Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Arguments and Exhortations

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday--the day the Church remembers the bestowing of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples empowering them to go out and proclaim the Good News (Gospel) of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Pentecost is usually one of my favorite Sundays of the Church year.  There are no external trappings like Christmas Trees and presents or bunnies and eggs to deal with.  This Church festival has yet to be co-opted by society, and for this I am thankful.  I am also thankful for the opportunity to wear my red stole--it rarely gets used during the year.  I am thankful to preach about the power from on high that fell upon the disciples upon that day.

As part of my sermon preparation, I read the entirety of Acts chapter two.  There are 47 verses in the chapter, and we will only be publicly reading 21.  Chalk such matters up to time restraints and to those who pick out what texts constitute the Revised Common Lectionary.  I could add additional verses, but lengthy Bible passages plus lengthy sermons can equal mumblings and grumblings.  Better to keep things a bit shorter and sweeter.  :-)

Yet, there is so much in the second chapter of Acts which needs proclaiming.  There is so much which needs examining and revisiting as we see the empowerment of the Church and its initial proclamation as articulated by Peter.  Pentecost happened so that Jesus could be proclaimed!!!

It is worth taking some time to read through Peter's proclamation.  It cut many to their hearts, but I was also struck by another verse included by Luke in this text.  Verse 40:

40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’  (New Revised Standard Version translation)

"Intriguing," I thought to myself.  Arguments?  Exhortations?  Wasn't it enough just to proclaim the mighty acts of God in Jesus?  Apparently not. 

I decided to dig into the Greek to catch any nuances of the words:

The two words which most concerned me were διεμαρτύρατο (diemartyrato, translated as arguments) and παρεκάλει (parekalei, translated as exhorted). 

Diemartyrato has as its root word "witness."  The "die" adds emphasis, so there is often some wiggle room in translating this word.  Strong's Greek concordance translates it "solemnly testify." 

The King James Bible translates it testify and exhort.

The New International Version translates it warned and pleaded.

As I look at this particular statement, there is a sense of some strongly worded testimony by Peter.  There is a sense of urgency; a sense of working to convince the crowd; a sense of working hard to explain the new reality rooted and grounded in Jesus' death and resurrection.  There is not just a presentation of the events that occurred, but there is a need to explain the reasons for those events and their implications for life.

What is the take home point?

The Church cannot simply be nice to everyone and expect people to come to faith.

The Church cannot simply be engaged in doing justice and expect people to believe in Jesus.

The Church cannot simply say, "Jesus is risen," and expect people to come to faith.

The Church cannot simply say, "Follow these rules because God says so," and expect people to believe in Jesus.

There must be a willingness to engage, argue, exhort, explain, and so on and so forth.  There must be a willingness on behalf of the Church to present the Christian worldview from the beginning and show how that worldview addresses life's biggest questions.  There must be a willingness to show how various worldviews fall short in how they address those questions and exhort others to "save themselves from this corrupt generation."

There's nothing really nice about that last statement.  In fact, it can be seen as pretty arrogant.  It can be seen as pretty exclusive.  And if it is spoken without the proclamation of grace and mercy shown by Jesus on the cross; if it is spoken by someone who looks down one's nose at another while speaking it; if it is spoken in arrogance and self-righteousness, then the message will be lost as well.

The challenge, I think, is to engage the world with great love and compassion with absolutely no compromise in the belief that Jesus is the risen Lord who alone can offer salvation--not only for eternity, but for our world today.  Jesus is the risen Lord who can bring about abundant life--a life of joy, peace, and reconciliation now.  

If you think not, I'm ready to argue.  :-)

Monday, May 18, 2015

An Invitation to Dance

    I remember when I was a teenager.  Just about every weekend, we went dancing.  A group of friends and I followed a band named “Country Breeze,” and we would travel back and forth between Fiesta Marina on the shores of lake Corpus Christi and the Orange Grove Rifle Club.  It was always nice to have those friends along because I knew I’d have dance partners throughout the night.  I never went to dances alone.  I wanted to make sure I knew someone who would be there.  Why?  Well, you may not believe this, but deep down inside, I am quite insecure.  I have a deep seated fear of rejection, and when you go to a dance alone, you are forced to ask complete strangers if they’d like to dance.  And you never know how they will respond.

