Saturday, November 28, 2009

Christmas priorities

A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?"

"All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:6-8).

Nothing reveals your priorities like the stress of a holiday season. As Christmas looms ever closer, the amount of things needing to be done grows at an alarming rate. That thorough cleaning you’ve been putting off becomes a high priority, now that you’re expecting company. Suddenly you are no longer just cooking meals for the family, now you also have to make treats for the office, treats for school, treats for the parties you’ve been invited to, treats for your own table. As if you didn’t have enough to do already, you have to get the Christmas decorations out of storage, untangle strings of lights, and hang from the ladder in a cold wind as you decorate the outside of your house. Inside, you have to keep the cat and your children out of the tree.

Shopping becomes a hassle, as you fight your way through ever-increasing crowds and wrack your brain trying to figure out what gifts will be appreciated and not left forgotten in a closet by New Year’s Eve. And although your hours at work aren’t any less, you know that many friends and relatives are expecting you to send them a card with a long, personal letter, and perhaps some family pictures as well.

Is it any wonder that people get stressed during the holidays? Your workload increases dramatically; however, you still only have 24 hours each day in which to get things done. What happens, then, is a reshuffling of priorities. Those things you deem as most important get done first; other things are rescheduled for later, or are given a quick lick and a promise, or are given up on altogether. Most of our lives are already so full of things demanding our attention that we simply cannot add Christmas without something else having to go.

But this can also be a period of self-examination for us. So much of the time, we do things without really thinking about why we do them. Much of our lives coast by on cruise control. But the heavy traffic of the Christmas season forces us to turn off our cruise control and start thinking about what we are doing. What are the most important things in our lives? Where does most of our time go each day, and why? The stressful rush of Christmas can force us to look carefully at what is truly important in our lives.

As an example, let’s consider your sleeping habits. We all know that sleep derivation can make you irritable and easily distracted. This being the case, any time spent on an activity when you should be in bed must be important to you. Every parent has missed sleep while caring for a sick child. Every worker has put in long hours to make sure there is enough money to put food on the table.

But be honest—haven’t you lost sleep for reasons that are less than critical? Skimping on sleep is bad for your health, erodes your productivity, and makes you unpleasant to be around. Bearing this in mind, did you really need to miss sleep in order to stay out late at a party? Did you really need to miss sleep so that you could finish detailing your car? Did you really need to cut sleep short so that you could be first in line at a door buster sale? Did you really need to cut sleep short so that you could get out early for a day of hunting or fishing?

When we are faced with limited time in which to get things done, we don’t always make the smartest of choices. Things that are important, like sleep, can be put on the back burner—we can get along without for awhile, we think. Yet how much hurt results from a lack of proper rest? How many sleep-deprived truckers crash their rigs? How many sleep-deprived farmers have a tragic encounter with a power take-off or some other dangerous piece of machinery? How many people speak harsh words to loved ones because sleep-deprivation has made them irritable? How many people have been forced into a hospital bed in order to get the rest that they’d been denying themselves?

We are willing to skimp on time with God the same way we are willing to skimp on time to get needed sleep--and we do it for the same reasons. We take our relationship with God for granted. When time is pressing us hard with many things to get done, we are tempted to make time with God a lower priority. Got home late from Saturday night’s party? Why not skip worshipping on Sunday morning—after all, church will still be there next week. Exhausted from a day working and shopping and decorating? Why not forget about reading the Bible tonight—after all, the book will still be on your nightstand tomorrow. Stressed out over everything you’ve got to do in the next few days? It’s probably better to skip trying to focus on praying right now; after all, you can always pray tomorrow. Look honestly at how you have spent your time since Thanksgiving—how much of Christ has been in your preparations for Christmas?

Isaiah warns us about getting our priorities straight. He says, All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall. Personally, my favorite flower is the lilac; I love the color, but even more, I love the scent. It’s frustrating to me that the lilac blooms for such a short period of time—only a couple of weeks. It’s great while its here, but oh so quickly it’s gone. God tells us that we are like that. From His perspective, human life is as beautiful as a flower, but just as short-lived.

When we set our priorities, we need to do so from God’s perspective. People spend huge amounts of money on plastic surgery. Why—just to look young for a few more years? The grass will still wither, the flowers will still fall. People work long hours in order to make lots of money, but can money buy the love of children who are strangers to you because you never have time to spend with them? People fill their lives with every kind of convenience and experience, leaving little time or money to devote to God. But is God impressed by a life that has no place for Him in its hectic schedule? Jesus said, What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26) Solomon, one of the wealthiest kings in history, surveyed his life and came to this conclusion: Everything is meaningless…I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes chapter one). Our lives are short; after you are dead, who will care about whether you dressed fashionably or how you fixed your hair? When you are gone, who will care about how good you were with numbers or how quickly you could get your work done? When you have left this world, how many people will remember your record videogame score or how many bucks you shot while hunting?

Isaiah directs our attention to where it needs to be: the word of our God stands forever. Earthly priorities are ephemeral; they are as wispy as clouds. But God’s Word, now that has permanence! God is eternal, so His promises are everlasting; God created and sustains the universe, so His wisdom never goes out of style. The word of God communicates four great truths. The first great truth is this—God is perfect: holy and righteous. John tells us that God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). God’s perfect love is not tainted by selfishness, like our love is; His perfect justice is not undermined by moral weakness, as happens in our courts. Our Lord is the standard by which right and wrong are defined.

