Video Game Spotlight: A Hero’s Sacrifice

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

~Philippians 4:8

In the last chapter of The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction, I recognized the fact that many secular stories, movies, and games contain wonderful, virtuous elements – even if the source itself is not “Christian”.  I recently discovered one such example in a rather surprising place: the video game series of “Halo”.  I certainly would not say that these games are something I would promote for the development of Christian character in young people, since the theme of the series is violent combat (although against clearly evil, non-human threats) and some of the characters use language that is not exactly Christ-like (although this improves throughout the series).  However, despite these shortcomings, there is a shining star in the midst of these games that provides an incredible example of faithfulness, hope, patience, endurance, humility, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for those around him – even those who hate him.

The main character of the series is known as Master Chief.  Only a few know him by his real name and officer number: John 117.  This is our first glimpse of the hero behind the mask in this series.  John 1:17 in the Bible says, “ For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  The alien forces who threaten mankind in this series are known as “The Covenant”.  While we know that the old covenant under the Law of Moses could promise only death for sinful man, it was Jesus Christ who saved us by overcoming sin, death and the devil through His death and resurrection, establishing a new covenant through His blood.  Halo players quickly surmise that Master Chief is the only hope humanity has against the alien threat which promises destruction for all mankind.  When he appears on the scene, the hopeless, demoralized, embattled troops of earth know that with him, there is life and hope.

Master Chief is never once arrogant or proud, despite knowing that he is all that stands between human beings and utter extinction.  He moves steadily onward, never neglecting his duty for our sake.  In John 11:7, Jesus turns to His disciples and tells them that the time has come for him to return to Judea.  They try to prevent Him, reminding Him that His enemies are waiting there to kill Him.  But the Son of God knows that His path leads to Jerusalem and Golgotha, and nothing will stand the way of His accomplishing the mission for which He was sent.  Likewise, Master Chief is marked by a character of pressing ever onward, even when his path means certain death for himself.  No matter the cost, he will complete his mission to save humanity.

There are so many rich elements that we could connect with as Christians in this story that I suspect someone on the game’s writing staff must have been a Christian.  A new threat is introduced soon into the game, a vicious, all-consuming race of parasites known as “The Flood”.  The key to humanity’s survival from this new threat lies in a hidden place called – you guessed it – “The Ark”.

As Master Chief travels on through the series and resolves each crisis toward humanity in turn, many look to him for hope in the darkest of times, trusting him to save them as they know only he can.  However, there are those who doubt him.  In fact, there are even those who hate him.  They reject him as the hero who will save mankind and even seek to get rid of him.  His response?  He fights with all the more determination to save those who have spurned him.

For this Good Friday Video Game Spotlight, I want to present my readers with a description of a scene that I think you will recognize.  The forces of evil have gathered thickly upon a bleak hill outside a city.  It appears the battle has turned against our Hero.  As his body is lifted for all to see, his followers cry out in despair.  How can this be?  He was our only hope, the only one who could save us!  As they gaze upon his lifeless form, all courage vanishes.  Some beat the ground in hopeless rage.  Others flee in terror now that their annihilation is certain, pursued closely by the monsters who seek to devour them.  Some simply hang their heads in anguish and await the inevitable end.  From the host of evil, a triumphant tumult arises.  The Hero is defeated.

Or is he?

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In His Presence

Sir Robert Stopford commanded a ship in the Royal British Navy at the end of the 18th century. He himself was under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horation Nelson. Nelson’s fleet was in pretty bad shape; their ships were battered and low on munitions, the food was nearly gone, and the fleet they were pursuing was almost twice the size of their own. Despite these difficulties, morale was unusually high.

When asked about this phenomenon, Stopford replied, “We are half-starved and otherwise inconvenienced by being so long out of port, but our reward is that we are with Nelson.”

The men fighting under Nelson knew the danger they were heading into. They knew that no amount of money could tempt them forward nor recompense what they were about to face. There was only one thing that made it all worth while: They were with Nelson.

Friends and fellow warriors, we know that constant difficulties and hardships will beset us as God’s children. The world does not want to hear the message of Christ crucified for our sins. In some places, Christ’s disciples are mocked and ridiculed. In other parts of the world, they are treated with no less hostility that He himself was when He walked on earth. The path of discipleship is not an easy road to walk. Tragedies and heartache abound in this life; our struggle often leaves us feeling weary, battered, and on the verge of despair.

