Thursday, June 28, 2012

Why be a Christian?

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

Why should you be a Christian?  What’s the point?  How does following Jesus benefit you?  Who needs religion, anyway?  Aren’t there lots of places you can go for help when life gets you down?

For one thing, God can help you with problems that seem overwhelming.  He made the universe and has the power to suspend the laws of nature if He so chooses.  He can make incurable cancer go into remission.  He can push severe weather in a different direction or make it fizzle out altogether in order to spare a life.  He can also help you make good decisions when life hands you a complicated problem.  He can give you patience and strength to bear with situations that are crushing your spirit.  He says, call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me (Psalm 50:15).

Even more importantly, God can help you with relationships.  No life can be happy when lived alone.  No life can be satisfying if it is spoiled by feelings of resentment, fear, or regret.  God sent His Son Jesus to earth because our relationships need help.  He teaches how to love unselfishly, how to serve others with gladness, and how to forgive those who make us feel miserable.  When Christ suffered on the cross, He made reconciliation possible for every broken relationship—especially our relationship with God.  The LORD God Almighty reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18).

Most important of all is the question of what happens when you die?  No question has haunted mankind more than this.  When I bury my parents, my spouse, my children, is that it?  Will I ever see them again?  What about me?  When I die, what comes next?  Christianity has the answers to those questions.  When you die, God has a decision to make—welcome you into His home, or reject you forever as unwelcome.  Thankfully, it is quite easy to gain admittance into heaven—all you need is a loving relationship with God’s Son.  Jesus made this promise: Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:26).

Why be a Christian?  Here’s a short list: love, joy, peace, guidance, help, protection, forgiveness, hope, and eternal life in paradise.  What’s not to like about that?

Monday, June 25, 2012


The word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12).

Words are powerful things. They can cause serious injury.  A child who is constantly told that he is stupid, ugly or worthless will eventually believe those words, even if they’re not true.  He will grow up with no sense of value or purpose and might seriously consider taking his own life.  Words can also whip up violent emotions.  Adolph Hitler used words to turn a demoralized Germany into a militaristic nation to be feared on a global scale.  Words can trigger riots, as we’ve seen in the Middle East.  Words can turn a group of people into a lynch mob that ruthlessly attacks the object of its hatred.

Words can also inspire greatness.  A youngster who is told how talented and loved she is, can overcome almost any challenge and experience a life that is happy and fulfilling.  Words of support and encouragement can provide that little bit of lift that is needed to finish a tough project or find a new solution to a long-standing problem.  President Kennedy used words to inspire America into visiting the moon and walking on its surface, a project that many believed was impossible.  Words spoken in a legal setting can free people from oppression and guarantee their rights.  Words of diplomacy can end conflict and bring about peace.

When Jesus came to live among us, He spoke the very words of God.  Those words ended storms, drove out demons, ended disability and chronic disease.  The words of Christ even called the dead back to life.  The word of God has the power to change reality.

But even more important is how the Son of God used words to change lives.  His words made the proud realize their shortcomings and repent.  His words brought love and hope to the lonely and despairing.  His words gave the peace and joy of forgiveness to people burdened by their guilt.  His words connected the lost and damned to the God of grace and mercy, replacing the threat of hell with the promise of heaven.

Jesus’ words still echo among us—He caused them to be written in the Bible so they can impact our world today.  If you don’t already, make time for reading or hearing God’s words—they deserve a hearing, because they have the power to change your life as well.

Saturday, June 23, 2012


We have a tendency to mistreat our backs.  We bend over to pick things up when we should squat down and let our legs do the work.  We try and hold heavy packages with one arm while fumbling with keys to open a door.  Students put too much weight in their school bags.  We sleep on mattresses that don’t give the right amount of support.  We exercise or play sports without stretching first.  And then we take aspirin or go to the chiropractor so that we can keep on misusing our backs without feeling pain. 

The back is very important.  It allows us to walk upright.  It allows us to carry things.  It allows us to pick up what has fallen and get to things that would otherwise be out of reach.  The back communicates something about our feelings; sadness can make our shoulders droop, while confidence makes us stand up straight.  The back also figures in our everyday vocabulary.  A strong person is able to ‘shoulder a burden.’ A dedicated employee puts her shoulders to her work.  A man who won’t stand up for himself is ridiculed as  ‘spineless.’ 

Spinelessness makes us think of Governor Pilate.  He was an officer of the Roman Empire.  He was known for his brutality—on one occasion, he sent armed men into the temple to kill insurgents while gathered for prayer.  But Pilate’s heavy-handed ways incurred a political cost.  He stirred up so much resentment among the Jews that his province teetered on the brink of outright rebellion.  Pilate’s superiors in Rome started to question his skills as an administrator; they made it known that if he couldn’t keep the peace, he would be replaced with someone who could.

