Friday, June 28, 2013

Life from death

When Jesus had again crossed over by boat to the other side of the lake, a large crowd gathered around him while he was by the lake. Then one of the synagogue rulers, named Jairus, came there. Seeing Jesus, he fell at his feet and pleaded earnestly with him, "My little daughter is dying. Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live." So Jesus went with him.

A large crowd followed and pressed around him. And a woman was there who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years. She had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse. When she heard about Jesus, she came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, 28 because she thought, "If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed." Immediately her bleeding stopped and she felt in her body that she was freed from her suffering...

While Jesus was still speaking, some men came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue ruler. "Your daughter is dead," they said. "Why bother the teacher any more?" Ignoring what they said, Jesus told the synagogue ruler, "Don't be afraid; just believe." He did not let anyone follow him except Peter, James and John the brother of James. When they came to the home of the synagogue ruler, Jesus saw a commotion, with people crying and wailing loudly. He went in and said to them, "Why all this commotion and wailing? The child is not dead but asleep." But they laughed at him.

After he put them all out, he took the child's father and mother and the disciples who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, "Talitha koum!" (which means, "Little girl, I say to you, get up!"). Immediately the girl stood up and walked around (she was twelve years old). At this they were completely astonished. He gave strict orders not to let anyone know about this, and told them to give her something to eat (Mark 5:21-29, 35-43).

Death is big business.  If you have ever planned a funeral, you know how much money can be involved.  The biggest expense is the casket, of course, but there are other costs as well. You have to purchase a gravesite and a marker.  People must be paid—the ambulance staff and the hospital, the funeral director and the presiding minister, the organist and the gravedigger. Even with the help of insurance, burying someone is expensive.

Death is big business in other ways too.  Look at the amount of money spent on war.  Training soldiers and fitting them with gear.  Building field artillery and tanks, submarines and aircraft carriers, helicopters and bombers, nuclear missiles and spy satellites.  Much of your tax money is spent on death.

But it does not stop there.  Death is also big business in the field of entertainment.  Books about sexy vampires.  Movies about cannibalistic zombies.  TV shows where people speak to ghosts.  Such forms of entertainment rake in oodles of money.

Funerals are inevitable.  War is a constant problem.   Paying for these things cannot be avoided.  But less easy to explain is the fascination with undead monsters like vampires, ghosts and zombies.  Why do monsters spawned by death fascinate us so?

I think it is because of our fear of death.  Have you ever thought about the end of your life?  Have you tried to imagine not existing any more?  Frankly, I can’t wrap my head around it.  I can’t imagine ceasing to be, falling into a dreamless sleep and never waking up.  I’m not sure anyone can truly accept the idea that they might stop thinking, stop feeling, stop existing. 

And I believe that is why undead monsters are so fascinating.  When the dead walk, it suggests that as terrible as it is, death is not the end.  In some fashion, those who have died continue on.  Vampires and ghosts give hope that the grave does not completely extinguish us.

Death is the ultimate leveler—rich or poor, smart or dumb, popular or outcast, death claims everyone.  Nobody escapes the chill touch of the grave.  But the fear of death is a powerful thing—it makes us go to extremes to avoid it.  If we are in danger, we instinctively fight back or run away instead of letting ourselves be killed.  Some people fight off death by committing themselves to a healthy diet, vigorous exercise, or a shelf full of pill bottles.  Others hide from approaching death by getting cosmetic surgery or refusing to attend funerals. 

But there are some people who respond to death differently.  Although death is the enemy, they try to make it their friend.  They convince themselves that death can be a force that makes their lives better.  Have an unwanted pregnancy?  Death can offer you a solution—get an abortion.  Maybe you are suffering—the person you love has gone away never to return, or you are afflicted with chronic pain that cannot be managed.  Death can offer you relief—end the suffering by committing suicide. What if your marriage has gone sour and you don’t want your ex to have joint custody of the kids?  Death offers a suggestion—why not murder the person that you’ve come to hate?  In ways like this, death becomes a friend—a friend with a pasty white face and a touch that chills you to the bone.

Thankfully, most people are sensible enough to realize that death is no friend. That’s why we try so hard to avoid it.  Death pulls loved ones from our embrace.  Death stops us from reaching our goals.  Death forces unwanted change into our lives, pulling the rug out from under us. 

So how do you cope with death?  We want some kind assurance that death is not the end.  Many look for this comfort by trying to create a legacy.  The Pharaohs of Egypt built pyramids and magnificent tombs to commemorate their greatness for all future ages.  We put up statues to honor men and women who did great things.  We name cities, streets and buildings for people we think should be remembered.  We place grave markers at the tombs of our loved ones and count it a tragedy when someone’s body cannot be recovered for internment. 

There are other ways to build a legacy.  Soldiers put their lives on the line in the hope of making the world a better place.  Parents hope that each child will grow into a person that gives honor to the family name.  Wealthy people establish trust funds and foundations to be their legacy for future generations.  Politicians try to make a lasting name for themselves through landmark legislation.

If we can’t live forever, we at least want to live on in memory.  In the movie Titanic, Celine Dion sung the words you are safe in my heart and my heart will go on.  We read this sentiment in sympathy cards and hear it from the lips of those who are trying to offer comfort.  “So long as he lives in our memory, he’s never truly gone.”  But time strips these words of any comfort.   What becomes of memory when the mind is attacked by Alzheimer’s Disease?  How many generations will go by until little is remembered about you except for your name?  How many old photos do you have that contain people who are faces with no identity? 

Death takes people from this world, and time erodes both memory and legacy.  And so we hunger for the promise of new life.  We love to watch a butterfly emerging from its cocoon; although it was never really dead, it seems as if life has burst forth from the wrapping of grave clothes.  In the spring, we rejoice to see new life budding on a tree that has looked dead for months.  The hunger for rebirth is even woven into our mythology.  There is the story of the phoenix, a bird that rises anew from the ashes of its fiery death.  In Norse mythology, Ragnarok was the terrible war that would leave earth destroyed; yet after that final conflict a new world would rise and be filled with glorious life.  Individually and collectively, we desperately want the hope of never ending life.

The ugly, inescapable truth is this: death cannot be avoided.  Death cannot be disguised as something good.  Death is a problem that no human being can solve.  Death is a tragedy that all mankind holds in common.  No matter what causes it, we weep, we get angry, we become fearful, we get depressed.  And we ask why?  Why did that person have to die?  Why do I have to die?  It just doesn’t seem fair.

There is only one place where that question is answered: in the pages of God’s holy book.  The Bible is God’s message of life to we who are afflicted by death.  In those sacred pages, we are told why death is necessary.  We are also told how death can be overcome.

