Eat, drink, and be merry?

We’ve pondered the question for ages: What happens after death? Will there be anything at all?

What you believe about that—what you really believe—pretty much determines how you live.

If you believe you’re finished when they pull the sheet over your face, you’re probably trying to squeeze as much fun out of life as you can.

Eat, drink, and be merry, as the saying goes. This is all you’ve got.

You won’t care what some clergyman speaks over your grave.

You won’t care because you won’t know, and you won’t know because you won’t exist anymore.

Many people believe that, and that’s how they live.

It’s what the Sadducees believed. We live, we die, that’s it. Game over.

They were so sure about it that they had created what they thought was an insurmountable argument.

They’d used it before, and now they plan to try it on this up-and-coming Rabbi who had proved to be a difficult sparring partner.

As it turns out, he poked a few crater-sized holes in their argument.

Here’s the confrontation:

And Sadducees came to him, who say that there is no resurrection. And they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife, but leaves no child, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first took a wife, and when he died left no offspring. And the second took her, and died, leaving no offspring. And the third likewise. And the seven left no offspring. Last of all the woman also died. In the resurrection, when they rise again, whose wife will she be? For the seven had her as wife.” 

Jesus said to them, “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living. You are quite wrong” (Mark 12:18-27).

They’d probably stumped quite a few teachers in their day, and they were eager to see Jesus wilt under their inescapable logic.

But Jesus was no ordinary Rabbi. By quoting one Scripture he exposed their biblical ignorance and theological bias.

They denied the afterlife not because there was no evidence, but because they didn’t want to believe in life after death.

You are quite wrong, Jesus says.

I’d say that’s a pretty huge thing to be wrong about.

Imagine living your life as if this is it, only to die and find out there’s more.

Much more.

An eternity more.

Imagine accumulating the toys and chasing the dreams and squeezing every ounce of fun out of life . . . only to realize that you missed the whole point.

Imagine realizing that God wanted you to live a selfless life to prepare you for something infinitely better than the passing fancies of a self-centered life here.

Imagine God as the God of the living, not the dead.

Imagine eternity with him.

Believing that completely changes the way we live.

God and taxes: Is God wringing his hands about our government?

I’ve never known anyone who particularly enjoyed paying taxes.

We’ll certainly hear a lot about it this summer and fall, though.

During this election cycle, your candidate will raise taxes through the roof while my guy will be able to run the entire country with virtually no taxes at all. The government will be sending us money if the election goes the way I’m suggesting.

Or at least the arguments will go something like that.

Unfortunately, we didn’t invent convoluted discussions about taxes.

In Jesus’ world, many of the people hated taxes maybe more than we do, and some of their leaders thought this might be the area where they could trip Jesus up.

They were wrong, of course, but imbedded in this short-lived argument is an important principle.

And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and some of the Herodians, to trap him in his talk. And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?” But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” And they brought one. And he said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they marveled at him (Mark 12:13-17).

These men were talking about a head tax that had been imposed on everyone who lived in this area. It amounted to only one denarius per year, which was a day’s wage for an agricultural laborer.

The people hated it not because it was so high but because of two other things:

It reminded them of their subjugation to Rome, whom they hated.

And two, the coin used to pay it bore an image of the emperor and referred to him as “son of god.”

When they came up with their clever question, they thought they had Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he said you didn’t need to pay it, Rome would probably have him arrested. If he said you should pay it, it would hurt his popularity with the people.

As always, Jesus answered perfectly, refusing to take either side. Instead, he said since the coin had Tiberius’ image on it, it belonged to him.

Here are a couple of things to think about as you reflect on this passage:

The obvious lesson is that we should submit ourselves to the government, even when that government endorses sinful practices (as Rome did and as America does). Read Romans 13:1-7 for more on that.

But Jesus makes another more important point, one we don’t need to miss.

Our highest allegiance isn’t to Tiberius or Herod or Rome or Judah.

It’s to God. Tiberius has his mark on the coin, but God’s got his mark on us.

We belong to him, and that’s the only thing that really matters.

Many of us are thankful to live where we live, but we must avoid ethnocentricity. The United States of America is not the Kingdom of God.

The political party to which we belong is not the church.

The future of the world doesn’t hinge on who wins the election this November.

God doesn’t need crude oil to be at a certain price before he can accomplish his will. He’s not crossing his fingers hoping that a certain fiscal policy will win the day.

When Jesus tells us to render unto God what is God’s he’s reminding us that we don’t need to obsess over politics and platforms and politicians.

Ultimately, all presidents, senators, and representatives rule under the oversight of a sovereign God. They may strut and brag and act as if they deserve all the credit, but don’t forget – God still rules heaven and earth.

That won’t change no matter who sits in the Oval Office next January.

