Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The church (part one)

Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love (Psalm 48:9).

A feature of most churches is the stained glass window.  Colored glass has been manufactured since the time of Egypt’s Pharaohs, but the earliest examples of stained glass in a church window date from the 4th century.  This art form reached its peak in Gothic architecture when cathedral windows became an intricate work of craftsmanship.

Why use stained glass in churches?  Partly because it stimulates the right emotions for worship.  Scripture tells us that God is light (John 1 John 1:5); it is only fitting, then, that His churches be filled with all the beautiful colors of the spectrum.  Jesus also said, You are the light of the world…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14, 16). At night, the beautiful light shining out from church windows serves as an invitation to people who are oppressed by the darkness.

Many stained glass windows feature scenes from the Bible—events like Jesus walking on the water, Moses giving the Ten Commandments, and our Lord’s crucifixion.  Back in the days when most people couldn’t read, church windows reminded them of the most important stories from the Bible.  Other windows are covered with symbols—an open book representing the Bible, a wet clam shell that symbolizes baptism, a loaf of bread and a cup of wine that remind us of the Lord’s Supper.  Such images help worshipers focus their minds on the sacred things of God.

Banners serve the same purpose as stained glass windows.  Although they do not shine with colored light, banners can be changed according to the church season.  Christmas banners might picture angels blowing trumpets, a star shining over Bethlehem, or reverent adults kneeling by a manger.  Banners in Lent feature symbols of Christ’s suffering, like a group of nails or a crown of thorns.  Flowers on Easter banners picture the new life that is ours thanks to Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.   

Whether it be a stained glass window or a banner, church art exists to provide inspiration and instruction.  When you attend worship, arrive a little early so you can look at these works of art and meditate on the message they convey.  They are designed to prepare your heart and mind for sending time with the Savior.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Your 'to do' list

Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land that the LORD swore to give your forefathers, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth…

See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—the blessing if you obey the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today; the curse if you disobey the commands of the LORD your God and turn from the way that I command you today by following other gods, which you have not known
(Deuteronomy chapter 11).

Life is busy—every week, there’s a lot that needs to be done.  And so we make mental lists that get updated throughout the day.  Wash a load of whites—done.  Turn a sales report in to the boss—done.  Get the kids to the clinic for shots—done.  Cut the grass and spray for weeds—done.  From hour to hour, items get checked off the list, only to have new ones take their place. 

How many times have you updated your mental list during church?  Now, don’t give me that look—I know you do it.  You might run through your list when the sermon gets boring, or while you’re getting the kids ready to go during the last hymn.  But let me ask you this: when you leave worship, how many items on your list have something to do with God? 

We have a sad tendency to think of religion as something internal.  Of course it’s true that religion is about what you believe, but it doesn’t stop there.  James wrote, What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him?  Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to him, "I hope that things go well for you today; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (James 2:14-17).  Christianity is more than just believing in Jesus; Christ said follow me (Matthew 8:22).  Following requires action; to follow Jesus is to live your faith. 

Many people treat church like entertainment.  They act like an audience, expecting the worship leaders to put on a good show.  They like the hymns, but won’t sing.  They treat the offering plate like a ticket booth.  They want the church service to make them feel good, and are unhappy if they’re challenged to change their ways.  Such people like listening to Christ, but aren’t all that excited about following Him.

God isn’t looking for an audience.  When Herod wanted to see miracles, Jesus refused to entertain him.  God the Father wants obedient children.  Jesus wants friends who respect His teachings.  The Holy Spirit wants God moved to the top of every list, and kept at the top all the time.  God wants our love, our commitment, and our dedicated service—nothing less will do.

Through Moses, God says fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds.  You might have grumbled as a confirmand, being required to memorize Bible verses.  But the pastor was just obeying God, trying to get you to fix His words in your heart and mind.  No matter your age, I hope that you continue to memorize Bible verses, out of respect for God’s command.

God gives practical instructions that, if followed, will help us to keep His word front and center in our lives.  He starts by saying, tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  There are two ways we can do this.  First of all, we can wear Christian jewelry; a decorative cross reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice that took away our guilt, and the fish has long been a symbol for Jesus and His outreach to sinners.  The other way we can honor God’s command is to carry a pocket Bible with us wherever we go.  Think of how much time you are stuck somewhere waiting; why not use that time to read God’s word and grow in your faith? 

The Lord says, teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  This will require deliberate effort—with the frantic pace of most household schedules, many families hardly even eat together any more.  But you must make the effort, for the sake of your children—it would be tragic if you ended up eternally with Jesus, but they did not join you at His side.  So teach your children—Martin Luther wrote his Small Catechism to be used by parents in the home!  Pray together before meals.  Pray with your children at bedtime.  When you go on trips, turn the DVD player off; take turns reading Bible stories and talk about them.  There is nothing better you can do for your kids than to let them see how important Jesus is in your life.

