Friday, December 31, 2010

A great New Year?

Hear the word of the LORD, O nations; proclaim it in distant coastlands: `He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.' For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD--the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more. Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow (Jeremiah 31:10-13).

A year ago this evening, you faced the New Year with mixed feelings. 2009 was ending; there were some wonderful memories made that year, but there were also some things you were glad to put behind you. As you took out your new calendars and flipped them open to January, you hoped that 2010 would be a better year for you and your loved ones.

How did 2010 turn out? Was it as good a year as you were hoping for? Did you meet the goals you set for yourself? Are you more secure financially than you were a year ago? Has the love in your family grown deeper and more committed? Have you strengthened old friendships and cultivated new ones? Has 2010 made you a happier person?

If 2010 has been a good year, I’m happy for you. But I have a hunch that most of you reading this have mixed feelings about the year ending tonight. If you are like me, 2010 had both wonderful highs and terrible lows. There were times of great joy and times of black despair. There were days when everything just fell into place and days when nothing seemed to go right. 2010 was a roller coaster of emotions, some exhilarating, others terrifying. For most of us, it would be hard to say that 2010 was really much better than 2009.

So what can we look forward to in 2011? More of the same. Pleasure mixed with pain. Triumph shadowed by tragedy. Times of health and periods of sickness. The delightful gurgle of a new born baby and the labored gasps coming from a deathbed. Will 2011 be a better year than 2010? I wouldn’t count on it.

And yet, we can look forward to tomorrow with relief and joyful expectation. There are good times coming—we have God’s promise on that. We just need to trust the Almighty and wait on Him. We must realize that many of the things we think make life good are actually unnecessary luxuries; some of them are out-and-out sinful. God will give us a pleasant future, but not one that caters to our sinful desires.

Consider the words spoken by Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived in a time of terrible tragedy. During his life, he witnessed the moral collapse of a nation. Jerusalem had once been the most wonderful city on earth, capital of a nation devoted to serving God. Jerusalem contained the Temple, built by Solomon at a time when money was no object; in this Temple, God actually came to earth and filled the innermost chamber with His brilliant glory. No nation on earth was ever so blessed as Israel, and no city was nearer to God than it’s capital.

But as years came and went, the people lost interest in religion. Commerce became more important than worship; other religions were first tolerated, then embraced by the citizens and their leaders. Soon the country tore itself apart because of political infighting. Foreign invaders began attacking, and without God’s support, the nation dwindled in size and prosperity. By Jeremiah’s time, God had turned His back on Jerusalem and the nation—turned his back because His people had abandoned Him. And so an army from the east destroyed Jerusalem, tore down God’s Temple, and stole everything worth taking—including the best and brightest citizens, who were relocated and made to work for a new government hundreds of miles away.

What a terrible tragedy—God’s people turned away from their Master and experienced how awful life can be when the Almighty is angry. Yet at this darkest of times, God sent Jeremiah words of hope—hope that the future would be better. ‘He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd.' For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they. They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD…they will sorrow no more.

On one level, God was speaking of a time 70 years in the future. Eventually, the people of God would be set free and allowed to return to their native land. They would rebuild Jerusalem, the Temple, and the nation. God would give them homes of their own to live in, fields to cultivate and herds to raise, and a place where they could go to receive forgiveness for their sins. God would bless them and make them happy.

But God did not restore these things to their former glory. The Israelites did not regain political independence, but remained a small province in someone else’s larger empire. Jerusalem was reoccupied, but it would not experience the thriving economy of King Solomon’s time. And although the Temple was rebuilt, the people wept bitter tears because the new building never matched the grandeur of the first. God gave His people what they needed to be content, but the great power and wealth of earlier times was never restored; those who thirsted for money or prestige would not find much to be happy about. Such desires have no place in a kingdom belonging to God.

The words given to Jeremiah offered hope that after a 70 year wait, things were going to get better. But this message from God had another meaning as well. This prophecy also spoke of a time 500 years further ahead, a time when would God send His Son into the world as a baby. He who scattered Israel will gather them and will watch over his flock like a shepherd. Who is the flock God promised to watch over? St. Mark writes (chapter six), When Jesus…saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. The prophet Isaiah says (chapter 53), we all, like sheep, have gone astray. Confused by sin and manipulated by the devil, we are all like helpless sheep, needing someone to feed us, guide us and protect us. And who has God sent to watch over us? Jesus says, I am the good shepherd (John 10:11). When Jeremiah writes about a future time of happiness when God will watch over his flock like a shepherd, he is speaking of Christ’s coming.

Jesus has come to shepherd us, and because of this we can view the future positively. I cannot say that 2011 will necessarily be a great year for you, but I can say that the future is encouraging. The Israelites had to wait 70 years to return home and rebuild; they had to wait 500 years for the Savior of the nations to come. You may have to wait for better times as well. But as the months go by, you don’t have to face them on your own. Jesus is with you. Shortly before He left this world, our Lord gave this reassurance to His disciples: I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me (John 14:18-19). We don’t see Jesus with our eyes—but by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can see that Christ is still with us—we see by faith. When we believe in Jesus, we know He spoke the truth when He said, you can be sure that I am with you always, to the very end of time (Matthew 28:20).

What good is it to have Jesus with you? You are never alone, because He is always by your side listening to you. You have no reason to be afraid, because you are in His arms and He is protecting you. You don’t need to worry, because He is with you to give strength when you are weak. You can wipe away your tears, because He promises to forgive your mistakes and never think on them again. You need not despair, because even in the toughest situation you have the Son of God at your side, and nothing is impossible with God. No matter how difficult or stressful the new year might be, Jesus will bring you through it, showing you joy along the way.

Of course, you can’t expect the Son of God to fill your life with sinful pleasures or good times that draw your attention away from Him. The Israelites were given happiness, but God took steps to keep them humble and focused on their relationship with Him. In the same way, don’t feel that God loves you less if He is selective in how He blesses you. Jesus wants you to feel as Paul did when he wrote these words: I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).

