Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We are Meant to be Here!

Last night, I was caught flat-footed.  It was not a bad thing in the least.

During our congregation council meeting, I was working through a "Finding Your Story" process which I had found immensely helpful in my own understanding of my calling as a pastor and person.  This process was actually meant to be done by groups as large as an entire congregation, so I asked my council to participate.

We spent 30 minutes dealing with six questions, the last one being, "The quotation reads, 'Your church can't be anything it wants to be, but  it can be everything God wants it to be.'  What do you think God's vision is for our church?"

During the duration of the question/answer time, I tried to remain as silent as possible.  This exercise was the council's exercise of which I tried to facilitate not dominate.  I wanted to hear what they thought of themselves.  The conversation was extremely fruitful for me to just listen, and I did so for this question as well. 

One of the answers caught me flat-footed. 

"God wants us TO BE HERE."

That was it.  An explanation followed:

One of the previous pastors came in and said he was basically told to shut the place down.  The synod had done demographic studies and all sorts of other studies which told them the congregation would not survive and it needed to move to a nearby town if it had any chance to continue.  The pastor had been sent to bury the last member and then shut the doors.  But no one here wanted that.  No one here wanted to see the doors of the church shut.  We didn't want to move and then be absorbed by another congregation or what have you.  Something then happened.  There were about 60 of us in worship at the time, and that little group managed to build a fellowship hall and a church building.  We managed to pay it off, and here we are now, thriving.  God wants us TO BE HERE!

Other thoughts were added: 

Yet, we don't want to get a big head about this, because then we get arrogant and think it was all about us.  We need to be humble.

I added:

That's why we preach the Gospel.  The Gospel tells us that it was and is God working through us to accomplish things.  We know everything comes from Him, so when the Gospel is preached and takes hold of us, we cannot get arrogant.  God wants us TO BE HERE and to PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL--WHAT HE HAS DONE.

Wrestling with God's vision for a congregation is a difficult thing.  Oftentimes, congregations focus on what they believe they are supposed to be doing.  Because of this, many times, it's not so much God's vision that comes through but the peoples' vision of themselves, but this seemed different.

GOD WANTS US TO BE HERE!  Being.  Not doing, being.  A presence formed by the Gospel and proclaiming that Gospel.  A presence formed by God's action in Jesus Christ and letting the community know about that action.  Everything flows from this.  Everything. 

This caught me flat-footed because the answer came so quickly from one of my council members.  It was not something agonized over and wrestled over with difficulty.  It flowed.  It caught me flat-footed because of its simplicity.  It caught me flat-footed because it seemed right--deep down in the core of my being, I sensed it was the Truth.  It caught me flat-footed because I expected something quite different, but what was said and brought forth was better than whatever expectation I had.

God wants us to be here.

Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Weed or Wheat? Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

    So, are you a weed or are you wheat?  That is the question that is before us this morning.  And I’ll be up front with you–it’s a trick question.  Seriously.  It’s a trick question.   Why?

    Let’s look at Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat to begin with.  Jesus says, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    When you read this particular explanation, one thought usually goes through your head, “Man, I hope I am wheat.  I hope I’m not a weed because I don’t want to get thrown into the fire!”  And it’s interesting where our brains can go at this point.  It usually goes in one of two directions.

    First, the brain can take us to a place of great fear.  For those of us with guilty consciences, we begin examining our lives and say, “Uh oh!”  We say, “You know, I’m not such a good person down deep.  I get angry a lot.  I have impure thoughts and lust after people I am attracted to.  I love making money and having wealth and possessions.  I am not as charitable as I should.  I drink too much.  I am not as kind to others as I should be.  I don’t do a very good job of taking care of God’s creation.  I am broken.  I must be a weed.”  And we feel really, really bad about ourselves.  We carry a burden of guilt and shame, and a little black cloud seems to follow us around.  This is one response to this parable, and I think it’s the wrong one for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

