Look Higher

Looking Up

Exodus 14:10-12 “As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have brought us to the desert to die?’ What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

What could a nation of slaves and shepherds do against the experienced army of Egypt and its chariots? Attack with their sheep? Hope that their goats might chew the Egyptians to death? In spite of the miracles they had seen the Lord perform in Egypt, they were convinced that now they were going to die.

Are we free from such a defeatist attitude? We, too, paint doomsday scenarios because our enemies and obstacles look bigger than us. That might seem like a perfectly logical reaction if it weren’t for one thing: We aren’t fighting alone. Is anyone or anything bigger than our God? If we lift our eyes and look a little higher than the problems sitting in front of us, we will find the comfort of having him on our side. All the fear and terror and despair our various enemies show us will melt under his love and promises.

But the more convinced we are that we are going down in defeat, the more the blame game gets going. “What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians?” Really? Is that what they said? Exodus chapter 2 records them singing a different tune. “The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God” (2:23).

So it is that just when we need each other the most, when we should be pulling together and working as a team, our failure to look to the Lord drives us apart. History is littered with examples of families fractured in the face of enemies like life threatening diseases or financial hardships. Instead of pulling together, they blame each other for their misery. Churches are pulled apart when members fail to rally together to tackle moral issues or meet their stewardship challenges. Too much time is spent on who’s to blame, too little on how to fix it. Alone against our enemies, divided by fear and accusation, all we can see is defeat.

Worse still, we are tempted to stop following God’s plans. “It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.” Stop and think about what they were saying. Who had led them into this predicament? Maybe it didn’t seem sensible, humanly speaking, to journey out into the desert until they were pinned against a vast body of water with the chariots of Egypt hot on their tail. But hadn’t they been led to just this spot, to just this situation, to just this time and place by the Lord himself? He led them into this mess. Couldn’t he be trusted to lead them back out?

If we will only lift our eyes, and look a little higher than the enemy that is staring us in the face, we will be able to see the wisdom of doing it God’s way. If we bolt and run, if we abandon God’s plans for our lives, no matter how strange or hard to understand, our faith becomes easy prey for the Archenemy.

But God’s grace can remove the weight that is holding our heads down and keeping us from looking to him. It can lift our heads to see that the Lord is working on our side. And when we look higher, he shows us deliverance. He doesn’t abandon us though we are tempted to abandon him. He hasn’t given up on us though we have rebelled against him. We are his children. He paid dearly to make us his own. He has no intention of losing us now.

And he can use the very obstacles we face as the means to save us. Look up! Deliverance is on its way.

Beware the Love that Loses

Greed-Eye

1 John 2:15-17 “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes, and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

What does John mean when he talks about the things in the world? These are things that appeal to our senses. We associate cravings with food, maybe also sex. But other senses may be involved. For our hearing there are music or stories. For our smell there are colognes and perfumes. For “the lust of our eyes” there are the beautiful form of the human body, the exotic sights of faraway places, and the entertaining displays of talent that take place on the stage, the silver screen, or the athletic field.

In their proper place and amount, none of these things is wrong. But as the cravings of sinful man they become perverted. They are separated from their useful purpose. They are made the center of all life, the purpose for living. When satisfying these cravings and desires, even the wholesome ones, becomes the reason for getting up in the morning, the focus of our lives, then we lose our focus on the love of God who sent his Son to save us.

C.S. Lewis once illustrated the danger John is describing this way: “One great piece of mischief has been done by the restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motorcycle the center of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to her clothes or bridge or her dog, is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening. Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania do not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.”

It’s not as though these two competing loves–the world or the Lord– are simply different but equal choices. They end in two vastly different ways. “The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.”

The world and its desires pass away. Do we need much convincing? A house will last a long time, but it requires constant maintenance. I used to store my favorite music on vinyl platters. We called them “record albums” for those of you born after the 1980’s. Then came compact discs. Today it’s microchips no bigger than the size of your fingernail. They say our computers become obsolete in only about 18 months. Cell phones last about 2 years. If our clothes don’t wear out they go out of fashion.

