Out of Shape?

This year, there is a great deal of emphasis being placed upon the importance of the Reformation of the Church 500 years ago. Being repeated so many times, I wonder if the word “Reformation” starts to lose some of its meaning for us when we hear it. To “Re-form” something means, of course, “to form again.” Luther set about his work because he saw that the Church had become misshapen, off kilter, or “out of shape” from what it was when formed originally by the apostles’ teaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified. It needed to be formed once again into what Christ through His apostles had built it.

This gradual falling “out of shape” is not “natural” in a perfect world. At the Creation, God gave us a world where there was no decay, nothing misshapen or off kilter, and things held together the way they were intended. However, with the world cursed by sin, such falling out of shape is an inevitable consequence. We see it in many places besides the Church of the 16th century. Our bodies slow down, our senses deteriorate, our parts settle into unusual positions, and the older we get the more we recognize a general sense of being “out of shape.” Our societies forget or ignore the moral law that God has written upon our hearts, they reject the teachings and traditions of history and our forefathers, and there is a general sense that things are falling apart in our world. Even the family unit can become misshapen and distorted as individual families drift apart through conflict or apathy, parents and children forget their fourth commandment duties to one another, and our world even goes so far as to redefine what “family” is. Let’s face it: everything falls apart in this sinful world.

Thankfully, by the power of the Holy Spirit our faith and hope are in the mercy and grace of the Great Reformer; and no, I don’t mean Martin Luther. Jesus Christ came into this misshapen, off kilter, out-of-shape world to mend what had been broken and lost. He took this world in His mighty, gentle hands and molded it back the way it was meant to be. In His life, we see flashes of Creation restored: the hungry are fed, storms are calmed, the sick are healed, the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear, and the dead rise again. But even greater that all these, we see Him bringing forth the forgiveness of sins through His death and resurrection. We are made alive again in Him, our relationship with God the Father is restored by Jesus’ mediation, and we will live eternally with our Triune God.

The same Potter Who formed the universe by His Word and formed man out of the dust has reformed, restored, and renewed His living Church. In Christ alone is our hope, only by His grace, only by faith, through the power of His Word. To God be the glory! Amen.

By His grace,

Andrew Boll

Showers of Blessings

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
let the earth cause them both to sprout;
I the Lord have created it.”  ~Isaiah 45:8

 

“April showers bring May flowers.”

I think these words give us hope as we stare out the windows at the early springtime weather. It’s wet, gray, sloppy, and at times simply depressing out there. So we have to remind ourselves that the current dreariness will soon produce the beautiful and abundant fruits of the earth. God’s blessings for tomorrow often come in the form of cold and bitter rainstorms.

In our personal lives, it is often the same. I know there have been times in my life where I was very angry with God over some temporary pain, loss, or disappointment – only to feel the sting of shame later when I realized how God was bringing about incredible blessings in my life through that same event. Scripture tells us that affliction leads to perseverance and eventually hope. Strangely enough, none of us jump up and down and get excited when affliction comes our way.

Heavy rain certainly reduces visibility. We tend to be so self-centered and short-sighted that we immediately become blind to the many, many other present blessings that God continues to shower down on us, even as we shake our fists at Him for our current discomfort. Our heads are hunkered down against the stinging cold of adversity, forgetting that it is the same rain that will bring forth fruitfulness, life, and abundance in the near future – but also pushing away all thoughts of other comforts and joys that are ours through God’s grace.

Perhaps this is our present state as we feel a certain amount of disgust toward our culture and society. We get frustrated and depressed over the Godlessness and immorality in our country, and forget the fact that God has graciously preserved our ability not only to worship Him openly, but to speak freely and challenge the empty philosophies of secularism. As we despise the humanistic notions that are running rampant around us, we lose sight of the many joys, comforts, conveniences, and luxuries that we so richly enjoy in our country. And who knows, but that this current shift in culture is not the rain that will moisten the earth and provide the perfect setting for the seed of the Gospel to sprout and flourish in the hearts of millions?

Occasionally, there will be rain showers; financial difficulties, health problems, frustrations and dilemmas in future planning. But we know that in all these things, God is faithful to the work which He has begun. We stay mindful of the hope we have of the growth occurring just below the surface, which will soon spring forth in splendor as God’s Word blossoms in our community and country. And we do not lose sight of the many, many blessings that He continually bestows upon us; the faithful members of our congregations and families, the devoted friends and neighbors, the beautiful children of God who have been entrusted to our care – and most of all, the life and forgiveness we have through Jesus Christ our Savior.

