Saturday, December 29, 2012

The absolute best Christmas of all!

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ.  Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (Luke 2:25-32).

In a Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz, Lucy throws up her hands in despair and cries, “For months we looked forward to Christmas.  We couldn’t wait till it came, and now it’s all over!”

Radio stations have been playing Christmas music since Thanksgiving.  Stores had Christmas displays out before Halloween.  Many people put up their lights before the temperature dips below freezing.  Some even buy their presents a year in advance, during the sales that follow Christmas.

How long have you been looking forward to Christmas?  And what were your expectations for the holidays?  Did you get all the presents you were hoping to?  Did you manage to get together with all your friends and relatives?  Or did this Christmas leave you feeling a little let down?  Were there some people that you didn’t hear from?  Did you open any gifts that were odd or disappointing?  Did the weather or scheduling problems interfere with travel plans?  After weeks and months of build up, how do you feel now that Christmas is over?

Christmas comes around every year.  It can seem like a long wait for December 25th to arrive, but most people get to celebrate several dozen Christmases over the span of a lifetime.   Yet those twelve months of waiting can build your expectations to the point that, as Christmas gets close, you can barely wait for it to arrive.

Imagine if Christmas only came once, and you had to wait your whole life for it.  How excited would you be when that special holiday finally arrived?  How bitterly disappointed would you be if that one and only Christmas fell short of expectations?  How would you feel the week after you celebrated that once in a lifetime special event?

This was the situation for Simeon.  The Holy Spirit had told him that he would not die until he saw the Christ of God arrive on earth.  Simeon was promised one Christmas only—the very first Christmas, when our Lord Jesus was born. 

Simeon waited his entire life for Christmas to arrive.  He didn’t know when it would take place—there was no date circled on the calendar.  Each morning when he woke up, he must have wondered ‘will Christ arrive today?’  Day after day, month after month, year after year went by, each day starting with the same question.  How would you handle the wondering, the expectation, the wait?

But one morning was different.  On that most special day, the Holy Spirit prompted Simeon to go to the temple.  There he found a carpenter from Nazareth, his young wife, and a baby that was eight days old.  The parents had brought their child to be circumcised, a rite of dedication that made children members of God’s chosen people.  

As soon as he laid eyes on baby, Simeon knew that this boy was special, different from all other children.  For the first time in his life, Simeon looked at a human being who was perfect—the Christ child had no taint of evil disfiguring His soul.  All human beings are conceived and born sinful.  But Jesus was different—His father was God.  Mary was a virgin—her child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Of all the boys and girls throughout history, Jesus alone was perfect.  Enabled by the Holy Spirit, Simeon immediately saw the difference.

This was the moment Simeon had waited a lifetime for.  He approached Mary and Joseph, and with their surprised consent took the baby Jesus in his arms.  Did Simeon have words of praise practiced and ready for this momentous occasion, or did he make them up on the spot?  We don’t know, but imagine the huge smile on his face as he gave praise to God: "Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." 

That day in the temple was the high point of Simeon’s life.  He said, now dismiss your servant in peace.  Simeon was ready to leave this life; he had seen God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life with his own two eyes, held it in his own two hands.  Anything else that life could offer paled in comparison.  Simeon had experienced the first and best Christmas, and he could now die happy.

Think about Simeon’s one and only Christmas.  No cards.  No lights.  No music.  No parties.  No gifts.  The only thing that he wanted out of Christmas was to spend time with Christ.  And that single thing was worth waiting a lifetime for.

Simeon puts Christmas into perspective for us.  Decorations are nice to look at.  Carols are fun to sing.  We like spending time together with our friends and family.  And who doesn’t enjoy getting presents?  But these things don’t define Christmas.  You get presents on your birthday.  You can see your relatives and friends at family and school reunions.  You can decorate your house for any number of different holidays.  But Christmas has one thing that is special—it has the Christ child.

Birthdays are nice—but let’s face it, as we get older they lose some of their charm.  Holidays are important—it’s good to remember those who made sacrifices in the past, and give thanks for all the good things that we have today.  But Christmas draws our attention towards heaven and the God who lives there.  Christmas reminds us how much we need the Lord in our lives.  Christmas assures us of His love.

God is holy.  He is light and truth, power and justice, wisdom and love.  He is the source and pattern for everything good.  As such, He both attracts and repels us.  He attracts us because we hunger for the good things He gives.  But He repels us, because we are badly flawed and resent His demands to be holy.  We are filled with a love for darkness, and it pains us to look into God’s holy light.

Left to ourselves, life would be an exercise in futility.  We are sinners through and through.  We enjoy being selfish.  We are quick to hurt others, sometimes carelessly, other times deliberately.  And even when we try to do good, our efforts are flawed and sometimes backfire.  Life is a string of disappointments and wasted opportunities.  Worst of all, it ends with death and God’s punishment in hell.

Thankfully, God loves us—loves us so much that He sent His Son to come join us here on earth.  Jesus did not come to Lord it over us; He was not born in a palace or raised in the temple.  Jesus came to live with us.  He was born in a stable where shepherds dirty from the fields could come and worship Him.  He was raised as a carpenter, even though His hands shaped the universe at the Father’s command.  He walked dusty roads so the sick could feel His healing touch.  He taught in peoples’ homes, giving new hope to those lost in despair.   Jesus is our Immanuel, which means ‘God with us.’

Most important of all, Jesus was born so that He could die.  God is immortal; God cannot die.  Yet death is God’s curse on sin; in order to free us from the curse, God’s Son needed to die in our place.  And so Jesus was born of the virgin Mary.  The Son of God took shape as a baby and grew to manhood, the one and only perfect man in a very imperfect world.  People were attracted to Him and repelled by Him.  Some loved Him and wanted to follow in His steps; others hated Him and everything He represented.  But God turned that hatred to a good end; that hatred led Jesus to the cross, where He suffered the hell and died the death that you and I deserve for sinning.  The Christ of God was born to die, but in dying He gave us the greatest gifts of all—forgiveness and eternal life.  Jesus rose from the grave, showing that His victory over sin and death is complete.  He lives to forgive our sins and lift our souls to join Him in heaven. 

