Thursday, January 31, 2013


I saw Satan fall (Luke 10:18).

When you watch an old Western, there is usually a powerful bad guy that is making everyone’s lives miserable.  He might be a cattleman who sends rustlers to put his competition out of business.  He might be a land baron who forces settlers off their farms.  He might be a banker who forecloses on widows with children.  He might be a railroad tycoon who kills any Native Americans who stand in the way of progress. 

The main bad guy seems untouchable.  He might appear to be honest, all of his crooked dealings taking place under the table.  He might have the sheriff or judge in his pocket, neutered through bribes or blackmail.  He might have a gang of toughs at his disposal, or a specialist who can make problems quietly disappear.  In any event, the townsfolk are helpless to stand against him without some highly skilled outside help.

The devil is such a bad guy.  He makes everyone’s life miserable.  Like a master con man, he promises a great payoff if we do things his way.  Yet once we do, he shows himself a cheat and a swindler.  When we are in his pocket, he pushes us into making even worse decisions that only result in pain and humiliation.  He has demons at his beck and call to punish us if we try and stand up to him.  The people we depend on for justice are frequently corrupted by Lucifer through bribery and intimidation.  We are unable to stand against the Evil One without powerful and skilled outside help.

Thankfully, we have such help.  Satan is no match for Jesus Christ, the Son of God who came to town to rescue us.  The Savior of Mankind walked our dusty streets to face down the devil and send him packing.  Lucifer didn’t want a straight-up fight, because he knew that Christ was too powerful to beat.  So the devil tried to lure Jesus into one trap after another, but to no avail.  Our Lord could not be fooled, tempted, or intimidated. 

In the big showdown, western heroes shoot the gun right out of the bad guy’s hand.  Jesus disarmed Satan when He paid for our sins on the cross.  With our trespasses forgiven, the devil loses his hold over us—all he can do is shake his fist and try to intimidate us with empty words.  But thanks to our Lord and Savior, that’s all the devil has left—threats and promises that he can’t make good on.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

White hats and black hats

There is no one who is righteous, not a single person (Romans 3:10).

When you watch an old Western, you can usually tell the good guys from the bad guys by the hats they wore.  Good guys sported white hats; bad guys wore black ones. 

If someone wears a black hat, you know not to trust him.  If a guy wears a white hat, you can take his promises to the bank.  A black hat will cheat at cards; a white hat will loan you his horse.  A black hat might shoot you in the back if you’re not careful; a white hat will stand by your side, gun in hand, to defend your life even if it costs him his own.

Good guys and bad guys—if only life were that simple.  We frequently wonder who we can trust.  We get ambushed by people who seemed to be okay.  We wish we knew who to look out for—then we could drop the varmint before he got a bead on us. We’d really like to know who the white hats are, so we could let down our guard and relax in their company.

But people don’t tip us off by wearing the right-colored hat.  Some are outlaws who hide behind a false face of respectability.  Others are scoundrels, but in their own minds they see themselves as just doing what needs doing in order to get by.  Very few bad guys would wear a black hat openly and proudly. 

But where are the white hats?  When you shuck right down to the cob, there are none.  No one is a good guy, not from where God is sitting.  All of us are sinners—that makes us black hats, bad guys.  We eye up the cowboy or saloon girl, even though we’re married.  We’re willing to bend and break the rules if we can get away with it, just like rustlers and cardsharps.  We lose our tempers and get into fights like the participants in a barroom brawl.  We cower behind shuttered windows when doing the right thing means standing bravely in the middle of the street at high noon. 

None of us is good enough to deserve a white hat.  The only true hero in town is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  He is the tough-as-nails Lawman with a heart of gold beating underneath His badge of office.  He alone can keep us safe, and He sacrificed His own life to do it. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Great Bridge

Listen! The LORD's arm is not too weak to save you, nor is his ear too deaf to hear you call. It's your sins that have cut you off from God….

The Redeemer will come to Zion to buy back those…who have turned from their sins
(Isaiah 59:1-2, 20).

I grew up in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.  Manitowoc is a small city along the shore of Lake Michigan.  A river goes right through the middle of town, separating the north side from the south side.  There were only four bridges that crossed that river—two that were downtown near the harbor, one at the edge of the industrial district, and one out near the residential area where we lived. 

The river was important because it was perfect for a dockyard.  Ships were built and launched from the Manitowoc harbor.  The city was also a hub for commerce—every day, trains would bring large amounts of heavy cargo to be loaded on ships bound for distant ports.  Because of all this river traffic, the two downtown bridges were the kind that opened up so that ships could pass through.  This meant that whenever a large vessel arrived or departed, traffic through the heart of the city pretty much came to a stop.

The bridge near our home was very different.  It was only a single lane wide, and had a complicated web of old steel girders holding it up.  It was at the bottom of a switchback road; you had to go down the wooded hill slowly, because you could not see if someone might be coming across the bridge just around the next curve.

Between our residential bridge and the harbor bridges downtown was the fourth and final bridge.  It was two lanes wide and was supported from beneath by concrete and steel.  This was the one bridge you could always count on—it didn’t stop traffic to let a cargo ship through, nor did you have to wait for oncoming cars to finish crossing.  This was the bridge we used most often to get across the river.

I grew up with a real appreciation for bridges.  I was fascinated by the beauty of their many designs.  I marveled at how something as large and heavy as the bridges downtown could tilt up into the air.  And I saw what a mess life became when the bridge you needed was unavailable for use.

