• Peacemakers

    Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

    Matthew 5:9

    So, we find ourselves in a new year. Unfortunately, a change in the calendar doesn’t magically erase all of the problems of the past year or years. A quick review of the news shows that nothing has really changed. There are still wars, there is still hatred and constant fearmongering among the media and authorities of new threats of various kinds, all designed to keep us in a constant state of anxiety and worry and at each other’s throats. The United States is a deeply divided country which threatens to tear itself apart, one which cannot find agreement on even basic questions regarding life, gender, citizenship or responsibility to community and country. We all desperately cry out for peace but see it as either total surrender to our beliefs or eradication of those who oppose us. It would seem that each side believes they win if they yell the loudest or make themselves the most obnoxious. Peace doesn’t work that way.

    To the world, the only important thing is money and power, and the pursuit of it. “He who dies with the most toys wins.” The end justifies the means: it doesn’t matter who you need to destroy or step on in your quest to reach the top. “Survival of the fittest” is the lesson taught by those who would be the masters of this world. Peace is something to be won by conquest and only when your opponent is beaten into submission. But as most of history’s “conquerors” have discovered, it is a hollow victory, for war and conquest can’t win hearts and minds. Your enemy may be your servant or slave, but they are still your enemy, and chances are their hatred for you still burns hot.

    What the world desperately needs in not another conqueror or great power dictating terms to the rest of the world on how they should live their lives. And just resolving to learn to live together in peace won’t work, either; we don’t have the capacity to do so, because we’re all selfish, self-absorbed, and concerned with satisfying our own desires, even at the expense of others. The world teaches us to ‘watch out for number one’ first and foremost. It’s when my desires rub up against yours that problems arise.

    Christians will always be at war with the world; the Bible makes that abundantly clear. But at a certain point in His sermon on the mount, Jesus makes this statement: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” It is one of a collection of sayings that seem illogical in light of “conventional” (i.e., the way the world thinks) thought. But it shows that the logic and reality of God is diametrically different than the world.

    The Beatitudes as listed in Matthew 5 are Heaven’s criteria for success. They seem impossible, or even ridiculous, because to most of us they don’t make sense. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? How in the world can the humble “inherit the earth”? What is Jesus talking about? The Jewish leaders believed that being rich meant you were especially righteous, because after all, weren’t they his chosen people? And therefore, it stands to reason that the rich would be the “especially” chosen. It makes sense from a worldly perspective but is backwards and upside down from a spiritual one.

    There are several ways to view the Beatitudes. They can be seen as individual characteristics, any one of which we might experience at any given time. The way that someone once described, and the way which seems most logical to me, is that they represent a progression of spiritual growth. It begins with the realization of our own spiritual poverty; we are all wretched sinners, broken and hopeless. But Jesus tells his listeners that those who are poor in spirit are the heirs of the kingdom of heaven. It is only when we recognize our spiritual poverty that we begin the process of being fit for heavenly citizenship. But it is only a start.

    From that realization comes mourning over our hopeless condition and inability to save ourselves. We should mourn our hopelessness, because we begin to realize that there is nothing we can do to win our salvation and reconciliation. Noting we could ever or will ever do will be good enough. But Jesus promises comfort will accompany our mourning, because God recognizes our lost state and makes provision for His grace to accomplish what we cannot.

    This produces a spirit of humility, recognizing our righteousness is no more than filthy rags in comparison to the love and righteousness of God. It is in humility that we surrender ourselves to Jesus Christ and receive God’s grace and mercy. When we give ourselves completely to God through obedience to Christ, we become joint heirs with Him who is Lord of heaven and earth. As children of God, we will receive our inheritance when heaven and earth are made new with the return of Christ.

    Because of the grace and mercy we have received, we learn to extend mercy and forgiveness to others. Scriptures tell us that we will receive mercy to the extent that we are willing to grant it to those who have committed offense against us. Our mercy is extended on the basis of recognizing our offenders are in the same pitiable condition that we once were and are in need of God’s forgiveness and grace as well. By being merciful we are showing God’s heart.

    As we learn humility, show mercy and grow in our relationship with God, we become pure in heart, fit for the presence of God and His spirit within us. It is when the Spirit is working through us that we may become peacemakers, offering the gift of God’s salvation, reconciliation and healing to others, just as it has been given to us. When we act as “ambassadors of Christ” as the apostle Paul describes it, we show ourselves most clearly to be sons (and daughters) of God.

    But there’s one more “Blessed”, perhaps the most perplexing of all. “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Remember, those who belong to Christ will be hated by the world. As we seek to be God’s peacemakers there will be those who will hate us, because they don’t want peace. They seek power and domination, not humility and surrender to Christ. But if we pursue God’s peace and stay faithful in the face of hatred that will come as a result, we are promised the kingdom of heaven, both in the gift of the fellowship of our brothers and sisters in Christ here on earth, and in the eternal kingdom when this life is over.

