Truly Home

Soldier kids

2 Corinthians 5:6-8 “Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

When Paul speaks of being “at home” in this verse, he is not thinking of a place. The Greek word speaks about being “with our people.” And that is really home, isn’t it? I grew up on southern Minnesota. I will admit that there are things about the geography, the culture, and sometimes even the climate of that place that fill me with a sentimental longing. It still feels very comfortable when I go back there. There is something about it that just fits.

But home is not a place as much as it is the people. My own family is with me in Oklahoma, and that makes this place home. And if my parents or relatives visit, or if we meet up with them at some other place around the country for vacation, there is a great sense of being home then, too.

That’s where we are right now, Paul says. We are at home, with our people, in the body. And it is right for us to cherish those relationships and appreciate the time we spend with our dear ones here. Those people themselves are a great gift from God.

But those people themselves don’t stay with us forever. They move all over the country. As they age, they eventually move on to our home above. Even now they often bring pain into our lives with the way they treat us. And so long as we are here with them, we are away from the Lord.

That is why we are longing to take the last step to our home above, where we will find ourselves in better company. “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” It is better to be at home, “with our people,” with the Lord. My grandparents are already there, and some of my uncles. Many years ago my wife and I thought we might be sending a child on ahead of us. Some of you may have. These people are already there in all the perfection heaven promises.

But better still is the company we will keep with the Lord himself, finally face to face. Sometimes it is hard to appreciate what that will mean for us before we get there. It’s supposed to be the greatest thing about heaven, yet sometimes we may feel a little like the child whose parents excitedly tell him he is going to meet a great aunt he never met. And the child thinks, “Woo-hoo. Another old person with whom I have little in common.” We may not be convinced that seeing God holds that much appeal.

Or maybe it’s all we ever really wanted. Although we can’t fully realize it now, it is the answer to a host of inexpressible longings we can never seem to satisfy while we are here. We try to fill the emptiness with people or things or experiences, but none of them will do, because like Paul, we are longing to take the last step to a better home. There we will find ourselves in better company–in the presence of God himself.

God’s Favorites, Too

Multicultural

Acts 10:34-35 “Then Peter began to speak: ‘I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.'”

Does it seem strange to you that Peter says, “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism”? Maybe we take that for granted. How could a man who had spent three years with Jesus and been called as a missionary say, “Oh, now I get it. Now I understand. God treats everyone the same”?

As a Jew, Peter had grown up learning to avoid anyone who wasn’t a Jew. God had chosen the Jews to serve as guardians of his promises. That is why the Lord warned them not to associate too closely with the other nations and adopt their ways.

That did not mean God did not care about the rest of the world. The Jewish nation was to serve as a witness to them of his goodness. When the Jews lived and worshiped as God’s children, that was meant to draw those nations back to the Lord. Unfortunately, some felt they were better just because they were descendants of Abraham. They believed God’s promises were meant for them alone. It seems that Peter had been infected with some of this kind of thinking.

Before we criticize Peter too harshly, let’s take a look at ourselves. Many of us claim a Christian heritage in our families that stretches back more generations than we can trace. Thank God for that heritage! But we don’t get to pat ourselves on the back for it. We can gripe or worry about how evil the world is becoming. But if we do nothing except make them the enemy, that’s little more than self-righteousness. An inflated opinion of ourselves is just as dangerous to our souls as the perversions we condemn, maybe even more so.

Maybe we are tempted to favoritism. God isn’t. That’s why we can be a part of his family. “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right.” Look at some of the people the Lord accepted into is family:  Rahab the prostitute of Jericho; Ruth, the Moabitess; Naaman, the leprous enemy general from Syria.

Here, however, with Peter taking the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman, God was making a major policy change in the way he does business with the non-Jews. Until this time the message of the Savior was isolated from the rest of the world. It could be found in Israel, but there wasn’t a concerted evangelism campaign to spread the gospel to the other nations. Now the Lord was giving Peter and the church the command to go the Gentiles, to pursue them with God’s grace.

Do you see how you have been blessed?  If I trace my ancestry, I have to trace it back through at least five different nationalities–German, English, Scotch, Irish, Swedish, and maybe even French. My children can add Spanish and American Indian. In Old Testament times, none of those peoples knew anything about the Gospel. Chances are my family and I would have been lost.

Most who are reading these words have also descended from Gentile families. That’s why Peter’s words are particularly good news for us. God accepts people from every nation into his family. He seeks them for himself. That’s why we were called to repentance, and forgiveness was preached to you and me. The Lord loves each of us as much as he has ever loved anyone else.

