Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid" (Matthew 14:27).

For Christians, Peter is one of the foundations of the Church.  A humble fisherman by trade, Peter was among the first called by Jesus to learn as a disciple and serve as an apostle.  When we think of Peter, we think of boldness and courage. When Jesus said come follow me, Peter left his former career behind without a moment’s hesitation (Matthew 4:9).  During a rough night at sea when Jesus came to their boat by walking on the water, Peter is the disciple who was prepared to jump over the side and approach the Savior in the midst of the storm. When Jesus asked His followers to put into words what they had learned from Him, Peter was the first to speak up: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16).  When a mob came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter is the one who drew a weapon in the Lord’s defense.

But for all his bluster, Peter was not always a paragon of courage. The night when Jesus walked on water and Peter went out to meet him, the howling wind and choppy waves stole Peter’s confidence and he began to sink, even though the Son of God was visibly approaching.  The night of Jesus’ arrest, Peter abandoned His Lord when it became clear that armed resistance wasn’t going to work.  But worst of all was the three-fold betrayal later that night.  After John had gotten Peter into the courtyard near where Jesus was on trial for His life, he was put on the defensive by a string of people who fingered him as a known associate of the Savior.  Panicked at the thought of arrest, Peter denied having any kind of relationship with Jesus, even swearing by God to validate his claim.  It was only when the rooster crowed that Peter realized Jesus had been right to question his pledge of undying loyalty.  He met the dawn a broken man, face smeared with bitter tears of shame.

We understand giving in to fear when we should be courageous.  Jesus has called us to be His witnesses to a world that loves the darkness, yet we are hesitant to speak about our faith or stand up for what’s right when the chips are down.  Peter is an example for us that is both good and bad.  It’s comforting to know that nothing intimidates Jesus; even the agony promised by the cross did not turn Him from doing what had to be done—giving His life in our place so we might live forever through His sacrifice.  There are times when our courage fails us; thankfully, we know that when things get frightening the Savior of mankind is right there at our side to bring us safely through.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

What must we do to satisfy God?

Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?" Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.  Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."

Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

So they asked him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?  Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' "

Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

"Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread." Then Jesus declared, "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"

In today’s Gospel lesson, the people ask Jesus a question as old as time itself: What must we do, to do the works God requires?  When God created Adam and Eve, He made them perfect—perfect in body, perfect in mind.  They knew what God expected of them.  Yet despite this knowledge, they disobeyed the God who had given them life, given them love, given them paradise.  They knew what God wanted them to do, but they made a different choice.  As a result, they were cursed.  Because they had chosen sin over God, the Almighty Lord took away their immortality.  Life would be hard, and eventually come to an end in death. 

But worst of all was the separation from God.  Sin had made it impossible for man or woman to come close to God physically or mentally.  Sin makes it unsafe for us to look at God or try to approach Him; His holiness is like a fire that reduces to ash anything tainted by impurity.  Sin also distorts our thinking; we find it impossible to understand God’s words or trust in His wisdom.  Sin has made God a stranger to us, and so people ask what must we do, to do the works God requires? 

As the years went by, as one generation gave way to the next, people drifted further and further away from the Lord.  Yet as ignorant as they were, they still knew that a higher power was in charge of the universe.  Life is filled with problems—crop failure and still birth, war and plague, earthquakes and severe weather.  In every age, men and women have understood their need for divine help in times of crisis.  But since God is unknown to them, they ask the question what must we do, to do the works God requires?  What must we do to make God happy so He will help us?  What must we do to earn God’s love and approval so that when we die He will take us to heaven?  What must we do?

Men and women have been asking this question for thousands of years.  Sadly, most of them have gone looking for answers in the wrong places.  There have always been people of God who could answer the question, people like Enoch and Noah, Abraham and Joseph, Moses and Samuel, David and Isaiah.  But most people have looked elsewhere when seeking an answer to the question what must we do to do the works God requires?  They turned to gods made up by human storytellers, gods like Osiris and Baal, Ishtar and Moloch, Zeus and Odin.  Many turn to people they regard as holy men, men like Mohammed and Joseph Smith.  Some turn to philosophy, like Scientologists and atheists.  Some seek the divine in nature, like witches and psychics.  Some even turn to Satan as they look for their answers. 

Such misguided behavior comes naturally to us; sin blinds us to God and the truth that He reveals.  Sin twists our thinking so that evil looks good and good looks evil.  Sin makes lies look reasonable and the truth seem foolish.  Paul spoke of this in 1st Corinthians chapter one: the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing…but…the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight.  God’s people have been blessed with prophets who preserved God’s truth on paper, yet most dismiss these holy writings as unworthy of their time.

Which is not to say that God’s people fully understood His writings either.  We see that ignorance reflected in the question, what must we do to do the works God requires?  Think about that question.  It comes from an underlying assumption, and that assumption is this: ‘if God would just point us in the right direction, we can please Him with our lives.’  Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.

Sin is more than just making the occasional bad choice.  Sin is an infection that sickens every fiber of your being.  Sin is a cancer that is rotting you away from the inside out.  Sin is a mental illness that distorts how you see the world.  When God calls you a sinner He’s not speaking of what you do, He’s speaking of what you are. 

St. Paul wrote nearly ½ of the New Testament, yet he was constantly troubled by his sinful desires. In Romans chapter seven he writes I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature…I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.  In Psalm 14 King David wrote, The Lord looks down from heaven on the entire human race; he looks to see if anyone is truly wise, if anyone seeks God. But no, all have turned away; all have become corrupt. No one does good, not a single one!  Even the good deeds of Christians are tainted by sin; Isaiah writes (chapter 64), We are all infected and impure with sin. When we show off our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.  The tragic fact is this: even if we know what God wants, we are incapable of doing it.

Which makes Jesus’ answer to the question so wonderful to hear: The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.  Believe in Jesus, the Savior sent from God.  That’s it.  That’s the one thing necessary to please God.  That’s the one thing necessary to secure His help with your problems and guarantee you a place with Him in heaven. 