    The other response to this parable is quite different.  Some of us hear this parable and think, “Well, I’m not too bad of a person, I must be wheat!  I will end up in eternal glory!  I go to church regularly.  I put money in the offering plate.  I treat others decently.  I’ve provided for my family.  I love my spouse and my kids.  I do a few nice things from time to time.  Sure, I may have a few flaws, but my good deeds far outweigh those other moments I have.  God won’t hold that against me because I am pretty decent.”  When we are in this camp, we start feeling pretty good about ourselves, and before long, it actually has some interesting consequences.  Before long, we begin to look at others who don’t measure up to our standards as weeds.  “They just don’t have it all together like I do.  Those folks aren’t quite doing what God asks them to do, and they’d better get with the program or they will be in for a hot time.  That church over there doesn’t teach the Bible right, and God isn’t happy with them.”  Before long, the folks who believe they are wheat end up with a self-righteous attitude that looks down on others who they believe are weeds.  This is another common response to this parable, and again, I think it’s the wrong one.

    Why would I say that these two responses are wrong?  Here’s why: I don’t think God wants us to end up in either of these places.  I don’t think God wants us to end up worried and frightened and depressed thinking we are a rotten worm who can’t do a lick of good.  Neither do I think that God wants us to end up thinking ourselves better than anyone else with self-righteous behavior.  Both of these responses are dead wrong.

    But the question is how do we avoid falling into either one of these responses?  How do we avoid thinking of ourselves as weeds?  How do we avoid thinking of ourselves as wheat?  –Especially when the pastor starts off his sermon by asking, “Are you weeds or wheat?”  Remember, I told you that was a trick question.

    The answer is, of course, the Gospel.  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”  Remember, God did this, God took on flesh and entered into the world not because we were good–not because we were following His commands and His Law, but precisely the opposite.  God did this because we could not follow His Law.  We could not follow His commandments.  We could not be good people.  We were and are broken, and could not live up to God’s standards.  We could not redeem the world and reconcile ourselves unto God, so He acted for us.  He redeemed us while we were still sinners.  Let’s put this in the terms of the parable, God sent His son into the world to be wheat while we were still weeds, and by grace, Jesus took our weediness upon Himself and faced the fire so that we could become wheat.

    How does this happen?  I think we have to remember that Jesus came into this world to do two things: to live the life we should live and to die the death we deserve.  First, Jesus lived the life we should live.  Jesus followed the commandments of God perfectly.  He lived totally dependent upon God.  He did not seek wealth and privilege.  When Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus walked away.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did the exact opposite of Adam and Eve–instead of seeking to save His own skin and be dependent upon Himself, Jesus sought obedience to the Father.  Jesus did all the stuff we should have done.  He lived the perfect life when we could not.

    And then He died the death we deserved.  Because of our selfishness, because of our desire to be gods ourselves, we issued into the world violence, death, disease, racism, sexism, warfare, and all sorts of evil.  We were created to be the caretakers of creation, and as such we were the lynch pin for creation as well.  When we rejected dependence on God for our own desires, we allowed all this stuff to happen, and we participate in it to this day!  What should the penalty for all of this be?  Nothing less than enduring the entire wrath of God.  The only problem with that is, we could never endure that.  Never.  We would be blasted out of existence.  And God knew this.  He wanted more for His creation, and so He sent the Son to endure that wrath for us.  Only God could endure God’s wrath, and Jesus suffered that on the cross.  He died the death we deserved to justify us.   And what does that justification mean?

    Just this–and this is important–it doesn’t mean that we completely stop sinning.  It doesn’t mean we have become perfect.  It doesn’t mean we are perfect people who are perfect in our actions.  Far from it.  It means God looks at us differently.  God looks at us through the actions of Jesus.  Our sin has been taken up on Jesus, and Jesus’ righteousness has been imparted to us.  In other words, we are still weeds, but because of what Jesus has done, God sees us as wheat.  Think about that for a moment. 

    I like how Timothy Keller put this: “In the sight of God, we are justified.  In ourselves, we are sinners.  A Christian is an honored failure–a righteous sinner–a justified sinner.”  Listen to that statement one more time: a Christian is an honored failure.  We are both saint and sinner.  We are both weed and wheat at the same time.  This is what the Gospel helps us understand.  And what does this mean?  How does it help us get away from the consequences that I spoke of earlier?

    Just this: if you think you are a weed and are a horrible, terrible person who can’t do anything right–the Gospel says, think about this for a moment–God sent His Son to die for you.  God does not want you to perish.  You are of too much value to Him.  Do not consider yourself rubbish.  Do not get down and depressed about yourself.  You are loved.  You are cherished.  All you need to do is look at the cross to see what price God paid for you.  You are that dear to Him.  Pick your chin up.  Know that you are a child of God.

