Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Spirit of God

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: `Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One. ' Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus."

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all (Acts 4:23-33).

When did Jesus give His disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit? In the Gospel of John chapter 20 we read these words: On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. Again Jesus said, "Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." And with that he breathed on them and said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." According to this, Jesus gave the gift of the Holy Spirit already on the evening of Easter Sunday.

But then we read the following account from the 24th chapter of Luke: While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." …Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "…I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high." In the Book of Acts chapter two, Luke describes the day when the disciples received this gift of power from on high: When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

But even that is not the end of it. In today’s reading from Acts we are told the following: After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

So we read that on at least three occasions, the disciples were filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. The first time was on Easter evening when Jesus breathed on them; at that time they were given the ability to understand the Scriptures and were authorized to forgive sins as the Lord’s representatives. The second coming of the Spirit was on Pentecost, when the disciples were enabled to preach to the people in a variety of foreign languages. The third time came when the disciples were being pressured to keep quiet about their faith; when Peter and John were thrown into jail to intimidate them, the Spirit filled them with the courage to preach without fear.

Each time God’s Spirit filled the disciples, it was to address a need. The disciples were anything but perfect; even with God’s help, they continued to make mistakes, come up short. Peter provides just one example. The 10th chapter of Acts describes his encounter with Cornelius, a soldier of the Roman Empire who had converted to Christianity. According to a long-standing law, Israelites were not permitted to associate with anyone other than fellow Jews—but God sent the Holy Spirit to Peter, telling him that in Christ all are brothers and sisters together. As a result, Peter began to associate freely with Christian Gentiles. But in Galatians chapter two we are told that Peter, under pressure from some Jewish Christians, went back to distancing himself from Gentile converts; eventually Paul had to step in and set him straight once more. The Spirit of God had spoken directly to Peter, telling him to spend time with Gentiles who wanted to know about Jesus; yet after a period of time, Peter was persuaded to change his behavior because of the pressure brought by people under the control of sin.

We are no different. We come to church to have our sins forgiven. We listen to our Lord speak to us from the pages of Holy Scripture. We leave church knowing how Christ wants us to live our lives. But then an attractive face invites us to set aside our morals for a night of fun. An empty wallet tempts us to take something from the store without paying for it. We resent a parent or teacher or boss telling us what to do, so we yell at them or deliberately do shoddy work in order to get even. Although we pledge ourselves to God and welcome the gift of His Spirit, most of the week we barely give Him a passing thought.

Some people have the mistaken notion that once the Spirit enters your heart, He will be there forever. Years ago, a politician on his deathbed was visited by a representative of the church. "Will I go to heaven when I die?" the sick man asked. The clergyman responded, "if you have faith in Jesus. Do you believe in Him?" To this the politician replied, "I used to."

The Holy Spirit comes to us in baptism and He comes each time we fill our eyes and ears with the words of heaven offered through the Bible. Yet how quickly we turn away. It’s like a child walking hand in hand with a parent. The adult knows where to go and how to get there safely; but the child keeps tugging on the parent’s hand, trying to go this way and that in pursuit of one distraction after another. The little one doesn’t understand the risks that come from getting lost or stepping out into traffic—only the parent’s grip keeps the child safe. In the same way, the Spirit of God takes us by the hand to keep us from heading into danger and guide us to paradise. But we constantly tug the Spirit to go where we want to go, and when He won’t give us the approval to do as we want, we often snatch our hand away and take off on our own. And then, when the thrill of sin results in hurt and disappointment, we find ourselves without guidance and protection, alone and afraid. The Spirit never abandons us, but we frequently demand that He let us go—a decision that is extremely shortsighted and foolish.

We must thank God that He is patient with us. The Lord kept sending His Spirit to blaze anew in the disciples, and He does the same for us as well. It begins with repentance. We must come to God in prayer, taking full responsibility for our behavior that has separated us from God. No excuses, no trying to put the blame on anyone else. Jesus said, My sheep listen to my voice…no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27, 28). We can’t blame anyone, not even the devil, for pulling us away from God—when we let go of His hand, it is only because we made the decision to do so.

When we own up to our failures, Jesus responds with His loving touch. A child that has gotten dirty needs to be washed and dressed in clean clothes. In the same way, Jesus frees us from our moral filth; He washes us with His blood which was poured out from the cross to atone for our sins. Then He dresses us in clean clothes; He covers us with the robe of His righteousness. Cleaned and properly dressed, we are now made presentable to go somewhere very special—God’s palace in heaven. And so Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to take us by the hand and start leading us there again, as He was before we got distracted and pulled away from Him.

Does God ever run out of patience with us? On one occasion, Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?" Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:21-22). Essentially, the Lord told Peter that if he was keeping count of how many times he accepted an apology, he was not offering true forgiveness. If Jesus wants us to forgive without keeping a record of the past, we can only imagine how generous He is in forgiving us and restoring the Spirit to our wandering hearts.