It is likely that 2011 will contain times of sadness, pain and grief, like every year does. But we have Jesus’ promise that all such suffering will come to an end. Death brings an end to sin and the pain which accompanies it. When you die, you will be freed from the corruption that has cast a shadow on your every thought, word and deed—Paul writes anyone who has died has been freed from sin (Romans 6:7). Death releases us from that terrible curse so that we can live in eternal happiness. All this is God’s gift to us through His Son, who died that we might truly live—speaking of the human sheep under His care, Jesus said: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). Death will certainly touch your life this coming year; it may even claim you personally. But with Jesus as your Savior, you know that death only leads to everlasting joy in paradise.

Jesus is with you, today and always. There is no reason to be pessimistic about 2011. Sure, there will be struggles and disappointments—but remember these words of Jesus as you face each new day: In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Auld lang syne

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits (Psalm 103:2).

On New Year’s Eve, it is traditional to sing Auld Lang Syne. The verses of this song go back to a Scottish poet named Robert Burns. When Burns wrote the song in 1788, he said that his work was an adaptation of a much older folksong which had never been committed to paper. Auld Lang Syne became very popular in Scotland, and soon spread not only to England but around the world as well.

Most people only know the first verse, although there are several others that follow. The Scottish words Auld Lang Syne can be translated as "days gone by" or "old times." The opening verse poses a question: is it proper to let people you knew in the past to be forgotten? The refrain says no—instead, let’s have a toast to honor their memory. The rest of the song then reflects on happy times from days long ago.

Turning the calendar to January can come with a sigh of relief—a new year represents a fresh start. This might be the year when you get a better job. This might be the year when you graduate from school. This might be the year when you meet the love of your life.

But closing the book on the past isn’t always a good thing. How many special people get left behind? Are you still in touch with your very first best friend? How often do you spend time with the people who stood up for your wedding? Where do your aging parents fit into your busy schedule? How often have you asked yourself the question, "whatever happened to…?"

I’d guess that there are many people from your past that are long forgotten or barely remembered. Is the LORD God one of them? Did you stop going to church years ago and never got back in the habit of worshipping? Can you remember the last time you opened a Bible? How long has it been since you turned off the TV and really focused on a thoughtful, heartfelt prayer to Jesus?

We are beginning a new year. This is a wonderful time to renew old relationships—especially your relationship with Christ. As the song says, don’t let old acquaintances be forgot.

Monday, December 27, 2010

One year passes, another dawns

I, the LORD, do not change (Malachi 3:6).

One year ends, another begins. Are you glad to leave 2010 behind, or do you dread what nasty surprises 2011 might have in store for you?

2010 had its share of tragedy—the earthquake in Haiti and the flooding in Pakistan come to mind. But you don’t have to go through a natural disaster to have a bad year. Many people were diagnosed with cancer. Many suffered economic hardship. Many went through divorce. Many lost a loved one to death.

I suspect that 2011 will have plenty of heartache as well. There will be international conflict and natural disaster. There will be sickness and crime. There will be anger and disappointment, fear and sadness, loneliness and confusion. There will be death. These things will touch your life, and they’ll touch mine.

Of course, 2010 was not all gloom and doom. Couples fell in love and got married. Babies were born and kids graduated from school. Some people got promoted, others were able to retire and kick back to enjoy life.

2011 will also be filled with times of joy. Who knows when the next medical breakthrough will take place? Who knows what kinds of career opportunities might reveal themselves? Who knows how many new friends you’ll make in this country where people are always moving around?

Our lives swing between war and peace, sickness and health, deprivation and abundance. It’s always been that way. Only one thing remains constant—the God who gave you life. Even though our hearts are fickle, His love for us never changes; no matter how badly we mess up or how long it’s been since we last prayed, He will forgive your sins if you lay them at Jesus’ feet. Even though storms and man-made disasters drive us to our knees, God will give us relief and support us until things get better. Even death must bow before His power; Jesus is living proof that God’s children will rise from the grave.

2010, 2011, it doesn’t matter; God is still in control. If you remember that, you can live each day of the year with confidence and inner peace.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The gift of baby Jesus

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told (Luke 2:1-20).

There’s an old saying that "you can’t judge a book by its cover." The same is true of Christmas presents. A large box might contain a small gift and lots of plastic popcorn. A small package might hold an expensive piece of jewelry. A box wrapped perfectly with shiny paper and hand-curled bows might contain a gift that you don’t really want, while a package covered with faded paper and too much tape might conceal the best present that you’ll get all year. You just can’t judge a Christmas present by how it’s wrapped.

When you look into the manger at Bethlehem, the baby lying there is God’s Christmas present to you. But looks can be misleading; there is much more to this baby than meets the eye. You cannot judge a present by how it’s wrapped, and you cannot appreciate what God has given you by just staring at a baby nestled in His mother’s arms.

You can’t judge a book by its cover. A talented artist can paint a beautiful cover for a novel, but that piece of art in no way guarantees that the book itself is any good. Some authors are liars; some are boring; some just have poor writing skills. In the same way, people can fool you—some might seem charming, intelligent and witty, but once you get to know them you find out what they are really like, which is not nearly as attractive as you were led to believe. The ugly truth is that we are all stained with evil in some way—some of us are selfish, some can’t control their anger, and some are careless with their words; others are arrogant or greedy or jealous or can’t be trusted. We all try to look beautiful to others, but when you look inside you find things that are not very appealing. Every one of us is like a Christmas present that looks nice, but is disappointing once you open it up.

You can’t judge a gift by how it is wrapped. The events of the first Christmas Eve are a perfect example of this. You have a man and his pregnant fiancee. To all appearances, they simply couldn’t wait to get married to start having an intimate relationship; I’m sure that’s what most people thought. But when you unwrap Mary’s pregnancy, you find out that the truth is much different. Nine months earlier, Mary had received a visit from an angel, and this is what he told her: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35). Mary and Joseph had not slept together before marriage; the child within her came from God, and was the only baby in all of history to be born morally pure, free from any taint of evil.

