Saturday, January 25, 2014

War, government overreach, bigotry and money--a Christian perspective

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2).

Our world is in turmoil.  There is war.  There are power struggles in the halls of government.  There is bigotry and discrimination.  Many struggle to keep food on the table. 

Everyone has an opinion about these things.  Politicians, the news media, bloggers, family members—all sorts of people try to sway your opinion to think as they do. 

But what views should a Christian hold?  Paul tells us to keep our eyes focused on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  He tells us to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things.  So today  let’s look at war and government, bigotry and money from the perspective of Holy Scripture.

Whether you think it is justified or not, war is part of the human experience.  Our oldest written documents include references to armed conflict between different groups of people.  War was commonplace; in the Old Testament we read that spring was the season when kings went off to war.  As soon as the crops were planted and the weather was favorable, men took up arms and marched off to shed blood.

There are several reasons for declaring war.  The two most common are greed and safety.  One country will invade another to get more land for growing food, acquire valuable resources needed for economic growth, or to increase the population for tax purposes.  Countries will also launch a preemptive strike if they fear a military build up on the other side. 

War has also been used for internal reasons.  A government might prepare for war to get factories reopened and unemployed citizens back to work.  If a nation is troubled by social unrest, the ruler can unify his people by declaring war on an enemy that everyone fears and hates. 

Countries often get dragged into war because of international treaties—if one nation is attacked, its friends are obligated to assist.  And sometimes wars are fought over matters of principle—to bring freedom to a suffering people, or to enlighten them with a different culture and religion.

But when is a war justified in the eyes of God?  He doesn’t tell us when we should send in troops and when we should mind our own business.  Still, the teachings of Holy Scripture can guide us. Greed is a sin; war is evil if its purpose is to make one nation richer at the expense of another.  Jesus invites people to believe in Him, but He never uses force; war is wrong if it is used to make others believe as we do.  But God did establish government to protect people from harm and allow them to live in peace; war is an option when national safety is at risk. Still, human lives should never be taken casually—the Lord made us all, and He wants everyone to experience His love through Christ.

Conflict is not limited to the battlefield—it also reaches into the halls of government.  Republicans and Democrats constantly argue about how much power and reach government should have.  Republicans believe that small government is better; they fear loss of freedom if there is too much regulation.  Democrats worry about the rich and powerful trampling the poor and weak; they want government to protect the common man against abuses of power.  But what should a Christian make of these arguments?  We know that God establishes government for our good, but how much should government affect our lives? 

When Jesus was asked to offer an opinion on paying taxes He said, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God (Matthew 22:21). Caesar was the emperor—he represented the rule of government.  Jesus taught that government and religion both make claims on us, and we have obligations to each of them.  But in the book of Acts chapter five, when there was tension between government and religion, Peter said we must obey God rather than any human authority.  In other words, we are to obey the government so long as it does not contradict what God commands.

Governments are expected to organize soldiers for national defense. God expects government officials to protect the defenseless from exploitation.  But how big or far-reaching does government need to be? The Bible does not say.  Jesus did say let nothing be wasted (John 6:12); we can infer that wasteful government spending does not meet with God’s approval.  The Lord commands judges to look out for the rights of victims; since judges work for the government, we can conclude that the Lord looks favorably on government assistance to those suffering from poverty or disability.  In the Old Testament, God issued laws regarding business and commerce; clearly, the government is expected to regulate such things. 

But government exceeds its authority when it tries to overwrite God’s commands.  The Lord forbids homosexuality; the government has no right to legalize gay marriage.  God sees all children as a precious gift originating in His love; the government has no right to legalize abortion.  Jesus commands us to speak of Him to all people; the government has no right to regulate where and when people can pray, distribute Bibles, or tell others about the Son of God who suffered and died that we might live forever in paradise. 

Government has a big job to do—but it dare not overstep its bounds.  And in many situations, government only has limited effectiveness.  Take, for example, the problem of racism and discrimination.

How does it make you feel when a group of people is chatting away in a language that you don’t understand?  Are you uncomfortable around people whose skin color and choice of clothing are different than yours?  Do you fear that your community is changing because minorities are moving in? 

Most people are comfortable with the familiar and uncomfortable with things that are out of the ordinary.  This is especially true of people who don’t share our language or culture.  When meeting someone who is quite a bit different from what we’re used to, most of us act differently than we typically do around strangers.  There is curiosity that makes a person want to stare.  There is a trace of fear that makes one hesitant to say “hello”. 

Some people take their discomfort into the realm of hostility.  How many times have you heard someone grumble about people who are different taking our jobs and dating our kids?   How many of these people are the target of nasty jokes?  How many are denied decent housing and can’t get a promotion at work?  How many are singled out for mistreatment because of how they speak or how they look?

We are all descended from two people—Adam and Eve.  Despite outward differences, we are all members of one extended family.  That’s how God looks at things. Scripture says, The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  Peter struggled with prejudice against non-Jews, but eventually he came around: I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:34-35).  In Galatians chapter three Paul writes, There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Jesus suffered and died for every single person, regardless of background. He does not favor one skin color over another; He does not favor one language over another; He does not favor one cultural background over another.  Jesus is interested in the contents of the heart.  If we share His focus, bigotry and discrimination won’t put up barriers between us. 