Yet we dare not take the Lord’s generosity for granted. Jesus suffered greatly to offer these opportunities to you; if you truly love Him, it should grieve you each time you find yourself needing to ask for mercy and a renewed connection to the Spirit of God. Don’t be an ingrate; treasure every opportunity provided you to walk hand in hand with the Holy Spirit, as you pray, as you worship, as you study the Bible. The Spirit is Christ’s gift to you—don’t ignore Him or take Him for granted. When He pricks your conscience, warning that what you are considering doing is wrong, listen and respect His guidance.

The disciples needed the help of the Holy Spirit, not just once but over and over again, as they dedicated their lives to serving the Lord. Certainly you and I need the Spirit’s continual help as well. With His support, the church honoring Jesus Christ grew from a mere handful of believers to a worldwide religion; who can say what the Spirit might achieve with your life?

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Who can you trust?

It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man (Psalm 118:8).

There is been a lot of talk lately about the virtues of socialism versus capitalism. But what should a Christian think about the way that government and businesses work best together?

Communism is an extreme position where the government flat-out runs the economy. All property belongs to the state. Government officials set prices for commodities and services. Capitalism lies at the other end of the spectrum—government keeps its hands off of the economy. The state doesn’t operate any social welfare programs; that’s up to the private sector. Businesses can set employee wages wherever they want, and can charge customers whatever the market will bear. Socialism lies in the middle. The government exerts some control over business, but doesn’t control things completely.

From our perspective as God’s children, all three systems are failures. They fail because everyone is a sinner. Capitalism is a failure; it allows some to become rich and powerful at the expense of those who are poor and weak. The abuses of capitalism made labor unions necessary. Communism is a failure; it allows a small group of government officials to control everyone, and although these words are not found in the Bible they are nevertheless true: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The abuses of communism have resulted in dissidents being jailed or even executed. And Socialism is a failure; it tries to check individual excess with government regulation, pitting the sins of the many against the sins of the few who are in charge. The abuses of Socialism are apparent in government budgets that are stuffed with pet projects and deficit spending.

You can’t trust people with money. Some blow it on having fun. Others buy stuff they don’t need, stuff that gets stored away where no one can use it. Nor can you trust people with power over others. Our homes are filled with power struggles—struggles between husbands and wives, struggles between parents and children. We are constantly tempted to use our friends as tools to get what we want. When no one can be trusted with money or power, how can you trust business executives or governmental regulators to run things wisely? It is better to take refuge in the LORD than to trust in man.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Solace in suffering

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

Things could always be worse. How many times has someone tried to comfort you with that statement, as you’re trying to cope with a bad situation? How many times have you wanted to smack someone for saying such a thing?

When things are going badly, the last thing we want to hear is that we should count our blessings. Don’t other people understand what we’re going through? Can’t they sympathize with our plight? Don’t they have anything better to give us than some worn-out sentiments from a sympathy card?

When we’re hurting, we want to be the center of attention. We want others to drop what they’re doing so they can listen to our grumbling and agree that no one is worse off than we are. Misery loves company—so long as our misery gets the bulk of the attention.

When times are bad, it’s hard to look at things objectively. We get so wrapped up in our own problems that we become blind to what others are going through. Lots of people have been diagnosed with cancer. Lots of people have lost their jobs or had to live on government assistance. Lots of people have gone through divorce or lost a loved one to the grave. No matter what you’re going through, you aren’t alone in your pain.

And honestly, there are some who do have it worse than you. There are places in the world where people are kidnapped and murdered because they are Christians. There are millions who die from starvation or untreated medical problems. There are many who are homeless; some of them are stranded in a foreign country where few even speak their language. And many cry at a graveside, with no hope of a reunion in heaven because they have no faith in Jesus.

I’m not trying to make light of your troubles. But feeling sorry for yourself won’t make things better. There are many folks who understand your pain better than you think. Chief among them is Jesus. God’s Son walked our world as a man so He could experience first hand how tough life can be. He suffered unimaginably as He died on the cross. Christ has gone through much worse than you or I can possibly imagine. Go to Him in prayer; no one can understand your need better than Him.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Stormy waters

Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

During the fourth watch of the night Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. "It's a ghost," they said, and cried out in fear. But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid." "Lord, if it's you," Peter replied, "tell me to come to you on the water." "Come," he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. "You of little faith," he said, "why did you doubt?" And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God" (Matthew 14:22-33a).

When I was young, my family lived in a city along Lake Michigan. My hometown of Manitowoc was a port city; every day, car ferries would come and go from the harbor. These were large ships; mostly what they carried were railroad cars. When a ship came into port, the captain would turn the vessel around and back up to the dock; once made secure, the stern of the ship would open and the workers would fill the hull with loaded train cars.

But car ferries also transported passengers, along with their vehicles. You see, Lake Michigan is fairly narrow—only about 100 miles across—but it is over 300 miles long. When I was a child, many people would rather sail across Lake Michigan than drive around it, so car ferries were an attractive alternative for people traveling between Wisconsin and Michigan.

