He Will Come Again

Today is the first Sunday in Advent. The Advent season prepares us for Christmas and the first coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Today’s text reminds us that one day Christ Jesus will come again. Watch, for Jesus Christ is going to return.

There will be signs, as the text tells us. Peculiar things, such as storms, will be happening in the world. I thought of this just a few weeks ago when Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast. Cities in New York, New Jersey, and up into New England were badly hit, and millions of dollars worth of property was destroyed.

We have numerous wars happening. While we have always had wars, these are a bit different. In the past we knew who the enemy was, but today the enemy is sprinkled all around us. This causes me to wonder if God will be coming to this world soon.

I think of the Scripture passage: “No one knows about that day or hour; not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:32, 33).

Our Lord is talking in this passage about his second coming, which will be quite different from his first coming. In Philippians 2:9-11 we read, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name that (when he comes the second time) at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Scripture also gives us this thought from St. Paul in I Corinthians 15:55-57, “ÔWhere, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Jesus came the first time as a babe in Bethlehem’s manger. As he grew up, men mistreated him, said evil things about him, and finally killed him by putting him on a cross. When it was all over, Jesus could say from Calvary’s cross, “It is finished.” Three days later, he was resurrected from the grave, and victory had been gained. Jesus then ascended into heaven. When he returns, it will be as the reigning King, the Victor, who has defeated sin, death, and the devil.

Today I think especially about the enemy of death. We don’t like to talk about it very much, and we strive to live a long life on this earth, for we don’t want to think of being away from our loved ones. Nevertheless, life on this planet is only temporary. However, when Jesus’ second coming arrives, we will have a life that is forever. All people will be gathered before him and confess him as their Savior and Lord. Those who have died trusting in him will have life everlasting and will receive the promised lasting city, the city longed for.

And so, as we battle in this temporary stay on earth, we look with anticipation to that glorious day when Jesus Christ will return. That day is in the future. In the meantime, we struggle with death as the enemy. And it is difficult to imagine the struggle without Jesus Christ.

I’d like to introduce three situations in my life where I’ve witnessed death as a real enemy. It is an enemy where, if it were not for Jesus Christ, one would wonder what life is really all about.

The first situation happened when I was a young theological student. I had a good friend named Kurt. He was a zealous person for the Lord Jesus Christ with great plans for his ordination day. He planned to marry his fiancŽe and then work as a missionary in China. I often wondered how one could be so excited about leaving their loved ones and going to China, but Kurt was anxious to do it.

One night, as we were talking, he said to me, “Feel this lump on my body. It bothers me, so I am going to the doctor tomorrow to see what it is.” The next day he told me, “The doctor doesn’t know what this lump is, so he is going to take a biopsy. Then I will get the word.”

Some days later Kurt told me, “I got the word today, and it is not good. It is malignant. We hope it will somehow just disappear, but for now we will just pray about it.”

This is a picture of the temporariness of life as it came to this young man in his early 20s. He had planned a wedding with a woman whom he loved very much. What should he do now? Should he continue preparing to go to China? Kurt decided to wait until the summer was over and then see what would happen.

When we came back to school in the Fall, Kurt didn’t have to tell us what was happening, we could see the cancer was progressing. He did not look good. He said to us, “I am a dying man. I love Mary very much and want very much to make her my wife and the mother of our children. I would love to go to China. But for now we will just have to take life one day at a time.” It was very tough.

One day he called and asked us to visit him in his parental home. So a carload of us seminarians had our last visit with Kurt. I will never forget it. Kurt read a devotion, then he read the Scriptures and offered prayers. We sang, and then he said to us, “I’ll beat you to heaven, and I’ll meet my Savior face to face.” Death had been conquered, even though it had made his life very short. Too short as far as we mortals were concerned.

The second situation happened when I was a young pastor. A young couple in our congregation very much wanted a baby, and they were just delighted when they learned they were going to have a baby. But then one night I received a call saying that the wife had gone to the hospital. The next thing we heard was that both mother and baby had died. Here I was, a young pastor, not well acquainted with funerals of that kind. I wondered what I would say to them? I kept coming back to this: Jesus Christ died for the sin of the world, and she (and her baby) were now with him. Still, as comforting as that message is, it was very traumatic for that family to see that young wife and mother lying in her casket with a child in her arms. Our minds ran wild with thoughts of, “O, what life could have been like if they had only lived,” and “O, how we loved her,” and “O, how she wanted to live!” How comforting it was to know that, because of her faith in Jesus Christ, she had gone to be with Him.

At Jesus’ second coming, he will make it clear that those who have died trusting in him will live in him eternally. Facing death in this life is difficult, but what makes life seem more permanent is to know that, when these days are over, we will be with him!

My third story is that of being an old man and living in a retirement center. A few of the “kids” there are in their 70s; most of us are in our mid-age Ð 80s; some are in their 90s; and one person is in his 100s. So what do we hear now and then? “So and so just died.” That is not so unusual, for that person had signs telling him his body was weakening. God’s Word has made it clear that the length of life is three score year and ten, or if by reason or strength four score year. We all expect death to come for us soon. Life is temporary. Yet, even at this age, we’d like for it to continue. But it can’t. We all must die. However, when we die trusting that Jesus Christ has defeated death, he is ours and we are his forever.

