Friday, October 29, 2010

"Did God really say...?"

Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it (Deuteronomy 4:2).

Many people think that Christian churches are pretty much interchangeable; when they think of Methodists, Lutherans or the United Church of Christ, the main difference they see is in the different styles of worship. Presbyterians don’t worship like Baptists; Catholic church services are quite different from those of Episcopalians.

But there is more to these differences than the choice of hymnbooks. The reason that there are so many branches of Christianity has to do with what they teach. Each church body reveres the Bible, but each one reads that Bible in a different way.

The problem is that we are all corrupted by sin. Sin distorts everything about us. Sin makes us desire things that are unhealthy; sin wants us to put our needs ahead of all other considerations. Sin taints our emotions and clouds our reasoning. And so when we read the Bible, we read it through the fog of sin. Because sin impairs our minds, we struggle to understand God’s clear and perfect message to us. According to Paul, this will be a problem until Christ summons us to join Him in eternity: Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Because all human beings struggle to correctly understand God’s word, Jesus’ teaching came like a breath of fresh air. Matthew tells us, When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (Matthew 7:28-29). Only the Son of God is pure and without sin; only the Son of God can explain Holy Scripture and always get it perfectly right.

God knows how hard it is for us to see through the fog of sin. That is why He sent His Son to teach us. That is why He sends the Holy Spirit to deliver faith and understanding through the inspired Word. But God also gave us clear instructions regarding the use of the Bible. Through Moses, God told His people Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it. And John, moved by the Spirit of God, set down these words in the last chapter of the Bible: I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book. And if anyone takes words away from this book of prophecy, God will take away from him his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book (Revelation 22:18-19).

God tells is in both the Old Testament and the New that we are to accept His Bible as it is—we are neither to add to nor subtract from it. And yet, many Christians are tempted to do just that—add to or subtract from God’s word. Why is that?

The problem, of course, is sin. We love to hear a sermon where that sinner in the next pew gets nailed to the wall, but when the pastor talks about a sin that I enjoy, things are different. I get uncomfortable. I might even get offended. How dare he say that!

We know that God’s word must be obeyed, but sometimes we grumble that He demands too much of us. We are rightfully scared of angering God, but there are some sins so dear to our hearts that we can’t imagine giving them up. And so our sinful minds start looking—looking for wiggle room. We play a game that Satan taught Eve in the Garden of Eden: "Did God really say...?"

This game is played in one of two ways. One way was practiced by the Pharisees. In God’s Law, the seventh day of the week was to be set aside for the Lord—working was not allowed. But the experts in the Law wanted more detail; eventually, they calculated how many steps a person could walk on the Sabbath before walking became work. Does this sound like splitting hairs? It is—but it was an attempt to find wiggle room in God’s Law. In other words, how much work can I get away with on the Sabbath day before God gets mad at me for working?

Some modern Christian churches play this same game—they add carefully-designed rules to the Bible to create wiggle room. Some church bodies claim that Jesus said things to His disciples that were not written down in the Bible, but have been passed down through the years by word of mouth; in other words, the leaders of the church have information the rest of us do not. Other churches claim to have been visited by prophets or angels, who have brought new information because the Bible is not God’s complete and final message to us. All this in spite of the fact that God warns us not to add to His word.

The other way this game is played is by asking the following question: does the Bible contain God’s word, or is it God’s word? There is an important difference between the two. If the Bible is God’s word, then we have to believe that everything in it comes from God. But if the Bible only contains God’s word, then it can also contain something else as well—human teachings which we can safely ignore.

Many modern Christian churches play this game. Some will say that you can’t read the Bible literally—it’s only about ideas and principles, not facts. Others claim that the Bible was a product of its time and place, and parts of it are irrelevant to our modern world. Some believe that the Bible has been secretly rewritten over the years, attributing to Jesus words He did not say and miracles He did not do, all in an effort to make Jesus appear more wonderful to the people in the pew. The bottom line is this—parts of the Bible just can’t be believed. All this in spite of the fact that God warns us not to subtract anything from His word.

We are sinners; we want wiggle room when it comes to the Bible because, frankly, sometimes the Bible says things it is tough to hear. Jesus faced this very same response in His ministry among us; when He told the people that He was the living Bread which comes down from heaven, St. John records: On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you?" (John 6:60-61) And the result? A few verses later we are told, From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. Paul predicted this same problem for the Church in the future: the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

God tells us that the Bible is His Word and must be taken seriously; Paul wrote, All Scripture comes from the mouth of God and is useful for teaching, confronting falsehood, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). We ignore it or twist it’s meaning at our peril. And yet there is such a strong temptation to do so. Consider the following examples:

Many church bodies ordain women to serve as clergy; yet what do they say about First Corinthians chapter 14 and First Timothy chapter 2? Many churches practice open communion, but what about First Corinthians chapter 10, or Romans chapter 16? More and more churches are tolerant of divorce on demand, ignoring Matthew chapter 5 and Malachi chapter 2. Less and less churches oppose the teaching of evolution, in spite of Genesis chapter 1 and Exodus chapter 20. Some churches no longer identify homosexual activity as sinful, in spite of Leviticus chapter 18 and Romans chapter 1.

Where does this all lead? There are Christian churches in this country that make a horrifying claim—you do not need to know Jesus to get into heaven. Some say that since Jesus died to pay for all sins, you are forgiven even if you don’t ask Jesus for mercy. Some claim that if you have never heard of Jesus, but still live a life of love and service like Jesus did, God will let you into heaven. But can you enter heaven without knowing Jesus? 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. In Acts chapter 4, Peter says the following about Jesus: Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. Can you enter heaven without Jesus, so long as you live a life that is pleasing to God? Romans chapter 3 states, There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. And Ephesians chapter 2 says, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast.

Playing "did God really say?" is a dangerous game. Playing it got Adam and Eve kicked out of paradise and condemned to death. Playing it has led some Christian churches to claim that you don’t need to be friends with Jesus in order to enter heaven.

Maybe you think this doesn’t really affect you. But suppose you are at a funeral for someone whom you loved deeply. Do you want to hear the pastor say, "I’m not sure where your loved one is now"? Do you want to be told that you might never see that person again, that we just can’t be sure what happens after death? Or do you want to have confidence in the words of First Corinthians chapter 15: Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed--in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." If you can’t be sure of these words, what comfort can you find in a church funeral?

