Saturday, May 27, 2017

Odem High School 2017 Commencement Speech

Superintendent Gonzales, Principal Walker, Board of Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Parents, family members, friends, and the graduating class of 2017, it is an honor to be with you here tonight. And I mean that with all sincerity. I’m not just up here giving the prerequisite greetings.  I am truly honored to give this address tonight because such honors are usually given to people who have climbed the corporate ladder and excelled in their fields. Such honors are usually given to folks who have managed to obtain some measure of status and fame. Such honors are usually given to folks who have a list of accomplishments at least a third of a page long. And I have none of that. I’m just an ordinary guy.

(I actually forgot this particular paragraph in the oral presentation) How ordinary am I? Well, to begin with, I live in a town that is even smaller than Odem--if you can believe that. Yes the town I live in doesn’t even qualify for a Dairy Queen--that’s how small it is. And I do not serve some sort of growing, mega-church. I have a medium sized, rural congregation that is stable to declining. I have a wonderful wife and three kids, but none of them are famous or making major headlines even in the local papers. I haven’t climbed the ranks of pastorhood in the larger church that I serve in. I’ve managed to write three books, but they are all self-published and are about as far from a best selling list that you can be. In fact, I am so ordinary that I don’t even have a viral blog post or video to my credit.

And if you would have told me 25 years ago as I walked across this field that I would be this ordinary, I would have said something to you that was quite unbecoming as a pastor. I might have even thrown in a rude finger gesture in for good measure because the last thing that I believed that I would be was ordinary. I believed I would bring some type of change to the world. I believed I would excel. It might not be in the corporate world, but I was sure that even in the church, I could become wealthy and famous. And I wanted that. Don’t be surprised.  Even us pastors sometimes get our priorities out of whack.

And I worked toward that end game. I worked toward trying to make my congregations grow and thrive. I jumped through my educational hoops graduating valedictorian of  my high school class; getting a 4.0 in college; and getting my master's degree.  I began work in a church, and of course success is measured by growth.  Therefore, I read every book on growing a church that I could.  I learned all the techniques, and I worked to try and get people to follow those techniques.  I threw myself into my job trying to make people help me attain my goals.  And what did it get me? Burned out. Tired. Frustrated. You know, I found out really quick that a lot of the time, people just don't do what you tell them to do.  It’s somewhat akin to herding cats. You get really tired, and the cats don’t cooperate.

And so I found myself looking in the mirror at quite an ordinary person whose life was not turning out the way he had envisioned. Have any of you ever been there?  Have you ever looked at your life and said, "Well, that didn't exactly turn out like I planned?"  If you have, you know it doesn’t feel good, and sometimes you need a time of healing.

That's exactly what I did, and during that time, my family and I traveled up to see my grandfather who was 94 years old at the time. Grandpa had been a pastor like me during his working years, and I sought some wisdom from him. I asked him, “Grandpa, did you ever burn out?”  Now, when you ask someone over 90 years old a question like that, don't expect a short answer.  Folks at that stage in life like to talk and remember, and that's exactly what my grandfather did.  He didn't give me a "yes" or "no" answer.  Grandpa started talking about his life and career. He started talking about all the congregations that he had served. After about half an hour he stopped, and he spoke a sentence that has forever changed me, the way I work, and the way I view the world. Grandpa looked at me and said, “I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms.”

Now, I’ve got to stop here just a moment and offer up a disclaimer of sorts. I’m about to get a little preachy. I’m not going to apologize for it. Farmers have to farm. Administrators have to administrate. Teachers have to teach, and preachers have to preach. It’s just what we
do.

But, let me say that what I am about to say does not reflect the views or values of Odem-Edroy Independent School district, its administrators, its faculty, its employees or anyone else. The following views are my views and mine alone.  They are not meant to offend but are simply me telling my story.  That should prevent any lawsuits from the ALCU or the freedom from religion folks.

Now, back to the story. When grandpa said those words, “I didn’t accomplish much in the eyes of the world, but the Lord and I are on very good terms,” at one and the same time those words hit me like a ton of bricks and brought healing to the depths of my soul. For I knew right after he uttered those words that I was living my life in that first clause. I was seeking; I was wanting; I yearned for accomplishing much in the eyes of the world. I wanted the world to notice me and think that I was important.

But as a Christian, that’s actually quite the wrong attitude to have. As a Christian I knew that what should be most important was my relationship with the Lord. What should have been most important was realizing that the Lord and I were on good terms and that I had done nothing to get on those good terms. In reality, it was the Lord who made that relationship between Him and I straight. He redeemed me. He loved me. He bought me with a great price; therefore, I should be living my life for Him instead of trying to get accolades in the world.  Grandpa’s words re-centered my heart and brought me to a very different place.

Now, my goal with telling you this story is not to convert you to Christianity.  My goal is to try and convince you to look at the world with different eyes--to become comfortable with the notion that in all reality the vast majority of us will simply be ordinary people living ordinary lives with ordinary jobs. You don’t need to become a Christian to understand this. In fact, if you will play along with me for the next few minutes, I will show you that the world’s eyes are fickle. The world’s eyes focus on the wrong things.  This is the time to show how extraordinary it is to be ordinary.

I would like for you to do a thought experiment with me. Pretend for a moment that all professional sports have suddenly disappeared. There’s no more NFL, NBA, Major league baseball, hockey or MMA. All of that is gone. How is the world affected? Are there major disruptions in how the world works? You know the answer to that question. You know the answer is no. Now, shift your thinking once again. Pretend that there are no longer any
television stars or movie stars. Pretend there is no longer any television or movie studios. How is the world affected? Are there major disruptions in how the world works? Again, the answer is no--aside from the fact that we might have a baby boom--the answer is still no. One more shift.  Pretend that all of the politicians, lobbyists, and bureaucrats in Washington D.C. suddenly disappear. I thought I might get at least a round of applause for that one. What would happen? More than a few of us probably believe that things would improve tremendously. Now, think about this for a moment: the folks I have just highlighted are the folks who dominate what happens in society. They are the ones who grab the headlines; the ones we look up to; the ones we aspire to become like. And the actual impact they have is…

Now, let's do a major shift in thinking.  Let's pretend that those who collect garbage suddenly disappear. What would happen in a matter of weeks? Do you think you would notice? Pretend that all of a sudden all the farmers and ranchers suddenly disappeared--the ones who produce the food that we eat. What would happen in a matter of weeks? Do you think the world would be disrupted? Pretend that all of a sudden all the folks who stay at home and care for children or those who work in daycare suddenly vanish. What kind of impact would that have? What would happen if all the teachers vanished--you know, those who are charged with passing down the collected wisdom and knowledge of generations? What would happen in a matter of months? Do you think anyone would notice? What would happen if all the truck drivers were suddenly gone--you know, the ones who bring the goods to our stores? In a matter of weeks, do you think folks might get upset if there were empty grocery store shelves, no gasoline, and no materials to build? What would happen if there were no longer any EMT’s, doctors, or nurses? Would we feel it then? What about police officers and firemen? I could go on with more, but do you see it yet? Do you understand it yet? None of these folks make headlines. None of these folks is seen as important in the eyes of the world. None of these folks rate according to those in the highest of places. And yet, without them, the world would be affected in a tremendously negative way. It is the ordinary people in life who make the world work. It is the ordinary people in life that keep
society from falling apart.

