Seeing the glory of God

Johann Sebastian Bach was blessed with incredible musical talents and gifts. He also had the gift of knowing why he could do what he did. At the beginning of many of his compositions he would write the initials JJ, which stood for “Jesu Juva.” That is the Latin for “Jesus help.” At the end of his compositions Bach wrote SDG. That stood for the Latin “soli Deo Gloria,” which means “for God’s glory alone.” He started his work knowing he needed Jesus’ help, and he ended his work knowing all glory belonged to God alone.

“JJ” are good initials for us to write on the calendar as we begin a new year. We need the help of Jesus. The last year should have made that abundantly clear to us. 

Our old nature wants to think we can do life by ourselves. Often kids are not very old before they start asserting they can do things themselves, like feed themselves, dress themselves, and put their toys together. When the shoes are on the wrong feet and the toy doesn’t work it is clear, despite what they say, they do need help.  

Jesus said He is the vine and we are mere branches. As a branch can’t do anything unless it is connected to the vine, so we need to remain in Christ. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. … apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

We do not know what the new year will hold, but we do know whatever is going to come, we are going to need Jesus’ help. The challenges will be too great and our strength and wisdom will not be enough. “Yet I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God. You are my help and my deliverer; O Lord, do not delay” (Psalm 70:5). 

As we put away last year’s calendar we can mark SDG as Bach did to his music. The glory for any accomplishments or achievements goes to God alone. It was not our strength or skill or hard work that got us through the year. God alone deserves the praise. God alone saves us through Jesus and the cross. God alone preserves our soul and keeps us safe. 

Last year was a tough year. We may wonder what glory and praise there is to give for the year. Yet even in the midst of trials and difficulties God deserves glory. As we mark SDG on the past year let us think about ways God let us see His glory. We saw it in the way He brought us through trials, the way He cared for us, provided for us and protected us. We see His glory in Jesus and His love and salvation. 

Before Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, the people were standing there mourning and wondering why Jesus hadn’t healed Lazarus. “Then Jesus said, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’” (John 11:40). In the midst of trials we still trust the promise that we will see the glory of God. 

By faith we look forward to seeing His glory in this new year. 

Thanksgiving will not be canceled

Martin Rinkart was called to pastor the Lutheran church in Eilenberg, Germany in 1618, just as the 30 Years War was beginning. It was one of the bloodiest wars in history, but Rinkart kept faithfully serving his congregation for 32 years. 

Eilenberg was a walled city, which resulted in it being an overcrowded refuge for people trying to escape the terror around them. Those who descended upon Eilenberg and the various armies that marched through it brought with them many diseases. The war also caused ruined crops and an extreme famine. At times 30 or 40 people fought in the streets over a dead cat or crow. A plague swept through Eilenberg in 1637 and claimed the lives of more than 8,000 people in the small town in that year alone.

The church superintendent left town for “a change of air” and never came back. The town’s other clergy all died. During the worst of the plague, Rinkart was the only pastor left in town. He did mass funerals for 40 to 50 persons a day. He buried 4,480 people in 1637, including his first wife.

Just as the plague was beginning to hit his town, Rinkart wrote a hymn. A person might expect the song would be one that would fit in the blues category, moaning “Woe is me.” But instead the hymn Rinkart wrote is in the Thanksgiving section of the hymnal. In the midst of all that was going on, God helped Rinkart to write the words, “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices; who wondrous things hath done, in whom His world rejoices. Who from our mother’s arms hath blessed us on our way, with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

Rinkart knew that even though war and plague and death was all around him, God was still good. We have a virus to contend with, a world full of division and conflict and economic problems. But God is still good and we still have reason to give thanks.

A recent news article asked the question if Thanksgiving would be canceled. There might not be large gatherings like previous years, but more than ever we need to give thanks. We need to get our eyes off of a constant focus on the problems and concerns and pray for eyes to see how good God is and the good things He is doing. The Lord is still, as Rinkart wrote, “The one eternal God, Whom earth and heaven adore; for thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore!”

