Equally needy, equally loved

Ever since the helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people, there has been much in the news about the death of professional basketball player Kobe Bryant.

The eight other people who died in the crash, including Kobe’s daughter, were not celebrities like Kobe was. They were a baseball coach, his wife and daughter, the helicopter pilot, a basketball coach and a mother and a daughter who played on the same team as Kobe’s daughter. A celebrity was involved but what was really going on were parents and kids on their way to a girls’ basketball game.

Right before he got on the helicopter that Sunday morning, Kobe and his daughter went to church, something he did regularly. The world, in a way, worshipped him for his basketball skill, but that morning Kobe was a man with a longing to worship the Lord and a dad who wanted his daughter to be in worship as well.

True worship teaches us of the equality of us all. We all equally need to meet with God. We are all sinners who must humbly bow in submission before the Almighty.

Revelation 7:8 gives us a picture of an incredible worship service that is to come. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” It doesn’t describe celebrities and sports superstars as being in a different section from everyone else. All people with faith in Jesus, the Lamb of God, will be recognized as equal at that point. They will be declaring together that Christ is the One worthy of all glory and praise.

During the brief moment we call this life, things like winning basketball championships, getting applause, and having a lot of money, seems like they matter a great deal. But when we look at things from an eternal perspective, we see that those things have limited importance. What matters is being in a right relationship with God by faith in Christ. What matters is loving God and loving people.

We are all equally needy and equally valuable. “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No matter how many awards a person has won, they still need God’s forgiveness. And no matter how little recognition they have received from the world, they are still dearly loved by God and of great importance to Him. “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” (John 3:16).

We have value and worth not because of what we can do or how many people know us or applaud for us. We have value because God loves us. For most of us, it won’t be breaking news around the world when we die. But it doesn’t matter if the crowd knows us. What matters is, through Christ, we can know God, and God graciously knows us.

God’s security team

On the last Sunday in 2019 a man shot and killed two people during a church service in Texas before a member of the church’s security team shot and killed him. In 2017 another shooting at a church in Texas resulted in 26 people being killed. That led to a law being passed in Texas allowing for armed security teams in churches.

In this day and age with so many mass shootings, so many lives being lost, so many families suffering devastating heartache, churches have been forced to have discussions about armed security teams. What works for each individual congregation is their decision. In the midst of the discussion, however, it should not be forgotten that God’s church already has the most powerful and effective security team in place.

In II Kings 6 it tells of a time when the king of Aram sent his army to capture the prophet Elisha. The servant of Elisha looked out and saw an imposing, threatening army with horses and chariots surrounding the city. He cried out, “Oh, my lord, what shall we do?” (v. 15). We look around us at a violent world, full of trials and challenges, threats and dangers, and we fearfully cry out to God, “What shall we do?”

Elisha told his servant, “‘Don’t be afraid … Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then he prayed, ‘O Lord, open his eyes so he may see.’ Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 16-17).

Elisha knew, by faith in the Lord, he was surrounded by an angelic army that was much stronger and more powerful than any earthly army. That security team usually isn’t seen by our physical eyes, but it is very real and present. By faith in Christ we can have that same confidence Elisha had. God’s security team is still in place and on the job. We pray as Elisha did: that our eyes might be open to see the greatness of His protection and hear the beauty of his invitation to not be afraid.

The angelic army blinded the eyes of the army of the king of Aram. Elisha led them to the king of Israel where they were captured. The king was prepared to wipe out these enemies, but Elisha said to serve them a feast. The feast was surprising and undeserved, and a great illustration of grace. The feast resulted in the end of conflict between Aram and Israel (v. 23).

Because of God’s security team, we no longer live in cowering fear of the big, bad world out there. Instead we end conflicts by graciously serving those who intend harm.

As we enter a new year it is tempting to wonder if we are going to be safe? Are we prepared? God is prepared. Our hope and our security rest in Him. “Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long” (Deuteronomy 33:12).

God’s wild plan

It is about 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. If you’re driving it takes about two hours, depending on traffic. It would take close to a week to hike it. There are some hills and valleys between the two places, so it wouldn’t be the easiest hike. It would take even longer to walk it with a pregnant wife who was about to give birth.

It was maybe an interesting conversation Joseph and Mary had when they realized they had to travel that 100 miles from Nazareth to their ancestral home of Bethlehem. The government mandate that was forcing them to make the trip seemed to come at the worst time possible. This poor father-to-be had to wonder how he was going to take care of Mary on this long journey. Mary maybe wondered what God was up to. His angel promised the baby in her womb was from the Lord. Why didn’t He intervene so that she and the baby didn’t have to make this dangerous journey?