Trying to cross a river without a using a bridge is dangerous.  You can get stuck.  The current can sweep you away and smash you into rocks or drown you.  And many rivers are full of bacteria and toxic waste—immersion in such waters can make you very sick. 

There is one river that is impossible to cross without a bridge.  The gulf is too wide, the banks are too steep, and the water is deadly.  We all face that river eventually.  The Greeks called it the River Styx.  We call it the River of Death.

Like my hometown, the universe is split in two by the River of Death.  We live on the south side, while God’s home is on the north side.  Eventually, each of us must try to cross the river.  Some have to cross because they are too old to live anymore.  Others find themselves at the riverbank because some injury or sickness damaged their bodies beyond repair.  Some are glad to gather at the river; others are sad or confused or just plain frightened.  But regardless of what brings them, everyone has to cross the River of Death.

We can’t stay here in the land of the living.  God won’t allow it.  Death is God’s curse on those who ignore Him and break His laws.  Everyone is under this curse.  Jesus said, No one is good—except God alone (Mark 10:18).  We waste time dreaming about things we don’t have.  We twist the truth to make ourselves look good and others look bad.  We trick people into giving us what we want.  We break promises when they become inconvenient.  We hold bigoted opinions about people who are different from us.  We make fun of others instead of showing them respect.  We don’t make time for God in our daily routines.  We don’t thank Him for His blessings, and we waste the money that He gives us.  Most of the time, we barely spare Him a second thought.  God has every right to be angry with us; it is a testament to His great love that we are permitted to live as long as we do.

But the curse on sin does result in death.  And in a way, it’s just as well.  It’s hard to fight the temptation to do wrong.  How would you like having to fight temptation forever?  As the years go by, you accumulate regrets over the dumb things you’ve done.  If you never died, how burdened would you feel after 200 years of life?  A hundred?  A thousand? 

Make no mistake—the River of Death is a terrible thing to face.  It steals our breath away, knocks us from our feet, and sweeps us off into hell where we will face horrors unimaginable.  But sin makes death necessary; sin drives us to the riverbank and forces us to jump in.  The River of Death cannot be avoided.

If only there were a bridge that could take us safely across.  Thankfully, there is.  Jesus Christ is our bridge from the land of sin to the home of God.  Jesus can build anything.  He made the universe by His Father’s command.  John writes, Through him all things were made; without him nothing would exist (John 1:3).  The Son of God has the supreme power to make anything out of nothing. 

We needed that kind of power.  From God’s perspective, sin made us nothing, worthless.  But God’s Son can make wonderful things from nothing.  He can build a bridge between sinful man and holy God.  He can build a royal highway by which God’s love comes to us. 

God is perfect; He will not accept us as we are, and we don’t have it in us to live up to His lofty standards.  So Jesus bridged the impossible gap.  In Him, God and man were combined.  He became the Son of Man so He could live the perfect life God expects from each of us.  He became the Son of Man so He could die the death we deserved for being sinners.  But He is remained the Son of God, infinite in power, love, and grace.  Because He is the Son of God, His perfect life stands in for when we fail to behave as we should. Because He is the Son of God, His hellish death on the cross is counted as the death we deserved.  In Jesus, God’s expectations for humanity are perfectly fulfilled.

God gave us Jesus as the bridge by which we might enter heaven.  Jesus is the bridge that takes us away from sin and into God’s wonderful home.  He built the bridge by assuming responsibility for our sins and dying for them in our place.  His bridge is stained with the red of His blood, blood that washes away every bit of our guilt.  He allows us to cross when we come to Him with heavy hearts, seeking His forgiveness.  His bridge is open to all who want a new start at life, living according to God’s priorities. 

Like my hometown, there are many bridges along the riverbank; however, only one bridge gets you all the way across.  There is no other way to reach God’s side than by the bridge Jesus made by His own sweat and blood.  Paul writes, there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men (1 Timothy 2:5-6).  There are many religions that promise happiness on the other side of death but when life finally dumps you at the riverbank, you realize that the bridge is up and cannot help you reach the other side. 

Many people try to build their own bridges, by pasting together a bunch of ideas that they’ve heard and liked.  The trouble is that sin clouds our thinking, weakens our efforts, and undermines our accomplishments.  The result is always a bridge to nowhere.  No one can produce the perfect life needed to reach out and touch God—our only hope for success is by crossing on the way that Jesus has built for us.  Our Lord said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

The most magnificent bridge I’ve ever crossed is the Mackinac Bridge that connects Upper and Lower Michigan.  The bridge is five miles long, suspended by steel cables from two huge towers.  The deck is metal grating, not pavement, so that the wind can blow through and not destabilize the bridge.  You can see the water beneath you as you travel across.

The Mackinac Bridge is solidly built and has served well for decades—yet there are some people who are afraid to cross it.  The Bridge Authority has men and women on payroll to drive terrified motorists to the other side.  The bridge is a testament to modern engineering, yet some cannot face the prospect of a long drive high over the water.

So it is with us.  We know that Jesus can be trusted.  He has carried countless friends and relatives across the River of Death, and they are safe on heaven’s shore.  But we still fear death.  Deep down inside, we are concerned about what will happen to us when we die.  Thankfully, God understands our fears.  In the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus says that when we die, angels come to carry us home.  Just like the drivers who work at Mackinac Bridge, the angels of God soothe our fears as we cross the most important bridge of all. 

Jesus is your bridge to paradise.  When the time comes, may you have a safe and happy crossing.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Being formed and shaped by God

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart (Jeremiah 1:5).

