384) Stand Your Ground

Ephesians 6:13a:  “…Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes,
you may be able to stand your ground…”  (see Eph. 6:10-18 below)

     Paul begins this section with these words:  “Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power;”  and then says, “Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground.”  The trouble is that many people’s lives become so very miserable because they do not ‘stand their ground.’  Rather, they lose ground, they slide backwards, and they lose the battle.  We have all seen it in ourselves and in others– we begin to make some wrong decisions, and then do some bad things, and pretty soon we are losing ground fast and life is a mess.

     People usually do not take sudden, dramatic leaps into sin and despair.  Most people do not lose all their ground all at once.  They don’t very often mess up everything by a single stupid decision or act.  Sometimes that happens, but usually not.  More often it is that we, like sheep, just ‘nibble our way lost,’ gradually meandering off the path.  Little by little, we lose ground.  Bit by bit, we wander away.  Little white lies become more and more frequent, and before long we fall into a pattern of dishonesty.  Innocent flirtations with nothing intended become less innocent and more intentional, and two people drift into adultery.  Minor defiance by a grade school child can become open rebellion in high school.  A few beers once in a while after work, for some, can become an addiction that takes control over every aspect of their life.  Consistent weekly worship attendance can be gradually eroded away, first by a few absences and then by infrequent attendance, and after a while there is no worship at all.  We nibble our way lost and we start to lose ground.  Our lives become a little mixed up and we don’t pay attention.  Soon, it begins to get worse, then it’s out of hand, and before long we find ourselves getting used to things we shouldn’t be getting used to at all.  And then we wonder how our life could have gotten so sad.  Little by little we lose our ground, and then stability becomes instability, harmony turns into discord, peace into conflict, diligence into sloth, and so on.  We lose our ground.  We nibble our way lost.  It happens all the time.

     Don’t let that happen!, says Paul.  Remember, life is a battle!  This is war!  “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood,” Paul tells us, “but against the powers of this dark world, against the spiritual forces of evil, and against the devil’s schemes.”  With all those enemies against us we must realize that living a godly life requires hard work, steady diligence, and much prayer and faith.  We cannot just walk around in this world as if no one or nothing can hurt us.  There are dark powers out there, says Paul, spiritual forces of evil, and the devil himself who wants to do you in.  Can we doubt that?  Can we forget all the evil of the 20th century?  Has the horror of 9-11 already worn off?  There is much evil in this world, and it is not only all around us, but also within us.  There are many powers of darkness, working against us on many fronts.

     Therefore, says Paul, “Put on the full armor of God so you can stand your ground.”  Put on the belt of truth, he says, or in other words, know what you believe.  Put on the breastplate of righteousness so you can know what God expects of you and you can obey him in every big and little decision.  Take up the shield of faith, which is to say, take hold of what you believe and apply it to your life so that you can live in faith and hope and not in fear and uncertainty.  Finally put on the helmet of salvation.  Eternal life with God has been promised, so we can fight with courage and trust, knowing that when the battle is over we will be with the Lord and safe.

     How can we get that armor?  Through prayer and God’s Word, Paul says.  He writes at the end of this section:  “Take the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God,” and, “pray in the spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.”  God has provided us with what we need for this battle.  We just need to take the time to hear God’s Word and keep in touch with God by our prayers.  That is how we put on the whole armor of God.  We must make no mistake about this, we do need this armor.  The battle rages around and within us and we will not just drift on into victory.  We need to stand firm or we will lose ground and will drift into all sorts of sin and despair and misery.  The powers of darkness are fighting against us and we have already seen too many casualties.

     Yet, there are so many who will attempt to fight this battle without armor and without weapons.  What’s worse, even though it is Satan who seeks to harm us, we give to him our eyes and our ears.  We spend hours filling our eyes and ears and minds with all the wickedness this world has to offer in its ever-present and ever more vulgar television, music, and movies, while giving very little of our attention to God.  It is no wonder that so many people are not strong for the battle.  It is no wonder that so many lives get so confused and sad.  People give their eyes and ears to the enemy, and when things go wrong, we wonder how God could have let it happen.

     God does provide the help we need.  Prayer and God’s Word do not guarantee a smooth life, but obedience to God will keep you from much misery.  Belief in God’s promises will give you inner strength, and those promises give you a hope that will not disappoint you.  And then, just as we can nibble our way lost, we can nibble our way back to peace and stability.  The effects of prayer and knowing God’s word are usually not characterized by dramatic and emotional leaps forward, but little by little our foundation is strengthened and we become more able to stand our ground.

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People do not drift toward holiness.  Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.  We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith.  We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

D. A. Carson, For the Love of God

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Ephesians 6:10-18a  —  Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.  Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.  In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.  Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.

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Most great and mighty God, you are the Lord of heaven and earth, the Creator and Preserver of all things.   Look down, we beg you, on us your unworthy creatures.  We humbly thank you for your daily care of us.  We beg your pardon for whatsoever you have seen amiss in us this day, in our thoughts, words, or actions.  Strengthen us in every good purpose and resolution.  Reform whatsoever you see amiss in the temper and disposition of our minds or in any of the habits of our lives; that we may love you more and serve you better, and do your will with greater care and diligence than we have yet done.  In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  Amen.  