That is the only way life can have any permanency. The unbeliever, as he breathes his last breath, has no promise of a heavenly home, for Jesus has said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father, but by me.”

And so my plea today, on this first Sunday in Advent, is that you will turn your thoughts and your prayers to him and cry out, “Lord Jesus, I receive you!” Those who die while trusting in Christ will live. Death has then been conquered in us, for we will be transferred from this life into the arms of our Savior. And that life is forever.

Pressure Points: Partiality

Have you ever heard that old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”? We use that line when talking about people or situations. It’s a warning about making surface judgments. Publishing companies put a lot of money and effort into the design and cover of a book though. Why? Because they know we naturally do judge books by their covers.

In today’s text, James tells us that judging a book by its cover may be fine with books, but not with people. He begins our passage today by asking this group of Christians a question about their faith in Jesus. “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” Apparently some acts of favoritism were going on within that congregation. Today we call it discrimination. Hurtful partiality was taking place in the church community, and these actions of favoritism were based solely on outward appearances and social position in the community.

James describes the situation in which the believers had met for worship. The ushers notice two visitors come in and look for seats. One of them appears to be very rich. He has rings on his fingers, and he is dressed great! He is recognized as someone with a lot of influence in the surrounding community. Then the church usher sees a poor guy coming in next. He isn’t dressed well and obviously had a rough go of it.

The usher ends up treating these two individuals differently Ð one with deference, great respect, and one with disdain, total disrespect Ð all on account of what was on the surface. He says to the one, Come in! We’ve got the best seat in the house waiting just for you. We’re so glad you’re here today. It’s good to see you! The other one is treated rather coolly. You can sit over there in the back or, Well, it looks like we are out of seats. You can sit on the floor today at my feet. And James says it is very inappropriate for Christians to be acting that way.

Favoritism actually displays three things according to James: evil motives, bad theology, and stupidity. What could be the evil motives, or the evil thoughts, as it’s described in our text for today?

Boy, that guy, could be a big financial help to our congregation. We better roll out the red carpet and make sure we keep him around! This is a self-serving attitude, thinking of what we can get from that person.

In those days, the church was really taking it in the chin by the surrounding communities. People were questioning whether the churches were legitimate, and often persecution was happening. People were losing jobs and so on in the town if they were Christian. Perhaps the usher thought this rich-looking individual could help people see their church in a different light. It would be nice to have somebody with some facial recognition. Perhaps others would start treating them better. Maybe this individual could actually help them get back to work.

Even within the church these days, we have a tendency to be a little starstruck when a celebrity comes into worship. We really can pull out the red carpet and give them the all-star treatment.

I remember early on in my ministry, a fellow came to visit our congregation once for our evening service. He was with a friend who was actually his former pastor. The pastor took me aside and said, “You really want to be good to this guy. He’s a great giver and has a lot of money!” That attitude takes place, even today.

Well, the other person, the poor person, was treated in a totally different way, wasn’t he? Like, we don’t really care if you’re here or not. In fact, we’re not even sure we want your type around here. You’ll probably be wanting more from us than we can actually give you. He was ignored and dishonored.

James tells us that is terrible theology because, from the beginning of Scripture to the end, God has always shown a special place in His heart for the poor and the helpless. God loves the poor. The Gospel of Luke tells us that when Jesus began his ministry, He shared a passage from Isaiah 61 in His hometown: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has called me to bring good news to the poor.”

Not only were evil motives and bad theology behind exercising that kind of bias, James says it’s just plain stupid. He goes on to talk about the rich taking advantage. They are the ones who are always making life all the more hard for you and for the poor as a whole. Why would you turn it around with such inconsistent behavior and treat them like royalty. Don’t you know they stand opposed to the faith itself? Perhaps they did in those days. For instance, servants and slaves were part of the Christian movement. A rich person didn’t want them getting the idea that they were valuable and important and should be treated with dignity.

James says if this is happening, then I really question the sincerity of your faith in Jesus Christ. That kind of behavior is absolutely incompatible with Jesus’ teachings and how He treated people. Jesus loved the poor. The New Testament tells us He showed partiality to no one. He didn’t play favorites. If you are really committed to following Jesus Christ and Christ is central in our life, we will treat both the influential and the insignificant, the attractive and the unattractive, the rich and the poor, the same. We must treat them equally without thought of gain, without regard for what benefit we might or might not receive. We must love them impartially, not for what we can or can not get from them.

Some may wonder if this kind of behavior really happens in the church today? Well, we know it happens in society, don’t we! It happens in the workplace and other places as well in our culture. People get star-struck by celebrities or by people with lots of money. Let’s get that guy to stick around; he could be a big help. According to an article written a while back in The Wall Street Journal, most of us like to assume we’re enlightened, tolerant, and unprejudiced. However, a new study reveals many of us have a hidden bias against anyone with a foreign accent. According to a summary of the study and The Wall Street Journal, the further from native sounding an accent is, the harder we have to work and the less trustworthy we perceive the information to be.

It gets worse though. Researchers found that the heavier the accent, the more skeptical participants become. In other words, if it sounds like you’re not from around here, our suspicion radar is on high alert. Bias about you isn’t based on your character, it’s based on the fact that you talk differently.

