Thursday, October 31, 2013

Looking for something scary?

Seek good, not evil, that you may live (Amos 5:14).

Where do you go to find the biggest scare?

The haunted house is a perennial favorite.  Cobwebs everywhere.  Squeaking doors and creaking floors.  An unexplained sound coming from the closet; an unidentified shape lurking under the bed.  If you want to be scared, go to a spooky old house.

The graveyard is another standby.  A dark, misty night among the tombstones.  Tree roots hidden in shadow that make you unexpectedly trip.  Furtive movement in the distance.  If you want to get your teeth chattering, visit a creepy cemetery at night.

A lonely stretch of wilderness can also be scary.  A dark and narrow road, banked on either side with thick vegetation.  A quiet woods on a moonless night.  A city street where light poles are far apart and you are surrounded by deep shadows.  Such places can get your pulse racing, especially when you realize there is no cell phone reception.

But the most frightening place of all is right in your own home.  You can see it on the wall.  If you want to be truly horrified by something, just take a look in a mirror.

Humans are scary.  We are capable of incredible evil. Humans don’t just kill to survive, they kill for pleasure.  Men take sex and turn it into rape.  Women kidnap children and raise them as their own.  Kids bully each other so viciously that victims commit suicide.  Scientists work in laboratories develop unstoppable bacterial weapons.  Politicians authorize torture to pry secrets out of foreign prisoners.  Angry people plot suicide attacks against those they feel have wronged them.  Bitter individuals use lies and gossip to destroy another’s reputation. Look in the mirror and you see the face of evil.

It takes guts and determination to walk into a scary place. Yet despite the terrible danger, God’s Son chose to visit our dark and scary world.  He came to show His love and compassion to people twisted by evil.  He came to offer forgiveness, to change evil scary monsters into kind and gentle children of God.  When Jesus is in charge of your life, you don’t have to fear gazing at the mirror.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Jesus…stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.  He said to them…"Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have" (Luke 24:37-39).

At this time of the year, ghost stories are very popular. There is a fascination with speaking to the dead.  Some visit gravesides and talk to departed loved ones.  Others consult psychics, hoping for a message from the beyond. 

There are several reasons why stories of ghosts fascinate us.  Many of our dear ones were taken by death before we were ready to say goodbye.  It hurts to be left alone; there is comfort in thinking that the person you buried can still hear you when you come to the cemetery for a visit.  You might have parted company on bad terms; before you could make amends, the person you were fighting with was taken away.  Many in this situation crave the opportunity to speak words that should have been said before time ran out.  Tales of ghosts who lingered in this world until some task was finished can be reassuring.  We all fear dying before our goals are accomplished.

You need to understand that ghost stories are just that—stories.  When people die, their spirits go immediately to either heaven or hell.  When Jesus was crucified, He told the man dying next to Him today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Nowhere in the Bible is there evidence of a human soul lingering on earth after death.  Our world is visited by spirits of good and evil—angels from God and demons from Satan.  No angel would pass himself off as a departed loved one, but demons enjoy misleading us.  This is why God warns everyone away from the dark arts—they are used by the devil to speak lies to us.

When Jesus is your friend, you don’t need to concern yourself with ghosts.  It’s hard to say goodbye to someone precious, but if that person trusted in the Son of God, you will be reunited in paradise!  If an untimely death has left you with regrets over how the two of you parted, Christ offers to forgive you and take away your guilt.  If you are worried that death will stop you from getting everything done that needs doing, you can be sure that the Lord of Life will take care of those you’re leaving behind.  Ghost stories are just that—stories.  But the Son of God is real, and He died for you.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Halloween and the Reformation

I find it interesting that Halloween and Reformation both fall on the same day: October 31st.  I find it interesting because both holidays speak to the same problem—how do humans, as weak and flawed as we are, cope with the forces of evil?  How do we find courage when the darkness scares us?  How can we go on when death rears its ugly head?  Reformation Day points us to Christ for the answers.  Halloween offers a different point of view.

Halloween is a very popular holiday here in America.  Retailers make more profits off of Halloween than any other holiday save Christmas.  But what makes Halloween so popular?

Part of it has to do with fear.  We love to be thrilled, and few things thrill us like danger and fear.  Of course, most of us are limited by how much skill or courage we possess; many people will never drive on a racetrack, jump from a plane, or do aerial tricks on a skateboard.  But anyone can get a thrill from watching a scary movie or going through a haunted house.

Another part of Halloween that appeals to many is the opportunity to dress up and pretend to be someone else.  Most of us lead pretty ordinary lives.  Many youngsters wish they were grownups doing exciting things.  Many adults wish they had been more adventurous in their younger days.  And there are people who are just plain shy, who long for an opportunity to come out of their shell and get a little wild.  Playing dress up on Halloween allows us to indulge our fantasies.  

