Wednesday, December 1, 2010
Our attention, this time of year, turns to gifts. We make lists of people, ideas, and budgets. We try to meet everyone's expectations. I'm sure you will agree with me that meeting all those expectations is difficult. For a few minutes, take time to look at the Gift we celebrate at Christmas and think about the way salvation through Jesus Christ exceeds all our expectations.
The gift of salvation. So often we take it for granted. Yet this elegant, priceless gift is worthy of our constant consideration.
The Bible tells us that we were born with sinful natures. God judged us guilty of rebellion against Him. We stood under the sentence of death. Since the shedding of blood fulfills the death sentence, Jesus gave His life in our place – shed His blood in our place – so that we might be released from the sentence of death. No one else could make this sacrifice. No other person was born without a sinful nature. Jesus bought our freedom with His blood.
It was necessary to free us from the penalty of death, but Jesus accomplished much more than that. At the moment we asked for His forgiveness and accepted Jesus' death for our punishment, the Holy Spirit breathed new life into us. Until that moment, we were dead, spiritually. Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born of the Spirit before he could enter the kingdom of God. Jesus' death was a requirement for our freedom. His resurrection from the grave is the picture of our new life. He arose and returned to Heaven, sending the Holy Spirit to earth to bring new life to those who trust in Him. This new life is life by God's definition: eternal union with Him, always in His presence, ever praising Him.
We are free from sin's control – but not its existence. We live in God's presence – but experience it only dimly. We continue to exist in this sinful world. Sometimes the muck and mire sticks to us. Jesus' sacrifice provided for that as well. Remember when Jesus washed the disciples' feet at The Last Supper? Jesus told Peter that He had to wash his feet because they got dirty from walking, even though the rest of him was clean. John 19:34 relates that the piercing of Jesus' side while He was hanging on the cross, caused blood and water to come out. This water is for cleansing – Jesus faithfully cleanses us from all unrighteousness when we confess our sins to Him.
Only the cleansing from unrighteousness has a natural ending. As long as we live on earth, we will need Jesus to keep the spots of filth removed from our souls. However, when He returns to carry us away from this sin-filled earth, He will clothe us in garments of sparkling white, never to be soiled again.
Salvation always has a definite day of beginning, but it has no end. Today we are free to resist sin's desires. Today we live in the presence of God. Today we can be clean and spotless before Him. Salvation truly is the gift that keeps on giving – for all eternity.
Thursday, November 4, 2010
"All we like sheep have gone astray" (Isaiah 53:6) is a familiar verse to most of us. Isaiah compares people to an animal that has hardly enough sense to care for itself. Not a flattering comparison.
The rest of that verse says that we have scattered in every direction away from God. Because of His mercy, He calls us to Himself and sends the Chief Shepherd - Jesus Christ - to care for His flocks. Sometimes the under-shepherds act more like hired hands so that wolves get among the flocks. In the face of such a crisis, we bring Psalm 23 to our minds: "The Lord is my shepherd…" The Good Shepherd protects us from our enemies and God loses none of His sheep.
That accounts for the sheep that come back to God, for those who accept salvation through Jesus. What happens to the rest of these two-legged sheep? Who is their shepherd? According to the book of Matthew (9:36), Jesus recognized a harassed and hopeless crowd to be like sheep without a shepherd.
Many people wander aimlessly through much of their lives. They follow wherever their eyes lead them to the juiciest grass, never seeing the edge of the cliff beneath their feet. They fail to heed the grasp of the thorns as they push to reach the next tender morsel. According to the English Standard Version (ESV) of Psalm 49, "This is the path of those who have foolish confidence…"
When the land falls away from their feet, no watchful shepherd will pull them back at the last minute. As the brambles hold them so tightly that they can find neither food nor water, no kind shepherd – heedless of his own scratches – will pull the sheep to safety. These sheep with foolish confidence will find a different kind of shepherd comes for them. They discover that death will be their shepherd.
Death cares nothing about the comfort of the sheep. He will leave them alone. They may wander as they wish. In their foolishness, they think they are free. Yet when they fall off the cliff, death comes for them, pulling them with his staff to destruction. The sheep starving in the brambles finds death gleefully gathering them to devastation.
