Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Gratitude (part 4)

I will give thanks to the LORD because of his righteousness and will sing praise to the name of the LORD Most High (Psalm 7:17).

Having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is good for building relationships. Showing appreciation is equivalent to showing respect. When someone goes out of their way to do something nice for you, it is both rude and callous to accept their effort with no word of thanks. When you let another person know that you are grateful for their gift, whatever it might be, that gesture of respect will build a stronger relationship between the two of you.

Another benefit of showing your appreciation is that it encourages more of the same. Scold a child about a messy room and you only solve the problem for a few hours; praise a child for keeping a tidy room and you’ve made an investment in the future. Tell the cook that dinner was delicious, and you provide incentive for making even better meals in days to come. When you let employees know how valuable they are to you, you encourage loyalty to the company and commitment to high standards of performance.

Nothing in life is more valuable than good relationships. Relationships suffer when we take each other for granted; relationships thrive when we notice acts of kindness and respond with gratitude.

Our relationship with God is no different. It weakens if we take Him for granted, it gets stronger when we notice His acts of kindness and express our thanks. The LORD has done more for us than we realize—much of it has escaped our notice and has gone unappreciated. Have you thanked Him for giving you times of happiness? Have you thanked Him each time He restored you to health after some illness or injury? Have you thanked Him for the people He has placed in your life to love you and support you? Have you noticed His paintbrush at work in a field of flowers or the rising of the sun? Do you give Him credit for the food on your plate and the clothes that keep you warm?

The LORD appreciates being thanked just as much as anyone, and He is deserving of far more gratitude than we give Him. So give thanks to the LORD, for He is good—His love endures forever (Psalm 106:1).

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Emotions of pain --hopelessness

You have given me hope (Psalm 119:49).

In 1965, naval airman James Stockdale became one of the first American pilots to be shot down during the Vietnamese conflict. He spent seven years as a prisoner of war, during which he was frequently tortured in an attempt to break him and get him to denounce U.S. military involvement. He was chained for days at a time with his hands above his head, so that he could not even swat the mosquitoes biting him. To this day, he cannot bend his left knee and walks with a terrible limp, because his captors broke his leg and never reset it. One of the worst things he endured was being held in isolation separate from other American POWs; he was only allowed to see his guards and interrogators.

How could anyone survive seven years of such treatment? As he reflects on those awful years, Stockdale says that it was his hope that kept him alive. Hope of one day going home, hope each morning that today could be the day of his release. Without hope, he knew that he would die in despair, as others had. This is the power of hope—it provides the will to live.

Do you ever feel as if things are hopeless? Are there times when it seems as if your life is nothing but pain and there will never be an end to it? Is every day a battle with your body, trying to keep it healthy? Does it seem as if you only get harsh words or angry silence from the members of your family?

Are you reluctant to think about the past? Are the good times of days gone by so mixed with pain that you get no joy from leafing through a photo album? Are you so ashamed of the mistakes you made years ago that you avoid the people and places of your younger days? Are your memories dominated by regret over missed opportunities and roads not taken?

Do you feel trapped by your circumstances? Do you believe that romance is something you will never experience because you’re not good looking or witty? Do you believe that you will have to work until you die, because you’ll never be able to save enough to retire? Do you feel as if you just aren’t smart enough to ever find success?

What has brought you to this point of emotional crisis? Have you been diagnosed with a terminal health condition? Have you treated a loved one so badly that he or she has left your life, wanting nothing more to do with you? Are you stuck in a dead-end job with bills piling up and no prospects for getting out of debt or achieving a better standard of living?

If you are like many others, you might imagine that you only have two alternatives—keep on dragging yourself through one endless day after another, or end the pain by ending your life. Judas certainly understood this kind of hopelessness. Judas had fallen as far as any person can. We don’t know what he did for a living before he met Jesus. Nevertheless, Judas must have felt deeply honored to be chosen as one of the Twelve disciples—out of the many who followed Jesus, he was invited to be a member of that small, elite group. He was even entrusted with the job of treasurer; Judas used the groups’ funds to pay for meals, secure lodging, and support charity work.

But as the years passed, being a member of Jesus’ group seems to have lost its luster. Judas began helping himself to the moneybag. When a woman anointed Jesus’ head with expensive perfume, Judas objected to wasting a valuable resource in that way. Judas had lost respect for Jesus and the type of ministry He training the disciples for. Judas became so disaffected that he agreed to betray Jesus to the religious authorities for a pitifully small amount of money. Jesus’ enemies had been looking for a way to seize the Lord when most of His supporters were not around to interfere, and it was Judas who knew where Jesus liked to go for prayer after dark—an olive grove outside the city walls, a perfect place for things to be done without drawing unwanted attention.