Have you ever been out in a boat during a storm? I have. One summer, my family took a car ferry across the lake to visit relatives in Michigan. We left at 11:00 pm and were scheduled to arrive at 3:00 am. Since we were traveling during the night, we had a cabin to sleep in. But Lake Michigan was stormy that evening; as big as that car ferry was, waves were soon breaking over the deck and splashing against the windows of the observation lounge. My parents had a terrible time sleeping; they were worried about the ship capsizing, and the constant rolling of the deck made them nauseous.

But I slept fine. I didn’t get sick, and I was too little to understand that we might be in danger. When we disembarked in the morning, one of the crew said that I must be a natural sailor. Actually, I think that’s funny, because to this day I still can’t swim!

From ancient times, water travel has always been dangerous. Storms at sea can be terrifying and are often deadly. So when writers of long ago wanted to describe chaos and danger in a powerful way, they often compared such abstract ideas to a stormy sea. Anyone reading their words felt an immediate gut reaction to such a metaphor, just as mid-westerners perk up their ears when someone says "it looks like a tornado hit this room." Just as we in the Midwest have an emotional response to tornado imagery, so did the people of the Bible have an emotional response to the image of stormy seas.

This helps us to understand some passages in the Bible. In the first chapter of Genesis, listen to how Moses describes the earth at the beginning: The earth was formless and empty, and darkness covered the deep waters. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. This is poetic language; before God started creating, there was nothing but chaotic darkness, something we can’t really comprehend. And so Moses uses imagery that provokes an emotional response in his readers—he compares that primordial chaos to a stormy sea, something fearsome and dangerous that the human mind can understand.

This same imagery shows up again in Revelation. In Chapter 13 we read: the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. Here, Satanic evil is described as coming from the sea, from the chaos that seeks to destroy what God has made. And in Revelation chapter 21, John is shown the wonderful future which will come after Christ has made all things new: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. There was no longer any sea—in other words, when Jesus remakes everything in perfection, there will be no chaos, no danger.

Now, do not misunderstand—the Bible does not speak of water as a bad thing. It is the stormy sea that represents chaos and danger. Water, on the other hand, is a good thing. God used water to flood the earth at the time of Noah, but the purpose was to cleanse the world of evil; Peter even compares the great flood to baptism: Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood. And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you (1 Peter 3:20-21).

In the Bible, water is a wonderful gift from the Almighty. When combined with God’s Word, water becomes baptism, a spiritual cleansing; in Acts chapter 22 we are told, be baptized and wash your sins away. And when Jesus discusses spiritual life, He speaks of it as life-giving water; in John chapter 7 our Lord says, Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, `Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.' This was demonstrated graphically on Good Friday when Jesus perished for our sins; John records, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water (John 19:34). This happened as a visual demonstration that living waters do indeed flow from the Savior’s heart, and this is picked up again in Revelation chapter 22 as the new creation is described: Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. Jesus the Lamb of God is the source of living water in both this world and the next.

Jesus is the source of living water, water that gives new life and strength to all who come and drink from it, an inexhaustible source of refreshment that will last forever. But once again, this is a word picture. Just as stormy seas represent chaos, so does living water represent something else. John tells us, When he said "living water," he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him (John 7:38).

All this talk about water draws our attention to the Holy Spirit. In Genesis the Spirit was there, ready to bring order out of chaos: the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. In baptism, the Spirit comes to us, as Peter explains in the book of Acts chapter two: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Jesus creates faith in our hearts, makes it possible for us to believe that His blood shed on the cross can and will absolve us from all guilt and make us acceptable to God. 1st Corinthians chapter six says, you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. Through baptism, the Spirit brings order out of chaos, removing from our hearts the love of sin and replacing it with a love for God’s holy laws.

Every gardener knows that water is essential to maintain life; thus we need the living water of the Holy Spirit constantly flowing through us to keep us spiritually healthy. But you also know what can happen to a flowerbed if a severe storm tears things up; such chaos brings destruction. Our God brings order out of chaos; He calms stormy seas. Yet we are often reluctant to trust Him; when storms come, we become needlessly fearful. Mark chapter 4 provides just one example: A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, "Quiet! Be still!" Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, "Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?" The Lord was right there in the boat with them, yet they still panicked—when Jesus did not take immediate action to fix things, they accused Him of not caring about them.

Even when we do trust Jesus, the chaos in our lives can still distract us and drag us down. The incident of Peter walking on the water is a perfect example. So long as his focus was on the Lord, Peter was fine. But the moment that he let his attention drift to the chaos around him, he became afraid—he lost faith. Immediately he began sinking. Peter would have drowned had Jesus not quickly reached out and supported him.

This is why we need the Spirit of God. We don’t trust the Lord as we should; we allow ourselves to become distracted by the chaos that rages all around us. We need to be reminded that our Lord is always with us; we need to be reminded that He makes it possible to rise above worry and walk with confidence at His side. Out of chaos, God made an ordered universe filled with love and perfection. When our sin brought storminess into His creation, God sent His Son to bring peace and restore us with the living water of the Holy Spirit. When our Master returns at the end, He will recreate our world in the lost image of paradise—a place where there is no longer any chaos wrought by sin. The Spirit reminds us that God is more powerful than the forces of destruction, that He brings peace and safety to the most dangerous of places. When our mouths go dry in fear, the Spirit is sweet water on our lips, revitalizing us and giving us new life in Jesus' name.