If there is anything on this earth that unites people, it’s their concern about money.  People are always thinking about money.  Our government runs on tax revenue.  Our economy is based on money changing hands.  If people hold on to their money, the economy suffers and tax revenues go down.  Economists urge us to spend, spend, spend.

The only reason that you have money is because of God.  Moses said, remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth (Deuteronomy 8:18). The Lord gives us money to put food on the table, a roof over our heads, and clothing on our backs.  But we are not given money for our selfish consumption.  The Lord expects us to share with those in need; Proverbs 22 says, A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.  Most important of all, the gift of money can be returned to the Lord to show Him thanks for His goodness and to support the spreading of His saving message. Jesus said, go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19); you might not be able to serve as a missionary, but you can financially support those who do this vital work.

Sadly, a lot of people use money poorly.  Some waste it on short-term pleasures like gambling, drugs, or Internet pornography.  Others hoard money instead of putting it to use.  The desire for money drives many to crime; others worry about money so much that it steals away the pleasure of living in the moment.  This is why Paul wrote, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Timothy 6:10). Jesus warned, No one can serve two masters…You cannot serve both God and Money (Matthew 6:24). Money is a tool that is to be used according to God’s law.  The love of money can lead to long hours at work and the neglect of your family.  The desire for money can lead to price gouging and deceptive advertising.  And money is abused when so much is spent on entertainment that bills go unpaid and charities are ignored.

When Jesus returns on the Last Day, He will demand an accounting of how we have used His money.  We don’t want to hear Him say, throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness (Matthew 25:30).  We want to please the Lord with our careful use of His property.  We want to hear these words come from His lips: Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness! (Matthew 25:21)

Our world is full of conflict—war, political struggles, and inter-racial tension.  Our world is also full of worry, especially over money.  We can be thankful that Christ rules everything from His heavenly throne, that He’s on our side, and that He speaks about the things that trouble us.  Listen to Christ, align your attitudes and priorities with His, and you can be a voice of reason when everyone else is panicking.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Charity (conclusion)

You shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you (Deuteronomy 26:11).

It’s interesting: although we don’t like to accept charity, we still feel entitled to certain things as if this were a different matter completely! We hesitate to accept something free if it is offered to help us in a time of need.  Yet we complain bitterly when God stops giving us things for free, things we did nothing to earn.

What did you do to earn your life?  Was God obligated in some way to bring you into this world as a baby?  What have you done to earn good health?  What have you done to earn your parent’s love, the love of your spouse and children and friends?  What have you done to earn forgiveness for your mistakes or a place in God’s kingdom when you die? 

Before you protest that you earn all sorts of things by working hard, I would remind you of something Moses said to the people of Israel in Deuteronomy chapter eight: You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.  You may feel that you ought to get some credit for being a good Christian, but remember what Jesus said in John chapter 15: 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.  It’s simple, really—the only reason we have good things in our lives is because our Lord gave them to us. 

We ought to be like Job.  When he went through a period of tragic loss, he said Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised (1:21).  That man of God understood that everything in his life was a gift, none of it deserved—if the LORD wanted to take it away, Job had no rightful claim for protest. 

But we’re not like Job.  Like the Israelites who followed Moses, we are quick to complain that God is not treating us fairly when we enter a time of hardship.  It’s funny—we don’t like to receive charity, yet we expect God to give us everything we hunger for.  In reality, He gives us far more than we actually need; He does this not because we deserve His generosity, but because He loves us.  We would do well to grumble less and tell Him ‘thank You’ more often.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Charity (part three)

What must we do to do the works God requires? (John 6:28)

Most people dislike getting charity because it wounds their pride.  Accepting a handout can make you feel ashamed of your own inadequacy.  We would much rather be praised for our accomplishments than pitied for our failures. 

At one point in His ministry, Jesus was asked this question: What must we do, to do the works God requires?  Jews of the day were raised with hundreds and hundreds of rules to follow if you wanted to make God happy and earn His blessings.  Men who belonged to the party of Pharisees took great pride in how carefully they obeyed every rule and the public held them in high regard, treating them with honor and respect for their achievements.

We like to be recognized for doing something impressive.  It’s attractive to think of heaven as the place where our best and brightest are eternally rewarded.  To earn a place in God’s home—such an achievement would mean that you’re among the best of the best.  Who wouldn’t like to brag about that?

The thing is, our behavior is nothing to be proud of.  Even people who are the best examples of piety are still guilty of sin.  Swelling with pride makes us forget how much we need God to accomplish anything worthwhile.  Moments of fear show that we don’t fully trust in His power or love.  Flashes of anger reveal a disturbing lack of self-control.  Feeding our desires for earthly things shows a lack of good judgment, because when our attention is drawn to pleasures of the moment we lose our focus on eternal things.

