Friday, January 29, 2010

Miraculous healing

As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.

That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"

Jesus replied, "Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. That is why I have come." So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons (Mark 1:29-39).

As we look at the Gospel lesson for today, we see that it is focused on Jesus as healer. We are told why Jesus healed people, and we are shown why He did not heal everybody. We are given a look at Jesus’ priorities, and how those priorities are often different from our own.

The events of these verses took place in Capernaum. Jesus had left His hometown of Nazareth; He had tried to tell the people there that God was working through Him to save them all, but His neighbors could not believe that the man they had known since childhood was really God’s Chosen One. So Jesus went to nearby Capernaum and set up a base of operations there.

Jesus had been gathering a group of men to follow Him and learn from Him. He brought these followers to the Capernaum synagogue for Saturday morning worship. Following the service, the group went to the house of Simon and Andrew. Simon and Andrew were brothers; Simon was the man who Jesus would later rename Peter. They went to this house because Simon’s mother-in-law was bedridden with a high fever. Jesus took her by the hand to help her up; in so doing, the fever left her.

I’d like you to notice two things about this act of healing. The first is that it was a complete healing. Simon’s mother-in-law immediately got up and assumed the role of hostess; there were no lingering aftereffects from her illness. But more importantly, we are shown why Jesus heals people—He heals them to serve.

I think that if you’d ask most people why Jesus healed the sick, they would say that it’s because He loved them. And this is certainly true. But there is more to God’s acts of healing than just loving concern; there is a call to service as well. Over and over again, the Bible tells us that God sets us free so that we can serve Him. Jesus told His followers, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16). In 1st Corinthians chapter six Paul writes, You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. And James warns us, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:17). God heals us because He has work for us to do; Ephesians chapter two states we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Simon’s mother-in-law serves as a wonderful example to us; as soon as she was restored to health, she showed her heart-felt gratitude by serving the Lord.

Jews were not permitted to work on the Sabbath; but when the sun set, the Sabbath day was over. So as soon as it got dark, the people of Capernaum flocked to the house where Jesus was staying, bringing their sick and demon-possessed for treatment. Word of Jesus’ miraculous healing had spread all over town, and the Lord was quickly overrun with people seeking His touch.

We are told that Jesus healed many; however, it appears that He did not heal everyone. Instead, in the wee small hours of the morning, Jesus quietly went away by Himself to a secluded place. There He prayed to His heavenly Father—for what, we are not told. However, we can make an educated guess based on the events that follow.

Simon and the others seek Jesus out. If you translated this sentence literally, you might say that they ‘hunted Him down.’ They wanted something from Jesus, wanted it badly enough that they were not afraid to invade His privacy. St. Mark makes a point of referring to these men as ‘companions’, not disciples—at this point, there is no real relationship of understanding or respect that one would expect from someone learning at Jesus’ feet. Their priorities do not match His—not yet. So they come with their own agenda—everyone is looking for you!

What a surprise, then, to hear Jesus’ reply: Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. This must have dumbfounded Simon and the others. Some might of thought, "Look at the crowds! Jesus has got the town’s attention—everybody’s talking bout him! And now he wants to leave?" Others might have thought, "Now wait a minute! Yesterday he was busy healing people; today there are more streaming in from the outlying areas. How can he just up and leave when there are still people who are in need?"

The problem, from Jesus’ perspective, is that the people wanted Him for the wrong reasons. They were not interested in who He was or what He had to say; they just wanted to be cured! The people didn’t crowd around Him in the synagogue, hoping to hear His teachings; they did not come en mass until Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law! Ultimately, it would not matter to most of them who did the healing or why, just so long as they got back their health.

This would not be the only time Jesus faced this problem. Later, when Jesus miraculously fed a crowd of over 5,000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 small fish, we are told Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (John 6:15). On that occasion, the people were looking for a king who could keep them well fed; again, they were less concerned about who Jesus was or what He taught than in how He could take care of their physical needs.

But Jesus wasn’t interested in being regarded as a country doctor. Jesus wasn’t interested in being regarded as a social worker. The Son of God did not come into this world just to make people comfortable. Jesus had a higher purpose, a purpose that He would not let be obscured by any miracles. Our Lord said, Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. That is why I have come. Jesus’ primary goal was to preach, to share God’s message of salvation. Our Lord performed miracles to show the people why they should listen to Him. In the 14th chapter of John, Jesus says: Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. Did Jesus perform miracles to relieve suffering because He loved the people? Certainly. But there is more to God’s acts of healing than just loving care; there is also a call to believe in Jesus as God’s Chosen One.

You cannot prove to anyone how great you are by bragging about yourself. Jesus did not brag; He said, If I testify about myself, my testimony is not valid (John 5:31). Instead, Jesus let His words and deeds speak for Him. Matthew provides one example: When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor" (Matthew 11:2-5). Why did Jesus answer in this way? Because the Old Testament prophets had said that God’s Chosen One would do these very things—cure the incurable and offer God’s salvation to those plagued by sin. While on trial the morning of Good Friday, Jesus refused to perform any miracles to entertain His enemies; and although He said under oath that He was the Son of God, no one believed Him on the basis of His word alone. First and foremost, Jesus performed miracles as evidence that God was with Him and approved of the message that He was speaking.

This helps us to understand why Jesus silenced the demons that He exorcised. The fallen angels knew exactly who Jesus was—the Son of God, sworn enemy of sin and Satan. But Jesus did not want their testimony—it was not fitting that evil spirits reveal the truth about the Savior’s identity. No, Jesus wanted His righteous words and miraculous deeds to testify as to His identity.

This also helps us to understand why Jesus spent the night in solitude, praying. He had to be discouraged, seeing the people acting so selfishly. Instead of coming to Him for wisdom and forgiveness, all they wanted was a quick solution to their health problems; but how many of them would stick around after He had healed them? How many would just go back to the lives of sin they had been living before sickness took the wind out of their sails? How many would not even think to give a word of thanks? And so Jesus went off by Himself to pray to His Father—pray for renewed patience and strength to carry on the important work that lay before Him.

Finally, this helps us to understand why Jesus left town as suddenly as He did. If all that the people wanted was a miracle worker, they would have to look elsewhere. Jesus had something more important to do—He had a message of salvation to announce. He had to get the word out that God was about to deal a deathblow to the problem of sin and death. God had sent His Chosen One into the world to destroy the cancer of sin that kills us from the inside. God had sent His Son to die in our place so that we might be raised from the dead to live forever with our Lord in paradise. There was nothing more important to Jesus than the eternal health of our souls, and He would not let Himself be sidetracked by anything that got in the way of His rescue mission; and so He said, "Let us go somewhere else--to the nearby villages--so I can preach there also. That is why I have come."

