“After these events, King Xerxes honored Haman, son of Hammedatha, the Agagite, elevating him and giving him a seat of honor higher than that of all the other nobles. All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.

“Then the royal officials at the king’s gate asked Mordecai, ‘Why do you disobey the king’s command?’ Day after day they spoke with him but he refused to comply. Therefore, they told Haman about it to see whether Mordecai’s behavior would be tolerated, for he had told them that he was a Jew.

“When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged. Yet having learned who Mordecai’s people were, he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes.” Esther 3:1-4 NIV

What causes families to be torn apart with people refusing to speak to each other for decades, if not generations? What triggers events like the genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Rwanda? What is at the heart of the animosity in the Middle East?

We gain some insight into these issues as we look at the conflict between two major players in the ancient book of Esther (written about 480 B.C.). It is clear that Mordecai and Haman hate each other. What is not so clear to the modern reader is the source of their hatred: an ancient grudge going back nearly 1,000 years. When each man is introduced, we learn about their ancestry – Mordecai is descended from the family and tribe of King Saul, the first king of Israel, and Haman is descended from King Agag, the king of the Amalekites.

The Amalekites and the Jews were ancient enemies stemming from mutual attempts to complete destroy the other nation. As soon as each man knew of the other’s background, they held each other in contempt. On top of this, pride was involved – ethnic pride and personal pride. Mordecai was not going to bow down to this Agagite. And Haman felt that the honor given him by the king was his right. How dare Mordecai not show him the honor he rightly deserved?! And then to learn that this disrespect came from a Jew? This put Haman over the top.

Unfortunately, Haman was in a position of power and could express his rage with an overwhelming act of revenge. He would destroy all the Jews in the kingdom of Xerxes! With the reach of the Persian Empire, this would totally wipe out the Jewish people. If successful, this plan would also wipe out God’s plan of salvation, for our Messiah and Savior would come from the Jews, specifically the tribe of Judah and the family line of King David.

Ever wondered what’s with this long-lasting anti-Jewish sentiment? Haman is simply one of a long line of people who wanted to wipe these people out. Starting with Pharaoh’s orders to drown Hebrew male children and Assyria’s attacks on Israel, persecution of and attempts to wipe out the Jews have extended on through the pogroms in Europe, the Grand Inquisition, Hitler’s Final Solution and the Stalinist purges of Russia.

Satan is behind these attacks and the hatred of the people of the Messiah. At the outset, God had declared to Satan, “I will put hostility between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) Satan was told that a human being would destroy him. Once God made it clear that this offspring would come through Abraham, it was game on. Satan sought to destroy the Jews, particularly male children. He did this when King Herod massacred all the male infants in Bethlehem. Then Satan tried to provoke mobs to kill Jesus and, finally, brought about His crucifixion. When this attempt to destroy the Messiah backfired, Satan has continued his rage against the people of the Messiah.

In order to destroy the Jews, Haman needed to enlist the support of King Xerxes. How did he get the king to jump on board of his evil plan? He told the king, “There is a certain people dispersed and scattered among the peoples in all provinces of your kingdom whose customs are different from those of all the other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them.” (Esther 3:8 NIV)

Haman used xenophobia, the fear of the foreigner or the fear of the “other”. He planted in the king’s mind suspicion toward these people. They are different. They have not assimilated. They don’t obey our laws. These were the tactics of Hitler. These are the tactics of many even in the U.S. today who would sow fear, bitterness and hatred toward other groups of people. These same tactics led to the genocides we have witnessed in the last thirty years.

There are two things that we must avoid that are at the bottom of these tragic events in Esther and all around us today – grudges and xenophobia. We use an interesting term—we “nurse a grudge.” Think of that picture. There was a baby offense against us. We then nurture that offense and remember and dwell on the things that were done and said, until there is a mature grudge living in our heart. This resentment blocks normal relationships. Even the sight of the offender walking into the room makes our stomach turn. We stop talking to the person and we poison others against him.