Mary and Joseph’s trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem didn’t happen because some government official got a crazy idea on some way to increase tax revenue. It was part of God’s plan. Hundreds of years earlier He had promised the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem because it was the hometown of King David. As He always does, God kept His Word.

God’s plans sometimes don’t make sense to us. Why send this pregnant young lady on a 100 miles hike over hills and valleys? In a similar way, God may send us on journeys that cause us to question and wonder. When the angel told her she was going to give birth to the Christ Child, Mary’s response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. … May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38). She was willing to trust the Lord and follow Him on the journey, even though it was bound to involve some surprising twists and turns.

God’s plan for the salvation of all people was placed in the womb of a teenage girl from an ordinary family. Success of the plan depended on the girl and her betrothed safely completing a 100 miles hike; then giving birth to the baby while in a barn, separated from their family. It sounds like a wild and risky plan.

God continues to work in similar fashion today. He entrusts ordinary sinners like us with the priceless treasure of His good news for the world. His plan to transform lives all over the world involves using flawed human beings like us. He calls us to tasks for which we aren’t at all qualified, apart from Him. He sends us down paths that appear, to our limited human reason, to be mistakes.

The Lord knows what He is doing. He has a plan that is often beyond our understanding. It may seem risky, but the safest place is always to be trusting in the Lord’s care. He watched over Mary and Joseph on their journey, and He watches over us. We don’t fear the journey, no matter how scary and uncertain it may appear. God’s plans may seem wild and confusing, but they are always good. We rest in the promise of Immanuel – God with us.

The most influential

As the millennium came to a close in 1999 Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, was at the top of many lists as the most influential person of the past 1000 years. Gutenberg’s hometown of Mainz, Germany has an excellent museum that tells about Gutenberg, his invention and the history of printing. The Luther tour group I was a part of visited there in 2017.

Our guide at the museum attempted to give us biographical information about Gutenberg, but it wasn’t easy. It took her almost 10 minutes to basically tell us, “Nobody knows much about him.” The inventor of the machine used to print books didn’t write anything about himself, and nobody else wrote much about him, at least not anything that was preserved.

Gutenberg doesn’t fit with our modern culture that is obsessed with self-promotion. A lot of people in our world are famous, but they haven’t done much to improve the lives of other people. Gutenberg stands out in contrast. It appears he didn’t do much to promote himself. He isn’t famous in the modern sense. We don’t know what he liked to eat for lunch or any other minute detail of his life, the way some people know all about modern celebrities. He was influential more than famous.

The influence of Gutenberg’s invention was immense. The first book it was used to print was the Bible. Soon many people, for the first time in their life, were able to hold a Bible in their hand and read it.

The timing of Gutenberg’s invention was just right for another man who was the other contender for the title of most influential person of the millennium: Martin Luther. Gutenberg’s press was ready for commercial use in 1450. In 1517 Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. These bold assertions of ways in which the church had strayed from Scripture were soon printed and widely distributed, and the Protestant Reformation began. The printing press was a crucial tool, effectively used by the Reformers.

The most influential one of the past millennium, and every millennium, was not Gutenberg or Luther, but the Lord. He gave Gutenberg wisdom to invent the printing press so Luther could use it and the Church could be brought back to the great truth that salvation is by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone. God used relative nobodies like Gutenberg and Luther. He directed their steps and caused things to happen at just the right time. “I am the Lord, your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your well-being like the waves of the sea” (Isaiah 48:17-18). We look at history and we see God doing great things. Sometimes His influence isn’t recognized, but He is always at work, directing the path of history. We give thanks that the great God of history is graciously willing to direct our lives today.

Humble leadership

Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain who led his country to victory over Hitler and Nazi Germany in World War 2, was maybe the greatest leader of the 20th century. In World War 1, however, he suffered a failure that looked like it would doom any chance for greatness.

Churchill was a 40-year-old rising star in British politics and in a position of leadership in the Royal Navy. He proposed a bold invasion during World War 1 that became a tragic disaster. Others contributed to the failure, but Churchill became the scapegoat. He lamented to a friend, “I am finished!” The debacle haunted him for decades. But when he became prime minister 25 years later he noted that, “All my past life has been a preparation for this hour and for this trial.” That included his humiliating failure.

The greatest leader of the 19th century was probably Abraham Lincoln. He recognized the evil of slavery and the importance of maintaining the Union. His words and vision of “a new birth of freedom” and a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” inspired people then and ever since.