Now, what does all of this mean? Graduates, you are walking across the stage tonight. Some of you are heading to college. Some of you are going to work. Some of you are going into the armed forces.  Some of you have no clue what you are going to do. But the vast odds are...mind you, just playing the odds...the vast majority of you are going to end up just like me. You are going to end up just like those people sitting out there in the stands.  You are going to end up ordinary.  Now, please know, I am not saying that you shouldn’t chase your dreams. By all means, go after them. Have fun chasing them. I wouldn't be the person that I am today without having chased mine.  And honestly, I hope that you fulfill them. But if you don’t and one day you find yourself looking in the mirror at an ordinary person: at a stay at home mom, at a trash collector, at a police officer, at a truck driver, at an engineer, even a pastor who the world ignores, stand tall. Stand proud. You are actually making that world that ignores you work.  Be proud and realize that you are extraordinarily ordinary.   Thank you.  God bless you, and God bless the class of 2017!!

Monday, May 22, 2017

God's Faithfulness: Romans 9:6-13

I wonder sometimes about those people who buy into what those televangelists say about God.  Maybe you’ve been exposed to some of their garbage before.  You know, the ones who say, “God wants to bless you financially.  God wants to pour down his blessings upon you, but you have to show God something first.  You have to commit to God to prove that you are sincere.  You’ve got to take the first step, a step of faith.  God wants to bless you, but in order for him to do so, you’ve got to plant the seed first.  And that seed is $1,000.  All you need to do is send in $1,000 and God will bless you and pour his blessings upon you.”

Now, these televangelists wouldn’t be on saying such things if people weren’t actually sending in money.  There have been documentaries showing how wealthy some of these so-called preachers have become.  Someone somewhere is sending in such donations, but we rarely get to see the fallout in those peoples’ lives.  We rarely get to hear a word from them about what happened after they sent in their “seed.”  And I wonder what became of their faith if and when the blessings of God didn’t fall into their lap.  I wonder what became of their faith when their $1,000 gift didn’t all of a sudden become $10,000.  What did they think of God then?  Did they question God’s faithfulness?  Did they say, “God, I’ve done my part.  How come you didn’t do yours?”

And it’s not just folks who have sent money to televangelists who ask such questions.  I mean, I’ve heard all sorts of other comments that are very much related.  “Doc, I’ve never drank or smoked.  I’ve tried to eat healthy and live an active life.  Why do I have cancer?”  “I’ve tried to live my life as a good person.  I help people wherever I can.  I treat people with respect and dignity.  Why did I lose my job?”  “I’ve worked hard to provide for my children.  I’ve given them love and affection; clothes and food; toys, a phone, and computers, why do they treat me with contempt?”  Sometimes, these questions are directed at God, and the unspoken part of each of those questions is: God, I’ve done my part.  I’ve done what I’m supposed to do.  Why aren’t you doing your part?  Why aren’t you holding up your end of the bargain?  Why aren’t you being faithful?

Oh, and there is a rebuttal.  There are those who have worked to squash this kind of questioning.  Maybe you’ve heard it.  Maybe it is ingrained deep within you.  I’ve heard it numerous times as well.  “I know we’re not supposed to question why...”  Ever hear that one?  And so you work to bury the questions.  You work to cover them up deeply, but the problem is, they never quite go away.  They are always there nagging.  Is God faithful?  Does God keep His promises?  Can I really count on Him to come through?

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, there are times when we wonder about you.  There are times when we wonder if you really do care.  There are times when we wonder if you really will take care of us like you said you would.  During those times, reveal yourself to us.  Help us see just how you work.  Help us to see that indeed you are faithful and that we can put our full trust in you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

The issue of God’s faithfulness is an old one.  It can be found deeply embedded within the Bible in both the Old and New Testament.  And what is most interesting about our text from the book of Romans today is that God’s action in Jesus Christ has presented a problem of God’s faithfulness to the early church.  The problem comes in the Old Testament promises that God made to Israel.  Paul summed up the blessings that God had bestowed upon Israel at the beginning of Romans chapter 9, “4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”

The problem was, that the vast majority of Israel was rejecting Jesus.  The vast majority of the people did not see Jesus as the Son of God or the Messiah. The religious leaders had rejected Jesus and were persecuting the church.  The political leaders were simply puppets of Rome and could care less.  Even the Jews who did not live in Israel proper and who lived throughout the Roman empire were not flocking to Christianity.  This caused no small amount of consternation in the early church because God’s consistency was on the line.  God had made these promises to the Israelites.  They were considered unbreakable.  Were they now null and void?  Would God keep these promises?

Paul knows he has to answer this question because it cuts to the heart of the character of God.  If God can revoke a promise, then how do we know He will keep the promises given though Jesus?  If God can take away this promise, then He can certainly take away another promise.  Then, all our hope will be in vain.  Paul now will take great pains to show that God is faithful and that He has and will keep His promises.

He begins with these words, “6 It is not as though the word of God had failed.”  Paul begins by turning our attention to the Word of God.  Paul knows the Old Testament backward and forward, and he is going to begin with God’s promise to Abraham.  That covenant is front and center now for Paul.  If you remember the promise God made to Abraham, it went like this: I will be your God, and you will be my people.  From you will make a great nation.  Your descendants will be more numerous than the stars of the sky and the grains of sand in the sea.  I will bless you so that through you all the world may be blessed.  It is this covenant that Paul is now defending.

And what does Paul say about how this covenant was passed down throughout the generations?  For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, 7and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named after you.’ 8This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants. 9For this is what the promise said, ‘About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.’  Paul digs into the story of Abraham to show that the covenant is not passed down to someone simply because of genetics.  Abraham has two children that the scriptures focus on: Isaac and Ishmael.  Both are genetically his children.  One is born through a slave, the other is born through Abraham’s wife Sarah.  The covenant promise, as every good Jew knew, went to Isaac.

But it is also important to notice what Paul says about children of the flesh and children of the promise.  He references the promise made to Abraham when God visited and said, “About this time I will return and Sarah shall have a son.”  Now, remember, Sarah was well past the age of child bearing.  Abraham was an old man himself.  There was no way they should naturally have been able to conceive and bear a child...but they did.  There is a strong element here of God’s work in the passing down of the covenant.  Paul is pointing out that God is ultimately responsible for how the covenant is passed down because something supernatural had to take place for the promise to move on.  Please keep that in mind as we move on.

For Paul now knows the next objection that will come his way.  As I said before, every good Jew knew that the promise should go to Isaac instead of Ishmael because Sarah was Abraham’s wife.  Hagar was a slave.  It’s only natural to believe that the covenant would go to the son of Abraham’s wife.  One could come to the conclusion that there is nothing mysterious or God driven about this despite God’s supernatural intervention.

Therefore, Paul goes to the next generation to show how God operates in the passing on of the covenant.  10Nor is that all; something similar happened to Rebecca when she had conceived children by one husband, our ancestor Isaac. 11Even before they had been born or had done anything good or bad (so that God’s purpose of election might continue, 12not by works but by his call) she was told, ‘The elder shall serve the younger.’ 13As it is written, ‘I have loved Jacob, but I have hated Esau.’

Now, we have to remember the story of Jacob and Esau.  These two were twins, so they both have the same mother and the same father.  Genetically, they are the same, however, the covenant promise was not given to both of them.  It was given to Jacob, and this was decided before these two were even born.  God had declared that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob).  God had declared that the younger of the two would receive the covenant promise even before it was shown what kind of character or moral standing each boy would have.

This defied the cultural wisdom of the time!!  In that culture, the oldest son always inherited the most!!  Hands down!!!  But here is God defying cultural wisdom.  And God is also defying what most would expect out of a just and moral God.  We would expect God to choose the person who was the most upright; the most moral; the one of the highest character.  If you know the story of Jacob and Esau, you will remember that Jacob was an absolute jerk.  That’s not actually the term I would prefer to use, but I am in church.  Jacob was a conniving, sniveling, scoundrel.  And yet, God’s covenant promise rested on him.  “That the election might continue not by works but by his call.”  That statement is of utmost importance in the big scheme of things.  We will come back to it shortly.

