Thursday, November 29, 2012

The burden of confusion

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

At one time or another, everyone is burdened with confusion.  You are faced with a tough situation, and you can’t see any way out that won’t cause even more headaches.  You think that you know what’s right, then become unsure after listening to several conflicting opinions.  You have a decision to make but are paralyzed by having too many options to choose from.  You hesitate to make a commitment because you just don’t know what the future holds.  You are burdened by confusion.

We know that two things are needed for making good decisions—information and wisdom.  So we study the issues carefully when tackling a problem; we gather all the information that we can before committing to a course of action.  We ask for input from specialists and people who might be affected.  We brainstorm a number of solutions to pick from. But that’s just the first half of the process; step two requires good judgment.  Before making up our minds, we try to weigh the pros and cons of each idea; we struggle to anticipate the consequences of our actions so we make things better, not worse.  Sadly, there is usually some important bit of information that gets overlooked; there are unforeseen results that cause problems and bring criticism.  No amount of study and careful thought can guarantee that our decisions will be the right ones.

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  One of the burdens He lifts from us is the burden of ignorance and confusion. Unlike us, the Son of God knows everything.  Our judgment is corrupted by sin; Jesus is the wisdom of God given life and breath.  Only our heavenly Lord and Master can be counted on to make the right decision every single time.  Thankfully, He gives us access to His knowledge and wisdom.  We have the Bible where He teaches us everything needed to face the moral challenges of life.  And we have access to God through prayer; when we humbly ask Him to guide our decision-making, He guides submissive hearts to follow in His way. 

You don’t have to deal with the burden of confusion.  Through prayer and the Bible, God offers the guidance that you need.  There is relief in knowing what to do, and Jesus offers you that rest.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The burden of inadequacy

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

At one time or another, everyone is burdened with inadequacy.  You know you shouldn’t smoke, but you do it anyway.  You wish that you could be strong under pressure, but you frequently dissolve in tears.  You want to be a good person, but people always talk you into doing the wrong thing.  You know that you should be patient, but your temper burns on a short fuse. The problems of life frequently overwhelm you.  Your weaknesses make you wonder what other people see in you.  It’s easy to give up on your own goals and just let life sweep you along like a leaf that falls in the river. You are burdened with knowing that you just don’t have what it takes.

Some people, when they feel inadequate, overcompensate with bluff and bluster.  They put up a false front, pretending to be confident and sure of themselves.  They question other peoples’ motives, because they see their failings in everyone around them.  They are slow to give their trust, because they expect everyone to be weak and undependable.  Others who feel inadequate allow themselves to become doormats.  They cling to anyone who accepts them, even those who abuse or take advantage of them, because they feel lucky to have any relationships at all.  They wallow in self-pity, leaving them isolated and alone.  But pity is no basis for a relationship with others, and no one likes associating with a blowhard, either.  No matter how you respond to it, feeling worthless is a burden.

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  One of the burdens He lifts from us is the burden of inadequacy.  The Son of God walked among us for a third of a century; He understands the challenges that each of us face.  He offers us the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts.  The Spirit gives us strength to resist the temptation to do wrong, and encourages us to try again when we fail. The Spirit helps us to be patient with those who disappoint us, and forgive them instead of getting mad.  The Spirit helps us admit our shortcomings, so that we will cling to God for our help and support.  And the Spirit helps us to realize that we have tremendous worth—God gave His own Son to the cross so that we could be His children always. 

You don’t have to live under the burden of feeling inadequate.  God loves you and wants to shape you into an incredible person.  You can rest easy, knowing that God is with you.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Are you ready?

At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish and five were wise.  The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.  The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.  The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: `Here's the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'  Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.  The foolish ones said to the wise, `Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.' `No,' they replied, `there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'

But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.  Later the others also came. `Sir! Sir!' they said. `Open the door for us!'  But he replied, `I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'

Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour
(Matthew 25:1-13).

When are you going to die?  How are you going to die?  Are you ready for your death?

Uncomfortable questions.  Questions you’d just as soon not think about.  But the sad truth is that none of us is getting any younger.  Each morning when we get out of bed, we are one day nearer to closing our eyes for the final time.

Jesus says keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.  None of us knows how or when our lives will finally come to an end.  Today might be your last.  Are you prepared for that eventuality?

In one of his prayers Luther asked God, “save me from an evil death.”  For Luther, an ‘evil death’ was one that came suddenly out of nowhere, catching you off guard.  When life reached its end, Luther wanted to be surrounded by family and friends.  He wanted one last opportunity to apologize for any hurts he had caused.  He wanted one last chance to say out loud how much he loved and appreciated them.  He wanted a few more minutes to reassure them that because of Jesus, death was nothing to be feared—soon he would be face to face with the Savior, and would speak to the Son of God as a man does with his friends.   Luther did not want death to blind-side him; he wanted his last hours to be a time of loving farewells.

There are many ways to die suddenly and unexpectedly.  A deer could hit your car.  You could have a fatal heart attack.  You could slip in the shower and hit your head as you fall.  You could accidentally touch a hot wire and be electrocuted.  You could get shot by a careless hunter or desperate criminal.  You could be fatally injured by farm machinery.  Or God could just crook His finger and say, ‘your time on earth is over.’  We all hope for death to give us some advance warning, but many times it does not.

Most of us live as if tomorrow is a sure thing.  When you’re young, death is something that happens to old people—like anyone over 30!  When you’re grown up, death is something that happens to other people—those who don’t take care of their health, or work in dangerous professions.  Even late in life, some will do anything they can to deny the march of years—they get cosmetic surgery, they dress like they did thirty years ago, they blow money on expensive toys, they even consider having a fling with someone much younger, all in an effort to ignore the approach of death.  But you can’t just ignore death and hope it will never find you.

Most people don’t prepare for death.  Do you have a last will and testament?  Have you made out advanced medical directives?  Do you have enough life insurance to pay off your mortgage, car loans, credit card debt, and still have money left over to pay for your funeral and put your kids through college?  Does your spouse know how to manage all of the household expenses?  If you were to die suddenly, who would care for your children, do the laundry, cook the meals? 

If you died today, are you ready?  Are there any friends you’ve lost contact with over some petty disagreement?  When is the last time you said “I love you” to the special people in your life?  Most important of all, is your soul ready to leave this world?  Do you believe that Jesus is God’s Son cast in human flesh?  Do you believe that He died for your sins and rose from the dead?  Have you told Jesus that you’re sorry for all your sins, even those favorite ones that you just can’t give up?  Are you confident that when you die, you will go to heaven? 