    My beloved fellow saints, let us dedicate ourselves this year to being Christ’s peacemakers. Goodness knows the world desperately needs peace. Let us be part of giving it a true peace that will last for eternity. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (and daughters) of God.”

  • Thoughts on the Year Old and New

    It’s New Year’s Eve, about 7:30 pm. It’s quiet in the house with just the wife and me. No parties planned, nowhere to go, and it’s highly unlikely we’ll be awake to see midnight. We’ve been busy today baking bread and making a big pot of mashed potatoes for tomorrow’s church potluck. The kitchen has looked like a war zone once or twice today, but most of the carnage has been consigned to the dishwasher. I have a few things to wash before I go to bed. It’s been a good day.

    And so, here we are, at the end of one year and the beginning of the next. We’re told we must make ‘resolutions’ for the next year, plans that probably have a shelf life of a couple of months before being completely ignored and forgotten. Although I have some ideas about what I would like to accomplish, I prefer to leave things open-ended and see what happens, because God seems to do amazing things when you’re willing to leave Him some room to work.

    In reading and listening to various people talk and write about this past year, the overall tone seems to be one of how terrible things have been. And yes, there have been some distressing events: the war in the Ukraine, the horrible economy, another vigorously disputed election. There have been personal tragedies among people we know and love. Depending on your own circumstances, you may judge this to have been (another) rotten year, or maybe not so bad. It all depends on what you choose to remember.

    As I look at this year, I see how tremendously blessed my wife and I have been. Although we live on a fixed income, we have a nice comfortable place to live, food to eat, money to pay the bills. There have been a few bumps in the road health wise but no major disasters. More importantly, we have loving neighbors, friends and family who have reminded us how much they love us. And most important of all, we know that God is always with us, He cares for us, and no matter what happens in this old world that will never change.

    It’s a blessing to be a child of God, a part of the body of Christ, and know you have brothers and sisters all over the world. We pray for one another, we care for one another, and we will one day rejoice together at the foot of God’s throne. And so, as we begin once again, I wish all my brothers and sisters in the faith a blessed New Year. We love you all.

  • “Now you will see what I will do”

    So Moses went back to the LORD and asked, ” Lord, why have you caused trouble for this people? Ever since I went in to Pharaoh to speak in your name he has caused trouble for this people, and you haven’t rescued your people at all.” But the LORD replied to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh”

    Exodus 5:22-6:1

    Moses was a reluctant liberator of the Israelite nation from Egyptian slavery. In fact, he didn’t want the job at all. He made several excuses to God, most rather lame, until God became very angry with him. The Lord provided answers to all of Moses’ objections, until Moses had nothing else to offer but “please send someone else”. That’s when the Lord got upset with him and said, “I chose you-now go.”

    As it turned out, Moses had two oppositional forces with which to contend. The first, obviously, was Pharaoh, who wasn’t about to part with a large slave labor force who were building his cities and monuments. But the other, surprisingly, were the Israelites themselves. At first, they were joyous and receptive, worshiping God and ready to pack up for the trip. But when the only result from Moses’ initial encounter with Pharaoh was to make their lives harder and more miserable, they turned on Moses and had nothing but complaints.

    It was then Moses turned once again to the Lord with the prayer quoted above, in which he as much blamed God for their problems as well as complaining of inaction and with an unspoken “I told you this was a bad idea.” God’s answer? “Now I’ll show you what I will do” and went on to say that Pharaoh will not only let the people go, but because of a strong hand he will drive them out. God allowed the timing and circumstances to get right and then He went to work. God continues by reminding Moses of the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to give them the land, and that He has heard the groaning of His people and remembered the covenant. Moses is instructed to tell the Israelites that God will rescue them from slavery, redeem them and make them His chosen people, and they will know Him and remember what He has done for them. But in 6:9 it says, “Moses told this to the Israelites, but they did not listen to him because of their broken spirit and hard labor.”

    The Israelites had heard of God Almighty but had never had an up close and personal encounter with Yahweh, I AM WHO I AM. It was hard for them to be given a promise of deliverance and not see it immediately happen. When it didn’t, they were once again overwhelmed by the hardships of their lives. It’s hard to maintain hope when any promise of it just makes your life worse. They couldn’t see that God had His own timing and that when He promises something it is iron-clad guaranteed to come to pass. All they could see was now they had to get their own straw as well as make the bricks, more work in the same amount of time and output. This Moses was a troublemaker, why should we believe anything he tells us?

    Before you start criticizing the Israelites too harshly, stop and consider your own life. When things start going sideways and you beg God for relief, how do you respond when relief not only doesn’t come but things get worse? What conclusions do you draw? “God doesn’t care about me.” “God is not a loving God, otherwise He would have not let this happen.” Do you get angry with Him, get depressed and hopeless? Do you stop believing in Him altogether?