–Warren Hastings (1732-1818) English colonial administrator

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383) A Few Old Stories

From The Clergy of America: Anecdotes, 1869, J. B. Lippincott Publishers, Philadelphia

     A young man who had graduated at one of the first colleges in America, and was celebrated for his knowledge of mathematics, settled in a village where a faithful minister of the Gospel was stationed.  It was not long before the clergyman met with him in one of his evening walks, and after some conversation, as they were about to part, addressed him as follows:  “I have heard you are celebrated for your mathematical skill.  I have a problem which I wish you to solve.”  “What is it?,” eagerly inquired the young man.  The clergyman answered with a solemn tone of voice, “What will it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

     The youth returned home and endeavored to shake off the impression fastened on him by the problem proposed to him, but in vain.  In the giddy round of pleasure, in his business, and in his studies, that question still forcibly returned to him, “What will it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  It finally resulted in his conversion, and he became an able advocate and preacher of that Gospel which he once rejected.  (p. 27-28)

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     A minister was once speaking to a brother clergyman of his gratitude for a merciful deliverance he had just experienced.  “As I was riding here today,” he said, “my horse stumbled, and came very near throwing me from a bridge, where the fall would have killed me; but I escaped unhurt.”

     “I can tell you something more than that,” said the other; “as I rode here today, my horse did not stumble at all.”

     We are too apt to forget the common, everyday mercies.  (p. 231)

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     Such was the perseverance of this holy man in his great work, that on the day of his death in his eightieth year, the “Apostle of the Indians” was found teaching the alphabet to an Indian child at his bedside.  “Why not rest from your labors now?” said a friend.  “Because,” said the venerable man, “I have prayed to God to render me useful in my sphere; and now that I can no longer preach, he leaves me strength enough to teach this poor child his alphabet.”  (p. 180)

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     The ministry of Rev. Cross was with the American Tract Society.  While visiting house to house with a church elder, they came to the hut of a coal-digger.  “We will not go into that house,” said the elder, “the man is so wicked it would be of no use.”  Rev. Cross maintained that such were the very men he was sent to.  They entered the hut, which indicated great poverty within and without, and found sitting on a broken bench in the corner, a large athletic man, nearly naked.  He had remained unwashed so long, that the coal-dust lay like scales all over his body.  The face of his wife was black and swollen with bruises which he had given her, and his own countenance was very fierce.

     “We have come,” said Rev. Cross, “to sell you some good religious books, and to have some conversation with you on the subject of religion.”

     “I have no money, sir,” he said, “and I don’t want any of your books.”

     “If you have no money,” said Rev. Cross, “you may have the books at no cost.  You have a soul, and you must die.  You are not prepared to die now, are you, friend?”  His eye, which had been fixed with a savage glare upon him until this question, lowered a little, and began to soften, and he replied that he was not ready to die.  Before Rev. Cross left, the coal-digger wept like a child, and told him that he was the first man who had ever come there to talk with him about his soul.  (p. 187)

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     A Mrs. D., whom Rev. Case baptized in Charleston, Maine, in 1811, when but a young lady, was one of a party who rode out on a sleigh, drawn by two horses, on the river from Hampden to Bangor.  The ice gave way, and she, with her companions, was plunged beneath the water.  She felt that she was within a few moments of an eternal world, without being prepared for so great a change.

     Happily, the lives of all were saved.  During the immersion, her soul, by the instantaneous and powerful work of the Holy Spirit, was converted to God.  In the rapid progress of thought and feeling in this short moment, a most vivid and impressive thought of death filled her mind; and this was instantly succeeded by an overwhelming consciousness of her sins, her guilt, and her just condemnation.  And then, in a moment, every energy of her soul seemed concentrated in one unyielding desire for God’s mercy.  At this instant, those who escaped from the water drew her out, and her soul was filled with love for Jesus, and she praised his name.  She said that she had hardly thought about her life being saved, but with unutterable astonishment and gratitude she beheld that glorious grace which gave her heavenly delight.  This was no delusion.  Her subsequent life of piety gave evidence of its reality.  (p. 411)

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Matthew 16:26  —  (Jesus said), “What will it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”

Hebrews 9:27  —  …It is appointed unto man once to die, and after that to face judgment.

Mark 1:15  —  “The time is come,” Jesus said.  “The Kingdom of God is near.  Repent and believe the good news.”

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A MORNING PRAYER:

Lord, I shall be very busy this day.
I may forget Thee, but do not forget me.

–Sir Jacob Astley (1579-1652) on October 23, 1652 before the battle of Edgehill in the English Civil War.

 

382) G. K. Chesterton on Gratitude

One of my favorite things about G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) is his gratitude for every day and every good gift of God. He writes about ordinary life in a way that reminds us to be grateful.  Here is some of what he said on the subject of gratitude:

When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.