Some lives are long, others are cut short.  But regardless of how many years you have on this earth, there are three days of crucial importance for everyone.  The first is the day when God the Father gave you life, the day when you were conceived.  The second is the day when the Holy Spirit gave you faith in Jesus, the day that you were reborn as a spiritual child of God.  The third is the day when Jesus calls you to stand before Him in judgment, the day which determines eternal happiness or eternal misery.  Everyone is conceived by the power of God the Father.  Everyone will stand before His Son for judgment.  But only some are spiritually reborn.  They are the blessed ones.  On the day of death, they will be welcomed into heaven as citizens, their passports stamped in Jesus’ blood that washed away their sins.  But the Day of Judgment will be a day of terror and despair for those who ended life dead in their transgressions and sins.  Without faith in Jesus, there is no forgiveness; without forgiveness, there is no escape from the jaws of hell. 

Are you ready for death to claim you?  Are you ready to stand before Jesus and hear His verdict on your life?  Many Christians are not ready.  They are like the foolish virgins in today’s Gospel lesson.  They have a date with Jesus.  They know that He will come for them.  They are looking forward to that meeting.  But time is against them.  They aren’t prepared for a long vigil, keeping watch. 

It’s hard to keep watch.  The hardest job a soldier can have is sentry duty.  When you go on patrol, you keep moving.  When you’re on a special mission, there are timetables for each objective to be completed.  But keeping watch is different.  The sentry is called upon to stay sharp for hour after hour, listening for anything out of place, or watching for a hint of movement that might suggest the approach of hostile forces.  But hours of quiet darkness can wear down alertness; minds can wander, giving an enemy the opening to approach undetected.

It’s hard to stay alert and keep watch.  Even Christians can be caught napping by sudden death.  It’s easy to get lazy about your faith.  Life is busy right now, too busy for daily prayer or weekly church attendance—but that’s okay, when things finally settle down you’ll give more time to Jesus.  But let’s face facts—regardless of how busy you are, you always make time for the things that matter most.  The only reason you don’t find time now to pray or worship is because they are not a high priority for you. 

Don’t kid yourself—once you leave time for God out of your routine, it is easy to forget about Him entirely.  You know how it is.  A good friend moves away.  You promise to stay in touch.  But as the months go by, regular contact becomes less and less frequent; in some cases, such friendships die altogether.  You didn’t intend for it to happen—you just got busy with other things.  At least you exchange cards at Christmas…

This can happen to us.  We can let other things shove God out of our schedule, until the only time we think of Him is at Christmas—if then.  Jesus knows that we are easily distracted.  That’s why He urges us to Keep watch.  That’s why He doesn’t tell us the day or the hour when everything will come to an end.  He wants us to stay sharp.  He wants us to be prepared to meet Him.  He wants us to be strong in the faith, studying the Scriptures and teaching them to our children while we are here to do so.  He wants us to gather in worship, where we can receive the blessings of His Word and Sacrament, and where we can jab each other in the ribs in order to stay alert.  He wants us to confess our sins regularly so we can be blessed with the peace of sins forgiven, and live with confidence that death will give birth to eternal life. 

Are you ready for your death?  In some respects, I hope you never are.  I hope that your life never becomes so filled with suffering that you just want to be done with everything, because God the Father did not give you life only to be miserable.  I hope that you never view death as a friend, because death is God’s curse on sin, a curse that Jesus died and rose to overcome.  But do I hope that you are ready for death because the Holy Spirit has given your soul rebirth through faith, faith that will allow you to die unafraid of what comes after, because the forgiven are saints who will live with God forever.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Give thanks

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

How can Paul write words like these?  How can we be joyful all the time and give thanks in every situation?  The unemployment rate is high.  Credit for major purchases is hard to come by.  The cost of necessities like food, energy, and medical care continues to rise.  Many people have to delay retirement or cancel it altogether.  Be joyful and give thanks?  For what?

And what about disasters?  People are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy.  There is drought throughout much of the Midwest.  Environmentalists warn that the earth is growing warmer and that vast areas of the world will experience dramatic climate change.  Be joyful and give thanks?  For what?

We have troops fighting overseas, fighting that has gone on since 2001; a lot of American men and women have come home crippled or in body bags.  Terrorists carry out suicide bombings and are proud to take responsibility.  People in Africa are victims of ethnic cleansing.   Be joyful and give thanks?  For what?

And what about you?  How many of you reading this have been back-stabbed by a friend you thought you could trust?  How many of you have been taken advantage of, lied to, or cheated on?  How many of you have been treated disrespectfully by your children?  How many of you have dealt with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease?  How many of you have lost someone special to the grave?  Be joyful and give thanks?  For what?

Paul wrote, be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.  How could Paul be so unrealistic?  Didn’t he understand how tough life can be?  Actually, he did—Paul wrote these words knowing full well what it means to suffer.  Listen as Paul details the hard times in his life, recorded in 2nd Corinthians:

Five different times the Jewish leaders gave me thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked. Once I spent a whole night and a day adrift at sea. I have traveled on many long journeys. I have faced danger from rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be believers, but are not. I have worked hard and long, enduring many sleepless nights. I have been hungry and thirsty, and have often gone without food. I have shivered in the cold, without enough clothing to keep me warm. Then, besides all this, I have the daily burden of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my feeling that weakness? Who is led astray, and I do not burn with anger?

Paul understood better than most how miserable life can be.  He spent much of his final years in prison, locked away because the people in charge did not want him talking about Jesus.  Yet even while confined in jail, Paul remained positive. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances, he wrote.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).

Paul had seen the best and the worst that life has to offer.  Yet he did not feel deprived or shortchanged during times of hardship.  Paul was able to be content—more than that, he held joy in his heart, joy that enabled him to give thanks to God.  How could he possibly feel that way?

All the things that make us sour and ungrateful are the temporary things of this world.  Don’t have enough money?  Money will have no value after you’re dead. Hurt by people who treat you shabbily?  In heaven all sin is gone; once you are there, no one can ever hurt you again.  Suffering from harsh weather or poor health?  When Jesus raises you from the dead to live on the new earth, your body will be perfect and the world will be free of tragedy.

I’m not downplaying the amount of hurt we can experience here on earth.  Everyone suffers, some horribly.  But this earthly life is only a small part of our total existence.  The Lord created us to live forever; our time on earth, while significant, is really no longer than the nine months you spent in the womb waiting to be born.  Pregnancy ends in painful labor; our life on earth ends in painful death.  But after nine months in the womb, a child is born to live a lifetime; after our earthly lives end in death, Jesus raises us to live with Him forever.  Our time of suffering is only a small part of what is yet to come.