But first I must deal with that last sentence of God loving Jacob and hating Esau.  This statement has caused no small amount of controversy.  How could a loving God hate someone even before they are born?  How could a loving God be so callous in this manner?  Take a deep breath.  What is being said here has nothing to do with the emotions of love and hate as we know them.  The story itself bears this out because God actually blesses Esau.  What is being used here is a quotation found in the book of Malachi.  It is a Hebrew idiom that would be better translated, “I chose Jacob and not Esau.”
Now, let’s start tying all of this together to understand what Paul is saying about God.  Paul is delving deep into scripture to show that who you were born to doesn’t give you any privilege when it comes to receiving the promises of God.  At the very beginning of the transfer of the covenant promises, God would choose one child over another.  The second thing Paul is showing us about God is that He will willingly defy cultural norms in accomplishing His work.  God operates by a different standard–a different set of rules than we tend to, so just because the culture around might accept something, it does not mean God will operate in the same manner.   Finally, Paul shows us that our performance doesn’t affect whether or not the promise is handed down.  God passes down the promise by grace not by works.

What do all of these things say when put together? I think it says this: when we question God’s faithfulness, we are often doing so because we misunderstand how God works and are often putting our own expectations on God instead of understanding who He is.  Let’s go all the way back to those televangelists that I started with.  They make the claim that God will bless you if you take the first step.  If you plant the seed of giving, then God will give you more.  This train of thought leads you to believe that you can actually make some sort of claim on God.  This leads you to say, “God, I’ve taken the steps, now you are supposed to follow through.  You owe me something because I have done the right things.”

A similar thing happens when we say things like, “God, I’ve worked really hard to be a good person.  Sure, I’ve made some mistakes, but I generally try to be nice.  I generally try to do the right thing.  I don’t intentionally hurt others.  Why are bad things happening to me?”  At the heart of this question is the idea that I’ve done my part; I’ve done what I’m supposed to do, now, God you are supposed to follow through.  You are supposed to bless me.

And that train of thought would be appropriate if God actually worked on the basis of performance and status.  I mean, if God rained down blessing upon you because you were born a Christian–and not just any Christian but a Lutheran Christian for good measure, then you could claim your birth status as a right.  But God doesn’t operate that way.

If God rained down blessings upon you because your cultural norms demanded it, then you could claim your culture as a right.  But God doesn’t operate that way.

If God rained down blessings upon you because you were morally superior to everyone else,
then you could claim your performance as a right.  But God doesn’t operate that way.

God operates by grace.  God operates by blessing you first.  In the covenant laid out to Abraham, God says, “I will bless you that you may be a blessing.” God’s blessing came first, and then Abraham’s obedience followed.  And God then kept His promises to Abraham–and will continue to do so.  But He will do so by grace.

And, of course, that grace is made purely evident through the actions of Jesus.  For Jesus became the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world by dying on behalf of sinners–by dying on behalf of us.  There was nothing that we ever did that warranted the Son of God dying for us.  Not our status.  Not our ability.  Not our performance.  In fact, our status, our ability, and our performance would actually lead to our condemnation.  But instead of condemning us, God saved us by sheer grace as a gift.  God has already blessed us.  God has already been faithful to us because He loves us–so much so that He was willing to die for us.

And so when things start falling apart; when we feel like we aren’t receiving the blessings that we think are due; we need to be reminded, that it this isn’t a failure of God.  We need to be reminded that God has already blessed us, and that in the future, God will make all things right.  We need to be reminded of what God has already done on our behalf and trust that He will act again in the future.  The real question then is not a matter of God’s faithfulness, it is a matter of ours.

Let us pray.  Heavenly Father, thank you for your faithfulness.  Thank you that you remain steadfast in your promises.  Thank you that you will never revoke them or take them away.  When things happen that might lead us to question those promises, lead us to the cross.  Lead us to Jesus so that we may see how much you love us and the length that you have gone to make sure that your promises will remain true.  Lead us to your love that we may have faith; that we may trust in you.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

A Heart Burning to Make Christ Known: Romans 9:1-5

On YouTube, there are a whole lot of videos titled “Fails.”  They are kind of like America’s Funniest Home videos without commercials.  One after another, you see people crashing skateboards, bicycles, and cars.  One after another you see people diving into the water and belly flopping or landing on their backs.  One after another you see people trying to do gymnastics and landing on their head, back, or belly.  And oftentimes, you can see it coming.  Oftentimes, you can see exactly where the video is headed, and you wonder, “Why in the world would people be doing this kind of stuff?  Why in the world would they be putting themselves in a position to get hurt or even worse?  Why doesn’t someone try to stop them?”

And I would like to ask you this morning, “Would it do any good to try to stop them?  Even though you know the potential and likelihood of someone getting hurt doing such things, even though you see that the behavior could lead to destruction and pain; even though you know that it would be best to change course and walk away; do you think it would do much good to try and convince someone otherwise?”

I do not ask this question lightly because it is a question that I am oftentimes faced with, and I know it is a question that many folks are oftentimes faced with.  And I know how frustrating it can be.  Do you need an example?

I can’t tell you how many times I have watched the behavior of a bride and groom to be and thought, “This is not good.”  The way these two act; the way they think about the future; the way they talk about relationship; it’s not good.  They need to wait.  They need to think about what they are doing.  They need a cooling off period.”  But there is no stopping what is happening–such folks are infatuated with one another, and there is nothing you can say or do that will prevent them from carrying on with their plans.

I can’t tell you how many families I have seen dealing with an alcoholic.  They see the destructive and abusive behavior.  They hold their loved one to account.  They try to get rid of the alcohol.  They try to reign the behavior in.  “I DON’T HAVE A PROBLEM!”  And the downward spiral continues damaging the whole family until everyone just goes into survivor mode.

Perhaps as a parent you have watched your kids making choices that are not in their best interests.  And no matter how hard you push; no matter what discipline you institute; no matter how reasonably you try to explain things to them; they keep doing things that will hurt them in the long run.

And you get frustrated.  You get angry.  You get annoyed.  And as time passes, you become exhausted; beat down; depressed.  Eventually, you wonder if there is any point in fighting; any point in arguing; any point in caring.  Is the struggle even worth it?

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, sometimes in life we run into situations where it looks like no matter what we do or say, we don’t make any difference at all.  It’s so easy to give up.  It’s so easy to walk away.  Help us today to see that we are not the only ones at work in such situations and that ultimately, we look to you to bring change not only in others, but especially in ourselves.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Today, we start chapter nine in the book of Romans.  There is a definite break in the letter, so much so that some scholars have thought that chapters nine through eleven could easily be set on the margins–that these chapters are not really a part of the letter’s main argument or theme.  For in the next three chapters, Paul turns his attention to the problem of Israel.  God made specific promises to Israel throughout the Old Testament.  Are these promises now null and void?  The short answer is no.

But on a more practical level, I had some concerns about preaching through these three chapters.  I mean, does this problem that Paul is dealing with have any relevance to our lives today?  Does Paul’s wrestling with what God is going to do with Israel after the coming of Jesus have anything to say to our situation as Christians and the church today?  This week, as I sat down in sermon preparation, I read through these three chapters, and I didn’t have to go too far for the answer.

In the opening verses of chapter nine, Paul is experiencing exactly the feelings and emotions that I began this sermon with.  He is in anguish as he watches his countrymen–his kinfolk–travel down a path that leads to danger, destruction, and alienation from God.  To show you his anguish, it actually might be better for us to handle these first five verses kind of in reverse.