God’s name won’t be on the ballot in November, but he’ll still be sitting on his throne on Inauguration Day.

Guarding your heart

If you have kids who are older than 11, they’ve probably watched pornography online.

At least if they meet the national average.

This is one area where we want our kids to be below average.

A new porn video is produced in the United States every 39 minutes, and $100 billion will be spent on pornography this year.

The world is as scary as it’s ever been, but it’s not justout there.

It’s in here too, pretty close to home.

I’ve heard disturbing things lately about kids who grew up in Christian homes who are addicted to porn by the time they finish high school.

God will forgive them, of course, but the scars remain forever. God’s daughters are objectified, sex is distorted, and a young couple enters marriage with baggage that may never leave them.

We simply can’t overstate how important it is for us to protect our hearts and the hearts of our children.

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life (Proverbs 4:23).

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4:6-8).

Your heart is who you are. Out of it flow the springs of life.

You can be uncommonly attractive, incredibly intelligent, and a gifted leader, but if your heart is corrupt, nothing else matters.

Our kids are growing up in a hyper-sexualized culture. If you glance at the magazines in the check-out line or turn on the television, you’ll see images that present a grossly flawed view of what God wanted sex to be.

Parents need to be cautious. The Internet is a wonderful tool, but it can also bring copious amounts of heart-corrupting garbage into our homes.

Be vigilant. Protect your kids even when they object . . . you want their hearts to belong to God.

If your right hand offends you, cut it off, Jesus said. Do what you have to do to prevent the first ungodly image from entering your home. Set restrictions concerning Internet use. Use filtering software. Don’t let kids surf the Internet away from the rest of the family.

Maybe this sounds radical, but we’re fighting for the hearts of our children.

If Satan has his way, he’ll fill your child’s heart with sin and filth. If he can grab your child’s heart while he’s young, it’ll be hard to undo the damage.

Give your children’s hearts to God. Let his Spirit fill them with love, wholesomeness, and purity.

This is a fight that we dare not lose. Our kids need someone who’s mature and wise enough to do whatever needs to be done to keep them safe.

Purity is worth the fight.

Eat this, not that

The cliché “You are what you eat” has some basis in fact, it seems, or at least that’s what the nutritionists say.

Eat this, not that.

Watch your carbs. Eat good fat, but not too much. Limit your salt. Avoid additives. Eat all-natural.

In other words, don’t eat anything that tastes good.

We know now more than ever that our diet affects our health, probably more than we wish it did. No amount of exercise and vitamin intake can overcome a reckless, all-you-can-eat lifestyle.

That’s probably why God chose the food metaphor to talk to us about spiritual health.

You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, . . . Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits (Hebrews 5:12b-14a;  6:1-3).

He’s saying that our spiritual diet determines how mature we are.

In fact, the Bible has a lot to say about all the bad stuff that happens to us when we’re spiritually immature.

We struggle with division and carnality.

We make bad decisions and fuss with each other, causing problems in the church.

Our marriages suffer, our confidence wanes, our joy falters.

How do you fix it?

A good, solid, well-balanced diet.

Healthy churches have members all along the spiritual growth spectrum. Some Christians are near the beginning, fresh out of the baptistery. Their Bible knowledge isn’t very deep or broad yet. To extend the metaphor, they remain on a milk-only diet.

Others are a few years further along, still learning the fundamentals of the faith but becoming more comfortable with their convictions.

And then others have matured well beyond the basics to a deeper understanding of Scripture. Their relationship with Jesus is more intimate than it’s ever been.

But the key component in all healthy Christians is that they’re not staying where they are.

They’re growing, maturing, learning.

They’re questioning, seeking, studying.

Their climb faces regular setbacks, but it’s trending upward.

They’re feeding on God’s word, and he’s blessing them.

What about us?

Is our Bible knowledge deeper than it was a few years ago?

Do we love Jesus more fervently?

God probably sounds a lot like your primary care physician.

Stay away from junk food, eat a well-balanced diet, and your health will improve dramatically.

What works at the dinner table also does wonders for our souls.

It takes practice

It’s fascinating to watch people who are really, really good at something, especially if it’s something you’ve dabbled in a little yourself.

Ever played golf?

If you’ve only watched the pros on television do it, you’re probably not sufficiently impressed with how incredibly difficult it is to make that little white ball go where you want it to.

How do they make it look effortless?

They certainly weren’t born with the innate ability to swing a golf club. There’s not a golf gene that predetermines success on the links.

The key to their success isn’t quite that simple . . . or easy.

They became good through practice. Lots of it.

Thousands and thousands of hours of it.

What we see on television on Sunday was honed on the practice range on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. They hit the same shot over and over again until they can do it instinctively.

