Saturday, January 29, 2011


[Jesus] began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing."

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked. Jesus said to them, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: `Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.' "

"I tell you the truth," he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed--only Naaman the Syrian."

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way
(Luke 4:21-32).

Computers have certainly changed our desks at the office. In fact, I’m pretty sure most of you don’t even know what a pigeonhole is.

Have you been to a hardware store where the are row upon row of little bins filled with different kinds of nails, bolts and washers? Those are pigeonholes. When you go into the post office and look at the wall of mailboxes, those are pigeonholes. Before we had computers to sort and file documents, people who worked at a desk had all sorts of pigeonholes in front of them. These openings were small—just big enough to fill with papers folded to the size of an envelope. The person working at such a desk used the pigeonholes to sort and store correspondence, bills, and other important documents. The reason they were called pigeonholes was because they resembled the tiny place a pigeon might choose to build a nest.

The pigeonholes in an office were used to keep paperwork organized. An orderly bookkeeper would be very annoyed to come across a piece of paper that defied classification. Every document had to go someplace, so sometimes a piece of paper would be filed in a slot where it didn’t really belong—this practice came to be known as "pigeonholing."

But pigeonholing is not just restricted to old-fashioned desks. We pigeonhole human beings too. Suppose a new kid starts at school; his parents just moved into the community. The other kids are quick to size him up: is he a jock or a geek? They want to figure out which pigeonhole he fits in so they know how to treat him. It also happens at the office—few will open up to a new employee until they determine if she is a team player or a brown-noser. When we find out which political party a man belongs to, we assume that we know his position on every controversial issue. And of course there is pigeonholing based on age, gender and ethnic background—for example, women are emotional while men are logical; young people are lazy while old people are hard workers; the British are cultured and the French are rude.

Call it what you will—pigeonholing, labeling, racial profiling. Whatever name you hang on it, pigeonholing stops us from getting to know each other as individuals. Once we have stuffed someone into a pigeonhole, we believe that we know all that we need to about them, and we stop trying to understand them.

Jesus was pigeonholed by the people of His hometown. They had known Him for about 30 years. He was a nice guy—pretty much everyone liked Him, or at least had nothing bad to say about Him. It was common knowledge that He was an illegitimate child, conceived of Mary before her wedding to Joseph took place. Most probably believed Joseph to be the father, but that only made them think less of both parents, unable to control themselves during their engagement. Some were probably surprised that Jesus turned out as good as He did, being parented by a man and woman of questionable moral character.

They also knew that Jesus was raised in the carpentry business. Certainly He had skill, but it was not a career that led to wealth or social prominence. Jesus was middle class, and as the oldest son everyone expected that He would get married and take over the family business. They assumed that He would use His woodworking skills in service to the community for the rest of His life.

But Jesus surprised them. First of all, He did not get married. This was highly unusual, although with Joseph’s death, perhaps Jesus could be forgiven His odd behavior as He worked to support His mother, brothers and sisters. Then, at age 30, Jesus left the family business—left town in fact. Of course by now, his brothers were old enough to take over the carpentry shop, but where did Jesus go—and why? The answers came in a matter of months—there were reports that Jesus had become a religious teacher and a miracle worker!

Well, now this was remarkable. Jesus had the same education as the other children in town—where did this religious expertise suddenly come from? So they were curious to hear what Jesus would say. And miracles? What had happened during His time away from them? Maybe the reports of His miracles were exaggerated; in any event, they looked forward to seeing Jesus ‘strut His stuff’ when He got home. If Jesus was everything they had heard, what pride they could take in being the town that raised Him!

Jesus joined them for morning worship in the synagogue. He read from the prophet Isaiah, then began teaching them what it meant. Everybody was astounded—they could hardly believe that the wise and educated words they were hearing came from the boy they’d seen grow up in a carpenter’s workshop. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked.

Well, actually the answer was no, this was not Joseph’s son. That was the whole problem. The people of Nazareth had pigeonholed Jesus incorrectly. Jesus was not the illegitimate son of Mary and Joseph, He was the very legitimate Son of God, conceived in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit. His morals were of the highest caliber, because His Father was God. He was poor not by accident of birth but by choice; Jesus walked away from the riches of heaven to walk with us in our earthly poverty. His knowledge was God’s knowledge, and His miracles were signs that proved His divinity.

Few people knew the truth about Jesus’ background. I suspect Mary didn’t speak much about her angelic visit from Gabriel—after all, who would believe such a story? It would sound like an elaborate fantasy designed to cover up a lapse in judgment which resulting in pregnancy. Mary’s cousin Elizabeth knew the truth, but she lived in another town. And who in Nazareth would have met the shepherds of far away Bethlehem and heard about their vision of a heavenly host?

No, the townsfolk of Nazareth had Jesus neatly pigeonholed, and the slot they placed Him in was not labeled "Son of God." They were willing to reclassify Him as "the home town boy made good", but that was as far as they were ready to go. So what came next was shocking. Jesus refused to entertain them with a display of His miracles. And the way He refused made them extremely angry—angry enough to try and commit manslaughter.