It’s all a nice way of saying that, despite our best intentions, we all have pockets of prejudice and bias. We show favoritism toward people who most resemble us. James tells us we need to look to Jesus to help us route that partiality and love people who don’t resemble us.

An article came out in a survey by Newsweek magazine back in 2010. It said that, in all elements of the workplace Ð from hiring to politics to promotions Ð looks matter, and they matter a lot. The research provided these results: favoritism happens. Fifty-seven percent of hiring managers believe an unattractive but qualified job candidate will have a harder time getting hired. Sixty-eight percent of hiring managers believe that, once hired, looks affect the way managers rate an employee’s job description. Your looks matter more than your resume. Fifty-nine percent of hiring managers advise spending as much time and money on personal attractiveness as on perfecting a resume.

And it’s worse for women. Sixty-one percent of hiring managers Ð and sixty percent of them were men Ð said that women would benefit from wearing clothes that show off their figure.

We judge overweight people. Although 75 percent of Americans are overweight, about 66 percent of managers said they thought some managers would hesitate before hiring someone who is significantly overweight.

This article survey shows we also judge old people. Eighty-four percent of managers said their bosses would hesitate before hiring a qualified candidate who looked much older than his or her coworkers.

And finally, the survey shows we think favoritism based on looks is okay. Sixty-four percent of hiring managers said they believe companies should be allowed to hire people based on looks.

That kind of thinking also leaks over into the church and how we treat people who come in the doors of our congregational gatherings. Why? We are pressured by the society, as you have just seen. We are pressured by satan himself who wants us to act just opposite of the way our Master, Jesus Christ, would act. If there is one place where class distinctions should break down, it’s in the place of worship where color and political persuasion, type of Christian experience, money, status, rank, name, apparel, smell, size, and age mean absolutely nothing!

James goes on to encourage us to take a positive turn. It’s kind of a call to repentance. He says, “Beloved of God” (which is what we are in Christ) “do well when they are fulfilling the royal law, ÔYou shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Jesus was asked one day what was the greatest commandment. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:28-31). The Apostle Paul picks up on that theme in the book of Romans as he says, “It is all summed up in ÔYou shall love your neighbor as yourself'” as a follower of Jesus (Romans 13:9).

James says partiality is a sin. It is breaking the law of royal love, the law that was given to us by our King, Jesus. It makes you a transgressor when you show favoritism or treat people as less than others. “So speak,” James says, “and act like those who are to be judged by the law of liberty.” What is that law of liberty? It is the law of mercy and grace that we’ve been shown by Jesus Christ. As we have been treated with mercy and grace through Christ, we also are to speak and act with the same mercy and grace toward all people. We are to treat one another as we have been treated by God through Jesus. Mercy triumphs. Mercy triumphs.

I am reminded of a parable Jesus told about a man who had been forgiven of a great debt Ð millions of dollars Ð by his master. Then he went out and treated a fellow servant, who owed him very little, terribly and had him thrown into jail. The master, hearing about this incident, called in the servant who had just received forgiveness and said to him, “You wicked servant! Should you not have shown mercy as I have showed mercy to you?” Jesus says, So it is. So it is. Your Heavenly Father expects you to show mercy and grace to those around you (Matthew 18:21-35).

The truth is, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, at the foot of the cross, the ground is level. All of us are sinners in God’s sight. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God! All of us need the Savior! All of us are nothing more than poor beggars in the sight of God, and every one of us Ð all of us Ð “were died for” at the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” He had paid the penalty for the sinfulness for ALL people. At the foot of the cross, the ground is level. We are all beggars in the sight of God, no matter how much money is or is not in your bank account.

Remember that when you find yourself near someone who looks a little out of place and not like you. Maybe it will be a young couple making all kinds of noise in the worship service as they struggle to get all their gear and small children together. Maybe it will be an elderly person walking too slowly for your liking as they push a walker, hoping not to get bumped into and hoping someone will open the door for them. Maybe it will be a teenager with skin problems and wearing an outrageous t-shirt, with rings sticking out of his nose and his lips and his ears. Maybe it will be someone who weighs too much, or smells funny, or talks too loud, or has a strong fragrance on. Here, among God’s people, they are to be seen through God’s eyes, loved all the same.

A contemporary song came out a few years ago by a group called Casting Crowns. The song is, “If We Are the Body.” In the bridge, the songwriter says, “Jesus paid much too high a price to pick and choose who should come.” Amen to that!

Pressure Points: Temptations

♬Have we trials and temptations♪. James responds, You bet we do!

Last week I began a series on handling some of the pressures of life. Some days, life feels like a pressure cooker. We looked at the pressure of trials last week. Today we’re going to look at the pressure of temptations, because we all have temptation. We sometimes treat them lightly and find ourselves humored by them, and I suppose that’s okay. For instance, when we eat a meal, someone comes in with a second helping and asks, Can I tempt you within another helping? Or we’re at a restaurant and the waitress comes out with a delicious looking dessert tray and says, Can I tempt you with one of our desserts? which I typically give into and regret later on.

However, some temptations can be very serious and dark and dangerous. They can, as we dabble with them, damage our souls when we cave in. For instance, we find sexual temptations, ambition, vanity, greed, the lust for power and fame. These things have the potential to really mess up one’s life. James acts as a life coach and gives us some basic facts about the pressure of temptation and how to handle it.