    And if you believe you are wheat and that you can look down your nose at others because of your righteousness, the Gospel says–not so fast buddy.  You don’t even come close.  You aren’t as good as you think you are.  You are still a sinner.  You still don’t follow the commandments of Jesus.  You still don’t love in the manner God calls you to love.  The only reason you have any standing with God is because of what Jesus has done–not because of anything you do.  Get your nose out of the clouds for it doesn’t belong there.  Be humble.  You are only a child of God because of what Jesus has done, not because of what you do.

    The Gospel raises the lowly and it brings down the haughty.  The Gospel lets us escape the two fold trap which leads either to depression or self-righteousness.  The Gospel helps us see that we are not exclusively weeds nor exclusively wheat.  We are both at the same time.  We are honored failures.  We are justified sinners.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What is Your Definition of a Christian?

A Facebook friend asked this question in her status. 

It made me think.

Hard.

I mean, at one level, the definition of a Christian would seem to be very simple: one who follows Christ.  But is that the sum and substance of what it means to be a Christian?  I mean, I know of quite a few folks who follow Jesus, but they are not professing Christians.  There are may who profess to be Christians--they say they follow Jesus, but they do not worship or receive the sacraments.

And it goes further. 

In the intramural debates within Christianity, there are many who point fingers accusingly in our culture.  Those on the "right" hand side of the squabble point to those on the "left" hand side and say, "You aren't following Jesus because your morals are out of whack!  You support gay marriage; the ordination of practicing homosexuals; legalized abortion; the legalization of marijuana; banning prayer from schools; the promotion of safe sex; and so on and so forth.  You are not true Christians!!!"

Those on the "left" are just as vociferous toward those on the "right."  "You aren't following Jesus because you don't care about justice.  You care more about your pocket book and supporting the rich and do not want to fight for health care; to ensure those in poverty are not kept there; to end racism, sexism, ageism, and whatever other ism is out there!   You don't care about the environment!  You don't care about the structures that cause poverty!  You are not true Christians!!!"

The truth of the matter is--no one follows Jesus correctly.  No one.  None live up to His standard, and the self-righteous finger pointing that we do only serves as an illustration of this fact.  When we, as Christians, act in such a fashion, are we no different than the disciples who argued about who should sit at Jesus' right and left hand as they walked along the road?  Jesus had a few words of chastisement for such behavior. Yet, we cannot seem to escape it.  We cannot seem to get passed arguing about who follows Jesus "better." 

And so when we try to say a Christian is one who follows Jesus, we inevitably find ourselves in a conundrum.  For who really follows Jesus by Jesus' standards?

But that is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg.  There is even more to this because there are quite a few doctrinal concerns to deal with as well when it comes to defining what it means to be a Christian which are not tied to simply following the commands Jesus offers.

  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in the Trinity?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in Jesus' divinity?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in the resurrection?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who is not baptized?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who rejects the miraculous?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who rejects substitutionary atonement?
Oh, and there could be quite a bit more things added to this short list.

As I reflected upon such things, I realized how much emphasis was placed on how WE acted and what WE believed.   The definition of a Christian centered on us, but Christianity isn't about us, is it?  Christianity isn't about our actions and our beliefs.  It's about God's action through Jesus Christ.  It's about God's grace bestowed upon the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Shouldn't the definition of a Christian center upon God and His work and not our own?

Using this as the starting point, I propose the following:

A Christian is one whom God views as redeemed by what Jesus has done.

I invite your thoughts.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Is the New Testament Reliable?

Last week's series of posts left off at a crucial point: is the Bible reliable?  Specifically, I would like to deal with the New Testament.  As I have studied and read and contemplated many philosophical/theological/scientific points and arguments, I believe the lynch pin in the whole ordeal is Jesus.

If Jesus really was raised from the dead, then that historical phenomenon changes everything.  If Jesus was who He claimed He was, well, that adds another dimension.  There are those who scoff at Jesus and the claims of the resurrection.  Rightfully so.  We are even told by St. Paul in scripture that the idea of the resurrection was foolishness and a stumbling block to many even in the ancient world.  Dead men don't just come back to life--especially those who had been crucified by the Romans.  You see, the Romans had a 100% success rate of death by crucifixion.  Once you were nailed to a cross, you were a goner.  Plain and simple.