But it seems too simple.  After all, we were taught that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.  If someone helps you, you owe them a favor.  If someone gives you a gift, they expect something of equal value in return.  Everything comes at a price or with strings attached; that’s the way of the world.  So when Jesus offers a relationship with God that demands nothing in return except our loyalty, it seems much too good to be true. 

So the Jews demanded proof from Jesus to back up His claim.  For hundreds of years, they had worked hard to obey the Laws given by Moses.  Now Jesus was offering to simplify their lives in a way that seemed almost scary—stop relying on your own efforts to be good and trust in Jesus to make everything right.  But if they were going to trade loyalty to Moses for loyalty to Jesus, they wanted some kind of proof that Jesus was just as great as Moses—if not more so. They asked him, What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?  Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'  As they looked at things, Moses’ ability to provide bread in the desert over a 40 year span of time was proof that he was a holy man who should be listened to, who had the power needed to care for the people of God.

Jesus said to them, I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.  For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.  With these words, Jesus corrects their false ideas about Moses.  Moses was not a leader of Israel because he was a holy man; Moses was not a miracle worker because he was a holy man.  Moses was a sinner like everyone else.  Moses committed murder. Moses told God that he didn’t want to lead the people of Israel.  Moses let anger take control of him several times during his years as God’s representative.  Moses was not a man who pleased God with a holy, blameless life.

The reason that Moses led the Israelites was because God told him to.  God gave Moses the words to say as His earthly representative.  When God performed miracles to bless His people, He used Moses as His agent.  Moses did not deserve any credit for doing miracles or speaking words of wisdom; those gifts came from God.  Moses was not special because he led a holy life; Moses was special because he trusted God. 

Which brings us back to Jesus’ words: The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.  Moses had faith in the Lord, and God used that man of faith to do great things for the Israelites.  Through Moses, God freed them from slavery in Egypt.  Through Moses, God told them what God expects and how to be forgiven when they failed to measure up. Through Moses, God fed the Israelites in the wilderness and protected from their enemies. Through Moses, God led His people to the Promised Land. 

But at the end of his life, Moses made this prediction: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him (Deuteronomy 18:15). The prophet Moses was speaking of would be Jesus, the Son of God born in this world as a man to save us from our sins.  Like Moses, God would work through Jesus to free us, to forgive us, to feed us, and finally lead us to paradise.  Jesus lived the life of perfect obedience that God expects from each of us.  Jesus broke Satan’s hold on us so we are no longer slaves to his desires.  Jesus suffered for our sins so we can be forgiven and spared God’s awful punishment for being sinners.  Jesus gives us strength to withstand adversity by feeding our souls through Word and Sacrament.  Jesus rose alive from the grave, guaranteeing our resurrection to a new life of eternal happiness.  What God did through Moses is only a pale shadow of what God has done for us through Christ.

Jesus did everything necessary to purge us of our sins and bring us into God’s beloved family.  The work is completely done; nothing is required from us except to believe.  After all He went through on our behalf, you would think that Jesus might demand some compensation from us.  But Jesus is the Son of God; His love is not flawed by sin like our love is.  Even with friends and lovers, we deal in the trade of favors; relationships break down when one person feels that he is getting the short end of the stick.  But the love of Christ is free of selfishness; our Lord demands no payback for His suffering on the cross.  As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-9, it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast

From the time when sin clouded the human mind in darkness, people have asked what must we do to do the works God requires?  This question shows how sin has made us ignorant of God.  This question reveals the wrong assumption that if we just knew what to do, we could please God with our words and earn His favor by our actions.  Thankfully, Jesus has answered the question: The work of God is this—to believe in the one he has sent.  We need God’s help to face the tragedies of life and not be crushed by them; we need God's help in order to escape the grave and live joyfully forever.  Thankfully, we don’t need to bribe Him with our time or money; we don’t have to climb a mountain and live in a cave, spending the rest of our days as hermits alone in prayer.  Jesus provides everything we need; all He demands in return is our love and our trust.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love (Psalm 51:1).

For Christians, King David is one of the great men of the Bible.  He was a man who loved the Almighty with deep passion and joyful exuberance.  As a youth, he fought a giant warrior named Goliath armed with little more than a confident faith in God. He was an accomplished musician who grew into a successful general and leader of men. He was the target of multiple assassination attempts by King Saul, yet never responded in anger.  Upon ascending the throne himself, David built Israel into a powerful nation dedicated to God.  He designed a magnificent temple for the LORD, a structure that would be built by his son Solomon.  And this great king wrote most of the Book of Psalms, the very first hymnal of the Church.  David was a warrior poet of the highest caliber.

Yet for all of his accomplishments, David did not always act wisely.  He did not see the treachery of his son Absalom until it was too late, and the country was plunged into civil war as the two men struggled for control.  But his worst lapse of judgment happened when he fell in lust with another man’s beautiful wife.  Their affair got Bathsheba pregnant.  David called her military husband home for leave, hoping that the timing of pregnancy could be thus be explained away.  But the soldier was an honorable man who refused pleasure with his wife while the other men in his unit were on deployment.  In desperation, David ordered the man into a battle where he was certain to die, silencing the only person who could be certain of Bathsheba’s infidelity.  But God knew what David had done—coveting another man’s wife, committing adultery and telling multiple lies to cover it up, capping off the whole sordid mess with premeditated murder.  When confronted with the enormity of his sin David wrote Psalm 51, the deepest expression of guilt and confidence in God’s mercy ever set to paper.

We often behave foolishly as well.  We do things impulsively in the heat of passion, with no consideration of the long-term consequences.  David is an example for us that is both good and bad.  It is comforting to know that God is willing to forgive even the most horrible mistakes, things we might never forgive ourselves for saying or doing.  He helps us to understand the human heart—our own and each others'.  He assists us in treating each other with kindness and respect.  There are times when we fail to act wisely; thank God that He shares His wisdom with us in the pages of sacred Scripture.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Moses said, "O Lord, please send someone else to do it" (Exodus 4:13).

