Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What do you have to be thankful for?

Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.  And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him
(Colossians 3:12-17).

What do you have to be thankful for?

A lot of people are feeling glum going into the holiday season.  Although the economy is better, unemployment remains a problem and the outlook for retailers is mixed.  People like to invite family over for big fancy meals at this time of the year, and have lots of gifts to open when Christmas arrives.  But when you have to be economical, who can afford lavish dinners?  Who can afford to travel?  How can you afford the kinds of presents that you’d like to give?

I would like to suggest that the holiday season is not dependent on money.  Thanksgiving is about being grateful for what we have; that attitude of appreciation should set the tone for the weeks leading up to Christmas.  Instead of worrying about the things we don’t have, why don’t we celebrate the things that God has blessed us with?

A popular holiday gift is something fashionable to wear.  But I wonder how many clothes and shoes you already have stashed in your closet?  Are you grateful for having something warm to wear when the wind starts howling at this time of the year?  Are you grateful that you have a choice of outfits to wear?  Are you grateful for the washer and dryer and indoor running water that make it easy to keep your garments clean?

And let’s talk about food.  Sure, it’s nice to have an expensive cut of meat on the serving platter.  Sure, it’s nice to eat out at a fancy restaurant.  But how grateful are you for the produce that grows in your garden?  How grateful are you for the canned goods that fill your cupboard?  How grateful are you for the stove and microwave that make cooking so easy?

Most importantly, how grateful are you for the relationships in your life?  The closeness of family?  The support of friends?  The respect of coworkers?  The love of Christ that forgives your mistakes, gives you peace of mind, and encourages the best from you?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.  You have much to be grateful for.

God is generous with us; He blesses us with everything we need to live and love and serve, and often much more besides.  Sadly, we tend to abuse God’s generosity.  We take His gifts for granted, we constantly whine for more, and we let our love for stuff get in the way of our love for God.

God fills our lives with good things that we rarely thank Him for.  When’s the last time that you woke up and thanked God for giving you another day of life?  How often do you tell God 'thank you' for a clear blue sky or sparkling white snow?  When’s the last time that you thanked God for your home or your job?  And when the Lord forgives your sins, how hard do you try to resist temptation as a way to show Him gratitude for His mercy?  Or do you think to yourself, “It doesn’t matter what I do—Jesus will forgive me anyway?”  Do you take God’s generosity for granted?

We also have the bad habit of never being satisfied.  You see it at Christmas when someone is disappointed that there are no more gifts to open, even though the floor is covered in shredded paper.  We are a nation of overeaters because we always want just one more helping.  People trade in perfectly good cars because they want something newer.  People file for divorce when they think that another partner can better meet their needs.  How satisfied are you with the things that God has given you?

Worst of all, we lavish more attention on what we have than on who gave it to us.  How often is lying in bed more pleasurable than going to worship the God who gave you that bed?  How often do you spend so much money on yourself that there is nothing left to give back to the God who filled your wallet in the first place?  The Lord says You shall have no other gods (Deuteronomy 5:7), yet how often do you let work or family or leisure time distract you so much that you forget about prayer or reading the Bible? 

Thankfully, God is also generous in dealing with sinners.  When we go to Him for mercy, He does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10).  If we trust in the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood, He will wipe away our guilt and focus our attention where it should be—squarely on Him.

It’s in our nature to whine and complain.  We see advertisements for new products and immediately want to go shopping, then get irritated when the money just isn’t there.  We become envious when a friend or relative or coworker gets something shiny and expensive.  We get bent out of shape because we can’t have the best of everything.

In His commandments, God tells us not to covet.  To covet is to want something so badly that it dominates your thoughts and affects your behavior.  A child might covet a new toy so much that he throws a temper tantrum in the store, trying to force mom or dad to get him what he wants.  A teenager might want the position of head cheerleader so much that she starts spreading vicious rumors about any girl that stands in her way.  A businessman might be so attracted to his secretary that he can’t concentrate on getting his work done. 

Constant desire for things that you don’t have wastes time and makes you unpleasant to be around.  Coveting interferes with the things God wants us to be doing—loving and serving.  If your mind is consumed with wanting something, you’re not going to notice when a loved one is unhappy and needs your attention.  If you are competing with another person for the same thing, your desire will be to push him aside instead of finding out which of you actually has the greater need.  If you can’t get something that you want, you’re likely to be sullen or irritable, the kind of grumpy person others stay away from.  You might even get so frustrated that you lash out at others, hurting them with nasty words or physical violence.  Coveting destroys relationships and leaves you alone with your bitterness.

In 1st Corinthians chapter seven, Paul tells us how to view the things we covet: those who use the things of the world [should live] as if not engrossed in them.  Easy to say; difficult to do.  But try to put things in perspective: when you’re sick in a hospital bed, which do you want more?  A room filled with things, or a room filled with people who care about you? 

It’s nice to have things, but nothing bought with money can give you lasting happiness. That’s why it’s so wonderful that Jesus gives us love and salvation absolutely free.

If you stop and think about it, you will see that God is very generous to us.  Martin Luther gives us the following list—food and drink, clothing and a place to live, money and goods, the means to earn a living, a family devoted to God, Christian friends and neighbors, good government and good weather, peace and health, self control and a good reputation.  While some have more and others less, all of us have received these blessings from God.

Even better, the Lord has given us the gift of His Spirit, who blesses our lives with all sorts of spiritual gifts.  Listen to Paul’s description in Galatians chapter five: the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  These are the gifts that fill our lives with joy; these are the gifts that connect us to each other in bonds of love and mutual support.

Best of all, we have God’s gift of salvation given through His Son Jesus.  Christ lived a perfect life on your behalf so you can be forgiven for not measuring up to God’s righteous standards.  Jesus suffered and died in your place so you can be spared God’s terrible punishment for being a sinner.  Jesus rose from the dead so that when a loved one is laid to rest, you have the assurance of a new life together in paradise.  And Jesus returned to heaven to open its gates for you, promising that any friend of Christ is welcome in His home.

God has blessed you richly, and His generosity is all the more amazing because we have done nothing to earn it or deserve it.  We are disappointments through and through; our thoughts are often vile, our words frequently hurtful, our actions riddled with mistakes.  Yet in spite of all this, God still loves us and cares for us.  Paul writes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus (Romans 3:23-24)

How do you respond to such unmerited generosity coming down from heaven to fill your life with goodness?  Martin Luther said it best in his Small Catechism: “For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.  This is most certainly true.”

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Waiting for Jesus' return

But you, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit.  Keep yourselves in God's love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life. Be merciful to those who doubt; snatch others from the fire and save them; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy—to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen
(Jude 20-25).

