Friday, December 12, 2008

What's in a Name?

During the Christmas season we become preoccupied with a myriad of details pertaining to celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. American culture has added many dimensions completely unrelated to the actual historical event around which the holiday is based.

There is no better way of explaining the central significance of Christmas than by noting the meaning of the name of the One whose birth we remember and celebrate. It was no accident that Mary’s baby boy was named Jesus. Prior to His birth, an angel appeared to Joseph, instructing him to name the child Jesus.

Along with choosing the name, the angel added the reason for the name selection: “for He will save His people from their sins.” The coming Child was charged with a particular mission: saving His people from their sins. Thus we observe that beyond the quaint details of His birth is the spectacle of the cross.

Adding to the complexity of the event is the fact that the name Jesus is actually the Greek version of the name Joshua, which means literally, “Yahweh is salvation.” Putting these details together adds an element of mystery. If Mary’s child is to save His people from their sins, and His name means “Yahweh is salvation,” how can both be true?

The only logical conclusion is that the one named Jesus was in fact God (Yahweh) born in human form. Indeed, this is a parallel element of the Christmas story. The Gospel of Matthew quotes the ancient prophet Isaiah when he predicted 700 years earlier that a virgin would give birth to one called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.”

So a proper celebration of Christmas is rejoicing in the reality that God Himself assumed human form to be the Savior of His people. Is He your Savior? If not, all of the peripheral aspects of the Christmas season will quickly fade away into insignificance.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Highway to Heaven

Recently I had to take an unexpected trip to an office in downtown Baltimore. Not being familiar with that area, other than knowing that it is difficult to navigate for the uninitiated, I consulted two different Internet mapping sites to plan my way. Thankfully, the directions were flawless, and the trip was accomplished without great difficulty.

Twenty-first century travel has been transformed by computer technology from the days of relying on state roadmaps or simply asking for directions. These days, those with access to a computer, or a GPS system in their vehicle, have little excuse for getting lost.

But there is one destination that cannot be charted by a digitized program. There is no satellite-based technology that can point the way to heaven. Utilizing poetic imagery, the prophet Isaiah declared: “A highway shall be there, and a road. And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness.” He describes this highway as free from predatory dangers; even those lacking wisdom will reach their heavenly home when they stick to this road. Travelers on this highway will be filled with great joy as “sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

Who are these blessed pilgrims? How does one get on this “limited access” highway? Isaiah writes, “the unclean shall not pass over it.” “The ransomed of the Lord” are those populating the pathway to heaven.

The reality is that no person gains entrance on his own merits. We are all disqualified by our own spiritual uncleanness. Only those whose hearts God has cleansed are worthy to walk this road. Earlier Isaiah wrote of these travelers, “though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.”

If guilt is weighing on your conscience, turn to Him for renewal and cleansing. God’s Son has paid the toll for the travelers on this thoroughfare, and there is no other way to get there.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Object of Thanksgiving

Historians bent on eliminating the Christian roots of our civilization have been plying their trade in our school textbooks for years. In the mid-1980s, Prof. Paul Vitz of New York University carefully analyzed sixty textbooks utilized in elementary schools across the country. Among his findings was the following: “In grades 1 through 4 these books introduce the child to U.S. society. . . . None of the books . . . contain one word referring to any religious activity in contemporary American life.”

He cites the following example. One social studies book includes thirty pages on the Pilgrims, without a single word referring to their religious beliefs. A boy utilizing this text went home and told his mother, “Thanksgiving was when the Pilgrims gave thanks to the Indians.” When challenged by the boy’s mother that the Pilgrims in fact gave thanks to God, the boy’s principal argued that they could only teach what was in the books!

What were the Pilgrims thinking? We are not left to wonder. Gov. William Bradford declared the following in November of 1623: “All ye Pilgrims with your wives and little ones, do gather at the Meeting House, on the hill . . . there to listen to the pastor, and render Thanksgiving to the Almighty God for all His blessings.”