In these words spoken to Jeremiah, God says that He had great plans for His prophet before the man was even born.  When the LORD says I formed you, we get the sense of a carpenter laying forms for a sidewalk.  When the concrete is poured, it is shaped by the forms.  And when God pours life into us, our days are formed by His grand design.

You’ve seen children play dress up.  They walk around in adult clothing, slacks and shirts and shoes which are far too big for them.  Have you ever found yourself in a situation that just didn’t seem to fit?  You didn’t have the background or skills that you needed.  Things moved faster than you felt comfortable with.  You had other plans that got shoved to the side.  Or maybe you got stuck doing something that you felt was beneath you. 

The thing to remember is this: God has a plan for you.  He is working tirelessly to grow you into your full potential.  But it takes time and effort.  Moses was put on earth to lead the Israelites out of captivity and speak God’s words to them, but it took forty years as a prince of Egypt and another forty years as a humble shepherd to prepare Moses for the job.   God chose David to be King of Israel, yet the young man went through many battles and hardships before he was ready to sit on the throne and had sufficient insight to honor God with beautiful psalms. 

Oswald Chambers wrote, “Every humiliation, everything that tries and vexes us, is God’s way of cutting a deeper channel in us through which the life of Christ can flow.” The Bible says that troubles produce patience. Patience produces character, and character produces hope. This hope will never disappoint us, because God has poured out his love to fill our hearts (Romans 5:3-5). Bonsai trees grow beautiful under the strict shaping of a gardener—imperfections are cut away.  Olympic gymnasts reach competitive readiness through rigorous coaching—flaws of any kind are targeted for elimination. The Lord has a design for each and every one of us.  It can be frustrating when we don’t know everything that plan entails.  And it might be disappointing to find out that our plans for achieving success don’t necessarily match up with what God has in mind.  But this we can be certain of: the LORD shapes us to be more like Jesus, the Son of God and pattern for our lives.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


The LORD will guide you always (Isaiah 58:11).

Railings.  Railings are found on steps and ramps, decks and balconies.  Railings in parks guide you along the path; railings in the zoo keep you a safe distance from dangerous animals.  Railings keep you from falling when high above the ground.  Railings give you support as you climb to an upper level.  Railings let you move past danger with a sense of security. 

We all appreciate a good railing.  We want to it be sturdy so that it won’t let us fall.  We like railings to be decorative so they enhance the scenery.  Nothing beats a nice railing.

God’s word is a railing for our lives.  It keeps us safe from danger if we keep on the right side of it.  It gives us support when trudging through life’s challenges leaves us feeling weak and wobbly.  The railing of Holy Scripture keeps us from falling away from God and tumbling down to Satan’s level.  God’s words are a strong railing that never fails us in our time of need.  This railing is pleasant to look at; when your behavior is kept on the right path by the Lord’s teachings, you look good to yourself and to others as well. 

Sadly, railings are often mistreated.  Children play on them, risking a serious fall; adults go around them, feeling entitled to stroll wherever they want.  We treat God’s word the same way.  Sometimes we look for loopholes to slip through, other times we just avoid it because we don’t like anything getting in our way. 

When railings are not used properly, people get hurt, sometimes even killed.  When we ignore God’s directions, we put ourselves at risk—risk of getting hurt physically, emotionally, spiritually.  We can even get into trouble that is fatal, mistakes that can haunt us for eternity in hell.  Thankfully, Jesus reaches out to everyone who falls into trouble and offers them a hand up.  He knows that we don’t always appreciate His railing like we should, and is willing to forgive our foolish behavior.  He tends the wounds that we get from falling and places us back on the path towards heaven, a path which He died to create for us.  The railing of God’s word is evidence of His great love for us, something we can hang on to every day of our lives.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Come and see

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, "Follow me." Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph."

"Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" Nathanael asked.
"Come and see," said Philip.

When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false."

"How do you know me?" Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, "I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you."

Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel."

Jesus said, "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that."  He then added, "I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man"
(John 1:43-51).

The name Joe makes us think of a man who is good and dependable, solid and uncomplicated.  Calling someone a ‘regular Joe’ is a compliment.  In today’s Gospel lesson, we meet a regular Joe.  His name is Nathanael.  Jesus calls him a true Israelite, a straightforward and honest man.  Nathanael was an upright guy, the sort of person who got right to the point without any fooling around.  He said what was on his mind
and expected others to do the same.

Philip had met Jesus.  He was very impressed by what he heard and saw.  Long ago Moses had said, The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him (Deuteronomy 18:15).  The prophet Isaiah had said that when this Savior came, He would bring the Good News of God’s mercy and back up His words by healing incurable ailments.  In Jesus, Philip saw the promises of the Old Testament fulfilled—so he went to Nathanael and said, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote--Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." 

But Nathanael was a down-to-earth sort of guy, a practical man.  He knew the kind of town Nazareth was—a small community along a trade route, full of strange ideas brought in by people who were just passing through.  The entire region of Galilee was held in low regard by the educated people of Jerusalem.  To claim that God’s Chosen One would come from a village like Nazareth seemed preposterous.  So Nathanael grunted a cynical response: "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?"

There are a lot of people today who say basically the same thing.  You invite them to come to church and they respond, “Church?  Are you kidding me?  Why would I want to go there of all places?”  They have a low opinion of church.  Maybe they’ve heard about the public scandals involving sex and money, and think that all church leaders should be avoided.  Maybe they’ve had a bad experience with church—a pastor offended them, or they saw the members of a congregation fight about an issue like a bunch of nasty little children.  Maybe they have never set foot in a church, and since life is going well for them right now, they see no need for religion.  Maybe they are skeptical of anything that cannot be proven through science or experienced through the senses.  Or maybe they are willful, and strongly resent anyone trying to tell them what to do or how to behave. 