First of all, he reminds us that temptation is inevitable, so expect it. It’s not if they will come, but when temptations will come. Jesus wasn’t immune or sheltered from temptations; why would we expect anything different?

Then he gives us a second bit of instruction. He tells us, when temptations do come your way, don’t blame God. He never sends them, and He is not responsible for them. God is not tempted nor does He tempt anyone. The real problem lies elsewhere Ð the one who wants to destroy our life and is constantly tempting us. James could have had in mind the book of Genesis where God asks Adam if he gave into temptation and ate from the fruit of the tree, and Adam blames someone else. He first points his finger at Eve and then at God “that YOU gave me.” Don’t excuse yourself for giving in to a moral lapse or for a bad temper or whatever it is by reasoning that God made you that way and you can’t help yourself. Don’t blame God. God is above all that. God is holy. God is good. He has no interest in getting us to do things against His will. “He can’t be tempted by evil,” James says. Therefore, God tempting us would be totally inconsistent with His character.

In verse 14, James tells us temptation begins within us. Our own desires (or as other versions of the Bible call it, our lusts) which are constantly inducing or inciting us to sin against God. Theologians of old used to refer to this as the carnal mind. We are prompted by our own impulses, which might be sexual, material, or relational. It could be a lust for power, or recognition, or greed or ambition Ð a natural appetite of some sort that works within us.

Jesus talked about it when the Pharisees questioned him about allowing His disciples to eat from unclean utensils. Jesus said, “Whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, . . . It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:18-23).

I saw T-shirt one time that read, “Lead me not into temptation. I can find it all by myself.” How true that is!

A businessman decided he was getting too heavy and needed to lose some pounds. Part of his discipline was to avoid driving by his favorite bakery. One morning, however, he showed up at work carrying in a wonderful looking coffeecake. Everyone in the office scolded him. He said, “Wait a minute! This is a very special coffeecake! I accidentally drove by the bakery this morning, and there in the window was a host of goodies; I just knew it wasn’t an accident. So I said to God, ÔIf you want me to have this coffeecake, let me have a parking place directly in front of the bakery.’ And sure enough, the eighth time around the block, there it was!”

Temptation Ð it works within us. James tells us that it works in a very predictable pattern. It lures and entices us. That is imagery is to remind us of fishing or hunting, putting your bait on the hook or on your lure, putting the lure out there or setting a snare as a hunter to lure your prey out from safety and getting it to move toward the bait.

John Ortberg, one of my favorite Christian writers, tells a little story. He says, “Recently my wife and I went flyfishing for the first time, and our guides told us that to catch a fish you have to think like a fish. They said that to a fish, life is about maximum gratification of appetite at the minimum expenditure of energy. To a fish, life is: see a fly, want a fly, eat a fly. A rainbow trout never really reflects on where his life is headed. A girl carp rarely says to a boy carp, ÔI don’t feel you are as committed to our relationship as I am.’ The fish are just a collection of appetites. A fish is a stomach, a mouth, and a pair of eyes.

“Well, while we were on the water, I was struck by how dumb these fish are! As we throw out our line, ÔHey, swallow this!’ we seem to be saying. ÔIt’s not the real thing; it’s just a lure. You think it will feed you, but it won’t. It will trap you. If you would look closely, fish, you would see the hook. You would know that once you were hooked, it’s just a matter of time before the enemy reels you in.’

“You’d think fish would wise up and notice the hook or see the line. You’d think fish would look around at all their fish friends who go for a lure and fly off into space and never return. But they don’t. It’s ironic! We say fish swim together in a school, but they never learn. Aren’t you glad we’re smarter?”

And James would say to that sarcastic remark, But are we? Are we smarter than fish?

Well then James changes the image a bit. He personifies it to look like a harlot standing on a street corner getting your attention and getting you stirred up. She’s named desire. She conceives and gives birth to sin, which eventually leads to death. It is dangerous. Deadness and emptiness set in within yourself. You’re a mess. You’ve hurt yourself and others around you. You find your moral compass is lost.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the bright minds of the past century, wrote in his little writing called Temptations, “In our members Ð our body Ð there is a slumbering inclination toward desire, which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power, desire seizes mastery over the flesh. All at once a secret, smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns into flames.

“It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire or ambition or vanity or desire for revenge or love of fame and power, or greed for money. At this moment God is quite unreal to us. He loses all reality and only desire for the creature is real. The powers of clear discrimination and of decision are taken from us.”

That is the process James describes for us as the bait is thrown out in our direction.

James continues in verse 16, “Don’t be deceived, my beloved.” He is speaking with a pastor’s heart: “My beloved”. Be careful, keep your head on straight. Be responsible with your life and your soul. Don’t be tricked. Manage your mind. Wake up and stay awake. Be smart. How do we do that? James gives us the answer in verse 17. He points us upward to God. God doesn’t tempt! Instead, He is there for you in your time of temptation, and He is for you. He provides the gift you need to handle temptation. Listen to this passage verse 17: “Every generous act of giving with every perfect gift is from above.” You see, God doesn’t send temptations; He sends gifts, perfect gifts, “coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of His own purpose, He gave His birth by the word of truth so that we would become the kind of first fruit of His creatures.”

