Monday, January 21, 2019

30 Books

An interesting meme was posted by a Facebook friend the other day:



I have WAY more than 30 books both at home and in my office, and there will remain WAY more than 30 books at home and in my office.

But this meme got me to thinking: if I were forced to whittle down my book collection to only 30 books, out of all the books that I have, which 30 would I keep?  Which 30 books would I keep going back to over and over and over?  That presented an interesting intellectual exercise for me, so I started the list.

1. The Bible--for obvious reasons.

2. A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions-- edited by Dallas Willard. Probably one of the most influential books I have read for my own thinking and intellectual fulfillment.

3. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism--Timothy Keller.  Another influential read for my intellectual growth and faith formation.

4. God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God--John Lennox.  As someone who loves science and loves God, this book was fascinating!

5. Questions of Truth: Fifty-one Responses to Questions about God, Science, and Belief--John Polkinghorne and Nicholas Beale.  For the same reasons as number 4.

6. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses:The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony--Richard Bauckham. A book that totally stood the higher education that I had on end and shattered it.  Thankfully.

7. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith--Timothy Keller.  Mind blowing look at the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  I will never call it that personally anymore.  It will always be the Parable of the Two Sons from hence forth.

8. Finding Calcutta: What Mother Teresa Taught Me About Meaningful Work and Service: Mary Poplin.  Fantastic, deeply moving work grounded in Christian thought and values.

9. The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement became the World's Largest Religion--Rodney Stark.  Turned the history of Christianity that I had been taught completely on its ear.

10. Did the Resurrection Happen? A Conversation with Gary Habermas and Anthony Flew--Gary Habermas.  A book that establishes that Jesus' resurrection fits the best available facts and that all other explanations fall far, far short.

11. The Book of Concord--Martin Luther, et. al.  Took me nearly 17 years after I was ordained before I truly came to appreciate this marvelous work.  

12. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth--Richard Foster.   An absolute classic.

13. The Lord of the Rings Trilogy--J.R.R. Tolkein.  Maybe I'm cheating by putting those four books together. Sue me.  I've read the trilogy at least eight times.

14. Mere Christianity--C.S. Lewis.  Another classic in Christian apologetics and deep thinking.

15. I, Robot--Isaac Asimov.  Wonderful storytelling incorporating philosophy and logic.

16. Friedman's Fables--Ed Friedman.  Excellent book on family and personal dynamics.  Much of Ed Friedman's thoughts captured in fable form.

17. A Brief History of Thought--Luc Ferry.  A historical journey through philosophical thought.

18. Unbroken--Laura Hillenbrand.  A biography about Ernie Zamperini and what happened to him in World War II.

19. Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack--G. Lloyd Reidiger.  Sometimes, there are bad things that happen in churches.  This book is very helpful in dealing with some of those things.

20. Mythology--Edith Hamilton.  I have always loved Greek mythology.  A compilation is necessary.

21. Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home--Richard Foster.  Another spiritual classic that has helped me tremendously in my own prayer life.

22. The Sackett Brand--Louis L'Amour. Kind of like the Avengers in the Old West, but this is a story about family coming from far and wide to help one of their own who is in desperate need.

23. The Real Jesus--Luke Timothy Johnson.  An almost timeless scholarly work.

24. Best Loved Folk Tales of the World--a compilation.  From Aesop's Fables to Hans Christian Anderson, many of the beloved stories I grew up with.

Looking over my collection, this is where I would have to stop.  There are other books that I like, but would not include them in this list.  Perhaps at a later date, I will add more.  But for now, I'm stopping at 24.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

My Short Life as a Single Parent

It lasted six weeks.

That was enough.

My family and I recently relocated to Fredericksburg, TX after I accepted a call to become Associate Pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church.  Circumstances dictated that my wife, who is a Spanish teacher, finish out the semester at her current position.

We were blessed beyond measure to have friends offer her a furnished guest house to stay at so that this could be possible.  We were blessed beyond measure that my new congregation was understanding in regards to the dynamics of families with two working spouses. 

Fortunately, I had saved some vacation to use between calls, so for the first couple of weeks, things weren't too terrible.  Getting the kids back and forth to school and establishing a routine wasn't as difficult as it could have been, and I had a lot of time to unpack and set up the house.  Helping the kids begin adjusting to a new school district was a bit rocky, but eventually evened out.  My wife came in on Friday evening and then left Sunday after worship, so at least she wasn't gone all week.

But then, the real "fun" began.  I started work. 

The challenges started thereafter. 

It is not impossible to work full time and raise a family.  I have numerous friends who are doing exactly this, but it is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. 

I think the greatest thing that I faced was simply fatigue.  Man, I was tired.  When you team up to get your kids places; team up on the chores; team up on disciplining the kids and making sure they are doing what they are supposed to do, it lessens the emotional and physical energy you have to expend.  When you are carrying all of that burden yourself, you just get doggone tired!  There were multiple nights during the week when I couldn't keep my eyes open and just crashed out.  That doesn't often happen to me--not in the least.  I should have said that it didn't often happen to me when we were together as a family.