This weekend we’ve reached the end of the church year—we have arrived at the Sunday of the Fulfillment.  When Jesus returns in glory, everything promised in the Bible will at last be fulfilled.  The dead will be raised to life.  Christ will judge every man, woman and child according to their faith (or lack thereof).  Satan and all the enemies of Jesus will be locked away in hell forever.  The earth will burn at God’s command, stripping away all trace of impurity.  Then the Lord will rebuild the world in perfection, an eternal paradise for we who love God’s only Son. 

This is no pipe dream.  This is the reality that is coming closer with each passing day.  How far off is the Last Day?  We don’t know—it is a secret that God the Father has not even shared with Christ His Son.  It could be years, even centuries away.  It could be tonight or tomorrow.  Since we don’t know when this life will stop, we need to be ready.  And so Jesus urges us to keep watch (Matthew 24:42).

But keeping watch is hard.  Have you ever worked a night shift as a guard?  The first hour or two isn’t so bad, but eventually boredom sets in.  You’re tempted to start entertaining yourself instead of staying alert for trouble.  By three in the morning, the quietness and darkness and boredom lead to drowsiness; it gets hard to keep your eyes open.  If you’re not careful, you can fall asleep while on duty.

We know that Jesus is coming back.  We certainly don’t want Him finding us asleep at our posts.  We are to be alert and ready for His arrival.  But as the years go by with no sign of His coming, it’s hard to stay watchful.  We are tempted to entertain ourselves by doing things we shouldn’t.  We get lazy and careless.  Eventually, some get tired of waiting, tired of church; they just stay at home and sleep, not worried that Jesus might catch them napping when they should be busy.

Our Lord said, Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.  It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.  Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping (Mark 13:33-36).  Each of us has work to do, duties assigned by our Maker and Redeemer. 

But during these long hours of waiting, what are we supposed to be doing?  In the Epistle reading, Jude gives us some idea.  He lists several things that we should be doing as we await the Master’s return, activities that please Him and also help us to stay sharp and focused. 

Jude starts his list by saying, dear friends, build yourselves up in your most holy faith.  Of course, we know that faith is a gift of God, not a product of our smarts or effort.  In Romans chapter 10 Paul writes, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the author and perfecter of our faith (12:2).  Christ Himself said, no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him (John 6:65).  Faith is a gift of God, a miracle that He works in our hearts through the power of His mighty Word.  But like any gift, the gift of faith can be abused.  If you mistreat your faith by ignoring it, staying away from church and filling your life with sinful activities, your faith can wither and die.  Faith is a living thing, and like all living things it needs to be nourished and cared for.  Since faith comes by hearing the Word of God, it is clear that in order to grow your faith needs ongoing exposure to the message of salvation.  To build yourself up in your most holy faith, you need to make a habit of worship and time spent with the Bible.  This will strengthen your faith, please Your Lord, and keep you alert for the day of His return.

Jude also urges us to pray in the Holy Spirit.  Communication is vital to every relationship, and no more so than to our relationship with God.  We are not in a one-way relationship with Him, where God talks and all we do is listen.  The Lord wants us speaking to Him as well, and we do this through prayer.  People love to communicate—look at all the phone calls and text messaging that goes on.  We communicate with others all the time—but sadly when it comes to God, not so much.  In 1st Thessalonians Paul says, pray continually.  David considered prayer to be part of the daily routine—listen to His words spoken to God in Psalm 141: May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.  Every day the priests burned incense to praise God for His goodness; every day the priests offered sacrifices as they asked God to have mercy on sinners.  For David, prayer was a daily activity where he begged to have his wrongs forgiven and thanked the Lord for all the blessings which He provides. 

However, many of our prayers are flawed.  We ask for things we don’t need or shouldn’t have.  We focus our attention on what we want and forget to pray for other people and their needs.  Sometimes we forget to pray entirely.  Thankfully, Jesus sends us the Spirit of God to help us in our prayer life.  In Romans chapter 8 Paul writes, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express…the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.  With the Spirit’s help, we can be sure that our prayers are heard in the heavenly throne room.  Praying is commanded by God, because we cannot love the Lord and yet give Him the silent treatment; being in constant prayer also keeps us alert during our long wait for Jesus’ return.

Next on Jude’s list: Keep yourselves in God's love, as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.  How do we keep ourselves in God’s love?  In the Gospel of John chapter 15 Jesus says, As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.  If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.  I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.  My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends if you do what I command.  To remain in God’s love requires that we understand our relationship with Christ and embrace it.  Our relationship is based on love and submission.  Jesus loves His Father, and that love is shown through Christ’s willing submission to His Father.  In the same way, if we love Jesus then we will gladly submit to His authority.  Sin is rebellion against God’s leadership; sin shows disrespect.  When we ask Jesus to forgive our sins, He restores us to a relationship of love and willing submission to God.  When we live in submission to the Lord, our joy is complete; when we try to strike out on our own, our joy is crushed by obstacles, mistakes, and failures. 

In Ephesians chapter two, Paul says that we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  God designed each of us to serve Him in one way or another.  But we don’t work to impress God; after all, everything we do is flawed by sin and falls short of God’s high standards.  No, the reason that we try to do God’s will is to show Him our love by submitting to His leadership.  We don’t serve God to earn a place in heaven; we serve God to show Him our love and appreciation.  We try to do as Jesus asks to thank Him for dying as the sacrifice for our sins and preparing a place for us in His kingdom.  When we busy ourselves in grateful service to the Lord, we show Him honor and we are kept awake during the time leading up to His return.

Jude goes on to give examples of that service.  First up: Be merciful to those who doubt.  The world is filled with people who want to do the right thing, but aren’t sure what the right thing is.  The world is filled with people who are weighed down by guilt and are desperate for relief.  The world is filled with people who are terrified of death or who struggle with despair over the loss of a loved one.  These people need the truth of God.  They need the Good News of forgiveness.  They need the hope of everlasting life. 

Such people need to be treated gently.  Life has wounded them; they need tenderness and compassion.  They need to hear the words that only Christians can share with them.  They need to know that although life can be confusing, God offers clarity; He and He alone can clear up matters of right and wrong, of good and evil.  They need to know that while the past cannot be changed, Jesus offers relief from the guilt caused by mistakes and missed opportunities; He offers forgiveness to those who trust in His love and demands nothing in return.  They need to know that on the cross, Jesus suffered the death that our sins deserve; when He stepped from the grave alive, He proved His power to raise us and our loved ones to live with Him forever.  They need the hope that makes our lives glad; when we share that hope, lives are enriched and our focus is kept where it should be—on Christ alone.