Death haunts us all, because each of us is a sinner.  Paul writes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  He is repeating what God has said for a long time—they have all become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not a single one (Psalm 14:3).  We sin whenever we make God angry, and we make Him angry a lot.  Jesus summed up God’s Law this way: `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: `Love your neighbor as yourself ' (Matthew 22:37-39). We break God’s law when we act impulsively, doing things without first asking the Lord for guidance.  We break God’s law when we give Him our leftover time and money or ignore Him altogether.  We break God’s law when we make fun of people and push them around.  We break God’s law when we separate sex from marriage.  We break God’s law when we lie and cheat and spread gossip.  We break God’s law when we treat possessions with more love and respect than we do God or each other.

We all sin a lot.  We all sin every day.  And that sin causes hurt—it hurts God who wants the world to be perfect.  It hurts other people as we step all over them to get our way.  And it hurts us as we ignorantly put ourselves in danger for the sake of illicit or reckless pleasure.  Left unchecked, sin causes a never-ending cascade of pain and disappointment.  So God steps in.  He checks the spread of sin with death.  Death is God’s curse on sin; we die because we are sinners.

I said earlier that we are fascinated with the undead—vampires, zombies, ghosts.  In point of fact, our world is filled with the undead, people who are moving but have no life within them.  This is the effect of sin—it fills us with death even while we are still walking around.  Listen to Paul, writing in Ephesians chapter two: As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world.  From God’s perspective, a sinner is a zombie—dead, but sadly unaware of the fact.

But God is the giver of life.  This is why He sent His Son to earth—to replace death with life.  It starts, as it must, with the soul.  What good is a moving body if there is no life in its eyes?  Jesus came to change the undead into the living—He did this by offering His own life in exchange.  Jesus died so our souls might live, forgiven the sin that results in death.  Listen again to the words of Paul, this time recorded in Colossians chapter two: When you were dead in your sins…God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins

But Jesus did not stop there.  When the Lord of Life died, His stay in the tomb was brief.  Jesus rose from the grave alive on the third day, breaking death’s grip on His body and ours. He told His disciples, Because I live, you shall live also (John 14:19).  Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter. Jesus raised Lazarus. Jesus will raise you and me and all who place their faith in Him as Lord and Savior. Our Master said, 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 11:11:25-26).

Death is the enemy; Christ is your Friend.  Don’t try to fight death on your own; you cannot succeed.  There is no way for you to hide from death, either.  Don’t try to make death into a friend; abortion, suicide and murder only cause more pain and suffering in the world.  Cling to Jesus, because He makes alive what once was dead.  He forgives your sins and He will summon you from the grave.  Only Jesus can free us from death’s cold, bony grip.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gift cards

I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Retailers love to sell gift cards.  One reason is that it gets customers into the store ready to spend money.  When you have a gift card, it puts you into the mindset of having to purchase something.  You don’t necessarily go shopping for a product that you need.  You probably haven’t done a careful price comparison in search of the best deal before entering the store.  You just have a gift card burning a hole in your pocket, and who knows what might catch your eye to spend it on?  On top of that, the merchant hopes that you will spend more on your visit than just the face value of the gift card; and why wouldn’t you fill up the shopping cart when some of it is paid for already?

An even bigger reason that retailers love gift cards is because so many of them never get redeemed.  The card gets lost in a stack of papers or finds its way to the bottom of a purse; by the time it resurfaces the expiration date has passed.  This is pure profit for the retailer, and the reason for placing expiration dates on gift cards.

God has given you a gift card.  In fact, He gives every man, woman and child the same gift card.  That card has incredible value.  It has the ability to pay off completely your debt of sin—every mistake, every cross word, every missed opportunity to show kindness.  On top of that, this gift card also serves as a gate pass into heaven when you die!  This gift card was issued when the Son of God gave up His life on the cross for all sinners.  This card is offered to all people, free of charge—a gift of undeserved love from the Lord of heaven and earth.

Sadly, a great number of these cards go unredeemed.  There are many who don’t see any use for the card because they are uninterested in God and what He offers.  There are many who are glad to have the card, but they get busy with other things and forget to use it, allowing the expiration date to pass unnoticed.  Although Christ died for all people, far too many end their lives in tragedy because the gift card was not used before death voided the offer.  Without the debt of sin paid off, without an entry pass to heaven, well, let’s just say they will have much to regret in the time ahead. I urge you, cash in your gift card signed by Jesus with His blood while there is still time; don’t let His offer of grace go unclaimed.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013


It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose (Philippians 2:13).

A lot of people are fashion conscious.  They watch celebrities to see what they’re wearing.  They do their shopping at trendy boutiques.  They sneer at people who can’t afford to dress fashionably or wear outfits that aren’t flattering.

Fashion is about accentuating your best features and disguising everything else.  Fashion is about making a good impression when you’re at a meet and greet.  Fashion is about showcasing yourself to the world.

It is a major fashion blunder to pick an outfit that calls too much attention to itself.  At such times you don’t wear the outfit, the outfit wears you.  In the fashion world, you should never take a back seat to what you’re wearing.

When you get right down to it, fashion exists because we don’t like the way we look.  There are bulges and blemishes that need to be covering up or minimized.  Fashion exists to make the ordinary look extraordinary.

Fashion exists because of sin.  All of us are flawed inside and out; no one is perfect.  We have lost the impeccable beauty of God’s original design.  Thankfully, the LORD took action to rectify this problem.  He gave us His Son, who takes away our faults and blesses us with His beautiful righteousness. 

Christ lives in every believer’s heart.  He has the power to shape our lives into something lovely.  It’s as if we are the clothes that He wears.  Think of an old gardening glove.  Stained, ripped and worn, it is limp and unappealing.  But when the master gardener puts it on His hand, that old glove springs to life.  It finds itself planting beautiful flowers and tasty fruit; it is suddenly clearing away weeds to make the garden both attractive and productive. 

In the fashion world, the clothes should never wear you.  Sadly, no outfit can fully disguise your imperfections.  But when God wears you like a glove on His mighty hand, your deficiencies don’t matter—His shining glory becomes yours as well.

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35).

It’s sad to say, but scandals are almost commonplace.  They become the lead story in the evening news.  They get first page treatment in newspapers.  They are what everyone talks about at work.  Scandals are quick to grab hold of the public’s attention.

On any given day, you hear plenty of bad news.  But a scandal is something special—it is an event so shocking that it makes people sit up and take notice.  A school bus crash that kills several children is tragic but if it comes out that the bus driver was drunk at the wheel, the crash becomes a scandal.  A radio talk show making fun of others can be unpleasant to listen to, but if the host makes racial slurs the comments will trigger a scandal.  We can grudgingly accept that accidents happen and people often make fools of themselves, but we cannot accept behavior that is dangerously irresponsible or patently offensive. 