    Our problem is the same that the Israelites had. Their belief and trust in God was based on Him meeting their expectations and timeline. When it didn’t happen, they became so wrapped up in their current circumstances they could no longer believe God would fulfill His promise made to Abraham of deliverance of a Promised Land to his chosen descendants. They couldn’t see it because they didn’t know God. God had to not only convince Pharaoh to release the Israelites by inflicting ten plagues on the nation; He also had to show Himself and His power to the Israelites. They had to know their God was able to deliver on His promise, and they needed to trust Him.

    In the end, it all comes down to that one thing. We aren’t always going to understand God’s purposes and timetable, and He doesn’t always choose to explain it to us. He asks that we trust Him and His promises. Satan and the world seek to overwhelm us with troubles and hardships in order to make us believe that God is not trustworthy. If Satan can get us focused on how difficult our lives are, we will begin to think God isn’t capable or willing to give us the abundant life that Jesus Christ described and promised.

    The first thing to do is to commit yourself to Jesus Christ as his disciple as outlined in the New Testament: believe He is the Son of God, repent (turn away) from your life of sin and living only for self, confess Him as Savior and Lord, and be baptized. Having done that, learn to love and trust Him completely in any and all circumstances; they have no power over the One who conquered sin and death. Then, when you find yourself in difficult circumstances, be it financial, disease, broken relationships, addictions, or whatever else, have the confidence to trust the God who has made the promise, “I will never leave you or abandon you” (Joshua 1:5). Then hold tight to that promise; it may well be that God is about to say, “Now I will show you what I am about to do”, and the wonder of it will make you forget whatever troubles you. We serve that kind of God, the God who never breaks a promise.

  • Connections

    It’s perhaps at Christmastime we most often think of family and friends. Christmas songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and others speak of the longing to be together for the holidays. Even if ours is not a pleasant remembrance of family and time together, there is something within the human spirit that longs for connection with other people. We may try to deny the need for close relationships, but it’s hardwired into our very beings. We weren’t made to be alone.

    As the years pile up and one gets closer to the end than the beginning, this desire, this longing for connection and reconnection grows stronger and more acute. It’s what prompted me to write this, because I’m feeling it more and more with the passing time. My wife Rita and I have made so many friends in many places over the years, most of whom we haven’t seen in a very long time, other perhaps not so long but still too long. I find myself thinking of old friends and acquaintances and wondering about them, wishing for a little more time to catch up and be together once again.

    Family is much the same way. I am now the oldest member of the oldest generation in our family, which makes me the Patriarch (despite the negative connotations attached to it by the feminists and anti-male/anti-authoritarian factions, the role holds an important place in the family structure). When we were children, my grandparents on both sides of the family were the glue that held the family together. When they were gone, the family sort of splintered, and we all went our separate ways. It wasn’t a hostile separation; we just had our own lives to live, without the presence of Grandpa and Grandma to bind us together. Only in the past few years have we been able to make an effort to spend time with one another. The question in my mind now is this: is it my turn to fill that role, to do what I can to provide the opportunity and “glue” to help my family not lose those connections? (I can sort of hear the laughter of my siblings and children at this point, thinking my self-importance has spilled out of control once again)

    That’s how important connection is to me. I’ve done enough traveling for its own sake, seen enough places to satisfy. I’ve probably gotten rid of more “stuff” than I currently own, and I still have too much of it. After I’m gone it will all become someone else’s problem. But the love and laughter of family and friends you get to keep forever. It doesn’t take up space except in your heart, memory and soul, it really doesn’t cost you anything compared to its priceless value. But it does require some maintenance, otherwise it tends to wither and die, and with it a part of you. It’s a little like exercise: you have to keep working at it for it to do you any good.

    I wish all of you, family, friends, brothers and sister in the faith, the most joyous of Christmases. I love you and wish we could be together but know that you all have a special place in my heart. I pray you won’t neglect the opportunity to connect or reconnect with those who hold that place in your heart when it arises but will make the most of the moment. It is the most precious gift we can hope to share with one another.

  • Meaning and Purpose

    Consider the following: Unless you have an identical twin, there has never been, will never be, and is not anyone exactly like you in the entire world. No one else has your exact genetic make-up. Even more astounding, if you have siblings, even though you are all products of the same genetic pool provided by your parents, each of you is uniquely different from each other. You are one of a kind.

    Consider this also: every accident, incident, circumstance, or episode that has occurred in your life, combined with how you chose to respond to each, has made you the person you are right now. Change even one small detail, and you would be someone completely different. Your career, your spouse or significant other, your family-change one small thing and the picture changes dramatically. For you to be who you are today, your life had to unfold exactly the way it did.