Allowed to continue, these grudges can expand, take over and divide families and nations. The Muslims and the Jews are both descendants of Abraham. They are distant cousins. Yet the divisions are deep and bitter. Do you have such divisions in your own life? The Bible says to “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” (Ephesians 4:31 NIV) Stop a grudge for your own sake. Resentment is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It kills us and affects our entire person.

We are also to reject xenophobia. Our society faces many complex issues with illegal immigration and terrorism. Regardless of what our government needs to do to correct these problems, believers in Jesus have one clear obligation—to love our neighbor as ourselves and even to love our enemies. We are to treat other people with the same grace, love and mercy that Jesus gives to us. Can you think of anyone more justified of xenophobia than God? Human beings refused to accept His customs and obeyed His laws. We were totally different from God and His holiness and rebellious at our core, wanting to rule our own lives. Yet rather than destroying us and erasing us from the pages of time, Jesus gave His life for us. He endured unimaginable tortures to provide forgiveness of our sins and embrace us with His love. As His children, we are to love those who are very different from us with this same love.

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Esther Reveals the Hidden Care of God in the Midst of Struggles

Ever gone through a wrenching time and wondered where God was in all of it? Ever felt piled onto with one problem after another? Ever felt like you were caught in a sailing ship being spun around by the perfect storm?

In the movie by the same name, when the storm hit we could barely see what was going on, barely hear the dialogue over the howling wind, pounding rain and crashing surf. Sometimes we are caught up in such events in our lives so that we can barely catch our breath and think.

Then, years later when there is the chance to look back on such a time, sometimes we can see that the hand of God was guiding the ship all along. God had a plan but used some alarming ways to get the ship to an unknown shore that was His chosen destination all along.

The Old Testament book of Esther will take us on such a voyage. The main characters and the Jewish people will find themselves in the worst part of the storm with evil forces threatening to destroy them. But, though never mentioned by name, God’s hidden hand will be seen directing the events. Even the events of the drunken banquet and bizarre divorce decree from the opening chapter will make perfect sense.

In Esther chapter two we find King Xerxes suffering from a marital hangover. Ever had one of those? You have a blow out argument with your spouse and end the evening not speaking to each other. The next morning you are filled with regret. Xerxes was in that boat. But what could he do?

He declared that Queen Vashti was banished, never to enter his presence again. Where can he find a wife to replace her? The dating scene is out. There’s no match.com or E-Harmony for him. Xerxes opted for a plan from his attendants that is one part beauty contest, one part an American-Idol-like talent search of the empire, and one part The Bachelor reality show. As this is carried out, we meet our main characters: Mordecai and his young cousin Esther.

Mordecai and Esther lived in the citadel of Susa, the heart of the capital city. Terrible tragedy had struck while Esther was a young child, both of her parents had been killed. In those days, that could have resulted in her becoming a beggar on the streets or being sold into slavery, probably forced prostitution.

Rather than let this happen, her older cousin Mordecai stepped in and raised her as his own daughter. He fully committed himself to her care, even through what followed next. A grown up Esther is caught up in the search for virgins to become the new queen. Her beauty became known to all and we are told that “won the favor of everyone who saw her.”

This says a lot about this young woman. Had it said that she won the favor of every man that saw her, that would make sense since she was a knock out. Even the head of the harem knew she was better than all the rest the minute he laid eyes on her. But since she won the favor of even the women who met her, this tells us that she was a humble, gracious and truly kind individual who won over even her competitors.

Esther was put through the same yearlong training and beauty treatments as the rest of the virgins in the harem. They were being prepared for a life as the Queen of Persia. Throughout this time, we learn something profound about Mordecai’s care – “Every day he walked back and forth near the courtyard of the harem to find out how Esther was and what was happening to her.” (Esther 2:11 NIV) He watched over her interests to the best of his ability.

Finally, after more than a year, Esther got her turn and won the king’s heart. You might think that Mordecai would be rejoicing! This is the storybook ending everyone might hope for. From a worldly point of view, Queen Esther is now set.

But a Jewish parent would have much more to worry about. How would Esther’s faith hold up in the pagan environment of the king’s palace? How would it hold up in the midst of the over-the-top materialism? How would she hold up in an intense political climate? How would she handle knowing that her husband as a Persian king would continue to have a harem of young virgins on the side to satisfy his lustful urges?