But as that dreadful night went on, Judas slowly realized that he had made a mistake—a mistake of monumental proportions. Judas became consumed with guilt over what he had done—so much so that this proud man went back to the Temple and tried to return his bribe in exchange for Jesus’ release. “I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed innocent blood.” But Judas could not escape his guilt so easily. "What is that to us?" they replied. "That's your responsibility" (Matthew 27:4).

What a horrifying thing to hear. Of course, the priests were right. Although they spoke with terrible callousness, they were absolutely correct. Judas could not ‘buy off’ his sin by returning the money. Once you commit a sin, you cannot take it back, no matter how desperately you might wish to. Judas had been chosen by Jesus to be one of the Twelve; he had even been given an important responsibility within that group. Now, he had sunk so low as to betray his Master for a small bag of money. At that moment, Judas experienced utter hopelessness, complete despair. So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5). Judas thought that he only had two choices—live with the terrible guilt of what he had done for the rest of his days, or end his emotional pain by ending his life. Overcome by hopelessness, Judas chose the hopeless solution of suicide. And suicide was a hopeless solution, because it only exchanged his despair in life for eternal despair in hell.

But Judas actually had another option; when dealing with hopelessness, there is a third alternative—you can seek outside help. By outside help, I don’t necessarily mean going to your relatives for support—while family members can often be very helpful, you might not have that option. You might not have any living relatives to turn to. The members of your family might be so immersed in their own problems that they have no time, money or emotional energy left for you.

By outside help, I don’t necessarily mean going to a government agency for assistance—while there are many excellent programs that offer a wide variety of supports, they may not be available to you. You might not meet eligibility requirements for one reason or another. You might need long term support, and the programs that could benefit you most have firm time limits attached to them.

No, the outside help I am speaking of is the one place you can go and always be welcomed, loved and cared for. The outside help I am speaking of will never go back on a promise, lock the door on you, or be unavailable while on vacation. I suggest that you seek help from Jesus.

How can Jesus help? Since He is the Son of God, He has the power to change your life. He has quieted storms with a word, fed thousands from the lunch of one young boy, even commanded the dead back to life. As God’s Son, He has divine wisdom—He knows what you need better than you do, and He knows the best time to change things in your life so that you can receive the greatest benefit from His actions. And, as God’s Son, Jesus loves you in a way no mere human being can—He loves you with an everlasting love, a love that was fully expressed on the cross when our Savior suffered and died to win you freedom from evil’s control. The love Jesus has for you is a love so intense and committed that you can count on His getting involved in your life.

But your most important need isn’t better health, improved relationships or more money. What you need most of all is hope. When Jesus gives you hope, any other problem pales in significance. When you have hope in Jesus’ power, you can find comfort in knowing that He is able to repair the damage caused by your past mistakes. When you have hope in Jesus’ wisdom, you can have confidence that things will get better eventually. When you have hope in Jesus’ love, you can face each day with inner peace instead of despair.

Jesus wants to give you hope, but you make things difficult if you are not willing to listen. I know full well that when things seem hopeless, it drains you of your energy. When it appears as if nothing can make things better, you lose the will to even try. But hiding from the world is the worst thing you can do. Jesus offers hope—He offers it through the words of Bible, through the Sacraments, through the encouragement of Christian friends. If you feel hopeless, there is no better place to be than in God’s house—worshiping Him, studying His Word, praying to Him.

Judas did not stop to consider the third alternative. He did not have to live in despair the rest of his days. There was no need for him to resort to suicide. He knew exactly where Jesus was. During those long hours of Good Friday, he could have approached that blood-stained cross. He could have fallen on his knees in the shadow of his dying Master and begged forgiveness. Had he done so, Jesus certainly would have forgiven him. Jesus would have replaced his bleak despair with joyous hope.

What hope can Jesus give you? He can assure you that He loves you. He can assure you that He is willing to forgive and forget all the darkness of your past. He can assure you that when He calls you from this life, it is not the end, only a transition to a life free from every pain that has made you miserable. God says, those who hope in me will not be disappointed (Isaiah 49:23). Jesus only asks that you trust Him; in return, He will replace the chill of your despair with the warmth of His hope.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Gratitude (part 3)

Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

There are real benefits to developing an ‘attitude of gratitude.’ For one thing, being grateful encourages a positive outlook on life. There is so much bad news pressing in on us from every side. Schools are under-funded and plagued with bullying. Jobs are scarce and insurance is expensive. Your stuff can be stolen if you don’t lock up before you leave. People lie and cheat and take advantage of you. And we haven’t even gotten to the evening news.