Jesus spoke of Elijah and Elisha, two of the Old Testament’s greatest prophets. In the case of Elijah, Jesus reminded them of a time when most of the people had abandoned God for other religions. In His anger, God withheld rain for 3 ½ years, causing a severe famine. While this was going on, God sent Elijah to live with a poverty-stricken widow in another country. While the people of Israel starved, the foreign widow and her son were miraculously blessed with unending food while the prophet of God lived with them. Using this bit of history, Jesus made clear that when people don’t believe in God, they cannot expect miracles from Him.

The story of Elisha makes the same point. Elisha was known for performing mighty miracles—he even retrieved an ax head from a well by making it float to the surface! But in spite of this, Elisha lived a hermit’s life—the people of Israel did not flock to him to hear God’s word, they pretty much ignored him. Although many were afflicted with leprosy, the only person Elisha cured of this disease was a man from Syria. Again, those who don’t cling to God in faith cannot expect a miracle from Him.

These words made the Nazarenes furious. Who did Jesus think He was, anyway? How ungrateful to snub His hometown by refusing to do any miracles! What arrogance from a man barely an adult who only last year was covered with sawdust! Even worse, listen to Him suggesting that the townsfolk didn’t have faith in God. He was elevating Himself to the ranks of Elijah and Elisha—in fact, He seemed to be claiming the title of Messiah, the one God would send to free His people from the forces of evil. And He dared compare them to the Israelites who had been punished by God for their faithlessness!

The sense of betrayal by one of their own, the claim that He was closer to God than they were, these things drove the people Jesus had grown up with into a frenzy. They hauled Him out of town to the edge of a cliff, planning to pitch him over the side. But that is when they received the miracle they had requested—using His divine power, Jesus just walked right through the angry crowd, and no one could lay a hand on Him.

Jesus said, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. He knew that they would never see him as God’s Son, even if He did show them miracles. And Jesus is not a circus performer. He is not a stage show magician or a pyrotechnics specialist. Jesus is the Son of God, and His miracles are performed in connection with faith—either to affirm it or strengthen it. If you don’t have faith in God, don’t expect miracles. On the morning of Good Friday, Herod wanted Jesus to perform miracles to entertain his royal court, but our Lord would not even speak to the man. And in Matthew chapter 12 we read, some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, "Teacher, we want to see a miraculous sign from you." He answered, "A wicked and unfaithful generation asks for a miraculous sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." If a person does not believe in the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, no lesser miracle will stir faith in that faithless heart.

You can’t pigeonhole Jesus—no matter how big, no box can contain Him. He is both man and God. Along with the Father and the Spirit, He created the world, created you. He is the one who speaks God’s words to you. He is the one who heals diseases and quiets storms and raises the dead. He is the one who sacrificed His own life to make the forgiveness of your sins possible. He is the one who prepares heaven for your arrival. He is the one who will condemn unbelievers to eternity in hell. Jesus is all these things, and much, much more.

We like to pigeonhole others because it gives us a sense of control—when we have attached the correct label to others, we know what to expect from them and how to manage them. But we should not label people—instead, we should take the time to explore them deeply, not to manage them but to understand and appreciate them. Jesus refuses to be pigeonholed—He does not perform according to our expectations, just as He refused to perform according to the expectations of His fellow Nazarenes. Jesus demands that you listen to Him with an open mind, and He rewards that listening with faith—a faith that does not demand miracles.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Being noticed

Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered (Matthew 10:30).

You have met a lot of people in your life. A few had a big impact on you; most are faces without names, or casual acquaintances you have forgotten. Of the few who have changed your life significantly, some are folks you’d rather not think about. They changed your life all right, but not in a good way.

So many people have crossed your path who were either unpleasant or barely noticeable. They don’t seem worthy of your time or a place in your memory. And yet, have you ever considered how unimportant you are to most of the people you meet?

We are all self-centered; we want to believe that the world revolves around us. But unless you are a celebrity or politician, only a small number of people really know much about you or care what’s going on in your life. Search your name on the World Wide Web; it’s disheartening to realize how small a footprint you have left on this earth.

We tend to ignore most people unless they are attractive or control something that we want. If you aren’t especially good looking and don’t have money or power, most people won’t spare you more than a passing glance; sadly, you and I behave that way too. We are too stingy with our love and our time to share it with someone who doesn’t impress us.

Jesus is different. Although there are billions of people living in this world, the Savior knows each of us by name. He knows your hopes and dreams, your successes and failures. When you feel hurt, He can sympathize with your pain because He suffered and died for everyone.

Our Lord does not treat anyone as if they are beneath His notice or unworthy of His time. Sadly, that is how we often treat Him—we don’t give time to prayer or worship, and we don’t let His laws govern our behavior. Nevertheless, Jesus loves each of us deeply and personally. You were worth dying for; He’ll never forget who you are.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Hard times

He has rescued us from the dominion of darkness (Colossians 1:13).