You see, Paul loves his fellow Israelites.  He know how God has acted in their past.  He knows the promises that God has given through the years.  He knows how God has worked to set the Israelites apart to bless them that they might be a blessing.  In verses 4-5, Paul lays all of this out, “4They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; 5to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed for ever.”  This is an impressive list of gifts that God has given.  Each term deserves consideration and careful dissection.  Unfortunately, we don’t have time to delve into each one and give it justice, so I am simply going to do one giant brush stroke–Paul lays out eight highly significant blessings that God has bestowed upon the Israelites–eight highly significant blessings that show just how much God cares for His people.  And in Paul’s mind, these blessings; these manifestations of God’s love should have led them to see the inevitable conclusion: that God has sent Jesus to be the suffering servant; the Messiah; the Savior of the world.  But, alas, Paul’s kinfolk have not come to see this.  By and large they have rejected the Gospel.  By and large they have not come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.  Most have flat out rejected this notion.

And it’s not that Paul hasn’t tried to reach them.  When we read through the book of Acts, we see clearly that when Paul went into a city, he oftentimes started in the local synagogue–that is the place of Jewish worship.  He would begin preaching the Gospel there, and more often than not, he was rejected.  He was considered a blasphemer.  He was cast out of the synagogue and sometimes shunned, verbally assaulted, beaten, and even stoned.  His message simply was not accepted by his fellow Jews.

And it hurt Paul deeply.  The first three verses of chapter nine testify to this, and these verses are almost beyond comprehension.  “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit— 2I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.”  Paul begins by doubly emphasizing, in both a positive and negative fashion that he is telling the truth.  It’s like swearing on the King James, New Revised Standard, New International Version, and English Standard Translation of the Bible all at the same time.  Paul wants to leave no doubt that what he is saying is true.  And what he says is astounding for someone who has just written what he has written in chapters 1-8.

Paul says: If it were possible, I would suffer eternal separation from Christ; I would suffer the torment of hell for eternity if it would bring my kindred–the people of Israel–to Jesus Christ.  Stop and think about that for a moment.  Stop and think about what Paul is saying in that statement.  He is willing to give up his everlasting salvation; his everlasting place in heaven; his sure foundation and security in life and death–if it would bring his countrymen to faith in Jesus Christ.

Think about this on top of all the persecution and hatred he has received from preaching to his countrymen.  Think about what Paul has just said given that he has been rejected time and again by his fellow Jews.  Think about this in light of how many times he has had the authorities called on him; has been arrested; has been whipped and even stoned.  He has suffered tremendously at the hands of his fellow Jews, and yet, despite this, there isn’t a hint of apathy.  There isn’t a hint of resignation.  There isn’t a hint of wanting to give up.  The fire of the Gospel runs so deeply within him that he would even give up his own salvation to bring his fellow countrymen to faith in Jesus.
The fire of the Gospel runs so deep, that he would sacrifice what is most dear to him, so that his fellow Jews might find salvation in Jesus.

I look at Paul’s fire here, and am put to shame.

I mean, in a very real way, I am like Paul.  I grieve that people don’t seem to come to belief and trust in Jesus in our culture.  I grieve that the ELCA is a shrinking church.  I grieve that our congregation is essentially a stagnant congregation within that larger church.  I grieve that we don’t have pews filled with people who are wondering about the Christian faith and what kind of impact it might have in their lives.  I grieve that it seems like more and more people are becoming irreligious or becoming Christian in name only instead of the deep down conviction and heart changing faith that Jesus
Himself calls us to.  Oh, yes, I grieve these things deeply.

But, what am I willing to do about it?  What am I willing to give up to change things?  The answer shames me.

You see, I look at Paul’s fire here and see my own reluctance to give up anything precious to myself for the sake of the Gospel.

I look at Paul’s fire here and see how selfishly I guard my self and how I shy away from argument and trial and tribulation.

I look at Paul’s fire here and see how willingly I give up and become resigned that folks will not change.

I look at Paul’s willingness to give up his salvation for others and see how I get jealous when I have to give up my day off.

The Gospel does not consume my heart like it did Paul’s.

I would argue the Gospel does not consume most of our hearts’ like it did Paul’s.

I would argue we don’t have near the passion for bringing people to faith like Paul did.  It’s easier to simply let things go.  It’s easier to stay away from conflict.  It’s easier just to do our own thing and let others do their own thing.  It’s too easy to buy the modern day cliche, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are kind to others.”

But the problem with that cliche is that even though we know we should be kind to one another, we aren’t.  Even though we talk about being kind, we see what goes on in our nation. We see what goes on in the world.  If people think they can get away with it: People lie.  People cheat.  People treat one another badly.  I was reminded of this when I saw a video posted on Facebook of a baseball player intentionally missing third base to score.  The desire to win; the desire to be ahead; the desire to put myself in front of others is simply too strong.  As Christians, we know this.  As Christians, we have had it all laid out in front of us by Paul in this letter to the Romans. We know that belief matters.  We know that if you don’t have faith in the right things, the wrong actions will transpire.  The power of sin–the power of self-love is too strong.

And it is the Gospel which takes us out of ourselves.  It was the Gospel that took Paul out of himself.  It was the Gospel which inspires us to sacrifice; to commit; to avoid depression; to give of our time, talent, and treasure for the sake of the world–for the sake of our kindred who do not believe.

For if we know that we are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God;

If we know that we deserve God’s wrath instead of His love because of our sinfulness;

If we know that instead of giving us wrath, God sent Jesus into the world to live the life that we should live and die the death that we deserved;

If we know that it should have been us on that cross instead of Jesus, and that He willingly took our place there;

If we know that Jesus did that of His own free will not because we deserved it, but precisely because we didn’t;

If we know that Jesus died there because He loved us even in our brokenness;

Our hearts of stone melt because of the love that has been poured out for us.

Our hearts become full of thankfulness and love for the One who gave Himself for us.

Our hearts deeply desire Him, and we long to live for Him.

Our hearts long to bring others to the saving grace and love poured out on the cross.

Our hearts burn to tell others the good news of Jesus, and we are willing to do so even at great cost to ourselves.

If you are like me and are not quite there yet, then we need to hear what Jesus has done for us over and over and over.  We need to hear that God so loved us that He gave his only begotten Son so that all those who believe in him should not perish but have eternal life.  We need to have the Gospel pounded into us so that our hearts become inflamed–so that our hearts burn with the desire to bring people to Jesus; so that our hearts desire to share the love of God with those who reject us time and time and time again; so that we never become apathetic or depressed because we know that it isn’t about us.  It isn’t about us at all.  Paul knew this.  We need to know it.  It’s all about Jesus.  Let us tell the story of Jesus.

Let’s pray.  Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and we shall be created. And you shall renew the face of the earth.  Renew our hearts by the power of the Gospel.  Help us to remember what Jesus has done to redeem us, and may our hearts burn like Paul’s burned that we may sacrifice ourselves to bring others to the saving grace of Jesus.  In his name we pray.  Amen.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Certainty: Romans 8:31-39

I am going to begin my sermon this morning with a confession: I don’t like uncertainty.  I like to be able to say firmly and confidently what I believe; what I think will work; what the future holds.  I like to think that I have the answers to life’s greatest questions.  I like to think that I am an expert in matters of theology and church growth.  I like to think that if someone asks me, “Pastor, what do I need to do or say to convince my friend to come to church?” that I have the answer.  I like to think that if someone asks me, “Pastor how do I deal with this illness?” that I can give them the techniques.  I like to think that when people ask me, “Pastor, can you make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity?” that I can give the perfect explanation.  I like to think that when people ask me, “Pastor, what can we do to make the church grow?” that I can give them a perfect step by step plan that will lead to growth.  I like to think that I can be certain about such matters.  I like to think that I have all the answers.  I like to think that if folks just did what I told them to do, then everything would work out.  Deep within, there is an arrogant man who wants to think that he has the answers and is certain about them.

