Friday, March 29, 2013

Life instead of death

Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die" (John 11:25-26).

He is risen!  He is risen indeed!

Easter is about death giving way to life.  It’s about joy.  It’s about hope.  It’s about the end of living in fear.  But you cannot appreciate how wonderful Easter is if you don’t fully understand what Jesus accomplished.  Jesus overcame death not once, but twice.  He defeated the first death and the second death.

Yes, there are two kinds of death.  The first death is the death of the body—it separates us from our loved ones here on earth.  But as bad as that is, the second death is far worse—Jesus speaks of it in Revelation chapter 20: I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life…and I will be his God and he will be my son.  But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.  The second death separates us from God and denies us access to heaven; the second death is eternal suffering in hell.

Thankfully, Jesus has overcome both death and hell.  He told Martha, He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Jesus will rescue us from the grave; He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.  Jesus will also keep us from being sent to hell; whoever lives and believes in me will never die

We focus a lot of attention on the first death, but give little thought to the second.  We spend all kinds of money on trying to look young and stay healthy.  We are terrified of death, and fight its coming with every resource at our disposal.  And when death finally claims us, we spend even more on lavish funerals.  We act as if the first death is the end of our existence. 

But the second death should be a much greater concern.  When we die, God has a decision to make—welcome us into heaven or banish us to hell.  In heaven, all is forgiven.  In heaven, there is peace.  In heaven, there is no stress or frustration.  Best of all, heaven is filled with love—the love of God, the love of the angels, the love of our fellow saints. 

Hell is just the opposite.  In hell, everyone is in pain. In hell, guilt and regret never stop eating away at you.  Hell is filled with darkness and rage and despair.  Hell is barren of love—it is a place that offers no gentle touch, no words of encouragement, not a single act of kindness. 

You’d think that people would do everything in their power to avoid the second death—yet most barely give it a passing thought.  They’re too wrapped up in day-to-day affairs.  They are focused on earning money and spending money.  They are focused on winning respect and being attractive.  They are focused on getting their way and overcoming enemies.  They worry about the first death, because it gets in the way of their plans—but they don’t worry about God or His rules.  They don’t concern themselves about facing the second death.

Actually, many people are dead right now, even though they are busy leading hectic lives.  From God’s perspective, they are dead already because they have no relationship with Him.  In his letter to the new believers in Ephesus, Paul speaks of how faith in Christ had changed their lives: you were dead in your transgressions and sins…But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions--it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians chapter two).  Paul takes up the same idea in Colossians chapter two: When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ.  Without Jesus in our lives, we are as good as dead.

The miracle of Easter is Jesus’ triumph over death.  But He did much more than just rise from the grave, as amazing as that was.  Jesus defeated death in all the forms it takes.  The Son of God gave life to our dead souls.  He ended the power of the grave to hold our bodies captive.  And He gave us escape from eternal death in hell.

Jesus gives life to our dead souls.  We are all sinners; we ignore God and rebel against His laws.  Because of this, we were separated from God and were as good as dead.  But Jesus died to change all that.  God punished His Son on the cross for our misbehavior.  Through His atoning sacrifice, Jesus earned the right to forgive us.  He rose from the dead so He could extend His nail-scarred hands to us.  He offers us forgiveness and reconciliation with God.  In Christ, we are filled with life.  He told His followers, I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10).

Do you realize what this means?  When Jesus forgives you, you are freed from guilt.  You are no longer weighed down by regret.  Jesus refreshes you with these beautiful words: Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20).  You are reconnected to the God who gave you life.  You are freed from the burden of old mistakes.  And you get another benefit as well—Jesus enables you to forgive and be reconciled to your parents and grandparents, your brothers and sisters, your children and grandchildren.  Jesus makes it possible for you to forgive and be reconciled to the person you married and to your best friend, to your boss and co-workers and subordinates, even to your enemies.  The human heart is shriveled, hard, and dead, but Jesus gives it life, tenderness, and compassion.

Jesus also gives life to our dying bodies. The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).  Physical death must come, sooner or later—it is the inevitable result of sin.  But although death is terrifying and painful, it can also be a blessing if you trust in Christ.  Although Jesus forgives us, we struggle with sin every moment of our lives.  Death puts an end to that wrestling match—Scripture says, anyone who has died has been freed from sin (Romans 6:7).  Death ends our struggles with temptation.  Death stops us from speaking hurtful words and doing harmful things. 

Make no mistake—death is our enemy.  Death steals away our loved ones.  Death changes our lives and our plans for the future.  Death is not a good thing.  So we can be grateful that Jesus overcame death on Easter morning.  He rose from the grave, proving His power to free anyone from death’s clutches.  He promises us new life, life that is not marred by birth defects or disease or crippling injuries.  Paul tells us, the Lord Jesus Christ…will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20-21).

Jesus suffered and died because He loves us.  He was willing to do whatever it took to keep us from burning in hell, lost and alone.  He endured the cross to spare us from the second death.  In Revelation chapter two the Lord made this wonderful promise: Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life…He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death.  If we cling to Jesus and trust in His love, He will guarantee us a place by His side in paradise. 

No matter what form it takes, Jesus has overcome death.  As a result, we don’t have to live in fear.  We don’t have to fear God, because Jesus has reconciled us.  Jesus is an expert at mending broken relationships; He gives us patience to put up with each other, courage to admit when we’re wrong, and the willingness to let old hurts fade from memory.  We have no reason to fear our mistakes—with Jesus’ help, any damaged relationship can be salvaged.

Because Jesus overcame death, we can face the tough days of life with hope.  Our bodies are ravaged by sickness, injury, and the effects of aging.  Jesus suffered too—suffered so much that He died on Good Friday.  But Jesus rose from the dead on Easter morning, fully restored to health.  On the Last Day, Jesus will raise us too, and we will be free from any health problems; this gives us hope during our days of pain and illness.  When death takes our loved ones, it is hard to say goodbye.  Many people watched Jesus die and mourned His passing, but their grief was short lived because no grave could hold the Lord of Life.  By stepping alive from the tomb, Jesus proved that death is only a temporary thing; and although every funeral is a grief-filled time of parting, we can live in hope of a heavenly reunion. 

