Jesus And Jerusalem


Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for one final Passover. Christians refer to the commemoration of this as Palm Sunday, and it marks the beginning of Holy Week.

The thing most noteworthy about this arrival—and thus the name—is that His followers preceded Him with palm branches and shouts of praise. They believed they were ushering in the promised Messiah. And they were. But they understood the Messiah to be a king who would free Israel from their enemies (Rome) and establish a new kingdom without end.

Jesus’s expectations were entirely different. He came to Jerusalem knowing full well that the people He had come to save would turn their backs on Him, would falsely accuse Him, try and convict Him, beat Him, and finally crucify Him.

Oh, sure, at the end of His life people would still identify Him as king of the Jews, but the words would be inscribed on a board at the head of the cross where He would be nailed—the place where a criminal’s accusation would typically be placed.

His expectation was not that of a triumphal king. He was coming to Jerusalem to fulfill His role as suffering servant.

Ironically, after the people stopped cheering, after they began to be swayed by the Pharisees who regarded Jesus as a danger to them, to their way of life, Jesus accomplished the very thing they had hoped for. Just not in the way they expected.

In those first moments on His way up to the City, despite the palm branches and the cries of Hosanna, Jesus expected to die in Jerusalem. In dying, He would fulfill the very role His followers had wanted for Him. He would defeat their enemy and free them from the shackles they had been held by. But the enemy was death and the shackles were sin.

Jesus’s brief stay in Jerusalem and the nearby villages was marked by controversy. He would say things that put the Pharisees in their place. He would weep over the city because of their rejection of Him.

He would face betrayal and denial and desertion. He’d be lied about and misunderstood. Romans, who hated the Jews, would spit on Him and mock Him as the king of that backwater Roman province.

And Jesus walked into it all, headlong. He knew what was coming. He expected every insulting, cruel action and word directed His way.

The praises showered on Him that first day as He rode the donkey into the City, were a result of His miracles, according to Luke. The people knew Him to be the person who performed wondrous deeds, including the resurrection of Lazarus. Perhaps they’d witnessed one of the healings. After all, just outside of Jericho He gave sight to the blind beggar Bartimaeus. Perhaps word of this miracle had traveled ahead of him. Or certainly with the group of followers who accompanied Him.

But Jesus hadn’t come to Jerusalem to do more for those people’s physical condition. What they really needed, they didn’t realize. So they came looking for one thing, and Jesus came intending to give them something far greater.

That they missed it, grieved His heart, and He cried over the city.

What must the people have thought, this figure they wanted to crown as their king, pausing on the ride into the city . . . to cry? Maybe that’s when the seeds of disaffection were first planted. But Jesus crying for the lost was the truest picture of His heart and the motivation for what He intended.

He went to the cross—He wasn’t dragged there against His will—to be the ultimate Passover Lamb for Israel and for us Gentiles, too. We who didn’t even know we needed a Passover Lamb. Jesus knew what we needed above all else—peace with God, victory over sin and death—and that’s what He intended to give us, no matter what it cost.

Satan – Is He Real?


wolf_on_alertIn discussing God with other people, I continue to come up against views about Him that contradict how He has revealed Himself. Where do those come from? After all, if I tell you about myself, you have no particular reason to think I’m distorting the truth. If I tell you I live in Southern California, I doubt if those visiting this blog automatically think, HA! a likely story! I suspect most people believe what I say about myself until I give them reason to believe otherwise.

So too with God … I would think. But a study of history shows this is not the case. From the earliest moments, there in Eden, Eve, when given a choice to believe God or not, opted for Not. Why?

Quite simply, a second source introduced a contradictory view, and Eve had to choose what to believe. One statement was true, the other false. One statement came from God, the other from a beautiful creature that told her what she wanted to hear.

Well, that last part is my interpretation. It seems to me that a good deal of temptation feeds into what a person would like to be true, with disregard to what actually is true.

So in Eve’s case, the beautiful creature before her asked for verification that God had put a restriction on what Adam and Eve could eat in the garden. Eve answered that they could eat from all the trees except for one, and that God said they would die if they ate from that tree.

The beautiful creature’s response? “You surely shall not die.” Essentially he promised her she could eat her cake and not suffer any consequences, although God had said just the opposite.

I suppose in part you’d have to say I’m taking God’s word for the fact that this beautiful creature, elsewhere described as an angel of light and the tempter and a roaring lion and a dragon, the serpent of old, really exists. The thing is, the truth of his existence explains a lot. Sure, the presence of sin in the fabric of Mankind’s nature also accounts for evil in the world, but the unanswered part of the equation is, How did the creation God made good, become tainted by evil?

