The Secret of Happiness

What would you say is the secret to happiness? Pretty big question isn’t? A lot of people are looking for it. Someone might say, “Well, it’s a good marriage Ð happy wife, happy life!” Someone else might say, “The secret to happiness? It’s being financially secure, debt free!” Someone else might respond, “The secret of happiness is having good health.” Others might say that the secret of happiness is attaining the American dream.

Lately I’ve been hearing that it’s grandchildren. My daughter Martha and her husband Andrew are expecting a baby boy any day now. Those who have already entered the grandparenting club tell us it will be the happiest time of our lives when that little one arrives, and we can’t wait!

In the Bible, the word for happy is blessed. Jesus used that word in the Beatitudes, a poetic section of his Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. Recently I came across some modern-day beatitudes taken from the messages TV commercials communicate to us about happiness. Basically they are telling us that their products will make us happy, right? Well, here are just a few I thought might entertain you . . .

☺ Blessed are those who fly to luxury vacation spots on tropical islands where they lie in chase lounge chairs, the only two people on an enormous white beach, for they shall be satisfied.

☺ Blessed are those who drink much beer for they shall be surrounded by carefree, football-watching buddies, and highly attractive, socially-gifted women in their first half of life, and they shall be satisfied.

☺ Blessed are those who have the latest smart phone for they shall gaze on the screen swirling with color and get all the information they need just when they need it, and they shall be satisfied.

The sad thing is, people actually buy into this line of thinking.

However, Jesus turns these philosophies upside down as He announces, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.” His Beatitudes describe happiness. They are beautiful and poetic. We love to hear them and recite them, but they are so much more than poetry. They are words loaded with a punch and meant to awaken us like lightning in the sky on a dark night. The Beatitudes usher us into a new world with new values Ð Jesus’ vision for your life and mine, of people receiving gifts. Wonderful gifts!

We see people entering the kingdom of God, being comforted, inheriting the earth, receiving mercy, finding satisfaction, and being adopted into God’s family. All of this is very traditional language. Expectations date way back to the Old Testament times. People were hoping for this. The surprise comes when Jesus names the beneficiaries of these promised blessings.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn.

Blessed are the meek.

Blessed are those who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness.

Blessed are the merciful.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Blessed are the persecuted.

This is not exactly what we would attach to happiness in our minds.

Jesus is really not talking about spiritual virtuosos or the religious elite. He is looking at ordinary folk who are inspired to seek God’s rule of righteousness in their lives. Instead of the lifestyles of the rich and famous, He is talking about the lifestyles of the repentant, those who repent and follow Jesus.

Today’s verse says this: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” We shall see God! Being in the very presence of God and having access to Him is the apex of a religious experience, isn’t it?

Who shall see Him? Jesus says the pure in heart.

Who are the pure in heart? The Bible tells us the heart is a way of talking about the inner person, our mind, our will, our emotions. They all work together.

Walt Disney World Resort has a theme park called Epcot, which had a place I loved to visit called Cranium Command. It took you inside the head of a teenage boy who is getting ready to step into a new day. It was an entertaining and amazing thing to go through.

A few years later Disney put out a movie called Inside Out, which is about getting in touch with the inside of a teenage girl. It is very entertaining and insightful. We learn in that movie that it is what’s on the inside that counts.

This is what Jesus is saying. The heart is what makes me who I am. So the heart is the mind, the will, the emotions of an individual. Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart . . .” Pure means unmixed, the same through and through. Notice it doesn’t say, Blessed are the prudes in heart or Blessed are the perfect in heart. No it says the “pure,” the unmixed. It means to be single-minded. To be pure in heart is talking about a personality that is neither divided nor confused in its affections, devotions, and commitment. Jesus talked about this in His Sermon on the Mount in chapter 6. He said, “No one can serve two masters.” It is impossible. James picks up on the same sort of theme. “Purify your hearts, you double minded” (James 4:8).

To have a pure heart is to have single-minded devotion, commitment, mind, will, and emotion toward God. It’s the pursuance of one thing Ð God. I’ve even heard the “pure in heart” described as a person with an undivided heart.

Years ago a movie called City Slickers came out about a young guy who is trying to figure out life. He meets this old cowboy who tells him the secret of life is one thing: chasing after that “one thing.” That is what Jesus is telling us.

S ren Kierkegaard, a Danish theologian said, “Purity in heart is to will one thing.” To be pure in heart is to will one will, to love God, to pursue His will in my life. It’s being all in with God, knowing that I need Him and He holds the secrets to what makes my life work.

When Jesus describes this Beatitude in His sermon on the Mount, He is describing the person whose focus is totally on God. It’s a mind and a will that is undivided. It is playing for an audience of One. It is the person who is “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).

One problem I have heard people say is they have is so many competing commitments in their life. We have so much junk in our hearts, and our sinfulness cries out, Satisfy me; my will be done. It gets us off track.

When I think of the pure in heart, I think of a young man in my congregation named Christian. A few years ago he had a spiritual awakening and asked Christ into his life. It is so inspiring to just sit and talk with him now as he pursues Jesus in his life. He is not perfect; his wife will tell you that. He is not a prude either; he’s a lot of fun to be around. He is very focused and wants to get close to God and his relationship with Jesus. They just left for Trinity seminary in Chicago, and I look forward to seeing what this single-minded devotion of Christian is going to do for the kingdom of God.

