Monday, February 16, 2015

"Why young people (and others of all ages) are dying for something to live for!"

Honesty is a rare commodity today.  Perhaps it has always been that way.  Most people pretend that life in this world is worth living.  People give all sorts of reasons, as they attempt to persuade themselves.  The proverbial, "I live for the weekend!" is more than a slogan on a tee-shirt … it is reality for much of our society.  As a pastor, it would be wonderful if people meant by that the joy of gathering with God's people in worship was what they looked forward to, but for many, if not most, it is the freedom from work that enables them to indulge the human nature's desire to engage in self-centered activity that in itself has no productive consequence.  I'm not talking about the thousands of hard-working people who use the weekend to catch up on household chores, personal relationships and necessary relaxation.  These are necessary parts of everyday life that require a day or two away from the regular routine of employment.  It is the desire to find your meaning and purpose and joy and hope in the things of THIS life that leads to people pretending that their lives are worth living when in reality they are empty shells of a mere earthly existence.

Jesus offers something so much better, so much more satisfying, meaningful and rewarding, yet most people reject REAL LIFE in order to continue their make-believe fairy tale that maybe tomorrow will be better.  The "Millennials" are not the first generation to do so.  In the early 1950's our society was already facing the unrest of post-World War II living.  The Korean War and the Cold War with the Soviet Union added to the sense that all was not well with the world.  Large urban cities were faced with racial turmoil and delinquency that threatened inner city neighborhoods.  Government and civic leaders attempted to address the issues of education, poverty and the disappearing family unity with little success.  Meanwhile, there was another, similar plague infecting our society at a different level.

The spreading disease of unrest caused by the meaningless nature of life was uncovered in, of all things, a movie.  "Rebel Without a Cause" was released in 1955.  The movie starred an up-and-coming handsome young star named, James Dean.  Designed to show the unrest of the middle-class, suburban teenager, it exposed more than most imagined and opened the floodgate of a shift in American society that would ultimately lead to the chaos of drugs and "free love" of the '60's and early '70's.  I would argue that we as a society have never recovered from those tumultuous years.  We do a relatively good job of pretending that we have because we are more "sophisticated" in entertaining ourselves, but the title of the movie is the theme of what the Bible describes as mankind living in rebellion against our Creator.  James Dean died at the age of 24 in a car crash less than one month before the movie was released.  His death made the movie an instant box office hit.

Fast forward sixty short years to the year 2015.  Alcohol and other drugs flood our college campuses and have flowed into our high schools and even middle schools.  The family unit is disappearing and marriage is being re-defined as millions try to grasp onto something that will give a momentary escape from the reality of their meaningless lives.  The eastern religions, with their "transcendental meditation" and strange gurus briefly attracted the attention of some, but they soon faded away, failing to deliver on their promise to bring inner peace and tranquility.  In their place an insidious disease began to spread from the Middle East.  It was a "religion with a cause" … Islam.  "Conquer the world for Allah!" 

We can debate whether or not Islam is a religion of war, and whether Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hezbollah, the Taliban and a host of other terrorist groups (all Islamic) are extremists, but this much is clear:  the goal of Islam is to have everyone live under Sharia Law!  And the reason this is appealing to so many is because of the failed attempt by mankind to come up with a solution for the sinful rebellion of the human race that leads to the cultural chaos that exists all around us.  Islam teaches that the only way to control the sinful nature of mankind (though they don't call it that) is through force - by enforcing the LAW!  Thus, strict Islamic countries have no true freedom … none!!  The religious leaders dictate to the political leaders how society will be ordered.  Punishment for crimes is swift and certain.  Steal and you lose your hand.  Commit adultery and you die.  There is no opportunity to repent, to turn, to seek forgiveness, reconciliation, or salvation.  Only by living under strict LAW is there order in society.

Another alternative is the godless society of atheistic nations like Russia (the former Soviet Union) and China.  Their solution to the same problem is government.  The state becomes the overseer of society and enforces the rules determined to be in the best interest of that society.  The preservation of the STATE, the nation, becomes the goal and thus the purpose of the citizens living under their authority.  Only a totalitarian government can maintain a semblance of control over human nature and so the reins of control must be held tightly, once again eliminating a great deal of freedom for its "subjects."  Without religion, the highest goal is the nation-state and its growth in power and prosperity.  Individuals are dispensable in order to preserve the state, leaving the common people once again without a cause, without a purpose.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this desperate existence as he wrote to the Romans nearly two thousand years ago.  He declared that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth" (Romans 1:18).  He then goes on to explain how mankind has rebelled against their Creator and how God has given us over to the sinful lusts of a spiritual nature now DEAD and unable to live with and for God.  Listen to Paul's haunting words:

"Since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice.  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness.  They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.  Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them" (Romans 1:28-32).