Maybe, like Peter, we can pass that love along.

Our Fathers Have Told Us

Soldiers Fight

Psalm 44:1-3 “We have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days, in days long ago. With your hand you drove out the nations and planted our fathers; you crushed the peoples and made our fathers flourish. It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.

Of course, the psalmist isn’t thinking of the United States in Psalm 44. He is thinking of the people of Israel, whom God led through the desert, and to whom he gave possession of their own land when he drove out the Canaanites who lived there before them.

We are not God’s ancient people Israel. But that same God is still the God of all history. He oversees the rise and fall of every nation on earth. We are largely a nation of immigrants. He brought our fathers, not through a desert, but across an ocean and planted them in this place. He brought them from places all around the globe. In the United States of America he made them flourish. He has defended us and made it possible for us to continue to flourish here today in part because of the service and sacrifice offered by the men and women who have served in our military—the people we honor on Memorial Day.

How? How was it possible for men and women to win the wars that keep us free? The same way ancient Israel did: “It was not by their sword that they won the land, nor did their arm bring them victory; it was your right hand, your arm, and the light of your face, for you loved them.” Weapons are a necessary part of war. It is foolish to go into battle without them. But weapons aren’t the Christian soldier’s ultimate trust. He has something better.

“It was your right hand, your arm.” What is the power of guns, and bombs, and tanks and missiles, compared to the power of the Almighty God? “He lifts his voice,” we hear in Psalm 46, “the earth melts.” Veterans of our armed forces can tell you about the sounds, the sights, and the smells of battle. They can tell you about the lessons of military discipline, the camaraderie that develops between those who serve and fight together. That you can read about in the books, too. But what you won’t find quite so much in the books is the role of God’s power and God’s help in helping a young man or woman grow as a person and a soldier, in strengthening them for the rigors of military life, in sparing their lives in battle, and in blessing their battles with success. That “we have heard with our ears, O God; our fathers have told us what you did in their days.”

Even God’s power is only part of the story. It was “the light of your face, for you loved them.” Armies and wars are a reminder to all of us that we live in a fallen world. Sin has turned person against person and nation against nation. Even past presidents of this nation have called for national days of prayer and repentance in the face of war, because they recognized God’s call to repentance in those wars. They recognized the call to repentance not because they were prophets, but because they knew that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

Still, God has loved his fallen world, and he sent his own Son to redeem it. By his death Jesus won the war over sin and death. His victory brings forgiveness and eternal life to all who believe in him. This faith has sustained countless soldiers, who believed that even if their lifeless body extended the row of little white crosses at some cemetery a few feet further, the final victory of life in heaven still belonged to them.

On Memorial Day we have the opportunity to remember, not just lessons from the life of a soldier, but living examples of God’s power and love in the service our soldiers have offered to our country. God bless them for their service and sacrifice. God bless us all as our ears hear the great things God has done for them and for us.

Gifted for the Common Good

Help

1 Corinthians 12:7 “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.”

People are attracted to things that have power. Like most little boys, I turned just about any branch or stick into a gun when I was playing with my friends. I didn’t actually want to kill anyone. When I go hunting with friends today, I have to think to myself, “Do I really want to mess with cleaning and field dressing this animal if I shoot it?” But there is something fascinating about a device that has so much power. Cars, power tools, electronic devices, kitchen appliances–if it offers some sort of superhuman ability, people will be interested.

The Christians to whom Paul wrote in Corinth were attracted to power. Supernatural language skills, miraculous healing abilities, prophetic knowledge of the future–these and other gifts often came along with faith in Jesus for first generation Christians. The new believers in Corinth were eager to have such powers, and they were not shy about putting their gifts on display when they had them.

Like any powerful tool, there are dangers involved in handling spiritual gifts. That danger is diffused when we understand the purpose for which God gave them: to serve others.

This isn’t hard to understand. Our own spiritual gifts are a blessing to each of us, it is true. But God has given them to us “for the common good.” They are like a carpenter’s tools. The carpenter may appreciate the way his tools make his work easier. He genuinely enjoys working with them, and it gives him pleasure to create things with them. From time to time he may even build something for himself. But the reason he has the tools is so that he can serve the people who seek his services. The cabinet he builds stands in someone else’s home housing their good china. Another man sits on the bench he put together. The tools are his, and he takes them home at the end of each day. But the people they serve are spread across all the homes and businesses where the carpenter has practiced his trade.