Bad news can make you sad, fearful, and depressed. When this happens, your immune system is weakened; it becomes easy to get sick and takes longer to recover. You lose interest in things that used to make you smile. Getting a good night’s sleep becomes harder and harder. When the cares of life get you down, it damages you both physically and mentally.

This is one reason why having an ‘attitude of gratitude’ is so important. When you make a habit of appreciating the good in life, you will be constantly surprised by all the pleasant things clamoring for your attention. A hectic morning can take on a pleasant glow when you take a moment to appreciate the smell wafting from your coffee cup. Road construction is less aggravating when you notice a favorite song playing on the radio. When you give someone a little compliment, not only do they light up, it lifts your spirits as well.

Remember that God has said, never will I leave you, never will I forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). When you are actively looking for evidence of God’s loving activity, you’ll see things that on other days would escape your attention completely. When an ambulance races by, you can thank God for sending help to someone who needs it. When the kids are chasing around the house, you can thank the LORD for giving you these precious little ones to hug and care for. When you see a lovely sunset, you can thank the Creator for giving you a moment of beauty before the darkness settles in.

Being positive is good for you, both physically and mentally. Do yourself a favor, and thank the LORD as He cares for you each day. When you are on the lookout for God’s kindness in your life, you are sure to notice it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Gratitude (part 2)

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise (Psalm 51:15).

Generally, we tend to be ungrateful. It’s because we feel entitled to special treatment. Stores want our business, so clerks are told that the customer is king—as a result, we expect to be catered to like royalty when we go shopping, and often treat the sales staff like servants. If a teenager is athletically gifted, he can throw his weight around at school because no one wants him suspended from the team. A girl blessed with great looks and good fashion sense can become queen bee and treat other girls however she likes.

We’re all guilty of acting entitled. We interrupt others when we have a point to make, as if our opinion carries more weight. We tell nasty jokes about people who we think are inferior to us. How often have you been late and thought nothing of it—after all, your time is more valuable than anyone else’s. How often have you bullied someone into doing what you want—after all, their needs aren’t as important as yours.

When you feel entitled, saying ‘thank you’ becomes irrelevant. We expect to be the center of attention. We expect others to go out of their way to be nice to us. We expect getting first pick, or receiving the best of the lot. Saying ‘thank you’ happens when you get something surprising and undeserved. If you feel entitled, getting special treatment is never a surprise and never feels undeserved.

God rarely gets the thanks He deserves. Most people take Him for granted or ignore Him altogether. They whine and complain when money is tight or their health is poor, yet they don’t give thanks each time a bill gets paid or they wake up in a warm, comfy bed. They feel entitled to God’s care, never considering how angry they make Him with their selfish, sinful behavior.

The sad truth is that we deserve nothing from God except His punishment. How wonderful it is that He blesses us generously, even though we are unworthy! He gives us life and health, friends and family, a purpose for living and hope beyond death. Most incredible of all, He gave His Son to the cross so that we can be forgiven and welcomed into His home when we die! No favor is more surprising or undeserved than this. No gift is more deserving of our deep and grateful thanks.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Hidden reality

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters--one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" When the disciples heard this, they fell face down to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. "Get up," he said. "Don't be afraid." When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, "Don't tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead." (Matthew 17:1-9a)

“You can’t judge a book by its cover.” It’s an old saying, but it’s very true. A good cover artist can make a book stand out from all the others on the rack, but that striking image does not guarantee that you’re buying a good read. The writing might be pretentious or boring; the book might be padded with unnecessary or confusing details. On the other hand, some great books have been disguised by cover art that is amateurish or uninspired. If the book’s cover is uninteresting, you might not even look close enough to read its title or see who wrote it. Good cover art can trick you into wasting money on a book you’ll never finish; bad cover art might put you off from reading something that is truly extraordinary.

We see the same principle everywhere in life. You can’t judge a movie based on its trailer or the movie poster. You can’t judge a TV show by its opening credits. You can’t judge the merchandise sold in a store based on how the display looks. You can’t judge how a car or appliance will perform just by looking at it in the show room. You can’t judge anything based solely on appearance.