For Christians, Moses is one of the great men of all time.  He is regarded as a fine example of confident leadership.  He grew up as an adopted prince of Egypt; he was raised with the finest education available at that time.  But he threw his privileges away to become God’s champion to the people of Israel.  He stood before the most powerful king in the world and demanded freedom for those held in slavery.  He led the fleeing Israelites through the Red Sea, water piled up in walls to either side as they escaped on dry ground.  He stood in the Lord’s presence on Mount Sinai, receiving the Law of God written personally by the Mighty One.  When the Israelites angered God with their faithless conduct, he pleaded with the Lord for mercy on their behalf.  He led them over a span of four decades until they stood at the edge of the Promised Land. 

Yet for all that, Moses was not always an inspiring or confident leader.  When still a prince of Egypt, he committed second degree murder in defense of a Hebrew slave; instead of winning their loyalty, this unlawful act only made the Israelites suspicious of him.  As a result of the crime Moses had to flee Egypt and he spent 40 years in the wilderness tending cattle.  When God spoke to him from the burning bush, Moses tried every argument he could think of to avoid going back—he only gave in when the Lord became angry at his resistance.  And there’s this: during the years when Moses spoke to the people as God’s representative, he got into the habit of wearing cloth over his face.  You see, after spending time in the Lord’s presence, Moses’ face shone with a holy radiance that eventually faded away.  Moses started wearing a veil so the Israelites would not see that his face was going back to normal.  Moses had considerable skills as a leader, but there were times when his behavior did not inspire confidence.

We often fail as leaders too.  We are given responsibility and we shy away from doing things that look tough, or we try to avoid criticism through the use of deception.  Moses is an example for us that is both good and bad.  Thankfully, we can always rely on God’s leadership.  He frees us from slavery to sin through forgiveness—forgiveness that Jesus died to make available to us.  His Spirit guides us on the path to heaven, the Promised Land where we want our journey through life to end.  There are times when we fail as leaders; praise God that His leadership is forthright and can always be depended on.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

God's generosity

Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick.  Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples.  The Jewish Passover Feast was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?"  He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, "Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up,  "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?"

Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them.  Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted."  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world."  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself
(John 6:1-15).

Jesus performed many spectacular miracles and the feeding of the 5,000 is one of the most famous.  Today we have before us John’s account of the event.  The people present that day were focused on just one thing—a miracle that filled their bellies.  They were not all that interested in what Jesus was trying to teach them.  John does not want us making the same mistake. 

John writes, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick.  Jesus was the Son of God born in a human body.  He was full of grace and truth.  When He spoke, people were amazed at His great wisdom; he taught as one who had authority, not like their teachers of the law (Matthew 7:29).  But this crowd of 5,000 was not so much interested in His words as in what He could do.  They had seen Jesus heal people that were beyond medical help.  So they were curious—what would this miracle worker do next?  It was kind of like going to an Oprah show, hoping that everyone in the audience might get a new car.

Even though their motives for coming were suspect, Jesus still cared about this crowd who had traveled a long ways to spend time with Him.  The day was late, folks were hungry, and there were no towns nearby to go find a meal.  So Jesus made up His mind to feed the people right where they were. He said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?"  He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

As the Son of God, Jesus knows everything.  He knew what Philip was thinking, just as He knows what you are thinking.  Jesus knew how much faith Philip had in his heart, just as He knows how much you trust in Him right now.  Jesus did not test Philip to confirm what the Lord already knew; Jesus tested His disciple so that Philip would understand how much faith he had. 

Philip immediately threw up his hands in despair.  The situation was hopeless! "Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" he said.  Philip did not have much faith in Jesus’ power.  That Jesus might perform a miracle never even occurred to him.  At least Andrew tried to find a solution—he went among the people looking for food and came back with this report: "Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish.”  But his faith was also shown to be lacking; “how far will they go among so many?"

Do you see yourself reflected in Philip and Andrew?  When life gets tough, do you throw up your hands in despair?  Do you ask how you can make do with the little that is available to you?   Or do you trust that Jesus will take care of you?  Do you pray for His help and guidance?  Who rules in your heart—fear or Jesus?

Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.  Humble food—barley loaves and fish, nothing fancy, a working man’s lunch.  Maybe you don’t feel the need to thank God for a bologna sandwich, but Jesus did.  In Psalm 145 David praises God, saying the eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.  We are alive solely because of God’s loving care.  He caused us to be conceived.  He protected us through childbirth.  He gives strength to our hearts and lungs, and every bite of food is a gift from His table.  Without His constant attention, death would claim us in an instant.  So yes, we should thank God for that bologna sandwich!  When we pause to eat, we should thank God for giving us food—instead of grumbling about the menu.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over."  You know, we expect miracles to be flashy and dramatic.  We want Hollywood-style special effects, filled with blinding light and booming thunder.  We hope to see the loaves and fish grow and twist and split over and over again until there is a mountain of food, while the crowd responds with “Ooh” and “Aah”.  But most miracles are not like that; most of the time, God performs His miracles quietly as He did that day.  Mark records the event this way (chapter six): Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.  They all ate and were satisfied.  Jesus broke the bread and fish into pieces, giving some to each of the twelve disciples.  These men walked among the people, handing out as much as each person wanted.  The food did not run out, even though thousands of people ate their fill. A tremendous miracle—yet there was nothing exciting to see or hear.  

These kinds of miracles happen all the time—God does something remarkable, but does not dress it up with thunder or lightning.  Someone in a coma for years suddenly wakes up.  People with incurable conditions suddenly regain their health and the doctors cannot explain why.  But miracles are not restricted to hospitals and nursing homes.  Hardened criminals and life-long atheists repent of their sins and turn to Christ.  People who lost nearly everything through job loss or natural disaster find they have a better life after the tragedy.  God reaches into our lives and changes things, but a lot of the time we don’t give Him credit because He chose to perform the miracle quietly.

When the people were done eating, Jesus told His disciples, "Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted."  You know, I would hate to work in a restaurant.  All that food left on plates that gets thrown away—seeing how much is wasted would slowly kill me.  God gives us food out of love.  He wants us to be healthy; He also wants us to enjoy eating.  Speaking of paradise, Isaiah described it this way (chapter 25): the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and the finest of wines.  Each meal you eat is a gift from above. 

