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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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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 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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Is It Time to Give Up?

Jesus denounced the cities where most of his miracles were done. He said that it would be worse for them on the Day of Judgment than for notoriously wicked cities like Sodom.

Why is Jesus being so judgmental? Why is he condemning large groups of people? Not because they persecuted Jesus. They didn’t (that would come later). Not because they opposed Jesus or rebuked him. In fact, they were indifferent.

Jesus is denouncing these cities because they did not repent. Repentance is a change from disobeying God to serving God. It is turning away from a life of sin and turning to a life of obeying God. They declined.

Jesus gave sight to the blind, made the lame walk, cleansed lepers, gave hearing to the deaf, raised the dead and preached the good news to the poor. The crowds were amazed at his miracles. But Jesus did not perform miracles in order to amaze or entertain or even to satisfy their curiosity.

Jesus’ miracles were meant to convince people that they should take his message seriously. They should turn from sin and turn to him for forgiveness. Cities full of people in Galilee saw his power and went home unfazed. So Jesus pronounces them doomed.

This is a sobering text (Matthew 11:20-24). It shows a side of Jesus that many wish to ignore or deny. True, Jesus is a friend of sinners. But he is their friend because he tells them the truth about heaven and hell. Instead of approving of their sin, he offers salvation from sin.

The cities in Galilee were given a great gift. They were eyewitness to the healing power of God. They heard the powerful preaching and teaching of Jesus with their own ears. But they failed to act.

The Bible tells us that when God gives more, he expects more. This was solemn news for the towns in Galilee. It is also solemn news for United States of America.

What other country in modern times has been more blessed by God? We have enjoyed religious freedom from shore to shore, Christian churches in every town, and Bibles on every shelf.

What will happen to a country that has been so privileged and yet turns its back on God?

Like Jesus in Galilee, Christians in the U.S.A. often meet with indifference when sharing the message of God’s kingdom. Meanwhile, the spiritual decline in our land is discouraging. It would be easy to give up our efforts to reach a culture that seems so determined to self-destruct.

But we must take our cue from Jesus. After denouncing the cities that ignored his message he did two things. First, he praised God. Jesus thanked the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth, for his work in the world and his work in his own life.

No matter how difficult things may get, we must never stop worshiping the Lord, our Maker and Savior. He is our source of strength and inspiration.

The second thing that Jesus did was to continue extending an invitation to those who might hear and respond. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened,” he said, “and I will give you rest.”

Like Jesus, we must be faithful in offering the good news about God’s amazing grace. God’s word promises us that if we do not give up, at the proper time we will reap a harvest!

Let us faithfully speak the truth in love,

Brother Richard Foster

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God’s One Mistake

Many American Christians have discovered God’s one mistake. It has to do with the Lord’s Day. God was apparently not thinking ahead when he instructed his people to gather for worship one day out of seven.

How could the Lord, who knows the beginning from the end, miss the long list of difficulties he created? Did he not realize that people have birthdays, anniversaries, vacations, holidays, out-of-town visitors, family time (to name just a few)? 52 Sundays out of every 365 days is a lot to ask.

After seeing how his people Israel struggled to keep the Sabbath in the Old Testament one might expect the Lord to learn his lesson and change his mind in the New Testament. But no. Jesus himself had the notable habit of attending Synagogue regularly (and with people who were trying to kill him!). And the Early Church met more than once a week. What were they thinking?

What does God have to say for himself? Well, the New Testament likens the church to a body. In the same way that a person’s body has hands, feet, eyes, ears, etc., the church is a collection of people with diverse spiritual gifts, each one needed by all the others. When someone is absent the body is incomplete and the other parts suffer. Imagine your hands and feet showing up on different days.

We also read that the church is like a temple. Each person is a living stone in the walls of this spiritual place where God meets with his people. When bricks are missing the building is incomplete and weakened, vulnerable to the hostile forces that come against it.

But wait. Must God justify his commands to us? Do we worship on the Lord’s Day because we have approved it as useful and acceptable to ourselves? Do we have the final word on what is right? “Okay, Lord, I’ll obey if you can convince me that I should . . . if not, then I am taking control!” If this is true, then we should dispense with calling him Lord.