Our service also involves snatching others from the fire and saving them.  There are a lot of people who don’t think about right or wrong, about death or eternity.  Their focus is on living it up, pursuing their goals at any cost, and hurting anyone who gets in their way.  They don’t just live in sin; they revel in it.  They believe that everything revolves around their wants and needs; and when they do something nice for others they expect to be rewarded.  They are kind of people Paul had in mind when he wrote, do not be fooled. Those who sin sexually, worship idols, take part in adultery, those who are male prostitutes, or men who have sexual relations with other men, those who steal, are greedy, get drunk, lie about others, or rob—these people will not inherit God's kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)

These people are headed towards the place of everlasting fire.  If we are filled with the kind of love Christ wants from us, we will try our hardest to snatch them away from the deadly path they’re on.  Of course, we can’t save them—only God can put saving faith in their hearts.  But we can share God’s Word with them, the Word that gives freedom and life to those enslaved by sin and death.  When we point out sin for what is and describe the Way of Christ, we are God’s ambassadors and we are keenly aware of the short time left until Jesus returns in judgment.

Lastly, our service includes showing mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.  People tend to rub off on each other.  As we spend time with other sinners, their twisted ideas and dangerous habits can start influencing our thoughts and behavior, dragging us away from the purity that God expects in His followers.  Jude tells us that when we associate with unbelievers, we are to show them God’s mercy, but we should be extremely cautious lest they infect us with their sin.  Isaiah rejoiced that God robed him in garments of salvation; no one should willingly exchange that clothing for clothing stained by corrupted flesh (Isaiah 61:10).  The ways of this sinful world distract us from Christ’s imminent return.

Jesus is coming back—we just don’t know when.  But while we wait for Him, the Lord has given us work to do in His service.  That work includes worship and time spent reading Holy Scripture.  That work includes prayer and submission to God’s leadership.  That work includes reaching out to the lost and erring.  That work includes keeping ourselves free of anything that distracts from Christ.  So commit yourself to this work, not because you want to impress God but because you want to show Him your love and gratefulness.  Keeping busy will help you stay alert, so you can be ready when He comes back in glory.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Letting go

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20).

As I get older, I find my attitude towards ‘things’ changing.  By ‘things’ I mean personal property.  Used to be I didn’t think twice about buying a new book to read; these days I think about the stack I have waiting to be opened and ask myself, can I finish them all before I die?  Do I really want to add to the backlog?  Every few months I clean out a batch of something old—clothes that don’t fit, DVDs I’ll never watch again.  Why not let someone else enjoy this stuff?  Why let it collect dust and take up space?

This has been a rough year on homeowners—hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires have taken house after house, leaving families with their lives but little else.  Camera crews film their grief at losing so much so suddenly.  It’s not just stuff, it’s memories, physical connections to the past.  Through the tears, most vow to rebuild.

It gets me to wondering how attached we should get to stuff.  I’m more willing to get rid of things than many people I know, yet there are others who retire with nothing more than a recreational vehicle and a desire to hit the road.  Perhaps they understand the value of stuff better than the rest of us.  As far as they are concerned, too many possessions are just a nuisance that slow down getting where you want to go.  Where you’ve been is important, but should never hold you back from reaching your destination. 

Jesus gave multiple warnings about getting too attached to stuff.  He understood our desire to make nests, feather them, and get awfully comfortable once surrounded by our favorite things.  Protecting our nests and getting them just the way we want, saps time and resources that could be put to better use—bringing the Good News of salvation to people who don’t have Jesus as their friend.  In fact we can get so wrapped up in our homes and the things that give us pleasure that Jesus gets largely forgotten about, putting us at risk of being forever homeless when we die.

It’s a tragedy when a family loses most of what they have, whether to natural disaster or bankruptcy.  But Jesus offers us a home that will never go away; don’t get too attached to the things you have now because over the long haul, they just aren’t that important.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Church (part four)

Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Church is our haven from a cruel and uncaring world, but it also coordinates us to go out and make a difference.  Through the Church, our Lord Jesus organizes us to serve.  Some congregations operate preschools, others run food pantries, organize blood drives, or offer classes on such things as parenting and learning English.  Showing care through service puts our faith into action, with the result that many who are in need give praise to God for the kindness shown to them. 

The greatest service of all is Gospel outreach.  Through the Church, our individual resources are combined to support the work of missionaries who go where the Son of God is largely unknown or ignored as irrelevant.  The Church also helps you to be an evangelist; if you aren’t sure how to share your faith with others, you can bring them with you to worship and let the Church tell them about the Savior of Mankind. 

Jesus said, God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son (John 3:16, 18).  This is why the Church organizes us to tell everyone about Jesus—people living in primitive villages and great cities, people who are friends and strangers, people who work with you, play sports with you, are related to you.  Like you and me, all of them violate God’s two great laws: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and, Love your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27).  Like us, they need Jesus’ forgiveness; without it, they are condemned to everlasting punishment.  They need to know that Christ took the punishment from God that should have been theirs; the Son of God suffered and died to make forgiveness available to all His friends.  Getting this message out is a huge undertaking; the Church is God’s gift to us, our training ground, rallying point and center of operations.  Each week we are invited to attend for encouragement and recharge; then we are sent back out into the world, ready to share the love of God that is shown to all in Christ Jesus our Savior. Working side by side in the Church of God, we can accomplish what no one could get done operating on their own.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Who's in charge?

As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened (Daniel 7:9-10).

I don’t know why people bother with the news anymore—it’s relentlessly depressing.  Violent terrorist attacks. People treating sex like it’s part of dating instead of marriage.  Bitter fighting between conservatives and liberals. Gays and lesbians who tout their lifestyle as something to be proud of.  An ever-widening gulf between the rich and poor.  Legalized abortion.  Discrimination and bigotry.  And worst of all, widespread religious apathy.

With all this bad news coming at us from every side, it can make you wonder: who’s in charge?  As a Christian, you want to believe that God has everything under control.  But as a citizen of this world, it can sure look as if the devil is running things.  So our question for this weekend is: who’s in charge?

The government has made it illegal to place the Ten Commandments in courthouses.  The government won’t let students pray in school.  The government forbids manger scenes from being set up on public property.  The government has legalized abortion.  Some state governments have recognized same-sex unions as ‘marriage’.  So who is in charge of the government—God or Satan?

The news media has little interest in religion unless there is a scandal to report. You can get lots of negative press if you dare to criticize some behaviors as wrong.  If you claim that Jesus is the only way to heaven, you will be labeled intolerant and narrow-minded.  So who is in charge of the media—God or Satan?

