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.

Jealousy and Envy – Slaying the Green-eyed Monsters

“But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth.  Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil.  For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.” (James 3:14-16)

Jealousy is certainly a monstrous sin.  It rips and rends our relationship with God our Father.  It goes marauding through our Christian communities, trampling love, devotion, and fellowship underfoot.  Finally, it devours our personal happiness, fulfillment and well-being before shambling off to terrorize new victims.

First of all, jealousy and envy are sins against God.  Like greed and every other vice that focuses on the “Self,” jealousy rips our love, trust, and devotion away from God and places the emphasis on our own sinful desires and rebellious tendencies.  Sometimes I don’t believe that God has given me everything I need.  I often doubt that His withholding of certain things from me is for my own good.  My sinful human heart tells me that I deserve much more than what God provides.

Of course, you and I know what we really deserve when we stop to think about it; nothing more or less than temporal suffering and death followed by eternal torment in Hell.  God has given us so much more (and less!) than we deserve.  We live a life filled with beauty and pleasure.  We need so little, yet God pours out His blessings on us abundantly every day.  And in His mercy and grace, God has placed the scourge of His wrath squarely upon the shoulders of His Son, Jesus Christ, while lavishing us with His love and affection.  Reflecting on these facts reveals the truly petty nature of our common jealousies.

Secondly, a jealous heart opens the floodgates for all manner of wicked behavior toward our neighbors.  We find “every evil practice” in the presence of selfish ambition because we are so easily enticed to sin when confronted by someone who is receiving the goods, attention, or lifestyle to which we feel entitled.  Like the early morning workers in the vineyard (see Matthew 20), we readily begrudge others of the blessings and riches that we deem them “unworthy” of receiving – forgetting that God has been much more than fair with dispensing our own wages.  Our selfishness is quickly inflamed to sin against them in thought, word, and deed because we cast an envious eye upon their blessings – when we should be rejoicing with them and helping to preserve and protect our neighbor’s goods, property and life.

Finally, after the monster of jealousy has reduced our relationships with God and man to smoldering ruins, it will turn upon us and devour our very heart and soul.  As Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to body, but envy rots the bones.”  When we willfully refuse to recognize the many blessings that God has showered upon us, life has a way of shriveling up and withering away.  We become consumed by our own bitterness, always pining for those things which the Devil convinces us we need in order to be “happy” but which God lovingly withholds from us in order to reveal the true way to happiness: Walking with Him in humble praise and service.

Jealousy and envy are deadly adversaries, threatening our own personal well-being as well as the larger community of Christians and the witness we bear to the world.  Arm yourself with the mighty weapons God has provided to fend off this green-eyed beast: a joyful thankfulness for all that God has done for us; peace that comes from contentment with God’s physical and spiritual blessings rather than the trappings of earthly pelf; goodness that puts the “self” aside and rejoices in the good fortune of others; faithfulness to our true calling of seeking first God’s kingdom and His righteousness rather than vain pleasures or riches; self-control to hold our bitterness and resentment in check, drowning the old sinful nature and calling forth the warrior to selflessly go and serve.  Jesus’ victory on the cross not only frees us from the eternal consequences of sin, but also from the earthly terrorizing of sins like jealousy, guarding our hearts and minds through His love.

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You for providing so richly and abundantly for all my physical and spiritual needs, especially for the gift of faith which You have bestowed upon me through the Holy Spirit.  Grant that praising You and serving others would come first in my life and that the doors of faith would be opened for all, that they too might receive the blessings of Christ’s righteousness; in Jesus’ precious name.  Amen.

Idolatry – No other gods

“You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)

Idolatry is one of those topics where many of us are inclined to feel rather smug about our spiritual condition.  After all, I’ve never purchased any wooden carvings that depict false gods.  My home is conspicuously free of pagan altars.  And I’ve never once prayed to a little golden pot-bellied man.  So I figure I’m good to go.