So, Mordecai kept up his daily patrol to keep tabs on and provide support for his younger cousin Esther. And, doing the right thing at the right time put him in the right place to save the king’s life. Mordecai overheard and was able to stop a plot to assassinate the king.

In this chapter we see God without His name ever being mentioned. Mordecai is our picture of God. His constant care, his hovering compassion and concern are just like God’s, as we see in Psalm 121:3 & 7-8: “He will not let your foot slip— He who watches over you will not slumber nor sleep. The Lord will keep you from all harm— He will watch over your life. The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”

In the well-known Twenty-third Psalm, the Shepherd Psalm, we read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” In those dark times when all is swirling around us, God is still there even though we may not feel Him or see Him. The circumstances can drown out His voice just like the wind, waves and surf in The Perfect Storm.

But just like Mordecai, God is on the job. Mordecai was there to rescue Esther from a tragic life. He was there to tenderly nurture his little cousin. And he was there as she made her way through the contest for the queen and beyond.

In the same way, God is there, waiting for us to cry out for His help. He calls us to rest in Him, knowing that He holds our hand and will lead us through. Even in the midst of death, He will keep evil from coming to us. Death is inevitable; none of us will get out of here alive. But God can prevent the evil of anger and bitterness, loneliness and anxiety from consuming our lives. Rest in God and trust His guidance and soon He will being you to the peaceful shore of His good plan for your life.

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The Futility of Shouting “I’m the Head of the House!”

“King Xerxes and His nobles were pleased with this advice, so the king did as his adviser Memucan proposed. He sent dispatches to all parts of his kingdom, to each province in its own script, to each people in its own language, proclaiming in each people’s tongue that every man should be the ruler of his own household.” (Esther 1:21-22 NIV)

I love the Old Testament book of Esther, not only does it have all of the great elements of drama — the beautiful heroine, the evil villain, a diabolical plot by Satan, assassination plots, suspense, risk and adventure, irony and lots of ego — it also carries us to an ancient past that proves to be much like current events.

Here we see a “great declaration” of a powerful king to try to correct a problem arising from his inability to manage his own household well. Over and over again, I see men thump their chest  declaring, “I’m the head of my household, I’m the king of my own castle!” Their posturing is just as ridiculous as King Xerxes’ proclamation in dozens of foreign languages.

Anyone who has to shout their leadership so loudly is clearly not a leader. It reminds me of the scene from My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the father of the bride declares that he’s the head of the house and his wife enthusiastically agrees, then confidently says behind his back to all the women present, “And we’re the neck that turns the head!”

How did things go wrong for King Xerxes? We learn at the outset of the book that he was the ruler of a vast empire of 127 provinces stretching from the edges of India across the entire Middle East, into southeastern Europe and across Northern Africa (basically all of the then-known civilized world but the Greek city states). How did he paint himself into a corner where he had to banish his beautiful and intelligent wife, Queen Vashti?

Ask yourself, Why do powerful people make mistakes?  How can someone who can control a vast empire, like the Persian King Xerxes, fail to manage his own household well? Often times mistakes come when people are full of themselves, at the height of their own glory. Such is the case here.

King Xerxes had called to the fortress at capitol city of Susa all his nobles, the military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes and the administrators of the 127 provinces. Historians believe that Xerxes was plotting the overthrown of the Greek city states at that time. During this six-month summit meeting, the king displayed “the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendor and glory of his majesty.” (Esther 1:4) And he topped off this time with a huge banquet for everyone in the fortress, with a lavish open bar, for seven days running!

During this great party, the wives of the officials were also being hosted by Queen Vashti. At that time, the men and women did not party together. The only women at the men’s banquet would have been dancers and servants. No self-respecting woman would have been a part of such rowdy revelry.