Basically, Nathaniel’s objection was this: ‘Why should I visit this guy?  I’m comfortable where I am.  Does this Jesus really offer anything that I’d want?’  He challenges Philip to convince him. 

This is what makes us afraid to talk about Jesus.  We don’t like being challenged.  We don’t feel comfortable trying to sell Jesus to a suspicious customer.  We feel as if we’re in a courtroom, and we are the lawyer that has to make a convincing argument to win the case.  But we feel inadequate, too unprepared to do the job properly.  Better to keep our mouths shut and a let a professional church worker do the job of witnessing. 

But Philip didn’t get in Nathaniel’s face.  Philip did not try to sell Jesus.  Philip did not argue with Nathanael in order to convince him.  All Philip did was say, “Come and see.”

That’s all you need to do: offer the invitation to come and see.  “Come sit with me on Sunday morning and find out for yourself why I like attending worship.  I’ll even pick you up; after church we can go out for lunch and chat about the service—it’ll be my treat.”  That’s not scary, is it?

Jesus doesn’t need a salesman—He can sell Himself.  Jesus doesn’t need a lawyer; He can make His case far better than we can.  But He does need people to listen, or His words do them no good.  The Lord knows what’s going on with us wherever we are; He saw Nathanael under the fig tree, and He sees you as you work and eat, play and sleep.  But we can only hear His words if we go to a place where they are read out loud.  Church is where Jesus comes to speak with us.  He speaks through the Bible readings.  He uses the hymns and sermon to help us understand His message.  And He invites us to speak our concerns to Him through prayer. 

Once Nathanael met Jesus, he was quickly impressed.  Jesus knew him!  Jesus knew what he was like and what he was doing with his time.  It was obvious to Nathanael that Jesus was interested in him personally. 
It was also obvious that Jesus had power no ordinary man had.  These two things made Nathanael an eager follower.

Of course, not everyone is so easily impressed.  God causes miracles to happen every day, yet most people label these events as coincidence, luck, or good fortune.  Since God and His angels are invisible, they usually don’t get the credit for their work.  And let’s face it—some people simply refuse to believe in miracles because they don’t want to believe in God.  In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus said if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:31).  Of course, Jesus rose from the dead—the Bible holds many eyewitness accounts.  There are all sorts of people who deny this historical event, labeling it fantasy—yet they foolishly believe that we can end hunger around the world and negotiate a lasting peace in the Middle East. Jesus knew better. The poor you will always have with you, He said (John 12:8).  He also warned that wars and rumors of wars will always be a part of life until the day when He returns to judge the world.

Jesus as judge—that’s why we want to bring people to meet the Savior nowNow is the time of God’s favor (2 Corinthians 6:2).  The Lord is ready and more than willing to forgive every sin, sparing us from eternal punishment.  That’s why Jesus came—to call followers to His side.  Jesus brought the Good News of redemption.  When He died on the cross, God’s curse on sin was washed away by His blood.  Jesus suffered our punishment and died the death we deserved for angering God.  And how do we anger God?  We anger Him in two ways.  First, by breaking His rules, which Jesus summarized this way: `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself' (Matthew 22:37-39). The other way that we anger God is by ignoring the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf.  He 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…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).  Only the blood of Jesus can wash away our sins, and that blood is free to all those who follow Christ.  But that offer must be taken advantage of while we still live; once we die, our eternal fate is sealed. 

Since no one knows when they will die, introducing unbelievers to Jesus is urgent work.  Thankfully, the Lord is busy helping us with this task.  He confronts skeptics with miracles that cannot be explained.  He allows chaos, even disasters, to rattle lives and make people reevaluate their priorities.  He puts huge obstacles in the lives of stubborn individuals, problems that break their willfulness and drive them to their knees in humble surrender. 

It’s in these moments of crisis that people are most inclined to accept your invitation to meet Jesus.  But don’t wait for those opportunities to arise.  Invite others to come with you to church off and on throughout the year.  After all, you never know when the Holy Spirit will melt a stubborn heart.  You never know when a friend or relative or co-worker might suddenly ask you about your beliefs, your values, or your coping strategies.  If they know that you are interested in talking about such things, they will be more likely to open up at the Lord’s prompting.  

How do you get a regular Joe to come with you to church?  You don’t have to be a pest or a fanatic about it.  Offer the invitation to come and see when you know they are going through a stressful time or when there is something special going on at church.  When a service has touched you deeply, tell them about it. Offer to give them copies of sermons—just ask the pastor, and he’ll get them for you.  And if they accept your invitation, only introduce them to a few people in church at first so they don’t feel overwhelmed. 

What it all boils down to is this—if a person doesn’t spend time with the Lord, He has no idea what he’s missing!  You can help fix that. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

What children need to learn

The LORD is compassionate and gracious…He does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103).

How do you train a child to be morally upright? 

To start with, you need to place boundaries.  Children have to know the limits of their freedom, and that there are negative consequences for crossing the line.  Letting children run wild leads to bullying, stealing, and other kinds of antisocial behavior.  Youth need the kind of guidance that insists they treat others with respect.

You also have to set expectations.  Coddling children encourages laziness and an attitude of entitlement.  Kids need adults to point them in the right direction, encourage their continued efforts, and praise them for their achievements.  Self-esteem is built by reaching goals, and maturity comes with learning what kinds of things are worth working for.