Or suppose that you are weighed down by regret over stupid things you’ve said and done; you feel trapped in a cage of your mistakes, and can’t see anything but more darkness in your future. Do you want to hear a sermon that says, "it’s all up to you! The only way you can be sure of happiness is to take charge of your life and change it for the better"? Or do you want to believe the words of Matthew chapter 11: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Do you crave for the hope found in Luke chapter 5, where Jesus says: Friend, your sins are forgiven. If you can’t be sure of these words, what is there to keep you from committing suicide?

Every church needs to pledge itself to obeying God’s command—we do not want to add to God’s word, nor do we want to subtract from it. This means that we have to listen to some hard teachings, and simply submit to our Lord in humbleness. When the Bible speaks of God as both Three and One, we do not assume that the Bible is wrong, nor do we try to explain it away—we simply put our faith in the One God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The the Bible IS God’s Word, complete as given. There is security in knowing that everything we need is there, and we don’t have to use our faulty human reasoning to decide which parts are real and which parts apply to us. We study the Bible to understand it, but we don’t ignore the parts we dislike, nor do we embellish it to suit our preferences. We submit to God’s Word out of love and trust, instead of twisting it to make it easy or 'Politically Correct'. That is the hallmark of a truly Christian church.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Halloween (part 2)

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26).

In my previous devotion, I talked about how popular Halloween is, and some of the reasons why people enjoy it so much. Today we’ll look at what God has to say about the powers of darkness, and consider how we should react to their threat.

Halloween has become the time each year when we face darkness and evil head on. Usually people don’t like to think about death, let alone talk about it; but on Halloween, tomb stones become part of the scenery along with skeletons and zombies. Usually when we think of the dead, there is sorrow over a loved one who has left this world before we were ready to say goodbye; but on Halloween, ghosts become a source of amusement or cheap thrills. We fear death; Halloween is a time when we can look the Grim Reaper square in the eye and say, "I’m not afraid of you."

Of course, if Jesus is your friend, there is no reason to be afraid of death—ever. Death cannot finish you, because Jesus is stronger than death—He proved it on Easter, when He rose from His own grave alive and healthy. Jesus will restore the joy of living to all His followers on the Last Day. The only ones who need fear death are those who don’t accept Jesus’ outstretched hand.

Halloween is also a time for make-believe. We dress up in costumes for a variety of reasons—to overcome shyness, to be the kind of person we’ve always wanted to be, or to explore our darker side. There are times when we get dissatisfied with our lives, and Halloween gives us the chance to play at being different.

But changing your life doesn’t have to be a fantasy. Jesus is always ready to help you find a better path. It starts with forgiveness. Whatever mistakes you’ve made, whatever opportunities you’ve missed, Jesus can forgive the bad choices you’ve made. He can help you overcome your bad habits and addictions. He can give you wisdom to see a better way of living your life. He can give you the courage to make a change, no matter how scary that change might seem. With Jesus’ help, you can start becoming the kind of person you never thought you could be.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween (part 1)

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this…to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).

Halloween is a very popular holiday here in America. Retailers make more profits off of Halloween than any other holiday save Christmas. But what makes Halloween so popular?

Part of it has to do with fear. We love to be thrilled, and few things thrill us like danger and fear. Of course, many of us don’t have the skills to participate in some of the most thrilling activities; most people will never drive on a racetrack, jump from a plane, or do aerial tricks on a skateboard. But anyone can get a thrill from watching a scary movie or going through a haunted house.

Another part of Halloween that appeals to many is the opportunity to dress up and pretend to be someone else. Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives. Many youngsters wish they were grownups doing exciting things. Many adults wish they had been more adventurous in their younger days. And there are people who are just plain shy, who long for an opportunity to come out of their shell and get a little wild. Playing dress up on Halloween allows us to indulge our fantasies.

But Halloween has always had another purpose, as well. The world is a dark and scary place, filled with unexpected danger. Man has always feared the evil that lurks in shadow, waiting to pounce on the unwary. In the past, some people tried to appease the darkness by honoring the spirit world through ritual and sacrifice. This ancient practice is the birthplace of Halloween. In the years since then, Halloween has been slowly transformed. The holiday still gives us reassurance in the face of darkness, but now the fear is taken away by trivializing it. Witches and ghosts have become decorations with smiling faces. Monsters are played for laughs. Instead of treating the darkness with respect, we giggle at it instead.

But is it smart to giggle at the darkness? Is it a good idea to trivialize the power of the spirit world? In our next devotion, we will take a look at what God has to say about the forces that want to bring fear into our lives.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"

"What did Moses command you?" he replied.

They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away."

"It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law," Jesus replied. "But at the beginning of creation God `made them male and female.' `For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate."

When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. He answered, "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:2-12).

Over half of all marriages end in divorce. When you think about all the pain and hardship caused by this, it is truly sad. When you consider that families are the backbone of our society, the high divorce rate is frightening to even think about. But when you realize that over 50% of all Christian marriages also end in divorce, things have moved beyond tragedy—we are discussing the unthinkable.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus makes it very clear—God hates divorce. And why wouldn’t He? St. John writes, God is love (1 John 4:16). In 1st Corinthians chapter 13, Paul describes the love of God this way: 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. But what does divorce result in? Feelings of worthlessness, hatred, mistrust, fear, and loneliness. And what does divorce teach children about love? It teaches them that love is not always patient or forgiving; it teaches them that love can wither and die. Divorce paints a very different picture of love than the one God shares with us in His holy Word.

But the problem with divorce goes even deeper than the pain of love betrayed. Consider what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians chapter 5: Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church…husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church--for we are members of his body. "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." This is a profound mystery--but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Paul tells us that marriage is an earthly reflection of the relationship Jesus has with us. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is His bride. Jesus used this imagery many times in His ministry; one example is found in the Gospel of Mark chapter two: Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?" Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. Christ the bridegroom was taken from us when He died on the cross under the burden of our sins; after He rose from the dead He ascended back into heaven, where He offers forgiveness to those who trust in Him. We are waiting for the day that the bridegroom returns for us, a day pictured in Revelation chapter 19: Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude…shouting: "Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear." (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.) Who is the Lamb of God, who took away the sin of the world? The Lamb is Jesus the bridegroom. And who is the bride, dressed in white? The bride represents the saints, who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. You, me, every believer throughout time—we are the bride of Christ!

