Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Guns in College?

While on Spring Break this past week, I managed to stay away from Facebook and much of the internet.  Instead, I got the news a day late by reading the Dallas Morning News.

One thing caught my attention and made me ponder for a few: the Texas Legislature allowing conceal carry handguns on public college campuses. Now, I have spoken about guns on this blog several times (here, here, and here).  I am an avid sportsman and outdoors man.  I use guns regularly and am teaching my children to use them.  I have a healthy respect for guns, but I do not fear them.

I do not believe banning "assault weapons" like AR-15's is a good idea. 
I fully support the 2nd Amendment.
I do think background checks to purchase guns is a very good idea.
I don't think we have a gun problem in the U.S.
I don't think concealed carry is a bad idea.  I don't think open carry is a bad idea.
I don't believe concealed carry or open carry will lead to a revisiting of the Wild West.
I don't believe concealed carry or open carry will solve the problem of crime.

Maybe those bullet points will sufficiently tick off both sides of the aisle.  Maybe not. Here's something I don't support: concealed carry on college campuses by students. 

It's not that I don't think many of them are responsible.  I think they are.  I believe I certainly was.  It's not that I don't think they can't handle weapons.  I could shoot at that age with no problem.  It's deeper.  I don't support concealed carry on college campuses for the same reason I don't support banning assault rifles.  The stats.

The FBI numbers for people killed with assault rifles or other rifles is miniscule compared to the real killer: handguns.  The numbers are overwhelming on that one.

The numbers are also overwhelming when it comes to who commits mass shootings.  The vast, vast majority are committed by males under the age of 25.  Why?  Because the male brain doesn't fully develop until that age.  Furthermore, there is a certain beverage which is consumed in large quantities on college campus which further inhibits clear thinking. 

So, let's put this stuff together: guns + alcohol + an age group within which most mass shooters fall.  To me, that equals a very bad idea. 

Now, I know there are those who argue for safety.  I know there are those who argue we are limiting safety by implementing such laws, but again, look at the numbers.  How safe are you on a college campus?  How safe are you on any public school campus? 

The fact of the matter is: we are extremely safe on school campuses.  We are extremely safe on college campuses.  In fact, if you really want to break it down, we know which communities experience the highest levels of crime.  We know where most shootings occur.  The demographics are published.  It is no mystery.

The problem is fear is pumped into our lives daily by the media, by the government, and by others who try to either 1) make you depend only upon yourself for your safety or 2) depend upon the government to make you safe and secure.

It's really a false set of alternatives with several false gods competing for your allegiance.  There is the false god of safety and security preying upon your fears of harm--telling you that around every corner is a boogy man; a murderer; a rapist; someone who is intent to do you physical or mental harm.  Holding safety's leash is the fear of death which can consume even the strongest intellect.  The false god of safety whispers in our ears, depending upon what he can prey upon, either to look to one's self for salvation (Carry a gun.  It will make you safe and secure.  You can defeat your enemies.  You will have a new sense of confidence in yourself!) or to look to the authorities (They are trained to handle things.  They will arrive at a moment's notice.  They will handle the bad guys more efficiently and better than you can.  They will minimize the risk to others.).   The truth is we need both individual vigilance and governmental agencies working together to minimize crime and maximize safety  AND, more than that, I am convinced, we need to put the false god of safety in its place by refusing to bow to him.

I mean, when you make safety your god, you give up freedom and you live in fear, and if there is one thing I have come to understand about the Gospel, is that the perfect love of Jesus for us drives away fear. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

If You Never Had to Grocery Shop?

I never really marveled at the story until yesterday.

Returning from Spring Break travels and dealing with an overgrown backyard gave my brain some exercise, and my thoughts turned to the Israelites' wandering in the desert for 40 years.  A comment on this blog brought this story to the forefront. 

For those who do not remember the story: God had rescued His chosen people from slavery and had brought them into the desert to reveal Himself to them and give them instructions for how to live with Him and with one another.  During this ordeal, the people whined and complained about a great many things.  It's not surprising given their enslavement for hundreds of years.  God actually shows quite a bit of patience and restraint with them throughout the story.  Throughout the peoples' complaints, God responds with great provision, culminating with perhaps the greatest one--manna.

7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. 8The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. 9When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it. (Numbers 11)

For 40 years God provided this food. 

I confess, I never marveled at this.  Not in the least.  It was kind of a "ho-hum" detail in the midst of the biblical account.  There were other things which seemed much more exciting--much more gripping.  So what if God provided a bit of food each and every day for 40 years.

But then my brain really wrestled with this:

The world of that time was not even close to the world I live in.  In the part of the world I live in, food security is taken for granted.  We have plenty of food.  Most folks don't grow their own food anymore.  With 85% plus of the population living in areas classified as urban, the connection with growing and having your own food supply is almost lost.  Grocery stores provide much of our necessities.  This was not so in those days.  The vast majority of people (95% if I remember my history classes in seminary) were subsistence agriculturists.  In other words, 95% of the population was in a continuous struggle to grow and raise their own food.  95% of the people worked in the fields from dawn to dusk simply to put food on their own tables.  There was no such thing as free time for them.  Life was a struggle to survive.  To eat.  That world was nothing like our world here today.