Jesus has defeated death in all its forms.  He makes it possible for us to live in hope, not fear.  This gives us joy, a satisfaction with life that cannot be duplicated by power, money, or popularity.  We have a joy that fills us with inner peace, even when days are frustrating or the future looks uncertain.  In Christ, we are alive—alive with love, alive with kindness and compassion, alive with a positive attitude that sees possibilities for growth in every challenge.  Life—this is God’s Easter gift to you.  May you rejoice in it always, and share it generously with others.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Justice served

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

What is the price of justice?

You’ve seen reports of hideous crimes—kidnapping, premeditated murder, blackmail.  The news is filled with stories about terrorist attacks, government corruption, and swindlers who get rich through identity theft. There are adults who misuse children.  Organized crime destroys lives with drugs and violence.  When you think of the terrible pain such acts inflict, what price would satisfy the victims’ cry for justice?

But you have caused hurt too. There are many who are victims of your misbehavior.  The child who cried because you broke a promise.  The guy or girl you pressured into having sex before they were ready.  The boss you defrauded by taking long breaks or stealing from the office.  The shy and awkward kid that you pushed around or made fun of.  The friend you spread gossip about. The spouse you cheated on.  When you think of the awful hurt you have been responsible for, what price would satisfy the cry for justice?

When something seems unjust, we are quick to shout, “that’s not fair!”  We want the people who cause trouble to get what’s coming to them.  Of course, that desire for justice goes away when the blame falls on us.  When others desire our punishment, all of a sudden mercy looks a lot better than justice. 

What is the price of justice?  Look at Jesus nailed to the cross and you have your answer.  Listen to the Son of God cry out, my God, my God, why have You forsaken me? (Mark 15:34)  That, my friend, is hell—to have God completely turn away from you, to be cut off from the Lord who gave you life and surrounded you with His love every single day.  That is the price of justice.  That is what criminal scum deserve.  That is what you and I deserve for being selfish, irresponsible, cruel and uncaring.

But our Lord is merciful.  So God’s Son came to suffer the price of justice in our place.  Jesus experienced the horror of being cut off from God’s love so we don’t have to.  The Savior bled and died to make your forgiveness possible.  On the cross, justice was served—and thanks to Jesus, you don’t have to pay the price.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Stay close!

“Here is your king," Pilate said…But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" (John 19:14).

On Palm Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem, welcomed like a king.  People lined the road singing His praises.  Yet just five days later, a crowd gathered at the governor’s palace screamed for Jesus’ death on a cruel Roman cross.  How could the people of Jerusalem be so fickle?  How could they abandon Christ so quickly?

I’m not sure they did.  Many in Jerusalem were loyal to Jesus and held Him in high regard.  There were also plenty of individuals who hated Jesus and wanted Him out of the picture permanently.  But a lot of residents in the city probably didn’t feel strongly about the Savior either way—they might have heard something about Him, but they just weren’t all that interested in learning more.

Still, Jesus had a sizable following, and the leaders of the people felt that He presented a challenge to their authority.  But they didn’t dare move against Christ openly lest they cause a riot.  So they hatched a plan with the traitor Judas—snatch Jesus under the cover of darkness while most of His followers were safely in bed.  A quick trial followed, and Jesus was brought to the governor for execution before anyone got wind of what was going on.

But Governor Pilate wasn’t convinced they had a case against Jesus.  So the leaders rounded up a crowd to chant on cue and demand the Savior’s bloody death.  Pilate didn’t want a riot in his city, so he gave in to their demands and sent Jesus off to die.

I think that the protesters who shouted for Jesus’ death were hand-picked for the job, just as mass protests are orchestrated these days exclusively for news cameras.  How else do you explain the people weeping on the street as Jesus was led away with a heavy cross on His back?  Those people cheering for Jesus five days earlier had been caught napping—before they knew it, the Lord of Life was condemned by His enemies.

Don’t be caught napping like those followers of Jesus were—Satan is able to work mischief so quickly that you can be caught unawares.  Stay close to Jesus every moment of every day; it’s the only way to avoid getting separated by the devil’s evil scheming.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

24 hours that changed everything

24 hours that changed history.  Jesus began those 24 hours in the upper room, serving His disciples the Last Supper on Thursday evening.  Jesus ended those 24 hours on the cross, where He died late in the afternoon on Friday.  24 hours—just a single day, but the most important day in all of history.

The last 24 hours of Jesus’ life on earth began at the dinner table.  He was celebrating the Passover feast with His disciples.  Passover was a yearly commemoration of God’s power and mercy shown to the Israelites.  They had been slaves in Egypt until God heard their cries and sent Moses to free them.  But the king of Egypt was a hard man, and even though God cursed the nation with one disaster after another, the king refused to release the slaves who were the backbone of his economy.  It was the tenth and final plague that finally turned things around.  God told every Israelite family to sacrifice a spotless lamb, smear the blood on their doorposts, and eat the lamb roasted in bitter herbs.  That night, God sent the Angel of Death to Egypt, and he killed every first born son in the country.  However, if the angel found a house marked by lamb’s blood, he passed over that home, sparing those inside.  Every Egyptian family suffered tragic loss; even the king lost his first born son.  This tragedy moved the king to release the Israelites, and they have celebrated the miracle of the Passover ever since.

On Thursday night, Jesus and His followers celebrated the Passover.  But this Passover was different.  Within the next 24 hours, Jesus would become the Passover lamb, the Lamb whose blood protects us from God’s anger.  Jesus showed that He was the new Passover lamb when He took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take and eat; this is my body." Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28). Jesus is our Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).  Through the bread and wine of Communion, Jesus gives us access to His body and blood which was sacrificed on the cross to save us.

After a time of teaching, Jesus led the group out to a secluded garden in an olive grove.  He knew what was going to happen.  He was about to shoulder the burden of every sin committed throughout all of history; Jesus was going to suffer God’s punishment for every hateful word, every wasted moment, every misspent dollar.  Jesus was going to face unimaginable pain and humiliation, and He was going to do it alone.  This was a tough job, even for God’s own Son.  So Jesus wanted time for prayer.  He needed to share His concerns with God.  He wanted strength and reassurance from His Father so He could meet the challenges that lay ahead and successfully overcome them.  Jesus turned to our heavenly Father for help so that He would not give in to temptation, fear, or despair.  Hours went by as He prayed, but He did not lose focus; being in anguish, he prayed even harder, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground (Luke 22:44).  Yet through it all, He always deferred to God’s plans; Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).