What does this have to do with God’s attitude towards divorce? Paul writes in Colossians chapter 1: Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. God made us to be His. But because we are sinners, we walked away from God; in essence, we divorced ourselves from Him. But God did not accept our foolish decision as final. Through Jesus’ suffering and death, the Lord reconciled us to Himself—He took radical measures to repair the relationship we had destroyed. Christ has ended our divorce from God so that He can be our eternal bridegroom.

In Malachi chapter 2 God says, I hate divorce. The reason should be obvious. Through marriage, God teaches us about love and forgiveness and reconciliation. Divorce teaches us about hate and grudge bearing and stubborn pride. When a person files for divorce, he or she is saying: "the relationship is hopeless; reconciliation is impossible." No Christian should ever make such a statement! Jesus said, What is impossible with men is possible with God (Luke 18:27). Forgiveness and reconciliation are the very essence of Christianity!

Divorce is a terrible thing—but imagine the consequences should God ever give up on His relationship with us! Without God, there is no love. Without Christ, there is no reprieve from hell. Without the Holy Spirit, our hearts can never be filled with anything except rage, fear, sadness, and loneliness. To be divorced from God is to be the devil’s plaything, body and soul. There is nothing in all the universe so precious as God’s offer of reconciliation through His Son.

But what if your marriage is not going well? Doesn’t God want us to be happy? I would like to remind you that God is not responsible for the problems in your marriage. Whatever is going wrong in your relationship is the result of sin—your sin and the sin of your partner. And it should be obvious that you cannot fix one sin by committing another. Two wrongs don’t make a right. There is only one way to correct the problem of sin. Jesus demonstrated it on the cross—forgiveness, full and free.

Sin is the trigger for every divorce. Since God hates sin and the divorce it can lead to, it seems surprising that Moses established guidelines for dissolving marriages. But God knows that we are flawed with sin. We all make mistakes, some of horrific magnitude. Sometimes a Christian marries the wrong person, someone who has no faith in Jesus and is firmly under sin’s control. Sometimes another person comes along who is so charming and attractive that a Christian falls into an extramarital affair. Sometimes your pride stops you from saying "I’m sorry" to the person you married; sometimes a grievous hurt holds you back from saying, "I forgive you."

When is divorce tolerable to God? The Bible is quite specific. One case has to do with Christians being married to unbelievers. Paul has this to say in 1st Corinthians chapter 7: If anyone has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? If an unbeliever wants out of the marriage, the Christian is free to let that person go, with no harm done.

The other situation where God tolerates divorce is when you are the victim of a broken relationship. In Matthew chapter 19 Jesus tells us, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful. If your spouse abandons you, you may choose to file for divorce. A spouse who has an affair has abandoned one person for another; if you’ve been cheated on, you can divorce without sinning. If your spouse walks out on you and disappears to who knows where, you have been abandoned and can end the marriage without guilt. And if the other person files divorce papers on you, you are being abandoned—you don’t have to contest the legal action.

But there are other reasons for divorce that God has not said He will accept. Probably the most common reason for divorce has to do with emotional satisfaction. Your husband isn’t as attentive or polite as he used to be. Your wife isn’t as pretty or full of energy as she was while you were dating. Your marriage has become dull and routine. The love you used to feel just isn’t there anymore.

But nowhere in the Bible does God permit divorce for these types of reasons. Love is not just about roses and wine and kisses by the fireplace; love is about commitment to another person, even on those days where commitment is more of a chore than a joy. Can you imagine a mother putting her baby up for adoption because she doesn’t like dealing with stinky diapers? Parental love for children includes a commitment to care for them, even when they’re crabby or demand attention in the middle of the night because they’re sick; marital love is no different. God continues to love us even when we are not very lovable. John urges us to show love in the same way: Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).

But what about abuse? Well, the Bible does not speak of abuse as a reason for divorce. However, nowhere does God insist that you continue living with an abusive person—separation is not the same as divorce. Separation is a time-out; divorce is ending a relationship permanently. If your abusive partner is a Christian, then the Spirit of God is struggling to control the sin in his heart. So long as an abusive person trusts in Jesus as his Savior, there is hope that the Spirit will bring about a change in his behavior. And God is patient in working with us—some changes can take a long time. If you trust in the power of the Spirit to make things better, then separation should not lead to divorce—not unless the offender strays from the faith. Remember, through divorce you communicate that there is no hope—but with God, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).

Do Christians get divorced for wrong reasons and thus commit sin? Of course. Can the sin of wrongful divorce be forgiven? Of course. Jesus died to free you from the guilt of every mistake you’ve made; John writes: the blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7). But if you are truly sorry for getting an ungodly divorce, should you try to reconcile? Absolutely—unless you or your Christian ex are already remarried, which would make reconciliation impossible.

We cannot go back and fix the hurt caused by divorce, anymore than we can make right any other sin we have committed. Thank God that Jesus doesn’t make such a demand of us! His forgiveness is total and completely free. His wonderful forgiveness, and the committed love that it springs from, should be our guide when a marriage is in trouble. For we who are reconciled by God’s grace, divorce should rarely be an option; there are few problems that cannot be corrected when we admit that we’ve done wrong and we offer forgiveness to those who seek it. I know that forgiveness is hard—it cost Jesus His very life. But with the Spirit’s help, we can use God’s power to do what seems impossible. Always remember Paul’s advice in Ephesians chapter 4: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


Learn from me (Matthew 11:29).

Education is important. It is so important that our government has established the public school system and has laws against truancy. We want our children to be well educated for a number of reasons. We want our kids prepared for good paying jobs. When our kids reach voting age, we want them to be able to understand the issues and cast their votes wisely.

A good education is important throughout life. Some types of work require ongoing training, especially in the sciences where new discoveries are made every year. But everyone can benefit from a habit of casual study. The brain is like a muscle—the more you exercise it, the healthier it becomes.

A lot of people have bad memories of school. These bad memories can sour you on learning. But learning does not have to be hard or unpleasant; there are many ways to enrich your mind.