We can certainly find comfort in the words, “Great is your reward in heaven.” And yet, we have comfort even in the trials of today as we go forward into the uncertain future with the resolve to stand by our Commander and Chief, bearing the full armor of God and wielding the Sword of the Spirit.

We are with Him.

Whatever difficulties we will face are nothing compared to the reward of being in Christ’s presence throughout our fight. He comes to us in His Word, as we hear it preached by faithful servants and as we read it in our homes. He comes to us in Sacrament, as we receive His very body and blood in His supper and as we remember the marks put upon us in our baptism. He comes to us through those who fight alongside us in this spiritual battle, promising that even in those who seem to be least in the body of all believers, indeed, there He is.

Of all the hardships we face, morale should never have to be among them. We have our reward, and it is not a distant, far-off future promise. We hold it in our hand and clutch it to our breast as we recall his words, “Behold, I am with you always.”

Our reward is that we are with Him, and that He is with us.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation.  But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, grant us the peace that comes through knowing that Your Son has defeated our enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  Be with us in our struggle against the world and our own sinful nature.  Let our joy be ever in You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son.  Amen.

IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS

“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.” (Psalm 91:4)

The title of this devotion is a Latin phrase which my family recently came across in their studies and shared with me.  Literally translated, it means, “So much the better, we will fight in the shade.”  Allow me to share with you the story behind these words:

The Roman orator Cicero (hence the Latin) retold Herodotus’ account of the battle of Thermopylae, where the Spartan king, Leonidas, led a mere 7,000 men against over 100,000 Persian invaders.  When asked to report, a scout betrayed his sense of despair at seeing such a tremendous force with these words to Dienekes, a Spartan soldier: “Their arrows will blot out the sun!”

To which Dienekes replied, “IN UMBRA, IGITUR, PUGNABIMUS!”

“So much the better, we will fight in the shade!”

Friends and fellow warriors, the darkness is gathering more thickly each day in our world.  Many of our former comrades have fled or turned against us, succumbing to the approaching terror and abandoning the truth of the Gospel for the sake of preserving their own temporal well-being.  As we stand near the battle-lines and survey the vast host of the armies of darkness that have been arrayed against us, paralyzing fear grips our hearts.  What is our response to this seemingly insurmountable threat?

Very well, then.  We will fight in the shade.

And indeed we will.  I do not mean to say that Satan’s hordes could ever blot out the light of God’s truth with their onslaught of fiery darts; truly, it shines all the more clearly in the face of darkness and adversity.  However, we will be shaded by the wings of our mighty and caring Heavenly Father.  His love, His mercy, and His strength will form a shield around us to protect and preserve our faith even in the face of every evil that comes swarming against us, no matter how dark the days may become.

“And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife,

though these all be gone, our victory has been won;

The Kingdom ours remaineth.” ~Martin Luther (A Mighty Fortress is Our God)

Yes, my friends; the battle belongs to the Lord.  Our faith rests securely in the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sealed and delivered to us in faith solely through His grace.  What have we to fear?  “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice as the mediator between God and mankind, God is and ever will be for us and with us, sheltering us beneath the wings of His love.  Though all the adversity of this world rails against us, it cannot prevail against the ultimate victory that we have through the cross.  Christ Himself tells us, “In this world you will have trouble.  But take heart!  I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

King Leonidas himself was approached by the Persian ambassadors before the battle at Thermopylae began.  Knowing the odds against this king and his lowly army, and expecting him to immediately comply, they commanded him to lay down his arms.  To which he replied:

“Come get them.”

Do not despair, my friends.  Our eternal equipment will see us through whatever battles may rage in the days to come.  The Word of God, the Sword of the Spirit, is strong to save.  Let Satan come and once more taste the Blade which brought about his destruction.  Though the hands that wield this supreme Weapon are frail and weak, the foe will never pry it from our grasp, for the Sword itself is invincible, and One who forged it and delivered it to us is ever by our side.

Does Satan come roaring against us?  Fine.  Come and get it.  Do the evils of the world gather more thickly with each passing day?  Very well.  Then we will fight in the shade.  Our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome the world and all its troubles.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus.  Give your Church the everlasting rest she longs for.

Until that time, we will fight.