    Every once in a while, I would screw my courage up just enough to go ask a girl who I did not know to dance.  Most of the time, the answer was in the affirmative, but there were those other times.  There were those times when the answer was a firm and definite no, and even though the no was not emotionally devastating, it caused a series of questions to rumble through my heart.  “Why didn’t she want to dance with me?  Is it because of the way I look?  Do I have a booger hanging out of my nose?  Does she think I am a poor dancer?  Is it because of the way I dress?  What am I doing wrong or what did I do wrong?”  I don’t like it when these questions rumble through my heart and my head.  I don’t like it at all.

    I’m going to break from this train of thought for just a moment and recall another memory from those dances I went to.  I can remember a few times when I would sit out a dance or so and just watch the other couples dance around the floor.  There were a few couples who I would stand in awe of.  If you have been dancing, you know the types of couples I am talking about.  These are the couples who seem to be inside each others’ heads.  They move with an incredible amount of grace and precision.  They know exactly what moves they are going to make.   They anticipate one another’s footsteps.  They spin and twirl effortlessly because they know each other so well.  Watching them brought several things to the surface.  There was awe and wonder at the beauty of the dance.  You couldn’t help but appreciate such an effort.  Yet, there was a jealousy and a sense of inadequacy which rose to the surface as well.  I wanted to be able to dance like that, and I was all too aware of my inability to move in such a fashion. 

    Why all this talk about dancing?

    I would like you to imagine today looking at the fullness of God.  I want you to imagine the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  I want you to imagine the Godhead as a divine dance.  The three in one; one in three dancing in an endless circle of joy.  As you watch, you know, beyond a doubt you have never seen anything like this before.  The three move so well as one that they could never be separated, and you cannot simply focus on one without compromising the beauty of the three.  You cannot grasp the beauty of the scene.  You cannot grasp the stunning way the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work and move with each other.  Everything they do is seamless.  Perfect.  There are no flaws.  There are no missed steps.  Their timing is beautiful and wonderful.  And it should be.  They invented the dance.  From eternity, they have been dancing.

    Yes, you are awed by the beauty of the dance, but there is something else that wells up within you.  For as you watch, you would like to dance like that as well.  You would like to experience the same kind of joy you see before you.  You would like to experience the same kind of perfection.  You would like to become a part of that dance because it seems like nothing could ever be the same once you experienced it.

    But you are all too aware of your flaws.  You look down at your feet and know they will stumble.  You look down at your feet and know they could never keep up.  You know that it would be an impossibility to even come close to matching what you see happening before you.  It would ruin the beauty.  It would ruin the perfection.  Your own flaws and imperfections come rising to the surface.  In some ways, you even feel like you shouldn’t be watching the divine dance.  It’s simply too marvelous for imperfect eyes.

    And yet, today, Jesus prays a prayer.  Jesus in conversation with His heavenly Father, one of the partners of the divine dance, says, “20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

    Jesus prays that we might be a part of the divine dance.  Ponder that for just a moment.  Jesus invites you and me to come into the divine dance of God.  Jesus wants us to know that kind of joy; that kind of completeness; that kind of perfection.  Jesus wants us to experience what it is like to have wholeness and contentedness and well-being.  Jesus wants us to know what it is like to be in the midst of the divine love and glory that the Father, Son, and Spirit share with one another.

    And we know we don’t belong there.  We know we shouldn’t even get the chance to dance like that.  We know our steps are feeble.  We know they are off.  We know that when the divine music starts playing, we are more than a few beats off.  We know we misstep time and time again. Our hearts are not tuned to the music.  Deep down inside each and every one of us is the sense that we don’t measure up.  Deep down within each and every one of us is the sense that we are inadequate.  Deep down within each and every one of us is the sense that even though we have been told time and again that we are okay just the way we are–we are not.  We’re not.

    Oh, I know there are those voices in society which tell us we are fine just the way we are.  They tell us repeatedly that we don’t need to change anything about ourselves and we are worthy of love and affection just the way we are.  But, remember, the same voices that are telling you that you are okay just the way you are, are telling that person over there who has hurt you by his or her actions; who has gossiped about you; who has cheated you; who has lied to you–those voices are telling him or her she is okay just the way he or she is too.  Those voices are liars.  They are telling each and every one of us what we want to hear.  They are telling us lies so that we will feel good about ourselves and become content with who we are.  It is always everyone else who has the problem.  It is always everyone else who can’t dance right.  And when this starts weaseling into your heart, it turns you into a self-righteous, indignant sort.  You look with contempt upon everyone else, and you do not love.  You do not have complete joy.  We must understand we are imperfect.  We must understand our brokenness.  It’s a requirement to know them before we can begin the dance.  For if we try to get into the dance ourselves, our imperfections will prevent us.  Our hearts aren’t in the right place.  Our own work to get into the dance will be rejected, but it is the Son who gives us the invitation through His work.