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You say grace before meals.  All right.  But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing, and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.

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I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. 

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The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and, there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.

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We should always endeavor to wonder at the permanent thing, not at the mere exception.  We should be startled by the sun, and not by the eclipse.  We should wonder less at the earthquake, and wonder more at the earth.

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When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmas time.
Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?

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BOOTLACES

Once I looked down at my bootlaces.
Who gave me my bootlaces?
The bootmaker?  Bah!
Who gave the bootmaker himself?
What did I ever do that I should be given bootlaces?

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EVENING

Here dies another day
During which I have had eyes, ears, hands
And the great world round me;
And with tomorrow begins another.
Why am I allowed two?

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     Every little thing proved to Chesterton the loving care of God.  In this way, he was like a guest who arrives at a house and carefully notices everything that has been done for him:  “Oh, I love the little soaps you put out!  Why, there are flowers in my room!  A mint is on my pillow!  You didn’t have to go to all this trouble!”  Why is it that we are thankful for the towel left folded on the foot of our bed when we are staying at someone’s house, but we are not thankful for the dew left on the grass in the morning?  Both were done because someone was excited to have us here.  –source lost

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Colossians 3:17  —  Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

James 1:17  —  Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.

Psalm 103:2  —  Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.

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Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made.  We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.  And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages.  Amen.

–Book of Common Prayer

381) Keeping Watch (part two of two)

     (…continued)  “Be on guard, be alert,” says Jesus, “for you do not know when that time will come… what I say to you I say to everyone– Watch!”  Jesus is referring here to that time when he will come again.  In the Bible we read of Jesus’ first coming.  In Jesus, God was visiting his creation as a human being, offering forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to all.  He went about forgiving sins, healing the sick, and raising the dead; and then he himself died on a cross.  Jesus told us that this was all for us, so that we may be reconciled to God and live with him for all eternity.  Just as Jesus rose from the dead, we too may rise and live again.  Everything Jesus said and did and suffered was for us.

      But some people would refuse Jesus.  John chapter one says, “In Jesus was life and that life was the light of men…  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  Jesus came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him he gave the right to become children of God.”  What a God!  What a gift!  What a privilege!  Yet, some would refuse Jesus.  He would face rejection by the very people he came to save.  Some people, then and now, receive and welcome Jesus and the gifts he offers to us, and others turn away.

     Jesus says he is coming again and we will face him, and what a blessed day that will be– if we have not refused him.  If we have said ‘no’ to Jesus, then when we see Jesus it will not be such a blessed day.  It will be a sad day and a day of deepest regret; and not just one day, but it will be an eternity of inconsolable regret.

     Salvation is indeed a free gift.  There is no work we must do to earn it.  But we must not refuse it.  We must not forget God or neglect him.  Hebrews chapter 2 says:  “Every disobedience receives its just punishment, so how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?”  We must not ignore God and drift away.  We must be alert and watch, says Jesus.  The New Testament makes it very clear that we can fall away.  We can lose this great salvation.

     This is not to say that going to church and saying your prayers and reading your Bible saves you.  It does not.  Rather, Jesus saves you by his death on the cross for you.  But to not pay any attention to Jesus– not in church, not in prayer, and not anywhere else, is to tell Jesus that you have decided to “receive him not,” in the words of John chapter one.  If you refuse to pay any attention to all that Jesus offers and all that he commands, are you not refusing Jesus himself?

     I will not judge Cindy and her husband and people like them, because only God knows what is in their hearts.  But if you are like Cindy you should be looking into your own heart, and also looking at what God has said about himself in the Bible, and about his relationship with you.  Hebrews chapter 10 talks about persevering in the face of persecution and continuing to meet together and not giving up.  Verse 39 says, “Do not shrink back and be destroyed, but believe and be saved.”  If these are warnings to those who shrink back from persecution, what will become of those who shrink back just because they don’t care; and those who drift away not in a time of persecution, but in a time when there is every opportunity to worship and pray?  Could that be the “trampling underfoot the Son of God,” which is so sternly warned against in verse 29 of the same chapter?  How could someone like Cindy hear these words and not tremble?

     God does not move away from us.  His grace is freely given and always there for us to receive.  But Cindy and her husband and many others like them move themselves farther and farther away.  They probably never sat down and decided that they no longer believed in Jesus.  Just like Mick never made the decision to become a 3-pack a day smoker, they did not decide to drift away.  These are not decisions one makes, but rather they are habits we drift into because we do not watch ourselves, because we are not alert.  Watch, said Jesus, and be alert.  Smoking 3 packs of cigarettes a day is not a desirable habit to drift into, but it is nothing compared to allowing oneself to drift away from Jesus and all he has to offer.  Yes, God’s grace is wonderful, and it is indeed offered freely to all.  If you turn to God’s Word for comfort and assurance you will find it there.  God waits for you with open arms. 