Passover was a major religious festival; Jerusalem was overflowing with visitors.  Crowd control was already a problem.  Then, early on Friday morning, a bunch of community leaders asked Pilate for a public execution.  They had a man who they accused of sedition—trying to get people to revolt against the government.  Pilate interviewed the captive, but quickly decided that Jesus was no political threat.  As the Empire’s official representative, Pilate was obligated to enforce the rule of law—Jesus ought to go free.  But the Jews threatened to stir up a riot unless Jesus was executed—and with the city full of visitors, that threat had to be taken seriously.  If major violence broke out, the governor’s career might come to an abrupt end.  Ultimately, Pilate caved in—he let the Jews have their execution, assigning his men to put Jesus to death.  Because Pilate acted spinelessly, the innocent Son of God was crucified.

It’s easy for us to criticize Pilate, but remember what Jesus said: let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7).  When it comes to doing the right thing, we are often spineless as well.  When your friends plan to do something wrong, do you try and change their minds or do you just keep your mouth shut?  When faced with temptation, do you pray for help to resist or do you just give in?  When doing the right thing will take considerable time and effort, how often do you opt for the easy shortcut?  When your back is to the wall, do you stand up straight or hunch your shoulders in defeat?

I said earlier that we punish our backs through frequent mistreatment.  But the sad truth is that we have injured Jesus’ back far more than our own.  Looking forward to Good Friday, Isaiah said he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (53:4-5).  Because of our evil thoughts, Jesus’ back was whipped into bloodiness.  Because of our hurtful words, Jesus shouldered the weight of the cross as He walked through the streets of Jerusalem.  Because of our careless actions, Jesus was suspended on that cross, His back aching under the weight of our sin.  Our thoughts, words and deeds injured Jesus’ back, causing Him more pain than we could ever imagine.

Why did Jesus offer up His back to such mistreatment?  It’s because He loves us so very deeply.  Jesus illustrates His love in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine where it is safe and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home (Luke 15:4).  Sin weighs us down; in Psalm 38 David says, My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.  But Jesus comes to our rescue each and every day; David also wrote Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens (Psalm 68:19)

With the Covenant of Moses, God illustrated how He carries us on His shoulders.  Listen to God’s design for the vestments worn by His high priest. Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the LORD (Exodus 28:9-12).  Whenever Aaron put on these vestments to offer sacrifices, he carried on his shoulders the names of the twelve tribes—God’s chosen people.  When Jesus came to be our great and final high priest, He carried all our names on His shoulders as He sacrificed His life to forgive our sins. This is the nature of true love—it is willing to shoulder the burdens of others.

God expects us to carry burdens too.  We are to love each other the way that Jesus loves us. Paul writes, Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).  How do you carry another person’s burdens?  You do it by getting involved in their life.  When they are troubled, you make time to listen.  When they are wrestling with an important decision, you gently steer them towards a God-pleasing choice.  When they are struggling to put food on the table, you invite them over for dinner.  When they feel like worthless dirt, you tell them about Jesus’ forgiving love.  You share a burden when you care enough to get involved.  That fulfills the Law of Christ, who tells us love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39).

But we don’t shoulder the burden of others just because we have to.  We don’t carry their burdens to earn brownie points with Jesus.  We carry each other’s burdens because we love Christ.  We are grateful for His love, and see it as a privilege to serve Him in this way. 

It is a privilege to serve God by carrying a burden for Him.  When the Israelites walked from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land, the Tent of Meeting and all it’s furnishings had to be packed up and carried.  Only a select few were allowed to bear these holy things, and they did not use carts or animals; the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD (1 Chronicles 15:15)

Jesus expects us to shoulder burdens as a part of being Christian.  He said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).  Being a Christian requires spine.  When the devil offers us an easy way out, we are to square our shoulders and say ‘no’.  When the world confuses evil with good, we are to stand up straight as an example of righteousness.  When our mind or body crave things that God forbids, we are to show backbone by resisting temptation.  These are the crosses that all Christians bear.

Sometimes it just seems too hard, not worth the struggle.  John writes, This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).  God’s commands are not a heavy burden because our Lord Jesus personally helps us in doing what we should. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).  We are not out in the field, pulling the farmer’s plow all by ourselves.  Jesus is yoked at our side, pulling with us.  So long as we go in the same direction as the Savior, He makes our burden light by using His mighty power to make up for our weaknesses. 

Everyone bears a yoke of some kind on their shoulders.  If you are not hitched to Christ, then sin has hold of you and the devil drives you mercilessly.  He whips your back with the lash of guilt, making you work hard to achieve his ends.  Only Jesus can free the sinner from such hellish abuse.  Isaiah rejoiced in the freedom that Jesus would bring: you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor (9:4)

We have good reason to be grateful.  Jesus has freed us from the burden of evil, He gives our lives direction, and He helps us to carry out His will.  When we are tight with God, we rest secure—the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders (Deuteronomy 33:12).  The Lord will not give us more than we can handle; Paul says 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 (1 Corinthians 10:13).  When we collapse under the pressure of temptation, it’s because we do not seek or accept the help that God offers us.  True strength comes from God alone, as Paul found out the hard way: there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me…For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).  We all need Christ to help us with our burdens; we only realize how strong He is when we acknowledge how weak we are.