The scripture tells us that Xerxes “was in high spirits from wine.” What a nice way to say he was roaring drunk. At the peak of his pride after having shown off all of his wealth, it entered his mind — “these men need to see my trophy wife, they need to know that I am not only rich and powerful, but I am lucky in love at the same time.” Sadly, he was too drunk to realize this was a bad idea. Instead, he commanded her seven eunuch attendants to bring Queen Vashti in wearing her royal crown!

When Queen Vashti refused this humiliation, the king exploded in a temper tantrum. I can picture him fuming and muttering to himself, “Who does she think she is?! Doesn’t she know that I am the great King Xerxes?! I’m the King of kings! I rule 127 provinces! Who does she think she is to refuse a royal summons?!” This whole thing reeks of self and pride. (Ever been there?)

Rather than give himself time to cool off, Xerxes turns this domestic dispute into a legal matter of government policy. He drags in his seven most trusted advisers and lays this question before them, “What must be done to Queen Vashti?” She has not obeyed the command of King Xerxes?” Well, this is a loaded question.  There is only one legal option in those days for ignoring a king’s command — severe punishment if not death.

The ensuing discussion by Memucan inflates the domestic dispute into a national crisis of chauvinistic proportions. Chaos will rule the empire! Wives of every social stature will rebel against their husbands due to Vashti’s bad example! Xerxes must show her who’s boss! Thus the proclamation above.

This is not true leadership. Now obviously, we are not in his position or in his culture. An Emperor with egg on his face is in a vastly different position than we would be. But we often get ourselves out on a similar limb and enthusiastically saw it out from under ourselves. What should we do when we get ourselves into a similar mess?

First, we should take responsibility for making an error in judgment and try to diffuse the public scene. (If we were dumb enough to create such a scene as this in front of all of our family, friends or business associates.)

Second, we should look for a time to humbly talk to our spouse later. We need to admit that our pride (and drinking) got the better of us. Admit our sin and seek forgiveness.

Third, we need to take a hard look at ourselves and what sins, ego and insecurities drive such behavior. We need to look at the toll these things take on our marriage, how they damage our reputations with others, and destroy our testimony for the Lord.

God’s picture of leadership in the home is very different from court orders that every man should be the ruler of their home. Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all. Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:44-45 NIV) Later God said, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25 NIV) Christian leadership, whether in the home or elsewhere, is a self-sacrificial, servant leadership. The leader puts the interest of those whom he is leading before his won. This is a stark contrast with Xerxes’ self-aggrandizing demands that ignore Vashti’s need to show proper modesty.

In wrapping up this mess, let me talk about the elephant in this room. King Xerxes got in trouble while he was “in high spirits.” This speaks to the danger of drinking. Believers have moved away from a legalistic No Drinking stance, claiming that there is no place in the Bible where drinking is forbidden, only drunkenness. While this is technically true, let’s wake up to reality.

Two things are at play here. One, the scripture is clear that only one thing should control us — God’s Holy Spirit — over and against alcohol. (Ephesians 5:18) Two, society as a whole has recognized that it doesn’t take much alcohol to impair our judgment — only a level of 0.08 blood alcohol content. This wasn’t determined randomly, but after years of research.  There is too much DUI — driving under the influence, SUI — speaking under the influence, AUI — arguing under the influence, DMUI — decision-making under the influence, etc. I have never known anyone to regret being sober, but have met many with regrets over drinking, even “moderately.”

Let’s not be a King Xerxes in either our pride and low respect for our spouses or in imbibing until we are less like a king and more like the court jester.

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Approaching God with Freedom & Confidence? Come on! How does that work?

Ephesians 3:12 has this amazing statement, “IN [Jesus] and THROUGH FAITH in Him, we can approach God with freedom and confidence.”

Why is this true? Let me tell you a story about something that happened when I visited a friend of mine. When I walked up to the door and rang the doorbell, I immediately knew I was in trouble. A horrible barking and snarling erupted on the other side of the door. I could hear it boiling down the hallway to the door and could hear the slam as the dog crashed into the door and began clawing and growing on the other side of the door. I could see his shadow through a small gap between the door and the threshold. It was if he was trying to get to me under the door. I was seriously contemplated beating a hasty retreat.