When I crossed Lake Michigan on that stormy night, I wasn’t afraid because I trusted the captain and my parents to keep me safe. When your life is filled with storms, may God’s Spirit fill you with confidence in the Father’s love and the Savior’s power to keep you safe no matter how scary things might seem. Storms will come, but Jesus has ended them before and He will continue to end them. In the meantime, trust in His call to walk safely at His side.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Being satisfied

Be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you" (Hebrews 13:5).

It never seems as if things are good enough to suit us.

During winter, we complain about how dry the air is; we run humidifiers and soak in the tub for moisture. During the summer, we complain about the humidity being too high; we run dehumidifiers and soak in the pool to cool off. When it is spring, we complain about allergies and insects; in the fall, we complain about raking leaves and the chilly bite of nighttime breezes.

During the school year, kids whine about having to attend class; during summer break, they grumble that they’re bored. People who subscribe to cable television complain when service is interrupted, but when things are working properly, they grumble that despite all the channels available, there’s nothing on that’s worth watching.

Farmers are notorious for worrying. No matter how nice the weather is, they worry that there won’t be enough sun or enough rain; they worry that the first freeze will come too early or the spring thaw will be too late. Republicans and Democrats are never happy; they are always pointing fingers at the other party, warning how a piece of legislation or a change in taxes will destroy our nation’s greatness.

People complain no matter how good they have it. We never have enough money. We never have enough time. We never have enough success. Whenever we start feeling contented, we look around and see someone else who we think is better off, and we get jealous. Of course, the irony is that the people we envy are envious of someone else!

Satan would like you to think that you can and should have it all. He wants you to be dissatisfied with your life. He knows that if you’re not happy, you won’t notice how much God gives you each and every day. Satan doesn’t want you to appreciate God’s loving care, doesn’t want you saying thank you for all His blessings. Don’t play Satan’s game. Don’t get caught up in whining; instead, pray to the Lord. He can help you see the many good things you don’t even notice because you take them for granted. God has shown you kindness; with His help, you will see that there is much to be grateful for!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Making the best choice

You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16).

Of all the decisions that we make in life, none are more important than those regarding Jesus. Will you go to church on Sunday or sleep in? Will you take the kids to Sunday School or let them play video games instead? Will you read the Bible or watch television? Each of these decisions impacts your relationship with Jesus, either strengthening it or allowing it to weaken.

I’ve said before that each of us has only a limited ability to make choices. Nowhere is this more obvious than in matters of faith. We don’t choose to believe in Jesus; we’re not capable of such a choice. Paul writes, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so (Romans 8:7). Without God’s influence, Christianity seems ridiculous to the sinful mind—Paul says, The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14). Until Jesus changes our hearts, we cannot choose to love Him. He said, You did not choose me, but I chose you.

But God does not force us to love Him. We do have a choice in the matter—we can choose to reject His offer of companionship. Of course, such rejection grieves our Lord terribly; listen to Jesus’ words as He looked in sorrow at Jerusalem and its people: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Luke 13:34) And rejecting Jesus is the worst decision anyone can possibly make, because without Jesus our sins remain a part of us, and death will lead to judgment and hell. Jesus said, Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him (John 3:36).

We need God’s help to make good decisions. Philippians chapter two says, it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Jesus said, I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5). No matter how busy you are, make time for God’s Son in your schedule, studying His word and praying for His guidance. Build each day around Jesus, that all of your decisions might be good ones.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Is God looking at us from a distance?

I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way (Ephesians 1:16-23).

It’s an old joke: a first-time flyer has a window seat on an airplane. He looks out and exclaims: "wow! We must be a long ways up; the people down there look like ants." To this, a passing stewardess replies, "Those ARE ants, sir—we haven’t taken off yet."

Being up high gives you a very different perspective on things. Farms with large acreages look quite small when seen from an airplane. Flying over highways, the cars zipping along below you don’t look like they’re really moving all that fast. Fly high enough, and you can’t even see individual people as they go about their daily business.

In 1990, Bette Midler release a song called From a Distance. In it, she pointed out that many of the things that seem to be huge problems can look quite small when seen with the perspective of enough distance. One verse goes, 'From a distance You look like my friend, Even though we are at war'. The refrain of the song goes, 'God is watching us From a distance', implying that God’s view of our priorities is quite different from our own, because He sees the big picture.

While it is a nice song, there is something troubling about the message it sends. God is watching us from a distance. What do these words imply about God? Is He too far away to see the tear running down your cheek? Sitting high above everything in His glory, can He hear your prayers? Is He aware of the arthritis in your joints, the confusion and worry in your soul? Or is God only watching us from a distance?