That is our good news! We have a good God who gives good gifts from above, and He never changes. His love for you never changes. His concern for you never changes. His character never changes. And you belong to Him. You are the first fruits of His creatures. He saved you, and He doesn’t want to lose you.

Through the power of His Word, it says “in fulfillment of his own purpose,” to give you a life, a rescued life, He gave you birth, a new birth by the word of truth, which is the Gospel. The Gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus died for our sins and paid the penalty so we could have a new life with God, a restored relationship with Him. We are reborn. He has a plan for you to continue to be the showcase, the first fruits of all His creatures, an offering belonging to Him.

We are basically told that we have a God who gives gifts, who is for us, who is with us. We can use the gifts He gives as we face temptation.

What are those gifts? The first gift is the word of truth, Scripture. It is a powerful sword for doing battle with temptation. It contains wise counsel when temptations come our way. This is no ordinary book, dear friends. This is Spirit-filled. It is God-breathed.

James goes on to tell us, therefore rid yourselves of all sortedness and rank growth of wickedness and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls but be doers of the word, not merely hearers who deceive themselves. When Jesus was out in the wilderness, what did He say as satan threw temptations His way? “It is written. It is written.” It was His standard by which to live. Let the Word of God be your standard. Know it, study it, and apply it. Let it be the standard by which you live.

The second gift is this: God promises us a way of escape. The Apostle Paul tells us, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (I Cor. 10:13). As you keep your eyes on God and your ears open, as you give yourself over in prayer during times of temptation, God will provide a way of escape. Maybe it’s going to be a ringing telephone or a whisper in your conscience, maybe a friend will help keep you accountable. Perhaps a vision of a boarded-up, sordid picture of the future this temptation might bring into your life that will help you to escape and walk away from that possibility. God does not want you to fall.

Finally, the gift of the Holy Spirit that was in Jesus as He went through temptation in the wilderness is in you. He has breathed His Spirit in you. You are not on your own; you are empowered as you plug into Him. As you live in the Word and live amongst the community of faith, He empowers you to overcome temptations.

You are not on your own. God is for you. He is with you. He is a God who offers you His gifts as you face temptations in your life.

I want to leave you with a promise to hang onto, a promise from James himself where he says, “Blessed (which means happy) is anyone who endures temptation. Such a one has stood the test and will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”

What a great promise to hang onto Ð that crown of life is waiting me as I endure the temptations of life.

Temptations? You bet! They are a major pressure. But dear friend, you are not on your own. God is with you. God is for you.

Pressure Points: Trials

A lot of people live under a great amount of pressure. How do you live with pressures in your life? James, in the New Testament, has written some instructions for handling various pressures as a Christian. For the next few weeks, we are going to look at what he has to say. Today he is talking about is the pressure of personal trials.

Let’s face it. Life can sometimes be very challenging and frustrating, a real trial. Some of the people I truly appreciate for the daily trials they face are elementary school teachers. I heard a story about a teacher who was helping one of her kindergarten students put on his snow boots. He’d asked for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots didn’t want to go on. By the time they got the second boot on, she had worked up a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “Teacher, they are on the wrong feet!” She checked and sure enough. They were.

It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. But she managed to keep her cool as together they worked to get the boots back on Ð this time on the right feet. Then he announced, “These aren’t my boots!” She bit her tongue and rather than get right in his face and scream, Why didn’t you say so earlier? She once again struggled to help him pull the boots off his feet. No sooner had they gotten the boots off, then he said, “Yeah, they are my brother’s boots. My mom made me wear them.” The teacher didn’t know if she should laugh or cry, but she mustered up with all the grace and courage she had and wrestled the boots back on his feet again. Helping him then into his winter coat she asked, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed them in the toes of my boots!”

This is a funny story, but personal trials can bring overwhelming pressure on us, and they’re not so funny. When some people hear about Christians facing trials, they say, “Trials? I thought that being a Christian changed all that!” The truth of the matter is Jesus never promised us a trial-free life when we decided to follow Him. In fact, He often warned His disciples that if they followed Him, they’d have more trials than they ever thought! Jesus told the disciples, “In this world you will face trouble (tribulation, trials)” (John 16:33).

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not sheltered from the trials of life, and James reminds us of that today. It’s the first thing he tells us so that we’re not caught off guard. He says, “My beloved, whenever you face trials of any kind . . .” Notice, it’s not if you face trials, or I hope you don’t face trials, but when you face trials. Jesus had said that, the disciples had experienced it themselves, and the Christians to whom James was writing had also experienced trials in their lives.

Notice that James refers to them as the scattered of the dispersion Ð not the sheltered. And he says, “Whenever you face trials . . .” Face means to encounter. “. . . trials of various kinds” meaning, a wide variety of trials. For them, perhaps their trials meant persecution for their faith. These were the early days of the Church. People didn’t understand Christianity and often treated Christians as outsiders, as almost like a cult. This would cause trouble for the Christians and eventually it became rather violent.

But James could have been referring to other trials as well, such as difficult times of loss. Perhaps it was joblessness or the grief of losing a loved one. Perhaps it was the loss of good health. As we age, we can get caught up in facing chronic health issues. Or perhaps it was relationships, such as problems in the family, that were really a trial.