Miracles are not just about being restored to health. Miraculous healings are means to an end—a means by which faith is strengthened, a means which restores the ability to serve our heavenly Master. When you have been given release from illness, does your newfound health bring you closer to the One who cured you? When our Great Physician answers your prayers for health, do you respond with grateful service in His name? Do you follow Jesus just because He’s a miracle worker and you hope that He can make your life comfortable, or are you a disciple because you love Jesus being in your life and treasure the message of salvation that He offers you in His word?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Vampire love

There is no fear in love (1 John 4:18).

Vampires have become extremely popular in recent years. From the time that Anne Rice started writing about them and Buffy began slaying them each week on TV, vampires have grown into a mass-media phenomenon that is more sexy than scary.

It wasn’t always that way. In his novel Dracula, Bram Stoker emphasized the horror of dark seduction. But in recent years, these creatures of the night have become less like monsters and more like sexy bad boys. These days, some people dress up like vampires—some even experiment with drinking blood. Vampire fiction dominates the fantasy shelves in bookstores, and each year brings a new vampire-themed TV program or movie.

I’ve thought about this trend, trying to figure out why vampires are so alluring. I think it’s this: a vampire is powerful and confident, yet it needs blood to stay alive—it needs you. Power and confidence are sexy; intimacy grows from being needed. Put these traits together, and you get a powerful aphrodisiac.

And yet, the human/vampire relationship is ultimately a destructive one. Sooner or later, the predator kills the prey. Those who enjoy the thrill of a dangerous relationship end up getting hurt.

Vampire fantasy distorts the true nature of love. Love is not about thrills. Love is not about taking risks. Love finds no pleasure in bad behavior or in controlling others. Listen to how the Bible describes love: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8a).

That is not the defective love of humans or vampires; that is the perfect love of God. That is the love which sent Jesus to the cross, so you and I could be forgiven when we cause pain instead of happiness. God’s love is perfect love; don’t crave for anything less.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The spirit world

God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

People are fascinated with the spirit world. And it’s not just at Halloween. We have TV shows about psychics and people who speak with ghosts. Hollywood has made all sorts of movies about angels and demons. At gravesides in America and family shrines in Japan, people speak to departed loved ones, hoping that their words are heard.

Folks are interested in the spirit world. Part of it has to do with a need for meaning; they are looking for explanations. Is there a reason for my suffering? When things come together despite long odds, is it coincidence or fate? Will bad people get what’s coming to them? Does every person have a soulmate waiting for them somewhere? The world is often confusing; we want reassurance that all the puzzle pieces fit together into a picture that makes sense.

But interest in the spirit world is mainly driven by our fear of death. When a loved one passes away, we don’t want to believe that we’ll never see them again. We want reassurance that the dead continue to exist somewhere, and that some kind of reunion with them is possible. Even worse is the thought of our own death. Our hearts pound in fear, thinking about the end. What if I don’t finish everything I wanted to get done? What if people forget me? Will I cease to exist? Will I end up in some strange and scary place? Will I have to do life over again, keep on suffering all the pain and heartache and tragedy until I get it right? When I die, will I be punished for everything that I did wrong?

Jesus has the answers that you’re looking for. He is God’s own Son, come down from heaven. Jesus tells us that the spirit world is real—God is real, His angels are real, and they show us their love. He also tells us that the devil is real, demons are real, and they treat us like toys to be played with. People do live on after death; those who call Jesus ‘friend’ are welcomed into heaven, while those who reject Him will spend eternity with demons for company.

Jesus does not want you suffering with demons. That’s why He suffered and died on the cross—He spilled His blood to give you eternal life in paradise. All He asks is that you believe. The spirit world is real—the only question is, whose side are you on?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Being sensitive to others

Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.

So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one. For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords"), yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.

But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall (1 Corinthians 8:1-13).

Today’s epistle lesson warns us about being sensitive to the spiritual development of our fellow Christians. As a specific example, Paul talks about eating food offered to idols. But Paul lived 2,000 years ago, half way around the world. In modern America, who eats food sacrificed to idols? I would venture to guess that some of you reading this aren’t even sure what an idol is. And how could eating food sacrificed to an idol be dangerous to a Christian’s faith?

An idol represents a god. Usually, an idol was a statue made of stone or wood or clay, although it could also be a carving or painting on a wall. This statue was treated as if it were a god. People would bow down to the statue, tell it how much they loved and respected it, offer it gifts of food and money, and ask it for favors. People would flatter an idol of the sky god with songs and praise, hoping to keep the god happy so that it would not punish them with severe weather. People would offer the lives of their first born children to an idol of the fertility god, hoping that it would reward them with bigger herds of animals, a good harvest, and many healthy children.

Of course, an idol has no use for food, so what happened to these gifts left to honor the god? At the time of Paul, sacrificed food was typically divided into thirds: one third was burned as a sacrifice to the idol, one third was given to the idol’s priests to live on, and one third was returned to the person who brought it. If the priest did not want the meat, he was allowed to sell it for cash in the city market. This presented a problem for the Christians of Paul’s day. What do you do when you are invited to dine with an unbelieving friend—he might serve you food that had been dedicated to an idol. And what about shopping in the city market—you might be purchasing food that had been offered in worship to an idol.

This is an important concern. God describes Himself as jealous—in Exodus chapter 20 He gives the following command: Do not make idols of any kind, whether in the shape of birds or animals or fish. You must never worship or bow down to them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not share your affection with any other god! By jealous, God means that He will not tolerate anything else competing for our devotion, just as a jealous husband will not tolerate another man competing for the devotion of his wife. In Isaiah chapter 42 God says, I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to anyone else. I will not share my praise with idols.

God has every right to demand our undivided affection. He alone is responsible for our being alive; Psalm 139 praises God, saying: you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb. Not only that, but there are in fact no other gods besides the Lord—God says: Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one (Isaiah 44:8). In today’s epistle lesson Paul says, we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God and no other. According to some people, there are many so-called gods and many lords, both in heaven and on earth. But we know that there is only one God, the Father, who created everything, and we exist for him. And there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom God made everything and through whom we have been given life. God certainly has the right to expect our devotion, both because He made us and because any supposed competition for our affections are only misleading shadows, phantom lovers with no substance or reality.