Well, Scripture has a much broader view of idolatry than we sometimes do.  Have you ever longed for more money, or for a possession which God has chosen not to grant you?  If so, the Bible says that you are guilty of the sin of idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5).  As Martin Luther writes, we must “fear, love, and trust God” more than anything else in our life – whether it’s a paycheck, a Porsche, or the fine products of Demetrius’ Discount Deities in Ephesus.  All are the same; a trust and devotion that is directed at something other than God and elevated above Him in our hearts and through our actions.

The cause of greed and the root of all idolatry is a trust and devotion in and with ourselves above all else, including God.  If I am ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, I fear and respect myself more than God – I am an idol-worshipper.  If I care more about fulfilling the desires of my sinful nature than I do about following God’s commands, I love myself more than God – I am an idol-worshipper.  If I spurn God’s commands and doubt His promises, choosing instead to go my own way and stray from the path of His will, I trust myself more than God – I am an idol-worshipper.

A close examination of idolatry and what it means for Christians can certainly knock our smugness level down a few notches.  We are all guilty of idol-worship in many forms.  So how do we fight and defend ourselves against this constant temptation?  What weapons are most effective in our struggle to maintain God’s position of supremacy in our hearts and minds?

Not surprisingly, love is the most prominent weapon of faith against our natural inclination toward idolatry – in fact, the weapon of love should remain unsheathed and in our hands at all times since it is so potent in combatting evil of every form.  As our knowledge of God’s love and His gracious promises for us grows, our own love toward Him will blossom, ripening into all other fruits of the Spirit.  The closer God brings us to Himself through His Word, the less our hearts and minds are set upon earthly things – like ourselves.

Several other weapons can also be brandished in the face of personal idolatry with great effectiveness.  The joy of our salvation will help us set our priorities on what matters most – God’s Kingdom and His righteousness.  The peace that comes from the Gospel will still our fears and doubts that often lead us to “take matters into our hands” rather than trusting God patiently.  And as we are sanctified through the Word in goodness, our evil desires will begin to shift toward the back burner as we yearn more and more for God and all the gracious gifts that He has to offer us through His Son.

The battle against idolatry certainly rages in our world today.  Of all the things that people fear, love, and trust, God isn’t typically very high on the list in our society – look to our attitudes and lifestyles for the proof.  Thankfully, we find forgiveness and restoration even from this treacherous sin in the blood of Jesus Christ.  Satan would have us despair over our failure to place God first in our life as His law demands, but Christ would have us glory in His redemption and forgiveness as we are strengthened and fortified against further attacks.

“Repent!  Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!…Then the people of Israel will no longer stray from me, nor will they defile themselves anymore with all their sins.  They will be my people, and I will be their God, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to put You first in all that I do as I glory in the salvation that I have in Your mercy and love; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Patience – Today’s Battle

“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:12-14)

There is a general sense of arming for battle in this passage, and patience is a key element in the protective gear that is being described here.

Unfortunately, our generation has been subtly stripped of this magnificent armor.  What has happened to patience in our world?  Why is it so difficult to bear with one another in love?  How can we receive forgiveness so richly and abundantly every day and be so stingy when it comes to sharing it with others?

Two words: “instant gratification.”

Satan has launched an aggressive campaign against one of our nine chief spiritual weapons, and it has been devastatingly effective.  We want what we want when we want it – now!  Whether it’s material wealth and possessions, earthly success, answers from God, or even compliance from other human beings in our lives, Satan has rendered most of us nearly incapable of wielding patience as a weapon.

Across the country and throughout the world, Christian couples are finding it more and more difficult to overlook offenses and patiently endure the minor (or major) annoyances of their spouses – we’ve seen the casualties in the broken relationships and divorce statistics.  Christian parents have trouble rearing their children gently and patiently in a world that teaches instant results and entitlement.  Road rage, workplace disputes, and all manner of senseless reactionary violence demonstrate the basic inability to brush off even the most petty and insignificant insults and inconveniences.

Satan’s war on patience has perpetuated every kind of evil imaginable.  Truly, a great many of our social ills are caused by the absence of this virtue.  Much of the conflict and tension in every kind of relationship is due largely to a lack of patience.  And do we really think that our witness and testimony to Christ’s cross goes unaffected by our impatience with those to whom we preach – and with the Holy Spirit?