Suddenly I heard my friend’s voice give a one syllable command to the dog and the barking stopped. The door swing open and I could see the dog snarling, held back by my friend’s grip on its collar.

“I… I.. I… can c – c – c – ome back another time,” I stammered, staring at the curled lip and snapping teeth of the still growling dog.

“No problem,” my friend assured me, “just do as I do,” bending squatting low by the dog. I followed his cue and also squatted low to be on the same level as his dog (still snarling). My friend reached around and shook my hand with his left hand. He then kind of stroked my arm, I guess to show the dog I meant no harm and I was a friend. Then he reached down to my hand and suggested I reach out to the dog and let him sniff me.

Sure that I would come back short a finger, I offered my hand to the dog to smell. The dog’s ears perked back up, he started wagging his tail and then licked my hand! Amazing!

When we stood back up, the dog was transformed, from being my enemy to accepting me as a guest in the house. I couldn’t stop commenting on it to my friend. “Dude, what made the difference? He likes me. That was amazing!”

My friend was grinning from ear to ear and looked like he might bust out laughing. “What’s so funny?” My friend confided, “He doesn’t like you, he likes me! I just rubbed my scent on your arm and hand when I greeted you. When he smelled your hand, he actually smelled my scent and decided that you were safe ’cause you smelled like me.”

This illustrates well what happened for us at the cross. “We may approach God with freedom and confidence” because Jesus has embraced us, covering us with His blood (his scent) so that we may enter His house as a friend and not an intruder.

Don’t ever think we can approach God on our own. The wrath of God would tear us alive, just as my friend’s guard dog would have if I entered his house on my own. But “IN HIM AND THROUGH FAITH IN HIM” we are clothed in the righteousness of Christ and may enter without fear.

That is the meaning of Romans 5:1-2—Therefore, we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

When you stand before God, He will ask you, “Why should I let you into my heavens?” How will you answer Him?

There are hundreds of wrong answers, but only one right one. We could plead church attendance, helping other people, teaching Sunday school, volunteer work with the homeless, giving money to the church, etc. But that would never be good enough to win entrance into the Father’s house. Even Mother Theresa who sacrificed her life to help the desperately poor in India knew she needed a Savior.

Jesus said, “I am the Way, I am the truth, I am the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NIV) Later in the New Testament it’s described this way, “For Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18 NIV)

It is IN JESUS and THROUGH FAITH in Jesus that we may approach God with freedom and confidence.

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Paul: From Bounty to Hunter to Fiery Preacher, Always a Man on a Mission!

“I became a servant of this [Good News of Jesus] given me through the working of His power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given to me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which was kept hidden in God, who created all things.” (Ephesians 3:7-9 NIV)

To read the above words, a person might look at that and think, “Man, the Apostle Paul sure had self-esteem issues.” But Paul had a realistic picture of who he was and where he had come from. He had no delusions of grandeur, but rather continually marveled that he had any part in God’s plans at all.

When we first meet the Apostle Paul in the Bible, he is known by his Hebrew name Saul. (Acts 7:54-8:3, 9:1-2) He is a Pharisee without equal and listening to a sermon by Stephen. The sermon enraged Saul and set him on a rampage, persecuting believers, arresting them and dragging them to be tried and killed, in order to purge the nation of the infection known as The Way, made up of those who followed Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah. He was an ancient bounty hunter, charging himself with single-handedly stopping these lying disciples from corrupting the pure Jews in Israel.

Saul is bound and determined to stomp out this cult of heretics, breathing murderous threats against the church. And when he had driven the believers out of Judea, this was not good enough. He was going to pursue them to the cities to which they had fled. Saul got warrants to arrest any Jews who had fled to Damascus and was on his way, like Dog the Bounty Hunter today, to arrest them and drag them back to the Jewish Supreme Court in Jerusalem.

The believers huddled in fear, praying fervently for protection from this madman, obsessed with the destruction of the church. What would God do to protect them?

As many of you know, God struck Saul down, not to kill him, but to win him to Jesus! Immediately upon seeing the vision, Saul was struck blind. At the same time, he believed in Jesus and waited for his marching orders from God (Acts 9:1-19). He became a fiery preacher for his new Messiah.