Each of us has experienced some very difficult times. For some, it might have been going through a divorce. For others, it may have been losing a job. There are women who get pregnant unexpectedly, and wrestle with what to do next. There are kids who are victims of bullying. There are men who realize that they aren’t getting any younger, and don’t know what to do with the years that lie ahead. There are people who are victims of addiction, abuse, and discrimination. And even if things are going smoothly right now, each of us can remember a time when we were absolutely miserable.

The bad times in our lives afflict us with emotions like anger or fear, disappointment or sadness, frustration or loneliness. Worst of all is the despair, the hopeless feeling that things just won’t get any better. Maybe you’re feeling that way right now; maybe those feelings have scarred you for life.

As bad as life can be, there is something even worse. When Jesus returns on the Last Day, everyone will stand before Him for judgment. If the Lord says, I don’t know you (Luke 13:25), heaven will be off limits; instead, you will spend eternity in hell, cut off from God and everything that is good and pleasurable. Imagine the worst time of your life going on forever without let up or any way of escape. Hell will be worse than that.

Thankfully, there is one way that you can escape such a miserable future. Jesus says, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:28-30). The Son of God offers you respite for today and the hope of better times to come.

It starts with forgiveness. We must stop kidding ourselves that we don’t need God in our lives. When we tell Jesus that we’re sorry for ignoring Him, He takes us in His arms and absolves us of our guilt. He adopts us into His royal family and fills us with the blessing of hope. If we rely on Christ for strength and guidance, He will see us through the dark times. And when our Lord and Master returns on the Last Day, we won’t have any reason to fear His judgment; with Him as our personal friend we can rest easy, knowing that our everlasting home will be with Him in paradise.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Anointed One--Prophet, Priest and King

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in their synagogues, and everyone praised him. He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:14-21).

Anointing—the word sounds strange to us. What is anointing? Who does it, how is it done, and what does it mean for the recipient?

Even in Bible times, anointing was a rare event. Anointing was a ceremony where someone was installed into an important office. You can think of it this way: in our country, a candidate who wins the election must first go through a ceremony before he officially becomes president of the United States. Someone being anointed is just as big a deal, if not more so—because people who are anointed receive their job for life, and the person who approves their selection is God Himself.

In the Bible, three different types of people were anointed—prophets, priests and kings. Prophets were people who spoke for God. God gave them messages that were to be delivered word for word. Moses was a prophet—he gave the Israelites the Law of God to live by. Elijah was a prophet—he warned the people that their sins were angering God and inviting His judgment. Ezekiel was a prophet—in a time of severe hardship, he brought words of hope from God to the people. And Isaiah was a prophet—he told the people what the coming Savior would be like, so that they would recognize Him when He came.

Priests were different than prophets. A prophet represented God to His people; a priest represented the people to their God. The job of the priest was to reconnect sinners with the God who hates sin. To do this, the priest offered sacrifices on behalf of the people. In the Law of Moses, God established detailed procedures on how the priest was to do this. God’s Law stipulated that the price for sin was blood; to spare the people from God’s bloody punishment, the priest was to offer the blood of animals instead. God dictated the types of animals to be used and how they were to be sacrificed. He also dictated the size and shape for the altar where the sacrifices took place, the design for the tools to be used, even the clothing to be worn by the priest. It was the job of the priest to offer the sacrifices exactly according to God’s procedures, so that the people could have the guilt of their sins removed.

Kings were also anointed before they began to rule. Unlike in our country, the people had no say in who would serve as king—God chose the man who would rule. The king had three main duties. First, he was responsible for enforcing God’s laws; because of this, legal disputes were brought before the king for judgment. Second, the king was responsible for national defense; he raised armies and repelled the attacks of foreign powers. Most importantly, the king led by example; he was expected to worship God and ensure that no false religion was tolerated among the people.

Prophets, priests and kings were anointed into their offices. God would send someone to pour oil on the person's head; this was a sign that the person was now set apart to serve God in a new and important capacity. And these jobs were not interchangeable—kings were not allowed to offer sacrifices, for example.

Anointing was a rare event—it is not every day that a new king ascends the throne, a new priest begins serving at the altar, or God speaks to His people through the lips of a new prophet. When someone is anointed to serve God, it is a momentous occasion.

Which brings us to Jesus’ words in the synagogue. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, and makes it clear that those words from long ago were actually speaking of Jesus. The New Testament was written in Greek, and Christ is a Greek word meaning "the Anointed One". That morning in church, Jesus claimed to be the Christ, the Anointed One of God. This is a claim that shocked everyone who heard it; who anointed Jesus, and when?

Jesus’ anointing was unusual, and in more than just one way. First of all, Jesus was not anointed by someone acting as God’s representative—Jesus was anointed by God Himself! Nor was Jesus anointed with oil; instead, our Lord was anointed with the Holy Spirit. This anointing happened at the Jordan River, as described for us by Mark (chapter one): Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." Peter makes it clear that this was an anointing when he said, You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached--how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power (Acts 10:37-38).