By God's grace, He determined to offer hope through the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world headed for "the day of the Lord," the time when God will unleash His wrath upon our planet and upon mankind.  The Gospel spread through Europe, but the church became corrupted through its entanglement with the political realm and it was not until the Reformation in the 1500's, the exploration of the early explorers and finally the establishment of our own nation that God's plan for the world became clear.  A people focused on God, our Creator, and a government based on and influenced by the principles of godly living, justice and freedom revealed in His Word emerged that would be God's instrument to spread the true Gospel of Jesus Christ and to defend the cause of the oppressed … not a perfect government or a perfect people … but the best possible in this world so infected by sinful rebellion.

For the past 240 years, and especially in the past 60 years, this nation in which I have the privilege of living has carried the Gospel throughout the world, has fed the hungry and brought hope to nations, has defended the world against oppression and has offered refuge to millions from virtually every nation on earth.  We have shed more blood and volunteered more "treasure" to the cause of freedom from the tyranny offered by Islam and Atheism than any other people on earth.  God has used the United States of America for His purposes and there are, even now, a higher percentage of people in our nation living for the cause of Christ, upholding His truth and seeking His righteousness, than in any other nation on earth.  By His grace the true Church of Jesus Christ, the remnant of those who seek to live for Jesus Christ, stands firm in the face of attacks from within the church and from outside.  It is we alone who have a cause worth living for and, if necessary, worth dying for.  We who follow Christ offer a life worth living - a life lived in relationship with God where there is forgiveness and eternal life because of the sacrifice of the One who suffered God's wrath in our place on the cross … JESUS!

When President Obama equated the Crusades and what was done "in the name of Christ" to the barbaric acts of ISIS, he revealed not only his ignorance of history, but his lack of knowledge and understanding of what the Bible teaches, and his utter lack of faith in Jesus Christ.  There have been those who twisted what the Bible teaches to support their sinful actions of hate.  But that is NOT what Jesus or the Bible teaches.  Christians are willing to suffer for the cause of Christ, to be persecuted by those who promote their manmade religions of LAW.  Jesus calls His disciples to display love and grace, and to confront the lies of Satan that enslave millions around the earth with their cries to obey LAW!!  Obedience for those who know Christ is produced by the work of the very Spirit of God within us that calls us to show love and compassion to all and to offer grace and forgiveness to the worst of sinners, confessing our own sin as we seek to live by the power of the Spirit within us.  Our goal is not to conquer the world, but to call a remnant out of the world, knowing that Jesus will return and God will create a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

Many in the "Christian community" have stopped proclaiming the message of salvation through faith in Jesus.  They have given in to the temptation to attempt to control the sinful nature by proclaiming "the law of love" that Jesus taught … but without the call to repentance and faith in Jesus!  While it sounds appealing to many, it is powerless to change people.  It doesn't work!!  The move towards mingling Christianity with other religions (the "Interfaith" movement) is the result of failing to see the difference between Christianity and all the other religions of the world.  If Christianity is, after all, just a bunch of rules, then it is no different than Islam or Buddhism or even Atheism.  Set the right laws and enforce them well and we can create our own world … with or without "God" … whoever you want Him (or "it") to be.  You choose!

So Paul wrote to Timothy so long ago:  "Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.  For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power" (II Timothy 3:1-5).

Here we are, stuck in a world with a whole race of human beings who are "rebels without a cause."  Yet we who know Jesus Christ have a cause, THE cause, that has the power to transform your life from a worthless existence to an extravagant offering of joy to the God of salvation, who "so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).  Peter wrote to the early believers whom he called "elect exiles" (I Peter 1:1):

"Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.  As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy.'  And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (I Peter 1:13-19).

As followers of Jesus Christ we can be honest … and still live with hope and live for a cause so grand that it gives purpose and meaning to life!  Yes, we are sinners, born in sin and in rebellion against God. By nature we are "children of wrath" (Ephesians 2:3).  But God has redeemed us through the blood of Christ Jesus, shed on the cross once for all.  We who believe are chosen, adopted, forgiven, redeemed and sealed by the work of His Spirit within us and we find our joy in serving Jesus Christ freely and willingly, telling others about the way of forgiveness and life, and showing His love in countless ways to a world bound in the spiritual darkness of sin and death.

Whether you are a young person or any other age, you need a purpose, a reason to live beyond yourself.  There are really only two choices:  living under the laws of men and trying to be a "good" person (all the while living in rebellion against God), or confessing your sin and your need for a Savior and finding in Jesus Christ your "hero," your Savior and your Lord … the one who can and will lead you through this life with a sure and certain hope of what is to come, with a full and satisfying joy in knowing that you are pleasing Him, and with a peace that passes understanding, knowing that He reigns over all things and that when your "time of exile" on this earth is complete and you have run the race He has marked out for you, there is eternal joy in His presence.

May the Lord use even these words to call you either to a greater conviction that the Gospel is true and a deeper commitment to proclaim it, in word and deed, to those who are lost and without hope around you … OR, may God use even these words to call you out of the darkness into His marvelous, wonderful, amazing LIGHT!!!