The prophet Habakkuk also lived in difficult times. His country had wandered from the Lord and was about to be overtaken by the wicked Babylonians. And yet God inspired him to write: “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18).

Because of God’s grace and goodness, thanksgiving is never canceled. No matter what is on the table or who is around the table, we rejoice and give thanks, because God is good, all the time.

Welcome to eat with the Lord

I was traveling by myself in Rome. One evening I went to a restaurant, hoping to get some dinner. They said they wouldn’t seat me because I was alone. There wasn’t money to be made in a single guy taking up a table. They quickly showed me to the door.

It was unpleasant and a little bit embarrassing to be told I wasn’t welcome. They had the food I was looking for, but I wasn’t the type of customer they were looking for.

Some people doubt God will welcome them to dine with Him. Their past is far from perfect. They have made bad choices and fell into sin. They feel it is foolish to think God is looking for them and would ever welcome them.

It is true that sinfulness is unwelcome at God’s table. We need to be forgiven and cleansed before a welcome can be received. But the welcome is extended and can be received because of Jesus’ death on the cross. Those who confess their sin and accept Christ’s forgiveness are welcomed in by faith. 

Sadly some congregations welcome certain people more than others. Families with kids that can bolster the youth group might be welcomed more than single or divorced people. Those with similar political opinions might receive a warmer welcome than those with contrary opinions. Those with money or from the same ethnic group or race might receive a warmer welcome than others.

Jesus told a parable of a man who prepared a great banquet. The first ones invited turned down the opportunity to attend the banquet. The master was angry with them and told his servants, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. … Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:21-23). 

The invitation to God’s banquet is not just for those who are religious and good rule followers. The religious leaders were surprised by who Jesus shared a meal with. “When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:11). The poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame; the ones who confess their sin and their need are given a warm welcome by the Lord. Because of God’s grace there is a place at the Lord’s table for each of us who will receive it by faith. 

It is great to receive a welcome. We don’t always receive one from the world, but that doesn’t matter so much. What matters most is that because of Jesus, we are welcomed in to the family of God.

The power of silence

I was in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. One morning as I stood outside the ger where I was staying I listened. I didn’t hear a thing. No traffic noise, no people talking, no music playing, no birds chirping, no dogs barking, no insects buzzing, no running water. It was a unique experience.

Silence is unfamiliar to us. We live in such a noisy world. Some people get uncomfortable with silence and turn on the TV or music as soon as they get in the house. Silence in a conversation can feel awkward and lead people to say something to break the silence, even if they have nothing to say.

The terrible trials Job suffered led three of his friends to come to comfort him. “… they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11). Sometimes comfort is shared in silence. At times it is better to share tears rather than words. 

Job’s friends comforted in silence for seven days, but then they could no longer contain themselves. They told Job he must have done something evil that made God angry and that was the cause of all his suffering. Their words brought deep hurt instead of comfort.

It’s tempting to think every incorrect statement requires a rebuttal and every problem needs an explanation. When hard things happen often we don’t have a good answer to the question “why?”, and we cause trouble when we try to give one. Sometimes the best response is silence. “A man of knowledge uses words with restraint … Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue” (Proverbs 17:27-28).  

Social media makes it easy to use words in abundance. That ease can be harmful and dangerous. Words are powerful. We need to pray for God to give us wisdom, restraint and discernment in using them. 

In some matters we are to speak and not be silent. We are not to be silent about our sin. “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. … Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:3, 5). 

We are not to be silent about the great things God has done. “… we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done” (Psalm 78:4).

Sometimes it feels like God is silent. We pray and we cry out for help, but no response seems to come, at least not as quick and clear as we would like. We plead like David, “To you I call, O Lord my Rock; do not turn a deaf ear to me. For if you remain silent, I will be like those who have gone down to the pit” (Psalm 28:1). 

We rejoice that God has spoken, in His Word, the Scriptures. He may seem silent about some things, but He is not silent at all about His love and grace and way of salvation. Jesus is the Word (John 1:1) who communicates clearly that forgiveness, hope and life eternal is offered by faith in Christ. 