Jesus’ anointing is also remarkable in that He was chosen to fill all three offices—He is simultaneously prophet, priest and king, something completely unheard of. Jesus is God’s prophet—He speaks God’s words to us, as He tells us in John chapter 14: These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. Like other prophets, Jesus spoke words of Law, words of warning, words of comfort and words hope. But Jesus is far greater than any other prophet. Moses disobeyed God and was denied entry into the Promised Land as a result. Jonah tried to run away from the task God had given him. Elijah grew so depressed that He asked God to end his life. But Jesus represents God perfectly; He says The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me (John 14:10-11). Jesus represents God perfectly because He is God’s Son.

Jesus also represents us to God as a priest. Through His work, we sinners are reconnected to the God who hates sin. But Jesus is far greater than any other priest; He has done away with sacrifices at the altar. He has replaced them with one sacrifice, a sacrifice of such power that no further bloodletting is necessary. The Son of God sacrificed Himself in our place, trading the life of God for the lives of sinful humanity. As shocking as this sacrifice is, it is even more amazing that He would accept, for His holy altar, a cross used to execute criminals, and that He would die in shameful nakedness instead of being dressed in the magnificent robes of a priest. And yet this terrible sacrifice is a wonderful blessing for us because it has allowed us to approach God, not as His enemies, but as His forgiven and dearly loved children. Hebrews puts it this way: fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess…Such a high priest meets our need--one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself…The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood (Hebrews 3:1, 7:26-27, 13:11-12).

Jesus has also been anointed to be our king. But Jesus is far greater than any other king. As our protector, Jesus defends us from Satan’s attacks and arms us to resist temptation. Paul writes in 1st Corinthians chapter ten, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. As our leader, Jesus has shown us what a God-pleasing life looks like; He told the disciples, I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you (John 13:15). Jesus guides us in following His example through the reading and hearing of His words; Psalm 119:105 says Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. And as our ruler, Jesus will judge our lives when He returns on the Last Day. Speaking of Jesus, Peter says We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day…He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" (Acts 10:39-40, 42-43).

I said earlier that when a person is anointed to serve God, it is a momentous occasion. This is even more so when God does the anointing Himself, and selects one person to serve Him as Prophet, Priest and King. When Jesus said, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing", it was an announcement that changed the course of history. With this anointing, God spoke to us directly, face to face, through the lips of His Son. With this anointing, God ended the problem of sin forever, washing it away with the blood of His Son’s willing sacrifice. With this anointing, Satan was put on notice that God will do whatever it takes to free us from our sins so that we can be welcome in His holy arms.

Jesus is the Christ, the one anointed by God to serve Him forever. Jesus speaks God’s words to us, forgives our sins, and directs our lives. He is greater than every other prophet, priest and king. And best of all, the Son of God was anointed to do these things because of His tremendous love for you.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The nobility of giving your life for others

Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7-8).

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Imagining the unimaginable

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all (2 Corinthians 13:14).

God is one, yet He is also three. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three distinct persons, yet together they make just one God. To describe this wonderful mystery, we use the word Triune—three in one. But how can God be three and one at the same time? There is no good analogy, but consider the following:

Water can be heated to steam or frozen into ice. Yet no matter what the temperature is, water remains water.

When you work with electricity, you are dealing with three things at once—light, heat and power.

A triangle is a single geometric figure consisting of three unique sides.

One tree is made up of three very different elements—roots, trunk and leaves.

A single human being is made up of three essential parts—body, mind, and soul.

Of course, all these analogies are flawed in some way. They try to use the laws of nature to describe the God who created nature. God is far beyond our limited comprehension.

Some people are unwilling to believe in such a God. But let me ask you this. Do you understand the ins and outs of molecular biology? Do you understand particle physics? Do you understand Einstein’s theory of relativity? Do you understand existential philosophy? All these fields have their share of experts, but most learned people will admit that what they don’t know far exceeds what they do understand.

If we cannot fully understand the universe that we live in, how can we expect to understand the God who made it? It should come as no surprise that His nature is puzzling to us. Frankly, I find that to be reassuring—I want my God to be greater than any problem I can imagine!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Blessed with a new name

For Zion's sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD's hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you (Isaiah 62:1-5).

Have you ever felt as if God is really mad at you? Do you feel weighed down by guilt over bad decisions that you’ve made? Do you worry that God could never forgive you for the things you’ve done? Does your life feel like a constant string of mistakes and punishment?

If you have ever felt this way, Isaiah offers you words of hope. During his years on earth, the prophet saw God’s people ignoring the Almighty, breaking His laws with no concern that anything bad would happen as a result. Isaiah warned God’s people that to anger the Lord is to invite disaster, but few listened.

But Isaiah had more than just words of warning; he wrote not just for his contemporaries, but also for their descendants. A time was coming when God would desert His people and allow their enemies to make the land desolate. When this disaster came, the survivors would need words of reassurance that all was not lost, that God still cared about them and that there was hope for the future. Today’s Old Testament lesson shares some of those words of hope.