It’s easier to endure suffering if you know that it will come to an end.  People sick with the flu take comfort from knowing that in a few days the worst will be past.  Cancer patients wait patiently for tests to show that they are in remission.  Having a plan for victory helps military leaders cope with the reversals of war.  Investors look at their long-range financial plans to find courage when stock prices are low.  We find comfort in knowing that “this too shall pass.”

And yet so much of the time we worry and make plans as if God is not part of the equation.  God made the universe just by speaking.  God parted the Red Sea so that His people could cross the seabed on dry ground, while the water stood piled up in walls to the left and right of them.  God made the sun stand still for 24 hours so the Israelite army could win a tough battle.  God caused barren women to get pregnant, paralyzed people to walk, blind people to see, and those with incurable diseases to become completely healthy.  In Genesis 18:14, God lays it before us: Is anything too hard for the LORD?  So why do we behave as if God cannot fix things?

Maybe we don’t think that God notices our problems or cares enough to get personally involved.  But the Bible assures us otherwise.  King Hezekiah asked God to save him from an untimely death, and the Lord extended his life by 15 years.  When Ruth was widowed, God made sure that she met a loving man who would marry her and take care of her.  The Son of God turned water into wine at a wedding so the family would not be publicly embarrassed at failing to plan adequately for the celebration.  After a day of teaching in the wilderness, Jesus made sure that the crowd of over 5,000 was well fed, despite only having five loaves of bread and two fish on hand.  And God gave His own Son to the cross so that we could be forgiven all of our mistakes and shortcomings.  God does care about us, and He gets personally involved in our lives.

Because of this, we can live with joy in our hearts.  Joy is not the same as happiness.  Happiness is about feeling pleasure and excitement.  Joy is about confidence and peace.  We are confident in God’s love for us.  His love is so great that He sent His Son to die for us.  Jesus said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).  The bloodstained cross on God’s holy mountain is proof positive of His love for us.  The blood of Christ removes the stain of sin from us, and fills our dying bodies with life that can never be extinguished.  As a result, we can live with peace in our hearts, the peace of knowing that we are protected and cared for, loved and supported.  Knowing that God is on our side because of Jesus, we can live each and every moment with joy.

Because of this joy, we can give thanks in all circumstances, just as Paul did.  Paul had a chronic health problem that troubled him. In 2 Corinthians chapter twelve he says, 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.  That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.  Paul found that hardship can be a blessing.  When he was faced with a problem beyond human ability to solve, the only one he could turn to was God.  The problems of life drove Paul closer to the Savior.  When he learned to rely on God, Paul found peace of mind because he could stop worrying.  As a result, Paul saw value in everything that made him turn to God for help; such troubles helped Paul grow in his faith.  This is why Paul could say, give thanks in all circumstances.  After all, we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28)

You might not feel all that happy today.  You might be suffering in some way or have an unmet need.  But if you trust in God’s love and mercy, you can have joy in your heart.  If you trust the Lord, you can be grateful even during times of hardship, because when you are weak, God’s strength can be seen clearly.   King Solomon wrote, trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:6).  In Psalm 9 his father David wrote, The LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, LORD, have never forsaken those who seek you.  These are words to live by, and be thankful for.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A terrible place

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'

Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'  The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

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.  For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.'

They also will answer, `Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?'  He will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'

Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life
(Matthew 25:31-46).

We’ve all seen some pretty strange places.  Maybe you’ve gone vacationing and visited a place where you just felt uncomfortable.  Maybe you’ve watched news footage from some distant location and wondered how anyone could live there. 

Today I want to take you on a trip.  Our destination is a large country, populated with more than a billion residents.  The climate is a study in extremes.  The mountains are bitter cold with constantly howling winds; the plains swelter with high heat and oppressive humidity.  The mountains are whipped with constantly blowing snow; there is little visibility and travel is nearly impossible.  Residents huddle in drafty cabins, isolated from outside contact.  Finding something to eat is hard; finding relief from hours of boredom is even harder.  Conditions prevent the sun from shining; clouds and snow make everything monotonous.

The low lands, while heavily populated, are nothing to write home about.  The mountains trap the clouds, so the sun beats down mercilessly day after day.  There are no shade trees; the plains are covered with low brush and many kinds of thistles. Because the plains are so flat, water moves slowly and is full of bacteria, making it unsuitable for washing or drinking. There is no breeze, and the smell of rotting decay hangs in the air. These conditions are perfect for all sorts of allergens and insects; if you are not sneezing, you’re busy swatting at flies and mosquitoes. 

The economy is in shambles.  Money is worth nothing and no one has the means to run a business.  There is no healthcare system; if you are sick or disabled, you’re on your own. Without electricity or fuel production, travel is slow and communication difficult; if a family gets separated, it is virtually impossible to find each other again, given the sheer size of the country and its immense population.

Living in such a place, you would think that citizens would band together for mutual protection and support.  Sadly, this is not the case. Without money to pay for law enforcement, everyone lives in constant fear of being a victim.  Bullies run unchecked, until someone bigger and meaner puts them in their place.  Although surrounded by people, everyone is trapped in their own little world, scared of trusting anyone else.  This miserable existence has poisoned love; although many have wistful memories of good relationships, the harsh reality of daily existence has made everyone cynical and cold.  Other people, even friends and relatives, are treated as resources to be ruthlessly exploited.

All in all, a thoroughly miserable place.  Are you eager to go there for a visit?  It may surprise you, but more than half of the people in the world will eventually move there permanently.  Of course, I’m referring to hell

Granted, no one knows what hell is really like.  We know that being there is a truly awful experience.  In my own inadequate way, I’ve tried to give you a taste of how miserable time in hell could be.  I’m sure that the reality is much, much worse.

Is hell a real place?  You bet it is.  The Lord does not tell lies.  Hell is a place God created to punish Satan and his army of demons.  Hell is a place so terrible that even the devil will be miserable there.  Certainly not a place that I want to be stuck in!

Jesus said that a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out--those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned (John 5:28-29).  Those who go to hell will suffer both physically and mentally.  The physical pain will be awful and never-ending; imagine having nausea that never lets up, a large blistering sunburn that never stops throbbing, a severe backache that never allows you a moment’s rest.  But as bad as that is, the mental torment will be even worse.  In hell there will be no love, no peace, no hope that things will ever get better.  Hearts will be filled with anger and hatred and self-loathing.  Minds will be consumed with fear and sadness and despair.  Worst of all will be the knowledge that it could all have been avoided; Jesus offered eternal happiness in paradise, and His offer was foolishly rejected. 