It was close to midnight when torches broke through the darkness of the garden.  Leaders of the Jews had sent agents to arrest Jesus under the cover of night.  They were jealous of His popularity.  They were angered that He did not respect their authority as experts on religious law.  But they were afraid to arrest Jesus in broad daylight; the Lord had too many supporters.  So they were delighted when Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, came to them with an offer—pay him money, and he would help them arrest Jesus when no one would notice. 

Why did Judas betray Jesus?  He left himself open to the devil’s control.  Judas loved money; John tells us that he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it (John 12:6).  But Jesus warns, You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24).  Judas loved money more than anything else, and this gave Satan the opening that he needed. Then Satan entered Judas…And Judas went to the chief priests and the officers of the temple guard and discussed with them how he might betray Jesus (Luke 22:3-4)

So it was Judas, one of Jesus’ inner circle, who arranged the ambush.  But the betrayals did not end there.  As soon as things looked hopeless, all the disciples deserted him and fled (Matthew 26:56).  Jesus was left alone in the hands of those who hated Him. 

Jesus was taken in for a private trial, even though Jewish law required all trials to be held during the daytime and never in secret.  Of course, the trial was a sham—there was no evidence to present because Jesus had done nothing wrong.  After much wasted time, the chief priest finally laid it on the line: I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63).  Jesus never lies or talks around the truth; "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied (Matthew 26:64).  With that admission of truth, the court found Him guilty of blasphemy—they believed that Jesus was the worst kind of liar, one who uses God to back up His claims.  Since God says we are not to misuse His name, the Jews decided that Jesus must be punished with death.

While Jesus spoke the truth at the cost of His life, Peter was doing just the opposite.  Ashamed of leaving Jesus in His hour of need, Peter has slunk into the courtyard to see how the trial was going.  But when the people there recognized him as a follower of Jesus, Peter was seized with fear.  Three times he denied knowing Jesus—the third time he even swore it on God’s name. Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed.  The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: "Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times."  And he went outside and wept bitterly (Luke 22:60-62).

The Jewish leaders wanted to execute Jesus, but they did not have the authority.  The country was occupied by Roman soldiers and was forced to obey Roman law.  So at daybreak they took Jesus to the palace of the Roman governor.  Governor Pilate was a man with problems.  The Jews were always quick to riot, and he had a city overflowing with visitors for the Passover celebration.  Because he had trouble keeping control over civil unrest, his superiors had a low opinion of his abilities.  Pilate was a weak man, and the Jews knew just how to push his buttons.  They claimed that Jesus was a political threat, a man who wanted to stir up rebellion among the people.  As such, Jesus should be executed immediately.

But Pilate was no fool.  He interviewed Jesus, and quickly realized what was going on—the Jews wanted to use the governor to get rid of a hated rival.  Pilate did not want to play their game.  Over and over he told them, I find no basis for a charge against him (John 18:38).  But the Jewish leaders rounded up a crowd of demonstrators that demanded Jesus’ death.  The last thing Pilate needed was a riot, but that was what the Jews threatened him with.  Pilate tried to weasel his way out of the situation.  First he sent Jesus to Herod, the puppet king that Rome tolerated as a powerless figurehead for the people.  But when Jesus would not entertain him, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate.  Then Pilate had Jesus whipped and humiliated to try and create sympathy for Him.  But when Jesus was displayed to the people, bloody and crowned with thorns, the crowd shouted, Crucify!  Crucify! (John 19:6)  Pilate even offered to set one prisoner free for the Passover celebration; he gave a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a convicted murderer.  But the crowd chose a hardened killer over the Son of God.  Finally, Pilate caved in. He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!" All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified (Matthew 27:24-26).

Crucifixion is a horrible way to die.  Nails driven through your hands and feet.  The cross lifted upright, so you either hang from the nails in your hands or push up on the nails in your feet.  Hung in this awful position, it’s a struggle just to breathe.  You are weakened by the loss of blood.  Death can take days to come, leaving you hungry and thirsty, sweating in the heat of the sun and shivering in the cold of the night.  Worst of all is the treatment you get from others.  Crucifixion was a method of execution reserved for the worst scum of the earth.  You are crucified in public so people can make fun of you or spit on you.  The list of your crimes is posted over your head as a warning to other would-be lawbreakers.

Jesus died like a criminal.  Yet the charge posted above His head revealed the truth: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS (Matthew 27:37).  Jesus was made to suffer because He is our King.  The job of a king is to protect his people.  Jesus protected us by suffering for our sins so we can be spared from hell.  Jesus died because we love money, like Judas.  Jesus died because we want to be the center of attention, like the Jewish leaders.  Jesus died because we are afraid to stand up for Him, like Peter.  Jesus died because we let other people push us into doing the wrong thing, like Pilate.  Jesus died so that we could have access to His holy blood, the blood of a new covenant with God that takes away our sins.

At the moment when Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). The Temple consisted of two main rooms.  The large outer room was the place where priests did most of their work.  The small inner room was set aside for God alone, and was hidden from view by a large heavy curtain.  That curtain reminded everyone of Isaiah’s words: your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you (chapter 59).  But when Jesus died, the curtain was ripped open.  Because of Jesus, we are brought close to God; there is no curtain separating us any longer.

24 hours, from Thursday evening to Friday afternoon.  24 hours that have changed everything.  During those 24 hours, Jesus became our Passover lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  During those 24 hours, Jesus suffered the hell we had coming, the hell we deserve for being sinners.  During those 24 hours, Jesus tore away the curtain that separated us from God, so we can be sure of His loving presence in our lives.  What a difference a day makes.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Slavery or freedom?

The man who looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues to do this, not forgetting what he has heard, but doing it—he will be blessed in what he does (James 1:25).

From the moment of conception, we are slaves—slaves to sinful compulsions.  We are slaves to passionate emotion that won’t listen to reason.  We are chained by desires that won’t go away until we feed them, regardless of the trouble that results.  We are dragged into careless and destructive acts by our raging anger and the thrill we get from holding power in our hands, however limited it might be.  The only freedom we have as our birthright is a freedom to wallow in the clinging mud of humiliation and regret.