But then reality smacks me in the face.  Despite my own efforts to ask friends to come to church: they don’t.  Despite my efforts to help people through illness, folks are often left wondering why things are happening to them, and sometimes they become depressed and anxious.  Despite my efforts to explain the doctrines of the Christian faith and explain the Bible, people are often left scratching their heads.  Despite my efforts to lead within two congregations, I have not managed to get them to explode with growth.  Even though I have read many books and articles; even though I have prayed many prayers; even though I have written many blogs, newsletter articles, and preached many a sermon, when I look at the evidence, I have to wonder about how certain I can be about being certain.  Do I really know what I think I know?  It is highly possible that I don’t.

Have you ever found yourself with such doubts?  Have you ever found yourself wondering why things aren’t turning out the way that you envisioned?  Have you ever found yourself walking the path that supposedly will lead to success and then finding that instead of moving forward, you were on a treadmill going nowhere?  Have you ever had things happen to you that shook you to the core and made you rethink the way you looked at things?  Have you ever stopped and thought: what in the world can I count on?  What in the world can I be certain about?  Is there anything that I can trust?

In a world where things are changing rapidly; where technology is out of date a week after you buy it; where the morals and values we once grew up with are cast aside; where deeply held societal convictions are questioned and shaken; is there something we can rest assured of–something that can never change?

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, the world around us is constantly changing.  We are constantly changing.  Society is constantly changing.  And yet, we need something that is certain.  We need something that we can rest upon.  We need a firm foundation.  Open our hearts and minds and lead us to the unchanging truth that gives us certainty.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Our lesson from Romans begins with a question, “What then are we to say about these things?”  What are these things?  In a word, everything that Paul has just told us about God’s action through Jesus Christ.  How we are fallen; how we deserve the wrath of God because of our rebellion against God; how no matter how hard we tried, we have failed to make ourselves right with God; how we have been justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith; how if we trust in Jesus and His action we are no longer a slave to the fleshy desires of the world but are now in Christ; how when we are in Christ we have changed our allegiance and live for God; how when we live for God the Holy Spirit sets up a base of operations in our hearts to transform us from the inside out; how God uses every single event in our lives to conform us, to mold us, to make us into the image of Jesus.  This is an all too brief snapshot of what God has done in Jesus Christ, and it is these things to which Paul is referring to.  And he says, given all of these things; given what I have just told you in the first section of this letter, what conclusion can we draw?

His answer first takes us to the court room.  There are a series of questions and answers that are full of legal language.   And this question and answer series begins preparing the ground and laying the re-bar for and unshakable, unbreakable foundation of certainty.

If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Paul is looking at the person who is in Christ; who trusts in the cross and says, “Do you think that anyone can stand against you?  Do you think that your enemy has power over you?  Do you think that anyone can put a road block in between you and what God has destined for you?  God gave up His Son for us.  God gave up Jesus for us.  God gave up the second person of the Trinity to death on the cross for us.  Would God allow such a sacrifice to go to waste?  Would God allow the costliness of grace to be wasted?  It doesn’t matter what anyone or anything does to you.  It doesn’t matter what kind of things people do to try and lead you astray.  It doesn’t matter how often you are ridiculed; hated; persecuted; picked on; or bullied.  It doesn’t matter how often you are told that God hates you.  If you are in Christ, everything given to Jesus will be given to you.  God does not just walk with you through the times of trial and tribulation–when you are in Christ, God is for you, and He will work everything to your good–to your transformation into the image and likeness of Jesus.  You can be certain of that!

Verse 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  The answer to that question is: a lot of folks.  A lot of charges will actually be brought against us.  Those who are not believers in God will charge us with hypocrisy.  They will charge us with failing to love one another. They will charge us with being just like everyone else.  They will charge us with failing to care for the poor and needy.  They will charge us with failing to live up to the expectations of our founder, and they will be right!  And Satan Himself will accuse us.  I told you this was courtroom language, and on the day of our trial, not only will the accusations of non-believers be brought forth, but Satan will accuse us as well.  He will bring the charges of our failure to live according to God’s will and God’s law.  Not only does God know the deepest, darkest secrets of our heart, so does Satan, and he will use them against us on that day. He will tell God all of our deepest lusts and secrets that we have tried to keep hidden.  He will tell God of our failure to keep our hearts and minds pure.  He will point out our failure to worship.  He will point out our failure to sing.  He will point out our failure to be generous.  He will point out our failure to work for justice and peace.  He will point out our failure to love one another as Jesus loved us.  He will be merciless!  And every single word coming out of his mouth will be true!  Every.  Single.  Word.  We will stand, convicted.  We will know what we deserve.

But, It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  And if we try to justify ourselves, we will get exactly what we deserve.  If we stand before God and make excuses.  If we try to explain away our behavior.  If we try and weasel our way out of Satan’s accusations, we are toast.  God will indeed give us up because we are trying to save ourselves.  We are acting selfishly.  We are arrogant about what we have done.  We have no humility.  We will hear God say, “Depart from me...”  The judgment will be rendered!

But, if we are in Christ, we will acknowledge the truth of the accusations.  We will acknowledge our shortcomings.  We will acknowledge our sinfulness, and we will turn to Jesus.  And Jesus will plead the cause for us.  “Dad, everything the accuser says is true.  This brother of mine...this sister of mine...is guilty of each and every thing brought forward, but I took that sin upon myself.  I paid the price for it.  I went to hell for them.  I withstood your wrath for them.  Those times they were unfaithful to their spouses in word and deed, I paid for it.  Those times they did not give their tithes and offerings, I paid for it.  Those times they skipped worship to pursue their own wants and desires, I paid for it.  Those times they lived in hate instead of love, I paid for it.  They know their wrongs, and they have come to me and have found themselves in me.  They have no condemnation.”

And the Almighty Judge will render the verdict.  “Justified.  Not guilty.  Enter into my presence.”  If you are in Christ.  You are justified.  You can be certain about that.

And, now Paul shifts the scene.  We are no longer in the courtroom.  We are now in Christ.  We are now in this world faced with life before we are put on that final trial.  We are faced with all the things in life that come our way.  Remember, in the ancient world the prevailing thought was that if you were going through hardship, then God had cursed you.  If things were going wrong, God had removed His love from you.  Paul says “NO!!”

35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’” I want to stop here just a moment to explain this little snippet.  I’ve read this text for years, oftentimes at funerals, and I could never make heads or tails of this sheep being slaughtered quote.  It’s actually a quote from Psalm 44.  In that Psalm, the people of God are being persecuted–being killed all day long even though they had been faithful!  Paul is showing that even in the Psalms, in the Old Testament, tragedy befell God’s people even in their faithfulness.  God wasn’t turning His back on them then, and He was certainly not turning His back on them now.  “37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  Nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Nothing.  We can be certain about that.

And with that, the concrete is poured.  The foundation is set.  The unmovable rock is in place.  Nothing will be able to shake it.  Nothing.

It has taken me a long time to arrive at this point in my own life.  Time and again, I have been disappointed in people.  Time and again, I have been disappointed in technology.  Time and again, I have been disappointed by knowledge.  Time and again I have been disappointed in the church.  Time and again I have been disappointed in myself.  Time and again, I have been disappointed in the Dallas Cowboys.  Okay, I had to lighten the mood a little bit, but the point is the same.  All of these things did not bring any certainty.  All of these things were flawed in some fashion.  Pick anything else, and it will disappoint you as well.  None of them bring certainty.  We cannot find it anywhere except in God.  We cannot find it anywhere except in Jesus.

