Precious Death

ImagePsalm 116:15 is one of those verses that causes people to stop and think. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful servants.”

We often see death as our greatest enemy. We do all we can to insure against an untimely demise. The idea of death is frightening to most people. We may have a belief about what is on the other side, but somewhere deep within us we feel unsettled and anxious about passing from this life to the next.

We don’t think about death as precious – not to us and not to God – yet the verse above says that the death of one of God’s holy children is precious to Him. Why? Because they have finished their path on this earth. They are freed from the trials and hardships of this life. And because they are brought into God’s eternal presence where they will truly see the One whom they have accepted by faith for so long.

Death is an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26), but it is an enemy that has been dealt a mortal blow by the work of Jesus. Death has lost it’s sting (1 Corinthians 15:55). It has lost its power. Death is no longer a specter to send shivers down our spine – not if we are in Christ. We share in the victory that Jesus won when He rose from the grave. Sin’s curse was shattered. Death’s grip was broken. Believers now view death in a different light – as a threshold into God’s presence. 

This is why Paul could write: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” (Philippians 1:21-24)

Live or die, I am in Christ. Live or die, I win. It is not because of who good I have been but because of the goodness of Christ. It is not because I deserve such a blessing but because I have received what God has freely offered. 

If you fear death, ask yourself why you do. It is natural to want to be with family. It is expected that you would not want your family and friends to grieve. I’m not endorsing finding a way to check out early. As one pastor said, “I’m ready to die, but I’m not in line to buy a ticket.” But as those who know Christ and trust Him for our salvation, one of the great blessings we have is that death’s stinger has been plucked out. Even if we die, we win!

The Two Exchanges

In re-reading Romans 1 today, I could not help but reflect on two major exchanges recorded in Scripture. The first one is found in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

ImageFor although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Romans 1:18-25)

Here humankind makes the exchange. They exchanged the true God for false gods and therefore ended up worshiping that which they themselves created. The consequences of this action are disaster. God allows people to make this choice and to face the consequences. It leads to a downward spiral and deeper depravity and ultimately to death and separation from God. This is NOT a good exchange.

The second exchange that came to mind is more positive. It is also found in one of Paul’s letters, this one to the church in Corinth:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Although the word “exchange” is not used, an exchange is exactly what takes place. Through His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus took the sin that belonged to you and me and made it His. He died for sin paying the full penalty.  He takes our sin; we get His righteousness! The very thought of it still blows my mind. How great a God we have! How great a love He has shown! How great a Savior we worship!

The first exchange shows the downward direction of humanity sinking deeper and deeper into sin. There is willfulness about it, stubbornness. As a child stomps his or her little foot and says, “I will not!” (insert pouted lip here), human beings stomp their collective foot at the thought of a God who is Creator and Sovereign and declared, “We will not! We will do it our way! We will make our own rules! We are our own gods!”

But Jesus gives us a simple warning: For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. (Matthew 23:12)

Rather than demanding God acquiesce to our view of the universe, the humble person recognizes that there is a God who created him and has a claim on his life. Such a person will seek God’s will for this life and for eternity. What he discovers is that God has opened wide the gates to Heaven for all those who embrace His Son as Savior.

What might be the theme song of your life? “I Did It My Way” or “Have Thine Own Way, Lord”?

The Church of the Least Common Denominator

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When Jesus called people to follow Him, He pulled no punches.  “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) That’s a pretty intense calling and way out of synch with the way many people view church and following Jesus in our day.

It is likely that you do not have a stone or wooden idol in your home or yard to which you bow down each day. That does not mean, however, that you do not have idols. Two of the most prevalent idols we have in the United States are Comfort and Convenience. We evaluate what comes into our lives by these two pragmatic gods. Does it make me more or less comfortable? Is it convenient or inconvenient? We carry these idols with us when we enter the church.

Church is fine when it is convenient. Church is great if it doesn’t move me out of my comfort zone. But to ask me to give or to serve or (God forbid) to share my faith with someone – that’s just taking this following Jesus thing a bit too far. I want a church that is there when I need it and leaves me alone when I don’t. I want a church that doesn’t expect much of me, doesn’t ask anything of me, and is just happy I show up from time to time. I’m looking for the Church of the Least Common Denominator.

Maybe it is what you think you want, but is it what you need? And is it what you want deep down? Wouldn’t you rather have a church that embraced eternal, unchanging truth? Wouldn’t you rather have a real connection with people who know you and love you anyway? Wouldn’t you rather serve alongside people who weren’t in it just to make themselves look good? Wouldn’t you rather invest yourself and your resources in something that would last beyond your lifetime and make a real difference in the people around you? That will not be found at the Church of the Least Common Denominator.

Being a part of a church is more than just having your name on the church role. It is being intimately connected with people who share your faith and share your life. It is costly and rewarding. And you may discover that Convenience and Comfort aren’t worthy of your devotion.

Grow Up!