    For the invitation to the dance comes through the cross.  The invitation to join the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit comes through the blood of the Son as He lives the life we should live; dies the death we deserve; and is raised to eternal life.  The invitation 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 may be saved through Him. 

    I usually try to explain such things in my sermons.  I usually try to show how this all comes together, but today, I would like to do things a little differently.  I would like to take a moment to simply ask you to believe the Savior has given you an invitation to the dance.  I would like to ask you to believe and trust in His work.  And then I would like to ask you to enter into the dance by praying John chapter 17 as you have it before you in the bulletin insert:

    ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that we may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4Jesus glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave Him to do. 5So now, Father, glorify Him in your own presence with the glory that Jesus had in your presence before the world existed.

    6 ‘Jesus has made your name known to those whom you gave him from the world. We were yours, and you gave us to Him, and we have kept your word. 7Now we know that everything you have given Him is from you; 8for the words that you gave to Him, Jesus has given to us, and we have received You and Jesus and know in truth that Jesus came from you; and we have believed that you sent Him. 9Jesus is asking on our behalf; Jesus is not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave Him, because we are yours. 10All that are His are yours, and yours are His; and Jesus has been glorified in us. 11And now Jesus is no longer in the world, but we are in the world, and Jesus is coming to you. Holy Father, protect us in your name that you have given Jesus, so that we may be one, as You and He are one. 12While Jesus was with us, He protected us in your name that you have given Him. Jesus guarded us, and not one of us was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now Jesus is coming to you, and He speaks these things in the world so that we may have His joy made complete in us. 14Jesus has given us your word, and the world has hated us because we do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. 15Jesus is not asking you to take us out of the world, but Jesus asks you to protect us from the evil one. 16We do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. 17Sanctify us in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. 19And for our sakes Jesus sanctified Himself, so that we also may be sanctified in truth.

    20 ‘Jesus asks not only on behalf of us, but also on behalf of those who will believe in Him through our word, 21that we may all be one. As you, Father, are in Jesus and Jesus is in you, may we also be in You and Jesus, so that the world may believe that you have sent Him. 22The glory that you have given Jesus He has given us, so that we may be one, as the Father and the Son are one, 23Jesus in us and the Father in Jesus, that we may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent Jesus and have loved us even as you have loved Jesus. 24Father, Jesus desires that we also, whom you have given Him, may be with Him where He is, to see His glory, which you have given Him because you loved Him before the foundation of the world.  25 ‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but Jesus knows you; and we know that you have sent Him. 26He made your name known to us, and He will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved Him may be in us, and Jesus in us.’  Thank you Father, for the invitation to dance.  Amen.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Other Lord's Prayer

 To be prayed aloud or silently by an individual:

(Based upon John 17 as inspired by N.T. Wright’s suggestion in John for Everyone)

‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3And this is eternal life, that we may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4Jesus glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave Him to do. 5So now, Father, glorify Him in your own presence with the glory that Jesus had in your presence before the world existed.

6 ‘Jesus has made your name known to those whom you gave him from the world. We were yours, and you gave us to Him, and we have kept your word. 7Now we know that everything you have given Him is from you; 8for the words that you gave to Him, Jesus has given to us, and we have received You and Jesus and know in truth that Jesus came from you; and we have believed that you sent Him. 9Jesus is asking on our behalf; Jesus is not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave Him, because we are yours. 10All that are His are yours, and yours are His; and Jesus has been glorified in us. 11And now Jesus is no longer in the world, but we are in the world, and Jesus is coming to you. Holy Father, protect us in your name that you have given Jesus, so that we may be one, as You and He are one. 12While Jesus was with us, He protected us in your name that you have given Him. Jesus guarded us, and not one of us was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled. 13But now Jesus is coming to you, and He speaks these things in the world so that we may have His joy made complete in us. 14Jesus has given us your word, and the world has hated us because we do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. 15Jesus is not asking you to take us out of the world, but Jesus asks you to protect us from the evil one. 16We do not belong to the world, just as Jesus does not belong to the world. 17Sanctify us in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent Jesus into the world, so Jesus has sent us into the world. 19And for our sakes Jesus sanctified Himself, so that we also may be sanctified in truth.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Complete Joy

