Tuesday, December 3, 2019

THE SEASON OF LIGHT

Isaiah 9:2
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned.

                On Saturday evening, Suanne and I braved the cold and the snow to gather with others in downtown for the annual Santa Parade. What makes this parade special is that all of the entries are decorated with lights. There were several creative light displays that made their way slowly down main street. At the conclusion of the parade, the official Christmas tree was lit, as well as the lights which decorate the city park. For the next month, our little town will be a city of lights.

                Christmas lights are one of the features of the season that I particularly enjoy. As the days grow shorter and the darkness dominates, the lights of Christmas transform our world. The gloom of winter is dispelled by the lights that decorate our homes, our streets, and our community. Just seeing the Christmas lights can uplift our spirits.

                In some communities, the lights of Christmas are taken to an amazing extreme. Sibley Park in Mankato, MN is bedecked with thousands of lights, which bring delight to everyone. Downtown Duluth boasts Bentleyville; an amazing light display that draws crowds from many miles around. There is just something inviting and compelling about the lights of Christmas.


               It is not without reason that lights play such a large role in our Christmas celebration. Light is at the very center of the Christmas story. When Jesus came into our world, it had become a very dark place. The people of God were living under the oppressive rule of the Romans. Sin and evil seemed to be winning the day. Jesus penetrated the darkness of our world with the very light of Heaven.

    In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.
    Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:1-5)

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

                The very creator of the world took on human form to bring the very light of life to a dark world. He didn’t come as a warrior or a great king, but as a vulnerable baby. He slipped into the world under the radar of Satan in a way that no one expected. Yet even at His birth, His light could not be hidden. The glory of God appeared to the shepherds in the form of an angel, followed by an angel host. The Wisemen were guided to Jesus by the light of a star.

                When Jesus came into the world, a conflict was set up between light and darkness. The dominion of darkness was openly threatened by the light of God. The battlefield was, and still is, the hearts of people. People were confronted with a choice; to embrace the light or to run from the light.

    This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21)

                This conflict continues to rage today. Those who choose to live in darkness are doing whatever they can to extinguish the light. But the light cannot be extinguished, for light always wins over darkness. When Jesus was born into our world, He set in motion a spiritual revolution that continues to spread today. The light of Gospel continues to transform the lives of countless people. The light is not growing dim, it is growing stronger.

                Without necessarily knowing it, our world celebrates that light of Christ every Christmas. As we put up our illuminated Christmas decorations, whatever their form, we are being pointed back to the true light that has come into the world.

2 Corinthians 4:6
For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

   




Tuesday, November 26, 2019

GENUINE GRATITUDE


Psalm 107:1-3
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say this--
  those he redeemed from the hand of the foe,
those he gathered from the lands,
from east and west, from north and south.

                Is there a difference between saying thank you and being genuinely grateful? When we were children, we were taught to say thank you when we were given a gift. At first, we had to be reminded to say thank you. After a while, it became an automatic response. We know longer even thought about it, we just said it, because it was the expected thing to do.

                There is a huge difference between a person saying thank you when someone holds the door for them and when a person says thank you because they were just rescued from a burning building. In the first case the person is being polite. In the second case the person is expressing gratitude.

                As we approach Thanksgiving, it is a good time for us to stop and examine our own attitude. Has our thanks to God become just a polite response or is it genuine gratitude for all that He has done for us? The level of our gratitude is a measure of our understanding of just how much Jesus has done for us. Did Jesus just hold open the door to heaven or did he rescue us from sin and death?

                When the Psalmist encourages us to give thanks to God, he always points us to the reasons for doing so. In the opening lines of Psalm 103, David calls us to a depth of gratitude that we often fail to appreciate.

Psalm 103:1-5
Of David.

Praise the Lord, O my soul;
all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
Praise the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits--
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

                David calls us to remember what God has done for us. And the things that he focuses upon are not the things we usually focus upon. Our thankfulness is most often focused on the material blessings of life. David redirects out attention to something far more important, the spiritual blessings that come from God.
                David calls for a depth of expression of gratitude. Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, O my soul. There is nothing superficial about the gratitude that David is espousing. He calls us to express our gratitude from the very depths of our being and with all of our being.

                Then David turns our attention on the thing above all things that we are to be grateful for. God forgives our sins, heals our lives, and redeems us for our life of sin. In essence, God transforms us and makes us new. Paul expressed it this way. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17) From being trapped in the pit of sin, God raises us up into His love and compassion. Our relationship with Him is restored. In contrast to the things of this world that do damage to our lives, God fulfills our desires with good things. Instead of being constantly torn down by the weight of sin, our strength is renewed so that we can soar.