We know that God is love (1 John 4:8); it seems odd that He would make such a terrible place as hell.  But our ancestors did not think it strange.  Because of sin, the world has long been a harsh place to live.  Insects and bad weather destroy our harvests.  Predators and disease kill our livestock.  Fires and floods destroy our towns.  All these disasters are the result of sin, because it is sin that causes suffering.  Before sin, life on earth was paradise; after sin, life on earth is a pain-filled struggle.  Our ancestors understood this; they looked forward to a time when there would be no more wars, no more crime, no more lies.  They wanted to be free from temptation.  They wanted to escape the hurt caused by sinful behavior.  They wanted Jesus to take away their sins so they could live in eternal happiness.  They also wanted Jesus to separate them from unrepentant sinners, those foolish people who thought of sin like a rose, thorny but beautiful. 

Ages ago, sin destroyed paradise.  God won’t let that happen again.  When Jesus returns, He will burn this world with heavenly fire, purifying it of all sin.  Then He will remake the earth into the paradise that it was, so very long ago.  But who will get to live there?  Not the devil or his demons; they would taint it with their foul presence.  God will lock them up in a place so far away that their screams will go unheard. 

Those demons won’t be alone in their prison.  Jesus will act as judge over humanity.  Every human being will rise from the dead and stand before God’s Son.  Then Jesus will do something truly terrifying—He will separate the eternally cursed from the forever blessed.  The blessed have no reason to fear—in life, they trusted in Christ as their Savior, the friend who died to forgive their sins.  But what about the rest, those who made fun of God’s Son or had no time for Him in their lives?  They have good reason to be afraid; the sin they find so appealing curses them with God’s eternal punishment. 

When you have faith in Jesus, it shows in your behavior.  Christians are filled with God’s love and they show it by caring for others, even when that care is expensive or inconvenient.  Such behavior shows love and respect for our Maker and Redeemer.  Unbelievers also show the content of their hearts by how they act.  They make their own happiness job one.  When they help others, it is for selfish reasons—they plan to call in the favor at some future time.  They bail out of relationships when commitment takes effort.  Such behavior shows no love or respect for the God who gave them life and every opportunity that they foolishly wasted.

The King will separate humanity into two groups.  The smaller group is made up of sinners washed clean by the blood of Christ.  They did nothing to deserve this wonderful gift; it was God’s decision, motivated solely by love, to offer them redemption through His Son.  Jesus gave them many opportunities to serve Him during their years on earth, and though they messed up lots of times, they died content, knowing that the Lord forgave them and used their efforts to make the world a better place.  To them Jesus says: come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

The larger group are those who ended life still filthy in their sins.  They had no use for the cross, the blood, the empty tomb.  They were focused on other things—advancing in business, being popular, getting the best stuff, living it up.  The Lord gave them time and resources, gifts that they used selfishly or simply wasted.  Instead of making the earth a better place, they just filled it up with their garbage.  When they died, they were not worried about the consequences of sin.  To them the King says, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels

God will not let our sin spoil His perfect new world.  If we are forgiven, all is well—but those who are still corrupted by sin have no place with us in paradise.  God will send them to join Satan and the demons in hell so they can never again insult us, strike us, betray our trust, take things from us, lie to us, or use us for their own advantage.  Paradise will be free of sin and full of love; it will be a place where all wounds are healed and there is never any fear.  Our ancestors understood that God is doing us all a favor by sending hardened sinners away; if he did not, we could never have complete peace and happiness. 

Sadly, many of your friends and relatives are in the wrong group right now; they are living without Christ, and if things do not change, they will stand with the condemned on Judgment Day.  I’m sure that you don’t want to be separated from them forever.  So talk to them.  Tell them how important Jesus is to you and how much you want them to live with you and the Lord forever.   Be a pest; keep inviting them to come with you to church.  When you send a card, letter, or email, always include a Bible verse.  Pray for them every day, and pray out loud when the two of you are together.  When they compliment you on something, give the credit to God because He helped you.  As Christ said, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The burden of fear

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

At one time or another, everyone is burdened with fear.  You can’t focus on what the teacher is saying because a bully is glaring at you with awful promise in his eyes.  You worry over how to pay the bills.  You live in fear that someone you love will finally wake up and realize that you are not worth wasting their affection on.  You can’t sleep at night, wondering how much time is left before death touches your life with its icy embrace.  The fear makes your life miserable.  Food doesn’t taste good anymore.  You withdraw from the people who care about you.  You get mad at yourself for being so weak and helpless.  You are burdened with fear.

When faced with something terrifying, some people run for cover.  They bury themselves in a favorite pastime to the exclusion of everything else.  They go out of their way to avoid dealing with the problem that frightens them, even going so far as to refuse to admit that there is anything wrong.  Some try to medicate the fear away through misuse of drugs or alcohol.  Others, however, put up a fight.  They might aggressively lash out at anyone they see as a threat.  Or they might simmer with rage, plotting and planning for a moment when the tables can be turned, even if it means breaking the law to find relief.  But frightening situations don’t go away just because you ignore them.  And fighting back out of fear-induced anger only makes things a bigger mess. No matter what you do, fear burdens you with its crushing weight.

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  One of the burdens He lifts from us is the burden of fear.  There is no escape from fear until its source has been dealt with or you find a place of perfect safety.  Thankfully, the Son of God provides both.  He has defeated the Prince of Darkness and overcome the power of death; these two enemies are the masters at filling our lives with terror, and our Savior has brought them both to heel.  Our Friend from heaven also gives us security by holding us safe in His mighty arms.  Jesus fed thousands from one boy’s lunch.  Jesus ended a ferocious storm with the words Quiet! Be still! (Mark 4:39)  Jesus made blind people see, lame people walk, and cured illnesses for which no treatment existed.  He can assure that our needs are well and truly met.

You don’t have to be burdened with fear.  Christ wants you to be confident of His mighty power and loving care.  He can give your nervous heart the peaceful rest it hungers for.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The burden of guilt

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

At one time or another, everyone is burdened with guilt.  You said you would be there to see your child compete at school, but you let your work keep you away.  You promised to faithfully love your spouse for the rest of your lives, but you got tangled up in an affair.  You promised yourself that you would change—keep your temper under strict control, lose weight, stop blowing money on foolish things—but despite your good intentions, old habits have refused to die.  You feel like a failure, unworthy of respect.  You feel like a heel for bringing pain and disappointment to those you care about.  You feel weak and powerless, a victim of your own inadequacies. You are burdened with guilt.