And you never knew when a storm would wipe out your crop.  You never knew if hail would destroy your grain; your vegetables; your hay meadow.  You never knew if a swarm of locust would eat your garden down to nothing.  You never knew if the "heavens would be shut" and you would have times of extreme drought.  These events could and did happen paving the way for hunger and starvation.

There were no means of keeping food fresh for long periods either.  No refrigerators.  No freezers.  No canning of vegetables.  You had clay jars to put things in.  You could salt meat for a period of time.  You could put grain into dry storage, but it wouldn't be long before infestations of weevils and other insects.  You just couldn't store up enough to prevent hunger if your crops suffered catastrophic failure.

And so you dedicated your life to finding sustenance.  You dedicated the vast majority of your waking hours to make sure you had enough food to feed your family.  This was your life.

And for 40 years.  14,600 days.  The Israelites did not have to work for their food.

They didn't have to worry about destroyed crops.

They didn't have to worry about storing things up.

They didn't have to worry about drought or hail.

Provision was made day after day after day after day.

Can you imagine never having to grocery shop for 40 years?  Can you imagine the amount of time and money you would have given that you no longer had to budget for food; you no longer had to drive to the store; you no longer had to garden; or shop organic; or try to be healthy.  God provided food straight to your door-step.  Food which was nutritious; life-giving; sustaining; wholesome; abundant; and free.  Completely and utterly free. 

And if your life once revolved around the appropriation of food, what would you do with all the time you now had?  What would you do given that the most basic need of your existence was fulfilled for 40 years?

Mind boggling.

The provision of God in this account is simply mind boggling; for He provided for thousands of people during this period of time.  Thousands.

As the chief cook of my household, I spend quite a bit of time menu planning and then cooking.  I have also begun the duties of appropriating food for our house, and I know the amount of money one spends with a family of five.  I can't even begin to fathom what it would be like to have none of the concerns of buying food and wondering what to prepare.  I can't even begin to comprehend what it would be like to have no need to grocery shop.  I can't even wrap my head around how generous and gracious God was during this ordeal.

Amazing.  Simply amazing.

Monday, March 16, 2015

There is no Such Thing as an Atheist

    As I begin my sermon this morning, I want to make something very, very clear.  The Bible does not say that there is only one God.  The Bible says that there is only one True God.  If you listened carefully, you heard what I am saying.  The Bible does not deny the existence of other gods.  Listen to the first of the 10 Commandments, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”  Listen carefully to that last statement, “You shall have no other gods before me.”  Meaning, there are other gods out there, but we should not put them in front of the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.

    This morning, I would like to argue that there really is no such thing as an atheist; that each and every one of us has a god of some fashion, and then show you why the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the only one worthy of setting our hearts and minds upon.

    First, let’s deal with point one.  There is no such thing as an atheist.  If any of you here this morning lean that direction or are sympathetic to atheism, you might think I am crazy.  You might think that if someone doesn’t believe in a transcendent being, then by definition, that person is an atheist.  Let me take a moment to read to you what Martin Luther says in his Large Catechism.  What Luther says is very important as he defines what a god truly is:

    A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.  To have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe him with our whole heart.  As I have often said, the trust and faith of the heart alone make both God and idol.  If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true God.  On the other hand, if your trust is false and wrong, then you have not the true God.  For these two belong together, faith and God.  That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.

    What is Luther saying here?  Just this, whatever you put your heart’s trust in is your god.  Whatever captures the imagination of your heart has become god for you.  And every human heart is captured by something.  Every human heart.  This definition is quite different than seeing God as a transcendent being beyond the universe that may or may not intervene in this world.  If this is your definition of God, then you can actually be an atheist.  You can say that you do not believe in a being beyond this physical universe.  You can say that you do not believe in a transcendent being who created this universe.  However, if you understand Luther’s definition of a god, then there is no one who is an atheist.  There is no one whose heart is not captured by the imagination of something or someone.  Even those who have called themselves the “New Atheists” are not really atheists.  Richard Dawkins’ heart is captured by evolution and science.  Daniel Dennet’s heart is captured by philosophy and reason.  Sam Harris’ heart is captured by neuroscience.  Now, unequivocally, each of these folks would not say that they see these things as god.  None of them would admit they worship science and reason and philosophy; however, from Luther’s definition, one could say such folks are living a delusion.  (That’s a bit of a twist considering Richard Dawkins’ book titled, The God Delusion where he argues folks who believe in God are delusional.  Looks like the shoe might actually be on the other foot, if we were to agree on Luther’s definition.)