     But God will not force his gifts upon one who refuses.  We never see Jesus doing that in the Gospels and he won’t do that now.  So if you drift away or turn away from God, God will, in the end, let you have your way and you will lose everything for all eternity.  God’s grace is abundant but we are weak, and turning away from God and refusing his grace is a danger.  If not, why would Jesus issue such frequent and urgent warnings?  So take heed to what he says, and be alert.  Keep watch and keep the faith.  For as Jesus said, you do not know when the end will come, and then it will be too late for you.

     So how do we keep from drifting away?  By paying careful attention to those very routine gifts that the Holy Spirit gives and uses to keep faith alive– worship, fellowship, prayer, and the reading of God‘s Word.  Again, as it says in Hebrews 2, verse one:  “We must therefore pay more careful attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”

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John 1:10-12  —  He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Hebrews 2:2-3  —  If every disobedience receives its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation?

Hebrews 10:39  —  But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who believe and are saved.

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Grant to us, O Lord, to know that which is worth knowing, to love that which is worth loving, to praise that which pleases you most, to esteem that which is most precious to you, and to dislike whatsoever is evil in your eyes.  Grant us true judgment to distinguish things that differ and above all to search out and do what is well pleasing to you, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

–Thomas a Kempis (15th century)

380) Keeping Watch (part one of two)

     For years Mick has smoked three packs of cigarettes a day.  Now, when he comes up the basement stairs he has to stop and catch his breath even though he is not yet fifty years old.  He wants to quit smoking and he is angry with himself that he cannot.  He’s mad at himself for even getting started, but when Mick began smoking he did not start by saying to himself, “I think I’ll become a 3-pack a day smoker and wreck my lungs by the time I’m 48.”  He never made that decision or even thought about that as a possibility.  He started the usual way by succumbing to peer pressure.  But he thought it would only be for a while.  He had seen the pictures of ruined lungs taken out of people in their 50’s who died of lung cancer caused by smoking.  Mick knew he’d quit long before that.  He knew he wasn’t going to make the mistake of getting hooked.  But before long Mick was smoking even when his friends weren’t around.  He hadn’t yet noticed the ‘addictive’ patterns he had fallen into; a cigarette on break time at work, a cigarette after supper, and a few cigarettes whenever he got nervous.

     It was when Mick got to college that he really noticed that he had a problem.  Classes were difficult, he was constantly under pressure, and he always felt the urge to get out his cigarettes when he sat down to study.  He noticed once that he smoked a whole pack in a single day and he vowed to quit.  But it wasn’t long and he decided he did not need that additional anxiety.  It bothered Mick to see how addicted he had become, but he felt he had enough pressure without trying to stop smoking.  He’d try to quit during the summer, and then, well, maybe after college, and then, once he’d get his first job, then once he’d get used to the job.  On and on he went, but instead of quitting, his habit grew worse.  Mick would joke with his friends, “It’s easy to quit smoking.  I’ve done it dozens of times.”  But he know it was no laughing matter anymore.  Now his kids showed him pictures of black lungs taken out of dead smokers as they begged him to quit, but it was so hard.  It amazed him that a habit could get such a powerful hold on him after getting into it so unintentionally.  He had intended to smoke just a few cigarettes to keep his friends off his back.  Now he could not quit even though it was killing him.

     Cindy used to be very active in her church.  In her parent’s attic are several pins she received for years of perfect attendance at Sunday School.  When the confirmation class was examined by the pastor in front of the congregation she was eager for the pastor to call on her because she knew every answer.  When she was in the tenth grade she was the youth group treasurer and when she was a senior she was the president.  If for some reason Cindy had to miss church or Sunday School, she would feel like the day was not complete.  Cindy read her Bible and said her prayers every day, she felt a closeness to Jesus as her friend, and she felt close to the people in her congregation.

     When Cindy went to college in another state she had not planned to end any of that.  She never said, “I am 18 now and my parents aren’t here to make me go, so I am finally done with the church.”  She did not say that nor would such a thought ever have occurred to her, and so it was natural for her to go to church that first Sunday morning that she was away from home.  She looked forward to going to a new church and meeting new people.  But going to church that first Sunday proved to be a disappointment for Cindy.  It wasn’t like back home where she knew everyone and enjoyed the fellowship.  It felt odd to be at church and feel so all alone.  She had hoped to meet some people after church but she did not talk to anyone.  No one came to talk to her and she did not see anyone she felt she could approach.  Everyone was already in groups, talking and laughing.  She looked in the church bulletin for something she might get involved in to meet people.  However, there was only one thing on the church calendar that was of any interest to her, and she had a class that night.  Cindy went home disappointed but determined to keep trying.  Surely it will be better when she started meeting more people at school and they could go to church together.  But Cindy did not meet anyone who wanted to go to church.  So the next Sunday she went alone again, and was again disappointed. 