Esther is an example of a believer with spine.  When the king of Persia made Esther one of his wives, he did not know that she was a Jew.  But sometime later, Esther was faced with a dilemma.  One of the Persian nobles expected all commoners to bow in his presence.  However, one man refused—being a Jew, he would bow to no one but God.   The noble was deeply insulted; he persuaded the king to have all Jews in the Empire put to death.

The problem facing Esther was this: if she went to the king uninvited, she risked immediate execution—but if she did nothing, all her people would die.  Strengthened by God, Esther dared to enter the throne room unannounced and revealed herself as a Jew; not wanting to execute her, the king changed his mind and the Jews were spared.  God gave Esther the backbone she needed to do the right thing, despite great risk to her personal safety.

Jesus offered His back to terrible abuse as He shouldered your sins.  I hope that you are grateful—grateful enough to square your shoulders and work for Him.  Don’t worry about being overworked—the Savior is at your side, sharing the load and lending you strength.  With His support, you can stand tall with a spine that cannot be broken.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exodus 20-4-6).

What does it mean to be a father? 

Back in the 1950s, dad was the breadwinner; he went to work to earn money while mom stayed home to raise the children and tend the house.  But not every home was like this; during World War II lots of wives had to work outside the home while their husbands were off fighting overseas.  Many of those young men did not come home alive.  As a result, lots of children were raised in single parent households, and the role of dad in the home began to change.

Over the past 40 years, men have struggled with their role in the family.  Dad used to be the wage earner; these days, most women bring home a paycheck as well.  Dad used to be the one who protected the family and the community; these days, women also serve as soldiers, police officers and firefighters.  Mom used to shop and cook and change the diapers; nowadays, men do these things as well.  Anymore, the job descriptions for “mom” and “dad” look pretty much the same.

If you watch a lot of TV, you can see how dad’s role in the family has changed.  Old black and white shows pictured dad as the breadwinner and the disciplinarian; he provided a nice home and was the final authority when the kids misbehaved.  But over time, dads on TV have changed.  Some programs are about families where there is no dad.  If dad is in the show, more often than not he is dumb but lovable.  Even commercials treat men this way; you rarely see a woman needing help from a guy, because that would be sexist—in most advertisements, it is the smart and patient wife who ultimately solves the problem.  Programs like The Cosby Show or The Waltons had fathers who were loving, wise, and led their families—but such shows are few and far between.   Most of the time, if dad is part of the family, the kids are smarter than he is.

Many dads struggle with what they’re supposed to do.  They ask questions like “what’s my role in the family?” and “Am I important?”  Lesbian couples are adopting children.  Research into cloning threatens to make men completely unnecessary for the creation of babies.  So what is a man supposed to do with regards to the family?  With no clear purpose, it is hardly surprising that so many dads jump from one bed to another, or get involved in gay relationships where at least they feel valued.

Fathers do bring something unique and special to the family.  God has given dads the responsibility to be leaders in the faith.  Men and women can both earn money, raise children, and contribute to the community—but God has a special role for dad.  From the very beginning, God has expected each man to be the spiritual caretaker of his family.  Consider what happened with Adam and Eve.  Adam didn’t get into a losing argument with the serpent—Eve did.  Adam didn’t pick the fruit and take the first bite—Eve did.  Yet nowhere in the Bible do you read about “Eve’s sin”—Scripture always talks about “Adam’s sin.”  This is because Adam failed in his God-given responsibilities.  When Eve started nodding her head in response to the devil’s lies, Adam should have spoken up—but he didn’t.  When Eve plucked the forbidden fruit and put it to her lips, Adam should have grabbed it away from her—but he didn’t.  God expected the man to guard his family from evil, but Adam failed in his duty and followed his wife into sin.  The leader failed to lead; the protector failed to protect.  And because Adam dropped the ball, all mankind has paid the price ever since.  We all inherit sin as our birthright, an inheritance that brings with it God’s curse of death.

Because the man failed to take his job seriously, we are all condemned to misery in life and hell when we die.  Thankfully, God was not willing to leave things there.  He sent His Son to be born as a human being, a new Adam come to make things right.  Throughout His life, Jesus faced every temptation Satan could throw at Him—yet He never wavered or gave in.  When the chips were down, Adam did not obey God’s law—but Jesus did.  In Ephesians chapter five, Paul compares Jesus to a bridegroom who takes His job as leader of the family very seriously. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy.  Jesus suffered and died like a hated criminal because that was the kind of sacrifice necessary to free us from our sins and bring us back to God.  Like a devoted husband, Jesus did what was necessary to protect us from evil and set us on the right path.  Where Adam fell down on the job, Jesus stood tall.

At Mount Sinai, God gave His people Ten Commandments to live by.  One of those commandments reads as follows: You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.  You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.  These words make it clear that fathers have a very important role in the lives of their children.  In many families, it falls to mom to make sure that the kids are involved with church.  But God holds the fathers accountable—I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers

There have been several studies done on parents, children, and church attendance.  Every study gives the same result—when it comes to church, kids are more likely to follow dad’s example than mom’s.  If dad doesn’t go to church very much, the kids will usually act the same when they grow up, even if mom is in church every week.  If mom stays away from church but dad worships regularly, the kids are more likely to be in church as adults, just like dad was.  When it comes to shaping the faith life of children, fathers have an enormous amount of influence.