We try hard to be rid of guilt.  You might give your children expensive gifts to make up for being neglectful or abusive.  You might take your spouse on a second honeymoon as a way to overshadow painful memories with newer, pleasant ones.  You might invest time and money into seminars, self-help materials, or professional counseling to help you learn from your mistakes.  But the trouble is, nothing you do can change the past.  You can’t take back the hurtful words that should never have been spoken.  You can’t replace the time that was wasted or misused.  You can’t buy off pain with money.  And you cannot avoid the guilt by blaming someone else for your actions.  You cannot bury your guilt by distracting yourself with long hours at work or getting drunk every night.  No matter what you do, guilt burdens you with its awful weight.

Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  One of the burdens He lifts from us is the burden of guilt.  There is no escape from guilt until the penalty for wrongdoing has been paid in full.  Jesus settled that debt on the cross.  The sinless Son of God accepted full responsibility for everything you have done wrong.  The punishment that should be yours was inflicted upon Him.  Jesus chose to endure that suffering out of love for you.  Although your misbehavior angers God terribly, He still cares about you and wants you as a member of His eternal family.  Christ acted on that desire by taking your guilt and shouldering it Himself. 

You don’t have to carry the burden of guilt over your mistakes.  Just ask Jesus, and He will forgive your wrongdoing.  His loving mercy can give you rest.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

A world of evil

"So when you see standing in the holy place `the abomination that causes desolation,' spoken of through the prophet Daniel--let the reader understand--then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.  Let no one on the roof of his house go down to take anything out of the house.  Let no one in the field go back to get his cloak.  How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!  Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath.  For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now--and never to be equaled again.  If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened.  At that time if anyone says to you, `Look, here is the Christ!' or, `There he is!' do not believe it.  For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible.  See, I have told you ahead of time.

"So if anyone tells you, `There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, `Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it.  For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.  Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather"
(Matthew 24:15-28).

We spend huge amounts of money on national defense.  We have police cruisers on our city streets and state patrol cars traveling our highways.  Every county has a courthouse, lawyers, and judges.   If you watch TV for entertainment, a large number of shows are about law and order, and commercials urge you to buy electronic protection for your house.  Children play with toy guns, or shoot bad guys in video games. 

Why do we need guns and lawyers and judges?  Because the world is very evil.  Islamic extremists teach young Muslims to become suicide bombers.  Criminals peddle drugs and murder anyone who tries to stop them.  South of the border, people are frequently kidnapped and held for ransom; in our country, kidnap victims are usually abused and killed.  Big time financiers get rich at the expense of the little guy.  Shoplifting and insurance scams drive up everyone’s cost of doing business.  Life is a rat race, and it’s clear that the rats are winning.

Jesus warned that the last days would be terrible.  He said that the world would experience a level of distress unequaled in history.  What causes such distress?  Unbridled sin. 

God gave us rules to live by.  These rules included commands like respect your parents, don’t hurt people, keep your promises, don’t steal, tell the truth, and be content with what you have.  But with each passing year, God’s laws are increasingly ignored.  We live in a world where ‘freedom of speech’ is used to defend pornography.  Tiny humans, newly created by God, are aborted because women have a ‘right to choose.’  Prejudice and discrimination often go unpunished.  Energy and natural resources are consumed and wasted like there’s no tomorrow.  Marriage is no longer one man and one woman, together forever—now divorce is common, same-sex marriage is becoming legal, and living together is the norm.  People are willing to consider mercy killing for the chronically ill.  The Internet is full of gossip, bullying, and hate.  Our political parties would rather point fingers at each other than work together.  Outward appearance and personal wealth have become the way to measure self-worth.

The entire world is very evil.  Some countries embrace capitalism, even though it rewards the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor and weak.  Others prefer socialism or even communism, even though such governments end up mismanaging their national assets.  There are countries where children are exploited for cheap labor or sex.  There are nations that harbor terrorists, allowing a small minority to rule the masses with threats of violence.  Some countries have legalized prostitution and decriminalized the use of recreational drugs. 

All of this creates distress.  People suffer from addiction, loss of privacy, betrayal, worry, abuse, and anger at injustice.  Yet so much of it is accepted as normal or is tolerated instead of punished. 

Sadly, the same “rights” that allow sin to flourish are used to restrict the work of Gospel outreach.  In many places, you can be convicted of a hate crime if you speak out against homosexuality.  The constitutional separation of Church and State is wrongly used to keep prayer out of schools, the 10 Commandments out of courthouses, and manger scenes out of city parks.  Freedom of Speech protects those who make fun of Jesus in comedy routines, movies, and poorly researched books.  Educators are required to teach the theory of evolution but may not mention creationism or Intelligent Design.  “The Land of the Free” has been perverted into the “Land where you are Free to Sin.”

It’s a worldwide problem.  Only 1/3 of the earth’s population identify themselves as Christian, and many of them are Christian in name only.  How many Christians do you know who worship in church regularly, talk about their faith in Jesus, or try to live according to God’s laws?  Many people say they are Christians, but their hearts are far from Jesus.

All things considered, it sure looks like the End Times are now.  We have more and more people turning to drugs or suicide because of failed relationships, chronic health problems, unmet goals, or a general lack of self-worth.  Jesus said that there would be false prophets.  We have false prophets.  There faith healers who take responsibility for miraculous cures.  There are psychics who claim to speak with the dead.  There are astrologers who say that their horoscopes can predict the future.  Scientists can do things that seem to make religion unimportant—test tube babies, cloning, stem cell therapy, hand held phones that can let you talk with people on the other side of the world.  For many, science has become their god, promising us an easy and pleasant future if we would just relax those foolish moral regulations that get in the way of research.

According to Jesus, our world is nearly dead, and the vultures are growing bold.  Why does He describe our world as lifeless?  It’s because, without Jesus, we have no life.  In Ephesians Paul wrote, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.  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).  As sin increases and the followers of Christ become harder to find, the earth crumbles into a spiritual wasteland filled with the dead and the dying.

Satan feasts on the carcass of our world.  We weaken laws to make it easier for criminals to escape justice, and Satan feeds.  We pass laws that limit how and where the Gospel can be shared, and Satan grows fat.  Like vultures, demons circle unbelievers waiting for them to drop, weakened by spiritual hunger and thirst.  Their wings rustle in the wind, sending whispers of despair: “everything is pointless.  Find whatever enjoyment you can before your time runs out.”  Those who listen stop trying to love anyone but themselves.  They start to think of other people as tools to be used or obstacles to be overcome.  As the demonic vultures draw closer, people become desperate to squeeze every ounce of pleasure from life that they can, heedless of the consequences.