See the light shining in the darkness

Some things you don’t notice till the lights are off. I had that experience once when I was visiting some relatives and they let me stay in the bedroom of one of the kids. When I turned off the lights I discovered a lot of little glow-in-the-dark things were pasted to the ceiling. A moon, some stars and planets were all glowing above me. They were only seen when the room got dark.

In a similar way, in life some good things are only seen when it gets dark. Trials and troubles can be dark and scary times, but they can also be opportunities to see the light of Jesus’ love.

Our country and world has been going through some dark days with the pandemic, protests, unrest, injustice, violence, economic troubles and sharp divisions. Many are also suffering through the darkness of isolation and depression. In spite of all the darkness, however, light can be seen, if we have eyes to see it.

In a loving congregation, when one person is sick, others in the congregation rise up and serve. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it” (I Corinthians 12:26). People pray, they call, they send emails, they bring food. I’ve appreciated seeing the light of service in Jesus’ name shining through the darkness of trials.

The challenges we have encountered in meeting together during the pandemic has felt dark at times, but light has been shining through the darkness. It has been good to see the longing many have to be in worship and the sincere desire to be in God’s Word. When the opportunity to worship with others comes again after you haven’t been able to do it for a time, the light shines all the brighter.

Times of isolation from others can be hard. Those times, though, can help us appreciate how good it is that we get to be part of God’s family. After some isolation that might seem a little dark, the joy of being able to be with others shines bright and beautiful.

“The light shines in the darkness” (John 1:5). The light of Jesus’ love and grace shines in this dark world. No matter how dark it gets, nothing can put out the light. Jesus promised, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Even though there is much darkness around us, we don’t have to walk in darkness. The light of Jesus can shine in our lives. Our home is not the darkness but the light.

It has been said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” It is tempting to spend much time cursing the darkness; talking about how bad things are and how far into darkness the world has fallen. It is better to shine the light of Jesus. Shine His light by showing people grace, serving others in love, and letting people know how good and great is our God.

Ask God to give you eyes to see the good things He is doing in the midst of this dark world. The light of God’s grace and mercy and love is shining all around us. Blessed are the eyes that see.

Let God have the remote

“We need to get control of this virus.” Health officials have said this. Government officials have said it. Measures get implemented to try to take charge over where the virus spreads and how it spreads. Different opinions exist over the effectiveness of the measures, but one thing seems clear: we don’t have control the way we wish we did.

It is not just the virus that we lack control over.  Parents may try to control what type of people their kids turn out to be, but their control is limited. We think we have control of our finances and then a trial comes with unexpected costs. We can exercise and eat right and try to control our body’s health, but we still get sick. Our control of things is far more limited than we want to admit.

“Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).  Be still, and know that God is in control, and we aren’t. The Lord is the One who is over the waters and the mountains and who “lifts his voice, the earth melts” (v. 6). The Lord is the One who is far exalted over all the nations of the earth. “He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth” (v. 9). Be still, and know who is the Almighty. It is not us. The Lord is the One who has all power and authority.

In our pride we want to be in control of our lives and our future. It is humbling to admit we aren’t, and it would be a disaster if we were in control. Be still, and give up trying to control everything. Be still, keep praying, but don’t think you have to tell God what He ought to do. Be still, and trust that God knows what he is doing. God will be exalted. He reigns now and He will reign forever.

Even when the world seems crazy and chaotic and out of control, our soul can be still. We don’t need to live lives dominated by fear and worry. Violence and destruction abounds, yet we can be calm and at peace, because “The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress” (v. 11). It would do us well to spend less time thinking about out-of-control riots and spend more time thinking about how God is graciously in control. Remembering that God is powerful and present enables us to declare: “Therefore we will not fear” (v. 2).

If a group of people are together watching TV, the remote control becomes the prized possession. Most everybody wants to be the one who determines what is watched. We get frustrated if we’re watching something and all of a sudden the channel changes. Other times we think what is on is boring and we want it changed to something else.