Doubtless the Pilgrims appreciated the aid rendered by friendly Indians; they recognized divine providence at work. But before their feet first imprinted New England soil, the Mayflower Compact revealed their true motivations. Signed by all 41 men on board, this document declared that their voyage had been “undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith.”

These brave souls were driven to risk their lives to establish a new civilization because of their Christian faith. Any other explanation for their actions is historigraphical malpractice.

This Thanksgiving season, don’t fail to render thanks to the Almighty for His bountiful provision.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Whom Do You Fear?

One of the great ironies in the life of Jesus Christ is that His enemies, primarily the religious authorities of His day, showed greater fear of the crowds than they did of the Son of God Himself.

It is recorded that the “chief priests, the scribes, and the elders” had devised a plan to do away with Jesus. But out of fear of a public outcry they wanted to avoid doing so during the feast of Passover (Matt. 26:3-5). Simply put, the religious conspirators seemingly weren’t worried about the consequences of doing in the Son of God; they just didn’t want to rile up the masses of their constituents in the process.

How blatantly misguided! Fourth-century Bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, remarks that such leaders “never were afraid of the judgment of God but only the judgment of people.”

Throughout history, one of the characteristics of the truly great is that they feared God rather than men. Jesus Himself warned earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (10:28).

Such fundament fear of God caused the Jewish midwives in Egypt to defy Pharaoh’s command to destroy baby boys. Such fear of God in the heart of Martin Luther drove him to risk his life rather than compromise the truth. Standing up to the religious leaders bent on destroying him, he responded with the bold words, “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

There is still a price to be paid for defending God’s truth. You may be branded a bigot, a narrow-minded fool, or worse. You will not be popular with those more concerned with pleasing the masses than maintaining integrity of conscience. But stand you must, or bear the consequences on the Day of Judgment to which Jesus referred.

Friday, September 26, 2008

A New Moral Code

Watching TV, browsing the Internet, or simply paying attention as you walk around reveals that our culturally accepted standards of behavior have changed markedly over the past 50 years. Indeed, a recent Barna survey documents what we instinctively already knew: a major shift in moral standards is underway.

Researchers asked over 1000 adults which, if any, of eight behaviors, traditionally viewed as wrong by biblical standards, they had engaged in during the past week. Glaring differences were found between Baby Boomers (ages 44-62) and Mosaics (ages 18-24). Boomers have been guilty of challenging the morality of their parents. But, compared to Mosaics, Boomers would appear to be paragons of virtue. Mosaics were more than twice as likely as all other adults to engage in behavior that violates biblical morality.

The director of the survey concluded, “We are witnessing the development and acceptance of a new moral code in America.” Comparatively little exposure to traditional moral teaching, and limited accountability, have created an environment conducive to moral decay. “The result is that without much fanfare or visible leadership, the U.S. has created a moral system based on convenience, feelings, and selfishness.” Instead of consulting God’s revelation in the Bible, the trend is to decide what’s right based upon personal preference and circumstances.

The bottom line is that we face growing moral chaos. Where will it end? Scripture outlines the devastating price of ignoring God’s laws. In giving the Ten Commandments He warned of the intergenerational consequences of sin.

Apart from a spiritual revival, America faces a dark future. Parents and grandparents must rise to the occasion, recognizing the jeopardy faced by their progeny. A society consumed with the glory of sports and the luxuries of material prosperity faces disintegration. Parents must prioritize the spiritual training of their children. The hectic blur of activities typifying most families tends to reduce exposure to God’s truth to minimal, at best. A culture inevitably reaps the moral consequences of what it sows.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Death of Chivalry

One of the worse disasters in the history of public transportation was the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Over 1500 died that night in the icy waters of the Atlantic. Many of the dead were fathers who said a final good-bye to their beloved wives and children. Lesser-known is the fact that dozens of cabin boys, no older than 16, gave up their lifeboat seats to save women and children they did not even know.