But Halloween has always served another purpose as well.  The world is a dark and scary place, filled with unexpected danger.  Man has always feared the evil that lurks in shadow, waiting to pounce on the unwary.  In the past, some people tried to appease the darkness by honoring the spirit world through ritual and sacrifice.  This ancient practice is the origin of Halloween.  Over the centuries, Halloween has been slowly transformed.  The holiday still gives us reassurance in the face of darkness, but now the fear is taken away by trivializing it.  Witches and ghosts have become decorations with smiling faces.  Monsters are played for laughs.  Instead of treating the darkness with respect, we giggle at it instead.

But is it smart to giggle at the darkness?  Is it a good idea to trivialize the power of the spirit world?  Reformation Day points us in a different direction.  Reformation is a holiday that tells us to rely on Christ alone when we are afraid.  The message of the Reformation assures us that that in Jesus, God meets all our needs.

Halloween has become the time each year when we face darkness and evil head on.  Usually people don’t like to think about death, let alone talk about it; but on Halloween, tombstones become part of the scenery along with skeletons and zombies.  Usually when we think of the dead, there is sorrow over a loved one who has left this world before we were ready to say goodbye, but on Halloween ghosts become a source of amusement or cheap thrills.  Ordinarily, we fear death; Halloween is a time when we can look the Grim Reaper square in the eye and say, “I’m not afraid of you.”

Of course if Jesus is your friend, there is no reason to be afraid of death—ever.  Death cannot finish you because Jesus is stronger than death—He proved it on Easter when He rose from His own grave alive and healthy.  Jesus will restore the joy of living to all His followers on the Last Day.  The only ones who need fear death are those who don’t accept Jesus’ outstretched hand.

Halloween is also a time for make-believe.  We dress up in costumes for a variety of reasons—to overcome shyness, to become the kind of person we’ve always wanted to be, or to explore our darker side.  There are times when we get dissatisfied with our lives, and Halloween gives us the chance to play at being different.

But changing your life doesn’t have to be a fantasy.  Jesus is always ready to help you find a better path.  It starts with forgiveness.  Whatever mistakes you’ve made, whatever opportunities you’ve missed, Jesus can forgive the bad choices that you’ve made.  He can help you overcome your bad habits and your addictions.  He can give you wisdom to see a better way of going through life.  He can give you the courage to make a change, no matter how scary that change might initially seem.  With Jesus’ help, you can start becoming the kind of person you never thought you could be.

A big part of Halloween is fear.  Fear causes an adrenaline rush, and we all like to experience a thrill every now and then.  Haunted houses, spooky movies, scary books—these all provide a thrill.

But there’s another kind of scary thrill that has become very popular—the sexy, dangerous monster.  The two most common are the vampire and the werewolf.  Bloodsuckers and shape shifters are the romantic leads in countless books, movies, and television shows.  They are portrayed as the ultimate bad boy/bad girl.

What makes these particular monsters so alluring?  The risk of danger.  The thrill of keeping a secret, a secret that only a few special people are privileged to know.  Power is also a turn-on, and these creatures are powerful.  And there’s an emotional connection, too—everyone understands how it feels to be filled with dark urges that are hard to keep in check.  But monsters are dangerous—fool around with fire and eventually you will get burned.

Sadly, we are all monsters.  We all have nasty desires that must be denied—we crave forbidden pleasures, we get a twisted thrill from violence, and we enjoy the feeling of power that comes from making others tremble in fear.  Look at how easily love can turn to hate—only a monster could have such a fickle heart.  No matter how charming we manage to appear, time will eventually reveal how ugly we truly are.

Jesus understands the blackness that we try to keep hidden deep inside. He said, out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander (Matthew 15:19).  Yet amazingly, He still wants to be part of our lives.  Jesus loves us so much that He was willing to die for a monster like you and a monster like me.  He suffered the punishment that our wickedness deserves.  Because He did this, Christ has earned the right to forgive us—and He will, so long as we stop looking at evil as something interesting and attractive.

On Halloween, Satan gets a holiday.  By that, I don’t mean that he gets a day off; I mean that he gets the kind of treatment that he wants from foolish humanity.  Some people honor him by devoting time and money to thinks he promotes—astrology, magic, spiritualism.  A very few even worship him directly.  Others laugh at the supernatural and dismiss it as a bunch of make-believe.  This pleases the devil, too—if no one believes that he exists, he can operate in plain sight without being recognized or opposed.

The deadliest enemy is the one you don’t see.  Just ask any policeman who comes under sniper fire.  Just ask any soldier who has tripped a roadside mine.  Also dangerous is the enemy you don’t take seriously; how many angry young men have filled classrooms with blood because no one saw the warning signs?  How many stalkers have ended up committing hideous crimes?