I don’t know how atheists account for evil, or for good, for that matter. I mean, apart from believing in a moral right and wrong, behavior just is. No one judges an eagle for swooping down and gobbling up a field mouse. No one faults a shark for going after the nearest seal.

But clearly we humans believe in wrong.

Some years ago when the Lakers won an NBA championship, “fans” took to the street, looted a store, started fires, threw things at passing buses. Most of us shook our heads and said, That is so wrong.

CEOs run their institutions into bankruptcy but take for themselves million dollar bonuses, and most of us say, That is so wrong.

A state governor tries to sell an important appointment to the highest bidder, and most of us say, That is so wrong.

So evil is here, in this world and in the human heart. Its presence confirms a source. The Bible points to Satan as the source.

Oh, yes, the Bible also identifies Satan as a liar and the father of lies. So the lie he told about Adam and Eve not dying … well, it was true to his nature, but it certainly was not true. Humans have died ever since.

Is Satan real? I suggest death proves he is. I suggest the fact that people tell lies, proves he’s real. I suggest the fact that any number of people question God’s existence, proves Satan is real.

Because, you see, he loves to delude people.

He also doesn’t want us to see he is behind the curtain pulling the strings. That’s why he appears as what he is not. A wolf in sheep’s clothing, for instance. A talking animal, for another.

Jesus had a face to face encounter with Satan, and the old liar even co-opted Scripture to try to use against the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus rebuked him and he backed off, but the encounter is another piece of evidence that Satan is real.

Satan is a rebel on top of everything else, and he does what he can to undermine and erode God’s plan and purpose. Death is his tool, but he also tries to accuse God’s people before the throne of grace.

Jesus answers every charge on our account.

But the war rages on. That’s why Paul tells us in Ephesians to put on the armor of God. We don’t war against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers—Satan and his followers.

If Satan weren’t real, wouldn’t God’s will reign on earth, here and now? Who could oppose the power of God’s Spirit?

Not that Satan is winning, though he undoubtedly wants to give that impression. But there simply would not be a fight. For His own righteous purposes, God allows Satan latitude here on earth. He can test and tempt and oppress and possess. He can manipulate events and people and even nature to do his bidding—all allowed by our sovereign God.

God created, Satan seeks to destroy. God breathed life into the humans He brought into being; Satan looks to kill and steal and destroy.

Yes, Satan is real, an adversary not to be taken lightly, but also one not to be feared because greater is He who is in you, Christian, than he who is in the world.

This post is an expanded and edited version of one that first appeared here in June 2009.

Published in: on February 1, 2017 at 5:14 pm  Comments (2)  
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Death Is A Vacation


cell phone2Recently a friend told me he’d taken a “stacation,” meaning he wasn’t working but didn’t go anywhere. It’s kind of a strange language invention, a neologism that may or may not catch on, but the term got me to thinking about vacation and its root.

The word came from late Middle English, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, and its root is either Old French or Latin “vacatio(n-), from vacare ‘be unoccupied’ (see vacate).” It’s the translation of those root languages I noticed: unoccupied. So when we go on vacation, our homes are unoccupied.

And then it hit me. The same is true when a person dies. Their house is no longer occupied. Scripture refers to our physical bodies as “earthen vessels”: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” (2 Cor. 4:7)

Both Isaiah and Jeremiah referred to we humans as clay vessels. Pots. Our bodies are designed to hold something, then. But they are somewhat fragile, quite common. And temporary. They don’t last. At some point, that which the vessels hold will leave. Our bodies will be vacated because we’re all going on vacation.

But death is not an end. People who think it’s an end apparently think our bodies are not vessels at all, that our bodies are not made to contain something but are something on their own.

Well, they are part of something—the outer layer, if you will, the visible representation, much the way the case of a cell phone houses the internal computer elements that allow for texting and phone calls and hundreds of apps. The case itself is the phone, and when we’re looking for it, we aren’t looking for the internal elements. We’re looking for the physical representation of all that our phone can do.

So the vessel is and it isn’t the thing. It’s not really part of the thing—the case isn’t the source of picture-taking or music or phone conversations or text messages. It actually contains the thing, but the thing needs a place where it can be housed. And if we’re smart, we take care of the case. We protect the screen. We’re careful not to drop it.