Even if you don’t have kids at home, God’s pattern of devotion is still a good one to follow.  Praying and reading a devotion offer an excellent start to the morning; God’s Spirit will put you in the right frame of mind to face the day’s challenges.  Praying and reading God’s word just before bed will help you to put the day into perspective and ease your heart so you can get a good night’s rest. 

Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.  Your home reflects what is important to you.  The pictures on your walls, the books on your shelves, the personal touches found in every room—these reveal the things you treasure most.  They bring back pleasant memories or offer comfort in times of stress.  Where is Christ among these things?  Is the Bible on your night stand, or is it collecting dust somewhere?  Do you have paintings of Jesus hanging where you can see them, or plaques that quote His words?  If Christ is important to you, then your home should reflect the fact.  If you come home looking for peace and comfort after a stressful day, it’s the Savior that you need more than anything else. 

God promises to bless obedience.  So what kind of behavior is He looking for?  Basically, it boils down to three things.  We are to love Him more than anyone or anything else.  We are to worship Him alone.  And we are to represent His will to other people. 

God wants to be at the top of the list.  Whatever tops your list is what you regard as most important.  Nothing should ever knock God down from holding the top spot.  Nothing should trump making it to church each week.  No purchase should get in the way of honoring God with a donation when the collection plate is passed.  No schedule should be so packed that there is no time left for carefully thought-out prayer.  No decision should be made that ignores God’s rules or fails to consider His priorities.  The ends do not justify the means.  Money and time are limited commodities that we must use wisely.  The pleasures and obligations of this world should never become an obsession, forcing God into the back seat or out of the car altogether.  Jesus said, Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37-38).  Our Lord expects first place in our lives, and He knows that such commitment is not easy for us.

God demands that we worship Him alone.  Without Him, there is no life.  Without Him, there is no forgiveness.  Without Him, there is no hope for the future.  No other religion can give what God offers through Christianity.  Jesus said, God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).  Worshiping in spirit means that God wants our worship to be authentic; just going through the motions isn’t good enough.  When you tell God that you’re sorry for your sins and want another chance to do things right, He expects you to be sincere.  When faced with temptation, He wants you to pray for help instead of just giving in without a fight.  Worshiping in truth means that we take God seriously when He says, do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it (Deuteronomy 4:2).  God does not want us ignoring those parts of the Bible that make us feel uncomfortable, nor does He want us adding ideas that we think sound good.  And God doesn’t want us looking to anyone else but Him for help and advice—no horoscopes, no fortune telling, no dabbling in other religions.  God regards us as His children and warns against provoking Him to jealousy.

God wants us to serve as His representatives. Paul wrote, [God] has committed to us the message of reconciliation.  We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).  As followers of Christ, we are to point out sin when we see it, explain what God has done for us through Christ, and urge people to start their lives over in the Savior’s arms.  Paul also tells us, Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2). To this James adds (chapter five), confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  God is at work every day helping people with the problems in their lives, but we need to remember that He does a lot of that work using our voices, hands, and wallets.

Through Moses, God promised blessings for those who obeyed His commandments.  We might be tempted to ask what specifically God will give us as a reward.  But this ignores an awful fact—none of us are capable of earning God’s blessing.  We don’t live up to His expectations—in fact, a lot of the time we don’t even think about trying.  We get so wrapped up in our own agendas that we forget about God for hours or days at a time.  Even worse, sometimes we know what He expects but deliberately break His laws anyway because they are in the way of our getting what we want.  Such behavior angers God and invites the curse He has promised to inflict—His opposition to our plans in life and His never-ending punishment in hell.

It would seem as if we were in am impossible situation—unable to please God and damned for our failures.  Thankfully, nothing is impossible with God! (Luke 1:37) Through Jesus’ suffering in our place, we are blessed with rescue from sin’s punishment.  And Jesus gives us two blessings more.  First, He blesses us with the ability to do the kinds of good things God expects from us.  Jesus said, I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).  Jesus also blesses us with unending life in paradise; He said whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant will be as well. My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:26). Any other blessings beyond these only pale in comparison.  And while it is true that many Christians receive additional blessings, these gifts from above are not the reason that we honor God with all that we are and have.  We give the Lord top place in our lives out of gratitude for His merciful love shown to unworthy sinners through the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanks to Jesus, we can avoid God’s curse for being disobedient.  Christ forgives our sins and helps us to honor God with our lives, resulting in blessings both great and small.  So look at your mental list of things to do.  What is at the top?  If God is not there, ask Jesus to forgive you and help you to get your priorities straight.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The good old days

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

I enjoy entertainment from the past.  I watch old TV shows and movies.  I read books that reprint newspaper strips from the 30s and 40s.  There is something neat about seeing the world as others saw it decades ago.  The fashions they wore and the places where they lived.  The music that was popular and the way people spoke.  The cars that they drove and the places they went to have a good time.  Every now and then, I kind of wish that I could have lived in some of those past times, some of those different places.