Life can be tough, James seems to be telling us. So what do we do when life gets tough? James gives us some startling instructions. Listen to this: “Whenever you face trials of any kind, considerate it nothing but joy . . .”

“You’ve got to be kidding!” you might be thinking. I don’t know about you, but I for one do not enjoy going through trials! When something hard is happening or starting to happen I do not go, ÔWhoopee! Another trial!’ This sounds almost Pollyannish, the power of positive thinking perhaps.

For what reason should I consider this joy?

Well, we have to ask the question, What is joy? Joy does not equal happiness. Joy is a deep contentment, the satisfaction of knowing you’re in God’s hands, and God is in control even when circumstances seem to be out of control. The key to joy is knowing God is in control.

When James tells us to consider it all joy, he seems to be telling us that hard times call for a demonstration of faith. Someone once said to me, “When hard times come, choose to be a student, not a victim.” I like that! Believe that God can use this circumstance to teach you something in a tough situation. Believe and trust that this circumstance can be used to bring glory to God in some wonderful way.

You might wonder what is the pay off. Give me one good reason for counting trials as joy. Well, James goes on to tell us that trials can actually grow you. Here’s how he says it: “. . . because you know the testing of your faith produces endurance.” What is endurance?

In the New Testament, it’s used in a variety of ways. It’s perseverance and patience. I’ve heard it described as tenacity, and stick-to-itiveness. James is not talking about a passive, resigned endurance, like, I can’t do anything about this, but an inner quality that enables a person to stand strong in the storms. It means you don’t quit. Struggling against difficulties develops spiritual stamina. Perhaps you can think of examples of how trying times Ð as much as you hated going through them and you’d never want to do it again Ð made you all the stronger.

James goes on to say. “Let endurance have its full affect so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” Notice the word “let.” Let endurance have its full effect. He’s talking about surrendering yourself in faith. Yield, submit to what’s going on and to God. “Let endurance have its full effect.” Don’t fight it. Don’t thrash about complaining and whining, but in faith surrender yourself to it.

Endurance leads to spiritual maturity and completeness. A wholeness in your character. You are lacking in nothing. In other words, endurance can make you a fully developed Christian exhibiting the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self-control, and all of these other good things. You can grow in your faith with God and in God, and your relationship with God can grow.

Warren Wiersbe, a wonderful preacher from the past who was a preacher at the Moody Church in Chicago, tells the story of his office secretary whose husband had a stroke and then went blind. Then, she herself became deathly sick. One day he told her, “I’m praying for you.” And she said, “Thank you, Dr. Wiersbe. But what are you praying about for me?” He said, “I’m praying that you’ll have strength.” And she said, “I appreciate that, but I also ask that you pray I’ll have the wisdom not to waste all of this. Not to waste all of this, but to be able to learn something from it and become all the more strong.”

I found a story written by a woman named Nancy Kennedy. She writes, “I’m sitting in yet another hospital waiting room. Ever since my husband Barry first underwent open heart, quadruple, bypass surgery 15 months ago, I’ve been in this waiting room Ð or one just like it Ð more times than I can count on one hand waiting for him to come out of the operating room. In little more than a year’s time, my vocabulary has increased to include words and phrases such as aneurysm, Atrial Fib and EP study with ablation. They all mean basically I have to put on a cheery face, kiss Barry goodbye, and promise I won’t worry about him or forget to eat lunch or lock the door at night while he’s in the hospital. With all Barry’s surgeries and procedures, we have had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, one of the worst in our 32 years of marriage.

“Yet, ironically, it’s also turned out to be the best. I learned just how deeply Barry loves me. As he was all prepped and ready to go to surgery to repair his aortic aneurysm, Barry looked at my friend Tara who was waiting with us and said, ÔMake sure Nancy takes care of herself. Promise me, or else I’ll worry.’ He wasn’t worried about being sliced open again, he was worried about me.

“I came to faith in Christ three years after Barry and I married, and for almost 30 years I prayed about my husband’s relationship with the Lord Jesus. Then the day of Barry’s open-heart surgery he told me that if he died, I would see him again because he knew Jesus was his Savior. He prayed with me, he prayed with a friend, and he prayed with his surgeon. Barry hasn’t stopped praying. He prays with me every day. What I asked God for all these years Ð to heal the spiritual rift in my marriage and bring my husband and me closer Ð God had given. He performed heart surgery on us both, ripping us apart and knitting us back together again.

“Barry and I talk often about this past year, how it’s been awful and awfully good. We wouldn’t wish this kind of year on anyone, or wouldn’t want to go through it again, but we’re glad it happened. We thank God for the good days and the bad because in all our days, God held us both securely in his grip. We’ve known God’s incredible kindness to us, and our hearts are in His hands. We’ve had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year, and I praise God for it.” Wow!

Going through this sort of trial in life can also make us useful instruments as we carry on ministry for the cause of Christ, because our own experiences help us minister to others who are having those same kinds of experiences. Paul talks in II Corinthians about God coming alongside and consoling us in our afflictions so we may be able to console those who are in affliction. Some of the best ministry I have seen happen in my church are those members who’ve gone through terrible health issues and then come alongside others, who later on in life are going through those same issues.

Trials also make us walking testimonies as we use these times to share our faith, “Through it all I’ve learned trust, I’ve learned dependence, and I’ve learned that God is faithful.” God is faithful, just like Nancy and her husband Barry said.