Satan knows what dad is supposed to do.  Satan knows how influential dad can be on faith development in children.  Is it any wonder then, that the devil works so hard to get dad away from his kids?  When couples divorce, who usually leaves the family behind?  It’s dad!  Satan wants fathers to feel marginalized, unappreciated, and unnecessary.  The devil wants children stripped of guidance and protection.  When dad leaves, the devil claps his hands and laughs.

Our creator God is more than just Father to Jesus; He is our Father as well.  Because of His loving action, we were born.  Because He adopted us through Christ, we are His children.  He is the ultimate father, a perfect example for all men to look up to.  He gives us what we need to live happily and safely.  He teaches us how to love and sets boundaries to keep us out of trouble.  When we make mistakes, He administers discipline—this helps us to understand the pain we’ve caused and deters us from making the same mistake again.  When we are truly sorry for angering Him, He takes us in His arms and forgives us.  He works hard to protect us from bad influences, even when we feel stifled by His care.  Sometimes He lets us make foolish decisions and fall flat on our faces; when we come back to Him bruised and bloody, we are prepared to listen, learn, and grow.  We exasperate Him, but God never loses His temper or gives up on us.  But He does not go easy on us; God will not spare the rod and risk spoiling His children.

When fathers fail as spiritual leaders, their children suffer as a result.  If a dad serves as a bad example of fatherhood, he teaches his children to become bad fathers as well.  We know that kids who are abused or neglected often become that same kind of parent themselves—it’s what they have learned through years of observation. 

If dad is not close to Jesus, the children are likely to drift away too.  The years to come will not be pleasant; God will have to teach those kids through hardship that no one can rely only on themselves.  It is said that many times we are not be ready to pray until God drives us to our knees.  When a father is not close to Jesus, his children pay a price. 

But if dad is a faithful leader who serves God, the Lord will bless that family and every generation that continues to honor the Lord.  Families blessed by God enjoy respect for parental authority, openness with each other (instead of keeping secrets), the ability to admit mistakes and offer forgiveness, and mutual trust.  Taken together, these blessings contribute to peace in the home and a strong love that binds the generations together in spite of the stresses and strains that are caused by sin. 

How does a godly father behave?  He insists that the children honor God with their time, their skills and their money.  He doesn’t tolerate disrespect for himself or his wife, for teachers, police or anyone else in authority.  He uses discipline to stop behavior that is personally dangerous, destructive to relationships, or ignores God’s laws.  He admits his faults and holds his kids accountable for their mistakes.  He forgives and forgets when repentance is sincere, and he urges each child to do the same.  He makes sure that the kids are fed, clothed, protected and educated—especially in regards to the Bible.  He prays for and with his kids.  He makes every effort to keep sinful influences out of the home; this includes monitoring what the kids watch on TV and who they’re chatting with on the Internet.  He does these things out of loving care, even when work or friends or sickness or exhaustion tug at his attention. 

This is what dad does, according to God’s design.  Fathers, the Lord expects a lot from you.  Admittedly you have a big job, but thankfully it comes with wonderful privileges.  Solomon said, Sons are a heritage from the LORD, children a reward from him (Psalm 127:3).  Children are a lot of work, but by God’s grace they are also a wonderful treasure.  One of the best things about getting old is getting to see the wonder of new lives cradled in God’s love.  Psalm 128 speaks of this joy: May the LORD bless you from Zion all the days of your life; may you see the prosperity of Jerusalem, and may you live to see your children's children.  Proverbs 17 adds, Grandchildren are a crown to the aged

Anything precious must be cared for.  Whether it be the land you farm, a car you’ve restored, or a set of tools, you take care of the things that matter to you.  The same applies to children.  God has told you how to care for them.  Moses said, These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.  Impress them on your children (Deuteronomy 6:6-7).  Joel said, Gather the people, dedicate them to the Lord; bring together the elders, gather the children, even those still nursing at the breast (2:18).  Paul writes, Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

Of course, no father is perfect; we are all crippled by sin.  Jesus knows this and tells us that He is willing to help.  On one occasion He said, which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:11-13)  As a father you might sometimes feel like a failure, but don’t give up!  Ask Jesus to forgive you and to help you do better in the future; He will take away your sins and guide you with His Spirit.  With Jesus’ help, nothing is impossible. 

On this Father’s day, I leave you with the words recorded in Psalm 78: I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—stories we have heard and known, stories our ancestors handed down to us. We will not hide these truths from our children; we will tell the next generation about the glorious deeds of the LORD, about his power and his mighty wonders. For he issued his laws to Jacob; he gave his instructions to Israel. He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them—even the children not yet born—and they in turn will teach their own children. So each generation should set its hope anew on God, not forgetting his glorious miracles and obeying his commands.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Our covered bridge

I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life (John 5:24).

There is something special about a covered bridge.  Have you ever seen one?  In Wisconsin where I grew up, there are quite a few that still exist.