You can’t judge a gift by how it is wrapped. Consider where Christ was born. Mary and Joseph were forced by order of the government to travel through the mountains to Bethlehem, even though Mary was in her ninth month of pregnancy. When they arrived, there were so many travelers in town that the only place available for rent was where the pack animals were fed and watered. Mary gave birth on a floor covered with straw and laid her firstborn child in a feeding trough for His bed. All this sounds like terribly bad luck. But when you unwrap the situation, you find out that the truth was far different. God intended for His Son to be born in Bethlehem. Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, an Israelite king of long ago—Joseph’s ancestor, in fact. Of all the ancient kings, no one served God more faithfully than David, and God promised him that the Savior of the world would be his descendant. So it was only fitting that Jesus be born in the City of David.

It was also God’s plan for His Son to be born in humble circumstances. As the Son of God and descendent of King David, Jesus was royalty—one would expect to find Him laid on embroidered silk in a magnificent palace. But if this were the case, how could sheepherders, dusty from spending all their time in the field, ever be admitted to see the holy baby? Jesus was born in a stable and laid in a manager so that anyone would feel comfortable kneeling before Him in worship.

You can’t judge a gift by how it is wrapped. Look at that baby in the manger. To all appearances, He is someone cuddly and friendly, someone who would grow up to teach us about God’s love and then tragically be put to death, His message misunderstood by the leaders of society. But when you unwrap the Christ child, you find out that the truth is far different. Jesus taught about God’s love, yes—but He also warned about God’s wrath, the terrible punishment promised to everyone who has been tainted with evil. Jesus was God’s Prophet, speaking truths both harsh and reassuring.

Nor was Jesus a tragic victim of people who misunderstood Him. Those who engineered His death knew exactly what He was teaching—that He was the Son of God dressed in a human body, that all mankind lives under the threat of God’s judgment, and that only those who cling to Jesus as their Savior will be spared God’s terrible punishment for being sinners. The people who wanted Christ dead did not like being told they were sinners, and they resented Jesus’ claim to be the only way to heaven. They sought His death because they understood His message perfectly—and it made them mad.

But Jesus was not some helpless victim. He went to the cross willingly, to suffer and to die. He did this remarkable thing because of His great love for you and for me. Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command (John 15:13-14). And what does Jesus command? Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27). Love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:10).

Jesus fulfilled the law for us; He loved us so much that He endured His Father’s punishment for our sins, a punishment that resulted in the death of God’s only Son. But by taking our punishment upon Himself, Jesus has spared us from the hell we deserve and replaced it with the offer of heaven to all who believe in Him. Jesus is our High Priest, the only person who could remove our evil taint and present us to God, dressed in His own righteousness. Paul writes, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

That child of Bethlehem is our eternal King, the ruler of the universe. Jesus said, All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me (Matthew 28:18). This is why rich intellectuals from the east brought Him gifts fit for a king. In spite of all appearances, Jesus has the power to heal the sick, tell storms to be quiet, even to raise the dead. But most important of all, He has the power to forgive you for every evil thought, every careless word, every hurtful deed. Jesus can free you from the burdens of the past and fill you with hope as you consider your tomorrows. He offers to strengthen you to resist temptation. He offers to give you patience as you face adversity. He offers to comfort you in times of loss. He says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). You can be confident of His power to help—He is so strong that not even death could hold Him, as He proved by returning to life after only three days in the grave!

That night in a Bethlehem stable, the gift of God lay shiny and new, but no one there understood what an incredible gift God had given them in that little child. Rescue from sin’s control, protection from the devil’s attacks, the promise of forgiveness and eternity with God in paradise—such wonderful gifts to be wrapped up in a small, ordinary-looking package. It is only from our future perspective, knowing everything that Jesus said and did, that we can truly appreciate what Christmas represents to a world dying in the cold darkness of sin. May God’s delightful gift of His Son fill your life with peace, hope and joy, not today but throughout the coming year as well.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Why was Jesus born?

Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

Christmas is about God sending His Son into our world. But why was it necessary for Jesus to be born?

Some think that Jesus came to lay down the law. The earth can be an ugly place, full of thieves and liars, kidnappers and terrorists. Corruption results in a few getting rich at the expense of the poor. The Son of God confronted sinners about their wickedness, warning that evil ways lead to hell. But that’s not the main reason for Jesus’ birth.

Some think that Jesus came to teach about love. Our world doesn’t understand love. People are selfish and demanding, when they should be giving of themselves. Some look on others with prejudice, instead of treating everyone as fellow children of God. Christ explained that love puts others first, and that being judgmental prevents relationships from growing. But that’s not the main reason for Jesus’ birth.

The main reason that Jesus was born was so He could die—die for our sins. God expects us to love Him whole-heartedly and treat our fellow man with respect. But we fail to satisfy the God of love. We disobey our parents. We use threats and violence to get our way. We go back on promises and break commitments. We shade the truth and tell outright lies. Worst of all, we disrespect God—we don’t make time for Him in our schedules, we ignore His laws, and we act as if He doesn’t about us.

In more ways than can be counted, we make God mad every single day. Provoking God’s anger is foolish in the extreme—He warns that sinners will be sent to hell. There is only one way to escape the punishment for our sins—we need forgiveness. That’s why Jesus was born—when He grew up, He suffered for our sins and died the death that we deserved. By taking responsibility for our misdeeds, Jesus changed our situation—if we ask, He will take away our guilt and make us worthy of heaven.

Jesus tells us about sin, so we can see what miserable failures we are. Jesus forgives our sins, so we can lay the past to rest and face tomorrow with a heart at peace. Jesus teaches us about love, so we can honor Him with lives of service. That’s the reason for Jesus’ birth.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Finding the perfect gift

The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

Finding the perfect gift for someone can be a daunting task. Buying an article of clothing is tricky, because you can never be sure of the fit until trying it on. In addition, fashion is a matter of personal taste; something that you think looks great might languish in your loved one’s closet or get exchanged when you’re not around.

Consumer electronics are often popular as gifts, but they come with their own challenges. Not everyone is tech-savvy; choose something that has a lot of functions, and you might be giving a gift that is too complicated for your loved one to use. Small buttons are another problem; some folks have trouble using compact keyboards.

You need to be careful with how personal a gift is and how much it costs. How do you make sure the present doesn’t send the wrong message to your boss, your secretary, or the person you’re dating? How many people are on your gift list, and how much time and money can you devote to shopping this year?