But a romantic view of the past is just that—hopelessly romantic.  For all that we might wish to turn back the clock, life wasn’t any better in the past.  During the 1930s many people lived on next to nothing, thanks to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  The 40s saw fascism take over much of Europe, and ended with far too many families grieving the loss of soldiers who died overseas.  During the 1950s children learned to fear nuclear war.  The 1960s drove a wedge of distrust between adolescents and adults.  The 70s taught us how foolish it is to trust government officials.  The 80s started us on the trend of finding happiness through spending money that should be saved for the future or donated to charity. And ever since the 90s, the pace of life has gotten so hectic that family members are becoming strangers to each other. 

Life in past decades was not significantly better than today.  Kids were bullied at school.  There was discrimination against people based on skin color, religion, and cultural identity.  Prisons were full of convicts, and even more roamed the streets at night.  People died from untreatable health conditions or from being wounded on the battlefield.  Corrupt politicians dictated governmental policy.  People lived without faith in Christ, and ended up in hell when they died.

Life today can be challenging and scary; it’s easy to let nostalgia wrap you in its arms and complain bitterly about how times have changed.  But trying to live in the past is a waste of the time that God has given you.  Jesus died so that we might have life, and have it to the full—each new day is a gift to be enjoyed. You are alive now because there are people who need love—love that Christ wants to send them through you.  Please, embrace every opportunity the Lord provides to gladden another life with your own.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Great passages from the Bible (conclusion)

Today we conclude our look at some noteworthy Bible passages.  These verses are among the most treasured words that are contained in the Good Book.

One favorite is the Golden Rule, spoken by Christ in Matthew 7 verse 12: in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.  When speaking of rules, we think about restrictions on freedom.  But God’s Law, more than anything else, is a beacon of wisdom that urges our best behavior.  In Romans chapter 13 Paul says, Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.  That’s what the Golden Rule is about: love.  Love others in the same way that you want to be loved.  When loving concern motivates our words and deeds, our conduct honors the God who is the source of all love.

In John 11 verse 25, Jesus spoke these words just before He raised Lazarus from the dead: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. This verse is a favorite because we all share the same fear—we are all terrified of death.  We cringe at the thought of saying goodbye to a loved one for the final time.  We dread facing the reality that sooner or later, death will finally come for us.  It is wonderful to know that death is not the end, that Jesus overcame its’ power when He stepped alive from His own tomb on Easter morning.  Thanks to Christ, death is only an interruption of life, not its end.  Thanks to Jesus, we can look forward to a grand reunion with all the believers who have passed on before us.

But of all the contents of the Bible, no words are more deeply loved than these; in John 3 verse 16 Jesus said, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. These few words carry more hope and comfort than a library full of books.  Even though God hates sin, He still loves us—loves us so much that He sent His own Son to the cross, where Jesus suffered and gave up His life on our behalf.  Sin demands corrective action; by taking the punishment we deserve for being sinful, Christ made our forgiveness a reality.  The only thing God requires of us is to trust Jesus when He says friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20). If we are not so foolish as to reject this gift or treat it as unnecessary, we have the promise of eternal life with God in paradise.  More than any other verse in all of Holy Scripture, John 3:16 summarizes the peace and hope that is ours through Christ.

Saturday, July 21, 2012


The heart is an essential organ.  Without it, blood would not flow through your body, distributing oxygen and nutrients to every cell.  Without the heart, waste materials could not be gathered up and carried away for disposal.  Without the heart, your body would be dead in minutes. 

The heart is a pump that beats with the rhythm of life.  But to most people, the heart is something more—it is the place where your soul resides.  There is nothing scientific to back this up, but it is a tradition that is as old as time itself. 

Our language and culture fully embrace this idea.  On Valentine’s Day, you see hearts everywhere as a symbol for love.  When your feelings are obvious to everyone, you wear your heart on your sleeve.  When a relationship ends, you suffer from a broken heart.  When someone compliments you, your heart swells with pride.  When you hear bad news, your heart shrinks in fear. 

