Some things matter a lot more than taxes

I had to pay taxes the other day. Like most people, it is not something I enjoy doing. I put off the pain as long as I can.

On the same day I paid taxes I visited a couple from our church who are in their 90s. It’s looking like his time on this earth may be soon coming to an end. He and his wife have been married almost 70 years. Spending time with them gave good perspective on tax day.

After paying taxes I have different numbers in my bank account than I did before, but how much of a difference does that really make? The man I had the privilege of being with is very likely going to be with Jesus soon. At that moment the numbers in his bank account aren’t going to matter to him. They don’t matter to him much right now. As we met together what mattered were the promises of God. A thousand more dollars weren’t going to help him much, but the good news of Jesus helped. What was valuable to him was being reminded again that Jesus loves him and gave His life on the cross for him. What made a difference was knowing his sins are forgiven because of Jesus, death has been defeated by the risen Lord and a home with God for all eternity is promised.

If a little change in the bank account’s numbers doesn’t matter much at the end of life, why do we act like it matters so much now? Too often we’re pursuing the trivial and neglecting the treasure. In a lot of ways the trivial is money and things. The treasure is people and relationships and knowing the love of God and loving others.

Jesus told a parable about a rich man who kept building bigger barns to store all his goods, but neglected his soul. The night came suddenly when his life came to an end. What good did it do him to have all those barns? “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

After paying taxes I’m a little less rich in the trivial things of bank account size, but after my visit the other day and seeing evidence of someone’s faith in the Lord, even in the face of death, I’m richer toward God. That is true treasure.

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Focus on the good news

When Pastor Eduardo was a young man in Cuba everyone had to have a government-issued identification card. A person was required to state on the card whether they were religious or not, and if they were religious what religion they practiced. Eduardo put on the card that he was a Christian. That wasn’t a helpful thing to have on your card in communist-led Cuba.

When a person applied for a job they had to show their government ID. Eduardo applied for jobs and showed his ID that stated he was a Christian. He got turned down for job after job. They didn’t come out and say it was because he was a Christian, but he knew. Finally a farmer gave him a job working in his fields. What Eduardo earned at that job helped him support himself, put himself through school, and eventually he became a pastor. Whenever Eduardo is in the area where that farmer lives he makes a point of visiting him and thanking him for having the courage to hire a Christian.

Christians in Cuba still face some restrictions and government regulations, but when I visited there in 2017 there was freedom to openly talk about your faith in the public square. Worship services were held and no one seemed to be fearful of government disruption. Eduardo spoke about how some complain about government regulations. To him it seems they have forgotten or don’t know how it used to be. The restrictions of the present are a small challenge compared to the hardships of the past.

In Acts 5 we read about some early Christians who were arrested for telling people about Jesus. An angel came during the night and opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. They were told not to run and hide, but instead: “Go, stand in the temple courts … and tell the people the full message of this new life.” They got brought before the authorities again, threatened, flogged and ordered not to speak about Jesus anymore. They had a surprising response to the persecution: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:20, 41-42).

It doesn’t appear they spent much time complaining about their rights being violated. They didn’t whine about the dirty rotten Romans or the unjust Jewish leaders. They looked at it as an honor to suffer for Jesus. They kept their focus on proclaiming the good news of what Christ had done.

Compared to much of the rest of the world and Christians of past generations, it is kind of easy to be a Christian in the U.S. today. That can cause some problems in that it leads some to cry out that they’re being persecuted if one person makes a negative comment or gives a disapproving look. Sometimes when I hear Christians complain I feel like somebody ought to apologize to our brothers and sisters in North Korea and Afghanistan and Somalia.

Persecuted Christians around the world and from the past have much to teach us. Instead of moaning and groaning when we suffer a little bit of injustice, let’s focus on the good things God has done and is doing. He loves us and saves us. He is on the throne and will remain so forever. May the gracious, loving way God treats us matter far more to us than any mistreatment we receive from the world. May our thoughts and our words be overflowing with the good news of Jesus.

There’s more because Jesus lives

I’ve never done a funeral or a memorial service where the ones who are mourning their deceased loved one have said, “That’s all over. We’ll never see them again.” Some have maybe thought that, but what they say, at least what I’ve heard, are expressions of hope that their loved one’s soul is alive, in a better place and one day there will be reunions.

We don’t want to believe life ends at the grave. We cling to the hope that relationships don’t end when the heart stops beating.