At some point they decided they cared enough about the sport to give their lives to becoming as good as they possibly could.

And I think there’s a lesson there for an area of our lives that’s infinitely more important.

Read this verse:

But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:14).

“. . . trained by constant practice,” he says.

How do you become good at Christianity?

How do you get better at resisting temptation?

Sometimes we don’t like talking about Christian effort because we’re afraid it’ll turn into legalism.

We worry that we’ll emphasize our own efforts and not what Jesus did on the cross.

The truth is, though, the Bible emphasizes human effort.

It doesn’t save us or earn God’s favor, of course, and we should never put our trust in what we do.

But we should be careful not to run so far from legalism that we overlook everything God told us about obedience.

If we want to grow in Christ, it’ll take practice.

It’ll take learning Scripture and submitting to the Spirit as he uses his word to shape and mold us.

It’ll take stumbling and falling and getting up and trying again.

Like many things, it’ll take time.

God will work on us day after day, month after month, year after year, but over time he’ll accomplish his will in our lives. He’ll bring us where he wants us.

And that’s certainly worth whatever feeble effort we put into it.

Measuring how much we’ve grown

We’ve got marks on a doorjamb in our house where our kids have measured their height over the years—lines, names, and dates so they can remember how much they’ve grown and so we can reflect on how in the world a boy could grow three jean sizes in six months.

The thing about height is that it can be measured easily—all it takes is a tape measure, a flat edge, and kids who don’t stand on their tiptoes to skew the results.

Sometimes I wish spiritual growth could be measured so easily.

I wish I could know that right now I’m 10% further along than I was this time last year, or that facing a particular challenge will advance my spirituality by 8%.

We try to measure it, of course.

We track things like church attendance, Bible reading, or prayer frequency.

But it doesn’t work well.

Christianity is about growing more and more into the image of Christ, something impossible to quantify.

But God does give us a few things that indicate either progress or decline, and we ought to pay attention to those markers.

Here’s one of those passages:

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).

The writer suggests that one indication of spiritual growth is our willingness to advance beyond the elementary matters of faith.

Milk is good, but someone who eats nothing more substantive is either immature or sick.

The basics of Christianity are good, but if we’ve been Christians for years and haven’t advanced beyond them, something’s wrong.

We should ask:

Am I getting deeper into the word than I was a few years ago?

Am I more comfortable thinking and talking about serious spiritual matters?

Do I enjoy teachers and preachers who challenge me to dive into the meat of the word?

Several years ago I took quite a few classes in a field that was different from anything I’d studied before. The professors expected us to read journal articles written by scholars who wrote for their peers, not for uninitiated college students.

Quite often I read an entire essay and realized I understood nothing I’d read.

The interesting thing was—and I guess the professors knew this—as the courses continued, we found ourselves beginning to understand a little of what we read, then a little more, and then finally we could engage in reasonably intelligent conversations about the subject.

The essays never became easy, but after a couple of years they made sense. We actually started to enjoy discussing them.

I think something similar happens in matters of faith.

Growth comes slowly, and not without struggle.

After we’ve stuck with it for a while, we start moving into deeper water.

Before too long we’ll look back on where we used to be, and we’ll realize God has led us to higher ground.

It’ll never be measurable, like height or weight, but it’ll make a huge difference in how we approach the stuff in life that really counts.

The world’s only hope

Focusing on this too much will discourage you, but it’s good to think about it occasionally.

Probably more than we do.

Billions of people will wake up today, and they’ll eat, drink, work, play, read and love and live.

They’ll laugh and cry.

They’ll marry and divorce.

They’ll hug and fight and hold hands.

About 150,000 or so will die.

What’s tragic is that most of the living and dying have rejected Christ as their Savior. He’s their only hope, but they’re too busy or too proud or too selfish to trust him.

Shortly before his death, Jesus told this story to warn his own generation.

But it’s still a bit scary to our own.

And he began to speak to them in parables. “A man planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a pit for the winepress and built a tower, and leased it to tenants and went into another country. When the season came, he sent a servant to the tenants to get from them some of the fruit of the vineyard. And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Again he sent to them another servant, and they struck him on the head and treated him shamefully. And he sent another, and him they killed. And so with many others: some they beat, and some they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ But those tenants said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ And they took him and killed him and threw him out of the vineyard. What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this Scripture: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?” And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away (Mark 12:1-12).

You may already know what each character in this story represents.

God selected Israel to be his chosen people. He blessed them, guided them, and nourished them, but they rejected him. He sent them hundreds of prophets to encourage obedience, but they rejected all of them as well.

Their rebellion culminated in their crucifixion of God’s ultimate gift; they rejected all he had to offer.

Could it be any sadder?

Maybe so.