Oh, and throw out getting meals prepared during the week. Wasn't happening.  Now I know why there's a long aisle of frozen food in the grocery store.  And I know why fast food exists.  When your time is limited by work and then homework and school work and making preparations for the next day and then school activities--something's got to give.  My stove top is feeling neglected.  And here is where I am giving a shout out to the folks at Bethany.  We had numerous church members bring my kids and I complete meals--chicken spaghetti, spaghetti, meat loaf, all the sides, wonderful desserts.  My thankfulness meter was truly overflowing.

As a pastor, you have nightly meetings.  It's expected, especially in a large church.  In a large church, you also have multiple opportunities to gather for committee celebrations and parties at the end of the year.  Well, I've had to skip.  Not exactly the best way to enter into a congregation and get connected. Not in the least.  My kids are old enough to stay home for a little while by themselves, but they aren't quite comfortable heading to bed without an adult present.  Kids need that safety and security.  Oh, and when their school activities--i.e. band concerts for a grade--conflict with a church council meeting; the graded activities win.  Again, I am blessed with an understanding congregation and am very thankful they have supported my family in this.  They know it's temporary and have granted me grace upon grace because of it.

And kids are notorious about telling you the things they need at the last friggin' second.  There have been numerous instances of that in the past six weeks.  The worst was as we were pulling up to the Middle School, and my middle child says, "Dad, I need $7 for a band shirt today!!"  That sent my eldest into a scramble of looking through my wallet only to find bills that were much too large to send.  Fortunately, my oldest can be resourceful at times, so she started looking through my truck compartments. Lo and behold, there was a bag with just enough cash... But that's beside the point.  When you've got church commitments or school commitments, and you are told of a need, it's almost impossible to take an extra trip to the grocery store or Wal-Mart to get things done.

I know that I will be thankful for this experience in the long run.  I have new insight into what it means to be a single parent, and I understand much more readily why the Good Lord highly esteems marriage for raising children.  You won't hear me condemn any single parent who says, "I was just too tired to make it to this event."  I know you were.  Enjoy that rest.  My prayers are with you.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Seeing God's Salvation


            Today, I would like for us to put the 11th Commandment on hold as I begin my sermon.  You do know what the 11th Commandment is, right?  It was a commandment written specifically for Lutherans in worship. It reads, when worshiping, thou shalt do nothing except stand, sit, sing hymns, and occasionally laugh and clap.  I know that some of you life long Lutherans are wondering about that laugh and clap part, but it was discovered that German scribes omitted that last part to purposely make worship more somber.  Recently archaeologists dug up some very old manuscripts to show that laughing and clapping were actually in the original text.  Okay.  Enough of the fiction.  But on a serious note, I would like to ask you to do something a little different because I am going to put my preaching to the test this morning, and I need your help to do it.  I am going to ask you a question at the beginning of my sermon, and then I am going to ask you the same question at the end of the sermon.  I will be able to measure the effectiveness of my preaching if there is a difference.  Can you please help me?  Here is the question: do you believe that you have seen the salvation of God? Please raise your hand if you believe that you have seen the salvation of God.  I’m not going to criticize you or anything.  I am not going to judge you or anything of the sort.  Please, again, raise your hand if you believe you have seen God’s salvation.  Thank you (describe at 8 a.m. for radio audience).

            You may be wondering why I asked that question, and I will tell you.  For years, I understood that our Christian faith was focused on what I was supposed to do.  I thought that it was about me being a good person.  I thought it was about me following the commands of God.  I thought it was about being nice and kind and generous.  I thought it was about me telling others to do the same—to believe in Jesus and work hard to be a good person.  But over time, I came to see that first and foremost, Christianity was not focused on me and my actions.  Those things come into play, don’t get me wrong, but they are not primary.  What is primary; what is central and core to Christianity is not what I do, but what God has already done in Jesus Christ.

            This is one of the reasons we set aside four Sundays to prepare for the arrival of Jesus at the very beginning of the church year.  We focus our attention on what is happening as God comes to earth as that babe in Bethlehem, and we remember that He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  Traditionally, we spend a couple of weeks hearing about John the Baptist and his ministry because he was the one who prepared the way for Jesus’ when Jesus first came. Our Gospel lesson brings this forward to us this morning from the third chapter of the book of Luke.

            And Luke begins with this list of powerful people in the Roman Empire.  He begins with Emperor Tiberius and then narrows it down to Pontius Pilate.  He then talks about Herod, the puppet king of Israel, and then Philip and Lysanias.  Finally, Luke lists Annas and Caiaphas the high priest of the Temple.  At first, this might seem like just a list of the powerbrokers of the day, but Luke is telling us something important.  Luke is telling us that when God acts, He is not removed from history.  God moves within human history working in the world that He created.  God is not distant, set apart, just watching things transpire.  God looks into our world and moves!  No matter who is in power.  No matter who is in control.  It doesn’t matter who controls the House or the Senate or the Presidency.  It doesn’t matter who is on the Supreme Court.  Despite what these folks might be doing, they are not the ones who truly are calling the shots.  They are not the ones with ultimate authority.  There is someone who is more powerful, more important, more diligent moving in the course of history.  God’s power and might, when they are revealed are much more important than all of humanity’s rulers.