There was an old beer commercial where some guys were sitting on a boat, drinking beer and, supposedly having a good time. One of them said, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” What a sad thing if that was true. How tragic it would be if some brief and quickly-over good times were the best we ever experienced.

Even if we have gotten to enjoy some great experiences in this life, we still hope there is something more. We hope the grave is not the end.

The resurrection of Jesus gives hope that we need and hope that is real. We don’t hope in what we do, but in what Jesus has done. We know there is more to this life because Jesus conquered the grave. He took on death when He gave His life on the cross for our sins. On Resurrection morning He won the victory when He was raised to life again. “But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead” (I Corinthians 15:20).

We are like people standing at the door of a dark cave. We know we have to enter but we are scared because we don’t know what it is like. But then Jesus comes and says He has gone in the cave and made it out the other side. He offers to take our hand and never let go and lead us all the way. We don’t fear the dark unknown when we are holding on by faith to the all-knowing Lord.

“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact” (Acts 2:32). It really happened. Jesus was definitely dead, but on Easter He was raised to life. He was the most alive person on the planet, and He remains alive today.

John Lennon wrote, “Imagine there’s no heaven.” Even though the song is popular, I don’t think many people really want to imagine that. It is far better to follow the encouragement of another songwriter: “I can only imagine what it will be like, when I walk by Your side. I can only imagine what my eyes will see, when Your face is before me.”

When I got the call that Ruth Tollefson had died, I was listening to that song, “I Can Only Imagine.” I was thankful that because of Ruth’s faith in Jesus, I knew it wasn’t over. Because Jesus lives, I got to imagine the joyful, peaceful life Ruth was getting to experience right then. Our hope is beyond our imagination, but it’s not a figment of our imagination, because Jesus has risen from the dead.

Thankful Jesus got thirsty

I prefer to be a caregiver, rather than needing someone to take care of me. That might sound kind of noble, but really part of the reason is pride. It’s humbling to be needy and have to ask for help.

Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Kings. He doesn’t need a thing. But as He hung on the cross, He willingly became someone in need. He was thirsty. Extreme, painful thirst was one of the things that happened to those who were being crucified. There was Jesus on the cross, true God and also true man, humbly admitting His need and asking for someone to give Him something to drink. “Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’” (John 19:28).

It was humbling what He received when He made His request, and it sounds a little disgusting. A sponge soaked in a jar of wine vinegar and stuck on a stick. Who knows what all was in that jar? Who knows where that sponge and stick had been and what it had been used for? The Creator of water, the pure Son of God gets what was probably a stinky sponge on a dirty stick stuck in His face.

In a way that nasty sponge represents what little the world can offer to try to quench the thirst of people’s souls.

Earlier in the Gospel of John we read of another time Jesus was thirsty. He was sitting beside a well and asked a woman, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4:7). She was considered part of the wrong ethnic group and was surprised to get the request. Jesus’ thirst was physical. Her thirst was much deeper. She was thirsty for hope and forgiveness and love. Jesus told her He had living water. “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst” (John 4:13-14).

Jesus humbled Himself and became thirsty, so that the thirst of your soul could be quenched. All the world offers is a fancier looking version of that sponge. It only satisfies our thirst for a little while. Because Jesus became thirsty and suffered and died on the cross for our sins, our thirst for forgiveness can be quenched. Our thirst for love can be satisfied in the love Jesus demonstrated by what He endured on the cross for us.

Let’s have pancakes

At Billy Graham’s funeral one of his daughters shared about a time when her father showed her what God’s love is like. She had gotten into a marriage her parents had warned her against. It turned out to be a disaster. She was ashamed and embarrassed as she drove to her parents’ home. As she got to the house her dad was standing out front. He came to her as she got out of the car and gave her a hug and said, “Welcome home.” There wasn’t condemnation or a judgmental “We told you so.” There was grace, love and forgiveness.

Her story reminded me of a time I received a welcome home. When I was an elementary-school-age kid, a friend and I were playing in the woods and lost track of time. As soon as we got in the door at his house his mom started yelling at us that we were late and she told me I better get home right away. I ran home, scared and feeling guilty. As soon as I got in the door I told my mom how sorry I was. I can still picture the smile on her face as she cut my apology short. She told me it was no problem. I was only a couple minutes late. Those things happen. “Let’s have pancakes.” I was thankful to live in a home where, instead of being yelled at, I was greeted with an invitation to have pancakes.

Jesus told the story of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance, made a mess of his life, and then finally came to his senses and headed home. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). It’s the only time in the Bible God is described as running. He doesn’t run from things. He doesn’t run because He is late and in a hurry. He runs to greet His children and lovingly welcome them home.