There is only one God, and only one way to approach Him. In John chapter 6 Jesus said, No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. In Matthew chapter 11 He said, no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. And in John chapter 14 our Lord says, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. There is only one true God, and He can only be known and approached through His Son, the Son who shed the blood of God that we might have unending life with God. He is the one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1-2). And so Peter says, There is salvation in no one else! There is no other name in all of heaven for people to call on to save them (Acts 4:12).

When you consider that it was God who gave us life, and that it was His Son who suffered hell itself to free us from the condemnation of our sins, you can see why the early Christians were concerned about eating food offered to idols. They cherished their relationship with God—the thought of even accidentally showing respect to a false god concerned them greatly. Paul pointed out, however, that eating food offered to an idol is not in itself sinful--we can't win God's approval by what we eat. We don't miss out on anything if we don't eat it, and we don't gain anything if we do. The food is just that—food. If we eat kosher food, that does not automatically make us Jewish in our beliefs.

But there is another consideration. Paul goes on to say, you must be careful with this freedom of yours. Do not cause a brother or sister with a weaker conscience to stumble. You see, this is what can happen: weak Christians who think it is wrong to eat this food will see you eating in the temple of an idol. You know there's nothing wrong with it, but they will be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been dedicated to the idol. So because of your superior knowledge, a weak Christian for whom Christ died, will be destroyed. And you are sinning against Christ when you sin against other Christians by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong.

Here in America, we are unlikely to face the issue of eating food dedicated to idols. But it is important to remember the underlying principle Paul is trying to teach: don’t become arrogant in your spirituality! Don’t assume that everyone is spiritually mature or sees things the way that you do. Our culture and the culture that Paul lived in are not so very different. Now as then, we Christians are surrounded by many false religions. Now as then, there are times when our faith life collides with beliefs that do not agree with the Bible. How we respond to these collisions can have a profound effect on our fellow Christians.

Take, for example, membership in a lodge. Organizations like the Masonic Lodge are a mixture of civil group, private club, and religious organization. Unlike groups like the Kiwanis or the Lions, lodge membership includes participation in some religious rituals. The problem for the Christian is that some of these secret rituals are not in accord with the teachings of Jesus. So what happens when a Christian also holds membership in a lodge? He might defend his decision by saying something like this: "The lodge isn’t a religion; when we have our ceremonies, I just mouth the words—I don’t really believe them. Jesus is the only deity that I honor."

That may well be true. But suppose that Christian lodge member has a friend who is new to the faith. That friend has learned from going through instruction that God expects us to worship Him alone, in purity and in truth. He believes in his heart that to even be present for a religious ritual at the lodge betrays God. But since he is good friends with the Christian who is a member, he feels torn—maybe bending God’s rules can be okay sometimes. So he joins the lodge, but deep inside, feels that he has betrayed His Savior—and so his faith is damaged.

Let’s consider another example—Halloween. Most Christians decorate their homes with witches and black cats, play creepy music, tell ghost stories, and dress up as people whose deeds ordinarily would frighten or repulse us. They celebrate a holiday dedicated to black magic and death, but they do so with a clear conscience—after all, it’s just make-believe. We know there aren’t really witches who can cast spells, there are no ghosts or monsters—and since it’s all pretend, we’re not giving God’s honor to the supernatural.

But there are Christians who are troubled by Halloween. They know that God forbids the practice of magic. They know that God forbids trying to speak to the dead or see into the future. They fear that even playing around with the occult can lead to an unhealthy fascination with evil. Such Christians start to question where God’s rules apply and where they do not when they see avowed Christians celebrating Halloween or even reading their daily horoscope. They start to question if what they were taught is wrong. And that line of questioning can weaken, possibly even destroy their faith.

So we need to follow Paul’s example. Going back to the subject of food offered to idols, Paul says: If what I eat is going to make another Christian sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live--for I don't want to make another Christian stumble. Paul is so committed to the welfare of his brothers and sisters in Christ that he will bend over backwards to keep their faith healthy—he will even change his daily habits, if necessary. This is a good example for us. We need to be continually sensitive to the spiritual development of the people around us. If you have a Christian friend who is offended by any kind of humor that involves religion, don’t tell those kinds of jokes! If a Christian in your family believes that you are endangering your soul by looking at the daily horoscope in the paper, stop reading it! You may know that as sinners, there is a lot about ourselves that deserves to be laughed at; you may know that horoscopes are made up by people who have no idea what the future will bring. But if your behavior causes another believer to question his faith or doubt what he was taught, you must act responsibly—you have no right to endanger another person’s relationship with Jesus just because your view on things is different.

God expects that when we give credit for the good things in our lives, we give that credit to Him. God expects that when we offer something in gratitude for being blessed, those gifts are given to Him. When we find ourselves in need, God expects us to bring our pleas for help to His ears. When the credit that should be given to God goes elsewhere, we commit idolatry. When the first and best of our income does not go to God but is spent someplace else, we commit idolatry. When we bypass God and look elsewhere for help in times of trouble, we commit idolatry. Only God deserves our devotion; to give our affection to anything else acting as God’s rival is to insult the Father who made us and the Son who remade us through His blood. Idols can offer nothing—don’t let them turn your head, both for your own sake and for the sake of your fellow believers who are looking up to you as an example of what it means to be a Christian.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Waiting and praying

I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me (Micah 7:7).

Do you have time to pray? Sure you do.

What are you doing while scrubbing off dirt in the shower? Are you compiling mental lists of things to be done? Are you singing a tune? Why not use that time to ask Jesus to forgive your sins? When you dry off, your soul will be even cleaner than your body.

What are you doing while stuck in traffic? Are you cursing the person who is slowing you down? Are you fiddling with the radio? Why not use that time to thank God for all the blessings that He’s given you? When you finally reach your destination, you’ll have a positive attitude instead of being grumpy.

What are you doing while sitting in a clinic’s waiting room? Are you worrying about what your symptoms could mean? Are you trying to distract yourself with a magazine? Why not use that time to ask Jesus to give your doctor wisdom so he will correctly diagnose your problem and prescribe the best possible treatment? That way, you can go into consultation clear headed and ready to listen.