But one can even doubt the historical veracity of the crucifixion or the historical veracity of Jesus Himself by simply saying the Bible stories about Jesus were simply made up--lies--inventions of various communities or people who were starting a new religion.  These things are actually floating around, and some have gained quite a bit of steam.  Richard Dawkins even casts doubt on Jesus as a historical figure in his book The God Delusion.

Yet, there are really no serious ancient historians who doubt the existence of Jesus.  None.  Nearly all regard Him as a historical figure.  Why?  Frankly speaking, we have more evidence for Jesus than we have for folks like Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great. 

There have been several lectures I have watched on YouTube from many experts in the field.  Below are several videos.  Nearly all of them are over an hour long.  If you are truly interested in the evidence, I invite you to watch them and judge for yourself:

These four videos are thorough with their presentation of the evidence regarding Jesus.  They also make a strong case for the reliability of the New Testament especially the Gospels.  A very detailed approach to the reliability of the Gospels comes from Richard Bauckham in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: the Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.   Bauckham is thorough--very, very thorough.

Mind you, none of these folks gives absolute proof that the New Testament is 100% accurate, but they are saying, quite frankly, that by the tools of ancient history, the Gospels are reliable.  They can be defined as ancient biography based upon the testimony of eyewitnesses to the events surrounding the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Eyewitness testimony is not without its faults.  It does not capture every detail of an event, and our brains tend to remember only certain points.  However, there is something quite interesting about eyewitness testimony--it begs to be accepted as long as the witness is deemed credible.  (The credibility of the eyewitnesses is dealt with very strongly, I think, by the videos.)  I mean, as I have pointed out in a sermon illustration before--if you are on a date with your significant other, and she outlines her day for you.  If you respond, "That sounds great, honey, but do you have any corroborating evidence to back up your assertions?", then your night is going to go downhill very, very fast. 

If indeed the New Testament is reliable and we can get a sense of Jesus through those writings, then we must deal with two important claims: Jesus was raised from the dead, and Jesus claimed to be God.

Time demands me to stop today.  Tomorrow is another day.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Setting MInd on Things of the Spirit: Sermon on Romans 8:1-11


 Romans 8: 1-11

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.  9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.


   I have said for many years that St. Paul oftentimes becomes pretty convoluted in his writing.  I mean, there are some portions of his letters which are straight forward and easy to understand.  It’s not hard to understand him when he says, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  We get this.  We get this easily.  But then there are those portions of his letters in which we get bogged down.  There are those portions of his letters where he seems to ramble on and on and on, and the more you read, the muddier things seem.  I’d argue our second lesson is like that.  Paul talks at length about what it means to have one’s mind set on the Spirit and one’s mind set on the flesh.  One of these is good, and one of these is bad.  We get that part, I think, but I’m not sure we fully understand it–at least as it relates to the Gospel. 

   For I think many of us come away with the idea that Paul is telling us here, “Think about all the things God wants you to do, and then make sure you do them.  That leads to life.  But don’t let your mind get caught up in the flesh–the sinful stuff; the stuff that is against God’s law, because if you get caught up in this, then that leads to death.  It does not please God.”  This is where we tend to end up, but I’d like to remind you of something right now.  I’d like to remind you about where Paul started out before he became a Christian, and it also has ties to Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees.  Remember, Paul tell us in his letters that he was blameless according to the Law.  Paul had fulfilled all the requirements of the Jewish Law–many of the Pharisees had as well; yet, Jesus nearly always had harsh words for them.  Here was St. Paul, following the Law to a tee, and here were the Pharisees doing the same thing, yet Jesus spoke against them.  Why?

    Why did Paul in the middle of these verses from Romans 8 say, “7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”?  Let’s take a moment to consider what it really means to have one’s mind set on the flesh and then to have one’s mind set on the Spirit.