There is one gift that never goes out of style. There is one gift that everyone can use. There is one gift that is always appropriate and is always affordable. That gift is God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

Everyone has done things that need to be forgiven. Everyone gets confused, and requires help to see the difference between right and wrong. Everyone grows weak, and needs renewed strength to go on. Everyone feels the effects of stress, and needs to experience peace. Everyone faces loss because of death, and needs the reassurance of hope. Everyone needs Jesus, because He alone addresses all these needs.

God’s Son is the original Christmas present, and to this day there is none better. Send Christmas cards that speak of Jesus. Set up a manger scene and explain it to your children. Invite your friends to come with you to church. Sing Christmas hymns with your family after you’ve opened the presents. Pray for the special people that you won’t be seeing this year. Let everyone know about the gift sent to us from heaven. Do this, and you can make the Christmas of 2010 a merry one.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmas expectations

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.

On that day they will say to Jerusalem, "Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. The sorrows for the appointed feasts I will remove from you"
(Zephaniah 3:14-18).

When I was young, Christmas was a time of excitement and happiness. We lived in the city of Manitowoc, a city on Lake Michigan just a short drive from the town of Two Rivers. All of my grandparents lived in Two Rivers, along with some aunts and uncles. Every Friday night we would drive up the road and visit relatives—but following Thanksgiving, there was a different place in Two Rivers that I wanted to go—Evan’s Department Store! Each Christmas season, fully half of their basement was given over to toys of every imaginable type—no store in the county had a better selection. And so I begged my folks to go to Evans, suggesting that my mom look at clothes and my dad look at tools—but before we left, I dragged them to the toy department to show them things I’d love to get for Christmas.

Another neat part about the days leading up to Christmas involved decorating the house. We always had a real tree, and I would go with Father to pick out the best one. At home, I would help Mother decorate the tree, filling it with a mixture of old ornaments and new; I always made sure that there were no bare places left, and that no ornament covered up another. Outside, I would help keep strings of lights untangled as Father strung them up. And of course I hoped for snow, which made everything look so Christmas-y.

When Christmas Eve came, the night was filled with wonder and frustration. I loved singing the Christmas hymns in church, but it was hard to concentrate on the sermon when I knew there were presents back home, wrapped in shiny paper that glittered under the lights of the tree. The frustration kicked into high gear after church; although I desperately wanted to get home, Mother and Father always wanted to drive around and look at the decorated houses. When we finally returned home, the best part of the night started—presents would be passed around and I would find some wonderful new toys to play with. By this time our relatives from Two Rivers had arrived, and we concluded the evening by gathering around the piano—Mother would play, and we would sing several Christmas carols together. By the time our relatives were ready to leave, I was usually exhausted and in bed, dreaming happy dreams.

As the years have passed, the Christmas experience has changed for me. The shopping days following Thanksgiving have become frustrating, as the crowds grow worse and I struggle to figure out the best presents on a responsible budget. When others in the family ask me for gift ideas for myself, it’s becoming harder to come up with suggestions. Decorating the house for Christmas is more of a chore than a joy; I prefer using an artificial tree already strung with lights because it saves time. On Christmas Eve, I get more satisfaction from watching others opening their gifts than from opening my own. And as relatives have died or moved to distant places, there are fewer people gathering in our home to celebrate Christmas with.

The things I used to get excited about at this time of year have changed dramatically. Now I look forward to driving around to see how others have decorated their homes. Now I prefer that there be very little snow, so that people can travel safely. Now the high point of the holidays is the Christmas worship service, where I love singing the hymns and try to offer the best possible sermon, knowing that on Christmas Eve there will be people in church that rarely come any other time of the year.

What gets you excited about Christmas? Do you love ripping through package after package, leaving a heap of tattered paper all around you? Or does your heart speed up at the thought of browsing the sales that precede and follow Christmas? Do you love to attend Christmas parties, get a little tipsy, and flirt under the mistletoe? Or do you look forward to preparing a fabulous meal and filling your home with relatives? Maybe it’s the music that you love, music that you only hear at this time of the year; maybe you are eager to go out Christmas caroling with a bunch of friends. Perhaps the high point of the season for you involves decorating; does it take a beautifully appointed home to make your heart skip a beat? Or is the best part of the holidays simply getting some time off from work?

If these are what define Christmas joy in your mind, be aware that you will have some disappointing holidays. Being laid off from your job or having a year of health problems and high medical bills can dramatically affect gift giving. You might have a pretty lonely Christmas if your friends and relatives live far away, and bad weather prevents travel. Depending on your job, you might even find yourself working on Christmas Eve, able only to watch others celebrating the holiday.

But there is something about Christmas that no one can take away from you, something that circumstances cannot overshadow. It’s the fact of what happened on the first Christmas Eve. It’s the effect that the very first Christmas gift has on your life today. It’s the promise and hope that Christmas fills your heart with, not just on Christmas but every day of the year.

Fact: some 2,000 years ago, God sent His Son into our world dressed in a human body. This Son came as God’s representative to teach us about love, help us recognize behavior that is hurtful and selfish, and assure us that our mistakes can be forgiven. Even more importantly, Jesus came to earth so that He might suffer and die—suffer the punishment we deserved from God for angering Him with our evil thoughts and bad behavior. But His death was only temporary—the Son of God rose from the grave to live forever, proving His power to raise all who die trusting in His mercy. All this is historical fact, witnessed by many and recorded by no less than four different writers—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. John sums up the purpose of these books when he says, these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (John 20:31).

But this is no dusty history. This is not like a Christmas special that is aired once a year between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is an event just as important as your own birth. If you didn’t have a birthday, you would not even exist. If Christ were not born to save us, your life would have no purpose or hope. God’s gift of His Son impacts your life every day. Every day you entertain thoughts which anger God—thoughts of jealousy, lust, greed and revenge. Every day you speak words that hurt other people just as surely as if you had slapped them across the face. Every day you let opportunities to show love for others slip away unused. And every day, Jesus waits for you to recognize your sin and apologize to Him. Every day, Jesus offers you freedom from the guilt of your mistakes. John assures us, If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

God’s gift of His Son is a gift available to you 24/7. Every day, Jesus is willing to help you fight the temptation to do wrong. Every day, Jesus offers reassurance in the face of discouraging problems. Every day, Jesus awaits your prayers for guidance; when you seek His help before making a decision, He will provide the wisdom that you need. Jesus is God—He is constantly watching over you. The prophet Nahum writes (in chapter one), The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him.

