Life in Your Creator’s Image

Mirror image

Colossians 3:7-10 “You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which his being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”

There is a difference between stumbling into a sin out of weakness and living in it as your regular, accepted practice. The difference isn’t the sin itself. That is equally wicked and dangerous in either case. The difference has to do with the heart. In one case the heart is on God’s side fighting the sin. In the other case it is opposing God by making sin a way of life and has no intention of changing.

Paul is not trying to excuse us or make light of the sins we continue to commit when he says, “You used to walk in these ways.” He’s not just trying to let us off the hook. But so long as we struggle against sin in faith, this is true. It’s not our way of life. We haven’t removed ourselves from God’s grace and forgiveness. We don’t live under God’s wrath. This urges us all the more to slay our sin, to put it to death in repentance.

Paul wants to assure us that we can do this. “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” I want you to note a couple of things that give us the confidence we can live a new life and put to death the old. First of all, note the tense of the verbs. You have taken off the old self. You have put on the new self. That’s in the past. These are accomplished facts. You are not who you used to be. Your sinful nature died with Christ. You are someone new, a holy person God sees with him in heaven.

You have been given the power to live a different kind of life now. Someone has well said that we aren’t human doings, we are human beings. The key to living the godly life we want to live is not so much in what we do. It is in the new people God has made us to be by his grace.

Secondly, look at how that new self is described: “…being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.” God is constantly working with this new you. He is making it new over and over again. In fact, this new self is the image of God himself that was lost when Adam and Eve fell into sin. You may remember that when God first made Adam and Eve, they were in the image of God. Morally and spiritually, they were little copies of God, thinking the way God thought and wanting what God wanted.

As we slay our sin in repentance, and believe the good news that God forgives us and decrees us to be his holy people, that is exactly what is happening to us. We are in the process of being made into little spiritual and moral copies of God in his image. That means we can live like people to whom God has given new life.

Baseball legend Yogi Berra had an endearing penchant for stating the obvious. Someone was once telling Yogi about a Steve McQueen movie, to which he replied, “He must have made that before he died.” That would be right. He made the movie before he died. Obviously. It’s not so obvious that the Christian life does not begin until after we have died. By faith we die with Christ to sin. By faith he raises us to a new life of love. Let’s die and rise with him each day.

Kill it!

Frankenstein

Colossians 3:5-6 “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these the wrath of God is coming.”

Our sinful nature was put to death at Jesus’ cross as far as God is concerned. But if we continue to embrace our sin, treasure it, indulge it, and consider it for our good, we give it life again. We become spiritual Dr. Frankensteins, going out to the graveyard to dig up the corpse of our sin and bringing the monster to unnatural life.

“Put it to death,” Paul says. Slay your sin. Despise it. Turn away from it. See it as the rotten, stinking thing it is. This change from giving sin life to putting it to death, from seeing it as grand to seeing it as grotesque, is the change we know as repentance. It is the inevitable result of living like those who died and rose with Christ.

Then Paul helps us to see why this is so vital. “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” If a person is contemplating sin, there are many consequences we can warn them about. If a man is considering abandoning his family by divorce, you can warn him about how quiet and lonely it will be without them. You can remind him of the psychological harm he may bring to his children. You can point out how expensive the process will be. And all of this would be true.

If a teenager is dabbling in promiscuous sex, you can share pamphlets that warn about the dangers of disease. You can educate her about the possibility of pregnancy. You can present the statistics that show how this reduces the chances of establishing a stable marriage later on. All of these are verifiable consequences of that sin that make life less pleasant.

But we have yet to mention the key thing as far as God and Scripture are concerned. “Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.” The main reason sin is bad is not that it introduces pain into our daily lives, true though that may be. The main reason sin is bad is because it brings God’s wrath. It leads to death and hell. And for those who like to gamble and want to know the odds, that is not just a possibility. It is a certainty.

But wait a minute. Did these Christians to whom Paul was writing stop sinning completely? Do we? Not at all. That is why Paul must urge us to keep on putting sin to death, to slay our sin. We go on repenting of our sins. We give it to Jesus to dispose of for us at the cross and receive his forgiveness. That keeps the old self buried in the grave where he belongs, and it gives life to the genuinely new and beautiful creature God has made us in Christ.

Look up!