Some of men who founded America were not Christians, but Deists. Deists believe that there is a god, but they claim that it is impossible to know him—or her. The Deist believes that god is like a clock maker. In the distant past he made the world and wound it up; ever since then he has been content to sit at a distance and watch his creation tick the years away. Deists reject all world religions including Christianity, because they believe that god has never spoken to anyone, never sent dreams or visions, never suspended his laws of nature by performing miracles. He certainly never sent his son to die for anyone’s sins. The god of the Deists is a god who only watches us from a distance.

From our human perspective, it is certainly tempting to think of God as distant—sometimes, the idea is even comforting. After all, do you really want God hearing every word that comes out of your mouth when you’re mad? Do you really want God watching closely as you climb into bed with someone you’re not married to? Certainly, much of the time we act as if God really is a long distance away.

But do we truly find comfort in the idea that God is far off? When a little boy is sick in bed or a little girl is scared of the dark, are they comforted by knowing that their parents are downstairs watching TV? Don’t they instead crave the reassurance of having Mom or Dad right there in the room with them? When times are tough—as they so often are—we don’t want a God who is far away, squinting to see us from a distance—we want a God who will cradle us in His arms.

There are many times when the people of the Bible felt as if God was far away. Psalm 10 begins with the words, Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In Psalm 22 David cries out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? Have you ever tried to see the faces in a plane as it flies over you? It’s impossible. Distance makes the people at the windows too small to make out; when an airliner passes overhead, you don’t know if anyone is looking down at you, you can’t see if the passengers are angry, happy, sad, or just bored. Distance keeps people strangers to each other.

God is not distant. He sent His Son Jesus into our world to walk among us, eat with us, and share our sorrows. In the person of Jesus, God and Man were brought together, distant strangers no longer. Jesus came down to us because we cannot rise to Him. Our sin clips our wings, making flight to heaven impossible. So Jesus came and walked among us—walked with us all the way to the place where every journey ends, the grave. Because of this earthbound journey at our side, Jesus knows exactly what it’s like to live—times of joy shadowed by times of sadness, times of plenty followed by times of need. He knows first hand what it is like to be pressured to do the wrong thing—pressured by your friends, urged by the cravings of your body, tempted by Satan himself. Jesus suffered everything that a human can suffer, yet He came through it all triumphant—at no time did He ever do wrong or give in to despair. By capping off a perfect life with a sacrificial death, Jesus ended sin’s domination over you; by rising alive from the grave, the Lord has guaranteed you everlasting life with Him. Jesus has ended our separation from God, as we are told by Paul in Ephesians chapter 2: now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ.

This week we celebrate our Lord’s ascension back into heaven. He returned there because His goals here on earth had been achieved—the cross and grave were both empty, forgiveness and eternal life were His to offer us. Jesus came to become both our Savior and our friend, prompting the following words to be written in Hebrews chapter 4: since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

If God wants to be close to us, why did Jesus go back to heaven? Jesus gives one reason in John chapter 16: I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. Jesus does not walk the streets with us, but He has sent God’s Spirit to live in your heart and mine; with the Spirit living among us, it doesn’t matter where we are or what we are doing, because God is with us constantly—what a blessing! Another reason Jesus returned to heaven has to do with our eternal home; Jesus said, In my Father's house are many rooms…I am going there to prepare a place for you (John 14:2). But perhaps the most important reason Jesus returned to heaven is stated by John: if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One (1 John 2:1). Job writes, Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high. My intercessor is my friend as my eyes pour out tears to God; on behalf of a man he pleads with God as a man pleads for his friend (Job 16:19-21).

But although Jesus has ascended, He is certainly not far away. As a man, Jesus still has a body—but as the Son of God, He is not limited by that body. And so our Lord is always with us, as He assured the disciples shortly before He left: be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). When we come together in worship, He is present among us because He promised, where two or three gather together in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20). And when we celebrate Holy Communion, we have the privilege of actually experiencing our Savior’s touch, for Jesus said: this is my body…this is my blood (Matthew 26:26 & 28). Our Lord is not watching us from a distance; He is here with us! He listens to our cares, He dries our tears and reaches into our hearts with His forgiveness and love. Our Savior is as close as the sound of His name whispered by our lips.

Why did Jesus leave the way He did? Why not just vanish in a puff of smoke or slowly fade from sight? After all, heaven isn’t really "up", so why did Jesus rise through the clouds as His way of leaving us? I think it has to do with our psychology. Consider a couple figures of speech. To "look up to someone" is to demonstrate respect and admiration, while to "look down on someone" is to show distaste and disapproval. Why do we use these expressions? When you were little, the people who took care of you were all very tall—Mom and Dad were taller than you, your teachers were taller than you, pastors and doctors and policemen were taller than you. Growing up, everyone who was in charge towered over you—the only people your size were other children. Even now that you’ve grown up, you probably still treat those taller than you—at least at first—with a bit more respect than those who are shorter. It’s almost instinctive; from childhood, we have learned to look up for protection, guidance, and love.

So it doesn’t surprise me that Jesus left this world by ascending into the sky. By going up, He taught us to look up to Him for everything that we need—protection, guidance, and love. In every human culture, the person in charge is given a higher place to sit, whether it be a king whose throne is on a platform several steps up from the floor, or a corporate executive whose office is on the top floor of a skyscraper. It only makes sense, then, for the Son of God to direct our eyes higher than any throne or executive office—because Jesus is our gracious King, and He is above everything.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Decisions, decisions

God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).

