Sunday, July 28, 2013

Taking the Plunge

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.

-- 2 Corinthians 5:17    

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.

You won't find this familiar saying anywhere in the Bible. But many people think it's the Gospel truth. We start or end most days with a hot shower or bath. We stock our bathrooms with antibacterial soaps. And we buy costly laundry detergents and bleaches promising brilliant whites and vivid colors. It all adds up to a soap and detergent industry involving about 700 companies with combined annual revenues of billions of dollars.

Our desire to stay clean seems to be Baptismhard-wired into our DNA. But this intense longing covers much more than our face and hands. We also want to be just as clean on the inside. That means a clean heart and a clean conscience. And we so much want a clean start.

That's where baptism comes in: that public demonstration of faith that one has turned his or her back on their past, renounced their sins and been re-born into a new life through faith in Jesus. The Apostle Paul paints baptism as a wondrous portrait of death and resurrection; one where the old ways have perished and a brilliant future has begun:

"We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."

So what about you? If you could, would you turn back the clock and start your life over again? It sounds like a fantasy, but there really is a way. The saying goes that this new beginning is only a few inches away; it's that short distance from your heart to your head. The first step on the journey is to realize that you--just like everyone on Earth--has failed to live up to God's standards and expectations. The next is to trust in Jesus to save you from the penalty we all deserve: eternal death and separation from God. That's because Christ is the One Who has already paid our way into God's kingdom by dying for all the past, present and future wrongs we've committed in our lifetime. His is a free gift of enormous cost. But like any gift, it's of little use if we don't accept it.

It's time to (literally) take the plunge into a new life through baptism. Let's look again toward Jesus as our example. Although He lived a perfect, spotless life with no sins of His own to be forgiven, Christ still demanded this symbolic re-birth and cleansing for Himself. 

Today, He invites you to follow.

"This is my Son, whom I love," a voice from heaven said as Jesus arose from His baptism in the Jordan River. "With Him I am well pleased."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Ultimate Comeback

"Come now, let us settle the matter," says the Lord. "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

-- Isaiah 1:18    

It was a mistake that would have meant the end of the story for most athletes.

During the 10,000-meter race at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany, Finnish runner Lasse Viren tripped and fell after his feet tangled with those of American gold medalist Frank Shorter. Both athletes crumpled to the track. But then Viren did the unthinkable: he got off the ground, resumed the race and caught the runners who had passed him. And then on the race's final lap--he not only passed his competitors--he literally left them in the dust and crossed the finish line alone. Many sportswriters consider Viren's performance to be one of the greatest comebacks in Olympic history.

Maybe your own mistakes aren't of Track MeetOlympic proportions. But maybe they felt like it at the time. How often have we all made such huge errors in life that it seemed like the end of the world? We thought we had completely blown it. It was all over. And we'd never come back.

Life-changing mistakes can cover a lot of territory. They might involve our personal relationships, careers or spiritual lives...and maybe even all of the above. But the good news for Christ-followers is that we worship a God who not only knows what we're going through, we have a Father who cares enough to literally know the number of hairs on our head! We can also rest in the assurance that He's a God of second (and third and fourth, etc.) chances. 

We surely can use every one of them. And since Christ-followers are a forgiven people, we must in turn extend this amazing grace to those who have hurt us. The Apostle Peter learned this lesson after asking Jesus, "How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?" His Master responded, "Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!"

When it's difficult to forgive others after they've offended us, it's time to consider God's patience when we desperately need our own comeback. It's in Matthew's Gospel that we read Jesus' parable about a man who received forgiveness for a large debt, but was still bound in a personal prison of anger. His wounded soul was incapable of healing...and he was unable to release another's relatively small debt to him. That's why it's so good to know that when we accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we're forgiven of a lifetime's-worth of mistakes, failures and shortcomings. And we're also free from their eternal consequences. 

In this race called life where we too often stumble, it's the ultimate comeback.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

American Idol

"Cursed is anyone who makes an idol--a thing detestable to the Lord, the work of skilled hands--and sets it up in secret." Then all the people shall say, "Amen!"

-- Deuteronomy 27:15    

The saying goes that there are no atheists on the battlefield. 

Maybe there's a grain of truth in that. And maybe a whole lot more. After all, is there really such a thing as a full-fledged atheist--someone who doesn't worship any god? We all worship one way or another. God has even hard-coded this intense longing into our very DNA.