The Bible speaks this way too.  The heart is treated as the seat of wisdom; when Solomon became king, he asked God give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong (1 Kings 3:9).  Courage is found in the heart; David wrote though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear (Psalm 27:3).  Hope is located in the heart; Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD (Psalm 27:14).  Prayer comes from the heart; in 1st Samuel chapter one we read Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. And, of course, the heart feels love: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:5)

God wants us to love Him wholeheartedly.  Jesus said, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other (Matthew 6:24).  The problem is, our hearts are fickle—they are quick to love anything that’s new and different. Jesus said, out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19).  Our hearts fixate on pleasure, revenge, hatred, prejudice, envy, pride, and a never-ending lust for more of everything.  Jeremiah said, The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?  (chapter 17)

God understands the human heart.  Nothing is hidden from Him. He told Samuel, The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). David said, the LORD searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts (1 Chronicles 28:9).  Solomon prayed these words to God: Forgive, and deal with each man according to all he does, since you know his heart—for you alone know the hearts of men (2 Chronicles 6:30)

God created our hearts to be like His—filled with love, commitment, and generosity.  But our hearts have been damaged by sin.  They have shriveled up and become hard.  We crave things so much that we are willing to break the law in order to get them; this prompted David to write, Do not trust in extortion or take pride in stolen goods; though your riches increase, do not set your heart on them (Psalm 62:10).  Jesus warns us about unrestrained sexual desire: I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28).  Our hearts worry that we don’t have everything we need; to this Jesus replied, do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it.  For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them.  But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well (Luke 12:29-31).  It’s all a matter of getting your priorities straight; Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:21).

God is willing to forgive us.  Listen to the prophet Joel (chapter two): "Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.  If we have a change of heart over sin, God will spare us from His terrible punishment.

Of course, God does not overlook sin.  He doesn’t just wave His hand and make it go away.  God does punish all sin.  But that punishment does not have to afflict us.  On Good Friday, God punished His Son in our place, a punishment so severe that it killed the Lord of Life as He hung on the cross. 

Jesus went to that cross because of His heart.  Jesus’ heart is filled with love for us—a love committed to our happiness and welfare.  But it was not easy for Jesus to do what He did.  He told the disciples, Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour (John 12:27).   Jesus was willing to suffer for us, but He certainly did not look forward to it.  Nevertheless, His heart compelled Him to action, regardless of the bad things to come.  Jesus’ heart went out to each of us, and His love changes our hearts forever. 

No matter how hard or shriveled up our hearts may be, God can change us.  Through Ezekiel God said, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.  You…will be my people, and I will be your God (chapter 36).  He gives us a hunger to see Him coming on the clouds of heaven, the kind of craving that Job talked about (chapter 19): I myself will see him with my own eyes--I, and not another.  How my heart yearns within me! He gives us hearts that overflow with happiness, hearts that want to share Him with others; I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation (Psalm 40:10).  He brings us together as a family, as He started doing in the first days of the Church; All the believers were one in heart and mind (Acts 2:44).

A heart devoted to God is a wonderful thing to have.  Psalm 73: My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  Psalm 13: I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  Psalm 37: Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart…The mouth of the righteous man utters wisdom, and his tongue speaks what is just. The law of his God is in his heart; his feet do not slip.  Psalm 112: He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.  Most wonderful of all, Jesus said Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God (Matthew 5:8)

But we must be careful; the heart is willful and easily led astray.   Solomon wrote, Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life (Proverbs 4:23).  Moses warned, be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen, or let them slip from your heart, as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them…when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God (Deuteronomy chapter four).

Believers can fall to the devil’s power if they give him an opportunity.  Judas’ love for money gave Satan an open door into his heart, leading the disciple to betray Jesus and afterwards commit suicide.  A few years later, Peter confronted a church member about a lie told to the congregation: Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit?”…When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died (Acts 5:3-5)

God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4).  But God’s heart is pure; He will not tolerate sin.  Early in Genesis (chapter five), The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.  The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.  As a result God flooded the earth, killing everyone who ignored the warnings that Noah spoke to them.  Nevertheless, God would much rather carry us than bury us. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young (Isaiah 40:11)

Because our hearts are weak, God strengthens us through testing.  Moses told the Israelites, Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands…Know, then, in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the LORD your God disciplines you (Deuteronomy chapter eight). When we are forced to make a hard decision, a choice between God’s way or Satan’s way, we come out of the trial stronger than before when we side with righteousness.  David said, I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity (1 Chronicles 29:17)

Tragically, many hearts choose to side with the devil. The fool says in his heart, "There is no God" (Psalm 14:1). Such a person boasts of the cravings of his heart; he blesses the greedy and reviles the LORD (Psalm 10:3).  Solomon writes, the LORD detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished (Proverbs 16:5).  Scripture says that King Rehoboam did evil because he had not set his heart on seeking the LORD (2 Chronicles 12:14).  Through Jeremiah God said, Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD (chapter 17).  Do you want to be forgiven?  Then you must embrace God and reject sin.  David wrote, If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psalm 66:18)

When Joseph and Nicodemus came to collect Jesus’ body for burial, one of the soldiers stabbed Christ in the side to make sure that He was dead.  The spear went in behind the ribcage and punctured Jesus’ heart.  What happened next was a miracle; John tells us one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe (John 19:34-35).  Blood you would expect, but not water—not from the heart.  But consider what Jesus told the woman at the well three years earlier: whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14).  This matches what John saw in the last chapter of Revelation: The angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb…Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.  When Jesus’ heart was opened, its contents were revealed—the blood that washes away our sin, the water that gives us eternal life.