Bridges are as old as man’s need to travel.  Trying to cross a river is slow and dangerous—a strong current can quickly turn one misstep into tragedy.  Crossing by ferry is safer, but still very time consuming.  Bridges are the best way to get across dangerous territory.

But even a bridge can be dangerous when slippery.  That’s why, in states that have snowy winters, some bridges used to be enclosed.  Having a roof and side walls kept a bridge clear of snow and ice back in the days when snow plows didn’t exist.  Covered bridges offered maximum safety for people trying to make a dangerous crossing.

We all have a dangerous crossing to make—the crossing from this life into the next.  Death is a river that, sooner or later, sweeps everyone away.  Death is a deep river—you cannot wade into it and keep your head above water.  Death is a wide river—standing at its edge, we cannot see why lies beyond.  Death is a cold river—just touching it numbs your body and makes it hard to think clearly.  And death is a fast moving river—it only takes a few minutes of immersion to sweep you away from any hope of rescue.

As terrible as death is, there is something wonderful that lies beyond it—a magnificent city built by God for His people. It is a place of never ending Sonshine, forever warmed with His love.  It is a land of peace and happiness and everlasting contentment.  But how do we get there?  How can we safely cross the river of death that separates us from God’s beautiful place of rest?

Jesus is our covered bridge.  He alone spans the terrifying gulf that lies between us and the kingdom of heaven.  Christ bridged the gap with His own life and death, staking a claim of love on the people of earth and overcoming death by safely passing through it to rise from the grave.  He has provided a safe passage over the cold, dark current that would otherwise sweep us away forever.  And when we are called to make that crossing, we do so safe in the shelter of Jesus’ comforting arms.

Saturday, June 09, 2012


Of all the tools at your disposal, none is more important than the human hand.  The hand can be used to build things or break them apart.  The hand can be used to hold things in place or move them around.  The hand can make tools and fix you something to eat.  The hand can be used to preserve thoughts by writing them down.   The hand can protect you from danger and hold close someone that you love.  Your hands are the most versatile tools that you own.

Given that fact, it’s hardly surprising that the Bible has much to say about hands.  Eve was supposed to use her hands to care for the Garden of Eden; instead, she committed the first sin by picking the forbidden fruit.  Cain used his hands to bring God a sacrifice, yet not long after he used those same hands to commit the first murder.  Noah built the ark with his hands, yet after the flood those same hands made so much wine that Noah passed out drunk.  God designed the human hand to be a constructive tool, but we often misuse our hands to cause hurt and destruction.

We use our hands without thinking, and such hasty action often leads to trouble.  On one occasion, the Israelites were moving the Ark of the Covenant.  The Ark was personally designed by God, and He treated it as His earthly throne.  For that reason, the Ark was holy and not to be touched—it had to be transported by using long wooden handles.   Listen to the tragedy that resulted from a moment’s thoughtlessness: When they came to the threshing floor of Kidon, Uzzah reached out his hand to steady the ark, because the oxen stumbled.  The LORD's anger burned against Uzzah, and he struck him down because he had put his hand on the ark. So he died there before God (1 Chronicles 13:9-10).  Uzzah knew full well that to touch the ark was to die, yet he acted without thinking—when he put His hand where it did not belong, he paid the ultimate price. 

We are just as guilty of misusing our hands as any sinner mentioned in the Bible. God says, your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt (Isaiah 59:3).  Some of you have written nasty emails or forwarded jokes that should have been deleted.  Some have thrown rocks at animals or committed acts of vandalism.  Some have touched others sexually when they should have kept their hands to themselves.  Everyone reading this has hit or pushed someone for no good reason.  Each of us has held back from offering a comforting touch because we were afraid to get involved in another person’s troubles.

God warns us against using our hands to commit sin.  Jesus said, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell (Matthew 5:30).  In the book of Job we are told, if you put away the sin that is in your hand and allow no evil to dwell in your tent, then you will lift up your face without shame; you will stand firm and without fear (Job 11:14).  If we insist on doing evil, we can expect God to oppose us: He thwarts the plans of the crafty, so that their hands achieve no success (Job 5:12). 

God’s hands are not like ours.  Actually, God has no hands—He is spirit without physical form.  But that does not make God powerless—He created our universe, and He sustains it with His mighty power so that it does not crumble into dust.  The Bible speaks of God’s incomprehensible work in terms that we can understand—so even though God is spirit, when He acts the Bible speaks of His mighty hands. 