But by themselves, boundaries and expectations are not enough.  You also have to set a good personal example.  You have to be honest when you speak, generous with your time, and patient with failure if you want your children to behave the same way.  You don’t encourage honesty by telling lies; you don’t nurture kindness by blowing your stack; you don’t implant respect for others by laughing at mean-spirited jokes.  Setting a bad example is all too easy, and it can undermine everything else that you’re trying to do.

Boundaries, expectations, personal example—these principles of child rearing are practiced by the God who made us.  He set boundaries for our behavior, laws like the Ten Commandments.  He gave us expectations to urge our personal growth, principles like the Golden Rule.  And He set a personal example—He sent His Son to live among us, a perfect man to inspire us. 

Sadly, our flaws and weaknesses make us anger God with our repeated failures.  But He does not treat us as our sins deserve; through Jesus He offers complete forgiveness and safe haven in His loving arms.  Forgiveness is the greatest gift that love can offer; it leads to reconciliation and a fresh start on life together.  No adult can raise a child of good character without sharing the critically important lesson of Christ’s forgiveness.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Train a child in the way he should go (Proverbs 22:6).

Public education is something that provokes a lot of controversy.  How much should the tax levy be?  What size classroom is best for the students?  What is the right balance between academics and extracurricular activities?  What kind of disciplinary powers should the teacher have?  What level of competency should youth be expected to achieve in their studies?

With budget issues looming large at every level of government, questions like these are on the minds of many people.  But there is a more fundamental question that needs to be asked.  What exactly are we teaching our children?  What are we equipping them with to face the challenges of life?  What kind of worldview are we nurturing in their young minds?

Are we teaching our children to value things over people?  Are we raising them to feel entitled to whatever makes them feel good?  Are we shaping them to see the world as a place of moral ambiguity, where truth changes according to your perspective and how you behave depends on the situation?  Are we encouraging a focus on today that doesn’t consider what tomorrow might bring?

Every child is a gift to this world from the Maker of All Things.  Every child is precious and deserving of the best education we can give.  But life is about more than reading and math and science.  Life is about more than being popular, wealthy, or physically fit.  Life is about being kind and generous and respectful to others.  Life is about contributing instead of taking, building up instead of tearing down.  Life is about considering the repercussions of your behavior before acting and taking responsibility for your mistakes.  Life is about adherence to what is true and right and good, regardless of personal cost.

These principles for life come from our divine Maker Himself. But children need to know one thing more—when they fail to live up to God’s expectations, as everyone fails, they can find the relief of forgiveness in Jesus’ loving arms.  The Son of God offered Himself to death on the cross for everyone who needs mercy—including adults who fall short in training God’s children as they should.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The water of regeneration

Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him" (Acts 10:34-38).

When Jesus was baptized, He inaugurated something new and wonderful.  In the water of the Jordan River, our Lord combined several themes from the Old Testament and made them into a rich blessing for all who follow Christ.  So let us examine the roots of baptism, that we might better understand the great thing Christ does for us through water and His Word.

The oldest baptismal event occurred at the time of Noah.  Mankind had abandoned God so completely that in the entire world, only one family of believers still remained.  The Bible says that The LORD was grieved that he had made man…and his heart was filled with pain (Genesis 6:6)God is love, yet The LORD observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil (1 John 4:8, Genesis 6:5).  Only the members of Noah’s family cared about God and were sorry about their sins.  So the Lord decided to wash the earth clean of evil, and start over with Noah and his kin.  God told Noah to build a large ship, large enough to preserve his family and a breeding pair of every living thing that could not swim.  When the ark was completed God flooded the earth, drowning every air breather except those huddled safely inside the ark.  When the water finally subsided, the survivors repopulated the earth. 

This event foreshadowed baptism.  God used water to drown evil, yet He also used water to give His faithful people a new start at life.  Peter understood this baptismal connection; he wrote, God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also (1 Peter 3:20-21)

Centuries later, God provided another miracle that had baptismal overtones.  The Israelites were living as slaves in Egypt and were terribly mistreated.  God sent Moses to speak to Egypt’s ruler and win freedom for the captives.  When Pharaoh refused to release the slaves, God struck Egypt with a series of ten plagues, each one worse than the last.  Finally, when Pharaoh’s stubbornness cost him the life of his eldest son, he relented and let the people leave.  But after they were gone, he had a change of heart and sent Egypt’s military to recapture the fleeing slaves.  When the frightened group reached the shore of the Red Sea, it seemed as if they were trapped with no hope of escape.  But God opened a path through the sea, making the water to stand up in walls on either side of a dry path so the Israelites could cross safely.  When Egypt’s finest started across in pursuit, God let the water resume its normal place and all the soldiers drowned. 

This event also foreshadowed baptism.  God used water to drown the forces of the enemy, but He used that same water to free His people from slavery.  Paul saw the baptismal imagery; in 1st Corinthians chapter 10 he wrote, our forefathers were all under the cloud and…they all passed through the sea.  They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea

The Old Testament also mentions two rituals that help us understand baptism.  The first ritual started with Abram.  The name ‘Abram’ means ‘honored father’—a named that must have weighed heavily on the man, since his wife proved to be infertile.  Yet God had promised that the couple would have a child someday, and Abram never lost faith in God’s promise.

Then at age 99, God appeared to Abram and said, "I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers…No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations…I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you…As for you, you must keep my covenant…Every male among you shall be circumcised.  You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.  For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised…Any uncircumcised male…will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant" (Genesis chapter 17).

