Saturday, July 29, 2017

Signs of the Times

It will be good for those servants whose master finds them ready, even if he comes in the middle of the night or toward daybreak.

-- Luke 12:38

California might come to mind when we think of places where earthquakes are common. But did you know that Yellowstone National Park, which straddles Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, experiences hundreds of them each week? What's more, the area sits atop a so-called supervolcano, and it's been 70,000 years since it last erupted. Then there's the New Madrid Seismic Zone (NMSZ), which covers parts of seven states from Illinois to Mississippi. During the Winter of 1811-12, it experienced 15 tremors with estimated magnitudes of 6.5 to 8.0. That's on par with the 1989 San Francisco, 1994 Los Angeles and 1995 Kobe, Japan, earthquakes. Seismologists report that the NMSZ appears to be 30 years overdue for a magnitude 6.3 quake, which could cause billions of dollars of damage and perhaps thousands of injuries and deaths.

Disasters, whether natural or manmade, Hour Glasshappen every day. They're often unpredictable. And there's no guarantee that we can actually save ourselves, our family or property from the resulting destruction--even if we recognize their warning signs. But today, there are cautions of a much greater world-changing event that could strike in 100 years, 20 years, 2 weeks or maybe even tonight.

God promises us through the Bible that one day, a Savior (Jesus) will return to right all the wrongs of this world, save and reward those who place their faith in him, and direct all others to an eternity of torment. No one knows exactly when he'll reappear. But many of the Bible's prophesies on the matter have already been fulfilled, such as the relatively recent prediction about the re-birth of the State of Israel. There's actually nothing to stop his Second Coming in our lifetimes.

Yes, Jesus could return in 5 minutes or in 500 years. But either way, we must be prepared. That's because none of us knows when our time on Earth will expire. Check the news on the Internet, television or the paper, and you're bound to find stories about deaths through accidents, crimes or sudden illness (such as a stroke or heart attack). Like the victims of a tsunami, they had no idea that the day would be their last.

This brings us to the obvious question: Are you prepared to meet your Maker? Your answer has eternal consequences. "So you also must be ready," Jesus warns us, "because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him."

Our God is a God of justice. And since we've all failed to live up to his standards, we all deserve the penalty that Jesus endured on the cross--for our sake--about 2,000 years ago. So whether we leave this life from a natural disaster or naturally through old age, the question remains: How can we be assured that we'll spend eternity with God rather than forever without him? The simple answer is not a particular action we can take, but rather a certain Person we must trust:

"I am the way, the truth, and the life!" Jesus assures us through John 14:6. "Without me, no one can go to the Father."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Passing the Test

He replied, "When evening comes, you say, 'It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,' and in the morning, 'Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.' You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times..."

-- Matthew 16:2-3

If you're a fan of Star Trek, you'll be happy to know that filming is underway for the next installment of the popular movie franchise. Star Trek 4 is scheduled for release sometime in 2018. And rumor has it that the plot involves Captain Kirk crossing paths with his father, the young Star Fleet commander who sacrificed his life in the 2009 Star Trek reboot to save his newborn son and the Federation fleet.

Speaking of the first Star Trek reboot, Star Trekthere's a scene where Kirk--then a brash Star Fleet Academy cadet--must undergo a computer-simulation exercise called the Kobayashi Maru Test. Designed by Mr. Spock, the test places Kirk in a no-win scenario as the commander of a starship facing the overwhelming force of aggressive Klingon warbirds.

Kirk remains calm while the imaginary Klingon spacecraft open fire. He even munches an apple from the comfort of the captain's chair as his exasperated crew wonders aloud if their leader will take action amidst the chaos. Star Fleet Academy observers also question if the cocky cadet takes the situation seriously. But just at the protective shields of Kirk's vessel are about to give way, the Klingon attack grinds to a halt. Then, it's the Klingons' shields that begin to fall. And with a few well-aimed photon torpedoes ordered by Kirk, the enemy ships are quickly destroyed.

The Kobayashi Maru Test was meant to gauge Kirk's response to impending defeat in an unwinnable situation. But since he had reprogrammed the simulation and re-written its conclusion, he could remain confident in the midst of circumstances that no previous cadet had overcome.

"I don't believe in no-win scenarios," Kirk later explained. And why should he? After all, he already knew the story's outcome.
Maybe our world isn't under attack from a squadron of Klingon warbirds. But a quick check of the news headlines reveals considerable turmoil in our midst. Thank God (literally) that we don't have to rely on our own cleverness to overcome it. The good news is that our Creator is in control of our crazy environment of politics, unemployment, revolutions and corruption. Maybe that's hard to believe. However, God's Word (the Bible) explains that he had it all figured out thousands of years ago--even before the world was formed. He knew which of us would be his followers. And he knew that his creation would need a perfect Savior to deliver us from the consequences of our misdirected lives.

The timing had to be perfect. And so it was. Centuries after the Old Testament had promised his arrival, Jesus was born in an obscure village called Bethlehem--exactly as predicted. Later, prophesy after prophesy would be fulfilled during Christ's brief ministry through his remarkable words and deeds.