Our society promotes freedom and fun.  Drug use is okay, so long as you are careful to avoid hurting yourself by overdosing.  Recreational sex is fine, so long as you use protection to avoid pregnancy or disease.  Gambling is no problem, so long as you keep a lid on your spending.  According to our society, addiction is a disease, not sinful behavior.  So who is in charge of our society—God or Satan?

To all appearances, it would seem as if Satan is running things.  But before you start blaming government, the media, and society for being willing tools of the devil, stop and take a look in the mirror.  Who elected our politicians, or stayed home and didn’t vote for the best candidate?  Who watches the programs and buys the magazines that glamorize sinful behavior?   It’s you.  Every time you and I commit a sin, we choose Satan over God and our society drops further into darkness.  To a large extent the world is what we make it, and most of the time we make the wrong choice.

It’s easy to see the badness at work all around us.  But what about God?  Where is His power on display for all to see?  Satan tries to overwhelm our senses with massive displays of evil, but God works more subtly. 

The power of God is evident in forgiveness.  When someone hurts you, it’s hard to forgive them.  Your instinct is to level the playing field by causing them pain in return—either through getting revenge or by making them earn your forgiveness.  But true forgiveness is different—it keeps no record of wrongs, it doesn’t seek revenge, and it doesn’t set any conditions.   This is how Christ forgives us.  And when we see one person forgive another in this way, we see the power of God at work, a miracle of healing that brings feuding people back together.

The power of God is seen in faith.  It’s hard to believe in something that cannot be seen or touched.  We were not around when Jesus cured a woman of incurable hemorrhaging.  We were not around to see Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead.  We did not see our Lord suffer on the cross, get buried in the grave, or ascend alive into heaven.  Yet thanks to the gift of faith, we trust Jesus to help us with our troubles.  Faith enables us to attend funerals with hope for a reunion in heaven.  When a Christian stays positive in spite of the bad things happening in her life, we see the power of God at work, a miracle of faith that gives joy to each day.

The power of God is shown by selfless acts of love.  Most of the time, our acts of ‘love’ are motivated by self-interest.  We do something nice for someone, hoping to cash in on their gratitude at a later date.  We give money to charity, looking for a tax write-off.  We volunteer our time to a cause, hoping that it will look good on our resume.  But true love is giving to others with no expectation of reward.  Jesus died for the sins of all people, knowing full well that many would never thank Him for the pain He endured on their behalf.  When followers of God give of their time and resources for no other reason than to show the love of Christ, we see the power of God at work, a miracle of loving generosity.

The power of God is evident everywhere.  His Word is shared in countless churches that dot the landscape.  The Good News of salvation is broadcast by radio and television.  The Bible is found in bookstores and on the Internet.  And if there are no churches or books, no radio or Wi-Fi reception, there are missionaries laboring to share the message of the cross with those who will go to hell unless they are introduced to the Savior of mankind.  When followers of Christ work hard to bring relatives, friends and total strangers to their Lord, we see the power of God at work, a miracle of commitment to the welfare of all.

How many believers are there in the world?  Only God really knows.  Surveys reveal that only 1/3 of the people living today claim to be Christians, but I suspect that many of them are ‘Christian’ in name only.  The Bible teaches that you either serve God or Satan—there is no middle ground.  So it is clear that Satan has at least twice as many followers as God.  As a result, Satan has considerable influence over public opinion and governmental policy.

This makes it seem as if Satan is in charge.  But let’s keep things in perspective—when it comes to numbers, God’s faithful people have always been in the minority.  At the time of the Great Flood, only eight people in the whole world were rescued because they were faithful to the Lord.  When Moses led God’s people out of slavery in Egypt, there were only about two million followers who pledged themselves to God.  During the time of Elijah, most Israelites abandoned God for other religions—only 7,000 remained faithful.  At the height of Jesus’ ministry, there were only 72 followers who were willing to go and spread the Gospel in His name.  During the early years of the Church, the emperors of Rome treated Christianity as a cult that should be eliminated.  During the Dark Ages, Muslims took over the Holy Land and destroyed Christian influence in a great many countries.  From ages past to the present, followers of Jesus have always been in the minority.

Yet in spite of all appearances, our Lord is in charge.  God has always been in charge.  Job is one of the oldest books in the Bible, and in that book we read of how Satan tried to destroy Job’s faith in God.  Yet God always put limits on what Satan could do; as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:13, God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  Satan has never had free reign to do as he pleases, and Jesus has restricted the devil even further.  On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for your sins and mine—all of them.  Satan uses our sinful impulses to steer us according to his desires; but when Jesus takes away our sin, Satan loses his control over us. 

When Jesus died, He visited hell as the conquering hero.  He told the devil to his face that God is in charge, and that the time is coming soon when Jesus will return as king and judge.  At that time, Satan and his followers will be jailed in hell to be punished forever. 

But Satan has not accepted his defeat.  Knowing that time is short, he has redoubled his efforts to make life miserable for the children of God.  Having lost the war to Jesus, he now resorts to spiritual terrorism instead.  He does whatever he can to make us afraid, sad, angry, and depressed.  He wants us to believe that he is in charge and that Jesus isn’t worth following. 

But Jesus is coming back, and when He returns there will be no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who is really in charge.  Jesus was 33 years old when He died, but in fact He is ancient—eternal like His Father and the Holy Spirit.  He has the power of creation, the ability to make anything out of nothing.  He used this mighty power to build the universe according to the Father’s perfect design.  And because Jesus suffered for every sin, He has earned the right to sit in judgment over all mankind. 

Human judges can make mistakes because they are sinners like everyone else.  But Jesus is the Righteous Judge, and His decisions will be faultless.  He is wisdom incarnate; no one can fool Him with fancy arguments, shameless excuses, or bald-faced lies.  When the Son of God passes sentence, everyone will get what they deserve. 

Now that sounds pretty frightening, doesn’t it?  God knows everything about your life.  He knows the terrible things you’ve done.  He’s heard every nasty word that’s come out of your mouth.  He even knows the evil thoughts that you’ve never shared with anyone.  The King of Creation has it all recorded in the ledger book of your life, and on the Last Day that book will opened and you will be called to account for what is written there.

The Day of Judgment will be awful—but there is a way to avoid a sentence to hell.  Jesus is willing to blot out everything bad in the ledger of your life; He is willing to erase all that you’ve done wrong.  To get this incredible favor, Christ only expects one thing of you—cling to Him as the most important thing in the universe. 