God’s gift of His Son assures us of a bright, shining future. No matter how frustrating or joyless life can be, the future is always something to look forward to when we have the gift of Jesus. For us, death is an unpleasant experience, but one that does not terrify. Jesus has broken deaths’ icy grip! He rose from the dead, and He promises to one day restore us to life. For the follower of Jesus, death ushers us into a new reality, a reality where there is no suffering or pain, no loneliness or anxiety, no frustration or disappointment. In heaven, all will be perfect—perfect love, perfect happiness, perfect contentment. Jesus rose from the dead to open the gates of heaven to each and every believer—to you and me. Listen to the words of Peter: All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay (1 Peter 1:3-4). Shortly before His death for our sins, Jesus spoke of this hope to the man dying on the cross next to Him: I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).

Be glad and rejoice with all your heart…The LORD has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy…"Do not fear…The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you." This is the true meaning of Christmas. This is where joy can be found even if there are no gifts, no music or decorations, no gathering of loved ones. This is a joy you can have even if you’re stuck working on Christmas Eve! Christmas is about God’s love coming into this world to touch you personally. Christmas is about receiving a gift that takes away emotional pain and replaces it with courage, hope and love. When Christ becomes part of your life, He offers to make everything new—and that’s the most exciting part of Christmas.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Holiday stress

Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matthew 6:33).

I imagine that by now, most of you reading this have got your Christmas decorations put up. Many of you are well along on your Christmas shopping, or may be done with it already. A few enterprising folks might even have their Christmas cookies baked and frosted.

Getting ready for Christmas can take a lot of effort. There’s extra work involved in getting the house clean and ready for holiday guests. Time must be scheduled for parties and Christmas programs. There are cards to send and, for the ambitious, letters to write. The weather can be uncooperative, making travel difficult or dumping snow that you don’t have the energy to scoop. Commercials and daytime talk shows urge you to make this the best Christmas ever. And even though you’re getting frazzled, everyone tells you that it’s the most wonderful time of the year. You feel a twinge of guilt every time you act like a Grinch.

People get stressed and depressed this time of the year. It’s no surprise, really; we have such high expectations for happy holidays that a letdown is almost inevitable. Add to that a long war overseas along with a struggling economy, and it’s hard to find the same level of joy that you remember from many years ago.

I’d like to make two points. First point: you don’t remember past Christmases accurately. Sure, you recall the high points, but it is human nature to avoid unpleasant memories. Those previous holidays had their share of oddball gifts, temper tantrums, drunken behavior, and empty wallets. There were years when circumstances kept loved ones from getting together. No Christmas celebration is perfect; most fall short of expectations. Do yourself a favor and embrace this truth.

Second point: Christmas is not about money or the things it buys. Christmas is not about parties, decorations, or laying out a fabulous meal. Christmas is about God’s gift of His Son to a world that desperately needs His love and peace. If you make Jesus the focus of this season, you can exchange holiday stress for a Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Names of God (part 4)

I AM the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved (John 10:9).

Today we conclude our look at the Biblical names that God has chosen for Himself.

In John chapter 10 Jesus said, I AM the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. As I said earlier, we are like sheep who need careful tending and constant protection. Jesus is devoted to our welfare—so devoted that He gave up His life to save us from the enemy. The enemy is sin, the ugly defect we all share which leads to evil thoughts, hurtful words, and foolish behavior. Jesus went to the cross to end sin’s cursed hold on us, and He died in our defense.

In John chapter 11 Jesus told Martha, 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. Jesus is the Lord of Life. Death cannot withstand His power. Jesus restored a young boy, a little girl, and a grown man back to life. He Himself rose from the grave, assuring us that death does not have the final say over our lives.

In John chapter 14 Jesus said, I AM the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. The world is a confusing place, full of different opinions. How can you know what’s true and what’s not? Truth cannot be found in human wisdom, because all human thinking is flawed by sin. The only way to know the truth is to seek it from God, the Maker of all that is. Only Jesus’ words can be fully trusted; only the Son of God can reveal to you the path that leads to heaven.

In John chapter 15 Jesus told the disciples, 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. Each of us likes to believe that we are something special. Each of us takes pride in our accomplishments. But every now and then, things go wrong and we realize that we aren’t as smart or as talented as we thought. Because of sin, everything we do is substandard. Thankfully, Jesus helps us to do things that we cannot do on our own.

Our Lord is the great I AM. He has done marvelous things. And He has done them for you.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A cluttered closet

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene-- during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: "A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God's salvation' " (Luke 3:1-6a).

From 1935 to 1959 there was a weekly radio show called Fibber McGee and Molly. It was one of the first situation comedies, and a running gag was that McGee never threw anything away. Where did he keep all the stuff that was either "too good to throw away" or that he "might need some day"? In his closet of course! Frequently, McGee would be hunting for something and remember that he had it in his closet. When the door opened, the radio audience heard an incredible racket as everything imaginable fell and buried McGee. When the clattering finally ended, McGee would always say: "I gotta get that closet cleaned out one of these days." "Fibber McGee's Closet" eventually became a catch phrase for hopeless household clutter.

How many of you would feel comfortable showing me your closets? I suspect that most of you have at least one "Fibber McGee's Closet" somewhere in your home. And what might we find if we opened it up? Dirty socks? Worn out shoes? Old sporting equipment? Clothes that have gone out of fashion or don’t fit anymore? Gifts you bought ages ago and forgot you had stashed away? Shoe boxes filled with old letters, trading cards, or other memorabilia? Your high school year book? A box of pornography? I even knew a person who, when going through his closet, found a container filled with fuzzy things that had once been brownies!

We shove things into closets because we don’t want to deal with them, we don’t have time to deal with them, or we just can’t bear to part with them. But Christmas is coming up, and we love to exchange gifts. Where’s all that new stuff going to go? Clearly, we need to clean out our closets to make room for the gifts of Christmas.