    I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
    down in my heart; down in my heart
    I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy
    down in my heart to stay.
    And I’m so happy; so very happy,
    I’ve got the love of Jesus in my heart.
    And I’m so happy; so very happy.
    I’ve got the love of Jesus in my heart.

    Isn’t it so easy to sing and lie at the same time?  I mean, I remember singing that song when I was a kid, and we’ve sang it here in Sunday School.  If memory serves me right, we also sang it at one of our Wednesday evening worship services during Lent.  It’s a catchy tune with some other cool verses, but I wanted to focus on this verse in particular because I want to do a couple of things this morning in my sermon: 1) I want to make the case that everyone longs to have some sort of fullness of joy in their lives.  2) I want to attempt to show that nearly everything we try to find joy in will leave us unsatisfied.  3) I want to try and show how Jesus is the only one who can make our joy complete or fulfilled.

    First, I believe every human heart longs for joy.  In our day and age, we often call it happiness, however.  Whatever word you use, I will define joy in this manner: a state of well being and contentment.  Gerhard Kittel said this about joy in his Greek theological dictionary of the New Testament: Joy is not just inward.  It has a cause and finds expression.  It thus aims at sharing, especially as festal joy.  It is a disposition of the whole man.  This is the point when the heart is called its organ.  So, again, joy is a state of being that is caused by external circumstances.  This means the state of joy is brought about by how you and I engage something outside of ourselves.

    And here is the kicker: how many people do you know who have such joy?  How many people do you know who have such contentment?  How many people do you know who walk around–not with giant smiley faces all the time, but a sense that they are well–they are complete, and that nothing can get under their skin?  How many people do you know who exhibit such a thing?  My guess is, you, like me, know very, very few.  Heck, I can’t even look in the mirror and say that the guy looking back at me has this kind of joy in his life.  This is why I said, I could do a pretty good job of singing and lying at the same time.  Such joy tends to escape me–a lot, but I know that I am not alone.  It tends to escape a lot of people these days.  For every exaltation you hear, you hear ten times that many complaints.  For every good deed shown by the news media, you get a hundred deeds meant to frighten and scare us.  Seriousness dominates our society and our conversation.  People get in trouble for playing practical jokes.  It seems like many are walking around with a perpetual chip on their shoulder ready to take offense at the latest thing you say or do.  Would such things be happening if people were full of joy?

    And even in the church–yes, even in our congregations, do you see many of us walking around with a sense of contentment and well being?  Do you see many of us who have a deep sense of peace about us–who are absolutely joyful with their place in this world and with their particular status?  Oh, and here is the rub: do you see many Christians who try to strictly adhere to following the moral commandments exuding a sense of joy?  Do you see many Christians who are working diligently for peace and justice exuding a sense of joy?  Really, no.  In fact, usually even amongst us who follow Jesus and work to follow His commandments, we have little to no joy.  We may have fleeting moments, but we do not have that continued state of well being and fulfillment.  Why?

    This is one of those issues that make non-churched people scratch their heads in bewilderment.  We sing of joy in the church but then act like everyone else in society.  Since there is no visible difference between those who attend church and those who don’t, some wonder, “Why the point?”  What’s the point of attending church?  What’s the point of believing in Jesus?  I can do good things–bear fruit without giving up my time or my particular belief system.  Why should I change?

    Here is why, I think.  If you try to get your joy from anyone or anything less than Jesus, eventually you will be disappointed, and oftentimes you will become angry and your heart will harden.  How so?

    Well, let me go back to the previous two examples I used regarding church folks who try to diligently follow the moral commandments and work diligently for justice.  Essentially, both of these folks are doing the same thing.  Both are trying to follow the Law, and both types of people generally feel like everyone should follow the Law in the same manner they do.  Let that sink in a moment.  Both groups are striving to follow the Law, and both groups feel like everyone should follow the Law just like they do.  What is the problem and why doesn’t this bring joy? 