If we attach our hearts to the world and its things, we will share the same fate. Driving past a cemetery near Fredericksburg, TX, many years ago, I was struck by its size. It stretched along the highway for nearly a mile. Fredericksburg isn’t a very large town– only about 10,000 people. But marker after marker in the cemetery tells us that thousands more have died there over the years. Death is not the absolute end of our human existence, but for those who die in love with the world, what follows is not better.

“But the man who does the will of God lives forever.” John isn’t saying that doing God’s will is the way to receive eternal life. But those who are going to live forever become the kind of people who do God’s will. Putting our hope of eternal life in our own actions, our own love, even our own act of believing, is just another form of worldliness.

But God loves you so much that he gave the only Son he had to rescue us from the world and save us from ourselves. Jesus gave up heaven, every divine privilege, his own comforts, and finally his own life on the cross to give us the forgiveness of sins. This was purely an act of love on his part because he did it all for free and demanded nothing of us in return. He left no requirement for our salvation unfulfilled. He left no features of God’s plan incomplete. He left no conditions that we have to meet. It was pure, unconditional love. And since every sin has been forgiven in its entirety, sin can no longer condemn us. We are going to live forever. Someday we will be buried in a cemetery like the one I passed in Fredericksburg, but even after death, we will rise to live a life that never ends. The world can’t give you life like that.

There’s only room for one first love in our hearts. Let it be the God and Savior who gave us first place in his.

I Want You to Know…

Secret

Acts 13:38 “Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.”

Forgiveness was the heart and center of everything Paul preached and taught. He understood that everything else in the Christian message hinged on this one central truth. Today, it is still your pastor’s earnest desire for you to know Jesus forgives.

“But pastor,” you may think to yourselves, “we hear it all the time. We already know that Jesus forgives.” Do we? The Greek word for “know” here is a word which means more than learning information. It is more than the head knowledge we gain from hearing or studying something. This is knowing that involves our head and heart and whole person. This is a more intimate knowing, a knowing that involves personal contact. This is knowing that changes us.

How might lives be different for people who know–this kind of deeper knowing–that Jesus forgives? When someone does something really thoughtless and inconsiderate, something that puts you out and creates a huge inconvenience for you, how would you react? It could be someone cutting you off in traffic and making you miss your exit. It could be someone not showing up when they promised. It could be someone leaving you with all the work, or making more work for you. How would you react?

I commit countless sins every day. My sins didn’t merely inconvenience Christ. They cost him his life. They hung him on a cross. Still, Jesus forgives. He doesn’t get so irritated that he rips us up one side and down the other. He doesn’t develop an attitude or go off and sulk. He doesn’t subject us to the silent treatment. He forgives. If we know the break that we are given over and over again, day after day–if we take it to heart–might we be not so annoyed at the people around us, not so vindictive? German pastor Friedrich Zundel once noted, “It is no help to an unrepentant one to be annoyed with him. What he needs is seeking love.” How about us? Do we consistently know Jesus’ forgiveness this way?

Or what about when trouble strikes? How easily we despair when misfortune comes. We are out of work and staring at the bills. We have been suffering through some chronic pain, and now we are waiting for the test results, or they reveal an incurable condition. We are being mercilessly persecuted by someone at work or at school. What starts going through our heads? Is God paying me back for something I did? Has he forgotten about me? Has he stopped loving me? Is he going to let me go to my doom? Isn’t he unfairly singling me out for bad treatment? All kinds of fears flit through our minds.

But wouldn’t we know that none of those things is possible if we knew, with all our heart and soul, that Jesus forgives us? After giving up heaven to suffer hunger, and cold, and heat, and rejection; after enduring hell and his heavenly Father’s abandonment; after giving up his life to take away our sins, now he is going to turn against us? Now he is going to let us slip through his fingers?  Martin Luther once said in a Christmas sermon that if we believed Jesus and his grace are ours, then “a man becomes suddenly so strong that to him life and death are the same.” That’s what the Apostle Paul felt when he said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” How can it be any other way if Jesus has taken our sins away and saved us? Maybe we think we know Jesus forgives us. But if we harbor anger and find it hard to forgive, if we struggle with fear and worry about our future, we still don’t know it well enough.