If you want certainty in your life; if you want a foundation that cannot be moved that you can trust; if you want to ensure that nothing can rattle the entire way you look at the world; put your trust in Jesus.  Nothing can be against you. No one can charge you.  No one can condemn you.  Nothing can ever separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ.  Nothing at all.  He bought you with a great price when He stretched out his arms and died for you.  And he will not let you go.  This is certainly good news.

Let’s pray.  Heavenly Father, you have showed your love through the cross where Jesus redeemed us.  Despite our sinfulness, despite our rebellion, you loved us enough to die for us, and now you have shown us that when we put our trust in Jesus, you will never let us go.  You will never let anything drive your love away.  May the Spirit implant this truth deep in our hearts so that we can live with a sure and certain foundation.  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Transformed into the Image of Jesus: Romans 8:28-30

Today, in a very real way, we reach the pinnacle of the book of Romans.  Paul reveals the end game–essentially what everything is working toward.  He’s taken us through a long journey to get here–a journey that was sometimes difficult to understand; a journey that was sometimes tedious in its working out; a journey that oftentimes was and is very confusing for those of us living in this day and age.  But it is a journey that had to be taken in this manner, not because it was required by our philosophical thought, but because it was the journey revealed by God that went through Jesus.

Paul has laid out the workings of God starting with humankind’s rebellion from God.  Paul showed how everyone has failed to live up to God’s purpose and command and how no matter how hard we try to accomplish that purpose and command, we will always fall short.  Therefore, we stand condemned by God and under His wrath.  Yet, in a stunning turn of events, God Himself takes on human flesh and pays the debt of our sin and makes us right with God.  “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  They are now justified by grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus whom God set forward as a sacrifice of atonement effective through faith.”  God makes us right with Him through no action of our own–it is completely and totally by God’s grace.  Nothing else.  And this becomes effective when we trust in Christ’s actions and not our own.  There is nothing we have to do: no law to follow; no act of charity to perform; no prayer to pray.  There is just a heart that has been captured by God’s marvelous grace.

And when that heart is captured by God’s marvelous grace, it falls in love with God.  It falls in love with Jesus and our allegiance is changed.  Where once we sought the things of this world, we now seek God.  We live for God.  We desire God and His will and rule.  We find ourselves in Christ and we find Christ in us.  Furthermore, the Spirit of Christ; the Holy Spirit, establishes a base of operations in our hearts where He works to put to death the desires of our flesh to help us focus on God.  And, we found out last week, this same Holy Spirit intercedes for us by taking our selfish, misguided prayers as well as those prayers that have no words and transforming those prayers into holy and acceptable words.

All of this, Paul has set forward to show us what God is up to in our lives–in the lives of those who love Him.  God is conforming us into the image and likeness of Jesus.  I want you to just consider that for a moment.  Think about just how spectacular a claim that is.  God is conforming you; molding you; refining you; so that you become like Jesus.  This is God’s end game.  He wants you to be like Jesus beginning now and then brought to perfection in the life to come.  When our hearts are captured by the Gospel; when we trust in Jesus and love Him; God molds us to be like Him.  Wow.

Let’s pray.  What an amazing thought is laid out before us today, that you, our heavenly Father would take us–fallen, broken, sinful beings and transform us into the image and likeness of your Son Jesus.  We are not worthy of such an honor, but help us trust these words.  Help us trust that you are working to do exactly this so that we might carry out His mission to bring your love to the world.  And we ask this in His name.  Amen.

We must be very, very careful as we approach our biblical text today from the eighth chapter of the book of Romans.  Verse 28 is a much beloved text oft quoted by many, many Christians today.  In fact, I still remember it as one of the Bible verses I was required to memorize when I was in confirmation 30 years ago.  “All things work together toward good for those who love God; those whom He has called according to His purpose.”  If we do not read this verse carefully, we can interpret it to say, “If I love God, then everything will work out for my good.”

Now, in a sense, this is true.  I mean, we proclaim as Christians that ultimately, God will have the last word in all events, and that word will be good.  We proclaim that all the evil that was ever committed will be unmade.  We proclaim that the blind will see, the lame will walk, the dead will be raised, and so on and so forth when God comes to make everything new.  When we take the long view, we can easily say, “Everything will work out for my good.”  But if we do not keep this view in mind, there are at least three problems that arise.

The first problem often comes with my definition of good.  Oftentimes, my definition of good does not have the long view in mind.  Oftentimes my definition of good only concerns my wants and desires.  If I love God, then everything I want and desire that I consider good will come to me.  I can remember when I believed this strongly as a teenager.  I was dating a girl from Houston and thought that we would be together forever.  I was head over heels for her, and I spent many an hour in prayer thanking God for her and telling God how happy I was to have her.  I was not happy when she called me and broke off our relationship using the words, “God told me we can’t be together.”  I rebelled against that thought, and I reasoned to myself, “God loves me and wants me to be happy.  Certainly He wouldn’t take her away from me.  Haven’t I spent all of this time praying to God and thanking God.  Surely God will give me what I want.”  In a word, no.  God is not in the business of giving us our heart’s every desire.  He is in the business of transforming our hearts to desire Him above all things, and this is the view we must keep in mind when we read Romans 8:28.

The second problem that occurs is the fact that not all things are good, and bad things are inescapable in this life.  Everyone at some point and time must deal with suffering.  Everyone at some point and time must deal with pain and sorrow.  Everyone at some point and time must be confronted with the reality of evil and death in the world.  You cannot sugar coat such things and call them good.  I mean, I’ve said a lot of arrogant things in my lifetime.  I’ve even said some arrogant things from this pulpit which I very much regret to this day.  And it would be the height of arrogance to proclaim to a widow who has just lost her husband of 60 years to the ravages of cancer that, “This is a good thing.  You should be happy.  Your husband is now free from pain and suffering.”  It would be the height of arrogance to proclaim to parents whose child has just suffered traumatic injury, “This is a good thing.  It’s God’s will.  There is a purpose behind it, so rejoice in it.”  It would be the height of arrogance to proclaim to a woman whose husband has cheated on her (or vice versa), “This is good, God will bring something good out of it.”  No.  Such things are not good.  Sin is never good.  There are things in this world that are not good, and we will all be confronted with those things.  We cannot sugar coat them.  We cannot simply excuse them.  We must wrestle with them honestly.

The final problem that occurs with interpreting this text inappropriately is that the good that we receive becomes contingent on how much we love God.  This is how a lot of those television preachers get away with saying the things they say.  Your life hasn’t turned around?  You don’t have enough faith and love of God.  Your finances haven’t turned around?  You haven’t taken the first step in tithing and you have a lack of faith and love in God.  Your relationships aren’t where they should be?  You don’t love God enough, so He isn’t blessing you. You must have more faith.  You must have more love.  Show God your faithfulness, and then things will rain down upon you.  Effectively, this train of thought says that everything depends upon you.  Which can be exciting for folks when things are going well, but absolutely devastating for folks when things are not going well.

No, Paul chooses his words carefully to convey this thought: if your heart has been captured by the grace of God; if you are desiring God deep within the depths of your being; if you are in Christ and Christ is in you; if the Spirit of Christ dwells within you because you trust in what Jesus has done on the cross instead of in your own actions, then God will take every circumstance in your life, everything that happens to you, every good thing, and every bad thing; every moment of triumph and every moment of tragedy, and He will use them for your benefit.  He will use them for your good.

