Sunday, November 29, 2009

Light of the World

This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
-- John 3:19

Time was that every youngster learned in school that Christopher Columbus “sailed the ocean blue and discovered American in 1492.” Although that’s not exactly accurate history, Columbus was indeed one of the earliest and most important European explorers of what became known as the New World. And rather making one historic transatlantic voyage, he actually made four.

That final expedition across the seas nearly cost Columbus his life. It was February 1504. Now picture the famous explorer in Jamaica, thousands of miles away from home and surrounded by hostile natives that were all-too-ready to kill him and his crew. And even if Columbus could talk his way out of a fight, his expedition still faced the prospect of starvation from the lack of food and supplies. They desperately needed a light at the end of the tunnel to escape a very dark fate.

A skilled navigator who used astronomical tables to help him venture into the unknown, Columbus studied his almanac and discovered that a total lunar eclipse would occur in the next three days. So to buy some much-needed time, he told the natives that his God was angry because they were no longer giving supplies to his crew. Columbus then warned that unless the shipments resumed, God would show His displeasure by swallowing up the moon to demonstrate the evils that the natives would soon experience. It’s likely that the natives laughed at Columbus’ admonition. But sure enough – and just as the almanac predicted – the full moon appeared; and without its lower edge!

As the minutes passed and the sky grew darker, the moon took on a startling, bloody red appearance. The formerly skeptical Indians were terrified at the spectacle and begged Columbus to intercede with God on their behalf. Columbus agreed to try and returned to his ship to confer with the Almighty. Columbus’ “conference” was really his opportunity to track the eclipse’s progress with his hourglass. At just the right moment, the Italian adventurer informed the natives that they had been forgiven and that the moon would be restored.

You can guess the rest. The full moon soon began to shine its bright light again upon the balmy Caribbean island. And filled with gratitude for escaping their close call, the Jamaican natives ran to supply Columbus and his crew with life-saving food and provisions. The crafty European explorers were saved. And within a few short months, they were able to depart on their return voyage to Spain.

It’s easy for us 500 years later to laugh at the over-the-top reaction of those Jamaican natives. When the lights went out, they panicked. But are we really so different? We learn early in childhood that the dark is a scary place. That’s because it’s not WHAT you see that can get you; it’s what you don’t see that does the harm. So it’s no wonder that the darkness is a metaphor for those who don’t know God. Their gloomy existence is not only deceptive, empty and lonely, it’s ultimately without hope.

But everyone – even the most devoted Christ-followers – shares this darkness to one extent or another. How easily do we use harsh words to our spouses and children, cut off other drivers on the highway or maybe even fudge a little on our tax returns? We’re hardly perfect. And that’s all the more reason why we need to let in the Light to drive out those things that should never see the light of day.

That warm Light is Jesus Christ. He invites us to follow and let Him live through us on the pathway to His kingdom -- and then spread His light to those who live in darkness. “I chose you to bring justice, and I am here at your side,” He reminds us through the Book of Isaiah. “I selected and sent you to bring light and my promise of hope to the nations.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mixed Messages

Those who know my commands and obey them are the ones who love me, and my Father will love those who love me. I will love them and will show myself to them.

-- John 14:21

It’s been a controversy among Christ-followers for nearly 2,000 years. In fact, some might argue that it’s been a factor over the centuries in dividing Christianity into multiple denominations. So what is this thing that has caused so much conflict among a people who Jesus calls upon to love one another?

It’s the roles of faith and works in the life of believers. On one hand, the Apostle Paul made it clear that salvation is a free gift from God through faith in Jesus Christ. Let’s consider one of Paul’s most famous passages from the Book of Romans:

“If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and if you believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved.”

That seems straightforward. But what should we do with this Scripture from James, the brother of Jesus?

“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”

James’ point seems to be that without doing good works, our faith is worthless. But is it our faith that will eventually bring us into God’s Kingdom or do we need to work for it? And if so, for how long?

Maybe the messages from Paul and James aren’t so mixed after all. On multiple occasions, Jesus’ miracles revealed the incredible power of faith in those who seek Him. For example, we read in Luke 7 that a Roman soldier’s faith actually “amazed” the Son of God. "I tell you,” Jesus told the crowds that were following Him, “I have not found such great faith even in Israel."

So it really is through our faith in Jesus and His work on the cross that we’re saved from the punishment we all deserve. Otherwise – if it were all about works – it might be possible to somehow earn our way to God’s acceptance. And we all know that’s a losing proposition. But that’s not to say that works don’t play a crucial role in the lives of Christ-followers. In fact, the tangible ways that we live our new lives helps to prove that we’re a changed people through our faith in Jesus.

