Jesus and Christmas in a Land of Skepticism

The Gospels tell us that Jesus fed a crowd of more than 5,000 people out in the wilderness with only 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. And everyone was satisfied. A miracle! But why did he do it? What does it mean?

Some folks claim that Jesus did nothing supernatural. They say that many people in the crowd already had food but were too selfish to share. All Jesus did, they argue, was inspire them to open their hearts and share with one another.

The non-miraculous interpretation of Jesus feeding the 5,000 may sit well with skeptics, but it doesn’t fit the Gospel writers’ accounts. The Gospel writers clearly present Jesus as a man of miracles, born of a virgin, healing all kinds of diseases, casting out demons, and even commanding storms to stop!

So, if Jesus did not feed the 5,000 in order to inspire people to be more generous, then why did he do it?

Another interpretation of this episode starts by recognizing that Jesus truly performed a supernatural act by dividing 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed more than 5,000 people. But this version goes on to say that Jesus’ goal in feeding the 5,000 was to inspire sacrificial giving. As a young lad in the crowd gave his lunch to Jesus, we should give our all to Jesus.

But John is the only Gospel writer who mentions this lad and John never says anything about the boy’s desire to give his loaves and fish to Jesus. Matthew, Mark and Luke never mention the youngster at all, so the boy certainly cannot be vital to a proper understanding of Jesus’ actions.

If Jesus is not inspiring generosity toward others or promoting sacrificial giving to him, then what is the meaning of his feeding the 5,000?

The people who ate Jesus’ miracle meal that day recognized that Jesus was doing something similar to what God did when he fed Israel in the wilderness. After the Lord rescued his people from bondage in Israel he rained down manna from heaven to provide food for them in the desert.

Jesus is demonstrating that he has the same kind of power that God displays. When they asked for more miraculous meals, Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life, whoever comes to me will never go hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Jesus believes in generosity and sacrifice, but something bigger is at stake. Jesus is God in the flesh, come not just to promote or inspire good deeds, but to give himself so that we can have eternal life in heaven with God.

Each year we hear heart-warming and sentimental expressions about the true meaning of Jesus’ birth, the real spirit of Christmas. A plethora of virtues find room in the inn of a humanistic Christmas: love, generosity, sacrifice, family, compassion, and so on.

As the wise men came and brought gifts to Jesus we should give gifts to one another, so the popular reasoning goes. But the magi from the east were not on a goodwill tour. They traveled a great distance not to promote a spirit of gift-giving, but to worship the King.

The Bible says that Jesus’ birth is a cosmic turning point in human history. The nations of this world languished in violence and hatred, hunger and poverty, suffering and sorrow, disease and death. God made us for better.

Jesus, born to a young lady named Mary and laid in a manger, is God stepping into this tragedy we call life, sharing our ups and downs. His mission? to bring victory over death and joy in God’s presence forever. That’s bigger than anything that comes in a gift bag.

So Christmas is not just a time to promote human virtues or to enjoy temporary delights. Christmas is the time we remember this greatest episode in all human history: Jesus is God in the flesh come to save his lost people.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and goodwill,

Brother Richard

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Standing Strong in a World of Weinsteins

John the Baptist was not one to keep his mouth shut in order to ‘keep the peace.’ When a powerful local leader named Herod seduced his own sister-in-law, John called it what it was: sin.

The woman Herod seduced was named Herodias. She nursed a grudge against John the Baptist, and waited for an opportunity to destroy him.

On Herod’s birthday, Herodias watched as her teenage daughter danced to please him. When he foolishly swore to give the girl anything she asked, Herodias saw her chance.

Herod threw John the Baptist in prison because this fiery preacher kept publicly charging Herod with breaking God’s law by taking his brother’s wife. Now Herodias urged her daughter to ask for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, literally.

Herod knew that the people regarded John as a true prophet. Killing the Baptist could be politically risky, but he was backed into a corner. He killed the prophet.

John the Baptist discovered the hard way that leaders are sometimes willing to abuse their power in order to advance their own personal agendas. But the Baptist was not a man to compromise, or to remain silent, despite the risk.

This sordid affair sounds more like something out of ‘Days of our Lives’ or ‘Peyton Place’ than a story from the Bible. But God’s word honestly records the real condition of this broken world.

Evidence of broken lives is scattered helter-skelter throughout our land. Recently the decadent practices of one Harvey Weinstein have caused a sensation in the news.