And if we are starting to know it better, then we know that there is no sweeter message in all the world. It’s like a favorite song that strikes a chord inside of us every time it’s played. The first time we hear it, at one and the same time it creates a sense of satisfaction and fills us with a hunger for more. It’s not enough to hear it just once. We could play it over and over again. The only difference is that eventually we may tire of the song. But Jesus’ forgiveness? That we always long for. It’s like the love of a good marriage that matures from the initial infatuation to the steady, dependable, and comfortable support and care of committed partners.

Like Paul “I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” He has removed all your guilt. You stand, at every moment, under a loving God’s grace and mercy. None of us can hear it too much or know this too well.

The Promise Comes by Faith

Heart-Hand-Cross

Romans 4:16 “Therefore the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

If the things God promises are merely rewards for good behavior, then we have little more than a business contract. It is a cold obligation, and nothing more. But if it is a gift we receive by faith, then it expresses God’s grace. Now we have the warm love of God setting his heart on us, choosing us for his blessings, loving us as his own. Then he is giving to us freely, because he wants to, even though we have not given him any reason to do so.

Still more, then we have a guarantee: “Therefore the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring…” If we possessed God’s promises by law, we could never be sure that we would get them, at best. We would live in never ending uncertainty about whether we had done enough, or whether we would blow it in the future. That’s at best. Actually, if we are honest enough to admit our sins, we would be certain that we had lost the promises. Either way, we would live in fear and doubt of God, not faith.

But since the promise comes by faith as a gift of God’s grace, it is guaranteed. God isn’t going to change, and what he does never fails. Forgiveness will never be exhausted. Love will always be our lot. Heaven will always be the home waiting for us at the end of our journey. Then we live in the happy security of children who are convinced their parents love him. They know mom and dad will always give them everything they needs. They never need to be afraid to ask. Even the household rules and discipline, which they may test, are setting loving boundaries around them that keep them safe. They never lose their trust and love for their parents, because the love they give is so certain. Even stronger is the faith God is building in the hearts of those who know that his gracious promises are guaranteed.

Finally, since the promises are possessed by faith, it brings a certain universality to them. “Therefore, the promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring–not only those who are of the law but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.” Today we Bible-believing Christians often need to emphasize the exclusivity of Christianity in comparison to all the other religions of the world. Even some Christians ignore Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me.”

But there is an inclusivity here as well. The road to God and heaven through faith in Jesus is available to all. Since the promise comes by faith, not by keeping the Law, Paul recognized that this bridged the gap between Jews and Gentiles. Wherever there was faith in Jesus, there were children of Abraham, and they all received the same gospel promises once possessed by our common spiritual father. Regardless of race, or gender, or age, they found that faith, not law-keeping, was the key.

That’s still a truth worth making our cause, stirring our passions, even inspiring our sacrifice. God give us the faith to possess his promises, experience their power, and proclaim them to all.

The Problem with Performance-Based Religion

Circus

Romans 4:14-16 “For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, because the law brings wrath. And where there is no law there is no transgression. Therefore, the promise comes by faith…”

God’s law is good for the purposes he gave it, as Paul confirms later in his letter to the Romans 7:7, 12). But if keeping God’s law was the only way to possess God’s promise, that would introduce some big problems.

The first problem would be this: “For if those who live by the law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless.” If God’s promises are something we possess through keeping the law, then we have lost the promise, and it does us no good for God to make it. If I said to my children, “I will take you out for ice cream, but first you must solve this problem in quantum physics,” or “first you must play this Paganini violin concerto flawlessly,” or “first you must dunk this basketball,” what would be the use? It would be a waste of my breath. The promise would be useless to them. My children have their own gifts, but none can do any of the things I just listed. If God were to say to us, “You can have my promises when you keep all my commandments,” He may as well just say, “You can all go to hell.” We don’t keep his law. That’s is just the reason that we need his promises of grace and forgiveness.

The second problem is this: far from bringing sinners like us closer to possessing God’s promises, the law produces the opposite: “…because law brings wrath.” The law itself isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t make for a happy relationship between God and man. People get mad at God because his law puts things off limits that they want. They get mad that God demands a perfect keeping of his law that they can’t achieve, like Jesus said in the sermon on the mount: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Thomas Jefferson said, “That kind of God is a monster.” Unitarian minister William Channing said, “The God of the Bible is the kind of a God in whom we ought not to believe. We could not believe if we wanted to, and if we do we ought to be ashamed of ourselves.”