Why would fathers and young men willingly forfeit the only means of being saved, for the sake of women and children? Because they were motivated by a spirit foreign to much of modern society, a spirit of self-sacrifice, of the strong helping the weak, that is rooted in the Bible.

Chivalry is defined as “the noble qualities a knight was supposed to have, such as courage, honor, and readiness to help the weak and protect women.” The gallant men on board the Titanic demonstrated these qualities.

Today such a spirit has been squelched by the effort to bring equality to the relationship of the sexes in every dimension of life. The elements of society that proposed the so-called “Equal Rights Amendment” ultimately undermine the welfare of the weaker members. Thankfully, a sufficiently large minority of state legislatures rejected the ERA, after it was approved by Congress. But the same legislation has been reintroduced every year since 1982.

Scripture requires husbands to honor and protect their wives as the weaker sex. By extension, this principle applies to all of society, as illustrated by the sacrifice of men on the Titanic. Those who refuse to acknowledge the reality of more delicate members likewise destroy the basis for preferential treatment. In a world governed by the spirit of the ERA, it would be every man for himself, trampling the weaker in the struggle for self-preservation. A Christian spirit recognizes and protects the more vulnerable.

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Proverbial Paradox

The book of Proverbs is one of the most intensely practical parts of Holy Scripture. Its wisdom has guided countless generations of individuals determined to live life God’s way. Addressing wide-ranging topics from child rearing to business ethics to the nature of true friendship, Proverbs provides direction that we all need.

Proverbs 28 contains a statement that is something of a conundrum: “How blessed is the man who fears always.” Now fear is not something most of us view in a positive way. Yes, we teach our children to fear hot stoves and the traffic whizzing by in front of the house. But for the most part, we emphasize courage, optimism, and confidence rather than fear. We suggest that heroes repress their fears and act with boldness and valor.

So how can the Bible extol the blessedness, or happiness, of one who fears all the time? The answer lies in the focus of that fear. The next phrase in Proverbs provides a telling contrast: “But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.” Fear that produces blessings is directed toward one’s own heart.

In contrast to the one who brazenly plunges ahead, ignoring the potential for evil inherent within, the blessed man constantly fears his own proclivity to sin. The Bible expresses this axiom elsewhere in other words: “Let him who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.” The one who is consciously aware of the possibility of falling is the one most likely to remain standing.

History is littered with fallen heroes, including some of the greatest saints of Scripture, who failed to take seriously their own weaknesses. As one observer expresses it, “Fear keeps the heart tender, and the soul safe.” Only those deluded with an overestimation of their own perfection fail to fear their potential to fall. No one is so grounded in saving grace that he is free to let down his guard.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Your Child or Your Dog?

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, died as a martyr in the year 258 A.D. Among his writings is a sharp challenge to parents: “Pray, consider, he who minds his child’s body more than his soul is like one who, if his child and his dog were both drowning, was solicitous to save his dog and let his child perish in the water.”

Now even the most ardent animal lover surely understands that given the choice between saving his child versus rescuing his dog, he must preserve the child. Parents can readily grasp the gravity of this choice and the obvious, right conclusion. Cyprian’s point, however, was to emphasize the critical importance of focusing on the welfare of the child’s soul.

Parents these days are bombarded with advice from all directions, urging them to provide a healthy diet for their children, a proper balance of exercise and leisure, intellectual stimulation, systematic immunizations, adequate shielding from the evils lurking in cyberspace, and opportunities to advance in sporting and social activities. Fulfilling such demands typically results in a hectic schedule that ultimately undermines concern for the spiritual welfare of children.

Despite the physical, academic, social, and athletic achievements that rise to such importance in life, the one dimension that will endure eternally is the state of the soul. Yet a survey of family activities demonstrates that frequently the welfare of children’s souls ranks near the bottom of the priority list.

17th-century minister Cotton Mather was equally poignant in his stern advice: “Man, are your children but the children of swine? If you disregard their souls, truly you call them so.”

