Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter News You Should Use

Jesus isn't here! He has been raised from death. Remember that while he was still in Galilee,
he told you, "The Son of Man will be handed over to sinners who will nail him to a cross.
But three days later he will rise to life."
-- Luke 24:6-7 
If it bleeds, it leads.

That's the old saying in the news business. Turn on the TV, read a newspaper or visit a news website and you're bound to come across story after story about financial hardship, "skyrocketing" unemployment and degenerate human behavior. The fact is that the media thrives on bad news and hyping the worst possible scenarios. After all, good news rarely drives ratings or sells magazines.

A steady stream of good news also doesn't paint an unrealistically gloomy picture of our circumstances. For instance, bad economic news can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies when the public becomes too scared to buy a much-needed automobile or even a new pair of shoes. True, too many people really ARE struggling with difficult life challenges. But unemployment, crime, sickness and death have been part of the human experience for centuries--even in the best of times. There's nothing new there.

OK. Enough with the depressing headlines. How about some good news for a change?

As Christ-followers, our Good News (the Gospel) Calvaryis that Jesus paid the price for our sins (past, present and future) when He died on the cross in our place. Then, just as predicted in the Old Testament, God resurrected Him to life to forever defeat the power of sin and death in our lives. It's this same power that will one day raise all believers to eternal life and joy with our Creator. This is what Easter is all about.

"Death has lost the battle!" wrote the Apostle Paul. "Where is its victory? Where is its sting?"

Does this Good News sound a bit too good to be true? If so, you're not alone. Even some of Jesus' apostles refused to believe when they first heard that He was alive. Let's consider this encouraging passage from the Gospel of John, which reports the skepticism--and later amazement--of Thomas (the one forever known as "Doubting Thomas"):
Although Thomas the Twin was one of the 12 disciples, he wasn't with the others when Jesus appeared to them. So they told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But Thomas said, "First, I must see the nail scars in his hands and touch them with my finger. I must put my hand where the spear went into his side. I won't believe unless I do this!" The disciples were together again a week later. And this time, Thomas was with them. Jesus then appeared while the doors were still locked and stood in the middle of the group. He greeted his disciples and said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and look at my hands! Put your hand into my side. Stop doubting and have faith!" Thomas replied, "You are my Lord and my God!" Jesus said, "Thomas, do you have faith because you have seen me? The people who have faith in me without seeing me are the ones who are really blessed!"

This is the faith that Christ-followers proclaim not just this Easter Sunday...but rather every day: He is risen. He is risen indeed!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

God's Squad

"Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders." 

-- Acts 3:17 
How do you define leadership?

According to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, leadership is "the art of getting someone to do something you want done because he wants to do it." Eisenhower also once asserted that you don't lead people by hitting them over the head. "That's assault," he explained, "not leadership."

However you define it, leadership can involve making unpopular decisions. Consider, for example, Clifton "Pop" Herring, the basketball coach at Laney High School in Wilmington, NC. It was Coach Herring's decision to move the then 15-year-old Michael Jordan to the school's junior varsity team rather than adding him to the varsity squad. For years, Jordan claimed that he was cut from the team. The truth is, however, that it would have been highly unusual for a younger and smaller underclassman like Jordan to jump ahead of the school's returning varsity players. 

Let's now fast-forward about 30 years. History reveals that Coach Michael JordanHerring's willingness to lead and make the tough calls eventually worked out for everyone. Jordan became a star in high school, college--and many say the greatest player in NBA history. And he also grew into a leader on the basketball court every step of the way. It was Jordan's lead-by-example work ethic that helped deliver the NBA Championship to Chicago six times.

Coach Herring used level-headed logic to decide which players made his school's varsity squad. But God tends to pick leaders for His team quite differently. After all, his ways aren't mankind's ways. And He often chooses the least likely people to serve Him and accomplish the remarkable things that conventional wisdom deems impossible.