God’s hands are capable of judgment and great destruction.  When God freed the Israelites from slavery by punishing Egypt with terrible curses, Moses praised the Lord with these words: Your right hand, O LORD, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy (Exodus 15:6).  In Deuteronomy 32:39 the Almighty said, There is no god besides me.  I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand.  John the Baptist urged the people to repent before God’s anger consumed them: His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12).  You’ve heard the phrase “read the handwriting on the wall”?  This comes from the time when God wrote words of judgment on the wall of an evil king: Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote.  His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way…That very night Belshazzar, king of the Babylonians, was slain, and Darius the Mede took over the kingdom (Daniel chapter five).  We should all remember the words of Hebrews chapter 10: It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God

But God’s anger is tempered with mercy.  The book of Job also says, he wounds, but he also binds up; he injures, but his hands also heal (5:18).  God does not want us to suffer; He would rather bless than curse.  That’s why He sent Jesus to bear our sin on the cross.  Jesus suffered and died in our place.  This is how God forgives us—He allows us to hand our sins over to someone else.  We see this concept at work in the Law of Moses.  When a person broke God’s law, a sacrifice was required for the sin to be forgiven. He is to lay his hand on the head of the burnt offering, and it will be accepted on his behalf to make atonement for him (Leviticus 1:4).  This looked ahead to Jesus’ work at Calvary, when all of our sins were handed over to Him who died in our place.  Only God could free us from the power of sin and death, so we trust ourselves to God as David did: Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, O LORD, the God of truth (Psalm 31:5).

At Jesus’ trial, Governor Pilate tried to hand off responsibility for Jesus’ illegal death. He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" (Matthew 27:24)  But the only one who could forgive Pilate was the Son of God—Pilate remained guilty of an innocent man’s blood, because he did not hand his guilt to the right person!

Jesus’ hands show His love for us.  A man with leprosy came to Jesus for healing.  Leprosy was incurable and highly contagious—getting the disease made you an isolated loner.  But Jesus is not like us.  When the man said, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean," Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!" Immediately he was cured of his leprosy (Matthew 8:2-3).  In Jewish culture, no one touched a corpse if they could avoid it.  But when Jesus was brought to the side of a little girl recently deceased, he took her by the hand and said, "My child, get up!"  Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up (Luke 8:54-55).  Jesus loved touching people: he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them (Mark 10:16)

Jesus’ hands are permanently marked by His love for us.  The hands of Christ still bear the scars of being nailed to the cross so we could be forgiven.  Thomas wanted to touch the scars as proof that Jesus had risen from the dead; in response the Lord said: put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe (John 20:27).  Through Isaiah God said, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (49:16).  And those hands are strong; so strong that no one can snatch us out of His hand (John 10:29).

Because of His work on our behalf, God the Father has given Jesus the place of honor at His right hand.  Most people are right-handed, so when we speak of someone as our ‘right hand man’, it’s a way of showing how important that person is to us.  As the right hand of God, Jesus has the authority to forgive our sins— God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31).  David trusted in the saving power of God’s right hand: Show the wonder of your great love, you who save by your right hand those who take refuge in you (Psalm 17:7).  This gives us confidence to face every problem of life: do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10).  In response, we are moved to sing God’s praises: Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him (Psalm 98:1). 

The hands of God give us all kinds of blessings.  His hands made the universe: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands (Psalm 19:1).  His hands made each of us: O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:8).  The hand of God gives us everything we need to live: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too…is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25) The hand of God protects us: I am the LORD, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you (Isaiah 41:13).  The hand of God builds the church: The Lord's hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord (Acts 11:21)

Much of the time, we are proud of what our hands have accomplished.  But Moses puts things into perspective: You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me."  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).  When we put our hands to work, we ought to pray for God’s blessing as Moses did: May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; give success to the work of our hands—yes, give success to the work of our hands (Psalm 90:17)

Since God gave us our hands, how ought they to be used?  We should be using them to build things that make life better for others.  We should be using them to write words of comfort and encouragement.  We should use them to fix what’s broken and improve things that could be made better.  Our hands should offer help to those in need and touch those who feel lonely, sad, or afraid.  But the most important ways to use our hands are laid out by God in the Bible.  Psalm 134 says, Lift up your hands in the sanctuary and praise the LORD.  We are to honor God by offering Him our hands. Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground (Nehemiah 8:6).  David promised, I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands (Psalm 63:4).

Another important use for our hands comes from the writings of Saint Paul: I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer (1 Timothy 2:8).  David begged God, May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice (Psalm 141:2).  When we pray, we show God that we realize our need for His help—our hands alone are not enough. I spread out my hands to you; my soul thirsts for you like a parched land (Psalm 143:6).

God promises to reward the proper use of hands. Blessed is the man who…keeps his hand from doing any evil (Isaiah 56:2).  When we mess up, Jesus is there to catch us; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand (Psalm 37:24).  The Lord protects us from evil: he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (Psalm 91:12).  And when we die, Christ will bring us to His home up above: You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (Psalm 16:11)

Thursday, June 07, 2012

No con game here

God is not a man, that he should lie (Numbers 23:19).

It seems as if there is always a hidden complication. You purchase a new television, but when you’re trying to hook it up you discover that a necessary cable wasn’t included.  You have fallen madly in love with the perfect guy, but your future together doesn’t look quite so rosy after meeting his parents for the first time. 

It’s hard to take anything in life at face value, and that makes us suspicious.  Through email, you’ve probably gotten a bunch of messages from people who want to scam you out of money with some awful sob story.  The dating scene is full of people who put on a false face to get you into bed with them—but once they’ve gotten what they wanted, attractive illusion is replaced with not-so-nice reality.