Look up

Colossians 3:1-3 “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

Heaven is where our focus and attention belong as Christians, in spite of how deeply we desire to invest ourselves in the world in which we now live. Honestly, how much time don’t we spend trying to make ourselves as comfortable as possible, making ourselves financially secure, extending our lives as long as we can, improving our standard of living-our community- our world? We spend a colossal amount of time focusing upon the quality of the life we live right here.

Some of that attention may serve God and care for the needs of my neighbor. But let’s not fool ourselves. More of it serves to make me worldly. It gratifies my selfish cravings. And what does our fascination with the immediate landscape get us? So long as we keep thinking about the evening news, the aches and pains of our bodies we try to fix but can’t, the never ending mountain of work we can’t get on top of, the fear we have of school shootings and terrorists and hurricanes, the scandals of our government leaders, the more pessimistic and depressed we get. These things kill the spirit.

We need to set our hearts and minds on things above. Doing so is no mere escape, like a trip to the movies to get my mind off life for a while. No, the reasons Paul gives for urging us are far more compelling than that.

“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” We died? How? When? He is referring to the death we died with Jesus since he went to the cross as our substitute. Our worldly obsessions, our selfish cravings, our moral failures–all of them were nailed to the cross when Jesus died. That life is buried and gone as far as God is concerned. He doesn’t hold it against us. It is just a corpse to his eyes. We don’t believe in reincarnation, but every Christian does have a past life in one sense. It is the sum total of his life of sin, the life of his sinful nature–past, present, and future–which Jesus took to the cross and paid for with his life. That’s how God sees it. No need to dig that corpse of a sinful, worldly life up and keep looking at it.

But there is so much more than a death here. “…your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” Jesus is not just our death. He’s our life! He is still our substitute, not just at the cross, but even now at God’s right hand in heaven. When God wants to see what you look like to him, he doesn’t have to go searching for you. He can turn to his Son, seated in glory at his right hand, and there he sees you and me as glorious, perfect creatures, because our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

What happens when all of a Christian’s focus is on his existence here in this world? He is constantly confronted with his own frequent moral failures. His life is full of disappointments and troubles. Relationships are messed up. Career goals don’t pan out. His body is subject to sickness and decay. Death is inevitable. If that is all the input we receive, won’t we see ourselves as dying failures and act accordingly?

But that life died with Christ at the cross. Our real life is hidden with Christ in God. God assures us that we really look like Jesus in all his glory. Because of the forgiveness of sins we are holy saints. We are children of God. We are creatures of heaven.

When we believe that, won’t it make all the difference for our lives? Don Matzat tells the story of a man he once met who worked as a janitor. He had immigrated to this country from Iran. There he had been a high official in the court of the Shah of Iran, the ruler of that country before the Ayatollah took over. Because of the way the man carried himself, and spoke, and behaved, you didn’t get the idea that you were talking to a janitor. He continued to see himself as someone important. He believed that one day he would be restored to his former position. That was his identity, and it drove the way that man lived.

See your life above, hidden with Christ, where you are seated with him at God’s right hand in glory. Then you will live like those who died and rose, who died to sin with Christ and rose with him to heavenly life.

Old Faithful

Hands

Exodus 33:27 “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.”

Our God’s unique reliability is especially found in two terms here: “eternal” and “everlasting.” Two different words are used in the Hebrew, each with its own emphasis. The first one looks deep into the past. The eternal God is the God who existed before all things. He goes back before sin entered the world, before there even was a world, before there was even such a thing as time. He has always existed. And the steady march of time since the beginning has not weakened or changed him. He has been constant, dependable, faithful, tried and true.

It is this eternal God whom Moses says is our “refuge.” We have his protection for every attach we face. Now, when you hear the word “refuge,” do you think of something temporary? When I hear “refuge” I tend to think of a place to which to run when there is trouble. I picture thick, gray, cold stone walls. It is unusually strong, well-fortified, maybe hard to access, and, since the emphasis is on protection rather than comfort, it is somewhat austere. It’s not the kind of place one would live on a full time basis.

That’s not the kind of refuge Moses is holding before us. This is a place to call home. It offers all of the security and protection mentioned above, but it also has the warmth and permanency of the place you call home. This is the kind of refuge that the eternal God is for you and me. For thousands of years he has been this rock solid yet comfortable place in which his people could live all their days.

