“I have loved you.”

The first chapter of Malachi is a relentless barrage of accusation coming from God, hammering his audience with his contempt for their hypocrisy. It’s tough stuff, and the easily offended would be, well, offended. But it’s stuff that they needed to hear, because the church leaders and church-going Israelites to whom God is speaking were abysmal in their worship life.

Look at the laundry list of God’s frustrations with them:

  • They don’t show him respect and honor (v. 6)
  • They offer defiled food (v. 7)
  • They offer blind, lame, and sick animals for sacrifice (v. 8)
  • They dishonor his name (v. 12)
  • They complain about God’s commands (v. 13)
  • And the list goes on through the next two chapters! “I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord (v. 10).

God wants the very best from us. He wants us to come to him with the best of what we have. So when the people were bringing their leftovers, bringing their garbage, bringing their least valuable property and offering that to God, he is offended at them. And rightly so! “Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord (Malachi 1:8, NLT).

And to top it all off, the priests then complain about all of it. “The food we get isn’t good enough. Serving God is a burden. Living by God’s commands is too hard.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. It sounds like all the times I’ve shown up to church and realized that I forgot the offering envelope – not a conscious decision to plan when and how to give, but a simple lack of attention to that part of my spiritual life. It sounds like all the times I’ve sat in church and gone through the motions, but my head and heart are somewhere else entirely. It sounds like the “Junk for Jesus” concept that leads us to pat ourselves on the back whenever we give a worn out, old, or ugly thing to church because we think someone might find a use for it, even though we can’t.

And then we complain about God. We gripe about the service times, about the length of the sermons, about the content of the sermons, about the music or the people or the temperature of the sanctuary. We gripe that the pastor talks too much about giving. We complain about our fellow Christians. We make excuses for our disobedience, reasoning that while maybe God’s law applies to other people, my situation gives me a reason not to obey that particular thing. We whine along with the Israelites, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord.”

What does God say to all of this? Back up to the beginning of Malachi. What does God say in the second verse? “I have loved you.” Yes, God has some hard things to say to his people. He has hard things to say to us. But he starts with a reminder that his love is sure. That he has always loved us. That he always will.

The book of Malachi ends with the promise that the Savior will come. God bookends this difficult, accusatory, condemning message with a reminder that he loves us, and that his love is found in Jesus. When we repent of all of this half-hearted worship and whining disobedience, we can be sure that God’s response is grace, forgiveness, reassurance, and love. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. “And I always will.”

The Power at Work in Us

I had the opportunity to present the chapel devotion at Minnesota Valley Lutheran High School this week. These were the thoughts I shared:

I don’t know what Zacchaeus imagined was going to happen the day he climbed that tree to see Jesus. Did he expect that the experience of seeing this new rabbi would change him in some way, or was he just caught up in the idea of catching a glimpse of a celebrity? He certainly didn’t know he was going to be hosting Jesus in his home, and I don’t think he had any clue how much his life would change that day.

A woman caught in adultery in first century Judea would have no hope for the future. The most she could look forward to is a quick death. She certainly wouldn’t expect freedom and forgiveness. Yet, that’s exactly what happened to one woman, who was dragged out to be stoned to death, and then encountered Jesus. Where she imagined that he would, like every other religious person there, condemn her, instead he rebuked her accusers and offered her forgiveness and a new direction in life.

The mother in the little village of Nain, following her son’s corpse out to the graveyard, could not have imagined that her grief would turn to joy. At best she might have hoped that as Jesus walked up to her, he would show her some kindness and compassion. That within a few moments her son would be alive and well again would have been too great for her to hope for. Yet, when Jesus said to her, “Don’t cry,” he didn’t just mean, “It’ll turn out okay someday, so don’t be too sad.” He meant, “I’m about to take away any reason you have for tears as I prove that I am the Lord of Life.”

As these people – and so many more – encountered Jesus, they found that even the best they could hope for or imagine came short of what Jesus would do for them. His power at work in them was so much more than they anticipated.

Paul’s words that are our text for today talk about this, as he says, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” What is the power he is referring to? To understand that, we have to back up a little. In the verses that comes before this, Paul writes a prayer to the church in Ephesus, and he says, “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” The power that is at work within us is the power of knowing the depth of Christ’s love for us, and knowing how he has shown us that love.