    The fact of the matter is that all of our hearts are captured by something.  All of our hearts’ imaginations are grasped in one way, shape, or form.  Thomas Chalmers in his sermon titled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” puts it this way”

     It is seldom that any of our bad habits or flaws disappear by a mere process of natural extinction.  At least this is very rare that it happens through the instrumentality of reason or by the force of mental determination.  What cannot be destroyed may be dispossessed.  One taste may be made to give way to another and to lose its power entirely as the reigning affection of the mind.  A youth may cease to idolize central pleasure but it is because the idol of wealth, the desire to make money, has gotten the ascendency.  So, he becomes disciplined.  But the love of money might actually cease to have mastery over his heart if it is drawn more to ideology and politics.  Now he is lorded over by a love of power and of moral superiority instead of wealth.  But there is not one of these transformations in which the heart is left without an object.  The human heart’s desire for one particular object is conquered, but its desire to have some ultimate object of adoration is unconquerable. 

    If you listened carefully to Chalmers’ sermon, he basically said this: our hearts will move from one affection to another.  I guarantee that most of you here this morning know this.  You know this even though you may not have thought of it.  Remember when you were younger.  Remember when you wanted a toy or a new truck or a new house or a new outfit?  Remember how you just couldn’t live without it and your heart longed for it?  Remember what happened when you got it?  You probably rejoiced for a few days or weeks, but then what happened?  What happened to your heart?  Well, another object popped in there.  You suddenly wanted another outfit, a piece of land, a different car or so on and so forth.  Your hearts desire wasn’t quenched, it was only displaced.  To go back to Luther’s definition of a god, one god was replaced by another.

    I want to break from this train of thought for a moment to return to our reading from 1 Peter.  Today, I want to focus on verses 13-21.  Take a quick listen to these verses again

    13 Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. 14Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. 15Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; 16for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’  17 If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile. 18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God. 

    Peter exhorts us to set our hearts–to set all our hope–to set all our trust–on God; particularly on God revealed as Jesus.  And as people who set our hearts on this holy God, we too are called to be holy.  Peter basically says the condition of our hearts where we place our hearts’ desire and our hearts’ imagination will directly affect how we live our lives in the world.  Let’s see how this works.

    Remember how I argued earlier with Thomas Chalmer’s sermon that all of our hearts have an ultimate desire?  An ultimate concern?  An ultimate affection?  Why should we set our hearts on Jesus instead of anything else?  Why should we set our hearts on Jesus instead of science or money or clothing or possessions or our family or our friends?  Why should we set our hope on Jesus instead of all of the other gods of the other world religions?  What makes Jesus better than all of these things?

    Just this: no other god is willing to die for you.  None of them.  All the other gods; all of the other things that capture our hearts’ imagination will sure as heck demand obedience from us though.  They will demand our attention and affection.  They will demand our time and energy.  They will demand our efforts, and sometimes, they will even demand our very lives.  And they will never give us satisfaction.  What do I mean by this?

    Well, let me use an example from my childhood.  One of the members of my home congregation was very involved in teaching and leading the youth group.  He was a great guy who really tried to do some good work with us kids.  Just before I entered into that youth group, this guy stopped leading it.  There were some things happening in his life, and from what I could see, he decided to focus on his job.  And he was very, very good at it.  He was an ag teacher at one of the local schools.  He began pouring himself into that job.  And he excelled!  He did fantastic work!  He was even awarded the Ag Teacher of the Year!   Sounds pretty great doesn’t it.  But I didn’t tell you the cost, did I?  For as he poured himself into his job, his family life suffered.  His relationships with his wife and children fell apart.  He ended up divorced, and his son reeling from the brokenness between his mom and dad began questioning the existence of God because, “God let my mom and dad get divorced.”  When this guy’s job became his god, he excelled, but at great cost.  At terrible cost.  And if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that this is the case with all of our false gods.  Every false god demands obedience at great cost.  Every false god demands obedience before giving any sort of reward.  Every false god says, “Do this, and then I will love you.”

    Only Jesus does the opposite.  Only Jesus says, “I love you.  I value you.  I give you your worth and sustenance, now, love me; serve me; follow me.”  And how does He love us?  How does He prove His love for us?  By dying for us when we least deserve it.

    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 might be saved through Him.

    This sets our God apart from all the others.  This sets Jesus apart from every other religion or philosophy or train of thought.  This sets Jesus apart from money and science and philosophy and possessions and the like.  This is what makes our God holy.  And you need to realize the biblical understanding of holiness.  Holiness means to be set apart.  Holiness means to differentiate from all the other stuff.  God is holy in that He acts completely different from all the other Gods.  The goodness and grace that He gives to us is not contingent upon our actions.  It’s contingent upon Jesus’ actions.  It’s contingent upon Jesus’ living the life we should live, dying the death we deserve and then placing His righteousness upon us.

    When we begin to set our minds upon this–as Peter instructs–things begin to change.  Those false gods find they have less and less of a foothold in our hearts.  Those false gods find themselves with less and less power.  And our hearts find themselves desiring other things less.  Our hearts find themselves less enamored with power and prestige.  They find themselves less and less enamored with popularity and power.  They find themselves less and less enamored with acceptance and being right all the time.  Our hearts find humility.  They find peace.  They find love.  Our hearts become centered on Jesus and captured by the Gospel. 