I think of a young lady named Gabby who is on fire for God. She is anxious to get closer to God, to understand His heart, His mind, and His will for her life. She is a fun kid and can get herself into trouble. However, she has a pure heart for God.

Jesus promises that the pure in heart will see God, and we wonder when that will happen. We know we will see Him when He returns and we have a new heaven and a new earth. The Apostle Paul tells us, “Now we see in a mirror dimly; then we shall see face to face” (I Cor. 13:12). John tells us we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (I John 3:2). The book of Revelation reveals to us that His servants will worship him and they will see His face (22:3, 4).

So we will see Him face-to-face when that great day arrives. But how about now? In the benediction we sometimes hear, “May the Lord make His face shine upon you,. . be gracious to you, . . . lift up His countenance upon you, and give you His peace.” We know that as a person turns to God and begins to seek Him, not only will God see him, acknowledge him, and lift His face upon him, but that person will also see God.

A few months ago, my wife, Julie, and I were looking for a new car. We found a car that we were really taken with. I was ready to buy it right on the spot, but Julie wanted to look some more. After we left the car lot, it felt like I was seeing this car every time we turned the corner. Isn’t it funny how, when your desire something, you begin seeing it all over the place.

Likewise, when you desire God, you start seeing Him everywhere Ð even, for instance, in the creation. Elizabeth Barrett Browning once said, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”

We see God in the faces of those we reach out to help. “As you did it for the least of these my brethren, you did it for me” (Matt. 25:40). We see it in the faces of those who walk along side of us during sad times and glad times. We see Him as we sit at the table and look at the food before us and when we see that check at the end of the month from our place of employment. We thank God for His provision.

You Ð the pure in heart Ð shall see God.

So let me ask you Ð How is your heart these days? Somebody may be listening this day who wants to see God. How do you do that? The step toward a pure heart begins when we confess our sins and turn to Jesus Christ. We are made pure by the blood of Jesus Christ who died on the cross to cleanse us of our sinfulness. He purifies us.

For those of us who have turned to Him and call Him our Savior, we need to turn to Him and drown the old self in repentance, daily surrendering ourselves to Him and His leadership. Adopt this attitude: I want to know You, God. I want to follow You. I want to please You. I want to be close to You. I want to understand You. I want to see You in my life.

An old hymn speaks of this desire as a prayer:

Breathe on me, breath of God,

Fill me with life, anew.

that I may love all that you love,

and do what you would do.

Breathe on me, breathe of God,

Until my heart is pure.

Until with thee I will one will

to do and to endure.

What is the secret of happiness? It’s found in that prayer. Ask Him in. Follow Him.

How Great Is Your Commitment?

In evangelical Christianity, we talk a great deal about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. We experience Christ’s presence in a very personal way through the Word and in prayer.

If you live in a personal relationship with Christ, do you ever ask yourself how strong is that relationship? I pray this sermon will help you give serious thought to this question.

It was the Sabbath in our text, and the faithful were flocking to their synagogues. Most of the worshipers were expecting the service to be routine. Jesus was present, and he was known as the man who ran the carpenter shop in Nazareth. The rabbi had done his part of the service, and now others could stand up and make their contribution to the worship experience.

The attendant handed Jesus a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus read, “The spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor . . . Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus was telling them that it was a new day. He came to preach good news to the poor. He was speaking not just to those who were financially poor, but also those who had a poor outlook for the future. Jesus knew how incapable they were to meet life head-on and face the difficulties that would come upon them.

Jesus would bring good news to those who were spiritual prisoners. Their sins had taken their freedom away. They were spiritually blind and did not know the difference between right and wrong. They would have their spiritual eyes opened and be led by Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

This was the beginning of a new day. Jesus announced that he is the promised Messiah, and his suffering began with their reaction, which started with a mild disbelief and ended with a furious anger leading to an attempt at executing him. They viewed Jesus as a heretic and a false prophet; a dangerous person and had to be killed. That became the conviction of his enemies, and their goal was met when Jesus was crucified at Calvary.

It is at this point that we must ask ourselves how serious is our commitment to Jesus as he presents himself as our only Savior and God. He never would have been sent to the cross if he had only claimed to be a great teacher and a fine moral example.

Many people, even some in our churches who sit in the pew or stand in the pulpit, deny his divinity. Jesus as a great religious leader, is as far as they will go. The rest is irrational.

Jesus’ own people rebelled against the thought that he alone could grant the forgiveness of our sins and assure us of a heavenly home. Though this teaching came from his own lips, it is often not the primary subject being proclaimed on Sunday morning.

Jesus taught us how to live, how to love our enemies. Yet many people, throughout their lifetime, carry hatred against those who have offended them in some way. We sing, “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee,” yet we are so busy with life that we have little time to give of our time and talents. Jesus tells us to be his witnesses, and many life a lifetime without seriously talking to others about their relationship with the Lord Jesus.

How great is our commitment?

We all would like to admit that much growth is needed in our commitment to him, but as we examine our lives, we can say with Paul that God is at work in our lives. We have not arrived where we want to be, but we press on. Neither are we satisfied with our commitment to our Savior, but neither are we discouraged for we feel his presence.

Peter had his weak moments. Do you remember that night in Herod’s courtyard when he denied ever knowing Jesus? But a few weeks later this same man was a fearless witness for his Lord. This is how a relationship with Jesus can grow.