In 1st Corinthians 7:31 Paul writes, this world in its present form is passing away.  People die and looks fade with age.  Money can be stolen and property decays.  There is nothing in this world that can offer you a secure foundation for all time to come.  But Jesus is God’s word given human form, and God’s Word is the only thing that will last forever.  Jesus said, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away (Matthew 24:35).  And what are these words? Jesus said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). Jesus said, Remain in me, and I will remain in you (John 15:4). Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die (John 11:25-26).  These words are God’s promises to you, and you know that God never goes back on a promise.

When Jesus returns He will be looking for faith, and whoever believes in Him shall not perish but will be given eternal life.  Jesus will blot out every record of wrongdoing, sparing us from the judgment we deserve as sinners—He can do this because He already suffered our punishment two thousand years ago.  But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur (Revelation 21:8).  They will be denied everything that makes paradise so wonderful.  All because they preferred Satan’s company over fellowship with Jesus. 

When Christ returns, it will be clear who has always been in charge. Don’t let the devil fool you; his miserable end is written in stone.  For we, the faithful few who treasure our relationship with Jesus, it will be a day of glorious vindication. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Church (part three)

Forgive as the Lord forgave you (Colossians 3:13).

Why did Christ Jesus give us the Church?  One reason is to give us a place where we can express the contents of our hearts.  The world doesn’t like spiritual talk.  Unbelievers resent seeing crosses in cemeteries, hearing prayer in public areas, or finding the word of God on television.  Most of your friends would rather talk about sports, politics, celebrity gossip, the weather—anything but religion. 

Church is a place where you can unburden yourself to God in prayer.  You can admit that you’ve messed up and not have to worry about how others might react; everybody in church needs the forgiveness that you’re asking for.  You can bow your head in private prayer and no one will interrupt you or give you a strange look, wondering what you’re doing.  We should not be embarrassed to pray whenever the need arises, but in church no one will hassle us for taking a break to speak with God.

In church, you don’t have to keep up appearances.  Out in the world you dare not reveal weakness or someone will swoop in to take advantage of you.  In church you are one sinner among many, people who frequently make poor decisions, fail to keep their promises, cause hurt by being carelessly impulsive.  In church, you not only receive the blessing of Jesus’ forgiveness, you have the understanding and support of many who share the same struggles and frustrations that you do.  In the Church we pray for each other, listen to each other, help and support each other, give encouragement to each other. 

I’m not suggesting that life together in the Church is free of inappropriate drama.  Because we are sinners, there are times when we fail to treat each other the way that Christ expects us to.  Out in the world, doing the wrong thing causes damage to relationships that requires begging and restitution to put right, and sometimes reconciliation never takes place.  What makes things different in the Church is Jesus’ mercy. The Son of God forgives us when our behavior causes trouble.  Filled with His love and guided by His compassion, we are able to put aside our hurt, healing damaged relationships by sharing His forgiveness with each other.  The Lord deserves our joyful praise in worship for enabling sinners to love each other and live as a family, despite our many faults.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Church (part two)

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the spiritual forces of evil (Ephesians 6:11-12).

Jesus gave us the Church for the same reason kids attend school and soldiers go through Basic Training.  We live in a dangerous world, and in church God prepares us to meet the enemy.  That enemy is Satan.  The devil can’t hurt God, of course—Lucifer has no more power than any angel in God’s celestial army.  So to strike at God, the Dark One goes after us, sort of like terrorists who think they can force a government to negotiate with them by holding civilians at gunpoint. 

God offers us round the clock protection.  But we don’t appreciate the danger that we’re really in; we are prone to act carelessly, and that’s when the devil takes his shots at us.  So Jesus uses the Church to educate us about the devil’s tactics.  Every week, worshipers learn to tell the difference between right and wrong, becoming alert to their weaknesses that the Dark One is eager to exploit.  Each verse of the Bible is like a silver bullet, able to wound Satan and drive him back into the shadows.  We stockpile that ammunition as we hear the word of God and commit it to memory. 

In church, the Lord equips you with full combat gear.  Ephesians 6:14-17 speaks of the belt of truth which enables you to spot deception and avoid it; the body armor of righteousness which protects your heart from being wounded by evil; boots that are ready to move towards others in love when the peace of God makes it safe to approach; the shield of faith which gives you courage when evil is taking rapid-fire shots at you; and the helmet of salvation which protects your mind from being crushed by doubts. 

The devil wins through half-truths, lies, and misinformation.  To keep others from being tricked into his service, we need to know the truth and how to share it with confidence.  This is part of the training that Christ offers through His Church.  He said, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32).  The words of Jesus are life and freedom and peace, everything the devil wants to steal from us.  The Church is both classroom and armory; when you take advantage of it, God will provide everything needed to confront evil and prevail.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

End Times

As he was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" "Do you see all these great buildings?" replied Jesus. "Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked him privately,  "Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?"

Jesus said to them: "Watch out that no one deceives you.  Many will come in my name, claiming, `I am he,' and will deceive many.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.

"You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.  And the gospel must first be preached to all nations.  Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved"
(Mark 13:1-13).

There are people who stay away from church because they don’t like to hear bad news.  If a preacher is doing his job, every sermon will feature two things—warning and comfort.  The warning concerns God’s message about sin—He hates evil in all its forms, from the smallest to the greatest, and He uses hell to punish sin forever.   The comfort is God’s message about forgiveness—He sent Jesus to suffer on the cross for every sin, so all who trust in His mercy can be granted pardon and receive eternal life in paradise.  God's law must be preached so that sinners understand their need for the Savior; His Gospel must be preached, or there is no hope for happiness after death. 

Naturally, people like to hear the Gospel—who doesn’t enjoy being told that God loves them and holds them precious in His arms?  But the Law is hard to listen to—no one likes being told that he or she is a miserable failure.  Preachers who speak warnings in their sermons are doing what God has ordered His messengers to do since the days of the prophets—but now as back then, many people resent being criticized.  They won’t attend worship if the Gospel is taught along with the Law. 

We have entered the last weeks of the Church Year.  Starting with All Saints’ Day, our focus is on the End Times, the final days of turmoil that will only grow worse until Christ returns in glory.  On the Last Day, Jesus will raise every human back to life to face the Lord for final judgment.  Daniel says, Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt (12:2).  Those judged worthy will inherit the new earth that Jesus will make for them; those deemed unworthy will be locked away in hell with Satan and his demons, an eternal sentence with no hope of parole.

There are people who don’t like to dwell on the bad stuff; they want their lives filled with song and sunny days.  But the End Times are upon us, and there’s no way to hide from the dark influence of sin and Satan.  Even if I were to ignore the Law in my messages to you, sin and God’s punishment cannot be ignored. 

In today’s Gospel lesson, the disciples ask Jesus for a date that they can put on the calendar—when will the End Times arrive?  But Jesus doesn’t give them a date; instead, He describes what the End Times will be like.  As we look at Jesus’ predictions, we can see that the End Times began shortly after He ascended into heaven and that the end of the world is drawing ever closer.  There’s no avoiding it.