What are you doing while waiting for a meeting to start? Are you going over your notes one more time? Are you trying to make small talk with the secretary? Why not use that time to ask the Holy Spirit for guidance so that you can help the group reach a quality decision? The committee will appreciate hearing your good ideas.

What are you doing while waiting for your date? Are you staring in a mirror, making sure that everything looks just right? Are you rehearsing what you plan to talk about during your time together? Why not use that time to pray for help in really listening to your date so you can find out what makes that person tick? It’s way too easy to let looks, food, and fun keep you from getting to know each other; you need to find out what is really important to the person you’re going out with.

You spend a lot of time waiting—why not use those opportunities to speak with God? Each day gives you many opportunities to pray—don’t let them slip away unused.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Setting an example

Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6).

A man named David Buffaloe tells the following story:

"I watched a young father shopping with his son the other day, and saw how that father, though sincere, was starting his son out on the wrong path. The father passed by a large display filled with large rubber beach balls. When the child saw these balls, he first pointed, then reached, then began to scream. The father resisted for a moment as the child’s wails became louder and louder, then he gave the boy a ball. That didn’t satisfy him, for he quickly pointed to another smaller ball, and became loudly vocal when it wasn’t immediately given to him. Dad relented, gave the boy the second ball, and moved on.

"When I finished my shopping, I found myself in the checkout line behind this father and son. The father put everything on the conveyor belt so it could be checked out, except the two balls his son had. Once everything else had been paid for, he took the balls from his son and told the clerk quietly, ‘I’m not going to buy these.’ The reaction from the child was expected and immediate. Dad diverted and quieted the child by saying, ‘I’ll get them for you in just a moment. Be quiet!’ He paid for his groceries, and quickly, before the child could start up again, walked out of the store."

Our observant friend invites us to consider what lessons were taught to the child that day. First, the boy saw that he could bully his father and get away with it—this violates God’s command to honor your father and your mother (Exodus 20:12). He also learned that extortion works; if you make the right kind of threat, others will give you what you want. This undermines the principle behind God’s command you shall not steal (Exodus 20:15). Third, the father showed him that you should be ready to lie in order to escape a difficult situation; this opposes God’s command do not be a false witness (Exodus 20:16).

I’m sure that father meant well. He did not give in completely—the boy did not get either ball. In addition, the father did not let his son force him to end his shopping trip early. But what we do and how we do it are equally important; the father told a lie, and the boy was not punished for using blackmail and showing disrespect. By ignoring God’s laws, a grown man encouraged his young son to disobey the Lord.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


The boy Samuel ministered before the LORD under Eli. In those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions.

One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. Then the LORD called Samuel. Samuel answered, "Here I am." And he ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." But Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down." So he went and lay down.

Again the LORD called, "Samuel!" And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." "My son," Eli said, "I did not call; go back and lie down."

Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD: The word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.

The LORD called Samuel a third time, and Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." Then Eli realized that the LORD was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, "Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, `Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.' " So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The LORD came and stood there, calling as at the other times, "Samuel! Samuel!" Then Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:1-10).

Peace. We all say that we want it. We expect our government to seek it. We look to our military to bring it about. We expect our police to enforce it. Some are so desperate for peace that they spend money on psychiatrists to help them find it. Others resort to medication, alcohol or drugs to experience it. More than anything else, people want peace.

Since everyone wants it, why is peace so hard to find? And once found, why is peace so hard to hold on to? Where can we find peace that lasts?

Let’s begin by defining what peace is. Peace is what life is like when there is no stress. When there is no conflict, you have peace. When there is no pain, you have peace. When you are not in need, you have peace. Peace is what we feel when nothing is going wrong. Peace is what we feel when everything is going as it should.

You can see why peace is such a rare commodity. In a world where storms and fires and earthquakes destroy communities and kill people of all ages, how can you avoid the stress of being in need? In a world where cancer and heart disease and Alzheimer’s steal the health of body and soul, how can you avoid the stress of pain? In a world where terrorists believe that peace will only come about when everybody belongs to their radical sect of the Muslim faith, how can you avoid the stress of conflict?

Frankly, we human beings are not programmed to be content—not for very long. It’s been a few weeks since Christmas, now—how many of the kids you know have started asking for new toys or new clothes? How many are already making wish lists for their upcoming birthday? This simply reveals the constant discontent that lives within us all. Why do husbands and wives cheat on each other? Why do workers leave behind years of success in a career to take on a totally different kind of job? Why do people trade in the car that they bought new only twelve months ago? Why do people periodically rearrange the furniture and pictures in their homes? Why do people stop attending a church they grew up in and start worshipping someplace else? The problem is that they have become discontent. What was once shiny and exciting and new has become dull and ordinary and boring.

If you think about it, you will see that peace is often lost because, over time, we become discontent with it. Two countries, weary from years of war, will finally sit down and hammer out terms for peace. At first, everyone is delighted that the war is over; but as time goes by and memories of war begin to fade, the people on both sides start looking at the provisions of the peace treaty and become dissatisfied. Although the terms of peace have not changed, the attitude of the people has—and eventually war will break out once again, as each side seeks more than they got during the last round of negotiations.

In the human world, peace is part of a cycle. A period of stress comes to an end—health is restored by successful medical treatment, couples who were separated decide to reconcile, a family comes out of bankruptcy free from debt. What follows is a time of peace and contentment. But then something happens; we start to look inward, focusing on our wants, our needs. Since the cancer is in remission, why do I have to stay away from cigarettes? Sure, I’m glad that my wife and I are back together, but why can’t she get in better shape so that she’d look more like the hot babe who works in my office? Now with that ugly business of bankruptcy finally behind us, maybe it’s time to think about that RV and boat that we’ve always wanted for going up to the lake.

Once we have settled into a period of peace, we soon get bored. We start thinking about how things could be better—for us. Over time, we become dissatisfied—we want more. Because we think we don’t have everything we need, we start to feel stressed. This stress then leads to foolish decisions that only make matters worse. The person who had his stomach stapled gains weight as he starts eating improperly again. The woman who took her boyfriend back starts obsessing over each of his shortcomings and is soon ready to go clubbing on her own again. The business that struggled back from insolvency is soon burdened with new debts arising from unnecessary expenses like new office furniture and company-paid vacations for management. And so peace is traded away for renewed stress, leading to more consultation with doctors, relationship experts, and financial planners, as that lost peace is sought once more.