We live with him in his Word.

He Knows What He’s Talking About

As we listen to the political candidates, we have to wonder if they really know what they are talking about. We may even wonder about statements Jesus makes, such as:

¥ “. . . forgive one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:32).

¥ “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

¥ “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:25).

Forgive my enemies, love them? Really Jesus? Do you know how much they have hurt me? The world doesn’t work that way? Who is going to take care of me? We ask sometimes if Jesus really knows what he is talking about.

In today’s text, Peter is having those same kinds of questions. As Jesus stated that he must die, it was too much for Peter, so he took Jesus aside and tried to correct him. But then Jesus reprimanded Peter. What a scene it must have been! Harsh words were chosen. “Get behind me, Satan!” The disciples had shocked looks on their faces. They had never heard such talk from the lips of their master except to demons, and now he was using it on a disciple.

Why did Jesus use such devastating language? Because he knew something they had not realized: He was under attack by Satan who was trying to thwart God’s purposes. God sent him into the world so that he would intentionally die on a cross as a sacrifice for the sins of all. The voice of the tempter was behind Peter’s words trying to derail God’s cosmic plan of salvation for sinners.

Jesus then went on to outline what life in his kingdom was about. Following him meant sacrifice, possible suffering, and hardship for the kingdom of God. This did not fit into Peter’s picture of what the world was about, and so he was confused and rejected the notion.

We can well imagine the questions rolling in Peter’s head: Who is this person called the Christ? He said some outrageous things. Can I really trust him? Does Jesus really know what he is talking about?

During the next six days, Jesus probably gave Peter a little space and was sensitive to him, as only Jesus could be. But on the seventh day, Jesus said to Peter, “Go get James, and John. I want to show you something.” The next thing Peter know, Jesus was leading the group up the side of the mountain.

On this day, something big happened for Peter, James, and John. They had a visual lesson about Jesus from God himself as Jesus was transfigured. Jesus shone in a dazzling way that they had never seen before. He deity burst through the confines of his humanity and they had a glimpse of his glory and his majesty. Then they saw two figures Ð Moses and Elijah Ð talking with Jesus. This was a sign that the fulfillment of the Jews’ expectations would be right around the corner. And then, they received an auditory lesson about Jesus as well. It was an affirmation: This is MY SON, THE BELOVED. They heard God himself say, “This is my Son.” Jesus is the Son of God. He knows what he is talking about.

God conferred authority upon Jesus before the disciples, when he then said, “Listen to him!” Trust him, obey him, take him serious. Jesus knows exactly what he is talking about.

When our children were little, and my wife and I would go out for the evening, we left them in the care of a babysitter. As we left, we’d often say, “She’s in charge. You listen to her.” She was the one we’d authorized to take care of our children. Likewise, God is doing that with those disciples that day. “This is my Son; listen to him.”

Then as quickly as the scene began, it ended. The disciples looked around and saw only Jesus, looking as normal as can be. Many years later, Peter reflected on this experience in his letter to some Christians; he was trying to get them to listen to what Jesus had passed on. Listen to what he wrote to them:

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ÔThis is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

As we read on in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus continued to challenge and at times even upset the disciples, but they listened and learned. As they stood before Jesus on that resurrection day Ð having watched him die on the cross, and now standing before them alive with his nail-pierced feet and hands and side Ð they knew again that Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

That is God’s message to us this day. We also struggle with some of his teachings. This story was saved for us, so that we also can hear God’s message: Jesus was my Son. He’s the real thing. He died on the cross to save you from your sins. I raised him on the third day and have exalted him. He is the Lord. Listen to him and learn.

If you are listening today and are not a follower of Jesus Christ, listen to him. God is speaking to you. Listen to the words of his Son, who promises, “Truly I tell you, whoever believes in me has eternal life.” Jesus promises, if you would believe in him, trust in him, you will have eternal life.

Listen to him. Jesus knows what he is talking about.

And if you’ve experienced the power of his promises in your life and been a follower of his for some time, the message is the same. Listen to him and learn. Jesus really does know what he is talking about when it comes to living out the days of your life. Trust him with your life. Instead of trying to correct him, let him correct you. Instead of trying to direct him with your steps, let him direct your steps. Keep listening and keep learning. That is the encouragement of God today.

When God says, “Love your enemy” (Pray for him or her who is making your life miserable), Jesus really does know what he is talking about. I’ve listened to that myself, and I’ve tried it.

Forgive that person who has deeply wounded me? I’ve tried that one too. I’ve experienced it, and it is a freeing experience. It frees us from bitterness and allows us to love again more fully.

If you are a follower of Jesus, remember that you are on a journey with him toward heaven. And along the way he has some things to share with you and so much more to teach you.

Listen and learn, because Jesus knows what he’s talking about.

The Story That Never Grows Old

In our text for today, Jesus is making known to the disciples that the basic reason he came to this earth was to suffer and to die for sins of the world. Repetition makes the point better understood, which is why when you read through the New Testament, you are reminded over and over again that Jesus died for the sins of the world.

Let me give you an example of how we use that same factor. I was sitting one night at a basketball game with a person who had played the game and knew quite a bit about the technical parts of it. As the coach called a time out and the players huddled around him, you could see that he was talking very emphatically. So I asked my friend, “What do you think he is saying?”