“Through you we push back our enemies; through your name we trample our foes.  I put no trust in my bow, my sword does not bring me victory; but you give us victory over our enemies, you put our adversaries to shame.  In God we make our boast all day long, and we will praise your name forever.”  (Psalm 44:5-8)

See also 2 Chron. 20:12-19

Prayer: Heavenly Father, arm us with Your Word, that we may go boldly forth and proclaim the Good News of salvation to all who are in the clutches of sin and darkness.  Keep us steadfast in faith against the attacks of Satan, this world, and our own flesh.  Preserve and sanctify us by Your Holy Spirit, holding us ever in Your strong hand, that we may come at last to everlasting life and rest; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Commander, King, and Friend.  Amen.

 

From the pages of Building Christian Character through The Hobbit – Now available!  Click the “Books Available” tab at the top of this page to preview chapters 1-4 or to order a copy.

 

Chapter XIV – “Fire and Water”

 

“The dragon is inevitable – and let it come!  I repeat it, sir, let it come.”

Like the colonists living in Patrick Henry’s day, the people of Esgaroth have been living in the shadow of terror for too long.  Until they face the dragon that looms over them, they can never truly be free.  The dwarves and Bilbo have awakened the dragon’s wrath and stirred up his malice toward the men of Lake-town, but that is just as well – especially knowing that Smaug is destined to die in this battle.

Mr. Henry goes on in his speech to the Virginia Convention in 1775: “Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace – but there is no peace…What is it that gentlemen wish?  What would they have?  Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!”

The people of Esgaroth are so focused on their present suffering and the destruction of their town that they fail to see the wonderful, miraculous fact that seems so plain to us: Smaug is dead!  The monster of the north has been slain and the people of this region are now free from his centuries-long reign of terror.  While they may curse Thorin and Company for causing their present hardship, they ought to also recognize that the dwarves set into motion the chain of events that would lead to this great victory.

People have a way of delaying the inevitable.  As Christians, we often put off unpleasant battles in the hopes that the threat will just go away on its own, or remain sleeping beneath the mountain.  But the truth is, the monster is growing in size and strength with each passing day and year that we avoid confronting it – and the best we can hope for is that it will be our children or grandchildren who will have to combat the beast someday.  What terrible cowardice!

There are many difficult issues in our society that Christians are often reluctant to grapple with.  At best, we engage in minor skirmishes, hoping that it will be enough to stave off the threat without risking open war.  We make concessions to our faith and values, hoping that these compromises will reconcile us to the world.  They won’t.

So let it come.  Let us be the ones to wage spiritual warfare in our nation and world over issues of life, social values, and religious freedoms.  Let us boldly confront the evils in our society, even though it may mean a breach between Christianity and secular complacency.  Old alliances with those who undermine all that we believe and stand for may need to be cast down as we fend off the Dragon’s assault.  But it’s better that we take our stand now – while yet free to speak up and armed with the Gospel – than to relegate the task to our offspring who may be shackled and fettered with oppressive laws and a government that silences truth and wisdom.

We need to sound the alarm and take up arms against the Dragon right now, because he comes swiftly toward us breathing out deadly lies and fiery deceptions.  Christians at this time must especially take a stand on who God is and what He came to do.  There are many today calling themselves Christians who preach that Jesus came only to teach morality and self-enlightenment; that He was merely a wise teacher who set an example for how to live.  The battle-lines must be drawn here and now.  We must preach Christ crucified; that Jesus Christ is the true Son of God who died and rose again to atone for the sins of the world.  On this, there must be no compromise, because this is the truth and the difference between eternal life and everlasting death.

This will be a fierce battle.  We may risk much of what we have built up in times of prosperity to face the Dragon on this issue right now.  It will cause division and discord within our communities and country, because the world does not want to hear that Jesus is the only Way to the Father.  We will be condemned as intolerant – the worst possible sin of in postmodern society.  But the longer we postpone this battle, the stronger the Dragon will be when we finally face him and the more divided the Church will become, leaving the conflict to our descendants to fight with less hope and less strength than we currently possess.

We cannot afford to let sleeping dragons lie.  We must proclaim God’s Word – Law and Gospel – in truth and purity; even if it awakens all the fire-breathing menaces of every pagan religion, every secular humanist philosophy, and every false prophet that preaches any other Jesus than the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We mustn’t allow our cowardice to hand down this great task to our children for the sake of a false sense of peace and unity in Church and world.  We must fight.