    Since almost the beginning of time, man has had two burning questions: “Who am I?”, and “What’s my purpose?”. Philosophers for thousands of years have attempted to answer these questions, with a variety of results. Some have reached the conclusion that life is strictly an accident of cosmic proportions, that just spontaneously resulted from impersonal events and chemical reactions which produced our current universe and everything in it over billions of years. Therefore, life has no meaning; it’s all an accident, a random chance of circumstances coming together in a specific combination (the odds of which are astronomical). Others decided that our lives are determined by universal forces, call them fate, destiny, karma, the Force, whatever, and we are driven by these forces with no choice or control. Still others believe that the universe is constantly ‘evolving’, always in a positive direction, which means that each succeeding generation is the ‘one the world has been waiting for’ to lead us into a golden age of peace, love, and utopia. (This particular vanity seems to be more common in the youth, and has affected the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Y. Z, and the Millennials, with each successive generation holding the previous ones in disdain)

    Solomon, who is thought to be the wisest man to ever live, came to this conclusion: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13) This from a king who had the richest kingdom in history; had 700 wives and 300 concubines; who built palaces, cities, and fortresses; and who spent his life trying everything-seeking wisdom, labor, riches, pleasures and possessions-and pronounced it all “futility”. In the end, God was the only One who gave life meaning. Love for Him and obedience to His commands are the meaning of life, according to Solomon.

    But to return to the original thought: why is it so important to understand just how unique you are? Because God created you for a purpose, and He is able to help you become who He desires you to be, regardless of life circumstances, perceived deficiencies, or feelings of unworthiness. You are no accident. The Psalmist said this:

    For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.

    Psalm 139:14-16

    God knew you before you were ever conceived, and He chose to give you the characteristics He desired for you, from your nose to your eyes, to your father’s big ears and your mother’s sweet smile and musical ability. When I look in the mirror, I see my father’s chin and body build (short torso and long legs), my maternal grandfather’s hairline and hazel eyes, but mostly I see me. I also have a set of skills and abilities gleaned, no doubt, from both sides of the family. But although I carry characteristics from both sides, they are combined in a completely unique way that will never be seen exactly the same way ever again.

    But still, you may say, “So what? What makes me so special?” This is what makes you special. God made you specifically for the time and place where you are. There are lives only you can touch, things that only you can do in your very special way, situations that require your special combinations of ingredients. Though we may not believe it, though we may resist by wishing we were somewhere or someone else, God places those He loves very specifically when and where He wishes in order to carry out His plans. Each of us can make a significant difference, even if it’s only for one other person.

    In the book of Acts, God pulls Philip the Evangelist out of a growing church in Samaria and sends him to the middle of the desert to meet one single Ethiopian in a chariot who can’t understand the book of Isaiah, and Philip ends up baptizing him and sending him on his way, rejoicing as a new Christian. It probably wasn’t too long before there were more Christians in Ethiopia as a result of that single encounter. Remember, too, Mordecai’s words to Queen Esther regarding the impending genocide planned against the Jews in the book of Esther:

    For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

    Esther 4:14

    God’s plans will always be successful, whether you are a part of them or not. But He loves you deeply, tenderly and jealously, and He has plans for which He created you in all your uniqueness. If you humbly and willingly give yourself over to His loving kingship of your life and seek His guidance, He will teach you the purpose and meaning for your life.

  • Thoughts on Advent and Christmas

    I grew up in a conservative, fundamentalist church, one that didn’t believe in practicing anything not specifically sanctioned by scripture (something which I still consider a proper and safe practice). To my younger mind, it didn’t make any allowance for opinions not in direct violation of faith and practice as outlined in the Bible. Specifically, any profession or decoration celebrating Christmas as the actual date of the birth of Christ was sort of a no-no, as it might make us look like one of our denominational neighbors, something to be strenuously avoided.

    Growing up in a strongly Catholic neighborhood I’d heard of Advent but knew nothing about it, and back in those days it was still acceptable to have a nativity displayed in public places. I knew the story of Christ’s birth from Matthew and Luke’s accounts in the Gospels and believed them; we just thought the world had the date wrong. It was fine to have Christmas trees, Santa Claus, silly Christmas songs and drooling over the Sears Wish Book. Looking back, I realize we didn’t have a problem with ‘commercialized’ Christmas but sort of missed out on the reason Christmas was instituted in the first place.

    I’ve come to appreciate the idea of Advent, because it’s a daily opportunity to remember what God has done for a lost and dying world. Even though I know December 25th isn’t the actual date (if I recall correctly, it was originally a pagan holiday that was appropriated by the Catholic church), Jesus’ birth was a factual occurrence recorded in Scripture. He was born to a young woman who was engaged to a blue-collar worker, in a stable due to no vacancies at the local Motel 6. His birth was announced by the heavens to a bunch of shepherds rather than declared to the rich and powerful. His mother had been told Who he was, but you get the feeling she was just as confused about it as everyone else. And He came to His people with one overriding purpose: to die a horrible, shameful death as God’s perfect sacrifice to deliver us from the power of sin and death, and to bring life and hope to those who had neither. That needs to be remembered every day of the year, but especially now when the world is in such desperate need of a message of Good News and hope.

    We who profess to be Christians are constantly bombarded with messages showing just how misguided, blind, perverse, insane and evil this poor old, sick world really is. If it’s not in-your-face demonstrations by those who call evil good and good evil, it’s constant messaging to convince you the only “proper” way to celebrate Christmas is to spend exorbitant amounts of money on useless gadgets, expensive vacations, or endless stuff designed to massage our egos. We invest our lives in accumulating things that can’t possibly last and then complain we can’t afford the necessities we need. We chase shadows and lose hope.

    I’m discovering God plants His messages and clues in places we’d never think to look and don’t expect to find them. God’s desire is we should all choose Him by surrendering our pride, our sins, our will, and ourselves to His son Jesus, the Messiah, the Promised One, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world and reestablishes our relationship with God. We need to take advantage of every opportunity to “think on these things” (Philippians 4:8) and proclaim them to the world. Spending daily time in the Word is the place to start, and it should be the standard against which everything else is measured. But in such a divided, disturbed world we should also be willing to find some commonality of belief with other believers with whom we may have some disagreements. Profession of Jesus as Savior and Lord would be a good place to start. Proclaiming the Light of the World in this season of darkness and hopelessness is another.

    The Christmas message is one of hope, peace and joy. It is a time to be thankful for our blessings and open our hearts to share some of them with those who have none. I can’t think of any better way to express it than the angels’ announcement in Luke 2:

    Then an angel of the Lord stood before them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger. Suddenly, there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to the people he favors.

    My hope for you this Christmas season is that you may find joy, peace and hope through the One who came to give us all of that and more.

  • Snapshots of God

    It’s in the Bible that God chooses to reveal Himself to us. And yet, it sometimes feels as though the Bible gives us only a small picture of God, because there aren’t words to adequately give us a full picture. We wouldn’t be able to understand it anyway; our minds couldn’t comprehend it. It’s one reason why it’s so important to continually read, study, and meditate on Scripture.

    I have a schedule which, if followed, allows me to read through the entire Bible in a year. There are many such schedules and plans, and all are valuable tools to help us develop the discipline to read the Bible each day. Just recently, my daily reading included Psalms 23, Genesis 22, and Luke 15, three of my favorite passages. As I read them, I realized how each presented a snapshot of God’s personality.

    Psalms 23 is very familiar to most everyone, even those who may know very little about the Bible. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. The Psalm (a song written by King David) describes God’s wondrous care of His own. He feeds and waters them until they are satisfied. He leads them carefully and protects them against danger. He gives them periods of rest. He shows great love for the sheep. He is always present, even in the most dangerous and fearful times. As a result, his sheep love and trust Him. The psalm shows us a God who loves and cares for us, one we can trust to look after us under any and all circumstances.

    Genesis 22 is a bit more troubling; it is the account of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. For those unfamiliar with the story, Isaac is the son of promise, the one through whom God would make Abraham’ descendants a mighty nation, more numerous than the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the shore. The promised son that took over twenty years to show up. The one true heir to Abraham and Sarah. Several years after his birth, when Isaac had grown into a young man, God came to Abraham and told him to go to a certain location and offer Isaac as a burnt offering to God Himself.

    Our first reaction to this story is most likely something along the lines of, “How could a loving God demand such a thing”? How could he give this son of promise, only to demand his death, and in such a horrible way? Someone once said to me that they thought of God as ‘sort of a narcissist’, demanding our obedience and absolute worship and adoration. If we read this story only from our own human point of view it would certainly seem that way.

    It’s only when we realize that God is so much more than how we think, plan, and define justice that we can begin to get a ‘bigger picture’ of what’s really going on here. God demands our absolute devotion because He is worthy of it. He is our creator, the embodiment of Love and perfect Justice, one who loves us like no other, who cares for us like the Shepherd of Psalm 23. Our devotion and desire, however, needs for be to God Himself and not just what we can get from Him like a cosmic vending machine, so sometimes it becomes necessary to put that devotion to the test. This was not a narcissistic demand of a capricious God; this was a test to allow Abraham to learn whether his devotion and obedience was genuine, or just a result of having been blessed with livestock, servants, and riches. The question to Abraham was a rather simple one: who do you love more, this promised son, or Me? Are you following Me only for what I have provided and promised, or is it because of your love for Me? Abraham needed to know the answer, and it would only come from his passing the test.