When we don’t take the powers of darkness seriously, we open ourselves up to terrible danger.  This is why God warns us away from the devil’s playthings: Let no one be found among you who…practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.  Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).  This is why God urges us to regard Satan as a serious enemy: Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8)

We must take the powers of darkness seriously.  Yet at the same time, we must not be afraid of them.  In the past, people who feared the spirit world tried to please the powers of darkness with their devotion.  They became slaves of the devil because they were intimidated by his power.  But we don’t have to share their fate; we don’t have to be controlled by fear.  Jesus has defeated Satan, crushed the serpent’s head under His mighty heel.  The light of Christ dispels all darkness and unlike Satan, Jesus rules our lives with love and compassion.  He gives us courage to face every situation with hope and joy.

Throughout life we struggle with the forces of evil as well as our own inadequacies.  The world is a dark and scary place, and we are often reminded how powerless we really are.  When fear drains the color from your cheeks, how should you react?  Halloween says to put on a brave mask and laugh in the face of darkness.  Halloween tries to make Satan a joke and tells us that the best we can hope for is the illusion of happiness.  But the Reformation offers a better response.  The Reformation points us to Christ and all that He’s done for us—forgiven our sins, freed us from Satan, and adopted us into His family.  Jesus rose from the grave to be our living source of help and our guarantee of life after death in paradise.  The Reformation is a better holiday than Halloween because it promises a reality of happiness, not just make-believe.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Supernatural power

With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God (Mark 10:27).

Despite all our advances in science, we still hunger for the miraculous.  The annual celebration of Halloween is one sign of this.  So are television shows, books and movies that feature vampires and werewolves, witches and sorcerers.  Magic offers possibilities that science cannot.  Doctors have effective treatments for a great many health problems, but there are cancers and disabilities for which there is no cure.  There are times when no amount of professional counseling can restore the affections of someone that you’ve hurt.  Some of your dreams are forever out of reach because no amount of education or training can get you what you want.

At times like these, we want to believe that impossible things can happen.  When things look hopeless, it's comforting to think that supernatural forces might actually exist.  Although it is fantasy, vampires hold the allure of eternal youth.  Think how romance could be stirred to life with a love potion or rekindled through magical forgetfulness.  Imagine what you could accomplish if you had supernatural power coursing through your veins.

Of course, we live in a scientific world where the supernatural is for dreamers and crackpots, make-believe for casual entertainment.  At the end of the day, harsh reality is inescapable.  If it cannot be accomplished by human ingenuity, then it’s impossible—isn’t it?

My friends, science doesn’t hold all the answers and fantasy cannot solve your problems.  But the supernatural is real, and it can do things that for us are impossible.  There is an unearthly power that can work miracles in nature, in your life, in your heart.  That extraordinary power resides in God and comes to us through His Son the Lord Christ.  Jesus has shown His power to heal incurable afflictions, even raise the dead back to life.  Our LORD has given incredible strength to Samson and uncanny wisdom to Solomon.  But the greatest miracle of all is that of mercy—Christ makes it possible for our relationships with God and each other to be healed with forgiveness and rebuilt by love.  If you feel let down by life, there’s a better place to invest your hope than baseless fantasy.  God is real, and His almighty power can change your life in miraculous ways.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Your relationship with God (part four)

Love the Lord your God with all your heart (Deuteronomy 6:5).

How does Jesus want you to feel about Him?  What does He expect from your relationship with Him?  The answer can be summed up in four words: love, trust, gratitude, and obedience.

More than anything else, Jesus wants you to love Him.  He has loved you with an everlasting love, a love so committed to your welfare that He gave His life to make you His forever.  He looks for your love in return, a love that sees Him as the most important person in your life.  He wants your relationship with Him to trump all other priorities.

The Son of God also wants you to trust Him.  He has proven His commitment to you on the cross where He suffered so you could be spared.  He has proven His wisdom by the teachings of His ministry.  He has proven His power to make good on every promise; nothing is impossible for the Savior who broke free of death to take care of His followers.  He has proven His dependability beyond all doubt; He wants you to have complete and unswerving faith in Him.

Christ deserves your thanks and praise.  He gave you life; He has filled that life with blessings great and small, chief among them love and value and purpose.  You are not an accident.  You are not a mistake.  You are a child of God, a sinner redeemed by Christ and adopted into His family by grace.  He has rescued you from a life controlled by sin and wasted on frivolous things.  To say 'thank you' is appropriate; to tell others how great He is should be a priority.

And Jesus wants your obedient service. We are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).  Instead of wasting time, Jesus wants us to share His love by helping those in need.  Instead of wasting money, Christ wants us to invest it growing the kingdom of God.  Instead of focusing on our own needs and problems, the Savior wants us to look at each other with the same concern He has for each of us and get moving

So how would you describe your relationship with Jesus?  My hope is that you would say it is characterized by trust, gratitude, obedience, and most importantly by love.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Your relationship with God (part three)

No one comes to the Father except through me (John 14:6).

