Thursday, February 28, 2013

The cross (part 2)

The blood of Jesus…purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

When you look at the cross, what do you see?  There are people who realize how bloody awful the cross was, and it disturbs them.  They look away, sickened or disgusted.  For some, the unfairness of it all is repulsive—they wonder how a just and righteous God could spare sinners and treat His own Son so badly?  It just doesn’t seem right to them.  Others squirm at the sight of blood—they don’t like to deal with blood when their kids get cuts and scrapes, and they certainly don’t like to think about blood while they’re worshiping in church!  And some turn away from the cross because of guilt—they don’t like to think that their bad behavior helped put the Son of God in such an awful position. 

Honestly, Jesus’ death at Calvary was a gruesome event.  It almost seems maudlin that some crosses feature Jesus’ dying body.  But we need to appreciate what Jesus went through on that bloodstained piece of wood.  We need to remember why He was there in the first place.  We are sinners, each and every one of us.  We don’t obey God’s commands.  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 22:37-39). But we don’t live this way. We don’t love God more than everything else; we don’t treat our neighbors with the same level of concern that we have for ourselves. 

Because we are sinners, we have no right to expect anything from God except His punishment.  We have no right to expect Him to answer our prayers for help, or that He would spare us from going to hell when we die.  Thankfully, God loves us despite our sinfulness.  That love prompted Jesus to bear the awful responsibility for our sin on the cross, where He suffered everything that we had coming to us.  It was bloody awful, what Christ went through, yet He suffered all of it willingly so we might be forgiven and welcomed into God’s magnificent home when we die. 

When we see the cross, we see God at work.  He is a just God who punishes wrongdoing. At the same time He is a compassionate God who took drastic action to spare us so we can be His forever.  It is good to see the suffering because Jesus did no small thing on our behalf.  Seeing the price He paid for our sin ought to drive us to our knees in humble gratitude for our salvation.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The cross (part 1)

You should have the same attitude as Christ Jesus. Although he was equal with God in every way, he did not cling to His divine privileges. Instead, he emptied himself and assumed the role of a servant, taking the form of man.  Having a human appearance, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, a shameful death on a cross. As a result, God elevated him to the highest place and gave him the name that is honored above all others (Philippians 2:5-9).

When you look at the cross, what do you see?  A lot of people see a basic design that can be used in many ways.  If the cross is delicate and made from a precious metal, it makes a nice piece of jewelry.  If it is big and red, it serves as a reminder to donate blood to the Red Cross.  People who are into math look at a small cross and see a ‘plus’ sign.  Those who work in architecture and fashion see the cross as a basic element of design.

But the cross is more than a piece of art that is pleasing to the eye.  The cross carries meaning that stretches back two thousand years. In those days, the cross was a symbol of torture and humiliation.  Mankind has devised many horrible ways to execute criminals, methods that got rid of evil doers and warned everyone else to behave or else.  But no style of execution equals the sick horror of crucifixion.  Death on a cross was terribly painful, and most victims lingered on for several days before drawing their last breath.  Since the Roman Empire reserved this form of death for only the worst offenders, being sentenced to crucifixion was also deeply shameful. 

To a non-believer, seeing the cross rehabilitated into something joyful to look at seems puzzling.  Why would anyone want to hang a symbol of suffering and shame on their bedroom wall or wear it on a necklace?  What they don’t understand is that one particular cross marked a change in life to billions of people.  It was on a cross that the Son of God gave His life for sinners so they could be forgiven.  His great sacrifice has turned countless lives away from selfishness and wanton disregard for others to a new way of life that honors God with compassionate love and humble service.  On the day when Christ was crucified, the doors of hell were locked shut and heaven’s gates thrown open to all who embrace Jesus as their Savior.  For the Christian, the cross represents a fresh start at life—there is nothing more beautiful.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hope when life gets tough

If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).

When Paul wrote to the faithful living in Rome, it was not much fun to be a Christian.  Polite society didn’t understand their weird religion that emphasized service and humility over power and success.  Others laughed at Christians, making jokes about people who worshiped a God who had died.  Some claimed that Christians were evil deviants—after all, didn’t they claim to eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood?  Didn’t that make them religious cannibals?  Some even thought of Christians as unpatriotic—they refused to obey laws that conflicted with their religion. 

Rome was the capitol of a vast and powerful empire, the seat of government and the pinnacle of civilized culture.  Most of Rome’s citizens had a low opinion of this new cult centered around Jesus.  As a result Christians were often harassed, beaten and thrown into jail; some even lost their lives for what they believed. 

