Saturday, September 28, 2013

Submission, charity, service

For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?  But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble."
(James 3:16-4:6)

Today’s Epistle lesson sounds almost un-American.  Our country is built on the foundation of competition and the pursuit of success.  From childhood we are encouraged to want it all.  And if you are successful, people are willing to cut you some slack in how you achieved that success.  Many coaches will let misbehavior slide when a team member makes big plays on a consistent basis.  Management is willing to sweep improprieties under the rug if an employee rakes in big profits for the company.  The American public is willing to reelect politicians to office in spite of scandal, so long as they do a good job on behalf of their constituents. 

God’s message spoken through James is almost a slap in the face.  We prize ambition, God values submission.  We focus on getting things for ourselves; God tells us to be generous in giving to others.  Our priority is having fun; God wants us dedicated to service.  The Lord wants us to live in a way that few people would understand or appreciate.

James lays out God’s argument in a three-fold manner.  His first point is this: For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness

God warns us that envy and selfish ambition give rise to disorder and evil behavior.  We see it all the time—in the news, in our community, even in our homes.  Here’s just one example.  A man is dissatisfied with his marriage.  He meets someone new and exciting, and soon he’s having an affair.  He is completely wrapped up in making himself feel good—he gives no thought to the needs of his wife or their children.  His selfish ambition results in all sorts of evil behavior.  He is committing adultery, and he is lying to cover it up.  He is hurting his wife and children by neglecting them.  When the affair comes to light, his wife will be filled with anger and fear about the future.  She might lose her self-confidence; she might become so bitter that trusting anyone becomes difficult.  She might even do something drastic like kidnapping the kids or killing the man who has betrayed her.  And let’s not forget how the children are affected.  Home stops being a refuge of emotional safety for them because it has become a place of conflict or neglect.  And by losing their respect for their father, they might lose respect for all authority figures in their lives including God Himself.  So much damage from one man’s selfish ambition.

Of course, selfish ambition can take as many forms as there are people on this earth.  Kids are ready to do whatever it takes to be popular, get good grades, or be the Most Valuable Player.  Adults are willing to do whatever it takes to get a promotion, get elected to office, or fill their homes with everything that catches their eye.  Envy and selfish ambition result in lies and back talk, betrayals and broken promises, threats and backroom deal making.  Envy and selfish ambition can even lead to assault and murder.

Through James, God shows us that there is another way to live our lives.  The wisdom that God offers teaches us how to be peaceful, considerate, submissive, merciful, productive, impartial, and sincere.  Imagine how the world would be if we all took God up on His offer to be guided by these principles!  Peaceful people work for compromise instead of insisting on getting their own way at the expense of others.  Considerate people think about how their words or actions might impact others, and are willing to take the needs of other people into account whenever they make a decision.  Being submissive sounds weak, but God values submission greatly. It takes real strength of character to put your needs and desires to the side and submit to someone else--submission is perhaps the ultimate expression of love and respect.  Those who are merciful are slow to anger and quick to forgive.  Those who are productive benefit many people with their time and talents, not just themselves.  People who are impartial avoid making snap judgments or taking sides without careful thought; they want to see conflicts from all angles so that a peaceful solution might be reached.  And people who are sincere have great influence with others because everyone knows that you can always trust them to speak the truth.

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  Sadly, we are more likely to side with envy and selfish ambition than we are to embrace the wisdom that comes from heaven.  This is because we all have strong desires that try to dictate our actions.  This is the second point in James’ argument: What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

We are all driven by desire.  For some it’s a desire for money or security.  For others it’s a desire for respect or love.  Some want authority or control; others want to be needed or appreciated.  Some desires are healthy—we all need love and companionship, we all need to feel that we’re safe.  But even healthy desires can take a dark turn and lead to destructive behavior.  Wars happen when one nation wants to ensure its security by launching a preemptive military strike.  Love can turn obsessive and lead to stalking, kidnapping and murder. 

The problem is that when we want something, we are often willing to do anything to get it.  We ignore the risk of danger and the rights of others; we let desire override our conscience and our common sense.  This results in angry words and acts of violence.  This results in hasty decisions that rarely turn out well. 

Psalm 145 says, The LORD upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down. 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. The LORD is righteous in all his ways and loving toward all he has made. The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them. Knowing this, we should pray to God whenever we need or want something.  But usually we don’t.  When you’re sick, do you pray to God before visiting the doctor?  When you’re cramming for a big test, do you ask the Holy Spirit to help you prepare and do well?  When you’re considering whether or not to move in with your lover, do you ask Jesus to guide you in making the right decision?  Most of time, when desire is pushing our buttons, we don’t think about turning to God first, even though He is in the best position to satisfy our needs. You do not have, because you do not ask God

Of course, God does not want to be treated like a vending machine—put in a prayer and expect that He’ll dispense what you want. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.  God cares about you, yes, but He is not interested in supporting your bad habits.  God loves you, so He will not give you things that you will misuse to your detriment or the detriment of others.   If your only focus in life is yourself, God will answer your selfish prayers with silence.

As he wraps up his argument, James challenges us to see the world from God’s perspective. You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?  But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says: "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." 