How do we break this cycle? How do we find peace and hang on to it? The key is in keeping our attention focused outside of ourselves. Peace always slips away when our attention turns inward and we start wanting more. Peace loses its luster when we start brooding about ourselves.

To be released from stress usually requires outside help. It usually takes a doctor to relieve the stress of medical problems. Couples usually reconcile only with the help of a relationship expert or supportive friends. Financial problems usually require the help of a credit counselor. It should come as no surprise, then, that if peace comes from outside ourselves, that is the direction we should keep our focus for continued peace.

Jesus is our source of real peace. He brought us peace with God through the shedding of His own holy blood upon the cross. Because the innocent Son of God died for us, we the guilty have been given the gift of peaceful relations with the God who hates sin but forgives the sinner. Jesus also brings us peace with each other; He enables we His followers to forgive each other as He first forgave us, and this forgiveness restores peace to our troubled relationships. Jesus even brings peace to nature. Ever since sin entered the world, storm and disease and death have made human life anything but peaceful; however, Jesus came to earth to conquer sin, and He repeatedly showed how even storms quieted at His command, the diseased were made healthy at His touch, and the dead were returned to life by His mercy. The Lord is our source of peace, so it only makes sense that if we want continuing peace, we keep our attention focused on Him.

Not that this is easy to do, as we see in today’s Old Testament lesson. In that long ago time, God tried to get young Samuel’s attention. But getting the boy’s attention was not an easy thing to do. Notice where Samuel was—he was sleeping in the temple, in God’s house of worship. Notice when God called to the boy—at night, when everything was quiet and still. And even then, when Samuel heard God calling to him, he did not realize the source of the words—three times he went to the head of the temple, assuming it was he who had called. It was only when the man of God told Samuel what was really going on, that the boy finally listened to God attentively.

The lesson is obvious—when God speaks to us, much of the time we are not receptive. Samuel was receptive because He was in God’s house, away from the distractions of the world. Samuel could hear God because, during the peace of the night, his thoughts were not preoccupied with the many things that needed to get done during a busy day. Samuel’s attention was turned to God because God’s priest clued him in to what was going on.

But what about you? Do you expect to hear God speak to you if you don’t make time to be in His house of worship? Do you expect to hear God speak to you if your life is so cluttered with rushing around that you are never still enough to listen? Do you expect to hear God speak to you if you are uninterested in what the minister wants to teach you about the Almighty?

I’m not saying that you should expect God to speak to you in the way that He spoke to Samuel, but don’t assume that God is completely silent. Haven’t you had the experience of walking along feeling sorry for yourself, when suddenly the clouds break and allow a ray of sunshine to bath you in unexpected light? Haven’t you prayed for hope in a desperate situation and seen that prayer answered? God often communicates His love and concern without words, whether you notice it or not.

Of course, God does communicate with you using words—the words of Holy Scripture. This is where we are told that Grace and peace [can] be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord (2 Peter 1:2). This is where we are told that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7). It is within the pages of God’s Book that He teaches us how to live in holiness and peace, He comforts us when sin brings stress into our lives, and He extends to us the offer of everlasting peace in paradise. God is ready to speak with you any time, any where—all you need do is open His Book and give Him your undivided attention.

Do you want peace—peace that lasts? Then keep your attention focused on the heavenly bringer of peace. Look to young Samuel as your example. Spend as much time in God’s house as you can. Schedule time each day to clear your mind so that you can be receptive to God’s call. Avail yourself of the men God has placed in His church to teach you and advise you. Say with Samuel, Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening. And when you listen, really listen, and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Coping with addiction

The LORD is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation (Psalm 118:14).

We are all addicts. You might not be addicted to alcohol or nicotine or painkillers. You might not be addicted to the Internet or gambling or collecting. But we all share one addiction in common—we are all addicted to sin.

There are children who are drug addicts before they leave the womb; this happens when drugs are abused during pregnancy. We are like those little children; we all come into the world addicted to sin, because our parents were life-long addicts before us. We are naturally selfish. We have to be taught to share and take turns. We have to learn to say "please" and "thank you."

We all crave sinful things. Why do you think R-rated movies are so much more popular than G-rated shows? Why do you think that sexy models are used to sell almost every kind of product? Why do we need police officers and soldiers? It’s all because of sin—we are willing to spend money we don’t have, risk our health, and trample on other peoples’ feelings, in order to make ourselves feel good.

Sin has its hooks in us but good. You can’t help wanting things the moment that you lay eyes on them. No matter how hard you try, nasty words slip from your mouth. You break promises. You tell lies to get yourself off the hook. And you do these things over and over again. You and I are addicts.

We need Jesus. He is the only person who ever walked this earth and never succumbed to addiction. Jesus shows us how much we fall short of God’s standards. But He also promises us freedom—freedom from sin’s undisputed control. Jesus won that freedom for us when He died on the cross and rose from the dead. He suffered God’s punishment for our sins, then returned to life so He could help us withstand temptation and forgive us when we fail. This gives us confidence when struggling with addiction.

Our addiction to sin is life-long—the struggle to resist your cravings will not end until you leave this world. But Jesus offers to be with you every step of the way; with His help, life can be so much more than feeding your desire for momentary pleasures.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

An alternative to addiction

Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior (Psalm 25:5).

Addiction messes with your life.

Addiction takes away your self-control. When you were little, you depended on others for everything—food, clothing, shelter, and protection. As you grew, you started to take control of your life—you learned to feed yourself, dress yourself, control your bladder. Through rolling, crawling, walking, and finally running, you developed the ability to go where you wanted. You learned how to speak so you could tell people what you wanted.

But addiction takes away your self-control. It demands money that you can’t afford to spend. It steals time away from work, and robs loved ones of your attention. Addiction makes you keep secrets and break promises.

When others see that you can’t control your compulsions, it costs you their respect. They don’t count on you to come through in a pinch. They don’t put much stock in your words.

Addiction takes away your loved ones. Your wife wants to know that you love her more than Internet pornography. Your kids need to know that they are more important than a night at the casino. Your friends want to be more than just an excuse for going out to get plastered.

Addiction is costly—it tears into your money, your time, your relationships, and ultimately your self-respect. Addiction wastes the gifts that God has given you. So what can you do? Obviously, any change has to start with prayer. Ask Jesus to forgive you for letting compulsions take control of your life. You need to be free from the mistakes of the past before you can make tomorrow different. Then, you need God to point you in the right direction. Study the Bible—if possible, do this with a pastor or Christian counselor. Find out what God wants from your life, and learn about the help that He promises to give you. Each day, schedule time for prayer and spiritual growth—read devotional books or listen to them on tape. See if you can give Christ as much time as you used to spend on your addiction.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

The importance of washing

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:4-11).