“Well,” he said, “I never played for that coach, so I don’t know for sure. But I would think he is telling them something like this: ÔHave you noticed that all the action is around player #23? He is their key man. He is leading them in the scoring, rebounding better than any of the others, and playing good defense. Remember, in preparation for game, I warned you about this particular person. He is the heart of the team. You have to slow him down or we’re going to lose the game.’ Emphatically the coach was repeating again and again: ÔWatch #23!'”

When the second half started, number 23 was really covered by two men most of the time. As a result, they shut him down and won the game. But the coach had to repeat again and again what was necessary Ð that the players understand this team and why they were having such a fine year.

You see, repetition is necessary. When I was a child, my mother said to me many a time, “Will you please hang up your coat?” “How many times must I tell you to hang up your coat?” I finally I got the message, and today I hang up my coat when I come into the house. Had it not been repeatedly said, I might still be throwing it on the chair.

In today’s text, Jesus is telling his disciples very clearly that he had to suffer and die for the sins of the world. That is the central message. Everything else must be secondary to it. Although Jesus did many other wonderful things, like giving us good teachings that make us better people, unless he lives in our heart and we understand that he is who he says he is Ð the crucified and risen Savior Ð none of these things will happen.

Jesus rebuked Peter for telling Him that it was not necessary for Him to say that he would have “to suffer many things,” for this would not happen. Although he might be rebuked, no one would ever kill Him! Why would anybody kill a person who would raise the dead?

Jesus could see that Peter had no understanding of His last days and purpose for coming to this earth. And so he said, “Peter, you keep still! Satan is using you now. He wants you to believe that I have not come to save somebody, but just to teach them some good things. And that is not true! Many of the prophets did that. But I have come to suffer and to die to forgive your sins and to bring you into the kingdom of heaven.” Peter couldn’t understand these teachings and probably didn’t until after the crucifixion was over, for he denied Jesus.

Of course, Jesus had done many great things. For example, one day he put a little child on his knee and said, “Unless you become like a little child, you can never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What a lesson on honesty! What a lesson on humility!

Another day Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ house Ð a man who had stolen from his fellow men in the collection of taxes. After their visit, Zacchaeus was a changed man. He said to the people, “If I have stolen from any of you, I will restore it fourfold, and I will give half of my goods to the poor.” That was a wonderful thing that Jesus had done. Wouldn’t they want to keep him in the crowd? Why would they want to sacrifice him?

He healed the sick and raised the dead. He was a great person. All these things should be mimicked by His Church in the days that were to come in as far as it had power. But the main mission of the church was to tell that old, old story: Jesus must die in order that people might live and have everlasting life. The crucified and risen Christ is to live in our hearts Ð not just in our heads Ð in order that all of these good works might flow from us.

We need to hear this often in our individual Christian life. We can do good in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is important to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe those who are naked. However, something else is much more important, and that is to point them to the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that today we are seeing the danger of forgetting the primary message of the church and emphasizing the secondary.

We now have the ability to blot out malaria in our world. Part of the Church has taken up the mission to do just that. Our congregation decided to raise a lot of money in this effort.

This was a thrilling goal, and my wife and I were excited every Sunday to hear the report on how much money was being given to this campaign. We enjoyed being a part of it and were thankful when the church reached their goal. On that Sunday, we had a celebration with applause and rejoicing!

This malaria project is a very worthwhile goal. And the fund happened because our congregation knew that Jesus had suffered and died for them, and they had become new people because of it. Christ’s love flows out of their hearts to people who are having serious bouts with malaria. They come in the name of Jesus Christ with money to help blot out this terrible disease. However, if it is not done in Jesus’ name, it is just another project that a service club could do. Although service clubs have done some marvelous things, the Church must come in the name of Jesus Christ! That is something different!

Now let me give you another example. Mike is one of the custodians at our church. We became acquainted, and I have to admit that, after seeing the tattoos on his arms I had questions about his past. So one day I asked him if he would tell me his story, and he did not hesitate.

He began by saying, “I am a new person in Jesus Christ. I was born in a small town in California. My father deserted the family, and at times my mother lived irresponsibly. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I had to care for my two younger siblings, making sure they were fed breakfast and ready for school.

“It was about this time that I quit school and eventually joined a gang. I became involved with street drugs, alcohol, and stealing. I fathered a child and was the same kind of parent my father had been to me.

“Later I married, and we moved to Iowa. I became hooked on prescription drugs, which sent me to the state prison in Anamosa. I was placed in a cell with no windows. In that cell was an old, torn Bible, which I began to read. While reading that Bible, the Lord spoke to my heart, my life was turned around, and I was converted. Now my wife and I are growing in our faith and are committed to raising our children in the faith.”

Now I ask you, should this man’s conversion be celebrated as much as giving money to blot out malaria?

It is that old, old story that we always need to hear. It first changes lives, and then prompts these same lives to do good works in the name of Jesus Christ.

Catherine Hankey wrote this hymn that tells so much:

“Tell me the old, old story of unseen things above.

Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.

Tell me the story simply, as to a little child,

For I am weak and weary, and helpless and defiled.

“Tell me the old, old story. Tell me the old, old story.

Tell me the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”

My Beloved

Many people walk through life feeling unloved. I know of some of them; I have talked with them.