Why? Because we think the case is so perfect? So beautiful? No. We care about the case because of what’s inside it.

Sadly, when it comes to us humans, we’ve gotten our thinking skewed. We want to take care of and preserve our vessel because we think that’s all we’ve got. We don’t get that the clay pot is the house, and that one day, we who occupy it will go on vacation.

But just like vacations in the here and now, there will be a coming home which the Bible refers to as resurrection. The cool thing is, while we’re on vacation, our houses will receive a make-over. When we return, the mortal will have taken on immortality, the flawed and frail will be clothed in newness of life.

Imagine going on vacation as those people who were on the show Home Make-over used to do, only to come back to a mansion. Their gorgeous new homes were on the same tract of ground as the old one. They still had the same address, the lot was still the same size, their neighbors still lived on either side of them and across the street. But the new buildings were state of the art, rebuilt models. Beautiful, stocked with brand new appliances and furniture and techno-gadgets.

In much the same way, our resurrected bodies will get the much needed make-over.

We only have Jesus as a model to know what resurrection looks like. No one before or since has gone on vacation and come back home. Oh, sure, we have examples of people who did stacations. They stopped working for a while, but then took up right where they left off, in their same body, without the make-over. Lazarus is probably the most famous example of this.

But Jesus received His new body, His glorified body. He still ate and drank, still had recognizable features (when he wanted) such as the nail prints in his hands. But His new body didn’t have to obey the laws of physics we know. He could vanish from sight, could appear in a locked room, could ascend to Heaven.

That’s the kind of body those of us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ have to look forward to.

Honestly I don’t know what those who reject Christ or who deny God have to look forward to. We don’t have a model to look at so that we can know with any clarity what they’ll face. What we do know is that they’ll face judgment.

God, being just and fair, won’t cheat anyone out of anything they deserve. In reality, what we all deserve is death and death and death—of our body, soul, and spirit.

What God offers is life and life and life, so that death becomes a vacation. So that we return to new mansions stocked with more good things than we can imagine and which will allow us to do what we’ve always wanted to do. In the center of our desires will be our joy at seeing and knowing and praising our God eternal who we’ll know with more clarity than we’ve ever known Him before.

It’ll be a great homecoming.

Published in: on November 4, 2015 at 6:31 pm  Comments (3)  
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Death Is Never OK


wheat-1431691-mWhere was God when terrorists gunned down Christians in Kenya? Where was God when a sex trafficker snatched a pre-teen? Where was God when a drug dealer started selling product at the middle school or the frat guys gang raped a co-ed or a career criminal opened fire on the cop who pulled him over. Where was God when a three-year-old was diagnosed with cancer?

Atheists would have us believe that evil things happen with no purpose and purely for random, unplanned reasons. A good many others blame God, either for causing evil or for doing nothing to stop it.

The thing we rarely take into account is that, short of creating humans without the freedom to make up our own minds, God did put up the stop sign to evil here on earth. Humankind simply ran through it.

God said, Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil or you will die. Adam essentially said, If I die, I die, and he ate. The result was similar to uncorking a deadly airborne pathogen in a sterile room. Once it’s uncorked, there’s no calling it back into the vial it came from.

But God didn’t create humans for death. He made us for life. Consequently, death, no matter when it comes, seems wrong.

We might think a person who has lived a long, fruitful life is ready to go. But why? If their life is fruitful, why should it be limited? Why should someone who has gained a life-time of knowledge and experience not be able to capitalize on all that learning and wisdom?

Is it right for a fifty-year-old mom to die of cancer instead of the three-year-old toddler? Wouldn’t it be better for her to live and mentor her children through their own marriages and child-bearing years?

How about the thirteen-year-old who’s killed in an accident on the way to school? Is it better for him to die than for that three-year-old cancer victim? Or maybe the three-year-old should live but the thirty-something school teacher with cancer should die instead.

The point is, it’s never “right” to die—except that God has our times in His hands.

I don’t know what that means exactly, except that God looks at the big picture. His perspective takes into consideration eternity, not just the few temporal years we live on earth.

Most of us focus on this life and bemoan a life taken “prematurely.” We think about the high school prom she’ll never attend or the promotion he’ll never receive, the wedding they’ll never have, the first steps of their children they’ll never get to see. In other words, we think in terms of the good things in this life that they’ll miss out on.