James calls us adulterous people.  He is repeating a charge that God has made against sinners since the Old Testament.  One example is found in Jeremiah chapter 31: they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them.  God made us and we are His.  He is not willing to share our affection or devotion with anything earthly that we might desire.  When we lust after the desires of our hearts, we treat God like a husband who we’re cheating on.  Our cravings lead to adultery against the Lord, spurning our relationship with the Almighty.  Our adulterous behavior makes the Lord angry, so angry that He will deal with us as He would an enemy.  And really, that is what we are, because when we choose the world over God, we have chosen to side with the prince of this world, the devil.

Thankfully, our sinful desires don’t have to get the final word.  Because He loves us, God shows us His grace, His undeserved mercy and care.  He loves us so much that He sent His Son Jesus down from heaven to bring the wisdom of God to us personally.  In Jesus we see the wisdom of heaven personified: He is peaceful, considerate, submissive, merciful, productive, impartial, and sincere.  Jesus brings us peace with God and each other through forgiveness.  He is careful with us; Isaiah said of Him (chapter 42): A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.  Jesus was submissive; Paul writes in Philippians chapter two, Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something He must hang on to, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!  Jesus is merciful; He forgives any sin no matter how terrible, simply because we ask Him.  Jesus is hard working; through His life and death, He atoned for everything we have done to anger God, and every day He guides and strengthens those who rely on Him.  Jesus is impartial, a fact that Peter struggled to learn: I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:34-35).  And Jesus is sincere; Peter also writes, He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).

Jesus is the wisdom that comes from heaven; Jesus is the grace of God born as a man to save us from sin, death and hell.  But Jesus is not welcomed by the proud; people who think that they know what is best have no time for the Savior, no interest in submitting their lives to the guidance of His wisdom.  This is why God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.  People who are humble realize that giving in to desire leads to disaster.  People who are humble have experienced the pain and disappointment that is caused by envy and selfish ambition.  It is the humble who are ready for a different way of life; it is the humble who crave God’s wisdom that He offers through Christ.  It takes humility to admit your mistakes and ask Jesus to forgive them.  Humility is hard, but it is the humble who receive God’s grace.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Owning up

The man said, "The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it" (Genesis 3:12).

When we do something wrong, we know that sooner or later punishment will follow. It might come in the form of criticism or a disappointed look; it might involve losing some privileges or having to give something in compensation. 

Since no one likes to be punished, we often try to fix the blame on someone else.  It was your wife’s nagging that got you mad enough to throw a punch.  The only reason you egged the teacher’s house is because of that low grade which got you suspended from the team.  You wouldn’t have been speeding if all that road construction hadn’t put you behind schedule.

Trying to shift blame to someone else is as old as time.  In the Garden of Eden, Adam tried to blame God for his mistake, claiming that the Lord had given him a defective wife. Eve, of course, blamed the serpent.  But you can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes; He knows everything we’ve been up to.  He expects us to own up to our failures and mistakes, not try to pawn them off on someone else.  Bad enough that we deserve punishment for what we’ve done or failed to do; how much worse it is when we try to make someone else bear that punishment in our place?

Yet that is exactly what the Son of God chose to do on the cross.  He accepted the blame for each and every way that your conduct has failed to measure up.  He suffered unjustly because He loves you; He took your blame so you can know the peace and security of living with God as His forgiven, treasured child. 

When you try to escape punishment by passing the blame to others, you don’t receive the blessing of forgiveness.  Instead of finding relief from guilt and shame, you have to live with worry that sooner or later your deception will be exposed.  God wants to forgive you, but that can’t happen unless you confess your sins to Him and humbly beg for mercy.  The Lord only punishes those who won’t kneel before Jesus; He wants us to have faith in His love and confidence in His compassion.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Habitual offenders

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Every one of us is a sinner, a person who breaks God’s law repeatedly.  In fact, we are habitual offenders.  We are the kind of repeat offenders that even the most lenient judge finally gives up on.  The problem is that we can’t help ourselves.  We are addicts to sin; even though we know it’s wrong, even though it’s clear that we’ll regret it later, we go ahead and do bad things anyway. We indulge in sin because it’s thrilling, it brings pleasure, or it temporarily relieves our stress.  We put our health at risk by eating too much food or drinking too much liquor; we take dangerous risks like texting while driving or not wearing a helmet while cycling.  The Internet is full of pictures, music and videos that promote hatred and violence, casual sex and wasteful gambling; there is no good reason to spend time on such things, yet many individuals cannot shake the habit of repeat visits.  We spend money on impulse purchases that don’t have lasting value; we let flashes of anger take control of our behavior and people that we care about are hurt as a result.  And the worst part is, we do these things over and over again.

It’s bad enough to realize your own inadequacy; it’s even worse when you try to use your weakness as an excuse.  When you say “I can’t help it”, you’re giving yourself permission to indulge your sinful habits.  People who simply give up trying to change have allowed sin to dominate their lives.

Christ Jesus understands our weakness.  He spent many years walking among us, facing the same temptations, stress, and disappointments that we do.  Unlike us, He had the strength of will to back away from every pitfall.  When He approached the cross, the only sins burdening His soul were ours.  The Savior from heaven lived a perfect life on earth, then offered it to His Father on our behalf.  Jesus took responsibility for our sins and credits us with His righteousness.