Some people learn by doing; many go on short trips to other countries where they work to rebuild a town after a disaster or help a missionary teach about Jesus. They come home full of excitement over the things they have learned.

Many people learn best through stories. They might doze off during a lecture, but are fascinated by watching a documentary. When Mel Gibson made his movie about Jesus’ suffering and death, The Passion of the Christ helped many people understand just how deeply God loves sinners.

Some people shy away from study because they are overscheduled; they just don’t have any more time or energy left for study. This is when audio books come in handy; you can listen and learn while exercising or driving in your car. There are many versions of the Bible available on CD, ranging from a single person reading God’s Word to an entire cast accompanied by music and sound effects.

Improving your mind is important at any age, and there are many ways to do it. Especially important is what you know about Christ; find a way to know Him better, and your time will be well spent.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


I will give you rest (Exodus 33:14).

Do you know how to rest? Many people don’t. When not at work or school, they fill every waking moment with activity. If they’re not playing sports, they’re shopping. If they’re not doing yard work, they’re busy fixing up the house. If they’re not running kids to some activity, they’re helping with a political action committee.

People get up early and go to bed late. And even when they do lie down, their thoughts are racing. They review the day’s events. They kick themselves over things that they didn’t get done. They worry about what’s on the schedule for tomorrow. Is it any surprise that many of us are sleep-deprived?

Vacations are supposed to be a time of relaxation. But travelers schedule so many activities for their trips that they come home more exhausted than they were before they left. Others use vacation time to tackle projects that have been put on the back burner. Such vacations may offer a change of routine, but they are hardly relaxing.

God designed us to work, but He also commands us to rest. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a day of rest dedicated to the LORD your God (Exodus 20:9-10). God did not say, ‘on six days you will work at your job, and on the seventh day you will run your errands’. God commands us to take a day each week to stop hurrying from one thing to another. He wants us to take a breath and clear our minds. He wants us to make time for relationships—our relationship with Him and our relationships with each other. God’s law is all about relationships; Jesus summed it up this way: `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Matthew 22:37-39). Loving relationships don’t just happen. You can’t build them out of quick phone calls made from the car or text messages sent from a meeting. Relationships need time and attention to grow and mature.

This is why God commands us to take regular breaks from all our chasing around. He wants us to spend time together in church and at home, time to listen and to share, to experience love and forgiveness and belonging. If you don’t slow down for these things, you’ll never find lasting happiness.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Why worship?

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Worship the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Know that the LORD is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name. For the LORD is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations (Psalm 100).

It’s a constant struggle. Sunday morning comes, and someone in the house doesn’t want to go to church. Sometimes this conflict results in a bloody victory—everyone gets to church, but some are angry about being forced to go, while others resent having to use pressure to get everyone out the door. Other times, this Sunday morning face-off results in a truce—some attend church while others stay home, resulting in a family divided. And sometimes the struggle ends in miserable defeat, with everyone staying home instead of coming to spend time in God’s house.

Why are there so many people who don’t like going to church? Why are some content to just attend worship once every few weeks? Why does every congregation have members that you only see at Christmas and Easter? There are several reasons why people are reluctant to enter God’s house.

When you go to church, you are reminded that you are a failure. Jesus says, Be perfect…as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:48). But who of us can claim to be perfect? Every day we break God’s rules. We snap at members of our family, we participate in gossip, we take longer breaks at work than we’re scheduled for. We sometimes let days go by without speaking to God in prayer. In countless ways both large and small, we anger God by what we do and what we fail to do.

No man wants to be told that he has messed up. No woman wants to hear that she has said something hurtful. No child likes to be scolded for acting inappropriately. And what do you hear in church? 'Do not lie, do not steal, be sexually pure, honor your parents, serve God with all your heart.' Our Lord expects a lot from us—He expects perfection. And so many people would rather not go to church, because they don’t want to be reminded of their failures. They don’t want to face their guilt.

Other people treat church casually because they see it as necessary for others but not for themselves. They look at the world around them and see plenty of people who need the church to lay down the law and straighten them out. But when they look at themselves, they don’t see failure—in fact, they are proud of how good and upright they are. From their perspective, they are already leading God-pleasing lives, so attending church is not all that important.

Of course, there is a significant problem with this attitude—it ignores reality. Psalm 14 says, The LORD looks down from heaven on the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one! 1st Kings chapter 8 says, there is no one who does not sin. And in Romans chapter 3 Paul writes, all have sinned and fall short of God’s glorious standard. There is no one who can afford to blow off spending time in God’s house.

Some people know that coming to church is important, but they drag their heels anyway. For them, attending worship is like going to a workout center. They think of church as a place where you exercise your spiritual muscles and get into better mental shape to face life’s challenges. Studying the Bible is like reviewing a game plan, and the wine of Communion is treated like a sports drink for the soul.

But you know the problem with exercise routines—pretty soon commitment starts to slip. There are some days when the energy for a workout just isn’t there. And so, after a tough week, some church members don’t feel up for worship; they’d just as soon stay home and relax.

These are the major reasons people skip church—they don’t want to own up to their mistakes, they don’t think that they need to come, or they just don’t have the mental energy for doing worship. But none of these reasons are valid—they all show an incorrect understanding of what goes on in true worship.

Do we have to talk about sin in church? Absolutely! Paul said, I would not have known what sin was except through the law (Romans 7:7). You might never have killed someone, but listen to how Jesus interprets the 5th Commandment: You have heard that our ancestors were told, `You must not murder. If you commit murder, you are subject to judgment.' But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell (Matthew 5:21-22). You might never have cheated on your spouse, but listen to how Jesus interprets the 6th Commandment: You have heard the commandment that says, `You must not commit adultery.' But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:27-28).

We have to talk about sin in church because it is so easy to convince yourself that you aren’t doing anything wrong. The world encourages us to reinterpret God’s rules to give us some loopholes—but we use those loopholes to get into all sorts of trouble. Some churches, not wanting to offend gays and lesbians, ignore the clear teachings of the Bible which forbid homosexual behavior. Some churches, not wanting to offend pro-choice activists, refuse to identify abortion as murder. Some churches, in an effort to avoid offending Jews and Muslims, even claim that you don’t have to believe in Jesus as your Savior in order to get into heaven, even though Jesus said: I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6). Our world demands that we be flexible in what we believe, but flexibility is really about making excuses so a person can keep on sinning.