True freedom comes only from God through Jesus Christ our Lord. The Son of God shows us that the darkness of corruption is inferior to the wonderful light He brings.  In the brilliance from heaven we can see how ugly our sinful behavior makes us—to God and to each other.  In the light that shreds the darkness, compulsions are revealed to be raging addictions that eat away at us until nothing is left but pain and despair.   Only the LORD God has the power to peel back the oily film of evil that sticks to everything in our lives so we can see things as they truly are.

But seeing that we are not free is only the first step.  Sadly, even with the truth of things revealed, we lack the strength and commitment to pry ourselves loose from the inky tar that we are stuck in.  Freedom must come from someone who is not caught in sin’s terrible grasp.  Freedom must come through God’s divine intervention in our lives. 

This is what Christ Jesus came here to accomplish.  Twenty centuries ago, the Son of God put on a human body and came among us to bring freedom.  He freed us from ignorance by revealing God to us and preserving His precious words in the Bible.  He freed us from the devil’s undisputed control of our lives by standing up to Lucifer and crushing the old serpent under His mighty heel.  He freed us from the fear of death by walking out of His own grave alive and extending His life-giving hand to all who will grasp it in humble gratitude and trust. Jesus offers us a freedom so rich, so intoxicating that we don’t mind giving up the false ‘freedom’ to live as sinners.  Thanks to our Savior from heaven we are free to be children of God, blessed with all the good things that entails.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Freedom and Law

Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God (1 Peter 2:16).

The desire for freedom can be dangerous.  The desire of Americans living in the South to live according to their own laws resulted in the unprecedented carnage and suffering of the Civil War.  The desire of pregnant women to live free of the responsibilities of motherhood can result in the tragedy of abortion.  The desire to be free of Western influences on their society leads some Muslims to acts of terrorism. 

Freedom is also abused when it becomes a license for selfish and irresponsible behavior.  We regard freedom as a right, but no one has a right to mistreat another person, either by what is said or done.  No one has a right to make a mess and expect someone else to clean it up.  No one has a right to hoard or waste resources that others desperately need.  Freedom to do as we like reaches the end of the leash when it triggers problems for others. 

This is why the LORD God Almighty gave us rules to live by, rules like the Ten Commandments.  Our sinful nature wants to use freedom without concern for how others might be affected.  The Law of God reminds us to treat everyone with consideration and respect.  By submitting to the restrictions of God’s Law, we are showing love for the people we share our days with.  Instead of being rude, we are polite.  Instead of lashing out in anger, we work towards peaceful compromise.  Instead of using people and then discarding them, we make commitments that build long-term relationships.  Instead of saying whatever will get us what we want, we build trust by sticking to the truth. 

Thanks to God’s Law, we are free to experience something otherwise impossible—relationships where love dominates over sinful desire and dangerous impulsiveness.  Thanks to God Law, we are provided a look into His heart to see the kind of behavior that He values.  Thanks to God’s Law, we understand how to show Him gratitude for His kindness and the kind of respect that He deserves.  Sadly, we are terrible failures at using God’s gift of freedom responsibly.  How precious Jesus is to us, forgiving our failures and bringing us back to the straight and narrow!  He frees us from evil so we can be devoted to what is good.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Bloody in the fading sunlight

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us." So Moses prayed for the people.

The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live."  So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived
(Numbers 21:4-9a).

A lot of people have little use for the Old Testament; at most, they might read the Psalms or parts of Genesis.  But the Old Testament makes up 3/4s of the Bible, and it is very important.  It tells us why we need a Savior.  It tells us how to identify Him in a world that’s full of false religions.  It explains why Jesus had to die on the cross.  It assures us of the resurrection and life everlasting.

Today’s Old Testament lesson is a case in point.  In six short verses, we are shown much more than just a miracle in the desert.  God used this incident to teach us about sin, faith, and the Savior who comes from heaven.

The people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, "Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!"  This is one ungrateful bunch of people.  They had been slaves in Egypt.  They were forced to work long hours for scraps of food.  If they had too many children, some were dragged off and killed.  Then God sent Moses to free them.  God afflicted Egypt with ten horrible plagues, none of which hurt the Israelites; as a result, the Egyptians gave all sorts of valuables to God’s people and begged them to leave.  God parted the Red Sea so the Israelites could cross safely on dry ground. He led them through the wilderness with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night.  Every morning God made sweet cakes condense out of the morning dew so the people always had good tasting, nutritious food. 

But the people grew dissatisfied.  God had given them freedom, He fed them every day and He showed them what direction to go.  But that wasn’t good enough.  They wanted more comforts.  They wanted more variety in their diet.  They even called God’s sweet cakes “miserable food”! 

Boy, are they like us!  We’re never satisfied either!  Grocery stores full of choices, and we complain about the selection.  Closets full of clothes, but we have nothing suitable to wear.  Every week there are job openings in the classifieds, yet people file for unemployment because they are picky about the kind of job they’re willing to do.  Others feel sorry for themselves because they’re lonely, yet they won’t go to a hospital or nursing home to visit those who are confined there.  No matter our situation, things are rarely good enough for us.  So we grumble, whine and complain. We act as if we are entitled to whatever we want. 

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  We’re not entitled to anything.  God made us—we owe Him, not the other way around!  Scripture says, He…gives all men life and breath and everything else… in Him we live and move and have our being (Acts 17).  Such generosity deserves our gratitude.  We should focus on what we have and be thankful; instead, we focus on what we don’t have and complain.  We act like spoiled little children who have no regard for anyone but themselves.

Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.  When you see a snake, it ought to remind you of mankind’s fall into sin.  The devil spoke through a snake when he tempted Adam and Eve to disobey God.  The first couple had everything a family could want—a beautiful home, plenty to eat, easy and pleasant work.  But when they listened to Satan they became dissatisfied.  They wanted more than God had given them, and they were willing to break His law in order to get it.  As a result, they were cursed with pain and death—they and every generation to follow.  And so the snake has come to represent sin—sin that hurts us and results in death.

But why does God punish sin with pain and death?  Look at what happened in the Israelite camp. The people came to Moses and said, "We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you."  Punishment leads to repentance.  If God had ignored the complaining, it would only have grown worse.  But when the Lord inflicted pain and death, the people changed their behavior.  This is a lesson every parent should take to heart—the correct use of punishment is to bring about a change of attitude.  The Bible tells us, do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son…God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Hebrews 12)

God punishes our love for sin so that we turn to Him instead. The people came to Moses and said, "Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us."  This is what God was waiting to hear.  They stopped treating Him with contempt; instead they came to Him in humility, asking for His love.  They realized that they were treating their heavenly Father shamefully; now they started giving Him the respect He deserves. 