Maybe because our own world has done just what the first-century Jewish world did.

The vast majority trust in themselves—their religion, their morality, their intelligence, their ingenuity—but fail to recognize Christ as the Son sent by God to give them what they can never achieve on their own.

It’s sobering, of course, but it’s true.

And it ought to remind us of a couple of things.

It ought to motivate us to commit ourselves today to accept Jesus again as our only hope to be what we’re supposed to be. There’s no fallback plan.

And it ought to lead us to live and love in a way that’ll reflect the Son to all the folks around us who still reject him. God called us to be his salt and light in the midst of a world that needs him so desperately.

Why we do what we do

You’d think that Jesus’ opponents would’ve realized by now that he just won’t step into their traps. After all, they’ve been trying to derail him for over three years.

Apparently a few of them were slow learners.

Maybe it’s a last-ditch effort by a few arrogant priests who actually thought they could beat God in a debate.

Whatever their motivation, they stepped into an argument that ended, predictably, with their slinking away with defeat in their eyes.

It’s interesting, though—they actually asked an excellent question.

Here’s the story:

And they came again to Jerusalem. And as he was walking in the temple, the chief priests and the scribes and the elders came to him, and they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus said to them, “I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Was the baptism of John from heaven or from man? Answer me.” And they discussed it with one another, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But shall we say, ‘From man’?”—they were afraid of the people, for they all held that John really was a prophet. So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things” (Mark 11:27-33).

These men represented the Sanhedrin, the Jewish executive, legislative, and judicial council. They were the ruling elite, the movers and shakers, and they weren’t keen on up-and-comers stealing their influence.

Notice that Jesus didn’t question the legitimacy of what they asked. Implicitly, but cleverly, he answered it.

By backing them into a corner they couldn’t escape, his point was clear:

His authority came from God, and it superseded whatever power these men had usurped over the years.

By what authority are you doing these things? they asked.

That’s actually a question everyone ought to consider.

Most people like doing their own thing.

It starts in childhood with the Don’t-Tell-Me-What-To-Do attitude.

It continues in adulthood with only slight modifications.

I’m my own boss.

Who are you to think you can tell me what to do?

I’ll do what want to do, thank you very much.

This entrepreneurial spirit sometimes works well in the marketplace, but it’s a disaster in spirituality.

When we look at our world’s religious landscape, we see a hodgepodge of church practices . . . so many ideas and teachings that seem to flow from people who want to do it their way.

But following Jesus isn’t doing it our way.

It’s not organizing our churches according to the latest market survey, or devising worship to be like the booming megachurch across town.

The church world has become a mess in so many ways.

Can it be fixed?

The answer may sound like a gross oversimplification, but it’s true nonetheless.

What we must do is go back to Jesus as our model, our authority.

It’s not about you or me or this church or that church.

It’s not about what draws the biggest crowds or baptizes the most folks.

It’s about remembering that Jesus is God, and we need to do it his way.

When he ascended back to heaven, he gave authority to his apostles, who were inspired by God to give us his will in Scripture.

Maybe it sounds too simple, overly naïve, but it’s so easy to forget the basics.

When asked why we are what we are and why we do what we do, our answer ought to be, Because of the authority of Jesus Christ as revealed in his word, the Bible.

That’s the only thing that’ll ever get more of us on the same page.

What’s hurting your prayer life

It’s so easy to tell people they ought to forgive and forget.

That little cliché just sorta rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Just do it, we say.

Let it go.

Forget about it.

And then a co-worker drags your name through the mud.

A bully picks on your kid.

Someone slaps your cheek or takes your tunic.

Now it’s personal, and the pain is real.

What seemed so easy for someone else to do suddenly becomes incredibly difficult.

Yet God still says to do it.

In fact, it’s hard to think about how Jesus could’ve said it differently to emphasize that this really, really matters.

God’s forgiving us hinges on our forgiving others . . . isn’t that what Jesus says here?

“And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25).

When we close our eyes to pray, God wants us to think horizontally before we think vertically.

Am I angry with someone?

Am I bitter toward my spouse, a friend, a fellow Christian, an enemy?

I ought to begin by asking God to work on me, to remove the bad stuff inside.

In your prayers today ask him to examine your heart. Ask him to show you the bitterness and anger that you’ve hidden deep within your soul.

And then ask him to get rid of all of it. Ask him to give you a longsuffering, patient heart. Ask him to help you forgive whoever it is that might be standing between you and him.

He’ll do it, of course, but maybe not immediately.

It’ll be something you’ll need to pray again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next . . .

But over time you’ll notice your heart becoming less concerned with others’ sins and more about your own.

And that, in turn, will open the door for God to overwhelm you with the forgiveness he wants you to have.