Sin, if not seen for what it is, is a terminal condition leading to eternal decay in hell. We are not doing anyone a favor by letting them think that their behavior is God-pleasing, when it is not. But we don’t spend time looking at God’s Laws just to make people feel guilty. The reason that God spells out His expectations so clearly is not so that we can live a perfect life. Galatians chapter 2 says, a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law…no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. No one is capable of being good, not as God defines it—Jesus said, No one is good--except God alone (Mark 10:18). We all sin; we all need to own up to it, and ask Jesus to forgive us.

Our inability to see ourselves as sinners is why God sent His Son to teach us; our inability to lead perfect lives is why He sentenced His Son to die for us. Jesus speaks to us harshly when we arrogantly think that we’ve got all the answers; Jesus speaks to us gently when guilt weighs us down with shame. He condemns our sins so that we might say: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! (Mark 10:47) When we come to Him, stained with sin and wanting to be clean, our Savior fills our ears with words of love: Take heart…your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2). This is why it is good to come to church and hear about sin—it reminds us that we need the Savior to make right our relationship with God. And this offer of reconciliation is free; all Jesus asks is that we love Him and reject sin. Coming to church is a time of blessing, where our guilt is lifted and our hearts are filled with joy over Christ’s love for us. We cannot be freed from the guilt of our mistakes unless we bring that guilt and lay it at the foot of Jesus’ cross, where His holy blood washes it away.

Now it is true that our Lord expects you to develop your spirituality—Peter says, Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith (1 Peter 5:8-9). But there is more to worship than just toning your spiritual abs so you can be strong in the face of temptation. First and foremost, church is where you receive help. Church is where you hear Jesus say, 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). When you attend worship, you are given strength and courage to face the challenges in your life. Regardless of your spiritual development, there will be times when you are weak—but Christ is always strong. You receive His courage, not by your efforts, but by His generosity. He gives you His strength through Word and Sacrament, gifts He offers through the church.

And it is in church where you hear the Savior promise, I am the resurrection and the life (John 11:25). When you attend worship, you are reassured of life beyond the grave. The cross reminds us that sin results in death, and that Jesus has overcome sin and death in order to lead us to heaven. Death surrounds us all the time. It is in our local, national, and international news. It commands our attention every time we drive past a funeral home or a cemetery. It stares us in the face whenever we look at pictures of loved ones who are no longer with us. Surrounded by so much death, we need the weekly reassurance that in Jesus death has been brought to heel and is nothing to be feared. In church, before the cross, our lives are filled with hope.

There are two kinds of Christians. Some are members at St. Minimum, while the others go to worship at St. Maximum.

The people who attend St. Minimum have many questions on their minds. "How often do I have to go to church? How many times each year do I have to go to Communion? How much money do I have to put in the collection plate? I pray at supper and at bedtime—is that enough? I was on a committee last year—do I have to serve on one this year too?"

The people who go to St. Maximum also have questions about their church membership. "What can I do to help with Sunday School? How many times will the Lord’s Supper be offered each month so that I can get strength for my faith? Can I help organize a weekday Bible class for people who work on Sundays? Is there something new we can do to reach out to the unchurched in our area?"

Now you would expect St. Minimum to have more members than St. Maximum—after all, our sinful nature doesn’t want to put much effort into things that are religious. But people who gravitate to St. Minimum usually don’t attend for very long. When you regard church as a place that is uncomfortable, unnecessary, or demands too much from you, you’ll soon become a name on the membership roll that no one ever sees in person.

The church with a healthy membership is St. Maximum. People who belong here are excited about church. Sunday morning is a joyful time as they are reassured of Jesus’ forgiveness. They look forward to better understanding His teachings through sermons and Bible study. They can’t wait to show their gratitude to God through songs and offerings. And they want to share the blessings of Jesus with others. They pester friends and relatives to come with them to worship. They are always thinking about ways the church could do new things to support different people in their needs. They feel valued because they know the church needs them. People who belong to St. Maximum usually remain active members to their dying day.

Coming to church isn’t a waste of time. Attending worship is not about obligation or making yourself a better person. Coming to God’s house is an opportunity for Jesus to fill you with Himself and bring joy into your life! Sunday morning in God’s house puts the coming week into proper perspective. May the words of Psalm 84 reflect the contents of your heart this Sunday and every Sunday: How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God…Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The value of work

Jesus said to them, "My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working" (John 5:17).

How do you feel about work?

Some people see work as a necessary evil, something you have to do in order to put food on the table and pay the rent. They punch the clock grudgingly, take long breaks, and try to get away with doing as little as possible without getting fired. They get through each shift by planning how they will use their time off.

Others see work as a way to achieve their goals. They might use their jobs to make a name for themselves. They might use their jobs to travel the world, seeing new places and meeting new people. They might use their jobs to sharpen their minds or improve their health.

And then there are those who see their jobs as a way to serve others. They might use their jobs to improve the environment or feed the hungry. They might use their jobs to cure the sick or give comfort to the suffering. They might use their jobs to defend the weak or help travelers safely reach their destinations.

God designed men and women to work. Even in paradise, there was work to do; the Bible says The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). In the New Testament Paul writes, If a man will not work, he shall not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10).

Of course, life was different in paradise. Work was not backbreaking or tedious. A wise man once said, "a man who enjoys what he is doing will never work a day in his life." When we are doing work that we like the hours fly by, and when the day is over we feel good about what has been accomplished. That’s what life was like in the Garden of Eden.

Regrettably, sin has changed all that. Sin has made us selfish, bringing conflict into the workplace. Sin has cursed the world with inefficiency and accidents, with stress and disappointment. Yet despite of all the aggravations, God still expects us to work—work at making the world a better place for each other, dedicating our efforts to His glory.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Time to stand your ground?

See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it (Deuteronomy 12:32).

When is it appropriate to stand your ground? Society wants us to be flexible. After all, if we’re going to live together peacefully, don’t we have to make adjustments and allowances for each other? Some people are passive by nature; for them, giving in to others might not always be pleasant, but they know when to back down for the sake of peace. But others are more assertive; they know what they want, they know what’s right, and they won’t back down for anyone. But where does God weigh in on this? Does He want us to be passive or to stand up for ourselves?