God lets troubles assail us for the same reason.  Much of the week, we ignore God.  We don’t pray, we don’t read His Bible, we don’t take His priorities into consideration as we make decisions.  We act as if He doesn’t exist.  Even worse, we often complain that He isn’t giving us enough of what we want.  We treat Him like a punching bag for our frustrations instead of respecting Him as our holy Father.  And so God punishes us.  He lets bad things happen to our health, our family, our reputation, our property, or our success at work.  He does it to make us stop and think about what we’re doing.  There’s an old saying that goes, ‘when God lays you in a hospital bed, you are forced to look up towards heaven.’

Moses prayed for the people.  The LORD said to Moses, "Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live."  God was waiting for a prayer asking forgiveness.  And as soon as it came, the Lord acted.  He had Moses make a snake out of bronze and set it up on a pole; the people who looked at it survived the snakebite.  What an unusual solution to the problem!  But it is a solution that teaches us many things.

God had Moses put a snake on a pole to help us understand the cross of Christ.  Centuries later Jesus told Nicodemus, Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:14-15).  After that, Jesus told His followers, "when I am lifted up from the earth, [I] will draw all men to myself."  He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die (John 12:32-33).  When Jesus speaks of being lifted up, He means being lifted up on the cross.  In the desert, the snake was raised up on a pole so everyone could see the way to be saved from painful death; on Calvary’s holy mountain, Jesus was lifted up so that all mankind could see God’s offer of forgiveness and everlasting life. 

Notice that the people were not purged of snake venom.  They were not instantly made healthy and comfortable.  The benefit they received was life.  By gazing at the snake on the pole, they survived the poisoning.  This teaches us about our relationship with Jesus.  When we gaze on Him hanging from the cross, our sins don't disappear; we remain sinners until the day we die.  The benefit we get is this—we will survive being poisoned by sin.  Its venom will not kill our souls, sending us to hell.  Because of Jesus we will live in spite of sin, and when our bodies die we will join Him in paradise, freed of sin’s destructive power forever.

Notice also that salvation was a matter of faith.  The ones who lived had to believe in God’s cure.  If someone thought that going to see the snake on the pole was foolish, he would stay in his tent and die.  If you don’t believe in God’s promises, it’s all the worse for you.  So it is with Christ.  God hung Him on the cross so that anyone who looks on Him in faith might survive the poison of sin.  But many think the message of the cross is foolish.  They don’t see how faith in God can do anything to help them with the troubles that they’re going through.  The cross of Christ means nothing to them and their souls will die, poisoned by wrongdoing and guilt.

Notice the color of the snake.  It was made of bronze.  Bronze is a metal with red highlights; in the desert sun, it would have looked fiery in color.  To the bitten Israelites, that fiery glint made them think of how they burned from the venom coursing through their veins.  To see a snake hung defeated on a pole would give them hope of recovery from the serpents’ bites.  But this also makes us think of Jesus as He was dying on the cross.  He was covered in blood—blood from the thorny crown jammed on His head, blood from His back that had been whipped mercilessly, blood from His hands and feet where the nails hand been pounded through into the wood that suspended Him above the earth.  Jesus was covered in blood, blood that washes away our sins so we can live with joy because we are free from guilt and regret.  On the cross stained red with God’s blood, the power of sin was killed along with Christ.

Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.  God sent His Son to live among us in human flesh, and hung Him on the cross to suffer and die for our sins.  When anyone bitten by sin looks up the cross in faith, he lives.  Paul writes, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Life can seem like a long, tough journey through the wilderness.  Life is hard enough—don’t anger God further by grumbling that He doesn’t love you like He should.  He loves you plenty; He loves you so much that He put His Son on a pole, bloody in this world’s fading sunlight, that you might gaze on Him and live.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Good morals, good decisions

The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so.  Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Romans 8:7-8).

Good morals require good decision-making.  When faced with an ethical dilemma, how do you figure out the best way to proceed?  Do you go for the option that works best for you, or do you seek a way forward that does the most good for the most people?

Sadly, trying to do the right thing is rarely easy.  There are always individuals who will complain that you made the wrong choice, the uncaring choice, the shortsighted choice.  Indeed, there are times when no solution looks like the right answer; all you can do is pick the lesser of two evils and hope for the best.

These situations come about because we don’t have the ability to make God-pleasing choices.  In every case there is a way that God wants things handled, but our sinful minds are incapable of seeing it or considering it as a valid alternative.  Sin corrupts our thinking, prevents us from looking at things from God’s righteous perspective.  Sin limits our freedom to make good choices that honor God and carry out His will.  In fact, sin looks at God as the enemy, someone who meddles with our freedom to behave however we want.  Sin even prevents us from seeing Jesus as our Savior, our Teacher and our Friend.  In the Good Book it says, The sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so.  Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

Thankfully, the LORD Almighty sent His Son to fix this terrible problem.  He took the responsibility for our sinfulness upon Himself, and suffered the agonizing death that we had coming.  He purchased the right to forgive us through the pouring out of His own holy blood on the cross.  Then, His saving work completed, Christ rose from the dead to share the blessing of His achievement with stubborn, sinful humanity. He tears away the dark veil of sin that blinds us so we can see things differently than before and make decisions that reflect a righteous way of thinking. He offers faith to those who are willing to accept His outstretched hand and walk with Him.  He offers guidance in finding good solutions to our nagging problems.  He offers us the freedom to stop making the same tragic mistakes over and over again. Through Jesus, good morals lead to good decisions.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013


It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1).

As Americans, we have been raised to prize freedom.  Freedom to speak our minds without fear of retaliation.  Freedom to live where we want, work where we want, vacation where we want.  Freedom to gather in protest, so long as things don’t get violent.  Freedom to worship the LORD without governmental interference or regulation.  We have freedoms that many in the world can only wish they had.