The nations will see your righteousness, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will bestow. In Bible times, each person’s name meant something. For example, John means ‘God is gracious’, and Sapphira means ‘beautiful.’ When someone received a new name, it signified an important change in his or her life. Abram’s name meant ‘respected father’; when God promised him more descendants than could be ever be counted, his named was changed to Abraham, which means ‘father of multitudes’. Simon’s name meant ‘one who listens’; when Simon firmly stated that Jesus was the Son of God, the Lord changed his name to Peter, which means ‘solid as a rock’.

This custom of name changing continued into the early Christian church; when people were baptized, they were given a new name, a Christian name. This baptismal name showed how God had taken hold of their lives and changed them. It’s like adoption—when you are legally adopted, you receive a new name. When God makes us members of His family, we are legally adopted by Him as Paul tells us in Ephesians chapter one: In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ. This makes God’s Son our brother, as Jesus affirmed with these words: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:33-35).

Through Isaiah, God promises that He will give His people a new name, one spoken by Him. This new name identifies us as children of God through faith in Christ—we are named Christians. This name replaces the old one God gave to His people through His covenant with Abraham; this name is the gift of God’s new covenant sealed by Christ's blood, shed on the cross. This new name gives us Christ’s righteousness and His glory, gifts so obvious that the peoples of the world, blind though they are by sin, can see how different God’s people are from those who follow other faiths.

No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah; for the LORD will take delight in you, and your land will be married. ‘Deserted’ referred to Jerusalem, the place where God’s Temple had offered humanity a way to approach God for mercy. But God’s people grew bored with their religion, and so He abandoned them to their enemies. The Temple would be destroyed, because in His anger God had Deserted His people. Without God’s protection, the nation fell victim to invaders; most of the Israelites were deported to other countries, and the land they left behind became Desolate.

But in his great mercy, God refused to give up on His wayward people. And so He promised a time when these tragedies would be reversed. A time was coming when the people of God, once Deserted, would now be called Hephzibah, which means ‘My Joy In Her.’ When the Lord once again showed delight in His people, the land they lived in—the Desolate land—would become known as Beulah, which means ‘The One Who Is Married.’

As a young man marries a maiden, so will your sons marry you. In what sense would the land be married to its sons? In this verse, we get the sense of ancient wedding customs where the husband took possession of his wife, making her his alone; in the same way, God promised the Israelites that a time was coming when the land they had lost would become theirs again; this promise was fulfilled in 538 BC when the exiled Jews were allowed to return and take possession of their homeland once more.

As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you. The image of marriage is also applied to the people of God, but in this case it is God who is the groom and His Church who is the bride. This imagery is used throughout the Bible. In Exodus chapter 34, God warned the people to remain faithful to Him, using the following language: Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. Notice how God compares the worship of false gods to prostitution. He warns us away from sharing our love with false gods, saying You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God (Exodus 20:5). Here we get the picture of God as a jealous husband, unwilling to share the affections of His wife with other men. But it is not just other religions that tempt God’s people into faithlessness; our desires for earthly pleasures are just as dangerous, as Moses warns in Deuteronomy chapter 4: remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. But in spite of these warnings, the Israelites still fell into temptation; shortly after Moses died and they settled in the land God had given them, Scripture tells us they would not listen to their judges but prostituted themselves to other gods and worshiped them (Judges 2:17). For hundreds of years this sort of behavior went on, prompting Hosea to write (chapter nine) Do not rejoice, O Israel…For you have been unfaithful to your God. And in Jeremiah 31, God speaks of his wayward people as a husband who has been cheated on by his wife: they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them. This is the reason that God deserted His people and allowed their beautiful land to be made desolate.

Thankfully, our Lord did not leave things there. Through Isaiah, He promised a future time when He would rejoice over His people as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride. Although the bride had cheated on God, He would not divorce her as she deserved; instead, He sent His Son to shed His blood on her behalf, with the wonderful result spoken of in Ephesians chapter 5: Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. And isn’t it interesting that in the very next verse Paul writes, In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives.

Jesus is the bridegroom of the Church. Many religious people starve themselves to show their piety; when His disciples were criticized for eating full meals, Jesus replied: How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast (Matthew 9:15). In the parable of the ten virgins recorded in Matthew chapter 25, Jesus speaks of Himself as the bridegroom who will return at the end of time to celebrate His wedding day with those who are faithfully waiting for Him. In Revelation chapter 19, John is given a glimpse of that future wedding day: 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.) And in 21st chapter of Revelation, we see that Jerusalem the golden, the community of all God’s people, is that bride: I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

You will be a crown of splendor in the LORD's hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. In Bible times, men and women wore fancy headdresses for their wedding day. In Proverbs chapter 12 Solomon writes, A wife of noble character is her husband's crown. In 1st Thessalonians chapter two, Paul tells the congregation that he thinks of them as a crown: For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? This is why Christ suffered and died for us—so that we can be worthy to compliment Him as a magnificent crown compliments the king who wears it. Our Lord treasurers us, and has spared no expense in making us beautiful in His sight.