The discussion started after a visit to the great Temple in Jerusalem.  The disciples were impressed by the grandeur of the building; they thought it so well built that it would remain standing for all time.  But Jesus shatters their illusions: Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.  This prophecy was fulfilled less than 40 years later when the Roman Empire, as punishment for rebellion, leveled Jerusalem and the Temple. 

The next prediction Jesus made was this: Many will come in my name, claiming, `I am he,' and will deceive many.  False saviors started coming out of the woodwork almost as soon as Jesus returned to heaven.  Some of these were men who wanted to be popular; others were looking to get rich at the expense of gullible followers.  Such wolves in sheep’s clothing have misled many throughout the centuries.  Consider Mohammed, who claimed to be Jesus’ successor and led his followers in holy jihad against Christians who would not submit to him.  Or right here in America, consider Joseph Smith who wrote the Book of Mormon, creating his own religion and declaring himself its leader and head teacher.  As Jesus warned, these false saviors have deceived many and kept them from the truth.

Jesus moved on to wars and rumors of wars.  The world has been embroiled in war ever since Jesus spoke those words; I’ll just mention a few.  The Crusades.  The Thirty Year’s War.  The War of Independence.  The War of 1812.  The Spanish-American War.  The First World War, which was so horrible that many felt the Last Day was coming soon.  The Second World War.  The Korean War.  The war in Vietnam.  The war in Kuwait.  The war in Iraq.  The war in Afghanistan.  There have been more wars than can be counted, and yet Jesus says when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.  Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.  Our Lord tells us that war and saber rattling are part and parcel of the End Times.

Jesus moves on to natural disasters. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines.  In the Book of Acts we are told of a terrible famine in the Holy Land, with the churches of Europe taking up collections to send relief.  Some of you can remember the “dirty 30s” when the breadbasket of America was reduced to a dust bowl and people abandoned their farms.  And there have been major earthquakes, too.  40 years after Jesus died and rose, Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and changing the climate for hundreds of miles in southern Europe.  Underwater earthquakes cause tsunamis, tidal waves that destroy coastal regions; in recent years, we have seen massive loss of life caused by earthquake-triggered tsunamis.  Yet Jesus says that these are just the beginning of birth pains.  The world is getting ready to change, to die and give way to a new and perfect world that God will make for the pleasure of His saints.  But for now we have to deal with the pain leading up to that new birth.

But as terrible as war and natural disaster are, the real suffering comes at the hands of sinful humanity.  This is hardly surprising, because it was Adam’s sin that caused the world to be cursed with pain and death in the first place.  We are responsible for things getting so bad.  Our sins of thought, word and deed; our sins of failure and letting chaos go unchecked.  We contribute to the evil of the End Times when we choose living together over marriage.  We add to the pain of the world when we let hatred and bigotry influence the words we speak and type.  Things get worse when we don’t use our votes to stop evil from spreading unchecked.  The world groans in pain from our lies, our selfish wastefulness, and our casual attitude towards promises and commitments. 

Jesus warns, You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them.  These words came to pass for Peter and Paul.  Peter was whipped by order of those Jews in charge of religious purity, because they did not accept Jesus or His teachings as coming from God.  Paul was put on trial before officers of Rome, and used those opportunities to speak the Law and Gospel to them.  Fifteen hundred years later, Martin Luther was summoned to the court of Charles V to tell the king why he was stirring up controversy in the church; Luther used that opportunity to explain God’s word clearly and without apology.  In 2nd Timothy chapter four, Paul spoke of the world we live in, a world that doesn’t like to hear the Law and Gospel; the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.  When you are used to darkness, bright light is painful to look at; sinners who are accustomed to living in darkness would rather extinguish the light of God than learn to appreciate its beauty.

Jesus’ words get even scarier: Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.  All men will hate you because of me.  This prediction is no exaggeration of the facts.  In the early days of the church, the emperors of Rome insisted that the citizens honor them as gods living on earth; when the followers of Christ refused to do this, those emperors retaliated by ordering the arrest and gruesome death of any pledged to Christ.  Family members sold each other out to the authorities; some were afraid of the government, while others could not accept a relative leaving the religion of their family to follow Christ.  We see it happening in our world today.  Muslims and Hindus who convert are often shunned by their families and targeted for death by religious extremists.  In some places it is dangerous to accept Jesus as your Lord and Master.

The End Times are upon us, making life scary and dangerous.  Yet in spite of all the bad news, Jesus offers us hope, a bright ray of light to dispel the darkness that surrounds us.  He says, Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.  The Son of God does not leave us to deal with the End Times on our own.  He sends the Spirit of God to help us.  The Spirit comes through Word and Sacrament.  He takes up residence in our hearts and gives us the qualities we need to withstand this evil world: strength and patience, wisdom and hope.  When we are uncertain how to proceed, the Spirit is ready to help us; He is as close as a Bible, as close as a prayer.

Of course, the only reason that we have the Spirit’s help is because of Jesus’ work on our behalf.  The Son of God laid down His life to save sinners from the hellish punishment they deserve for breaking God’s Law.  Jesus bled and died for you and me and every sinner, and He pulls to safety all who cry to Him for rescue. 

But Jesus did not save us so we can just hide in our homes and ignore the suffering of the End Times.  Supported by the Holy Spirit, He sends us out through out with a mission—preach the Good News, in season and out of season, when people are receptive and also when they’re not (2nd Timothy 4:2).  The End Times will not be over until the mission work of God is complete: the gospel must first be preached to all nations.  If we drag our heels, if we are too scared or too lazy to share the Good News of salvation in Christ, we only prolong the agony that others are experiencing.  We dare not be selfish with the treasure of forgiveness and peace that God has shared with us!  When you see a person who is suffering the End Times without hope, you should think to yourself, "there, but for the grace of God, go I".

Of course, it can be unpleasant and even dangerous to practice your faith in public.  But heed the words of Peter: Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast (1st Peter 5:8-10).  Jesus says, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).  Don’t let the End Times drive you to despair.  Don’t let all the bad stuff that is happening push you into hiding.  Christ is your king.  He forgives your mistakes.  He fills you with the Holy Spirit so you can be a light in the darkness.  And remember that Christ promised, he who stands firm to the end will be saved.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The Church (part one)

Through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known (Ephesians 3:10).

What is the Church?  I’ve heard many answers to this question, some of them pretty strange. But when you get right down to it, more than anything else the Church is where God satisfies our most basic needs. 