We can’t help doing wrong; praise God for showing us mercy through His Son! But this is no excuse to give up struggling against sin, trying to honor the heavenly Father with our good behavior.  With Jesus’ help, we can reject what is bad and embrace what is good.  We won’t always get it right, but we can show Him our love and respect by trying.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Making good use of time

Do you like riddles?  I’ve got one for you this morning.  The riddle goes like this: “I am your most prized possession, but you don’t keep me in a bank.  I am of great worth, but you don’t know how much of me you have.  Children take me for granted, but old people want me desperately.  What am I?”

The answer, of course, is time.  Time is your most prized possession, but you don’t keep it in a bank.  Time is of great worth, but you don’t know how much of it you have.  Children take time for granted, but old people want it desperately.  Each of us is born with a fixed amount of time; it is a limited resource that has no clear expiration date.

Some people take time for granted; they waste gobs of it with hardly a thought.  They lose years to alcohol and drugs.  They spend money as quickly as they get it, because they aren’t concerned about the future.  They put off making big decisions and don’t like being tied down by commitments; there will always be time later to deal with those kinds of things.

Other people worry about time, and clutch it tightly like a miser.  They make lists and schedules, cramming each day full of activities.  They hate getting stuck in traffic or waiting in a doctor’s office.  If asked to serve as a volunteer, they want something of value in exchange for their time—will the activity advance their education, or could it look good on a resume?  They are always looking for ways to get the most ‘bang’ for their buck.

When it comes to the Lord, most people hesitate to give their time.  Those who take time for granted feel no urgency about church matters.  There’ll be plenty of time to get involved with such things when they’re older.  Those who worry about time have difficulty fitting church activities into their busy schedules.  There’s too much important stuff going on right now; let the retired members serve on committees since they don’t have anything else to do.  And so, because of sinful attitudes regarding time, churches are half-empty on Sunday mornings and the same few people end up holding offices and doing the work of the congregation.

This weekend my focus is on stewardship.  You might be expecting a message that nags you about donating more dollars to the church.  But money is not the main focus of stewardship—time is.  

Money is a byproduct of time.  If you don’t put in time at work, you won’t earn a paycheck.  Investments need time to mature and show a profit.  In fact, we often use money as a way to save our time.  In some churches, for example, members put money in the collection plate to pay for a janitor so they don’t have to take turns cleaning the building.   People will buy expensive airline tickets to avoid long hours traveling in a car.  We spend money on eating out so we don’t have to spend time working in the kitchen. 

Money represents time.  And God expects money from us—money to support the work of His church, which announces the Good News of salvation to those who are wasting away in the darkness of sin.  In Romans chapter ten Paul writes, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?  And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!"  The lost and erring must hear of Jesus and the cross, or they will be lost forever when they die.  As people who have been called out of the darkness into God’s marvelous light, we have an obligation to support the spread of the Gospel that has filled our lives with hope.  God gives us money to support this work. 

Consider the poor widow in Mark 12:41-44.  She had no government support—in those days there was no such thing as Welfare or Social Security.  She had no family to give her food or provide her shelter.  She was getting by on virtually nothing.  Yet when she visited God’s house of worship, she donated everything she had to live on.  Why?  Because she was loved by God and His love filled her heart.  She knew that God cared for her, had forgiven all her sins, and had promised her a place in His magnificent kingdom.  She was grateful for God’s love, a love that gave her peace and a reason to rejoice even when times were hard.  And she shared God’s love for those who did not have this blessing of closeness to the Almighty.  That love moved the poverty-stricken widow to do something almost unthinkable; she put her last coins in the Temple treasury.  She gave them out of gratitude for God’s rich mercy, which had given her life meaning.  She gave those coins to support spreading the word of God to those who lived with no hope.  And she had faith—faith that God would take care of her.  Jesus, seeing this great act of love, praised her to His disciples: "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.  They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on."

But you can’t buy off God with money.  Money is important, but it is not as important as time.  Look at the first three commandments; do they require money or time?  You shall have no other gods.  You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.  Observe the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.  Jesus summed up these words when He said, `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'  This is the first and greatest commandment (Matthew 22:37-38).  Do you think that you can put money in the plate and God won’t care if you then go and break His laws?  Do you think that God will be satisfied with a check in the mail while you spend your Sunday mornings in bed or at the lake?  Much more than money, God expects and deserves your time.

God gives us many things.  In the Small Catechism, Luther mentions food and drink, clothing and shoes, house and home, land and animals, money and goods, a godly spouse and godly children, godly workers, godly and dependable rulers, good government and good weather, peace and health, self-control and a good reputation, good friends and neighbors you can depend on.  As far as Luther is concerned, you can be richly blessed even when money is lacking.

God also blesses us with spiritual gifts.  In Galatians chapter five, Paul gives the following list: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These come because, in Christ, our sins are forgiven.  He takes away our hatred, fear and doubt; He teaches us to forgive, love and trust.  These are gifts that last for all time; they are gifts no amount of money can buy.

But the most precious thing that God has given us is the time that Jesus spent here on earth.  God’s Son stepped down from heaven to be born as a man of finite days; after a mere 33 years, His life would end on the cross.  Jesus knew the pressure of time, just as we do—yet unlike us, He used His time wisely.  When He was age 12, He paid careful attention to religious instruction at the Temple.  Throughout His life, worship on the Sabbath was part of His weekly routine.  As an adult, Jesus always made Himself available for those who needed His care, but He never let the pressures of the day interfere with time for prayer.  He spoke of our sin and need for salvation with anyone who would listen.  He never let negative people stop Him from giving hope to the hopeless.  And then He went to the cross, the once-and-for-all sacrifice by which our sins are laid to rest.  Jesus died that we might be forgiven.