This is God’s gift to us.  We do not earn it by living holy lives—we fall way short of that standard each and every day.  Jesus said, The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29).  The Lord wants us to give our trust to Jesus—trust that He is Immanuel, God with us.  Trust that He did die for our sins and rise from the grave.  Trust that He does love us, and forgives us when we admit that we’ve done wrong.  Trust that He will take us to heaven to live with Him there. 

The best Christmas present is Christ—but you must trust Him or the gift is of no value.  Suppose a child gives you a present; when you unwrap it, you find a piece of paper made to look like a check for a million dollars.  You smile and thank the youngster for the thought—but you would never dream of taking that check to the bank.  You don’t believe that it’s worth anything.

Jesus offers to pay off your debt of sin.  He offers you the deed to a mansion in heaven.  But if you don’t trust that what He offers is real, those promises won’t do you any good.  That’s why it’s so important to trust Jesus and take Him at His word.  Christ 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.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:16-18).

Simeon saw the Christ child, and held Him in his arms.  Yet the smile on Simeon’s face came from trust.  He trusted that Jesus was Immanuel, God with us—there was no visible proof to confirm it.  The Holy Spirit told Simeon that this child was the One, but Simeon could have responded, ‘yeah, right.’  But because He believed, Simeon’s first Christmas was so wonderful that He told God “I’m ready to go whenever You want me; I’ve seen the Savior, and I can die content.”

Christmas is over for another year.  Soon the decorations will come down and most of the gifts will be stuffed into closets.  But if you’re disappointed that the holiday season is winding down, remember the big smile on Simeon’s face.  For Him, the best part of Christmas was spending time with Christ.  You have that privilege all the time—through prayer and Bible study, worship and Holy Communion.  Jesus said, I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matthew 28:20).  He is Immanuel; in Christ, God is with us—always.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Time to renew old relationships

Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits (Psalm 103:2).

On New Year’s Eve, it is traditional to sing Auld Lang Syne.  The verses of this song go back to a Scottish poet named Robert Burns.  When Burns wrote the song in 1788, he said that his work was an adaptation of a much older folksong which had never been committed to paper. Auld Lang Syne became very popular in Scotland, and soon spread not only to England but around the world as well.

Most people only know the first verse, although there are several others that follow. The Scottish words Auld Lang Syne can be translated as “days gone by” or “old times.”  The opening verse poses a question: is it proper to let people you knew in the past to be forgotten?  The refrain says no—instead, let’s have a toast to honor their memory.  The rest of the song then reflects on happy times from days long ago.

Turning the calendar to January can come with a sigh of relief—a new year represents a fresh start.  This might be the year when you get a better job.  This might be the year when you graduate from school.  This might be the year when you meet the love of your life. 

But closing the book on the past isn’t always a good thing.  How many special people get left behind?  Are you still in touch with your very first best friend?  How often do you spend time with the people who stood up for your wedding?  Where do your aging parents fit into your busy schedule?  How often have you asked yourself the question, “whatever happened to…?”

I’d guess that there are many people from your past that are long forgotten or barely remembered.  Is the LORD God one of them?  Did you stop going to church years ago and never got back in the habit of worshiping?  Can you remember the last time you opened a Bible?  How long has it been since you turned off the TV and really focused on a thoughtful, heartfelt prayer to Jesus? 

A new year is upon us.  This is a wonderful time to renew old relationships—especially your relationship with Christ.  As the song says, don’t let old acquaintances be forgot.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas traditions

Test everything. Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).

The Christmas season has many traditions associated with it.  Trees and mistletoe.  Music and lights.  Santa and gifts. 

Unfortunately, many of these traditions have nothing to do with Jesus.  Christmas has almost become a secular holiday instead of a religious one.  There’s a lot of talk about honoring the 'spirit of the season', but what is that spirit, exactly?  Is it love?  Is it peace?  Is it generosity?  Or is it something more?

Paul tells us to test everything. Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil.  So let us test our holiday traditions and see if they are truly good.

Few Christmas traditions are more iconic than the Christmas Tree.  They are so much a part of the December scenery that some people do things to make their tree stand out from all the rest.  Trees decorated by theme, like all the ornaments being the same color and design.  Artificial trees are available in metallic silver, blue, and black.  You can even purchase an upside down tree—although I’m not sure how you would get garland to stay in place. 

For most people, the Christmas Tree showcases what they prize most in life.  Some ornaments honor major events like marriage or the birth of a child.  Some ornaments have been passed down from one generation to the next, making the tree a bridge to the past.  Some decorations reflect interests or hobbies.  Study a Christmas Tree and it can offer a glimpse into the soul of its owner.

But what does the Christmas Tree have to do with Jesus?  Evergreens do not grow in Bethlehem where Jesus was born.  Jews prized trees for shade, fruit, and wood—but they never cut one down for decorating the house.  It was the druids of Europe who attached religious significance to trees and mistletoe. 

Over the centuries, Christians have attached a godly message to the Christmas Tree.  After all, Jesus died on a tree—the tree of the cross.  In one of his sermons Peter said, we are witnesses of everything [Jesus] did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day (Acts 10:39-40).  Putting up a tree at Christmas reminds us why Jesus came to earth—He came to die for our sins. 

The fact that the tree is evergreen has significance, too.  Other trees seem to die during winter, but evergreens always have the color of life.  So it is with Jesus; He rose from the dead on the third day, never to die again.  He lives forever, and He promises eternal life for those who are grafted into Him by faith.  The evergreen reminds us that Jesus lives, and we will live with Him forever.