The Bible is full of familiar examples. Moses was a stutterer who once murdered an Egyptian taskmaster. King David--one of the most powerful rulers on Earth--was once an obscure shepherd boy. The Apostle Peter actually denied knowing Jesus three times in public. And Paul--the Apostle to the Gentiles who authored much of the New Testament--once dedicated himself to catching, arresting and killing Jesus' followers to prevent the new faith from spreading across the Roman Empire. And what's the common denominator? All four of these effective leaders were weak, either physically or spiritually. They were also unlikely choices for accomplishing God-size tasks. But that's often the way He does it.

"For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength," writes the Apostle Paul. "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."

The point here is that you don't have to slam-dunk a basketball or score 30 points a game to make a big difference on God's Squad. In fact, every Christ-follower--strong or weak--is called to be a leader by serving as Jesus' hands and feet on earth while we wait for His return...or that day when He calls us back home (whichever comes first). Until then, God wants us to help prepare His Kingdom by making the most of the different gifts and talents He's given each follower. So rather than imitating Michael Jordan's impressive round ball exploits, let's instead follow Jesus' perfect example of leadership:

"In the same way, the Son of Man did not come to be served," Jesus explains in Mark 10:45. "He came to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many people."  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Captain Courageous

I've commanded you to be strong and brave. Don't ever be afraid or discouraged! I am the Lord your God, and I will be there to help you wherever you go.

-- Joshua 1:9 
Are you the type of person who shies away from scary or dangerous situations? Or are you more of a thrill-seeker who actually seeks excitement and adventure? If you don't mind taking a few risks, you might consider skydiving. The United States Parachute Association reports that there were just 19 fatalities out of the estimated 3.1 million skydiving jumps made by its members in 2012. Then there's BASE jumping, which stands for Bridge, Antenna, Span, Earth. Considered by many to be the world's most dangerous sport, BASE jumping involves parachuting off of objects--like buildings, cliffs and towers--at heights lower than 1,000 feet. After all, who needs an airplane?

ParachuteIt's probably hard for most people to relate to such fear-inducing daredevil activities. But every day, Christ-followers like you and me face intimidating challenges. And they're challenges that we have no hope of conquering on our own. Poverty, hunger, crime and disease are just a few examples. Since we're to serve as God's hands and feet on Earth, is it any surprise that Satan uses fear as his primary weapon against us? It's the Devil who plants the seeds of doubt that cause us to ask ourselves, "What if..." That's  the tiny question that leads many to turn and seek the safety found in procrastination and delay. 

Christ-followers, however, are called by their Creator to be courageous. But what does "courage" really mean? First, it's not the absence of fear. Instead, it's more about moving forward in spite of fear. Our God stands with His people. And we can be encouraged by the everyday people He's enabled to accomplish extraordinary things. We read in the Scriptures that David--an obscure shepherd boy--killed the fierce giant Goliath with a single well-aimed stone from a slingshot. This is the same shepherd boy who eventually became the King of Israel and the one God called "a man after My own heart." Likewise, the Apostle Peter literally dove into the deep end when he accepted Jesus' call to walk on water. Although he would one day deny even knowing Jesus when the going got tough, Peter ultimately became a bold preacher who led many to faith in Christ. Two books of the New Testament also bear his name. 

"With God with us, who can be against us?" wrote the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans. This is more than a rhetorical question. As Christ-followers, we can take heart that our Creator is preparing us now for what will be required of us later. And whatever we fear in life, we can rest assured that we don't face it alone. In fact, it's when we're in God's presence that we're the most protected. We just need to come to our Father in prayer, listen for His response and guidance, and then obey accordingly in faith.

It's a scary world out there. But that's how we'll find the courage to make a world of difference in this life...even if it's making that difference one person at a time.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Complaint Department

"I know what it is to be poor or to have plenty, and I have lived under all kinds of conditions. I know what it means to be full or to be hungry, to have too much or too little.

-- Philippians 4:12  
We read in the Old Testament that God planned to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land ("the land flowing with milk and honey") after He had freed them from slavery in Egypt. But instead of taking them on the shortest route to their destination, God made His people wander in the desert for 40 years because of their disobedience.