Christ-followers worship the true God revealed and proven through the Bible. Other religions promote false gods, ancestor worship and even the reverence of living things or nature (worshiping the creation rather than the Creator). And let's not forget today's popular teachings such as New Age, Scientology and Kabbalah. It's a very long list.

Even those who claim to be die-hard Idolatheists are in a way pious worshipers. True, they may not be regular churchgoers and proclaim Jesus to be their Lord and Savior. But they--like everyone--bow down to their favorite idols. Some worship money, luxury and pleasure, while others emulate intellect and higher learning. And still others kneel at the altar of more negative gods such as alcohol, drugs and illicit relationships.

So maybe there are no real atheists on the battlefield. But there is real spiritual warfare that rages nonstop within everyone. It pits the God of the Bible against the gods and idols of this world. And it's our hearts and souls that are the prize of this eternal conflict.

We may not literally kneel and worship before a golden idol in some faraway pagan temple. But we still secretly (or maybe not-so-secretly) cherish our own personal gods. Think about the things you worry about or sacrifice your time and money for. What are the issues that make you angry? What brings you the most joy? And here's a revealing question: Whose attention and applause do you most crave?

If the answers to these questions don't involve God, you might be worshiping an idol. And idols can be difficult to recognize through the smoke and confusion of the battlefield. After all, they're experts at camouflage. Sometimes an idol is as close as the bathroom mirror. And even apparently good things--like a career or a hobby--can evolve into "god things." 

With all of this in perspective, let's remember that our Father refuses to share His glory with impostors or cheap idols. We must therefore take a close look at the God (or gods) in our lives...and then choose the only One worth serving and living for.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Real Deal

Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.

-- Psalm 37:4    

For many tourists in New York City, buying a fake Rolex watch or Gucci handbag from a street vendor is as big a part of their trip as visiting the Empire State Building or taking the Staten Island Ferry. After all, getting a bargain is always fun. And who knows? Your friends just might glance at your bling and think you paid for the real deal.

But you usually get what you pay for. And it turns out that buying counterfeit goods is hardly a harmless diversion. The International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) reports that 2.5 million jobs have been lost to fake products. In developing countries alone, counterfeits account for $125 billion in lost tax revenue and additional welfare spending. What's more, the University of Florida estimates that fakes account for about 25 percent of the pesticides sold in some European countries. Even some parts used in our nation's warplanes are cheap knock-offs manufactured in China. 

There's also a huge problem with inexpensive counterfeit pharmaceuticals--like anti-malaria drugs--that have actually proven to be lethal. Malaria is curable. But the medications for treating it must be real, trustworthy and effective. As the Bible tells us in Proverbs, "There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death."
Let's now consider the parallels between dangerous counterfeit goods and God's warnings about idolatry. When it comes to buying clothing, jewelry, pesticides, medicine--and even aircraft parts--we're often quick to look the other way and settle for cheap imitations. The truth is that we idolize expensive luxury goods. But we'd rather not pay the true price for the real thing.

This comparison is no exaggeration. After all, an idol doesn't have to be a literal golden calf like the Israelites worshiped in Old Testament times. Instead, it's anything that means more to us than following God and His true ways. It can also mean settling for the illicit rather than the real deal. For example, pleasure is one of God's gifts that we can easily idolize. For more than 40 years, the entertainment industry's message has been that if it feels good, it's OK to do it. And society has largely taken the bait. Watch almost any popular TV show or movie these days and you'll see destructive behaviors and lifestyles that God expressly condemns. Adultery and other prohibited relationships are no longer considered scandalous. We're told that they're "private" situations where no one really gets hurt. But if Christ-followers dare to say otherwise, they're likely to be scolded as being intolerant, bigoted or narrow-minded. After all, the advocates of "progressive" open-mindedness ask, what does the Bible have to do with life in 21st Century America?

As it turns out, quite a bit. 

In fact, God's Word shows us that things haven't changed when it comes to illicit relationships and the destruction they render. Just as our ancestors did centuries ago, we'll often look the other way to accept and justify our behaviors and those we fear to offend. We might claim that we want God in our lives. But the fact is that we also want Him to make room and share the throne of our heart with what's cheap and second-rate.

This approach is totally unacceptable to God. He holds a jealous love for each of His children and wants only the best for us. Therefore, sharing us isn't an option. To fully acknowledge His love, we must turn away from the false idols--the things, attitudes, behaviors or people--that hold us back from worshiping Him. It's when we change our priorities and focus on God that we find true pleasure--one that's both lasting and the Real Deal.