 

The Dragonslayer’s sacrifice…

He spoke harsh words that were difficult to hear and were rejected by many.  He warned the people of the approaching doom, and fought on their behalf so that they could have life and freedom.  He was a descendant of kings, and the only one who could know the secret to defeating the evil monster.  He stood alone at last, enduring the flames of the dragon’s wrath, scorned by many and abandoned by his companions, because he alone could defeat the menacing beast and save them all.  He gave up his life to defeat the dragon, quelling its fierce might forever, but falling under the death-throes of his terrible enemy.  And when all hope had faded, he rose again victoriously and was exalted as king.

Sound familiar?  The triumph of Bard over Smaug is a striking parallel to the victory of Jesus Christ over the Devil.  While Bard may not be a perfect Christ-figure throughout the rest of the book, this particular instance provides an awesome image of the Son of God come to save those who had rejected Him.  And all in all, Bard serves as a great example of Christian virtue contrasted with the greed and hypocrisy around him.

Bard was condemned by his contemporaries for prophesying “gloomy” things; not that anyone disputed the truth and veracity of his claims, but it just wasn’t very pleasant to listen to.  Similarly, Jesus lost many followers and was rejected by a number of would-be disciples because of his hard teachings; things like being willing to give up earthly possessions and duties to follow Him, being “born again,” forgiveness based on faith by God’s grace, eating and drinking His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, and even His own death at the hands of His enemies.  Like Bard, Jesus would eventually be vindicated in all of His claims.  Those who rejected His words didn’t do so based on evidence to the contrary, but rather simply because it was easier for them to believe something else.

Just as Bard is the last descendant in the line of Girion, Lord of Dale, so Jesus was the Promised One in fulfillment of the Messianic line, reaching back to King David, Abraham, and all the way to Adam – the first recipient of the Gospel promise.  Being of the race of Dale, Bard was the only one who could understand the thrush and unlock the secret to defeating Smaug.  His black arrow that had been passed down from his father and “came from the forges of the true king” would prove to be the key to Smaug’s downfall.  Jesus, as the only begotten Son of God, was the only One whose blood was free from the curse of sin and who knew the way to defeat Satan, the great Dragon.  He was “from the True King,” and the black arrow of His divinity would be the shaft that would pierce the Dragon’s heart and bring him crashing down in ruin.

In the end Bard stood alone, abandoned by his companions, and faced the dragon while surrounded by the flames of his wrath.  Jesus’ companions all fled to save themselves, though they had sworn to stay by His side – even if it meant death.  He faced down the dragon, enduring the agony of the very flames of Hell as the Devil’s malice was poured out upon Him.  He fought our battle upon the cross so that we could enter the lifeboat of His Church and freely obtain life and salvation through the waters of baptism, just as the people of Esgaroth fled to safety through the waters of the Long Lake while Bard battled Smaug.

Jesus certainly did not escape the battle unscathed.  Just as Smaug came crashing down upon Bard in his last throes, so too did Satan strike the heel of Jesus with physical death and the torments of Hell even as he fell in utter defeat.  But like Bard, Jesus emerged victoriously amidst cries of mourning to claim His rightful title of King and Lord, claiming the honor of defeating the Dragon and freeing the people from his reign of terror – and of securing all the treasures of heaven on our behalf!

Ananias – Preaching in the Danger Zone

“Go!  This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15)

“Lord, you’ve got to be kidding…”

I’m sure something like this was going through the mind of Ananias when God called him to go minister to Saul.  After all, this guy was viciously hunting down the Christians, putting them in prison or worse!  He was bad news, and it was practically suicide to approach him in the name of Jesus.

Yesterday’s devotion focused on following the guidance of the Holy Spirit as He directs us to minister to people in all different walks of life.  But sometimes the High Commander gives us orders that are so absurd, so ridiculous, so dangerous, that we can’t help but second guess.

It must certainly have taken a lot of guts and a lot of faith for Ananias to go to Saul and heal him in the name of Jesus.  For one thing, he was putting his own life into the hands of a sworn enemy of the Way.  For another thing, helping this nemesis of the Church probably would not have been a very popular choice among the believers in Damascus.