    Then, this love of God which has captured our hearts begins to filter out into the world.  It begins to look at others with kindness and compassion.  It begins to look at others with a sense of longing to spread the Gospel to them.  It begins to look differently and act differently than the world around us, and when it does, then indeed we are holy as God is holy.  We are set apart because our hearts aren’t captured by everything the world deems important.  Instead, our hearts are captured by Jesus.  Amen.

Monday, March 9, 2015

How do You Deal with the Fact You Will Die?

    I would like to begin my sermon this morning by saying something rather provocative; although it may not be provocative to many of you here this morning.  Everyone is seeking salvation.  Now, there might be some who would say, “I am an atheist, I am not seeking salvation.  I don’t believe in God or an afterlife or anything like that.”  Still, I say, even you are seeking salvation.  You just don’t realize it.

    Before I push on any further, let me say, this is not my thought.  I’m not the one who came up with the idea.  In fact, there are many, many who are smarter than I; are more famous than I; and who are much wealthier than I who have said the exact same thing.  In fact, I’d like to read a quote from one of those folks right now.

    Not too many years ago, a gentleman by the name of Luc Ferry wrote a very good little book titled, A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living.  Mr. Ferry is a french philosopher and secular humanist.  This means, he is an agnostic bordering on atheist.  His book was very well received, and at the very beginning, he says this:

    I suggest that we accept a different approach to the question, “What is philosophy?’ and start from a very simple proposition, one that contains the central question of all philosophy: that the human being, as distinct from God, is mortal or, to speak like the philosophers, is a ‘finite being’, limited in space and time.  As distinct from animals, moreover, a human being is the only creature who is aware of his limits.  He knows that he will die, and that his near ones, those he loves, will also die.  Consequently he cannot prevent himself from thinking about this state of affairs, which is disturbing and absurd, almost unimaginable.  And, naturally enough, he is inclined to turn first of all to those religions which promise ‘salvation.’

    I hope you caught what Ferry was saying.  If you didn’t, let me try and help you.  Basically, we are the only species that knows we are going to die.  We are the only creature on this planet, that we are aware of, that can think about the fact that we are going to die.  And it is disturbing.  It is absurd.  It is quite difficult for us to imagine it and wrap our heads around it.  Salvation, for Ferry, becomes our ability to cope with our mortality.  Somehow, some way, we need to solve the problem of death, and I would submit to you that we haven’t exactly done a very good job of it.  Even in the church, we haven’t done so well.

    Some of you here this morning might question me on that one.  You might say, “Well, pastor, I believe in God.  I believe in Jesus, so I’m not worried about death.  I’m not worried about what will happen to me when I die.”  I hear you loud and clear, and the first part of this sermon isn’t necessarily directed at you.  Perhaps you might find your toes being stepped on in a few moments though.  Hang in there.  A few of you might have come to that place in your lives where you look at death and you compare it to all the trials and tribulations you are going through.  You might welcome it. 

    That may sound a bit morbid, but I learned a valuable lesson from my grandfather when he was dying of cancer.  I remember taking him to radiation, and it was literally burning him from the inside out.  He was in pain and agony.  When we got back to his house, I remember him clearly crying out from his bedroom, “Why is it so hard for a man to die?  Why is it so hard for a man to die?”  At that point in his life, death was preferable to the misery he was going through, but my grandfather wasn’t afraid of death.  He knew what was on the other side.  Many today don’t.  Including many who consider themselves Christian.  Many, many are still seeking salvation.  Everyone does even if they are not aware of it.

    You might tell me right now, “Okay, pastor, you’ve said that twice.  You’ve said that everyone seeks salvation even if they aren’t aware of it.  Where is your proof?  Where is your evidence that even those who do not believe in God are seeking salvation?”

    First, I gave you Luc Ferry’s quote from a guy who is really, really smart and well accepted in his area of expertise.  Now, I turn your attention to how we in society act.  I will submit to you that we are deathly afraid of death; consciously and unconsciously.  How so?  Well, as they say, “Actions speak louder than words.”

    Think about this for a moment: why do we spend billions upon billions of dollars on health care?  Why does this industry keep growing and growing and growing and making more and more off of procedures, drugs, and other such things?  Why was there such an uproar and still is an uproar surrounding health care in our nation?  Why do we consider health care a right?  Why do we spend hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars on procedures and treatments for people who have incurable diseases?  Why?  I’ll tell you why.  The healthcare industry is working to stave off death as long as possible.  The healthcare industry is working to keep death at arm’s length and stave off the inevitable because every second we draw breath, according to them, is precious.  Some believe we should fight for every last minute of life we have on this planet because death is the enemy.  We must keep it at bay.