            And God’s power is revealed in the Judean wilderness as it falls upon a very interesting character—a 30ish young man who is dressed in camel’s hair and who eats grasshoppers and wild honey.  But this man’s dress and diet aren’t what gets the attention.  What is getting the attention is that for the first time in 400 years, God has raised up a prophet.  The people were longing and yearning to hear God speak.  God had been silent for all this time, and finally, finally God was once again speaking!  God was once again communicating through a prophet!!  The people went out to hear John with anticipation and hope.

            And John called them to repentance.  John called them to be purified by the waters of baptism.  Perhaps Pastor Casey will go into this in more detail next Sunday as John’s teaching is fleshed out, but for our purposes today, for our purposes today, we are only given the reason why John was calling people to repentance.  We are only given the reason why John was baptizing. 

            Luke quotes the Old Testament Prophet Isaiah.  He quotes Isaiah to make it very clear what is happening in John the Baptist’s ministry.  John is a herald.  John is someone who is preparing the way.  John is, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6And all people will see God’s salvation.”

            When you read further down in the 40th Chapter of Isaiah, it becomes even more clear what John was doing.  Verse 9 and following says, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’  10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;  he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

            John is heralding the arrival of the Lord God.  John is telling people that the Lord is arriving!  And there is only one appropriate path for the Lord.  It cannot have any dips or hills.  It cannot have any curves.  Everything should be straight and level!  Nothing must stand in the way of the Lord!

            Oh, for years how I thought that the most important part of this passage was the thought that we needed to be making those paths straight.  Oh how I thought that it was the church’s job to level the hills, raise the valleys, and straighten the paths.  Oh how I thought it was the church’s job to transform the world—to save the world.  Oh, how misguided I was.  Because to save the world—to make all the hills level and to bring up the valleys; to straighten out the curves would be more difficult than trying to figure out what is in several boxes of canned goods that someone had taken all the labels off of—not that anyone would intentionally do that, would they?  (For those of you who didn’t get that reference, talk to me later.)

            And so, I was very thankful for Pastor Casey’s words last week when he said, “It’s not our job to save the world because Jesus already said that He will save the world.  Our job is to tell of Jesus, to see the beauty of the work that Jesus is already doing…”  And I would like to add this morning—to see the beauty of what Jesus has already done.

            For, you see, my brothers and sisters, that is the key.  Salvation has already been revealed.  Salvation has already come.  Salvation isn’t something that is far and away to be experienced at a future date.  Salvation isn’t something that we have to scrounge around and look for.  Salvation isn’t something mysterious hidden away that we have to uncover.  It is right before each and every person, and all you have to do to see it is look at the cross.  All you have to do to see it is look at the empty tomb.

            “For it was on that old cross that Jesus suffered and died to pardon and sanctify me.”  On the cross, Jesus saved you. On the cross Jesus redeemed you.  On the cross Jesus gave you salvation.  On the cross, He bought you not with silver or gold but with His holy and precious blood.  When Jesus said from the cross, “It is finished,” He was letting us know that He has brought salvation to us.

            And, the empty tomb shows what will happen to us in the end.  We have a preview of what will happen to us.  All the evil that has ever been done will be unmade.  All of the suffering that we have undergone will be transformed.  All darkness will turn to light.  All hatred will turn to love.  All sadness will turn to joy.  This is no secret.  Because of Jesus, this is something we can count on; this is something we can trust in.

            Salvation, my brothers and sisters, has been revealed.  Salvation has been accomplished.  “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him.”

            When you look at Jesus, you are seeing salvation.  You are like Simeon in the temple holding up the Christ child and singing, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

            Oh, and now, and now I must put my preaching to the test.  I must see whether or not the Spirit was using me this morning.  For now, if every hand is not raised, then I have much more work to do to become more effective.  If every hand is not raised, then I have failed to show you Jesus—for in Jesus you see the salvation of God.  Please now raise your hand if you have seen Jesus.  Raise your hand if you have seen His work on the cross.  Raise your hand if you have seen the glory of his resurrection.  Raise your hand if you have been saved by His wondrous and glorious grace. 

            And let us pray: Holy God, you have worked to bring salvation to the world through Jesus.  He has bought us with great priced and saved us from our sin.  Help us to see this each and every day.  Help us to hold onto this with a sure and certain hope.  Help us to find great joy in your love for us, and encourage us to prepare a way so that others may see Jesus as well.  We ask this in His holy and precious name.  Amen.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Seeing the Truth


               At my last service at St. John of Cat Spring, I asked for prayer requests just before the prayers of the church.  One of my congregation members raised his hand and said, “I’d like to pray for Bethany Lutheran Church.”

                I wasn’t exactly sure what to make of that prayer request, so I started thinking about it. And suddenly, I put two and two together.  You see, right before church, one of our youth met me in the hall as I was heading to worship, and the little tyke said, “Pastor, I hate to see you go.  I want to make sure and get your address so that I can keep up with you because when I grow up and get a job, I’m going to send you some money.