When you were a child, did your folks pester you about staying clean? Did you get yelled at for getting your clothes dirty? Were you nagged about taking a bath or washing your hands? More to the point, did you really care about keeping clean, or was it more fun to be dirty?

Most kids don’t mind getting dirty. To get dirty is part of having fun. Staying clean requires that you hold back and be careful; getting dirty is the result of being reckless and carefree. It’s not that most children enjoy being dirty; it’s just that when you’re having fun, trying to stay clean becomes a distraction. And no one wants to be distracted in the middle of a ball game, or while climbing a tree, or while doing somersaults in the grass. Dirt is what happens when you are living it up.

It isn’t until we get a little older that we start to understand the importance of cleanliness. Dirty clothes get in the way when we are trying to make a good impression, whether it be during an important job interview or on a long-anticipated first date. Going without bathing can result in itchy head lice or burning skin infections. Eating without first washing your hands can lead to serious, maybe even fatal illness. In order to stay healthy and happy and comfortable, cleanliness is an essential part of life.

Of course, knowledge of germs as the cause of infection is a relatively recent discovery. Prior to the advent of modern medicine and indoor plumbing, washing was a rare event for many people. It took a lot of work to haul water up from a well in sufficient quantity for bathing, let alone heating it for use; and during a time when few knew the dangers of bacterial infection, the worst effect of not bathing was body odor, which was often masked by the heavy use of perfume. Unless one lived close to a body of water in a warm climate, bathing was rarely part of the daily routine.

Throughout history, people have not minded being dirty; for most it was a simple reality of daily life. You can’t run a farm without getting dirty. You can’t catch fish for a living without getting slimy. You can’t be a carpenter and escape sawdust. You can’t travel along country roads to sell your merchandise without becoming dusty. To live life is to get dirty.

What is true of the body is even more true of the soul. Throughout our days here on earth, we live with dirty souls. Revealing the unpleasant truth that we would prefer to keep hidden, our Lord says: out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, lying, slander. These are what make a man `unclean' (Matthew 15:19-20). Our souls are made dirty by our instinctive selfishness and greed; you can see it already in babies, who are slow to speak words like "yes" and "yours", but quickly learn how to say "no" and "mine."

Dirty souls are off-putting. When you go out on a date with someone you really want to impress, you get ready by taking a shower, fixing your hair, and putting on clean clothes. But your attempt to impress also extends to your behavior—you ‘clean up your act.’ You don’t belch during your date; you don’t stare at other members of the opposite sex as they walk by; you are careful about the kinds of jokes you tell, you watch your table manners during the meal, and you make a point of being a good listener. But as you get more comfortable around another person, your act starts to slip; bit by bit, your real self starts to show through. And that real self, that soul smeared with dirt, is quite unattractive. It is that dirty soul, prone to selfishness and being inconsiderate, that results in nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce. It is that dirty soul, which can be so hard for another person to love, that ends friendships with bitter words that are regretted for a lifetime.

Dirty souls are also unhealthy. A dirty body can fall victim to rashes and infestation by lice, which make life miserable. A dirty soul can fall victim to mental health problems, which also make life miserable. A dirt-smeared soul insists on having its own way, with the result that life is an endless battle, often resulting in anger and frustration. When a filthy soul drives away friends and loved ones, you can be left not only lonely, but also filled with shame over your behavior that has ended a cherished relationship. A dirty soul has a hard time trusting in anyone else, even God, with the result that life is little more than worry heaped upon worry; instead of holding out hope for something better, tomorrow is just another opportunity for things to go horribly wrong. A dirty soul burdens life with a host of negative emotions.

Most dangerous of all, dirty souls bring the threat of death. Eating with unwashed hands can result in a deadly bacterial infection. Living with an unwashed soul sets you up for eternal spiritual death. In fact, the Bible describes such people as dead inside even while their bodies are still alive and walking around; Ephesians chapter two says, Once you were dead, doomed forever because of your many sins. You used to live just like the rest of the world, full of sin, obeying Satan, the mighty prince of the power of the air. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passions and desires of our evil nature. We were born with an evil nature, and we were under God's anger just like everyone else. When our souls are separated from God, He views us as dead; and if we reach the end of life still separated from God, then the only thing we have to look forward to beyond the grave is eternal death in hell.

Dirty souls are off-putting, unhealthy, and result in death. And yet so many are ignorant of the danger. They are like children who don’t want their fun spoiled by having to be careful what they do or by taking time to wash up. They want the freedom to do whatever they want, regardless of the consequences to come. Now there are some who do wrinkle their noses at how smelly their sin makes them, but since they don’t realize that the stench of sin warns of mortal danger, they just apply perfume to cover up the smell. The perfume they use is the doing of good deeds, as if doing good can cover up the evil that taints their souls. But to them Jesus says, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean (Matthew 23:27). The plain truth is this: the sin that makes our souls dirty repels God and everyone else from us, it fills our lives with problems, and if left unattended, will result in God sending us away forever to the cesspool of hell.

What we need most desperately is washing—baptismal washing. We need to hear and believe what God tells us in Titus chapter three: Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled by others and became slaves to many wicked desires and evil pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy. We hated others, and they hated us. But then God our Savior showed us his kindness and love. He saved us, not because of the good things we did, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins and gave us a new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us because of what Jesus Christ our Savior did. He declared us not guilty because of his great kindness. And now we know that we will inherit eternal life.

Baptism is a washing by the Holy Spirit that gives us new life. It cleanses us from the filth of sin that sickens us. It makes us clean and presentable, so that we can approach God confident of His welcome. Most importantly, it replaces death with life. Paul writes in Romans chapter six, we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised as he was.

Where does baptism get its power? The power comes from what Christ has done for we the members of His Church. Paul writes in Ephesians chapter five, Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In the Jordan River, the Son of God underwent the first of two baptisms; in this first baptism, He joined us in the water of repentance. When that water touches us during our baptisms, our sins are washed away—but those sins had to go somewhere. Where they went was to Jesus. Standing in the baptismal waters, our Master accepted the sins those waters had removed from us; instead of cleansing Him, they covered Him in our filth. Yet in spite of this unholy burden, Jesus never gave in to sin, never gave in to despair or rage or selfishness. He carried the burden of our sins all the way to the cross, all the while never sinning even once. Our Lord went to the cross completely innocent of wrongdoing.