Serving the Lord with our gifts is satisfying to those who use them. I like preaching. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t. But God didn’t give me my gift, humble as it is, primarily for me. I could still be his child, and share his grace, and one-day praise him in heaven without it. Whatever gifts I have been given to preach and teach God’s word are for the sake of the people who hear me. And whatever gifts God’s Spirit has given to you are meant to serve others as well.

When we think about our spiritual gifts this way–tools for serving others–the whole fascination with power sort of fades away, and we are filled with humble appreciation for yet another evidence of God’s love and grace in our lives.

Blessedly Different

Faces

1 Corinthians 12:4-6 “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.”

Paul looks at our spiritual gifts in three different ways to help us understand why God doesn’t give us all exactly the same thing. First, “There are different kinds of gifts.” The word gifts here is a Greek word, charismata, from which we get our word “charismatic.” It emphasizes that the gift is something God gives us for free. Maybe that seems a little simple. Any gift that is truly a gift is free. But that reminds me that I really have nothing to complain about if my gift is different than someone else’s, or if their gift somehow seems more appealing. Also I have nothing to brag about if my gift seems better. They’re gifts, right? None of us earned them. We didn’t have them coming. We all have the big gift, which is Jesus. Anything beyond that is shear generosity and goodness on God’s part, and better than nothing at all. Would we really want to complain because God gave us something more?

All of his gifts serve a purpose. They accomplish a task. They get something done. So Paul continues, “There are different kinds of service.” The Lord set up his world, and his church, to need many different things to get done. It makes sense then, doesn’t it, that he would distribute many different abilities to many different people? We can’t all be doing the same one thing all the time. Imagine a world with no garbage collectors. Imagine a church with no cleaners. Eew! Who would want to be a part of that? So the Lord gives gifts that line up with all these many tasks that have to get done. Maybe like the Corinthians we would like to have some of the showier ones, the ones that seem more powerful or supernatural. But Paul tells them later that the Spirit’s power is just as much involved in making some people good teachers, administrators or simple helpers as he is involved in the miraculous ability to heal.

Finally, the Lord himself is active in all these gifts. “There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.” The word behind “working” and “works” is the word from which we get “energy.” Paul is saying that the Lord himself energizes his people to do all these different things. He is the one moving hearts and minds, and hands and mouths and feet. If God himself enters people, and then uses them to perform all these different functions, what is left for us but to accept that our gifts are different as the Lord himself sees fit to give them.

In doing it this way, perhaps we could say that God is giving us another gift: the gift to be individuals, the gift to be me. He hasn’t created an army of clones that came rolling off an assembly line and all look and think and function the same. I am unique, and so are you. He redeemed us from our sins all the same. He loves us as his children all the same. But because he loves us, we aren’t all the same. Our gifts are different. That’s important for us to know if we are going to properly appreciate spiritual gifts.

Spiritual People

Pentecost Mosaic

1 Corinthians 12:1-3 “You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

In 1 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul wants to teach us about spiritual gifts. But before he gets to the gifts, he explains what it means to be spiritual. It is not a term that applies to unbelievers, at least not properly speaking. The majority of the Christians in Corinth were converts to the Christian faith. They had been pagans. They followed “mute idols.” There was nothing real there, no spiritual energy or power–at least nothing positive. People weren’t repenting. They weren’t turning from fear to faith. They didn’t know God and his love, because they didn’t know Jesus.

Here is Paul’s takeaway: Spiritual gifts aren’t mere matters of good morals or natural abilities. You can find both of those in the pagan religions. In most categories, perhaps, the most decorated athletes, the most creative artists, the savviest entrepreneurs and businessmen, the cleverest inventors are not Christians. These people may all be “gifted.” But theirs are not spiritual gifts.

Spiritual gifts are possessed only by people who have the Spirit of the true God. There is one sure-fire test of this: “…no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Paul is not talking about the ability to form these sounds with your mouth, the ability to pronounce the words “Jesus” and “is” and “Lord.” Any verbal person can do that. He is talking about people who say these words and sincerely mean them for themselves. If a person can’t or doesn’t do that, then the Holy Spirit is not present, and the individual has no spiritual gifts.

“Jesus is Lord” is a pregnant statement of faith. People hear the word “Lord,” and many minds think first of obedience. It is true that those who recognize Jesus as their Lord intend to live under him and follow his rules. But it is more than that.

A Lord is a person with authority, someone who has power and control. With Jesus, this is true of our entire life experience. It applies to everything about our relationship with him. “Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus is my Rescuer. I did not have the power or resources to deal with my sins myself. I couldn’t keep myself from committing them. I had nothing with which I could pay for them, no way to make amends for my guilt. So my Lord Jesus came to the rescue. My King fought his way to my side. He endured the elements of a hostile world to get to me. He took the brunt of the attacks evil villains and enemies of my soul launched at him on the way. And when he reached me, he died in my place to spare my life and set me free. He brought forgiveness for my sins and healing for my heart. He did it, not helpless me, because Jesus is my Lord, and he had the power to rescue me when I was powerless to help myself.