Most of us probably aren’t called to witness in situations quite as hostile as this.  However, we must recognize that God can and does use very unlikely men and women to act as His chosen instruments.  Besides, we are called to bring the Gospel to all nations – even to those who may initially react to it with hostility.  We must certainly pray continually for those who boldly follow in the footsteps of heroes like Ananias, bringing the message of salvation into the “danger zones” of spiritual enmity.  We ask God to watch over them and keep them safe, and also to send His Holy Spirit to bend the hearts of those to whom they minister.

Even if we don’t face physical danger for the sake of our witness, we may still be able to relate somewhat to Ananias’ situation.  There are people in our society that many believers feel are “unworthy” of receiving the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Some men and women have done terrible things in their past, hurting or even killing innocent people.  It may not be popular – even within the Church – to show kindness to them and bring them the message of salvation after what they have done.  So we pray also that God would give us the strength and courage to bring His love even to terrible “sinners” who don’t deserve it (I know the irony isn’t lost on you…), and also that the Holy Spirit would work in all believers to foster an attitude of forgiveness and evangelism within the Church.

God’s Word is powerful.  Many times before, the roots of the Gospel have sprung forth and penetrated even hearts of solid stone.  In fact, it is these unlikely plots that often produce some of the most amazing crops!

“’Two men owed money to a certain moneylender.  One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both.  Now which of them will love him more?’  Simon replied, ‘I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.’  ‘You have judged correctly,’ Jesus said.” (Luke 7:41-43)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give me a deeper understanding of Your righteous Law, that I may fully appreciate the vastness of my debt of sin.  Help me to boldly share the Gospel even with those who despise You and Your servants.  Watch over all those who proclaim Your Word to their own hazard.  Bless the Gospel message that they preach, that those who hear it may come to know You, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Philip – Led by the Spirit

“But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” (Acts 8:12)

I don’t think I ever really appreciated what an incredible person Philip was.  Like so many heroes of the faith, it is easy to overlook his courage and the tremendous impact he had on the early Church.

Imagine being chased from your home and driven from your own town by the threat of imprisonment or death.  Just think of all the things that would be on your mind: How will I live?  Will I ever see my friends and family again?  Can I ever go back?  Will I be safe somewhere else?  I know I can sadly speak for myself when I say that telling people about Jesus probably wouldn’t be the first thing on my mind in that situation.

But that’s exactly what happened to Philip, and that’s exactly what he does.  He faithfully and boldly follows the urging of the Holy Spirit and travels away from Jerusalem, proclaiming the Christ wherever he goes.

First, he goes to the Samaritans – the “enemies” – and finds fertile soil in the hearts of many men and women who are eager to receive the Gospel.  The power of God’s Word turns their hearts from pagan practices and witchcraft, and even Simon, the great magician, is baptized and becomes a follower.

Then, God sends Philip on the road again.  The Holy Spirit prompts him to strike up a conversation with – of all people – an Ethiopian eunuch who served as an important official to the queen.  Here he finds that the seeds of faith have already been planted through the Law and Prophets.  God has sent Philip to water this man’s heart with the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God even provides an opportunity for Philip to baptize him, opening the door for the Gospel to be spread to distant lands on another continent.

But that wasn’t the end of Philip’s incredible journey.  The Spirit leads him through other lands and villages before finally bringing him to Caesarea, where he would evangelize for decades to come.  There, Philip would undoubtedly sow the seeds of faith to many merchants and travelers, to be carried by the winds and waves throughout all the lands of the Mediterranean and beyond.

We can breathe easy, since not many of us are called to wander boldly like Philip from town to town and along dusty roads.  But the Spirit does lead us in ways just as wonderful and mysterious as it carried Philip from place to place.  In seemingly unlikely places, we are goaded by the Holy Ghost to sow the seeds of the Gospel on ground that appears, well, “horticulturally challenged.”  That’s okay; we’ve got plenty and to spare, and the Spirit bids us cast the seeds of God’s Word with reckless abandon.

By trusting in God to provide for us, we allow Him to take our focus off of ourselves and place it where it truly belongs; on the ministry He has given us.  Then we can let go and allow the Spirit to blow us where it pleases, guiding us to new and exciting opportunities to witness for our Lord.  And from there, there’s no telling where the Spirit will carry the seeds that we scatter!