Of course, God did bless Abraham with a son as promised.  But what interests us here is the command to circumcise all men, adults and children both.  To become a child of God, blood had to be shed. 

Think about that for a minute.  To become a child of God, blood had to be shed.  This certainly makes us think of Jesus.  Jesus shed His blood for us on the cross, blood that has the power to wash away our sins.  Hebrews chapter nine says, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness...The blood of Christ…cleanse[s] our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God.  In the Revelation of St. John chapter seven we read these words: there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands…These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  On the cross, the Lamb of God bled so that we might be forgiven; on the cross Jesus died so that we might experience rebirth as children of God. The blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7). In Colossians chapter two, Paul connects the dots for us between baptism and circumcision: When you came to Christ, you were "circumcised," but not by a physical procedure. Christ performed a spiritual circumcision—the cutting away of your sinful nature. For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.

There is one other Old Testament ritual that we need to look at.  That ritual is ‘anointing.’  Anointing involved using a liquid to mark someone or something as dedicated to God for the Lord’s use.  Jacob set up a stone and anointed it with oil to mark the place where God spoke to Him from a ladder stretching to heaven.  Moses anointed Aaron and his sons to serve God as priests.  And sometimes anointing brought with it the power of God.  When Samuel anointed David as king over God’s people, 1 Samuel 16 tells us from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came upon David in power. Titus chapter three speaks of the spiritual power that God bestows through baptism: He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

The Great Flood.  The parting of the Red Sea.  Circumcision.  Anointing.  All of these things came together when Jesus was baptized.  Peter writes, God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.  Using the water of baptism, God the Father anointed His Son, dedicated Him to do God’s holy work of saving us from sin, death and hell.  That’s why Jesus is called Christ—‘Christ’ means “Anointed One.” 

That baptism was the first of many.  During His time on earth, Jesus had His disciples performing baptisms; John chapter four tells us, Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John, although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.  After Jesus rose from the dead, He gave His followers this command before He returned to heaven: go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).  Jesus wants everyone to be baptized and instructed in the faith; therefore baptism is not to be treated lightly.  Luke writes in chapter seven, the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God's purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized

Baptism is like the Great Flood; it washes away sin and gives us a new start at life.  Baptism is like the parting of the Red Sea; it drowns the power of evil and sets us free to live for God.  Baptism is like circumcision; it brings people of every age into God’s holy family, forgiven by the shedding of blood. And baptism is like anointing; it fills us with the Spirit of God and dedicates our lives to His service.

But Jesus’ baptism is superior to anything the Old Testament had to offer; it is even superior to the baptism that John offered in the Jordan River.  John himself said it: I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire (Matthew 3:11).

Normally we don’t think of water and fire working together.  After all, fire wants to make water evaporate, and water tries to put fire out.  But in Jesus’ baptism, water and fire work together by God’s command.  Sin is drowned in God’s water; sin is burned away by God’s fire.  Water rinses things clean, like when you wash a load of clothes; fire gets rid of impurities, like when a foundry smelts iron.  Fire and water are essential for things to live and grow; no farmer can raise a crop without rain and sunshine.  In the same way, we need God’s water of life and the fire of His Spirit; without these gifts, the soul cannot live.

Thankfully, the gift of baptism is offered to all, regardless of age, sex, nationality or social status.  Acts chapter two: Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far away. Acts chapter 16: he and all his family were baptized.  Galatians chapter three: all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  God’s word is clear—Christ offers forgiveness and new life through baptism, and He offers this wonderful gift to everyone.

It all started in the Jordan River.  Jesus tied together the blessings of fire and water, circumcision and anointment—and the result was greater than the sum of its parts.  Jesus took ordinary water and combined it with the Spirit of God.  The result is baptism—baptism that now saves you (1 Peter 3:21).  But this baptism is not a one-time event, done and then forgotten.  Baptism is the start of a life-long relationship with Christ the Anointed One.  Through baptism He gives you living water than never runs dry, but wells up in you to eternal life (John chapter four).  Through baptism He fills you with the fire of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in you constantly.  Each day you sin; each day you need to drown the evil within you and be rekindled with a passion for following Jesus.  Baptism is God’s ongoing gift to you—a guarantee of forgiveness when you’ve messed up, and guidance when you hunger to see the light.  May your baptism give you relief, strength, and hope—today and every day.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Be patient and stand firm (James 5:8).

These past few years we’ve seen Washington struggle with the idea of compromise.  Politics is supposed to be the art of negotiation, but these days people on both the left and the right seem unwilling to find a middle ground which they can both accept.   

When is compromise appropriate and when should you dig in your heels?  For the Christian it comes down to a simple question: does the word of God have anything to say on the subject?  If compromise would lead to a situation that opposes God’s holy will, then giving ground is not an option.  As far as anything else goes, negotiation is certainly appropriate.  After all, the Bible says be patient with everyone…always try to be kind to each other (1 Thessalonians 5:14-15)

Negotiation and compromise start in the home.  Wedding vows used to include the bride promising to obey her husband, but these words have fallen by the wayside.  This is because married couples don’t honor and respect each other the way God intended.  The LORD did not give any husband the right to boss his wife around.  However, God does hold the man of the house responsible for keeping his family on the straight and narrow.  If there is discussion of cheating on a tax return, the head of the family is expected to put his foot down and say absolutely not.  If there are family members who don’t want to attend worship, God expects the man to lead by personal example and patient instruction.  Families should run on compromise as much as possible, but when it comes to matters of right and wrong our LORD holds the man of the house accountable for standing firm, even though he might take some flack for it.