Ironically Saul’s main audience was not to be Jews, but rather Gentiles! Rather than God using this Jewish leader to go back to his own peers, God sent him in another direction entirely. God said, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings… I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” ( Acts 9:15-16)

Side Note: God’s plan is not always like our plan. Though Paul was thoroughly schooled in the Jewish culture and a highly trained Pharisee, God sent him to work among the Gentiles. Formerly, he would have despised the Gentiles and found them repulsive in their cultural practices. Yet, these are the people to whom he devoted the remainder of his life! What illogical thing is God calling you to do?

As we explore the book of Ephesians, we pick up the story years later, toward the end of his life when Saul, or better known as the Apostle Paul, was sitting under house arrest in Rome. While sitting in custody, Paul wrote this to one of the churches he helped start in the prosperous Roman city of Ephesus.

Even at this late stage in his life, Paul still remembers his humble beginnings. Repeatedly, he denounced any exalted state and confessed that he was the “chief of sinners,” a blasphemer who cursed the Messiah Jesus, one who beat believers and was responsible for their murders!

So what turned this bounty hunter into a missionary, church planter and the writer of nearly half of the New Testament? The only way to explain this radical turn around is to believe his own story. It was a supernatural meeting with Jesus Christ Himself that brought about such a complete transformation.

So, Paul was transformed into God’s messenger with a very special message – God’s grace was for all people, not just the Jewish people. And God would make all who believe in Jesus into one new Person, one new Country, one new Family, and one new Temple (Ephesians 2:19-22, 3:2-6). God erased the divisions that so often separate us – race, gender, economic status, educational training, and religious and national/ethnic backgrounds.

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male nor female, for we are all one in Christ. (Galatians 3:28 NIV)

Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. (Colossians 3:11 NIV)

The Apostle Paul never let anything stop him from completing this mission; not persecution or trials, not geographical distances, not financial hardships, nothing. When imprisoned, he used that opportunity to turn from preaching to writing, giving us nearly half the books of the New Testament as a result.

God calls us to have this same single-minded determination to share this good news with everyone: all people can discover God’s love and forgiveness in God the Son, Jesus Christ, who loved us so much He gave His very life for us! We are called to be His witnesses, His ambassadors, sharing this wherever God may send us.

Next Week: Secrets from Paul on Handling Suffering

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From Death to Life: Amazing Hope for the Living Dead

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature, following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But, because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:1-5 NIV)

Our culture has an obsession with death in a lot of ways. One way it is seen is with our fascination with old movies that blur the boundaries between death and life. Perhaps it might be The Sixth Sense, the movie featuring Bruce Willis, a seeming child counselor, and Haley Joel Osment,
the child who awkwardly confessed, “I see dead people.” Or it might be the slew of Zombie movies like The Night of the Living Dead.

The reality is, we don’t have to be a movie character to say, “I see dead people.” According to the passage above, we discover that we are surrounded by the living dead every day without realizing it. Notice that it says that “you were dead in your transgressions and sin.”

I remember the first time I heard that as a young atheist. I laughed so hard that I kind of snorted at the thought. “Not me! I said, pounding my chest, “I’m pretty alive. You can check my pulse if you’d like!” I didn’t really get how I could be dead, even while I was alive.

What does it mean to be dead? Simply put, it means to be separated from life. Once a person is cut off from life, they become dead. Jesus told us, “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6 NIV) He told a dear friend, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, will live even though he dies; and whoever believes in Me will never die.”

Jesus is LIFE itself. To be separated from Him is to be separated from life. One is dead in a very real deep sense without Jesus. And one is alive in a way that is permanent with Jesus that is unchanged if that believer was to die.

Take a moment and think of a dead man laying in a coffin. What can that person do to help himself? What can that person respond to that might go on around his casket during the visitation or funeral? Even if his widow is crying profusely, the dead person does not sit up and sympathize or try to comfort her. If some friends are gathering and sharing a funny story of his life, he does not sit up and laugh and say, “That’s a perfect example of my life, isn’t it?”