Just as our closets need cleaning out, so do our hearts. In a couple of weeks, we will welcome the greatest Christmas gift of all—Jesus, the Son of God born of Mary. When Jesus comes to us, where does He live? In our hearts, of course! But when we look at all the stuff cluttering our hearts, is there room for Jesus? Let’s consider how our hearts resemble "Fibber McGee's Closet."

Many closets are filled with clothing that has gone out of fashion and with old shoes that are worn and cracked. We hang on to them for sentimental reasons—we felt good wearing them. In the same way, our hearts are filled with nostalgia for the fun times we used to have. Over the years, we eventually stopped doing some things because our friends are gone, life has gotten too busy, or we just don’t have the energy like we used to. But some of those ‘good old days’ were really nothing to be proud of. Sure, you won that fight in the parking lot—but doesn’t God forbid us from harming our neighbors? Maybe you were able to keep throwing back drinks while your buddies were passed out or sick in the bathroom—but doesn’t God forbid drunkenness? How many times have you been proud of your sins? It’s long past time to hang your head in shame and apologize to God for those sins of the past.

Perhaps your closet is filled with a heap of dirty clothes. So often, laundry gets pushed to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list. Of course, soiled clothing is unhealthy—it can lead to skin rashes and worse. But with everything going on in your life, it is hard to make time to keep things washed. In the same way, how often do you clean your heart? Jesus washed you with the waters of holy baptism, but how often do you reapply that washing by asking God to forgive your sins? Do you find it hard to make time for the Lord? How often do you confess your sins to Jesus? Do you pray as often as you shower or bathe? How frequently do you come to God’s house, to hear the wonderful truth that Jesus’ blood shed on the cross has cleansed you of every spot and stain? For your continued spiritual health, you need Christ to cleanse you regularly.

Maybe your closet contains your high school yearbook, dusty from years of being buried under other stuff. Should you open it, you’d be reminded of a time when you were exploring life, days when everything was filled with excitement and potential. School was where you learned about life—school was where you picked up the skills needed to recognize danger and make plans for the future. But since graduation, have you kept on studying? Is life still filled with the wonder of discovery and new possibilities? Or has life become boring and directionless? It happens with religion, too. Young men and women get confirmed and figure they have graduated, that there is nothing else to learn about the faith. They never read their confirmation Bible or any devotional literature. But if I were to ask them what they remembered from confirmation class, how much of that learning still sticks? Do you remember what you learned years ago in high school algebra or civics? The ugly truth is that we forget—knowledge gets buried and forgotten just like a yearbook in a closet. People who are successful in their professions are always refreshing their education through attending conferences and reading professional journals. The only way that you can keep your religious education from slipping away is by studying the Bible, God’s textbook for successful living. You can find new enthusiasm for life by spending time with God’s holy Word.

Also buried in that closet are cards and letters from people you haven’t seen in years. How sad that you have lost touch like that. But our careers are so important—we work long hours to achieve success, we move from one city to another in pursuit of our goals. Yet where do family and friends fit into our schedules? Do they only get whatever time we have left over once all our other priorities have been addressed? In the same way, does God get shoved out of our schedules? Is time at work or preparing a meal or relaxing on the golf course more important than time spent worshipping in God’s house? Is your relationship with God only a priority at Christmas and Easter? Freedom from sin and death are the most important things in the world, and they only come to those who are friends of Jesus. The other great blessing we receive from God is the love of relatives and friends. When we attend a funeral, is our attention fixed on the deceased person’s home or career or collection of antiques? No, the memories we treasure are of the times we spent together. It is time for us to stop squeezing our relationships into our schedules and start building our schedules around our relationships.

It’s annoying to look through the closet and find a gift that you bought ages ago, but never gave because you forgot you bought it. It just goes to show how frequently we take our loved ones for granted. How often do you buy flowers or bake a special treat to show someone how much they are appreciated? Not nearly often enough, I’d wager. And we treat God the same way. How often do you praise Him for keeping you warm and fed and healthy and safe? How often do you thank Jesus for suffering and dying for your sins? How often do you give the Holy Spirit credit for the things you only accomplished because He was helping you? We need to think about God and our loved ones more often than we do, and communicate how grateful we are to have them in our lives.

And then there is the truly ugly stuff—the box that you hide from the other members of your family because you’re ashamed of what’s inside. What’s in that box? It might be pornography. It might be your stash of illegal drugs. It might be where you hide your lover’s letters from your husband. It might contain receipts for things you’ve bought that you know your family cannot afford. Each of us do things that we try to hide from the people we love, because we know what we’re doing is wrong and could cause much hurt if discovered. But we cannot hide our sinful deeds from God. He is everywhere and sees everything. Sooner or later, He will call each of us to account for every time we indulged in sinful pleasures. It’s time to make a clean breast of it. Stand before Jesus with your head hanging down; lay your stash at His feet and ask Him to take away your love for it. The things in that box are addictive; they need to be treated as such.

Our souls are like closets filled with things that need to be taken to the curb so that our hearts are ready to welcome Jesus as our Christmas guest. When we have company stay for the holidays, we can’t just shove junk into the closet to hide it, because our guests need that closet space. What kinds of things does Jesus put into our hearts when we accept Him as our guest? He places clothing on our hangers, as we read in Isaiah chapter 61: he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness. On the shelf we find something to wear on our heads, as described by James (chapter one): Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him. Jesus even makes room for body armor, as we read in the sixth chapter of Ephesians: put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground. When Jesus occupies our hearts, we are filled with the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

God tells us how to prepare for receiving Jesus into our hearts. He says, fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds (Deuteronomy 11:18). But left to our own devices, we are helpless to make our hearts ready for Jesus. We look at the impossible heap of junk in "Fibber McGee’s Closet" and have no idea where to even start. We need Jesus’ help in sorting through the clutter in our lives, identifying what is useless and unhealthy. Since there is so much that needs to be taken away, we cannot carry it to the curb by ourselves; thankfully, Jesus has the strength which we do not. Jesus even lowers Himself to take on the job of garbage man—He suffered and died in our place to take our sins away from us—as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12). The only way our hearts can be made worthy of Jesus’ occupancy is by asking the Savior to help us in cleaning them out.