This is especially true of people. You cannot judge a person by how they look. Yet this happens all the time. When I was in high school, I noticed that store employees were always watching me while I shopped; now that I’m older, no one spares me a second glance. I assume that when I looked young, the clerks thought that I might try to shoplift something; I was judged on my appearance. I also notice a difference based on how I’m dressed; for example, if I go through an airport in a suit and tie, I am treated with more courtesy than when I’m dressed in a pocket “T” shirt. Again, people are judging me based on outward appearance.

Appearances can be deceiving. I remember a woman who was absolutely gorgeous; yet once I discovered that she was vain and lazy, she stopped looking attractive to me. I’ve known several people who were nothing to look at, but once I found out how wonderful they were to be around, their looks became irrelevant. It may sound a bit clichéd, but true beauty comes from inside a person.

You also cannot judge other people based on first impressions. Presidential candidates will say almost anything to get elected, but once in office they start to show their true colors. People who sit down for a job interview can present themselves quite well, but many times they are less than stellar if actually hired. When you first start dating another person, they make a special effort to dress well and be on their best behavior; it is only after you have been together for awhile that their less appealing side starts to come out. No matter how hard people try to hide what they are really like, soon or later the mask will slip and the truth will be revealed.

None of you reading this can be judged by your cover. Every one of you works hard to present yourself in the best possible light. You go to church. You don’t yell at your kids in public. You spend time on your face, hair and clothing to be as attractive as possible. When you shop for a car or truck, part of the decision is based on how owning it will make you look to others. When you hung out with your buddies from school, did you behave the same way around them as you did when you were at grandma’s house? When you met your future in-laws, did you act like yourself or did you try to make the best possible impression?

Every one of us is a phony, to some extent. We all have thoughts that we’d never share with anyone else. We’ve all said and done things that we hope no one will ever find out about. There have been thoughts of hatred, nasty words, and acts of violence. There have been lies, and spreading gossip that turned out to be untrue. Promises have been deliberately broken because they were inconvenient or too hard to keep. Disrespect has been shown to parents, teachers, and bosses. Jealousy and greed have ruined relationships. Worst of all, God has been frequently ignored.

Every one of us is a phony—but we cannot fool God. You cannot show up at church, sing a few hymns, put some money in the plate, and think that God is satisfied. You might fool the person in the next pew. You might even fool the minister. But God cannot be fooled. He knows how loyal to Him you really are. He knows every evil thought that’s crossed your mind. He’s heard every hurtful word you’ve spoken. He’s seen every moment that you’ve wasted on sinful pastimes. It is impossible to pull one over on God; he knows the secrets of the heart (Psalm 44:21).

Which brings us to Jesus. Jesus looked quite ordinary. Isaiah said (chapter 53), he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was the first born son of a carpenter’s wife, the oldest of several brothers and sisters. He grew up in a small town that was in the middle of nowhere. At age 30, He left carpentry behind and became a wandering preacher—not a common profession, but there were other men who also made a living by going from town to town, lecturing on matters of religion.

But you cannot judge a person by outward appearance. Jesus was much more than a carpenter-turned-preacher. Jesus’ disciples had seen indications. John the baptist had named Jesus the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). At a wedding in the town of Cana, Jesus had turned water into wine. On the Sea of Galilee, He had ended a terrible storm by saying, Quiet! Be still! (Mark 4:39) Jesus had fed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish. He had cured paralysis, blindness, deafness and leprosy; on two occasions Jesus had even raised children from the dead! Clearly, Jesus was much more than He appeared.

There was just one time during His years on earth that Jesus revealed Himself. He took the three men closest to Him and went up a mountain where they could have complete privacy. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. For a few brief moments our Lord offered a glimpse of His magnificent glory, glory that was otherwise hidden by ordinary flesh and blood.

Why did Jesus hide His glory behind a veil of humanity? Why come to earth as a baby in Bethlehem’s manger? Why spend His adult years walking dusty roads dressed like a commoner? Why allow Himself to be crucified as a criminal? Why didn’t Jesus come to earth blazing with light, announced by thunder and lightning, and accompanied by an army of angels? Jesus gives us the reason in Matthew chapter 20: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus did not come to impress us so that we would like Him. He did not come to soak up attention like some media celebrity. Jesus came to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus is the Son of God; the angels of heaven sing His praises continually, and He has the love and respect of God the Father. Nothing on earth could compare to that.