How can you be sure when compromise is the right thing to do?  Knowing what God says certainly makes things easier.  If you read the New Testament, especially the first half of it or so, you will have a pretty good idea of God’s views on right and wrong.  If reading the Bible is hard to get done, attend church frequently—there you can hear God’s message in bite-sized chunks and hear it explained.  Prayer is also important.  Too often we make snap decisions when it would be better to listen carefully and then take a time out for telling God that you’re confused and need His guidance.  Remember that you and I are sinners—what we strongly want to do may very well be the wrong way to go.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Summer for the soul

God turns my darkness into light (Psalm 18:28).

Most of us don’t enjoy winter weather.  When it’s cold and dark outside, it makes you want to curl up someplace cozy and take a nap.  It’s hard to get out of bed; it takes considerable effort to bundle up and head outdoors.

Winter weather makes everything take longer.  You have to be careful walking, lest you slip on the ice.  A car exposed to the elements must have the glass scraped off before you get on your way.  Even a short walk outside demands an extra layer of clothing before you go out the door. 

Cold temperatures make us realize how great summer is.  When it’s warm and sunny, you’ve got all kinds of energy; when it’s cold and overcast, it’s hard to get excited about much of anything. 

Our world is locked in a long winter of sin.  This dismal weather pattern started thousands of years ago when our ancestors rebelled against God and were barred from paradise.  Sin makes life cold and dark.  It’s difficult to warm up to others.  It’s hard to get excited about anything that takes us out of the cozy little nest that we build for ourselves.  It’s tough to find the energy needed to go out and tackle the problems in our world that need to be addressed—far easier to curl up and hope that someone else will take care of things.  What we need is a taste of summer.  We need the energy and enthusiasm that come with days that are bright, long and warm. 

Jesus brings that warmth.  Jesus shines with that light.  He overcomes the darkness of sin with the beautiful radiance of truth and purity.  He takes hearts that are numbed with cold selfishness and warms them with His love.  As a result, we are energized to get moving and share His warmth with others through words and acts of kindness.

You don’t have to shiver in the darkness; you don’t have to go through endless days with no enthusiasm for life.  Jesus offers you never-ending summer—regardless of the problems around you, He provides light and warmth for your soul.  And when you are glowing with His love, you find yourself doing things that have long term value. 

Saturday, January 05, 2013

'Green' Christians?

This is the account of the heavens and the earth when they were created.  When the LORD God made the earth and the heavens…the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Now the LORD God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and…The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it (Genesis 2:4, 7-8).

There has been a lot in the news lately about the environment.  Scientists warn that climate change will cause some species to go extinct.  Global warming will supposedly flood our coastal cities and result in more severe hurricane seasons.  Medical researchers worry about the health risks caused by smoke in the air and chemicals in the water.  Environmentalists are troubled by the dangers of nuclear waste. 

All this concern has resulted in lots of media buzz.  We hear terms like living green, carbon footprint, and sustainable lifestyle.  Many celebrities and politicians have taken up this cause.  There’s all sorts of advice available on how to be environmentally responsible.  But what is a Christian to make of all this?

We can save the world.  At least, that’s what we’re told.  We can save the world by living ‘green.’  We can save the world if we reduce our carbon footprint.  We can save the world if we reduce consumption and recycle our waste.  We have to save the world, because we depend on it for life.  If we foul it with pollution or exhaust its resources, it will lose the capacity to sustain us. 

But how much are you prepared to sacrifice in order to save the world?  Are you willing to endure hot summer days without air conditioning?  Are you willing to wear a sweater at home during winter so you can turn down the heat?  Are you willing to park the car and get around using your feet, a bike, or public transportation?  Are you willing to give up consumer electronics like cell phones and computers because they contain toxic metals?  Are you willing to reduce garbage by using cloth diapers instead of disposables? Since recycling consumes energy, are you willing to stop buying drinks that come in plastic bottles or aluminum cans?  Are you willing to mend clothing and fix appliances instead of replacing them with something new?

Even if you are willing to do all these things, can your actions really save the planet?  Can you persuade everyone in your family to live this way?  Can you get your boss to make his business fully ‘green’?  And what about people living in other countries?  Can they all be convinced to live sustainable lifestyles?  All things considered, how much impact will your sacrifices really make?

I like to breathe clean air.  I like the taste of fresh water.  I don’t like seeing litter blowing in the ditch, and I don’t like seeing leftovers thrown away after a meal.  God gave us the responsibility to care for this world and manage its resources wisely. 

But I can’t save the world, and you can’t either.  What we can do is use what God gives us responsibly.  We don’t do it to make ourselves feel good; we do it to honor God for blessing us with His gifts.  Saving the world is a job for the Lord; He made it, and He cares for it each and every day.  Jesus said, My Father is always at his work, to this very day (John 5:17).  If you trust in God, you can be sure that our world is safe in His mighty hands.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with being concerned about the environment.  God expects us to treat His creation with careful attention.  But is making your life ‘green’ the most important way for you to spend your time and money?

What about curing disease?  Cancer is still a major health problem.  There is no cure for Alzheimer’s.  Millions around the world are infected with AIDS.  Instead of spending money on ‘going green’, shouldn’t those dollars be spent on medical research?