“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.” (John 3:8)

“Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop – thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:20)

Prayer: Lord God, guide and direct me by Your Spirit.  Lead me into what fields You will, and help me to cast the seed of Your Word far and wide; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Stephen – Rejected by Men

“Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?  They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One.  And now you have betrayed and murdered him” (Acts 7:52).

If you have ever been scorned, ridiculed, tormented, or in any other way persecuted for speaking the Gospel, then know that you are in good company.

Stephen, “a man full of God’s grace and power” who “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8), paid the ultimate price for his witness concerning the Lord Jesus.  While the apostles had recently rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41), Stephen now gains the distinction of becoming the first recorded martyr of the Christian faith.

Stephen and the other apostles discovered the hard way that sinful human beings don’t enjoy hearing God’s Word.  We (all of us) become defensive when convicted by God’s just and righteous Law.  We even resist the Gospel because it forces us to bear our souls before God and face our own wretched sinfulness.  It leaves us helpless and vulnerable, reminding us that we are powerless to achieve salvation through our own works.  We would rather exalt ourselves in the eyes of men than humble ourselves before the mercy seat of Almighty God.

Those who preach and confess the Word publicly are often met with resistance and hostility.  For the apostles, it meant torture and humiliation.  For Stephen, it meant death by stoning.  For us, it sometimes means loss of reputation or even employment.

How are we to react when our testimony is met with hard hearts and stiff necks?  We can take our cue from the great heroes of the faith who have gone before us.  The apostles rejoiced that they were permitted to suffer for the sake of Jesus’ name.  Stephen – like his Lord – forgave his murderers even as they carried out his death sentence.  We too should try to recognize that those who revile us are prisoners of darkness who need our prayers and the Holy Spirit in their lives.  God instructs us to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39) and to love even our “enemies” (Matthew 5:44).  His exhortation to take up our cross and follow Him (Luke 9:23) reminds us that our ministry to others may require personal sacrifice on our behalf.  Others undoubtedly sacrificed much to bring the Gospel to you and me, and Jesus sacrificed all to make that Gospel a reality.

In the midst of whatever suffering we are called to endure for the sake of Jesus’ name and whatever resistance we are met with, we must never forget that the Word of God is living and active.  Though our own powers of persuasion may be feeble and faulty, God’s Word is at work doing what it says it will.  In the time of Stephen and the apostles, scores of people were coming to faith in Christ Jesus – including many priests and influential Jews – despite the suffering and persecution of those who proclaimed the Gospel.  In our time, the Holy Spirit continues to work in the hearts of those who hear the words we proclaim; even in those who seem only to scorn and revile us for our testimony.  For this, we give thanks to God for His exceeding grace and mercy!

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give me the strength and courage to proclaim Your Word without fear or hesitation.  Send Your Spirit to work in the hearts of all those who hear, that they may believe and live; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Thomas – No Doubt About It

“[Jesus said] ‘Stop doubting and believe.’  Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:27-28)

I don’t think there’s anyone in the Bible who gets a bum rap quite as unfairly as Thomas does.  He has gone down in history as “doubting Thomas” thanks to his refusal to believe the disciples’ word about Jesus’ resurrection and the Lord’s subsequent seeming rebuke: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

Of course, we tend to ignore the fact that every other disciple had also fallen victim to exactly the same spirit of despair and unbelief: “But [the disciples] did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense” (Luke 24:11).  We also ignore that the world in general feels the same way regarding the message of the resurrection – that it pretty much sounds like nonsense: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

So what does it take for a skeptical, worldly-wise heart to believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and all the promises that go with it?  It takes the same thing that prompted one of the greatest confessions recorded in Scripture from the lips of Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”  It takes the same thing that opened the eyes of Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, causing their hearts to burn within them for Jesus’ sake.  Belief in the Gospel requires the hand of Jesus Christ acting in our lives, opening our hearts through the Holy Spirit and His Word.  Thomas is a hero of the faith who demonstrates the appropriate response to Jesus’ command: “Stop doubting and believe.”

This command and promise is for us as well.  We all – like the disciples – struggle with doubt, despair, and unbelief.  Sometimes we need the example of bold heroes of the faith like Thomas to give us the strength to follow Jesus despite danger and hardship.  Yes, you heard me right: “Doubting Thomas” is the same man who only shortly before Jesus’ death walked willingly with Him into the hands of vengeful enemies, saying to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16).