    Before converting to Christianity, St. Paul had his mind set on the flesh.  Likewise, the Pharisees had their minds set on the flesh as well.  “How is this possible?” you might ask.  “Weren’t they following God’s Law?  Weren’t they following the Ten Commandments?  Weren’t they worshiping correctly and offering all the sacrifices to God in the appropriate manner?”  Well, yes they were.  So how is it that their minds were set on the flesh?

    Here’s the answer: they were trying to work out their own salvation.  You might ask, “How is that such a bad thing?  They are doing the right things.  Isn’t this what religion is supposed to get you to do?”

    If religion were only about what you do, then sure.  But you see, God isn’t interested in simply what you do.  He’s interested in who you are.  He’s interested in you to the very depths of your heart.  He looks into your heart and sees what’s going down deep in its recesses, and when God looked deep into the heart of the Pharisees–when God looked deep in the heart of St. Paul before Paul was converted, do you know what God saw?  He saw self-righteousness.  God did not see a heart bent on loving and pleasing God.  Instead, God saw hearts which were totally selfish.

    How could that be?  Think about this for a moment.  Why does a person follow the commands of Jesus?  Why does a person follow the Ten Commandments?  If a person follows them to work out his or her own salvation, then the person is following them for a very selfish reason.  What?  You might say.  Yes.  If you follow the Ten Commandments or the teachings of Jesus because you want to go to heaven, you are following them for a selfish reason because you are following them to avoid punishment.  You have a deep self-interest in avoiding punishment and getting rewards.  You are trying to save your tail-end.  You are only trying to please God for your sake, not for God’s sake.  Can you see this, or do I need to explain further?  And when you are trying to save yourself, your mind is set on the things of the flesh.  Your mind is set on yourself.  You are no different than those folks who engage in sinful behavior to make themselves feel good.  You are both sinful.  One disobeys the law of God to feel good about one’s self through indulgence.  One strictly obeys the law of God to feel good about one’s self through obedience.  Neither has God at the center of their heart.  Both are centered on themselves.

    This is why Paul says that a mind which is set on the flesh is hostile to God.  It cannot follow the Law of God and please God.  It is only concerned with itself.  Nothing else.  It may be doing the right things, but for completely wrong reasons.  And this is why Paul says, “Set your mind on the things of the Spirit!”

    Now, what does that mean?  How does a person set his or her mind on the things of the Spirit?  What are the things of the Spirit?

    Simply put, setting the mind on the Spirit means concentrating on the Gospel.  You know the Gospel.  I’ve been saying it over and over and over again in my sermons for the past 10 months.  I’ve repeated it again and again and again.  For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.  This is at the core of what Christianity proclaims.  God took on flesh in the form of Jesus the Son, and He died for us while we were still sinners.  He died for us when we were not following the commands of God.  He died for us when we were centered totally and completely on ourselves.  He died for those who were disobeying God’s Law, and He died for those who were following God’s law to save themselves. 

    Jesus came to live the life we could not live, and He died the death we deserved in order to reconcile the world to God–to reconcile you unto God.  You didn’t do a blasted thing to help this process.  It was all on God.  It was all on Jesus.  Your salvation; your reconciliation unto God was accomplished for you when you were heading in the opposite direction.  When you begin to contemplate this, you are setting your mind on the things of the Spirit, and this changes you.

    How?  How does thinking about what Jesus did by dying for us change us?

    First off, remember, if you are trying to work out your salvation and avoid punishment, you are acting with a ton of self-interest and selfishness.  The same goes for thinking that you have to do something to keep your salvation.  I mean, there are plenty of Christians who believe Jesus died for them and saved them, but they also believe they have to work their tail ends off or they will lose their salvation.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Your salvation is complete.  It is done.  Period.  End of discussion.  Jesus paid the price for that.  Jesus lived the life you should have lived.  He died the death you deserved.  It is finished.  It was done by Jesus, and you can’t claim any credit for it.