In Proverbs chapter 27 Solomon wrote, As water reflects a face, so a man's heart reflects the man.  What does your heart reveal about you?  Is it filled with happiness or anger?  Is it generous with time and money, or is it selfish?  Does it see the good in life, or does it focus on the bad?  Is your heart infatuated with sin, or is it committed to the Savior?  I pray that your heart might be fully committed to the Lord, as His heart is fully committed to you.  Then you can rejoice in His gifts like King David in Psalm 28: The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy, and I will give thanks to him in song.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Great passages from the Bible (part 4)

Today we continue looking at some noteworthy Bible passages.  These verses are among the most important messages preserved in Holy Scripture.

In Matthew 6 verses 31-33 Jesus says, do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?' or `What shall we drink?' or `What shall we wear?' Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.  Each of us worries about finances. Regardless if you are rich or poor, there never seems to be enough money.  We worry about affording the kind of lifestyle that we hunger for.  At such times, it is important to hear what Jesus says about anxiety.  God is our provider; everything good in our lives comes from Him.  We have a tendency to focus on the gifts instead of the One who gives them.  When our priorities go astray, worry is the result.  The solution to financial anxiety is to keep our eyes fixed on God; He knows our every need, and He will take care of those who trust in His love.

Also important are the words of Paul written in 1st Corinthians 10 verse 13: 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. Life is full of temptations. Given a choice, fun wins out even when it’s harmful to yourself or to others. More often than not, your preference is for taking the easier path even if it’s not the right one; it’s hard to say no when going with yes would be so much easier.  But when temptation is pushing you in the wrong direction, God wants to help.  He is willing to show you better alternatives than giving in to harmful desires or simply taking the easy way out.  Just take a deep breath and pray for His help; you can avoid a lot of trouble by asking our Lord to get involved.

But when it comes to important things to know, Romans 10 verse 17 ranks near the top: faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ. Without faith, God only seems to be a spectator who watches your life from a distance; with faith, you realize how close the Lord truly is, how much He cares about every aspect of your life.  Faith in God provides the security and confidence that each of us craves.  But faith is a living thing; although God plants it in us, we can allow it to die through neglect.  Faith is kept strong by regular exposure to the Word of God.  Through the Bible, God speaks that Word to us; you can be blessed with contentment and inner peace, if you just make it a priority to read and listen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Great passages from the Bible (part 3)

Today we continue looking at some noteworthy Bible passages.  These verses include some of the most frightening things that God says to us in Holy Scripture.

We are given a serious warning in Isaiah 59 verse 2: Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.  God is everywhere and sees everything.  He knows your thoughts and how you feel, 24/7.  But your sinfulness puts Him off.  God created you to love Him, but look at your life honestly.  How often do you thank Him for giving you food to eat and a place to live, work to do and people who love you?  Do you value God as the most important person in your life, or do you treat Him like a vending machine, only praying when you want something from Him?  How often do you forget that He is watching and break His rules to get what you want?  Every day each of us makes God angry, and our sins make Him tune us out until we repent.  It is only thanks to Jesus that we can be forgiven and reinstated into God’s good graces.

Also frightening are these words from Jesus, preserved in Matthew 12 verse 32: anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.  To be forgiven, we need to believe in Jesus—that He is God’s Son, that He died to forgive our sins, and that He rose from the dead to bring us into heaven.  Faith in Christ is essential, and the Spirit of God gives us that faith.  But some people reject the Spirit and the gift that He offers.  They deny that God exists, that they need supernatural help to live a happy and worthwhile life.  They treat Christianity with scorn, making jokes at God’s expense and urging laws that limit religious expression.  When someone slams the door on the Holy Spirit’s work, that person is eliminating any possibility of being forgiven.  If you push away the Spirit that offers faith in Jesus, you’ll never be in a position to receive God’s mercy, since it is only available through Christ the Savior.

But the scariest words in the Bible come from the lips of God’s Son in Matthew 25 verse 41: Then he will say to those on his left, `Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  On the day when Christ returns, all the dead will rise to meet Him.  All the people that have ever lived will be gathered for an evaluation—will they be allowed to live with God in peace and happiness, or will they be cast out into the darkness that is filled with never-ending screams of torment?  Those who ended life as a friend of Jesus have nothing to fear; those who thought they didn’t need Christ in their lives, well, they’ll spend eternity regretting that terrible mistake.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  If someone told you that, they were lying.  Words are powerful; they can change your life forever.  Uplifting words can give you confidence and fill your heart with hope.  Demeaning words can plunge you into depression or fill your heart with rage.  Inspirational words can lead an army to victory, while words of defeat can make a nation surrender.  Words of truth make good decisions possible; lies and half-truths can lead to terrible mistakes.  Of all the tools at your disposal, none is more powerful than the tongue in your mouth.