A forest fire is not a scandal—not unless it was the result of arson.  It is not a scandal if a building collapses during an earthquake—unless it turns out that the structure was not built up to code.  No one really expects a politician to keep all of his campaign promises, but we have no tolerance for someone who is shown to be a bald-faced liar.  No one expects a late night comedian to always be funny, but the public will respond in anger if a joke is offensive.

Scandals provoke strong feelings in people. What was that judge thinking, letting a murderer go free on a technicality?  How could a man with a criminal history be elected to a position of public trust?  Scandals challenge our sense of right and wrong, of fairness and common sense.

Scandal is a funny thing—it makes us angry, but it also fascinates us.  When you check out at the grocery store, the papers on display are covered with lurid headlines.  The publishers know that scandal sells.  The more shocking the story, the better the chance that someone will buy the paper out of curiosity.  In the news business, scandal equals profit. 

In all of history, no one has been at the center of more scandal than our Lord Jesus Christ.  Many people have criticized Him.  Others have been shocked at the events of His life.  He has been the source of controversy for two thousand years, and there is no sign of the turbulence letting up.  As His followers, we sometimes get caught up in the criticism as well.  But what is all the fuss about?  Let’s take a look.

The first scandal swirling around Jesus involved His birth among us.  Jesus is both Son of God and Son of Man.  When Mary got pregnant, it was a miracle worked by the Holy Spirit.  Of course, you have to have faith in God to accept Mary’s story of an immaculate conception.  What would unbelievers think?  Maybe Mary and Joseph couldn’t wait until their wedding night, and this pregnancy was the result of their lack of control.  Perhaps Mary cheated on her finance with another man.  Regardless, it was shameful that Mary hid the truth behind an obvious lie—claiming that God made her pregnant, of all things!  Then again, maybe she was just delusional.  Regardless, unbelievers were sure that Jesus was born under a cloud.

St. Luke tells us that Jesus was well thought of by the citizens of Nazareth as He grew up.  But when our Lord reached age 30, things changed.  He gave up His first career as a carpenter and went to the notorious John to be baptized.  John was a scandal in himself; he dared to criticize the religious establishment and claimed that he was sent to prepare the way for the coming Messiah.  People came from all over to see John and listen to his message; but he also made some powerful enemies, enemies that would end his life in a gruesome manner.

Once Jesus was baptized, scandal started to surround Him once more.  He drew crowds, crowds that got bigger and bigger.  Some came to hear His words.  Others came for miraculous healing.  As His popularity grew, Jesus started attracting enemies too, enemies who opposed His teaching and tried to discredit Him publicly.  Jesus became the center of an escalating scandal; the religious hard-liners were infuriated by what Jesus had to say, while others were fascinated by the growing debate.

One of the scandals involved Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  The religious scholars called this blasphemy, a lie told in God’s name.  After all, Moses had said that our God, the Lord is one (Deuteronomy 6:4); Isaiah had said there is no other God (45:14).  Jesus spoke of God as a Trinity, one God consisting of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Although the Old Testament spoke of God’s Spirit and the Angel of the Lord who represented God to mortal man, scholars could not accept the idea of the Trinity or that Jesus could possibly be God’s Son.  Harder to explain were His miracles; if God were not with Him, how could Jesus give sight to the blind and raise the dead?  Their answer—Jesus must be an agent of the devil.  Of course, modern day skeptics don’t have to refute Jesus’ miracles—they just claim that the miracles never happened at all.  They say that the church invented the miracles as the New Testament was written, in order to sell Jesus more effectively to the ignorant and the desperate.

Jesus angered the religious elite by attacking them head-on.  The Pharisees pushed obedience to the Law as the way to win God’s approval.  God has high expectations for humanity—be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy (Leviticus 19:2).  To be holy is to live a perfect life in thought, word and deed.  Not even one sin is permitted.  Of course, no one can live up to God’s exacting standards.  Who could live their entire life and never lie, never say a hateful word, never treat Mom or Dad with disrespect?  This is why forgiveness is necessary; without forgiveness, we would be condemned to hell for being sinners unworthy of citizenship in heaven. 

The Pharisees believed in earning God’s favor by working hard to please Him.  They thought that God will reward those who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of perfection.  But Jesus challenged their views as unbiblical.  After all, through the prophet Hosea God said, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.  In Psalm 51 David wrote, You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  Jesus taught that first and foremost God wants us to bring our sinful selves to Him, fearful of God’s justice but also confident in His merciful love.  When we tell God that we’re sorry and ask for a new start, the Lord will forgive us.  Jesus illustrated this point with a little story:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: `God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'  But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, `God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'  I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted (Luke 18:10-14).

Jesus criticized the religious elite for being self-righteous, instead of seeking righteousness from God.  Jesus came to offer that righteousness as a gift—not earned but freely given.  These words of Christ are scandalous to many—they challenge our sense of right and wrong.  We think that good behavior should be rewarded; we don’t think that God should send anyone to hell if they were doing the best they could.  We don’t like being told how we should behave, and we don’t like being told when we come up short.  But that’s the effect of sin within us; it makes us reject the hard truths of God as wrong.

Jesus also scandalized people of other faiths.  He said, I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  Jesus put Himself squarely in the center of the universe—God on one side, humanity on the other.  He told the Jews that they could not approach God except through Him.  By extension, He tells the followers of Mohammed that they cannot enter paradise except through Him.  He is saying that Hindus cannot find eternal happiness except through Him.  He is warning atheists and agnostics that a life of faithlessness is the worst mistake you can possibly make.

Jesus said, I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved (John 10:9).  These words have become increasingly scandalous since the day Jesus spoke them.  These words enrage the Muslim world.  These words provoke violent attacks by atheists.  These words are shocking to those who want political correctness to govern our dialogue with each other.  Christians who repeat these words are called unloving, narrow-minded, even hateful.  We live in a world of many religions and personal philosophies, all of which want to be accorded the same respect as the Way of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus is the only Son of God.  It was Jesus alone who suffered and died for our sins, shedding His blood on the cross so that we can be forgiven.  Jesus is the only gate into heaven, because He alone paid the price for our admission.

Which brings us to the ultimate scandal—the scandal of the cross.  All other scandals pale in comparison to this one.  Some are shocked at the Father’s conduct—how could a loving God allow His own Son to be treated so horribly?  Others find no justice in the cross—they don’t see how punishing Jesus makes up for the sins committed by anyone else.  Some question why the cross was even necessary—if God wanted to forgive us, then why not wave His hand and cause those sins to just go away?  The cross is a scandal that provokes vigorous debate.

But God will not just wave His hand and make sins disappear.  He is holy and just.  Justice demands punishment for lawbreaking.  Fairness requires that debts be paid.  To wave away our sins without corrective action would only sanction them, not deter them.