So what does it say to God when you throw His food away?  Do you keep leftovers and eat them later, or at least give them to a family pet to enjoy?  Do you have so much old food in your refrigerator and freezer that you end up throwing it away unused because it’s gotten old?  Do you appreciate God’s gift of food or do you treat it carelessly? 

The disciples filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.  I want you to think about this.  Jesus fed the people through the hands of His 12 disciples who distributed the meal.  At the end, there were 12 basketfuls of leftovers—one for each of those men.  Jesus fed His people and gave them enough extra to share with the disciples.  The Church has followed this pattern ever since—God blesses His people and they use some of what God gives them to support pastors and missionaries. 

In every congregation I’ve belonged to, the budget is a nagging problem—there are always more bills than there is money to pay them.  The biggest expenses come from supporting pastors and mission work.  When fear about money grips a congregation, these expenditures come under attack.  But Jesus taught something important when He fed the 5,000—He gives His people enough to share with those who bring the gifts of God to them.  There was enough for the disciples because Jesus insisted that nothing be wasted.  If you did not waste God’s money on cigarettes or gambling, how much more would you have that could be shared with the Church?  If you did not waste God’s money on buying food you won’t eat; if you did not waste God’s money on eating out when you can cook more cheaply at home, how much would you have left over to give back to the Lord?  If you did not live wastefully and gave what was saved to mission work, would the church budget really be a problem?

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world."  Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.  Does it surprise you that Jesus waked away from the adoring crowd?  It must have surprised the disciples.  After all, Jesus came to rule us all.  But the crowd misunderstood what Jesus came to do.  Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom where the weather is always nice and money grows on trees.  He was not interested a building the kind of world where everyone lazes around in hammocks all day, asking God to keep their lemonade glasses full.  Jesus cares about our earthly needs, yes, but He is more interested in feeding our thirsty souls than with shoveling food into our hungry stomachs. 

That crowd of 5,000 was made up of sinners, people who had angered God and needed His forgiveness.  But they didn’t come to Jesus to find out where they’d gone wrong; they didn’t come to plead for mercy.  They came because they were curious.  They came looking for a handout.  They wanted Jesus to be their King, their Social Security Plan, their entertainer.  But they were not interested in Him as their Savior from sin, death and hell.  Their focus was on the needs of the body, not the needs of the soul.  So Jesus walked away.

You are a sinner too.  You are a person Jesus suffered to forgive, died to redeem, rose to save.  He wants you to admit your sinful condition.  He wants you to trust in His loving care.  He wants you to make His priorities your own.  He has shown His power, power that can see to your needs regardless of the situation.  But none of this does any good if you don’t recognize Christ as the Savior sent by God to rescue souls from everlasting judgment.  Life is not worth living if you don’t know how to love and forgive.  Life is pointless if everything ends with eternal death.  Misery will squash all happiness if the Devil can push you around unopposed.  You need Jesus in your heart.  You need Jesus to guide and protect you.  You need Jesus to fix your mistakes and give you strength to do the right thing.  Your soul needs the Lord much more than your body does.

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3).

For Christians, Abraham is one of the great men of all time.  He is regarded as an exemplar of faith.  In Romans 4:11 Paul says that he is the father of all who believe.  Abraham was living a contented life near the Persian Gulf when God told him to pack up his family and head west.  Abraham did not know where he was going, but he trusted God and did as he was told.  Nearly a thousand miles later Abraham finally saw the land of Canaan, a place where children he did not yet have would make their home.

This man of faith had to wait until he was a hundred years old before God provided the son that He had for a long time promised.   Then, when the boy was big enough to share in the chores, God tested Abraham’s faith by telling the old man to sacrifice his son as a gift to the Lord.  When it was clear that Abraham would follow through without hesitation, God put a halt to things and provided a male sheep to be sacrificed in the boy’s place.  In response to Abraham’s faith, God promised to bless all the world through his offspring.

But Abraham was not always so faithful.  His wife Sarah was a great beauty, and during a trip to Egypt Abraham worried that he might be killed so Pharaoh could claim the widow as his legal wife.  Instead of trusting God to take care of him, Abraham told Sarah to claim she was his sister; when the king tried to wed her, God cursed the ruler and his household with a serious illness until the truth came out.  Abraham and his wife left Egypt without incident, but the man of God did not learn his lesson; years later another king wanted Sarah for his bed, and Abraham repeated the same lie with similar results.  Although he had great faith, it was a faith that sometimes crumbled under pressure.

We can understand that.  Although we believe in Christ and trust in God, our faith is often much less than it ought to be.  Abraham is an example for us that is both good and bad.  What remains consistent is God’s faithfulness to us.  All the world has been blessed through Abraham’s offspring—his greatest descendent is Jesus, the Lamb of God who was sacrificed in our place so we might live, just as the male sheep was sent by God so that Abraham’s son might be spared from death.  There are times when our faith fails us; thank God that He remains faithful and forgives our moments of doubt.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The trade-offs of getting older

Even to your old age and gray hairs…I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you (Isaiah 46:4).

I’ve noticed that with age, things are lost.  Your parents decline in health and independence until you finally say goodbye to them at the cemetery.  Friends that you’ve known for years disappear from your life—a big move separates you, a disagreement turns into a long-term grudge, or they pass from this world too soon for your liking. Your kids grow up and get busy establishing lives of their own.  Retirement leaves you restless and feeling unneeded.  Your stamina isn’t what it used to be, you get health problems more frequently, and many things you’ve always enjoyed have become bad for you.

But for all the things you lose due to age, there are just as many gains.  The delight of grandchildren, who see life with an excitement and sense of wonder that reminds you of how wonderful this big old world still is.  There are new friends to be made wherever you go, and with the passing of years, you are not so critical anymore of someone’s looks or fashion sense.  You learn the importance of giving your time to relationships, to communicating and forgiving, because you’ve come to realize that time wasted in needless fighting is time lost that can never be recovered.  You have time to read, time to work in a garden or walk in the woods, time to savor your coffee, time to just let the sunshine soak into your skin, time you didn’t have when life was more hectic.