In the Bible, God has said what He expects of us: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27). When it comes to our relationship with the Lord, there is no room for compromise. God demands our complete obedience. When we screw up, He expects us admit our mistakes and ask Jesus for mercy. We are to be His ambassadors, telling others about the love He offers through Christ and making sure that sin is clearly identified so that people can avoid it.

God also tells us how to get along with our fellow man: Love your neighbor as yourself. Expanding on this, Jesus said, Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you (Luke 6:37-38). When He gave us the Golden Rule (Luke 6:31), Jesus put it this way: Treat others as you want to be treated.

When should you stand your ground? When God’s truth is being obscured by lies or misunderstanding. But even then, God expects us to be respectful of others—since we are all sinners, no one is entitled to act superior.

When should you take a breath and stand down? Whenever God’s truth and law is not being challenged. As I said, we are all sinners. That means each of us is more likely to be wrong about something than right. Sin muddies clear thinking with selfishness, fear, prejudice, and a desire for fast and easy solutions. If something is not covered by God’s law, then it’s time for us to be flexible.

Friday, October 08, 2010


What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (James 4:1-6).

Early one spring, a sailing ship with about a hundred passengers was wrecked on an island deep in the South Seas. Thankfully everyone made it ashore safely, along with enough food to live on for several months. Even better, they were able to salvage quite a few bags of seed that were ready for planting. But the men had barely started making their survival plans when someone discovered gold on the island. Everyone began to dig and pan furiously, heaping up gold for themselves and forgetting all about the seed and the need to get it planted. When the fall winds began to blow and the cold of winter settled over the island, there was no harvest and they all died of starvation.

If there is anything that defines America, it’s our money. Americans earn and spend more money than any other nation on earth. Every day we are bombarded with commercials, advertisements and billboards urging us to spend our money on some product or service. Many people even regard shopping as a form of entertainment, something you do for fun.

And speaking of fun with money, let’s not overlook gambling. In America, even the poorest among us can scrape together a few bucks for a poker game or to purchase a lottery ticket. We have so much money that we are comfortable simply playing games with it.

Not that everyone treats their money frivolously. More than ever before, Americans are investing in stocks, mutual funds, and commodities. Many people are online every day managing their portfolios, making adjustments in response to every fluctuation in the market. Making and managing money is the focal point of their lives.

Of course not everyone has lots of money to play around with. Even in America, we have homeless people living in cars and city parks. We have poor people crammed into tenements who cannot afford to pay for heat or electricity or water. We have people on fixed incomes who often have to decide between three meals a day or filling their prescriptions.

Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that there is jealously and conflict in our land. There are only so many high-paying jobs to be had; is it any surprise that friends are willing to stab each other in the back when competing for a juicy promotion? When advertisers tell us how much we need their products in order to be happy, is it any wonder that people break into stores to steal what they can’t afford to buy?

Even though there is a lot of money in our country, there can never be enough to satisfy everyone’s desires. But consider this: what do you really need to spend money on? Your diet doesn’t need soda pop, bottled water, or liquor; you can eat more economically if you cook from scratch instead of buying microwave dinners. You don’t need designer clothing, and you can make the clothes you already have last longer by repairing rips instead of throwing torn garments away. A home doesn’t need a recreation room or a yard planted with grass instead of fruits and vegetables. The car that takes you to work and church doesn’t have to have power seats or a DVD player.

Our lives are filled with luxuries that we think we must have—but odds are that our grandparents and great grandparents got along just fine without them. They lived full and happy lives, content with having a full stomach, warm clothes, a place to sleep that was sheltered from bad weather, and the means to reach both church and market. Was their way of life more difficult than ours? Probably. But are we happier than they were? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Having money is no guarantee of happiness. In today’s Epistle lesson, James warns us of the conflicts that can come from making money your priority: You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. Remember that word from the Ten Commandments, "covet"? It means wanting something so much that you can hardly think about anything else. You want it so badly that you are willing to fight over it; you might consider stealing it if you can avoid getting caught. When two people covet the same thing, trouble quickly follows.

And how long do the things you covet actually satisfy you? How long before your designer clothes go out of fashion? How long before the next new car model comes out with a bunch of new features? How long before you need to add to your collection or want to head back to the casino? Coveting is a hunger that never stays fed for very long.

In 1st Timothy chapter six, Paul warns us about the problems caused by money: the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. Money can actually get between us and our God. Jesus said, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).

How does this happen? If you are willing to bad mouth someone so that you can get a fat promotion, your love for money has resulted in breaking the 8th commandment. If you cheat on your income taxes to keep some extra cash in your pocket, your love for money has broken the seventh commandment. If you get into a fight with a loved one over an old debt, your love of money has broken the fifth commandment and destroyed an important relationship as well. If you throw a temper tantrum because your parents won’t buy you a certain toy, you have now broken the fourth commandment.

God does not want us to tell lies about other people or steal from them. He does not want us fighting with each other or disrespecting our parents. But coveting can lead to even worse behavior. If you can’t pry open your wallet to support the Church, then you are breaking the first commandment, because you love money more than the God who gave it to you.

God gives us money, but not to blow it all on ourselves. Holy Scripture tells us how God’s money is properly used. In the first three verses of Luke chapter 8, notice how the women used their assets. Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases…These women were helping to support them out of their own means. This was a God-pleasing use of money.

The gospel of Mark chapter 12 records the ultimate example of such devotion: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on."

All she had to live on—we can scarcely imagine giving to the Church in this way. What was she thinking, putting everything she had in the collection box? I’ll tell you what she was thinking. She had her priorities straight. She looked at her life and what she could do with it over the next few days. She looked at the work of the Temple and what it could do over the next few days. She could eat another couple of meals before her money ran out and she died, or the House of God could be supported in offering forgiveness to sinners and peace with God that leads to heaven. In her mind, it was no choice at all. Her sins were forgiven and she had God’s promise of eternal life; far better to help God’s servants bring that message of salvation to others, than to squander her last coins on making herself comfortable.

What is your giving like? Does the Lord only get your spare change? Consider God’s words spoken through the prophet Malachi (chapter three): Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, `How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this…and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.