Why did Jesus tell us about such a depressing future?  He’s urging us to place our trust in Him.  He knows what’s coming.  He can protect and guide us so that we’re not overcome.  He offers us weapons and body armor; Paul writes, put on every piece of God's armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil…Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God's righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.  In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil.  Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians chapter six).  Hebrews chapter 13 reminds us that God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."  So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid."  In Revelation chapter two, Jesus gives us this promise: Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.  Our Lord reassures us that the terrible stress of the Last Days will be cut short for our sake.  He promises that there will be an end to evil and suffering, so we can face these days with hope. 

Jesus said, "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). Jesus did this by living differently than us—He endured everything that Satan and a sinful world threw at Him, yet He never stopped trusting God, never gave in to temptation.  He used the same tools that He gives to us.  When He was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, Jesus only needed the word of God to withstand the devil’s attacks.  When Jesus went to Gethsemane to prepare for His crucifixion, all He needed was prayer to set His heart at ease.  Of course, we often use these tools incorrectly or not at all, so Jesus had to step in front of us and take the battle damage on Himself.  The wounds inflicted by our sins took Jesus down into death, but His dying preserved our lives.  Then He rose from the dead, rose to give us the same eternal life that pulses in His veins.  With Jesus as our strength and our shield, evil cannot destroy us.

If we welcome Jesus into our hearts, His presence will guide and support us in doing God’s will. Philippians chapter two says, it is God who works in you, to will and to act according to his good purpose.  God never breaks a promise—He promises to punish sin, and He promises to give eternal life to His children adopted through Christ.  This gives us hope that things will get better.  So when the evils of the world get you down, turn to God.  Let Him speak to you through the Bible.  Speak to Him through your prayers.  These are the tools that Jesus used to withstand temptation and fear.  If you use them, you will find sanctuary, you will experience relief, and you will get recharged to face the world with confidence, no matter how ugly or dark things get.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Why do you go to church? (part four)

Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior (Psalm 25:5).

Why do you go to church?  I hope that it’s because you want to know the truth.  The truth is something solid you can cling to when emotions tug you this way and that.  The truth gives you confidence when you are confronted with falsehood and things that don’t make any sense.  The truth provides security because knowledge is power.

Jesus said, the truth will set you free (John 8:32).  What is the truth?  That we are God’s children, ruined by sin but forgiven by Jesus.  What does the truth free us from?  The guilt of wrongdoing and God’s punishment in hell.  This truth has power—power to change lives from a wasteful pursuit of self-gratification to lives that honor God and serve one another in love. 

Religion is about seeking the truth.  The truth can make you feel good, but not always—we don’t enjoy being told that we are sinners who make God angry, but there is joy in knowing the forgiveness made possible by Jesus on the cross.  The truth tells us much, but it doesn’t answer every question—we wonder why God did this or allowed that to happen, but ultimately we know enough to trust in His power and wisdom, His love and His kindness.  The truth feeds our need for a connection with the divine, even though we sometimes struggle to understand what the Lord says to us—thankfully, despite our limited ability to absorb and process heavenly truths, God makes sure that His message of salvation speaks clearly to all who listen with an open mind. 

Truth does not change, regardless of how you feel about it.  Truth remains true, whether you fully understand it or not.  Our world is covered with a slippery mud of lies and ever-changing stories; truth reveals the God who does not change, whose promises can be depended on, whose love and mercy offer peace and security. 

Musician Peter Schikele once said, “Truth is truth—you can’t have opinions abut truth.”  Of course, people constantly argue about who is telling the truth.  We need an unimpeachable source of truth, and that person is Christ Jesus, the only Son of God.  He said, I am the way and the truth and the life (John 14:6).  Through Jesus we have access to the truth that sets us free.  This reason, first and foremost, is why you should go to church. 

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Why do you go to church? (part three)

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path (Psalm 119:105).

Why do you go to church?

Some people go to church because they hunger for a spiritual dimension to their lives.  They want to experience closeness to God.  They crave reassurance that good will triumph over evil.  They want encouragement to do the right thing for the right reason.  They want to feel secure in a world that is often quite threatening.

But what happens when church doesn’t provide a deeply spiritual experience?  How do such people react when the preacher’s message deals with technical points of religious teaching?  What happens when time in worship fails to inspire them?  If these kinds of things happen too often, will they leave the church and seek closeness to God in some other way?

We are spiritual beings. We want to know that God loves us and approves of our behavior. We want to know that our lives have purpose.  We want to be confident that God will make everything work out for the best.  Sadly, we don’t have a lot of patience for schooling.  We prefer ease and pleasure over work and putting in effort.  We want to know God, but is it really necessary to study the Bible?  Can’t I just meditate under the morning sun and experience God by enjoying His beautiful creation?  But here’s the thing: you can’t find out what God is thinking by watching the sun come up.  You can’t discover what’s in His heart unless you listen to what He says.  God speaks to us through Jesus, and the only place His words are recorded are the pages of Holy Scripture. Our Lord has a lot that He wants you to know, and His instruction is worthy of your time.

God made us spiritual beings.  Tragically, sin has gotten between us and our Creator.  Sin weakens our desire for a close relationship with the Almighty, letting us be satisfied with a relationship that is only superficial. If you truly love someone, you want to know everything about them; the same applies to your relationship with the LORD.  Time in church should give you an experience of being in the Presence of the Divine, but it should also help you to understand Him better; worship is about growing closer to God by learning more of Him through the teaching of His beloved Son.

Sunday, November 04, 2012

God's future for the saints

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, "Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb."  And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.  It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal…

I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.  The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp.  The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.  On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.  The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.  Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.

Then 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 down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him.  They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever
(Revelation 21-22).

On All Saints’ Day, we fix our eyes on the future.  We remember our loved ones who died in the faith, and we look forward with eagerness to the day when we will see them again.  That reunion will occur in heaven when we die; the angels of the Lord will gently scoop us up in their arms and deliver us to Jesus, who has opened heaven's gates and waits for our arrival with outstretched arms and a welcoming smile.

But heaven is not our final destination.  When Christ returns in glory, all the dead will rise for judgment.  Satan and his followers will be sent away to God’s eternal prison.  The earth will be scoured clean by fire; all trace of evil will be destroyed.  Then God will remake this world into the paradise that it was in the beginning, and we will finally experience heaven on earth. 