But the biggest advantage of growing older is perspective. You can look back over decades of events and see the hand of God at work, solving problems that back then looked insoluble, carrying you through situations that seemed unendurable at the time.  Towards the end of life, death is something that is on you mind more and more.  Having perspective helps you see that the inevitable cannot be avoided, giving you incentive to really listen to Christ Jesus.  At this point in life, His promise of resurrection from the grave truly resonates with our desire to live and be healthy.  His assurance of peace and happiness that will never end gives us security when life becomes frightening and lonely.

Getting old has its drawbacks, but it brings many good things too.  The best thing about growing old is finding increased appreciation for Christ Jesus and all the wonderful things that He does for us.  He is our hope and our confidence as the end draws near.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Politics and religion

Then Amaziah the priest of Bethel sent a message to Jeroboam king of Israel: "Amos is raising a conspiracy against you in the very heart of Israel. The land cannot bear all his words.  For this is what Amos is saying: `Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land.' "

Then Amaziah said to Amos, "Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.  Don't prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king's sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom."

Amos answered Amaziah, "I was neither a prophet nor a prophet's son, but I was a shepherd, and I also took care of sycamore-fig trees.  But the LORD took me from tending the flock and said to me, `Go, prophesy to my people Israel'"
(Amos 7:10-15a).

The events of this Old Testament lesson happened almost 3,000 years ago on the other side of the world, yet they show a troubled relationship between politics and religion that is still common today. The land cannot bear all his words.  Politics is about using words to get people on your side; religion is about speaking the truth.  Because of this fundamental difference, politics and religion don’t play nice together.

At the time of Amos, God’s nation had fallen on hard times.  Israel had once been a powerful and wealthy country, able to defend itself from any aggressive neighbors.  But King Solomon turned away from the LORD and started worshiping false gods; as punishment, God allowed the nation to become engulfed in civil war following Solomon’s death.  The ten northern regions split off and became their own nation, leaving Solomon’s heir with just two regions to rule.  The northern country called itself Israel, and its kings ruled from Bethel.  The southern land became known as Judah, and it was governed from Jerusalem.

The civil war created a religious problem, too.  Worship of God was headquartered in Jerusalem at the Temple.  The Temple contained the Ark of the Covenant.  The Temple also contained the Altar of Burnt Offering, where God’s people went to have their sins forgiven.  The nation of Judah had something the nation of Israel did not—a place where the people could connect with their God.

Israel certainly did not want its citizens going to Judah for worship—that would undermine the nation’s existence as a separate entity.  So the king of Israel ordered construction of his own temple in Bethel and staffed it with his own priesthood.  It should come as no surprise that the priests had very close ties to the government, and tended to support the king’s every decision.  But the temple in Bethel was not sanctioned by God, nor did He approve the men serving there as priests.  The nation of Israel had created its own religion and had turned away from the true God.  Not surprisingly, this made the LORD very mad.

So God chose Amos to speak for Him as a prophet.  Amos was not trained as a priest; his background was in ranching and agriculture.  Perhaps that’s why God chose him for this task—Amos was a prophet with no ties to any priesthood; he could not be accused of favoring Israel or Judah.  Amos was sent by God to speak the truth without political bias, and the message was a terrible one: Jeroboam will die by the sword, and Israel will surely go into exile, away from their native land

God was very angry.  He had given Israel all sorts of blessings, only to be pushed aside by a government that wanted to set up its own private church.  Since Israel had abandoned God, His message was this: “you’re on your own, and without me your nation will be invaded and destroyed.  The king who is leading you astray will die by violence, as a public testimony to his sin.”

As you can imagine, Amos’ words created quite a stir.  Amaziah, the priest in Bethel, was angry because Amos ignored his authority as the local head of the church.  So the priest sent a letter to Jeroboam, urging the king to shut Amos up.  He wrote, The land cannot bear all his words.  Amos was stirring up trouble; the high priest even labeled the prophet as a traitor: Amos is raising a conspiracy against you.  The priest claimed that Amos, by speaking against the government, had proven himself to be a dangerous rebel.

Amaziah had a low opinion of Amos.  He told the prophet, Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there.  The priest of Bethel did not believe that Amos really spoke for God.  As far as he was concerned, Amos was only looking for money; he thought of Amos as a traveling evangelist who sets up a tent, preaches a fiery sermon about sin and the need to repent, passes the hat, and then moves on.  Amaziah told Amos to take his roadshow somewhere else and stop trying to make a buck at the king’s expense. 

This forced Amos to defend his credentials.  He had no training in public speaking.  He was not raised in the priesthood.  He was a simple man of the countryside whom God had tapped to be His spokesman.  Amos was not speaking to make money or earn a name for himself; he was repeating important words that must be listened to.  God was threatening to punish an entire nation for ignoring Him.  Wake up and repent before it’s too late!

God was very angry with His people living in Israel, but He still loved them—loved them enough to give them warning so they could repent and be forgiven.  Sadly that message fell on deaf ears, and everything Amos predicted eventually came to pass.  Israel was destroyed and the people suffered terribly. 

Years later, the nation of Judah followed in Israel’s tragic footsteps—God was ignored, prophets warned of national calamity, the warnings were ignored, and Judah was destroyed.  History repeats itself.  We do not learn from past mistakes.  America is marching down the same path of destruction that Israel did in Amos’ time.  Our country is turning away from the LORD

It’s happening in the halls of government.  Jesus said, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6:27-28).  Yet we have elected officials who sanction to use of torture to rip secrets from our enemies.  God said you shall not kill (Exodus 20:13), yet the practice of abortion is protected by law.  In Leviticus 20:13 we read If a man shares a bed with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done something detestable, yet several states have made gay marriage legal. 