    This is important to realize because it means you can’t be self-righteous anymore.  You can’t look down your nose at another person and claim that you are somehow morally and spiritually superior to another person.  You are not.  None of us are.  When you know that you were saved by sheer grace, and it hits your heart, all of a sudden, there are sins revealed to you that you didn’t even know you were doing.  As I’ve said before, one of the ones that was revealed to me was when I listened to Timothy Keller give a lecture on evangelism and he talked about being reclaimed by the gospel.  Keller talked about those of us who are clergy and how we really don’t get the gospel.  How?  Keller said, “I don’t know what extent it is for you, but to some degree your self-worth is tied to your ministry.  How do I know this?  When the worship attendance is up, your spirits are up, and when worship attendance is down, you get depressed.  Your self-worth is tied to your ministry to some extent.”  I hung my head because I knew it was true.  I wasn’t living out grace.  I was still caught up in trying to get my self-worth from other things.  This kind of sinfulness is revealed to you when the Gospel takes root in your mind.  You know you are broken.  You know you are still in need of healing, and it humbles you.  It humbles you so that you don’t see yourself as any better than anyone else–you see that you need Jesus just as much as that other person out there needs Jesus.  And a well spring of thanksgiving swells up in your heart because you know Jesus died for you when you were broken.

    And that leads you to say, “How can I show my thankfulness?  How can I show my appreciation to Jesus for what He has done?”  This is important because there are many who think that grace gives them sheer license to do whatever they want to do.  I can do whatever makes me feel good because I’m forgiven anyway.  There’s a term for this: cheap grace.  Cheap grace means you don’t understand the price that was paid for you.  Dr. David Lloyd Jones used a sermon illustration to get at this.  Let’s say you come home from vacation one day, and your neighbor comes over to give you your mail.  He says he saw a bill in your mail, and he paid it for you.  Dr. Jones said, “At this point, I need to know how large the bill was in order to know how to respond.”  If it was simply a matter of postage due, I can offer a word of thanks and go about my merry business.  But if it was a letter from the IRS telling me I had to pay thousands of dollars in fees that I didn’t have, well then there is a very different response.  That’s when I fall on my knees to thank you profusely.

    If we realize the size of the debt that Jesus paid for us, then we fall at His feet in thanksgiving and we seek to please Him–not because we are trying to get anything from Him but because we have already received it.  Not because we feel good about ourselves but because we know what Jesus did for us when we weren’t too good at all.  We follow the Ten Commandments and what Jesus taught us because of what He first did for us in dying for us and removing our debt.

    This is what the Gospel is all about.  Jesus dying for us when we were still sinners leads us to a place of humility.  It leads us to a place of serving God for His sake and not for our own.  It is far removed from setting our mind on the things of the flesh.  Thinking about the Gospel is setting our mind on the things of the Spirit, and that leads us to abundant life.  Amen.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The "Something" Out There is Personal

Michio Kaku offers an interesting take on transcendence and whether or not God exists.


Interestingly enough, this famous physicist ends up basically where I left this blog yesterday.  There is a transcendent reality, but it isn't personal.

I would like to argue that this transcendent reality is indeed a personal reality, and I would like to start with a common parable--one which I have used in my sermons a couple of times--the parable of the blind men and the elephant.

This parable is about a group of blind men who stumble upon an elephant in their path.  They strive to see the elephant.  Each touches a different part of the elephant, and then they argue about the nature of that elephant.  One argues the elephant is like a spear--he touched the tusk.  One argues the elephant is like a hose--he touched the trunk.  One argues the elephant is like a wall--he touched the torso.  One argues the elephant is like a rope--he touched the tail.  One argues the elephant is like a tree trunk--he touched the leg.  And so on and so forth.  Each believed his piece of the elephant constituted the entire reality of the elephant, but they were all wrong.  In one way, they were all right, but in another, they were all wrong.

Folks like to use this analogy/parable and apply it to religions.  Most religions worship a transcendent reality, but how does one know what that reality is like?  The parable suggests no one really knows for sure--all are blind and only "see" one part.  None has the big picture.

This might be an interesting argument to talk about the nature of religions except for one small problem--the parable doesn't work unless someone knows what the whole elephant looks like to begin with.  Only an outsider who knows what the whole elephant looks like can say, "All the guys were right, and all the guys were wrong."  Therefore, if you want to use this parable to talk about religion--and how religion views God, then you either have to admit you are blind (and only have a limited knowledge of God yourself) or that you somehow see the entire elephant.  At this point, you've actually backed yourself into the proverbial corner.

Unless there is someone who has actually seen the nature of God.  Unless there is someone who has encountered the transcendence and become immanent.