But I think our perspective is too small. Part of this, of course, is that we don’t know what life after this life will be like—not really. We’ve been fed a lot of false images—people turning into angels with wings, walking around in a fog (when they’re not sitting on a cloud), all dressed in white, talking to Peter a lot or playing a harp. Frankly, those are undesirable snapshots. I can’t think of very many people who would think, Oh, boy, I get to trade in this life for that one.

But that’s the falseness of it. The bit we do know from Scripture lets us know that life after this life will be exceedingly better. For one we’ll trade in the “corruptible” for the “incorruptible.” We will no longer face the limitations of illness or aging because we won’t be fight off death any more. We won’t deal with suffering and sorrow—gone will be the injustices and the wickedness that infiltrate this life.

For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 15:53-57)

Scripture uses the image of a seed and the plant that comes from it as a metaphor to explain life after this life. This body is the seed that “dies” only to produce a lush, fruitful plant. So the body and the life we know here and now are the equivalent of a seed. The body and the life we will know for eternity are the equivalent of a flowering plant. So we’re comparing a single grain to a stalk of wheat.

But someone will say, “How are the dead raised? And with what kind of body do they come?” . . . It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Cor. 15:35. 42b-44)

If we could choose, who would say, But I really, really prefer the single grain. It’s so satisfying, so filling. I’d rather have it than a full shock of wheat that produces an unending amount of grain.

Clearly that’s a foolish position, but that’s precisely what we do. We are so in love with this life that we can’t imagine what life will be like beyond what we see here and know today.

typewriter-2-334983-mI remember when I got my first electric typewriter. I could not imagine personal computers, email, the Internet, smart phones, or tablets. I was content with what I had because I didn’t know about what would be. If you’d told me you were going to take away my typewriter, I would have balked. I can’t do my work without my typewriter, I would have said. Wrong. That view was simply shortsighted, based on my limited perspective.

So too with life after life. We certainly weren’t created to die, but death is not the end of all good things.

When we rail against God for allowing death, we have it wrong. God has given us life, at the cost of His own suffering and sacrifice.

Leaving this life doesn’t mean the end of all good things. In fact, leaving this life for those who accept the work of Jesus Christ, who believe in Him, is the beginning of life that is life indeed!

Published in: on April 7, 2015 at 6:31 pm  Comments (10)  
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Cold Is In The Eye Of The Beholder


winter-1419055-mSunday when I arrived at church around 7:45, there were still ice crystals clinging to some of the poinsettias planted out front. That was cold for sunny California.

Montreal, Canada, recently had an ice storm and they have more cold weather coming. The forecast low for next Tuesday is -10°F.

I got word from friends on Facebook that during the recent cold snap the temperature where they live dropped to -19°F. Water freezes at 32°, so we’re talking serious cold.

Except . . . I remember reading a story by Jack London called “To Build A Fire.” If I recall correctly, the story was set in the Yukon during an especially cold spell. The temperature dropped to -75°F. That’s the kind of cold that kills people.

Cold in SoCal doesn’t seem all that cold any more. Except it still feels cold. Everybody Sunday was wearing layers and putting on jackets and knitted caps. Some even donned gloves. The snow level during our last (mini) storm fell as low as 2000 feet.

That meant anyone going to the mountains had to have chains for their car, and Interstate 5, one of the main roads north, was closed for a few hours through an area called the Grapevine because of snow.

We’re all better now. Tuesday we warmed well past our seasonal average, and yesterday the high in LA was reported to be 85°. That short heat spell is gone and we’re closer to normal today—a perfect 70° though it’s getting a little chilly as evening draws near.

Yes, cold is in the eye of the beholder. This evening feels cold compared to yesterday’s high, but Denver is far colder, as is Atlanta, Waco, TX, Chicago, Green Bay, and pretty much anywhere else in the US.

When it comes to cold, there is no definitive standard. Cold comes on a sliding scale, understood by different people to mean different things. Beauty is understood by many to be the same—a quality that varies from person to person.

The problem today is that things which have definitive, measurable standards are viewed as if they too are on a sliding scale.

Sin is a behavior that many understand to be on this sliding scale. Swearing, gossip, lying, jealousy hardly make a blip in the ranking. Taking office supplies from work is on the low end too, cheating on income taxes, a little higher. Further up still might be yelling racial slurs at someone, then domestic violence followed by breaking into someone’s home to steal jewelry or electronics. Going into a fast food restaurant and robbing the service staff at knife point is another notch up. Eventually we get to the really horrible things like selling drugs, rape, sex trafficking, murder, terrorist activity.