The cross of Calvary proves that God is committed to justice.  On that cross, sin was punished.  Every sin, committed by every human being from Adam and Eve to you and me, was punished by God on that bloodstained wood.   But the person who served the sentence for breaking God’s law was Jesus.  The person who paid the debt incurred by our sin was the sinless Son of God.  Jesus came to earth to take our place on the cross.  He was the only person capable handling such an enormous task.

That cross is proof of God’s incredible love for us.  On that cursed tree, Jesus suffered the hell we deserve and it cost Him His life—but He was willing to suffer in order to spare us.  That’s what love is—commitment to the welfare of others, no matter what the cost.  Jesus is God’s love made known to us in human form, a love that will do what it takes to replace sin and death with forgiveness and life. 

In all of history, no one has provoked more scandal than Jesus Christ.  He angered the Jews by saying that He was the Son of God, a claim they could not accept.  His death on a cross freed us from sin, a teaching that many educated people find ridiculous—they cannot embrace the idea that weakness and suffering give rise to strength and happiness.  The apostle Paul says that we are so tainted with evil that it is impossible to please God—only faith in Jesus can save us.  This angers folks who believe that they are basically good people who deserve God’s blessings.  And Jesus claimed that salvation is found exclusively through Him; many people resent these words, claiming that Christians are narrow-minded and judgmental of other faiths.

Jesus and the cross—they have always provoked strong reactions among the public.  Some have even been scandalized.  But the sensationalism of such controversy can serve God’s purpose when it draws the curious to the Savior of Mankind.  Jesus withstood the criticism out of love for the misguided and the lost; may you share in His steadfast commitment to the truth that saves.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Growing cold

Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18).

It was a dark and cold night as the pastor walked through crunchy snow.  Just ahead: a small home with light glowing from the window and smoke curling from the chimney.  He knocked on the door; after a few moments it swung inward, revealing a startled member of the congregation.  “Come in, pastor, come in and get warm” the man said, taking his guest’s coat while the visitor made sure he didn’t track snow into the house. 

A welcoming fire danced in the hearth; both men sat down in chairs to enjoy its warmth as they talked.  The conversation was polite but superficial—the pastor hadn’t seen this man in worship for months, making the visit a little awkward.  At one point, while the host went to get drinks, the pastor took a poker and teased a small burning lump away from the rest of the fire.  

Eventually, the conversation crawled to a halt.  The pastor gestured towards the fireplace and said, “Do you notice that little piece of coal?  When it was nestled up snugly with its brothers, it burned nicely.  But once it became separated, look—it has grown cold and gone out.”  As both men stood to shake hands in farewell, the parishioner nodded his head and said, “I understand, pastor. I’ll be in church starting this Sunday.”

Each day that you are surrounded by professional associates, your work skills stay sharp.  Each day that you attend school, your academic skills retain their edge.  But when you neglect your skills, they begin to atrophy.  An Olympic athlete keeps training constantly because she knows that backsliding is easy to fall into and hard to recover from. And neglecting your relationship with the Lord Jesus can lead to a faith that grows cold and eventually dies out.

You can hum a favorite hymn to yourself at home, but church music sounds much better when sung with a bunch of other people.  You can read the Bible in your easy chair, but there’s value in hearing the Good Book explained in sermons and discussed in Bible study.  You can pray in your bed to be forgiven, but there is comfort in hearing a pastor reassure you that Christ has taken away your guilt.  Don’t risk growing cold; come back to church, this week and every week.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Giving control over to God

My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways (Isaiah 55:8).

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus taught us to pray thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  But praying these words and meaning them can be two very different things.

It seems obvious that we want God’s will to be done.  God is love; we want His love to be active in our lives.  God hates evil and punishes it severely; we want to be protected from bad things happening to us or to those whom we care about.  But here’s the rub—we enjoy a little blackness every now and then.  We giggle at a dirty joke or a piece of juicy gossip.  We like to blow precious money on frivolous purchases.  We get a thrill from putting our health in needless danger, like driving too fast or abusing drugs.

When we say to God thy will be done, we don’t always like the consequences.  It may not be His will that you purchase that new car you’ve had your eye on; if you pray thy will be done, you might be disappointed to find out someone else made an offer on the car before you got the chance to.  It may not be God’s will that the person you bent the knee to accepts your proposal; if you pray thy will be done, you may discover that God wants you to remain single until someone better for you comes along. 

When you pray thy will be done, you are giving up control over your life; you are telling God that you trust Him to take charge.  That’s just as well—because sin corrupts our desires and undermines our decision-making, we are more often going the wrong way than the right.  Our will leads to frustration, loss of self-respect, hurt feelings and poisoned relationships.  God’s will leads to love, forgiveness, hope and self-worth. 

God’s will is holy; our will is not.  That means we often find ourselves at loggerheads with the LORD.  We get mad that things don’t go the way we want, never stopping to consider that God says my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  This is why Jesus taught us to pray thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  When push comes to shove, getting our way is the wrong choice—far better to let God’s will be done, that we might enjoy life with His blessings.

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Fathers, it's your day!  This weekend, you are the center of attention.  You are God’s gift to your family.  You are the leader and teacher, the provider and protector.  God has honored you with a very important job.

Now I realize that reality is far from the ideal.  Some fathers have a difficult time carrying out their duties.  It’s hard to provide when you’re out of work. It’s hard to protect your kids when they lie about where they’re going or who they’re hanging out with. It’s hard to lead when your wife doesn’t respect you.  It’s hard to teach if you only have custody of the children on alternate weekends. 

No father is perfect.  Some guys, when they find out that their girlfriend is pregnant, take off instead of facing their responsibilities.  Some husbands fight with their wives so much that divorce seems like the only solution.  Some men are so wrapped up in their work that they never make time for their children.  Some fathers are abusive.

Because of these things, many fathers won’t feel much appreciation this weekend.  They won’t get to enjoy love or respect.  And this makes Satan happy.  You see, the devil doesn’t like fathers.  Satan wants them to fail in their God-given duties.  He doesn’t want men acting like leaders or teachers; he doesn’t want them to protect or provide for their families.  Satan wants fathers to be ignored or treated like trash.  The devil wants to strip men of everything that gives fatherhood its meaning.

The devil has been undermining families for a very long time.  It started in the Garden of Eden.  Adam was supposed to be the head of the family—it was his job to guard and teach and lead.  But when Satan spoke to Eve and tempted her to break God’s law, Adam did not tell him to shut up.  When Eve started to take a bite of the forbidden fruit, Adam did not snatch it from her hand.  When Eve suggested that he take a bite too, Adam did not remind his wife that God had promised death for disobedience.  As head of the family, Adam was a miserable failure. 