Death will not gently gather them to his chest for comfort. Instead, he gives them what they claimed they always wanted – eternal separation from God. This shepherd gives them what they always feared the most – eternal punishment and pain. In the end, death will be thrown in the lake of fire, a just punishment for one who destroys the sheep.
By the mercy of God, we may choose our shepherd. Remember:
"All we like sheep have gone astray."
"Death shall be their shepherd."
"The Lord is my shepherd."
Who is your shepherd?
Friday, October 22, 2010
Four times in the book of Revelations, John the Apostle writes of the "second death:" Revelations 2:11; 20:6,14; & 21:8. To the post-modern, western-trained mind, the idea of a second death makes no sense. The reason it makes no sense is the automatic definition that comes to our mind when we use the word death: extinction. We are trained to equate "permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism" (a dictionary definition of death) with extinction, when, by the Bible's definition, that is simply not the case.
God introduced the concept of death to Adam in the Garden of Eden. When He told Adam that his diet would be fruit and green things, He excluded one tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. According to Genesis 2:17 (ESV), God said to Adam, "but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die." (emphasis added).
Genesis chapter three gives us an account of the effect on Adam, Eve, and the serpent when Adam and Eve disobeyed that rule, but not one verse speaks of their extinction. On the day they ate the fruit, God separated them from Himself, from the Garden of Eden and from harmony with each other and the world. Even the serpent was punished, not destroyed. From the first instance of death, we see that death means separation, not extinction.
"OK," you say, "how does that apply when a person dies? Adam and Eve died physically, too."
That's a good question, but the Bible's answer might surprise you. When a person dies, the body "ceases all vital functions" and decays. However, Jesus told us in John 5:26-29 that the decay is a temporary condition. He said, "For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment."
Regardless of your spiritual condition, your body and soul reunites when Jesus calls you. That means that the death of a person is the temporary cessation of all the vital functions (of the body) and the temporary separation of the body and the soul. Extinction does not apply.
Let's go back to the second death, now. The second death of Revelations is a place – a lake of fire. This lake of fire eternally separates the unrepentant sinner from Holy God with no hope of relief. Eternal separation from God. That is a horror too unspeakable to comprehend.
In the Bible Exposition Commentary, Warren Wiersbe expresses the situation clearly: "If you have been born only once, you can die twice; but if you have been born twice - born again through faith in Christ - you can die only once."
Mortal death = separation of the body and soul in time; second death = eternal separation from God. Do not delay being born again. It's not worth the risk.
Monday, September 20, 2010
The smell of Godiva chocolate lured Beth toward the doorway of the store. The shelves glittered with brightly colored packages of sweet chocolate truffles. The glass front of the refrigerated counter separated her from a bounty of chocolate choices. She immediately decided to enter the store and buy some of the melt-in-her-mouth chocolate extravaganzas. Is this an impulse or a temptation?
Katie dropped by her brother's house and discovered that his wife has taken their family's turkey platter from their Mom's house and displayed it with her antique plate collection. Katie's surprise turned to shock when she saw the smirk on her sister-in-law's lips and the triumphant light in her eyes. "We'll have Thanksgiving dinner at our house from now on," she said. Katie's face turned red and her hands became fists. "That's what you think!" wanted to spring from the tip of her tongue. Impulse or temptation?
In the small home group, Steve confessed that he didn't understand what the pastor meant in his sermon on Sunday. He was a new Christian who grew up in a family that didn't attend church. Mark on the other hand, understood what the pastor said and had a few of his own thoughts to add. As Steve expressed his confusion for a second time, Mark tired of waiting for the leader to stop Steve and begin answering his questions. He opened his mouth to interrupt Steve. Impulse or temptation?
Each of the three scenes can trigger an impulse or expose a temptation. For each person, the set of circumstances can be either an impulse OR a temptation at different times.
Making an unplanned purchase of chocolate candy is often only an impulse buy with no spiritual impact. It can be a temptation for the person who is fasting for a time. It can tempt a person to spend money unwisely or make a poor choice that harms their health.