So Paul sent a letter filled with words of encouragement. If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Paul reminds his readers that everything we need to live happy and productive lives comes from God, despite what others might think.  Government officials are supposed to work for the Lord, caring for the people as God’s earthly hands—but God can provide what we need when politicians are misguided, arrogant, or incompetent.  God gave the greatest blessing of all—the life of His Son, offered on the cross to free us from the clutches of sin, death and devil.  If God was able to overcome these terrible threats to humanity, there is nothing that can stop Him from enriching our lives with His power and love.

Going on, Paul says who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Christians are often the targets of a vicious smear campaign.  People who have no idea what they’re talking about are quick to spread lies and misinformation.  They misrepresent Jesus and His teachings; they put words in His mouth or pick and choose from what He said.  And we don’t help matters any; since we are all sinners, we frequently disobey God’s laws because we’re jealous, mad, or impatient.  And as soon as we misbehave, critics are ready to pounce, pointing to our sinful behavior as proof that Christianity is nothing but a sham.  

Thankfully, unbelievers don’t get to judge us—that power rests in the hands of Christ.  It is the Son of God who suffered for our failings; He alone has earned the right to praise or condemn us.  He does not judge us as other people would; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities (Psalm 103:10).  Jesus decides our fate based on something only He can see—the contents of our hearts.  Faith is the determining factor—faith in God’s mercy offered through His Son. Jesus said, Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him (John 3:36)

Paul continues: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."  These words are tough to absorb; Paul tells the Christians of Rome to expect difficulties for being among the faithful.  They will be picked on.  They will be victimized.  There will be people who hate them and want them dead.  But in the midst of these hardships, there is good news—their earthly problems are only temporary and of limited power.  No one can destroy their relationship with Christ; Jesus said my sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand (John 10:27-28).  Jesus also said, In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33)

Paul wraps up this part of his letter with words of confidence: I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  The fear of death and the temptations of life cannot tear a believer away from Jesus.  No spiritual being has the power to keep us from Christ.  No problem of today or tomorrow, no corrupt government or false religion, no discovery of astronomy or biological science has the power to destroy the faith that keeps us safe in Jesus’ loving arms. 

The world of Paul’s day is not so different from our world right now.  Christianity does not have the power or respect it once commanded.  There was a time when no European royalty could ascend the throne without the blessing of the church; these days, churches in Europe sit mostly empty.  There was a time when American schools used the Bible to teach our children how to read; these days, the Bible is not welcome in the classroom.  There was a time when social life revolved around the church; these days, people are so busy that church is often forgotten.  There was a time when you heard jokes about Jews and Muslims, but few dared to get laughs at the expense of Christians; these days, you can ridicule Jesus all you want, but watch out if you poke fun at any other religion.

Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome are still timely for us here today.  It is not always fun to be a Christian; there are people who don’t understand us, think we’re crazy, make fun of us, believe that we’re dangerous, or just want us dead.  Now, more than ever, we need to hear Paul’s words of reassurance.

If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?  Everything we need to live happy and productive lives comes from God, despite what others might think.  Politicians, social workers and judges are supposed to work for the Lord.  But what happens when judges declare that gay marriage is legal?  What happens when congress uses our tax dollars to fund research that destroys God’s gift of life?  What happens when social workers decide that a family struggling to make ends meet does not qualify for any more assistance?  Paul reminds us that God gives us everything we need.  He gave the greatest blessing of all—the life of His Son, offered on the cross to make us His forever.  If God was willing to give so much for we who deserve so little, we can be certain that He will make sure our needs are met, one way or another.

Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.  Agnostics claim that we don’t know what we’re talking about.  Atheists say that we make up religion as a crutch to help us face the unpleasant facts of life.  Other religions condemn us for clinging to Jesus instead of looking at what other faiths can offer us.  People judge our faith every time a priest is accused of molestation or an evangelist is investigated for misusing donations. 

We all make mistakes, because we are all corrupted by sin.  There are times when we misunderstand God’s perfect word.  There are times when we turn away from Jesus’ teachings because we want the freedom to do as we please.  There are times when we are arrogant in our sureness of what is right and what is wrong.  Thankfully, God is merciful.  He is willing to forgive us if we come to Jesus on our knees, trusting in His love. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).  In the end, it doesn’t matter what others think of us or our faith; God’s Son is the one who judges all.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."  These words are tough for us to embrace; Paul tells us to expect difficulties as followers of Christ.  We will be picked on by unbelievers.  We will be victimized by those who think that Christians are easy marks.  There will be atheists who hate us and people of other religions who want us dead.  But in the midst of these hardships, there is good news—our earthly problems are only temporary and of limited power.  No one can steal the hope that fills our hearts.  No one can prevent us from joining our Lord in paradise.  Jesus said, Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:26)
I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Death terrifies the average American; millions of dollars are spent on ways to delay the effects of aging and hang on to life.  But death holds no terror for us; because Jesus rose from the dead, we too will rise to new life, a life that is free of trouble and sorrow and pain. 

For most Americans, life is about the pursuit of pleasure—the thrill of feeling good, the joy of being popular, the satisfaction of knowing success.  But for us, life is so much more—life is about commitment and serving others.  Life is about taking responsibility for your actions.  We don’t want to live as slaves to pleasure.  We don’t want our years to slip away because we were too distracted by trivial things to notice the passage of time. We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:10).

A lot of people consider themselves spiritual—they look for answers in the unseen world around us.  But we don’t need messages from UFOs or alleged psychics like Nostradamus; we don’t have to consult a horoscope or practice witchcraft to give us confidence for the living of each day.  Through Jesus we have direct access to God Himself, and He promises I will never leave you; I will never turn my back on you (Hebrews 13:5).

Each night when they go to bed, many struggle with going to sleep.  They are angry at themselves for not getting everything done, or having to take shortcuts because of a looming deadline.  They kick themselves for speaking harsh words; they regret keeping silent when they should have spoken words of love and support.  And they dread the arrival of dawn; they wonder how the bills will get paid, how they’ll get everything done.  But we don’t have to toss and turn all night.  We have a Savior who listens to our prayers.  He forgives our mistakes.  He makes all things work together for the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28).  He gives us confidence in the midst of turmoil.

People trust in government bailouts and social welfare programs.  They trust in peace treaties and international trade agreements.  They trust in manufacturer warranties and insurance policies.  But we trust in the Maker and Ruler of the universe.  While all human agencies fall short, God’s power never fails.

People look to the skies above for answers.  Astronomers gaze at tiny specks of light in the sky; they study the movement and color of stars, and claim they know how large and old the universe is.  Others look for answers in the microscopic world beneath us.  Molecular biologists experiment with DNA; they claim to understand the origins of life, and how to design organisms that conform to their own specifications.  But we worship the Author of Life; he himself gives all men life and breath and everything elseWe are his offspring, and He loves and values us all (Acts 17:25, 28).

It’s sad, really.  The world rejects Christianity, and yet the world craves the very things that Christ has given us.  We have the answers to life’s hard questions.  We have a sense of direction when life is confusing.  We have the forgiveness that results in peace.  We have the hope for life after death.  Paul was sure of it.  I’m sure of it.  You can be sure of it as well.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Are things getting better or are they getting worse?

Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38-39).

There’s a lot of uncertainty in our country and the world beyond our borders.  Worries about the environment and the economy. Worries about civil unrest and terrorism.  There are concerns about moral decay as more and more things formerly seen as wrong are now touted as good and right.  There is anxiety over the education that our children are receiving and the prevalence of bullying.  Ask people if things are getting better or worse, and you’ll likely get a pessimistic assessment instead of an optimistic viewpoint.

The great thinkers of modern times say that mankind is getting better and better; we are standing on the backs of giants and a wonderful future is just within our reach.  But are things truly better than they once were?  Yes, we’ve made great strides in medicine and technology.  We can grow more food on an acre of land than our ancestors could have dreamed.  We are able to speak with people instantly almost anywhere in the world.

But how has man changed?  Do we have less hatred and prejudice than in the past?  Are fewer people being robbed and abused?  Are the problems war and terrorism gradually diminishing?  Is there improved equity between the extremely rich and the desperately poor?  Has corruption in government became a thing of the past?  Do people lie less and tell the truth more often?  Are marriages more stable and less likely to end in divorce?  Are we climbing the hill towards a better tomorrow, or skidding down a treacherous path that ends in cataclysm and darkness?

Holy Scripture contradicts the view that history is a climb up out of primordial muck.  In the beginning, all was perfect.  Then we messed things up, resulting in chaos and decay.  For all our achievements of the mind, the human heart is just as shrouded in darkness as it has been for ages.  Jesus warned that as time rolled on, the world would sink ever further from the path of righteousness that leads to paradise.  Only Christ can lift us up and get us going in the right direction; only Jesus can clean off the muck of sin so we are presentable to enter God’s lofty home. The days ahead may look dark and uncertain, but we have confidence that with Jesus at our side there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Light in the darkness

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

When do you do the bulk of your worrying?  My guess--after you’ve gone to bed and the lights are off.

Partly it has to do with having quiet time.  During the night the phone stops ringing.  During the night your spouse and kids are fast asleep, not pestering you for anything.  During the night your time becomes your own.  With the TV off and silence in the room, you are freed from distractions.  Your mind finally gets a chance to reflect on the events of the day.  You have time to sort out your feelings and reexamine your decisions.

But there’s another reason why you tend to worry after curling up in bed.  It’s dark.  Darkness ought to be soothing, but a lot of the time it becomes oppressive and scary.  In the darkness, unexplainable sounds can make you jump.  In the darkness, a hint of movement can seem threatening.  Darkness hides danger—and darkness is also depressing.  Alone in the dark, your fears get magnified.  When you’re shrouded in darkness, time can slow to a crawl.  Nights can be tough to get through when problems are on your mind.

In the Bible, darkness is often used as a metaphor to represent evil.  Light, of course, is the enemy of darkness.  Light reveals danger.  Light shines with hope.  Without light, beauty cannot be seen or appreciated.  In the Bible, light represents truth, life, and happiness.  Just as darkness symbolizes everything that is bad, light characterizes our God who is the source of everything good.

In the dark of night, fear can run away with your sleep and steal your peace of mind.  When this happens, you need light—the light that shines from Christ.  Jesus said, I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness (John 8:12).  The light that comes from heaven is so pure and so powerful that it drives away the darkness which haunts us.  The Bible says, God is light…if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:5, 7).  When Jesus shines His love on you, everything dark gets pushed away.  If you can’t sleep, turn on the light by reading the Bible and praying to Christ.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A new lease on life

A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone. But go, show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them."  Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. As a result, Jesus could no longer enter a town openly but stayed outside in lonely places. Yet the people still came to him from everywhere
(Mark 1:40-45).

Leprosy is a terrible skin disease.  It kills the nerve endings, so the victim feels no pain.  As much as we dislike pain, we need it to stay healthy.  The pain of a burn tells us to keep away from fire.  The pain of a broken bone tells us to move carefully so it will heal properly.  The pain of a cut reminds us to go wash out the wound so it won’t get infected.

But a leper doesn’t get these warnings.  If you have leprosy, you can’t feel the pain of a cut—if you don’t notice that you have been injured, infection can set in without you realizing it.  Left untreated, infection can result in gangrene or even death.  Leprosy makes it easy to die.  To make matters worse, leprosy is contagious—it is not safe to touch or live with someone who is infected.  In the early stages, leprosy can be hard to detect—the only evidence of infection is a patch of discolored skin.   Worst of all, there is no cure for the condition.  Leprosy is a very dangerous disease. 

Being that it was both contagious and deadly, God told His people to quarantine any victims.  The leper could only live in remote places where others did not go, typically caves or even cemeteries.  If you caught leprosy, you lost your home and your job.  You lost contact with your family and friends.  You could not even pray in God’s house of worship.  Leprosy guaranteed you a short life of suffering and an early, lonely death.

No wonder, then, that some people disobeyed God’s rules.  A wife might keep her husband’s leprosy a secret so the family would not be separated.  Of course, this decision put everyone in the house at risk of infection.  In Bible times, no disease was more terrifying than leprosy.  When a leper was healed, this was big news indeed. 

Which brings us to Jesus.  Our Lord is the Son of God, born on earth in a human body.  His hands hold the power of life and death.  His words have the power to quiet storms, forgive sins, and raise the dead back to life.  Nothing is too hard for Him—not even curing leprosy. A man with leprosy came to him and begged him on his knees, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.

What an incredible miracle!  The incurable is cured!  The man got his health back, his family back, his job back.  He got his life back.  No wonder he disobeyed Jesus and told everyone about this great blessing.  Jesus had taken away the worst thing in his life, giving him reason to be happy again.

Leprosy is a disease with no cure.  Why did this man even bother coming to Jesus, asking for the impossible?  It’s because he had faith.  He said, If you are willing, you can make me clean.  The sick man believed three things.  First, he believed that Jesus represented God’s power on earth.  He believed that Jesus could heal something that no human doctor could.  Second, the sick man knew that Jesus was under no obligation to help him.  He had done nothing to deserve a favor from God; he was a sinner from birth.  Third, the leper believed that Jesus had a loving heart.  He was confident that if he came to the Lord in humility, asking for help, Jesus would have mercy on him.  He trusted in Jesus’ compassion.

His trust was not misplaced. Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"  Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cured.  Jesus shows no fear of getting infected—He reaches out and touches the man, the first touch that leper had felt in a very long time.  Jesus speaks words of love—I am willing.  And then our Lord performs an incredible miracle—at His command the leprosy goes away.  Faith brought the leper to Jesus, and Christ rewarded that faith with a new start at life.

This should give you confidence.  There is no medical condition that’s too hard for Jesus to fix.  He can cure ailments of the body like cancer, Multiple Sclerosis and AIDS.  He can give relief from problems of the mind like addiction, bi-polar disorder and Alzheimer’s.  If He is willing, Jesus can cure anything.

Of course, there’s the rub.  A lot of the time, Jesus does not cure our ailments.  He has the power, but He does not use it on us.  And that leaves us to wonder why?  Why doesn’t Jesus cure me of this problem?  Why isn’t He willing?  Have I made Him mad?  Is He trying to teach me a lesson?  Does He love me?

Understand this—death is inevitable.  The wages of sin is death, Paul writes in Romans 6:23.  Death is God’s curse on sin.  Everyone sins; everyone dies.  Some die sooner, others later, but death comes for everyone at some point. 

Sickness and death go hand in hand.  Sickness leads to death.  When we get sick, we feel the touch of death brushing against our skin. 

Death cannot be avoided; for that reason, health problems cannot be avoided.  If Jesus were to cure every sickness, no one would die.  But God has decreed that all must die, because all have sinned.  Sooner or later, everyone will face a health problem that is fatal.  Although Jesus loves us and often cures us, He will not oppose His Father’s will—that in the end, each of us dies.

Thankfully, Jesus has done something much more impressive than curing leprosy.  Our Lord suffered God’s curse on sin when He died at Calvary.  Jesus never did anything wrong; His life was perfect in every respect.  But the Messiah took responsibility for our sins; that’s why He suffered and died.  He suffered God’s curse on our misconduct.  We conjure up evil thoughts; we speak hurtful words; we push others around so we can get our way.  We deserve God’s punishment for breaking His law, which commands us to love.  But Jesus suffered the penalty for our wickedness.  Through His bloody death, we are rescued from the hell that we deserve.  This is the greatest miracle that Jesus performed.

Christ does not end every ailment of body or mind, but He does love you.  He loves you so much that He endured hell in your place as He died on the cross.  He suffered more than you or I ever will—He suffered for every sinner in the world. Jesus has taken away the worst thing in your life, giving you reason to be happy again—He has taken away God’s curse on you for being a sinner.

Now it’s true, you still have to die—we all do.  But death can be a blessing, not just a curse.  Death is a curse if it leads to hellish suffering for eternity.  But death can be a blessing if you trust in Jesus’ power and compassion like the leper did.  If you have faith in Jesus, death ends suffering.  It ends the suffering of body and mind, tormented by poor health.  It ends your struggle with sin—in Romans chapter six Paul writes, anyone who has died has been freed from sin.  For the Christian, death leads to heaven; God sends His angels to lift you gently from this world and take you to His side.  In heaven, all is brightness and joy.  In heaven, all believers participate in a grand celebration with Jesus that will never end.  Revelation chapter 21 says, There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

The leper who came to Jesus on his knees serves as an example for us all.  He believed that Jesus is God’s Son, able to do anything He desires.  The leper knew that he was a sinner, unworthy of Jesus’ touch.  He came to the Lord in humility, because he trusted in Jesus’ love and compassion.  That faith was rewarded with the start of a new life.

Do you believe that Jesus is God’s Son?  Do you believe that He has power over storms, sickness, even death?  Do you believe that with faith, anything is possible?

Do you see yourself as God sees you, a sinner?  Do you take responsibility for your evil thoughts, words, and deeds?  Do you understand that a holy God owes you nothing but His anger for failing to obey His law of love?

Do you trust in Jesus’ love for sinners?  Do you believe that on the cross, His blood satisfied God’s anger that you provoked?  Do you approach Christ humbly on your knees, confident that because He loves you, He will make your life worth living? 

If you do, you have already experienced the greatest miracle of all—in Christ, you are reborn!  You have a future that’s worth living for!  You are forgiven; sickness and death will lead to an eternity of happiness.

I’m not suggesting that bad health is a good thing.  Jesus cured many people during His years on earth, and to this day, He cures all sorts of ailments throughout the world.  But far more important is this: He wants us to trust Him.  He wants us to have confidence in His power and compassion.  He doesn’t want us to give up or live in bitterness because of hardships.  Jesus can overcome any ailment of mind or body—but whatever tomorrow may bring, He wants you to have faith just as did the leper did.  That faith will be rewarded with happiness and peace.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Focus on Jesus

We must get rid of everything that slows us down, especially sin that distracts us…We must focus on Jesus, the source and goal of our faith (Hebrews 12:1-2).

When you are doing something monotonous, your mind tends to drift.  What do you think about at such times?  Where does your mind wander as you spend hours behind the wheel, when you lean back during a boring meeting, or while you are washing a big stack of dishes?  Your thoughts, at such times, suggest what’s important to you.

Each day is filled with things that must be done.  Some days get so busy that you need a planner to stay on track.  When you put together your schedule, which activities do you most look forward to?  If time becomes a problem, which elements of the day do you most regret having to sacrifice?  At such times, your feelings reveal what’s important to you.

Of course, no one has full control over how their time is spent.  If you want to get a paycheck, the boss dictates much of your schedule.  If you want to wear clean clothes, the laundry won’t do itself.  Severe weather, major accidents and significant illness can eat up time and demand your undivided attention.  But what about the rest of the time?  The things you long to do, the activities you hate to put off and work hard to fit into your day, these reveal what’s truly important to you.

The season of Lent is designed with this in mind.  During Lent, it is customary to give up something distracting in order to make more space for spiritual activities.  How important to you is your relationship with Jesus?  When you are doing something monotonous, do you daydream or do you use the opportunity for prayer?  When you spend a day constantly putting out one fire after another, do you regret not having some uninterrupted time to open a Bible and be soothed by God’s Word?  Do you hate having a job that makes you work on Sunday morning when you’d rather be in church worshiping the Savior?

Use these days of Lent to think about what’s important to you.  Don’t focus on what you are giving up; instead, view this as an opportunity to give the Lord Christ more of your attention by taking less important stuff out of your schedule.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Who are you?

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

Who are you, really?

Who do you pretend to be?  A good student, a diligent worker?  A faithful spouse, a model parent?  You do all the right things—show respect to everyone, dress for success, show yourself as confident in your abilities—but you know it’s all a sham.  This isn’t who you really are, this is just the person that you want others to see.

Who do you aspire to be?  Do you want to be a person who never loses their cool in tough situations?  A guy who is courageous when the chips are down?  A gal who has the patience of a saint when dealing with others?  How aggravated do you get when you see the disconnect between who you are and who you want to be?

Who do you dread becoming?  An abusive man like your dad?  A pitiful alcoholic like cousin Josephine?  The man who gets no respect because he won’t stand up for himself?  The woman who always gets taken in by loving promises, only to be abandoned when things get serious?  Does fear of a downward spiral rob your days of happiness?

How you react to hardship provides a good snapshot of who you truly are.  When ambushed by a problem, do you blow your stack, freeze up, or start thinking of possible solutions?  When someone launches a personal attack against you, do you go into emotional lockdown, round up friends to take your side, or start asking questions to get at the heart of the matter?  How you behave in a crisis is starkly revealing.

Looking at yourself honestly is not much fun.  Trying to change yourself for the better is a tough slog, and pretending to be someone you’re not is exhausting.  But you know what?  Jesus knows who you really are, and He loves you anyway.  You are a child of God, precious to Christ despite your baggage, so precious that He laid down His life to make you His own.  He forgives your shortcomings and failures. He offers the hope of becoming a better person, not by your own feeble efforts, but through His wisdom and support.  You can walk a better path so long as you have the Lord Christ at your side, your hand firmly grasped in His.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Follow the Cowboy!

I am sending an angel ahead of you, who will protect you as you travel. He will lead you to the place I have prepared (Exodus 30:20).

One staple of classic Westerns is the long, dangerous journey.  It might be a covered wagon traveling across the prairie in search of a place to settle and raise a family.  It might be a group of cowboys riding herd on a cattle drive.  It might be grizzled prospectors heading towards the foothills in search of a gold strike.

Whatever their reasons, these sunburned travelers were in search of a dream.  Settlers purchased far off land on a promise, sight unseen—it was not until journey’s end that they finally saw the place which they would call home.  Others headed west because of the gold rush, having nothing but hope that upon arrival they would actually strike it rich. 

These long treks through unforgiving wilderness were fraught with danger—hostile natives and ruthless bandits, prairie wildfires and extreme weather conditions, not to mention wild animals and the risk of getting lost and running short of food and water.  Many of these travelers were not prepared for the hardships of such a trip.  At least cowboys understood the risks associated with cattle drives and prepared accordingly, although their work was no less dangerous.

We are on a dangerous journey, too.  We are traveling towards a place we’ve never seen, a watering hole where we can strike it rich and make our home.  We are on the way to paradise; our goal is nothing less than heaven itself.  Our journey is through life here on earth—a magnificent, beautiful territory, but a place that is overwhelming and confusing and filled with danger.  There are hostile natives and demonic forces who want to hurt us, take advantage of us, leave us bleeding in the dust.  There is the risk of getting lost and never finding the Promised Land.  And there is a danger of collapsing from starvation and dehydration, our souls hungry and thirsty for hope and purpose.