The mistakes did not end there.  Adam joined his wife in eating the forbidden fruit.  When God confronted him with his crime, Adam tried to shift the blame to his wife.  But worst of all was how Adam treated his Creator.  Instead of coming to God on bended knee begging forgiveness, Adam tried to hide from God among the trees of the garden.  Instead of showing God respect, He tried to blame God for setting him up! The woman you put here with me--she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it (Genesis 3:12). As a man, Adam was a miserable failure.

Eve sinned, yes, but Adam was the bigger failure.  Because of his behavior, the world was cursed—it takes hard work to earn a living, and every life is marked with suffering.  Nothing is easy, and death waits for us all.  In Psalm 90 Moses put it this way: The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow

When God created man, Adam received a soul that was in tune with His creator.  The first chapter of Genesis says, God created man in his own image.  But sin ruined that; when Adam fathered his children, our ancestors, the Bible says he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image (Genesis 5:3).  Adam was a man whose soul was blackened by sin; his children all inherited the same defect.  We are all cursed with sin as our birthright, and every father transmits this terrible flaw to his children.  Have you ever wondered why your kids seen to love getting into trouble?  They got that from you. 

Thankfully, there is one child who was born without inherited sin.  He did not receive the curse of sin from his father, because His Father is God.  I’m speaking, of course, about Jesus.  Jesus is the Son of Man by His human mother, but He is the Son of God by His Father in heaven. 

God our Father is the perfect father.  He is our wise leader and teacher, our unfailing provider and protector.  Fathers, if you want to know what your family duties are, look to Jesus’ Father for inspiration.

God the Father is our leader.  He establishes rules for us to live by—the Ten Commandments chief among them.  His rules tell us what things are important and what things should be avoided as distracting, wasteful, or dangerous.  Of greatest importance should be our relationship with God—treating Him with love and respect, making time with Him a top priority, submitting to His authority and eagerly carrying out His will.  Also important is our relationship with others: treating our parents with respect; avoiding hatred and violence; honoring our commitments, especially the commitment of marriage; respecting each others' property rights; avoiding all forms of dishonesty; and being content with what God has given us. 

God our Father is a strict disciplinarian; if we break His rules He will punish us.  He is also loving and merciful; if we ask to be forgiven, He will pardon us for our sins.  But God is also a teacher, and sometimes the most effective teaching comes through hardship.  Although He forgives us, God does not always bail us out of the situations we’ve put ourselves into.  Instead, He helps us to deal with the repercussions of our actions, making us more responsible in the long run.

God the Father is a generous provider.  He gave each of us life.  He has blessed us with family and friends, laughter and love, hugs and pleasant memories.  He has created beautiful things for us to look at, touch, listen to, feel, and taste.  He gives us everything necessary to live and love, to work and relax.  He often gives us much more, besides.

But our heavenly Father is careful not to spoil us.  We constantly point at things and cry, “I want that!”  But God does not give us everything we want, and He is wise to hold back.  Solomon understood this when he prayed, give me neither poverty nor riches, but just give me my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, `The LORD? Who’s that?'  Or I may become poor and steal, dishonoring the name of my God (Proverbs 30:8-9).  Our heavenly Father knows that gifts are no substitute for a strong personal relationship based on love and trust.

God the Father is also our protector, although we don’t make the job easy for Him.  He assigns angels to protect us from Satan and ourselves.  He fills our bodies with vitality to recover from injury and illness.  Sometimes He will go so far as to interrupt our plans to keep us from making a grave mistake.  But although He only has our best interests in mind, we often chafe at His presence.  Instead of staying safe in His arms, we go out and get into all sorts of mischief.  Some do risky things like drinking and driving.  Others experiment with drugs or sex.  Some are fascinated with violence; others spread pain through gossip, lies, or bigotry.  Such behaviors can result in lasting harm yet we do them anyway, heedless of the consequences.

Children can be a handful.  The bigger the family, the bigger the headaches.  Oftentimes, the eldest child helps mom and dad with the younger children.  The oldest brother looks out for his brothers and sisters, keeping them from harm and protecting them from bullies.  God our Father has a huge family—billions of children.  But He has help in dealing with us.  We have an elder brother who looks out for us and protects us.  His name is Jesus.

Of all the children ever born, only Jesus is sinless. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation (Colossians 1:15).  Jesus has what Adam lost; He is holy like His Father.  He was born to set right what Adam messed up.  God expects each of us to live perfect lives, holy in every way.  Because of Adam, we are incapable of perfection.  So Jesus did what we cannot—He lived a perfect life, honoring God’s law on our behalf.  Because we have broken God’s Law, we deserve His punishment in hell.  But like an elder brother, Jesus stepped forward to protect us—on the cross, He suffered God’s awful punishment for our sins.  Son of God and Son of Man; Jesus is the answer to the problem caused by sin—Adam’s sin, your sin, my sin.  Paul spoke of this in Romans chapter five: When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned…Now Adam is a symbol, a representation of Christ, who was yet to come.  But there is a great difference between Adam’s sin and God’s gracious gift. For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of forgiveness to many through this other man, Jesus Christ.  And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins.  For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. But even greater is God’s wonderful grace and his gift of righteousness, for all who receive it will live in triumph over sin and death through this one man, Jesus Christ.  Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone, but Christ’s one act of righteousness brings a right relationship with God and new life for everyone.  Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. But because one other person obeyed God, many will be made righteous.

This is good news for us all—especially fathers.  Your children are sinners because of you—your failures as a parent, and the inherited sin of Adam that you passed on to them.  But Jesus offers rescue from all that.  He forgives you for your failings; He forgives your children for their sins.  Like Adam, you and your kids are doomed to die, but Jesus brings the hope of eternal life.  In paradise, families will be reunited, never to be separated again.  There will be no fighting, no crying, no disappointment, no frustration.  Our elder brother suffered, died, and rose again to make this promise secure.

On this Father’s Day, I hope that you receive the respect and appreciation all fathers deserve.  If you don’t feel worthy of such treatment, take comfort in knowing that Jesus forgives your shortcomings.  If your family is not what it could be, then your job is clear—ask God to help you in carrying out your duties.  Be a leader who sets boundaries and enforces them.  Be a teacher who makes sure each child learns about the Savior.  Be a provider who does not spoil his kids, but lavishes them with love and attention.  Be a protector by praying for God’s help in keeping your family safe.  Even if your wife or kids don’t appreciate your efforts, remember that Jesus said My Father will honor the one who serves me (John 12:26).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Making the right decision

Pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

How do you know when you’re making the right decision?  This is not a huge concern when figuring out what to have for breakfast or which outfit to wear for work or which friend you’ll go out with for drinks.  But the stakes are different when you’ve test driven a new car, the salesman has made you an offer, and you’re wondering if you should sign the purchase agreement.  The stakes are bigger when your sweetie proposes marriage and you are staring into a pair of hopeful eyes, wondering how you should answer.  When faced with a big decision that will impact your life for years to come, how can you be sure that you’re doing the right thing?