I will not remain quiet, till her righteousness shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. This is a wonderful promise. Throughout Scripture, our world is described as a place of darkness—a darkness of ignorance, a darkness where people feel safe in carrying out all kinds of despicable acts. It is a darkness which conceals danger and traps people because they cannot see to find their way. But God has sent His light into this darkness. His light is like a torch that drives back the dark; it is like the arrival of dawn, fresh with hope and new possibilities. That light is Christ. He is the light of our salvation. He ends ignorance by sharing God’s truth with us. His light reveals evil acts for what they are and shows us the danger of flirting with sin. His light shows us the path to God and happiness and eternal life, as we are told in Psalm 119 verse 105: Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.

God promises that He will not rest until all these things are accomplished. Jesus said, My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I, too, am working (John 5:17). And His work for our future does not end just because we cheat on Him; 2 Timothy 2:13 says, if we are faithless, he will remain faithful. Every moment you are alive, the Savior is working to ensure that you will be among those who are His bride at the end of time; no matter how often you anger God by loving other things more than Him, He still wants you to end your affair with sin and return to the comfort of His almighty arms. Paul writes, I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

The Israelites angered God to the point that He deserted them for a time and allowed their homeland to become desolate, but He promised that as bad as things looked, they still had a future with Him because He was their Savior. No mater how bad your sinful life may look, be assured that God offers you the name Hephzibah, ‘My Joy in Her’, and if you accept that name, you will have Beulah, the home made by God that you can possess forever as your own.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Uncomfortable with religion

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong (Romans 1:11).

Religion makes a lot of people uncomfortable. They don’t like going into churches. They change the channel to avoid religious programming. They get quiet whenever religion comes up in conversation.

Some people react this way because they had a bad experience with religion. Maybe they had a harsh relative who always criticized them, saying that God could never love someone who behaved like they did. Maybe their mom and dad used to fight about religion and eventually got divorced.

Other people avoid religion because they are afraid of change. Even if life is less than satisfying, they are reluctant to make any major alterations. They fear that Christianity will push them to give up favorite habits and pleasures. They worry that if they visit a church, they will be pestered to join.

And some people dislike religion because they associate it with death. For them, church is where you go when someone has died. The only time they see a preacher is when he’s standing next to a coffin. For such people, fear of death becomes fear of religion.

What a sad thing, to be uncomfortable with religion. The reason that God reaches out to us is to make our lives better. Through the church, God the Father offers us a place where we can belong, even when we are short on friends or relatives. Through the Bible, Jesus shows us how to forgive, how to love, and how to work together for the good of all. And when death steals life from us, the Spirit of God gives us the comfort of heaven, a place of peace and happiness that God opens to everyone who trusts in Christ as their Savior.

Religion is God’s gift to you. Church is a place of refuge and a place of recharging. The Bible is God’s personal message to you, a book that gives guidance and hope when you are confused and sad. I hope that whatever has kept you away, you will give religion another chance. Only Jesus can satisfy your deepest needs; don’t keep Him at a distance any longer.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Recognizing when you are out of step

The pride of your heart has deceived you (Obadiah 1:3).

It was a wonderful day for a parade. The sun was bright, and a gentle breeze kept things from getting too hot. As the local National Guard unit approached, the crowd lining the street rose in honor of the flag. All the men in the unit were in line and in step, marching in perfect cadence—with one exception. In the middle of the unit was a young man who was clearly out of rhythm with everyone else.

The young man’s mother was in the crowd along the parade route. She looked on her son with pride gleaming in her eyes. As the unit marched past, she leaned over and whispered to the person next to her, "Look, every one of them is out of step, except for my son!"

You might chuckle, but there are a lot of people in this world who are just like that mother. Everyone is wrong except for them. They are quick to point out the mistakes of others, but they hardly ever see themselves as being out of step. It’s a flaw that we all share to some degree. When there’s a difference of opinion, we are more likely to dig in and hold our ground than consider the value of an opposing viewpoint.

The root of the problem is pride. No one wants to admit being wrong. No one likes giving in to others. No one feels comfortable looking weak. But pride raises all sorts of problems. Pride makes you judgmental instead of understanding. Pride blinds you to your own faults, making you hard to get along with. Pride even tempts you to argue with God when you disagree with His words or actions.

It’s no wonder that God hates pride. Pride opposes humility, and humility is necessary for any relationship to be healthy and grow. We need to humble ourselves before Jesus, admitting our faults and weaknesses; only then will He forgive our sins and accept us as His children. And we need to be humble when we deal with each other; if we recognize our own flaws and limitations, we are more apt to listen and compromise, treating others with the same patience and love that God shows to us.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Jesus' credentials

"Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. In his law the islands will put their hope."

This is what God the LORD says--he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it: "I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness; I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles, to open eyes that are blind, to free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness" (Isaiah 42:1-7a).