For years Harvey used his power in Hollywood to take advantage of young women who wanted a chance at the silver screen. Finally his wickedness caught up with him.

Harvey’s wicked behavior raises a lot of questions. The list of women who were attacked and abused by him seems to grow longer every day. Many of them stayed silent for years. Some spoke up but were ignored.

How many women refused to give in to Harvey’s ‘casting-couch’ approach, walking away from fame and fortune because the cost was too high? How many women valued their own self-respect and purity more than the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, and told Harvey to ‘get lost’?

Why can’t we teach young women to be wise, to be careful who they keep company with, to be modest in how they dress, to avoid situations that make them vulnerable, to value their purity more than the world’s approval, to say “No” and mean it?

It is politically incorrect to speak like this because it implies that women share responsibility in this world’s often shameful struggle between the sexes. Some say that these comments are accusations against the victim, multiplying the original abuse by claiming that she deserved such vile treatment.

Nobody deserves to be attacked and abused. But young women deserve to be taught the truth, to be offered wise counsel before they find themselves facing the enemy.

Women are now being congratulated for taking a stand against Harvey, after the fact. What if more of them had been taught to take a stand against him before he preyed on them like a ravenous wolf?

Surely some women tried to resist Harvey’s ugly advances but were physically bullied. My heart is broken for them. They may have remained silent for complex reasons that only women with such deep wounds can fully understand. They deserve to see Harvey punished for his crimes, even though this world’s justice cannot make up for what he has taken from them.

No matter how you slice it, doing the right thing in this world can be costly. John the Baptist walked into a sordid affair and paid dearly for refusing to be silent. The Harveys and Herodiases of the world will always be looking for their next victim. Let’s train our children to be wise and to be ready to take a stand for what is right, despite the cost.

May the Lord give us confidence in facing evil,

Brother Richard

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Tell The Story of The Bible in One Minute Or Less

We can tell the story of the Bible in one minute or less. That may sound impossible, but it isn’t.

We begin where the Bible begins: creation. God made the heavens and the earth and everything in them. And his creation was good.

Next, we point out that God made people in his image. Every man, woman, boy and girl is made in God’s image and has incalculable value.

Here’s the bad news: humanity rebelled against God. Adam and Eve disobeyed him and all their descendants have, too. Because of our disobedience to God we live in a broken world full of injustice, suffering and death.

Here’s more bad news: God will punish all disobedience. He proved that with Noah’s Flood and his judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah.

Now for some good news: God promised a man named Abraham that through his descendant every nation would be blessed. Much of the Old Testament tells how God’s promise slowly unfolded in generation after generation of Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites.

God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Jesus was born a descendant of Abraham, sent by God to offer himself as a sacrifice for sin so that all who trust in him can be forgiven and enjoy God’s eternal blessings.

God raised Jesus from the dead, showing that both sin and death have been defeated. Then God poured out his Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers, the church, empowering them to live a new kind of life.

Now, through the church, God is proclaiming his message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. And soon, Jesus will return and take all those who belong to him to be with him forever.

So try it and see how long it takes. Use the stopwatch on your smartphone. It took me just over 50 seconds to speak through the version above.

We could alter the details of this presentation in a variety of ways, but the main thrust of the story is clear. God made us; we rebelled against him; he loves us enough to save us. So, each of us must decide whether we will accept his offer of salvation.

God has entrusted his story to us. We have the responsibility to be his messengers in the world today. And the world desperately needs the truth of God’s story.

What an honor it is to speak God’s truth. What a joy it is when we see someone respond with saving faith. Let’s tell God’s story!

May God’s empowering Presence inspire and enable us to tell his story boldly,

Brother Richard

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Why Be Optimistic About the Future of the Gospel?

Our culture’s attitude toward Bible-believing Christians seems to be increasingly intolerant. The ancient beliefs handed down for generations of God’s people are being met with disapproval from the society in which we live.

The Bible still asserts, the Holy Spirit still affirms, and we still avow that faith in Jesus is the only way to peace with God and eternal life, that apart from Christ we are condemned to eternal hell, that God’s design for marriage and family is one man and one woman fully and freely committed to one another for life, raising their kids together and enjoying their grandkids, that life is precious and should not be taken from babies still in their mothers’ wombs, and that God made us in his image: male and female.

I could give additional examples but this is more than enough to start a good fight nowadays. At times it seems as if the whole world is rejecting Christianity. Why be optimistic about the future of the gospel in such a negative environment?