According to the prophet Isaiah, all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.  No matter how good we try to be, it always gets fouled up somehow.  Thankfully, salvation does not depend on our getting it right.  Saint Paul tells us that [God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy (Titus 3:5).  When Jesus was asked what must we do to do the works God requires, His answer was blessedly simple: The work of God is this, to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29).  Jesus went to the cross because He knew full well that without His loving charity, we could never gain a place of respect in His Father’s house.  We have nothing to be proud of, except that Jesus loves us.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The details of daily life

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus' mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.  When the wine was gone, Jesus' mother said to him, "They have no more wine." "Dear woman, why do you involve me?" Jesus replied. "My time has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you."

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, "Fill the jars with water"; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, "Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet."  They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, "Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now."

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him (John 2:1-11).

Jesus performed many spectacular miracles during His adult life here on earth.  He fed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  He made lame people walk, blind people see, and restored hearing to the deaf.  Jesus walked on water and quieted a storm with His words.  He even raised the dead back to life!  But His very first miracle was a subtle, quiet thing—performed at a wedding of all places. Without any fanfare, Jesus turned six containers of water into 120 gallons of high quality wine.  Jesus kept the wedding celebration going, while sparing the groom from public embarrassment.

It might seem a bit strange for Christ to use His godly power in this way.  Why waste the first miracle of His public ministry on such a minor problem?  Having participated in several weddings, I’m can tell you that there is nothing trivial about the bar running dry at a wedding reception—not if you’re responsible for the arrangements!  Most weddings are large, complicated affairs—any significant problems will spoil things for the bride and groom.

Although Jesus never married, He is the God of love.  He loves His Father.  He loved His parents, His brothers and sisters, and His disciples.  He loves you and me.  That love is what brought the Son of God down from heaven to live among us as a man.  And that love moved Christ to action when the wedding celebration in Cana faced a problem that would have ruined the day for many happy people.

You see, Jesus cares about our daily lives.  Jesus cares about the ordinary events, the little things that consume most of our time here on earth.  I’m sure you’ve heard people say that “the devil is in the details.”  Most of our sins are not big, public things.  You probably won’t get caught in a major scandal.  You probably won’t be arrested for murder or kidnapping or treason.  Nevertheless, each day of your life is filled with sins—sins like losing your temper, spreading gossip, breaking promises and telling lies.  You might shoplift something small or inexpensive; you might dabble in illegal drugs.  A lot of the time we commit sins we aren’t even aware of, causing hurt and resentment in complete ignorance.  King David acknowledged this problem when he prayed to God for mercy: None of us know our faults. Forgive me when I sin without knowing it (Psalm 19:12).

In the same way, most of us don’t face huge problems in our lives.  You probably won’t step on a landmine and lose a foot.  You probably won’t have to live on the street, begging for charity so you can get something to eat.  Nevertheless, our lives are filled with stress and obstacles.  There is the car that won’t start but costs too much to replace.  There is the idiot at work who makes your day miserable.  There are the friends and relatives who keep getting into trouble and expect you to bail them out.  Each day is full of little aggravations, some of them unexpected and others that pester you endlessly.

We need Jesus’ help constantly each and every day.  Yet many people try to put God’s Son on a schedule. Some make time for Him once each week on Sunday morning.  Others visit with Him on Christmas and Easter, and during special events like baptisms and funerals.  But as we saw in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is interested in our daily lives outside the church.  He performed a miracle in order to spare a groom from embarrassment and the wedding guests from disappointment.  Christ wants to touch every part of our lives with His love.

This incident reminds us to pray for all kinds of things.  Of course the most important thing to pray for is forgiveness for your sins and help to lead a God-pleasing life.  Also important is praying for the spread of the Gospel, that those who are in danger of hell would see the danger of sin, repent, and join us in following Christ on the Way that leads to heaven.  These prayers should be on our lips every single day.

But our prayers can reach beyond these needs.  The Bible urges us to care for each other, and this extends to prayer as well.  James writes, is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him…The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (5:13-16).  Mary is an example for us; when the wine was almost gone, her concern for the bridal party and their guests took her to Jesus where she asked for His help on their behalf.  Because He loves us, Jesus is willing to exert His power in our daily lives.

Jesus wants you to do well on your ACT.  Jesus wants you to be enthusiastic and productive at work. Jesus wants your home to be filled with hugs and laughter.  The devil wants to create all sorts of problems for you—sickness, money troubles, spats with your loved ones.  He wants you to fuss and fret about life’s annoyances so that you’ll forget about Jesus and focus all your attention on yourself.  But the Savior stands ready to help.  Jesus walked, ate, and relaxed with His disciples and friends.  He understands the stresses and concerns that plague us because He has experienced them first hand.

The Son of God came to make our lives better by getting the devil out of the details.  On the cross Jesus suffered and died to free us from sin so we can spread the Gospel, raise a family, earn a living, and enjoy friendships without sin throwing a wet blanket over everything.  When we make mistakes, we can find peace through Jesus’ forgiveness.  When the devil raises obstacles, Jesus lends us His strength, wisdom and patience.  When we trust in the Messiah as our Savior, we can trade each day’s stress and frustration for confidence and hope.  No problem is too big for the God who created the heavens and the earth; no problem is too small to be noticed by the Lord who keeps track of every hair on your head.