You may have gone through lean times. Maybe that’s your situation right now. And maybe you have even asked God for help with your finances, but things haven’t changed. Of course I can’t know God’s will for you, but I can point you back to James where he says: You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. Don’t be disappointed that even though you’ve prayed and prayed, you can’t come up with the money for that fancy new car you want. Don’t assume God isn’t listening just because He doesn’t shower you with earthly gifts. God does love you—loves you so much that He sent His Son to suffer and die to free you from your sins. And God is often very generous. But He does not give you money just so you can have a good time with it. You receive money so that you can use it to serve God.

In 1st Corinthians chapter 16, Paul suggests how we should manage our money to honor God. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Notice when Paul says to set aside money—on the first day of every week, in other words, on Sunday. And not just on the weeks when you are in church, but every week. Paul goes on to say, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. If you miss church one week because you were sick, then next week bring double the offering. Plan your giving on 52 weeks a year, whether you are present every Sunday or not.

But how much should you give? Paul suggests, a sum of money in keeping with his income; the King James Version puts it this way: as God hath prospered him. If God has given you a large income, then it would be appropriate to give a considerable amount of money. Remember that Jesus said, From everyone who has been given much, much will be expected (Luke 12:48). But if God is giving you just enough to get by, then you should give to the Church accordingly.

In the Old Testament, every believer was expected each year to give God 10% of his income before taxes. However, in the New Testament that rule has been changed. God has given us a new standard for measuring the size of our donations, which is given in 2nd Corinthians chapter 9: Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. His takes us back to the widows we discussed earlier. They did not give of their money because they were pressured to, they did not give to curry favor with Jesus. They gave because they wanted to. They loved the work that God does through His son: freeing the guilty from their shame, filling despairing hearts with hope, reaching out to the sick and poor, and bringing the promise of heaven to the dying. They loved the Lord for giving generously to them, and that love showed itself in their support of God’s work here on earth. They were indeed ‘cheerful givers.’

So let go of your love for money and all the problems such misspent love results in. Dedicate your money to God; use it to show Him how thankful you are for His great generosity to you.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Worry and fear

Do not worry about your life (Luke 12:22).

People are worried about money. The recession has stolen retirement nest eggs. Health care costs are getting so high that many have to risk going uninsured. The profits of most businesses are down. Many have lost their jobs.

People are also worried about violence. For years now, our country has sent its sons and daughters into war zones where many are killed or crippled. Terrorists are a constant danger. Our prisons are so overcrowded that many criminals have to be released early.

People worry about our country losing its moral footings. Homosexual marriage is being legalized in many places. Churches are vandalized and burned down. People that we look to for leadership are caught doing terrible things.

There’s a lot of bad news out there, and there’s plenty for you to worry about. But worry and fear can lead to hasty decisions that are not for the best over the long run. Fear demands immediate action to stop things from getting worse, instead of allowing time to carefully think things through and look at the big picture. Worry and fear cause damage to the bodies’ health. Constant stress causes us to overeat or lose our appetite; it weakens the immune system and makes us vulnerable to health problems. Worry and fear steal happiness and peace of mind. Worry tempts you to believe that things will only get worse, not better.

Worry and fear are tools of the Devil. He wants us to fuss and fret. He wants us to make hasty decisions. He wants us to lose hope, to feel as if everything is going to hell and we are helplessly going along for the ride. When we let worry and fear dominate our lives, the Devil smiles with contentment, because he has achieved his goal—we’re not trusting God!

When you are tempted to worry, turn you cares over to Jesus. He said, Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me (John 14:1). He also said, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33). Jesus never promised that life would be easy, but He did promise to be at our side always, if we trust Him.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

The big choice

"Now fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD." Then the people answered, "Far be it from us to forsake the LORD to serve other gods! It was the LORD our God himself who brought us and our fathers up out of Egypt, from that land of slavery, and performed those great signs before our eyes. He protected us on our entire journey and among all the nations through which we traveled. And the LORD drove out before us all the nations, including the Amorites, who lived in the land. We too will serve the LORD, because he is our God" (Joshua 24:14-18).

The great teacher Socrates once told a story he called "The Choice of Hercules." Hercules is at the cusp of manhood; he is giving serious thought to the direction of his life. Two women appear before him. One has curves in all the right places and dresses in expensive clothing; her smile is an invitation and her eyes are dark pools of hunger. The other woman hides her figure beneath a plain white garment; her lips are set in a strict expression, and her eyes are filled with clarity and resolve. The first woman is named Pleasure, and the second is named Virtue. Pleasure promises to lead young Hercules along a short and easy road, where he can amuse himself with every kind of pleasure. Virtue beckons him to a path which ivolves hard labor and times of suffering, but is the only path leading to a beautiful and productive life worthy of his manhood. Pleasure or Virtue—which will win Hercules’ heart and guide his life?

As we look at today’s Old Testament lesson, we see the same kind question placed before the Israelites. Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, Joshua tells them. But this is no dusty history lesson; the challenge to choose…whom you will serve is a question you must answer as well. As we will see, the Israelites at that moment were very much like you are right now. So let us examine what brought God’s people to this point of decision, and see how it echoes what’s going on in our lives today.

The Israelites had been slaves in the land of Egypt. They could not live where they wanted, they had no choice about the kind of work they were assigned to do. They had no say in the schedule they kept, they could not protect themselves from wanton acts of cruelty, and failure to please their masters could result in harsh punishment or death.

They were also surrounded by the worship of false gods such as Ra, god of the sun; Osiris, god of the dead; Set, god of evil; and Thoth, god of learning. In fact, the king of Egypt was himself considered a son of the gods. Certainly the Israelites were made fun of for their religious beliefs. Only one God? Ridiculous—everyone knows that there are many gods and goddesses! And you claim that your God is supreme over every other power in the universe? If that is so, then how can our god-king keep you in slavery? Your God doesn’t seem very powerful to us!

That was the situation the ancient Israelites found themselves in. Yet it has many parallels to our own modern world. The people of today are also slaves—slaves to sin. As slaves to sin, they have no choice about what they will do each day—they can only commit one sin after another, because without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). They have no say in the schedule that they keep; when Satan prods them with temptation, they immediately respond according to his commands. They cannot protect themselves from his wanton acts of cruelty; no one has the strength to oppose the devil’s power. Being slaves, they can only look forward to harsh punishment and death—their misery will last forever in hell.