It’s amazing what Jesus accomplished in such a small amount of time—He changed the universe forever!  Death is no longer the undefeatable enemy of mankind; through His death and resurrection, Jesus has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light (2 Timothy 1:10).  Bitterness and regret no longer leave permanent scars on our lives; fear and anger no longer drive us to despair.  Jesus changed everything for us through the gift of His time.

In Romans chapter twelve, Paul urges us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, as our spiritual act of worship.  He wants us to dedicate our time to God.  There are many ways to do this.  Attend worship regularly, at your home congregation or as a visitor when you travel.  Study the Bible—at church, with a group of friends, or privately at home.  Purchase a Bible on CD and listen to God’s word while you drive or exercise.  Volunteer to do something for the church—cleaning up, tending the grounds, serving as an officer or member of a committee.  Bring flowers for the altar or make a banner for the wall.  Bring a friend with you to worship. 

But don’t give your time or money grudgingly.  Remember that 2nd Corinthians says, Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  Consider Jacob: after seeing the stairway to heaven and hearing the promises that God made to Him, Jacob tied his giving to the Lord’s generosity—of all that you give me, I will give you a tenth (Genesis 28:22).  Jacob was a practical man who knew what money was worth—but he also trusted God to provide for him.  So he made a vow—the more God gave to him, the more Jacob would return to the Lord with grateful thanks.

God has given you a great deal.  Of course the most precious gift is His Son Jesus, through whom your sins are wiped away and you have the promise of everlasting life.  But the second most precious thing you have is time.  Time is precious because you have it in limited amount; when it runs out, your stay on earth is done.  Time is precious because you don’t know how much of it you have; you might die today or 20 years from now—only God knows the number of days that remain for you.   Time is precious, so you must use it wisely.  Don’t waste time as if tomorrow is guaranteed—it’s not.  Don’t be stingy with your time, and miss opportunities to show love to God and your fellow man.  Dedicate your time to God; ask Him for guidance in how to spend the days that He has given you.  Donating money to support His work is always welcome, but God prizes your time above all else.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons (Galatians 4:4-5).

All people are sinners—every one of us says and does things that break God’s laws and provoke His anger.  But we don’t like having restrictions placed on our behavior, by God or by anyone else.  In fact, we are quite willing to argue that we have the right to do as we please.  We have the right to live free and make ourselves happy. 

The problem with such thinking is that it can easily lead to sinful behavior.  Take freedom of speech for example.  If you believe you have the right to say whatever you want, you can spread hurtful gossip, tell bigoted jokes, insult anyone who disagrees with you, and feel no guilt for causing pain with your words.  Or what about the right to be happy?  Gays and lesbians argue that to be happy, they need the option to get married to each other.  Some argue that to be happy, they need legal access to marijuana or other controlled substances.  Plenty of men and women say that abortion must be an available choice so an unwanted pregnancy does not interfere with their happiness.  And let’s not forget the right that guarantees freedom of religion.  Many individuals insist that what they really need is freedom from religion, that their rights are violated by crosses in cemeteries, prayers at public events, Bible reading over the airwaves.  Getting hung up over your rights can become an excuse to sin and feel that your behavior is perfectly justified.

In reality, we have no rights.  God does not owe us anything.  We have ignored His authority, flouted His rules, taken His love for granted or snubbed it altogether.  We stir up trouble of one sort or another every single day, by doing something wrong or letting opportunities to serve the LORD slip away unused.  This is how we repay the Creator who gave us life, who puts a roof over our heads, food on our plates, friends and relatives to hold us tight? We have absolutely no right to treat God the way we do. 

Nevertheless, the Almighty sent His Son to change our relationship with Him.  Christ did this by taking the burden of punishment for our sins upon His mighty shoulders. Through this undeserved act of mercy, we are adopted into His family and given full rights as His children.  We have no right to sin but thanks to Jesus, God has every right to forgive us.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Prayer (part five)

I have called you friends (John 15:15).

Speaking with God through prayer is an indispensable part of Christian life.  Yet many believers struggle with how to pray.  That uncertainty keeps them from praying as often as they should.

Of course, Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern for our own.  But if you leaf through the Bible, you will see the Lord’s Prayer only twice among dozens and dozens of other prayers.  While the Lord’s Prayer is wonderful and a great way for Christians to pray together, it is not the only way that we can speak to God. 

The prayers you hear in church are usually quite formal, because worship tends to be a formal activity in a formal setting.  But your prayers don’t have to be that way.  Jesus is your King, but He also calls you friend.  That means you can talk to Him without getting fancy.  If you want to know how to speak with Jesus, open the Bible and read the four Gospels—see how the disciples talked with Jesus during the years they were together.  They were talking with God—those conversations were actually prayer!  When you speak to the Son of God, you don’t have to be any more formal than the disciples were as they walked with Jesus, ate with Him, shared their concerns with Him. 