Our cultural ancestors in Europe discovered God’s mistake about once-a-week worship before we did in the U.S.A. They have ‘evolved’ morally and spiritually more rapidly than we have (or is it de-volved?). We are apparently now in a competition to take the lead in this race for the cultural bottom, and doing rather well as of late.

But someone will rebuke me: How can a lack of worship on the Lord’s Day be blamed for the spiritual and moral demise of an entire culture? The point is taken. Perhaps a haphazard attitude about the Lord’s Day is a symptom and not the disease. But if so, should we not make an appointment with the Great Physician? Should we not labor to restore this sign of spiritual vitality: regular worship?

What message is sent to the world when God’s people openly defy him? Why should they consider honoring God when his own people fail to observe one of the most visible expressions of faith? Maybe there is a connection between the church’s observance of the Lord’s Day and the rise or decline of a culture.

At the bottom of it all we must answer this question: Did God make a mistake when he instructed his people to worship one day out of seven, or are we making a mistake when we ignore him?

May the Spirit of God always inspire us to do what is right in the eyes of the Lord,

Brother Richard Foster

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The Powerful Word of God

This year is the 500th anniversary of a decisive turning point in the history of the church. In 1517 the Roman Catholic Church had dominated in the West for generations. But during that long period of political power the organization descended into corruption.

The corrupt church had to keep its members in the dark in order to protect itself from accountability. Its teachings and practices had departed dramatically from God’s word. But a man named Martin Luther was brave enough to risk taking a stand for the truth.

Luther’s personal spiritual pilgrimage led him back to the Bible. He realized how far Roman Catholicism had strayed from God’s word. Luther challenged the leaders of the church to reform their practices and align their teaching with Scripture.

The hearts of the church leaders were darkened by the wealth and influence they gained from oppressing God’s people. They refused to amend their ways. Instead, they tried to destroy the messenger.

But the Roman Catholic establishment underestimated the power of God’s word. Martin Luther and others like him began to expose the lies of the Roman Catholic institution. The truth revealed in the pages of Scripture uncovered the deceit of sixteenth-century Catholicism.

Other brave and talented people translated the Bible into the languages of the people so they could know the truth. Roman Catholic leaders tried to keep the Bible out of the people’s hands, capturing and killing those who translated and published the Bible for common folks to read.

The results of all this were catastrophic for the Roman Catholic institution’s grip on power. Their refusal to make needed corrections forced genuine believers to break with Roman Catholicism and form new local churches built on the truth of God’s word. What started as reform became a revolt against entrenched falsehood and the birth of a new movement, Protestant churches.

The history of the Reformation is a reminder that God’s word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword. Church leaders may go astray but God’s written word will always restore God’s people to the narrow path which leads to life.

By trying to cover up and subvert the truth of God’s written word, the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church caused a painful and radical correction to the Christian movement. Had they allowed God’s word to make many small adjustments along the way they would have avoided the need for such revolutionary change.

The same dynamics are at work in today’s church. When we allow God’s word to make frequent course corrections to our churches and to our individual lives, we will avoid the need for radical changes that can be difficult and painful.

In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, let’s renew our commitment to the Bible. Let us be faithful to read, learn, memorize, apply and share God’s word. For “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God might be capable, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).

May God’s Word always be a lamp for our feet and a light for our path,
Brother Richard Foster

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Kids Ask Why And So Should We

Kids love to ask why. Why is the sky blue? Why does the snow melt? Why do I have to go to bed now? Why can’t we have pizza for breakfast?

We answer these questions to the best of our ability, knowing that their curiosity is good because it stimulates learning. But their questions can test our knowledge and our patience!

Sometimes the only answer we can give to kids’ questions is this: “Because I say so!” In these cases, the answer comes not from evidence but from authority, our authority. . . .

Even as adults, we still need the “Why?” question. It can drive us to discover answers and solutions that would otherwise remain hidden.

One question we should ask is this: Why do we believe that some things are right and others are wrong? In other words, what is the basis for our moral standards?

They tell me that I must stop for a red traffic signal. Why? We organize traffic laws in order to avoid accidents. I want to travel without death or injury and so I obey those laws and I hope others will too. In addition, running red lights can cost me expensive interaction with the legal system (a combination of reasoning and authority).

So some actions, like our driving habits, are defined to be right or wrong not because they are inherently good or evil, but because they are practical. They protect life and property. Other actions, however, are of a different sort. They appeal to a higher standard of good and evil.