Advertisers and con men both use a tactic called bait and switch—they get you interested in one thing, but in the end you walk away with something else.  A retailer lures you into the store with promises of big savings, but the doorbuster specials were few in number and sold out almost immediately—so how about buying this more expensive alternative instead?  An on-line merchant touts how great some product is, but when it arrives in the mail you find out that the quality or features were misrepresented.

Don’t let your bad experiences make you cynical.  When Jesus opens His mouth, rest assured that He is being completely honest with you.  The Lord doesn’t pretend to be someone He’s not to make you like Him.  In the Bible, He speaks His heart to you with complete sincerity—I have loved you with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3).  Jesus never pulls a bait and switch on you; He tells you what life will be like as one of His followers—I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).  And the rescue from damnation that Christ offers is complete—there are no surprises, no loose ends.  The Good Book says, Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1 Peter 3:18).  When Jesus speaks, you can trust His every word; when the Savior makes a promise, you can take it to the bank.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Fixer uppers

He will renew your life (Ruth 4:15).

It’s a familiar complaint—once a woman gets serious about a man, she tries to change him.  She urges him to lose weight, give up smoking, throw away worn-out clothes.  The guy wonders why his lady can’t be satisfied with him just the way he is?

When George Lucas made the first Star Wars movie, he was dissatisfied with the special effects.  Years later, when technical advances revolutionized what you could do on the big screen, Lucas went back and updated his 1977 feature with newer visuals.  Fans of the original were furious, claiming that he had spoiled a masterpiece.

There are two ways you can love something.  You can choose to love it like a precious antique, something that has obvious flaws which you choose to ignore.  In this view, the object of your love will never be better than it was years ago—the best you can do is preserve what remains from further decay.  This is the love of a collector and historian. 

But love doesn’t have to live in the past.  Love can also work towards a better future.  There are guys who buy a car and immediately start fiddling with it. They look for ways to improve performance and handling.  They customize the sound system and detail the bodywork.  Because they love that car, they want to improve it every way they can.

You do the same thing with children.  Parents want their kids to grow into people who are happy and well-adjusted, responsible and successful.  No one respects an adult who behaves like a child.  So we teach and discipline, advise and push our kids to become the best they can possibly be—all because we love them.

God loves us, but not like an antiquarian who loves damaged and worn-out stuff despite obvious flaws.  God loves us like a parent who wants His children to reach their full potential.  God rejects our flaws as distracting and unnecessary; He sent Christ His Son to fix us, refurbish us, give us a bright new shine.  Jesus constantly tinkers with us, optimizing our performance. He loves us as we are, but loves us too much to be satisfied with that. Thanks to the Son of God, you are a work in progress, not an aging relic whose best days have long since passed. 

Saturday, June 02, 2012

God the Father

Finally, brothers, good-by. Aim for perfection, listen to my appeal, be of one mind, live in peace. And the God of love and peace will be with you. Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the saints send their greetings. 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 13:11-14).

The Christian faith believes in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Each year on Trinity Sunday, we reaffirm that faith in our creeds and songs.  We are reminded that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are united as one God, and that they share the same divine power and qualities.

Yet it occurs to me that of the three Persons, God the Father is getting short shrift.  We tend to focus most of our attention on God’s Son, who became a man we could relate to and died to take away our sin.  Some Christians devote most of their worship to the Holy Spirit, seeking His gifts and rejoicing in the new way of life that He makes possible.  But you don’t find many Christians who give as much thought to God the Father.

This is very odd.  In the Old Testament, God the Father was the primary focus of every believer’s faith life.  To be sure, the Son and the Holy Spirit were both active throughout the Old Testament.  When God first created the universe, the Holy Spirit was involved.  The Spirit made His power known through many people, including Samson, David and Ezekiel.  The Son of God was also active in the Old Testament.  He did not have a body or go by the name of Jesus until He was born of Mary, so when He appeared He looked like an angel—Scripture often referred to Him as ‘The Angel of the Lord.’  In that guise, the Son of God appeared to Abraham, Moses and Gideon, among others. 

But although the Son and the Spirit were at work in Old Testament history, worship, prayer and thanksgiving were most often directed towards God the Father.  So why is it that these days, God the Father takes a back seat to Jesus and the Holy Spirit? 

I think it’s because we don’t understand the Father properly.  Some folks have the mistaken notion that God the Father is an angry God who needs to be pacified by His Son who loves us.  God the Father is scary; Jesus is warm and cuddly.  If you think of God this way, of course you’re going to lavish your attention on God’s Son—after all, Christ is the one who keeps the Father from throwing us into hell. 

Other people look at Jesus as the one who frees us from God’s law.  In the Old Testament, there are pages and pages of laws and regulations.  When Jesus died on the cross, He freed us from all that.  We don’t have to bleed out animals on an altar to have our sins forgiven.  We don’t have to eat kosher food.  We don’t have to circumcise our children.  We don’t have to give 10% of our gross income to the Church.  Followers of Jesus don’t have to worry about making the Father mad by breaking His laws—do they?