No, a dead person is helpless and unresponsive. In the same way, all of us are helpless to know God and respond to spiritual things before we become believers in Jesus. We are dead spiritually and cut off from the true life of Jesus. We will need a miracle for this to change.

Not only are we dead without Jesus, this passage makes it clear that we are Doomed. Look again at this sentence – “Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” This is a harsh diagnosis. By nature, means that we are born this way. We are born as objects for God’s wrath! I picture that all of us are born with a target on our back; a big bull’s eye that begs for God to strike us down in His righteous anger. But the Bible tells us that God is storing up His wrath (Romans 2:5). This means that God is holding this back; He is blocking His judgment at the present time. God is patient. He is not willing that any should perish, but desires all to come to repentance and faith in Jesus. (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9)

After giving us this bad news that we are all dead and doomed, the Apostle Paul suddenly said, “But…” Everything turns on this word. “But, because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ!” What great news! Though we were dead in our transgressions, though we were doomed as objects of wrath, God chooses mercy and grace rather than justice. And we are set free from a desperate future!

I imagine a vivid picture of this transformation inspired by the old Charles Wesley hymn, “And Can It Be.” Imagine awakening to find yourself buried alive in an old tomb, cold and damp, dark as dark can be except for a little light coming from the crack below the tomb door. You struggle to move and realize that you are bound with chains wrapped around your body from your shoulders down to your feet.

Your heart rate quickens as you contemplate your fate, breathing in the musty air and feeling things crawl over your imprisoned body. You strain to turn your head this way and that, craning your neck to see some signs of hope. Way off in the distance, seemingly out beyond the tomb itself, you see a small pinpoint of light. You imagine it is the eye of God seeing you in your prison.

Suddenly, this pinpoint of light blazes in brightness like the sun. You hear a loud crack of thunder, the dark tomb is enflamed with light and your chains are shattered. You wait for the bolt of justice to destroy you, but realize that it has only set you free. Your chains lay in rubbles around you, the tomb door is shattered and you stand with a new lease on life!

This is what God has done for every human being. Though we deserve His just punishment for our rejection of His rule over our life, God chose mercy and grace. Jesus stepped in the way of the wrath of God and took it upon Himself. “He was pierced for our transgression, He was crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.” (Isaiah 53:5 NIV)

How do we respond to this great love? Wesley concluded this verse, “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee.”

We have gone from death to life. We are no longer Zombies. And we have the message of life for all those around us who are the Living Dead.

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What Price Freedom? Use Them or Lose Them

We have just finished celebrating the birth of our country and it is a well deserved celebration indeed. We have glorious freedoms in the USA, unequaled throughout the world. But are we too comfortable in the United States of America? Are we justified to relax and believe that life will go on as it has for the past 234 years?

How did it come about that our country has such great freedoms? Looking back, one document stands out: The Declaration of Independence. This had such force throughout the world, because of this radical statement:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

This means that the rights of all people are given by God, not granted by the king or any other government! This was earth-shaking!

Our Founding Fathers put their lives on the line to defend this great truth: Governments do not give rights – God does. He is the Creator of all human beings. They are all created in His image, and therefore have freedoms, because God is free. The Bible, especially the Old Testament Law, delineates many of the freedoms that have come into our government – either through direct statements or by example.

What are some of these God-given freedoms that we enjoy in this country? A quick reading of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (and other amendments) will reveal a list of 22 freedoms. Topping the list are: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of the Press, and Freedom of Assembly. These freedoms set us apart from nearly all of the governments around the world. Some additional freedoms founded in our Judeo-Christian roots are: Right to Due Process of Law, Freedom from Self-Incrimination, Right to Private Property, and the Right to Confront Accusers.

Freedom of Religion and Freedom of Speech were modeled for us by the Apostles Peter and John in Acts 4. They had run into trouble as a result of their healing and preaching ministry in the Temple courts. this was not that long after the arrest and execution of the Lord Jesus. They were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the same high court that had tried and convicted Jesus.