    You see, God sort of rigged the test. He had enough trust in Abraham’s faith in him to allow Isaac to be bound (which speaks well of Isaac as well; there’s no indication that he resisted being tied up and placed on the altar), with the knife raised over Isaac ready to be plunged, before He intervened. And in answer to Abraham’s previous statement that “God will supply the lamb”, that’s exactly what He did, in a foreshadowing of how He would ultimately offer His own son as a sacrificial Lamb for the salvation and reconciliation for all of the world. As a result of Abraham’s faithfulness, that plan was ultimately brought to fruition through his lineage.

    Luke 15 has three parables, each building on the one before it. The first tells of one of a hundred sheep that becomes lost, and the lengths to which the shepherd goes to find that sheep and return it to the flock. The second tells of a woman with ten coins, one of which becomes lost, and how she sweeps out the entire house until it is found. In both cases, discovery is followed by celebration. But it is the third that impacts the deepest, because it feels very personal, as though Jesus is talking directly to me and about me.

    It’s called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, although it would be just as accurate to call it the Parable of the Prodigal Sons, or the Parable of the Loving Father. It may be familiar to some; “prodigal son” has been a familiar meme for a long time. A younger son, who is of a rebellious nature, demands his share of his father’s inheritance, a request considered to be very disrespectful while the father was living. However, the father grants his request, and the son goes on his way to ‘a far country’, where he proceeds to waste his inheritance on wine, women and song (referred to in Scripture as “riotous living”). Now broke, the only employment he can find is feeding pigs (an abhorrent prospect to Jesus’ Jewish audience), and he’s reduced to thinking about stealing the pig’s food to avoid starving.

    The parable says, “When he came to his senses”, he realized that even the lowliest servant in his father’s house had more to eat and better living arrangements than he did. He makes the decision to return home and beg his father’s forgiveness, seeking only a servant’s place in the house. It’s at this point the story becomes wondrous. The father, who has been watching for his son’s return, runs to meet him on the road, embraces him, and orders the servants to make arrangements for a great celebration for ‘my son who was dead and in now alive”. At this point we meet the older brother, who in a fit of jealousy and indignance refuses to even come into the house. The story is left at that point, never saying whether the older brother changed his mind and heart.

    So, what do we learn about God from these three passages? First, God loves us as no one else could ever love us. He created us in His own image, and He considers each of us absolutely precious. He is not willing to lose any of us, and he will go to great lengths to bring us ‘home’ to Him. At the same time, He gives us the freedom of choice to turn our backs on Him and go our own way. But when we do, He is still watching, hoping that one day we will ‘come to our senses’ and come back home. He cares for those who are devoted to Him, provides for their needs and gives protection from the evil spiritual forces that would destroy them, and ultimately will dwell with them for eternity.

    Thinking back to Abraham’s story, it mirrors the story of God’s plan for salvation. Here is a father, willing to sacrifice his son because it was what was demanded. But here too is the obedient son who shows absolute trust in his father. The difference is that God’s plan had been put into place even before the words, “Let there be light”. God knew what we would need before He created us, and in order to satisfy both His perfect love and perfect justice He took it upon Himself to provide the perfect Lamb that would take away the curse of sin that we are all born under and to which we are enslaved. When we begin to understand the full meaning of God’s sacrifice of His own Son, it should break our hearts to think we were the cause of such a thing needing to be done.

    If you haven’t already given your life in surrender to Jesus, I urge you to ‘come to your senses’ and come home. The Father is watching for you, and all of Heaven is waiting to celebrate your return. And if, like the older brother, you’re standing outside, jealous and complaining because the Father never threw you a party even though you have faithfully served Him all these years, remember the words of the father in Luke 15: “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” If we are His, we should reflect His heart, and that means rejoicing when a lost one returns home.

  • The Dash

    It’s always an adventure to see where my brain is likely to go in the early morning hours when I’d like to get back to sleep for a couple more hours. This morning it chose to ponder on death. I don’t recall exactly how it started but given that I am ever closer to that inevitability it wasn’t shocking or surprising. From wherever it began it then moved on to thinking about where I’d like to be buried when I finally do die. There is a cemetery at the end of the street where we live. It’s on a hill, extending down to the lower area nearby, next to the main street that leads into town. In the fall it is absolutely beautiful; the trees are a riot of reds, oranges and yellows. It makes for a beautiful drive or walk, peaceful and contemplative. Resting there until the Lord returns has great appeal.

    Having gone there, my brain proceeded to envision my children coming to visit our grave. I would tell them to come in the fall for the reason outlined above. Then, of course, my brain had to consider the headstone. I’d like it to be simple: just my name, date of birth and death, and the DASH. Because I remembered a poem by that name, written by Linda Ellis. If you’ve never read it, find it on the Internet and read it. It will tell you the most important mark on that headstone is that dash between the dates. It represents the entire life of that person.