On the other side, our law-breaking makes God mad. Back in chapter one of this letter Paul had begun this whole discussion, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men…” God’s wrath is not exactly what we hope to obtain.

Is that any less important for us to understand today than in the past? Is this any less practical for Christian faith and life? One popular Christian author would like to skip past this kind of theology and get right to the details of daily life. “I’m not called to…expound on deep theological doctrines or disputes that don’t touch where people live,” he says. But doesn’t this touch us right at the source of Christian life? We can talk until we are blue in the face about good behavior, but what good will it do if we don’t understand its failure to bring us closer to God and his promises? We may as well try to teach people how to breath in outer space without a space suit. That’s the problem with performance-based religion. The law lacks the power to enable us to claim and enjoy God’s promises.

If not the law, then what? Faith fits the bill: “Therefore, the promise comes by faith.”

A righteousness that comes by faith is a righteousness that starts outside of us. It is not an innocence, an absence of guilt, we produce. Then we would be back to keeping a law of some kind. It is something we receive. It begins outside of us. Everything that I have ever received existed outside of me before I ever received it–gifts, money, applause, affection. The same is true of God’s gift of righteousness. Jesus produced it on the cross before I even existed. There, the forgiveness he purchased produced a sinless image of me that God gives as a gift. When God led you and me to faith, that sinless image became our very own. And with that gift comes every other promise he has made.

It is faith in Jesus’ performance—his perfection and sacrifice—that makes us confident God’s promises belong to me.

When the Law Doesn’t Work

signs

Romans 4:13 “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith.”

We don’t receive God’s promises of grace and blessing by way of his law. No one ever has. Even Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation, didn’t get these things from God’s law.

Just what are the promises Paul has in mind here? He speaks of the promise that Abraham would be heir of the world. Now, no individual promise given Abraham in the book of Genesis promises him the world in so many words. The Lord tells him he will make him into a great nation, that all nations on earth will be blessed through him, that he will have a son from his own body, that his descendants will outnumber the stars of the sky, that the land of Canaan will belong to him and his family. That’s all very interesting, we might feel, but what does that have to do with Abraham becoming heir of the world? More importantly, what does all that have to do with us? Why should we care?

A little context will help. In Romans chapter 4 Paul is using the life of Abraham to illustrate this point from the previous chapter: “We maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” The main promise on Paul’s mind is that of justification–God’s not guilty verdict. How can God consider a sinner like me not guilty? How can I be considered righteous? How can we receive forgiveness? This was not a concern for any one generation. It wasn’t new with the teachings of Jesus. It goes thousands of years back to Abraham and beyond. How was it that God could treat a sinner like Abraham like a son? How could Abraham receive so many good things from God? The promise that all nations would be blessed through him was the key. This was only possible if Abraham had descendants. That God promised, too. And of all the nations of people descended from Abraham, his greatest single descendant was Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of the world. He was the one who would inherit the world for Abraham’s family. More than that, he was the one who would bring forgiveness and eternal life to the world by his perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection from the dead.

Was there something better about Abraham that led the Lord to single him out for such promises? Was he better at keeping God’s law? A re-read of Genesis 12 through 24 shows us that, on the contrary, Abraham was capable of some horrible lapses into sin. That is why Paul concludes, “It was not through law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise.” The Lord does not make his gospel promises–the ones that promise forgiveness and eternal life–dependent on human behavior, conditional on keeping his law.

In our church, we recite the Nicene Creed on communion Sundays. These words renew and review our faith in God as our heavenly Father, the divinity and saving work of his Son Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit. When we recite them, they don’t feel like a rallying cry in a great controversy anymore. They don’t stir our passions as though we were taking a stand in a battle between right and wrong. We live thousands of years after the debates and battles for the divinity of Christ that inspired the creed to be written. The issue still comes up, but it doesn’t strike us as so urgent.

Something similar can happen with the issues before us in these words of Paul to the Romans. A great struggle to understand the proper roles of faith and works in God’s saving work existed during the days of Jesus and his apostles. It arose again 500 years ago at the time of the Reformation. The intensity of the battle for a right understanding of this teaching has died down, though it never goes completely away. People turn their attention to other teachings. Some believe the really pressing issue is how people live their lives each day. Whether God’s saving promises come by faith or by works doesn’t seem so critical. What difference does it make?