It’s also happening in our churches.  Through Moses God said, Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it (Deuteronomy 4:2).  Through the prophet Zechariah God said, Speak the truth to each other (8:16).  But God’s words can make us uncomfortable.  They tell us to give up pleasures that we enjoy.  They tell us to do things we’d rather not do, like serving the Lord with our money and talking about our faith with others.  Many in the clergy are afraid that if they speak all of God’s word, leaving nothing out, they will offend some people and drive them away.  So they are careful in their sermons and teaching, downplaying anything that might make a congregation unhappy.  They edit God’s truth, massaging it to make everyone feel good—except for God, of course.  Paul predicted that this would happen; listen to his words in 2nd Timothy chapter four: the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth

When Amos spoke God’s words, some people were offended and others got angry.  As it happened in the past, so it happens now.  Christians are told to stay away from abortion clinics.  Bibles are kept out of schools, where evolution is taught without any contradictory opinion.  The Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech, but look at how a 2009 contestant for Miss USA was criticized for saying that, according to the Bible and her personal beliefs, marriage is for the union of a man and a woman.  Our society promotes tolerance for all, yet people quickly grow intolerant when the word of God is spoken. 

Americans are building a national religion, you know.  It is called Political Correctness.  America’s religion wants tolerance for everyone, regardless of background, beliefs, or lifestyle.  Now don’t get me wrong, we need to accept each other—Jesus associated with all sorts of people, from religious leaders to prostitutes, from blue-collar workers to Jewish traitors who served the occupying Roman army as tax collectors.  Jesus reached out to everyone. 

But the American religion of Tolerance is very different from the Way of Christ.  Tolerance wants us to accept others just as they are.  Jesus reaches out to everyone, but He demands change—He wants us to repent of our sins and accept His rules for life as ours.  Jesus loves us just as we are, but He loves us too much to leave us that way.  He wants to purge us of sin, washing it away with the blood that He shed on the cross.  He wants to make us better; that means doing away with our love for sin. 

America’s religion tries to ignore sin—for the sake of getting along, we try to avoid judging each other’s behavior as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.  But God does not turn a blind eye to sin.  Sin destroys relationships.  Sin makes a healthy society impossible.  Sin puts ‘me’ in the center of the universe, makes what I want the greatest good.  But there’s no way that millions of people can all have it their way.  Fights and disappointment are inevitable.  And so we duke it out it out in court to see who gets his way this time.

God wants something different, something better.  He dares to want perfection.  Impossible?  The angel Gabriel told Mary, nothing is impossible with God (Luke 1:37).  Jesus is the key—through Him, the impossible becomes possible.  Through Him, unforgivable sins are forgiven.  Through Him, death is defeated and life reigns victorious. 

You cannot achieve perfection through compromise.  God is not interested in cutting corners or relaxing His standards.  And that causes a problem for politicians.  Politicians thrive on compromise—from their perspective, it’s the only way to bring people together in common cause.  God knows differently; He knows that so long as sin rules in our hearts, each of us will try to use others to achieve our own ends.  The only way to be truly unified is to stand beneath the cross of Christ where our sin is dealt with and we are united behind Jesus’ leadership.  Politics is about lies and half-truths and ‘spin’; Christianity is about unswerving commitment to the truth.  As Jesus told Governor Pilate, Everyone on the side of truth listens to me (John 18:37).  Like most politicians, the governor just didn’t get it—“What is truth?” Pilate asked.

Politics and Religion—they just don’t mix.  It was that way in Amos’ time, and it’s true in our time as well.  Amaziah the priest and Jeroboam the king tried to shut Amos up because his message was rocking the boat.  But ignoring God doesn’t make Him go away.  Tuning out His message only makes Him angry. 

My friends, Amos may be long dead but today God has you.  Amos was just a common man, yet God spoke through him with great power.  You might not feel qualified to speak for God, but the LORD can use you nonetheless.  He can speak through your letters and emails sent to Washington and your state capital.  You can warn our leaders about the dangers of ungodly behavior like Amos did.  You can share God’s truth with people who have made a career out of double-talk and carefully nuanced ‘truth’.  God’s message might not be welcome in the halls of government, but it is most certainly needed.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Authority and servitude

Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (Mark 10:43).

“It’s good to be the king.”  This phrase, first spoken by comedian Mel Brooks, expresses something we all feel at one time or another—if I was in charge, life would be great.

There are individuals with a lot of power in this world—people like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Barack Obama.  We can only imagine having their kind of influence over politics, business and public opinion. There are many more who have authority to a lesser degree—teachers, bosses, judges. Such people can make life easier for us, or they can get in the way of reaching our goals if they have a mind to. We often find ourselves wishing to have the power that rests in their hands, even if just for a little while.

But power and authority come with a lot of pressure and responsibility. The president cannot say anything in public without someone offering criticism, nor can he order military action without first carefully weighing the consequences. Judges render verdicts that can imprison the defendant for years, even decades of life—it’s important to get such decisions right every single time. A business manager who screws up can lead a company into bankruptcy, costing all the employees their jobs. 

Frankly, I’m glad that God is in charge of things. I know how easy it is to make a bad decision, to overlook an important detail, to accidentally make things worse instead of better. I know that the more power, influence, or authority that a person has, the bigger the problems their mistakes can cause. And I know that being on top invites an awful lot of criticism, because you can never satisfy everyone at the same time. I’m not convinced that “it’s good to be the king”.

God blesses each of us with skills and resources to be used in His service. Maybe that service is humbling at times. Being a follower does not always bring fame or accolades. But wars cannot be won if a general has no soldiers. Businesses cannot thrive if the branch manager has no one to wait on customers. Movies cannot be made if the actors don’t have someone behind the cameras. Our Lord Jesus set aside His privileges as the Prince of Heaven to serve us in our need, humbling Himself to death on a cross so we might be forgiven our sins. His great sacrifice proves that serving is commendable.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Update vs. classic

I have put my hope in your word (Psalm 119:74).

People complain about remakes.  Film buffs hate seeing a black and white film colorized for broadcast on television.  Fans of classic TV shows are frequently disappointed with how the property is updated for a theatrical release.  And feature films based on popular books often stir up controversy with how beloved characters are cast and which material is trimmed to meet limits imposed by running time.  It raises the question, why tinker with something that wasn’t broken in the first place?

But remakes and adaptations can draw new audiences unfamiliar with the original work.  Film series like the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have done great business, and they were faithful to the books that inspired them.  Some movie remakes like Footloose and King Kong have equaled or even exceeded the popularity of the original.  A few TV shows have been faithfully brought to the big screen, as happened with Star Trek and The Muppets.

There are people who disapprove of new Bible translations.  Some of them grew up with the King James Version, a classic that has been in continuous publication since the 1600s.  Others worry that some translations play fast and loose with the words of the Bible in order to appeal to modern sensibilities. 

The King James is beautiful and majestic, without question.  But modern speakers of the English language have a hard time understanding a version that was written for people who lived 400 years ago. Some of the words have changed in meaning over centuries of use.  Frankly, there are many who would never read a Bible if it doesn’t speak God’s message in modern English. But updating a classic is tricky—you need to remain faithful to the original work.  The Good Book was written thousands of years ago in Greek and Hebrew, languages that don’t always translate easily into a modern way of communicating.  Bible scholars want to bring God’s word to as many individuals as possible; they work hard at finding the best way to convey God’s message, a way that is both accurate and readily understood.  God’s inspired message is the most important work ever set to paper—the constant efforts at publishing newer versions is driven by the goal of bringing it to the widest audience possible.

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Rejecting Christ

Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples.  When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!  Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor."  He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  And he was amazed at their lack of faith.
Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village
(Mark 6:1-6).

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus returns to Nazareth for the first time since He left to start His ministry as God’s chosen representative. Nazareth was the hometown of Mary and Joseph.  God had arranged things so that Mary would give birth in Bethlehem, because that little town was also known as the City of David, birthplace of Israel’s greatest king. God had promised David that one of his descendants would rule God’s people forever; since Jesus was that descendant, it was fitting that Christ be born in David’s City.  But Jesus’ family could not stay in Bethlehem; when King Herod found out that the Messiah had been born, he reacted with jealousy—no one was going to be king of Israel except him!  So he sent armed men to Bethlehem with the order to kill every boy under the age of two.  Warned by an angel, Joseph took Mary and Jesus and fled to safety. When things settled down following Herod’s death, the family moved back to their hometown of Nazareth. 

Jesus grew to manhood in Nazareth, learning the trade of carpenter from His foster father Joseph. You see, Jesus was not the child of Mary and Joseph, He was the child of Mary and God.  Jesus had a great destiny—save mankind from sin, death and Satan.  So Jesus never married.  Instead, when he reached the age of 30, He left town to begin His work as the Savior of mankind.  By this time Joseph had died.  The town must have thought it strange that Jesus would leave His business and family behind; maybe He was suffering from mid-life crisis?

But now Jesus had returned, and He did not come alone.  There were 12 men with Him, disciples who had pledged themselves to Jesus as students and followers.  Jesus had acquired quite a reputation.  He had become something of a celebrity, a man rich in words and capable of miracles. So the folks of Nazareth were curious; Jesus was invited to preach at the next church service.

The people of Nazareth were in for quite a shock. Mark records, many who heard him were amazed. "Where did this man get these things?" they asked. "What's this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles!"  They recognized wisdom when they heard it, and they understood that wisdom and miracles go hand in hand.

Wisdom is not the same as being smart or well educated. Wisdom is more than being able to figure out how the pieces fit together or seeing the big picture. Wisdom is being aware of spiritual things. Wisdom makes it possible to find the truth amidst lies and double-talk. Wisdom makes clear what is important in life. Scripture says, The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 8:10)

Wisdom trusts in God—trusts in His power and trusts in His love. Wisdom accepts miracles as reality. Jesus said, If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it will obey you (Luke 17:6). If we have the wisdom to trust in Christ, He makes this promise: You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it (John 14:14). Sadly, our faith is weak; we don’t trust in Jesus as we should.  Listen to the words of James: If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does (James 1:5-8)

Having wisdom pays enormous dividends. Wisdom allows you to live without fear because you can trust in God’s protection. Wisdom shows you how to live contentedly, instead of being enslaved by the desire for pleasures that do not give lasting satisfaction. Wisdom gives you peace amid the confusion because you know that God is in charge. Wisdom understands that life goes on after death, and that heaven is the reward God offers for all who trust in Jesus as their Friend. This is why Christ shared words of wisdom with the people He grew up with. This is why Jesus made sure His words were preserved in the Bible so we could have them too. The Son of God loves us and wants to bless us with His wisdom.

But while the citizens of Nazareth appreciated hearing words of wisdom, they were not impressed with the messenger. "Isn't this the carpenter?" they said. "Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him

These words give us a look at Jesus’ family and how the townsfolk felt about the Son of Man who grew up among them.  After Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had other children—four boys and at least two girls.  Later in life, James would become head of the church in Jerusalem and killed for being a Christian; he also wrote the Book of James. The other members of Jesus’ family are unknown to us. But we do know this—early in the Lord’s ministry, they thought that Jesus had gone off the deep end. They even tried to stage an intervention, as we are told in Mark chapter three: When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, "He is out of his mind."

We don’t often think about Jesus’ relatives. With Joseph dead, Jesus would have been the head of the family. Since He left to preach and teach, it would have fallen to James to run the family business. Which raises an interesting question. Three years later, when Jesus was dying on the cross to atone for our sins, we read these words: When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, "Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, "Here is your mother." From that time on, this disciple took her into his home (John 19:26-27). Why didn’t Jesus let a member of His family assume the responsibility of caring for their mother? Why give this honor to a disciple?  We don’t know the answer—the Bible doesn’t tell us.  Perhaps Jesus knew that this disciple would outlive Mary’s other children. Or maybe it had to do with love—the disciple Jesus felt personally closest to was John, so it would make sense for Jesus to ask His best friend to care for Mary once Jesus was gone. 

The people of Nazareth knew Jesus’ family—had known them all their lives. They knew Jesus was trained to be a carpenter; other than that, Jesus had no formal education that they knew about.  And Jesus was quietly thought of as a bastard—a son illegitimately born outside of marriage. That’s why the people called Him ‘the son of Mary’, not the son of Joseph. Jesus was a nice guy, polite and hardworking, but there certainly wasn’t anything special about Him.  So when Jesus started speaking about religious things like some sort of expert, the townsfolk got angry. Who did Jesus think He was, anyway? What gave Him the right to tell them how they should live? Just where did He get these teachings from, anyhow? How was it that this common laborer suddenly had the power to perform miracles? They thought that they had Jesus all nicely pigeon-holed, and now He was defying their expectations of Him. They couldn’t have been wrong about Jesus all this time, surely—He must have changed, fallen under a bad influence since He left town. 

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt.  Jesus acknowledged the truth of this when He told them "Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." The citizens of Nazareth thought that Jesus was just like them; when He turned out to be something much greater, they resented Him for being better than them. It makes one wonder—how would the Nazarenes have treated Jesus if He were a stranger in their town? Not much different, I suspect. As soon as Jesus started saying things that made them feel uncomfortable, some would dismiss His words: “He’s not from around here; he doesn’t understand us or our problems.” When God sends a message that challenges us to make changes in our lives, we are quick to find excuses not to listen.

Mark goes on to say something astonishing: He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.  And he was amazed at their lack of faith. Jesus—unable to do miracles? Our Lord has unlimited power—that was not the problem. No, it was the people of Nazareth who closed their ears to Him—they were the problem, they were the reason that only a few miracles were performed in their city. 

Without wisdom, we cannot see miracles happening. Without faith we don’t recognize the power of God at work, we only see coincidences and good fortune.  Jesus once said, Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces (Matthew 7:6). Jesus practiced what He preached. He did not cast His pearls before swine; He did not perform miracles for the unbelieving. On Good Friday, when Jesus was brought to Herod in chains, our Lord would not provide entertainment for the unbelieving king. When the religious leaders demanded that Jesus prove His authority to them by performing a miracle, the Lord replied A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah (Matthew 16:4)

You remember Jonah—when he tried to run away from God, he ended up going overboard in a storm. God saved Him from drowning by sending a huge fish to swallow Jonah alive, and later spitting the man out on dry ground. After three days in what seemed an inescapable grave, God forgave Jonah and restored him to life.  Jesus applied this miracle to Himself—although He was dead in the grave three days, God would forgive the sins that buried Jesus and restore Him to life—everlasting life. On the cross, Jesus would suffer God’s punishment for all our offenses and die—but although dead, Jesus would be reborn, leaving our sins buried in His grave forever. That is the greatest miracle Jesus would ever perform—but we only get value from it through faith in Christ.  If we are so unwise as to reject the cross, we reject eternal life in paradise as well.

It was not Jesus’ habit to perform miracles for the unbelieving. The Messiah saved His miracles to strengthen those who trusted in His love and care. A woman with chronic bleeding touched Him, hoping for relief; Jesus told her, "Take heart, daughter…your faith has healed you" (Matthew 8:22). When a leper begged Jesus to cure his illness, the Lord replied "Rise and go; your faith has made you well" (Luke 17:19). Most of the Nazarenes were not wise enough to see that Jesus spoke and acted in God’s name; even if He did miracles for them, they would not praise God for Jesus’ work among them. And so, because of their hostility, they took a pass on experiencing the wisdom and power of God in their city. Jesus left to bring the Good News of salvation to other villages in the area.

What can we learn from this sorry episode in Jesus’ life? We learn that without faith we cannot see God’s hand working in our lives. It is clear that we need wisdom from God, wisdom that only comes through the words of Holy Scripture, words that we need to read and hear as much as we can. The citizens of Nazareth show us ourselves—people who are quick to reject God’s word if we don’t like the messenger or the words make us feel uncomfortable. And we see the tragedy of rejection—Jesus left to go be with people who welcomed Him. I pray that you will always welcome Christ and His wisdom, even when others around you feel differently.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Big and dramatic

This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118:24).

Opera is typically performed on a stage before a live audience.  Like any theatrical production, everything must be intensified for the viewers all the way in back.  Makeup must be garish so that the actors’ faces aren’t washed out by stage lighting.  Facial expressions must be exaggerated and voices must surge with emotion so everyone present gets the full impact of the performance.  To label something as operatic speaks of larger-than-life heroes and villains, heart-wringing drama and supremely clever wordplay.  Star Wars has been described as a space opera with it’s over-the-top story, characters and special effects.  And many classic westerns are affectionately known as horse operas. 

Another brand of over-the-top storytelling is called pulp.  The term comes from the first half of the 20th century when lurid magazines were made from cheap paper stock called pulp.  These periodicals featured stories full of excitement, horror and suspense—little time was spent on character development or relationships.  Fiction told in the pulp style leaves you breathless as the hero plunges from one harrowing situation to another.  Raiders of the Lost Ark was made as an homage to this kind of story telling.

Why are stories of exaggerated emotion and hectic action so appealing?  It’s because life is usually just the opposite.  Bad guys don’t wear black hats and you can’t put an end to their villainy by killing them in single combat.  Most of your time is spent on boring and repetitious things; periods of excitement and intense emotion only come around every once in a while.  Our lives typically fall into a rut of bland sameness; entertainment that has the styling of opera or pulp offers the intensity that our days are usually lacking.

But life doesn’t have to be tedious, so bland that you crave a little spice to give it flavor.  God designed a world that is absolutely breathtaking if you just take the time to really look at it, listen to it, touch it and taste what it offers.  God has filled this world with people of amazing variety—each has a story waiting to be explored and appreciated, no two alike.  Of course, sin has corrupted God’s wonderful creation, corrupted each of us.  But with Jesus handling the problem of pain and fear and disappointment for us, we don’t have to timidly limit our exposure to everything life has to offer.  Followers of Christ can taste what it means to be fully and wondrously alive, each and every day.

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