    Think now about this: why do we have the department of homeland security?  Why, since 9/11 have we given up many of our individual rights to the government?  Why do we subject ourselves to body scanners, pat downs, and other such things in airport security?  Why have we become accustomed to the government scanning our emails and listening in on our cell phone conversations?  Why have we spend countless billions, even trillions of dollars to keep us safe?  Here’s why: we want to be safe.  We want to ensure that no terrorist will come along and bomb us and rob us of our lives.  We will give up our freedom to stave off death.  Our lives are too precious.

    Here’s another one: why are there so many items available to help you look younger?  Why do people spend millions and millions of dollars on make up; hair coloring kits; shampoos that prevent you from going bald, and other such things?  Why is the health food section in stores growing larger and larger?  Why do we focus on exercise and eating healthy?  Why do folks tell us to avoid fast food, sodas, sugar, and anything that actually tastes good?  Because, it will kill you, and you don’t want to welcome death any earlier than you have too, right?

    There is more we could say about how we spend our money.  Let’s talk a moment about how we spend our time.  Why are we so busy?  Think about this deeply for a moment because I know what some of you will say.  Some of you will say that I’m busy because I have to do so many things.  I have to get the kids to all their activities.  I have to get my work done.  I have to attend these meetings.  I have to attend these events.  There is so much to do and so little time to get it all squeezed in!  Let me stop for just a second and say two things.  Number one: no, you are not required to do all those things.  You choose to do them.  We all choose to do them.  If something is a priority in our lives, we make time to fit it in.  Retired people say this all the time: I wonder how I got so much accomplished while I was working?  You got so much accomplished because these things were important to you!!  That’s the reality of life.  If something is important to us; we find the time to do it!  So, if that is the case, why do we fill our calendars up with so much stuff.  Why is everything so important?  Why do we make sure we are at all our children’s events?   Why do kids have so many events these days?  Why are there so many options of things to do?  Why are there so many fundraisers and activities on the weekends?  Why do kids’ sports now last all year?  Here’s why: we want to squeeze as much as possible into our lives.  We want to value every single second of every single day because...because we only have a limited amount of time.  We only have a short period of time here on earth, and we have to make the most of it.  Our time is valuable because one day, we will no longer have any time.  We will die.  Our busy-ness is directly related to our view of death.

    Do you see why I say everyone seeks salvation?  Everyone seeks to stave off death?  Everyone seeks a solution to the problem of death through healthcare; through safety; through diet, exercise, and trying to look younger; through filling up every waking moment so that we cram as much into our lives as possible.  We are busy trying to obtain our salvation by fighting off death!!

    And where is it leading us?  How do most of us feel at the end of a given week?  How do most of us feel late Saturday night after the kids’ or grandkids’ baseball game?  How do most of us feel after going to one more fundraiser? How many of us find ourselves full of energy?  Full of joy?  Full of vim and vigor ready to tackle one more thing? 

    That would be, none.  Well, maybe my vision is clouded.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I sure as hell don’t see anyone full of energy; full of joy; and full of happiness.  I see folks just trying to survive.  Just trying to get through one more thing, but scared to death to say no to anything–or check that–to say no to the right things so that they can actually find salvation and have their lives transformed.

    If you noticed, every example I used earlier are examples of us trying to save ourselves.  Every example is us trying to spend money, or use our time to stave off death on our own.  We are trying to obtain salvation by our own efforts and our own strength because we think its all up to us.  We have been convinced that we can attain salvation on our own and defeat death if we just try harder, just spend more money, just make ourselves look younger, just find the right doctor, just keep ourselves busy so that we don’t have to think about it.  We think we can do it all on our own, but the truth of the matter is: we cannot save ourselves.  We cannot spend enough money.  We cannot put in enough hours.  We cannot avoid death forever.  Eventually, it creeps in on us, and we have to face it.  And we have to face the fact that we are unable to obtain our own salvation.  We have to face the fact that our salvation can only come from outside ourselves.

    The ancient people knew this.  They knew it much more readily than we do.  They did not have all the trappings of technology to keep their minds occupied.  While they were farming; while they were tending their flocks, they were forced to think.  Death was ever around them as infant mortality was high.  People only lived into their 40s or 50s.  They understood that death was right on their doorstep, and they had to wrestle with it.  They knew that salvation must come from something outside themselves, and they searched for it.  They searched for someone or something to bring them salvation.

    1 Peter chapter one beginning at verse 10, “Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours made careful search and inquiry, 11inquiring about the person or time that the Spirit of Christ within them indicated, when it testified in advance to the sufferings destined for Christ and the subsequent glory.”  The prophets searched and searched.  They knew that one day salvation would come.  God had promised such salvation to them.  And they wondered what it might be.  They wondered how it would be enacted.  They had some inkling through what God had revealed in their prophecies, but they wondered how long it would be in coming.

    Verse 12, “12It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things that have now been announced to you through those who brought you good news by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.”  God revealed to these prophets that they were not going to see this salvation.  They were the heralds.  They were the ones getting things ready for us.  God was using them to say, “Get ready.  God is acting in history, and He will act with some very good news.”

    And what is that good news?  What is 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 that the world might be saved through Him.