How much freedom of choice do you really have in life? You don’t get to choose your parents. You can’t alter your genetic structure. You can’t change the economy or put an end to war. You can’t escape aging or death.

Of course, there are many points in life where you do get to make a choice—but even then, your options are limited. When deciding what to wear, you are limited to the choices in your closet. If you choose to behave badly, you can end up in the Principal’s office or a jail cell; you can lose your job or your marriage.

And yet, although our choices are limited, there are still times when we feel overwhelmed. There are several options open to us, and we don’t know which way to go. We can be paralyzed with fear, unwilling to make a choice that might turn out badly and cannot be taken back. Sometimes we hesitate too long, and events make the decision for us.

You are right to be concerned about making a bad decision. Left to our own judgment, we usually take the wrong path. This is because we’re all sinners. Our minds are clouded by fear, anger, and desire. Our cravings scream so loudly for satisfaction that it is hard to think things through logically. Our fears urge us to take quick and drastic action, regardless of the consequences. When it comes to making decisions, we only have limited options, yet even then we are prone to making bad choices.

This is why we need Jesus in our lives. We need Him to put limits on the choices available to us, so we don’t make a lot of catastrophic decisions. We need Him to guide us in making good use of the decision points in our lives. We need Him to forgive us when we do the wrong thing, hurting ourselves or hurting others in the process. We need Him to fix the damage that we’ve caused, which no words of apology can ever set right.

God gives us freedom to make choices, but within certain limits. He gives us brains to use and He gives us guidelines to follow. Use your mind to honor God with your choices, trusting that Jesus will forgive you when a decision turns out badly.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Is the future preordained?

Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him (John 3:36).

Let’s talk about fate.

Some people talk as if the future is set in stone. Some look for the job they were born to do. Others wonder about their purpose in life. Romantics look for their one true love.

Some believe that their future is decided on the day of their birth. They might say, "I was born this way" as if change is impossible. Others make decisions about the best way forward according to their birth sign—they believe that their future is written in the stars.

It can be reassuring, believing that the future is all mapped out. You can say, "everything happens for a reason" and find comfort during a time of tragedy. But some resent being chained to destiny; they rebel against any suggestion that the future is preordained. They want the freedom to choose their own path, instead of dancing helplessly like a puppet while someone else pulls the strings.

I don’t believe that the future is written in stone. I don’t believe that birth determines the course of one’s life. God does not dictate our actions. We see it already in the Garden of Eden. God told Adam and Eve what the rules were, but He did not stop them from disobeying. Sadly, they made a terrible choice that has tainted every one of us with imperfection and a rebellious streak.

There are only two absolutes in the universe—God’s justice and God’s love. His justice demanded punishment in hell for all lawbreakers. His love offered us a way to escape that awful destiny. God’s Son suffered as our substitute; our assured punishment was shifted over to Him. By Jesus’ sacrifice, we are permitted escape from an unhappy fate.

But God does not force His Son upon us. While He offers salvation, He permits us to reject it. Jesus reaches down from heaven to lift you up, but He lets you swat away the offer of help if you’d rather die than live. God is no puppet master. He loves you, but He doesn’t force you to love Him back. He offers you eternal happiness, but you can reject it if you’re really not interested.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

A mother's love

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in His presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything.

Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey His commands and do what pleases Him. And this is His command: to believe in the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as He commanded us. Those who obey His commands live in Him, and He in them. And this is how we know that He lives in us: we know it by the Spirit He gave us
(1 John 3:18-24).

Happy Mothers’ Day! Today we rejoice in the gift of mothers. Today we show honor to a special group of women who have set aside personal pleasures and convenience for the sake of their children. For nine months they traded comfort and mobility for nausea, a restricted diet, back pain and constant poking by needles, culminating in hours of almost unimaginable pain. After the exhausting joy of childbirth, they gave up months of uninterrupted sleep for middle of the night feedings. Nor did the sacrifices stop there. During the school years, these women found themselves juggling their kid’s activities with everything else that needed to get done each week. There were financial strains from providing food, clothing, and medical care, not to mention tuition fees, band instruments, and uniforms. And when the children finally moved off on their own, there were still long nights lying awake with worry—worry over each hardship or setback that grown child was facing, wondering what help an aging parent could offer.

Why? What motivates a mother to sacrifice so much of her life for her children? The answer, of course, is love. But we’re not talking about a mushy, sentimental love. We’re not talking about a love that depends on feelings of warmth and affection. The love of a mother is a devoted love, a love that makes a life-long commitment to another person. This kind of love will change a stinky diaper even at three in the morning. This kind of love will put dinner on the table even while a child is throwing a tantrum. This kind of love will buy a new set of clothes for school even though playing ball in the house broke the TV. A mother’s love cares for her children, even when they are not very likable.