In a way, we’re called to let God have the remote. Let God determine how the story of your life goes. It’ll probably have some surprising plot twists. But when your faith is in Christ, who died and rose again, you know the ending will be wonderful. Be still, and trust in God’s gracious, loving and wise control.

Different colors can go together

Years ago I was with a neighbor, looking at a hillside full of trees. Many different types of trees were there, with a variety of leaves and needles. All kinds of different shades of green were visible, with some yellow and a little bit of red and orange mixed in. As we enjoyed the beauty of God’s creation, Don remarked: “God puts all those different shades of green together and it looks great, but my wife thinks my shirt and pants need to be a matching color when we go out.”

I don’t know that the variety of colors of trees means it is okay to wear mismatching clothes. It does serve, however, as an example of how a diversity of colors can go together and become something beautiful.

God made many different types and colors of trees, and He made many different types and colors of people. If God wanted everybody to have the same skin color, He could have made us that way. Nothing is impossible for God. But the Lord, in His infinite wisdom and grace, chose to show His incredible creative ability. He painted the hillsides of the world with all kinds of different shades and colors of skin.

The variety of colors can be a beautiful thing, but sadly the beauty is not always appreciated. Throughout the centuries people have struggled with the temptation to think their color is the best color. Far too often people have only wanted to be around their color. That is like a forester wanting to only plant one type and shade of tree. What a boring and unhealthy forest that would be.

“Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (Romans 12:3). Don’t think people of your color are superior and more honest and hard-working than people of a different color. The outside color doesn’t automatically determine what a person is like on the inside.

God’s church is described in Scripture as a body with many different parts. “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. … God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (I Corinthians 12:12, 18, 19). The many parts of the body look different from one another. But God has arranged them and made them that way for a reason. God doesn’t want us to all look the same and be the same and do the same kind of work.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household” (Ephesians 2:14, 19). These days, when there is so much division, can be an opportunity for God’s church to show the world that Jesus is our peace. Christ can bring diverse people together into one family and make them into something beautiful.

Spreading peace

In these days of dealing with the coronavirus there has been much discussion about how things like viruses and germs spread. There has also been talk about how a person can spread a virus without realizing they are doing it.

Some things have been spread more widely and quickly than the coronavirus. Fear, anxiety, tension and stress have spread and infected people everywhere. Some people spend much time anxiously contemplating all the different things that might happen. As the fear has spread, sleep has been lost, relationships have been strained and faith has been threatened.

Fear gets spread by spending much time listening to the news, but not much time listening to God’s Word. Stress is spread when your thoughts focus more on what bad things might happen rather than on what God has done. Tension rises when you dwell on what you and other people should be doing, and you don’t spend much time thinking about what the Lord is doing.

It is easy to become a “fear spreader.” Similar to the virus, a person may spread anxiety even if they don’t intend to. One person’s worry and lack of faith can be caught by others around them.

Our world needs “peace spreaders.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). The first kind of peace we want to make is between people and God. Jesus is the true peacemaker. “He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18). We share Jesus with people so that they can enjoy the great gift of peace with God.

We also long to see peace grow in people’s souls. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:27). He wants to see peace spreading in people’s hearts and minds. He wants to calm fearful, troubled hearts.

When some people enter a room tension and disputing seems to rise. Other people cause the peace level to rise with their presence. They spread a peace that is infectious.

Peacemakers are used by God to make peace between people. Anger and attacks abound in our world. “Too long have I lived among those who hate peace. I am a man of peace” (Psalm 120:7). We too live among people who relish conflict. We are called, by God’s grace, to stand out in contrast as people of peace who desire and work for peace. “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone” (Hebrews 12:14).

One day recently, as I walked along the river the water was very peaceful and calm. As I looked at the scene I thought of how it was a contrast from so many lives. Many souls are like turbulent, storm-tossed seas. It can be different. God wants to help so that even in the midst of stormy days, our souls resemble peaceful, still waters.

Ready and not afraid

“I think this might be my last Sunday, so I wanted to be sure to be in church.” That’s what Virginia Johnson told me a few different Sundays during the last year of her life. She had been part of our congregation for many years. Her husband, Howard, had gone to be with the Lord not long before. Virginia had suffered from Parkinson’s for many years. Her body was weak. It wasn’t easy for her to make it to church, even with help. Her spirit was still strong, however, as was her desire to worship the Lord on her last Sunday on earth.