The people of this world are also surrounded by false gods. These include Materialism, the god of greed; Popularity, the god of vanity; Control, the god of power; and Lust, the god of earthly pleasures. These gods and others like them promise the illusion of happiness and try to make the chains of slavery attractive by painting them to look like gold. These false gods tolerate anything but the truth, because the truth reveals their deceptions. So they make fun of the Christian God and insist that His followers keep silent about their beliefs. The Christian God is not welcome in a world enslaved by sin.

But our God is the God of love, and He acted to free His people from their slavery. Moses was royalty, raised as an adopted son in the king’s palace. He was also a Jew by birth, one of people needing to be rescued from slavery. This was the man God chose to free His people with great miracles and the very words of heaven. Moses called down ten plagues on Egypt, plagues that never harmed the Israelites; in this way, God showed both His power to destroy and His mercy on those who trust in Him. Finally, the king of Egypt was convinced that he was overmatched, that the God of Israel was indeed sovereign over all. The children of God were set free and followed Moses to the edge of the sea, where God’s chosen leader parted the waters and led the people forward into a new life.

These events parallel what God has done for us through Jesus. Our God loves us, and He acted to free us from our slavery to sin. Jesus was royalty, God’s Son and heir to heaven. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, He was born of the virgin Mary; in this way He was also human, becoming one of the people who needed rescue from sin and death. This was the true God-man, the person chosen by God to free His people with great miracles and the very words of heaven. Jesus commanded storms to be silent and calm down; He fed thousands with scraps of food; He healed incurable ailments and raised the dead back to life. In this way He demonstrated both His mighty power and His mercy on those who trust in Him. Finally, Jesus confronted the slave owner and defeated Him; Jesus did this by dying on the cross, exchanging His death for our eternal life; then He descended into hell and let the devil know in no uncertain terms that by God’s power we were freed from Satan’s control. With that announcement of victory, Jesus rose from the dead to lead us out from our slavery to a new life. When you passed through the waters of holy Baptism, your slavery to sin was ended and you embarked on a journey following Christ’s lead.

As the Israelites followed Moses, they spent most of their time traveling through wilderness; they would have starved or died of thirst had not God seen to their daily needs. But the most important thing in their lives was not food or drink; the one thing truly essential was the Tent of Meeting. This was designed by God Himself, and it contained the Ten Commandments they were to live by. Even more important, the Tent of Meeting contained the altar; this was where sacrifices were offered and the people had their sins forgiven. Without the Tent of Meeting and what went on inside of it, the people could not have a positive relationship with the God who was leading them.

As we follow Jesus, we find ourselves traveling through a spiritual wilderness. All around us, people wallow in their sins like pigs in mud—they take pride in seeing how much they can get away with. Few are the voices in this world that speak for God and moral decency. Thankfully, our Lord gives us His body and blood through the bread and wine of Holy Communion, nourishment for our souls in a world parched of life and desolate of meaning. These gifts are given through the Church, the place set up by God where we come and meet with Him. It is here that He reminds us of His laws that govern our lives. It is here where we find forgiveness for our sins. Without the blessings God gives us through His Church, we could not have any kind of meaningful relationship with the Almighty.

The Israelites were rescued from slavery with dramatic miracles. They were led by God’s chosen representative. They had the Tent of Meeting where their sins were forgiven and their lives were given direction. You would expect that for the rest of their journey to the Promised Land, they would be happy and content, right? Wrong! As they continued walking through the wilderness, life wasn’t always easy; there were challenges to overcome, shortages that had to be endured. Some of the Israelites began to forget how bad slavery was; some even looked back on those days with fondness. Others resented Moses’ leadership; they wanted to have a say in where the people were going, and how things were done when they set up camp.

We have been rescued from slavery to sin by the most dramatic miracle of all—Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection from the dead, by which Satan has been defeated, the curse of sin lifted, and the grip of death broken. We are led by Jesus, God’s chosen representative. We have innumerable churches where our sins are forgiven and our lives are given direction. So you would expect that, as we journey towards heaven, we would be happy and content, right?

You know better than that. Our journey through life isn’t always easy. There are times when we face tough challenges. There are times when we don’t have enough. When these hardships come, it is tempting to look back; we remember with fondness the sinful pleasures we have given up for Jesus, forgetting the negative things that came with those pleasures. There are also times when we grumble about Jesus’ leadership. We want to decide for ourselves what sort of conduct should be encouraged and rewarded. We want to determine what kinds of behavior ought to be punished as unacceptable.

The Israelites had a bumpy relationship with God and His servant Moses. Joshua had seen it all, the best and the worst of the journey. When Moses died, God appointed Joshua to take over Moses’ position as leader. Following Joshua, the Israelites had begun settlement of the Promised Land—yet even through these years, their faithfulness to God flickered in intensity. So when Joshua neared retirement, he challenged the people of God to reflect on their history with the Lord. Had God kept His promises? Had the Israelites benefited for having followed Him? Or were they better off as slaves in Egypt? Were the foreign gods of other nations more in tune with their moral sensibilities? You can’t have it both ways, Joshua warned—either commit to God, or commit to the other path—the path that leads to destruction.

Joshua’s words are for you as well. You’ve also had a bumpy relationship with God and His Son Jesus. Your faithfulness to God has wavered between being strong and weak. So Joshua challenges you to reflect on your relationship with God. Has God kept His promises? Did He provide a way for your sins to be forgiven, a way to defy Satan’s control, a way to escape the confines of the grave? Is a life enslaved to sin better than a life of commitment to the Lord? The old gods still whisper their promises of happiness—the gods of money, of popularity, of lust, of power over others. They would be only too happy to lock you in gilded chains once more.

But you can’t have it both ways. Jesus said, He who is not with me is against me (Matthew 12:30). He also said, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24). It is important to choose, and to choose well. Jesus said, Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matthew 7:13-14). How does one find the narrow gate? Jesus tells us, I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved (John 10:9).

There is a choice to be made—cling to Christ, remember His promise of forgiveness offered through your baptism, reconnect yourself to Him regularly by sharing in His body and blood before the altar. Or walk away from Christ—embrace the materialism and hedonism of this world and its gods, exchange freedom for slavery to your desires and let Satan yank your leash. It’s one or the other—you cannot try to please both masters at the same time. If serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

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