Of course, we need to keep things in perspective.  Jesus wants us to be happy, but He wants to be part of our lives at the same time.  Our Lord was a guest at the wedding in Cana.  Those who invited Jesus to join them were blessed greatly by His being there.  Wherever Christ is welcomed, blessings follow.  In the book of Revelation chapter three, Jesus said Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

Almost anything we do can give honor to the Savior—in 1 Corinthians chapter ten Paul writes, whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.  But we must be careful not to take Jesus for granted or push Him to the side.  Listen to the warning given by James: You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (4:2-3).  Much of the time, we ask the Lord to give us something that we need or to fix some troubling situation—but when Jesus smooths things out for us, we get so wrapped up in our daily lives that we forget all about Him!  The blessings we enjoy must never shove Jesus from His throne in our hearts; Christ 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).  Jesus does not want to be a spectator who tosses us peanuts every once in a while as He watches us go through life; He wants to be involved in our activities all the time, supporting us with His strength, guiding us with His wisdom, and comforting us in His mighty arms.

Sadly, our tendency is to place personal wants and needs ahead of everything else.  This insults the God who made us to be His own.  And so Jesus came to earth—came to compensate for our selfish behavior.  He lived the life God expects from each of us—He honored the heavenly Father above all things, and He never let selfish desires distract Him from showing God’s love to a sinful world.  Our Savior capped off His perfect life with an atoning sacrifice—He suffered and died to pay the blood price for every time our selfishness made God angry.  Jesus has settled the debt incurred by our sin; as a result, we can be forgiven when we go to Him for mercy.  Jesus has opened the one and only path that leads from this world of endless frustrations and disappointments to the home of God, where everything is perfect down to the smallest detail.

Jesus cares about weddings.  He cares about families and work and putting food on the table.  He cares about good grades and having a pleasant date.  He cares about you when you catch a cold, get scared during a power outage, or feel lonely.  Jesus wants to be there for you in every moment of your life; when little things get you down, remember to look up.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Charity (part two)

The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (John 6:29).

Most people don’t like to accept charity.  One reason is that we don’t value something if it’s free.  At Christmas, we are uncomfortable exchanging gifts unless we’re pretty sure everyone involved spent about the same amount of money. Most of the time when a gift comes our way, we have a rough idea of its value and appreciate what we’re given.  But when a store gives out freebies, we assume that these gifts are cheaply made and worth very little; we figure that no one will just give away something that is truly valuable.

Charity also makes us suspicious.  If we are given something truly valuable, it makes us wonder what kind of strings are attached?  Will accepting the gift put us in another person’s debt?  Sometime in the future, will they come to us looking for a favor that we might feel uncomfortable giving?  Maybe it’s safer to just avoid accepting gifts that we can’t match.

Just because something is free doesn’t mean it has little value.  Jesus’ gift of salvation is offered to us free of charge, yet it has incredible value and comes at great cost.  How valuable is it?  Without the forgiveness that is ours through Christ, we would be living dead men, sinners rejected by God for ignoring Him except when we want something and flouting His laws when they get in our way.  Without Jesus we would have no defense from Satan and his demons, who cause misery by feeding us their own twisted version of the truth and urge us to satisfy every sinful appetite regardless of the consequences.  Without the salvation offered by Christ, we would have nothing to look forward to after death except suffering in agony for all of eternity.  Jesus offers us rescue from the darkness, a gift of incredible value that our Lord paid a terrible price to obtain for us—He suffered the full wrath of God for every human sin to settle the demands of justice on our behalf.

God offers this charity with no demand or expectation of repayment or compensation.  Only one thing is required of us. Jesus said, the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.  That’s all.  God offers us forgiveness, care, and a place in His home when we die; He expects nothing in return so long as we cling to Jesus with trust and confidence.  That loving act of charity transforms every life that embraces it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


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

Charity is bad.  That’s how most people feel, anyway.  It’s bad to give charity because it makes the recipient dependent on the generosity of others instead of learning to stand on his own two feet.  It’s bad to accept charity because when you pocket a handout it shows that you’re a failure who can’t make it on your own.

Charity is bad because much of it is simply wasted.  Many people abuse government assistance, using our tax dollars to purchase luxury items and things they don’t really need.  When donations are sent to the needy in foreign countries, corrupt government officials take a large portion for themselves.  Organizations that raise funds for the poor often use a large percentage of their donations for administrative costs and advertising.

Yes, charity is bad.  That’s the message we are raised with.  Each person must earn his own way; wealth is evidence of success and being poor means you aren’t trying hard enough.  We accept the adage that “God helps those who help themselves”.