Then James adds one more thing. He tells us, By the way, when these trials come, remember you’re not on your own. Here is how he says it: “If you are lacking in wisdom . . .” When the Bible talks about wisdom, it means practical skills for daily living, so in this case it means practical skills for dealing with trials. “If you’re lacking in wisdom, ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.”

Did you catch the promise? You have a God who wants to help! He’s available, and He’s generous. As a human being, it’s difficult to keep our wits about us and act with any kind of wisdom when facing trials. It’s easy for us to just fall apart or get tempted to be mad and fall away from God. We need something beyond our capabilities at these times to help us endure, and God’s wisdom is offered to us. James says God’s wisdom helps us to understand how to use the circumstances for our good and God’s glory, and it’s only a prayer away.

If any of you lack wisdom, ask for it. Such wisdom is available to those who repeatedly ask God for it. Keep asking and trusting that God answers prayer. The promise is that it will be given. Nothing in God keeps Him from giving. It is His practice, James says, to give generously. All we have to do is to look at the cross, at how God gave His Son Jesus to die on cross to save us from our sins. He gave Jesus generously, not grudgingly. Likewise, when we come to our heavenly Father in prayer, He is ready to give generously, not grudgingly, as we ask for wisdom.

Yes, trials will come. Expect them. But remember that you have a choice in how to face them. Choose your attitude. Count it all joy, and pray. Remember that you are not on your own. God is there. Call upon His name in faith asking for the wisdom skills to handle this trial. Most importantly of all, remember, He loves you.

You Are . . . Dependent

I have a number of friends who are real do-it-yourselfers. I consider them absolutely amazing people! They can build houses, remodel rooms, fix their own cars, repair computers, and grow lawns and gardens that are absolutely beautiful! I have none of that in me. Hard as I may try, I just can’t do any of those things. I’m not gifted that way, and I have to admit that at times I am a little envious.

For instance, I brought home a grill not long ago that required some assembly. The store clerks told me they would put it together for $25, but it would be a waste of money; it only takes an hour to do. So I took their advice. But what was supposed to take an hour instead took all day, and it still isn’t quite right. Some of the bolts don’t fit like they should. I just don’t have that touch!

I would venture to say that many of us look up to do-it-yourselfers. We may even aspire to become one for financial reasons, or perhaps for the pride of being able to take care of something myself. Unfortunately, however, some people carry their do-it-yourself attitude into their relationship with God. They try to become do-it-yourselfers in their spiritual life, and that can be very dangerous.

In today’s passage, Jesus tells us that, as His followers, some things we cannot do ourselves. In fact, He basically tells His disciples that they are helpless and dependent when it comes to spiritual matters. It was on the night that Jesus was betrayed by Judas. They had just celebrated the Lord’s Supper in the upper room. Jesus had instructed them on what would happen next. As He walked to the Garden of Gethsemane with the remaining disciples, they perhaps walked past a vineyard, or perhaps He saw some dead branches alongside the street. We don’t know the circumstances, but we do know Jesus launched into this poetic metaphor that He wanted them to hear, understand, and build their lives upon.

Hear these words of Jesus: “I am the true vine.” A couple statements later He says, “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. He who abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.”

“Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing.” What’s He talking about? The immediate context is about bearing fruit. Apart from me, Jesus says, you (as My disciple) cannot bear spiritual fruit. Jesus is speaking on a spiritual level as He uses this vine-and-branches image to describe our utter dependence on Him. He is actually giving us a serious look at our fallen human nature, and reminding us that on our own we are spiritually helpless. We cannot accomplish anything spiritually speaking apart from Christ. We are helpless when it comes to our salvation. We cannot make ourselves right with God on our own, and consequently we fall short. We are sinful creatures, and we need a Savior.

The good news is that God, in His grace and mercy, provided Jesus to die for our sins at the cross and pay the penalty. This passage tells us that Jesus’ disciples are absolutely dependent on Jesus for their spiritual growth and productivity. Spiritual growth and productivity are not things that we can do ourselves. We cannot change ourselves. We can’t lead other people to Jesus by ourselves. We need Him. It can only happen when we stay connected to Christ. Just as a branch cannot grow grapes if it isn’t connected to a life-giving vine, Jesus says neither can we, as His disciples, bear spiritual fruit in our lives. Apart from Christ, the vital connection is broken that gives life. It’s like unplugging a lamp from the wall socket. The source of power is now denied.

What is this spiritual fruit, then, that Jesus is talking about? One possibility is the fruit of the Spirit that Paul talks about in Galatians chapter 5. He says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These are wonderful, beautiful qualities to have at work in our personal character. Wouldn’t you like to see them in your relationships such as your marriage, your children, or those with whom you work?

Someone once reminded me that these characteristics really describe the character of Jesus. God wants them to be at work in our lives that we might bear fruit. You cannot produce them yourself. You cannot change yourself. Only by staying connected to Jesus Christ does this fruit come about.

The second idea could be that fruit is also a term used for describing our mission. Leading people to Jesus is referred to as being the fruit of our ministry. The only way this can happen is if we stay connected to Him. In this passage, Jesus is telling the disciples as well as you and me, that we need Him. We are dependent on Him if we are going to bear fruit.