Now, I’m not going to give you too much time to let that sink in because I’ve got to show you what Paul says that good is.  Because that good cannot be defined according to our Western, materialist thought.  That good cannot be defined as health, wealth, and perfect relationships.  No.  Paul doesn’t allow us to do that.  Paul defines what that good is in verse 29.  You cannot just read verse 28, you’ve got to put it together with what follows: 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.  Paul is showing us the end game.  Paul is showing us what good God intends.  Those who God foreknew–those whom God looked at and saw that their hearts would be changed by the Gospel–he predestined to be conformed to the image of Jesus.  That’s the good God is working toward.  That’s the good God is using the good and the bad for.  That’s the good that God uses suffering and tragedy to bring about.  God is conforming you to the image and likeness of Jesus.  This is the ultimate of Good–to become like Christ, and it is not something that you are capable of doing on your own.  It is something God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are all combining their efforts to do.  Hence the golden chain of verbs in verse 30, “30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”  Paul basically summarizes everything he has told us from Romans one until now.  This is our status as Christians.  God has predestined us.  God has called us.  God has justified us.  And God has glorified us.  He has done all these things so that we can be transformed from the inside out to be like Jesus.

I want us to spend just a little bit of time now thinking about the implications of this.  First, I want to ask those who may be wondering about Christianity whether or not this has any impact on you.  I mean, I know some folks are skeptical about the church.  I know that some folks are skeptical about Christians in general.  We don’t often live up to the ideals of our founder.  But God isn’t finished with us yet.  God is in the transformation process.  And wouldn’t you like Him to transform you too?  Yes, Christians are imperfect people.  We sometimes are callous, uncaring, and ungrateful.  We sometimes are hypocrites.  Our hearts are undergoing transformation, so don’t look at us.  Look at Jesus.  And wouldn’t you like to be like Him?  Wouldn’t you like to have a sense of purpose and drive that goes well beyond simply existing and earning as much as you can so that you can try to do what you want to do before unceremoniously exiting this world?  Wouldn’t you like to know that all the work that you’ve done has meaning and purpose in the big scheme of things?  Wouldn’t you like to go through life without worrying about having to justify yourself?  Wouldn’t you like to go through life with the capability of looking at those who hurt you without becoming angry and overwhelmed
and instead have the capability to love and forgive?  When you put your trust in what Jesus has done by pouring out His love for the world; by taking the wrath of God that you deserved; by dying for your sin and rising to new life; God will start working to make you as loving, as determined, as caring, as compassionate, as full of the desire for justice and peace as Jesus was.  Would you like to become like Jesus?  Put your trust in Him.

And to those of us who have already started this journey with Jesus, those of us who have placed our trust in Him and who consider ourselves Christian, let me ask you: do you sense that you are becoming more Christ-like?  Do you find yourself seeking Jesus?  Do you find yourself wanting to do the things that He did?  Do you find yourself wanting to worship like Jesus worshiped?  Do you find yourself wanting to explain God’s Word and bring people to the love of God like Jesus did?  Do you find yourself wanting to serve in the church and in the world?  Are your hearts continuing to be transformed so that you see the fruits of the Spirit active in your life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, generosity, and self-control?  Do you find yourself becoming less judgmental and able to relate and care for those who do not share your beliefs and points of view doing this without compromising your own beliefs?  Do you sense joy welling deep from within your heart as you think about Jesus?  Do you long to sing God’s praise?  Do you pray deeply and earnestly ask God to make you more like Jesus?

The Gospel brings transformation to our hearts and lives.  God has poured out His life for you.  He’s died that you may live.  And if this news has touched your heart; if your heart is falling in love with God, He will use everything that happens to you to change you and transform you so that you will be like Jesus.  Do you want to be like Jesus?

Let’s pray.  Father, may we answer yes to that question!  May we deeply desire Jesus.  May we deeply fall in love with you so that you will work and move in our lives.  May we see your hand at work in all things–good, bad, indifferent, in our work and in our pay, in our private and in our public lives–so that we can be comforted and excited that you are working everything to the good of becoming like your Son.  And it is in His name we pray. Amen!

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Spirit Prays for Us: Romans 8:26-27

I remember when I was training to be a pastor and working as a chaplain in a hospital as part of my requirement.  My “congregation” was one floor in the hospital, and that consisted of the Intermediate Care Unit where the folks who weren’t sick enough for ICU but still needed more care than a regular room were cared for.  On that floor was a gentleman whose heart was failing.  He had been in the hospital for several months awaiting a transplant.  I had visited him several times over the course of my training, and I won’t forget the second to the last visit I had with him.

After our conversation, I asked him if there was anything he would like me to pray for, and he responded, “I really am not trying to be selfish, but I would like for you to pray that I receive a new heart.”  I gladly prayed for such a thing.  In less than 24 hours, he did indeed receive a new heart.

I spoke with my supervisor, a seminary professor about this event, and he pointedly asked me, “Do you think that your prayer worked to get him a new heart?”

I paused before my response.  Whenever you deal with seminary professors, there is oftentimes the answer you want to say, the answer that the professor wants to hear, and several variations of that.  At this particular time, I wanted to make sure that I gave the answer the professor wanted to hear because I was in no mood for a long theological discussion.  The deepest part of me wanted to answer, “Yes, indeed my prayer made a difference.”  But I was quite sure that the conversation that followed would not be fun.  And so I said, “I don’t know.”  I figured that was the safest bet, and indeed it was.  We moved on from there rather quickly.

But as I reflect upon this scenario, I can faithfully say: I hope that my prayer was not responsible for this gentleman receiving that heart.  You may scratch your heads in wonder that I am saying that, but hear me out.  For you see, in order for that patient to receive his heart, a local husband and father lost his life on I-35 in a tragic car accident.  Would any of you like to think that your prayer caused someone to lose his life so that someone else could benefit and live?  Would you like it on your conscience that your prayer caused a wife to lose her husband and children to lose their father?  I don’t.  Not in the least.

And yet, yet wasn’t it the compassionate thing to pray for the patient to receive a heart?  What do you do?  How do you pray for such a thing?  What if you are thrust into a situation where someone needs a kidney, heart, or lung transplant and someone must die for the other person to live?  How do you pray?  What do you pray for?  Sometimes, prayer is a difficult prospect, and we need help understanding it and practicing it.

Let us now pray.  Heavenly Father, you have called your people to be people of prayer.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  But what do we do when faced with such difficulties?  What do we do when words fail us?  If we are to be your disciples, teach us indeed how to pray.  Amen.

Prayer is one of those interesting subjects that even science has dabbled in.  They have set up studies to see if prayer “works.”  They have set aside two sets of subjects–who as best as they can are similar, and have one set prayed for while the other not prayed for.  Setting aside the ethics of the matter–I mean what do you say, “Oh, we are praying for you and not for you.  If you die, too bad.”–the end game is to study the results; to see if somehow prayer brings about healing or what have you.  I can remember when I first started out in my trek to become a pastor that some of the studies that had been done showed that prayer was indeed effective.  However, since that time, there have been other studies which showed that prayer was not effective, and in some cases, those who were prayed for had worse outcomes than those who were not prayed for.

Fundamentally, these studies miss the mark because they treat prayer as some sort of giant, cosmic, candy machine.  You put the prayer in.  You hope you use the right amount of currency.  You kick, shake, and rattle the machine, and you hope that something comes out.  Of course, you might get one of those plastic balls that when you open it up has a little piece of paper in it that says either yes, no, or you’ve got to be kidding me.  This is not the purpose or reason for prayer.

In fact, as I have learned more and more about prayer, I have come to understand that prayer fundamentally isn’t about changing the circumstances around my life or the lives of others.  I have come to understand that prayer isn’t fundamentally about getting a particular desired outcome.  Prayer is something we participate in to show our utter and total dependence on God.  Prayer is something we turn to so that we acknowledge that we are powerless to affect certain situations and that we place our trust in a higher source and power.

Fundamentally, this is at the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught His followers to pray.  We recite it every Sunday and we commonly call it the Lord’s Prayer.  It begins, Our Father, or our Daddy who is in heaven.  The prayer begins that we are addressing someone beyond ourselves, and yet someone who we are extremely intimate with.  Like children who go before their parents and ask and talk, we go before God.