But that statement does not come from Holy Scripture.  That’s a human idea.  The Bible teaches that charity is a fundamental part of each Christian life.  From God’s perspective, we are all charity cases.  This is because we are helpless addicts to sin.  We can’t stop thinking inappropriate thoughts, saying hurtful things, or behaving irresponsibly.  We cannot impress God by our feeble attempts to be perfect as He expects and demands us to be.  The only way that we can enter heaven is by being carried in Jesus’ loving arms.  He gave His life to achieve our forgiveness, paying the penalty we deserve for being sinners.  We did nothing to deserve this wonderful gift—that makes us charity cases of the highest order.

We are expected to give charity as well.  When He described Judgment Day, Jesus spoke of rewards for those who fed the hungry and gave clothing to the poor.  If it pleases God when we give charity, then it is certainly God-pleasing to accept charity.  In fact, people who refuse Jesus’ free offer of grace, thinking they must earn their own way to a happily ever after, will find themselves shut out of heaven when they leave this world.  Christianity is all about charity—God’s charity to us, and our charity to each other.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bringing an end to division

Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.  You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.  You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him (Acts 10:34-38).

In Japan, some people are prejudiced against the Ainu who live on the northern island of Hokkaido because the Ainu look like western foreigners.  In Iraq, tribal Kurds and Arabs have fought each other for hundreds of years.  In Africa, thousands of people have been displaced due to ethnic cleansing.  Here in America, there is discrimination against Latinos and mistrust between whites and blacks.

In the musical South Pacific, one of the characters has this to say about prejudice and hatred: “you have to be carefully taught.”  There is some truth to these words.  A child is likely to pick up on his parent’s bigotry and adopt those attitudes as his own.  Yet I have also seen cases where children reject the prejudices of their families and dare to form relationships that others disapprove of.   Sadly, these kind of people are in the minority.

Wherever you go, people are wary of those who are different.  You can be shunned for your skin color or how you dress. People don’t trust others who speak in a foreign language or have a hard time communicating in English. Individuals laugh at you for being too dumb or too smart, too heavy or too skinny.  You can be judged on your hairstyle, makeup, body piercings, and tattoos.

How do we treat people who are different?  We stare.  We whisper to each other and giggle.  We tell jokes about them. We exclude them from our circle of friends.  We don’t hire them or give them promotions.  We push them around.  We pick fights with them.  Sometimes their homes get vandalized.  Sometimes they end up bruised and bleeding.  Sometimes they end up dead.

Perhaps the saddest part of it all is that we don’t have to be “carefully taught.”  Rudeness comes naturally. Hatefulness comes naturally.  Sin comes naturally.  We go after those who are different to maintain the illusion that we are the best—the best looking, the best educated, the best raised.  We were born to be kings of the hill, and we’re ready to prove our superiority by kicking down anyone who dares to challenge us!

And so the news is filled with stories of discrimination, war, and ethnic cleansing.  The world is a hodgepodge of people gathered into groups, each of them full of pride and ready to fight anyone who offends them.  How can we hope for peace in such a world?  How can we see any chance for unity among men?

The apostle Peter was a man who struggled with prejudice.  He saw the world as two groups—Jews and non-Jews.  Jews were God’s chosen people; everyone else was a filthy Gentile.  He knew that Jesus loved all mankind; He had seen Jesus perform a miracle for a woman of the Gentiles.  But in Peter’s mind, Jews remained superior to everyone else.  It took a vision from heaven to show Peter the error in his thinking; as a result he said, I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.

Listen to the words of Holy Scripture: The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).  God doesn’t care about eye or skin color; God doesn’t care about cosmetic details like nose or lips or cheekbones.  He doesn’t care how you dress or what language you speak.  What matters to Him is the content of your heart.

Ultimately, it is the heart that separates one person from another.  The heart takes notice of our differences; the heart responds with fear or hate, pride or ridicule.  The heart must be changed before choosing sides and taking shots at each other can become a thing of the past.

Harmony and unity can only be achieved through Christ and the cleansing that He offers.  The Son of God took up residence as one of us to free mankind from sin and bring us into God’s precious family.  Jesus taught about His Father in heaven, that we might want Him in our lives.  Then Christ shed His blood in death to make that relationship possible.  When He suffered on the cross, Jesus took responsibility for all the blackness that has characterized our lives and kept us at arm’s length from God and each other.  God the Father punished His Son in our place, that we might be spared His terrible wrath.

Jesus has done everything necessary to knock down the walls that cause division.  Having settled our debt of guilt, He can offer us forgiveness and a place in God’s holy family.  We can be adopted by God, an adoption that brings us together despite our differences.

Adoption has the power to make families out of people from very different backgrounds.  Adoptive parents can end up with an array of children who, to all outward appearances, have nothing in common.  Yet they are united—united in name, united in love, united in loyalty to each other.

Jesus accomplishes this kind of unity through baptism.  Baptism removes that which separates us—sin.  The sin of prejudice.  The sin of pride.  The sin of selfishness.  The sin of holding a grudge or demanding restitution instead of forgiving as Christ does—freely and unconditionally.  These sins separate us from each other; through baptism, Jesus washes these sins away.