Before being elected president Lincoln suffered a number of humbling defeats in politics as well as in business and his personal life. He also endured humiliating comments about many aspects of his life, including his looks. Nathaniel Hawthorne called him, “The ugliest man I ever put my eyes on.” When somebody accused Lincoln of being “two-faced” his reply was, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”

Lincoln’s humility and strength of character was shown in his ability to take a joke and make fun of himself. We maybe should be suspicious of any leader who can’t laugh at himself.

The greatest leader in the Bible, other than Jesus, is most likely Moses, who led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. For the first 40 years of his life he was raised as a son of the Pharaoh. For the next 40 years, however, he was a murderer on the run and an obscure shepherd in the wilderness. But God called him to go back to Egypt and lead his people. Moses thought he was totally inadequate for the job. “Moses said to God, ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? … O Lord, please send someone else to do it'” (Exodus 3:11, 4:13).

The main character trait we are told about Moses, that contributed to him being a great leader, is his humility. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). When his own brother and sister questioned his leadership, we’re not told of him firing back at them. He let God handle it, which He did by humiliating Miriam and Aaron as recorded in Numbers 12.

At times people elevate to leadership those who speak the loudest, give an appearance of confidence, stand up for themselves and knock others down. It’s tempting to get impressed by ones who boast of having impressive abilities and accomplishments. The lesson of history and Scripture encourages us to look for and pray for leaders in our congregations, communities, business and politics, who are humble. We seek after leaders who have endured trials and failures that have shaped them and taught them lessons in humility and compassion. Humility might not be the first thing we look for in a leader, but it might be one of the first things God looks for.

The greatest leader of all – Jesus – amazingly described Himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Our world does not value gentleness and humility, but those who follow Jesus should. While the world often is enamored with people who brag and boast, we give thanks we get to follow Jesus who points to different values and a different way of doing things. We follow the One who promises, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).

Great expectations

I was visiting another church to attend a concert. I got to the front door five minutes before the scheduled start and found a sign saying the concert had been moved to a different part of the building. I went around the building and found an open door. The concert was already going. They had decided to start 30 minutes earlier than the publicized schedule. They let everybody they thought would come know about the change. They didn’t expect visitors like me to show up.

Most churches say they want visitors, but often their actions indicate they don’t really expect any visitors will come. When songs are sung but the words are not in a hymnal or not handed out or not put on a screen, it shows they don’t expect any visitors will be in the crowd. When the speaker says a Bible verse or story is “familiar to all of us” it shows he assumes only regular church-goers are there. He has probably made anybody who is unfamiliar with the verse or story feel unwelcomed.

Sadly, at times, people will invite others to church because they know they should, but they don’t think the ones they invite will come. They share the good news of Jesus with others, but they don’t think it will be received. They pray for God to work in lives, but they don’t think it will make a difference.

David wrote, “In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation” (Psalm 5:3). This is the same David who ran confidently into battle against Goliath. Even though Goliath was strong and intimidating, and David was armed with only stones and a slingshot, David expected God to give him the victory. “This day the Lord will hand you over to me … and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel” (I Samuel 17:46). We pray and wait in expectation that God will do good and gracious work and reign victorious.

In the late 1700s hardly anyone in the churches in England was interested in doing mission work in faraway lands. “Too hard. Too dangerous. Too expensive.” William Carey was frustrated with that attitude and so he founded a missionary society in 1792. At the first meeting of the society he preached a sermon that included the call, “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” Within a year he and his family and partner headed to India. It was hard. It was seven years until the first convert was baptized. He spent 41 years in India without coming home on a furlough. But he was used by God to translate the entire Bible into six of India’s major languages. He attempted to do great things like work for the abolishment of infanticide and widow burning.

The order in Carey’s phrase is important. First we expect great things from God. Motivation and strength comes when we see the great things Jesus has done for us. In response to those great things, we attempt great things for Him. Because of His goodness, grace and love, we pray, we invite, we serve and we live with great expectations of changed lives and good work God will do.

Seek true treasure

Last month I traveled from Seattle to Alaska. In the 1890s around 100,000 people also set out from Seattle to Alaska. They used different transportation means than I did, and they were going for a different purpose. Gold had been found in Alaska. Prospectors set out from Seattle, hoping to make a fortune. Of the approximately 100,000 who started out, only around 30,000 actually reached the Klondike. Of that number no more than 4,000 struck any gold, and only a few hundred became rich. Far more people became rich by providing transportation and selling supplies to those who had become infected with gold rush fever.