                It is possible for us to say thank you mindlessly, without much thought about it. But genuine gratitude can never be mindless. Genuine gratitude looks beyond the gift to the giver. Genuine gratitude expands the breadth of the gift. Genuine gratitude acknowledges the generosity of the given and the unworthiness of the recipient. None of us are worthy of God’s grace and yet He gives it to us freely.

                We have much to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. We have been so materially blessed by God that we have taken those gifts for granted. We enjoy on a daily basis what much of the world only longs for. But the greatest reason for us to be thankful is wrapped up in an all too familiar verse. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The thing that we should be the most thankful for is that God gave us Himself.

                We live in a world that constantly focuses on what we do not have. We are constantly told to be discontent and to want more and more of the things the world has to offer. As followers of Christ, we are called to focus on what we do have. Not only to be content with the blessings that we have, but to be genuinely grateful. God has blessed us beyond measure.

                This Thanksgiving let us genuinely give thanks to God for all of the material blessing we enjoy. But above all else, let us thank God for His love, which He has lavished on us, and the new life we have in Christ.

Romans 5:8
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

1 John 3:1a
How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!

   

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

KNOWING WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW


1 John 3:2
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.

                As we go through our lives, we go through different stages of knowledge and incite. When we are young children everything is new and exciting. We are like sponges absorbing all of this new information. For us, life is very black and white. What is, is. Then we hit adolescence and life becomes full of gray. Certainty is replaced by doubt. Acceptance is replaced by questioning. At some point in our adolescent journey we think we have it all figured out. We enter into a sophomoric state. The word sophomore literally means wise fool. To be sophomoric means to be conceited and overconfident of knowledge but poorly informed and immature. Unfortunately, some people never quite graduate from this stage of life. But for those who intentionally continue on to maturity, we enter the stage where we begin to know what we do not know. We come to grips with the reality that the mysteries of life are beyond our total comprehension. It is not that we know nothing. On the contrary, we realize that what we know has only scratched the surface of what there is to know. The mature person doesn’t stop learning and exploring, but they are comfortable with open-ended questions and unresolved issues.

                Just as it is in our normal intellectual development, so it is in our spiritual development. When I was a child growing up in church, I received what I was being taught as the truth. Everything was very black and white for me. When I hit my early teens, I began to struggle with doubts and questions. In one way my faith became more real, yet it also became cloudier. My first year at college, I was challenged to really examine my faith and make it my own, which I did. At that point I thought I had arrived at a mature faith. I was being sophomoric. When I entered Seminary, I discovered how far I really was from a truly mature faith. At that point I began a journey of discovering and exploring what I don’t know. Even now after almost 40 years of ministry, I still am amazed at how much I do not know.

                At the end of what has been dubbed the love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul introduces us to an image of a truly maturing faith.

    Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:8-12

                We can all fall into the trap of thinking that we have it all together spiritually. That was the problem with the Pharisees of Jesus’ day. It wasn’t that they were ungodly or unspiritual. It was that they were spiritually sophomoric. They thought that they had it all figured out. I know how they felt, because I have been there.

                Jesus challenged the rigid, “we have it all figured out”, attitude of the Pharisees. He does the same to us. When we become convinced that we have the final word on some issue, Jesus steps in to unset our apple cart. It is not that He doesn’t want us to have confidence in what we believe. It is that He doesn’t want us to have confidence in our confidence about what we believe.

                We all begin our spiritual journey as little children. Our faith is real but unexamined. As we mature in our faith, we have to struggle with the questions that inevitably arise. If we believe that we have to have all of the answers nailed down, we will stymie our spiritual growth. We need to come to grips with the reality that there are mysteries that we will not figure out until we stand face to face with Jesus. Until that time, we need to be okay with knowing what we don’t know.

                When Paul wrote to the believers in Philippi, he shared with them his desire to know Christ to the fullest. He stated that there was nothing more important than reaching that goal. Then in verse 12, he acknowledged that he did not yet know all that he needed to know.
                 
    Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
    All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained. (Philippians 3:12-16)

                Paul assures us that we all have a great deal of learning to do. Instead of being held back by what we don’t know, it should be a catalyst for us to press on toward the goal. On my spiritual journey I have learned many things about many things, but I have not learned everything about everything. How about you?

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

NOW WE SHINE DIMLY


Matthew 5:14a
“You are the light of the world.”

                As I walked into the office this morning, the full moon hung in the western sky. It was large and distinct, but its light was obscured by a gray haze. I have been out at night when there was a full moon and it has been so bright that it cast shadows on the lawn. This morning the moon was clearly visible, but its light was dimmed by the wispy clouds of a fall sky.

                In many ways, we are to be like the moon. The moon does not have any light of its own. Its light is a reflection of the light of the sun. In a similar way, we do not have any light of our own. We are instead to reflect the light of Christ into our world. Jesus is the source of our reflected light.