Why does this matter to Jesus' modern-day followers? Throughout our trials big and small--and when our world seems to be crumbling around us--we can rest assured that God's plans are always trustworthy and on schedule, even when we don't understand what's happening. We can't see things through his perspective. But since he wrote life's first chapter, last chapter and everything in between, we can be confident that God already knows how our stories will turn out. Moreover, he's the author of a happy ending for those who love him and trust in his Son. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Shades of Gray

He has shown all you people what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

-- Micah 6:8

One of the great misconceptions about Christianity is that it's all about rules and regulations. Yes, it's true that the Old Testament has over 600 of them, covering everything from proper animal sacrifice to priests with disheveled hair. What's more, the Jewish religious authorities added many others over the years through their oral traditions. Maybe the intentions were good. But the burden was heavy. Who could ever please God by following them all when there were too many to even remember?

"Until the time of John the Baptist, people had to obey the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets," Jesus explained to his followers. "But since God's kingdom has been preached, everyone is trying hard to get in."

God's Word was perfect. But Jesus got Decisionto the heart of its true meaning. When an expert in the Law asked Christ to name the greatest of the 10 Commandments, the Lord answered:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Christ-followers who stick close to this principle are likely to travel far down the road of Spirit-filled living. But there are still issues and situations--so-called gray areas--that the Bible doesn't specifically cover. Examples include issues with personal relationships, styles of worship, food and drink, and types of entertainment. Although the Apostle Paul never considered questionable Internet sites and pay-per-view movies, he was no stranger to debatable issues in his own day that pulled the church away from what was (and still is) most important: the Good News about Jesus. Paul advised early Christ-followers that their newfound faith in Jesus gave them liberty.

"Everything is permissible," he explained. "But not everything is necessarily beneficial."

In other words, just because we CAN do something doesn't necessarily mean we SHOULD do it. But this spawns an obvious question: How do we know if a particular gray area is OK?

We first need to determine if the proposed activity could be a problem to those who see us do it. For example, would it build up or hinder the faith of another Christ-follower if they saw you buy a ticket for an explicit R-rated movie? And on the same note, would the activity benefit you spiritually or physically? Just because you CAN eat a bucket of fried chicken and a carton of chocolate ice cream doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

Our faith in Jesus has given us the freedom to live enriched, fulfilled lives. But this same liberty isn't a license to sin. That should be the last thing in our mind. Above all--whatever we choose to do--we need to do it for God's glory. Because after all, the world is watching.

"A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house," Jesus tells us. "Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven."

The fact is that Christianity is much more about relationships than rules. And it's when we focus on loving God and our neighbors through what we say and do that the vivid colors of life emerge from the gray. 

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Soul Food

The appetite of laborers works for them; their hunger drives them on.

-- Proverbs 16:26

What's your idea of a great meal?

For some folks, a grilled steak, baked potato and tossed salad always hit the spot. Others love pizza, Chinese or seafood. And let's not forget those who crave vegetarian. 

Our tastes and taste buds might vary widely, but its hunger that unites us. Likewise, we all share another type of appetite that has nothing to do with cheeseburgers and ice cream. It's the spiritual hunger that's hard-coded in our SteakDNA. Inside, everyone has a gnawing desire to fill a gaping internal void. Some try through negative pursuits involving drugs, alcohol, compulsive spending or gambling. Others rely on long hours in the office or escaping reality through online gaming, television or even travel. But after the thrill is gone, the hunger always returns. And there's never any satisfaction.

Jesus addressed this spiritual starvation by proclaiming (and proving) himself to be the "food" that everyone craves. It's when we accept him as our Lord and Savior that he fills the void and nourishes our lives. We just need to be willing to ask, listen and obey.

Spiritual hunger isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we all need a drive--a certain level of intensity--to continue developing as Christ-followers. That's because the old saying is true: life is a journey rather than a wide spot in the road. God has so many things for us to see, experience and comprehend during our brief existence on Earth. That's how we grow and mature into Jesus' likeness. 

Unfortunately, too many Christ-followers become spiritually malnourished because they stop seeking meaning in their lives. The solution is to grow in faith by making the most of the people, places and situations that we encounter each day. That means developing our spiritual muscles through regular Bible study, prayer, worship, small group participation and other positive habits. After all, there's nothing like a good workout to whet ones appetite.

Are you hungry for more than bland, mundane existence? There's plenty of good stuff on the menu:

"I am the bread of life," Jesus declares. "He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty."

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Start Spreading the News

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 or check the headlines on the web, and you're bound to come across story after story about alleged political corruption, financial hardship, job layoffs 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 attracts clicks.

Positive headlines also don't paint an Newsunrealistic, gloomy picture of our circumstances. For example, bad economic news can lead to self-fulfilling prophesies when people becomes too scared to buy a much-needed automobile or even a new pair of shoes. True, too many people really are struggling these days with difficult life challenges. But unemployment, crime, sickness and death have been part of the human experience for centuries. There's nothing new under the sun.

But enough with the depressing headlines. How about spreading some good news for a change?

As Christ-followers, our Good News (The Gospel) is that Jesus paid the price for our sins (past, present and future) when he died in our place on the cross. Then, just as predicted centuries earlier 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.

"Death has lost the battle!" proclaimed 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' closest followers found it hard to believe when they heard reports--just days after witnessing his crucifixion--that he was actually alive. Let's consider this encouraging passage from the Gospel of John, which details the skepticism (and later amazement) of an apostle known to this day as "Doubting Thomas":

Although Thomas the Twin was one of the twelve 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!"

A week later the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas was with them. Jesus came in 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!"

Are today's headlines getting you down? Now's the time to start spreading the Good News.