What a blessing it is to be allowed to tend this patch of earth!

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”  ~Isaiah 55:10-11

Prayer: Heavenly Father, bless Your Word as it goes forth in our communities, our nation, and throughout our world.  Grant that the seed which is sown will fall upon fertile soil, that the harvest be one of hope in the righteousness won for us by Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  In His name we pray.  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!

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.

Witchcraft – Who’s in Control?

“Keep on, then, with your magic spells and with your many sorceries, which you have labored at since childhood.  Perhaps you will succeed, perhaps you will cause terror…That is all they can do for you – these you have labored with and trafficked with since childhood.  Each of them goes on in his error; there is not one that can save you.” (Isaiah 47:12;15)

Witchcraft?  Really?  “Surely, not I Lord!”

Like idolatry, it’s easy for us “upstanding Christians” to feel rather untouched by the Bible’s warnings and condemnations of sorcery and witchcraft.  The only “casting” I do is with a fishing rod, my “spelling” doesn’t involve wands or incantations, and although I might “brew” up some trouble occasionally, it’s never in the form of magical potions.

In fact, sometimes we might even sit back and shake our heads sadly at those poor, deluded pagans and their ridiculous rituals.  What’s the point of it all?  Just a sad attempt to maintain the illusion of control in their spiritual and earthly lives.  But now, we would never stoop so low…

The rebellion behind witchcraft lies in trying to grasp our own salvation – both now and eternally – rather than letting God take the reins and keep them.  In the temporal sense, our lack of complete trust in God sometimes leads us to seek ways in which we can “shape our own destiny” rather than letting the Holy Spirit guide us in life through whatever trials and troubles God may allow.  God would discipline and prepare us for greater faith and service, but we would prefer the easy road.  God would bless us by growing spiritual gifts in our hearts and bringing us closer to Himself, but we rebel and cling to our earthly pelf and prominence, preferring to remain “knit to this world” as C.S. Lewis would say.  Perhaps we don’t look to demonic powers to surmise the future and avoid God’s plans, but we don’t have to; we simply look to ourselves to “know” what’s best for our lives instead of humbly following God’s Word and will – and worship of self is idolatry just as worship of demonic powers is.

Witchcraft belies a lack of trust in God and His control over our lives.  We do not believe He is loving, faithful, and gentle, so we are afraid to give ourselves over to His will.  Our trust in God for this life goes only so far.  When it really comes down to it – when my job, my house, or my money is on the line – trusting God just doesn’t always make sense.  Sorry God, I know what your Word tells me here, but I think I know what I’m doing better than you do.

Our lack of trust in God translates from temporal, earthly matters even to our eternal salvation.  We don’t like being completely at the mercy of the Holy Spirit.  We want some ownership of what’s happening to our souls.  Again, we try to maintain the illusion of control by believing that our works, our worship attendance, and our lengthy prayers are building up “brownie points” with God.  We turn our faith into a ritual, where if we say just the right magical words and make all the proper motions, we will end up in heaven.  But as Isaiah says, all of our works and words and powers have the ability to bring only terror as we examine our hearts and see how utterly short we have fallen of God’s perfect law; “there is not one that can save you.”

We need to let go.  Let God take the steering wheel, and He will bring you through fields of blessing and rich abundance the likes of which you would never have known this life to contain; maybe not money, fame, or earthly prosperity, but all the treasures of a heart and mind that finds everything needful in Him.  Let go of everything you have been holding on to – sin, doubt, and shame – for Christ has taken it all upon Himself on the cross and left it buried in the tomb, that we might rise triumphantly along with Him.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, help me to trust You more deeply, that I might commend my life and soul to Your loving hands alone; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, my Lord.  Amen.

From the pages of “The Hero and the Dragon: Building Christian Character through Fantasy Fiction” regarding witchcraft:

Common Christian Pitfalls

“For where God built a church, there the Devil would also build a chapel.” ~Martin Luther

Christians, even those who have never touched a fantasy fiction book in their lives, aren’t immune to the subtle influences of witchcraft in the way they think and act. Christianity can be twisted and perverted by pagan practices that have invisibly worked their way into the fabric of our faith. Without even realizing it, people sometimes fall into habits that reflect ideas that are not at all inspired by God’s Word, but rather by secular, pagan, or even occult messages and philosophies.