Of course, a rape victim might put that crime closer to the top of the scale, and someone who has been physically abused by a spouse might slide that crime higher. Crime, sin in general, is in the eye of the beholder.

Or is it?

Certainly different sins have different consequences meted out by society, but what does God think of sin? Are some sins not so bad and therefore He turns a blind eye or winks at what we do as long as we promise to try harder next time?

From what Paul says in Galatians, it doesn’t seem as if God ignores the “minor” sins. If fact, He puts the ones we consider minor onto the same list as the biggies:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)

So jealous people are just as bad off as sorcerers, dissenters as far from God’s kingdom as idolaters. That nice socially acceptable sliding scale of sin seems to crumple under God’s scrutiny.

He has a definitive standard for behavior—righteousness, purity, holiness. In other words, the definition of good is never mostly____, fill in the blank. Mostly kind. Mostly sweet tempered. Mostly peace loving. Mostly God-fearing.

Neither evil nor good are a moving target, and consequently sin isn’t on a sliding scale. We know from our own experience that we don’t hit “good” a hundred percent of the time.

As Scripture states it, someone who breaks the law is a law breaker, a trespasser, a sinner.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all. For He who said, “DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,” also said, “DO NOT COMMIT MURDER.” Now if you do not commit adultery, but do commit murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. (James 2:10-11).

What’s the point? God told Adam there would be consequence if he fell short of the glory of God. That transgression would result in his death. When he did sin, his death meant a change in his relationship with God, his wife, his environment, and ultimately a change in himself.

Death.

Spiritual death, relational death, environmental death, physical death.

Not surprisingly, people today don’t like this death sentence. Some ignore it; many turn to a belief system that tries to undue it (reincarnation, for example, or universalism) or at least some part of it (annihilation).

Some rail at God because according to the sliding scale they use to measure sin, death is too harsh a consequence for every sinner.

The problem in each of these instances is that people want to take God’s place. He’s the Judge. Not only is that His role, He fulfills it perfectly:

And He will judge the world in righteousness;
He will execute judgment for the peoples with equity. (Ps. 9:8)

Trusting that God is right, He’ll make no mistakes, should take away any doubt or fear about what comes after this life. It should stop the vain attempts of humans to pick up the gavel and play judge.

We often talk about the need to let God be on the throne of our lives, but I think there’s an equal need to let God be in the judges box.

Published in: on January 8, 2015 at 6:36 pm  Comments (3)  
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Finishing Strong


US_men's_soccer_team_trains_in_NJ_2010-05-20When I coached, especially basketball, I often talked to my team about finishing. It’s great to jump out to a big league, but if you let down, if you start to go easy, your lead can evaporate and you end up in a close contest which you can easily lose. I’ve had teams lose by any manner of lucky shots, such as the three-pointer which ricocheted off the backboard and into the net.

Even more certain that lucky shots can win games is a sport like soccer or hockey. Ask the Anaheim Ducks who lost to the eventual Stanley Cup winners, the LA Kings. They gave up a goal in the closing seconds of regulation and eventually lost in overtime.

Or ask the US World Cup soccer team who just yesterday gave up a goal in the closing seconds of extra time—time added on because of delays during regulation. After 94 minutes and 30 seconds, playing in the heat and humidity of the Amazon jungle, the US led 2-1. After 95 minutes, they were tied.

Some players, to be sure, were playing to finish, but others appeared to be going through the motions. The ESPN radio announcers accused Portugal of going through the motions. In fact, he said they already had their bags packed. Yikes, I thought. I didn’t see it that way. They were still playing hard, still challenging for the ball in midfield, and winning it far too often. All the US had to do was possess the ball for one minute. All they had to do was play keep-away. All they had to do was finish.

How like life games are. I’ve thought of that many, many times, even calling sports a microcosm in which much of the human experience is played out: success and failure, team work, integrity, discipline, attitudes toward authority, toward an opponent, jealousy, contentment, hard work, trust, obedience, humility. And finishing.

I hadn’t thought about finishing until yesterday’s tie. But how interesting to realize that sports teams don’t reach the end of a game and retire the way chess players do. A team losing badly still needs to play. A team winning big still needs to play. Those ahead in the score can’t assume they know what the final score will be simply because they’re up big at half time.

Painfully I recall my Denver Broncos being up big against the Indianapolis Colts at half time, then losing that game.

Those losing can’t assume they have no chance.