If you feel a sense of panic, the message is obvious—some part of you is not ready to take the plunge.  That kind of warning should be respected.  But most of the time, the signals are mixed—part of us is excited and wants to move forward, while another part wonders if anything important has been overlooked?  What makes big decisions scary is that once made, there is no going back.

At such times, prayer is critical.  We have a regrettable tendency to only pray in church or at the dinner table or when going to bed.  But God is listening wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.  The Bible says pray continually.  This is especially needful when you are wrestling with a big decision.  You don’t have to fold your hands and pray out loud.  But you can say, “I need a moment” and then silently ask God to help you make the right choice.

I’m not saying that God will always make things immediately clear to you.  He may want you to wait and ponder things further before committing to a course of action.  He may want you to get out of your head and really pay attention to what you are seeing and hearing—perhaps there are signals being sent that you aren’t picking up because your adrenaline is too high. 

Big decisions can be intimidating. But you have this security: if you end up going down the wrong path, Christ is willing to forgive you and will help you to see things through.  The key thing is to rely on your Lord at all times and in every situation.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Management advice

Each of us will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14:12).

When God created humanity, He gave us the responsibility of management.  Each of us is given resources—money to invest, time to use wisely, relationships to nurture, property to develop, nature to preserve.  When the Lord returns in glory, He will demand an accounting of how well we handled these things. 

Rushing around frantically and getting nothing worthwhile accomplished is just as bad as lazily doing nothing.  Buying stuff you don’t need wastes dollars that could otherwise be given to charity or the mission work of the Church.  Getting your priorities wrong leaves important relationships to fail from neglect.  Finding the right balance in these things is just as tricky as trying to decide between economic growth through industrial development and preserving the environment for our kids and grand-kids.

When God handed us the responsibility for earth’s management, it wasn’t a hard assignment—our first parents had a share of God’s wisdom and they lived in a world where all things were perfect.  But that perfection has been lost; the world is now plagued with impossibly complex challenges and our ability to act wisely has been undercut by selfishness, short-sightedness and just plain apathy. 

There is but one solution.  We must return to the God who created the world and gave us charge over its many resources.  We need His help to make the best use of our limited time.  We need His guidance to spend money wisely.  We need His assistance to get our priorities right.  We need His power to secure a future that is economically sound and uses the environment responsibly.

You cannot do God’s work correctly if you ignore the Lord of All.  Jesus gave His life on the cross to wash away your sins with His holy blood.  He made this tremendous sacrifice so you can approach God with love and confidence, not fear and reluctance.  Christ invites you to hear what God says in the Bible, words that put the challenges of life into perspective.  He urges you to get in the habit of daily prayer, seeking the forgiveness that He offers for screwing up and asking His blessings on all your endeavors.  Managing the challenges of life is much easier when you rely on Jesus as your consultant.

Friday, June 07, 2013

The Tabernacle/Tent of Meeting

This week I’d like to tell you about the Tabernacle of God, what it teaches us about His plan of salvation, and how it is reflected in our churches today.

The Tabernacle was a large tent used by Israelites to worship the Lord.  It was the place where God made His presence known among them; for this reason it was also known as the Tent of Meeting.  The Tabernacle was built according to God’s design, given to Moses at Mount Sinai.  There were three spaces in the structure.  An outer courtyard was open to the sky.  Inside the courtyard was a large enclosed space called the Holy Place.  At the back of this room, screened from view by a heavy curtain, was a smaller chamber called the Most Holy Place.  The courtyard was where people came to express their devotion to God.  The Holy Place was reserved for priests and their work.  The Most Holy Place belonged to God alone. 

This floor plan was designed to teach people about our relationship with God.  We are evil; sin makes us filthy through and through.  God is holy; nothing impure may come before His presence.  God stands in the Most Holy Place; we are outside where sin keeps us from seeing or approaching His glory. 

But the Tabernacle was a Tent of Meeting; its purpose was to connect us to our Maker.  And so God provided the Holy Place.  The Holy Place is where the priests did their work—they acted as mediators between God and His people.  The design of the Tabernacle taught every Jew that the only way to connect with God was through the work of the priesthood.

Eventually, the Tent of Meeting was replaced by a Temple of stone and wood.  The same basic design remained—outer court, Holy Place, Most Holy Place.  But when Jesus died on the cross, something remarkable happened—at that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51).  When Jesus completed His suffering, He ripped away the sin separating us from God—through Jesus, we now have direct access to the Lord of heaven.  Jesus is our High Priest; He is our Mediator with the Almighty.  When Jesus speaks, we hear the words of God; when we pray to Jesus, God listens to us.  Jesus has replaced both Temple and Tabernacle; Jesus is where we now go to meet God.

Among the most important furnishings in the Tabernacle were the altars.  There were two: the Altar of Burnt Offering and the Altar of Incense.  The Altar of Burnt Offering was the place where animals were sacrificed to the Lord; the Altar of Incense burned aromatic spices that filled the air with their perfume.

The sacrifice of animals was necessary because of sin.  God’s punishment for sin is death; but in order to show us mercy, He was willing to accept someone else’s blood in place of ours. God told the Israelites 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).  When the people angered God with their disobedience, they brought an animal for sacrifice on the altar.  This was not a cheap way to get off the hook; giving away an animal was a financial sacrifice.  But giving up a source of food and income was a small matter when compared to escaping God’s punishment, so they were happy that the Lord accepted animal blood in place of theirs.

We don’t offer animals for sacrifice anymore; Jesus has made the practice unnecessary.  In fact, those animal sacrifices were just placeholders serving until the time of Jesus’ death on the cross.  Our Lord shed His blood, God’s blood, in place of ours.  This is why Jesus had to be Son of God and Son of Man. Only as a man could God shed blood and die; only the blood of God could have enough worth to settle the debt incurred by every human sin. 

Churches still have altars, but their purpose has changed.  There is no longer any sacrifice of blood; Jesus has done everything needed to forgive our sins and make us right with God.  But the altar does remind us that salvation did not come cheaply; it cost the Son of God His very life.  We should be humbled by this sacrifice and deeply grateful.  We should be moved by love to give ourselves to Christ as living sacrifices, putting His work before our pleasures.  The altar is a symbol of dedication—God’s dedication to us and our dedication to Him.

I mentioned earlier that there were two altars in the Tabernacle—the other being the Altar of Incense.  The Altar of Incense was tended each day, sending fragrance throughout the Tent of Meeting and up towards heaven.  The Altar of Burnt Offering was concerned with bringing God’s mercy to the people; the Altar of Incense was about showing appreciation to the Lord of heaven.  God’s people wanted to honor Him by burning sweet perfumes for His enjoyment.