Paul was familiar with this power. He had lived it. Of course, there was the miraculous event in which Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus, changing him from one opposed to Christ to a witness for Christ. He had been healed of blindness, saved from death a variety of times, and had multiple personal interactions with the risen Lord. But it wasn’t in those miraculous experiences that Paul saw the greatest demonstration of God’s power. It was in his grace. Paul wrote in Romans 1 that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation.” Paul, who saw himself as the worst of sinners, knew that he had been saved from death and given access into eternal life. To know the love of God in Christ was far beyond any earthly good for Paul.

And so he wraps up this prayer for the Ephesians by talking about the power of God’s love that is in Christ, and says that according to that power, all those who are in the church, from generation to generation, give glory to Jesus, the one who can do more than we ask or imagine.

That power is in you. Through faith in Jesus, given to you by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, you know the love Christ. Maybe you know it because, like Zacchaeus, you’ve seen a change in the way you live, and the selfishness you used to hold on to has given way to love for God and love for others. Maybe you, like the woman caught in adultery, have known what it’s like to be caught in a sin and afraid of the punishment to come, only to experience grace and forgiveness and release. Maybe you’re like the woman in Nain, and at some point you couldn’t see beyond grief and sadness, but God turned things around and showed you a joyful future. Maybe you’re like Paul, fully aware of your sin, fully aware of your need for forgiveness, feeling like there is no one who has fallen as far as you have – yet you know that at your lowest, Jesus is there with his forgiveness and peace, and you know that you have been saved.

However that power has shown itself in your life, you can trust that it will continue to show itself again and again in your life, in ways you would never ask or imagine. I can’t tell you what that will look like; only God knows how he’s going to prove his grace to you. But he will do it, and he will do so for his own glory, that through your life his glory will be revealed.

And maybe right now you’re in a place where it’s hard to see it. Maybe there’s a sin that has you feeling trapped, and no matter how hard you try, you can’t escape it. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and find freedom. Maybe your future doesn’t look so great right now, maybe you’re afraid of what you see on the road ahead. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and find strength and peace. Maybe you feel crushed by guilt and can’t imagine how anyone would forgive you, let alone a holy God. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and find the assurance that his love is greater than any sin. Maybe you’re just struggling with spiritual apathy, unable to feel much of anything when it comes to your faith. Trust in the power of Jesus. Go to his Word and be filled, and remember that whatever you feel, God’s love for you never changes.

Listen once more to the words of Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, and for you: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Our Inexorable God

When the storm comes, you can’t fight it or stop it. You just take cover.

These last couple weeks our area has been slammed with two separate blizzards. School was canceled, roads were closed, and folks were advised to stay inside and stay warm. Much of the activity of our town – and most of the state, for crying out loud – shut down as people sought shelter from the storms.

Not that this is new for us in Minnesota. Winter brings the blizzards, summer brings the thunderstorms and tornadoes. Just another week on the celestial plains. But as such, we are familiar with this simple truth – when the storm comes, you can’t fight it or stop it. You just take cover. Who can stop the wind? Who can hold back the snow and rain? Who can fight against the lightning or tell the tornado to turn back?

The storm is unstoppable. Uncontainable. Inexorable.

Yet, there is one with mastery over the storm. As a man, he once lay sleeping in a boat while a storm raged on the sea all around him. His followers woke him, fearing for their lives and hoping beyond hope that he could do something. “Quiet! Be still!” he commanded, and the winds obeyed. The waves ceased. The storm was stopped.

If the storm is unstoppable, what must we say about the one who is actually able to put a stop to it? This is truly the Maker of heaven and earth. This is the one who sends the storm winds flying and calls them back again. This is the Master of all creation. This is God.

If we cannot stop the storm, could we ever hope to fight him?

God has promised that a day of reckoning is coming, when he will bring more than just snow and rain, thunder and lightning, wind and cyclone. He has promised that he will shake the pillars of heaven, sweep the stars from the sky, darken the sun and melt the moon, and all the earth will be laid bare before him.

Who will stop that final storm?