Just this hockey season, the Kings were down 0 games to 3 in a best-of-seven series. The San Jose Sharks couldn’t finish. The Kings took the next four games and advanced to the second round. In their game seven against Chicago, they fell behind by two goals, but they didn’t stop playing. They finished. And their efforts put them into the Stanley Cup finals.

So why does our society say people reaching sixty-five should pack it in and go on an extended vacation? Why should people who have gained wisdom and understanding and knowledge and experience not be expected to finish and to finish well?

To those who have been given much, much will be required—except apparently not of older folk. But why not?

Oh, sure, the hockey player will one day need to step aside from the game he loves and has excelled in. And so shall all retired folk. The day will come, apart from the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we will all step aside from this life. But up until that moment, ought we not to be giving life our all?

“Our all” might be little more than serving as a prayer warrior for others on the front line of our faith, but that’s a significant role and ought not be disparaged. I would love to see every retired person more involved in prayer than in daytime TV.

We can finish and we can finish well. And the difference between going all out and easing up as the seconds tick toward the final whistle just might be significant.

Published in: on June 23, 2014 at 4:00 pm  Comments Off on Finishing Strong  
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Christmas And The Hope Of Heaven


christmas-family-07-674069-mChristmas can be hard for some people because of who they so recently lost. A husband died of brain cancer this year. This will be his wife’s first Christmas without him. Another wife lost her husband of 62 years right when she thought he was on the mend and would be home soon. A sister’s older brother died. A friend’s aunt passed away.

I remember facing Christmas for the first time after my dad died. The holiday just didn’t seem right without him. Would Christmas ever be merry again, I wondered.

The thing is, too often the merry-making associated with Christmas is of a superficial nature. We’re merry because we have a party to look forward to or presents to buy and wrap and another whole set to get. We have once-a-year music that brings back fond memories. We have food to prepare and stockings to stuff, trees to decorate, lights to string.

There’s lots to do, places to go, people to see. It’s a bit of a whirlwind, but a merry whirlwind that comes only once a year, so we love it and embrace it and enjoy Christmas because it’s so special.

And it is.

But if that’s all it is, then it’s easy for the loss of a loved one to shatter the fictive Christmas dream. This special holiday will never again be perfect because this dear person or that, is no longer here.

Of course, the reality is that the “perfect Christmas” is an ideal few of us ever live. But a greater reality is, there’s a more perfect Christmas waiting for us.

The reality is that Christmas is abundantly more than presents and decorations and food and family. Yes, it’s about Jesus coming in the flesh, stooping to take the form of Man, but it’s even more than that.

If Jesus only came and then went away, what would we have? An example to follow, perhaps, though who can live a sinless life the way God in the flesh did? In truth, Jesus came to earth as a baby in order that He might come to each one of us as Savior.

The whole Christmas story includes God descending in order that He might ascend again and take us with Him.

The loss of a loved one runs deep, there’s no doubt. And it’s right and appropriate to mourn. Christmas trappings may lose their glitter in the process, but the significance of Christmas can actually grow. What other holiday is more hopeful than Christmas? Only Easter and the two really are different sides of the same celebration.

Christmas celebrates God sending His Son. Easter celebrates God receiving His Son. What Jesus accomplished in the between space makes all the difference.

Now we have the hope of heaven to go along with the hope for a merry Christmas. We can hope to get along with our family on December 25, but we can also hope to spend eternity with them. We can enjoy the Christmas parties and feasts, but we can look forward to the banquet supper of the Lamb. We can bask in the music of the season, but we can anticipate the praises of God’s people as they worship at His throne.

In other words, what we have at Christmas is a foretaste of what we will enjoy in Heaven, without limit. The beauty, the love, the laughter, the generosity, the creativity, the activity–none of the elements of Christmas we love so much can hold a candle to what awaits us when we join Christ.

Paul himself said it in Philippians: to be with Christ is gain. It’s not an abandonment of what we love here; it’s what we love and more.

One piece of that “more” is an end to the losses, to the goodbyes. And that is great good news in its own right and definitely a cause for hope. Yes, some may mourn at Christmas time, but for those who embrace Christ as more than a baby born in a manger, for those who cling to Him as Savior and Lord, our mourning is turned to gladness at the promise of Christmas.

We of all people have the joy of looking forward, beyond the temporary merryness of the season, to an eternity of God’s peace and good will.