                When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." (John 8:12)

                Jesus came into this world to shine the light of God into our lives. That light has the power to transform us. It frees us from the dominion of spiritual darkness. It opens our eyes to the reality of who we are and who God is. Not everyone likes what they see, so they retreat into the darkness. But those who embrace the light of Christ are transformed by it.

                When we put our faith in Christ, we become a kind of spiritual moon to His sun. Jesus gives us His light so we can shine in our world. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

                Most often, we are like the moon this morning. The light of Christ within us is obscured by the gray haze of sin in our lives. Although our heart’s desire is to shine the light of Christ into our immediate world, our sin clouds the picture. There are times when the haze clears and we shine brightly. There are times when the dark clouds of sin completely obscure the light of Christ. But most of the time we live somewhere in between.

                Although I do not believe that the haze of sin will even be completely eliminated from our lives until we stand complete before God in heaven, I do know that we can decrease its intensity. As we become aware of our sin and deal with it before God, our light shines brighter. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

                God continues to shine His light into our hearts, which in turn brightens our entire being. But we are still imperfect vessels containing His light.

    For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.
    But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Corinthians 4:6-7)

                The good news is that the longer that we walk with Christ, and the more we yield to the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit, the more our lives will shine for God in our world. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

                This morning the moon was large and full and shining, even though there was a haze in the air. God wants us to be His full moons reflecting the light of Christ in our world, even if, for now, we shine dimly.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

LIVING IN THE WORLD, NOT FOR THE WORLD


John 17:15
My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one.

1 Timothy 6:17
Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

                What does it mean for us to live in the world, not for the world? When God created the world, it was perfect in His sight. He placed humanity into this perfect world and invited them to fully enjoy all that He created. The physical world was God’s gift to humanity; a tangible expression of God’s love. When sin came into the world, the tangible world became corrupted. The relationship between God and humanity was damaged, and consequently the relationship between humanity and God’s tangible gift was damaged.

                As Paul tells us in Romans 1, humanity substituted created things for the Creator and therefore put themselves at odds with God. The created world took a place in people’s lives that it was not intended to have. Not only was God excluded from the picture, the very things that God created for humanity’s enjoyment were corrupted.

                Jesus came into the world to restore a right relationship with God and with the world that God created. Through Jesus death on the cross and His resurrection He has redeemed not only humanity, but creation itself. When a person puts their faith in Jesus, they are recreated. (2 Corinthians 5:17) As redeemed people, we now relate to God and His world differently. The gift of life on earth is restored to us, as well as the promise of life eternal with Christ for all of eternity.

                There is a struggle that we face as believers. Are we to completely deny this world and live only for eternity, or are we too fully embrace this life on earth as well as our hope in eternity? For me the latter is the correct answer. We are to live fully in this world without living for this world. Everything that we have and enjoy is a gift from God. If we constantly acknowledge that and give thanks to God for it, we can fully engage in this world. Knowing that God wants us to make the most of our journey through life, we can celebrate its joys and endure its hardships. As Paul says in Romans 8:28, And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.

                God does not want us to live our lives with the attitude that we have too endure life until we get to heaven. He wants us to embrace the journey through life, which will make our experience in heaven that much richer. If our focus is only on getting to heaven, we will miss all of the blessings that God intends for us now.

                I once knew a family whose idea of a vacation was to see how many miles they could drive in a week. They would stop only briefly along the way to possibly take a picture, then it was back in the car to get moving. Most of us would say, what a waste. What is the point of a journey if you don’t experience what is along the way? Yet, we can live our entire lives that way, if we are not careful. We can be in such a hurry to get to heaven that we miss the journey. The journey is important, otherwise why did God make us take it. If the only goal in life is making it to heaven, why doesn’t God just take us home as soon as we become believers? I know I am pressing the point, but it is possible for us to be so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.

                God has placed us on this earth for a reason. It was part of His original plan that we would delight in all that He created. We who are believers in Christ should enjoy this life more than anyone else. How we live this life matters to us and to God. It matters for now and for eternity. How tragic would it be if when we stand before God, He shows us all the gifts that He wanted to give to us, but that we missed because we were in a hurry to get to heaven.  

                There is truth in the phrase, stop and smell the roses. God created a beautiful, amazing world for us to enjoy. Each part of this amazing world points us to Him. Let’s not miss the gifts He offers to us every day.

Psalm 19:1-4
The heavens declare the glory of God;
  the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

IN PLACE, OUT OF PLACE


Genesis 21:33
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called upon the name of the Lord, the Eternal God.

                In our monthly, men’s breakfast, we are watching a video series by Ray Vander Laan titled “Walking with God in the Desert.” The segment we watched this month focused on how God provides for desert people through different kinds of trees. One of those trees is the tamarisk tree.