People went to great lengths, seeking after something very few found. Those who did find gold maybe thought all their desires were going to be met. No matter how much gold they found it could not satisfy the deepest needs of their soul.

Isaiah 55 asks, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” (v. 2). In a way, the prophet is asking the fortune seekers of the gold rush and fortune seekers of the present, “Why are you going to so much trouble, seeking after things that won’t satisfy?”

Isaiah also gives a gracious invitation: “Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. … Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near” (v. 2, 6). True riches can be found. All who seek the Lord can enjoy the greatest treasure.

The people of the gold rush took great risks and endured terrible hardships, trying to find gold in the cold, remote regions of the Klondike. Jesus endured greater hardships and went on the far more difficult journey of going to the Cross so that we could find the treasure of being in His kingdom.

A steamship carrying gold from Alaska docked in Seattle in 1897. People saw the gold nuggets and set out to get some of their own. In a similar way, people who know Jesus ought to live lives that let people know what a treasure it is to have your sins forgiven and be in a right relationship with the Lord. It is great when people see the riches of love, joy and peace in us and then ask where they can find some of that for themselves.

We find the greatest treasure in Jesus, and we continually long for more by seeking to get closer to Him. Those who headed to Alaska in the 1890s thought the pursuit of gold was worth a great sacrifice. The pursuit of Jesus is far more worthy of sacrifice. It’s worth giving up time, comfort and material things in order to get closer to Jesus.

Seek the Lord with the determination of the most dedicated person on the gold rush. Trust the promise that “he who seeks finds” (Matthew 7:8). What we find is that faith in the Lord is “of greater worth than gold” (I Peter 1:7). Finding Jesus is worth an all-out search.

Fearful people need good news

Recently motorcycles backfired near New York City’s Times Square. People thought it was gunfire and panic quickly ensued. Some people got trampled as crowds tried to run for safety. Fortunately no one suffered life-threatening injuries.

The same evening at a mall in Utah a sign fell and made a sound that people thought was gunfire. They also started fearfully running in panic.

People throughout our country are in bondage to fear. The tragic mass shootings that keep happening have caused many to fear any loud noise they hear. Other fears grip people as well. Some fear anybody who looks different than they do or speaks a different language. Some are scared of what will happen if this law gets passed or that candidate gets elected.

Fear can cause people to run in panic and trample others in the process. It can also cause people to trample others with harmful words. Fear of those who are different can result in looking at them as threats that need to be avoided and enemies that need to be defeated, rather than seeing them as creations of God and souls that are loved by the Lord.

This terrified world desperately needs the good news of Jesus. Sadly, however, some Christians are joining the crowd that is running and hiding in fear. Jesus did not save us so that we might cower in fear until He returns. To His disciples, who also lived in a violent, scary world, “Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you’” (John 20:21).

When the motorcycles made the backfiring noise in Times Square, most ran from the noise. Police officers, however, ran to the noise to find out what was going on and how they could serve. Those who follow Jesus are to respond in a similar manner to the problems of this world. We do not throw up our hands and say, “It’s too hard. It’s a scary world. I’m just going to look out for me and mine.” Followers of Christ are to courageously go to the world with God’s promise of hope. “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:1-2).

The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk asked some of the same questions we ask. “How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds” (Habakkuk 1:2-3). It sounds like our day and the Babylonians of Habakkuk’s day sound like the people of our day: “… they all come bent on violence” (Habakkuk 1:9).

We wonder why God doesn’t stop the shooters before they pull the trigger. Habakkuk wondered why God let the violent, evil Babylonians harm so many people. But he still trusted God was in control and eventually His justice would prevail. He waited patiently and trusted that, though all kinds of tough things might happen, “… yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength” (Habakkuk 3:18-19).

We mourn with those who mourn. We weep over the violence that is so prevalent in our land. We call for each human life, no matter the color of their skin or the nature of their opinions, to be valued as a priceless treasure. We plead for people to use gentle words, “to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men” (Titus 3:2). And we share the good news that we can be set free from fear and find peace in Jesus.

Name that building

Nick Saban is the very successful football coach at the University of Alabama. He is also a devoted Catholic and regularly attends Mass at the St. Francis of Assisi University Parish. Three years ago the parish built a new building to be used in reaching out to and serving University of Alabama students. The new building was named the Saban Catholic Student Center. On the church’s website it says the Sabans’ “financial support and fundraising made the $2 million project possible.”