The other word which highlights our God’s reliability, “everlasting,” doesn’t look back but ahead. He is literally ever-lasting, he lasts forever, on and on into eternity. His power, his love, his faithfulness, his very being, will never end.

The picture Moses associates with “everlasting” are God’s everlasting arms beneath us. Do you know what that promises us? It doesn’t say that we will never have troubles. God will allow a certain number of things to test your faith. He will permit you to struggle with other people, struggle to make a living, struggle with temptation.

But you will never be alone in those struggles. If you stumble, falter, or fall, he is not going to let you fall to your doom. His everlasting arms are always under you. I remember following my children around when they were taking their first steps. There I was, or my wife, with hands and arms right underneath their bottoms, ready to catch them when they took their first misstep. God’s own everlasting arms are always present beneath his wobbly-kneed, unsteady children, ready to catch them and hold them if ever they slip or fall along the way. He never fails. You can count on it.

A look back at God’s perfect track record assures us victory is always on his side. He will not let us be pushed down and trampled to death in the challenges on our road ahead. His arms will always catch us and prevent us from splattering ourselves on life’s jagged rocks. There is one else like this God, whose faithfulness never fails.

Power to Help

Sistine Chapel Creation

Deuteronomy 33:26 “There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty.”

Our God is no pipsqueak. Moses pictures him riding on the heavens. He is not a creature of this world, a product of the earth, like the gods of Greek and Roman mythology. He stands far above it all. Think of how small you look from an airplane, from the moon, from the distant stars. By contrast God stands far above all these things, looking down on them from the outside, big enough to straddle this universe that seems so vast to you and me.

He is so big and so powerful that some people go looking for smaller gods to follow. A feature from a magazine for recovering addicts in a 12-step program included descriptions that some people gave of their “Higher Power.” For one person it was the group of fellow addicts. For another it was whatever good he found in each day. For still another it was her sense of unity with the universe. For one it was even her dog. But will fellow friends, good feelings, or canines really be enough for all the help we need?

We are not above turning to lesser gods, either. How often don’t we think our problems could be solved if only we had more money? How often don’t we think that we could win our struggles if only we had more control, and then we go about scheming up ways to take control for ourselves? In effect, we are looking to ourselves as god. I make a mighty tiny little god for myself. The problem is not only that I fail to inspire any courage for the struggles and battles I face. I’m not able to be much real help, and then I have separated myself from the God who is.

Real help is part of what is so unique about the power of our God. He “rides on the heavens to help you.” All God’s power and size would just be scary if we were not convinced he loves us and wants to help us. But we know that this God does love us because of the help he has given us in the past. He has helped us with our sins by sending his Son to take them away from us at the cross. He has helped us with death by making Jesus’ death our own, and his resurrection the promise we will rise, too. He has helped us out of hell by making heaven a free gift of his grace. He has helped us out of our unbelief by revealing his love and sending us his Holy Spirit to give us faith.

Do you notice that in each case, God’s “help” is not just a little assistance, a little nudge to get us going again? He takes the whole project over and gets it done for us. He comes to us and says, “Let me do that for you.”

Despite all his power and majesty, that is just the kind of God he is. Most religions think that God is mainly interested in what we can do for him. Sometimes even Christians begin to think that way. But that is not where God puts the emphasis. There is no one else like him, because he rides on the heavens to help you, not just with salvation, but with every other struggle life will bring. His unique power gives us courage for all the fights we face.

Consequences

Nathan and David

2 Samuel 11:26-27 “When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.”

Why was Uriah dead? Because sexual sin, like all sin, has consequences. In the case of David and Bathsheba, Uriah’s wife, there was an unplanned pregnancy, damage to the reputation of a man the Lord once described as “a man after my own heart,” hurt and heartache for Bathsheba’s family, a bad public example for the nation’s young people, an ever-spreading web of deceit and betrayal that finally ended in murder to try to cover it all up.

Who was the victim of this little indulgence between two consenting adults? The better question is: “Who was not?” Uriah died. David lived through months of spiritual agony. The seeds of jealousy, envy, rivalry, and self-interest were sown in David’s mixed-up family. Other soldiers died alongside Uriah, innocent bystanders in David’s attempted cover-up. High-ranking members of the military were made party to the crime. David and Bathsheba got away with nothing at all.