Love is why Jesus came to earth. Love for you and me. Love for people who are made ugly by sin and constantly try to hide the truth about ourselves. God is not fooled by our pretensions; our sin angers Him and demands eternal punishment in hell. But even though He hates our sin, God still loves us. So the Father and the Son reached an agreement—Jesus would be a perfect human being in our place and suffer the punishment for our sins; in exchange, the Father would forgive everyone who clings to Jesus as their dearest friend. This would only work if Jesus was truly one of us—so the Son of God was hidden within the Son of Man until His work on our behalf was completed.

If it was so important that Jesus live as a man, why perform miracles? Why reveal His glory to Peter, James and John? The Son of God came to save us, not only by what He did, but by what He said. Jesus spent three years teaching about God and man, sin and salvation. He said, The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work (John 14:10). Jesus also said, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me (John 18:37). Paul writes, Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Jesus’ words reveal God to us, and create a bond of trusting love that saves us from eternal punishment in hell.

Jesus’ words are incredibly important. That being the case, Jesus needed to make sure that we paid attention to Him. And so He performed miracles. The miracles were more than just acts of kindness to suffering people; the miracles made people listen to Jesus and believe what He had to say. Jesus said, believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves (John 14:11).

Again, if it was so important that Jesus live as a man, why reveal His glory to Peter, James and John? These three men were the core of His disciples. In the days to come, Jesus would be arrested, tried and condemned for crimes He did not commit; soon He would suffer and die on a Roman cross. During those darkest of days, even these men would question their faith in Jesus. So our Lord gave them a look at His glory, a reminder of who He really was despite His human appearance. No matter what happened, Jesus was in charge—He could not be tried or executed unless He allowed it to happen. No group of humans, no matter how powerful or influential, could interfere with the plans of God or the work of His beloved Son.

Many people have tried to judge the Son of Man by His outward appearance and been completely fooled. The religious leaders of the Jews did not understand who Jesus was. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate didn’t understand who Jesus was. Many people today are also unable to see Jesus for who He really is. Some think that He was a prophet like Moses or Elijah, others believe that He was a wise man like Confucius or the Buddha, while still others see Him as a peaceful revolutionary like Mohandas Ghandi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. They fail to see the truth hidden by Christ’s humanity, that He is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15).

Like Peter, James and John, you know the truth. You are not fooled by Jesus’ human appearance; you know that in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form (Colossians 2:9). It’s true that you have not seen His glory, but that really doesn’t matter; Peter writes, Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:8-9). We cannot see Jesus’ glory now, but we have His words, and those words give us confidence in who He is, what He has done for us, and what He will do for us in the future. As Jesus Himself said, blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed (John 20:29).

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gratitude (part 1)

Give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds for men (Psalm 107:8).

When you were a child, how often did Mom or Dad have to remind you to say ‘thank you’ to someone? If I had to guess, I’d say quite a bit.

It’s not in our nature to express gratitude. You don’t see the boss thanking you for getting to work on time. Teachers don’t thank students for turning in their homework. How often does your teenager thank you for doing his laundry or servicing her car? How often does your family thank you for cooking dinner or taking out the garbage?

Typically, we save words of gratitude for something big—giving an expensive gift, organizing a special event, or delivering a huge favor. But even when something truly wonderful comes our way, we sometimes struggle with expressing our gratitude.

We don’t like being in debt. When someone gives us a special gift, we feel as if we owe them and the debt should be repaid. A lady treated to an extravagant night on the town might feel as if she owes her date something more than just a kiss when they say goodnight. A man who receives a thoughtful and personal gift from his girlfriend might feel obligated to say the words “I love you”, even if he’s not ready to. When we feel indebted, there’s a pressure to settle things up as quickly as possible.

But sometimes you get favors that are beyond your ability to repay. Think of the farmer who is put in the hospital just as harvest begins; while he is laid up, a bunch of friends and neighbors gather to finish the work he is unable to do. How can you express adequate thanks for that?

Sometimes you just have to say thank you and accept that you’ll never be able to pay back the favor you were given. That’s how it is with Jesus. On the cross, the Son of God suffered hell and gave up His life so you can be forgiven and welcomed into heaven. There’s no way you can ever repay Christ for this incredible gift, nor does He expect you to. All you can do is tell the Lord how grateful you are, every chance you get.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The devil (part 5)

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you (Romans 16:20).

The devil, my friend, is very real. He is a powerful spirit of deceit and corruption. He is incredibly smart and charming. He has an army of dark angels at his beck and call. He has taken a personal interest in you, and is constantly working every angle to make your life a total mess.

Don’t kid yourself into thinking that Satan is not real. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can handle his attacks on your own. Alone and unprotected, you are an easy target for him to take down.