We sometimes fall into the ways of “animism,” thinking that I need to “work my way up the spiritual ladder” and earn my way into God’s good graces, forgetting that I’m saved by grace alone in Christ crucified. Other times, like “shamanists,” we place our faith in objects, rituals, or other people instead of God alone, forgetting that “there is one God and one mediator between God and man,” Jesus Christ. Sometimes, we even act like members of the “occult,” reveling in our “secret knowledge” and forgetting that Jesus Christ died for all, and we have been sent to share the Gospel with everyone we meet.

The most prominent of these distortions today is what is commonly termed “prosperity theology.” The basic premise is that people can “manipulate” God into giving them whatever they desire by saying the proper prayers, doing the right actions, or achieving the right frame of mind. This doctrine has enjoyed some popularity for the last hundred years or so, but has become increasingly popular since World War II and especially in the last thirty or forty years.

It doesn’t require a real thorough inspection to see how this idea contradicts God’s Word and reflects the pagan influences of ritualistic witchcraft. When God tells us to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you as well,” it isn’t a recipe for fiscal success. God’s will for our life is good and loving, and He desires that we be happy, healthy, and successful. Obeying His commandments and precepts naturally leads to prosperity, but not necessarily as the world sees it. In this sinful, fallen world, many Christians have to sacrifice worldly success for the sake of adhering closely to the Father’s will. They are scorned and ridiculed for their faith, and some even lose their reputations, property, or lives because of it. Jesus warns that persecution will be a natural result of discipleship, not financial and physical well-being.

When we try to make God into a pagan deity who can be controlled and manipulated through silly incantations, empty rituals, and hollow servitude, we miss out on the most tremendous blessings He has in store for us. Our Heavenly Father wants so much for us in our lives, and not just sports cars, delicious foods, and fancy jewelry. He wants to craft us, to mold us, to make us more like Him, so that we can understand just how wonderful life can be when we walk together in unity – despite whatever suffering or difficult circumstances we may be going through at the time.

The prayer of Jabez in the Bible has been misused by thousands of men and women hoping for a “genie-in-a-bottle” phenomenon. That’s fine. Ask God to bless you, by all means. But you should also realize that sometimes God blesses us through pain, loss, and sorrow. Sometimes He gives us the best things in life in a way that will make you want to curse His name during the process. Sometimes cancer will be the blessing you ask for, or unemployment, or loneliness, or any number of fears, doubts, temptations, heartaches, and tragedies. Because the greatest blessing we could ever have, and the thing God desires most for us, is to be closer to Him. Bless me, Lord. Thy will be done, not mine. Give me a stronger faith. Take away all trivial distractions and help me to walk with you. Amen.

My Apologies for the late post today – I had some “technical difficulties” last night (although technically, the difficulties were with my brain and not the computer).  Thanks for your patience!

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.

Faithfulness – A Mighty Fortress

“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)

If we are to speak of faithfulness as an armament of faith, we must look first to God’s own faithfulness.

Again and again the Bible speaks of God’s faithfulness as an awesome source of protection for His children.  In His faithfulness, He protects us from the troubles of this world, the temptations of the Devil and our own sinful flesh, and especially against the wrath that our sins deserve:

“Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

“But the Lord is faithful, and he will strengthen and protect you from the evil one.” (2 Thessalonians 3:3)

“O Lord, hear my prayer, listen to my cry for mercy; in your faithfulness and righteousness come to my relief.  Do not bring your servant into judgment, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:1-2)

Yes, God’s faithfulness is truly our ultimate protection against every evil we face as His warriors.  In times of trouble and affliction, the best thing we can do is to place ourselves in His loving hands and proclaim, “Thy will be done!”  We have seen and know that the Lord is faithful to fulfill all of His promises: “But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in him.  He will be like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream.  It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green.  It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:7-8)

So what about our faithfulness?  If God’s faithfulness produces fruit in us, as Jeremiah claims, what is the role of the faithfulness which we return to God in thanksgiving?  The first and most important way that we return God’s faithfulness to Him is by continuing to cling to His promises throughout our lives.  “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).  This is God’s will for us, and it is our sure defense against the accusations of the Evil One.  But don’t doubt its effectiveness as a weapon against evil!  Perhaps the best witness we can bear to others is a sure and steady trust in God’s promises that is evident in our words and actions.  This testimony can certainly deliver a stunning blow to the Devil as he attacks those around us with doubt and unbelief through their own trials and difficulties.