The second great truth is that we are sinners, each and every one of us; Paul writes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). None of us has obeyed God perfectly, nor are we able to do so. Romans chapter 8 says: the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. And because we are sinners, we are doomed to die--death came to all men, because all sinned (Romans 5:12).

The third great truth that the word speaks to us is summarized by St. John chapter 3 verse 16: 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. The God of perfect justice could not let sin go unpunished, but the God of perfect love could not stand by and watch us walking ignorantly to the lip of hell’s flaming pit. So God sent His own Son to be the innocent baby that we like to pretend we were, to live the life of humble obedience and service that we failed to live, to suffer on the cross the punishment for our sins that we should suffer in hell, and to die the death that we had earned for ourselves. Jesus made right everything that we have made wrong, and satisfied with this great act of sacrificial love, God raised His Son from the dead and made Him king over us all. The result is that we can flee to Jesus’ open arms every time we’ve messed up, knowing that He will wipe away our tears of regret and tell us: take heart…your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:22).

The fourth great truth we hear God’s word speak to us is this: I am with you always (Matthew 28:20). Jesus does not just forgive us and then leave us on our own to figure out what to do next. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, He has given us the words of heaven preserved between the covers of the Good Book. Through the Bible, Jesus teaches us all about what is good and what is evil so that we can tell the difference. Through God’s word, we are shown how to set our priorities as we live lives dedicated to our Savior. God’s word tells us to be humble, not proud; to value giving more than receiving; to look after the needs of others instead of demanding that they serve us; to forgive every hurt freely as Jesus has already forgiven us. Through His word, the Lord tells us to make healthy relationships our first priority, and no relationship is more important than the one we share with our Savior and brother, Jesus Christ. He is our help and comfort in life; He is our hope beyond the pale of death. And so we need to spend as much time with Him as we can—in worship, in Bible study, and in prayer.

These hectic, stress-filled days leading up to Christmas are a golden opportunity to reflect on your priorities. How important is Christ to you? As you choose how you spend your time and money, is your Savior consistently at the top of your list? Or is Jesus urging you to change your priorities, so that He can have the place of honor in your heart? As you plan for Christmas, what is most important to you?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Bible (part 4)

Faith comes from hearing the message (Romans 10:17).

As we finish looking at the books of the Bible, it’s time to discuss the Epistles. An epistle is a letter that is written to teach. Most of the epistles were written by people who knew Jesus personally—men like Paul, John, and Peter. They lived at a time when there were no telephones or cars; it took a lot of time to go from one city to another.

New churches were springing up over a vast area—too widespread for these men to visit frequently. So they composed letters that could be read out loud in church. These epistles were a combination of sermon and Bible study, but they were also personalized; each letter deals with concerns that are unique to a specific congregation.

The epistles help us understand God’s word. They help us to see the unity between Old Testament and New. They show us the patterns of thought woven throughout the Bible. They help us apply Jesus’ teachings to our everyday lives.

When congregations received these letters, they faced a quandary—they wanted to share the epistles with other congregations, but they didn’t want to let such precious words slip away from them. So they made copies to pass along; and as the years went by, every congregation tried to get copies of as many letters as possible. The desire so many had for a complete set resulted in lengthy meetings, meetings that eventually published the Bible as we know it.

Some people claim that the Bible is just a hodgepodge of human writings stitched together by the church. They claim that any continuity of thought between the covers is the result of editorial meddling with the original documents. They claim that any book predicting future events was written long after the fact, and designed to seem older than it really is. They claim that every miracle is pure fiction, invented by the church to make Christianity seem more appealing. But you know what? I can’t make you believe that the Bible is really God’s Book. Faith is a gift of God, which He gives through the Holy Spirit when you read or hear God’s words. That’s why I encourage you to pick up a Bible and read it for yourself. I hope that these sessions on the Bible have made you interested enough to look into it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The year of God's favor

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor (Isaiah 61:1-3).

In this reading from Isaiah, we are given words of comfort that can be hard to understand. We know that these words come from God Himself, because the prophet says: the Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me. But who are the poor He refers to? Who are the prisoners held captive in darkness? What is the Year of the Lord’s Favor? What is the Day of Vengeance? What is the Garment of Praise, and what does it mean to be called an Oak of Righteousness?

This promise of comfort begins with the command to preach good news to the poor. When we think of the poor, we immediately focus on their financial situation; but this is too narrow a focus. When Jesus spoke the Beatitudes (Matthew chapter 5), He showed us another dimension of poverty: He said blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. To be poor is to lack something essential for happiness; while this can be a lack of money, the most important thing we need to be content is a healthy relationship with our God. In Luke chapter 12, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who turned out to be foolish, because he was not "rich toward God."

So who are the poor who need to hear the Good News? They are you and me. Regardless of our financial situation, all of us are poor towards God; none of us lives the life of holiness and service that God expects of us. When it comes to being filled with righteousness, we are all desperately poor. We need the charity of our Lord to give us what we need to be truly happy—the gift of His love and perfection.