                I was touched by this child’s comment but also a bit perplexed, so I asked the little guy why he was going to send me money.  He replied just as innocently as a child can, “Because my daddy says you are the poorest preacher he’s ever seen.”  Did I mention that my congregation member wanted me to pray for Bethany Lutheran Church?

                And maybe, just maybe history will bear it out that I am the poorest preacher that some of you have ever seen.  But if I am to be the poorest preacher that you have ever seen, let it be because I was not able to help you understand complicated theological concepts.  Let it be because I was not able to provide illustrations that brought the biblical passages to life.  Let it be because I am a sinner who falls far short of what God has called him to be.  Let it be because of these things.

                But if I am the poorest preacher that you have ever seen, let it not be because I didn’t work day after day to tell you about what God has done for you through Jesus Christ.  Let it not be because I didn’t try to convey to you how much God loves you and what He was willing to do to redeem you.  Let it not be because I failed to preach the Truth.

                Perhaps at this point there are one or two of you who are scratching your head and thinking, “Wait a minute. I was with you right until that last statement you made.  Are you somehow suggesting that you know what the Truth is?  Are you starting off your first Sunday sermon here somehow insinuating that you know the Truth and the rest of us don’t and that we are just a bunch of ignorant folks who you are here to enlighten?”

                No.  I am not suggesting that at all.  For the Truth I am here to proclaim is Truth that is readily accessible to each and every person.  The Truth that I am here to proclaim is very, very near to each and every one of us.  The Truth that I am here to proclaim is actually with us right here, right now for all to see.  How so, you might ask?

                Well, let’s turn now to our Gospel lesson for today to find the answer to that question.  This is actually quite a funny text to have before us on Christ the King Sunday, for our King, King Jesus is standing before Pontius Pilate as a criminal; bound; awaiting trial.  Jesus doesn’t look like a king at all.  And this is probably what is behind Pilate’s initial question.  It’s likely a contemptuous question.  “Are YOU the king of the Jews?”  Pilate knows the answer is a flat out “NO!”  Jesus is from the wrong part of the country.  He only has a hand-full of close followers, and they have all deserted Him.  He is poor; all alone; with seemingly no power or authority.  This is no king, but if he is harboring delusional thoughts of grandeur—of overthrowing the Roman presence in Judea, then, then this Jesus might just be a threat.  Better to be safe than sorry.  Better to make sure.

                Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with a question.  “Are you asking me this on your own or are you just believing the rumors that everyone is spreading about me?”

                Pilate isn’t too thrilled with Jesus’ question.  “Am I a Jew?” Pilate strongly responds.  You see, Pilate had nothing but contempt for the Jews.  He was assigned to keep the peace.  He had no use for Jewish customs or Jewish beliefs.  He didn’t care about their religious politics.  This is what is behind his response to Jesus.  In other words, Pilate is saying, “I am not a Jew.  I don’t care about your religious squabbles.  Your people handed you over to me for some reason that I really don’t care about.  I just want to keep the peace here in Judea.  Now, what have you done to make them angry?”

                Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”  This is such an important statement.  We could spend all morning unpacking it, but for now, let us be content to hear Jesus admit that He is a king. Let us hear that Jesus has a kingdom, but it is not like any kingdom of the world.  It is not founded in power or prestige or violence.  It is not tied to any geographic area.  It is not from or of the world, but it is for the world.  Let me say that again, Jesus kingdom is not of the world, but it is certainly for the world.  “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 did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save it.”

                Ah, but Pilate can’t hear such a thing.  Being a politician and a puppet of the emperor, he knows he must squash rebellion.  Jesus’ words sound rebellious!  “Aha!  So, you are a king!”

                In so many words, Jesus says with some amount of reluctance, “Yes. I am a king, but hear again that my purpose is a bit different from most kings.  I am a different sort of king.  For this I was born and for this I have come into the world: to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  Oh, let us hear Jesus’ words to Pilate.  Oh, let us understand them deeply, for in them is an invitation not only to Pilate, but to us as well.  Everyone who belongs to the Truth listens to Jesus’ voice.  Do you hear Jesus’ voice?  Do you belong to the Truth?  We will come back to this shortly.

                Pilate responds with the most ironic question in the whole Bible—at least it is ironic if you are a Christian.  If you are not a Christian, the question makes perfect sense.  I mean, indeed, what is Truth?  Does anyone really know what the Truth is?  You have your truth.  I have my truth.  Democrats have their truth.  Republicans have their truth.  If I don’t like what you say, I’ll just go find someone else who has a different understanding; a different insight; a different thought.  No one really knows the truth.  Pilate’s question ultimately is a rejection of what Jesus said.  Pilate cannot hear Jesus’ voice.  Pilate does not belong to the Truth.