“Jesus is Lord” means that Jesus cares and provides for me. We are inclined to think about government and rulers as people who take money away from us. Complaints about taxes go all the way back to the “Robin Hood” legend. Farther than that, they go all the way back to ancient times, and even play a part in the story of Jesus and the people who surrounded him so many centuries ago.

But Jesus turns this all around. He is a different kind of Lord, a Ruler and King who gives his wealth away. He uses it to feed and clothe and care for the people he has claimed as his very own. Those who confess, “Jesus is Lord,” acknowledge this at every dinner prayer, as they bow their heads and ask Jesus to bless their food and thank him for giving it to them. “Jesus is Lord,” then, is the grateful appreciation of rescued people who are blessed by their gracious Master’s generosity every day. It is an understanding of Jesus that can only be worked by the Holy Spirit. And it is fundamental to the understanding of our spiritual gifts.

Pray Like Children

Dad-Son

Matthew 7:11 “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

The privilege of having God claim you as his own child is something he wants for everyone, but which is known to only a special few. Even now, after God has called us to faith and made us his children, we still don’t deserve such a distinction. Jesus says that you and I are “evil.”

Does that seem a little strong of him? We usually reserve the word “evil” for pathological criminals, the kind of twisted people who abuse children, or torture others, or display no conscience whatsoever. Jesus is speaking here to Christians! In fact, he is talking to the future Apostles of his church. We will admit nobody’s perfect. We can go along with being called sinners. But evil? God obviously considers even our sins a serious offense, while we are tempted to excuse or minimize them.

And yet, the wonder is that evil people like you and me can still call God our Father. How can this be? God has graciously adopted us as his children. When my children were little, we used the book Little Visits with God for our family devotions. One of the devotions told the story of a little boy named Jerry who had been adopted by his parents. When he found out he was adopted, he said to his father, “You love me a lot, don’t you?” “We do,” his father said, “but what makes you say that?” “Well,” said Jerry, “you made me your son even though I wasn’t really your son. You didn’t have to do that.”

So it is with us. God made us his children even though we weren’t really his children. He didn’t have to do that. And what makes our adoption so much more wonderful is the sacrifice our Father made in order to make us his children. Paul assures us in Galatians, “When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:5-6, NKJV). God did have one Son who was a natural part of the family, his only-begotten Son Jesus. God so loved us, he so desired to adopt us as his children, that he was willing send his only Son to live and die to pay for the sins that kept us from being God’s children. And though Jesus himself had to sacrifice his life to make us part of God’s family, the author of Hebrews assures us even Jesus is not ashamed now to call us his brothers.

Our adoption was sealed when the Lord brought us to faith and gave us his Holy Spirit. Paul wrote the Romans, “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

This truth was impressed upon former Jehovah’s Witness David Reed in a very moving way. Mr. Reed spent years having it pounded into his head that the only proper way to address God was as “Jehovah God.” After studying the Bible on his own, he came to realize that Jesus is God himself. He began to break away from his former faith. One morning as he began to pray to God in his car on his way to work, the name “Father” just came tumbling out of his mouth. It was then he remembered, “you have received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” He then realized what an intimate relationship we have with our heavenly Father because of Jesus!

Do you see what this has to do with our prayers? Since God himself has made us his children, since he invites us to call on him as our Father, we don’t have to be afraid to approach him in prayer. We ought to have the highest respect for him, this is true. He is still God, and he is not anyone for us to trifle with. But since we know that God is our heavenly Father, we have a child’s confidence in prayer.

A Glimpse

Peek

1 John 3:2 “Dear friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

We don’t know everything about the future that is waiting for us on the other side of the grave. “What we will be has not yet been made known.” So what follows is just a glimpse, just a taste, based on what we know of our Jesus who lives again.

To be like Jesus is to be holy. That is the only way that we could stand to see him as he is. Otherwise, in all his heavenly glory, the sight of Jesus would destroy us.

Have you been itching to become holy? Holiness is one of those features of the life to come we might describe as an “acquired taste.” There aren’t any unbelievers seeking it. Generally, they want just the opposite. Is it something even we set our hearts on, something we strive for with all our might? “Lord, let me love each person perfectly, only serve others, be ever patient and never feel hurt or irritated by them, totally given over to helping everyone else.” If you are like me, such a desire has not consumed your every waking moment.