Think about that. How might you feel standing in front of the same authorities who had sentenced your leader to death? If Jesus could not win against these judges, how do you think you might do? How would you plead your case? Would you seek to be diplomatic and a peace maker, hoping for a different outcome?

The Apostles Peter and John faced them head on. Explaining the miracle that had taken place the day before, they said,

“It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He [Jesus] is ‘the stone the builders rejected, which has become the capstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given to men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10-12 NIV)

We see in this passage that the high court was “astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” The court then commanded these two men not to speak at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John responded, “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20 NIV)

These courageous men used their God-given rights rather than cower before the court. Such an example is one way that we maintain our freedoms today.

I personally had a chance to support a junior high student, Megan Hedges, who wished to share a Christian newspaper with her fellow students. Very quickly she was swept up into the principal’s office and stood there shaking while being scolded by the principal and assistant principal. She was told that she was violating the separation of church and state (not in our constitution).

Her parents were upset by what they saw as a violation of their daughter’s First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the Federal Court sided with this frightened girl and upheld her rights to peaceably express her faith and exercise her freedoms. [Hedges v. Wauconda Cmty. Unit Sch. Dist. No. 118, 9 F.3d 1295, 1298 (7th Cir. 1993)]

Interestingly enough, Megan was just named in a new case last week. When Megan stood her ground and exercised her freedoms, it became one of the legal foundation stones to protect the freedoms of other students for close to 20 years. If we use our freedoms, we keep them. If we don’t, we can lose them.

This may seem odd, but there is a doctrine of law that allows a neighbor to take over a piece of land that is neglected by its owner. It happens slowly but is allowed due to the lack of response of the owner.

What happens is this – Say I live next to my friend, Alfred Block, and I notice that there is a perfect, level, slice of land between us for a croquet court and I begin to use it that way when friends come over. If Alfred sees this take place and ignores it, then I’m one step closer to claiming the land. As time proceeds, I decide to use a little more, I add a sand volleyball court, using concrete to anchor the poles and then putting up lights to play after dark.

If this continues uncontested for a long enough period of time, then I can assume ownership of the property.

Today, there are encroachments upon our liberties, simple ways that our First Amendment rights are being marginalized. For example,

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech at Georgetown University, spoke on human rights. Not only did this she talk about the right “to love in the way you choose,” (an obvious attempt at making advancing gay rights a top priority for the U.S. government), she also talked about “freedom of worship.”

But Clinton never mentioned freedom of religion. Only freedom of worship. This is a big change.

Chuck Colson analyzed it this way in his Breakpoint Commentary of June 30, 2010:
In the First Amendment, the founders (whose work we celebrate this weekend) wisely ensured that government could not prohibit the “free exercise” of religion. And that means so much more than freedom of worship. It guarantees that we are not restricted to living out our faith in the privacy of our homes or church sanctuaries. It means we are free to exercise our religion—and contend for faith—in every area of life.

Just this clever dissembling of words is an apparent attempt to restrict freedom of religion to freedom of worship only. Do you see the implications? Sure, I am free to attend church, sing hymns, pray over meals, offer thanks to God for my children and grandchildren. That’s my own private affair.

But should the government succeed in redefining freedom of religion, how much longer can I practice my faith in public?

If you read history, you will see that that the first act of a tyrant is to suppress religion, which means of course, religious practice. Our Founders knew this. They knew the first English settlers came to these shores precisely so they could practice their faith.

And if you read history, you’ll know that the one true threat to a tyrant’s rule is always the believer’s loyalty to a God Who is above the god of the state.

This is why Christians were thrown to the lions in ancient Rome. The earliest baptismal confession of the young Christian Church was “Jesus is Lord.” And that meant Caesar was not. This is why Hitler and Stalin first went after the church. The star of David and the cross were symbols of an authority higher than their own.

When we accept similar encroachments on our freedoms and sit quietly by, we end up losing them.

The example of Peter and John is clear. They chose to obey God rather than men. They chose to exercise their God-given rights even in the face of severe consequences. Likewise, Christians need to use them or lose them. We need to graciously and lovingly, yet firmly, practice our freedoms in the open while we still have them.

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