                Ah, but what is Truth?  I said it was an ironic question if you are a Christian, because the answer is this: the Truth is standing right in front of Pilate.  For you see, my brothers and sisters, the Truth is not an idea; it is not a concept; it is not a philosophy; the Truth is a person—the God made flesh.  The Truth is Jesus.  Remember the story of when Jesus and His disciples were gathered in the room and Jesus told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, believe in God.  Believe also in me.  In my Father’s house there are many rooms.  If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going.’ 5Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’ 6Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

                Jesus is the Truth.  Do you belong to the Truth?  Do you hear His voice?  Pilate could not. Pilate was blinded because He believed that truth was found in power, in prestige, in wealth, in privilege.  Pilate’s heart was captured by these things, so he could not see Jesus for who he was: the one who had come into the world to save it.

                And it is so easy to be blinded to Jesus.  It is so easy to have our hearts captured by other things.  It is so easy to miss the Truth and become enslaved to the cares and worries of the world.  You may ask how?  Well, let me offer up this little illustration.  You see, my previous home was pretty close to that other NFL team in Texas.  Sorry, life-long Cowboy’s fan here.  But that’s not the point.  What is the point is this: there were a few folks in the community who would comment that it was too difficult to drive 10 minutes to church; it was too much of a problem to sit for an hour in worship; it cost too much to put $20 in the offering plate.  And yet, and yet, these same folks would drive an hour and a half and fight Houston traffic to attend a Texan’s game.  They’d spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a ticket for themselves and their families.  They would spend hundreds of dollars on food and souvenir items.  They’d devote three hours to watching the game, and then fight traffic to get out of the stadium and drive back home.  Their hearts were captured by their team.  Their king was athletics.

                And do you see how demanding that king was?  Do you see how much their king too of their time and energy and money?  Do you see how much their king took from them?  And what did they receive in return?  Momentary pleasure in a win.  Disgust in a loss.  The hope of another season.  A souvenir jersey that will fall apart.  A few memories to hold in their heads. Things that will all pass away and fade and leave them with absolutely nothing.  Such is the case with all false kings.  Such is the case with anything that your heart is captured by that is not Jesus.  And…here is the kicker…even though we essentially get nothing from those kings, what do they continue to do?  What do they continue to demand?  More time, more energy, more money.  They continue to make demands of you while giving you nothing in return.  Keep serving these kings, and you end up empty, restless, joyless, angry and frustrated.

                And so, let me now ask, about Jesus.  What does it mean when Jesus is your king?  What does it mean when your heart is captured by Him as the Truth?  How demanding is Jesus?  In one way, He is absolutely much more demanding than any other king.  For Jesus demands total allegiance.  He demands our entire life.  He demands that we honor and love Him with our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength.  He demands that we love our neighbors as ourselves.  His demands are above and beyond what any other king would ever demand.  They are so great that we can never fulfill them.  And while most other kings would look upon us as failures and dismiss us for not being loyal enough; not being good enough; not being the subjects that we should be.  While most kings would cast us out of their kingdoms or punish us for our failure, our King, the Way, the Truth, the Life, instead lays down His life for us.  Our King, King Jesus redeems us with His holy and precious blood.  Our King sacrifices Himself for us to show us mercy and love.  Our King pours Himself out for us and then pours Himself into us so that we can become children of God and inheritors of eternal life.  Our King, in spite of our failures, loves us with a love beyond measure, and He shows us this sheer grace so that He may establish His kingdom in our hearts. For He longs to capture our hearts and reign in our hearts each and every day.  And once we see that; once we see the Truth standing there before us; once we see Jesus in our hearts as the Lord and King who loved us while we were still sinners; we become full of peace, love, joy, and hope.  What is Truth?  It is Jesus; King Jesus.  May He be king of your  heart this day and everyday.  Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The God "Problem"

This is a Bible Study that I am presenting in our adult class this Sunday (Sept. 30, 2018).  I find the topic very interesting and extremely relevant to our time and place.  Your thoughts and comments are appreciated.

10 When you draw near to a town to fight against it, offer it terms of peace. 11If it accepts your terms of peace and surrenders to you, then all the people in it shall serve you in forced labor. 12If it does not submit to you peacefully, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it; 13and when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword. 14You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, livestock, and everything else in the town, all its spoil. You may enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15Thus you shall treat all the towns that are very far from you, which are not towns of the nations here. 16But as for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded, 18so that they may not teach you to do all the abhorrent things that they do for their gods, and you thus sin against the Lord your God.  –Deuteronomy 20:10-18

Samuel said to Saul, ‘The Lord sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of the Lord. 2Thus says the Lord of hosts, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” ’  –1 Samuel 15:1-3


Most of us have a problem conceiving of God commanding the things in these Bible passages.  Did God really demand the killing of innocent women, children, and infants?  Was this really done with God’s blessing according to His will?  We struggle with the concept of a good, loving, and gracious God doing such matters.
This is why I have titled this study, “The God ‘Problem’”.  These verses (and a few others) indeed present a problem for many believers.  They are used against us by those outside our faith.  They cause no minor amount of cognitive dissonance for those who are within the faith.  They are oftentimes glossed over, ignored, or “hemmed and hawed” at.  For the most part, they make us “twitchy.”  What do we do with a God who commands such things?