Christianity is the only religion which professes such a thing to have happened.  Christianity is the only religion which claims the transcendent reality of God took on flesh and lived among us.  Christianity is the only religion which claims we don't have to work our way up to God, but God worked His way down to us.

If we as humankind are striving to work our way up to a transcendent reality, we will never make it. We will never know what kind of transcendence is out there.  It is an impossibility.  But, if that transcendent reality has made itself known...that changes everything.

Christianity claims Jesus came to reveal the true nature of God--being fully God and fully human, and this claim grounds itself in the writings of Scripture.  Jesus claimed to be God and to know God.

The claim was radical--absolutely radical--especially given the Jewish culture to which Jesus entered into. It would have done more than raise eyebrows.  It would have been cause to see Jesus as insane, dangerous, blasphemous, even evil.  We see hints of this throughout the gospel stories.

Which brings me to the crux of the argument--if the transcendent indeed became immanent in Jesus, then the stories about Jesus must be reliable.  Are they?

Another blog topic.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Why I Think There's Something Out There

Luc Ferry in his book A Brief History of Thought offers a scathing criticism of materialists and those who follow the philosopher Nietzsche's lead by saying there is no such thing as transcendence.  In a nutshell, Ferry calls them hypocrites.  No one lives as if there are no universal rules.  No one lives as if there is no transcendence.  Everyone has some sort of belief in the common good.  Everyone.

Ferry is no intellectual light weight, and his criticisms go beyond just this one.  I encourage folks to read this tome of Ferry's even though he does not cross into belief in God.  Though he finds the Christian narrative very, very appealing, Ferry wants to work out his own salvation.  This is his choice.

Yet, his argument about transcendence is very important I think.  Everyone lives as if there is a transcendent reality.  Everyone lives asking, "What should I do?"  Everyone lives as if there is a frame of ethics which supersede individuals, cultures, and nations.  C.S. Lewis did some fascinating research finding that nearly every civilized culture has some form of the Golden Rule within it.  Why?

Lewis makes his case in this fashion: if there is such a thing as natural law--a higher morality, then there must be a law giver.  Hence God exists.  While a powerful argument, it is not absolute.  Folks can argue, and they do that the discovery of such laws might be humankind's evolution and discovery of what is needed for a fully functional human society.  Evolution has produced the Golden Rule; it is not given by God.

The criticism is duly noted, but this does not make the Golden Rule transcendent.  In fact, it lessens the universality of the rule.  For if evolution decreed that the Golden Rule is necessary for civilization now, evolution could easily lead us to disperse the Golden Rule if it gets in the way of the survival of the species or our own personal survival.  After all, evolution is governed not by any transcendence which tells us what we should do, but it is governed by natural selection and genetic mutation.  The Golden Rule is necessary for survival now, but what if it becomes a hindrance in the future?  Evolution would say, discard it!!!

Those who believe in transcendence would not discard the rule so easily.  In fact, they would continue to hold onto it despite any pressure to discard it because it is a universal law.  And if Ferry is correct, even evolutionists who are convinced the Golden Rule came about by evolution would continue to hold onto it even if evolution tries to pull us away from it.  (I personally believe this is already the case, for in evolution, the weakest members of any species--sans humankind--are dispatched by nature rather quickly.  Only human beings care for their physically and mentally ill.  Only humans disrupt the natural process in this manner--including many evolutionists.)

The question in my book is: can someone claim there is no transcendence and then act as if there is?  This kind of life, in my opinion, would eventually lead to a mental break down.  There is just no integrity in it.  Perhaps this is why Nietzsche went insane when he saw a man beating a poor horse.  Perhaps he felt compassion for this animal, and yet he had absolutely nothing to fall back upon to say why this abuse was wrong.  One cannot have one's cake and eat it too.

Ferry argues in his book there is indeed transcendence although his argument and mine diverge at this point.  If you would like to read his, I again encourage you to read his thoughts.  Mine is a little less philosophical at this point and a little more realistic.  If everyone acts as if there is transcendence and has acted as if there is transcendence, then there is transcendence.  It's not scientifically air tight.  It's not measurable.  It just is.  Kind of like love.  It just is.

But how do we know that this transcendence is God?  How do we know this transcendence is personal?

Well, today's blog is long enough.  Perhaps tomorrow.