Published in: on December 11, 2013 at 7:03 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Wages Of Sin Are A Slap On The Wrist


A_young_lamb_amongst_the_bracken_fronds_-_geograph.org.uk_-_287551This summer Christianity Today reported that the Presbyterian Church USA was disallowing Keith Getty and Stuart Townsend’s hymn “In Christ Alone” into their hymn book because of a line that clashed with their theology. They sought permission to change the offending lines “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.”

Until I read about this decision, I was unaware of the controversial nature of the doctrine referred to as “penal substitution.” To be clear, the PCUSA says the problem they had wasn’t with the idea of God’s wrath but with the idea of it being satisfied. Others, however, who have weighed in on the controversy, make it clear that they do indeed have a problem with the idea of God’s wrath. See for example this explanation:

What inevitably results from the penal substitution theory of the atonement is the picture of a God who is a blood-thirsty monster who demands violence and death in order to satisfy his boundless wrath and who apparently can conceive of no other response to sin other than murder (which ironically is itself a sin). (excerpt from “The Wrath of God Was Satisfied?”

I’ve heard similar accusations against God before. God is heinous, apparently, according to this view, because He actually meant what He said when He told Adam that if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die. What’s more, when He said through the pen of Paul that the wages of sin is death, He only compounded the problem. Now people couldn’t view God the Father as heinous but Jesus as nice and loving because the New Testament was agreeing with the Old.

The ironic thing is that people who are rejecting God’s right to judge, are setting up themselves and their values as the “better way.” They are, in fact, judging God’s act of justice against sin and calling it “murder.”

People, apparently, don’t actually deserve to die. Our sin isn’t worthy of such a harsh punishment.

I’m not sure how those who hold this view explain that in fact, one out of one persons dies. We are actually and factually suffering the wages that God said would be ours as a result of sin.

The good news is that God has made a way of escape and life awaits us after death, if we accept by faith the gift of a cleared debt made possible by Jesus’s willingness to be our surrogate, to take the penalty we deserved.

The thing is, nothing could offer us a more complete view of God than this act of salvation. He is holy, so our sin separates us from Him. His is righteous, so His judgment is without error. He is just, so He doesn’t condemn that which is innocent. He is loving, so He is willing to redeem us at His own cost. He is merciful, so He forgives us when we have no hope of paying Him what we owe.

I could go on. It’s inconceivable that people who claim to be Christians are so willing to deny God’s nature in one area or another.

It’s honestly hard for me to imagine that thinking people could read the book of Leviticus and not see the picture of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world in the sin offering or the peace offering or in the Passover, or that they could read Genesis and not see the substitution of a ram for Isaac as the substitution of Christ for sinners.

The only way I can make sense of these accusations against God is to suppose that those saying God is a murderer simply do not believe that the wages of sin is death. Apparently, in their view, the wages of sin is a slap on the wrist. What’s needed then, is not a substitute to pay the price, but a gentle reminder or a stern reprimand because surely sinners know better and simply need a refresher course in how to please God.

Holding Life Loosely


holding plant looselyApparently humans have an innate survival instinct. Certainly celebrities have an obsession with looking younger than they are and sometimes a knack for acting more foolish than they ought to be (but that’s another subject).

I’ve seen a major change in our approach to doctors, too. It used to be you went to the doctor when you were sick. Then there developed an idea that you should have a routine physical. Now there’s almost an obsession (there’s that word again) with keeping track of our blood pressure and cholesterol and blood sugar and …

Then there are the things we shouldn’t eat, drink, or smoke and the things we should do religiously. All for the sake of adding years to our lives. This reminds me of a Woody Allen quote I heard recently:

Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.

The thing is, both sides of that equation are wrong. Life doesn’t have to be full of misery, loneliness, and suffering. Well, maybe the suffering. But for God’s child, we are never alone–the tag line Wayne Thomas Batson used for his Door Within books. It’s beautiful and true. We have the Holy Spirit living in us. How much better is that than what the people of Israel had–God coming into their midst in the form of a cloud or fire.

We know God through His Son, through the sacrifice He made on our behalf. The most notable thing about God, then, is the extent He went to in order to bring us near. He does not want us to be alone. Or miserable. His presence provides peace that surpasses understanding. His Person gives us joy unspeakable.

The suffering isn’t even the same when we have this relationship with God. Yes, we all lose loved ones and we all face death–in one way or another we all have or will suffer. But God doesn’t leave us without His strength to cope. He says in one place in Scripture, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they will not overflow you.” Elsewhere he says when we stumble we won’t fall because He holds our hand. Then in David’s famous psalm, He says when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death He will be with us.