But you come right down to it, none of us are as free as we’d like to think.  You are bound by the laws of nature; if you jump off a cliff you will fall and get injured because you cannot defy gravity.  You are also limited in what you can do by the laws of the land; you cannot drive whatever speed you want and expect to always get away with it.  How you spend your time is limited by teachers and bosses and the needs of your family.  Your decisions are limited by your attitudes and beliefs—if you feel that telling lies is wrong, you are restricted to speaking the truth.  Your life is fenced in by your prejudices and worldview; if you think that something is impossible, you won’t even take a shot at it before giving up.  And your guilt limits how you react to things; feeling like a failure will keep you from reaching your full potential.  We like to think we are free and in many ways we are, but every day we operate within strictures set on us by the world and our own expectations.  We are so used to these restrictions that most of the time we don’t even notice them.

Jesus said, all things are possible with God (Mark 10:27).  The Lord Christ has sovereign power over everything.  He can suspend the laws of nature, for He set them in place.  He used five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd numbering in excess of 5,000 people.  He made storms go away with a command, healed the sick of incurable diseases, and even raised the dead back to life.  Jesus has the power to free us from everything that ties us down.  He enlightens our minds, freeing us from the limits of our prejudices.  He forgives our sins, freeing us from guilt so that we can tackle our daily challenges with renewed vigor and confidence.  And Christ frees us from having to keep God’s Law perfectly in order to gain access to heaven; during His years with us here on earth, the Son of God obeyed every aspect of Holy Law on our behalf, doing for us what we were unable to do on our own.  In Christ, we have a freedom that no one else can truly know—not unless we tell them why there is such incredible peace and joy in our hearts.

Saturday, March 09, 2013


 If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24).

Many people give up something for Lent.  Some won’t eat meat on Fridays.  Others give up chocolate.  Some stop drinking alcohol or soft drinks.  Others pledge extra money to the church that would have otherwise been spent on some form of entertainment. 

Why give up something during Lent?  It is a way to show respect for Jesus, who sacrificed Himself on our behalf.  Jesus is the Son of God; He deserves to be honored as the King of the universe.  Yet Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested on false charges.  He subjected Himself to slander, humiliation, assault and a verdict of death, none of which He deserved.  He died slowly and painfully, stripped of dignity and bereft of compassion.  He endured it all for us.  Such a powerful display of love calls for some kind of response. 

During Lent, some deny themselves in order to feel closer to Jesus.  While no one can really understand the hell Jesus went through on Good Friday, we want to share in His sufferings—it’s what friends do.  We honor Jesus’ sacrifice by giving up something that we enjoy; it helps us relate to His suffering.  Such behavior is appropriate because Jesus said, If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me (Matthew 16:24).

Others give up something for Lent as a way to show Jesus their gratitude.  The Lord gave up His dignity, His comfort and His very life, all so that we can be saved from sin, death and hell.  Such a gift deserves some kind of thank you.  That’s why followers of Jesus give up something that feels good during Lent; it’s their way of saying, ‘Lord, You sacrificed so much for me; now I’m going to give this up for You, to show my gratitude.”

A third reason for denying yourself pleasure during Lent has to do with avoiding distractions.  Before Jesus went to the cross, He prepared Himself with an evening of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane; Satan was going to attack Him viciously over the next 24 hours and Jesus wanted prepare Himself.  Many Christians use Lent as a time to take a good, hard look at themselves—their failures and their weaknesses.  It’s a time for reflecting on the important things in life—we don’t want to be distracted by trivial stuff.  And so we give up those pleasures that keep us looking in the wrong direction—towards ourselves in the mirror instead of towards Jesus on the cross.

You don’t hear much about sacrifices any more.  Maybe you’ve seen King Kong, where villagers capture an American girl and offer her to the huge gorilla that they fear.  What they were doing was offering a sacrifice; they were giving away something precious—a human life—in order to keep the angry monster happy so it would leave them alone.

For thousands of years, people have offered sacrifices.  The world can be a scary place to live in—you never know when violent weather will destroy your home, drought will take the harvest, or disease will thin the herd.  Until recently, childbirth was dangerous for both mother and baby, and infant mortality rates were high—many kids never reached adulthood.  People did not have hospitals or insurance plans to help them get through a crisis.  So they turned to any number of different religions—they prayed to the sun in the sky for light, they asked the water spirits for rain, they pleaded with the goddess of fertility for many healthy children.  They needed supernatural help desperately, so they wanted to keep these powerful beings happy.  As a result, they offered sacrifices.  The first cuttings of the harvest were burned on an altar as a gift to the goddess of the fields.  And a couples’ first-born child might be burned on an altar as a gift to the being who controlled life and death.  People gave up something precious, hoping that in return good spirits would bless them and evil spirits would leave them alone.

Of course, there is only one God—the God who created Adam and Eve, and promised them a Savior who would come to free us from sin, defend us from Satan, and raise us from death.  All those sacrifices made to other gods and spirits were simply a waste that accomplished nothing at all.  But the sacrifice made to our God is different. 

When we break God’s laws, we incur a penalty—death, followed by punishment in hell.  And we’re all guilty—Scripture says, all have sinned and fall short of God’s righteous standard (Romans 3:23).  By sinning, we have earned God’s terrible punishment.  Thankfully, He has arranged a way for us to dodge the bullet—we can escape the consequences of our bad behavior through a sacrifice.  On the cross, God’s own Son endured the punishment incurred by our lawbreaking.  He was a sacrifice of incalculable worth, so valuable that His suffering and death paid the penalty for every human sin. The death of Christ on Good Friday is the only sacrifice you’ll ever need to be sure of God’s love for you.

When Jesus died on the cross, He atoned for our sins.  ‘Atoned’ means that He paid the penalty we deserved for breaking God’s law. 

Breaking God’s Law is a big deal.  God designed the world to be perfect—everything in balance, everyone living together in harmony.  But mankind messed it all up.  God’s law says that we are to love Him and each other; instead, we let greed and pride and anger rule our hearts.  We don’t love as we should, and the result is crime and war, abortion and divorce, poverty and waste.

Our disobedience hurts our fellow man, the environment, and us.  Our sin causes pain and disappointment and fear.  No wonder, then, that God punishes those who break His laws.  But God still loves us despite our faults—that’s why He sent His Son to suffer in our place, to atone for our sins.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice we are spared God’s terrible anger.

Jesus suffered and died as our substitute.  Isaiah chapter 53 says, he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  But why did Jesus have to die?  Was there no other way to settle the account?

We don’t like the sight of blood.  It makes us squeamish.  But blood is very important.  God says, the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (Leviticus 17:11).  The penalty for breaking God’s law is death, the loss of your lifeblood.  That’s why Jesus had to bleed and die; He gave His life so ours could be spared. 