The Spirit of God also describes us as prisoners, captives languishing in darkness. We are prisoners of sin and Satan; our sins are the chains that restrain us, and Satan uses them to control us like a master uses a leash to control his dog. Satan also uses darkness to keep us as his slaves—the darkness of ignorance. Living in the darkness of evil, we cannot see that we are prisoners to sick, twisted ideas and desires. All we know is that we are miserable living this way; we are brokenhearted, living with constant selfishness and betrayal instead of the love that we crave.

But the Spirit of God told Isaiah to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor. Back when Israel was an independent nation, some of the citizens owned other Israelites as slaves. This happened when someone was in desperate financial straits—sometimes, to keep body and soul together, such a person would willingly become a slave to one of his countrymen in exchange for money; in this way, debts could be paid and he would be guaranteed food and shelter over the years to come. How could anyone think about selling away his freedom, you might ask? It was because of the Year of Jubilee. By God’s decree, every 50th year was a year of freedom; every slave in the nation was to be freed. This was the Year of the Lord’s Favor. Everyone who sold away his freedom knew that someday he would regain his freedom as a gift from God.

We are living in the final year of the Lord’s favor. This final year began 2,000 years ago at Bethlehem, when God sent His Son to free us. When Jesus began His public ministry, listen to what He did and said: on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue…And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll…and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:16-21). We are living in the year of the Lord’s favor, the time in which we who are captive to sin and darkness are offered freedom to live in God’s light.

Jesus has the authority to free us because He is God’s Anointed One. In the Bible, prophets, priests and kings were dedicated to God’s service by anointing them; at a special ceremony, they would have oil placed on their heads as a sign that they were now God’s servants. Isaiah said that he was anointed, not with oil, but by the Spirit of God, who raised him up to serve the Lord. Jesus was anointed too—in fact, the term ‘Christ’ means "Anointed One." Jesus was also anointed by the Spirit of God, who visibly came down from heaven in the form of a dove when Jesus was baptized. Jesus was anointed as our prophet, priest, and king. Jesus was set apart from all other men to serve God, and His service consisted in this: that He free the people who were enslaved to Satan by their sins. He freed us by paying a ransom—He took our place as a captive of sin. Our sins were so many that the chains He took from us were a burden of unimaginable weight—a weight so terrible that it crushed Him to death. But the Son of God is stronger than sin, stronger than Satan, stronger than death itself—so He rose from the grave alive once more, the weight of our sins shed forever. He exchanged our captivity for His freedom, then defeated the enemies that had held us helpless. That, my friend, is the Good News that binds up the wounds of the broken hearted.

The result of this Good News is comfort for all who mourn. We mourn many things in this life, but the thing that causes us the greatest sadness and regret is the guilt we feel because of our sins. Because of our sins, we let ourselves down—we break the promise we made to ourselves to stay off the bottle, keep away from cigarettes, hold to the diet. Because of our sins, we hurt others—we get jealous, we lash out with our words and our fists, we break promises, we lie and steal and act as if we are better than everyone else. Because of our sins we drive away those we love, and we find that we cannot even trust ourselves. Worst of all, sin leads to death, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). And so we mourn for what sin costs us—loss of love, loss of self-respect, loss of life itself.

But because of Jesus, that mourning can be put to an end. Jesus comforts us with the assurance that He can make right what we have messed up. The guilt of our past is removed; today is a new start, fresh with the possibility of love because Jesus offers to help us live differently. Romans chapter 6 tells us, when you were slaves of sin, you weren't concerned with doing what was right. And what was the result? It was not good, since now you are ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

God’s Spirit promises to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. I want you to notice something: all these good things come from outside ourselves! True joy does not come from a 12-step program or the power of positive thinking or finding a peaceful inner place through meditation. It is by the Spirit’s work that we can trade a beautiful crown of triumph for the ashes of defeat. It is the Spirit who anoints us to work for God with the oil of gladness and thus put to an end our mourning over lives of pointless sin. It is the Spirit of God who dresses us in a garment of praise, the robe of Jesus’ own righteousness that ends our despair over being dressed in the rags of spiritual poverty. God’s Spirit bestows these things on us; He grants them just as a president bestows a Medal of Honor. The difference is, we did nothing to deserve these medals—God pins them on us simply because He loves the way they make us look to Him.

All this brings about the result that we will be called oaks of righteousness. An oak is a big tree; it commands attention. In addition, an oak is a strong tree—it can withstand adverse conditions. Jesus wants us to be noticeable; He said let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). Our Lord also wants us to stand tough in the face of adversity; Paul writes in Ephesians chapter six, use every piece of God’s armor to resist the enemy in the time of evil, so that after the battle you will still be standing firm. Standing tough during hard times is important. Not only will a strong faith see you through those days with less stress and discomfort, it will also be a powerful witness to others. Seeing you remain calm and confident during life’s worst storms will intrigue an unbeliever much more than your closeness to the Lord when things are going smoothly. So our Lord makes us oaks, both large and strong—however, we not are planted to show ourselves off, but for the display of His splendor.