What about war and terrorism and ethnic cleansing?  Each year, uncounted numbers of people are forced from their homes, blown up, or gunned down because someone wants them gone.  Many people live in constant fear of their lives, or have had their families ripped from their arms.  Instead of spending money on achieving a sustainable lifestyle, shouldn’t those dollars be spent on our armed forces?

What about public education?  Our country’s future as a world leader depends on the minds of our youth, yet many kids drop out of school before graduation, college is becoming almost impossible to afford, and kids in other countries consistently outpace ours in math and science.  Teachers are constantly leaving the classroom because other jobs pay so much more.  Instead of spending money on reducing our carbon footprint, shouldn’t those dollars be spent on making our schools better and more affordable?

Most important of all, what about those who don’t know Jesus Christ?  Over 2/3 of the world’s population has no idea that when they die, they will suffer in hell forever because Jesus has not forgiven their sins. Many live their entire lives without hearing a missionary or seeing a Bible.  What good will it be for a man, Jesus asks, if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? (Matthew 16:26) If we devote ourselves to saving the world but ignore the souls dying all around us, what kind of response can you and I expect from Jesus, when summoned to meet Him face to face? 

God put us on earth to serve Him and care for each other.  It’s important to use our resources wisely.  It’s important to minimize waste, fight disease, work for peace, and educate our children.  But there is nothing more important than having a good relationship with Jesus.  Do you support mission work with your wallet?  Do you pray for pastors and religious leaders?  Do you invite others to join you in worshiping Christ, the Savior of all mankind?  If you want to make the world a better place, this is where to start.

Every Christian should care about the environment.  After all, God made us to be the caretakers of His creation. The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. He told Adam and Eve, fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground (Genesis 1:28).

So how does a responsible caretaker behave?  First of all, he remembers who owns the property; he does not use the things entrusted to him for selfish pleasure.  God is the Maker of all things; everything belongs to the LORD Almighty.  Second, a good caretaker thinks about the consequences of his actions; he does not want to spoil any resources that belong to someone else, or use them up wastefully.  When we die and stand before Him, God will demand an accounting of how we’ve managed His property.

One example of being a good caretaker is how you treat food.  On one occasion, Jesus fed a crowd of over 5,000 people using five loaves of bread and two small fish. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted" (John 6:12). How do you treat leftovers?  Do you throw them away, or save them for a future meal?  When you eat out, do you order more than you can finish?  Do you ask for a container so you can take the leftovers home with you?

Here’s another example—consider your driving habits.  Do you drive to a gym or recreation center to work out?  Why waste that gas when you could get exercise by just walking?  Do you make lists before you go on a shopping trip so you don’t drive around unnecessarily?  Do you carpool to school or work or out-of-town games? 

We waste things because we don’t think or we don’t care.  Either way, wasteful behavior insults the God who made everything, including us.  When we use things foolishly or negligently, we fail in our duty as caretakers of God’s world.  Thankfully, we can go to His Son for help.  Christ forgives our wasteful behavior and casual attitude towards God’s property.  We anger God with our laziness and lack of respect, but on the cross Jesus suffered all the punishment that we deserve.  With our sins forgiven, we can look forward to meeting our Maker, who will tell us well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness! (Matthew 25:21)

From the very beginning, God has given us responsibility to care for His creation.  He expects us to take our duties seriously.  But the earth is not more important than God or our fellow human beings; Jesus said `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself ' (Matthew 22:27-39). Our first priority must always be our relationship with God; our second priority is family, friends, and all the people of earth.  Caring for the planet, while important, only comes in third place on God’s priority list.  And anyway, this world will not last forever; when Christ returns the heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:10).  Peter reminds us that we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13).  Be a good caretaker of God’s marvelous creation, but don’t let concern for the environment distract you from God’s Church and the people whom He loves.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

Did you get everything you wanted?

The holy one to be born will be called the Son of God (Luke 1:35).

Now that the holidays are over, did you get everything that you wanted? Did you receive all the stuff that was on your list for Santa? Did you get to spend time with the people who matter most to you?  Are you content as we move into a bright new year?  Or were the holidays disappointing?  Did you get stuff that will be exchanged or regifted?  Did travel problems or scheduling conflicts prevent you from having time with someone special?  As you look back on the last couple of weeks, do you feel like saying “Bah, humbug”?

The simple truth is that no one ever gets everything they want.  There will always be a gift that makes you scratch your head and wonder what the giver was thinking.  There will always be things on your wish list that are too expensive or hard to find.  There will always be unexpected situations that mess up your plans.  There will always be frustrations and disappointments, especially when we place such high expectations on the holiday season.

If Christmas 2012 left you feeling somewhat let down, perhaps your focus was on the wrong things.  Despite what retailers say, Christmas is not about finding the perfect gift.  Despite what holiday programs claim, Christmas is not about special times that bring us closer to each other.  Christmas is about God’s loving care.  Christmas is about God seeing that we are angry and confused, scared and lonely.  Christmas is about God sending His Son to give peace to those who are suffering from guilt, shine light into hearts which are shrouded in darkness, and offer hope to those who are lost in despair.  That first Christmas long ago gave us Jesus Christ, the man whose death on a cross would change everything forever. 

Strip Christmas down to its bare essence, and you have the promise of God’s love given life and breath in the little body of a newborn child.  Forget all the other stuff—God’s Son among us is what Christmas is all about.  God entering our lives and getting dirty as He works to make everything better—that’s a gift that never disappoints.  Thanks to Christmas, 2013 can be a chance to start over with a whole new perspective on life.  All you need is Jesus—and thanks to Christmas, you’ve got Him!

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