Jesus’ disciples probably asked a similar question. They watched as Jesus faced stiff opposition from the leaders of their culture. They must have wondered about the future of his mission and message. Jesus addressed their concerns with a parable.

A man sowed seed, some on hard ground and birds snatched it up, some in rocky soil and it sprang up but dried out, some among thorns where it was choked, and some on good soil. Only the good soil bore fruit.

Jesus’ disciples asked him what this parable means. Jesus said that the seed represents God’s word and the soils are people’s hearts. Some people have hard hearts. When they hear God’s word Satan comes and snatches away the message that is ‘sown’ in their hearts.

Some people are shallow. They give up on God’s kingdom message when things get tough. Still others are distracted. They are pulled away by wealth or worries.

But some people have hearts that are ready to receive God’s kingdom message. Like the good soil that receives the seed and bears fruit, these people receive God’s word and bear spiritual fruit for God’s kingdom.

What is Jesus telling us? First of all, he is letting us know that many people, perhaps most people, will reject God’s message of salvation. For those who must always be in the mainstream of popular culture, this is a problem. Jesus’ followers are typically a minority.

Jesus never promises us majority status in this age. Quite the contrary, when talking about his Second Coming, Jesus even asks if he will find faith on the earth when he returns.

Jesus seems to paint a rather bleak picture! Why follow him and endure so much rejection? Why promote a message that Jesus himself predicts will be so unpopular?

Jesus’ parable gives the answer. Some hearts will receive the ‘seed’ of God’s kingdom message and bear fruit. God always has his remnant. Our efforts for the gospel will bear fruit despite the resistance.

In addition, bearing fruit points to the harvest. In the Bible harvest is a symbol for that great day of celebration at the end of this age. It is a day when we will see God face to face. Like farmers enjoying the crops for which they labored so hard, we will share in the joy of God’s kingdom victory.

Jesus is optimistic about the future of the gospel. We can and should be, too.

May God give us hearts that bear fruit for his kingdom,

Brother Richard

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Why Waste Time on Such A Broken-Down Beat-Up Organization as the Church?

Jesus’ mom and brothers try to speak with him but they can’t because he is surrounded by crowds of people. Someone tells Jesus that his family wants to see him, but he surprises everyone with his response.

Jesus asks, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” That would seem obvious. Jesus, however, is full of surprises.

Jesus motions with his hand toward his disciples and says, “Look! My mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in the heavens is my brother and my sister and my mother.”

At first glance Jesus seems to be rather dismissive of his immediate family. (Joseph is not mentioned, perhaps because he has passed away.) But even in his agony on the cross Jesus will make sure that his mother is properly cared for (see John 19:25-27).

Jesus is not rejecting his family particularly or the natural family generally. He is revealing something important about true discipleship. When we follow Jesus, we join a new group, a spiritual family, the family of God.

As followers of Jesus we automatically become part of his group: the church. The Bible knows nothing about ‘Lone Ranger’ Christians. All true believers are brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of the same heavenly Father.

Now, comparing church to family is a double-edged sword. Families should be places of encouragement, nurturing, support and love. But unfortunately they can be places of conflict, frustration, misery and animosity.

Sometimes family seems negative because it is a natural place of responsibility and accountability. Responsibility and accountability can be painful in the short term, but they are beneficial in the long term.

But other times the family experience is simply a bad one. Family members say and do harmful things, and because they are family, the wounds run deeper.

Jesus is right. The church really is like a family. At times she is encouraging but at other times she is discouraging. At times she is loving but at other times she is hateful.

One thing the church is not. She is not optional, not for true believers. When a son or a daughter refuses to visit mom or dad or brothers or sisters, then we know that something is wrong. Likewise, when a Christian refuses to attend church, then we know that something is wrong.

Jesus came not just to save individuals but to build his church. “On this rock,” he said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” Wow! No other organization has that promise, only the church.

So often the church looks ragged and ugly and weak. In fact, she sometimes looks so weak that one might think that even a gentle breeze would sweep her away once and for all. But after 2,000 years of tragedies and triumphs this raggedy institution survives and continues to serve the Lord, albeit imperfectly.

How can such a broken down, scuffed-up, out-of-step with the world organization last so long? Only by the power and promise of someone with great power. Only by the word of Jesus and work of his Spirit.

Someday she will stand before God in splendor, without blemish, spotless, despite all the bumps and bruises and wrinkles and stains she displays now. On that day she will be brilliant, adorned as a bride for her groom at the wedding supper of the Lamb. And she is the only organization with that promise!