It is important that we show off God’s splendor, because His Day of Vengeance is coming. Jesus came into our world centuries ago to announce the year of the Lord’s favor, but every year comes to an end. The year of the Lord’s favor will come to an end on the Day of Judgment when Jesus will come back, not in humbleness and gentleness, but with power and glory. At that time He will take vengeance on those who have kept His people in the darkness of captivity—He will condemn Satan and his followers to unending suffering in the prison of hell. On that day there will be no more mercy, no further offer of release for the prisoners; the door will be locked and the key thrown away. Thanks to Jesus, our lives will not end in tragedy; however, there are many who will still be chained in the darkness of their sin and cut off from heaven’s rewards. And so we need to be big oaks of righteousness—so visible as followers of Christ that the lost cannot help but sit up and take notice of what God is showing them through our lives. We need to be strong oaks of righteousness—so strong that we can have the courage to speak of our faith even when we are afraid to, so strong that we will not be hurt or silenced when our Christian words are thrown back at us with bitter rejection.

Isaiah preached Good News to the poor—to us. He spoke of a Savior from heaven who would come among us in human flesh and die so that we might live. That Savior was Jesus, who came to provide freedom for we who were held captive to sin, death and the devil. Now we are given new life; we are freed from the ashes and guilt of our past and are given new life by God, life that we are to use to glorify Him and hold out His offer of freedom to those still held captive by the evil that darkens their souls. We have heard the greatest Good News—this is the season to share it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Bible (part 3)

All Scripture comes from God’s mouth and is useful for teaching, identifying error, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Many people think of the Bible as a history book. It’s true, much of the Bible is a narrative of past events. But it is history with a purpose. The Bible gives us select events from the past to show how much we need God, and what He’s done for us.

The Book of Genesis shows us why we need God—left to our own devices, we are quick to choose the wrong path. We listen to Satan and believe his lies, with the result that we disobey God and make Him angry. Cain murdered his brother. Noah passed out from too much wine. Abraham and Jacob told lies. Joseph bragged about himself. Throughout every historical book, we see men and women who act irresponsibly and deserve to be punished.

But right from the start, God also showed His merciful side—although He cursed sin with death and hell, God also promised to send someone very special to fix things. God would send a personal representative who would end the curse of sin, offering life after death and heaven instead of hell.

The next few books give us more than a bunch of miracles and a listing of the Ten Commandments. God lays out rituals that help us understand how He forgives sin—our guilt must be transferred to a substitute that is punished in our place. But the books covering Israel’s history show us just how easy it is to take God’s undeserved mercy for granted.

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are called the four Gospels. They focus on God’s Chosen One, Jesus Christ. But they are more sermon than history. Matthew arranges Jesus’ words by topic; his writes mainly for Jewish readers. Luke explains Jesus to those who don’t understand Jewish culture. Mark spends less time on Jesus’ words and more on what He did. John is the philosopher of the group; He makes us think about Jesus’ teachings. But all four Gospel writers have this in common—each gives considerable space to Jesus’ suffering and death, by which He adopts us as God’s forgiven children.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Bible (part 2)

Blessed is the man who finds wisdom, the man who gains understanding (Proverbs 3:13).

Last time, I started a series about the books of the Bible. Today we finish talking about the poetic books, and also look briefly at wisdom literature.

The most famous poetry in the Bible is the Book of Psalms. The Psalms were written by several different composers over a period of centuries. The oldest Psalm was written by Moses to celebrate the escape from Egypt that culminated with the parting of the Red Sea. Most of the Psalms, however, were written by David when he was king of Israel. The Book of Psalms was Israel’s hymnbook. David wrote his Psalms to be sung; regrettably, no one today knows what the music sounded like. All we do know is that David liked a wide variety of instruments—strings, tambourines, and horns among them.

Reading the Psalms can be a very emotional experience. They express the full range of human experience. There are Psalms that celebrate good times. There are Psalms that ache with sadness and depression. Some ask God to punish enemies; others ask God why He allows suffering to go on. There are Psalms that ask God to forgive wrongdoing; others tell God how much He is loved and appreciated. No matter what you are feeling, there’s a Psalm that will speak to your heart.

The Psalms all have one thing in common—they express faith in the Lord. They give Him credit for the good times. They seek His aid when things are going badly. Even when the composer wrestles with doubts, he still believes that God is good and fair and loving. No matter what you are going through, the Psalms always lead you to God. You need the Lord’s forgiveness. You need His wisdom to deal with life’s questions. And you need to be reminded of His love so that you can be properly grateful for His care.

Like poetry, wisdom literature also speaks to all aspects of the human condition. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes illustrate the value of righteous living and the dangers of evil behavior. In Job, the afflicted man and his friends wrestle with the meaning of suffering, while the Song of Solomon illustrates how wonderful human love can be. However, these books remind us that true love and wisdom have their origins in God.

Friday, November 13, 2009


You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name.

Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance…

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!

For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.

But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.

Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 63-64, select verses).

Exodus. The word means "mass departure; emigration." The Bible describes three important examples of exodus. The first happened in the Old Testament; the second happened in the New Testament; and we are still waiting for the third.