First, I am interested to hear your initial thoughts in regards to these verses.  Let’s take a few moments to process this and hear some thoughts before moving on.  There will be no condemnation of folk’s ideas being shared regarding this.  The intent, at least for now, is to see where folks are at and how they each wrestle with such matters.

I am interested in your thoughts and comments on this issue because of a very real debate in biblical interpretation.  Over a decade ago, I tried to set up a pastors’ study dealing with the issue of biblical interpretation.  I thought it would be an important discussion leading into the future.  I contacted multiple college professors who, when I told them what I was trying to set up, lauded my efforts.  They thought the topic of sincere and important relevance.  (Unfortunately, none of them were able to accommodate the scheduling, so the retreat fell through.)  I consider the topic of even more relevance today in light of the God “problem.”  Why?

Interpreting the Bible is a rather interesting exercise fraught with multiple pit falls, and I’d like to illustrate this by showing how multiple interpretive methods deal with the above texts.

First, you have what I would call a “Fundamentalist” approach.  Perhaps it would be better to call it a literal interpretation approach.  Fundamentalist carries a bad connotation, but it really shouldn’t.  Everyone is a fundamentalist at some level, but that is a topic of another discussion.  (Although, given the nature of our class, I can see us going down a tangent for a while...)  The literal approach takes these texts at face value, believes God said it, and doesn’t question it.  God ordered such things, God is the highest authority, therefore, it must be right.  These biblical interpreters are not bothered when others question whether or not the commands are just, fair, moral, etc.   They are not bothered by God’s command to kill women and children.  That’s just what God said to do, so it had to be done.
There are some very poignant critiques of such interpretations.  “If God commanded you to kill and innocent person, would you do it?”  Most of us would recoil at the thought.  “God seems capricious.  He doesn’t always invoke such violence.  Why is God so inconsistent?”  Who knows?  “This God in the Old Testament seems very different from the God in the New Testament.  Why are they so different?”  This is why some early Christians wanted to do away with the OT and simply keep the NT.  These are tough, tough questions to wrestle with.  One ignores them at peril.

The second mode of interpretation goes to the other extreme.  It basically says that the Bible was written by people who were passing on their understanding of what God did and said.  We need to read this carefully and understand it well because it is the modus operandi of the leadership and much of the academic theological thought in our own denomination.
The Bible was written by people.  This is not controversial.  Everyone agrees that people wrote the words of the Bible. 
Who were passing on THEIR understanding of what God did and said.  This is the crucial point.  Their understanding is key, and it opens up the door with how those who use this method interpret the above texts.
If the biblical writers are expressing their understanding of events and who God is...
And if human understanding is flawed and subject to bias and capriciousness...
Then, these stories are human understandings and not necessarily representative of God.
Add in another belief: God is love.
Since God is love, God would never order the deaths of innocent women and children.  Therefore, these stories are people’s understandings and not God’s actual words or actions.  We can disregard these teachings as human error.
This method of biblical interpretation is not without problems.  For where does one come to understand who God is?  What basis does one us when discerning what God is and is not like?  Throughout history God (and for the purpose of our discussions, let’s add the thoughts about other gods from other religions) has been seen as benevolent, angry, kind, loving, warlike, demanding of sacrifice–animal and human, lustful, vengeful, bloodthirsty, omniscient, omnipotent, etc.  Who is right and who is wrong?  Who gets to decide which of these attributes is correct?  Who gets to decide that one person’s god is better than another?  Do we chalk it up to human experience?  Do we chalk it up to group thought and identity? 
Oftentimes, it boils down to my personal preference and experience.  Oftentimes experience becomes the measuring stick whereby one discovers the “truth” of God.  People with like shared experiences come together and worship their God.  If something is outside that experience, it is rendered false. 
The problem with this is 1) experiences become highly individualized.  2) In the long run, we create our own god discarding anything that makes us uncomfortable.

The third method of interpretation seeks to understand the Bible as God’s revelation to humanity.  It recognizes the difficulty of conflicting texts in the scriptures, and it seeks to wrestle with them and understand them within the context of its original writers and hearers.  It recognizes the difficulty of some of the biblical stories and commands issued by God, but it does not seek to discard them.
This method of interpretation seeks to see the Scriptures as a unified whole culminating in the ultimate revelation of God in the God/man of Jesus of Nazareth.  It focuses on what Jesus said and did to redeem the world in the cross and the resurrection.  All of scripture is interpreted in and through Jesus. 
The problem with this mode of interpretation is that it becomes messy.  It is not easy in the least.  It does not give simple, easy answers and forces you to wrestle with some very difficult ideas and concepts.  Sometimes–oftentimes if you are serious in your study–it does not allow you to resolve issues and makes you hold them in dynamic tension.  It leaves you uncomfortable.

