to come.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Doubting Thomas

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.

Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven."

Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."

Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"

Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:19-31).

It is from this Bibkle passage that we get the term "Doubting Thomas." Jesus’ disciple has the dubious distinction of being the most famous doubter in history. And this is truly unjust, because Thomas is not alone. You and I, as Americans, are some of the greatest doubters that have ever lived. Thomas has nothing on us.

We weren’t always such a negative society; our country was founded on optimism. Immigrants to these shores came because they believed that a better life awaited them here—they came with this hope, even though few of them had any real knowledge of what awaited them in America. Most immigrants had never left their hometowns, let alone their countries; most had no relatives waiting to greet them as they got off the boat at ports along the Atlantic or Pacific coast. They came with hope, not fear; they came in faith, not as doubters.

But the events of time have severely eroded America’s optimism. I think it started with World War One, the so-called ‘Great War.’ For the first time in history, a single conflict involved nations from all around the world. The death toll was staggering; no one could believe that any war would ever again be so large, so terrible, so costly. Then came the Great Depression, demonstrating that nation-wide hardship could strike even America at home. This was followed by World War Two, an even worse conflict than the Great War. Yet through all these hardships, Americans still remained cautiously optimistic.

This all changed in the 1950s, as an entire generation grew up in fear of nuclear war ending all life on earth. Then the 1960s seemed to undercut all of America’s traditional values as our nation confronted Vietnam, racial prejudices, open sexuality, and drug use. The final blow came in the 1970s, as the nation lost all faith in its government due to the Watergate scandal. By the 1980s, no one seemed to have any trust left to give anymore; the "great generation" of the 1930s had given way to the "me" generation of the 1980s. Most university professors now teach that there is no such thing as ‘absolute truth’. Truth, if it exists at all, is relative—what is true for me may not be true for you. They echo Pontius Pilate in asking: what is truth? (John 18:38) They have come to doubt whether even truth itself truly exists.

We have grown up in a nation of cynics and skeptics. Take a look at your own belief system. Do you believe the police to be fair and helpful, or do you doubt that they have your best interests at heart? Do you believe that the merchants you do business with are honest, or does doubt cause you to check your receipt carefully before leaving the store? Do you believe that your elected officials will try to keep their campaign promises, or do you automatically assume the worst from them?

Doubt drives our lives. Doubt results in schools mailing report cards to parents rather than trusting the children to carry them home. Doubt causes the IRS to audit a random sampling of tax returns. Doubt leads to calls for ‘country of origin labeling’ on foods. In a country where odometers on used cars are rolled back, age is disguised by cosmetic surgery, and news agencies filter their reporting according to political bias, doubt would seem to be the sensible response. A healthy dose of skepticism is needed, we think, to protect us from being taken advantage of.

What a challenge today’s Gospel lesson is to us. Instead of living comfortable lives as cynics, Jesus calls us instead to have faith! Instead of demanding proof, our Lord wants us to build our lives on trust! What a truly difficult, life-changing thing Jesus asks of us.

It isn’t hard to step into Thomas’ shoes. He was at the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested. He was well aware of Jesus’ public execution on the hill of death just outside the city gates. He had seen the sun darken that Friday afternoon; he had felt the earthquake that came with Jesus’ last breath. He knew that Jesus had died. And, from his experience, no one rose from the dead. The only person who had ever raised a corpse to life had been Jesus Himself, and with Jesus dead and buried, there was no one left to raise Him.

So when the disciples tripped over each other in their eagerness to tell him that they had seen Jesus alive, you can hardly blame Thomas for being skeptical. Most likely, the disciples hadn’t been eating much in their sorrow; the stress of the past few days combined with being undernourished probably had them seeing things, seeing what they wanted to see. No, Thomas would need more than mere words--"Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it."