Paul’s words reinforce that it makes all the difference in the world. It is not an overstatement when our spiritual forefathers spoke of this issue as the teaching on which the church rises or falls. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter–including how we live our lives each day. Only the righteousness that comes by faith makes Abraham and his spiritual descendants heirs of the world…and the world to come.

Don’t Dabble with the God Next Door

Hawaii Idol

Joshua 23:7-8 “Do not associate with these nations that remain among you; do not invoke the names of their gods or swear by them. You must not serve them or bow down to them. But you must hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have until now.”

You probably know enough Old Testament history to know that Joshua’s warning was something of a prophecy. Israel was constantly dabbling in the religions of their neighbors. Why were these other gods so appealing? For the most part, these other religions were much more “this worldly.” The native religions of ancient Canaan were fertility cults. That meant that they were focused on the here and now. Worship was all about making a living and having a family. Do it right and your land would produce a good crop, your sheep would have lambs, and your wife would give you children. There wasn’t so much focus on the life to come which seemed so far away. Worship was about everyday life. Worship was practical.

On top of all that, worship was fun. There was none of this heavy talk about sin and forgiveness. It was supercharged with emotion. Even sex was a big part of the program. It was all designed to make you feel good. It’s not hard to see the appeal.

Finally, these other gods seemed to demand less faithfulness. These other religions were less exclusive. You were free to practice more than one of them at the same time. There was none of this “our god is the only god,” or “our way is the only way.”

Practical. Fun. Open-minded. It’s not that God wants Christian faith to be impractical and boring, but real faith deals with weightier things, issues of life and death, heaven or hell. And the God of the Bible is the only God. His way is the only way. Everything else is just imaginary. If Christianity makes exclusive truth claims, that’s because its God is the only one who actually exists.

Christians in our time seem less and less sold on these truths. According to a survey taken by the Pew Forum several years ago, the majority of Protestant Christians, the majority of Catholic Christians, and the majority of Evangelical Christians believe that many religions lead to eternal life. Now, if by “many religions” they mean “other Christian denominations” I have no argument. But if they mean non-Christian religions, they are out of tune with the warning Joshua is giving us here.

The issue is not one of Christians being better than the followers of other religions. Christians are just as bad as they are. Christians are so bad that they can be saved only by God’s grace, only by a Savior fulfilling all that God demanded instead of them, only by Jesus dying for their sins in place of them. But Christians aren’t worse than the followers of every other religion, either. No man, of any faith, can save himself by his good character or his selfless charity or his kind actions or his exceptional love. Jesus is the only Savior God has given humanity to rescue us from sin and death, because Jesus is the only Savior who has done all of the saving work for us.

Joshua’s God offers more than instant fun and success. He gives his people more than a few principles by which to live. He gives life and immortality. He paid for it by giving himself. Hold fast to him.

Weak or Strong?

weak-strong

Joshua 23:6 “Be very strong; be careful to obey all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, without turning aside to the right or to the left.”

Are Christians weak or are they strong? We can look at great Biblical leaders of the past–men like Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, Peter, and Paul. We can see how they took their stand on the truth, and lived and sometimes even died there, and it looks to us as though they are strong. Maybe you have had some great Christian role model in your life. You have seen how he or she resisted temptation, weathered personal tragedy or persecution with a robust, unwavering faith, and you aspired to stand strong like they do. Maybe Christians are strong.

Oh, but “pride goeth before a fall.” Noah got drunk, Abraham slept with a servant girl, Moses and David committed murder, Peter denied his Lord, and Paul admitted his unending struggle with sin. The idea that the church is more a hospital for wounded sinners than a gymnasium for burly saints goes back at least as far as Luther. Given enough time, even the Christians you respect the most will let you down. Their feet are made of clay, not iron. Maybe Christians are weak.

So which is it–are they weak or are they strong? True to reality, it’s not a simple “either/or.” The best answer is “both.” Like Paul says, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Huh? In these words of farewell to his people Joshua urges us, “Be very strong.” But what’s the point of telling people to do that if they always are? Because we often struggle, we need this encouragement. But we also need to know what real strength looks like and where real strength comes from. That’s where Joshua’s words direct us.