The exodus of the Old Testament is recorded in four books—Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That exodus involved about two million people. The descendants of Israel has settled in Egypt during a time of poor harvests. They remained in Egypt for 400 years, their population steadily growing. Eventually, the king of Egypt came to see these foreigners as a threat to national security; so the Israelites were forced into slave labor on behalf of the government. They had no rights; they were overworked, underfed, and frequently brutalized. Eventually, the king even issued an order that all Israelite boys be killed at birth, in an attempt to limit the growth of their numbers.

As conditions worsened, the people turned to God for help. In response to their cries for deliverance, God sent them Moses, an Israelite set apart by God to save his people. Moses went into Egypt, the land where the people were suffering in slavery. Acting under God’s authority, Moses delivered a promise of freedom and performed many miracles. Ultimately, the Israelites were freed from their enslavement; God led the people out into the desert to Mount Sinai, where He appeared to Moses in person. God gave Moses documents that promised blessings for those who obeyed Him and threatening punishment for the lawbreaker. Moses came away from this encounter glowing with God’s reflected light, and shared God’s words with the people.

The Israelites had been freed from the misery of their slavery and were on a journey to a new homeland, a place God had prepared just for them, a place where they could live happy, contented lives in His service. But the journey was a long one, and the people became dissatisfied. Some rebelled against God’s leadership through Moses; others still followed, but only with grumbling. This ingratitude angered God greatly; the rebels met with sudden death, and no one who grumbled lived to enter the Promised Land. God prolonged the journey until the people abandoned their evil ways and humbly submitted themselves to the Lord’s leadership. Only then were they brought into their new homeland.

The exodus of the New Testament is also recorded in four books—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. That exodus involved just one man. The descendants of the Israelites had lost control of their country; it was now occupied by the army of the Roman Empire. The Jews were once again slaves—but not slaves to the Romans. Although they did not have the rights of Roman citizens, the Jews were permitted to marry and raise families and run their own businesses. No, the slavery that I am speaking of was slavery to sin. Almost as soon as they had settled into the Promised Land, the Israelites had turned their backs on God. They did not take time to worship Him. They ignored His commandments. When problems came, they looked to their political leaders for solutions instead of praying to God for help. Once again, God was angered. He warned the people through many prophets like Isaiah that if they persisted in their evil behavior, He would turn His back on them. But the Israelites became hardened in their sinful ways, and God stopped protecting them from their enemies; the nation was conquered first by empires of the Middle East, then by empires originating in Europe. God also stopped sending messages through His prophets. God’s deafening silence lasted for 400 years.

But then God sent a new Moses to rescue His people from slavery, a Jew set apart by God to deliver His people from their sins. That person was Jesus, God’s Son given physicality in the body of a man. Jesus entered our world, the place where the people were suffering in slavery to sin. Acting under God’s authority, Jesus delivered a promise of freedom and performed many miracles. He announced God’s promise of blessings for those who placed their trust in Him, and the threat of judgment on those who reject the Savior. At the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus glowed with the light of God’s glory as He discussed His coming exodus with Moses and Elijah. Jesus traveled on to Jerusalem, where He was put on trial for our sins, made fun of for His willingness to be punished in our place, and was put to agonizing death to pay the penalty for our breaking of God’s laws. Then, on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead and soon returned to His Father’s side in heaven. By doing this, He has shattered the chains of sin that had bound us to Satan’s service; by doing this, He has torn open our graves and established a safe path from them to His side. This was the second exodus—Jesus the holy Son of God came into our world of darkness so that He could free us from our slavery to sin and lead us out to the Promised Land of heaven.

We have been freed from the misery of our slavery and are on a journey to a new heavenly homeland, a place God had prepared just for us, a place where we will be able to live happy, contented lives eternally in His service. But the journey through life is a long one, and we become dissatisfied. Some rebel against God’s leadership through Jesus; others still follow, but only with grumbling. This ingratitude angers God greatly; those who turn away from our Lord risk dreadful judgment at God’s hand, and those who habitually grumble about God’s expectations may not reach the Promised Land.

The situation we live in is eerily similar to Israel during Isaiah’s time. Once again, Christians don’t take time to worship God or immerse themselves in the study of His word. Once again, His laws are casually ignored by the people who claim to follow Him. Once again, when problems come we look to politicians and scientists for answers, instead of going to God in prayer. Once again, God is angered. He warns us through many preachers that if we persist in our evil behavior, He will stop listening to our prayers. If we become hardened in our sinful ways, God may stop protecting us from our enemies; He may leave us to face evil on our own until we realize the error of our ways and return to Him with humble and contrite hearts, willing to follow Him and serve Him without reservation.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah reflects on the glories of the first exodus, when God showed Himself with power in Egypt and on Mount Sinai. He pleads with God to set aside His anger and return to lead His people once more. Listen again to the prophet’s prayer: You, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old…Return for the sake of your servants…Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

Isaiah’s prayer should be your prayer, my prayer. We take our God far too casually. We take our sin far too casually. We are too willing to grumble; we are too willing to disobey. It is long past time for us to set aside our sinful habits and desires and rededicate ourselves to Jesus’ leadership. We need to join Isaiah in asking God to return for the third and final exodus. That exodus will happen when Jesus returns from heaven in glory to judge all the earth. All the dead will be restored to life. Satan and those who think like him will be sent away forever, where they can do no more harm. Our Lord will destroy this world and replace it with a new earth, one made in perfection. And then Jesus, the new Moses, will lead all the faithful to inhabit this new creation, a final exodus to a Promised Land that will never be spoiled by sin.