Unlike the storms that we face here, though, there’s no need to take cover when God comes. We don’t need to flee for shelter from his impending, inexorable presence. If God is truly unstoppable, then that means that whatever he intends to do, he will accomplish without fail. That same Jesus who calmed the storm on the sea made it his mission to save mankind. I love the way Luke records in chapter nine that Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem,” or, as another translation puts it, “set his face toward Jerusalem.”

The Master of all creation, the stopper of the storm, was unstoppable in accomplishing his goal of destroying the power of sin, death, and the devil. His grace could not be stopped. We soon enter another Lent season, and the storms of these past weeks have been a fitting reminder of the power of our inexorable God, whose unstoppable grace saved us all.

How Do I Talk to My Child About Abortion?

“A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Jeremiah 31:15

But is there weeping here in America?

A few heartbreaking statistics:

I say heartbreaking rather than shocking, because you’ve seen these statistic before. I have too. So often that it might be easy to just see numbers and forget what they really mean.

Let’s make it simple: 3,000 times a day a baby is killed, and at least 2,500 of them sacrificed on the altar of “don’t make my life more challenging.”

Abortion is again forefront on our national conscience. Planned Parenthood has been exposed by (as of now) eight videos, which implicate that not only are they America’s top abortion provider, but are also selling human fetal tissue for profit – a federal crime. The callous demeanor of the people in these videos just highlights how far we’ve strayed into the mire.

All the publicity and conversation generated by this has inspired some interesting conversations around my dinner table, and maybe around yours too. For parents of young children, it raises the question – How do I talk to my kids about this issue? How young is too young to explain it to them?

The problem we parents face is that we can never keep our kids insulated from the evils of the world. If they don’t hear about it from us, someday they’ll hear it elsewhere: A friend at school, a news program, a conversation you didn’t know they were overhearing. It is their nature to hear far more than we expect. If we can’t keep them from it, then we need to be proactive in teaching them about it.

When we approach a sensitive subject with our kids, it’s good to do so with lots of prayer. Ask the Lord to give you the words, and the grace to handle the questions appropriately. Remember that God has given your children to you; while that may seem like an awesome responsibility, it also means he isn’t going to leave you out to dry. God will equip you. At the same time, he wants us to be wise in our approach.

My wife and I have talked about this issue with our kids more than a few times, and young as they are, we think they get it. In fact, A. consistently declares that he is going to be president someday so that he can make abortion illegal. (Good goal, kiddo.) I feel pretty confident in approaching this, so here’s my suggestion for a simple way to explain the issue to your kids:

“Every child is a blessing from God. Sometimes people don’t know that, or sometimes they just don’t want to listen to God. They try to say that a baby in a mommy’s tummy isn’t really a baby. They have a doctor take the baby out before it’s time, and the baby dies. It’s very wrong, and very sad. But Jesus wants them to know that he loves them, even when they do this. He forgives them, and he wants us to let them know that he loves and forgives them. He also wants us to let everyone know that babies are a blessing.”

1. Every child is a blessing from God. Our culture has become so murky with the notion that the value of life is determined by its quality, or by how it came to be. Let’s give our kids the worldview that all life is precious, no matter the circumstances surrounding it.

2. Sometimes people don’t know that, or sometimes they just don’t want to listen to God. We want to teach our children how to see this with compassion. We also want them to recognize that people don’t see the world the same way we do. Sinful ignorance and sinful rebellion may be different attitudes, but they amount to the same thing – a failure to see the truth. This also helps our children understand why someone would do something we would consider horrible. “They just don’t know.”

3. They try to say that a baby in a mommy’s tummy isn’t really a baby. Let’s put our kids on guard against the sterilization of terms that we see all around us. “They use words like fetus and embryo and tissue to avoid saying what it is… a baby.” But once again, we want to build compassion in our children. The woman who has been convinced to have an abortion has been convinced to believe that it’s not a baby.

4. They have a doctor take it out before it’s time, and then the baby dies. This is, perhaps, the hardest part. How much do I tell my child about what is actually happening? Do I give details? Is there some way to sugar coat it?