Faithful parents must resist the din of 21st century distractions and focus upon the one concern that will ultimately count when this life comes to an end, the state of their child’s eternal soul. It is not possible to be truly love your child and neglect his spiritual welfare.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Religious Butterflies

There are few scenes in nature with the colorful splendor of a monarch butterfly casually floating about a meadow of wildflowers in full bloom. We’re all familiar with the flying patterns of butterflies as they navigate the air, floating and touching down with abandon.

Rev. Tom Reese of Georgetown University compares people to butterflies: “Some people are like butterflies that go from flower to flower, going from religion to religion – and frankly they don’t get that deep into any of them.”

The growing pluralistic tolerance that is sweeping our country would seem to reinforce the butterfly analogy. A recent survey of 35,000 adults revealed some startling results. 70% of Americans with a religious affiliation believe that many religions can led to eternal life. Among this group are 57% of evangelical Christians who agree with this pluralistic assessment despite the clear teachings of their faith to the contrary. Perhaps even more surprising is the finding that 21% of self-identified atheists admit they actually believe in God or a universal spirit.

Such statistics lead Prof. D. Michael Lindsay of Rice University to conclude that “religion in America is, indeed, 3,000 miles wide and only three inches deep.”

Some observes praise these findings as indicating “increased religious security” causing people to be more comfortable with other faith traditions. A more realistic assessment, however, reveals that such open-mindedness grows out of a basic ignorance of the teachings’ of one’s faith.

No Christian who takes the Bible seriously can conclude that there are many ways to find peace with God. Jesus unambiguously declared an exclusive message: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” Distorting those words to conclude that Jesus is simply one of many ways to find eternal life does irreparable damage to the integrity of Jesus’ message. Such a perspective is not open-minded Christianity; it is not Christianity at all.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Purifying Your Heart

In her book, Spirituality for Dummies, Sharon Janis writes that one’s spiritual journey can be summed up in two phrases, “Purify your heart; follow your heart.” She suggests that exercises like prayer, meditation, yoga, contemplation, scriptural study, and various devotional rituals enable one to purify his/her heart and then follow the guidance of that pure heart.

While Janis’ formula may represent the thinking of many of the world’s religions, it runs strongly counter to the Christian view found in the Bible. Numerous biblical texts warn against the pitfall of “following your heart” because it is infected with sin and by nature will rebel against the holy standards of our Creator God. For example, Proverbs 14:12 declares, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”

Psalm 14 presents a rather bleak picture of the human heart: “The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there are any who understand, who seek God. They have all turned aside; they have together become corrupt.” No, the human heart is so filled with pride and selfishness that only God Himself can cleanse it.

To all those who come to God in repentance and humility, seeking forgiveness, He offers these promises: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow”; “For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved”; “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.”

Janis suggests we should follow our hearts because “dogma can muddy the waters of a spiritual path.” The truth is, the dogma of the Bible represents the only path to a purified heart and peace with God. You know the innate corruption in your own heart. Self-renovation doesn’t work; the grace of God through Jesus Christ is our only hope.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is God Blessing America?

Lovers of freedom are calling for Americans to rise up and declare “Enough!” to those misguided bureaucrats bent on relieving us of our liberties bit-by-bit. The effort on the left coast to ban bonfires on beaches in Washington State in the name of global warming is simply the most recent example.

Now I value my civil freedom as much as anyone, and I share in the disdain leveled at these wrong-headed efforts to “protect” the environment. But there are more ominous signs of trouble ahead for America that transcend merely the loss of civil liberties. I’m referring to evidence that God’s hand of blessing has been removed from our land.

Patriotic Americans love to sing, “God Bless America.” But is God doing so? What factors indicate His treatment of our nation? Tracing the history of God’s dealings with people in Scripture reveal an unmistakable pattern: when He chooses to respond with favor and blessing, nations revel in spiritual and material prosperity on many levels. The synopsis of 1 Kings 4:25 is representative: “And Judah and Israel dwelt safely, each man under his vine and his fig tree.” Ezra expresses a basic spiritual axiom, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him” (Ezra 8:22).