A mother’s devoted love is an expression of the kind of love that God has for us. Much of the time, we aren’t very likable. Our lives are filled with stinky messes that we are responsible for but can’t clean up. We throw temper tantrums when God doesn’t give us everything we want. And what God does give us we misuse and abuse, with the result that we often ruin His wonderful gifts. Yet God loves us anyway. Even though we sin repeatedly, He comes and fixes what we’ve messed up. Even though we yell at Him, He still sees that we are fed. Even though we misuse His gifts, He still makes sure that we have clothing and a place to live. Even though we are often unlikable, God continues to shower us with His love.

All the blessings of motherhood come as a gift from God. This even applies to conception. You sometimes hear about 'unplanned pregnancies' or children coming about as the result of an 'accident'. But from God’s perspective, there is no such thing as an accidental, unplanned, unwanted baby. Listen to the Genesis account of the very first pregnancy in human history: Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man." Eve said something profound—she realized that the only reason she was able to conceive and give birth was because God made it possible. Babies are only conceived by a miracle of God, as He combines the DNA of the mother and father and attaches a soul to this new human being. This means that a woman only becomes a mother if God chooses to bless her in this way. In other words, women only become mothers by God’s gracious action.

How great a blessing is motherhood? When Adam and Eve sinned against God and each other, they made it necessary for God to send a Savior into our world. Now God could have just caused Jesus to appear on earth as a grown man, ready to bear our sins on the cross and offer us forgiveness through the sacrifice of His blood. But instead, our heavenly Father caused a virgin to conceive and bear a son—thus Jesus was both Son of God and Son of Man. The Father wanted His Son to experience human life fully, so that He could be completely sympathetic to what our lives are like from cradle to grave. An essential part of that experience was to grow in the womb, experience the pain of childbirth, be held in a mother’s tender arms, grow up in a family with a Mom and Dad and brothers and sisters who loved and respected both God and each other, participate in all the things necessary for a family to function as a unit, and experience being loved not for what He did but for who He was. This had always been God’s plan for bringing up the children He gives us, and for Jesus to fully experience what it means to be human, He needed such a childhood. God chose the office of motherhood to bring the Savior into our lives.

It is a good thing that motherhood is such a blessing, because it certainly comes at a cost. When Adam and Eve were confronted over their sins, they made matters worse by trying to shift the blame instead of taking responsibility for their actions. As a result, each received a curse from God. In the case of Eve we read: To the woman he said, "I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children" (Genesis 3:16).

This is the curse of sin—pain. Pain, which if left untreated, eventually results in death. Because of our rebellion against God and His laws, our lives are filled with discomfort, fear, and frustration. Even when the result is something wonderful, struggle through suffering is the price of achievement. Mothers struggle through suffering to bring children into the world; a successful birth makes all the pain worthwhile.

So it is with our salvation. Jesus came into this world for one purpose—to free us from the curse of sin so that we can be joyful members of God’s holy family, both here in life and after our bodies have experienced death. But sin made Jesus sweat to achieve His goal—sweat drops of blood. Sin made Jesus suffer unimaginable agony as His body was crucified by men and His soul was rejected by His Father for being stained with our sins. Jesus literally went through hell because of us to achieve His goal—a rebirth of humankind. Through the suffering and death of God’s Son, the curse of sin was taken from us and brought to an end in Him. When His suffering was over, the Lord rose from the dead, delivering new life for all who accept the invitation to follow Him. The new life produced through His pain is life free from guilt because forgiveness is ours for the asking; this new life is an everlasting life, because when we die our Lord has promised to lift us from our graves just as He rose from His. In this world, no good thing can be achieved without going through pain, and the Savior went through the worst pain of all to give us the greatest gift of all—life eternal in His name.

God wants us to honor our parents; this is so important that an entire Commandment is devoted to the subject: Honor your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 5:16). Did you catch that last part? Let me quote it again: that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you. There is a clear implication here: if respect for Mom and Dad goes away, society will be harmed; life in such a country will not go well. If children grow up having no respect for their parents, they will not respect their teachers either. As the years go by, their disrespect will extend to civil authorities, religious authorities, even to a husband or wife who would dare suggest that they might on occasion be wrong. And if respect for Mom and Dad does not exist, how can a child grow up respecting the God who provided life through those parents?

Are there mothers who fail their little ones? Certainly. There are women who abuse their children or neglect them or even abandon them. There are women who are so emotionally cold and distant or preoccupied with themselves that they are absent even though they live in the same house as the rest of their family. But we celebrate Mother’s Day anyway, because no matter what their failings, it was a mother who made your life possible by her willingness to give birth to you—even though all mothers are sinners, God still blessed you and I by their labors. And before you start wagging your finger at your mom, take a close look at yourself—how much unnecessary suffering have you caused her by doing something stupid and getting hurt as a result, causing her to worry or saddling her with another bill from the emergency room? How much needless pain have you inflicted by mouthing off or yelling at her or telling her lies? How much grief are you responsible for because you stole from her or treated her possessions carelessly? How many times have you been so wrapped up in your own little world that you didn’t see the pain behind her eyes or realize how lonely she has been since you started a life outside of her home? The fact is that we are all sinners, and we all need Jesus’ help to forgive and love each other as we should.