Perhaps there is another method of interpretation.  I would be interested in your thoughts regarding such a thing.  For me, I find myself squarely in the third methodology because, of all the problems, the problems presented by the third methodology are most palatable and allow me to be as faithful as possible to the biblical text and to who God is as revealed in that text.  This methodology does not require me to cease asking questions and go with mere acceptance, and it allows me to address the very serious questions raised by those outside the Christian faith without damaging the integrity of the biblical text.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

God Needs Nothing From Us

This week, as I was studying the Gospel text that we have before us this morning, I was led to contemplate the God we worship–I was led by the Spirit to think about who He is and what He has done and is doing.  And my thoughts turned to the fact that God needs nothing from us.  He needs absolutely nothing from us.  The ancient Jews understood that God was complete and whole in and of Himself.  He has all power; all authority; all might; all wisdom; and all knowledge.  He created this world, and it and everything that is in it belongs to Him.  In the relationship of the Holy Trinity, God has in Himself all the love, joy, care, and compassion that He would ever need.  Because of this, He needs nothing from us.  He does not need our prayers.  He does not need our money.  He does not need our worship.  He does not need our actions or our goodness.  He needs nothing from us.

But the opposite is not true.  We cannot say that at all about God, for we are completely and totally dependent upon Him.  God provides all that we need.  God gives us this earth and its resources for our food, clothing and shelter.  God sustains this world and upholds it–He need only to remove His hand from it for catastrophe to befall us.  God gives us knowledge and understanding and minds that can comprehend such things so that we can build and work and prepare.  As Luther says in his explanation to the petition of the Lord’s Prayer “Give us this day our daily bread,”: God gives daily bread, even without our prayer, to all wicked men; but we pray in this petition that He would lead us to know it, and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.  Oh how blessed we are by God!!  For most of us who gather here this morning have roofs over our heads; we have clothes on our backs; we have food in our homes and refrigerators; we have cars to drive to worship and other places; we have a bit of money in the bank; we are not wondering where our next meal is coming from or whether or not our home will be taken from us.  We have so much!

But I am struck by how often we seem to want so much more.  I have been reading through the Old Testament, and I am in the midst of the book of Deuteronomy.  This means I have just finished reading about the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt and their meanderings until they are about to head into the Promised Land.  All along this journey, God has provided for His people.  He first of all freed them from deplorable conditions in Egypt; He freed them from rulers who demanded that all of their first born sons be killed.  He utterly demoralized the Egyptians to the point that when the people left, the Egyptians were giving the Israelites gold and jewelry as they left–filling the Israelites with wealth and riches.  God gave the Israelites commands and rules to live by promising that should they follow them, then all would go well with them.  God provided them direction by a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  God protected them from armies that were raised against them.  God gave them enough food for every day of the week.  And yet, the people were not satisfied.  The people oftentimes cried out and complained against God.  The people actually longed for a life of slavery back in Egypt.  They were not content with all that God had done and was doing for them.  Their example is our example.  For we too seem to never be satisfied.  We too seem to long for more.  We cry out to God for more financial security; for a better job; for more prestige; for more power.

We are not unlike those Israelites being led through the wilderness.  We are not unlike Jesus’ very own disciples as they walked with Him on a daily basis.  This leads us straight to our Gospel lesson today from the ninth chapter of the book of Mark.  Jesus and His disciples are traveling through Galilee.  They are staying away from the crowds because Jesus is giving them some very important instructions.  “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”  This is the second time in the book of Mark that Jesus makes His assertions about what it means to be the Messiah.  We heard the first one last week.  That session didn’t turn out too well for His disciples.  This one won’t either.  We get a hint of this right off the bat as Mark then tells us that the disciples didn’t understand the teaching, and they were too afraid to ask.

This is really not surprising.  Remember, the disciples were all good Jews.  They had been taught from the time that they were little that the Messiah would rise up and do three things: He would cleanse the temple.  He would defeat those who were oppressing the Jews, and He would usher in the Kingdom of God.  It was expected that these things would be done by a mighty hand raising a mighty army.  The end result would be a world governed by Israel.  All of this was common knowledge.  It was deeply ingrained into Jewish thought, and what Jesus taught was completely and totally different from this.  What Jesus taught was insane.  No one believed that the Messiah would be betrayed, suffer, be killed, and rise again.  No one.  The disciples couldn’t understand this.  It was too mind boggling.  It was too out there.  If they were to accept it, they would have to literally rethink everything they had once been taught about their faith.  Folks, most of us are totally and completely unwilling to do such a thing.  So when we, like those disciples, hear something that challenges our faith, we won’t seek to understand it either.  We tend to be afraid of it.  That’s probably why the disciples wouldn’t ask Jesus about it.  They didn’t want to be challenged by it.  They didn’t want to have to wrestle with it.  It was much easier to hold onto the comfortable teachings of their youth.

And so they did.  I am quite sure that at this point in the gospel of Mark, the disciples really believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but they rejected that he would suffer, die, and rise.  I am quite sure they thought that Jesus was just pulling their leg and that He would ascend to become God’s chosen king of Israel.  And that left them with a burning question.  If Jesus was the Messiah and He was going to be King of Israel, where would the rest of us end up?  Which one of us would be second in command?  Which one of us would be Jesus’ personal adviser?  What part will each of us have in the Kingdom of God?  And so they began to argue about which one of them was the greatest.  Oh, I can hear the argument now.  “Well, don’t you think it’s Peter.  Isn’t he sort of our spokesperson?”  “Yeah, but don’t you remember that Jesus called him Satan? There’s no way Jesus will pick him.”  “But what about James and John, they went up on the mountain with Jesus.”  “Yeah, but have you seen the temper on those two. There’s a reason they are called the sons of thunder.  Surely that is a major strike against them.”  “Matthew?”  “Tax collector.  You know they all cheat.  Can’t be him.”  And on and on and on the conversation went.  On and on and on they argued–not satisfied listening to Jesus’ teaching and content to be walking with the Son of God, but instead focusing on their desires for more power and prestige.