    The first reason it doesn’t bring joy is that these folks will eventually find out the impossibility of following the law completely.  These folks will find that the more they try to accomplish and fulfill the Law’s demands, the more they will find they fall short.  This brings, at first, a subtle sense of dissatisfaction and then a full blown realization of failure.  This does not bring joy.  The second reason joy is not found is when such folks realize they cannot get everyone to follow the Law as they think it should be followed.  Such folks will become contemptuous and even angry at others who will not live the way they think they should live.  While their own ego may be stroked with a sense of self-righteousness, they look down their noses at others who do things differently–when you are holding another person in such contempt, and when you believe the world’s problems would be solved if everyone just lived like you–and they don’t–you do not have joy.  Simply following the rules and the commands of religion will not bring joy.  Now, this goes for unchurched people as well.  You have the same problem we Christians do, but it gets disguised.  You too believe if everyone believed like you did and followed the rules the way you do, then the world would be fantastic.  You become just as contemptuous, but it’s awfully easy to see that in others than to see it in ourselves.  And it is the reason you don’t have the fullness of joy either.  Following the rules does not bring joy.

    Neither will loving a person or an object.  You may wish to argue with me here and say, “Well, I have been in love with my spouse for x number of years.  I am completely in love with him or her.  I am happy when I am with him/her, and when I think of him/her, I find a spark of joy within. This sounds all well and good, but you are not with your spouse or loved one all the time.  Second, there are times when you are not thinking about him/her and so joy leaves. Third, no relationship is perfect.  You have conflict, and my guess is, during your times of conflict, you are not too joyful.  Fourth, your loved one will die, and speaking from experience, I know more than a few widows or widowers who became very angry at their spouse for dying.  There was no joy.

    Same goes for trying to get joy from an object–like sports or money or possessions.  There is nothing like the thrill of victory, but sooner or later you will lose.  There is always the next game and the next time.  I never ends.  Joy is not complete.  There is always another dollar to earn. There is always another gadget to buy.  There is always another rung to climb on the corporate ladder.  Achievements will cause brief moments of joy, but they will not last. 

    Now, how is Jesus the exception?  Let’s hear His words again to us this morning: 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.  12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16You did not choose me but I chose you.

    At first glance this saying of Jesus looks very much like, “Follow my commandments, and you will have joy.”  It seems like we are right back to following the rules and regulations–i.e. the Law.  But that is not the case.  The starting point of this chapter is Jesus saying, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  Toward the end of this teaching, Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” 

    I get this image of Jesus, as a vine grabbing a branch and grafting it on Himself.  “You didn’t choose me, I chose you.  Now stay there.”  Why?  Why stay there?  Because you will find deep nourishment from Jesus.  You will find deep satisfaction from Jesus.  You will get a tremendous sense of well being from Jesus–that is not based upon your performance.  You see, all the world’s religions and everything we try to find our joy in say, “If you want the rewards, you have to work at it.  If you want to be joyful, you have to make it happen.  Your joy is dependent upon your performance.” 

    Christianity says, “No, your joy is found in what Jesus has done for you already.  Your joy is found at the foot of the cross.  Your joy is found with the God who took on human flesh and lived the life you should live; who died the death you deserved; who grafted you into the vine even before you asked.”  Now, you may freely leave that vine.  You may walk away from Jesus.  That is your prerogative, but why?  Why head out and try to find joy and satisfaction in all of those things that make you work for it and eventually leave you dissatisfied?  Why turn away from the one who says, “You are imperfect.  You cannot follow my commands.  You are broken, but I accept you.  I love you.  And I show my love for you in this: I lay down my life for 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.

    You see, Jesus can’t disappoint you.  He has already given you everything.  He has promised to never leave you.  He has suffered for you.  He promises to take the evil that befalls us and transform it into good.  There is every reason to stand fast and abide in Him–for as we do such a thing, we find true joy.  We find contentment.  We find a state of good will welling up within us.  Mind you, it’s tough to stay there.  All those other things keep clamoring for our attention.  All those other things lure us with the promises of joy, but there is a place where we can come to be reminded of Jesus.  There is a place where we can come to hear about His great love.  There is a place where we can come to hear what Jesus has done and be strengthened to reject the temptations of the world: we come to worship.  For at worship our hearts get tuned to Jesus.  Our hearts abide in Jesus.  Our hearts get transformed by Jesus.  And then we go out into the world full of peace and joy.  We engage the world and follow Jesus’ commands.  We work for justice.  We strive to be moral and upright.  We bear fruits worthy of repentance because we can’t help it.  We are rooted in the source.  We are rooted in Jesus–the source of all joy.