One day when I was just a kid, my friend and I were playing catch in his driveway when the ball went into the flower bed and may have broken off a flower. My friend’s father kicked him severely. The kid ran down the street as fast as he could in excruciating pain, I’m sure. I ran after him and asked if he was all right. “Yes,” he replied. “I’m all right. My father can be very good to me, but he has these temper tantrums. My mother died a year ago, and I have no one to turn to. I think that, underneath it all, my father doesn’t really love me.”

Years ago, my father bought a Victrola record player. I liked to listen to a particular song on it, supposedly written by a man while he was in jail. This is what it said:

“O I wish I had someone to love me,

someone to call me their own.

O I wish I had someone to live with,

I’m tired of living alone.”

Coming from a home where I was very well loved, I couldn’t understand the idea of a person wishing he had someone to love him. Perhaps that was why he was in prison Ð because he had never experienced the love of another person.

When I was in the seminary, a student and I were talking. A fellow’s name came up, and he said, “Well, he’s a little bit different, but he’s a great guy!” When I said what made him different, he replied, “He and I were in the same class once. His father, a high-ranking official of our church, was going to preach in chapel. So I said to him, ÔI bet you are excited to see your father and listen to him preach. You must be proud of him.’ And he said, ‘Not really. Dad will be on campus, but there is every possibility that he will not even see me. He’ll be so busy with the heads of departments in the college that he won’t have time to look me up. Sometimes I wonder if he is so busy with the church that he doesn’t have time for his family.'”

Now I am sure that the father, who was a godly man, loved his children, wife, and all others around him. However, he gave his son the impression that maybe he did not love him.

If you one of those who, rightly or wrongly, feel that you are not loved, then I have some great news to share with you. One of the blessings of being a Christian is knowing that you have a heavenly Father who loves you under all conditions, good or bad. He loves you. And our text for this first Sunday in Lent gives us a clear picture of his love.

Jesus had come down from Nazareth to Jerusalem. John the Baptist was in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people came out to hear his message, confess their sins, and be baptized. Jesus also came to John to be baptized. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need be baptized by you . . .”

Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper . . .”

When John had baptized him, Jesus came up from the water. Then the heavens parted, and the voice of God cried out, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Jesus was being told by his Father, “I love you. You are my Son.”

We must remember that Jesus was not only God, he was also man, and he would need those words of encouragement many times. He knew his mother and Joseph, who had raised him, loved him. But words of encouragement Ð that his heavenly Father cared for him Ð carried him through the dark days ahead. In the darkness of Gethsemane, the darkness of Calvary’s mountain, where he was crucified for the sins of the world in order that he might say to those who believe in him, “I love you.” I came to die for your sins. I love you! I love you very much!

Tom Wright, a Bible commentator, writes, “God says you are my dear, dear children. Now you just try to read that sentence slowly using your own name at the start and reflect on it every day.”

“Bob, Jenny, you are my dear child. I love you. You are my beloved.”

Say that every day. “For what God said to the Lord Jesus Christ,” Dr. Wright interprets in his book, “he also says to you and me.”

Wright goes on to explain that Jesus is the Messiah who represents his people. What is true of the Messiah is also true of the people of God. Learn to hear these words addressed to yourself and let them change you. When we realize that God loves us, the brunt is taken off when others do not. We still need someone with flesh and blood to love us, but underneath everything else, we know that God loves you.

Put your name in this sentence. “For God so loved Peter or Mary that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That is love and it will change your life!

I don’t know how far my young friend matured in his Christianity. He was just a little boy whose mother was dead, and he felt his father didn’t love him. But I pray that he can remember what our pastor told us in confirmation class Ð God loves you Ð for then he could carry it with him, no matter how rough the day became.

If we think that God is a bully, he’s angry, he’s a threatening parent who yells at us, slams the door on us, or kicks us out into the street because we haven’t made the grade with him, we will fail at the first whisper of temptation. But if we remember the voice that spoke those powerful words of love, we will find the way through.

“You are my beloved Son,” rang through Jesus’ ears at Calvary’s cross, for he knew that the Father, who had sent him into this world, was the One who stood by him and would soon receive him again into the kingdom of God.

Some misfortunate people in our world believe they are not loved and no one has ever loved them. But I wonder sometimes, if they feel that way because they rejected the love that was given to them. Their relatives or friends tried in every way to love them, but they rejected it for one reason or another.

If you are part of that group, remember this: God still loves you. It is never too late in this life. If you say, “Well, I turned my back on his love when I was just 20 years old, and just look at my life from that time on,” it is too bad that you lived your life without him and his love. However, his arms are still outstretched. I know, with no doubt, you can still come to him, and his message will always be the same.

How can I be so sure of this? Because it describes me. I came from a home that was anxious to love. I am a much-loved person. I had many friends and relatives who loved me, and I often turned to their love. Yet underneath it all was that love of God that was warmer and more real than the love of a God-fearing father and mother.

The same can be true of those who have not yet placed yourself in the hands of the love of God. If you have resisted that love for a long time, don’t you think it’s time in this Lenten season to stop and think again of all that he ever did for you? It’s a season when we center our thoughts on the love of the Savior. He loves you so much. Simply love him as your Savior and Lord.

As I have watched some of the presidential candidates on television, I see how they cruelly dig up past mistakes in the other candidates’ lives and then drill it into the conversation simply to get a vote. If those candidates will realize that the kind of love we experience on this earth is very superficial, perhaps they would know that what they are doing is not right, and underneath it all is a Father who loves them. Perhaps then they would not think evil things of a fellow member of the human race.