When we set Jesus against His Father, we are making a grave mistake.  Our Lord never opposed His Father’s will, never disagreed with His priorities.  Jesus said, do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.  I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth come to an end, not even the smallest detail of the law will disappear until everything is brought to completion (Matthew 5:17-18).  Jesus made some religious laws of the Old Testament no longer necessary, but He did not exempt us from obeying God.  Peter wrote, Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God (1 Peter 2:16).  Jesus lived and died so that we could serve God willingly out of love, not grudgingly out of fear.

To see Jesus is to see His Father.  The writer to the Hebrews says, The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being (1:3).  Jesus makes this point clear to the disciples in John chapter 14: Philip said, "Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." Jesus answered: "Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father'?  Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? 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.”  Everything Jesus said and did was in complete agreement with the Father’s goals. 

Jesus never competed with His Father in order to get His own way.  Paul says, Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal's death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).  When He taught the disciples how to pray, Jesus pointed them towards the Father: This…is how you should pray: `Our Father who is in heaven’ (Matthew 6:9). When Jesus urged His followers to live their faith, notice who He wants to receive the glory: let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).  Although we worship Father, Son and Holy Spirit equally, Jesus never wanted to take His Father’s place in our hearts.

We also do God an injustice when we think of the Father as an angry judge and Jesus as our sympathetic friend.  This casts the Father in the role of our enemy, a lie that pleases our real enemy the devil.  God the Father hates sin, yes—but so does Jesus.  We tend to forget the harsh things Jesus did and said when angered by sin.  For example, in the Gospel of John chapter two we read this account: When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem.  In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money.  So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.  To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"  And what about these words, spoken by Jesus to people who taught false religion: You snakes! You children of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? (Matthew 23:33) Jesus doesn’t tolerate evil any more than the Father does.

By the same token, God the Father is more than just an angry judge that condemns sinners to hell.  It is the Father who created the heavens and the earth by saying “let there be…”  It is the Father who gives us life and all that goes with it, as Paul told the Athenians: The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth…He gives all men life and breath and everything else.  From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.  `For in him we live and move and have our being'  (Acts 17:24-28).

And it was God the Father who arranged that we might be saved from damnation for our sins.  When Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s law, it was God the Father who promised to give us a Savior, someone who would suffer the devil’s bite but utterly crush Satan in the end.  And this was no easy promise to keep—on two separate occasions God spoke from heaven and told us how He feels about Jesus: This is my Son, whom I love (Matthew 3:17 & 17:5).  Mothers and fathers know how hard it is to watch their children suffer physical or emotional pain; when Jesus suffered on the cross, God the Father suffered too—He suffered the pain of watching His beloved Son experience the hell which He did nothing to deserve.  But it was all part of God’s plan to save us—a plan motivated not by anger, but by love. 

John says, God is love (1 John 4:16).  Paul wished the Corinthians that the God of love and peace would be with them.  Love and peace describe all three Persons of God—Son, Spirit and Father.  Jesus said God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son (John 3:16).  God the Father hates sin—can’t stand to look at it, won’t abide it in His presence.  But God the Father loves life—He creates life, He preserves life, and He will do what it takes to keep those He loves from ending up in hell.  Yet God the Father does not act unilaterally—He doesn’t order around His Son or the Holy Spirit like they are His lackeys.  When God created mankind, listen to the heavenly conversation: let us make man in our image (Genesis 1:26).  Father, Son and Spirit work together in perfect harmony—it was the Father’s plan to sacrifice Jesus for our sins, but Christ did so willingly and the Spirit joined the Savior at baptism to help Him do this important, difficult work.  All three wanted us to be free from sin’s condemnation; love moved each of them to take extreme measures in order to make it happen.

God the Father holds a distinct position within the Trinity.  He is Father to the Son; our creeds say that Jesus is begotten of the Father before all worlds—begotten, not made.  Begotten is an old word that means ‘fathered.’  God made angels, animals and people, but He did not make Christ—He fathered him.  And that relationship began long before the world was made—the Son of God is eternal, just like the Father is.  The Holy Spirit is also eternal, but He comes to us from both the Father and the Son.  Jesus said, I will send you the Comforter—the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me (John 15:26).  God the Father is a God of relationships, a God of peace and love.

The Father’s relationship to the Son and the Spirit make Him distinct from all other gods.  When Muslims worship Allah, they are not worshiping God the Father because according to Islamic belief Allah has no son and sends no spirit into our world.  The Jews do not worship God the Father because they also deny that God has a Son.  No one can worship God the Father if they don’t acknowledge Jesus’ sonship—the Savior said, No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  We cannot call God ‘Father’ unless we are adopted into His family, and that adoption is only possible through Christ.  In Ephesians chapter one Paul says, God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.  Jesus told His disciples, He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects Him who sent me (Luke 10:16). 

The Father God of the Old Testament is the Father God of the New Testament.  His feelings have not changed—He loves life but hates sin.  His priorities have not changed either; He wants to rescue each and every one of us from the devil’s grasp.  God the Father gives all that we need to live, love and serve. His Son offers the only way to be free of sin and find welcome in heaven.  His Spirit creates faith in our hearts and gives us the ability to share God’s priorities.  God the Father loves us just as much as do His Son and the Holy Spirit; He deserves respect, worship, thanks and praise for His immeasurable goodness.

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