Because of Jesus’ exodus that started at Calvary, you have been freed from slavery to sin, death, and the devil. Because of Jesus, you are part of the exodus, journeying through life to the Promised Land that waits on the other side of the grave. This is no time to get spiritually lazy. Our King is coming to meet us, coming sooner than you probably suspect. It is time to leave behind the things of this world so that you can travel light and without distraction to your Savior’s waiting arms.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Bible (part 1)

Every word of God is flawless (Proverbs 30:5).

Some people are intimidated by the Bible. They’re curious about it’s contents, but the large page count puts them off. Not only that, but God’s Book is made up of 66 different segments, written by a variety of people over more than a thousand years of time. Where should you begin reading? How do the parts link together as a whole? For the next few devotions, I’m going to talk about the parts of the Bible and help you understand their place in God’s revelation to mankind.

The Bible contains many different kinds of literature—history, poetry, advice, and predictions about the future. But all these writings share a common purpose—they reveal God’s heart to us, and they strip away the lies we use to disguise our true nature. God is perfect, while we are deeply flawed. We don’t like to admit our failures, so we bend over backwards trying to make ourselves look good. The Bible can be uncomfortable to read, if you think that most humans are basically good. But God’s Book can be very reassuring to those who understand their limitations and feel bad about their mistakes.

Much of the Old Testament is poetry. Hebrew poetry is not based on rhyme, but on the rhythm of ideas. Ideas are often repeated using slightly different words. This gives important themes dramatic impact. It also helps clarify ideas that might be hard to understand, by stating them in more than one way. But perhaps most important of all, poetry is easy to memorize. We often teach children through rhymes and songs because they learn faster that way. And memorization of God’s Book was important, because most people did not have their own copy to read like we do. Before the printing press was invented, each copy of God’s word was hand written—a very labor-intensive process, which meant that copies were expensive and few in number.

Originally, all the books of the Bible were written on scrolls, long sheets of paper or animal skin that were rolled up for storage. But scrolls were limited in how big they could be, and some books of the Bible were too long to fit on a single scroll. That’s why we have books named 1st and 2nd Samuel, 1st and 2nd Kings, and so on—these books needed two scrolls because of their length. Sadly, those ancient scrolls no longer exist; we can be thankful that love for God’s word has resulted in many copies being made.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Veterans' Day

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7).

It’s a noble thing, to give your life for your country. But really, such people don’t sacrifice their lives for abstract things like freedom or justice; they give their all for the sake of people. They want their relatives to be safe from harm; they want to make sure that their friends can live in peace and happiness. A country is made up of people, and those who died in service to America gave their lives to make our lives better.

Of course, any foreign conflict has its share of detractors. Is fighting a war really the best way to secure lasting peace? At what point do we say that enough blood has been shed? When demonstrators take to the streets, many patriots get offended—how dare these protesters oppose what our service men and women have died to achieve?

But here’s the thing. Those veterans who fell in battle were not concerned about the naysayers. They gave their lives on behalf of those they loved and cared about—it’s as simple as that. Their sacrifice was for the good of all Americans, and the nobility of that sacrifice is not diminished by those who don’t appreciate it.

So it is with Jesus Christ. He came to earth to do battle with the forces of evil. He gave His life on the cross to ensure the victory over sin, death, and devil. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice because He loves everyone. The Son of God took point in the war against darkness to defend and protect us all, regardless of any negative opinions about His actions—that’s how much He loves us. Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command (John 15;13-14).

Was Jesus’ sacrifice worth the cost that He paid? Because our Lord was willing to do battle in our defense, Satan has lost His grip on us. Because Jesus suffered in our place, we have forgiveness for all the ways that we’ve messed up. Because Christ laid down His life for us, the grave will turn us loose on the Last Day. Was Jesus’ sacrifice worth it? Absolutely!

Saturday, November 07, 2009

How seriously do you take your faith in Jesus?

"At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

"At midnight the cry rang out: `Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!' Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' `No,' they replied, `there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'

"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.

"Later the others also came. `Sir! Sir!' they said. `Open the door for us!' But he replied, `I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'

"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour" (Matthew 25:1-13).

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, everyone knew that it was coming. Yet in spite of this knowledge, some people were still caught unprepared. They were not prepared for the severity of the wind damage or the storm surge; they were not prepared for the breaching of the levees or the prolonged crippling of city services. The people who chose to ride out the storm thought they were prepared—tragically, they found out that they weren’t.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus warns us to be prepared for His return. There will come a day when the Lord will part the heavens and come down to us in blinding glory, surrounded by the angelic armies of heaven. Every man, woman and child, wherever they are living, will be brought before Him; every person who has died will be raised from the grave to join us before the Throne of Judgment.

For the unbeliever, this will be a time of utter terror—the God who they denied will be proven to be the Ruler of the universe, and an eternity of anguish in hell will be His sentence upon them for rejecting Him. But Christians need not fear His judgement—after all, we bear His name as a badge of honor. Christ’s return will be a time of joyful vindication for us—won’t it?

Jesus speaks of ten virgins—ten people who have kept themselves pure. They have not cheated on their Master by partying with other men. In spiritual terms, they are the faithful, those who have never cheated on Jesus by leaving Him for other religions. The ten virgins represent the Christians of the world.

Do all these Christians get into heaven to spend eternity with their Lord? Regrettably, no. Some of them are unprepared when their Master returns, and find themselves locked out of paradise. When they plead to be let in, the Lord gives only this chilling answer: I tell you the truth: I don’t know you.

Not everyone who claims to be a Christian will get to enter heaven. In Matthew chapter 7 Jesus warned: Not everyone who says to me, `Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, `I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'

Sobering, isn’t it, to realize that many Christians will not be accepted into eternal peace? How do we know who will be found acceptable, and who is in danger of being shut out? Are you a wise virgin who is prepared, or are you foolish virgin who is not ready for Christ’s return?

The problem of a foolish virgin is that such a person does not take things seriously enough. Such a person is not all that concerned about being absolutely sure they are ready for the Master’s return, nor are they particularly worried about the possibility of being excluded from the celebration to follow. To say it more bluntly, the foolish Christian does not devote much thought or energy to living a Christian life, nor does he take seriously the threat of hell.

The foolish Christian does not worry about his faith life. The possibility that he might stand face to face with Jesus for judgment before this day is over doesn’t occur to him. Because he assumes that his meeting with Christ is years in the future, going to church to worship the King is not a high priority—there’ll be plenty of time for that when he’s older. He doesn’t realize that bad habits are hard to shake. He doesn’t consider the likelihood that if he attends church only occasionally now, he may stop coming altogether over the years to come. He doesn’t see how being a stranger in church could one day result in him hearing the words: I don’t know you.

The foolish Christian is comfortable. She managed to squeak through Confirmation, so she obviously knows everything she needs to get into heaven. She is blind to the fact that every year she is forgetting more of what she learned. She is unaware that Satan is filling her mind with lies and half-truths through the TV shows she watches, the magazines she reads, the unbelieving friends she hangs out with. She does not heed the warning in 2nd Peter chapter 3 where we are told: be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. She does not see how important Bible study is to strengthen her faith and to expose Satan’s lies for what they are.

The foolish Christian focuses his attention in the wrong direction. All around him are people who need his help, because when Judgement Day comes, they have nothing to look forward to except the despair of hell. But the foolish Christian does not dwell on the welfare of their souls; he does not want to spoil his time with his drinking buddies by bringing up religion. He has so little joy in his heart over being saved by Jesus that he has no passion for the souls of others. In fact, he is so wrapped up in his own joys and sorrows that he scarcely has time to think about loving anyone besides himself. He has forgotten Christ’s command, Love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:31).

The foolish Christian spends her money on the wrong things. Giving money to God for His use is a way of telling Him ‘thank you’, but the foolish Christian rarely thanks God for anything. For her, money is a way to feel good, so the best way to spend it is upon herself. For such a person there is always more to buy than there is money to spend. Owning your own house is good, owning a big house is better. Having a set of wheels is good, having a luxury vehicle is better. Comfortable clothing is good, designer fashions are better. Generic food is okay, name brands are better, and eating out is the best of all. The foolish Christian is so fixated on shopping that she has nothing but spare change to spend on the upkeep of God’s house or the work of His missionaries; she has forgotten that the Lord says: No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money (Matthew 6:24).

Foolish Christians do not take seriously the reality of hell. They know that God threatens to send unrepentant sinners there, but they are fuzzy on what hell is. They don’t understand that hell is the worst place anyone could possibly go; hell is the place that God designed to incarcerate and punish Satan himself. If the leader of the devils found hell to be unbearable, what must it be like for mere human beings to endure? The Bible describes it as a place of physical pain and spiritual pain. The physical torment is compared both to being severely burned and to rotting with maggots chewing through your body; mentally, hell is described as a place of despair, regret, frustration and tears. Hell has no love or mercy or hope, and its suffering never ends.

Foolish Christians don’t worry about being sent to hell—they believe that they are bound for heaven because of how they are living their lives. They do good things, but they do them for the wrong reasons. They think that they can impress God by how often they go to church, how much money they put in the collection plate, how many charitable organizations they belong to. Certainly God would not send godly people to hell? They forget that Scripture says: God saved you by His grace through faith [in Him]. And you can't take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it (Ephesians 2:8-9). To foolish Christians Isaiah says, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Since our good deeds are flawed by the sin that flaws us, they cannot earn our entry into heaven—and so Paul writes in Galatians: no one can ever be made right in God's sight by doing what his law commands…a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Through today’s parable, Jesus warns foolish Christians that they may end up locked out of heaven. Christians must take their faith seriously. It is said that ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck’; in other words, a person may claim to be a Christian, but if his daily life looks no different than the life of an unbeliever, then he isn’t really a Christian—he is only pretending to be. James tells us: faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:17). James instructs the foolish Christian to look carefully at her life, to see how her relationship with Jesus shows itself to others; if there is no outward sign that Christ is truly important to her, then she should be concerned—because her faith, if not already dead, is certainly dying.