Our text is marvelous; it’s a marvelous season of the year. I hope and pray that, as you celebrate this Lenten season, you will know how much God loves you.

Is There Life on the Other Side?

The question is often asked, what do you think it’s like on the other side. Or do you think there is another side. Is there life after death? This is not an uncommon question asked today, especially as one stands by the bed of a loved one who is about to pass away. In our society today, there are many answers to that question. Here are a few:

1. There is no life after death. Life on this earth is all there is, so make the most of this life.

2. I don’t know if there is life after death. No one has returned to tell us.

3. I hope so.

4. Of course there is life on the other side! God will take care of all his children. No one is lost.

5. The Bible tells us there is a life on the other side for all who confess Christ as Savior and Lord.

The Old Testament teaches that there is life after death. In Psalm 73:24 we read, “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.”

The much-loved Psalm 23 closes with these words: “Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

One of the basic messages of the New Testament is that Christ came into this world to be our Savior and Lord and to bring all those who believe in him into the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus spoke these words to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

The Christmas message tells of God coming to this world in the person of Jesus Christ as the God-man. Jesus came to forgive sins and to promise a place in the Kingdom of God to those who receive him as Savior and Lord.

When Jesus proclaimed in Nazareth that he was the Messiah and the Savior of the world, the Jews wanted to kill him. He came to build his kingdom, but his people refused to accept Jesus as true God and true man. He was not the kind of Messiah they were expecting.

Early in his ministry, Jesus selected twelve disciples who would be the men to bring the good news of Christ to their world. They would be commissioned to go and make disciples of all the nations by baptizing and teaching this gospel to the far corners of the world. In order that they could perform this mighty task, they had to be convinced that Jesus was God.

As a part of their training, Jesus took Peter, James and John with him to a high mountain where they were all alone. Jesus was then transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. Then Elijah and Moses appeared before them, talking with Jesus. Peter, frightened and at a loss for words, said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters Ð one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, a voice came from the cloud saying, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Suddenly, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, but wondered what “risen from the dead” meant.

One could ask the purpose for the transfiguration.

For Jesus, it could have been a break to remind him that the Father was with him. He had experienced difficult days, and the cross was before him. Having had that peek into heaven could have been a reminder that he was about his Father’s business.

For the disciples, it could have been preparation for the suffering and martyrdom they were to face. In his second letter, Peter reveals where he found comfort and strength to move on as a spokesman for Jesus. He writes, “We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, ÔThis is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

For those of us who trust Christ as Savior and Lord . . . The Holy Spirit reveals to us through the Bible who Christ is and what he has called us to do. Like the robber on the cross, we hear Jesus’ voice saying, “You will be with me in paradise.”

Is there life on the other side? This is God’s answer, and it is revealed to us in Holy Scripture, which is our authority. Others have another answer revealing uncertainty about life after death. Whose voice do you believe?

Listen Up!

Have you ever noticed the power of the spoken word in your life? Words like, You know I love you; What you did was well done; You should feel good about it, or I know you are going through a rough patch. But I believe in you and I’m on your side, can really lift your spirits.

In our text for today, the writer of Hebrews points out that God has spoken to us in a very special and unique way, and we need to pay attention to what he has said.

The book of Hebrews was written to some early Christians who were drifting a bit from their faith and becoming casual with some of the basics. Sometimes familiarity can cloud a person’s vision of what’s important. They had experienced some persecution for believing that Jesus was the only way of salvation. In the light of that persecution, they could have begun doubting their faith and softened the message in order to fit in better with society. Perhaps they felt that as Christians they should have been spared these problems.

The letter to the Hebrews is a response to their doubts and questions. It draws a word picture of Jesus for them (and us) to consider. The writer begins his letter by saying, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, . . .” Some prophets spoke judgement, some spoke grace. But even with all the speaking, the picture of God in the people’s minds was a bit sketchy.

“. . .but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, . . .”

“In these last days,” Ð in other words, we are in the last chapter. History is his story, and it’s headed somewhere. God is in control.

“God has spoken to us by a Son . . .” Ð Who is Jesus? He is the Son of God, the heir of God, and “the reflection of God’s glory.”

Remember Jesus’ words to his disciples: “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” And John’s words in his Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory.”

Not only is Jesus the reflection of God’s glory, he’s the exact imprint of God’s being. In those days an emperor would hire someone to make a dye or a stamp with his image on it that would be stamped into a piece of soft metal or on a wax seal to show the character of the emperor upon it. Jesus has the imprint of God upon his soft flesh. As we look at Jesus, we see the imprint of the Father upon him.

“. . . having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Jesus is superior to the angels or to anything else begging for your allegiance and belief.

So who is Jesus? He’s the Son of God. He reflects the glory of God, the imprint of God is upon him. Whoever has seen Jesus, has seen the Father.

The writer goes on to say what Jesus did for us: “(When) he had made purification for sins,” God has spoken a word of forgiveness to us through Jesus. He made a sacrifice for us at the cross so that we might have forgiveness and be cleansed.

Each and every one of us has a stain (referred to as sin) deep within us. It rears its ugly head in a way that we sometimes act very self-centered and egotistical. However, at the cross Jesus soaked up our stain like a sponge and took the punishment for our sin, which was keeping us from God. What amazing love God has given us in Jesus Christ!