The key to a patient heart is love.  Whenever we feel ourselves losing patience with our spouse, our child, our coworker, or anyone else, we need to look to the cross.  Mindful of Jesus’ patience with our sinful world, we draw from Him the strength to bear with our loved ones patiently.  Love binds the armor tightly together; without it, our protection falls to the ground and fails.  Along with love, the joy and peace we have through Jesus’ righteousness and salvation will help us to patiently resist whatever temptations and attacks the Devil hits us with.  We can once again take up this keen spiritual weapon, strike down the wicked inclinations of our impetuous hearts, and wait with gladness upon the Lord our Savior.  Where the Devil has disarmed us, the Lord our God equips us mightily through the power of His Word.

“But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:16)

“…being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” (Colossians 1:11-12)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, as You have dealt with me in patience, help me to also deal with those around me in a manner that reflects Your love; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

Joy – The Best Defense

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

It’s certainly no secret that one of the best defenses a Christian has against the attacks and troubles of this world is the tremendous joy that comes from the righteousness and salvation granted by Christ Jesus.

And yet…too often we recklessly venture forth stripped of our joy, weak and vulnerable to the Devil’s lies and the wearisome burdens of everyday life.

There isn’t anything wrong with the armor, that’s for sure.  Ask Paul and Silas, who – armed with the joy of the Lord – turned a seeming defeat at the prison in Philippi into a smashing victory for the Gospel through their joyous prayers and praises.  Ask any of the noble martyrs, whose joy in the Lord enabled them to face even death boldly, witnessing and testifying to the love of God even as they received the fulfillment of their hope.  Yes, joy is the best defense – and it seems that it can serve as a very effective offense as well.

So what’s my problem?  Maybe I’m not strapping it on tight enough; I tend to forget the incredible reality of all the riches Christ has delivered unto me through His death, and without the “belt of truth” my joy and my armor crashes around my feet.  Maybe I just carelessly venture forth without bothering with armor at all, figuring I’ll wait until “things get really bad” to arm myself with the hope and joy of my salvation – then get so wrapped up in winning the battle through my own strength that I don’t find an opportunity later to don my protective gear.  Maybe the flimsy enticements of this world seem to offer more joy than the adamantine Good News of the Gospel, and I stupidly look to shallow, empty worldly pursuits for my strength, joy, and defense against Satan.

I think sometimes we Christians look at our salvation as something far off in the distant future, so we miss out on the joy that it brings for us today.  Like Marty McFly in Back to the Future, we’re “not thinking fourth-dimensionally!”  We forget that the salvation Christ has won for us through the cross is already a reality for us today, here, now! – despite how things appear to us in our present situation.

It’s sad how we can find strength and consolation in the midst of a difficult work week by eagerly anticipating the weekend to come, and yet fail to find the real joy of Jesus’ triumph over every problem in this life.  When compared to the joy we have through the Gospel, all of our troubles and difficulties seem utterly insignificant – even pain and death.  By clinging steadfastly to this joy, we can trust God and avoid the temptations of seeking worldly “happiness” through the transitory pleasures and false securities of this fleeting life.  And as others watch us laugh as the Devil’s attacks bounce harmlessly off our impenetrable armor, they too can see the strength and power of the Gospel and find refuge in the joy of the Lord.

“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, guard and protect me through the sure knowledge and joy of Your salvation.  Let my joy be evident to all, that they may see the fruit of Your Spirit within me and come to know the joy I have in the hope of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

St. John – The Final Victory

“Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Revelation 2:10)

John was incredibly blessed.  His very name means “graced by God.”  He of all the disciples was especially beloved by the Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly ministry.  He was given long life, concluding with a breathtaking vision of the final victory of the Lamb of God and the saints.  Indeed, Jesus’ words must have echoed in his head many times during this great Revelation: “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?  You must follow me.” (John 21:22)

And follow Jesus he did, although the words were not spoken directly to John.  One of the greatest blessings John received during his life was to witness a vision of the Lord’s triumphant return.  What comfort this must have brought the suffering saint – to see his Lord and Savior come back in the flesh and bring peace and rest to His people!  How awesome to observe heaven and earth pass away as God Almighty made all things new!  How he must have trembled with joy at the words: “It is done.  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.  To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.  He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Revelation 21:6-7)

John was living in dark times.  Exiled, scorned, and deeply saddened by the state many in the Church had fallen into, John’s suffering undoubtedly caused him to watch carefully for the Last Day.  But given his close relationship with Jesus while accompanying Him on His ministry, I would expect that John looked forward to that day with all the more longing as he anticipated a personal reunion with his Lord and Savior.