Family discord can exert an impulsive pressure on us to protect ourselves and to vent our anger. It can also be a temptation to hurt the other person the way they hurt us.
Sometimes the impulse to fix a situation or to solve another person's problem comes from a servant's heart. The same situation can be a temptation to become impatient, to display our own abilities or to control.
The correct decisions for these scenes cannot be decided on a specific rule for each instance. Oswald Chambers stated the issue clearly: "A person's inner nature, what he possesses in the inner, spiritual part of his being, determines what he is tempted by on the outside. The temptation fits the true nature of the person being tempted…" (My Utmost for His Highest, September 17)
I have a challenge for you.
For 24 hours, write down everything that you believe tempts you to sin.
Ask the Holy Spirit to keep you sensitive to the motivation of your heart.
Discover the condition of your spirit.
Then ask the Lord to give you the ability to resist the temptations until those things no longer temp you.
(P.S.: When you overcome that set of temptations, the Holy Spirit will show you a new set to resist.)
Monday, September 13, 2010
In his mid-60s, Larry was the picture of health. Then, last Tuesday, he failed his stress test in the cardiologist's office.
"Come back in the morning so that we can do a heart cath and maybe put in a couple of stents," the doctor told him.
The next day, less than half an hour after they took Larry back to do the heart cath, the doctor came out to talk to my sister. "We can't put in stents," he told her. "One of Larry's blood vessels is 98% blocked and has a kink in it. Tomorrow, we'll do by-pass surgery."
Larry entered the operating room at noon. After six hours, the surgeon came out to tell our family that he replaced four blood vessels. "The plaque," he said, "blocked all of them at least 90%. They were no longer pliable, but as hard as concrete."
Less than a week after this whole thing started, Larry's recovery exceeds the doctors' expectations. They prepare to discharge him from the hospital, today.
This sequence of events stunned our family. Before we could get our minds to accept that Larry needed medical intervention, the surgery was over. At the same time, the 48 hours between stress test failure and the end of the operation stretched out so that each hour seemed to be a day.
My sister set the standard for us as she responded to these events with faith. She had no assurance that God would allow Larry to stay with her. Within, she had a terror of being left behind, bereft of her partner, lover, and best friend. Tension knotted her stomach and roiled her thoughts as she waited to see whether God would take Larry to heaven or leave him here. She knows the truth in Lamentations 3:37-38: "Who can speak and have it happen if the Lord has not decreed it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that both calamities and good things come?" God held Larry's life in His hands.
Yet the uncertainty of the results did not rob her of her trust in God. Before the surgery, she told one of my nephews, "We will not allow the events of this week to steal from us the peace that God has given us." By an act of her will, she remained focused on God and His goodness.
In The Disciple of Grace, Jerry Bridges reminds us that Hebrews 12:20 states: "God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in His holiness."
He further states, "This is the design of God in all of the adversity and heartache we experience in this life. There is no such thing as random or chance events in our lives. All pain we experience is intended to move us closer to the goal of being holy as He is holy."
Sometimes our response to adversities causes us to move away from holiness rather than toward it. The next time heartache comes in my life – and I know it will – my thoughts will turn to my sister. Like her, I will acknowledge the pain I feel. Like her, I will take my pain to God and trust in Him.
Thursday, September 9, 2010
What do The Boy Who Changed the World by Andy Andrews, Storm Warning by Billy Graham, and my pastor's sermon on Noah have in common? Maybe you can see the connections.
The Boy Who Changed the World introduces children to the "Butterfly Effect." In this delightful narrative, one boy's decision to change the world is traced back through the lives of three other people in previous generations to see the way their decisions affected him. I shared it with my 10-year-old granddaughter who enjoyed the stunning artwork by Philip Hurst and who was fascinated by the connectivity in the lives of the four men. If you have a child or grandchild between the ages of 6 and 11, this is an excellent book to share with them.