The Christmas Tree has a good message to give, and yet that message can be stripped away.  A tree of metal does not represent eternal life; it reflects our love of cold, hard money.  Even more important are the decorations.  If a tree showcases the things most important to you, then where is Jesus on the tree?  Do you have an angel at the top, like the angel who spoke to the shepherds?  Do you have a star at the top, like the star that led the magi to Bethlehem?  Do you have a manger scene under the tree, reminding everyone that God’s gift of His Son is the greatest gift of all?  A Christmas Tree is only good if it points our attention towards Christ—otherwise, it’s just a waste of floor space.

Another holiday tradition involves sending Christmas Cards.  Businesses send cards to show that they care about their customers.  Some families use Christmas Cards to stay in touch with distant friends and relatives.  Others attach cards to Christmas presents so you know who gave the gift. 

Of course, Mary did not send out birth announcements when Jesus was born.  The wise men did not bring greeting cards with their gifts.  But consider what the shepherds did; after they spent time with Jesus, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child (Luke 2:17).  The shepherds acted like living Christmas Cards, telling everyone they knew about God’s gift of a Savior. 

Christmas Cards are a great opportunity to share what we’ve seen and heard about Jesus—that He is God’s Son in a human body, come to bring us forgiveness and offer heavenly peace.  He is the light that dispels the darkness, the strength of the weak, the victor over Satan.  God wants you to spread the Good News of great joy, which is for all people!  At Christmas time, a well-written card can help you share the same wonderful news that the shepherds did. 

Sadly, most Christmas Cards fall short of the mark.  They don’t include Bible verses.  They don’t mention Jesus.  Such cards are worthless, a waste of the time and money it takes to send them.  Don’t settle for buying cards that are merely pretty or sentimental; keep looking until you find ones that proclaim Jesus as God’s gift to us!

For a lot of people—especially children—the best part of Christmas involves unwrapping presents.  We probably put more effort into gift selection than any other part of the holiday season.  We wrestle with finding the perfect gift, and scrounging up enough money to buy everything on our list.  Sometimes the day before Christmas becomes a mad dash to finish shopping and get everything wrapped.  And it can be crushing to see a gift opened and quickly set aside; giving a bad gift implies that we do not know our friend or relative as well as we should.

Most of the Christmas specials on TV suggest that Christmas is about love and generosity.  You show love by opening your wallet, whether it be to purchase a bunch of presents or donate to a charity.  It’s gotten so that most retailers depend on Christmas shopping in order to show a profit for the year.  And each January, millions of Americans see the impact of excess spending when they open their fat credit card statements.

What does gift giving have to do with Jesus?  Quite a bit, actually.  It all started with the debt we’ve incurred.  As sinners, we’ve wasted the time and goods that God has given us.  We waste time whining about things we don’t have.  We waste time on pleasures that distract us from God, family, and work.  We waste money on things that thrill us for a little while, then end up in a closet collecting dust.  We waste food by cooking too much and throwing leftovers away.  God gave us time and goods to use responsibly; everything we waste runs up a debt to God that we can never repay.  So the Lord sent Jesus to pay off our debt for us.  God’s Christmas gift is relief from debt—with our sins forgiven by Christ, we won’t be thrown into the debtor’s prison called hell. 

Jesus was the first Christmas gift, but He is not the only one mentioned in Holy Scripture.  Sometime later, wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem, bringing gifts to honor the new-born King—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  On the first Christmas, God gave us the gift of His Son; in response, the wise men showed their gratitude by giving the Lord their gift of time to go worship, and their gift of money to support God’s earthly family. 

We can and should learn from this.  The best Christmas gift is Jesus, period.  Wishing for church to get done so you can get home and tear open presents, shows that your priorities are wrong.  And consider the wise men—they did not give gifts to each other, they gave their gifts to God.  On Black Friday weekend this year, the average shopper spent over $398 on Christmas presents.  How many of them, do you suppose, will be giving God’s Church $398 this Christmas season? We should not be spending so much on gifts that the Church is shortchanged, or we end up wasting money by paying interest on a credit card bill.

At Christmas, you can’t talk about presents without conjuring up the image of Santa Claus.  The Santa myth started with a Christian man named Saint Nicholas who gave small gifts to needy children.  But Santa has morphed into the official spokesman for Christmas shopping; he has become a friend of children, a marketing tool for retailers, and a club for parents to use when the kids start misbehaving—“you better not shout, you better not cry.  Be good, for goodness’ sake.” 

What is truly disturbing about Santa is that, for many people, he has replaced Christ.  Think about it.  “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows when you’ve been bad or good.”  Doesn’t that sound like Jesus?  Santa comes to your home and leaves presents—but Scripture says, Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights (James 1:17).  Doesn’t Santa steal credit from God? 

I’ve seen ornaments that try to make Santa acceptable to Christians—they show him kneeling in prayer at Jesus’ manger.  But I’m not swayed by such a cheap attempt to have it both ways.  Jesus said, no one can serve two masters (Matthew 6:24).  In Isaiah chapter 42 God said, I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols.  The first commandment says, you shall have no other gods in place of me.  We should not be teaching children to write letters to Santa, we should be teaching them to pray to Jesus.

Paul said, test everything. Hold on to the good.  Avoid every kind of evil.  Christmas Trees can be good if you remember that they represent Jesus, His atoning death, and His offer of eternal life.  Christmas Cards can be good if they are used to share the shepherd’s story of a Savior born to bring us peace.  Christmas Presents can be good if we remember that all gifts come from God, and our own gift-giving shows Him proper gratitude.  But as for Santa? Test everything. Don’t let any Christmas tradition pull your focus away from the Babe of Bethlehem.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A surprising Christmas (conclusion)

The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).

Do you want to know something surprising about Christmas?  I’ll tell you something surprising—that Christmas should surprising at all.

When we purchase Christmas gifts, we go out of our way to keep what we bought secret until the gifts are unwrapped.  We enjoy the thrill of surprising others and being surprised ourselves.  It just doesn’t seem like much fun to know in advance what you’re getting. 

The Christmas event that changed the world two thousand years ago should not have been a surprise.  After all, God had promised a Savior all the way back in the Garden of Eden.  Under the canopy of those first trees, God warned the devil that a Messiah was coming who would crush the Old Serpent’s head.  That promise was repeated to Abraham when God told him through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed (Genesis 22:18).  The Messiah was promised over and over again throughout the centuries, and over time more and more detail was provided—where He would be born (Bethlehem in the land of Judah--Micah 5), His remarkable parentage (The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel--Isaiah 7), the wonders He would perform (Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy--Isaiah 35), and the death He would die to save us from eternal punishment (he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed--Isaiah 53).  Nothing about Jesus’ birth or the course of His life should have been a surprise to anyone.

Jesus was willing to endure poverty, dishonor, persecution and death—all to bring you to His side. That should be no surprise—not when you consider how much God loves each and every one of us, not when you see how much was predicted about Jesus before His arrival. The Son of God came to speak to us, speak words of forgiveness, words that promise never-ending life and happiness to those who are willing to listen.  That should not be surprising either.  The only thing really surprising about Christmas is the number of people who have no interest in the gifts offered by God through His Son.  Who wouldn’t want forgiveness and hope, peace and life, beautifully wrapped in a package of love?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A surprising Christmas (part 3)

Christ died for us while we were still sinners. This demonstrates God’s love for us (Romans 5:8).

Do you want to know something surprising about Christmas?  I’ll tell you something surprising—although we act as if Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year, it is really only a prologue to something much more significant.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—these four books tell the story of Jesus’ time on earth.  But did you realize only two of them tell us about Jesus’ birth?  Luke is the only one who tells us about Jesus’ birth in a stable; Luke is the only one who speaks of shepherds and choirs of angels.  Matthew just tells us about the coming of the wise men; Mark and John don’t describe Jesus’ birth at all.

It’s wonderful that the Son of God came to join us that long ago night in Bethlehem.  But Jesus came because He had important work to do, and while that work started in the City of David, it would not be completed until 33 years later in Jerusalem.  All four Gospel writers tell us about that.  Each of them gives great detail to Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, death and resurrection. 

Jesus was born so that He could die.  It was the only way that God could spare us from the punishment which our sins deserve.  The LORD Almighty is holy and righteous—there is no way He could let human wickedness go unpunished.  But at the same time, God loved us with an everlasting love, a love that was unwilling to consign us to hell if there were another way to satisfy justice.  Flouting God’s authority demands the ultimate penalty—death and damnation.  If we were to be spared, someone else would have to suffer and die in our place. 

It was decided that the Son of God would assume this responsibility for us.  But God is eternal—He cannot die.  So the Son of God was born as a human being—born so He could suffer and give up \His life for us.  On the cross, Jesus experienced the hell we had coming for our wickedness; on the cross, the Son of God died so we might live forever. 

The amazing thing about Christmas is that it took place under the shadow of a future cross; God sent His Son to earth so He could die.  That’s how much God loves you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Herald the coming of Christ!

The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" -- "a voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.  John wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit"
(Mark 1:1-8).

If John the Baptist were alive today, I wonder how people would react to him?

John was a city boy, the only son of an elderly priest and his wife.  But John was something special; Jesus said, I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11).  God had appointed John for a very important task—he was to be herald to the Son of God.  A herald does two things.  First, he announces that someone very important is about to arrive.  Then he tells you how to ready yourself to meet this dignitary.  John was given the high honor of introducing Christ to the world.

The first job of a herald is to get peoples’ attention.  John did that in spades.  He abandoned modern fashion and dressed like prophets of long ago—he wore clothing made of camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist.  He went miles out into the countryside, away from the distractions of commerce, gossip, and politics.  He did not send runners into the city for fancy food; instead, he ate what was at hand—locusts and wild honey.  John’s appearance and lifestyle made him an oddity, and people were drawn to him out of curiosity. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him

John told his audience that someone special was coming soon. After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  This person was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He was the one Isaiah described as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (chapter 9).  He was God’s own Son, come down out of heaven to live among us on earth.  He was the King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16)

Such an important person deserves a respectful welcome. John’s second task was to make the people ready for Christ’s arrival.  So John preached about repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The people confessed their transgressions, and he baptized them in the Jordan River. 

It’s a matter of protocol.  Before you meet a king or president, you are told how to dress and how to behave.  Jesus is not impressed by pride or arrogance.  The Son of God is not interested in hearing lies or excuses.  Our Lord only wants to hear two things from us—that we are sorry for breaking God’s laws, and that we love Him wholeheartedly.  If we humble ourselves before Jesus, He will baptize us with the Holy Spirit, a washing that cleans away our sins and gives us faith in the Savior from heaven.  This is the message of John the Baptist.

Many people flocked to John—the crowds included merchants and farmers, soldiers and bureaucrats.  Some only saw John as a novelty.  Many took his words to heart, begged to be forgiven, and were baptized.  Some even attached themselves to him as disciples. 

But John had his share of enemies, too.  The religious establishment had no love for him; when they came to check him out, John said You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?  Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.  The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 3:7-10).  John was the son of a priest, and he knew first hand how much corruption infested the Temple staff.  He knew that many of the church leaders were more concerned with money and popularity and political influence than they were with saving souls from hell.  He knew that their focus was on earthly things, not on things above.  So he called them out—produce fruits in keeping with repentance. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they walked away from John’s baptism of repentance (Luke 7:30)

John was unapologetic—everyone sins, and everyone needs to repent and be forgiven.  And John’s outspokenness got him into trouble.  Herod was the hereditary king of Israel.  Although the Roman Empire ruled the country with an iron fist, they allowed Herod to have a palace and be a figurehead to keep the people happy.  King Herod fell in love with his sister-in-law, Herodias.  They both got divorced and married each other.  John denounced their behavior as sinful, a breaking of God’s marriage laws given through Moses. Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him. Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.  When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.   The king said to the girl, "Ask me for anything you want, and I'll give it to you"…She went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?"  "The head of John the Baptist," she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: "I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter." The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her.  So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John's head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother (Mark chapter six).