Praise God for sending Jesus to be our guide!  He has walked the path through life to heaven, and knows the best route to get us there.  He has the strength to defend us from every deadly attack that would keep us from reaching our goal.  He nourishes us with His Word and the Sacraments so that we don’t weaken and collapse during the harshest parts of the journey.  Jesus is the ultimate cowboy, who brings home safely all who are under His watchful care.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

The Mysterious Stanger--revealed!

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15).

When you watch old Westerns, one traditional plot features the mysterious stranger.  Life is not good for the ranchers or the townsfolk. There might be a gang of bandits striking from a hidden base.  There might be a notorious gunslinger who murdered the sheriff and has basically taken over.  There might be a group of dangerous and unpredictable brothers who are protected by a wealthy and powerful father.  

To make matters worse, the locals aren’t united.  Families are split by long existing feuds.  Blacks, Mexicans, and Native Americans are viewed with suspicion.  Cowardly types urge everyone to just knuckle under, and fearfully rat out anyone who might take a stand.  All in all, it’s a hopeless situation.

But then a stranger arrives, one day, and he changes everything.  He upsets the status quo.  The locals don’t know what to make of him—they have no idea where he’s from, and he is unlike anyone they’ve ever met before.  He forces long held secrets out into the open so they can be dealt with.  He urges strangers and enemies to mend fences and start working together.  He instills confidence in the timid and fearful.  And he is the one who takes down the bad guys, restoring peace and tranquility before he rides off into the sunset.

Two thousand years ago, a Mysterious Stranger arrived in our world and changed everything.  Most of the locals didn’t know what to make of Him—they didn’t understand where He came from, and He was unlike anyone they’d ever met.  We know that He came from heaven; we know that unlike us, He is perfect through and through.  He never makes mistakes; He never lets emotion cloud His judgment. He hates lawlessness and He is driven by compassion.  He exposes our secret sins so they can be dealt with.  He teaches us to reach out in love to others who are different from us, and to forgive those whom we dislike.  He gives us confidence that evil can be overcome, and should not be catered to.  And He took down the bad guy single handed, suffering a fatal wound as He did so.  But the grave could not hold Him, and when He rode off as the Rising Son, He left behind a legacy of justice and peace.  He is no mysterious stranger to us; He is Jesus the Messiah, Son of God and Savior of Mankind.  But you can call Him ‘Friend.’

Saturday, February 02, 2013

The god of the stomach

Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.  Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you.  For, as I have often told you before and now say again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.  Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things.  But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body
(Philippians 3:12-21).

Which do you serve?  The God of the cross, or the god of the stomach?

The god of the stomach is a very popular religion.  It has more churches dotting the landscape than any other faith.  It influences political campaigns and foreign policy.  It shapes our legal system and the news media.  The god of the stomach is a powerful and far-reaching religion.

The god of the stomach is based on one primary assumption: you are the most important thing in the universe.  Your comfort and happiness always come first. Every hour of the day should be packed with fun.  Friends and family exist to make you happy; if they do not, you should replace them. If a job is hard or doesn’t pay you big bucks, leave it and find something else.   If you are not good at sports or lose at cards, play games on the computer where you can set the controls on ‘easy.’

When you follow the god of the stomach, it affects your behavior.  When you get sick, you expect others to drop what they’re doing so they can take care of you.  When something catches your eye, you buy it—and if you don’t have enough money in your account, you charge it.  You get angry when you’re stuck in traffic, standing in line, or waiting for a web page to open.  You make fun of people who don’t agree with your opinions.  You know what your rights are, and no one better try ordering you around. 

Like any religion, the god of the stomach influences your priorities.  When it is important to look good, getting a facelift becomes a necessary expense.  When it is important to have several nice homes scattered around the country, it is easy to bend a few rules in the pursuit of money.  When it is important to be well liked, you’re going to accept all sorts of strange and aberrant behavior as acceptable. 

The god of the stomach is worshiped with money.  You are the most important being in the universe; the best way to use money is to spend it on yourself.  We see this kind of thinking in politicians who spend $200 on a haircut and $700 on a pair of glasses.  We see the god of the stomach worshiped when celebrities that are worth millions complain that they aren’t making enough and threaten to stop working. 

The god of the stomach is popular in politics and sports, in Hollywood and Nashville.  But this religion is also popular right where you live.  You worship the god of the stomach too.  You worship him when you run up credit card debt for purchases that could wait.  You honor him when you throw away something that could be fixed or donated to the poor.  You serve him by wasting money on gambling.  You worship the god of the stomach when you say “no” to charity.

How do you recognize someone who follows the god of the stomach?  His followers are so hungry for pleasure that they are willing to risk their health by smoking, over eating, abusing drugs, or exposing themselves to venereal disease. His faithful treat other people like toys to be used for their amusement. His worshipers hire lawyers to protect their freedoms and escape their responsibilities.