Storm Warning, on the other hand, reaches into the future. Billy Graham used the book of Revelations as a backdrop for this up-dated version of his book first published in 1992. While based on Revelations, the book contains more material on our responsibilities to prepare for the coming storm than it does about the prophecy in Revelations. Billy Graham skillfully weaves in personal memories of fulfilling his destiny as God's voice to the lost world. He presents his vision on what we need to do to meet the needs of our generation against the background of the approaching storm. If you buy just one book by Billy Graham, I suggest that this would be the one to add to your library.
The sermon about Noah emphasized the faithfulness of God to protect Noah from the destructive storm He would pour out on a society in absolute rebellion against Him. That Noah's ancestors - from the fall until the flood - remained faithful to Yahweh was a miracle. Noah's commitment and witness in building the ark is equally miraculous. What was it about Noah and the generations in his family before him that made such a difference? First, it was the initial decision to follow God and not society's example that each person made. Next, that decision was followed – every day – by choices that reinforced it.
I'm sure that you can see the connection between these three very different messages. Each one spotlights a unique part of a single concept: Today Matters; Make Good Choices. Storm Warning calls us to prepare for the battle ahead. The thunderheads of chaos loom over us. Lest we become discouraged, we have the example of Noah to show us that steadfast obedience in the face of resistance finds its reward in shelter beneath God's protective wings. Lest we feel hopeless and think that nothing we do can make a difference, the message near the end of The Boy Who Changed the World will call us back to reality: "…every little thing you do matters: what you did yesterday, what you do today, and what you do tomorrow. God made your life so important that every move you make, every action you take, matters…"
Today Matters. Make Good Choices.
(Thank you, BookSneeze, for free copies of The Boy Who Changed the World and Storm Warning to review.)
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Is God's love unconditional? Our pastor asked that question in his sermon. When he later implied that God's love is conditional, I became indignant.
As a little girl, one of the first Bible verses (I John 4:8) I learned was "God is love." When I was older, I memorized another verse (John 3:16): "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son; so that whosoever believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life." As an adult, I read a passage (Matt. 5:45) where Jesus told His disciples, "God sends the rain on the just and on the unjust." While our pastor preached, I remembered part of a letter in the New Testament where the Apostle Paul wrote, "But God showed His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) That all sounds unconditional to me.
Then what was I to do with this huge condition to God's love that I know - but ignore - when I talk about God's love? In the two verses following John 3:16, Jesus said, "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." The Psalmist says in Psalm 103:11, "For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…" (Emphasis is mine.) Not all of God's love is unconditional.
I sometimes wish that the English language were less ambiguous. Maybe then, I could find a word to describe God's love for the time before we confront our sinful condition and another word for our experience of God's love after we repent of our sin.
Everyone arrives in this world a sinner from birth. Each person experiences God's love in what is often called the "common graces" of God. To varying degrees, we all have ability to "eat, drink, and (sometimes) be merry." If God placed any conditions to this love, we could not function. Even though most of us take these common graces for granted, every single one of them is an expression of God's unconditional love.
God's highest expression of His unconditional love is Jesus' death on the cross. Jesus bore the death penalty for all of everyone's sin. By the Spirit of God, we confront our rebellion and either accept or reject His sacrifice. How we experience God's love after this confrontation depends on whether we accept this wondrous gift or not.
For those who refuse and reject the offer of forgiveness and peace with God, "common grace" love is all they ever know. For those who repent and accept this perfect gift, an explosion of love occurs. Ephesians 3:17-19 says, "… that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge …"
Imagine that you are a fish swimming in the shallow waters of a tropical bay. Sometimes life is beautiful, sometimes stormy. One day you and another fish discover the outlet between the two arms of coral reef. You decide to leave the bay and launch out into the deep. The other fish stays in the bay. Eventually he washes up on the shore, dead. You grow to match the possibilities in the boundless ocean.
This is an analogy for humanity and God's love. His "common grace" love is unconditional, but it doesn't last forever. For those who refuse Jesus Christ, it ends at death. For those who repent of their sins and accept Christ's sacrifice, we experience God's love translated into dimensions that surpass our knowledge. I find it impossible to express the magnitude of the difference between God's unconditional love to those who continue in rebellion against Him and the unconditional, boundless, eternal love He pours out on His children. I can only join the Apostle Paul when he says, "… to him be glory … throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen."