Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Beauty and The Beast: Snowstorm Jonas

The monster snowstorm named Jonas lived up to its billing and then some. The giant system brought a huge chunk of the nation to a grinding halt while releasing its fury over numerous states, 14 of which registered at least a foot of snow or more. Another four states set accumulation records with some places receiving in excess of 40 inches. New York City was brought to a literal standstill with all roads being closed to all but emergency vehicles at one point.

In any major snowstorm, there often come deaths directly associated with the event. Jonas was no different. One count came in it at 31 who lost their lives in one way or another as a result of factors related to the massive system.

While those who lose their lives due to snow often do so for health issues from shoveling or in traffic accidents, there was one particular case that was simply heartbreaking beyond words. It occurred in Passaic, New Jersey on the Saturday night of the long wild Jonas weekend.

Felix Bonilla, Jr. had been digging out the family's car while his girlfriend and their two children sat inside to stay warm. But the car's engine was on and the tail pipe became clogged by snow. Odorless carbon monoxide gas quickly seeped into the car in minutes, killing the mother and her baby boy. The little girl, whose name was Messiah, also became unconscious but was kept alive by paramedics. Sadly she also died just a few days later. Mr. Bonilla, Sr. stated that his son was doing very poorly following the tragedy, which would seem to be an obvious understatement.

Watching snow fall can be a beautiful and peaceful thing to behold. Many simply adore the wintry white atmosphere. But, of course, it can also be deadly at times. Such was the case in this sad occurrence in New Jersey just recently. And it is probably accurate to say that none of those who perished during the recent storm ever dreamed that they would be ushered into eternity when the first few flakes began to appear before them.

Life is indeed fragile. It sometimes comes to a quick and unexpected end even for those who may be young and healthy. And that is exactly why the Bible warns all to be ready in a moment’s notice to face their Creator and being in the proper spiritual condition to do so. There is nothing more important -- nothing!

Proverbs 27:1 states, “Do not boast about tomorrow, For you do not know what a day may bring forth.” And the wisdom book of James in the New Testament confirms this truth in greater detail. In James 4:13-16 we read, “Come now, you who say, 'Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit'; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, 'If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.'"

The Bible also warns, in no uncertain terms, about what happens when the physical life comes to end. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment.” Judgment is sure because sin is real! And all sin brings certain and severe consequences as noted in Romans 6:23. “For the wages of sin is death” That is not up for debate. Fortunately, the second half of the verse gives the other side of the coin. "But the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That gift requires faith -- alone!

The subject of snow is one found in Scripture and sometimes used in the context of sin and salvation. The prophet Isaiah writes, "'Come now, and let us reason together,' Says the LORD, 'Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow.'” (Isaiah 1:18) And in his great prayer of repentance David wrote, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

Thirty-one souls saw their sudden earthly end during one historic snowstorm in January. Their eternal ends are now sealed -- for better or worse. Those who knew Christ as their personal Savior had their souls made as clean and pure as the fresh driven snow. These were fully prepared to face God when this life ended and the next one began. And we trust that is true of you on this day because we know not what may happen on any given day! 

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  (1 Corinthians 1:18)

Bill Breckenridge

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Iranian Hostage Crisis - 35th Anniversary

Last week, on January16th,  four of the five  U.S. citizens who were being held captive in Iran were released  as part of a prisoner exchange. Among those freed was American Pastor Saeed Abedini who had been jailed there for over three years while working on an orphan project in the country. It was obvious that the pastor was detained and severely abused primarily based on his Christian faith and witness. Amazingly, he was released on what was National Religious Freedom Day. But interestingly, January 20th marked the 35-year anniversary of the release of over 60 Americans in what will forever be known as simply ‘The Iran Hostage Crisis’. That was one that history will never forget!

Back on November 4, 1979, a group of Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran over the action of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to allow Iran’s deposed pro-Western Shah  to come to the United States for cancer treatment. But the hostage-taking was  more about the students declaring an end to what they saw as American interference in their nation's affairs.

It was a rugged time in America on many levels and this long ordeal was as symbolic of the nation’s stress at the time as any. Few alive back then will ever forgot Americans being paraded around like cattle with hoods covering the heads and faces. But finally the students set their hostages free on January 20, 1981. It was 444 days after the crisis began and just hours after President Ronald Reagan delivered his inaugural address. Many historians believe that hostage crisis cost Jimmy Carter a second term as president.

So taking Americans hostage in this rouge nation is nothing new and will likely not end even with the recent and controversial nuclear deal between Iran and the U.S.  The hatred for the West, and for Christianity in general, will certainly fuel more evil and terror as time goes by.

Most likely, there are many still alive who were a part of that most infamous mass kidnapping so long ago. They have been physically free now for over 35 years. They were liberated decades ago and today live in a land of liberty. But some state that they still have literal nightmares about the stress they endured there.

I sometimes wonder what occurred behind closed doors back in those long horrific months some three and a half decades ago? I’m not thinking only about the physical or mental abuse, but also the spiritual climate. I wonder how many captives and how there faith stood up to this difficult dilemma? I wonder if some of these took the opportunity to share their faith with their fellow prisoners? I wonder if they ever thought about the Apostle Paul who was often in jail and even wrote some of his great epistles in that setting? And I wonder if there were some who became Christians in, of all places, one of the worst places on earth to be a believer in Jesus Christ?

Pastor Saeed Abedini was detained more than twice as long as those 60+ Americans long ago. And from what we know, he may have been physically abused far more than most of that group. But while this one man was in terrible physical bondage, we know that he was at least free where it matters most. Again, I have no idea of the overall spiritual standing of that prior group, but we do know that this one man had a vital relationship with Christ. That meant that he fully understood the words seen in John 8:31-32. "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

And what was this specific truth was the Savior speaking about?  He answered that a few chapters later in response to a question by one of His followers. In John 14:5 He replied to Thomas who had asked, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way? The Lord gave His profound answer in the following verse. "Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” 

And exactly how does this all work? How does someone come to the Father for spiritual life, forgiveness of sin, a heavenly home and the strength to face any adversity that life may dish out?  I could attempt to explain it myself. By why do that when the Scriptures have done it already and directly from the mind of God? In Romans 5:1-5 we find the truth about of spiritual freedom that accompanies saving faith.

“Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope.  Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”

In this life there exists a blessed physical freedom. But of far greater value, is the truth that there is an eternal spiritual freedom found only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. (1 John 5:12)

Bill Breckenridge

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Powerball and Biblical Principles

The odds of winning the biggest Powerball jackpot in history were 1 in 292.2 million, and there’s finally a winner – actually, there are three winners who will split an estimated $1.6 billion. The record-setting lottery grew to the record-setting amount after 20 drawings without a winner. Each winless drawing set off a frenzy of ticket-buying by people dreaming of becoming rich.

Playing the lottery seems like an innocent quest for wealth. For many people, however, the lure of gambling becomes an addiction with disastrous results and a cost far beyond monetary loss.

In light of the Powerball jackpot’s news-making payout, we share some Biblical insights by David Virkler from his commentary "Gambling: What’s Wrong With It?".

The principles of Christian living outlined in God’s Word fly in the face of the gambling philosophy. Some might argue that life itself is a gamble. In a sense, much of life involves taking a risk, but that is not at all the same thing. Gambling involves getting something for nothing with no personal growth or social gain. The gain of the winner is always at someone else’s expense.

No Christian should gamble even one cent. It is poor stewardship of what God has provided and promotes false principles for living and financial management.

Although there is no specific verse in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not gamble,” numerous texts address principles that have a bearing on this issue.

 - There is no such thing as “luck” in the plan of God. The Christian life is not blind chance; it is God's choice. “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Rom. 8:28) “For we walk by faith, not by sight.”  (2 Cor. 5:7)

- We are to trust God to meet our needs. “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?… Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown in the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?… But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matt. 6:26, 30, 33)

- We are not to seek riches simply for monetary gain. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matt. 6:19-20)

- Monetary greed results in other forms of harm. “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows”.  (1 Tim. 6:9, 10) The love of money is at the heart of gambling!

- Monetary greed leads to family troubles. “He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house.” (Prov. 15:27) 

- Our focus should be on the things of God, not material possessions. “…Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4) “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:20) “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col. 3:1-4)

- Cheerful and generous giving to God’s work leads to financial sufficiency. “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully…. And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.”  (2 Cor. 9:6, 8)

- We are to wisely invest what God has given us. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Christ taught that we will be called to give an account of what God has given us, and that includes our money. Those who do not invest wisely show themselves unworthy of further blessings. Gambling takes money away from legitimate needs for a “chance” at greater wealth. The prophet Isaiah asked, “Why do you spend money for what is not bread and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2)

- Wealth achieved through deceitful means does not last. “Wealth gained by dishonesty will be diminished, but he who gathers by labor will increase.”  (Prov. 13:11). Gambling is often fraught with deceit and fraud.

- Honest work is the biblical model (Gen. 2:15, Ex. 20:9) and enables us to provide for the needs of others (Prov. 31, 2 Thess. 3:10). Gambling leads to a mindset that wealth can be achieved with no effort. 

- We are to live with the welfare of others in mind. “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit…Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.” (Phil. 2:3, 4) Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor as our self (Mark 12:31). For one to win at gambling, someone else must lose. 

- God’s word warns against mistreating the poor and vulnerable in society—those gambling hurts the most. “He who oppresses the poor to increase his riches, and he who gives to the rich will surely come to poverty.” (Prov. 22:16) “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.” (Zech. 7:10a)

- Our actions affect others. “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself.” Gambling can cause the stumbling of a weaker brother (1 Cor. 8) and affects our testimony before the unsaved. (Rom. 14:7) “…whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”  (1 Cor. 10:30-31)

- We are not to covet what others have. Gambling is coveting—an attempt to gain others' money without providing anything in return. God specifically prohibits coveting in Exodus 20:16, and Christ warned against it. “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15)  

We have developed a society crazed by false hopes of instant success bowing at the shrine of “Lady Luck.” A casino owner once admitted, “All the praying in the world isn’t gonna change your luck,” yet people keep going back on the misguided notion that this will be the time they strike it rich and they will live happily ever after.

This is carried over into the view of eternity. Too often we hear, “I’ll take my chances.” There is no such thing as chance in salvation! We get to Heaven by choice not by chance. You either believe and receive Christ, making a conscious reasonable decision, or you disbelieve Jesus Christ and refuse Him. To do nothing is not chance—it is choice. 

Jesus Christ is the reality that the empty, frustrated gambler seeks, and He will save you if you trust Him. He has dealt with the terrible odds against us and, in careful calculation, came and died on the cross so we may have salvation as a gift. Invite Jesus Christ into your heart in simple faith. Pray the sinner’s prayer, “God be merciful to me the sinner” (Luke 18:13). Romans 10:13 promises that “whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”