Tim Keller, a pastor that I enjoy reading, once said, “Here’s the gospel: You’re more sinful than you dared believe. You’re more loved than you dared hope.”

Jesus made purification for our sins, God raised him on the third day, and “he sustains all things by his powerful word.” He is present with us today, and he is the same Jesus who died on the cross, rose again and promised his disciples to always be with them to the end of time. “I will not leave you as orphans but I will come to you.” The word “sustains” carries the image of being carried along by something. Jesus carries us along with his powerful word as the Holy Spirit is active in our lives.

Not long ago, I visited a widow, Janine, whose husband of 62 years recently passed away. She had a devotion book with God’s Word sitting on the table. “This is my daily devotion,” she said. “I just got done with it. It’s what carries me through these days.”

I was just talking with a man who has been battling Crohn’s disease for 30 years. He had a lot of pain. In the midst of our conversation, he pointed out to me, “I live by Romans 5. That suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope doesn’t disappoint us. I am hanging onto that one, Steve.” It is what carries him.

In Jesus, God has also spoken a word of confidence in hope. “. . . he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” All power and authority have been given to him. Jesus has the last word over this world. We know the ending. All history is headed toward him. One day every knee is going to bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Someday we will take our last breath, but Jesus has prepared a place for us. He will come and take us to himself that where he is, we may be also. He is the way and the truth and the life, our way of entering God’s heaven.

That is our hope. That is our confidence for the future.

The writer then sums it all up: “Therefore (since I’ve told you who Jesus is and what he came for) we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1). In other words, listen up! God has spoken. Pay attention to him.

Back in 1998, a man named Bob Kupperschmidt was riding in a plane with his friend. When Kupperschmidt turned to say something to the pilot, he was surprised to see his friend slumped over the controls, dead. He quickly grabbed his microphone from the radio, pushed his friend away, grabbed the steering mechanism, and cried for help. Fortunately two pilots were nearby and came to assist him in flying that plane. Bob had never flown a plane before. When it was time to land the plane, an ambulance and fire truck were waiting along the strip for the disaster. But to their surprise, Kupperschmidt emerged from the plane unhurt.

I imagine that, as Bob Kupperschmidt sat at those controls, he listened to every word those pilots said to him, as if his life depended on it, because it did. And they got him safely home.

My dear brothers and sisters, your God who loves you and created you wants a relationship with you. He wants to get you home safely. He has spoken a word Ð Jesus Christ Ð pay attention. Listen up! Put it to work as if your life depended on it, because it does.

Listen up! God has spoken. It’s the word of life: Jesus Christ.

Father Or Higher Power

I was visiting recently with a man who had been in a very serious automobile accident and I asked him to tell me about it.

The man said a semi truck hit him, and his car was totaled. However, he came out of the accident without any serious injuries at all. He concluded his story by saying, “There must have been some higher power watching over me.”

I wish I had asked him what he meant by a higher power. I’m sure he would have said, “Well, I am not an atheist or an agnostic, but I also don’t go to church very often. I’m not sure you can bring God down to our human level. So I think that a higher power, whatever that means, can somehow protect us in a given situation. And that is how I describe coming out of that automobile accident with no serious injuries.”

As I left, I wondered how a person prays to an impersonal God. When someone has something on his mind, how do they pray? Do they say, for example, “O thou great higher power, protect our son or daughter who is fighting in Afghanistan”? This prayer does not show any meaningful relationship. Holy Scriptures never refer to God in this way; he is always considered personal.

Although our heavenly Father is a higher power, he is far more than that. God wants to have a really personal relationship with us. If you have come from a home filled with love, the term father, mother, parent takes on a really personal relationship with you. The text is more meaningful if we have had these kinds of parents.

When I look back over my life, I see how my father and mother were very personal in their relationship with me. They cared for me. I was a big part of their life. They sacrificed for me. My father worked in a paper mill; he never made a lot of money. Sometimes it was nip and tuck, especially during the days of the Depression. However, we always had good food on the table, presentable clothing, and sometimes a luxury.

I recall when I was growing up, I wanted to play the trumpet in the junior high band, but we did not have the money. During that time, my father received some money from World War I. The question was whether he should buy a much-needed suit for church or buy me a second-hand trumpet? He chose to forsake himself and give me a trumpet so that I might play in the band.

The same thing took place when it was time to go on to college. The folks sacrificed and sent money to me regularly. I was also expected to get a job while I went to school, but nonetheless, my parents were very anxious that I have an education.

At times during my young life, the task before me was more than I could take. During times like these, my father and mother would intervene with their strength and help so the particular problem could be solved.

For example, two brothers liked to beat up on me, no matter how nice I was to them. So one day, when I came home with a black eye, my father said, “Enough is enough,” and off we went to visit with the parents of those two boys. “We could not permit this any longer,” my father told them. What I was not able to stop, he did. That was my father, with my mother equally supportive in everything.

When you come from a home like that, you have some understanding of what our text says. God wants to be our Heavenly Father; we are his sons. He wants to live in a very close relationship with us. So close, for example, that he speaks to us regularly at any given moment.

Today’s text tells us that God is our Heavenly Father. He is far greater than any earthly father we could have, for he gave us his Son to suffer and die for the sins of the world. John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Notice: God loves the world! His believers were to go into the far corners of this world telling the people that God loves them so much (as their heavenly Father) that he has given his Son. Now this is not an impersonal, but a personal relationship with God.

When Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross of Calvary, he had all the sins of the world upon him. He came to redeem us, to win us back, and to make us his, for now our sins have been taken away, and we have the full rights of a son. That is not the action of some higher power. It is a God who walks with us under all conditions.

Let’s take a look at some passages that we often mention.

“Cast all of your cares upon me; I really care for you” (I Peter 5:7).

“Today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43) Ð words of forgiveness spoken while on the cross to a robber who evidently had done something bad.

“In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-4).

Scripture makes it very clear that God wants a personal relationship with us, doesn’t it?

Last evening I listened to an interview with an actor. The man conducting the interview asked him, “Can you tell me what you believe about God?”

The actor replied, “I am my own God.” When asked if he believed in eternity, the actor didn’t have much to say, for to him, eternity is all such a mystery. This man, with multimillion dollars and great prestige, is living with the opinion that he can know nothing about heaven until that day that comes. Then he will understand, but it will be too late, for God calls us while we are right here now.

Jesus told us to follow him. The Holy Spirit will press the Lord Jesus into our hearts and go with us all the way. You cannot do it, but the Holy Spirit can. That is what we need to realize today.

Isn’t it a terrible thing to go through life believing the greatest strength you can surround yourself with, as far as this world is concerned, is another person? We thank God for these people who are of great comfort and security to us. Yet, how sad to have no divine power, no heavenly father who says, “Yea though you go through the valley of the shadow of death, fear no evil for I am with you.”

So, if someday someone has to say to you or to your loved one, “It doesn’t look good. You have a malignancy, and it’s inoperable. You have six months,” remember that you have a personal God, a Father who is standing right there with you in the doctor’s office, a Father who will stand by your bedside when you draw your last breath.

Friends, don’t become a prey to those who say they don’t know, when it is so clearly written that God has left us a witness. He does not want us thinking we must run the show ourselves. Instead, he wants us to know we are dependant on him, and no one under heaven can give us that security except Jesus Christ himself.

Listen again, “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law (what for?) to redeem those under law that we might receive the full rights of sons.” We are his sons.

As a father comes to his son, and a son to his father, so it is in our relationship with God. When life is too much for us, and we can’t stand it any longer, we go to him and hear him say, “I am with you always.” That is why the Psalmist could say, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). He is our help in every situation.

So it comes down to this: The Almighty God wants to live in you. The Holy Spirit will plant him in your being. He will be your supreme being. You have a choice: Do you want to live in a daily relationship with Jesus Christ, or are you at best only willing to call upon some higher power that will do you no good? Only when you know him as your Savior will you have the peace that passes all understanding.

God’s Word in My Heart

The psalmist asked, “How can a young man keep his way pure?”

Let’s broaden that question and ask, “How can a person of any age, educated or uneducated, rich or poor, churched or unchurched, keep his way pure?”

The psalmist then answers, “By living according to God’s Word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:9-11).

Note these words, “Hidden your word in my heart.”

The New Testament teaches us that the Holy Spirit will move these words from our heads to our hearts. When this happens we begin to see a difference in our thinking. We are becoming new people in Jesus Christ. It is God’s will, not our own, that controls our life style. We are living with God in our hearts.

This is demonstrated by Jesus’ parable of the prodical son, recorded in Luke 15.

This family has two sons. The younger one became bored on the farm. Even though life was good, he wasn’t content and wanted more of what the world could offer him. So he asked his father for his share of the inheritance. The father was concerned about his son and tried to convince him to change his mind, but the boy was determined to go to the city, get an education and have a better life.

He squandered his money with fast living and was soon broke. None of his new friends wanted to help him. Consequently, he either had to find a job or starve to death. Having been raised on the farm, he asked a farmer for a job and was hired to tend the hogs. However, his pay was not very attractive. He could fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

It was down in the pig pen that this younger son came to himself. He saw the shambles he had made of his life. So he decided to go back to his father and ask for a job on the farm.

When his father saw him coming home, he ran out to meet him, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son confessed, “Father, I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:19). But the father accepted his son and had a feast. So they celebrated.

The prodigal son had become a new man.

Note these words of the psalmist, “Do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.”

What was going to help all of us to be faithful to our Lord?

God’s Word.

Where is that Word to be found?

In my heart.

The Holy Spirit takes these words and moves them from our heads to our hearts. When God’s Word lives in our heart, He strengthens our faith in Jesus Christ. He is our Lord. He strengthens us as our Redeemer and guides us in our daily lives. Our desire is to live according to the will of God.

Does God’s Word live in our hearts? Are there things that we hold on to that we know are contrary to God’s will? God’s Word not only enlightens our minds, but also empowers our souls to keep our minds and actions pure.

What about our congregations? Is the pulpit making the way of salvation clear every Sunday? Are the Sunday school teachers people of God who are teaching the truths of God’s Word? Are we reaching out to the lost in our families and communities?

You see, friends, if God’s Word is living in our hearts, it will not let us continue things that are contrary to God’s will go unattended.

Does this sound strange?

Of course, because the questions are too hot to handle. Our churches, which have God’s Word living in the hearts of its members, are being used by the Holy Spirit to change lives.

Pretty serious business.

Yes, the psalmist presents us with a thought-provoking question: “How can a young man keep his way pure?”