What a phenomenal testament of courage and faith on Thomas’ part!  And yet even a bold warrior like this could soon after have his belief and devotion overshadowed by fear and doubt.  So how much more do we need the powerful command of Christ Jesus: “Stop doubting and believe”?  We also, like Thomas, need to encounter the risen Lord personally in His Word, seeing Him face to face and being assured that His promise of salvation is fulfilled in the cross and the empty tomb.  We too need to be strengthened in faith through Holy Communion by His body which was broken on the cross and His blood which was poured out from His hands, feet, and side.

By His saving Word, the Lord Jesus comes to us through the locked doors of sin and unbelief.  We seek him there in times of doubt or despair.  We reach out for His precious body and blood.  And strengthened by these gifts, we are able to confess Him as “My Lord and my God!”

“Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and glorified him, and so your faith and hope are in God.” (1 Peter 1:21)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, dispel my doubts and fears through the power of Your Holy Word and Sacraments.  Give me strength and courage to follow to You, even in the midst of Your enemies, that they too may see the message of the cross and turn to You in faith; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Joseph of Arimathea – Taking the Body of Christ

“Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action.  He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God.  Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.” (Luke 23:50-52)

Joseph of Arimathea was a man of true courage.  When Jesus’ own disciples were afraid to show their faces for fear of the Sanhedrin, Joseph stepped forward from among the ranks of the enemy and served our Lord by taking His body down off of the cross and placing it in an unused tomb.  Not only would this act defy his brethren on the Council and infuriate powerful leaders in Jerusalem, but it also broke with the custom of the time to leave the bodies of “criminals” without care or proper burial.  Joseph’s bold actions served as a witness and testimony to everyone that he was a follower of Jesus, the innocent Son of God.

Joseph’s renown as the caretaker of the body of Christ has endured even in secular society through the legends of King Arthur.  In these, Joseph is entrusted with the “Holy Grail,” a powerful artifact that is intimately connected with the body and blood of Jesus.  He is charged with passing down this task and mission to later generations; all the way down to Sir Galahad, who is eventually taken up into heaven by the power of the Grail.

Like Joseph, we have been entrusted with the care of Christ’s body, the Church.  Believing people throughout the world make up the members this body, and are united in Spirit under Jesus, our Head.  We have been given a monumental task to guard and protect this sacred vessel, preserving it for future generations as the place by which they come to the Father through His Son by Word and Sacrament.

Luke tells us that Joseph was “a good and upright man.”  Why does he say this?  What makes Joseph good and upright?  Joseph is moved by the Holy Spirit to come to the cross of Jesus, just as we are today.  Joseph is awaiting the kingdom of God, just as the saints today watch and pray.  And just as Joseph takes the body of Christ in faith and courage, so too do we come to the Lord’s altar and take Christ’s body, with His blood, for the strengthening of our faith and the endowment of His righteousness.  Doing this is the command of our Lord Jesus, and it is the testimony of our faith in Him as the Holy Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

“The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” (Psalm 147:11)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, preserve Your Church through the preaching of the Gospel.  Help us to proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again through faithfully partaking of His body and blood.  Let this testimony draw those around us to the cross of Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

Esther – Pleading before the King

“If I have found favor with you, O king, and if it pleases your majesty, grant me my life – this is my petition.  And spare my people – this is my request.” (Esther 7:3)

Queen Esther has long been known as a great hero of the faith because of her willingness to go before the king and selflessly risk her life on behalf of her people.  Haman, the enemy of the Jews, had successfully plotted their complete annihilation which would soon be carried out.  His hatred of Esther’s people could only be placated by wiping them off the face of the Earth.

Although the punishment for approaching the king’s throne without being summoned was death, Esther boldly falls before him to petition for the lives of her people.  Because she had found favor in his eyes, the king grants her life and furthermore agrees to do whatever she asks.  In a series of seeming coincidences, Haman, the great enemy, was destroyed and the Jewish people had life, honor and peace restored to them.

Interestingly, God Himself is never explicitly mentioned in the entire book of Esther.  Yet His hand is clearly seen in the events that play out for the salvation of His chosen people and ultimately the salvation of all mankind through the Messianic Promise.  The “coincidences” that occur are nothing other than Divine Providence working out of love for God’s children.  Because Esther and the other people of Israel look to God in faith for mercy and salvation, they are saved from the terrible fate that had been plotted for them.