When Joshua says “Obey everything written in the law of Moses,” he is commanding more than obedience to a list of rules. “The Law of Moses” was the technical term for the first five books of the Bible. While it is true they contained many commands, they were also filled with history and promises and examples. A fuller translation of “obey” would include the words “keep” and “do.” There were certainly things to “do” here. None of the commandments was optional.

But just as important as the laws were the promises and examples for them to keep and preserve in their hearts. These five books of Moses contained the first promises of a Savior–the One who would crush Satan’s head, make Israel a blessing to all nations, a Ruler who would come from Judah, a Prophet who knew God more intimately than Moses, the Sacrifice that all the sacrifices at the Tabernacle were pointing to. Joshua and his people knew this Savior as a promise. We know him as Jesus, and we know the full story of his love and the full forgiveness he died to give us. If you are standing on a foundation of God’s grace and love like that, you can be strong for the struggle.

These five books of Moses contained examples of God’s great power to deliver his people like Noah’s Ark, Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt, the 10 plagues and the Passover, and the crossing of the Red Sea. They were filled with providential promises like, “There is no one like the God of Jeshurun who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deut. 33:26-27). An old hymn reminds us that we are “Standing on the Promises,” and that is just what Joshua was urging his people to do so that they would stay on the right path.

When God’s weak, fallible people hold on to the promises, and depend on his power, they don’t just find help. They are very strong.

God’s Governing Servants

Eagle Flag

Romans 13:1 Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God… Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.

The Lord called a friend of mine to teach at a Lutheran seminary in the Ukraine. One of the most difficult adjustments he had to make was getting used to the way government works in this formerly communist country. Just to get his car registered, he had to go through these steps:

1) He drove to the customs department on the other side of town.

2) After waiting for half an hour, he was sent to a second office in another part of town.

3) There he waited another 45 minutes while his application was being typed and he paid a fee.

4) He was sent across town again to have the car’s value professionally estimated.

5) The people in that office sent him to another office.

6) He waited 45 minutes for another application to be typed and paid a fee.

7) By now it was closing time. He had to wait until the next day to continue his quest.

8) When he went back to the customs office the next morning, he was told he needed a form from the police department.

9) When he reached the police department, they had no idea what form was needed.

10) He went back to the customs office, where the man in charge learned he was a religious worker. As a result, he sent him to the Dept. of Religious Affairs for a work permit, then to the police to get a special stamp for his passport.

11) In order to make sure that the man at the customs department would follow through with this the next day, he had to pay a “token of gratitude” (a bribe).

12) The next day he was told he would need to have a full medical examination and submit the medical records before the car could be registered.

13) Finally he phoned a high ranking friend, who simply gave the order, “Just give them the sticker.”

And we sometimes complain about the way our government works.

So long as our government provides peace and order, it is a blessing of God for which we ought to give our thanks. The Lord has established two great kingdoms on earth to take care of us. One watches over our bodies, the other watches over our souls. He places his representatives in each of them to work for our good.

For our souls God gives us the church with its pastors and teachers. Here the emphasis is not so much on what we do for him, but what he did for us to save us. Here God leaves no role for us to play in our own salvation, whether big or small. He simply points us to Jesus who has done it all. Here we find full forgiveness for our failure to submit to God’s commands and those who enforce them. Here God rules us not by force but by faith, not by guns but by grace, not by laws but by his love that captivates our hearts and makes us want to follow him wherever he leads us to go.

Those who govern us work in the other great kingdom God has established. They take care of our bodies, and they do so in a particular way. “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” In general, we might say that the purpose of government and those who govern is to protect the weak from the strong. In a world where not everyone trusts God or willingly follows his ways, God has given those who govern weapons of force and punishment. If the policeman cannot use his sidearm, if the soldier cannot fire his rifle, if the judge cannot sentence people to jail or even to death, then the government cannot keep us safe.

But so long as the government has the power to punish, God can use it to protect us from those who want to take our property, our freedom, and even our lives. When we are submitting to the government ourselves, they are in a better position to protect us, and that is all for our personal benefit.

Perhaps no one on earth is better protected by their government than we Americans. As we celebrate our nation’s anniversary, let’s be thankful for the blessing of peace and order it provides.