What will that future life be like?  In the last chapters of Revelation, Saint John is allowed a glimpse.  He struggles to help us understand what he saw, but no human words can do justice to the sight.  Nevertheless, let’s reflect on John’s Revelation and see what we can learn about our eternal home with God and each other.

The angel said Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.  The Lamb, of course, refers to Jesus.  Back in the time of Moses, God sent an angel of death to punish the Egyptians who were holding the Israelites in slavery.  Moses told the Israelites how to protect their homes—they were to select a lamb without spot or blemish, kill it, and paint their front doorway with the lamb’s blood.  When the angel of death saw the lamb’s blood he passed over that home, sparing those inside.  Through this ritual, God taught His people that the only way to avoid death was to trust in the blood of the perfect lamb.

God was teaching the Israelites about Jesus.  When our Lord began His ministry centuries later, John the Baptist pointed to Him and said Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29) Jesus is the perfect lamb.  He is perfect because He never committed any sin.  He behaved like a lamb when it came time for Him to die; Isaiah wrote (chapter 53) He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.  Jesus was innocent, yet He was treated like a criminal.  He assumed responsibility for our sins and was put to death for them; He did this willingly, offering no word of protest.  When Jesus died, the punishment for our sins died with Him.  He is the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world!

The Lamb of God suffered and died because He loves us.  God’s Son loves us with an everlasting love, a love that appreciates us despite our weaknesses and mistakes.  He did not have to commit Himself to our welfare—rather, He chose to make that commitment, just as a husband who loves his bride chooses to seal that love through the commitment of marriage.  The Lamb of God chooses us to be His bride, and when we are finally all together in the same place, it will be time for a wedding celebration like you’ve never experienced!  Jesus said, The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son (Matthew 22:2).  The Son is Jesus, and God the Father is preparing the banquet for us even now.  Isaiah describes what’s on the menu: On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever (chapter 25).  Talk about something worth celebrating!

John goes on: [the angel] carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.  This is not the Jerusalem of Israel today, a city divided between Jews, Christians and Muslims, most of whom hate each other.  This is the perfect Jerusalem, the capitol city of God’s eternal kingdom.  This is the city Abraham looked forward to; Hebrews chapter 11 says that he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God

A capitol is different from other cities.  Wherever you go in town, you can always see the capitol building; even miles out on the highway, your eyes are still drawn to the seat of power.  So it is with God’s capitol, the New Jerusalem.  It will be the center point of our attention.  Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God’s presence and rule will always be clear to us. 

John writes, the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.  For centuries, followers of Christ have honored Him with works of beauty—music and art, poetry and sculpture.  The Vatican is filled with masterpieces designed to honor God and the Lamb.  But the New Jerusalem will outstrip any art gallery or concert hall; it will be filled with the best that a grateful and joyous world can offer to the King of heaven and earth.

This city will be like nothing we’ve ever experienced.  Our cities are dirty, congested, noisy and riddled with crime.  Not so the New Jerusalem.  John describes it this way: its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.  Clean air, sparkling with light, a bright and cheerful place that is gorgeous to look at.  A place that is free of crime: Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful.  With our sins taken away by Jesus’ blood, we won’t be tempted to lie or cheat, to argue or fight, to show prejudice or jealousy.  The dream of a perfect society will at last come true.

In ancient times, cities were built with walls and gates.  At night the gates were closed to protect the residents from criminals and wild animals.  Although we don’t build such walls today, we still have policemen roaming the streets, and some wealthy citizens live in ‘gated communities.’   But gates and police won’t be necessary in God’s holy city.  The future earth will be a perfect place that is perfectly safe.  Wild animals will not be a problem; through Isaiah God says, The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD (chapter 11).  Nor will there be criminals or terrorists; Revelation chapter 20 says, If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.  No one who chooses sin over Jesus will have life in God’s eternal kingdom.

In order to be a citizen, you must have your name recorded in the Book of Life.  Jesus is the author of life; it is He who records our names in the Book.  Jesus said, Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be (John 12:26).  He also said, He who overcomes will…be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life (Revelation 3:5)

Jesus promises eternal life in paradise to those who reject sin and follow Him.  Sadly, none of us is that good—we constantly take our eyes off of Jesus so we can focus on sinful things.  This is why we need Christ; we’ve got to have His forgiveness or we’ll never be clean enough to enter God’s spotless home. We are supposed to walk the way of righteousness but we always end up stumbling into the ditch; thankfully, Jesus continually picks us up, dusts us off, and leads us by the hand. Paul writes, it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).

John says, No longer will there be any curse.  This refers back to the Garden of Eden.  Because Adam and Eve broke God’s law, God cursed them with hard labor and certain death.  But when God remakes this world in perfection, the curse will be lifted.  The wages of sin is death, Paul wrote in Romans, but in a world without sin there will be no more death.  God says, There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Revelation 21:4)

Agriculture will be transformed.  Part of the curse affected our ability to grow food; the earth started producing thorns and thistles, and work was both hard and sweaty.  With the curse gone, raising food will be easy.  The curse also cut people off from the Tree of Life, a special tree whose fruit prevented aging and death.  With the curse lifted, we will be able to eat from that miraculous tree.  It will yield its fruit every month year round, a never-depleted source of health.  And its leaves provide healing for all—there will be no more diabetes, no more blindness, no more cancer.  When we eat from the Tree of Life, God’s power will correct all the damage sin has inflicted upon our bodies.  For the first time we will be perfect, both spiritually and physically.

Don’t worry—we’re not going to lay around and get chubby.  John writes, his servants will serve him.  Adam and Eve had work to do in the Garden of God, and we will be busy too—busy doing work that is satisfying because it serves the Lord.  We’ll never have to work in the dark, because the glory of God will give us perfect light, light that nourishes body and soul yet doesn’t damage the skin or the eyes.  That light will not be blinding; for the first time we will be able to see God’s face and not be destroyed like a moth that gets too close to the flame. 

And there will be water there—water that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb.  This is the Water of Life that Jesus spoke of to a woman at Jacob’s well: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but 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 4:13-14).  This is the Water of Life that flowed from Jesus’ side when He died on the cross: one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water (John 19:34).  In Revelation chapter 21 Jesus said, To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son

Jesus is our source of life—life that lasts forever.  Because of Him we have hope for rejoining our loved ones in paradise, never having to say goodbye to them again.  Because of Him we have something to look forward to so that when death comes knocking, we don’t have to back away in fear.  Jesus is our Savior today and our hope for tomorrow. 

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Christians and the election

Submit yourselves for the Lord's sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.  For it is God's will that, by doing good, you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.  Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God.  Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king (1 Peter 2:13-17).

Election Day is just around the corner.  By now, you’re probably sick of all the campaign advertising—signs along the street, phone calls while you’re eating, endless commercials on TV and the radio.  And the commercials are so negative—instead of laying out their credentials and accomplishments, most candidates devote their time to running down the opposition. 

Our political system is terribly polarized.  The political parties would rather point fingers at each other than work together.  They want you to be afraid—afraid that if you vote for the wrong person, our future will go down in flames.  But this fear mongering only hurts the process; many people become so discouraged that they don’t end up voting for anybody; they just try to ignore what happens in government.

My friends, we have an obligation to vote.  We have an obligation to vote wisely.  In the Bible, God tells us to obey the government.  Paul writes, Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established (Romans 13:1).  But what if that government is corrupt?  What if the government is run by people who do not love or respect the King of the Universe?  Paul goes on to say, The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.  Jesus submitted to the authority of Pontius Pilate, even though Pilate was a godless, evil man. Pilate said, "Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?" Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above" (John 19:10-11).

God wants us to respect corrupt government?  Think of it this way.  God expects us to honor the holy estate of marriage.  There are a lot of terrible husbands and wives; there are a lot of marriages that are dysfunctional and wind up in divorce court.  Yet in spite of this, we don’t sneer at marriage as if it is something worthless.  The union of husband and wife is a gift from God, even when we spoil it with our bad behavior.  So it is with government.  The Lord gives us government to make life better, even though we often subvert its God-given purpose.  God demands that we respect the government, even when it is flawed. 

God expects us to obey the law and respect our lawmakers.  Civil disobedience is only permitted when human law tells us to break God’s Law.  This happened to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Babylon; when the king ordered them to kneel and worship his statue, they said we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up (Daniel 3:18).  It happened to the apostles in Jerusalem; when they were ordered to stop preaching about Jesus, Peter replied we must obey God rather than men!  (Acts 5:29)  It happened to the early Christians living in the Roman Empire; when the emperor demanded that they pray to him as a god, they refused.  It happened to Martin Luther in Germany; when the king told him to admit that his teachings were wrong, Luther replied "Unless I shall be convinced by the testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear reason ... I neither can nor will make any retraction…Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise.  God help me!  Amen.”

Although there are times when we must oppose the government, doing so comes with great danger.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were thrown into a fiery furnace.  The apostles were repeatedly jailed, beaten, and eventually executed.  Early Christians were convicted as traitors to the Roman Empire.  Luther was branded an outlaw and lived for many years in hiding. 

But conflict between Christians and their government does not have to happen here in America.  God has placed us in a country where we can influence what happens in Washington.  We can choose who serves in public office.  We can change our laws through referendums and initiated measures.  We can shape our government into one that serves the Lord.

This kind of shaping requires that we do some work.  We need to familiarize ourselves with the candidates.  What issues are important to them?  What positions are they willing to negotiate on?  Do they keep their promises?  Do they take responsibility for their actions, or are they quick to point the finger of blame at someone else? 

As a Christian, how do you choose the best candidate?  Let’s use the race for the White House as an example.  One candidate is black, the other is white. But that should make no difference--prejudice has no place in the heart of a Christian.  Both are faithful husbands and devoted fathers.  Both men care deeply about the future of America, even if they don't agree on how that future is best served.

A good candidate should be able to inspire confidence.  A good candidate should be free from the taint of scandal.  A good candidate should make decisions that uphold the law, yet works hard to change laws that need to be overhauled.  A good candidate should work with allies and opponents to find common ground, but never compromise when it comes down to a choice between God’s law and human law.  A good candidate should stay calm during a crisis and avoid impulsive decisions.

Of course, no candidate is perfect.  Like us, they are sinners who misunderstand God’s will and let Satan influence many of their decisions.  Paul writes, there is no difference, for all have sinned (Romans 3:22).  Politicians often give in to temptation; they abuse their office for personal satisfaction.  We behave the same way; we steal things or dabble with extra-marital sex if it seems like we can get away with it.  Politicians need votes, so they turn a blind eye to many immoral things around them.  We behave the same way; we put up with all sorts of bad behavior so that we can be popular with others.  Politicians break campaign promises in order to make deals.  We behave the same way; we make promises that we can’t keep or don’t intend to keep.  Politicians play fast and loose with the truth; sometimes they lie, other times they twist the truth so much that you can hardly recognize it.  We behave the same way; we tell lies to escape responsibility for our actions, we spin the truth to make ourselves look good. 

This is why Jesus came into our world.  Jesus does not abuse His authority; He said the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).  Jesus does not ignore our sins, He confronts us and demands that we take responsibility for our actions.  John writes, If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).  Jesus never goes back on His word; you can count on His promises to help you through life.  Peter writes, he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires (2 Peter 1:4).  And Jesus never lies; He said everyone on the side of truth listens to me (John 18:37).  We are not perfect; no candidate for office is perfect.  But thanks to Jesus, we are forgiven our mistakes and have the promise of help to do God’s will.

We also need to study the issues.  Don’t wait until Election Day to read complicated ballot measures.  The Secretary of State publishes explanations that are available at the courthouse.  You can read different opinions about them in newspapers and on the Internet.  Decide how you’re going to vote before going to your polling place.

As a Christian, how do you decide which measures deserve your support and which should be defeated?  Look to the Word of God!  Does the measure hold people accountable for their actions, or does it contain loopholes?  Does the measure encourage respect for everyone, or does it benefit some at the expense of others?  Does the measure make it easier to proclaim God’s Word to people who are dying in sin, or does it restrict Gospel outreach?  Does the measure honor God’s gift of life, or does it sanction death?  Is the measure concerned with what is best, or with what is easiest?

Don’t let fear keep you away from the polls.  No matter how the voting goes, we will have an imperfect government that is staffed with imperfect men and women.  But the future is not in their hands—the future is in God’s hands!  That is why you don’t have to be afraid. God has said, "I will never leave you; I will never turn my back on you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid" (Hebrews 13:5-6).  Jesus said, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).  Paul writes, we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  Pray and cast your vote, then go home with confidence that everything is in God’s loving and mighty hands.

On Election Day, you have an obligation.  Vote to align human laws with God’s laws.  Vote to give a better tomorrow to your children.  Vote for the sake of unbelievers who need to experience the Word of God in their lives.  Use your vote to honor the King of the Universe here in the Land of the Free.

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