Through baptism, God adopts us into His royal family.  We become children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ.  We see the proof of this in the Gospel of Mark chapter three: Jesus' mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him.  A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, "Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you." "Who are my mother and my brothers?" he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, "Here are my mother and my brothers!  Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and mother."

Baptism connects us to Jesus, our Savior and our elder brother.  In fact, baptism forges such an intimate family bond that through it we share in the blessings of Jesus’ death and resurrection.  In Romans chapter six Paul writes, don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.  Paul goes on to explain how that baptismal link with Christ changes our lives right here and now: we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.  Through our baptismal link to Jesus, we have shared in His death, a death that frees us from helpless slavery to the power of sin.

The benefits of baptism extend beyond life in this world.  In Romans chapter eight Paul says, we are God's children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.  As God’s children, we have citizenship in His kingdom and a home in His royal palace.  With such a future ahead of us, death loses its ability to frighten.

How can baptism do all this?  How can water clean us from sin, bring us into God’s family, and unite us despite our differences?  Baptism gets its power from Christ, who uses the water as a vehicle for His mercy and love.  Baptism is the start of a new life, as our sinful past is washed away and the Spirit of God takes up residence in our hearts.  When the Spirit rested on Jesus at our Lord’s baptism, He appeared as a dove, showing that the Holy Spirit works to bring the peace that all families crave.  But attaining such peace is not easy or painless; John the Baptist spoke of God’s Spirit as a fire that destroys everything undesirable.  The Spirit works for peace by burning away anything that gets in the way of peace—things like prejudice and pride, selfishness and an unforgiving heart.  This process is uncomfortable, sometimes painful and frightening. But sinful ways must be abandoned if we are to be the kind of children that are welcome in God’s home.

The baptism of John focused on repentance—turning away from the past so that a new and better future might become reality.  The Spirit wants us to respect God, fearing to make Him angry.  The Spirit guides us in doing what is right.  The Spirit wants to make us acceptable to God. Under His guidance, we reject a past where we were angry and prideful loners who imagined that we stood at the top of the heap.  Through baptism we are freed from the devil’s unchallenged control and are offered unity with God and all who love Him like a Father.

Through baptism we are united with Christ.  He wraps us in His righteousness, a white and holy covering that warms, protects, and covers up our imperfection.  Without Christ, no one has the slightest hope of hearing words of approval from the Lord of heaven.  But joined to Christ as we are through baptism, we hope to hear the same words spoken by the Father to our Elder Brother: with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

Through baptism, God has adopted you into His family.  Every Christian in the world is your brother or sister.  You have been cleansed of your sins and freed from Satan’s domination.  Don’t let the old ways separate you from fellow believers just because they look or sound different than you’re used to.  Don’t let pride or bigotry make your heart cold and unloving.  Don’t let the hurts you’ve suffered raise walls of resentment.  Ask Christ to bring you the peace of sins forgiven, and a love that ignores outward appearance to gaze at the heart, that we might all be one in God’s huge adopted family.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Help with figuring things out

I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding (Jeremiah 3:15).

Sometimes things are hard to figure out or understand.  You might be playing home mechanic on your car or truck and run into a problem you can’t diagnose, or a part you don’t recognize.  You might be assigned a book to read and report on, but the themes are deep or the plot is complex and you struggle with figuring out what it all means.  Or you might enjoy video games, but there is a puzzle you can’t figure out or a hidden object that you just can’t find.  In each of these cases, you hit a brick wall that frustrates you.

Thankfully, the world is filled with guidebooks.  Auto-part stores have materials on every type of system and component that you’ll encounter under the hood.  Many’s the student who has relied on Cliffs Notes to help them make sense of Tolstoy and Shakespeare.  Almost every video game has a guidebook available to help aggravated gamers find the solutions they need when stuck.  There’s a whole series of books For Dummies on topics ranging from knitting to gardening to doing your taxes.

But what about your spiritual life?  Thinking about stuff like eternity and the meaning of life can make your head spin.  Maybe you’ve opened a holy book to scan a page or two and were left confused by what you read. If only there was an easy to use guidebook that explained this stuff in every day language.  Where’s the Dummies’ Guide to God?

This is why church services include sermons.  All sorts of people attend worship—children and the elderly, dropouts and college graduates, people who wonder about the past and the future as well as those who are content to just live in the moment.  Each of them is at a different place in their spiritual journey; each of them is trying to figure out the word of God and how it impacts their lives.  The task of the minister is to help everyone gathered in that place to understand God’s message to them.  If you are struggling with your spirituality, if you’ve tried reading the Bible and can’t make heads or tails of it, then the Church established by Jesus Christ offers the understanding that you seek.  It helps you to see the difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood; it helps you to understand your purpose on earth and what awaits you after death.  Most importantly, it shows you the love of God that forgives each and every one of your mistakes.  I invite you to worship with other Christians and find the answers that you’ve been seeking. 

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Time to recover

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28).

Every year I catch a cold or two. As soon as my throat gets sore and I feel pressure in my ears, I take it easy—naps whenever I felt tired or groggy, and easing back on my duties.  I have found that when I take care of myself, I recover more quickly. 