     Cindy’s was enjoying the social life at college even though it lacked any Christian fellowship.  She had heard about some Christian student groups on campus, and one of her friends had gone to a meeting of one of them.  But her friend said it was weird, and so Cindy did not look into any of them.  After several weeks of faithfully going to church, Cindy slept in one Sunday morning and missed worship.  Not long after that she missed again.  Soon, she was not going at all.  She kept having her daily devotions which had been such a source of strength for her in the early weeks of college.  But those devotional times were also now becoming briefer and less regular.  Cindy hadn’t decided to quit believing in Jesus.  She just hadn’t yet found the right place to worship, and she was becoming less and less determined to even look for such a place.  She finally decided she would get back into the habit of going to church someday when she was finished with college and settled into her own home.

     Cindy should have made a commitment to a church in the town where she attended college, and even though it was lonely at first, she would have begun to meet people and rebuild the fellowship she once knew.  Or she should have looked into one of the Christian groups on campus, and not just ignore them because of one person’s comment about one group.  She should have made more of an effort to rebuild what she lost in the move to college, but she did not.  And even if she did not find the same fellowship, she should have kept going to church just to worship.  But even though she had no intention of turning her back on her faith, that is what slowly began to happen.  By her second year of college, Cindy was making no effort at all to find any church or any Christian fellowship.  She had fallen out of the habit of daily devotions and now prayed only occasionally; perhaps before a big exam or when she was having trouble with her boyfriend.  And she no longer felt the spiritual emptiness that she had felt at first.  There were now so many other things going on in her life.

     One time on the long ride home for Christmas a song on the radio reminded Cindy of the Sunday School Christmas programs when she was a child.  She remembered how her faith had once meant so much to her and her heart began to ache as she longed to again have that closeness with God.  She made up her mind to get back in touch with God.  But then in the busyness of Christmas and the beginning of a new quarter at school those fleeting emotions passed and her resolve was forgotten.

     After college, Cindy got a job teaching school.  She met and married a local businessman.  He too had once been active in the church but had drifted away.  Neither Cindy or her husband gave much thought at all anymore to spiritual things.  They were not opposed to religion, of course, but they had been out of touch for so long that the question of what Jesus might have to do with their lives or what the Bible might have to say about anything, never entered their minds.  Whether or not they even believed in Jesus as their Savior wasn’t something they thought about or cared about anymore.

     Samuel Johnson once said, “The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”  Jesus Christ said, “Keep watch!”  (continued…)

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Matthew 24:42  —  Jesus said, “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

Hebrews 2:1  —  We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.

Hebrews 10:25  —  Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another–  and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

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Make us remember, O God, that every day is your gift, to be used according to your command.  Amen.

–Samuel Johnson

 

379) On Forgiveness (part two of two)

by C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1975 edition, pages 121-125.

      (…continued)  The second remedy is really and truly to believe in the forgiveness of sins.  A great deal of our anxiety to make excuses comes from not really believing in it, from thinking that God will not take us to Himself again unless He is satisfied that some sort of case can be made out in our favor.  But that is not forgiveness at all.  Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it in all its horror, dirt, meanness, and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.  That, and only that, is forgiveness, and that we can always have from God if we ask for it.

     When it comes to a question of our forgiving other people, it is partly the same and partly different.  It is the same because, here also, forgiving does not mean excusing.  Many people seem to think it does.  They think that if you ask them to forgive someone who has cheated or bullied them you are trying to make out that there was really no cheating or bullying.  But if that were so, there would be nothing to forgive.  They keep on replying, “But I tell you the man broke a most solemn promise.”  Exactly:  that is precisely what you have to forgive.  (This doesn’t mean that you must necessarily believe his next promise.  It does mean that you must make every effort to kill every taste of resentment in your own heart– every wish to humiliate or hurt him or to pay him out.)

      The difference between this situation and the one in which you are asking God’s forgiveness is this: in our own case we accept excuses too easily; in other people’s we do not accept them easily enough.  As regards my own sins it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are not really so good as I think; as regards other men’s sins against me it is a safe bet (though not a certainty) that the excuses are better than I think.  One must therefore begin by attending to everything which may show that the other man was not so much to blame as we thought.  But even if he is absolutely fully to blame we still have to forgive him; and even if ninety-nine per cent of his apparent guilt can be explained away by really good excuses, the problem of forgiveness begins with the one per cent of guilt that is left over.  To excuse what can really produce good excuses is not Christian charity; it is only fairness.  To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.

     This is hard.  It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury.  But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life– to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in-law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son– how can we do it?  Only, I think, by remembering where we stand, by meaning our words when we say in our prayers each night “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us.”  We are offered forgiveness on no other terms.  To refuse it is to refuse God’s mercy for ourselves.  There is no hint of exceptions and God means what He says.

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Acts 13:38  —  Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.

Mark 11:25  —  (Jesus said), “When you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.”

Acts 10:42-43  —  He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead.  All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name. 

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As we are forgiven by you, may we forgive all who wrong and offend us.  Help us remember that no one can harm us without doing himself a far greater injury in your sight, so that we may be moved to compassion for them instead of anger, moved to pity rather than a desire for revenge.  May we not be tempted to rejoice when they are troubled, nor be grieved when they prosper.  We will not benefit from the downfall of our enemies, so we pray that you have mercy on them, and then also give us the grace to forgive them from our heart.  Amen.