If you don’t think that words are powerful, consider God.  He made our world just by saying the words let there be (Genesis chapter one).  Psalm 33 says, By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.  Jesus ended a storm with the words Quiet!  Be still! (Mark 4:39) The Lord raised a dead man from the grave with the command, Lazarus, come out! (John 11:43)  When confronted with Satan in the wilderness, Jesus defeated the devil using nothing but words (Matthew chapter four).  Words are God’s greatest tool.

Sadly, the devil also knows how to use words, and he uses them to devastating effect.  Satan used nothing but words to lead Adam and Eve into sin, dooming us all in the process.  Satan can make the most outrageous lies sound like the unvarnished truth.  He even quotes the Bible, twisting God’s words so that we misunderstand them.  And the devil uses us to spread his filthy words around.  Even the disciples were not immune; when Peter objected to Jesus’ talk of going to the cross, the Lord responded get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men (Matthew 16:23)

James writes, With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come [both] praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (chapter three).  The tongue is capable of great destruction; James goes on to say Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  No wonder, then, that the Bible frequently cautions us to keep the tongue under control.  Psalm 39: I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth.  Psalm 141: Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

There are many ways to misuse the tongue.  You can use it to spread gossip.  You can use it to shift blame to someone else.  You can use it to complain.  You can use it to lure people into doing something wrong.  Skillful use of the tongue can trick people into giving you what you want.  You can bend people to your will by using flattery, lies, or threats.  You can buy good will by making promises you don’t intend to keep.  But God is not fooled by slippery talk.  Listen to Jesus: I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36).  God hates bragging: Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed (1 Samuel 2:3).  God detests gossip: Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, or use your lips to deceive (Proverbs 24:28). There is no such thing as a white lie; A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin (Proverbs 26:28). The Lord wants more from us than empty words; John wrote Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).  The Lord is not fooled by half-hearted worship; These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Isaiah 29:13).  The evil on our lips makes us unacceptable to God.  When Isaiah was given a look into God’s heavenly throne room, he cried out: Woe to me!  I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty (Isaiah 6:6:5)

Sin provokes harsh words from God. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:4).  He has sent many spokesmen to warn us of His anger: I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth (Hosea 6:5).  These are words from God that we don’t want to hear.  They hold us accountable for our actions.  They threaten us with punishment in hell.  They demand that we change our ways. 

God uses words like a surgeon uses a scalpel.  We are filled with the cancer of sin.  If it is not removed, we will die eternally.  If we submit to His treatment, God will begin surgery using His holy Word. The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).  Surgery, of course, is painful—but it is a far lesser painful than joining Satan in the fiery pit.  God’s surgery is temporary; the pain of sin is eternal.

Jesus never let His tongue get out of control. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).   As He preached about the kingdom of God, His words were well received: All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips (Luke 4:22).   But things changed when He began to reveal Himself as the Son of God sent to earth as our Savior.  People were offended by His message.  The hostility grew until He was arrested under false pretenses and unjustly condemned to death.  Yet through it all, Jesus held His peace. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:7)

Jesus suffered in silence; He only opened His mouth to give God’s blessings to others.  When nailed to the cross, He asked the Father to forgive His tormentors.  While He hung from the nails slowly dying, He promised a repentant criminal today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Although His lips were cracked and dry, He told John to care for His widowed mother.  And just before He died, Jesus asked for a final drink so He could let the world know that it is finished—His battle against sin and Satan was over and He could die in peace (John 19:30).

Jesus suffered all this out of love.  He said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).  Jesus is our best friend, the only friend who gave everything He had to erase our sin and invite us to heaven.  But His work did not end with His death; Jesus rose from the grave to live at the Father’s side, sending us His Spirit so we can understand God’s words and use our mouths constructively.

When God speaks, we do well to listen. Proverbs two tells us, the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.  We should love God’s words as did the man who wrote Psalm 119: The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold…How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth…Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.  We should live as Job did; I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread (chapter 23)

Scripture tells us how to use our lips.  David wrote, My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praises all day long (Psalm 35:28).  Hebrews chapter 13 says, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.  We should use our lips to tell everyone about our Lord and how wonderful He is!  Reading Job, we see another good use for our tongues; my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief (chapter 16).  Our words should speak about others, not ourselves—Proverbs chapter 27 says let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.  We should only speak when we know the facts, and always with good intentions: My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know (Job 33:3).  We should learn all that we can before offering advice; Solomon wrote Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips (Proverbs 22:17).  And we are to tell our children and grandchildren about the Savior; I will sing of the LORD's great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations (Psalm 89:1). Words should be used to build up, not to tear down. 