What about giving to the poor? We all agree that helping the poor is the right thing to do. We also believe that it is right for the wealthy to contribute more in order to relieve the hardships of poverty.

But why? Why should I give away things that belong to me? It seems impractical. What if my family and I need it? What if I want it? Why should I give it to someone else, someone I don’t even know?

Why should I spend time cooperating with others (government) in order to make wealthy people give away more of what they have (taxes) in order to help the poor (welfare)? Why should I care what others do?

For generations we have answered these questions by appealing to the Bible. God’s word tells us that people are created in God’s image, so every human life is of inestimable value. Therefore, I help others, even though it costs me personally.

The Bible tells us that we are expected to be good stewards of our resources, which includes helping those who cannot help themselves. The Bible condemns selfishness. I must be willing to share.

In addition, the Bible tells us that God commands us to help the poor. So we help the poor, because people are precious and because God tells us to do so. I want to please God, so I obey his commands.

But a new voice in culture is trying to convince us that we can be good without God and his commands. We can still help the poor and hold the rich responsible without any appeal to spiritual truth or special revelation, so they say.

According to these secular voices, we can love our neighbor without a word from God. All we need is a scientific worldview. Nature will show us the way.

But will this pass the “Why?” question? Let’s see: No God means no Creator. No Creator means that we are a fortuitous cosmic accident, a happenstance. As such, we are not accountable to anyone but nature (whoever that is!).

Now the godless ‘natural’ version of reality is clear. In order to grow smarter and stronger we have evolved by ruthlessly taking hold of every possible advantage. The strongest, smartest and fastest get the natural resources they need to survive and thrive and everyone else . . . well, everyone else does not deserve to survive.

The weak and slow ones cannot be favored because they will use resources that should go to the stronger and smarter. The weak and slow should not reproduce because they will impede or even permanently derail the evolution of the race, according to the God-free version of reality.

The stronger and smarter ones survive and propagate the race. Each generation gets a little better because the weak are weeded out, so the ‘natural’ scientific view says.

At this point the secular crowd must interrupt and say that being kind to the poor will somehow make us stronger and better, so it is right to help the poor and weak even if you only appeal to natural forces. They must convince us that a more compassionate humanity is a stronger humanity.

But is that true? Why? How? How does it propagate the race and help humanity to grow stronger if we keep the weak ones alive?

Nature is heartless with the weak. In the animal kingdom the weak are food for others. Now we are told by secularists that people should go against nature and act as if nature is wrong. Why? The Bible has the answer, the only answer. Because the natural world is broken as a result of sin and God made people superior to animals; he made us in his image.

The love ethic that is advanced by the Bible generally and by Christianity especially is built upon the firm foundation of God’s revealed word. The love ethic is not a free-floating ethical notion.

We help the poor because we believe that human lives are valuable and worthy of dignity. We believe this about human lives because the Bible tells us that people are created in the image of God and that God loves his creation; he loves people so we should love people.

We believe that God is the creator and sustainer and that he holds successful people responsible for how they use the wealth which he has enabled them to gain. We expect the rich to give because God says they should do so.

Secular humanists wish to retain this kindness toward the poor and this responsibility for the rich but they want to remove the foundation of trust in God as Maker, Sustainer, Judge and Savior. We can help the poor and exhort the rich without believing in God, we are told. But will this house of love stand on a foundation of natural selection? If God is not Maker, Sustainer, Judge and Savior, then who is?

Darwinian evolution is no foundation for loving our neighbor. God’s word is. More than that, Jesus and his personal sacrifice at Calvary, a sacrifice made for the sins of a world that is hostile to him, this is more than a foundation for an ethic of love. Jesus is the ultimate inspiration for sacrificial love.

Sometimes we discover what is right from an authority, from someone who has the right to tell us, “Because I say so!” Sacrificial love is so out-of-step with the heartless forces of nature that we must either abandon such an ethic or build it on another foundation, a higher authority. That higher authority is the Living God, who sent Jesus to die for our sins so that we can be saved from this broken world.

If we ignore God then we abandon the ethic of love and compassion. Instead of trying to ignore our Maker, we should abandon atheism and embrace Christian love.

Richard Foster

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