                The tamarisk tree is very slow growing. It requires quite a bit of attention at the beginning to get it started. It is most often planted near places where people live. As one Bedouin man explained, we plant a tamarisk for our grand-children. Because it grows so slowly, the benefits of it will not be realized until generations after it is planted. So why plant one?

                The tamarisk tree has an extremely unique feature that makes it an ideal desert tree. It has a very high salt content in its leaves. Because of this high salt content, it captures the moisture from the air. During the heat of the day, this moisture slowly evaporates, making the shade of the tamarisk tree considerably cooler than other trees. Bedouin people love to plant these trees near to their dwellings for this reason.

                In Genesis 21, we are told that after Abraham had received God’s promise that he would inherit all of the land of Palestine, as an act of confidence in God’s promise, he planted a tamarisk tree. He knew that he would never benefit from that tree, but he was trusting God that one day his grand-children and great grand-children would.

                Vander Laan used this story to ask an important question. What are we doing today that will benefit generations to come? In what ways can we plant a spiritual tamarisk tree that will provide shade for those who come after us? In our “live for the moment” world, this is a question we should all be asking. As a follower of Christ, what am I doing today that benefit generations to come?

                But not everything about the tamarisk tree is positive. In North Dakota, the tamarisk tree is known as the salt cedar. It is an invasive species that can destroy a pasture. In the arid desert, the tamarisk tree is sparse and grows very slowly. In a fertile, well-watered land it can grow rapidly and spread. The problem with this is that because of the salt content in the tree it changes the soil around the tree, making it extremely alkali. Soon the soil can not longer sustain other forms of vegetation. It becomes a great place for salt cedar, but a bad place for everything else.

                In a spiritual sense, we can see that this is exactly what Satan has done in our world. He has taken things that God intended for our good and transplanted them into places where they should not be. What God intended for good becomes something that produces harm. Planted in the wrong place, these things act as invasive species, taking over the place and pushing out the good things that should be there. There is no better example than what has happened with human sexuality.

                God intended for human sexuality to be planted in the environment of marriage; the loving, monogamous relationship between a man and a woman. Satan has ripped human sexuality from this positive environment and transplanted it into various other environments. The outcome has been broken, devalued people. Today, human sexuality has become an invasive species that seems to dominate our society, while pushing out God’s original design.

                Before we start casting stones, we need to realize that it is possible for each of us to plant a spiritual tamarisk tree in the wrong place. We can create a legacy that will have reverberating negative effects for generations to come.

                God warned us about this. In the Ten Commandments, God made it clear that if we plant our tamarisk tree in the wrong place it will have long lasting consequences. “You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Exodus 20:4-6

                As we make our way through life, we will have many opportunities to plant a tamarisk tree. If we are intentional, we can leave a positive legacy that will benefit generations to come. If we are unintentional, we may leave a negative legacy that will also affect generations to come.

Ephesians 5:15-16
Be very careful, then, how you live--not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.

   

   


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

WIND


John 3:8
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

                The wind is howling outside of my office window. It began howling early last evening and continued throughout the night. It is a cold wind that cuts through a person. Tiny flakes of snow dance in the wind as it whips the trees and scatters their leaves.

                Wind is a powerful force, yet it is insubstantial. A person can not capture the wind or measure its volume. Yet the wind can transform a landscape. It sculpts the sand dunes of western Michigan and the farm fields of North Dakota. The wind has the power to tear limbs from trees or the roof off of a house. The wind can be harnessed to generate power, but it cannot be contained or controlled. The wind blows where it wants to blow and there is nothing we can do about it.

                The Bible has two words for wind. In Hebrew the word for wind is ruah. In Greek the word for wind is pueuma. The Bible uses these same two words to mean spirit. The Hebrews equated the wind with the breath of God. God was the one in control of the wind and therefore it represented the activity of God in the world.

                When Jesus was meeting at night with Nicodemus, as recorded in John 3, Jesus used a play on words when he equated the activity of the wind with the activity of the Holy Spirit. His play on words gives us some insight into the activity of the Holy Spirit in our world.

                Just as we cannot control the activity of the wind, so we cannot control the activity of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, being God, is totally independent of human influence. The Spirit indwells every believer, but the believer does not control the Spirit. The Spirit is the moving force within the believer’s life; changing and transforming the landscape of his or her life.

                The Holy Spirit is the prime mover in the salvation and sanctification of the believer. Jesus told Nicodemus, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” (John 3:5-6) It is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus about.

                The “wind” of the Holy Spirit is still blowing through our world today. He is shaking up Christ’s church, with the purpose of purifying it and empowering it. He is awakening people all over the world to their need for a Savior, who is Jesus Christ. He is empowering believers to be salt and light in their communities. He continues to blow away the fog of unbelief and replace it with a spiritual clarity that allows those who place their faith Jesus to understand the deep truths of God.  

John 14:15-17,25-27
"If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

"All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.