A tragic ending to John’s life.  But if he were alive today, I doubt that he would be treated any better.  John said, "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."  This message makes a lot of people uncomfortable, even angry.  Atheists complain that speaking about Jesus pushes unwanted religion down their throats.  They don’t want schools to have Christmas pageants; they don’t want manger scenes in public parks; they want merchants to sell holiday merchandise, not Christmas presents. 

Jews and Hindus and Muslims don’t like Jesus either.  Christians are persecuted, arrested, even beaten and executed for saying that Jesus is the only way to heaven.  And while America does not allow religious violence, people will call you bigoted, narrow-minded and unloving, if you dare suggest that followers of other religions are condemned unless forgiven by Jesus. 

John said repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near (Matthew 3:2).  But repentance is an unpopular message.  Try telling someone that his behavior needs to change, and see how far you’ll get.  Americans love their freedom, and resent any message that puts limits on their behavior.  People who point out sin for what it is are accused of being hateful and rigid.  Some are even dragged into court and prosecuted.  If you dare to label some behavior as sinful, you can expect retaliation.

The thing is, John’s message is absolutely essential for every human being.  We are all sinners; we anger God in more ways than can be counted.  We waste time.  We twist the truth to meet our needs.  We steal ideas and claim them as our own.  We treat marriage like a business venture.  We get a thrill from seeing people we don’t like getting hurt.  We ignore our parents, disobey our teachers, make fun of our political leaders.  We barely make time for prayer or Bible study or worship.  We act as if God is unimportant in our daily lives. 

We need to confess our sins and repent.  If we don’t, God’s anger will consume us forever.  And so we need Jesus.  He was born among us to die in our place.  He took full responsibility for our trespasses, and suffered the awful penalty that we deserved for them.  That is why Jesus came—to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10)We all, like sheep, have gone astray, Isaiah wrote in chapter 53; each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  Forgiveness is only available through the Christ of God; apart from Him, there is no way to achieve inner peace and eternal happiness.

You and I are blessed to know Jesus and have His living touch in every part of our lives.  But many people don’t share this blessing; they follow false gods; they might even think that no god exists at all.  Some of them believe that they can earn access to heaven by trying hard to be good; others don’t think that their lifestyle choices anger God in the slightest.  These folks need to hear the message of John the Baptist—yet sadly, many of them don’t want anything to do with it.

John was not afraid—he spoke loudly and with courage, confident that God’s truth will overcome lies and find a way into stubborn hearts.  After all, God said through Isaiah (chapter 55), The rain and snow come down from the heavens and stay on the ground to water the earth. They cause the grain to grow, producing seed for the farmer and bread for the hungry. It is the same with my word. I send it out, and it always produces fruit.  It will accomplish all I want it to, and it will prosper everywhere I send it.   Hebrews chapter four says that the word of God is living and active.  The only thing John worried about was speaking God’s word clearly to all who would listen.  He wanted the lost to be saved, and he spoke the truth they needed to hear without hesitation or apology.

John is a model to us all.  Especially at Christmas, we have all sorts of opportunities to invite people to church, send religious Christmas cards, and explain the reason for the season.  John was not afraid to be a herald for Jesus, and we must not be either—there’s far too much at stake for us to only say, “Happy Holidays.”

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A surprising Christmas (part 2)

Turn to the LORD…for He will freely pardon (Isaiah 55:7).

Do you want to know something surprising about Christmas?  I’ll tell you something surprising—the LORD God Almighty gives us gifts without expecting anything in exchange.

It’s amazing, yet it’s true—when the LORD blesses us with gifts, He does not demand anything in compensation.  This goes against everything we were raised to believe in.  If there’s anything experience teaches us, it’s that nothing comes without a price tag.  When your daughter cleans up her room for no apparent reason, you anticipate being approached for some kind of favor.  If you are invited to a wedding, it’s expected that you will bring a gift.  If your neighbor loans you his tools, you can bet that some day he’ll be knocking on your door, looking for help with a project.  When a gift or favor comes your way, you know that some kind of compensation will be expected.

What’s amazing about Christmas is that God provided the greatest gift of all, yet He demands nothing from us in return.  We don’t have a dollar amount that must be put into the collection plate.  We don’t have to volunteer a minimum number of hours to charity work.  God doesn’t tell us how often to be in church, how to dress for worship, or require that we serve on a committee. 

God demands nothing in repayment for the gift of His Son, because repayment is simply not possible.  Jesus came to save us because we are helpless to save ourselves.  Paul says, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ (Ephesians 2).  You were spiritually dead inside, until Jesus brought your soul back to life with His love and forgiveness.  A person whose heart stops beating cannot resuscitate himself—he is dead unless an EMT gets the heart beating again.  So it is with us—without Jesus taking hold of our hearts, we would helplessly face eternal death.  How do you repay someone for bringing you back to life?  You can’t—and Jesus doesn’t expect you to.  All that God expects of us is to repent and believe the Good News—that 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 (Mark 1:15, John 3:16).  That is an amazing gift, made all the more surprising because we don’t have to pay God back for it.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A surprising Christmas (part 1)

The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (Luke 19:10).

Do you want to know something surprising about Christmas?  I’ll tell you something surprising—God came to live in our world personally.

Why is this surprising?  Because God is holy and our world is anything but.  The LORD Almighty created earth to be a paradise, but our ancestors ruined things out of selfish desire.  As a result, the world is cursed—cursed with death and all the frustrating, miserable things that lead to death.  Disease and disability. Hatred and war. Chaos and decay. Discrimination and mistrust.  Severe weather and natural disasters.  All these problems were triggered by human sin.  The world is filled with darkness and pain because mankind tries to live without God.

Our rebellion against His authority angers God more than we can imagine.  Yet at the same time, the Maker of all things harbors a deep and committed love for the world and all who live in it.  So The LORD Almighty took steps to set things right—He sent His Son to live among us and fix the damage that we have caused.

We don’t appreciate how remarkable this act truly was.  God is holy—nothing sinful can survive in His glorious presence.  Moths that approach an open flame are quickly burned to death—in the same way, no sinner may approach God Almighty and survive the experience.  It is unthinkable that God would set foot on our sin-twisted world.  Yet that is exactly what He did in the person of Jesus Christ.

The Spirit of God made a young, unmarried woman pregnant—the child she bore was both Son of God and Son of Man.  Born with a human body, God’s holy Son could walk among us without destroying us.  In Christ, God became approachable—people who were tainted with evil could spend time with Him, learn from Him, and receive peace from Him.  The sick could find healing in His touch.  The children could find blessing in His arms. 

It is simply amazing that God would spend time in a world so corrupted by sin.  Yet His willingness to come here personally testifies to His great love for you and for me.  When you realize just how much God loves us, His arrival on earth is not surprising at all.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Spring cleaning for Christmas

Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall.  Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel?  For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32)

It’s almost Christmas.  Time to do our spring-cleaning!

Spring cleaning in December?  Yes, I typed that right.  It’s time to go through the closets, clean out the basement, empty the garage, and haul stuff down from the attic.  It’s time to fill garbage bags and drag them to the curb.  It’s time to straighten the pictures, dust the collectibles, and wash the fine china.  It’s time to scrub the floor and vacuum the rugs.  It’s time to check the fire extinguishers and smoke detectors.  It’s time to wash the windows and oil the door hinges.

Spring-cleaning is an awful lot of work—does preparing for Christmas have to be so demanding?  Sure, we’ll have guests over during the holidays, but there’s so much going on right now.  Isn’t it good enough to just shove things into the closet and deal with them later?  Once we get the decorations up, who’s going to notice the spider web in the corner?   We’d just as soon do the minimum to get by, give our homes a lick and a promise that we’ll clean more thoroughly come spring.

And yet Christmas brings us an important guest.  If the president of our country was coming to stay with you for the holidays, I guarantee that you would clean things up like you’ve never cleaned before.  If you were going to throw a party for a Hollywood celebrity, you’d make sure that no detail was overlooked.  But at Christmas, you are welcoming someone far more important than any politician or celebrity—you will be opening your home to Jesus Christ, the Son of God and King of the universe.  How much effort are you willing to make to get your home in order for His arrival?

I’m not talking about your house or your apartment.  I’m talking about your heart, the place that Jesus wants to be welcomed as a guest.  We are in Advent, the time of the year when we prepare for the Lord’s coming.  So I ask you—is December going to be your time to do a thorough spring-cleaning, or will you only offer God’s Son a lick and a promise? 

Spring-cleaning is a time to get rid of garbage.  It’s a time when you throw away the things that smell musty and open your home to the scent of fresh blooming flowers.  It’s a time when you eliminate clutter by separating the things you need from the things you don’t.  It’s a time when you wash the curtains and blinds so that light can fill your home.  It’s a time when you make sure that everything around the house is working as it should be, so you and your family members remain safe in an emergency.

So how does spring-cleaning compare to getting ready for Jesus’ arrival?  For one thing, it involves getting rid of everything in your life that smells musty or rotten.  Your life is made smelly by things like prejudice, jealousy, and pride.  You stink up the room when you act like a bully, complain when you don’t get your way, or stomp around with a big chip on your shoulder.  Mustiness comes from an unwillingness to change or try something new.  Mold grows on your soul when you are lazy or apathetic. 

Don’t embarrass yourself by offering Jesus a smelly heart to live in.  Open yourself to freshness.  Try different ways to improve your communication skills.  Change your routine; replace bad habits with good ones.  Pray to God’s Spirit for help in resisting temptation.  Make a point of smiling at everyone, especially when you’re feeling grumpy. 

It’s also important to deal with clutter.  Your life is filled with things, some important, others not.  Way too often, we let the trivial stuff distract us from what is truly important.  Playing sports instead of studying for tests.  Spending money on eating out instead of donating it to God’s church.  Working late instead of spending time with the family.  Our minds are cluttered too; we read things that distort or deny the truth which God reveals in the Bible, we watch shows that glorify sex and violence, we listen to jokes that tear down other people. 

A cluttered heart has little space for Jesus.  Take some of that clutter to the curb and let God haul it away.  Make time for prayer a part of your daily routine.  Develop a budget that puts God first, essential bills second, savings third, and frivolous spending last.  Do things as a family, especially eating meals together.  Read the Bible and good devotional literature.  Switch off the TV unless there is something on that’s worth watching.

You need light in order to see dirt; you cannot clean in the dark.  To see sin for what it is, you need the light of truth that shines from God.  The difference between right and wrong should be obvious, but lots of times it isn’t.  Sometimes we don’t want to see the truth because we like things the way they are.  Other times Satan tries to confuse the issue with a bunch of questions and half-truths.  We are somehow convinced that telling a lie is okay if it will spare another person’s feelings.  We rationalize that it’s okay to break a promise because we will do something later to make up for it. 

We turn on the lights to make our guests feel welcome.  In the same way, Jesus deserves a heart that is free of darkness.  Fill your heart with light by hearing God’s truth frequently.  Worship in church.  Have devotions together as a family.  Join a Bible study group.  Memorize verses from your Catechism. 

A thorough cleaning also involves safety checks and doing maintenance.  Have you evaluated your heart-health lately?  Do you get angry a lot?  Do you constantly worry about things going wrong?  Do you feel powerless or worthless?  Do you struggle with depression? 

We need good spiritual health.  When the soul is neglected or its health is taken for granted, problems grow as a result.  An engine needs regular lubrication to run properly.  An athlete needs a steady diet of nutritious food and lots of pure water.  Your soul needs the lubrication of forgiveness so old hurts do not make it seize up in pain.  Your soul needs the nourishment of Jesus’ body and blood that are offered through communion bread and wine.  Your soul needs the water of life that comes from Christ, the only water that gives new life beyond the grave.  Properly maintained, your soul will be strong and prepared for the challenges of earthly life.

Spring-cleaning is a lot of work.  And if you’re like me, it sounds like too much work.  I like a clean and tidy house, but I usually don’t have the ambition to get the job done.  Given a choice of how to spend the day, I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do than clean. 

We are spiritually lazy.  We know what God expects, but we don’t put in the effort necessary to please Him.  There are plenty of other things we would rather do; at the most we are willing to give our hearts a quick spit-shine and a promise to clean up more thoroughly later.  But that kind of haphazard tidying doesn’t pass muster with God.  He won’t accept anything less than perfection from us.  Our moral laziness makes Him angry, so angry that He will dump us into the cesspool of hell.

Our hearts are not fit places for Jesus to come and stay, yet in spite of that He comes to us anyway.  He came to earth to suffer and die, that we might be forgiven and live.  He comes to each of us through Word and Sacrament, opening our stubborn hearts with the key of faith.  He fills our darkness with His light, shows us what needs to be cleaned, and offers to help us with taking out the trash and mending what is broken.  By all rights, we should make our hearts a fit place for the Savior to come and stay, yet we need His help to make things suitable for His presence.

It’s almost Christmas.  Time to do your spring-cleaning!  Even though you have every reason to be ashamed, show your heart to Christ.  Ask Him to make it a place fit for the King of the universe.  Let Him haul away everything that needs to go.  Do this, that you might honor Him as the most important guest you will ever receive.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas 'quid pro quo'

A generous man will himself be blessed (Proverbs 22:9).

With Christmas coming up, we are urged to be generous in our giving.  But how often is our generosity tainted by selfishness?

You spend a lot of time or money getting a special gift.  You wait eagerly to see it opened.  Yet when the package is unwrapped, the recipient doesn’t light up with joy, doesn’t grab you in a grateful hug.  All you get is a mumbled ‘thanks’ as the opened box is laid to the side.  Do you feel angry and unappreciated?

You are exchanging gifts around the tree.  You made sure that everyone received several nice presents.  Yet when the last box has been opened, you only got a couple of gifts, and nothing that tickled your fancy.  Do you feel disappointed and shortchanged?

When we give, we usually want to be compensated in some way.  If you give your sweetie a present, you expect a gift in return, something that costs about the same as what you spent or demonstrates a similar amount of careful thought.  If you donate your time and energy to some event, you expect to be recognized and praised.  Although Christmas is supposed to be about generosity, our behavior is often governed by the principle of qid pro quo: I give to you and you give to me. 

When it comes to the first Christmas gift, there was no quid pro quo, no expectation of repayment.  The Son of God stepped into our dark and evil world as a man.  But Jesus was not just any man—He was the Messiah, the one sent by God to end sin’s tyranny over us.  The Christ of God would take responsibility for everything dark and terrible that the human race has dreamed up throughout the centuries; burdened with our crimes, He would suffer God’s punishment that, by rights, should be inflicted on us.  The Savior did this with no expectation of repayment. He knew that many would not appreciate His sacrifice.  He knew that those who were grateful could never pay Him back for the tremendous gift His suffering paid for—complete forgiveness and eternal life in God’s magnificent kingdom.  Yet although He would never get the kind of response He deserved from us, Jesus gave His life as a gift anyway—that is true generosity. I hope you bear that in mind when you are making plans for your gift giving.

Monday, December 03, 2012


Do to others as you would have them do to you (Matthew 7:12).

Whatever happened to courtesy?  We live in a time of Political Correctness, where the worst thing you can do is treat another person with even a hint of disrespect.  Yet we’ve seen members of the political left and right hurl nasty insults at each other.  Social media is filled with all kinds of cyber bullying.  Paparazzi invade the privacy of anyone who’s in the news, and won’t back off even if politely asked.  People with an ax to grind are willing to disrupt book signings and even funerals to make their point. 

When out shopping, I’m astonished at how children behave towards their parents.  I’ve seen kids hit adults and shout “I hate you” when they don’t get their way.  When I was young, such behavior was unthinkable—no child was allowed to show that kind of disrespect to an elder.  I’ve seen customers treat employees like dirt, being rude and demanding instead of patient and polite.  It never ceases to amaze me how shoppers are willing to block aisles while talking, bump others out of the way to grab a product off the shelf, or knock something down and just leave it there.  

Jesus said, Do to others as you would have them do to you.  The Lord gave us this rule because sin exerts a powerful influence on how we treat each other.  Children need to be trained in more than math and reading and science; children need to be taught politeness.  It is not in our nature to say please or thank you.  It is not in our nature to share or take turns.  These are skills that must be taught; these are behaviors that must be insisted on or they will not become habitual. And being a society of consumers only adds to the problem.  Employees are trained to behave as if the customer is always right.  Sadly, this allows shoppers to be rude and obnoxious without consequence or repercussion. 

I try to be courteous when dealing with others; as fellow children of God, they have a right to be treated with respect and kindness.  There are plenty of times when my behavior falls short of the mark, and I am thankful that Jesus is willing to forgive me.  But more often than not, my efforts at courtesy are rewarded with smiles of gratitude.  In all your conversations, try to show kindness and respect—after all, it’s how you want to be treated, I’m sure.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

A life of value and purpose

O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand (Isaiah 64:8).

So, what have you got planned for today?  Did you take something out for dinner, or are you going to eat out?  Is there a game on TV that you’re looking forward to, or do you have work to do around the house? 

What’s on your agenda for the next couple of weeks?  Christmas shopping?  Decorating the house?  A trip to spend time with relatives? 

Have you scheduled anything for 2013 yet?  Are you thinking about buying a new car or moving to a different home?  Have you thought about a job after you graduate?  Are you making plans for a wedding or a new child in the family? 

When I was growing up, Mom would have the menu for each evening meal planned a week in advance; that way, she only bought the groceries that we really needed.  While you might not make plans with that amount of detail, each of us does keep an eye on the future.  We buy insurance.  We put schedules for school events on the refrigerator.  We mark birthdays and anniversaries on our calendars.   We make reservations with airlines and hotels.  We set annual checkups for ourselves with doctors and for our pets with veterinarians. 

We make plans for the future.  Most of us don’t feel comfortable just living day to day.  We set goals and work to achieve them.  We set up contingency plans in case life throws us a curve ball.  We don’t like it when things change and force us to change as well.

And yet God’s prophet says, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter.  On the one hand, this statement is flattering; each of us has been personally shaped by God.  We can feel a sense of pride, knowing that He made us individually with His own two hands.  This makes each of us unique and special.

On the other hand, these words of Scripture can be troubling.  Each of us wants to find our own way, chart our own destiny.  But if God is the potter and we are the clay, our choices become limited.  A dinner plate won’t make a very good water pitcher.  A coffee cup won’t work well as a soap dish.  When a potter makes something out of clay, he gives it purpose by how he forms it.

We don’t like having restrictions placed on us.  We don’t like being told “you can’t do that.”  And a lot of the time, people have been right to push the boundaries.  Time was that women could not be firefighters.  When challenged in court, the people in charge of hiring said that women were not strong enough to do the job; firefighters must be able to carry an unconscious adult out of a burning building.  When a judge ruled that all people who wanted to be firefighters had to meet minimum guidelines for strength, it turned out that many women could pass the test, while some men could not.  Because someone pushed the boundaries, everyone benefited from better standards. 

But we have to accept the fact that each of us is limited.  Some are good at math, others are not.  Some are athletic, others are weak or clumsy.  Some are always thinking five moves ahead; others are easily distracted.  Not everyone is cut out to be a farmer or a fashion model, a teacher or a software designer.  Each of us is a unique blend of skills and natural ability.  Each of us can achieve many things, but none of us can do it all. 

In Ephesians chapter two Paul wrote, we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  God is like a potter working with soft and shapeless lumps of clay.  God designed each of us individually, making no two people alike.  He created us to fill different roles during our years on earth.  Paul says, It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11).  Some people have more glamorous jobs than others; some are allowed more creative freedom or receive better pay.  But everyone has a purpose here on earth.  1st Corinthians chapter 12 tells us, The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ…The body has many different parts, not just one part. If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything? But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it…If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad. The totality of all believers constitute Christ's body, and you are a part of it.

Sadly, some of us don’t want to be what God made us.  Some people undergo surgery and hormone therapy to try and change their gender.  Some insist on dating the kind of toxic people that always ruin a relationship.  Some people flounder from one failed job to another, constantly missing that one career that they’re perfect for.  One example is Lyman Frank Baum.  As a youth, Baum hated military school and did not finish it.  As a young adult, he dabbled in breeding fancy poultry.  After he married, he settled in Aberdeen SD where he opened a store that went bankrupt.  He then edited a newspaper that went out of business.  Moving to Chicago, he tried his hand at being a reporter and a traveling salesman.  Finally, in his mid-forties, Baum collaborated with an illustrator on a children’s book that changed his life.  That book, published 112 years ago, was The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.  It turns out that Baum’s God-given talent was entertaining children (and adults) with stories of whimsical fantasy. 

Through Jeremiah God told His people, I know the plans I have for you…They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). But so much of the time, we aren’t interested in God’s plans.  He tries to point us in the best direction, but we stubbornly insist on following a different path.  Isaiah makes this unflattering comparison: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Isaiah 53:6).  When we doggedly pursue a direction that God did not intend for us, is it any surprise that life becomes hard?

It is foolish to make plans without taking God into account.  Listen to what James had to say on the matter: Look here, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit." How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it's here a little while, then it's gone. What you ought to say is, "If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that." Otherwise you are boasting about your own plans, and all such boasting is evil (James 4:13-16)

Sometimes God gets in our way—He stops us from doing something that will result in great harm.  You’ve seen it happen—car trouble keeps a man alive, because it made him miss a flight that ended in a crash.  A woman gets a call from her mother that interrupts a suicide attempt.  But God does not always bail us out of our foolish behavior.  In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the young man squandered his inheritance on wild living; when he finally came to his senses, his father welcomed him home, but the money that he wasted was not replaced.  Although we are forgiven, sometimes God lets us deal with the consequences of our mistakes, making it a situation for us to learn from.

God is the potter, we are the clay.  There is much comfort in that idea. You have no reason to feel worthless; God does not make junk.  God designed you for a purpose; if life has been a string a failures, it just means that you haven’t discovered God’s purpose for you yet.  This casts a whole new light on calamity; when all your plans crash and burn, maybe God is clearing away the debris of your mistakes so you can start doing what you were made for.  Our plans may fail, but God’s plans do not.  We may be confused, but God always knows what is going on and what needs to happen next. 

We need to hear what God has to say and trust in Him.  We need Jesus to forgive us for being stubborn and unwilling to listen.  We need the Lord’s help to let go of the sinful things we love so we become open to God’s direction.  We need Jesus to lead us and to give us confidence that He knows what He is doing. 

This makes the Bible very important.  When you hear God’s Word spoken to you, or you read it for yourself, you are reminded over and over again how wise and powerful and loving God is.  The Bible is God’s book of wisdom for living in a morally confusing world.  The Bible is a record of God’s great power, power over storm and disease, over war and death.  And the Bible shows us God’s love through His Son Jesus, who was willing to die that we might live eternally in paradise.

Jesus never promised that life would be easy.  But we don’t have to be like salmon struggling to swim upstream in order to lay their eggs.  God is the potter, and you are the clay that He has given purpose through careful shaping.  Life can be so much easier if you stop trying to set your own course and let God take control.  Study the Bible, His handbook for life.  Pray for guidance.  Let Jesus put you to work doing the work God designed you to do.  You’ll be happy that you did.

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