The consequences of David’s sin fell like dominoes throughout his family, his leadership, and his nation. In our time sexual sin runs like an epidemic through our society. The people of God’s church are not immune. Surveys about adultery, divorce, premarital sex, and pornography suggest Christian behavior doesn’t differ much from our unbelieving friends. The Centers for Disease Control claims that only one out of every 10 Americans waits for marriage. Other studies suggest that between 30 and 60 percent of Americans fail to remain faithful during their marriage. We have our own weaknesses where David did.

You can’t live that way and expect there to be no consequences. Four out of every ten children born in our country are born to people who are unmarried. Half of their mothers will be forced to live on welfare, and even more will live below the poverty line. It will cost taxpayers 2.2 billion dollars every year to support them. Those children will be far less likely to grow up and do well in school. They will be far more likely to grow up and end up in jail.

That’s when the children are fortunate enough to be born. Of the nearly one million American children who die by abortion each year, by far the majority are conceived by people who are not married to each other.

Where there is no pregnancy, there may still be disease. One out of five Americans is said to carry a sexually transmitted disease. We have ways of preventing pregnancy and disease, but they don’t work perfectly. Even where there is no pregnancy or disease, that does not mean no consequence. This kind of sin changes us. It changes the way we treat the opposite gender, and never for the better. It feeds our inborn selfishness. It erodes our patience, discipline, and self-control. It makes us shallow. We become less the servant to others, more the consumer and user of other people. In one way or another the consequences expose such behavior for what it really is: sin.

The sin in this story is clear to see. “But where is there any trace of grace?” you might ask. The story doesn’t end here. God sent the prophet Nathan to confront David. He led David to confess, “I have sinned against the Lord.” To that Nathan promised, “The Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die.” So swiftly God took David’s adultery, lies and murder; so swiftly God takes our lust and ruined relationships, and removes them from our records. Seven little words, “The Lord has taken away your sin,” and that part of the story is done.

How can he do that? This grace is related to another consequence of David and Bathsheba’s union. In no way did the Lord approve either their adultery or their marriage. But that does not mean he will not turn such things and use them to his advantage. The second child born to David and Bathsheba is Solomon. God used him to continue the bloodline of the Savior and the promise of salvation for the sins of the world. David’s condemnation and judgment fell 28 generations and 980 years later on his greatest grandchild, Jesus of Nazareth, the promised Messiah.

God’s grace still overcomes our sins. Though he never approves of them, he still cleanses us from them through the blood of Jesus Christ his Son. His grace still leads him to take everything we do and turn it to serve his penitent people. Maybe he uses it as a wake-up call, or a warning for others about the dangerous path they are pursuing. Maybe seeing the depth of our sin helps us to see the heights of his love more clearly.

Whatever God does, in all things he works for the good of those who love him, even when working with the consequences of our sin.

At Home in God’s Love

chapel

1 John 4:16-18 “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him.

When John speaks of love being “made complete” among us, he is not suggesting that God’s love itself was ever missing anything. Remember that God’s unconditional love for us is more than a feeling. It is love that always moves him to action. It is a love that gives: gives us life, gives us his Son, gives us faith, gives us his Spirit, gives us forgiveness, gives us strength for the day. His love is “made complete” when it reaches its goal of giving us all his gifts.

God’s love hasn’t given us everything it wants to give us until it has made us confident Judgment Day means only life and heaven for us. In this way love is made complete among us. Then God’s love has given us every gift that it has to give. Then we are confident the only things we will hear from him in the end are words like, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.”

But how can we be so sure? John says, “…because in this world, we are like him.” We are like him? Are you or I really much like Jesus in this world? How much time did Jesus spend trying to make his life comfortable in this world? I don’t recall anything in the gospels about Jesus saving up to buy himself something he just had to have or spending hours deciding how he was going to decorate the living room, not that these things are wrong in and of themselves. But for Jesus, there didn’t seem to be much time for that. I don’t see Jesus getting angry about the lack of decent service at one of the inns in which he ate or slept. Honestly, can you see him complaining about the food? I don’t see Jesus debating whether or not he should stop to help someone, neglecting prayer because he was too busy or too tired, holding grudges and refusing to try to get along with irritating people. If our confidence on Judgment Day is based upon our lives looking like Jesus’ life, then the only thing we could be confident of is hell.