Thankful for one who kept it simple

Some critics looked down upon Billy Graham’s preaching as too simplistic. In a way they were right. He did keep it simple. He kept preaching about Jesus and the cross. He knew everybody needed to believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. He kept the focus on Christ, crucified and risen again.

Often when Billy came to the closing service of a crusade, he would tell people, “If there’s only one thing you remember from these meetings, remember this: God loves you.” Pretty simple – and also powerful and life-changing.

Billy believed there was great power in simply and clearly telling people what Jesus had done. When he and his wife received the Congressional Gold Medal, he had the chance to speak before those considered movers and shakers in Washington. Instead of political pronouncements he proclaimed the good news of Jesus and the cross and the resurrection. He knew that was what Washington needed to hear.

After many years of prayer, Billy had the opportunity to preach in the former Soviet Union. A lot of Soviet police attended the services to spy on what was going on. When asked about it, Billy said he was thankful the spies were there. He believed the simple gospel had the power to change the heart of the hardest Soviet spy.

In the 1950s blacks and whites were forced to sit in separate parts of stadiums in the South. That was not how it was to be at Billy Graham Crusades. At an early crusade Billy himself took down the ropes the ushers had put up to keep the blacks out of the white section. White segregationists were furious when he invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray at his 1957 New York City crusade. Billy’s life was threatened when he had a crusade in Alabama at which white and black people sat together. But Billy believed the simple gospel was for all people and that “God does not show favoritism” (Acts 10:34-35).

When I was about 10 years old I went to a movie produced by the Billy Graham Association. The end of the movie was a scene where Billy gave an invitation for people to come to Jesus. I began a relationship with Jesus when I was baptized as an infant, but I felt led by God to go forward that evening and recommit my life to Christ. Billy had made it simple enough for my 10-year-old mind to understand. I had sinned but Jesus loved me and He died on the cross for my sins and He wanted to come into my life.

My mother was in a hospital room and a Billy Graham Crusade came on TV. I left to have dinner, not thinking it would be the last time I saw her. I soon got the call that she had died. I thought it was a gracious gift from God that she went to be with the Lord while listening to Billy Graham preach. Only God knows how many others were also ready to meet Jesus, because they heard the simple gospel that Billy preached.

A wild and crazy love story

If there had been a Jerusalem Post in 700 B.C. imagine the headline: “Prophet Marries Prostitute. Says God Told Him To.” What a scandal!

Even without a newspaper or social media broadcasting the news, it still must have been shocking when the word got around about what Hosea, a prophet of God, had done. Out of all the women he could have married, he married Gomer. Gomer sure wasn’t the type of person people thought would make a good prophet’s wife. The main thing we’re told about her is that she was “adulterous” (Hosea 1:2).

People were probably talking and wondering what Hosea was thinking. They didn’t expect it would go well, and it didn’t. In Hosea 3 it says, “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. …’ Then I told her, ‘You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.’”

Now the crowd knew for sure there was something wrong with Hosea. They had questioned his sanity and what kind of man of God he was when he married Gomer. Then she continued to live the life of a prostitute and cheated on him and loved other men. Now Hosea, instead of wising up and getting out of this messed up situation, runs after Gomer. Before Gomer gives any indication of changing her ways, Hosea shows love to her, encourages her to change, and promises to be her faithful husband.

People probably thought this crazy stuff Hosea was doing must be offensive to God, but Hosea said it was actually God’s idea. The Lord told him to love Gomer to serve as a lesson in how God loves people. “Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1).

Could this story of Hosea really be true? Did God really tell a prophet to marry a prostitute? The Bible says it really happened.  We have a difficult time believing the story of Hosea and Gomer is true because we have a difficult time appreciating the incredible nature of God’s grace and love. We’re guilty of spiritual adultery. We have loved other things more than we have loved God. We deserve judgment. It would make sense if God wanted nothing more to do with us. But He doesn’t do what the world would consider sensible. He still loves us. He still wants us. He pursues us, even when we run away from Him.

It is tempting to make the story of Hosea into a “deadly be” story: “Be like Hosea.” Yes, we should love like Hosea. We wish we were more like him, but the main point of the story is: we are like Gomer. And yet while we were spiritual prostitutes, Jesus loved us and went to the cross for us.

The story of Jesus’ love for us is even more shocking than the story of Hosea and Gomer. But we rejoice that, as wild and crazy as it is, it is totally true.