Now, I’m not suggesting that God never ordains times of adversity and trial to demonstrate the vitality of those who trust Him. Indeed, Scripture declares such times are to be expected, both as a witness to the world and as a means of steeling our resolve to endure. Job is the classic example of such reality. However, such faith-testing circumstances do not void God’s promises to His people. Over the long haul, God’s hand of blessing will be seen—just as it was earlier in our nation’s history. America’s Providential History chronicles some of these evidences.

Today our nation faces a myriad of troubles that cumulatively threaten our very existence. The daily news is filled with reports on the declining dollar, the housing slump, the return of inflationary pressures, sky-rocketing fuel prices, the abusive tactics of an ever-lengthening arm of government power, and a pervasive secularization that seeks to divorce life from the reality of God and His absolutes.

Such factors seem to be part of a pattern that I have observed for years. Frequently, when I read the latest news, the thought crosses my mind: here is further evidence of God’s judgment upon America. I cannot remember the last time a news story impressed me as evidence of God’s blessing upon our land.

Scripture reveals how God deals with nations that defy Him. He utilizes negative developments as occasions to further pour forth His judgment in greater measure, creating a downward spiral into oblivion. He used Rehoboam’s foolish actions as a means of permanently dividing the kingdom of Israel, in fulfillment of His promise of judgment for Solomon’s apostasy (1 Kings 11-12). He utilized Amaziah’s ill-conceived challenge to Joash as an occasion to punish the nation for her idolatry (2 Chronicles 25). And, more famously, the Lord chose the occasion of David’s decision to number the people as a reason for moving against the sin of the nation (2 Samuel 24).

Today, numerous developments in our land are crying out for God’s judgment: the unchecked abortion holocaust, rampant divorce, the increasing acceptance of homosexuality, and a general disregard for the merits of God’s claims upon human life. Witness the national ignoring of the Sabbath Day, once culturally observed by nearly everyone, even the non-religious; now even many Christians treat the day as little different than the other six.

The bottom line is that God has more than enough bases for pouring forth His unbridled fury upon the American nation. How should Christians respond? The precepts of 2 Chronicles 7 provide the answer. God declared to Solomon that when His blessing is withheld due to the sin of the people (verse 13) they should respond in humble confession, repentance, and seek the face of God (verse 14).

The Christian church in America has been so influenced by the world that she is largely marginalized in the battle for the soul of the nation. We have become so consumed with our own comforts, described by Francis Schaeffer as “personal peace and affluence” to the degree that we have failed to respond in the spirit of 2 Chronicles 7. We are overwhelmed by a spiritual lethargy that cries out for the chastening of the Lord.

May God revive His church in this land, restoring to believers the fiery resolve of our pilgrim forefathers who risked everything for the opportunity to live and worship in freedom. I exhort you to pray to that end.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hallowing the Name

On the morning of January 8, 1697, a young Scotsman named Thomas Aikenhead took the long walk from Tolbooth prison to the gallows where he was hanged, having been tried and convicted under two different statues of Scottish Law. His crime? Blasphemy.

Aikenhead was the last man sentenced to death for blasphemy in Scotland. In the U.S. today, his actions would be championed as an exercise in free speech. The ACLU would likely defend his right to express blasphemy publicly and freely. Things do change in 300 years!

Familiar to many readers, the first petition in the Lord’s Prayer is that God’s name would be treated with due reverence: “Hallowed be your name.” The third of the Ten Commandments states, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”

God notes those who dishonor and defame His name in a careless, flippant, or vulgar manner. Such will not be left unpunished. The blasphemous use of the names of God and Jesus Christ is commonplace in our society. The speech of too many, even of some professing Christians, is punctuated with euphemisms such as “gosh,” “jeez,” and “gee.” The mindless use of such terminology is an irreverent slap in the face of Almighty God.