We can also return thanks to God for His faithfulness by remaining faithful to our calling as Christians.  Our integrity toward others and in our service to God’s kingdom is modeled after God’s own faithfulness in our lives.  And as we persevere in doing God’s will, we can rest assured that God will remain faithful to bring about results: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).  Because God loved us enough to send His Son to die for us, we know that He will also be faithful to prosper all our ways in Him.

God has not abandoned his rebellious creation, but in His faithfulness has sent the Hero, Jesus Christ the Lord, to slay the Dragon and deliver us from bondage:  “I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True” (Revelation 19:11).  Despite our unfaithfulness, God has remained true to His love and His Word of promise.  This is our sure defense, and the faithfulness we return to God and neighbor is the weapon we wield in our fight to bring the light of God’s righteousness through Christ to a dark world.

“I do not hide your righteousness in my heart; I speak of your faithfulness and salvation.  I do not conceal your love and your truth from the great assembly.” (Psalm 40:10)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, I thank and praise You before all the world for Your great love and faithfulness to me – a sinner.  Grant that I may never falter in being faithful to Your name as I call upon You in repentance and proclaim Your steadfast mercy to all those around me; 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.

The Centurion – Just Say the Word

“Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.” (Matthew 8:8)

If anyone in Jesus’ day understood the meaning of authority, it would be an officer in the Roman military.  Perhaps it was the centurion’s position as a subordinate of more powerful commanders that gave him the sense of humility to confess his unworthiness before Jesus.  While it would have been easy for someone of his rank to become conceited and arrogant, he recognized that there were many others in the hierarchy of power who were above him – and he saw clearly that Jesus was over them all.  Being confronted with the kind of authority that was over his commander, his general, and even his emperor, the centurion is convicted of his own guilt and publicly professes that he is not fit to be in the Lord’s presence.

And yet, the centurion can relate to Jesus’ authority in one respect – he knows what it is to command: “For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me.  I tell this one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and that one, ‘Come,’ and he comes.  I say to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it” (Matthew 8:9).  The centurion knows that his orders will be followed swiftly and obediently by his men.  But he also knows that his own authority has its limits.  While he can order his servant to “Do this” and the servant will obey, it won’t do any good for him to tell the servant, “Rise,” “Be healed,” or “Your sins are forgiven.”  Only the Word of power spoken by Jesus has the authority to accomplish these tasks.

It’s strange how the Roman centurion treats Jesus with the utmost respect and humility, while we ourselves often feel like we’re pretty big stuff – like we’ve been such wonderful Christian people that God owes it to us to grant this favor or answer that prayer the way we want.  In fact, this was the very mindset of those who came to Jesus on behalf of the centurion: “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”  But the centurion himself rebutted: “Lord, don’t trouble yourself, for I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.  That is why I did not even consider myself worthy to come to you” (Luke 7:4-7).  Like the centurion, we need to know our place.  We make humble requests, not haughty demands.

But the greatest thing we can learn from this Roman centurion lies in his model of faith for us.  Although he knows that he is completely unworthy of Jesus’ love and healing power, he appeals to Him in faith.  He trusts Jesus’ power so much that he is satisfied by His Word alone.  While many in his position would have expected the honor of such a dignified celebrity’s personal appearance, the centurion is blessed with faith that believes the power of Jesus’ Word without the necessity of seeing Him in person. (John 20:29)

The centurion’s faith – a faith which believed the promise of the Word without signs and without making demands – was able to amaze even the very Son of God.  As we are convicted of our own guilt and unworthiness through the Law, we can approach God for healing and cleansing from sin with humility and penitence.  As we trust in the promise of forgiveness through the Word, the Spirit works in our hearts to produce this same amazing faith – a most gracious gift from our merciful God!

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Prayer: Heavenly Father, give me the meekness and humility to accept the censure of Your Law and the faith to humbly trust the promise of Your Gospel, through 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.