Wise Christians views things differently. They take their faith seriously. Wise Christians both fear and love God. They fear the threat of hell, because they know how deeply God hates sin. Sin angers God so much that only the offering of His Son’s life on the cross was enough to exchange our punishment in hell with the opportunity to join our Lord in heaven. Jesus suffered hell on that cross in our place, torment that He did nothing to deserve. Jesus suffered for us because He loves us, and because of that love He was willing to endure anything, even our hellish punishment, that we might be spared the agony that was rightfully ours.

This is why the wise Christian loves the Savior. The heart of the wise Christian is filled with appreciation for what Christ has done. Such a person shares Christ’s concern for keeping people out of hell; he cannot wait to tell everyone he knows about Jesus’ great sacrifice of love that now offers access to heaven. The wise Christian sees God’s church as his first and best investment for money, because through the church the wise Christian can help spread the message of salvation to people he would not otherwise be able to speak with personally.

The wise Christian does not take her relationship with the Lord for granted. She takes every opportunity to worship the Lord in church, as a way to show her love and gratitude. She seeks out opportunities to join with fellow Christians in studying God’s Word together, because she knows how easily a person can be tricked by the devil’s lies. She wants to be ready when the Lord returns, and to enter into His eternal kingdom with joy.

Which type of Christian are you? Are you behaving like one of the foolish or one of the wise? If the foolish Christian sounds uncomfortably like you, it is not too late to get ready. Go to Jesus in prayer and tell Him you’re sorry. Ask Him to change your priorities. Depending on Him, make a commitment to regular worship and Bible study. Make a commitment to invite an unbelieving friend to attend church with you. Write a family budget that dedicates your money to God’s use, not Satan’s. Live each day as if your Savior is only hours away from His return; remember Jesus’ words: keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The mathematics of creation

God is the builder of everything (Hebrews 3:4).

Mathematics. Are they the basis for the universe, or is math a system that we have created to make sense of the world around us?

Recently, a scientist made news by arguing that the only thing real is math; everything we see is just a mental interpretation of equations. This argument is hardly new, but with computers and virtual reality so much a part of our lives, the idea is getting another look.

You’ve seen computer-generated special effects. Some of it looks obviously fake. But some computer animation can take your breath away; I still remember gasping in wonder at the first dinosaur shown in Jurassic Park, and the technology used to make that image is now more than 15 years out of date.

Computer animators create such images by writing mathematical equations. Math is the basis for all computer programming. Creating simple images like balls or boxes is easy; but it is very hard to simulate something that looks real. It’s difficult to simulate a tree with rough bark, twisted limbs, and sun-dappled leaves that sway in a gentle breeze. It’s hard to animate a falling object hitting the ground, because when something is not real, how do you calculate the shock of impact? And humans are the hardest of all to simulate, whether it be a face capable of subtle emotion, a hand that looks real, or a natural looking walk. It’s easy to computer-generate a house or a warplane or a robot; they don’t have to look organic or move as if alive.

The human brain is the most complex computer in existence. We can adapt to changing information, we can make intuitive leaps, and we can look at problems from multiple angles. No matter how realistic a computer-generated image is, most of us can tell a fake from reality. For all our mental ability, the math of organic shape and movement is too complex for us to duplicate and get right. It must take a brain far beyond our own to design the equations of our universe.

Which is why I can’t understand why anyone would believe in evolution. How could a universe like ours happen by accident? It you’ll excuse the pun, it just doesn’t add up!

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Paradise--lost and found

There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

We are fascinated with the idea of paradise. Many stories have been told about a traveler who stumbles upon a hidden place that is absolutely perfect; yet those stories usually have a sad ending. The traveler finds that he doesn’t fit in. He might break some rule and get sent away. He might get nostalgic for his old life and eventually goes home. Or he might get bored with perfection and leave in search of excitement.

What is paradise? What would it be like to live in a perfect world? Perfection means different things to different people. Viking warriors looked forward to Valhalla, a place where the dead can enjoy the thrill of constant warfare. Some Muslims believe that if they die in battle with unbelievers, they will go to a place filled with virgins to deflower. Buddhists hope to achieve Nirvana, a state where all desire and individual identity are lost.

Some worry that paradise would be boring; they say that without the struggle to achieve new goals, life has no meaning. Others worry that they aren’t worthy of happiness; as messed up as they are, they don’t belong in paradise. And some are very attached to life in this world; the thought of leaving earth behind makes them very uncomfortable.

The Bible talks about paradise in the first few chapters, throughout the middle, and at the end. God made our world a paradise, but humanity messed up and paradise was lost. To correct this, God sent His Son to suffer for our wrongdoings and overcome the power of death. In this way, Jesus made us worthy of paradise and able to live there. When the Lord returns at the end of time, earth will be remade into a new paradise, and all people who trust in Jesus will rise from the dead to live there forever.

In paradise, there will be no struggle for self-improvement; when Jesus raises us from the grave, He will make us perfect like Him. No one will feel out of place, because we are all undeserving failures; yet in spite of that, Jesus loves us and wants us to be with Him forever. When we finally experience perfect happiness, it will be easy to see how much better paradise is than our problem-filled life on earth. And I sincerely doubt that being happy can ever get boring!

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