Instead of being a verbal means of expressing surprise, irritation, or anger, the name of God should be treated with the highest respect. Psalm 29:2 declares, “Give unto the Lord the glory due to His name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.”

When God’s name and reputation are treated in a demeaning, trivializing way, it is a grave offense. And with that offense come definite consequences. As long as our nation tolerates open blasphemy we can expect to be under the hand of the judgment of God.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Brilliance or Foolishness?

Named by Time Magazine as “Man of the Century,” one of the most celebrated Americans of the 20th century was in the news again recently. Although he passed from this world in 1955, Albert Einstein left a legacy as one of the greatest scientists of all time.

World famous for developing his theories of special and general relativity, he would go on to win the Nobel Prize. Despite his brilliant advances in science, however, Einstein himself was not happy with the implications of his conclusions.

In 1916 Einstein realized that if his theory of general relativity were true, it would mean that the universe was not eternal; it would have had a beginning—a fact which he later called, “irritating.” His world view called for an eternal universe that existed apart from divine intervention.

In an effort to alleviate this disconcerting problem, he tried to modify his theory to avoid an absolute beginning. His efforts failed, however, when in 1919 another cosmologist performed an experiment that confirmed conclusively that his original theory of general relativity was indeed correct. This second scientist, Arthur Eddington, was no happier than Einstein: “Philosophically, the notion of a beginning of the present order of nature is repugnant to me. . . . I should like to find a genuine loophole.”

This week a letter written by Einstein in 1954 is to be auctioned in London. In the letter he declared, “The word of God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”

It is said that there is a fine line between genius and idiocy. The Bible affirms, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” We still benefit from the brilliance of Albert Einstein; it is a sad fact of history that he failed to appreciate the implications of his own research.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Lessons from a Rambunctious Chick

A new experience for our family is caring for 20 baby chicks, currently about ten days old. Utilizing advice from the experts, we constructed a circular, cardboard wall twelve-inches high to create an environment where the chicks can eat, drink, sleep, and be warmed by the heat lamp. Without the wall, the young birds might wonder off and die, unable to find their way back to the comfort and security of the heat lamp.

Yesterday morning I found that one of the chicks, as a result of rambunctious activity, had managed to get over the wall, finding itself cut off from the life-sustaining heat, water, and food. On the coldest day of its young life, the bird would have perished had I not discovered its predicament.

That experience reminded me of the role of the Law of God in the lives of humans. Knowing how we can best thrive and prosper in this world, God has revealed standards by which we should live. Frequently, however, we regard these laws as too confining, unnecessarily restrictive, and just plain burdensome.

We mistakenly think that bliss is to be found outside the “circle” of God’s Law. The reality is, however, that all who violate God’s standards will perish. In biblical language, “the wages of sin is death.”

The message of the Gospel is that God has extended His hand to save us in the person of His son, Jesus Christ. He bore our guilt when He died on the cross. For all who recognize their peril, turn from their disobedient ways, and trust the Savior, their sins are forgiven.

The chick I rescued didn’t welcome my assistance. It tried to escape my saving hand, oblivious to its perilous situation. Many humans likewise reject God’s offer of salvation, preferring instead their sin-dominated lifestyles. The Apostle Paul’s reply to a terrified prison warden still applies: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.”

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Birth of a Blog

Posts to this blog represent the musings of a pastor residing in Pigeon Cove, in the heart of the rural countryside of south central Pennsylvania. The perspective is informed by a Reformed understanding of the Bible that interacts with life in the 21st century. Experiences in caring for a family of six children, and now a flock of chickens, and ministering God’s Word to the spiritual needs of people, provide a crucible in which to test and apply the precepts of Scripture. Life must be lived in light of eternity. God’s laws cannot be disregarded without serious consequences. We who have seen the light are required to reflect it to others. Hence the inception of this blog.