I said earlier that this religion has churches everywhere.  The god of the stomach is worshiped in restaurants, where you spend far more on a meal than you would by cooking your own food.  The god of the stomach is worshiped in retailers, where you spend extra money just to get a designer label.  The god of the stomach is worshiped in car dealerships, where style and extra features often trump fuel efficiency and a good warranty.  The god of the stomach is worshiped in courthouses, where spouses who are unhappy with their partners file for divorce.  The god of the stomach is worshiped in hospitals, where pregnant mothers abort children they don’t want.  The god of the stomach can be worshiped anyplace where money changes hands. 

The god of the stomach is attractive to everyone.  After all, who doesn’t prize freedom?  Who doesn’t like having a good time?  Who doesn’t want to be the center of attention?  On the surface, this religion looks very appealing.  But consider Proverbs chapter 16, verse 25: There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.  Things that look too good to be true generally are.  Paul tells us that if you follow the god of the stomach, your destiny is destruction.

It should be obvious.  A religion of “me first” can only result in chaos.  Everyone would be fighting with each other over stuff they want but refused to share.  Work places would be a revolving door of new faces, as people routinely moved on in search of greener pastures.  No child would have a family they could depend on, because couples would be constantly hooking up and splitting up.  For that matter, how many children would even see the light of day, if mothers only saw them as an inconvenience?  Living in such a world would not be fun—how much joy can you have if the only person you can depend on is yourself?  Such a life would be lonely and frightening beyond words. Even worse, the god of the stomach offers nothing good at the end of life—when you die, the fun is over. 

Thankfully, there is another religion—the religion of the cross.  The God of the cross is very different from the god of the stomach.  The God of the cross puts others first.  The religion of the cross is based on three primary teachings.  1) All humans are evil from conception; by nature, we are enemies of the holy God.  2) In order to end hostilities, God sent His Son into the world to suffer and die as our substitute; on the cross, God punished Jesus for our sins.  3) Jesus rose from the dead and opened the gates of heaven for us; if we trust in His merciful love, He will give us eternal life and eternal happiness. 

The God of the cross gives us release from guilt and hope for a better tomorrow—so why don’t more people flock to His churches?  It’s because the God of the cross has different priorities than we do.  His religion is about putting others first.  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 22:37-39).  The religion of the cross is about humility, not pride; it is about serving others, not being served.  Jesus Himself set the pattern: even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)

The God of the cross is worshiped with giving.  God is the most important being in the universe; the best way to use your time and money is to give it to Him.  We see this kind of thinking in elderly Christians who write the church into their wills.  We see the God of the cross worshiped when followers put more in the collection plate than they spend on cigarettes or eating out.  Perhaps most famously, we see this devotion in the Widow’s Mite: Jesus sat down…and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts.  But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins…Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on" (Mark 12:41-44).

When you follow the religion of the cross, it affects your behavior.  When others get sick, you drop what you’re doing so you can take care of them.  When something catches your eye, you stop and think before you buy—is this something that I really need, or would those dollars be better spent supporting a missionary?  You make time to listen to your children, stay in touch with fiends, or volunteer for a charity.  You only speak when you have something positive to say, and if you have to correct someone, you do it with loving patience.  You are less concerned with your rights than you are with acting responsibly

The God of the cross influences your priorities.  When it is important to thank God for His Son’s death, coming to church becomes a necessity.  When it is important to ask God for help in doing the right thing, prayer becomes a matter of routine.  When it is important to keep unbelievers from walking into hell, you will point out sin for what it is and talk about the Savior.

How do you recognize someone who follows the God of the cross?  His followers are so grateful for His love and forgiveness that they want to serve as His voice and hands.  They gather in church to sing and learn and pray.  They tell their friends and relatives about Jesus and invite them to worship as guests.  They support the church generously through money in the plate and service on committees.  They pray for their pastor, the work of the church, and those who follow the god of the stomach.

Christian churches are everywhere.  Yet they do not receive the kind of support that is given to the church of the stomach.  Most churches of the cross struggle to make ends meet.  But you can help.  You can worship the God of the cross by cooking at home instead of eating out.  You can worship the God of the cross by avoiding expensive designer labels when you shop.  You can worship the God of the cross when you buy cars that are durable and get good mileage.  You can worship the God of the cross by fixing broken things instead of replacing them.  The God of the cross is worshiped when you save money so that it can be used to support the work of His church. 

Jesus said, No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).  So I challenge you.  Each time you use a credit card, each time you write a check, each time you open your wallet, each time you make out an offering envelope, ask yourself: are you worshiping the god of the stomach, or the God of the cross?  Which god do you serve?

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