We are scheduled to welcome Jesus as our heavenly guest in just two weeks. You’d better get that closet door open, let the mess tumble out, and give Jesus a call to come and roll up His sleeves!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Names of God (part 3)

"I tell you the truth," Jesus answered, "before Abraham was born, I AM!" (John 8:58)

Today we continue our look at the Biblical names that God has chosen for Himself.

In Ezekiel chapter 48, God is named Yahweh-shammah, the Lord ever-present. After the nation of Israel fell and its people were scattered, Ezekiel spoke of the day when God would return His people to their homeland. The prophet talked about life after the restoration, and he had this to say about the capital: the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE. God would always be present with His people; He would never walk away from them. God is always with you; even when you feel all lone with your troubles, the Lord is near and is paying close attention to your situation.

I said earlier in this series that Yahweh translates as "I AM". Jesus applied this name to Himself frequently in the New Testament. Let’s look at some examples.

In John chapter 6 Jesus declared "I AM the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." Jesus compares Himself to bread, one of the most basic of foods. Just as bread keeps the body alive, Jesus keeps the soul alive. Food for the soul is essential; God says man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Matthew 4:4). Jesus is the Word of God that came to walk among us; when He speaks, our souls are made healthy and strong. If we listen to Christ, His words can free us from anger and fear, loneliness and despair.

In John chapter 8 Jesus said, "I AM the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." God views darkness as evil; the first thing He did was to create light. Sadly, our sin makes the world a very dark place. Without light, everything eventually dies; darkness is the enemy of life. Thankfully, Jesus brought the light of God into our dark world; if we stand in His light we will be invigorated, so invigorated that we can live on in spite of death. The light of Christ reveals the grave to be a shallow thing, not worthy of our fear.

Next time we will conclude our look at the many names God uses to reveal Himself to us.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

The Names of God (part 2)

This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6).

Today we continue looking at the names of God found in the Old Testament.

In Judges chapter 6, God is revealed by the name Yahweh-shalom, the Lord is our peace. The Israelites were suffering raids from hostile foreigners. God chose Gideon to organize a team of warriors to stop the attacks. But when Gideon realized that he was in the presence of God, he was terrified—He knew that he was a sinner and that God punishes sin with death. But the LORD said to him, "Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die." So Gideon built an altar to the LORD there and called it The LORD is Peace. If you humble yourself before God, He will treat you with gentleness.

In the very familiar 23rd Psalm, God is called Yahweh-raah, the Lord our shepherd. The Bible often compares us to sheep—animals who wander into danger with hardly a thought, and cannot defend themselves from savage predators. The predator we must fear is Satan; Peter says, Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8). We need a shepherd, someone who leads us to good pastures and defends us from all evil. The Lord is our shepherd.

In Jeremiah chapter 23, God is spoken of as Yahweh-tsidkenu, the Lord our righteousness. Jeremiah was a prophet at the time when Babylon conquered Jerusalem and deported the leaders, the wealthy, and the educated. God had allowed Jerusalem to fall because most of the people had turned away from the Lord and devoted themselves to lives of sin. But Jeremiah offered hope in this time of tragedy; God would restore His people through a special man, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land…This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness. Of course, Jeremiah was speaking about Jesus, the Holy One through whom we are made righteous and acceptable to God. As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians chapter 5, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. When guilt over sin weighs you down, remember that Jesus can forgive anything, and wants to share His righteousness with you.

Next time, we will continue our look at the many names of God that are found in the Bible.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Advent of our Savior

Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.

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

Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:1-08).

Every time we reach January 1st, we turn our calendars to a new year. Every time we reach July 1st, businesses start a new fiscal year. And each time we reach the season of Advent, we Christians begin a new church year.

When the world flips to the first month of a new calendar, people reflect on the sorrows of the past even as they look forward to a better tomorrow. As business managers close the books on one year, the previous 12 months are carefully examined in order to improve profitability over the next 12 months. Advent follows the same pattern. These weeks leading up to Christmas are both a time of reflection and a time of anticipation. We look back at the sorry lives we’ve led, lives crippled by failure and stained by sin. At the same time, we also look forward with expectant joy—look forward to celebrating God’s gift of His Son to us, to take away our sins and offer us a bright future as children of God. Advent is a time of reevaluating our lives so that we can properly welcome the Savior into our hearts.

Let’s begin the process by considering this question: what is so special about Christianity? What does it offer that makes it so different from every other world religion? Why make a point of wishing people ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of ‘Happy Holidays’?

It’s all about forgiveness. Christianity brings a lot of good things to the table, but chief among them is the blessing of forgiveness. Now I’ll grant you that forgiveness is not found exclusively among Christians. All over the world there are people who try very hard to forgive others when they have been wronged. But what’s their motive in offering forgiveness? Do they forgive on a quid pro quo basis? For example, does a husband forgive his wife for having an affair, knowing that he’ll need forgiveness when she finds out about his mistress? Or do they offer forgiveness because it will help them out when they die? Do they show kindness to others in this life, hoping to reduce the bad effects of entering the next life with too much negative spiritual energy? Either way, such forgiveness is ultimately self-serving.

The forgiveness of Christ is completely different. The forgiveness offered by God’s Son is an expression of His unselfish love for us. Jesus doesn’t benefit from forgiving us—in fact, bringing us the offer of mercy cost Him terribly as He suffered on the cross and died. Jesus endured agony beyond our comprehension for one reason only—He wanted to forgive us. He suffered the divine punishment you and I deserve for being selfish and unloving, suffered so that you can escape the consequences of your wrongdoing just by saying, "Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Jesus demands nothing in exchange for His mercy. We don’t have to make right everything we’ve messed up. We don’t have to perform a certain number of good deeds to earn admission into heaven. All Jesus asks is that we cling to Him alone as most important in our lives. When we do this, He fills our hearts with His forgiving love and that forgiving love spills over onto the people who surround us. Guided by Jesus, we begin to offer mercy unselfishly; like Him, we start forgiving others just because love moves us to.