It was while He suffered on that cross that Jesus underwent His second baptism—a baptism of blood that washed away all our sins forever. The Law of God states, it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (Leviticus 17:11). The only way that sin can be made up for is by the shedding of blood in death. This is the baptism that we all deserved because of our sins—blood shed in death. But Jesus loved us too much to allow us to undergo such a horrible baptism, so He volunteered to take our place on the cross and suffer the agonizing death that was needed to cleanse us from our filth. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might receive the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). This supreme act of sacrifice made by Jesus is what gives baptism its power to save.

Nor is this only a one-time event. Baptism establishes a life-long relationship with Christ, who has promised to always wash away our sins when we come to Him dirty and ashamed. Jesus said, whoever comes to me I will never drive away (John 6:37). John writes, if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from every wrong (1 John 1:9). Baptism is the start of a new way of life—a life dedicated to spiritual cleanliness and grateful devotion to our Savior.

Children don’t understand the importance of being clean—so they have to be taught. People who don't know Christ don’t understand the importance of being spiritually clean—so they have to be taught. They have to be told that sin makes them unattractive. They have to be told that the reason their lives are filled with misery is because of the sin. They have to be told that the infection brought by sin will result in eternal death if left untreated. How do you feel about your soul and the souls of your loved ones? Are they as precious to you as physical health? You care enough about the children in your life to lead them to the sink for washing; do you care enough about spiritual health to make baptismal washing a priority for yourself and those you love?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Addictions of the mind

My days have passed, my plans are shattered, and so are the desires of my heart (Job 17:11).

Addiction can take many different forms. Addiction can be described as a compulsive behavior, something you just have to do in order to relax. Many people are addicted to the Internet. Some check their email over and over again throughout the day; others crave the stimulation of pornographic images. Gambling can be addictive. If you are on a winning streak, you want to ride it to the end; if you’ve been losing steadily, you believe that pretty soon now your luck is going to change. Many folks are addicted to collecting. Some will pay almost anything for a hard to find item, while others are constantly on the lookout for something new that will make their display even better.

What makes these behaviors addictive? The Internet provides a constant flow of newness—new emails, new products to check out. For people who seek distraction from their daily routine, the Internet is a constantly changing Main Street where places to meet and shop are always open. Gambling draws its’ addictive power from hope—a woman gambles because she is certain that sooner or later, the odds will turn in her favor. For collectors, it’s about the thrill of the hunt; each purchase is a kind of victory. And there is always something else to go searching for…

Make no mistake—cravings of the mind are just as addictive as cravings of the body. Watch how an Internet addict sweats if he has a slow connection, or no connection at all. Think of the stuff that a gambler is willing to sell in order to get cash for the casino. Listen to a collector justify her purchases as an investment that will grow with time.

We use such things as distractions to escape our problems. We want to accomplish something with our efforts, but we come up against one roadblock after another. We want our days to be filled with fun and excitement, but much of our work is hard and the hours crawl by. Home should be a place of love and support, but many people live alone or with others who are emotionally distant.

But you don’t solve problems by ignoring them. If an addictive pastime is the only part of your life that gives you pleasure, it’s time for a change. Addictions cannot give you love and affection; they can’t fill your life with purpose or satisfaction. Only Christ can make your days worth living, and give you peace when your head hits the pillow.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

An alternative to addiction

You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing (Psalm 145:16).

Are you an addict?

An addiction is a powerful craving that cannot be ignored. When someone mentions addictions, we usually think of illegal drugs like cocaine, heroine, or methamphetamines. But you can become addicted to legal substances too. Brett Favre and Rush Limbaugh both got addicted to pain killers. Millions of people are addicted to alcohol and nicotine. I would guess that many of you cannot start the day without a dose of caffeine in your coffee cup.

There are all sorts of chemicals that are addictive. For a while, they make you feel good. A few sips of alcohol can give you the confidence to go speak with an attractive stranger. A cigarette can calm your nerves before an important business meeting. A line of cocaine can make you feel on top of the world, ready to face anything. But eventually the high wears off and you lose that sense of euphoria. Life seems hard and tedious. The desire to feel good again draws you back for another dose. Soon your body starts depending on the chemical you are swallowing, inhaling, or injecting. When that happens, you move beyond wanting the high—at that point, you need the high. Trying to live without the drug becomes physically painful as your body goes into withdrawal.

Trying to suppress your cravings is a very unpleasant experience. I knew a person who tried to give up smoking; she became so crabby and short-tempered that it was almost a relief when she started lighting up again. A person I worked with guzzled Diet Pepsi all day long; when she got pregnant and gave up caffeine, she was a frazzled wreck. Drugs like Meth are so powerful that addicts need medical help to break the habit.

We use stimulants and depressants to fill a gap in our lives. We want to be confident but we aren’t; we want to feel good but we don’t. But filling your body with addictive chemicals is not the answer. In the long run, you are only hurting yourself. There is a much better option: go to Jesus for happiness. If you trust in His care, you won’t need a drink to get a shot of courage. When He forgives your mistakes, you won’t have to get high in order to cope with stress. Nothing can make you feel better than the loving arms of Christ.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

A better year to come

The LORD said to Moses, "Tell Aaron and his sons, `This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them: ` "The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace." ' So they will put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them" (Numbers 6:22-27).

The ancient Romans used to worship a two-faced god. This god was associated with gates and doorways of all kinds; his symbol was carved on doorposts in such a way that he could simultaneously keep an eye on people both arriving and departing. This god was also the patron of leaving the past behind and making a new start. He was called Janus, and his name is still honored today by our calling the first month of the new year January.

January serves as a doorway by which we leave the old year and enter the new; it is also the month in which we look back at the mistakes of the year just past and make resolutions to live life differently in the future. As January begins, we say goodbye to the past and celebrate the possibilities offered by a bright, shining New Year.

I’m sure that every one reading this has some pleasant memories from 2009, happy events that filled you with joy and still warm your heart today. But I am even more sure there are things about 2009 that you would be happy to forget. Loved ones lost to you because of a stupid fight, or their moving away, or their death. Stress caused by changing jobs or moving to a new place of residence. Concern over foolish decisions that you couldn’t stop your children or friends from making. The pain and depression resulting from health problems or advancing age. Despair over your inability to free yourself from an addiction or find relief from a compulsive behavior. Every one has experienced something painful in 2009 that you’d just as soon leave behind as you enter 2010.