The Altar of Incense is also connected with prayer.  In Revelation chapter eight we read the following: Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.  The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand.  God loves hearing our prayers; they go up to Him like fragrant incense.  He wants us to thank Him for His blessings.  He wants us to seek His guidance and ask for His protection.  Through Jesus, God has proven that He wants to share our joys and sorrows, so He urges us to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Another item in the Tabernacle was the Golden Candlestick.  In a room with no windows, this was the only source of light and it was always kept burning.  This candlestick represented the Light of God that pushes back the darkness of sin and death.  This light shines in our lives through Jesus, who described Himself as the light of the world; He said, Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).  The Golden Candlestick of the Tabernacle lives on in churches that fill the sanctuary with candles. 

The Tent of Meeting also included a table filled with loaves of fresh bread.  This represented how God watches over His followers, providing for their every need.  However, we must remember that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD (Deuteronomy 8:3).  The Word of God came to us in human form; it is Jesus who gives nourishment to the soul.  He said, I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (John 6:35).  It is only through Jesus that we can truly have life, life that is full and everlasting.

Of all the things found in God’s Tent of Meeting, nothing was more sacred or important than the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark was a box made from acacia wood, covered in gold.  The lid featured two angels facing each other, their wings bending down and forward.  Inside were the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, a copy of God’s Book of the Law dictated to Moses, the staff of Aaron that miraculously sprouted buds, and a jar of manna (the bread of God sent to feed the Israelites while living in the desert).  The Ark was holy; to touch it was to die instantly by the hand of God.  This was because God treated the Ark as His earthly throne.  The lid was called the Mercy Seat; it was here, between the angels, that God would show His magnificent glory. 

The Ark of the Covenant was designed by God as a witness to Christ’s redeeming work.  It was made from wood that grew in the desert; Isaiah spoke of Jesus as a root out of dry ground, the only life growing in a world made dead by sin.  The box was covered in gold, representing Jesus’ glory as the Son of God. The Commandments and the Book of the Law demand perfect obedience; because no sinner is capable this, God’s Son lived a perfect life as our representative.  The manna was bread created by God from the morning dew; Jesus is our bread of life, filling us with a vitality that death cannot bring to an end.  Aaron’s staff, although it was dead wood, sprouted with new life by God’s command; in the same way Jesus, although dead in the grave, rose alive by the command of God to live forever as our Savior. The lid of the Ark was called the Mercy Seat; it was sprinkled with the same sacrificial blood that marked the Israelites as children of God.  When Jesus sits on His throne and judges us as our King, He shows mercy on everyone marked by His blood and forgives them. 

The Ark is lost to time; no one knows where it lies or if it even still exists.  But it did its job; it helped God’s people understand the great things Jesus would do when He came.  That’s what the Tabernacle and the Temple were all about; showing us how God reaches out to sinners through His Son.  Jesus is the Tabernacle.  He is the Altar, the Candlestick, the Bread, the Ark.  Jesus is where you can meet God, now and always.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Urgent vs important

The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways (Proverbs 14:8).

One of the hardest things we do is setting good priorities.  To get this right, we need to distinguish between what is urgent and what is important.

Something is urgent when time is running out.  The boss tells you to drop everything and get his project done now.  While shopping, your toddler sees something that he wants and starts screaming for it at the top of his lungs.  These are situations where fast action is required—the need for speed makes fixing things urgent. Something is important when getting it wrong will cause significant, long-term problems.  Being asked to get married requires careful thought before giving a life-changing answer.  You don’t take a new job if you are successful where you are until the pros and cons of making such a change have been carefully analyzed.

Urgency calls for immediate action; importance devotes time to matters that yield long term benefits.  Sadly, urgent things usually grab hold of our attention, pushing important things to the back burner, often with tragic results.  For example, a parent takes care of an urgent problem at the office, working late and missing the important investment of their time—being at their child’s recital. 

It’s all a matter of priorities.  Sometimes a situation is urgent and important at the same time.  But when the two come into conflict with each other, priorities have to be set.  Be warned: setting aside the urgent to deal with the important takes courage and trust.  You will take flak for not dropping everything to focus all your attention on something urgent.  At such times, you need to trust—trust that you are putting your limited resources of time where they will do the most good.

At times like these, we need God more than ever.  It is too easy to focus on the wrong things and let important matters slide because they are not waving their hands demanding our attention.  Satan slaps the urgent label on as much stuff as he can so we let our relationship with God fall by the wayside, neglected and forgotten.  When things are moving at a frantic pace, make time for prayer—ask Jesus to help you distinguish between the urgent and the important.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Too much!

The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs (Isaiah 58:11).

Life can get confusing because there’s just too much of everything.  Too much information.  Too many choices.  Too much stuff.

Thanks to the Internet, we have access to more information than ever before.  Used to be you had to go to the library to look things up, and they had a limited selection of books on hand.  Now you can go online, search on any topic, and get flooded with results. 

We have a bewildering array of choices presented to us.  Which brand of peanut butter should I buy?  Which outfit will make the best impression when attending a staff meeting or going out on a date?  Where should I live, work, attend church?  

Most of us struggle between owning stuff and being owned by stuff. Do you find yourself shopping when you don’t really need anything? Do you struggle with getting rid of stuff that you don’t use anymore? Do you frequently daydream about products you don’t have and can’t afford? 

America is a land of plenty, and most of us have a great deal to be thankful for.  Yet gazing at too many options can actually cause problems.  We get paralyzed by concern over not making the best possible choice.  The incredible variety of opportunities we face distract from what is truly important—our relationship with God and our relationships with each other.

There is way more information floating around than any one person can get a handle on.  Thankfully, Jesus reveals what is truly important—His everlasting concern for our well-being.  His words, preserved in the Bible, give us every bit of information necessary to make good choices in our lives.  His wisdom helps us to see what is really important and separate it from unnecessary distractions. 

It’s actually quite simple: you and I are sinners, people who instinctively prefer bad choices over good ones.  Jesus is the Son of God who gave everything He had to forgive our wrongdoing and make us His. He teaches how love and serve and show respect, and He offers eternal life in paradise. In the end, that’s all we really need.

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Impressing God

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Hebrews 5:7-9).

The path to God is not what most people expect. 

We like to cozy up to people who are rich, famous, or powerful.  Rich people live in mansions, eat delicacies, and throw lavish parties.  Who doesn’t enjoy such things?  And if a rich friend gives you an expensive gift, so much the better.  Famous people have looks and talent; it’s fun just being in the same room with them.  Being seen with someone famous is good for your reputation; who doesn’t enjoy getting a little of the spotlight?  Powerful individuals fill you with energy and purpose; leaders make you feel as if you’re part of something important.  On top of that, influential people are well connected; they can help you out by introducing you to the right people.