Credentials are important. If a man in a uniform pulls you over, you want to see a badge. If someone comes to your house to inspect the meter in the basement, you want to see some identification. If you enroll your child in an educational program, you want to know that the staff is accredited. Before we trust someone we want to know that they are who they say they are, and can do what they claim they can do.

In today’s reading from Isaiah, God gives credentials to His Son. Our Father in heaven tells us who Jesus is and what we can expect from Him. God assures us that Jesus is His authorized representative. So let’s take a close look at Jesus’ accreditation.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him. Isaiah wrote down these words from God hundreds of years before Jesus was born; how can we be sure that Jesus is the person God speaks about? The proof comes at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. Luke tells us (in chapter three), When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." What more proof do you need? As promised, God sends His Spirit to rest on Jesus. When God speaks, He demonstrates His love and support for the man He names as His own Son. You can trust in Jesus, because God the Father vouches for Him.

Isaiah goes on to describe Jesus’ characteristics. First of all, He will bring justice to the nations. Ever since the Lord was born, He has been a target for people who hate Him. One reason that Jesus is unpopular with so many is that He speaks candidly about sin. Jesus does not mince words or beat around the bush, nor does He cut anyone slack because they are wealthy or influential—even His enemies had to admit, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth (Luke 20:21). Jesus brings justice—He identifies sin for what it is. For this reason He has always made some people mad, because most do not like being told that their behavior angers God.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Jesus is not motivated by anger. He did not come to earth just to tell us how bad we are. Jesus said, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:17). Jesus doesn’t use God’s Law to beat us down; He only tells us what we need to know in order to avoid God’s anger at our sins. A good physician doesn’t tiptoe around the truth—he tells you his diagnosis honestly. You might not like what you hear, but you must accept the reality of your situation before effective treatment can begin. In the same way, Jesus points out our sins so that we might respond with the question: what must I do to be saved (Acts 16:30)?

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; he will not falter or be discouraged till he establishes justice on earth. Regrettably, many rejected Jesus’ message. Some felt no need for a Savior, while others refused to admit their failings. Jesus said, 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). Yet amazingly, Jesus never gave in to hopelessness or despair—He only voiced regret for those who foolishly rejected Him. Listen to His lament spoken shortly before His death: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing (Matthew 23:37). Yet even in the face of this tragic reality, Jesus still went to the cross to die for every person’s sins.

In his law the islands will put their hope. But now, words of encouragement. Even the smallest, most isolated regions of the earth will eventually put their trust in Him.

This is what God the LORD says--he who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and all that comes out of it, who gives breath to its people, and life to those who walk on it. God now reminds us of His mighty power. He made the universe. He built our world. He brought forth life, and He is responsible for the creation of every human being. This almighty God has promised to give Jesus success in doing His work. Therefore we can have complete confidence in the salvation that Jesus offers.

I, the LORD, have called you in righteousness. Now, God speaks directly to His Son, but He allows us to overhear. Through these words, we find out that Jesus is holy, righteous, completely "in tune" with God. He has been called by God; He has been selected and set apart from all others to carry out God’s objectives here on earth. God has chosen Him because only Jesus without sin; only Jesus can obey God perfectly.

I will take hold of your hand. I will keep you. God supported Jesus throughout His life. When the Lord was just a baby, King Herod saw in the holy infant a threat to his throne and tried to have the Christ child murdered; but through a dream, God warned Joseph and Mary to hide Jesus in Egypt until the danger had passed. God supported Jesus by gifting Him with the Holy Spirit at His baptism, a gift that remained with Jesus throughout His earthly ministry. God sent angels to minister to Jesus during His temptation in the wilderness and again in the Garden of Gethsemane. In fact, the only time God abandoned His beloved Son was during the awful hours on Good Friday when Jesus was being punished for our sins—and so Jesus cried out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Mark 15:34)? Yet even in those darkest of hours, Jesus knew that the abandonment was only temporary, because when He spoke His last words, they were an expression of confidence and peace: Father, into your hands I commit my spirit (Luke 23:46).

And will make you to be a covenant for the people. Here, God speaks of His relationship to the Jews. Beginning with Abraham, the Jews were God’s covenant people. A covenant is like a treaty, except that it is one-sided—there is no negotiation. God dictates the terms; the people can accept them and be blessed, or reject His terms and be cursed. God set the Jews apart as a special people under His care, and through Moses He gave them a covenant that demanded frequent sacrifices for sin; this detailed covenant stood until the time of Jesus. When the Savior came, He set aside the old covenant with all its sacrifices, because Jesus sacrificed Himself, using His own blood to make atonement for every human sin.

And a light for the Gentiles. Historically, Gentiles were those ‘not of the covenant.’ To receive the blessing of sins forgiven, Gentiles were expected to embrace not just the Jewish faith, but all of its regulations and ceremonies as well. When Jesus came, however, all this changed. Jesus fulfilled the expectations of God’s Law for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. In Jesus, all humanity was brought together in a new covenant sealed with Christ’s own blood. Before Jesus, the Gentiles were living in darkness—the darkness of ignorance, where they worshipped false gods because they could not see the reality of the true God. But Jesus changed all this, as Isaiah tells us (chapter nine verse two): The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.