This is why we talk about Jesus’ blood being shed for us on the cross.  His blood is a gift of life for everyone dying under the curse of sin.  Hebrews 9:22 says, without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness.  Jesus had to die so we can receive God’s pardon for our sins.  Hell is too terrible to think about; that’s why we ought to be grateful that Jesus suffered in our place.  He loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood.

Jesus died to redeem us.  ‘Redeem’ means to buy back.  Picture it this way.  There was a boy who spent weeks building a model ship.  It was the kind that has sails and rigging, all sorts of tiny knots and little pulleys.  It was a complicated model, but the boy was careful and took his time—in the end, he had a ship to be proud of.

Excited with the results, the boy took his ship to the city park.  He wanted to float it in the water outside so he could take some authentic looking pictures.  But as he was lining up the camera, the wind picked up and his ship sailed away.  Before he could catch up, it was lost to sight.

A few weeks later, the boy was walking by a pawnshop downtown when he saw something amazing—there was his model ship in the window!  He had done a good job building her; the asking price was steep.  So the boy hurried home and scraped together all the money he had.  Then he returned to the pawnshop and bought back the ship that really belonged to him.

That boy loved his model ship—loved it so much that he not only built it carefully, but He paid for it a second time in order to get it back.  So it is with Jesus.  We are precious to Him—He designed our bodies and He filled us with life.  But we sailed away; we let the winds of life blow us wherever they wanted.  We ended up in Satan’s pawnshop, alone and unloved.  But then Jesus came along and bought us back.  He spent everything He had—He gave up His life in order to make us His.  He redeemed us from the devil’s control at the cost of His own life.  That’s how much He loves us.

Or think of it this way.  We are God’s children, but we didn’t like His rules so we ran away from home.  Satan kidnapped us and refused to let us go.  So Jesus offered Himself to the devil in exchange for our freedom—and Satan used that opportunity to have Jesus arrested, insulted, beaten, ridiculed, and put to death.  Jesus knew perfectly well what He was getting into, but He swapped places with us anyway—He was willing to do anything to get us out of Satan’s clutches.  Jesus paid your ransom price; how are you using the freedom that He paid so dearly to give you?

Thursday, March 07, 2013

The cross (conclusion)

I have engraved you on the palms of my hands (Isaiah 49:16).

When you look at the cross, do you see a throne?  Thrones are where kings rule.  Thrones are where kings exercise their authority.  Jesus is our king, and for one incredible day the bloodstained cross served as His royal throne.  From that throne the Son of God exercised His authority over sin, destroying its power to separate us from God.  From that throne the King of All declared us forgiven and restored as citizens of His Kingdom.  From the throne of the cross, the Son of God worked the biggest, most important miracle of all time—our freedom from the clutches of evil.

When you look at the cross, do you see your forgiveness taking place?  Christ gave His life for you, that you might be His own.  God said through Isaiah the prophet, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.  When the nails were pounded through Jesus’ hands into the cross where He died, those scars became permanent reminders of His love for you. The scars remain, even though Jesus rose from the dead.  When told of the resurrection, His follower Thomas said, Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it. A week later Jesus stood before Thomas saying, Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe (John chapter 20).  The cross has left its mark on Jesus, scars representing a love so deep that He suffered condemnation and death to bring you forgiveness and everlasting life. Now and forever, you are etched in the Savior’s hands.

When you look at the cross, do you see a reminder to forgive as the Lord forgave you?  Jesus suffered greatly to offer us a precious gift—release from guilt so we can have a new start with hearts full of gratefulness and love.  This wonderful gift brings us back to God and enfolds us in His loving arms, but it does not stop there.  The gift given to us from the cross is to be shared with all people.  The cross displayed on every church is an invitation to enter and be forgiven by God as well as by everyone sitting with you together in worship. 

The cross of Christ is ultimately about forgiveness, forgiveness that is freely given and gratefully received.  This is the message of the cross.  This is the essence of what it means to be Christian.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The cross (part 3)

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18).

When you look at the cross, what do you see?  Many unbelievers view it as a relic from times when society was primitive and people were unsophisticated.  They feel that religion is a crutch for people who cannot handle reality.  For them, the cross represents values that are hopelessly stuck in the past and have no relevance for today.  Some even associate the cross with ignorance, intolerance, and restrictions on freedom.

Which values does the cross represent to us?  The cross proclaims that evil must be punished.  The cross shows that genuine love involves sacrifice.  The cross teaches the value of forgiving those who’ve done wrong. The cross announces that truth is not always popular or well received, but no amount of intimidation or misinformation can hush it up. The cross illustrates how God can use suffering and grow something wonderful from it.  The cross is just as relevant today as it has ever been. 

The cross is relevant because the death of Christ is historical fact, not some dreamy mythology.  The Son of God actually walked among us in the body of a man. He shared our joys and sorrows, He revealed the heart of God to us, He suffered and died to pay off our debt of sin, and He rose from the dead so He could help us in life and then bring us to heaven.  Jesus is real, and He gives us hope that is real.  It is no mark of sophistication to reject Christ without first getting to know Him.  The ones who are misguided are those who struggle through life without Jesus and mistakenly believe that there is nothing beyond the grave except peaceful non-existence. 

Is the cross associated with some bad things?  Yes, regrettably, because Christians are also sinners.  Christians have twisted Jesus’ words to suit themselves, and ignored God’s commands when passions were running hot.  Christians have treated unbelievers badly instead of with love and respect.  Jesus calls on us to abandon love for sin, not to restrict our freedom but to safeguard our happiness.  Christ wants us to hold people accountable for their sins, not because we are better than anyone else but so they might repent and be forgiven.  When our bad conduct throws mud on the cross, we are grateful that we can kneel in its shadow and receive mercy from the Man who died there.

Saturday, March 02, 2013


Fear the LORD and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.  But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD (Joshua 24:14-15).

Let’s talk about luck.

Luck.  Good fortune.  A happy coincidence.  Serendipity.  No matter what name you hang on it, most people believe in luck.  Luck is when you experience something good, even though the odds were stacked against you. 

Some people say that you can make your own luck.  You can work hard to maximize your chances for success.  By studying all the variables, you can position yourself to be in the best place at the best time with the best skills to achieve success.  You can tilt luck in your favor. 