    God acted decisively through Jesus to bring about our salvation.  It was done purely and solely by Jesus who lived the life we should have lived and died the death we deserved.  Jesus made things right between us and God on the cross, and then at the resurrection showed us what the end result will be.  For those who trust in Jesus, we too will be resurrected because Jesus’ righteousness has been bestowed upon us.  Death is defeated.  Death has lost its sting–not by anything we did or can do, but by everything Jesus did.  Salvation is accomplished for you, on your behalf at a great cost, not to you, but to God.  God died for you while you were unlovable to bring about your salvation.

    When this enters into your heart, you start learning to say no to all the things that promise you salvation.  You start saying no to all the busy-ness, and you start saying yes to worship.  You start saying no to saving yourself through your job and work, and you start saying yes to loving God and your neighbor.  When your heart is convicted that death is only a threshold into eternal life, you realize you have all the time in the world.  No longer does fear drive you.  No longer do you have to squeeze every minute out of life.  No longer are you driven by safety and security.  You are now free because you are bought with a great price.

    Some of you may wonder why I include John 3:16-17 in every sermon.  You may wonder why I keep hitting it over and over and over.  You may wonder why I keep telling you God died for you when you were and are a sinner to obtain your salvation.  Here’s why.  Angels long to look into these things.  The Greek word there is a bit stronger than long–it’s usually translated lust–an unsatisfied desire.  Angels lust to look into the Gospel–into God’s saving action on behalf of you and me.  It’s that mind boggling.  It’s that wonderful.  It’s that liberating.  Jesus has obtained your salvation for you when you did not deserve it.  Live into that freedom.  Amen.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Can Our Actions Bring Us Closer to God?

This question stuck in my craw as I read through a blog post highlighted by Living Lutheran.

The post was titled: "Failing at our Lenten Disciplines."

Here are some pertinent quotes:

We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough.  Hopefully we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God.  We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reason to hate ourselves.

Our failed Lenten discipline will bring us closer to God, as we try again, as we ask for help and guidance, as we try to be resolute again.

It is tempting to agree.  In fact, there is great danger in disagreeing. 

I mean, if we say that our actions do not have any merit in getting us closer to God, then what would be the point of praying, fasting, acts of service, kindness, Bible study, meditation, and the like?  If these things do not draw me closer to God, then why should I set aside any time, energy, and effort to engage in them? 

Surely when I pray, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I fast, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I engage in Bible study, I draw myself closer to God.

Surely when I act kind toward others, I draw myself closer to God.

Part of me says, "Yes."  But there is an important caveat to this, something that has actually plagued Christianity.  For if I am drawing myself closer to God with all these disciplines, and I feel like I am achieving such closeness, then why aren't others doing it too?  Why aren't others praying like I pray?  Why aren't others fasting like me?  Why aren't others studying the Bible like me?  Why aren't others being kind like me?  I am drawing closer to God every time I do these things.  Shouldn't others want to be close to God like I am close to God?

The idea that my actions are drawing me closer to God in this fashion leads to self-righteousness.

Bishop Eaton in her Lutheran Magazine article this month hits the proverbial nail on the head regarding this.  The money quote:

These practices serve to draw us closer to and make us more aware of the love of God shown through Jesus’ death and resurrection that justifies sinners, but they aren’t what justifies us.

These practices serve to draw us closer to...the love of God shown through Jesus' death and resurrection.

There is a subtle, but very, very important distinction between the blog on Living Lutheran and Bishop Eaton's statement.  Bishop Eaton grasps it.  Our actions do not draw us closer to God.  Our engagement in the disciplines of Lent or otherwise do not draw us closer to God--they draw us closer to the love of God as it was expressed in Jesus' death and resurrection.

These actions makes us aware that (excuse me for shouting):

GOD HAS ALREADY COME CLOSE TO US!!!!  GOD HAS ALREADY COME DOWN TO US!!!  GOD IS STILL WITH US AND HAS NEVER DEPARTED FROM US!!!

Now, I could cite a whole lot of Bible verses to back up this point, but I will refrain for now.  The point is this: our actions do not draw us closer to God, but they do make us aware of what God has already done.  They draw us closer to the knowledge of the grace and mercy poured out for us through Jesus.  They draw us into the mystery of God's great reconciliation project wherein we could not work our way to Him, but He worked His way to us at great cost to Himself.

So often, our disciplines fail for the very reason they are not focused upon Jesus.  They are not focused upon what He accomplished, but they are focused on our own desires and wants.  I desire to come closer to God.  I want to walk closer with God.  Two things: 1) If it is my self-driven desire instead of loving obedience and thankfulness, it will fail.  2) If I think I can achieve it because of my desire and because of my actions, I will fail. 

However if my desire comes not from me but from Jesus, I cannot tear myself away from it.  If I am engaging in a discipline because of obedience to Him and a response to what He has done, then I will happily engage and continue.  If I am aware of the great love of Jesus who is already close to me, and I know that in my prayer I am entering into that awareness that Christ is there beside me listening to my voice and speaking in return, I cannot wait to engage Him.  There is no amount of busy-ness that can ever tear me away.  (For all I know, the original author may have this intent, but it is unfortunately not expressed in her writing.)  