What we have isn’t really a contest of faith versus works. Instead, both must be evident in the life of every Christ-follower. Rather than being saved BY our own good works, our faith in Jesus leads us to being saved FOR doing good works. The author of the Old Testament book Micah puts it this way:

“And what does the LORD require of you? “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Demonstrating a life of justice, mercy and humility is a tall order that we can never accomplish on our own – particularly when we face the struggles and circumstances of everyday life. And it’s the tough times that cause the so-called “fans” of Jesus to fall away to leave only His true followers – the ones with real living faith. So how can we live faith-filled lives that bear fruit for our Father’s kingdom?

"With man this is impossible,” explains Jesus. “But with God all things are possible."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Like Clockwork

As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.

-- Luke 23:26

During the 1950’s and 1960’s Timex had more than a 50 percent market share of the American wristwatch business. Officially known as U.S. Time, the company’s dependable timepieces were sold in thousands of department stores and pharmacies across the nation. And it’s no doubt that Timex’s popular television commercials helped to drive sales. Sometimes broadcasted live and in primetime, the advertisements used extreme demonstrations to prove their products’ toughness and reliability. Examples include a Timex watch strapped to a speedboat, abused by a wild gorilla, and run through a dishwasher.

“It takes a licking, and keeps on ticking,” proclaimed long-time spokesman John Cameron Swayze. And sure enough, Timex watches usually did just that.

Oddly enough, those old commercials can teach us something about what it means to be a true Christ-follower: dependability. After all, what good is a watch if you can’t rely on it? And that’s the same question that we need to ask if we call ourselves Christ-followers. Our journey is one on a narrow, winding path. Potholes seem to be everywhere and it’s often impossible to see what’s over the next hill. The only way to stay on the path is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and follow Him – no matter what’s coming at us in the opposite lane. This requires obedience and sometimes means suffering and sacrifice. But the final destination is well worth the inevitable fender-benders and detours we’ll all face on the trip.

We need to understand that our troubles won’t suddenly disappear the moment we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior. We also can’t expect a smooth drive down Easy Street. In fact, our daily struggles may actually intensify because the Devil now sees us as a threat. Instead, count on hitting bumps along the road:

“In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus promises us. “But take heart! I have overcome the world."

Unfortunately, too many would-be Christ-followers give up and turn away when the troubles of everyday life get too big. Instead of relying on the unlimited resources they could have as a child of God, they wither from the heat of trials and circumstances.

Like those dependable wristwatches in the commercials, Christ-followers must live lives demonstrating reliability and toughness. Ours is a permanent, 24/7 identity – not simply a role we play for an hour or two on Sundays and at weekly Small Group gatherings. Instead, Jesus tells us to “take up our cross” daily. And then follow Him.

Sunday, November 8, 2009


Then Jesus said to all the people: “If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross each day and follow me.”

-- Luke 9:23

Pearl Buck, the best-selling author and winner of both the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, once observed that you can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel from new ideas.

There’s probably some truth to that. But change can be painful for anyone at any age. To prove it, look no further than your favorite 24-hour news channel. Our nation is experiencing economic uncertainties, dynamic technological advances, awesome natural disasters, social upheavals and even court-sanctioned assaults against Judeo-Christian faith and values. Change is everywhere… and it’s inescapable. It’s therefore hardly a surprise then that many people seek stability wherever they can find it. They look for dependable, long-lasting products like automobiles, appliances and personal computers. They demand trustworthy public officials and reliable customer service. And as for personal relationships, they want a mate who’s in it for the long haul. Good help – as the saying goes – is hard to find.

But what it’s really all about is a search for commitment – that rare quality that God has valued in His people for thousands of years. Joshua, one of the great servant leaders of the Old Testament, displayed this trait when he challenged the tribes of Israel to choose who they would serve: the false gods of their ancestors or the only one True God. “But as for me and my household,” declared Joshua, “we will serve the Lord."

Jesus seeks this same level of total commitment from His 21st Century followers. Rather than would-be believers who might help to build His kingdom if it’s not too inconvenient for them, Christ demands an all-or-nothing relationship from those willing to give the little they have to eventually gain everything.

Does this sound unrealistic? Jesus’ closest friends once thought so. One day, a rich young man asked Christ what he had to do to gain eternal life. Knowing what was in the man’s heart, Jesus reminded him about following God’s commandments covering theft, adultery, murder, lying, and honoring one’s parents. When the man replied that he had kept these laws since childhood, the Savior told him that He lacked just one thing: the need to sell all his possessions.

Jesus knew that rather than loving God with all his heart, soul and mind (the first of the 10 Commandments), the rich man was actually committed to money. The would-be follower was crushed by Jesus’ harsh revelation and soon turned away. And Jesus’ apostles were just as amazed. “If this is the way it is,” they asked, “who can ever be saved?”

Jesus’ response was both simple and reassuring.

“What is impossible for man,” he replied, “is possible with God.”

The lesson here is that Jesus seeks undivided loyalty from His followers – those special people who are willing to give and serve using the gifts, talents and resources entrusted from God. But to make this vital commitment, we must realize that it requires our total reliance on a Power much greater than ourselves.