Hallowed be thy name.  We acknowledge that God is fundamentally set apart from us and from all other false gods.  And then we get into the true dependence on our part in the prayer.

Thy kingdom come.  Can any of us fundamentally bring about God’s kingdom in full?  Can any of us make God’s rule happen here?  No.  We acknowledge that we are dependent upon Him to bring His kingdom to us.

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  We are asking here that God make heaven come down to earth.  Can any one of us do this fully?  Sure, there are times when we can make things better here, but can we bring about what it means to ultimately be in God’s presence?  No. That again, is up to God alone, and we express our dependence on Him.

Give us this day our daily bread.  Can any of us make a seed grow?  Can we produce life?  Can we manufacture the things we need to survive?  No.  These things all originate with God, and we simply help after the process gets started.  Again, our dependence goes back to God.

Forgive us our trespasses.  Here again we acknowledge our inability to make ourselves right with God.  We are fallen and in need of forgiveness.  We cannot overcome our debt to God without His forgiveness.

As we forgive those who trespass against us.  How easy is it to forgive someone who has hurt you?  For minor things, maybe relatively easy, but for those who have been sexually or physically abused; for those who have had a loved one murdered; for those who have been lied to continually and a host of other things, forgiveness does not come easy in the least.  We must have our hearts changed so that we can forgive others, and that comes when we first realize we have been forgiven.  Therefore, in order for us to forgive, we are dependent upon God’s grace.

And lead us not into temptation.  Temptation bombards us at all points.  We are tempted to think of ourselves more highly than we should.  We are tempted to make all sorts of things into our god.  We are tempted by sex, money, power, fame and status. We need protection, and we recognize our dependence upon God for that protection.

And deliver us from evil.  Evil too lurks, and we are almost powerless to resist it.  If a gunman walked into this church right now, we would be at his mercy.  I mean, maybe some of you are packing heat and have concealed carry licences, but I don’t.  I would have to appeal to God for protection and deliverance because I would be powerless in its face.  Most of us are, and we recognize this with this petition.

For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory.  Again, we acknowledge that all belongs to God.  All.  We are dependent upon Him in totality for all things.

This prayer is a model of what prayer is.  We are dependent upon God for everything, and in prayer we acknowledge this.  When we are faced with difficult situations, we acknowledge that we need God’s guidance.  When we are faced with a troublesome medical diagnoses, we go to God recognizing our need for His healing.  We submit ourselves to His power and His authority.  Almost every prayer could be summed up in the words, “Thy will be done!”  Prayer is not a candy machine where we are trying to manipulate God to give us a certain outcome.  It is instead recognizing that we have no control and place ourselves into the care of our Creator.

But even if we acknowledge this, we are still at a loss sometimes of how to pray.  How do you pray for someone who needs a lung or heart transplant?  How do you pray when you enter into a situation when words fail?  What if the Lord’s prayer doesn’t immediately address a particular situation?  What do you say?  How can you avoid coming across as selfish?

Here is where prayer becomes fascinating–at least as I read today’s lesson from Romans chapter 8.  It’s just two verses, but they are profound in what they say and in their implications for our prayer lives as Christians.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness;

This introductory phrase is important because of the word that is used for help.  The word in Greek is only used one other time in the New Testament in Luke chapter 10 when Jesus is visiting his friends Mary and Martha.  Mary is sitting listening to Jesus while Martha is preparing a meal.  Martha gets angry at Mary’s perceived laziness and says to Jesus, “Lord, make Mary help me.”  The word means, essentially, “I’m doing my part, now get her to do her part.”  Paul says here that we have a part in prayer, but the Spirit comes and does its part to assist us.

But why do we need assistance? “...for we do not know how to pray as we ought.”  This goes back to my original story about the heart transplant.  How do you pray in that kind of situation?  Do you pray for someone to die so that another can live?  That’s tough.  It’s also tough to think deeply about why we pray for others.  Most of the time, I have a kind heart.  I hate to see people in pain.  I hate to see suffering.  So, when someone asks me to pray because they have lost a job, are suffering from illness, are grieving, or are going through a rough stretch, I gladly offer up petitions.  But why?  Yes, it’s part of my job.  Yes, because I know it’s the right thing to do.  But I know deep within that one of the reasons I pray is selfish.  I don’t want to see people suffer.  I want them to be happy.  If we take some time to reflect upon some of our prayers, I think we can see that selfishness come through as well.  It’s there when as kids we pray for certain toys or for God to hurt the school bully.  It’s there as adults when we pray that God will let us win the lottery–because you know I will use the money to do good.  So, there is some selfishness to our prayers.  And there is also those times when we just don’t know what to say.  There are times when we are confronted with something too overwhelming–too emotional that we cannot even begin to form the words.  We are at a complete and total loss.  What do we say?  What do we do?  When we mix our motivations and needs with the messiness of life, we don’t know how to pray.

“... but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  Here is the good news.  The Holy Spirit takes our prayer.  In a sense you could say that it intercepts our prayer, and then it begins its work.  It begins to transform our prayers.  It begins to mold them and make them into something else.  It begins to intercede for us.  To pray for us.  Because we don’t know how to pray fully, the Spirit helps–does its part and transforms our prayers to bring them before God the Father.

“27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  What Paul says here should be terrifying and comforting at the same time.  For Paul speaks about the God who searches the heart.  The word used here for searches gives the impression of someone taking a lighted torch and going into the darkest parts of a cave and shining a light.  This is what God does in our hearts–even as we pray.  If you think about what He discovers down there–that can be terrifying.  But, remember there is the Spirit also interceding.  There is the Spirit transforming those things–transforming your thoughts into holy thoughts.  There is the Spirit transforming those prayers that are really about your will and turning them into prayers for God’s will.  There is the Spirit making your prayers acceptable to God when you don’t know how to pray.

This is a mirror of what Jesus does for us as He makes us acceptable before God.  Both Jesus and the Spirit are in the transformation business.  For just as we do not pray as we ought, we also do not live as we ought.  Confronted with the reality of life and God’s holy Law, we know that we fail to live up to it.  We know we don’t follow it completely.  We know that we don’t even follow the laws of our land as we should.  But Christ intercedes for us.  Christ takes our unholiness upon Himself, and He gives us His holiness.  He dies for our sins, so that we might have abundant life.  He takes our imperfect lives and makes them perfect–not because of who we are, but because of who He is and His love for us.  This is what we call grace.  Jesus bestows grace in life.  The Spirit bestows grace in prayer.

So, what does this mean?  What are the implications of Jesus’ transformation and the Spirit’s transformation?  It means we can be bold and be at peace.  We don’t have to live a perfect life to be accepted by God.  We don’t have to be paralyzed by trying to figure out exactly what we are supposed to do at every single juncture of life.  We can count on the transformative power of Jesus to work even when we mess up.  We do not have to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.  Likewise, we can be bold in our prayers.  We don’t have to wonder what to say.  In fact, during those times we can’t put words together, guess who is already praying on our behalf?  Guess who is transforming our silence into an acceptable prayer before God?  Go to God and pray.  Say whatever you need to say.  The Spirit is interceding.  Go out and live for God.  Don’t be paralyzed by always trying to figure out the right thing.  Jesus is interceding.  Start doing.  Start praying.  You have heavenly help.

Let’s pray.  Gracious God, you can take our weakest attempts to do your will and you can take our weakest attempts at prayer and make them acceptable.  You can take our falling down and make something good come out of it.  You can take our fumbling words and make them into the most beautiful poetry.  Remind us of the work of Jesus. Remind us of the work of the Spirit so that we can be bold in living our lives and praying our prayers.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.