Thank you, Bishop Eaton for your powerful, strong statement.  May we all be drawn to the love of God in Jesus Christ who comes close to us.  May our actions ever make us more aware of His action on our behalf that we may live in the knowledge, hope, and abundant life that God is already with us!
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf
We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. - See more at: http://www.elca.org/Living-Lutheran/Blogs/2015/03/150305-Failing-at-our-Lenten-disciplines#sthash.aOdtyMkY.dpuf

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The More Things Change...

While reading through Martin Luther's "The Large Catechism," I was struck by a statement he made nearly 500 years ago:

It is evident that the world today is more wicked than it has ever been.  There is go government, no obedience, no fidelity, no faith--only perverse, unbridled men whom no teaching or punishment can help.

Read through a Facebook feed for more than a few moments, and you will have someone spouting similar words today.

Of course, Luther was repeating something past teachers and philosophers had spoken.  This quote is attributed to Socrates: 

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.

Apparently not much really changes.  In fact, when I posted Luther's quote on my Facebook page, one of my friends and fellow pastors interjected with simply saying: Ecclesiastes 1:9.  That reads, this by the way:

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 

Of course, the Teacher, was referring to human nature and its many manifestations.  He was not referring to technological advances and the like.  There is plenty new under the sun when it comes to those advances, but advances in human nature?  Not so much.

We are like we have been.  There is nothing new under the sun.

Which then leads me to ask: if Christianity's central message--the Gospel--deals with the nature of humanity, then why are there those who are so concerned with the Church being relevant?   While there is indeed a need to change the medium of the message (using the vast means of communication these days), why are there those who feel the need to change the message?

It should (and actually is) as relevant as ever, and, in fact, I believe is absolutely necessary as a corrective to much of what we see happening in society these days.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Indescribable Joy

    I am going to start out my sermon this morning with a bit of a confession.  It might be a bit shocking, but it’s true.  For the longest time, I’m not sure I knew what it meant to love Jesus.  That might be a little weird coming from a pastor, but as I examine the history of my heart, I know what I said to be true.  I’m not sure I ever understood what it meant to love Jesus.

    Don’t get me wrong.  I mean.  I knew Jesus was important.  I believed every word of that wonderful children’s song that we all probably know and love, “Jesus loves me this I know.  For the Bible tells me so.  Little ones to Him belong.  They are weak, but He is strong.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  Yes, Jesus loves me.  The Bible tells me so.”  Yes.  I believed that song to my very core.  But loving Jesus?  That was another matter.  That was something I wasn’t quite sure about. 

    I’m sharing this with you this morning just in case I’m not the only one who struggles with the idea of loving Jesus.  I mean, for most of us, we get the notion of love from our relationships with others.  We love our spouses.  We know what that kind of love is.  We love our children.  We understand that kind of love tremendously.  We love our parents and relatives.  We get that.  We also love our friends, but not quite in the same way we love our family.  But loving Jesus...what is that all about?  What does that entail?  I’m not sure I ever understood this idea until recently.  I will say this, if you have understood it, then perhaps you should have been up here preaching to everyone instead of me. 

    We are continuing our walk through 1 Peter chapter one, and this morning we are going to focus on verses 6-9, “ 6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

    Focus your attention for a moment on verse 8. We are going to begin right here and then move into the rest of these verses.  How does this verse resonate deep within your heart?  When you hear Peter say, “Although you haven’t seen Jesus, you love Him; and even though you don’t see Him now, you believe in Him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy,” does your heart skip a beat?  Do you find yourself pondering the deep mystery incased in these words?  Do you find yourself stopping and thinking, “Geez, I cannot even begin to grasp what it would be like if Jesus were not a part of my life.”? 

    If these words do not have this kind of effect on you, I understand.  They didn’t have that kind of effect on me for the longest time partially because I heard them as prescriptive instead of descriptive.  I heard them as, “This is how you are supposed to feel.  Now, make it happen.  Love Jesus.  Rejoice.  Have indescribable and glorious joy.”  And I couldn’t make myself do that.  I couldn’t force myself to love Jesus.  I couldn’t force myself to be joyful.  I couldn’t force myself to rejoice.  Maybe we can do such things externally and superficially, but not down in the deep recesses of our hearts.

    Now, again, I may be completely and totally wrong in how I am handling this.  Perhaps this isn’t a struggle for you.  Perhaps you have loved Jesus deeply and have never heard such things in this manner.  Perhaps you rejoice and have within you a deep and indescribable joy.  This is a very good thing, and I rejoice for you in this.  However, my experience in the church tells me that more people struggle with this than not.  My experience tells me that there are very few people who have this kind of deep down sense of joy and rejoicing.  Most folks I run across still are filled with worry, and bitterness, and anger, and concern.  Most folks still get caught up in pointing out the faults of others and thinking, “I would never do something like that.”  Most of the time we spend in our respective congregations is spent dealing with these kinds of issues–trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do–instead of trying to figure out how we can introduce people to Jesus and help them grow in their faith. 