In light of that, then, Jesus speaks with imperative commands: “Abide in me.” Abide in me is a relationship phrase. Other versions of scripture put it this way: Remain in me. Stay with me. Stay connected to me. Be dependent upon me. It is a vital connection that every individual needs.

I am the vine, you’re the branches Jesus says. Branches can’t bear fruit if they are not attached to the vine. “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”

Jesus tells us, “Abide in me.” How does a person abide in Christ? I’m glad you asked. We abide in Christ when we abide in His Word. Jesus talks about continuing in His Word, then you are my disciples. You know the truth, and the truth will set you free. This is more than just reading the Bible. It’s getting to know the Bible. Learning it. Studying the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and applying those truths from Jesus into your life. In other words, obeying Christ’s words of life, for He really does know what makes life work best.

To abide in Jesus also means to abide in His community, the church. Perhaps, for you, it’s also a small group of Christians. We need each other. The Holy Spirit works through the community of faith as we live out our faith with one another, leaning on each other, encouraging each other, exhorting each other, taking care of one another, and, yes, most importantly of all, loving one another as Christ has loved us.

Why do you suppose Jesus places so much emphasis upon us abiding in Him? It’s because Jesus knows His disciples. He knows how prone we are to wander and get lost along the way. He knows the world in which we live that teaches philosophy of rugged individualism, a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. “If it’s to be, it’s up to me” mentality. He knows hard times will hit us along the way.

Sometimes, when a tragedy hits, individuals get upset with God and they walk away and blame Christ. However, what they need is Christ, not isolation from Him. He knows life is busy and filled with distractions that get in the way of paying attention to Him. We get inattentive and go off on rabbit trails in life, away from the life He wants to give us. Jesus knows other vines are out there claiming to be so-called truth. We can be prone to buying into those voices. As we begin nibbling at them like lost sheep, we soon find ourselves lost. Jesus knows our enemy, the devil, wants to destroy us and our relationship with the Lord. So He says, “Abide in me.” You need me. You need me.

Jesus has promised us great things that can bear a lot of fruit when we abide in Christ. One of the blessings I’ve received from my time at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church is to the privilege of seeing many of the babies I baptized grow in their faith. One that comes to mind is a young lady named Alissa. She was brought to the baptismal font as a baby back in the 90s to be adopted into God’s family, grafted onto the vine. Her mom and dad took their baptismal vows seriously as the covenant was established, and they raised Alissa in the faith.

Alissa’s parents prayed over her, and they prayed with her. When she was old enough, they taught her to pray. She received a beginner’s Bible when she was age two or three, and her parents read Bible stories to her from that Bible. They brought her to Sunday school and got her involved in all sorts of activities within the church family. I watched her as she said yes to Jesus on her Confirmation Day. She also took some training to share her faith, and she had a heart to bring friends to Christ. She was in youth groups and mission trips.

Alissa stayed attached to the vine of Jesus Christ, and she today is a beautiful, effective, young Christian woman who has been useful in the hands of God and radiates the love of Christ in her life to those around her.

When she was around sixth grade, her mom gave me something that Alissa wrote. It is a kind of a testimony that she wanted to share with friends to whom she wanted to introduce to Jesus. It touched my heart and I saved it. Here are Alissa’s words:

I have a best friend, and His name is Jesus. Do you know him? If you don’t, these paragraphs I am writing will tell you about Him, and I hope you want to be His friend too.

I think it would be a good idea if you accept Jesus. Why? Well, here are some reasons: He’ll never let you down. He’s constantly there for you. He will continually answer your prayers no matter if the answer is yes, no, or wait. His love is very unconditional, which means no matter what you do, He still loves you very, very much. He died on the cross for you and felt the pain so that you wouldn’t have to die, so you could live eternally. He forgives and forgets about all your sins when you ask Him for forgiveness.

He’s perfect, righteous. We are all sinful. God’s punishment for sin is death. Do you know what sin is? Sin is anything that goes against God’s Word and keeps us apart from God. However, there is good news. God sent His only Son, Jesus who knew no sin to die for our sins so whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.

God is Jesus’ Father, but there’s a third person as well. His name is the Holy Spirit; He’s God’s helper. When you accept Jesus in your life, the Holy Spirit helps you.

If you want to meet my best friend, then the first step is pray, and this is how you pray. You fold your hands, close your eyes, bow your head, and say, “Jesus, please come into my heart,” and He will. You can pray other times as well Ð at meals or anytime of the day, and even if you pray in your head, He can hear you.

The second step, then, is to read a fantastic book called the Bible. You should read the Bible as much as you can every day. Even if you read just five minutes a day, it’s better than not reading it all.

This young lady, Alissa, is totally dependent upon Jesus Christ. Even at a young age, she wanted to bring friends to Jesus, and she’s been bearing fruit to His glory over the years. I’ve been watching her lead people to Jesus. She’s totally devoted to Christ. Next year she will head off to college, and I can’t wait to see what God has in store for her as she stays connected to the Vine, Jesus Christ.

Friends, some things in life you cannot do yourself. You cannot save yourself in your relationship with God. You cannot change yourself. Just like me, just like Alissa, you need a dependent relationship with Jesus Christ. We all need Jesus, and He is telling us today to stay connected to Him, for He is the true Vine that gives life. Stay connected.