So let’s consider a few examples.  Suppose that you are sitting down to take a quiz and you’re afraid that you’re going to do badly. You could pray, “Lord Jesus, help me to do my best.”  That’s all you have to say.  Or suppose that you’re going out on a date with someone you really want to impress.  You could pray, “Dear Jesus, please keep me from making a fool of myself tonight.”  You might be applying for a loan or to get a job.  You could pray, “Heavenly Father, please see that my application is approved.  But if that’s not what You want, show me what I should do instead. In Jesus’ name, amen.”  Maybe you are tempted to do something wrong, and there’s a lot of pressure on you.  Your prayer could be, “Holy Spirit, help me figure out what’s right, and give me the strength I need to do it. May Jesus’ will be done.”  If you want or need to say more, by all means go ahead.  Just remember that prayer doesn’t have to be hard or complicated or long-winded.  The main thing is that God wants to hear from You, that your relationship with Him might grow stronger as a result.

Friday, September 13, 2013

"I AM"

God has made Himself known by many names.  Each name tells us something about Him—who He is, what He cares about, what He does.  Today I’d like to share some of these names from the Old and New Testament.  All of these names are variations of Yahweh, the personal name of God which means “I AM.”

In Genesis chapter 32, God is referred to as Yahweh-yireh, the Lord who provides.  God had tested Abraham’s faith by instructing the old man to sacrifice his one and only son to the Lord.  When Abraham put aside his personal desires in order to obey God’s command, the Lord spared Isaac’s life by providing a ram to die in the boy’s place.  When you trust in God, He will provide what you need.

In Exodus chapter 15, God is named Yahweh-ropheka, the Lord our physician.  God had punished Egypt with 10 awful plagues because that nation was mistreating God’s people.  Miraculously, only the Egyptians suffered—the Israelites remained unharmed.   After they were released from captivity, God made them a promise: If you listen carefully to the voice of the LORD your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD who heals you.  Any time you are blessed with recovery from sickness or injury, it is a gift from the Lord.

In Exodus chapter 17, God is named Yahweh-nissi, the Lord our banner of victory.  The Israelites were caught in a vicious battle that went on and on.  The only reason they won the day was because God blessed their struggle through Moses.  So long as the prophet held up his hands in blessing, the Israelites fought with power; when his strength faltered and he lowered his arms, the enemy rallied.  So two men of God helped Moses keep his arms raised until the enemy was defeated.  The Bible says that Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner.  When you depend on God for help, the forces of evil cannot overcome you.

In Judges chapter 6, God is revealed by the name Yahweh-shalom, the Lord is our peace.  The Israelites were suffering raids from hostile foreigners.  God chose Gideon to organize a team of warriors to stop the attacks.  But when Gideon realized that he was in the presence of God, he was terrified—he knew that he was a sinner and that God punishes sin with death. But the LORD said to him, "Peace! Do not be afraid. You are not going to die." So Gideon built an altar to the LORD there and called it The LORD is Peace. If you humble yourself before God, He will treat you with gentleness.

In the very familiar 23rd Psalm, God is called Yahweh-raah, the Lord our shepherd.  The Bible often compares us to sheep—animals who wander into danger with hardly a thought and cannot defend themselves from savage predators.  The predator we must fear is Satan; 1 Peter 5:8 says, Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  We need a shepherd, someone who leads us to good pastures and defends us from all evil.  The Lord is our shepherd.

In Jeremiah chapter 23, God is spoken of as Yahweh-tsidkenu, the Lord our righteousness.  Jeremiah was a prophet at the time when Babylon conquered Jerusalem and deported the leaders, the wealthy, and the educated.  God had allowed Jerusalem to fall because most of the people had turned away from the Lord and devoted themselves to lives of sin.  But Jeremiah offered hope in this time of tragedy; God would restore His people through a special man, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land…This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteousness.  Of course Jeremiah was speaking about Jesus, the Holy One through whom we are made righteous and acceptable to God.  As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians chapter 5, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  When guilt over sin weighs you down, remember that Jesus can forgive anything and wants to share His righteousness with you.

In Ezekiel chapter 48, God is named Yahweh-shammah, the Lord ever-present.  After the nation of Israel fell and its people were scattered, Ezekiel spoke of the day when God would return His people to their homeland.  The prophet talked about life after the restoration, and he had this to say about the capital: the name of the city from that time on will be: THE LORD IS THERE.  God would always be present with His people; He would never walk away from them.  God is always with you; even when you feel all alone with your troubles, the Lord is near and is paying close attention to your situation.

I said earlier that Yahweh translates as “I AM”.  Jesus applied this name to Himself frequently in the New Testament.  Let’s look at some examples.

In John chapter 6 Jesus declared…"I AM the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."  Jesus compares Himself to bread, one of the most basic of foods.  Just as bread keeps the body alive, Jesus keeps the soul alive.  Food for the soul is essential; in Deuteronomy 8:3 God says man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.  Jesus is the Word of God that came to walk among us; when He speaks, our souls are made healthy and strong.  If we listen to Christ, His words can free us from anger and fear, loneliness and despair.

In John chapter 8 Jesus said, "I AM the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."  God views darkness as evil; the first thing He did was to create light.  Sadly, our sin makes the world a very dark place.  Without light, everything eventually dies; darkness is the enemy of life.  Thankfully, Jesus brought the light of God into our dark world; if we stand in His light, we will be invigorated, so invigorated that we can live on in spite of death.  The light of Christ reveals the grave to be a shallow thing, not worthy of our fear.

In John chapter 10 Jesus said, I AM the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  As I said earlier, we are like sheep who need careful tending and constant protection.  Jesus is devoted to our welfare—so devoted that He gave up His life to save us from the enemy.  The enemy is sin, the ugly defect we all share which leads to evil thoughts, hurtful words and foolish behavior.  Jesus went to the cross to end sin’s cursed hold on us, and He died in our defense. 

In John chapter 11 Jesus told Martha, 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.  Jesus is the Lord of Life.  Death cannot withstand His power.  Jesus restored a young boy, a little girl, and a grown man back to life.  He Himself rose from the grave, assuring us that death does not have the final say over our lives.

In John chapter 14 Jesus said, I AM the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  The world is a confusing place, full of different opinions.  How can you know what’s true and what’s not?  Truth cannot be found in human wisdom because all human thinking is flawed by sin.  The only way to know the truth is to seek it from God, the Maker of all that is.  Only Jesus’ words can be fully trusted; only the Son of God can reveal to you the path that leads to heaven.

In John chapter 15 Jesus told the disciples, I AM the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  Each of us likes to believe that we are something special.  Each of us takes pride in our accomplishments.  But every now and then, things go wrong and we realize that we aren’t as smart or as talented as we thought.  Because of sin, everything we do is substandard.  Thankfully, Jesus helps us to do things that we cannot do on our own. 

Our Lord is the great I AM.  He has done all kinds of marvelous things.  He is our provider and physician.  He is our banner of victory and our source of peace.  He is our shepherd and He shares His righteousness with us.  He is always at our side and will never forsake us.  He is food for the soul and our light in the darkness.  He is our Savior from sin and our promise of resurrection after death.  He is the source of truth and He is our strength when we are weak.  He is the great I AM.  And He cares for you.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Prayer (part four)

Pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Finding the right time and place to pray isn’t as big a challenge as you might think.  Remember, God is everywhere; you don’t have to wait until you’re in church to speak with Him.  That being said, keep these points in mind:

Prayer involves concentration—you don’t want to be distracted or have your mind wander while you’re communicating.  Turn down the TV or radio; silence your cell phone and iPod.  Try to find a place that’s away from the bustle of activity.  I find that praying while in the shower or driving in the country or taking a walk are times that work out well.  Some people like to pray in bed before going to sleep—this is fine, but beware drifting off before you wrap things up.

As busy as our lives get, time for prayer can be forgotten.  It’s good to develop a routine where you pray in a certain place or at a set time each day.  A good time is when you wake up or sip your morning coffee; you can start the day by asking the Lord to smooth out the rough spots and guide your decisions as they come up.  Another good time is while preparing for bed; as you reflect on the mistakes and troubles of the day, you can find peace in Christ’s forgiveness and offer thanks for the help He gave you.  Many people bow their heads in prayer before eating meals; it is good to remember that we only live because God takes care of us, and it’s an excellent time to join hands in prayer with others.

It’s also good to pray when problems rear their heads.  Take a moment (or three) for prayer when you are faced with a tough decision.  Pray with a friend or relative when they’ve shared something painful with you.  Offer a prayer on behalf of those who might be hurt and those attending them when you hear a siren go by.  Pray for restraint before you open your mouth in response to criticism, gossip, or an off-color joke.

And you ought to pray when feeling joyful.  Thank God for the smell of fresh cut flowers or a deep blue sky.  Tell Him how much you appreciate the man or woman you are married to when they pay you a compliment or do something thoughtful.  Praise the Lord each time you feel cared for, and you will quickly see how prayer is something joyful.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Prayer (part three)

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him (Mark 10:17).

When you offer prayer to God, how should you behave?  God is royalty, after all—He is King of the Universe!  Before you meet British royalty, there are people who explain how you should present yourself.  What standards of conduct should you observe when speaking with the Lord God Almighty?

First of all, you should be respectful.  Saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ is a step in the right direction.  Avoid insulting Him by letting your mind wander during prayer.  Don’t blame Him for the bad things happening in your life—any pain and frustration you feel has been triggered by sin, your own or those of someone else.  And remember that God doesn’t owe you anything.  He is not obligated to do anything for a sinner like you or I—that He loves us and cares for us despite our corruption is truly a wonder to be appreciated.

When you pray, Jesus says to be persistent.  Sometimes a lot of prayer happens before things improve—this is God teaching you to cling to Him at all times, not just in moments of crisis.  The Lord does not want us taking Him for granted.  Prayer should be a daily habit for us, as it was for Jesus during His time on earth.  Sometimes a long bout of trouble is needed to develop a habit of regular prayer.

The word of God also tells us to pray with confidence.  The apostle James had this to say: when you ask God, you must believe. Don’t doubt him. Whoever doubts is like a wave in the sea that is blown up and down by the wind. People like that are thinking two different things at the same time. They can never decide what to do. So they should not think they will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-8). Jesus gave His life to keep us from hell.  He is fully committed to your eternal welfare.  The Son of God wants you to speak with Him, not with fear or uncertain of His motives, but absolutely convinced of His loving care for you.

We look forward to spending time in conversation with people that we like and respect.  Prayer should be no different.  It’s not a chore, not an obligation, it’s an opportunity to converse with the most wonderful person in our lives!  If you have that kind of attitude when you go to God in prayer, you can be sure that you’re acting right.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Don't let negativity pull you down

Say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you" Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs (Isaiah 35:4-7).

When Isaiah wrote these words, he was a man of hope surrounded by people who were trapped in despair.  Not that long ago, their nation had been torn apart by civil war.  Now a powerful army from the east threatened to bring more bloodshed to their land.   How could a farmer get work done in his fields if he always had to keep an eye out for enemies?  What kind of future could a mother promise to her children? 

Life was hard.  The people of that time did not have antibiotics. There were no pills to numb pain or ease anxiety.  Surgery was almost non-existent and a high-risk procedure.  The country was filled with people who were crippled for life by disease, accident and birth defect.  And there was no government support for the disabled, even if they were veterans of war.  Such people lived in poverty, begging for handouts.

It was not easy to earn a living.  Farmers did not have planters or combines, and if you wanted irrigation you had to dig trenches for the water.  Weeding was all done by hand.  There was no crop insurance; if you were wiped out by drought, storm or blight, you went hungry that year.  Fishing was iffy business, too.  When you let down your nets, there was no guarantee that they would catch anything.  No one had fish finders in those days.

Under these conditions, how could Isaiah speak of hope?  Where did he get the courage to speak of a bright tomorrow when so many people were suffering and afraid?  Didn’t he understand what they were going through?  Didn’t he sympathize with their pain?

Of course he did.  Isaiah was a man of God, and he shared God’s love for the people.  But wallowing in self-pity isn’t good for anyone.  Children need hope for the future, not to have their spirits crushed by constant gloom and doom.  People who have no hope surrender to the enemy.  People who have no hope lay down and die.

So God sent Isaiah to lift their spirits. Say to those with fearful hearts, "Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you." Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.

Through Isaiah, God spoke of better days to come.  Enemies would lie defeated by the Lord’s mighty hand.  Those with incurable health problems would be healed.  People held captive by despair would sing for joy.  The land would yield food abundantly so no one need go hungry. 

But when would this happen?  How long would the people who were suffering have to wait?  God did not offer a target date.  He just told His people to be patient and trust Him.

They say that hindsight is 20/20 vision.  From our perspective of today, we can see when the Lord made good on His promises.  Even after Isaiah spoke God’s words, the threat of war continued to be problem for decades, until the country was finally attacked and crushed.  It was a long time before God punished the eastern nations for their mistreatment of the Israelites.  But when the hammer fell, God’s people were freed to resume their lives in peace.

Those who were disabled had to wait a little longer for the good days that Isaiah promised.  They had to wait for Jesus.  600 years after Isaiah spoke, the Son of God came into this world as a man—a man who knew what it was to suffer.  Jesus did not have much in the way of money.  He never owned a home or business.  He never married or had children.  He was treated by many with disrespect.  He was insulted and lied about.  He was arrested on false charges, yelled at, beaten, laughed at, and put to death.  As Isaiah writes, He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering (53:3)

Yes, Jesus understands what it is to suffer.  That’s why He came among us—to ease our suffering.  In Jesus, the words of Isaiah are fulfilled.  Consider the Gospel of Luke chapter seven: When the men came to Jesus, they said, "John the Baptist sent us to you to ask, `Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?' " At that very time Jesus cured many who had diseases, sicknesses and evil spirits, and gave sight to many who were blind.  So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor."  Jesus brought relief to many who suffered.  His fame as a healer grew to the point where He could not enter some towns because He would be mobbed. 

Yet healing sick bodies is not the main reason that Jesus came to visit us.  He could have worked sun up to sun down every day of the week, and people with health problems would have kept on coming.  There is an immense amount of suffering in this world, and it’s all because of sin.  Sin opposes God.  Sin undermines perfection.  Sin breaks things.  Sin causes accidents and decay.  Everything that’s wrong in the world draws its power from sin.

Sin is why Jesus came to live among us.  Jesus healed people, but suffering is only a symptom of the greater problem—sin.  To end our suffering, Jesus had to deal with sin once and for all.  He did this by suffering in our place on the cross.  We are sinners, and our sinfulness demands God’s punishment.  We are selfish and lazy.  We are quick to criticize and slow to forgive.  We ignore God except when we want something from Him.  God demands that we be perfect, but we break His laws every day by what we think, what we say, what we do or fail to do.

As sinners, we deserve to suffer.  So we should be grateful that God does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him (Psalm 103:11-13).  That compassion walked among us in Jesus, who suffered God’s punishment for our wrongdoing.  Going back to Isaiah, we read he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (53:5)

Jesus suffered and died to release you from fear and despair.  Isaiah said, be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.  In Jesus, God took vengeance on the three great enemies that oppress us—sin, death, and the devil.  Jesus has paid off the debt of guilt incurred by our sin.  Through forgiveness, Jesus makes us members of His family, freeing us from Satan’s domination.  And Jesus rose from the dead to guarantee our eternal happiness at His side. We are freed from fear about what tomorrow might bring, because we know that our days are safe in the hands of the Lord. Because of Jesus, our silent tongues are moved to shout for joy.

But why does suffering still plague our lives? Why do babies die in childbirth? Why do loved ones get struck down by cancer?  Why do our bodies and minds grow weak with age? 