Like Esther and her people, we have all been doomed to destruction by a powerful enemy whose hatred for us cannot be quenched by anything other than our eternal damnation.  Satan has built a gallows just for us, and his snare of sin would assuredly have led us into death and hell.  But thanks be to God for One who has found favor in His sight – Jesus Christ – who goes before Him on our behalf, willing to suffer death for the sake of our safety.  By His noble sacrifice, the tables have been turned on our enemy, and Satan has been cast down even as we are raised up in life, honor and peace with God.

“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for delivering me from my enemies – sin, death, and the Devil – through the precious sacrifice and glorious triumph of Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Haggai – Encouragement and Caution

“’Be strong, all you people of the land,’ declares the Lord, ‘and work.  For I am with you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘This is what I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt.  And my Spirit remains among you.  Do not fear.’” (Haggai 2:4-5)

The prophet Haggai had been sent to the people of Israel to stir them up into action.  They had been delivered from exile and returned to their homeland, only to look first to their own affairs rather than trusting God and honoring Him by rebuilding the temple.  Their fear kept them from following His Word – fear that He would not provide for their needs.  Also, they became complacent; satisfied with themselves because they figured that by simply inhabiting the Holy Land once more they themselves were now holy.

First of all, God reminds these people through Haggai that nothing can succeed without His blessing, and nothing can fail with His support.  No matter how hard they worked the land, it would never produce in abundance if God Himself did not provide the harvest.  God had kept the land from being bountiful because the Israelites needed to understand that success in anything starts with God alone.  So He told them, “Work! – do those things that will serve and honor Me, and don’t worry about having ‘enough’ of everything else!”

This word of encouragement is true enough for us today.  As we worry about the economy and fret over personal finances, retirement funds, and a well-stocked pantry, God’s work is pursued half-heartedly at best.  We say, “I’d love to give more, but I need to take care of myself and my own family first.”  God says, “Let Me worry about the future, and you do what is needed today.”  We say, “I’d give more time to God’s service if my life weren’t so busy.”  God says, “Put away these foolish idols and live abundantly by walking with Me daily.”  We don’t have to fret over the future and fear for our well-being, because “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)

Along with this encouragement, Haggai brought a message of warning to the Israelites:  Living in the Holy Land does not in itself make you holy.  Holiness requires faith in the mercy of God to forgive and redeem, purchased through the sacrifice of innocent blood.  While “uncleanness” spreads easily from one vessel to another through contact, holiness does not; it requires direct contact with the sacrifice itself.

As Christians gradually become more and more worldly, we have a tendency to think we are made holy by our membership in a certain church or by our attendance record at worship.  We somehow believe that our relationships with the ungodly are a great service – that our own “holiness” rubs off on them.  We think, “I’ll change them; I’ll show them how they ought to live.”  The truth is, our own holiness comes not from anything we ourselves are or do, but only from the Sacrifice – the One Sacrifice for the sin of the world, Jesus Christ.  The holiness we have is a garment from Him, and it will not rub off on others simply by rubbing elbows with them.  They need direct contact with the Sacrifice – they need to know Jesus.  If this is not the crux of our interaction with them, chances are more likely that their “unclean” thoughts, words, and deeds will simply infect our own lives.

As we set to doing the Lord’s work first and foremost – telling the world about what He has done for us in Jesus Christ – we will reap a greater harvest than ever before.  We will sow peace, hope, and love, and gather more joy, more goodness, and more earthly and eternal blessings than we would have ever thought this dusty land could produce.  Rather than emptying ourselves into a defiled world and becoming infected with sin, we will bring anything unclean into the presence of God’s Atoning Sacrifice where it can be made pure and holy.  God’s Spirit is with us yet today; He will give us the courage and strength to do this.

“’Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’” (Malachi 3:10)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank You for blessing me with wealth enough to meet all my bodily needs and much, much more – help me to use it to further Your kingdom and tend to Your sheep.  I thank You for blessing me with an able mind and body, with health and well-being – help me to use my life in service to You and to my neighbors.  I thank You most of all for the blessing of righteousness and holiness through the atoning sacrifice of Your Son – help me to bring everyone I meet into contact with Him, that they too may be made pure and holy through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.