    When I’m gone, I won’t be leaving much of anything behind in the way of material goods (and I suspect that my children or grandchildren won’t want too many of those). I won’t be leaving a “legacy” as the world defines it. I have no buildings named after me, I’ve never achieved fame by worldly standards, and I daresay most of the world will have never heard of me. What I hope to leave are memories, preferably good ones, for those whose path I’ve crossed in the course of my life.

    I want my family and friends to know they were loved. I want them to remember good times filled with laughter and love. I want what few possessions I leave behind to be a reminder of all of this. Most of all, I want them to remember where my faith and confidence lived, in the One who loved me so deeply He was willing to give His life to have and keep me.

    I don’t know for sure if we take our memories with us to the next life. I kind of suspect we do, especially if those we love are there with us. An eternity of being able to give praise to God and Jesus Messiah would be more than enough, but to be with our loved ones and say, “Do you remember when..” would be almost as sweet. I imagine there will be laughter in Heaven as well as we recall all those blessed times we had together. Best of all will be hearing the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant”. Whatever we had to endure in this life will all melt away when we hear them.

    Sadly, those who choose to reject Christ won’t experience any of that. I think that whatever memories go with them will be filled with anguish, regret, and remorse. The Bible tells of eternal torment and punishment for those who are condemned. In Luke 16 Jesus tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (there are some who believe this is not a parable but an actual account as told by the Master). The rich man satisfied himself with all the earthly pleasures while Lazarus, covered with sores, had to beg for bread at his gate. When both died, the rich man found himself in ‘torment in Hades’, evidently in the midst of fire, as he sees Abraham far off holding Lazarus in his arms and begs him to just dip his finger in water and let a drop fall on his tongue to cool it ‘because I am in agony in this flame’. Abraham’s answer is instructive: “Son, remember that during your life you received good things and Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony” (v. 25). Jesus made it even more emphatic in Luke 6: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your comfort. Woe to you who are full, for you will be hungry.”

    Which brings me back to the dash. It matters a great deal what your dash contains. If your dash is full of accumulating stuff and selfishly seeking your own pursuits and pleasures, someone else ends up with your stuff, and you will be dead and forgotten. But if it contains memories, acts of compassion, love for family, friends, neighbors and enemies, and most of all obedience and surrender to God and His Son Jesus Christ, your memory will live on long after you’ve moved on to an eternal reward.

    The poem ends this way:

    “So when your eulogy is being read, With your life’s actions to be rehashed, Would you be proud of the things they say, About how you spend your dash?”

    The Dash by Linda Ellis

    Don’t waste your dash.

  • Of Sheep and Sinners

    As I was preparing my sermon notes for Sunday (our minister and I swapped roles last week and this week; he’s leading the singing and I’m preaching) I was handed two gifts this morning to help me remember the awesome love God has for us. They fit well with my sermon themes. Last week was about the church’s leaders, the elders/shepherds. This week we’ll be looking at the members of the body, the sheep. In the amazing way God has of speaking to me, I had a Facebook post and a favorite Bible account come to me this morning. I don’t believe it was a coincidence they showed up at the same time; God’s timing is too incredible and perfect for that.

    A friend of mine posted this on his Facebook feed today. It fit so well with my Sunday lesson that I decided to use it. I repost it here for your consideration (for those of you who are members of the congregation, you’ll be seeing and hearing this again).

    Every once in a while, a ewe will give birth to a lamb and reject it. There are lots of reasons she may do this. If the shepherd tries to return the lamb, the mother might even kick the baby away. Once a ewe rejects one of her lambs, she will never change her mind.

    These little lambs will hang their heads so low that it looks like something is wrong with their little necks. Their spirits are broken.

    These lambs are called “bummer lambs.”

    Unless the shepherd intervenes, that little lamb will die – rejected and alone.

    Do you know what the shepherd usually does?

    The shepherd will take that rejected little lamb into their home, hand-feed it and keep it warm. They will wrap it up with blankets and hold it to their chest so the little lamb can hear their heartbeat. Once the lamb is strong enough, the shepherd will place it back in the field with the rest of the flock.

    That sheep never forgets the shepherd’s love and care when their mother rejected them. When the shepherd calls for the flock, guess which sheep runs first? That sheep knows the shepherd’s voice.

    The bummer lamb isn’t loved more, it just knows intimately the one who loves it. It trusts the shepherd because it has experienced love from the shepherd.

    Many of us are bummer lambs. Rejected and broken. But Jesus is the good Shepherd. He cares for our every need and holds us close to His heart so we can hear His heartbeat.