There is no better place to exercise our tongues than in church.  God says, I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9). God purifies us through the blood of His Son, blood that washes away our sin.  We appeal to that blood when we pray May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14).  With our sins forgiven, our hearts leap for joy and we pray, O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise…My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you--I, whom you have redeemed (Psalm 51:15, 71:23)

We must open our mouths and speak about the Lord, because God commands it.  Jesus said, Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess him before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33).  Paul writes, if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved (Romans 10:9-10).  Confession of the faith shows what is in your heart; Paul writes in 1st Corinthians that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.  When we speak about Christ, we show that He is living in our hearts.

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18). Thankfully, God’s word reigns supreme—it is the only word that can reverse the damage caused by our reckless speaking.  Jesus heals us when He says, friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20).  When God speaks, His will cannot be thwarted. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Only the Word of God is powerful enough to free us from sin and rescue us from hell.  Those who refuse to listen when God speaks are only hurting themselves. Hear what Paul says in Romans chapter 14: `As surely as I live,' says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'  So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God

So mind what you say.  James writes, If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless (chapter one).  God knows everything you say; before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD (Psalm 139:4).  Always remember Solomon’s advice: He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Proverbs 21:23).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Great passages from the Bible (part 2)

Today we continue looking at some noteworthy Bible passages.  These verses are memorable for being helpful to our daily struggle with life’s challenges.

In James 5 verse 16 we are told, The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  There are times when you just don’t know what to do. Someone dear to you has been diagnosed with a life-changing health problem. A friend is doing something self-destructive and doesn’t want your help or advice.  You are confronted with a serious dilemma and cannot see any good way to solve the problem.  When you feel powerless or don’t know what to do, prayer is your best option.  A friend might refuse your help, but she cannot stop you from praying for her.  When you are confused and don’t know what is best, pray to the Lord for wisdom or to reveal the best way forward.  When you are powerless to fix a problem, ask God to take charge of the situation.  You can pray with confidence, because friends of Jesus always have His Father’s ear.

Also helpful are these words given in Galatians 5 verses 22-23: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  Our world is constantly in motion.  Things change almost faster than we can keep up.  Sometimes it’s hard to know how to react, how to conduct ourselves.  How can I please the people who are important to me?  What kind of behavior is appropriate?  How can I show God my appreciation for taking such good care of me?  Thankfully, the Spirit of God provides the answers.  He teaches us how to love unselfishly, be patient with others, and show kindness through our behavior.  He helps us to be gentle instead of overbearing, faithful instead of fickle, and to control our troublesome impulsiveness.  The Holy Spirit shows us what goodness is, and makes it possible to experience peace and joy. When life is lived this way, everyone is happy.

But one of the most helpful things for getting through each day is told us in Colossians 3 verse 13: Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  Life is too short to carry grudges, yet everyone does.  We don’t want to forgive being wronged, we want satisfaction.  We feel entitled to compensation for being hurt, and when that compensation is not forthcoming, we grow angry and bitter.  But the only person you hurt by holding a grudge is yourself.  You can’t enjoy the day, and your nasty attitude pushes others away.  Far better to forgive, even if the person who caused you pain doesn’t ask for it or even want it.  It’s not always easy to forgive, but in Christ you have expert help.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Great passages from the Bible (part 1)

Starting today, I’d like to discuss some noteworthy Bible passages with you.  Today’s verses are memorable for offering us God’s comfort.

In Jeremiah 31 verse 3, God says I have loved you with an everlasting love.  These words are comforting because there are many times when we don’t feel loved.  People at work don’t appreciate us.  Family and friends take us for granted.  Romance is non-existent.  We start to wonder if anyone really cares about us.  In times like these, it’s comforting to know how much God loves us.  We are His children, personally crafted in our mother’s womb according to His design.  He cares so much that He sent His Son to the cross in order to guarantee your place in His family.  And the love of God does not fade with time; He never gets bored with you or takes you for granted.  You can always count on the love that God has for you.

Also comforting are Jesus’ words in Matthew 11 verse 28: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. So much of the time, life feels overwhelming.  People constantly make demands of you.  You worry about your parents’ health and your kids’ behavior.  Money troubles take away your peace of mind.  Emotions like anger, fear, or sadness threaten to overwhelm you.  It’s comforting to know that you aren’t alone with your troubles.  Jesus spent 33 years going through the same kind of struggles that we do.  He understands, He sympathizes, and He wants to help.  He invites you to share your burdens with Him in prayer; He assures you that He will ease your sorrows, give you breathing space, and take away your fear. No one is better at solving problems than Jesus, the all-powerful Son of God.

But I don’t think there is anything more comforting than Luke 5 verse 20, where our Lord says Friend, your sins are forgiven. Nothing hurts more than broken relationships.  Nothing leaves deeper emotional scars than being an outcast.  No one wants to be alone.  Yet we constantly hurt each other.  We say words that should never have been spoken.  We break promises and betray secrets.  We let bad habits turn into addictive compulsions.  Our terrible behavior hurts us and everyone around us.  Worst of all, our sin makes us repugnant to God.  Thankfully, sin does not get the last say.  Jesus suffered and died to strip sin of its power to condemn.  Christ was punished for all the hurt and damage we have caused.  Because of this, He has the authority to forgive our wrongs—all we need do is ask.  We constantly dig ourselves into holes we cannot climb out of; it’s comforting to know that Jesus stands ready to reach down and pull us out.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Republicans, Democrats and God

The authorities are God's servants (Romans 13:6).

Is God a Republican or a Democrat?

A recent poll of Americans revealed that politically, our nation is more strongly divided than ever.  Even independents are starting to drift towards one party or the other.  And while both sides claim they want to work together in a bipartisan way, neither is willing to budge when it comes time for negotiation. 

Have you ever stopped to wonder how God looks at our political divide?  Scripture says that He is a God of peace, not disorder; I can’t imagine that He’s pleased by our two parties squabbling instead of getting things done.  The Bible says that we are to show respect to each other, especially to those who have positions of leadership.  How angry must the Almighty get when politicians twist the truth to make their opponents look bad. Jesus says we are to love one another; He is surely disappointed when our leaders are more concerned with budgets and lobbyists than with the people who are taxed or need assistance.  Jesus also said that we should let nothing go to waste; I cannot imagine how disgusted He is at the mismanagement and corruption that riddle the halls of government.

God is not a Republican or a Democrat; God is not a liberal or conservative.  God is the Creator of all things; all authority belongs to Him, and He is the Supreme Judge who passes sentence on us all.  All governmental leaders, each political party, every single bureaucrat and judge must answer to Him.  He has allowed them the privilege to serve and protect us; yet they arouse His anger when they forget who’s in charge and try to push their own agendas.

One benefit of being American is that our political machinery can be swapped out through public elections; we don’t have to use violence to force a change in leadership as happens in other countries.  But having the privilege to vote also carries a responsibility—we must sort through all the lies and misinformation to find out which candidates seem to understand God’s priorities best, then cast our votes for these individuals regardless of party affiliation.  That we can show respect for God’s authority by shaping public policy at the voting booth—that’s what makes our nation great.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Dealing with guilt

Your guilt is removed and your sins are forgiven (Isaiah 6:7).

Aren’t Christians hypocrites? They say that they believe in life-long marriage, but plenty of them get divorced.  They claim that gossiping is wrong, yet they spread rumors too.  They talk about how important forgiveness is, yet they still hold grudges.  They say we shouldn’t judge others, but they constantly criticize people for doing stuff they believe is wrong.  Christians aren’t better than anyone else—why do they think they’re so special?

If you feel this way, you’d be right—Christians are no better than anyone else.  The Bible says, God looks down from heaven…to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. Everyone has turned away, they have become united in corruption; there is no one who does good, not a single person (Psalm 14:2-3).  Viewed from God’s perspective, all people fail to measure up when it comes to moral living.

What sets Christians apart is not an awareness of moral bankruptcy—lots of non-Christians also bemoan the human condition.  You don’t have to be pledged to Jesus to get angry over poverty, war, and social injustice.  And Christians are not unique in their desire for personal improvement—all kinds of people want to improve their themselves.  They strive to control their words.  They try to become more sensitive those around them.  You don’t have to be a student of Christ to understand the need for impulse control.

Christians are different in how they deal with guilt over their mistakes.  Most of the time, the bad things we do end up hurting other people.  How do you repair the damage that results?  Some try to make the victim forget their hurt by showering them with expensive gifts or extra attention.  Others pretend that the injury never happened and go about their usual routine, hoping that ‘time will heal all wounds’.  Sadly, old hurts tend to fester, poisoning relationships with resentment, bitterness and mistrust.

Christians understand that you cannot take back words that should never have been spoken in the first place.  Christians realize that broken promises are opportunities which have been lost forever.  But Christians find comfort in Jesus’ words, Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20).  We are assured that on the cross, the Son of God worked an incredible miracle—He freed us from the chains of guilt by suffering the pain which our mistakes have caused.  Jesus gives us inner peace by forgiving us, and helping us to forgive each other as well—that’s what sets Christians apart from everyone else.

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