  –Martin Luther

378) On Forgiveness (part one of two)

By C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1975 edition, pages 121-125

     We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying.  For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”  I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed.  At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in.  “If one is a Christian,” I thought, “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins.  It goes without saying.”  But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church.  And I have begun to see that they were right.  To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought.  Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

     We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us.  There is no doubt about the second part of this statement.  It is in the Lord’s Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord.  If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven…  He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort.  We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated.  If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own.  

     Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins.  Take it first about God’s forgiveness.  I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different.  I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me.  But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.  Forgiveness says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.”  But excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.”  If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.  In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.

     Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two.  Part of what at first seemed to be the sins turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven.  If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it.  But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.  What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.”  We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.  And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves without own excuses.  They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.

     There are two remedies for this danger.  One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do.  If there are real “extenuating circumstances” there is no fear that He will overlook them.  Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought.  All the real excusing He will do.  What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin.  We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused.  When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong– say, a broken arm.  It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right.  You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.  (continued…)

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Matthew 6:12  —  (Jesus said), “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Matthew 6:14-15 — (Jesus said), “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:  But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Colossians 3:12-14  —  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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We pray, Lord, that you would not regard our sins nor because of them deny our prayers, for we neither merit nor are worthy of those things for which we pray.  By your mercy, we pray that you grant us all things through grace, even though we sin daily and deserve nothing but punishment.  And certainly we, on our part, will heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who may sin against us. Amen.
–Prayer based on Martin Luther’s explanation to the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism

377) Are You ‘Good at Religion’? (part two of two)

     (…continued)  There are those who are like John, ready and willing to believe, and have believed all their life.  And there are those more like Thomas, hesitant, doubting, needing more information, and always questioning.  It seems that God welcomes both kinds of people, both those who would score high and those who would score low on a Spiritual Quotient test.

     C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) had many doubts about Christianity, and for many years was an atheist.  Then he started looking into it, examining the evidence, and thinking it through, like Thomas.  He found what he was looking for, and at age 32 Lewis became a Christian.  With his powerful intellect now satisfied, he began to write articles and books describing his reasons for believing.  His writings have explained the Christian faith to millions of doubters and searchers.  He became the most popular defender of the Christian faith in the 20th century and now, over 50 years after his death, his books are still best sellers.

     English philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010) spent most of his life and his considerable intellectual ability opposing belief in God, finding it unreasonable and indefensible.  In fact, many years ago, Antony Flew debated C. S. Lewis on the existence of God.  Antony Flew would probably have rated very high on the IQ test, but very low on the SQ test.  He, like Thomas, would not have been convinced even his ten best friends were telling him they saw a man back from the dead.  Antony Flew, like Thomas, would have to see for himself.

Antony flew.jpg

Antony Flew

    A few years before he died, Antony Flew startled everyone by announcing that he had changed his mind.  One of the best known atheists of the 20th century became a firm believer in the existence of God.  Unfortunately, I don’t think Flew ever became a Christian, but he listened to the arguments of the Intelligent Design scientists, and came to agree with them.  He said that this universe gives all the evidence of being created by a greater being, an ‘outside the realm of nature’ force or intelligence more commonly known as God.  Antony Flew decided he could no longer believe that everything came into being by itself and develop into the complexity we now see all around us.  Antony Flew would probably like Thomas.  He would feel a real kinship with another one for whom belief in God did not come easy.

     Dr. James Burtness was a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul for many years.  Regarding his own aptitude for spiritual feelings he once said:

I don’t believe I have a spiritual bone in my body.  I don’t ever feel like praying and I don’t ever feel like going to church.  I do pray every day, and I do go to worship every week, but I do that because I have come to believe in the truth of Jesus Christ and I believe that he has commanded me to pray and to worship, and so I will obey.  That is reason enough to pray and to worship.  I don’t know why anyone should think they have to ‘feel like’ going.  What do feelings have to do with it?  This is the truth.  Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  That is reason enough to take the time to pay attention to him whether or not you ‘feel like it.’

 Now you might infer from that that James Burtness would have scored very low on the spiritual quotient test.  You might say he doesn’t have much of a knack for religion, but I learned as much about being a Christian from James Burtness as I learned from anyone.

     There are many different paths to faith and many different ways to become a Christian.  Thomas demanded proof, and Jesus gave it to him, but then Jesus added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Some believe in Jesus from the time they learn to sing “Jesus Love Me” in Sunday School, and are never troubled by doubt.  Others, like C. S. Lewis come to faith only after a long intellectual struggle.  Some, like St. Francis may readily admit to not knowing much theology, but have a heartfelt faith that after 800 years continues to inspire.  Others, like James Burtness, may not have much at all in the line of spiritual feelings, but for them faith is a matter of intellectual assent and consistent obedience.

     Jesus comes to each of us, like he came to Thomas, offering us what we need, and inviting us to himself, so that we, like Thomas, might say to him, “My Lord, and my God.”