But at the same time, don’t give Satan more respect than he deserves. Satan’s power has been crushed; he howls in anger because he is now on a leash. Thanks to Jesus, the great dragon is nothing but a sore loser whose time is nearly up.

When Adam and Eve ignored God and listened to Satan, evil became our birthright. But in the midst of that great tragedy, God made this promise to the devil: I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15). One of Eve’s descendants would be Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. The devil would hurt Jesus terribly when Christ died on the cross; but through that death, Jesus crushed the Old Serpent’s head. Jesus suffered the terrible punishment we deserve for being wicked; because He did this, God is willing to forgive our sins. Satan no longer has undisputed control over our thoughts and behavior when Jesus claims us as His own.

Why is the devil still a problem? Think of it in terms of a ball game. Late in the second half, it’s clear that the opposing team cannot possibly win. Yet instead of ceding the game, the losing team grows bitter. They play hard and nasty, determined to hurt as many winning players as they can before time runs out. So it is with the devil and his demonic hoard—they are filled with rage, and have embraced a scorched earth policy. But as intimidating as their tactics are, don’t lose hope. Remember that with Christ as your leader, you are on the winning side—and paradise is the goal.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The devil (part 4)

God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid" (Hebrews 13:5-6).

The devil employs many different tactics in his campaign to destroy our lives. Let’s look at a particularly effective one.

Fear. This is one of Satan’s favorites. If he can make you afraid enough to walk away from God’s protection, the devil has won.

It seems ridiculous—how could fear drive anyone away from God’s protection? There are several ways, actually.

Sometimes the devil attacks your self-worth. You are haunted by the idea that you are worthless, a total failure who has nothing to contribute. You are afraid of disappointing loved ones. You are afraid of disappointing God. Satan wants you to believe that God doesn’t care about you, that you are beneath His notice. You are on your own with the problems of life. Maybe it would just be best to end it all right now, and put an end to the constant fear.

Sometimes the Evil One crushes you with guilt and regret. He constantly gives reminders of all the terrible things you’ve said and done, all the opportunities that you’ve wasted. He whispers in your ear that God could never forgive anyone as bad as you. He wants you to be afraid of God’s punishment, so afraid that you won’t go anywhere near a church or a Bible.

Sometimes the Prince of Lies uses worry to draw your attention away from God. Satan wants you to fret about your finances, your health and your relationships. He wants you to worry about terrorism and domestic crime, climate change and the political situation in Washington. He wants you to get so negative about things that you stop trusting God to take care of you, your family, your loved ones.

Despite what the devil says, you have no reason to be afraid. God does love you. He is willing to forgive anything you’ve done wrong. He will support you in every difficult situation, if you lean on Him in trust. Don’t let Satan convince you otherwise.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The devil (part 3)

Do not give the devil a foothold (Ephesians 4:27).

So how does the devil operate? What are his favorite tactics? Of course, everyone is different, so the Dark One customizes his approach for maximum effectiveness. Still, there are some forms of attack that work especially well and get a lot of use.

Play now, pay later. This is a popular one. Satan tells you to have fun now and worry about the consequences later on. This kind of thinking leads to unexpected pregnancies and the possibility of abortion. It can result in empty bank accounts and a mountain of unpayable debt. Worst of all, it tempts people to ignore God for the present, on the assumption that you have plenty of years coming up to get serious about religion—ignoring the fact that you could die at any time, and might not be ready to face God for final judgment.

Doubt. Satan used this one way back in the Garden of Eden. Did God really say? he asked the woman (Genesis chapter three). The devil wants us to question whether or not you can believe what the Bible says. If he can get you started down this path, pretty soon you’ll be picking and choosing which parts you like and which parts you’re going to ignore. Did God really say that homosexual conduct is wrong? Did God really say that all people are flawed from conception and need forgiveness every day? Did God really say that Jesus is the only way to enter heaven? Does God really love you? Doubt can kill faith and cost you your eternal peace.

Pride. The devil always works on pride, because pride is the sin which he himself fell victim to. In the Garden he tempted Eve with the words you will be like God, implying that she could enjoy life without having to follow God’s rules. He constantly strokes our egos as well. He wants us to become angry when we don’t get our way. He urges us to ridicule people who are too dumb to realize that we are right and they are obviously wrong. Satan is delighted when we tackle problems without praying, confident that we can handle any situation on our own.

The devil is a master of manipulation. Don’t kid yourself into thinking you can take him on without Jesus at your side.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The importance of baptism

In your hearts, set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. It is better, if it is God's will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God's right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him (1 Peter 3:15-22).