A common Biblical theme is that God doesn't always lead His people along the most direct path in their faith journey. That's because He's more concerned with who we're becoming rather than where we're going. And when we can't see what's over the hilltop or around the bend, it doesn't make a lot of sense. In fact, it may actually seem unfair. But have you ever considered what our journey would be like if the roads of life were always wide and smooth? And what would happen if we never had to work for anything worthwhile? For instance, would it mean anything if we got straight A's in school without ever having to study? Or what if we were given a high-paying job with an impressive title...but had no real responsibilities to go with it?

Getting everything on a silver platter might be nice for a while. But without experiencing challenges, responsibilities and even tragedies, we would quickly become lazy, self-centered and ultimately fail to reap some of life's greatest rewards. Just ask anyone who has worked their way through college or taken a second or third job to pay the mortgage--or send their child to a better school. It can be a real struggle. But it can also pay off in the long run.

The Apostle Paul knew a thing or two about tough times along the journey:

"Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea," Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians. "I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers."

If anyone had something to complain to God about, it was Paul. Yet he wrote that he was joyful. And although his sentiments might seem strange, maybe our modern society has redefined the concept of joy. Rather than a reaction to something external--like a new car or piece of jewelry--joy is actually an internal source of gladness and thanksgiving that helps us see the true picture though the most difficult of circumstances. As Christ-followers, our relationship with Jesus grants us literal access to our Creator: a loving Father who hears our prayers and looks for ways to bless us. So no matter how rough the road of life gets sometimes, let's remember that our ultimate destination is a great one. And we'll get there soon enough.

Complaining about our circumstances--whether they're real or perceived--is a common human tendency. But it's not God's way for us. Instead, the Bible tells us to blend thanksgiving (for our blessings) and authentic, regular prayer with discernment--the ongoing intentional functions of living, thinking and acting positively. And when we do, even the most unpleasant of circumstances won't bring us down. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

God with Us

"The virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,"
which means "God is with us."

-- Matthew 1:23  
Electricity--particularly electric lighting--is perhaps the one convenience that we most take for granted in our modern society. We simply flick a switch and there it is...until a storm rumbles through and plunges us into utter darkness. Light Bulb

How did we ever function before today's literal Age of Enlightenment? For centuries, people used lamps that burned olive oil. (Jesus even told a parable that involved them!) Later, there were candles, whale oil lanterns and coal gas lighting.

The search for something better took a while. And it wasn't easy. Thomas Edison--the world-famous inventor--tried literally thousands of different filament materials for his light bulb before he finally found one that wouldn't burn out in seconds. He eventually solved the dilemma in 1879 with carbon wire. And a few months later, Edison improved his design by using a bamboo-derived filament that could last more than 1,200 hours. The rest, as they say, is history.

Edison's tireless quest for the perfect light bulb filament is a bit like mankind's never-ending search for ultimate meaning, fulfillment and yes...enlightenment. We all have a spiritual hunger that's hard-coded into our DNA. Some try in vain to satisfy this void through negative pursuits involving drugs, alcohol, compulsive spending or questionable relationships. Others attempt to fill it by becoming workaholics or escaping reality through television, online gaming or even travel. But after the thrill is gone, the hunger always returns.

What they really want is to see and experience The Light. Unfortunately, many people find it hard to believe that it's Jesus. After all, how can one person BE everything it entails? It sounds too simple and good to be true.

But true it is. Jesus backed up the Biblical claims of being "God with us" by fulfilling dozens of prophesies written centuries before His birth. And of course, there was His own Resurrection following His death on a cross to pay the death penalty that we all so rightly deserve. This, too, fulfilled Old Testament prophesy about God's plan for saving His people.

But don't be too hard on modern-day skeptics. Even John the Baptist--the one Jesus called the greatest man ever born--once had his doubts.

"Are you the one who was to come," John instructed his followers to ask Jesus, "or should we expect someone else?"

Jesus answered, "Go and tell John what you have heard and seen. The blind are now able to see, and the lame can walk. People with leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can hear. The dead are raised to life, and the poor are hearing the good news. God will bless everyone who doesn't reject me because of what I do."

After weeks of trial and error, Thomas Edison finally discovered a practical source of long-lasting light. But centuries early, John the Baptist had already found The Light. And so has every Believer today. It's through faith in Jesus Christ that God is indeed with us.