To open eyes that are blind. During His years among us, Jesus did restore sight to the blind. But in this verse, the focus is on spiritual blindness. And such blindness was not unique to the Gentiles; Isaiah leveled this criticism against the religious leaders of Israel: Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge…They are shepherds who lack understanding (Isaiah 56:10-11). When Jesus came, He needed to open the eyes of everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. He did this by teaching—in fact, His teaching was so powerful that Matthew writes, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law (chapter 7 verse 29).

To free captives from prison and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. In a similar way, the point here is not physical freedom for those unjustly jailed. After all, both John the Baptist and St. Paul spent their last days in prison and were executed for their faith, and many other Christians have met a similar end. No, what God speaks of is freedom from captivity to sin, death and hell. St. Peter even describes hell as a ‘gloomy dungeon’ (2 Peter 2:4). This was Jesus’ most important objective—to free us from damnation. He achieved this goal by dying for our sins and rising from the grave to live forever. By God’s grace, Jesus exchanges our sin for His righteousness, our death for His life, our damnation for His home in heaven. No wonder 1st Corinthians chapter 15 says, thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Although he was long dead before Jesus was born among us, God gave Isaiah a wonderful look at the Savior and His soul-rescuing work. Isaiah was fully convinced that the Son of God would save His people and be a blessing you could build a life upon; I pray that you share his confidence in Jesus’ credentials.

Thursday, January 06, 2011


Be content with what you have, because God has said, "I will never leave you; I will never turn my back on you" (Hebrews 13:5).

Six months ago we were complaining about the heat and humidity; now we are complaining about cold air and dry skin. Six months ago we were complaining about allergens and mosquitoes; now we complain about being cooped up inside. We are never satisfied with what we have.

Each season has its drawbacks—winter is cold and delivers both ice and snow. Spring is muddy and makes us sneeze. Summer is hot and fills the air with annoying bugs. Autumn gives us leaves to rake. But each season also brings something special. Winter covers everything with a coat of sparkling white and allows us to enjoy sports that depend on snow and ice. Spring is filled with colorful flowers and happy birdsongs. Summer gives us comfortable days at the beach or out on the water. Autumn gives us colorful trees and fresh produce for the dinner table.

We all have the same bad habit—we take what we have for granted, while yearning for things that we don’t have. We ignore the good in our lives and focus on what’s missing. God gives us blessings every day, yet we always want more.

How much pleasure can you handle? Eat too much candy and you’ll get a bellyache. Drink too much liquor and you’ll get a hangover. Stay up too late partying and you’ll be crabby the next day. Overdosing on pleasure results in bad things happening.

God gives us a lot of pleasure—he provides beautiful sights for the eye, joyful sounds for the ear, delicious tastes for the mouth, wonderful scents for the nose, and luxurious textures for the skin. But God spreads these pleasures out so our senses are not overwhelmed. Each season gives us pleasure in its own unique way.

So it is with everything in our lives—God gives us enough to be content, but not enough to overwhelm us. We should be grateful for the care He shows in loving us, instead of whining like greedy children in a huge toy store. We don’t need more than God gives us; instead of focusing on what you want, take time to enjoy what you have right now.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Making the most out of winter days

God turns my darkness into light (Psalm 18:28).

The weather has turned cold. The days are short and the nights are long. There are no major holidays coming up. There are times when it can be hard to get out of bed.

At this time of the year, it’s easy to slip into depression. But you can take steps to stay positive and energized. Get as much sunlight as you can. Open the curtains and window blinds. Go snowmobiling. Try to shovel snow before it gets dark.

It’s good to stay active. Bundle up and take walks; if you’re afraid of slipping on the ice, do your walking in a mall or recreation center. Go skiing or ice-skating.

It’s also good to keep your mind sharp. Read a good book. Try out a new hobby that can be done indoors. Work on a project in your garage or your basement.

Unfavorable weather can be good for relationships. Spend more time together as a family. Reestablish contact with old friends and distant relatives. Adopt a puppy or kitten.

This is an excellent time to grow closer to Jesus. Going to worship gets you out of the house and lifts your spirits. At church, you hear the Good News that God loves you, Jesus forgives you, and the Holy Spirit helps you. At church, your spirit is gladdened by music that is beautiful and inspiring. At church, Christ touches you personally with His body and blood through Holy Communion. At church, you are surrounded by fellow Christians who need you just as much as you need them.

But if you’re stuck at home because of health issues or the weather, no worries. God speaks to you through His Bible. God listens to you through prayer. You can watch worship services on TV and listen to devotions on the radio. There are clergymen like me who would be happy to come and visit you, if you’d like.

Winter can be a depressing time if you hide under the covers or watch too much television. Don’t let that happen! This can be a season of personal growth and happiness; let Jesus show you how.

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