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John 3:16-17  —  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 20:28  —  Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:29  —  Then Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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Almighty God, heavenly Father, who desires not the death of a sinner, look down with mercy upon me, depraved with vain imaginations, and entangled in long habits of sin.  Grant me that grace without which I can neither will nor do what is acceptable to thee.  Pardon my sins and remove the impediments that hinder my obedience.  Enable me to shake off sloth, and to redeem the time misspent in idleness and sin by a diligent application of the days yet remaining to the duties which thy providence shall alot me.  O God, grant me thy Holy Spirit that I may repent and amend my life, grant me contrition, grant me resolution for the sake of Jesus Christ.  For his sake have mercy on me, O God, pardon and receive me.  Amen.  –Samuel Johnson, 1757

376) Are You ‘Good at Religion’? (part one of two)

     There IQ tests to measure your intelligence quotient, which is how you compare to others in the ability to think and comprehend and figure things out.  There is also something called an EQ test to measure your emotional quotient, which is how you compare to others in a wide range of emotional responses such as compassion, contentment, love, envy, and anger.  A while back I read about a psychiatrist who is working on a test to measure your spiritual quotient (SQ).  His idea is that some people are ‘better’ at religion and spiritual matters than other people.  Just as some people seem to have a knack for music, this psychiatrist believes some people have a knack for religion.  On his test he asks questions like, “How often do you pray?  Do you feel like praying or do you have to discipline yourself to do so?  How often do you find yourself thinking about God?  Do you think about God when you are in trouble or when you have to make an important decision?”

     I think there are all kinds of problems with that approach, but the idea does raise some interesting questions.  How would you score on such a test?

     I sometimes meet people who say things like, “I’m not very religious, and I’m not active in any church, but I do consider myself very spiritual.”  What they probably mean is that though their life is devoid of religious disciplines and practices, and though they are not committed to any particular church institution, they do have an interest in spiritual matters, a fascination with things of the Spirit, and an openness to God and faith.

     On the other hand, there are those who for some reason have a connection to a church, but don’t, as the psychiatrist would say, have much of ‘a knack for religion.’  For example, I knew of a woman who had a daughter whose participation in the church youth group had been a positive influence in her life.  Out of gratitude this mother did volunteer work with the church food shelf.  She spent many hours serving in that way, but she never once went to Sunday morning worship.  When the pastor asked her about this, she replied, “Oh, I’m just not very good at that sort of thing.  I can’t see the point of it.  Other people seem to enjoy the music, and the sermons, and all the rest, but I confess that I just don’t get it.  I’m not good at religion.”  What?  Not good at religion?  This is the kind of woman that psychiatrist would want for his test.  She would probably have a very low SQ, just as he would expect.

     But this is not how I am used to approaching the question.  I never think of religion as something I have to ‘get’ or ‘be good at.’  Religion, or as Christians would rather say, faith, is a gift of God who loves us freely.  But perhaps it is easier for some people to receive faith than others.

     Take Thomas, for example, ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he has come to be known– the disciple whose story is told in John 20:24-29.  Faith wasn’t easy for him.  The other disciples had seen the risen Lord Jesus, back from the dead, but Thomas had missed it.  And even with his ten best friends telling him that Jesus was alive, he would not believe it unless he saw him for myself, he said, and ‘see the nail marks on his hands and feet and put my hand on his wounds.’  Earlier in that same chapter, John had believed without seeing.  He had heard from the women that the tomb was empty, so he went to see for himself.  Jesus was not there, and even though John had not yet seen Jesus, he did see that the tomb was empty, and that was enough for him.  Verse eight says he saw and believed.  It must have been easy for him, because at that point, there were still other possible explanations– somebody may have just moved the body.  Peter also saw the empty tomb, and he seemed to take a more cautious approach.  It does not say that he believed yet, like John, but neither did he say like Thomas, ‘I will not believe.’  Peter, says the text, ‘wondered about it.’  But John saw only an empty tomb and believed.  Easy for him, but not easy for Thomas.  Thomas would have scored low on that psychiatrist’s spiritual quotient test.

     Yet, Thomas did come to faith.  Jesus soon appeared to him also, and gave him the proof he needed.  In verse 27 Jesus said to him, ‘See my hands?  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Stop doubting and believe.’  Thomas did believe, and according to early accounts, Thomas went farther out to the ends of the earth than any of the disciples, going all the way to the Southern tip of India with the message that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.  The old doubter, once convinced, must have become very persuasive himself, because the Christian community he is credited with establishing in South India is still going strong today. (…continued…)

Doubting Thomas, Caravaggio (1571-1610)

The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulcher on the Morning of the Resurrection

Eugene Burnand (1850-1921)

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John 20:24-29  —  Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them.  Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe.”  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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Lord Jesus, you have said, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  In accordance with this promise, we therefore ask that you give us not silver or gold, but a strong and firm faith.  As we seek, let us find not the lusts and pleasures of this world, but comfort and peace in your healing Word.  As we knock, may the door be opened unto us.  Grant us your Holy Spirit to enlighten our hearts, and, to comfort and strengthen us in our cares and trials.  Keep us in the one true faith so that we may trust in your grace until the end.  Amen.  –Martin Luther

375) Watergate and the Resurrection

By Charles Colson (assembled and edited from several sources).  Colson served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973.  In 1974 he was convicted for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up.  He was the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges, and served seven months in a federal prison.  Colson became a Christian in 1973, and after his release from prison founded the non-profit ministry Prison Fellowship.  For the next 38 years he was a respected evangelical Christian author and leader. 