    We may be broken but we are deeply loved by the Shepherd who will never leave us.

    ~ Author Unknown

    A little while later, I was doing my daily Bible reading, including Luke 7, which has one of my favorite accounts, the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume that washed Jesus’ feet with her tears (I wrote about her once before in my post entitled Waiting for God under Fire). I love coming back to her story, as well as others whose main characters demonstrate an incredible humility and awareness of their own unworthiness. They come to Jesus because they recognize He is who He claims to be, and He offers them a love and compassion they can find nowhere else.

    Being painfully aware of our own shortcomings and inadequacies deepens our appreciation of how amazingly overwhelming God’s love and grace really are. Christ didn’t die for us because we were such good people or even His friends. Romans 5:6-11 puts it this way:

    For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

    The woman with the jar of perfume did what she did, not because she expected anything in return, but because she recognized that Jesus was worthy of it, and she was unworthy of Him. But Jesus always desires to show compassion to the humble repentant heart. Rather than roundly condemn her (as the Pharisee who hosted the dinner was itching to do), Jesus gave her what she needed most: forgiveness of the sins which weighed her down with shame. Great faith and love bring great forgiveness, and great forgiveness inspires even greater love.

    All through the Gospels we see Jesus having a heart of compassion for the poor, the downtrodden, the ones who society overlooked or considered unworthy of normal human contact. They were the rejected ones whose spirits were broken, much like “bummer sheep”. Jesus said specifically those were the ones whom He was seeking, the unloved, the rejected, the hopeless. Not surprisingly, they were the ones who responded most readily to Him.

    All of us have been “bummer sheep” at one time or another. We’ve all experienced rejection, and in one way or another we are all broken, if for no other reason than being human and under the curse of sin. But there is a shepherd, a Good Shepherd, who will take us in and care for us, hold us to His breast and let us hear His heartbeat. If you have experienced His loving care, your response will be to run to the voice of One who loves you best. But if He saved you when your spirit was crushed, and you love Him deeply for what He has done for you, you’ll be the first sheep in line.

  • Hold Fast

    “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which you also stand, by which also you are also saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.”

    1 Corinthians 15:1-2

    Some time ago, I had to finally admit that my ring finger had grown too large for my wedding band. It now resides on a chain next to my heart, along with a brass coin medallion, on which are stamped the words, “HOLD FAST”. I deliberately chose it as a reminder of the need to remain faithful in all areas of my life. It is most familiar as a nautical term, which makes sense as I bought my medallion from a company named Maritime Supply.

    To ‘hold fast’ means to tighten down the lines of a ship and hold on tight because things are about to get rough. The term is attributed to Dutch origins, although I would suggest it dates back much further, as the term appears frequently throughout scripture. It conveys the idea of protecting the ship and your shipmates as a means of insuring your own survival. (For my friends and readers who have been in the Navy, Coast Guard, or have worked on ships, my apologies if I’m using the term improperly)

    For the rest of us, HOLD FAST means to hang on to your beliefs, to stand in the face of opposition, or as the formal definition reads, “continue to believe in or adhere to an idea or principle.” What’s important to determine, however, is whether the idea or principle is worth keeping. Are they going to carry you through the storms of this life? For the Christian, the Bible is a rock-solid foundation which can be trusted under any and all circumstances.

    Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, reminds them the message he preached to them is their foundation upon which they stand, and by which they are saved, if they ‘hold fast’ to it. What he is really encouraging them to do is to hold fast to the person behind the message, the One who is trustworthy, Jesus Christ, He who will never desert them. If they will hold fast to Jesus, He will hold fast to them, and no one or nothing will be able to break that grip.

    It is the same message that God proclaimed throughout both Old and New Testaments. In Deuteronomy 11:22-23, where Moses is instructing the nation of Israel, it says:

    “For if you are careful to keep all this commandment which I am commanding you to do, to love the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and hold fast to Him, the LORD will drive out all these nations from before you, and your will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you.”

    God even gives assurances to non-Israelites who would commit themselves to obeying Him in Isaiah 56:3-5:

    Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The LORD will surely separate me from His people.” Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry twig.” For thus says the LORD, “To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, and choose what pleases Me, and hold fast My covenant, to them I will give in My house and within my walls a memorial, I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.”

    So, my brothers and sisters, let me encourage you to HOLD FAST. We are in the middle of a hurricane, and the world would love nothing more than to have us be blown away. Are you having financial difficulties? HOLD FAST. Are you struggling with disease, depression, addiction, or family problems? HOLD FAST. Are you overwhelmed with anxiety? HOLD FAST. Hold fast to the One who is faithful, who tells you, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” The storm may seem as though it will never end, but we have a Savior who will protect us, guide us through it, and who tells us, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you a crown of life (Revelation 2:10).” Don’t miss it-HOLD FAST.