Of course, that’s not how the world expects you to act.  Commercials advertise products that let you keep on going despite being sick.  You don’t want to let illness slow you down at work; most people have such full schedules that taking a day or two for getting well just isn’t in the cards.  The trouble is that our bodies need rest in order to recuperate; squashing symptoms so you can keep going only prolongs the time that you are sick.

Many treat the health of their souls the same way.  Each of us is sick inside—sick with the infection of sin.  That sickness reveals itself in all kinds of symptoms: uncontrollable anger, a lack of patience and sympathy when dealing with others, an inability to find satisfaction with what you have.  The sickness of the soul causes us to break promises, make unreasonable demands, and get depressed when the spotlight shines on others.

Our soul sickness needs treatment, and God offers that treatment through His Son.  Jesus is the Great Physician; He brings relief to all who suffer and place their trust in Him.  He forgives our dark and twisted thoughts; He forgives our rash and thoughtless behavior; He forgives us when we treat others with cruelty or indifference.  He reshapes our priorities and our attitude; He helps us to show love and consideration in our words and actions.

This treatment is offered through the Bible and the Sacraments.  You can read the Good Book any time, anywhere; the Sacraments are freely offered as part of our life in the Church.  But just as most people won’t give their bodies time to recover from illness, an awful lot of people won’t give their souls the time needed for Jesus’ treatment.  They can’t seem to fit worship into their schedule; they are too busy to sit down with Holy Scripture and absorb the healing words of Christ.  Please don’t let the infection of sin strengthen and grow worse; make time for the healing that you desperately need, the healing offered freely to you by Jesus’ loving care.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

The light shines in the darkness

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth
(John 1:1-5, 10-14).

It was Christmas morning.  Tim and Jane dashed downstairs, still in their pajamas, eager to open their gifts.  Of course Mom and Dad made sure to get up first—the tree was lit, making the gifts underneath sparkle with reflected light.  As the children opened each present squealing with delight, Dad snapped one picture after another while Mom smiled contentedly. 

Both parents felt a warm glow when thanked for their gifts.  But that changed when their children got to the big presents in the back—the presents from Santa.  Tim and Jane were thrilled with these special gifts, but when they yelled, “thank you, Santa!” Mom and Dad felt a little empty inside.  It was disappointing to get no recognition for the expensive gifts they had sacrificed to give.

Just imagine how Christ must feel.  He gives us everything, yet so many fail to give Him the credit.  They might thank Allah for the blessings they’ve received. They might credit evolution for the existence of our beautiful planet.  They might pat themselves on the back for being wealthy and successful.  But most people don’t thank Jesus for these things—though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

Jesus was born of Mary and Joseph.  Yet although He was fully human, Jesus was also the pure Son of God.  Mary conceived Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit; Joseph was only a foster father to Christ our Lord.  Yet Joseph raised Jesus as his own, and taught him the family craft—carpentry.  The Son of God was raised to make things, things that combined utility and beauty like a hand-crafted wooden chest.

It was fitting that Jesus be raised as a carpenter, because Christ is the maker of everything. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  Speaking of Jesus, Paul has this to say in Colossians chapter one: He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created by him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  

Now wait a minute, you might be thinking—isn’t God the Father the maker of everything?  Yes, in the sense that He designed everything and commanded its construction.  God the Father is like an architect, laying out the design; God’s Son is like a contractor who builds everything according to the blueprints He’s been given.  God the Father designs, His Son Jesus makes and maintains—by him all things were created…in Him all things hold together. 

Jesus made the world—not evolution.  Jesus gives you blessings—not Allah.  And Moses had this to say about human ability: You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me."  But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth (Deuteronomy 8:17-18).  Let’s wise up and give Jesus the credit that He deserves.

It’s a strange, tragic thing that when Jesus came to live among us, almost no one recognized Him as the Maker of everything.  Jesus showed His mighty power over and over again—He fed thousands of people from some scraps of food, He cured the disabled and the chronically ill, He walked on water and calmed a storm, He even raised the dead back to life.  Best of all, He forgave people their sins and revealed God’s Word to them.  Yet despite all this, some accused Jesus of working for the devil.  Others saw Him as a dangerous revolutionary.  Still others regarded Him as a curiosity, a traveling entertainer, a distraction from the boredom of the ordinary.  Eventually His enemies conspired to get Him killed.  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

It’s not really any different today.  The light of Christ shines in the darkness, but the darkness does not understand what’s being revealed.  Some deny that Jesus ever lived.  Others view Him as a wise man cut down before His time.  The church is accused of making up wild stories about Jesus, turning a simple man into the Son of God.  Some view Christianity with hatred; they believe that the teachings of Christ are out of date and out of touch with modern thinking, and should be silenced.  And there are people who couldn’t care less about Christianity; they are happy with their lives and are not willing to consider any kind of change.