Saint Peter was always quick to take action. When Jesus called him to be a disciple, Peter abandoned his life as a fisherman without a second thought. When Jesus asked the disciples who do you say that I am, Peter was the one who immediately spoke up and said, You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew chapter 16). When Mary Magdalene came with the news that Jesus’ grave was empty, Peter took off at a full run to see for himself. Peter charged through life with boundless energy.

We also see this quality in Peter’s letters. He does not write long epistles like Saint Paul; Peter is brief and to the point. In the words we are looking at today, Peter rushes through five different topics in just eight verses! Your head almost spins trying to keep up with him.

One of the points he touches on briefly is a connection between Noah’s Flood and the sacrament of baptism. Peter zips through the matter as if everyone understands his point and nothing further needs be said. But I think we should slow things down a little and look at baptism more closely.

In the Old Testament, there are two major events involving water. The first took place at the time of Noah. Mankind had fulfilled God’s command to fill the earth; some estimate that by the time Noah was born, the world’s population might have been as large as nine million people, if not more. Yet among all those individuals, only eight people believed in God—Noah and his family. And as if that were not bad enough, the people of world reveled in every kind of sin imaginable; it was so bad that God’s heart was filled with pain. So He decided to do a reboot. God told Noah to build a vessel large enough to preserve his family and a breeding couple of every species. Then the LORD flooded the earth, drowning everyone except those who were sheltered in the ark. When the waters receded, Noah and his family began the task of rebuilding human civilization.

The other major event involving water took place during the life of Moses. God’s people had become slaves in Egypt. Moses was sent to demand their freedom, but was ignored by Pharaoh the king. God punished the nation with ten awful plagues, until the citizens of Egypt demanded that the Israelites be sent on their way. Pharaoh gave in and let the slaves go free. Moses led a sizable group of men, women and children—the men alone numbered about 600,000. But none of these men had training in battle, and not long after the slave force had left, Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army in pursuit. At the shore of the Red Sea, the Israelites seemed to be trapped with nowhere to run. But God opened a path through the water, allowing His people to cross the seabed on dry ground. When the Egyptian forces came after them, God permitted the waters to rush back and drown Pharaoh’s army. The people went on to set up a nation that honored God as its ruler.

Two miracles involving water as a means of rescue. That is what baptism is all about—God using water to rescue us from evil. In 1st Corinthians chapter ten, Saint Paul connects baptism to the parting of the Red Sea: our forefathers…all passed through the sea…in the sea, they were all baptized into Moses. And in today’s Epistle lesson, Peter connects baptism to the Great Flood: God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you as well.

Baptism is a sacrament. It is a holy act commanded by Jesus that offers us forgiveness, faith, and eternal life. Baptism is linked to Christ; the Bible does not speak of baptism until after our Lord came to live among us. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, His cousin John said: the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel (John 1:31). Baptism reveals Christ to us. Baptism also connects us with the Savior, as we are told in Romans chapter six: don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Jesus did not begin His ministry until after He was baptized. At that time, God the Father blessed our Lord with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, as John tells us: I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him (John 1:32). Through baptism, Jesus was given the Holy Spirit to assist Him in doing the Father’s work on earth.

Jesus did not perform any baptisms Himself. Scripture tells us, Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples (John 4:1-2). But even though Jesus did not wash people Himself, He does bless every baptism done in His name. John said, I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). When you are baptized, Christ gives you the Spirit of God to help you in doing the Father’s work.

Jesus commands us to baptize. He said, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Why was Jesus so insistent about this? It’s because we need the benefits of baptism—we need them desperately.

We need forgiveness. Paul writes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We anger God constantly. We fail to follow His rules or ask His advice. We ignore Him so we can spend our time and money on ourselves. We say and do hurtful things, and much of the time we feel no guilt for our actions. Such behavior invites God’s punishment in hell. Every day of our lives, we need Christ’s forgiveness.

We need faith. Hebrews chapter 11:6 says, without faith it is impossible to please God. You can work your tail off, trying to be a good person. You can support a worthy cause by donating your time or money. You can be a loving parent or friend. You can be a top-notch teacher or boss. But no matter how hard you work at it, nothing you achieve in life will impress God—not if you don’t believe in Christ. In order to have God’s approval, we must have faith in His Son.

We need the promise of eternal life. The threat of death can rob you of joy, as you worry that there isn’t enough time to achieve all of your goals. Criminals and terrorists use the threat of death as a means of forcing others to give them what they want. People spend incredible amounts of money on medical procedures to put off death for as long as possible. But sooner or later, death comes for everyone. To have hope for the future when facing death, we need the promise of everlasting life.