May God’s Holy Spirit bind us together in love as brothers and sisters in Christ,

Brother Richard

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Life’s Three Most Important Questions

The Bible verses for LifeWay’s VBS this year are some of my favorites, Colossians 1:15-16. “He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, for by him all things were made, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities, all things were made in him and for him.”

Genesis tells us that “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” In the New Testament we learn that Jesus, the eternal Son, was not only present at creation, but he was God’s agent of creation. And more than that, Jesus is the reason God created the heavens and the earth, the reason God created you and me.

The Colossians text goes on to affirm that Jesus is Savior as well as Creator. He is the head of the body, the church. In him the fullness of God dwells and through his blood on the cross God has reconciled his people to himself (Colossians 1:18-23).

Jesus also gives us power to live in victory here and now. As God’s people, reconciled to him by Jesus, we have his peace ruling in our hearts and his word dwelling in us richly (Colossians 3:15-16).

Jesus is also our eternity. In Colossians 3:4 we read that Christ will appear again and his people will appear with him in glory. So Jesus is our past, our present, and our future.

Jesus answers the three most important questions for us. First, “Where have we come from?” We are created by God through Jesus in the image of God. And Jesus is the image of God, revealing the fullness of God to us.

Second, “Why are we here?” Our lives encounter pain and sorrow, prompting us to wonder if our existence has any real meaning. In Christ, the answer is “Yes!” Jesus suffered, too, in order to bring about God’s great salvation. In Christ, even our suffering has a purpose.

But more than purpose in our pain, Jesus brings a vision of victory. We are reconciled to God and empowered by God’s Spirit to serve him and to enjoy his blessings even in this broken world.

God’s blessings now are only a foretaste of the eternal blessings that he is preparing for us in heaven. The third question is this: “Where are we going?” All those who belong to Christ eagerly await the final trumpet and the shout of the archangel which will signal Jesus’ Second Coming. And when he comes, he will take his people to be with him forever.

Only in Christ do we find satisfying answers to these vital questions: Where have we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going? Only in Christ are we reconciled to God, saved from our sin. Only in Christ are we empowered to live the abundant life. And only in Christ do we have hope for eternity.

May Christ our Maker and Savior always enable us to serve him well and enjoy his blessings,

Brother Richard Foster

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Vital Information For Kids

Thanks to everyone who has agreed to help with Vacation Bible School in 2017! Pray that God will bless our efforts as we gather together and tell kids about Jesus.

The Bible text for Lifeway’s VBS this year is Colossians 1:15-16: “He is the image of the invisible God, firstborn over all creation, for by him all things were created: in heaven and on earth, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities, all things were created by him and for him.”

The “he” in these verses is Jesus Christ. The one used by God to write these words was the great missionary Paul the Apostle. Originally Paul was writing to a first-century church. Apparently false teachers were trying to diminish Jesus, teaching that he was less than divine.

In our day people sometimes assert that Jesus is a great man, a great teacher, a great healer, but that he is not the Son of God. They deny that he is the only way to be right with God. We need these great words from the Book of Colossians just as surely as that church long ago needed them. We need to know the truth about Jesus.

Notice that Jesus is not an image of God but the image of God, the one and only. Jesus told his disciples that when they had seen him, they had seen God the Father. Jesus is the Word become flesh who lived for a while among us.

Jesus is firstborn over all creation. Firstborn is a reference to a custom in the ancient world. The firstborn received a double portion of inheritance. He was honored above all others. God appointed Jesus heir of all things. He has the most honored position of all, exalted above all others, the One and only Savior.

Jesus is not a created being. He is the One through whom all things were created. Through him God made the ages. Without him nothing was made that has been made. Jesus is Lord of all creation by virtue of the fact that he is the Maker and Sustainer.

Through Jesus God made all that we see. He also made the things that cannot be seen, even with telescopes or microscopes. Planets and suns, water and animals, love and truth, angels and demons, he made everything. All creation is his.

And Jesus is Lord of all Christians in a double sense. He is our Lord because he is our Maker and he is our Lord because he is our Savior. He not only made us, he also purchased us with his blood. We are no longer our own, but we belong to him.

This great Bible text tells us that all things in heaven and on earth were made not only by Jesus but for Jesus. There is no authority or ruler which is not subject to the power of Jesus. Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

What great things we have to share with the kids this year!

May God’s Holy Spirit enable us to believe and to proclaim the truth about Jesus,

Brother Richard Foster

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