So thank God for your mother. Tell your Mom how much she means to you. Back up your words with actions—spend time together talking or walking or doing something that she loves. Offer your hands to do the things she hasn’t the strength to do on her own, offer your feet to run the errands she just doesn’t have the energy for. Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. That’s the way mothers show their love; that’s the way God shows His love to you.

Thursday, May 06, 2010


We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).

Let’s talk about luck.

Luck. Good fortune. A happy coincidence. Serendipity. No matter what name you hang on it, most people believe in luck. Luck is when you experience something good, even though the odds were against you.

Some people say that you can make your own luck. You can work hard to maximize your chances for success. By studying all the variables, you can position yourself to be in the best place at the best time with the best skills to achieve success. You can tilt luck in your favor.

Of course, mathematicians don’t see luck—they see statistics and probability. A math whiz can analyze information and calculate the percentages for various results. People use such calculations to set odds on the outcome of a sporting event. Statistics and probability are behind every weather forecast. You can’t play successfully in the stock market if you don’t understand the relationship between risk and payoff.

But is there such a thing as luck? Mathematics says no—over time, success and failures will cancel each other out. Good luck and bad luck are nothing but statistical extremes. And most people believe this—after a run of good fortune, they brace themselves for the time when luck finally runs out. By the same token, people who feel beaten up by life take comfort in the hope that eventually their luck will turn around.

Do you believe in luck? I don’t. I don’t believe that the universe is governed by chance or probability. I don’t believe that things happen by accident. I believe that God made the universe. I believe that He keeps His fingers in its day to day affairs, making sure that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. When good things happen, I thank God for His blessings. When bad things happen, I ask God to help me trust Him and rely on Him. I don’t believe in luck, because I believe in God. If luck is real, then no one is in charge of the universe. If God is real, I don’t need luck to get by. Gamblers say that luck is fickle, but I know that God always loves me.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Unclaimed inheritance

What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26)

There was something different about Morris Siegel, a homeless man in Los Angeles. On the surface, he seemed like your typical street person—roaming dark alleys, sleeping outside, carrying everything he owned in an old shopping cart. And he died the way you’d expect a street person to die—he was found lifeless in an alley, dead by natural causes.

What made Morris different from other homeless people? Maybe it was his three bank accounts that contained a total of $207,421.00!

In 1979, Morris’ father died and left him the money. When Morris did not claim his inheritance, the Division of Unclaimed Property tracked him down, and his family forced him to accept the money. But Morris did not show up for the meeting when the funds were handed over. He took just enough money to buy an old car, which he slept in when the weather was bad. Relatives rented him an apartment, but he never went there. He died on December 14th, 1989, with three dollars in his pocket and an untouched fortune in the bank.

Does that sound crazy? Then try to figure this one out:

Over two thousand years ago, our Savior ratified His last will and testament by dying on the cross. The beneficiaries are the people that He loved—every man, woman, and child. The inheritance guaranteed by His will includes release from guilt, peace with God, patience and strength when life is hard, wisdom and leadership when we don’t know what to do, and the promise of life in paradise after we die.

Yet to this day, most people have not claimed this windfall, or they have refused to make use of it. Lost people shuffle down the blind alleys of an empty existence, wandering closer and closer to eternal suffering while ignoring the riches promised by Christ. But passing on the offer of eternal happiness for a meaningless life and a pointless death, makes no more sense than being a wealthy man who dies alone in a cold, dark alley.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

A healthy church

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).

How do you know if your church is healthy?

Is a church healthy because it has a lot of members? Not necessarily. Early in Jesus’ ministry He attracted a lot followers, but as the time neared for His crucifixion, many became dissatisfied with His teachings and left. This prompted Jesus to ask the disciples, "You do not want to leave too, do you?"…Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (John 6:67-68).

Is a church healthy because it has a nice facility to worship in? Not necessarily. Early Christians had no church building at all—believers met in private homes and in caves. When asked where people must go to worship, Jesus replied, God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.

Is a church healthy because the members put a lot of money into the offering plate? Not necessarily. The Bible warns us repeatedly that riches often draw people away from the church. Jesus said, You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).

Is a church healthy because the members are leading happy lives? Not necessarily. Jesus says that His followers must share in His suffering. If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Mark 8:34).

There are only two ways to determine if a church is healthy. The first is this: is God’s word taught clearly and correctly? Through Moses God said, Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it (Deuteronomy 4:2). We are forbidden to muddy up God’s teaching with our own ideas; likewise, we dare not keep silent about anything God says, even if the words are unpleasant to hear.

The other way to determine if a church is healthy is to look at how the members treat God and each other. David wrote, Better is one day in your courts than a thousand anywhere else (Psalm 84:10). If we love and respect God, we want to spend as much time as possible in His house. And if we love and respect Him, then we should love and respect each other as well. Jesus said, As I have loved you, so you must love one another (John 13:34).

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