I believe we need to be honest and straightforward with our children about what is happening. We’re often afraid they’ll be emotionally scarred by hearing what to us sounds gruesome. Remember that your child probably has no frame of reference. Unless they’ve witnessed childbirth and/or death, they probably will have a distorted (and possibly somewhat silly) mental image with all of this. And that’s okay. It means they won’t be traumatized by knowing what is happening, and in time they will get a clearer picture. Don’t hedge on the reality of what abortion is; your child is trusting you to give them an honest view of the world.

That doesn’t mean we need to go into gory details. Depending on the age of your child, you can keep it as simple as they are ready to handle. I think my phrasing here is good for kids as young as 2-4 years old. For older ones, maybe you need to explain a little more. However, it’s better to err on the side of simple, straight, and honest.

5. It’s very wrong, and very sad. We also want to be honest with our kids about the moral and emotional implications. No matter what you’ve heard, read, or been told, here’s the simple truth: Abortion is murder, and murder is wrong, and it always leaves scars. A woman doesn’t have an abortion and come out better the other side.

6. But Jesus wants them to know that he loves them, even when they do this. He forgives them. The worst reaction a Christian can have to abortion (other than accepting it) is to shout words of condemnation and loathing at those who have gone through it. Do you need to call it sin? Yes. Will you ever change a heart by telling a young woman how disgusted God is with her? No. Let’s make sure our kids grow up knowing that Jesus loves all sinners, and forgives all sinners. No matter what they’ve done. This is the most important message we can give our children.

7. He wants us to let them know that he loves and forgives them. Our job is not to change people’s actions so that they become more moral. Our job is to introduce them to Jesus. So when we confront the problem of abortion, the primary goal is to speak grace. That’s even more important than stopping abortion from happening, though stopping it is a good goal. You can earnestly reach out with the Gospel and also work to forbid abortion. But those who focus entirely on stopping it lose sight of the greater goal. So, keep the horse in front of the cart, and then you get both cart and horse where you want to go.

8. He also wants us to let everyone know that babies are a blessing. Don’t underestimate how much your child will want to help make a change. They can be a part of this. Donate time to a pregnancy center or march for life somewhere, or pray about this before going to bed at night. Those things honor God and are part of the mission. The pro-life movement has its place in this battle, and our little ones can be a part of that.

In the end, you know your child best, and you are the best person to tell him or her about abortion and what we can do about it. Be the voice of truth in your child’s life, and help them grow up to say what God says about this. Have you found some good strategies for helping your child understand this sensitive issue? Please use the comments section to share!

I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” – Jeremiah 31:34

“This is, like, so unfair!”

How many times have you experienced this:

You fall into sin. Bad stuff happens as a result of your sin. You get angry, upset, depressed. You get mad at God – “God, why is this happening to me? I don’t deserve this!” You get angry at other people – “Why can’t you all just be more forgiving!” Maybe you try and sanctify it a little – “It isn’t God, it’s the devil. He’s so awful. He just makes life so tough!” Or it’s other people – “Everyone is out to get me. At least I have God.”

Then again, maybe you don’t know how many times you’ve experienced this because you don’t see the connection. So, let’s try this instead. How many times have you experienced this:

Your child – or a younger sibling, nephew or niece, or a child you care for – does something foolish and wrong. You enforce a consequence, or allow the child to experience the natural consequences. They get mad at you – “This is, like, so unfair!” They get mad at others – “Just leave me alone! You’re all so annoying!” Maybe they try and sanctify it – “The toy is naughty! The devil made me do it!” Or they blame – “It’s just that my brother was being so mean!”

Continue reading ““This is, like, so unfair!””

I got him wrong

I have a secret to confess: For many years, every time I hear a U2 song I think, “I really like the sound of that. I wish I was a U2 fan. But I just don’t know about that Bono guy…”  Weird thought, I know. See, more than ten years ago there was this Time magazine cover…

… and when I first saw it I snorted in derision and shook my head at the foolishness of a world always looking for another savior. At the time, I didn’t know much about U2 other than that I had more than a few high school friends who liked them and that Bono was apparently into more than just making music. Over the years when I would hear about Bono working on one campaign or another to feed the hungry, combat HIV/AIDS, or provide education to those in poverty, I always chalked it up to one more celebrity trying to find meaning in life by doing something good, missing the bigger picture of a relationship with Christ.

Continue reading “I got him wrong”