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      I have been challenged many times on my belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  My answer is always that the disciples and five hundred others gave eyewitness accounts of seeing Jesus, risen from the tomb.  But then I’m asked, “How do you know they were telling the truth?  Maybe they were perpetrating a hoax.”

     My answer to that comes from an unlikely source:  the Watergate scandal in which I was very much involved.

     Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up the truth.  It was perpetuated by the closest aids to the President of the United States, the most powerful men in America, men who were intensely loyal to their president.  Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Mitchell, myself and the rest believed passionately in the President.  We had at our fingertips every imaginable power and privilege.  I could phone an aide’s office and have a jet waiting at Andrews Air Force Base.  I could order Cabinet members or generals around.  I could influence the United States budget.  Yet even at the prospect of jeopardizing the President, and even with all the privileges of the most powerful office in the world, the instinct for self-preservation was so overwhelming that one by one, those involved deserted their leader to save their own skin.

     The first of us, John Dean, testified against Nixon only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on– two weeks!  The real cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks.  Soon after, everybody else began to jump ship in order to save themselves.  The fact is that the only thing those around the President were facing was embarrassment, or perhaps a little time in prison.  Nobody’s life was at stake.  But in a situation like that, as I saw up close, the desire to save oneself has a way of overriding loyalty or any idealism.

     What does this have to do with the resurrection?  Simply this: if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead on that first Easter Sunday, then the proclamation of that central Christian truth had to involve a massive cover-up.  The disciples would have had to cover up the fact that Jesus was really still dead, and in the face of the  fiercest opposition, lie to everyone, all the time, from then on; and say that Jesus was still alive and that the whole world should believe in him as Lord and Savior and God.

     Think about the situation that Christ’s disciples were in after He left them.  Here was a group of peasants, powerless, up against the most powerful empire in the world.  Possible prison time was the very least of their worries.  They knew that torture and execution could be in their future if they refused to stop preaching the name of Jesus Christ.  But they couldn’t stop, and every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead.  To a man, they kept talking about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to anyone who would listen.  None of them would deny or retract their story.  Eventually, just as the authorities had threatened, most of them were executed for it.  But still, all of them maintained to the very end that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they had seen Him, touched Him, and talked with Him.

     Don’t you think that if those disciples were attempting to cover up the truth that Jesus was really still dead, that at least one of them would have cracked before being beheaded or stoned– that one of them would have made a deal with the authorities?  Only an encounter with the living God could have kept those men steadfast. Otherwise, the apostle Peter would have been just like John Dean, running to the prosecutors to save his own skin.  He had already denied Jesus three times (before the crucifixion).  But Peter did not ever deny Jesus again, and neither did any of the other disciples.  And no one can ever make me believe that eleven ordinary human beings would for forty years endure persecution, beatings, prison, and death, without ever once renouncing that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead.

     You see, men will give their lives for something they believe to be true, but they will never give their lives for something they know to be false.

     The Watergate cover-up reveals the true nature of humanity.  Even political zealots at the pinnacle of power will, in the crunch, save their own necks, even at the expense of the ones they profess to serve so loyally.  But the apostles could not deny Jesus because they had seen Him face to face, and they knew He had risen from the dead.  This gives us one of the strongest proofs we have for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     You can take it from an expert in cover-ups– I lived through Watergate– that nothing less than a resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and is Lord.  Two thousand years later, nothing less than the power of the risen Christ could inspire Christians around the world to remain faithful– despite prison, torture, and death.

     Jesus is Lord:  That’s the thrilling message of Easter.  And it’s an historic fact, one convincingly established by the evidence, and one you can bet your life upon.  

     Christ has risen!  He has risen indeed!

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“I prefer to believe those writers who get their throats cut for what they write.”

–Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French inventor, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and adult convert to Christianity

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1 Corinthians 15:3-8  —  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Acts 5:27-33  —  The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest.  “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said.  “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

     Peter and the other apostles replied:  “We must obey God rather than human beings!  The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.  God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.  We are witnesses of these things,and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

2 Peter 1:16  —  For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 

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Christ is Risen: The world below lies desolate
Christ is Risen: The spirits of evil are fallen
Christ is Risen: The angels of God are rejoicing
Christ is Risen: The tombs of the dead are empty
Christ is Risen indeed from the dead, the first of the sleepers,
Glory and power are his forever and ever.  Amen.

St. Hippolytus of Rome (AD 190-236)