If that is our fear, then we have missed John’s point when he says, “Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him.” Living in God’s love means that God’s love is our home. We live under its shelter. We look like Jesus to God in this world not because we have improved to the point of perfection. Our perfection is this: for Jesus’ sake God has forgiven all our sins. He has graciously given us credit for the kind and loving way Jesus treated others. In this way, Jesus’ life of love is our own life of love. This is how John can say, “…in this world we are like him.” By faith Jesus’ life and death have become our own.

God’s love is beautiful place to live, and a sure promise for the life to come.

Producing a Crop

grain

Luke 8:8, 15 “Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown….The seed on the good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

God’s word is a seed with the power to give me a new and noble heart. God once promised his people through the prophet Ezekiel, “I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Through his contemporary Jeremiah he said, “Is not my word like a fire, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?”

But the process through which the Lord goes to work transplanting a good and noble heart into our chests involves the gentle message of his grace. On my concrete driveway there is a crack into which the grass keeps creeping. The grass is relatively soft and pliable. I can tear it with my hands. But it has the power to keep extending and widening that crack in the concrete.

In the gospel our Lord professes a love for us that far exceeds any other love we have known. He sacrificed his Son to save us. He forgives us all day every day. No matter how repulsive we might have made ourselves with our sin, his only desire is to have us back for himself, and there is no price he would not pay, he did not pay, to make it happen.

This soft and gentle message creeps into our hearts, breaks up the stony unbelief, and replaces it with a beating heart of faith. This is the heart that holds onto the word for dear life, because it is life. This is the heart that overflows with acts of Christian love, and words of Christian witness, because “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” This is the heart that is fruitful in the faithful, but God’s word is still the seed whose power makes it happen.

So plant a seed. Hear God’s word and plant it in your own heart. Share God’s word and plant it someone else. Then let the seed do what seeds do, and watch it grow.

Strangled by Distraction

Thistle

Luke 8:7, 14 “Other seed fell among the thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants….The seed that fell among the thorns stand for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, and they do not mature.”

Nobody I know makes it their goal in life to live in poverty. But historically God’s people have not handled prosperity very well. It tends to corrupt more than it blesses. That is Jesus’ picture here.

The problem is that “prosperity” too easily transforms into “worldliness.” If we could accept that the material world in which we live is all headed for the ash heap–there is no saving anything here, only applying a few band aids and fixes to keep it going a little longer; if we could be content with what we have been given and stop obsessing about having more; if we could see things mostly as tools to serve people and share the gospel with them; if we could trust God’s promise to take care of every need; if we cared more about a real heaven to come than an artificial one we try to build on earth; then prosperity would present no particular temptation.

Then we would worry less about who gets elected, and how my retirement funds are doing, and where the unemployment rate stands today, and whether the polar ice cap is melting, and whether they are coming to take away my guns, and which news is fake and which news is real, and whether I am getting my fair share. And we would go and live our faith. We would go to work and do our job faithfully. We would love our neighbor, no matter how he looks or thinks. We would be good stewards of the things God has given us to manage. We would speak up for those who need someone to speak up for them. We would raise our families to know that Jesus is the best thing there is, and we would tell our friends, and we would dig deep so that people all over the world could know it, too. We wouldn’t worry. We wouldn’t obsess. We wouldn’t hoard. We would believe. And then we would go and live.

But as powerful as God’s word is, faith is “choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures,” and if we will not let these things go, we will not mature. For all our scurrying around trying to build our little utopia right here on earth, we will be of little use to God or man. We can only pray that the worldly distractions do not strangle our faith all the way to death.

Years ago I remember reading about a diet pill that expanded in your stomach to give you the feeling of being full. The idea was that then you would not eat so much, and you could lose weight. Life’s “worries, riches, and pleasures” fill up our lives, and our souls, so that we feel full, and there is not so much room for the thing we really need: God’s word of grace. If you ate today, and have a roof over your head and clothes on your back, you have enough. “You are worried and upset about many things,” Jesus once told his friend Martha, “but only one thing is needed.” That one thing is listening to what Jesus says. Hear about how much he loves you, how he forgives all yours sins, how he died to save you, how he will raise you to life someday, over and over again. Then the good crop of Christian faith and life can crowd out the world’s distractions again, and we will live.