Near the top of the list is our need for inner peace.  None of us wants to go through life afraid.  Constant worry steals your sleep, makes you suspicious instead of trusting, and can actually shorten your life by eroding your health.  Fear prevents relationships from growing, as we are unwilling to open up and be vulnerable to others. 

In Church, we are given peace.  The Lord Almighty, Creator of all things and the King of the universe, reassures you of His love.  The God who parted the Red Sea for Moses and His people, the God who fed over 5,000 men, women and children from five loaves of bread and two fish, the God who gave sight to the blind and raised the dead back to life, says in no uncertain terms that you are His, precious and loved and closely looked after.  In church, the Mighty One gives you a peace that nothing in the world can match.

Another need we have in common is the need to belong.  We dread being alone, having no one to share our joys or give help when problems arise.  The worst thing you can do to a prisoner is place him in solitary confinement.  And we can feel alone even when surrounded by people if we’re too shy to speak up or if they hate us for our looks, our opinions, our cultural background.

In church, we have fellowship.  Thanks to Jesus, you have millions of brothers and sisters, spiritual family who gather in worship every week.  And even if a congregation is really small, Jesus promises to be there: wherever two or three gather in my name, I am there among them (Matthew 18:20).  When you are a member of the Church, you are never alone.

But the greatest need we have is to be forgiven.  Guilt weighs us down, our mistakes drive everyone away, and we fear God’s anger.  But in church we hear the Good News of God’s mercy, that Jesus did away with the punishment for sin and heals broken relationships with His love. Through the Church, God takes away our fear and puts an end to loneliness; He does this by forgiving the sin that fills our days with grief.

Monday, November 04, 2013

The legacy of Martin Luther

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy (Titus 3:5).

Martin Luther is remembered for many things.  He is among the first to use the printing press to maximum advantage for the spreading of ideas.  He is known as a writer of great church music.  He is respected as Bible translator whose work has influenced scholars ever since.  But more important than anything else is Luther’s understanding of Holy Scripture and the merciful love that God shows to us through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luther was not a happy man.  He felt deeply burdened by guilt—guilt for his failings, guilt for not living up to God’s righteous standards.  That guilt ate away at Luther until he got to the point that religion was more a burden than a joy to him.  Even though he was a member of the clergy, he felt alienated from God, isolated by his sinful inadequacies.

But Luther did not turn away from God, and God did not abandon Luther.  After much deep study of the Bible, it came to Luther that he had misunderstood what God was saying in the Good Book.  True, God demands perfection from us—perfection that is beyond our ability to achieve.  And it is true that God sent His Son Jesus to suffer the punishment for our wrongdoing so we might be forgiven.  But Luther was burdened with a commonly held idea: that Jesus expects us to respond to His death on the cross by living a holy life worthy of His sacrifice.  Luther felt constant guilt over his shortcomings.  His constant failures, his daily relapses into sin, made him angry at himself for being so weak and angry at God for being so strict.  But thanks to the Holy Spirit, Luther eventually saw what he was missing—when Jesus died for us, He never expected that we would pay Him back with our good behavior or be able to honor Him properly with righteous living.  Our Lord said I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).  Jesus did not open heaven and then sit down at the gate waiting for us to arrive under our own power.  No, He comes down to lift us up and He supports us every step of the way as we stumble through life, weak and needful of direction.  Jesus demands nothing of us except that we place our trust in Him.  As the Bible says, believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved (Acts 16:31).  This simple truth was a revelation to Luther; he stopped seeing religion as grueling duty and found instead pure joy as a servant of God.  This is Luther’s true legacy—rely on Christ, not yourself, for everything good.

Saturday, November 02, 2013

What awaits us in heaven

Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."
(Matthew 5:1-12)

Death is a tragedy—there’s no getting around it.  Death puts the kibosh on our plans for the future.  Death steals children from their parents.  Death tears husbands and wives from each other’s arms. Death keeps us from getting to know our great grandparents and great grandchildren.  Death steals our friends from us.  Death is a major source of pain and sorrow, anger and fear. 

Death is a tragedy because it should not exist.  God did not create mankind only to watch us die.  It was the Lord’s intent that each of us would live forever.  Sadly, the devil persuaded Adam and Eve to disobey God, and that sin brought with it the curse of death.  Disobedience is now in our blood—and that disobedience condemns each and every one of us.  We all sin.  God has a standard of conduct that He expects every human to meet—but we fall short of His righteous standards because we are selfish, foolish, willful and weak.   And so the curse of death falls upon us all.  We attend a constant stream of funerals, saying goodbye to people that we didn’t want to lose, and eventually one of those funerals will be our own.

As Christians, we have comfort at the time of death that unbelievers don’t.  We know that the God who made us did not give up on us, even though we’ve angered Him with our misbehavior.  Our God a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love (Exodus 34:6)He does not treat us as our sins deserve (Psalm 103:10).  Instead of turning His back on us in disgust, God showed us love by sending us His Son.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15); He did this by assuming the responsibility for our disobedience and suffering the punishment from God that we rightly deserve.  When He died on the cross, Jesus died for your sins and mine.  When He rose from the dead, He proved that all our guilt has been atoned for, and that He has the power to raise us from our graves when He returns in glory.  Then Jesus ascended into heaven; He threw open the pearly gates and waits for us with arms stretched wide in welcome.  When we die, we can fly to Him for sanctuary until the Day of Resurrection.

This is the comfort we have when confronting death.  But while we have the promise of eternal happiness, the details seem a little sparse. Frustratingly, the Bible doesn’t give us as much information as we’d like.  Of course even if God did tell us more, we probably couldn’t understand what He revealed to us.  When Jesus taught the people about spiritual things, He often resorted to little stories called parables to make difficult ideas easier to understand.  Sadly, no earthly frame of reference can adequately describe the wonders of God and His magnificent heavenly kingdom.

Yet if you read Scripture carefully, you will find clues about the future God has in store for us.  One place where we get some details is in the Sermon of the Mount.  Among these teachings are the words of the Beatitudes, where Jesus speaks of the blessings that await people who love God and want to please Him with their lives. 