Forgiveness: it comes to us from God through the cross of Christ. Forgiveness is what frees our hearts from the burden of guilt and fills them instead with hope and joy. When we feel angry or lonely or afraid, forgiveness offers us peace and companionship and love. Forgiveness tears down the barriers that separate us from God and each other. Forgiveness—it’s what Christianity is all about.

The next question I’d like you to consider is this: what kind of faith do you have? Faith has a profound effect on how you live your life. If you have faith in your husband’s skills as a driver, you can sleep peacefully during a long road trip. If you don’t have confidence in the electric company, every night you’ll be winding up a mechanical alarm clock. If you trust the officials who are calling a game, you can relax and focus on the coach’s plan and each player’s performance. If you don’t trust your employees, you will frequently stay after work to do your own quality assurance.

Faith is part of our daily routine. Faith gives us confidence to make decisions and allows us to enjoy life; when we are lacking in faith, we become paralyzed by uncertainty and lose sleep due to worry. Faith affects both our decisions and behavior.

This is why faith in Jesus is so important to us. Jesus promises heaven to all who believe in Him. This gives us peace at funerals; when we know that our Christian loved one is nestled safely in Jesus’ arms, we find something to smile about even as we shed tears of farewell. And when the doctor reports that our own medical condition is extremely grave, we don’t react with fear because we know that the grave is only a revolving door that opens into paradise.

But sometimes we abuse faith. It’s one thing to be confident; it’s quite another to take something for granted. Some people are so confident they will be paid correctly and on time that they write checks on a depleted bank account, assuming those bad checks will be covered by the time they clear the bank. Many husbands assume that their wives will always love them no matter how badly they behave. And people also take Jesus for granted. They know that He promises to forgive sin, so they hardly think twice about doing whatever they want, figuring that they can always get forgiveness afterwards.

Such people confuse confidence with risk-taking. It’s seldom worth it to take foolish chances; relationships are at risk when you take someone for granted. This is especially true of our relationship with the Lord. Remember His warning: Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows (Galatians 6:7). Our Lord knows full well when your repentance is sincere, and when you’re only saying that you’re sorry to try and avoid getting into trouble. Don’t take God’s mercy for granted; the last person you want to make angry is the One who decides where you go when you die.

Which brings me to my final question: what’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you? Having you car stolen? Losing your job? Having a storm flatten your house? No—as difficult as these situations would be to go through, such losses can be replaced.

What’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you? Going through divorce? Burying the person you married? Having your children move so far away that you never get to see them? No—as painful as these changes can be, there are still people all around who can fill your life with love.

What’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you? Being diagnosed with cancer? Going blind? Losing control of your body due to Multiple Sclerosis or a stroke? Losing your memory to Alzheimer’s disease? No—as terrible as such conditions are, there is always hope for a medical breakthrough to bring relief.

What’s the worst thing that could ever happen to you? It’s living without faith in Jesus. It’s dying without having your sins forgiven. It’s spending eternity in darkness without the faintest glimmer of light, where the only sounds are screams of pain and terror and anguish. It’s an endless existence with no love, no companionship, no joy, and worst of all, no hope that things will ever get better. The worst thing that can happen to you is hell.

This worst of all things can be avoided, but only for a time. You have until the day of your death to tell Jesus that you are sorry for ignoring Him. You have until the hour of your last breath to accept His invitation and let Him fill your heart with His love. But this offer of a new start ends when you die; to avoid hell, you must be one of Jesus’ friends before life flees your body.

How much time do you have to improve your relationship with Jesus? I don’t know—and neither do you. You might have 50 years or 50 minutes before your time is up. So don’t put Jesus off, thinking that you have plenty of time to get serious about religion—today might be your final opportunity to avoid the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

Christmas joins Easter as the most important holidays on the calendar because through them, God wipes the slate clean. On Christmas He sent His Son into this world to offer us an invitation: turn from your sins and embrace God. Stop holding grudges against people who have hurt you; it is time to forgive them. Stop taking God’s love for granted; it is time to show Him gratitude by listening to Him carefully and trying to live according to His principles. Repent of your sins, and Jesus will forgive you—He will wash you free of your guilt by the blood He shed on the cross, and will embrace you with the nail-scarred hands that have been warm with life ever since Easter morning. As Paul says in Acts chapter 13, Through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.

This is what we look forward to as the weeks of Advent draw us towards Christmas. Advent is not about gift buying or party planning; Advent is about realizing how desperately we need someone to erase the mistakes of our past and give us hope that the days ahead can be better. Advent shows us our sins so that we crave the coming of the Savior. Advent holds out the promise that God is not far off, but that He comes near to all who love Him. Advent reminds us of the advice offered by Isaiah when he writes, Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near (Isaiah 55:6).

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Names of God

God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3:14).

God has made Himself known by many names. Each name tells us something about Him—who He is, what He cares about, what He does. Today I’d like to share some of these names from the Old Testament. All of these names are variations of Yahweh, the personal name of God which means "I AM."

In Genesis chapter 32, God is referred to as Yahweh-yireh, the Lord who provides. God had tested Abraham’s faith by instructing the old man to sacrifice his one and only son to the Lord. When Abraham put aside his personal desires in order to obey God’s command, the Lord spared Isaac’s life by providing a ram to die in the boy’s place. When you trust in God, He will provide what you need.

In Exodus chapter 15, God is named Yahweh-ropheka, the Lord our physician. God had punished Egypt with 10 awful plagues because that nation was mistreating God’s people. Miraculously, only the Egyptians suffered—the Israelites remained unharmed. After they were released from captivity, God made them a promise: If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD who heals you. Any time you are blessed with recovery from sickness or injury, it is a gift from the Lord.

In Exodus chapter 17, God is named Yahweh-nissi, the Lord our banner of victory. The Israelites were caught in a vicious battle that went on and on. The only reason they won the day was because God blessed their struggle through Moses. So long as the prophet held up his hands in blessing, the Israelites fought with power; when his strength faltered and he lowered his arms, the enemy rallied. So two men of God helped Moses keep his arms raised until the enemy was defeated. The Bible says that Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner. When you depend on God for help, the forces of evil cannot overcome you.

In my next devotion, I will share with you some more names of God from the Old Testament.

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