Jesus commands baptism because we need the benefits that it offers. We ignore baptism at our peril; in Luke chapter seven we are told, the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized. These foolish people didn’t think that they needed baptism; they were confident that God loved them just the way they were. They didn’t think that they were saying or doing anything wrong. They didn’t feel a need for Jesus in their lives. They didn’t worry that death might lead to hell. They saw no need for baptism, and so they rejected God’s plan to save them from evil.

Baptism is God’s gift to all people. Every one of us is a sinner, children included. David confessed, without a doubt I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (Psalm 51:5). Jesus welcomed children into His arms; Mark writes (chapter 10), People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples turned them away. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them. When the apostles spread the Good News about Jesus, they would baptize entire households together, young and old alike. Peter said, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children (Acts 2:38-39).

Baptism not only gives us forgiveness, it changes our attitude towards sin. Baptism and repentance go hand in hand; someone who is baptized does not want to find joy in sin, and seeks to live a life that is pleasing to God. Listen to Luke chapter three: John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him…"Produce fruit in keeping with repentance"…"What should we do then?" the crowd asked. Baptism is about drowning evil so that good might flourish unimpeded. That requires a commitment to change. This is why Peter describes one aspect of baptism as the pledge of a good conscience toward God. We see what such commitment looks like in Acts chapter two: Those who accepted his message were baptized…They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. ‘The pledge of a good conscience towards God’ resulted in a pattern of worship, Bible study, and prayer. It also brought God’s people together as a community, united through Christ. Paul writes, You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).

Baptism is a wonderful gift from God. But let’s not overstate its importance—listen carefully to Jesus’ words recorded in Mark chapter 16. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Did you catch that? God’s punishment is promised only for those who do not believe. As great as it is, baptism is not absolutely required for salvation. This is because faith comes through the word of God. It is God’s word that makes baptism effective, but God’s word can create faith just by listening to it. One example comes from Acts chapter ten: While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The [Jewish] believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles…Then Peter said, "Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have." So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

It’s a sad thing, but many people reject God’s baptismal offer. For one reason or another, they just aren’t interested. If this doesn’t change, they will be treated like those who drowned in the Red Sea and during the Great Flood. Only a small number of people were saved by listening to Noah and Moses. Noah was a preacher who built the biggest conversation piece in all of human history, yet no one outside of his family took his message seriously. Moses was a prophet who demonstrated God’s tremendous power over and over again, yet most of the Egyptians were just glad to be rid of him. Those who listened to Noah and Moses escaped to safety, while those who preferred a sinful life without God found themselves drowning in His anger. We who are baptized have been given a wonderful blessing, yet our joy is tinged with sadness knowing that many reject God’s purpose for their lives. Don’t ever take the blessings of baptism for granted; you are among the few who have been saved through it.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

The devil (part 2)

There was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him (Revelation 12:7-9).

From the very beginning, people have wondered about Satan. Where did he come from? How powerful is he? Why does he hate us?

Some religions paint the devil as God’s equal in power. According to them, God and Satan compete for our allegiance in a massive war of good versus evil. At the end of time, we can only hope that God’s side will be triumphant.

Satan would love you to believe this propaganda. But Holy Scripture reveals the comforting truth. Satan is not God’s equal—the devil is nothing more than an angel, corrupted by his own selfish pride and arrogance. God made the angels, just as He made each of us. Satan made a foolish and self-serving choice—he wanted to sit on God’s throne and be in charge, and rallied support among a portion of the angelic host. As a result, the devil and his followers were banished from heaven; bitter over this defeat, they cause endless trouble here on earth, until the day when Christ returns and sends them to be chained in hell forever.

Many have wondered why God created Satan, if He knew the devil would eventually turn against Him? This is no different than wondering why God let Adam and Eve turn to evil in the Garden of Eden? Wiser men than I have wrestled with this question, but the simple truth is that we don’t know—the Bible does not tell us. We do know that God wants us to love Him, but He never forces the issue—He allows stubborn fools to walk away, even though life apart from God leads to eternity in hell with Satan and his fellow demons. God loves us and wants us to be with Him in His kingdom, but He does not force obedience or compliance.

Satan has one goal—strike at God through us. The devil does everything he can to steal from the Almighty our attention and our affection. The devil knows he cannot win, so he resorts to the cowardly tactics of a common terrorist.

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