I’d say hi to Virginia before the service began. Her voice had gotten very soft, so you had to get close to hear her. Then she’d tell me she was glad she was able to be in church because she expected it was going to be her last Sunday. She wasn’t saying it with a sense of fear. Rather, her peace and her faith spoke loudly in her soft words.

Certainly not everybody would be at peace if they thought it was going to be their last week on earth. That has been made clear during this battle with the coronavirus. Many people are filled with fear and panic as they contemplate the possibility they might get a virus that could kill them. Actually a very small percentage of people die from the virus, but 100 percent of us will die from something, unless Jesus returns first. The Bible says we are “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

God will most likely give wisdom to medical researchers who will discover a vaccine and treatment for the virus. But there will be other things that will cause our bodies to stop working. Modern medicine can’t stop every virus and it can’t heal every disease. Jesus alone has the answer. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22).

Jesus defeated death and rose to life again. It was her faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus that enabled Virginia to face, without fear, the reality that it might be her last Sunday. Christ took the punishment and judgment for our sins upon Himself when He died on the cross, and now He offers peace. “… the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Knowing we may face the Lord soon doesn’t scare us when we know Him as our Savior. Instead it inspires us to make good use of each day we are given. Virginia wasn’t going to spend her last Sunday on earth trembling in fear. She wanted to spend it worshipping the Lord, declaring His praises, hearing His Word and being with God’s people.

Jesus took the punishment of the cross so that we can be at peace with God and at peace about what is going to happen when we die. The Lord, who has conquered death, will watch over our lives, both now and for all eternity.

Thankful for one who was truly alive

The evangelist Dwight Moody said, “Some day you will read in the papers that D. L. Moody … is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I will be more alive than I am now.”

I thought of that quote after hearing that a man who had a big influence on my life, missionary John Abel, had died. For most of his 94 years John was more alive than most anyone I have ever known. It is hard to imagine him being even more alive. But that is the sure hope we have because Jesus has risen from the dead.

I had the privilege of spending much time with John in Brazil, where he was a missionary for many years. The first time I was there I was a 24-year-old seminary intern. I thought I was fairly energetic, but it was all I could do to keep up with John who was in his 60s then. John always had an abundance of plans. There were people he wanted to see and things he wanted to get done. Sometimes we were short on time, but never short on goals and ideas.

One trip we headed out for a weekend to a couple little towns called Iretama and Cidade Poema. We were going from one town to the next, heading down a hill on a dirt road. At the bottom of the hill was a creek with two boards across it. The boards didn’t look like they were much wider than the tires on John’s truck. John maybe sensed what I was thinking because he said, “Those boards aren’t too wide so you have to be sure you hit them just right.” He also seemed to sense the question that was on my mind: “If we have to hit them just right, why are we flying down this hill so fast?” He said, “We have to keep up a good speed so we’ll have enough momentum to make it up the hill on the other side.” We made it across the creek and, while sliding around a little bit, made it up the hill on the other side. Just another enjoyable and memorable adventure with John.

John had the smarts, talent and energy to do all kinds of things with his life. Why did he spend so much of his life going across creeks and up and down dirt roads? Why did he visit homes and accept hospitality and eat and drink things that he knew might make him sick later? Why move to the interior of Brazil back when it was just beginning to be developed? Because people need to hear the good news of Jesus. “And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (Romans 10:14). People of Iretama and Cidade Poema and all the other cities and towns of the world aren’t going to know Jesus and His great gift of salvation unless somebody goes and tells them. It is worth making sacrifices and giving our all in order to let people know what Jesus has done.

During these days of the coronavirus and stay-at-home orders, congregations are having to figure out other ways to declare God’s Word, doing things like live streaming services and using FM transmitters and being creative. It is the kind of thing I could see John doing, using whatever means he could and doing whatever he could to share with people the good news of Jesus.