And so a week goes by. Thomas probably feels sorry for his fellow disciples, that they have deluded themselves with wishful thinking; perhaps he even feels a little smug, being more levelheaded than they. But then, as they are dining together in a locked room, there, unexpectedly, miraculously, Jesus appears! Appears in the flesh! The Lord holds out His hands, hands scarred by the large iron nails that had fastened them to the cross as He suffered and died to make atonement for every human sin—even Thomas’ sin of doubt. Jesus invites Thomas to touch Him, touch the scars, verify for himself the undeniable truth that Jesus has risen from the grave. Stop doubting and believe.

Incredible joy washes over Thomas; for more than a week he has been grieving Jesus’ death, beating himself up that he had abandoned his Lord to suffer and die alone. All for nothing! Jesus is alive—He who had the power to raise others from the dead had raised Himself as well. Thomas’ response is one of pure relief and joy: "My Lord and my God!"

And then Jesus says something that sobers Thomas, sobers the other disciples, sobers us all: "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Jesus gently chastises Thomas for being a doubter. Jesus isn’t hard on his disciple; our Lord loves him dearly, and knows how hard it is to find faith in a world of despair. But doubting is not the way of the Christian; the way of the Christian is believing without the security of tangible proof.

Doubt is the opposite of faith. Thomas had been with Jesus for nearly three years; he had seen Jesus’ power over weather, over diseases, over demons, over death itself. He knew that Jesus kept His promises. He knew that Jesus had said: The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father (John 10:17-18). If Thomas had faith, he would not have despaired when Jesus died; if he had faith, he would not have been surprised at the news that Jesus had risen from the grave. No, what got in the way was doubt—doubt that Jesus could or would make good on His promise to come back to His disciples, resurrected from the grave.

Faith in Christ and His ability to keep His promises is essential for our eternal welfare. Hebrews chapter eleven tells us, without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him. Jesus died for your sins; Jesus is alive forevermore to hear your prayers; Jesus will forgive your sins if you ask Him to, because He has the power and the authority to do so. If you believe this, you will take your mistakes to Him for mercy and receive eternal life; but if you doubt, then you will not pray, you will not seek His forgiveness, and you will die in your sins, die forever in the torments of hell. That is where doubt leads—it leads to hell.

St. John wrote: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. The whole purpose for the Bible being written is to eliminate your doubts about God’s care for you, which is ultimately expressed through His Son Jesus Christ. God so wants to put your doubts to rest that He inspired four different men to each record our Savior’s death and resurrection for our benefit.

You know that there are many experts who dismiss the Bible as myth or legend or wishful thinking. They might acknowledge that a man once lived who was named Jesus and that he was a wise man, but they cannot accept his heavenly parentage, his miracles, or his resurrection. They can accept as true things that were written centuries ago by various individuals, words carved on a stone uncovered in a desert, or inked on a piece of rice paper buried in an ancient tomb, or painted on the wall of a prehistoric cave—but the testimony of four men who agree, that they cannot accept. In a court of law, no judge or jury will be satisfied that the truth has been fully revealed based on the testimony of only one witness; but if there are four witnesses, all of who agree on what happened, the resulting verdict is secure. Why do many so-called experts ignore the combined witness of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John regarding Jesus? Because they are doubters; like Thomas, they will not believe in something incredible unless they can touch it, see it, experience it first hand. And because they are doubters, there is no comfort for them when life dumps loads of grief on them, there is only despair when death beckons them.

Of course, faith is hard. Hebrews tells us, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. It is hard to imagine how we can have such a faith when everything in our experience makes us want to doubt. Thankfully, such faith is not brought about by our effort—it is given us by the Spirit of God. St. Paul writes, no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). The Spirit uses God’s testimony recorded in the Bible to work this miracle of faith within us. This is why it is so important to spend as much time immersed in God’s word as you can—because these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Don’t be a 'Doubting Thomas'. Resist the American temptation to view everything with suspicion. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus died to end your slavery to sin, death and Satan. Jesus lives to forgive you, make you wise, and welcome you at the last into paradise. This is a truth that you can count on. This is a truth that can give your life meaning in a world of uncertainty and pessimism. Make time with God and His word your top priority, and let His Spirit drive away your doubts. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.

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