Monday, February 2, 2015

"The bigger picture … "

As the brightness of the sun reflects off the newly-fallen snow this morning here in western Michigan, the beauty of God's creation is missed by many who are digging out from nearly a foot of snow … or more in some places.  Schools are closed and schedules are re-arranged for many households.  Each of us has additional things to think about because of the weather and the roads.  Meanwhile, "life" goes on in your life and mine.  My wife, Kathy, and my daughter, Michelle, and my granddaughter, Faith, along with others from our congregation, are serving the Lord in Guatemala this week.  Others are serving in Haiti, and one young woman is spending two months in India.  God is doing His work all over the world … LITERALLY!!

So what's going on in your life?  I am finding each day filled with so many things that writing my blog has taken a back seat to other pressing matters.  I suspect that happens to you, too.  There are so many things that demand our attention that some things that are equally or even more important get shoved aside.  The bad thing about that is that it is often PEOPLE who get pushed aside.  Your spouse, your family, your friends, your brothers and sisters in Christ … all of these are important and are part of your life each day.  Be sure to make them a priority!

And as you do so, ask God for wisdom to understand what is REALLY important in each day.  Yes, there are things we HAVE to do, but if you and I are to be faithful to Jesus Christ we need to look at the bigger picture … we need to understand that we are part of God's plan to make Himself known and to prepare the world for Jesus' return.  Many parts of the Bible help us to do that, but this morning I'm thinking of Psalm 90.  I would encourage you to read the whole Psalm, but I'll share a few verses here.

"Lord, You have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.  … from everlasting to everlasting, YOU are God! … Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. …  Satisfy us in the morning with Your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days" (Psalm 90:1-2, 12, 14).

I often have a hard time reading any passage of Scripture without thinking about other parts of God's Word that talk about the same or similar things.  These verses make me think about James 4, where James writes:

"Now listen, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.' Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow.  What is your life?  You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  Instead, you ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4:13-15).

Reading verses like this from God's Word could make you think that your life doesn't have much value.  You come and you go and that's it.  But the reality is, the opposite is true!  It is because you and I are only here for a time that each day has infinite value.  Our times are in God's hands.  You are not here by chance.  No matter what the circumstances of your birth or what your life has been up to today, you are here because God put you here and He knows you.  "All the days ordained for me were written in Your book before one of them came to be" (Psalm 139:16).

How amazing is that?!!  Do you believe that?  Do you believe that the God who created the universe, including planet earth, and everything in this world, also created YOU and that He is calling you to know Him, to love Him and to serve Him?  Do you believe that?  If you do it is because God's Spirit lives within you and He has opened your heart and mind to receive Jesus Christ as your Savior and your Lord.  Knowing HIM, you begin to understand that your life has meaning only as you live it with Him and for Him.  You are a part of His plan, a part of a much bigger picture that includes today, tomorrow, the rest of your life … AND eternity.

This bigger picture includes what is going on in your life today and what is going on in the nations of the world.  All of it … ALL of it, is in His hands, under His view and authority and power.  Nothing happens outside His control and so the promise He makes to those who believe in Jesus is within His power to perform:  "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28).  And God reveals what His purpose is in the next two verses:  "For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brothers.  And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30).

God is, this very day, calling some out of darkness into His wonderful light through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He is encouraging those of us who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus to persevere through life's struggles and to run the race marked out for us.  God is actively involved in the governments of the world around us and everything is leading up to the events that precede the return of Jesus to earth.  As you look at the big picture your mind becomes clear and you begin to understand that following Jesus by obeying His Word and by proclaiming it to others is the reason you are here.  At home, at work, at school, God has placed YOU here to be an ambassador of His kingdom, offering eternal life to those around you.

"We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making His appeal through us.  We implore you on Christ's behalf:  Be reconciled to God.  God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain.  For He says, 'In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.' I tell you, NOW is the time of God's favor, NOW is the day of salvation" (II Corinthians 5:20-21, 6:1-2).

How long will the door to heaven remain open?  As God closed the door of the ark before He destroyed the earth with the flood, so the time will come when it is too late to enter into the safety of God's presence through faith in Jesus.  The call to follow Jesus is an urgent call.  There is much more going on in your life today than you may think.  You need to see the bigger picture.  You need to know Jesus yourself and then to speak to your family, friends, neighbors, strangers … whomever God puts in your path, about the One who alone offers forgiveness and eternal life.

THIS is not all there is!  Ask God to help you see the bigger picture every day.  It's important to see the signs of what God is doing in the world at large … but don't miss the opportunities God places before you today.  Each one has significance; each one is an important part of the bigger picture … of GOD's bigger picture.  It may seem small, unimportant, even insignificant, but what you do for God is known to Him and He will use it to glorify Himself as you give your life to Him as an offering.

"THIS is the day the Lord has made; we will rejoice and be glad in it!"