Which brings me to the other part of Woody Allen’s quote that he has wrong. It’s not over when it’s over. Death is the beginning of a new life experience, not the end.

When we understand this, we realize that we don’t have to cling to this life relentlessly or pretend that time isn’t passing. It is and it will and we can’t hold it back for the simple reason that our time is in God’s hands. He is the one who determines when we will pass from this life to the next.

It seems to me, if we try so hard to hold onto this life, our focus is in the wrong place. Paul says in Colossians

Therefore since you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on the things above, not on the things on earth. (3:1-2)

Of course the key is to have that relationship with God available only through Jesus Christ that makes it possible for us to experience His presence, His joy, His peace, and to look forward to the future, not some all-too-soon end.

“For to me, to live is Christ,” Paul said in Philippians, “and to die is gain.” What a difference the Savior makes!

Published in: on December 13, 2012 at 5:52 pm  Comments (2)  
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Tornadoes, Drought, Fire, And Death


Some years ago, a handful of Christians infamously claimed that hurricane Katrina was God’s judgment on New Orleans, or later that the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti was His judgment on the culture of voodoo and the occult practiced there in times passed.

What are we to make, then, of the events in Mid-America this year? That would be the area of the US famously known as the Bible Belt. This spring tornadoes, numbering more than a hundred strong, tore through Oklahoma, Iowa, Kansas, over to Nebraska and Missouri, and up into Indiana, killing and destroying.

At the beginning of this summer, wildfires devastated Colorado, and drought has consumed crops throughout the Great Plains and over to the Appalachians. In fact, the USA Today reports that 64% of the US is experiencing drought conditions.

If all that isn’t bad enough, the Denver area experienced another horrific shooting event last night. Some reports say more than seventy people were hit and twelve died.

All this, of course, comes in the midst of the feeble recovery from the Great Recession that has our spend-happy nation reeling.

In the after-math of the natural disasters, news cameras caught survivors picking through the ruins, thankful that they had lived and vowing to keep going. Some way. Some how.

After last night’s shooting, there’s talk of the gun culture and insane people trying to grab the spotlight so that the world will look at them for a few fleeting days. Undoubtedly gun legislation is on the horizon.

All of it is white noise to the real issues that we need to talk about. God works in the world today, as He has throughout history. Because we understand and can predict weather patterns does not mean God has no part in them. Because a psychotic killer picked up a gun and attacked a theater full of people does not mean God is indifferent or uninvolved.

These events remind me so much of the things Job experienced, all engineered by Satan, but permitted by God, used by God. Why do we think He has changed?

No, He did not cause the shooting suspect to open fire on those theater-goers last night. That was an act of evil, and God doesn’t tempt anyone to do evil (see James 1:13). But He works His will in and through these circumstances. And He does so in order that we will look to Him rather than to our own supposed strength and goodness.

God allows fires and floods and wind and drought so that we can see we are weak, not strong. He allows evil men to kill and steal and destroy so that we will see, Mankind is not good.

Only God is strong. Only God is good.

When will we look to Him instead of looking to ourselves for answers?

We are so much like Israel of old. They were a religious people, keeping their feast days, offering sacrifices in their holy cities, and God said, I’m not interested. Instead He brought war and famine so that they would turn to Him.

Offer a thank offering also from that which is leavened,
And proclaim freewill offerings, make them known.
For so you love to do, you sons of Israel,”
Declares the Lord GOD.
“But I gave you also cleanness of teeth in all your cities
And lack of bread in all your places,
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.
“Furthermore, I withheld the rain from you
While there were still three months until harvest.
Then I would send rain on one city
And on another city I would not send rain;
One part would be rained on,
While the part not rained on would dry up.
So two or three cities would stagger to another city to drink water,
But would not be satisfied;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.
I smote you with scorching wind and mildew;
And the caterpillar was devouring
Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.
“I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt;
I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses,
And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.
“I overthrew you, as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
And you were like a firebrand snatched from a blaze;
Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. (Amos 4:5-11 – emphasis mine)

Are we somehow beyond God’s reach, that He would not be at our shoulder, calling to us, telling us we need to return to Him? Are we so oblivious to our egregious behavior, putting to death thousands and thousands of unborn babies year after year; calling evil good and good, evil; giving credence to false prophets who lie about God and His character, that we think God is pleased with us and will continue to bless us as a nation?

What will it take for us to realize, God might be trying to get our attention because He wants us to look at Him, listen to Him, bow before Him, and recognize that He is God and we are not.