Jesus has dealt with sin; because of His sacrifice, every sinner can have the blessing of forgiveness.  But sin has not gone away; sin is still a constant problem.  Every day you are tempted to ignore God so you can do your own thing.  A lot of the time, you let sinful desires dictate your behavior.  Because of this, you must die—death is God’s curse on sin.  And that means you will suffer, because illness and accidents bring death into our lives. 

Death is inevitable, but it does not have the last word.  When Jesus forgives your sins, you also get His promise of eternal life in paradise.  Death is scary and death is a tragedy, but for the Christian death is also the beginning of something wonderful.  When the Son of God raises us from the dead, we will have the perfect bodies God always intended for us—there will be no need for glasses or hearing aids, wheelchairs or sign language.  It is this hope that lets us face death with confidence, not fear.

But what about the other words from Isaiah? Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs.  Sad to say, but it’s still hard to earn a living.  For all our advances in technology, we can’t control the weather.  Fields are afflicted by weeds and bugs; machinery breaks down and you can’t always get a good price at harvest.  In many places, water is scarce; every day, people die of starvation or malnutrition. 

This will change when Jesus returns.  On that wonderful day, the Lord of Life will make everything new.  Death and danger will be a thing of the past; Isaiah writes the cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper's nest (11:7-8).  And there will be plenty to eat, because God will set the table for us: 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 (Isaiah 25:6).  Best of all, Revelation chapter 22 says He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Isaiah trusted God to keep His promises; that faith enabled the prophet to live with hope, eyes fixed on the future, even when current circumstances looked bleak.  God will give you relief; it might not be today or tomorrow, but the relief will come if you don’t let Satan turn you away with all his negative talk.  When life has you feeling scared or hopeless, remember all that God has done for you in Christ, then follow the advice given by King David in Psalm 27: Wait for the LORD; be strong and take heart and wait for the LORD.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Prayer (part two)

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).

When you pray, what kinds of things should you talk about?  Frankly, almost anything.  What do you talk to mom or dad about?  God is your heavenly Father, after all.  What do you discuss with your friends?  Jesus has called you His friend.  What do you say to your teacher or boss?  Christ is your mentor and leader as well.  Anything you are willing to speak about is something the Savior wants to hear.

Most of the time, our prayers tend to be requests.  Help with making a tough decision.  Relief from a major health problem.  Assistance when money is tight.  But other requests are important too.  Forgiveness after messing up.  Courage to do the right thing in spite of opposition.  The ability to recognize and resist temptation.  A stronger faith in God’s love and promises of care.

Sadly, we tend to get so wrapped up in our own concerns that we forget to pray for others.  Scripture says that we should pray for our leaders, that God might protect and guide them.  We are told to pray for those who have brought us pain.  We should pray for those serving time in prison, those who are victims of mistreatment or don’t have enough to live on, and those who put themselves at risk on our behalf, like soldiers and officers of the law. 

The Bible also tells us to praise God and thank Him through our prayers.  The Almighty is not a vending machine where we register our petitions in order to get whatever we want.  The Lord is a person with feelings and priorities.  He loves us and wants what is best for us.  He also wants to be appreciated and demands that we respect Him.  We do neither when we constantly pepper Him with requests for this, that and something else, never taking the time to express our humble gratitude for His generosity and kindness.

But most important of all, we need to get in the habit of asking that His will be done, in our lives and all around us.  God is a lot smarter and wiser than we are. There are times when our prayers ask for things that we think are good, but God knows otherwise.  When He does not give us something we have prayed for, He undoubtedly has good reason.  We can pray about anything we want, but Christ will only give what is best for us in the end.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Prayer (part one)

Be clear minded and self-controlled so that you can pray (1 Peter 4:7).

No relationship can grow or stay healthy without good communication.  This is true of the relationship between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, as well as the bond shared by friends.  It is also true of our relationship with God. 

But communication with God presents a challenge that we don’t have in our other relationships.  The Lord Almighty is holy while we are sinners.  He rules from heaven while we struggle through life here on earth.  Although He is constantly with us, direct contact is only possible through Christ Jesus, the Son of God who became a man to serve as bridge between the righteous heavenly Creator and His sinful, earthly children.  Jesus makes it possible for us to communicate with God, but not in a conventional way. 

We are used to speaking and listening by two-way conversation.  But there are times when the give and take of communication goes slower than we’d like.  We notice lags in getting a response when people are interviewed by satellite from the other side of the world.  A text might go unanswered for a while if the recipient is busy at work.  Exchanging letters can take days or even weeks, depending on the distances involved. 

Our communication with the Savior moves at a measured pace, a bit slower than we’re used to.  Christ speaks to us through the Bible where He shares the contents of His heart.  We can skim through His words looking for the highlights, but communication is better served when we take our time and really think about what He says.  We respond to His message with prayer.  Prayer is our end of the conversation. 

This method of speaking back and forth takes a bit more thought and effort than chatting over a fence.  But the need for listening to and speaking with God is more than worth the effort.  Jesus urges us to pray.  He loves us and wants the closeness that comes through personal conversation.  He knows that we need someone who can be trusted with our most private thoughts, deepest hurts, silliest hopes and dreams.  He wants to be our confidant, and prayer is how that happens.  I know that praying doesn’t provide the immediate satisfaction of a two-way-dialogue over coffee, but Jesus is a better listener—His attention never drifts, He never checks His watch, and He never betrays a confidence.

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