Like John, we yearn for the Lord’s return.  Yes, we would like to see an end to the darkness and corruption of this fallen world.  Yes, we want to see the old order of things pass away, watching the renewal of the Church of God and the end of all suffering.  But I think I better understand where John’s desire came from as I imagine falling into my Savior’s embrace at last and picture my children run laughing up to Him to be held and touched by the Son of God.

Despite the darkness and suffering of this world, I can’t help but smile at this vision; the final victory – our reunion with God forever.  John’s great blessing is passed on to us today as we look forward to that day when we receive the crown of life from our gracious and merciful God.  Then, all God’s warriors will rest.  The heroes of the faith will have their reward in the person of Jesus, who is even now our comfort and assurance – our joy made complete when we see Him face to face.

Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!

“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them.  They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, You have given me Your Spirit and Your own Son as my comfort and reward as I toil through this life.  Grant me the grace to remain strong and faithful, bearing witness to You through Your Word.  In Your mercy, continue to grant faith and belief to many more souls during this time of tribulation, that they too may honor and glorify You now and forevermore; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord – my strength and joy and sure reward!  Amen!

Mary – One Thing Needed

“…only one thing is needed.  Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:42)

“But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made…” (Luke 10:40)

Several times in the last few years, I have heard the era in which we are currently living referred to as “The Age of Distraction.”  This makes a lot of sense, given the plethora of media outlets, electronic devices, entertainment venues, and various industries that thrive by filling our spare time anything and everything to keep us busy doing something and nothing all at once.  It’s no wonder that it has become so difficult to get young people – or anyone for that matter – to focus on important issues.

But the truth is, the world has always had plenty of distractions to divert our attention away from God and what He wants us to be spending our time doing.  Honestly, it doesn’t take a whole lot.  Our sinful nature makes us predisposed to putting God last and a million other things first.  The issue here is the first commandment; giving our fear, love, and trust – as well as time, money, and attention – to God first.

It’s scary how easily we can slide down the slippery slope of idolatry.  The most frightening part is that this can even happen as we are trying to serve God.  We may feel justified in saying, “Well, I’m on the church council, teach Sunday School, serve refreshments after the service, and head up the altar guild; so I don’t think God will mind if I forget to read my Bible or talk to Him in prayer once in a while.”

But is that what Jesus wants?  “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).  In your walk with God, remember that He is primarily concerned with you.  He wants you to attend worship services so that He can work on you, not the other way around.  In His house, you sit and listen to the life-giving words of our Lord Jesus Christ, just like Mary.  You receive His body and blood through the sacrament of Holy Communion.  You receive the forgiveness of sins and are absolved of your trespasses.  God strengthens and preserves us in His Word.  We praise and serve God out of love and thankfulness to Him only after receiving the good gifts that He serves to us – otherwise we fall into the trap of trying to earn His favor by our own good works.

Martha certainly had good intentions.  However, the results of her efforts should have tipped her off the dangers she was facing.  Jesus came to bring peace and joy; Martha’s service caused her only to be “worried and upset.”  When we find that our own service to God is producing anxiety, resentment, or frustration in our hearts, we’d better take a time-out and sit down with Mary.  Listen to the Savior’s healing words.  Believe His promises.  Grow in the knowledge of His love; then return to your service, refreshed and invigorated, ready to serve Him with gladness and thanksgiving.

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2-3)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to fear, love, and trust in You above all things.  Restore to me the joy of Your salvation through the power of Your Word.  Help me to serve You with a cheerful heart; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.