    And I think, again, I could be wrong, but I think the problem lies in our human condition.  What do I mean by that?

    Just this: I think one of the reasons I had trouble loving Jesus is that I thought I was a pretty good person.  I thought I was doing a pretty good job of living a good and moral and upright life.  I mean, I am a pastor who is serving God.  I am married and have been faithful to my spouse.  I work hard to be a good father and provide for my wife and kids.  I try to be kind to others and help out whenever I can.  My wife and I give 10% of our income to the church every month.  I try to be a good neighbor.  Hey, even though I get angry at the bicyclists on the road, I never even give them half a peace sign!  Oh sure, I knew I made mistakes.  I knew I was sinful, but I basically thought I was pretty good.  I basically thought I was doing an okay job of living out a Christian life.  I never really was convinced of my brokenness.  I knew I committed sins, but I didn’t really think I was all that sinful.

    This actually led me to be pretty self-righteous.  It led me to become angry when people wouldn’t do what I thought was the right thing.  It led me to hold people in contempt, not outwardly, but deep in the recesses of my heart.  It led me to think that if folks would just be like me and listen to what I said, then everything would work out right.  If everyone just listened to me when I said, “Jesus tells us to do this...” and then did it, well, then everything would work out in the long run.  Our church would grow.  I’d feel really, really good about myself.  The higher ups in the church would notice what we were doing, and they’d ask me how we accomplished it.  I would be all to ready to tell them and brag about what I had done–oh, and of course, what you had done.  This mentality actually led me to use Jesus as a kind of stepping stone to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish.  I was using Jesus to accomplish my goals and my ends, and to this extent, I don’t think you can ever love someone you are actually using. 

    When it was revealed to me that this is what I was doing–it was a long process in which this happened, it cut me to the core.  Here I was thinking that I was doing all this great stuff when in actuality I was a self-centered brat.  I was consumed with myself, and when you are consumed with yourself, you don’t do a very good job of loving others.  And when you are consumed with yourself, you don’t really find a lot of joy and cause for rejoicing.  Because we live in this world and are constantly running into others who do not see eye to eye with us, we are constantly trying to get our way and get people to think like we think and do like we do–when we are self-centered, it wears us thin.  It makes us very fatigued, and it drains all the joy out of us.  This is where I found myself.  Weary.  Worn.  Angry.  When things didn’t go my way and I felt like I was suffering, I took it out on others, and I cried out to Jesus, “Why are you doing this to me?  Aren’t I following you?  Aren’t I preaching and teaching in your Church?  Aren’t I doing enough to satisfy you?  What did I do to deserve this?” 

    And then I met Jesus at the foot of the cross.  I met Jesus hanging there with blood running down His head.  I met Him with nails piercing His feet and hands.  I met Him as the skies darkened and He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  In not so many words, “What did I do to deserve this?”

    And I knew Jesus didn’t do anything to deserve that cross.  Jesus lived the perfect life.  He lived the kind of life that I should live but was too self-centered to even consider.  He was kind and compassionate and brought healing to many.  He showed us the nature of God and brought people to God who were once far away.  He loved those who were considered unlovable.  So why?  Why did He hang there on that cross?

    And Jesus looked at me and said, “I’m hanging here for you.  I’m hanging here because you are self-centered.  I am hanging here because you are self-righteous.  I’m hanging here because you aren’t loving others like you should.  I’m hanging here because you are using others to achieve your goals.  I’m hanging here because even if you tried to make everything right, you are doing it again for your own selfish reasons and not purely for doing what is right.  I am hanging here because God demands your life for putting yourself at the center of the universe instead of Him.  I didn’t want to see you perish.  I didn’t want to see you come under His wrath and judgement, so I took your punishment for you.  I took your place.  And I am doing this because I love you.”

    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 Jesus; this God made flesh was on that cross dying for my sake, and the knowledge of my sinfulness coupled with the knowledge of what Jesus did cut me deep to the heart.  This is what Jesus did for me.  This is what Jesus did for you. 

    “6In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, 7so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. 8Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, 9for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

    When we realize that the salvation of our souls has come purely by grace; purely by Jesus’ actions for us when we were still sinners, we cannot help but be overcome by  overwhelming mystery and indescribable joy.  We cannot help but realize that there is nothing on this earth that can move or shake us.  We cannot help but realize that any amount of suffering or trials or tribulations are painful, yes, but we know–WE KNOW–they are only a hiccup in the road for we have a God who suffers too.  We have a God who died.  And we have a God who was raised from the dead.  The God who loved us enough to die for us; loves us enough to bring us to new life.  He loves us enough to bring good out of evil.  He loves us enough to turn our suffering and our mourning into dancing.  How can you not love a God like that?  How can you not love Jesus?  Oh how I love Jesus because He first loved me!  Amen.