The rich, the famous, the powerful—we want to be close to them.  But it’s hard to get noticed, so we try to make a good impression.  We focus on looking our best, whether it involves a trendy hairstyle or dressing fashionably.  When we talk, it’s a mixture of flattery and bragging.  We look for ways to show that we are tough, smart, sophisticated, and funny.  We want to be part of the inner circle, so we work hard to sell ourselves.

There’s no one who can top Jesus.  He is the richest person in the world—everything belongs to Him.  He is the most famous person in the world—His autobiography, the Bible, has been a best seller for centuries.  Jesus is the most powerful person in the world—He can control the weather, cure any disease, even raise the dead!  If you want to cozy up to riches, fame, and power, Jesus is your man.

But impressing Him is a problem.  Jesus is God’s Son; seen from His perspective, we are nothing but filthy beggars. King David wrote, there is no one who does good (Psalm 14). Isaiah said, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags (chapter 64).  There is no way that we can impress God.  He values righteousness, but we are addicted to sin.  We have nothing to boast about; we have nothing that God needs. 

There is a way to impress God, but it’s completely different from anything we’re used to.  In today’s Epistle lesson, we are told how Jesus impressed God.  These verses tell us what God is looking for in those who would join His inner circle. 

During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions.  Jesus is the Son of God, and He has always respected His Father’s authority.  In Philippians chapter two Paul wrote, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus; although He was God, He did not insist on be treated as God’s equal, but made himself of no account, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  Jesus is equal to His Father in every way—eternal, all knowing, all-powerful—but he honored his Father by submitting to His will.  That is why Jesus prayed.  Jesus did not have to ask God for anything—Jesus is God, born in a human body.  Jesus submitted to his Father by asking for His help. 

He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.  Clearly, this refers to the night when Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Luke chapter 22 tells us, He…knelt down and prayed,  "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done"…And being in anguish, he prayed even harder, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.  Jesus showed submission to his Father by kneeling while he prayed.  He showed submission by saying if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.  And we can see how intensely he prayed; his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.

What was Jesus so concerned about?  What was the ‘cup’ that he wanted to avoid?  That ‘cup’ was the cup of God’s anger at our sins.  Isaiah speaks of those who have drunk from the hand of the LORD the cup of his wrath…who have drained to its dregs the goblet that makes men stagger (chapter 51).  Ezekiel mentions the cup of ruin and desolation (23:33).  Ancient Greeks used to force convicts to drink a cup of poison when sentenced to death; in the same way, God has a cup of death filled and waiting for all who break His laws.

Jesus came to earth as a man so He could die for our sins.  He came to drink the cup of God’s wrath so we could avoid tasting its poison.  Jesus came to die because He loves us and wants to spare us from the hellish punishment that we deserve.  But our Lord was not eager to drink the cup of suffering.  He knew how awful it would be to suffer God’s punishment for every human sin.  Just the thought of what was to come made Him start sweating blood.  So he asked God if there was any other way to rescue us from sin, death, and Satan.  But if there was no other way, then Jesus was prepared to do what he must—yet not my will, but yours be done.

Jesus submitted to his Father completely, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.  God sent an angel to strengthen Jesus there in the garden (Luke 22:43).  Through that heavenly messenger, God assured Jesus that he would not be abandoned to the grave or allowed to see decay (Psalm 16:10); God would raise his Son back to life. Although he knew what death was, Jesus had never experienced it personally; as the Son of Man, God Himself would taste the death that every human fears (Hebrews 2:9). But Jesus trusted in his Father, because God is the one who could save him from death

As the Son of God, Jesus knows everything.  Yet although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.  You are well aware that there is a difference between book learning and experience.   You can warn a little boy to stay away from fire, but he won’t fully appreciate what hot is until he gets burned.  You can read all sorts of romantic poetry, but you won’t appreciate what love is until you’ve felt it for the very first time.  So it is with Jesus.  He was always obedient to his Father, but that obedience never came at a significant personal cost.  When the time came to suffer and die for our sins, Jesus’ obedience was put to the ultimate test.  Satan was hoping that Jesus would rebel against God the way that all humans do.  Instead, Jesus grew—he learned from experience the nature of true obedience. 

The Bible says that this experience made Jesus perfect.  It’s easy to read this the wrong way.  Jesus is God—he was and is perfect.  1 Peter 2:33 says, He committed no sin.  Paul says, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might gain the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). God’s Son became a man because he had work to do.  He was to succeed where we have failed.  God made us to be servants, but we want to take control of our lives and leave God out of the equation.  God made us to love Him and each other, but we focus most of our love on ourselves.  God made us to be caretakers of His wonderful creation, but we waste our resources and foul the environment; we hoard wealth for our private use and destroy things for our sick amusement.  God expects us to live up to His lofty standards—be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy (Leviticus 19:2).

The job of man is to obey the Lord—it’s a job everyone has failed at miserably.  So Jesus was sent to obey God’s laws on our behalf.  He submitted to God’s leadership the way we’re supposed to.  Jesus was perfect in Himself; He became a man to be perfect for us.  When He died, He said it is finished (John 19:30)—He had been perfectly obedient in our place, obedient all the way to a shameful death on the cross.  He brought His work to perfect completion; and so the Bible can speak of Him as achieving perfection through His suffering.

He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.  We cannot achieve perfection, not on our own, not in this life.  We are too much in love with sin and darkness and evil.  Thankfully, Jesus has been perfect for us—we don’t have to worry that our failures will deny us God’s love or keep us from heaven.  Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserved for breaking God’s laws. Through Jesus, we have everything a person could want—access to the richest, most loving and powerful Being in the universe. We don’t have to impress the Lord to join His inner circle of dearly loved friends.  We have much to be grateful for.

But how do you show your appreciation?  By now, the answer should be obvious—God wants you to obey Him.  Of course, none of us can ever obey God like Jesus did—He is perfect while we are deeply flawed.  Jesus trusted His Father completely.  A lot of the time we struggle with doubt.  Jesus never disobeyed God.  We procrastinate and take short cuts; we argue with God or just ignore Him altogether.  We can never please God like Jesus did.  But we can try.  We can spend time with God’s Word so we know how He wants us to behave.  We can pray to Jesus, asking for His help.  We can thank God for His goodness by looking for ways to obey Him.  Jesus gave some concrete examples in Matthew chapter 25. When the Son of Man comes in his glory…All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.  Then the King will say to those on his right, `Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'  Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'  The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'

How do we honor God for His generosity?  We honor Him by obeying Him, with the aid and support of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus summed it up this way on the night before He died: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you (John 15:9-12).

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