Have you made your New Year’s resolutions? Are you facing the New Year with confident hope that things will be better? Not to burst your bubble, but perhaps now would be a good time for a reality check. Think back to other January firsts; call up from memory New Year’s resolutions that you’ve made in the past. Considered as a whole, how many of them have you successfully kept? What’s your track record for shaking off the mistakes of your past? How confident can you be than 2010 will really be significantly better than 2009?

I’m not out to make you depressed. I actually do want you to be optimistic about the year that has just begun. But I want you to be optimistic for the right reasons. New Year’s resolutions won’t significantly change your life—not if you are pinning your hopes for improvement upon yourself.

Frankly, most of what goes on in your life is beyond your control. You can’t make the economy go the way you want it to. You can’t stop wars from happening. You can lead a healthy lifestyle, but that won’t prevent you from getting sick or eventually dying. You can be an excellent parent, but you can’t stop your children from engaging in dangerous behavior. You can be the best spouse in the world, but you can’t ensure that the person you married won’t cheat on you or leave you.

But let’s face it—you can’t even control yourself all the time. How many promises have you made that you just couldn’t keep? How many times have you lost or forgotten something important? How many times have you let your anger or your lust or your greed lead you into making a foolish decision? How many times have you been in such a rush that you didn’t consider the consequences of your actions?

We would like to believe that we are in control of our lives, that we know what is best for us. The sad fact is, though, that control is often an illusion, and even when we have control, we make a mess of things far more often than we’d like to admit. This being the case, how can we look at the new year and believe that we can make things significantly better than they have been?

For 2010 to be a better year, we need to see 2009 clearly. That means that we have to stop kidding ourselves, we have to stop hiding our heads in the sand like ostriches and own up to the truth—we are failures. And the reason we are failures is because we are sinners. We fail because we try to live without God. To live without God is to sin. To make decisions without asking for God’s leadership is to sin. To spend our time on activities that do not honor God is to sin. To spend our money on things that do not serve God’s purposes is to sin. To ignore God by neglecting to give Him our time is to sin.

The failures of 2009 were due to sin. Loneliness happens when our sins drive us apart from each other. Fear happens when sinful behavior gets out of control and threatens us with danger. Anger flares up when sin demands that we get our way, regardless of the consequences. Worry is the result of sin leading us to believe that we can’t trust God to take care of things. Every unpleasant memory of the year just past can be traced to the failures brought about by sin.

Of course, not every memory of 2009 is a bad one; but to keep things in proper perspective, let’s be careful about where to give credit for the good things that occurred. The apostle James tells us that Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17). All good things come from God, and He showers them down on everybody, not just the faithful—Jesus said, He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45). And God’s generosity is not limited to just sprinkling gifts here and there; during one of his most famous speeches, Paul declared: he…gives all men life and breath and everything else…in him we live and move and have our being (Acts chapter 17). God is active continually, making your life possible from moment to moment; speaking of His Father’s ongoing activity, Jesus said: My Father is always at his work to this very day (John 5:17). The only reason that you have pleasant memories of 2009 is because of God’s ongoing generosity.

Since sin is the underlying cause of all unpleasantness, what can we do to make 2010 a better year? On our own, nothing. Our sinful impulses are too strong, too much a part of us. Because of the sin that distorts our thinking, we cannot see the truth of things. Sin hijacks our emotions and colors our perception of everything we see and hear; sin makes it impossible for us to live the kind of lives God had intended for us. Romans chapter 8 tells us, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

However, things are not hopeless. Paul goes on to say, You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. This is what gives us hope for the coming year being a better one. Second Corinthians chapter five says, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ. It started 2,000 Christmases ago with Jesus, when the Son of God entered the world as a mortal through the womb of a virgin believer. Our Lord grew to manhood without having a single sinful desire; He lived a perfect life untainted by any sinful words or deeds. Jesus lived His life perfectly so that when He suffered and died on the cross, it was not for His sins but for ours. All the anger God harbored at our sins was expended on Jesus; because of this, we can be reconciled to God through Christ’s merit.

Christ not only died for our sins, He showed His victory over them by rising again from the grave. Alive once more, Jesus comes to we who believe--and lives within us. Each time we humbly turn to Him in prayer and ask for mercy, He forgives our sins and erases the mistakes of our past, giving us a fresh start that is as new and exciting and filled with hope as New Year’s Day.

Nor does it end there. Because God is within us, we have access to a moral compass that can show the right path through the fog of sin. Because God is within us, we have a source of enthusiasm and strength and courage that can help us to face difficult times with calmness, and enable us to do the right thing even when the right thing is hard to do. When our Lord lives in us, He works constantly to remake us to be increasingly like Him, and while we will never come close to being perfect, years spent united to the Savior can bring dramatic improvements into one’s life.

No amount of New Year’s resolutions will make 2010 a significantly better year than the one just past, unless your resolution is to follow the advice given in 2nd Peter chapter three: grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Only God can control the weather. Only God can force warring nations to stand down. Only God can bring health from sickness. Only God can bring life to the dead. Only God can erase the mistakes of the past and offer a new beginning. Only God can give real hope for a better year to come.

The prophet Nahum writes, The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him (Nahum 1:7). If you want 2010 to be a better year, snuggle in close to the Lord. Spend time singing to Him songs of thankfulness and joy. Get to know His heart better by reading the Book that He wrote. Spend time praying, and slow down so you do not miss it when He answers your prayers. Ask Christ to lead you through the year, and then let Him! Ask Jesus to take over your worries and concerns, and then let Him! Stop fighting the Savior and instead let Him show you how to live in the months to come.

When Moses was leading the people of God through the wilderness, God told him how a better tomorrow could be theirs. His instruction was this: have the religious leaders, starting with Aaron, bless the people with these words: May the LORD bless you and protect you. May the LORD smile on you and be gracious to you. May the LORD show you his favor and give you his peace. God promised that when the Israelites had been designated as His own people in this way, He would bless them.

God’s representatives still give this blessing today. You hear it at the end of most worship services. If God is important to you, important enough for you to spend time with Him regularly, than you are present when His blessing is given. And it is only by the grace of God that 2010 can be the shiny New Year that we all hope it will be.

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