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Honestly, all of us are ‘poor in spirit’; the word of God says everyone has turned away, all have become united in corruption; there is no one who does good, not single person (Psalm 53:3).  There is no blessing in being a failure.  But God does bless those who realize their shortcomings.  God does bless those who don’t try to make excuses for what they’ve done wrong or blame others for their mistakes.  When we pray to Jesus and ‘fess up to the truth that we’d rather keep hidden, He forgives our wrongdoing.  The result is peace for our troubled conscience and welcome into the kingdom of heaven when we die.  All who trusted in Christ to take away their sins are in heaven right now—they are in a place where Satan cannot go. They are free of temptation, addiction, anger and pain.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Mourning is what you do when you’ve lost something very important to you.  People mourn the loss of a successful career when fired or retiring.  People mourn the loss of a home when destroyed by fire or windstorm.  People mourn the loss of a pet or the end of a friendship.  But most of all, people mourn when death ends the life of a loved one.  We mourn because we don’t believe that we’ll ever get back what we have lost.  But mourning ends when we enter the kingdom of heaven.  There we will be reunited with all sorts of people who have passed through our lives—parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, cousins and friends, neighbors and coworkers, teachers, pastors, and those who wore uniforms in service to our country.  There is an amazing reunion waiting for you; and the best part is that everyone will be on their best behavior!  When our bodies are laid to rest, so is our sinful nature.  In heaven, no one will get mad or drunk or rude.  The saints in heaven are enjoying the kind of get-together that we can only dream about. 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  When we talk about the afterlife, we usually focus on heaven.  But man was not meant to live in the spirit world.  God did not make Adam’s soul and then fashion a body to house it.  No, God made the first man from the dust of the earth, and then breathed life into him.  God designed us to live on earth, body and soul united forever.  At the resurrection, Jesus will restore things to God’s original plan—our bodies will be raised and remade, all imperfections removed, and our souls will inhabit them once more.  We will live forever on the earth as God intended it to be—a perfect world inhabited by perfect people, living in perfect love and peace.  And who will inherit this bright new world?  The meek—those who realize their own shortcomings and rely on God for strength and guidance.  Those who are arrogant, who insist on doing things their own way, who don’t want to appear weak by admitting to a mistake, such people have no place in a world where God sets the rules and everyone submits to Christ completely and joyfully.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.  Life in this world is often frustrating.  There is so much evil that goes unchecked, so much unfairness and injustice.  You watch the news and are distressed by stories of prejudice and discrimination, political corruption and corporate greed, hatred and war, crime and poverty.  All around us, we see liars and cheats go unpunished; we see people hurt by gossip and vandalism.   We know that things would be so much better if everyone just listened to Christ and did what He says to do, yet so many people ignore what the Bible teaches about good manners and proper behavior.  Of course, bear in mind that you and I are sinners too—although we know that God’s ways are best, we contribute to the world’s injustice by ignoring what God says in order to do our own thing. But once Jesus escorts you through death into the perfect life that never ends, things will be completely different.  You will have no interest in doing things that make God angry; you’ll have no sinful desires to lead you astray.  Freed from sin by Jesus’ bloody death, your priorities will always be right—love God with all that you are and have, and love your neighbor as yourself.  No one will ever anger you or disappoint you; you will never again say or do anything that requires an apology.  The saints above are experiencing this way of life even as we speak.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.   Without mercy, we would have no one to love or to love us in return.  Although Jesus washes us clean with His holy blood, the sin that boils inside of us keeps bubbling to the surface.  We are in constant need of forgiveness because we are constantly soiling ourselves with hurtful words and thoughtless behavior.  Consider a baby—no matter how cute or cuddly she might be, no one wants to hold her when she has a stinky diaper.  So it is with us.  Our sin makes us unpleasant to be around.  If the stinky mess is not removed, no one wants to spend time with us.  Mercy is key to every relationship; when you forgive somebody, the stinky mess that keeps us apart is cleaned up.  Of course, Jesus is the fountainhead of mercy; His forgiveness of our sins enables us to forgive each other.  Jesus considers us as members of His family; on one occasion He said, Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister (Mark 3:35).  But Jesus’ family is built on love and compassion; that is why Christ was forceful when He said, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins (Mark 11:25).  People who are not willing to forgive have lost the essence of Christianity—after all, Jesus died so that all might be forgiven.  Who are we to hold a grudge when our Lord is willing to show mercy?  When Christ lifts us to Himself, we will finally be free from all complaining and hard feelings. 

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.  To be pure is to be free of anything foreign or distracting.  Think of a white sheet; if there is a stain, your eyes immediately focus it.  The sheet has been marred by imperfection; the spot has ruined its pure whiteness.   The stain has become a distraction.  So it is with righteousness.  God expects us to be pure, dedicated to Him alone.  The First Commandment says, you shall have no other gods.  Jesus expanded on this when He said, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mark 12:30).  God made us; we are His and His alone by right.  Our Maker says, I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols (Isaiah42:8).  Nothing is to be more important in our lives than the Lord who made us and redeems us; Jesus said, Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me (Matthew 10:37-38).  God wants our lives to be pure, our devotion to Him total and complete.  But that purity is lost when we start loving other things more than God, things like money or career advancement, authority or popularity, family or leisure time.  By nature, we are impure; the gifts that come down from heaven become more important than the God who gave them.  Only through Jesus’ mercy are we made pure; He points our attention where it should be focused.  And that purity offers a great reward—when we leave this world of sinful distractions, we shall see God!

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.  I said earlier that Jesus regards us as members of His family.  If we are His brothers and sisters, that makes us sons of the heavenly Father.  Yes, ladies, you heard right—you are sons of God, just as the men are.  In Bible times, females did not receive a share of the inheritance, only males did.  That’s why Jesus says that all believers, male and female alike, are sons of God—He wants everyone, regardless of gender, to be sure of your inheritance as a brother or sister of Christ.  But what characterizes a son of God?  Such a person is a peacemaker, someone who goes out of their way to end conflict with reconciliation.  Remember, forgiveness is the heart of Christianity.  What better way to serve the King of Mercy than to act as an agent of diplomacy and peace?  A son of God does not want to be forced into choosing sides.  A son of God doesn’t make judgments without hearing both sides of the story.  A son of God works to heal divisions.  A son of God tries to offer soothing words when voices are raised in anger or the air is filled with chilly silence.  Such behavior honors the Savior who gave His life to reconcile us with the heavenly Father.  In life, we might feel useless and unappreciated—but when the angels carry us to Jesus’ side, we can be honored as sons of God! 

What is life like for the saints who’ve gone before us?  What will our new life on the other side of death be like?  Jesus gives us some idea.  We will be freed from having a guilty conscience, freed from even being tempted to do wrong.  We will be reunited with our Christian friends and relatives never to be parted again, and spared from any moments of unpleasantness.  We will be united under Christ’s leadership, and there will be no squabbling over who is in charge.  You will never be hurt or disappointed by another person’s behavior, nor will you have to worry about causing hurt or offense.  There will be no complaining or bitterness over old hurts.  We shall see God face to face, and be treated with the kind of respect that is reserved for royalty.  This is what Christ promises His followers; this is what your departed loved ones are experiencing now as they wait for us to join them.

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