The Apostle Paul confronted the believers in Corinth with these words: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.” (1 Corinthians 3:1-2)

Evidently in Corinth there were a good number of believers who remained spiritual infants. To Paul it was incredible that followers of Jesus would no go on to maturity but would be willing to settle for remaining babies in the faith. He longed to take them deeper into God’s truths and for them to experience more of the abundant life Jesus promised, but for whatever reason they would not grow up.

The story of Stanley Thornton, Jr. gained attention some time back when NatGeo featured him in a program called Taboo. He is an adult man in his 30s who choses to live much of his life as a baby – being bottle fed, sleeping in a crib, wearing diapers, etc. It is an incredible story – and I do not mean incredible in a good way! He blames abuse as a child for his condition and his inability to keep a job. He is on disability although is able to drive, do woodworking, and run a website. If this strikes you as a disturbing story, it should. This is not the way life was meant to be lived. God designed us to grow up. Babies should be babies, but adults should be adults.

ImageIs it any less disturbing for believers to remain spiritual infants when God has called us on to maturity? The writer of Hebrews echoes Paul’s astonishment at spiritual immaturity among Christians. “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.” (Hebrews 5:11-13)

Why are so many Christians content to remain in spiritual play pens being fed with milk? Many reasons could be posited. It may be that some professing believers aren’t truly believers, in this case, their lack of spiritual maturity is understandable. It could be that spiritual growth has been stunted because the believer has conformed to the pattern of this world. It could be that the lure of comfort and security keeps a Christian from moving on toward maturity. It could be that pastors and churches have not set the expectation for growth – and there could all kinds of reasons for this. It may be that growing up carries with it responsibility, so the less mature a person is the less likely it will be that he or she will be asked to serve or sacrifice. Or possibly it’s some combination of all of these! Whatever the reason, it just isn’t right!

This world surely needs more spiritual infants, but the growth in the Christian nursery should be because of new spiritual births. But this world also needs believers who are committed to moving out of the nursery and into God’s army. We need men and women of faith who are maturing, growing, and getting out of their comfort zones. Paul said that he was pressing on to take hold of that for which Jesus Christ took hold of him. He didn’t say he was still holding onto a baby bottle!

Where are you? If you drew a line and numbered it 0-10 with 0 being spiritual infancy and 10 being spiritual maturity, where would you be? Are you in the same place you were a year ago, two years ago, ten years ago? If a spiritual photograph could be taken of you, would it show something like the picture above?

May God convict the hearts of every believer, myself included, that we should grow up to become more like Jesus daily in our attitudes and actions!

In the Aftermath of the Newtown, Connecticut Shooting

ImageOur desire is for easy answers that immediately satisfy.  In twenty-plus years of ministry and fifty years of life I have learned that easy answers are rare and rarely satisfy.  Trying to come to terms with a 20-year-old who would shoot his mother and then go to an elementary school and intentionally slaughter twenty children and six adults is, quite frankly, beyond my comprehension.  I have had similar bewilderment when faced with the Columbine, Aurora, and Virginia Tech shootings.

I have heard various talking heads, so-called experts, politicians and law enforcement officers provide their input.  There will be time to debate gun laws, school safety, mental illness, and violent video games; now it is time to grieve for the dead and pray for the grieving families – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and grandparents whose days can never be the same and who feel what must seem like an eternal emptiness.  As you pray, take a moment to lift of the pastors, priests, and counselors who will be called upon to speak into this intense pain and shock.  Pray also for the emergency personnel who responded to the site who will never be able to erase the images from their minds.

When I first heard that children had been shot, it was stunning.  When I later discovered that twenty precious little ones had been mercilessly killed, it was sickening.  My mind went immediately to the words of the prophet Jeremiah quoted in Matthew’s gospel following the Herod’s slaughter of the children in Bethlehem:  “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:18)

That is precisely how those parents feel.  Their children are no more.  They will not hold them or feel their kisses or read them bedtime stories.  Their lives are radically changed.  Their dreams have evaporated.  Their hearts have been ripped open.  Their tears flow from a bottomless well of grief.

In the days to come we will hear more facts, more details, and more speculation.  Within a week or so we will likely have an explanation as to why Adam Lanza became a mass murderer.  What we can know now is that evil is real, and this very real evil is not always isolated to homicide bombers in Afghanistan.  It showed itself in a paranoid king two millennia  ago.  It showed itself again yesterday in the hallways and classrooms of an elementary school in a peaceful New England town.  And no matter what laws we pass or preventative methods we take, it will reveal itself again in ways big and small.

How do we as followers of Jesus respond to this? We begin by hurting with those who hurt.  We cannot afford to become callous to the pain in the world around us.  We pray fervently for God’s comfort on all those involved.  We also work to overcome evil with good.  We cannot “fix” this broken world, but we can carry the love and hope found in Jesus beyond the walls of our churches and into the streets of our towns and cities.  

Depravity and evil will be here until Jesus returns, but the church will be here, too.  Evil will exert its influence. The church must exert Christ’s influence in our homes, our schools, and our communities. We dare not deny evil or simply attempt to hide from it. We must light our candle in the darkness. Consider these words from Paul:

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21)