Jesus knows what’s going on.  Like any good teacher, He knows when He’s lost His class, so when they arrive at their destination, Jesus confronts them.  “What were you arguing about on the way?”  Dead silence.  Like a kid whose mom caught him with his hand in the cookie jar, the disciples know they’ve been busted.  They know they should have been listening to Jesus.  They know they’ve been focusing on their own agendas and endeavors.  They know they’ve been seeking their own personal satisfaction and well being.  Guilty is written all over their foreheads.

Jesus’ reaction is rather stunning.  Unlike when He confronted Peter, there is no anger.  There is no chiding.  Jesus sits down.  Now, this is actually a pretty important point that the scriptures are making here.  In the rabbinic tradition, when the rabbi sat down, that meant he was saying something really, really important.  In those days, the teacher sat and the students stood when an such a point was being made.  Just a hint: this means, the teaching Jesus is giving us now is really, really important. 

“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

This was not expected.  No one wanted to be a servant.  Everyone wanted to climb the ladder of power and prestige.  Everyone wanted to be at the top of the totem pole.  The entire society was governed by status and privilege.  No one wanted to be at the bottom.  No one wanted to live down at the dregs.  Servants were lowly. They were held in contempt.  They could give you nothing.  Couldn’t help you in any possible way. What in the world was Jesus saying?  This couldn’t be possible.

Jesus doesn’t back down.  Jesus then illustrates His point. He takes a child, puts that child into their midst, then wraps His arms around that child. He embraces that child.  Oh, we need to picture this.  We need to get this image in our heads.  Don’t picture some kid who looks all neat and washed and clean. That was not what kids looked like back then.  Imagine a kid whose hair is all disheveled; who is wearing stained and dirty clothes.  The kid has dust and dirt all over her body; grime underneath her fingernails; smudges on her cheeks.  This is who Jesus embraces, and then He says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Jesus’ comment goes far beyond just welcoming children.  There is a much deeper meaning to this.  Because children in Jesus’ day were not like children today.  Today, we’ll do anything for kids.  We’ll spend tons of money on them.  We’ll give them preferential treatment.  Oftentimes, we’ll cater to their wishes and desires before our own.  Kids have a special place in our society, but they had no such place in Jesus’ day.  Kids were looked at as “not having arrived.”  This meant that they were resource drains on society.  They couldn’t contribute anything.  They were unable to work and produce.  In a society where most folks were living day to day wondering where their next meal would come from, children meant extra work for parents who had to provide.  There was an extremely high infant mortality rate, so a child could easily die from sickness or exposure.  There was no use getting attached.  Children represented the lowest of the low–those who received but who couldn’t give.

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.  Whoever welcomes someone who is at the bottom rung–whoever welcomes someone who cannot give you anything; who cannot provide you anything; who drains your resources without giving you anything in return–when you welcome someone like that, then you are welcoming God Himself.

Let’s rephrase that for just a moment–whenever you welcome someone who needs you but you don’t need them, you welcome God Himself.

This, my brothers and sisters, cuts to the heart of the Gospel.  You may wonder just how, but remember how I began this sermon?  Remember how I talked about how God doesn’t need us?  And yet, what did God do for us?

When we sought only ourselves and what we wanted, God sought us.  Whenever we rebelled against God, God loved us.  Whenever we wanted to go our own way and shook our fist at God for not giving us everything we wanted, God welcomed us.  When we stood in front of God, guilty of breaking His commandments; guilty of chasing after false gods, guilty of hating our neighbor, God forgave us.

And when we deserved just punishment for our sins; when we deserved the fires of hell and torment; when we deserved death and eternal separation from God for all that we have done, God paid the price to redeem us.  God paid the price to ransom us.  God gave His only begotten Son to die for us so that when we trust in Him and His action we have abundant life now and eternal life with Him.  This is sheer grace given to us by our Father in heaven. It is grace that costs us nothing, but it cost God everything.  He gets nothing from us, but He gave everything for us.

When we are grasped by this grace.  When we are grasped by this kind of love, we long to be like the Father; we long to be like Jesus; we long to give to those who cannot give us anything in return.  And so we must ask: who are those around us who can give us nothing?  Who are those around us who need us?  Who need our time?  Who need our money?  Who need our energy?  Who are unable to repay or give anything in return?  Are we seeking them out?  Are we longing to care for them and welcome them?  For when we do such things we are not simply following a command; we are not simply doing the right thing; we are imitating God and we are welcoming God.  We are doing what God has already done for us.  We are receiving and we are giving sheer grace.  Amen.