The thing about darkness is that it hides so much.  In the darkness you can’t see color, just blackness and shades of gray.  In the darkness it is easy to get hurt by unseen dangers.  In the darkness it is easy to get lost.  People without Christ are living in darkness, unaware of the beauty and safety that they’re missing.  In the darkness, love is tainted by pain and unfaithfulness.  In the darkness, decisions are made that result in unexpected troubles and hardships.  In the darkness, it is impossible to see any way to escape the crushing guilt of past mistakes.

The light of Christ can change all that.  The love of God finds no joy in pain or humiliation; the love of God is strong and dependable.  When Jesus shows what love can be, human relationships are revitalized.  Our Lord knows what is best for us; when a person prays for guidance and grows familiar with the Bible, he can start to see God’s light that will lead him through the darkness in safety.   In the dark, relationship problems can seem impossible to solve; only Jesus can get rid of dark despair by forgiving our mistakes and helping us to reconcile with each other in the light of His love. 

Why would anyone want to extinguish the light that Christ has brought?  Many people fear what they don’t understand.  Some don’t like their assumptions and prejudices to be challenged.  Others want complete freedom to do as they please, and won’t submit to anyone—not even the Son of God.  And so there are repeated attempts to extinguish the light—laws are designed to limit religious speech, Christians are made fun of, and Jesus is replaced by false gods, flawed science, and human pride.

But you know what?  The light of Christ still shines—the darkness has not overcome it!  Darkness cannot win over light.  The darkness struck at Christ when Herod tried to have the baby Jesus killed, but God sent an angel to warn Joseph and he took Mary and the child to Egypt where they lived in safety until Herod’s death.  The darkness struck at Christ when Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, but our Lord drove the devil away using the power of God’s holy word.  The darkness struck again when a crowd tried to push Jesus down a cliff, but our Savior walked through the angry mob and went on His way untouched.  The darkness gathered all its strength and struck one final time when Christ was arrested on false charges, beaten and humiliated, condemned as a criminal and hung on a cross to die.  But the darkness did not understand what Jesus was really doing on that cross.  He was suffering for our sins so we can be forgiven; He was dying so we could have eternal life in paradise.  Jesus was doing what He was born to do—rescuing us from the darkness.  And when Jesus descended into hell, the darkness finally understood—Jesus came, not broken and beaten, but glorified and victorious.  He told Satan and the minions of evil that sin’s curse has been lifted—those who trust in Christ will live in the light forevermore.  His message delivered, Jesus rose from the dead to share this wonderful news with us.

We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.  The light of Christ shines in our hearts whenever the Bible is read.  Romans chapter 10 says, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ.  The Word of God gives simple water the ability to wash away sins through holy baptism.  The Word of God connects Jesus’ body and blood to the bread and wine of holy communion, allowing us to touch the Savior and have our sins forgiven, our faith strengthened and our mutual fellowship renewed.  Christ reveals Himself through Word and Sacrament, His Means of Grace that bring heaven’s light into our hearts.  As we make use of these Means of Grace, the light of Christ grows brighter within us, pushing back the darkness that wants to keep us lost, miserable, and confused. 

The light shines in the darkness.  You don’t have to live in darkness, suffering what that entails.  Make God’s Word and Sacraments a priority in your life, and you can enjoy living with the blessings of the light.  Then you will want to give Jesus the credit He deserves for all that He sacrificed to give you.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Your wingman for 2014

“There is hope for your future," declares the LORD (Jeremiah 31:17).

One definition of insanity is this: doing the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different outcome than what has happened every time before. As you embark on a new year, you will face a whole lot of familiar challenges.  Keeping a lid on your temper.  Figuring out who you can trust.  Finding the courage to deal with things that scare you.  Resisting the urge to buy things that you don’t really need.  2014 will give you plenty of opportunities to repeat the mistakes of 2013. 

Why don’t we learn from the past?  Why do we keep rehashing the kind of behavior that always results in frustration, pain and loss? How many abusive men does it take before a woman tries dating an uncomplicated nice guy?  How much money does a gambler have to lose at the casino before he looks for entertainment in a different type of setting?  How often do you have to tackle a problem on your own and fail because you didn’t want to accept anyone’s help?  Why don’t we change things up, take a chance on a new way of approaching life?

We are weak, flawed, damaged inside. Our minds have dark corners we don’t want to examine too closely, twisted thoughts and corrupt desires that exert influence over what we say and do.  And we are creatures of habit—trying new things is more often scary than it is exhilarating. Trying a new approach might look hard and unappealing. Going at things a different way might seem foolish because we can’t see the benefit. We resist changing our ways, even when our habits are dysfunctional, because there is comfort in the familiar.

This bright new year will quickly tarnish unless you are willing to leave insanity behind and try new ways of doing things, ways that can yield different results from what you’re used to.  To make this happen, you need a wingman, someone to have your back, keep you honest, encourage and support you.  There is no better wingman than Jesus.  He teaches ways to deal with life that yield positive results.  He calls you on your dumb decisions, He forgives your backsliding, you gives you the strength, patience and courage needed to abandon ways that just don’t work.  Jesus is waiting to meet you in church and in the pages of the Bible. He wants to replace the insanity of the past with a future that works well and makes good sense. He wants to give you a Happy New Year.

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