Some people feel a little ‘cool’ towards Jesus.  They aren’t real fond of having a bunch of rules to follow, and Christ teaches the importance of obedience.  Some of His rules seem out of step with modern sensibilities.  What’s the big deal about having sex before your wedding night?  Why is the Lord against gay marriage?  How are we supposed to respect people in authority when they act like scumbags?  What’s so wrong with enjoying money, fame, or power?  How can I enjoy life with so many rules getting in my way?

Others are ‘lukewarm’ about Jesus because they don’t like His attitude towards non-Christians.  He says that no one can enter heaven unless they go through Him—how rigid is that?  What about my friends who are Jewish or Mormon or don’t like religion but are still decent people?  How can I accept the possibility that they might wind up in hell while I go to heaven?  Isn’t God supposed to love everybody?  Why is God’s home an exclusive club?

God does love everyone; Jesus suffered and died for the entire world.  But Christ does not invite filthy strangers into His Father’s home.  He welcomes friends, friends that are made clean by His sacrifice of forgiveness.  Anybody can be His friend; He invites all to be cleansed by His touch.  Heaven is exclusive, but the requirements for entry cost us nothing—Jesus has paid our admission with His blood.  All are welcome so long as they submit to Jesus’ authority. Sadly, many don’t.  If you are concerned by this, support mission work with a donation.  If you know someone who isn’t Christian, tell them why you love Jesus.  Give them a Bible or invite them to church with you.  Let them know that you want them in your life forever, and so does Christ Jesus.

As the Man in Charge, our Savior gives us a code of conduct to live by.  These laws teach us how to show love and respect to God and our fellow human beings—they are laws of love that encourage our best behavior.  The Lord knows we don’t have it within ourselves to meet those standards all the time; we are sinners who are fascinated with pushing whatever limits we are given.  Thankfully, Christ is willing to forgive us when we step out of bounds; we can show our gratitude for His mercy by respecting the rules that He gives us. Jesus’ heart is filled with love for us; knowing that should warm your heart.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Your relationship with God (part two)

The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” (Mark 4:38)

How do you feel about Jesus?  How would you describe your relationship with Him?  Certainly you respect Him.  Of course you are grateful for His mercy.  But how do you relate to Him personally?

Some people are frightened of the Lord.  They don’t feel worthy of His attention, Him being God and all.  They are afraid of His judgment, that their lives will be found wanting and they will end up punished in hell.  They worry that because He is angry at their sins, He won’t give them help in times of crisis.  They pray for relief from sickness, money troubles, or problems with a relationship; if things don’t start to improve, they fear that Jesus no longer cares about them.

It all boils down to trust. Do you believe the LORD when He says through Isaiah do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand? Do you trust God when He says, I will never leave you nor forsake you? (Joshua 1:5) If you are confident that Jesus really loves you, cares about you, has your best interests at heart, then you have no reason to be afraid.  If He loves you, then you are worthy of His attention even though He is God.  If He cares about you, then you can count on His forgiveness despite the bad things that you’re responsible for.  If He has your best interests at heart, then you can depend on His help, support and protection when things are going wrong.  If your prayers don’t get an immediate response you can patiently wait, knowing that Christ will do the right thing at the optimal time.

How can you be confident when life gets aggravating or scary?  The Bible says, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ (Romans 10:17).  Our confidence grows when we hear Jesus speak.  His words are powerful and effective, full of grace and truth and hope.  And His words are backed up by action.  Christ said you are my friends (John 15:14); He proved this by taking our place on the cross and suffering the punishment our sins had called for.  When Christ gave His life for us and then rose from the dead, it validated every word He spoke.  As a result, you can live with absolute confidence in His promises of care.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Standing up straight despite the load

We have a tendency to mistreat our backs.  We bend over to pick things up, when we should squat down and let our legs do the work.  We try and hold heavy packages with one arm while fumbling with keys to open a door.  Students put too much weight in their school bags.  We sleep on mattresses that don’t give the right amount of support.  We exercise or play sports without stretching first.  And then we take aspirin or go to the chiropractor so that we can keep on misusing our backs without feeling pain. 

The back is very important.  It allows us to walk upright.  It allows us to carry things.  It allows us to pick up what has fallen and get to things that would otherwise be out of reach.  The back communicates something about our feelings; sadness can make our shoulders droop, while confidence makes us stand up straight.  The back also figures in our everyday vocabulary.  A strong person is able to ‘shoulder a burden.’ A dedicated employee puts her shoulders to her work.  A man who won’t stand up for himself is ridiculed as  ‘spineless.’ 

Spinelessness makes us think of Pontius Pilate.  He was an officer of the Roman Empire.  He was known for his brutality—on one occasion he sent armed men into the temple to kill insurgents while gathered for prayer.  But Pilate’s heavy-handed ways incurred a political cost.  He stirred up so much resentment among the Jews that his province teetered on the brink of outright rebellion.  Pilate’s superiors in Rome started to question his skills as an administrator; they made it known that if he couldn’t keep the peace, he would be replaced with someone who could.

Passover was a major religious festival; Jerusalem was overflowing with visitors.  Crowd control was already a problem.  Then early on Friday morning, a bunch of community leaders asked Pilate for a public execution.  They had a man who they accused of sedition—trying to get people to revolt against the government.  Pilate interviewed the captive, but quickly decided that Jesus was no political threat.  As the Empire’s official representative, Pilate was obliged to enforce the rule of law—Jesus ought to go free.  But the Jews threatened to stir up a riot unless Jesus was executed—and with the city full of visitors, that threat had to be taken seriously.  If major violence broke out, the governor’s career might come to an abrupt end.  Ultimately, Pilate caved in—he let the Jews have their execution, assigning his men to put Jesus to death.  Because Pilate acted spinelessly, the innocent Son of God was crucified.

It’s easy for us to criticize Pilate, but remember what Jesus said: let he who is without sin cast the first stone (John 8:7).  When it comes to doing the right thing we are often spineless as well.  When your friends plan to do something wrong, do you try and change their minds or do you just keep your mouth shut?  When faced with temptation, do you pray for help to resist or do you just give in?  When doing the right thing will take considerable time and effort, how often do you opt for the easy shortcut?  When your back is to the wall, do you stand up straight or hunch your shoulders in defeat?

I said earlier that we punish our backs through frequent mistreatment.  But the sad truth is that we have injured Jesus’ back far more than our own.  Looking forward to Calvary, Isaiah said he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But 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 (chapter 53).  Because of our evil thoughts, Jesus’ back was whipped into bloodiness.  Because of our hurtful words, Jesus shouldered the weight of the cross as He walked through the streets of Jerusalem.  Because of our careless actions Jesus was suspended on that cross, His back aching under the weight of our sin.  Our thoughts, words and deeds injured Jesus’ back, causing Him more pain than we could ever imagine.

Why did Jesus offer up His back to such mistreatment?  It’s because He loves us so very deeply.  Jesus illustrates His love in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine where it is safe and go after the lost sheep until he finds it?  And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home (Luke 15:4-5).  Sin weighs us down; in Psalm 38 David says: My guilt has overwhelmed me like a burden too heavy to bear.  But Jesus comes to our rescue each and every day; David also wrote Praise be to the Lord, to God our Savior, who daily bears our burdens (Psalm 68)

With the Covenant of Moses, God illustrated how He carries us on His shoulders.  Listen to God’s design for the vestments worn by His high priest (Exodus 28): Take two onyx stones and engrave on them the names of the sons of Israel in the order of their birth—six names on one stone and the remaining six on the other. Engrave the names of the sons of Israel on the two stones the way a gem cutter engraves a seal. Then mount the stones in gold filigree settings and fasten them on the shoulder pieces of the ephod as memorial stones for the sons of Israel. Aaron is to bear the names on his shoulders as a memorial before the LORD.  Whenever Aaron put on these vestments to offer sacrifices, he carried on his shoulders the names of the twelve tribes—God’s chosen people.  When Jesus came to be our great and final high priest, He carried all our names on His shoulders as He sacrificed His life to forgive our sins. This is the nature of true love—it is willing to shoulder the burdens of others.

God expects us to carry burdens too.  We are to love each other the way that Jesus loves us. In Galatians chapter six Paul writes, Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.  How do you carry another person’s burdens?  You do it by getting involved in that person's life.  When they are troubled, you make time to listen.  When they are wrestling with an important decision, you gently steer them towards a God-pleasing choice.  When they are struggling to put food on the table, you invite them over for dinner.  When they feel like worthless dirt, you tell them about Jesus’ forgiving love.  You share a burden when you care enough to get involved.  That fulfills the Law of Christ, who tells us love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:33).

But we don’t shoulder the burden of others just because we have to.  We don’t carry their burdens to earn brownie points with Jesus.  We carry each other’s burdens because we love Christ.  We are grateful for His love and see it as a privilege to serve Him in this way. 

It is a privilege to serve God by carrying a burden for Him.  When the Israelites walked from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land, the Tent of Meeting and all its furnishings had to be packed up and carried.  Only a select few were allowed to bear these holy things, and they did not use carts or animals; the Levites carried the ark of God with the poles on their shoulders, as Moses had commanded in accordance with the word of the LORD (1 Chronicles 15:15).

Jesus expects us to shoulder burdens as a part of being Christian.  He said If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23).  Being a Christian requires spine.  When the devil offers us an easy way out, we are to square our shoulders and say ‘no’.  When the world confuses evil with good, we are to stand up straight as an example of righteousness.  When our mind or body crave things that God forbids, we are to show backbone by resisting temptation.  These are the crosses that all Christians bear.

Sometimes it just seems too hard, not worth the struggle.  But John writes, This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3).  God’s commands are not a heavy burden because our Lord Jesus personally helps us in doing what we should. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).  We are not out in the field, pulling the farmer’s plow all by ourselves.  Jesus is yoked at our side, pulling with us.  So long as we go in the same direction as the Savior, He makes our burden light by using His mighty power to make up for our weaknesses. 

Everyone bears a yoke of some kind on their shoulders.  If you are not hitched to Christ, then sin has hold of you and the devil drives you mercilessly.  He whips your back with the lash of guilt, making you work hard to achieve his ends.  Only Jesus can free the sinner from such hellish abuse.  Isaiah rejoiced in the freedom that Jesus would bring: you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor (chapter nine)

We have good reason to be grateful.  Jesus has freed us from the burden of evil, He gives our lives direction, and He helps us to carry out His will.  When we are tight with God, we rest secure—the one the LORD loves rests between his shoulders (Deuteronomy 33:12).  The Lord will not give us more than we can handle; Paul says that God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Corinthians 10:13).  When we collapse under the pressure of temptation, it’s because we do not seek or accept the help that God offers us.  True strength comes from God alone, as Paul found out the hard way: there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.  Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me…For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians chapter 12).  We need Christ to help us with our burdens; we only realize how strong He is when we acknowledge how weak we are.

Esther is an example of a believer with spine.  When the king of Persia made Esther one of his wives, he did not know that she was a Jew.  But sometime later, Esther was faced with a dilemma.  One of the Persian nobles expected all commoners to bow in his presence.  However, one man refused—being a Jew, he would bow to no one but God.  The noble was deeply insulted; he persuaded the king to have all Jews in the Empire put to death.

The problem facing Esther was this: if she went to the king uninvited, she risked immediate execution—but if she did nothing, all her people would die.  Strengthened by God, Esther dared to enter the throne room unannounced and revealed herself as a Jew; not wanting to execute her, the king changed his mind and the Jews were spared.  God gave Esther the backbone she needed to do the right thing despite great risk to her personal safety.

Jesus offered His back to terrible abuse as He shouldered your sins.  I hope that you are grateful—grateful enough to square your shoulders and work for Him.  Don’t worry about being overworked—the Savior is at your side, sharing the load and lending you strength.  With His support, you can stand tall with a spine that cannot be broken.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Your relationship with God (part one)

May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need (Psalm 79:8).

How do you feel about Jesus?  How would you describe your relationship with Him?  Certainly you respect Him.  Of course you are grateful for His mercy.  But how do you relate to Him personally?

Some people get angry with the Lord.  They don’t like how He’s doing His job.  They look at events in the news and ask ‘why, Lord?’ Why don’t You stop the bloodshed in the Middle East?  Why don’t You end the starvation in Africa?  Why don’t You fix our struggling economy?  Why do You let some species go extinct?  Why do You let hurricanes and wildfires rage out of control?  Why don’t You make the world safe and happy?

People who get mad at God feel that He owes us.  He is the Creator, so He has an obligation to fix problems as they occur.  Letting bad things happen isn’t right, isn’t fair.  I’ve heard more than one atheist who claimed they could never believe in a God who would let tragedy happen.

The thing is, God doesn’t owe us.  Think of it this way.  When you purchase something, the warranty is voided if you use it incorrectly, bang it around, or mess with how it works.  If you are careless or negligent, the manufacturer has no obligation to fix what you damaged.  So it is between us and God.  The Almighty created a world that was perfect in all respects, and gave it into our care free of charge.  But we have misused the world, abused each other, taken poor care of ourselves.  We have caused terrible damage to the environment, our fellow man and our own bodies because we are frequently thoughtless, impulsive, and selfish.  The perfect world of God’s creation is perfect no more; instead it is filled with violent weather and outbreaks of disease, bloody conflict and miserable poverty, heinous crime and unavoidable death.  It’s all our doing, individually and collectively—we have no right to expect God to step in and fix all the stuff that we have ruined.  We have no right to get mad at God for the misery we have caused. On the other hand, He has every right to be furious with us.  How wonderful to know that Christ chooses to offer us forgiveness instead.  That mercy ensures a blessed peace in heaven when we die. We don’t deserve it, so we ought to be immensely grateful for it.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Watch you words!

“Sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”  If someone told you that, they were lying.  Words are powerful; they can change your life forever.  Uplifting words can give you confidence and fill your heart with hope.  Demeaning words can plunge you into depression or fill your heart with rage.  Inspirational words can lead an army to victory, while words of defeat can make a nation surrender.  Words of truth make good decisions possible; lies and half-truths can lead to terrible mistakes.  Of all the tools at your disposal, none is more powerful than the tongue in your mouth.

If you don’t think that words are powerful, consider God.  He made our world just by saying the words "let there be..."  Psalm 33 says, By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.  Jesus ended a storm with the words "Quiet!  Be still!" (Mark 4:39).  The Lord raised a dead man from the grave with the command, "Lazarus, come out!" (John 11:43).  When confronted with Satan in the wilderness, Jesus defeated the devil using nothing but the words of Scripture.  Words are God’s greatest tool.

Sadly, the devil also knows how to use words, and he uses them to devastating effect.  Satan used nothing but words to lead Adam and Eve into sin, dooming us all in the process.  Satan can make the most outrageous lies sound like the unvarnished truth.  He even quotes the Bible, twisting God’s words so that we misunderstand them.  And the devil uses us to spread his filthy words around.  Even the disciples were not immune; when Peter objected to Jesus’ talk of going to the cross, the Lord responded "get behind me, Satan!  You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (Mark 8:33)

James writes, With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God's likeness.  Out of the same mouth come [both] praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.  The tongue is capable of great destruction; James says Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.  The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell…no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  No wonder, then, that the Bible frequently cautions us to keep the tongue under control (James chapter 3).  Psalm 39: I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth.  Psalm 141: Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips.

There are many ways to misuse the tongue.  You can use it to spread gossip.  You can use it to shift blame to someone else.  You can use it to complain.  You can use it to lure people into doing something wrong.  Skillful use of the tongue can trick people into giving you what you want.  You can bend people to your will by using flattery, lies, or threats.  You can buy good will by making promises you don’t intend to keep.  But God is not fooled by slippery talk.  Listen to Jesus: I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matthew 12:36).  God hates bragging: Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed (1 Samuel 2:3).  God detests gossip: Do not testify against your neighbor without cause, or use your lips to deceive (Proverbs 24:28). There is no such thing as a white lie; A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin (Proverbs 26:28). The Lord wants more from us than empty words; John wrote Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:18).  The Lord is not fooled by half-hearted worship; These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me (Matthew 15:8).  The evil on our lips makes us unacceptable to God.  When Isaiah was given a look into God’s heavenly throne room, he cried out: Woe to me!  I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty (Isaiah 6:5).

Sin provokes harsh words from God. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked (Isaiah 11:4).  He has sent many spokesmen to warn us of His anger: I cut you in pieces with my prophets, I killed you with the words of my mouth (Hosea 6:5).  These are words from God that we don’t want to hear.  They hold us accountable for our actions.  They threaten us with punishment in hell.  They demand that we change our ways. 

God uses words like a surgeon uses a scalpel.  We are filled with the cancer of sin.  If it is not removed we will die eternally.  If we submit to His treatment God will begin surgery, using His holy Word. The word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).  Surgery, of course, is painful—but it is a far lesser painful than joining Satan in the fiery pit.  God’s surgery is temporary; the pain of sin is eternal.

Jesus never let His tongue get out of control. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth (1 Peter 2:22).   As He preached about the kingdom of God, His words were well received: All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips (Luke 4:22). But things changed when He began to reveal Himself as the Son of God sent to earth as our Savior.  People were offended by His message.  The hostility grew until He was arrested under false pretenses and unjustly condemned to death.  Yet through it all, Jesus held His peace. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:7)

Jesus suffered in silence; He only opened His mouth to give God’s blessings to others.  When nailed to the cross, He asked the Father to forgive His tormentors.  While He hung from the nails slowly dying, He promised a repentant criminal today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:43).  Although His lips were cracked and dry, He told John to care for His widowed mother.  And just before He died, Jesus asked for a final drink so He could let the world know that it is finished (John 19:30)—His battle against sin and Satan was over and He could die in peace.

Jesus suffered all this out of love.  He said, Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).  Jesus is our best friend, the only friend who gave everything He had to erase our sin and invite us to heaven.  But His work did not end with His death; Jesus rose from the grave to live at the Father’s side, sending us His Spirit so we can understand God’s words and use our mouths constructively.

When God speaks, we do well to listen. Proverbs 2:6 tells us, the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.  We should love God’s words as did the man who wrote Psalm 119: The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold…How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth…Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.  We should live as Job did; I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread (Job 23:12)

Scripture tells us how to use our lips.  David wrote, My tongue will speak of your righteousness and of your praises all day long (Psalm 35:28).  Hebrews chapter 13 says, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise--the fruit of lips that confess his name.  We should use our lips to tell everyone about our Lord and how wonderful He is!  Reading Job we see another good use for our tongues; my mouth would encourage you; comfort from my lips would bring you relief (Job 16:5).  Our words should speak about others, not ourselves—Proverbs 27:2 says let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.  We should only speak when we know the facts, and always with good intentions: My words come from an upright heart; my lips sincerely speak what I know (Job 33:3).  We should learn all that we can before offering advice; Solomon wrote, Pay attention and listen to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach, for it is pleasing when you keep them in your heart and have all of them ready on your lips (Proverbs 22:17-18).  And we are to tell our children and grandchildren about the Savior; I will sing of the LORD's great love forever; with my mouth I will make your faithfulness known through all generations (Psalm 89:1). Words should be used to build up, not to tear down. 

There is no better place to exercise our tongues than in church.  God says, I will purify the lips of the peoples, that all of them may call on the name of the LORD and serve him shoulder to shoulder (Zephaniah 3:9). God purifies us through the blood of His Son, blood that washes away our sin.  We appeal to that blood when we pray, May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer (Psalm 19:14). With our sins forgiven, our hearts leap for joy and we pray O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise…My lips will shout for joy when I sing praise to you--I, whom you have redeemed (Psalm 51)

We must open our mouths and speak about the Lord, because God commands it.  Jesus said, Whoever confesses me before men, I will also confess him before my Father in heaven.  But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32-33). Paul writes, if you confess with your mouth, "Jesus is Lord," and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved (Romans 10:9-10).  Confession of the faith shows what is in your heart; Paul writes in 1st Corinthians that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.  When we speak about Christ, we show that He is living in our hearts.

Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing (Proverbs 12:18). Thankfully, God’s word reigns supreme—it is the only word that can reverse the damage caused by our reckless speaking.  Jesus heals us when He says friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20).  When God speaks, His will cannot be thwarted. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:10-11).  Only the Word of God is powerful enough to free us from sin and rescue us from hell.  Those who refuse to listen when God speaks are only hurting themselves. Look at what Paul says in Romans chapter 14: `As surely as I live,' says the Lord, `every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'  So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God

So mind what you say.  James writes, If anyone considers himself religious and yet does not keep a tight rein on his tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless (James 1:26).  God knows everything you say; before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O LORD (Psalm 139:4). Always remember Solomon’s advice: He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Proverbs 21:23).

Thursday, October 03, 2013

God and politics and making our country great

 The authorities are God's servants (Romans 13:6).

Is God a Republican or a Democrat?

Politically, our nation is more strongly divided than ever.  Even independents are starting to drift towards one party or the other.  And while both sides claim they want to work together in a bipartisan way, neither is willing to budge when it comes time for negotiation. 

Have you ever stopped to wonder how God looks at our political divide?  1 Corinthians 14 says that He is a God of peace, not disorder; I can’t imagine that He’s pleased by our two parties squabbling instead of getting things done.  The Bible says that we are to show respect to each other, especially to those who have positions of leadership.  How angry must the Almighty get when politicians twist the truth to make their opponents look bad. Jesus says we are to love one another; He is surely disappointed when our leaders are more concerned with budgets and special interests than with the people who are taxed or need assistance.  Jesus also said that we should let nothing go to waste; I cannot imagine how disgusted He is at the mismanagement and corruption that riddle the halls of government.

God is not a Republican or a Democrat; God is not a liberal or conservative.  God is the Creator of all things; all authority belongs to Him, and He is the Supreme Judge who passes sentence on us all.  All governmental leaders, each political party, every single bureaucrat and judge must answer to Him.  He has allowed them the privilege to serve and protect us; yet they arouse His anger when they forget who’s in charge and try to push their own agendas.

One benefit of being American is that our political machinery can be swapped out through public elections; we don’t have to use violence to force a change in leadership as happens in other countries.  But having the privilege to vote also carries a responsibility—we must sort through all the lies and misinformation to find out which candidates seem to understand God’s priorities best, then cast our votes for these individuals regardless of party affiliation.  That we can show respect for God’s authority by shaping public policy at the voting booth—that’s what makes our nation great.

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Fair treatment

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).

There’s nothing harder than admitting you were wrong, you made a mistake, you don’t have what it takes to succeed.  It wounds your pride to be seen as a failure.  And when this happens, you start to wonder—am I being treated fairly?  Was I given an impossible goal?  Were the rules needless strict and burdensome? 

As sinners, we know that God judges our behavior and sees us as failures. We crave things that are bad for us, we cheat and steal and tell lies, even resort to violence, to get what we want.  We insult and joke about people who are different from us in one way or another.  Instead of looking forward to time in worship praising God and learning from Him, we drag our heels at attending church.  We happily commit sin, not stopping to realize how our conduct reflects badly on the Lord whom we claim to be our Father.  We spare little time for prayer except when we want God to bail us out of trouble.  We break all of His Commandments frequently and grievously; how could He not view us as hopeless degenerates? Yet we are tempted to argue that He is too strict, that He demands too much, that He isn’t dealing fairly with us.  He ought to cut is some slack; after all, we’re trying really hard to live as decent people.  How could God expect anything more than that?

God is holy.  He designed you and me to be holy as well.  We are intended to share His righteousness.  Sin robs us of perfection, makes our lives a difficult trial and angers God instead of pleasing Him.  Any rational person would want to live free and clear of sin; but sin corrupts our minds, makes us love the unholy things that cause hurt and disappointment, things that lead to death and hell. 

In a sense, God isn’t fair with you. He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities…as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103).  Jesus removes our transgressions with hands that bear permanent wounds, scars that vouch of His great love for us. Those same hands are there to support you every moment of every day.  Does God expect too much?  Not according to Paul who says, I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:13).

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