Of course, mathematicians don’t see luck—they see statistics and probability.  A math whiz can analyze information and calculate the percentages for various results.  People use such calculations to set odds on the outcome of a sporting event.  Statistics and probability are behind every weather forecast.   You can’t play successfully in the stock market if you don’t understand the relationship between risk and payoff.

But is there such a thing as luck?  Mathematics says no—over time, success and failure will cancel each other out.  Good luck and bad luck are nothing but statistical extremes.  And most people believe this—after a run of good fortune, they brace themselves for the time when luck finally runs out.  By the same token, people who feel beaten up by life take comfort in the hope that eventually their luck will take a turn for the better.

Do you believe in luck?  I don’t.  I don’t believe that the universe is governed by chance or probability.  I don’t believe that things happen by accident.  I believe that God made the universe.  I believe that He keeps His fingers in its’ day to day affairs, making sure that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Speaking of Jesus, Paul writes in Colossians chapter one He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  When good things happen, I thank God for His blessings.  When bad things happen, I ask God to help me trust in Him and rely on Him.  I don’t believe in luck, because I believe in God.  If luck is real, then no one is in charge of the universe.  If God is real, I don’t need luck to get by.  Gamblers say that luck is fickle, but I know that God always loves me.

Now let’s talk about fate.

Some people talk as if the future is set in stone. Some look for the job they were born to do.  Others wonder about their purpose in life. Romantics look for their one, true love. 

Some believe that their future is decided on the day of their birth.  They might say, “I was born this way” as if change is impossible.  Others make decisions about the best way forward according to their birth sign—they believe that their future is written in the stars.

It can be reassuring, believing that the future is all mapped out.  You can say, “everything happens for a reason” and find comfort during a time of tragedy.  But some resent being chained to destiny; they rebel against any suggestion that the future is preordained.  They want the freedom to choose their own path instead of dancing helplessly like a puppet while someone else pulls the strings. 

I don’t believe that the future is written in stone.  I don’t believe that birth determines the course of one’s life.  God does not dictate our actions.  We see it already in the Garden of Eden.  God told Adam and Eve what the rules were, but He did not stop them from disobeying.  Sadly, they made a terrible choice that has tainted every one of us with imperfection and a rebellious streak.

There are only two absolutes in the universe—God’s justice and God’s love.  His justice demanded punishment in hell for all lawbreakers.  His love offered us a way to escape that awful destiny.  God’s Son suffered as our substitute; our assured punishment was shifted over to Him.  By Jesus’ sacrifice, we are permitted escape from an unhappy fate. 

God has a plan for each of us—Ephesians chapter two says we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  But that doesn’t mean that we have no real choices in life.  James writes, The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.  God is flexible; there are many times when He has changed His mind in response to a believer’s prayer.  At Abraham’s pleading, the Lord was willing to spare Sodom from destruction if His angels found 10 righteous people living there.  In response to a prayer filled with tears, He gave King Hezekiah an extra 15 years of life.  After Jonah told the citizens of Nineveh that God was about to destroy them, the people repented and God spared the city.  When we ask God to show mercy, He is willing to change His plans for the sake of love. 

There is no such thing as luck—luck implies that no one is in charge of the universe.  There is no such thing as fate—fate suggests that the future is unchangeable.  So we are left to ponder this question: how much freedom of choice do you really have in life? 

There are some things that you have no choice about.  You don’t get to choose your parents.  You can’t alter your genetic structure.  You can’t change the economy or put an end to war.  You can’t escape aging or death. 

Of course, there are many points in life where you do get to make a choice—but even then, your options are limited.  When deciding what to wear, you are limited to the items in your closet.  If you choose to behave badly, you can end up in the Principal’s office or a jail cell; you can lose your job or your marriage.  

And yet although our choices are limited, there are still times when we feel overwhelmed.  There are several options open to us, and we don’t know which way to go.  We can be paralyzed with fear, unwilling to make a choice that might turn out badly and cannot be taken back.  Sometimes we hesitate too long and events make the decision for us.

You are right to be concerned about making a bad decision.  Left to our own judgment, we usually take the wrong path.  This is because we’re all sinners.  Our minds are clouded by fear, anger, and desire.  Our cravings scream so loudly for satisfaction that it is hard to think things through logically.  Our fears urge us to take quick and drastic action, regardless of the consequences.  When it comes to making decisions we only have limited options, yet even then we are prone to making bad choices.

This is why we need Jesus in our lives.  We need Him to put limits on the choices available to us so we don’t make a lot of catastrophic decisions.  We need Him to guide us in making good use of the decision points in our lives.  We need Him to forgive us when we do the wrong thing, hurting ourselves or hurting others in the process.  We need Him to fix the damage that we’ve caused which no words of apology can ever set right. 

God gives us freedom to make choices, but within certain limits.  He gives us brains to use and He gives us guidelines to follow.  Use your mind to honor God with your choices; you can be sure that if things go wrong, Jesus will forgive you and help to set things right.

Of all the decisions that we make in life, none are more important than those regarding Christ.  Will you go to church on Sunday or sleep in?  Will you take the kids to Sunday School or let them play video games instead?  Will you read the Bible or watch television?  Each of these decisions impacts your relationship with Jesus, either strengthening it or allowing it to weaken.

I said earlier that each of us has only a limited ability to make choices.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in matters of faith.  We don’t choose to believe in Jesus; we’re not capable of such a choice.  Paul writes, the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so (Romans 8:7).  Without God’s influence, Christianity seems ridiculous to the sinful mind—Paul says, The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14).  Until Jesus changes our hearts, we cannot choose to love Him.  He said, You did not choose me, but I chose you (John 15:16)

But God does not force us to love Him.  We do have a choice in the matter—we can choose to reject His offer of companionship.  Of course, such rejection grieves our Lord terribly; listen to Jesus’ words in Matthew 23 as He looked in sorrow at Jerusalem and its people: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  And rejecting Jesus is the worst decision anyone can possibly make, because without Jesus our sins remain a part of us and death will lead to judgment and hell.  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).

We need God’s help to make good decisions.  Philippians chapter two says, it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.  Jesus said, I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).  No matter how busy you are, make time for God’s Son in your schedule, studying His word and praying for His guidance.  Build each day around Jesus, that all of your decisions might be good ones.

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