Even as faith warms our hearts to such an idea, we find it doesn’t come so easily to us now. When we are “like him,” then it won’t be a struggle, or a fight, or an effort to be so. Holiness will be as natural as breathing (even more so if you struggle from asthma or allergies now), or as natural as sleeping (even more so if you suffer from insomnia now).

If we are like Jesus, we will be powerful. That does not mean that we will be almighty like God is. In part, it means fully realizing the potential God built into human beings when he first designed us. It is said that we use only about 10 percent of our brains at the present time. The world’s great geniuses perhaps double that. Imagine what it would be like to have and use the whole thing.

Maybe there will be new powers. After he rose from the dead Jesus’ body could pass through walls. He could materialize and disappear from a place at will. Will getting around be different for us? So many of the pictures of Jesus in the book of Revelation depict him shining in his heavenly glory, illuminating heaven so that there is no need for the sun. The last chapter of Daniel promises that we will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and like the stars, forever and ever.

If we are like Jesus, then we know we will be immortal and imperishable. Since every pain or discomfort we suffer is a consequence of sin, a symptom of death, can you imagine what this will be like? To be sure, the great agony and torture and suffering will all be gone. But even the little discomforts and twinges will have all disappeared. You know that grogginess you feel in your head when you get up in the morning, and you didn’t get a great night’s sleep? Never again. Those sore eyes that are hard not to rub at the end of a long day. You will forget what that was like. You will drink something ice cold and refreshing, but never get brain freeze. If you eat something piping hot and delicious, you will never burn your tongue. Mosquito bites won’t itch, because I presume there won’t be mosquitoes, or if there are, they won’t bite. You won’t feel the ache that makes you want to stretch after you have been sitting or standing in one place too long. Before you start singing, you won’t have to clear your throat, and you will never have that little “tickle” that just won’t go away.

Obviously this isn’t an exhaustive list. It isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. It’s just a taste, a glimpse, of what we will be because we will be like him, the risen Jesus, and see him as he is.

And if it has whet our appetite, and given us a faith that hungers for more, then this gospel taste has done its work.

Bold to Speak

Microphone

Psalm 119:42-46 “May your unfailing love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise; then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word. Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:42-46).

When we consider that God has given us his grace and salvation, is it hard to understand why the psalmist says: “then I will answer the one who taunts me…” “Do not take our word of truth from my mouth…” “I will speak of your statutes before kings and not be put to shame…”? If God has done so much for me, doesn’t that give me courage to speak up for him?

A friend of mine visited members of another congregation some time ago. He attended church with them on Sunday but was not impressed with their pastor’s preaching. The pastor’s speaking skills were poor. The message seemed unorganized. My friend mentioned his criticisms to his hosts, and he was surprised by their passionate defense of their pastor.

These people pointed out that their pastor was a faithful shepherd of his flock. He visited his members regularly. He was not afraid to confront people with their sins, but he did so with a sincere desire to restore them, and he was quick to share the gospel, too. His people could trust him with their problems. When tragedy had struck this very family, the pastor spent long hours beside them in the hospital comforting them with God’s word. Since this family had received such love from the pastor, they were bold to speak up for him and defend him. If people are moved by such earthly service and love, how much more does our Savior’s grace make us bold to speak up for him!

Look at how closely Scripture connects faith and the mouth. Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I believed, therefore I have spoken” (2 Cor. 4:13). Paul writes in Romans, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). God’s grace makes me bold to speak!

This does not mean everyone will be a gifted preacher, missionary, or evangelist. Those are gifts that our Lord gives to specific people. But what does it say about our faith if we will not speak about him at all? Can such a faith be healthy? He has only one way of spreading the gospel to others: through the mouths of his people. If we will not preach his gospel and share his grace, then God may take it away from us and give it to a people who will.

The answer for cramped hearts and closed mouths that will not speak, the solution for our cowardice and lack of love, is found in the same grace that the psalmist so desired for himself. There we find the forgiveness that removes our guilt for Christ’s sake and restores our relationship with God. This sin, too, has been paid for at the cross. Then God’s grace fills our hearts with faith and love. I don’t need more advice about how to be a better witness. I need my heart to be overcome by the grace that makes me bold.

In 1530 the fathers of the Lutheran Church used the words of verse 46 to introduce their faith to the Holy Roman Emperor in the Augsburg Confession: “I will speak of your statutes before kings and will not be put to shame.” Whether we are speaking to kings or next door neighbors, may his grace make us so bold, too