Saban’s Catholic faith appears to be quite sincere. It’s great that he cares about the spiritual life of students. There is something ironic, however, that a church named after St. Francis of Assisi names a building after somebody because of how much money they gave and raised.

Francis lived in Italy in the 1200s. His father was a wealthy businessman. It was an era when pursuing money was becoming a primary goal of many people. People were buying costly things, especially clothes to show off their status and wealth.

Francis lived with that materialistic mindset, until he was converted to Christ and felt Jesus calling him to rebuild His church. Francis thought at first the call was simply to rebuild the sanctuary of the local church, which had fallen into disrepair and neglect. He used some of his father’s money to pay for the repairs. When his father found out he was quite upset and thought Francis was crazy to waste money like that. He had his son put in prison, hoping that might straighten out his thinking.

Francis realized he shouldn’t have taken his father’s money without asking. He resolved to forsake all claims to his father’s wealth and his inheritance. In a dramatic courtroom scene, Francis took off all his clothes – the sign of wealth in that society – and returned them and all the money he had to his father. For the rest of his life Francis pursued Christ and service rather than wealth.

It wasn’t only his father who thought Francis was crazy. Throughout the centuries many people have looked at him as being eccentric. Somebody who said life wasn’t found in how much you have, and who lived that out, seemed strange then and seems strange now. We name buildings after ones who can raise $2 million. We get confused by ones who have little interest in acquiring wealth, but choose to be poor, humble servants.

The most confusing one is Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9). Jesus willingly became poor, so that we can find the true riches of His love. That kind of grace is confusing because it is so different from our selfish old nature and such a contrast from the materialistic world around us. But that grace is amazing, freeing, enriching and life-giving to those who receive it.

God is always taking care of us

We were expecting the shuttle bus to be there any minute. There were 15 of us who had been in Estes Park, Colorado, for the Free Lutheran Youth convention. The bus was suppose to come and take us to the Denver airport, which was about two hours away. It was 15 minutes after the scheduled time for picking us up, so I gave the driver a call. “I’m here at the Denver airport. Are you ready to be picked up?” “We’re in Estes Park, needing a ride to the airport.” The cell service up there in the mountains wasn’t good, but I did hear enough to know we had a problem.

The driver apologized for the mix-up and said he’d leave for Estes Park right away. I had allowed extra time in the schedule, but I knew there wasn’t much chance he could pick us up and get us to the airport in time for our flight. But God was already at work, taking care of us. I went into the building next to where we were waiting and they had a landline phone we could use. We got the number of a local shuttle company. They said they would see if there was some way they could help us out. In about 10 minutes, in one of the rare times I had cell service, I got a call back saying they had two vans and drivers available. I found out later one of the drivers had just finished taking people to the airport and was on his way out the door for home, when he was asked if he could do another trip. God provided and his schedule was free to help us out.

Our new ride to the airport picked us up in about 15 minutes and we were on our way. Part way into the trip people in the van I was in started getting texts from the other van. The latch on the back door of the other van came undone. A wall between the luggage area and the seats caused it to not be noticed right away. One of our students thought something sounded strange and said something to the driver. They stopped and found three suitcases had fallen out. Amazingly more hadn’t fallen out. They turned around and went back for the missing suitcases. They found them a ways back up the mountain, but still in good shape. The trip to go back for the suitcases also resulted in the thankful retrieval of a cherished blanket.

The second van got to the airport less than 30 minutes after we did. The check-in and security lines were quite a bit shorter and quicker than some of my previous times in Denver. We even had enough time to grab some lunch on the way to the gate. There were some storms on the horizon but our flight was able to take off on time. The rest of the trip went fine and we got home to Astoria 15 minutes earlier than the estimated time of arrival we had told the parents.

It all ended up being a teachable moment as we saw evidence of God’s grace and God demonstrating He is in control. It was a little miraculous we found vans and drivers in Estes Park who were able to go right away and take 15 people to the airport. That’s grace. Only three of the many bags that were in the back of the van fell out the open door. They were found, undamaged. Even the blanket was found. That’s grace. The lines at the airport were shorter than usual and the storms held off till after we left. The God who controls the thunder and lightning is also gracious and looks after us.

“The Lord watches over us” (Psalm 121:5). If our main focus is on bus drivers that misunderstand directions and doors that don’t get latched properly, we’re going to be frustrated and angry a lot. People often go to the wrong place and things break down. But the Lord is always good. He is always watching over us. He is always graciously blessing us beyond what we deserve. We don’t need to get upset and worried. We can rest in God’s loving care.