    Let us pray: Lord Jesus, you are the source of true joy.  You are where we truly find fulfillment and completeness.  When the world tempts us to find our joy in things that are not lasting, may we hear your Word.  May we be reminded of what you have done.  May we know that our joy comes not from our performance but yours.  May we see you at the cross dying for us and showing us tremendous love while we were still sinners.  And may this change our hearts that we may bear fruit.  Amen.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

He Carried You

For the past several weeks, I have been leading a course on Timothy Keller's book The Prodigal God.  This book centers on what many call "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" found in the Bible; Luke Chapter 15.  In addition to the course I teach on Wednesday evenings, I have worked with the adult Sunday School class to delve deeply into Luke Chapter 15 to study the literary context of Jesus' parable. 

(Henceforth, I will be referring to the parable as "The Parable of the Two Sons" for, indeed, the parable isn't just about one son.  It's about both sons and their relationship with their father.) 

As I was preparing for the next adult class session, I focused my attention and study on Luke 15:3-7.  This is actually the first parable of two which lead up to the Parable of the Two Sons.  It's a familiar one to most Christians who grew up in the Church:

3 So Jesus told them this parable: 4‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 5When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 6And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

I consulted four different commentaries and was pulling quotes from each that we might discuss said quotes this Sunday.  One particular quote grabbed me as I finished typing.  It was from Joel Green's commentary on Luke found in The New International Commentary on the New Testament:

Because sheep are gregarious creatures, a sheep lost from its flock becomes quickly agitated and disoriented and must be carried back to the other sheep; for lengthy journeys this is most easily accomplished by placing the sheep on one’s shoulders.

For a moment, I paused.  Yes, the imagery is touching when you imagine that Jesus was 1) talking about God's seeking out of those who have gotten lost from the fold and 2) Jesus was defending His ministry of "eating with tax collectors and sinners."  The thought of God seeking out the lost, and Jesus manifesting this has offered great comfort to many, many people throughout the years.  But this is not what caught my eye.  This did: for lengthy journeys, this is most easily accomplished by placing the sheep on one's shoulders. 

Have you traveled a great distance with a load on your shoulders?

When my children were younger, oftentimes I would hoist them on my shoulders to walk around the store or the zoo or some other venue.  Before too long, my back began to ache.  My shoulders felt the weight of the burden, and they began to protest.  My leg muscles began to let me they were not used to such added weight.  I know some people train for such things--for long hikes with backpacks and the like, but most folks I know aren't deliberately walking around with burdens on their shoulders.  Most folks I know begin to feel such burdens after only a few minutes.

The Good Shepherd puts the sheep on His shoulders and carries it long distances to bring it back into the fold.  If this is a full grown sheep...do you know how much that weighs? 

Now, if we are talking about a juvenile--that could be 20 lbs or so.  Not terribly heavy, but after a while, even that starts to hurt.  Minimum for an adult ewe is 90 lbs.  Minimum for an adult ram is 100 lbs.  Try carrying that for any distance.

Can you imagine the exertion?
Can you imagine the muscles crying out in pain?
Can you imagine trying to keep your balance and walk with this living thing on your back moving and perhaps struggling to get away?
Can you imagine the perspiration and heavy breathing?

All that work for the sake of a sheep.
To bring it back into the fold.
Without a second thought.
And then throwing a party when he gets back.

Oh, and it gets better.

For how is it that Jesus brings us back into His flock?
What burden did He bear on His shoulders?
What caused His muscles to cry out in pain?
What caused Him to perspire profusely and breathe heavily?

All for the sake of those who had rejected Him
Who had deserted Him
Who had mocked Him
Who had betrayed Him
Who had denied Him

So that even they might be united with the flock?

The cross.
God and sinners reconciled.

And a party is thrown!

Oh, I know that someone will point me toward verse 7.  Believe me I am not ignorant of it.  "7Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance." 

"The party will only be for those who repent!" you might say.

But I remind you of what  John Nolland in his Word Biblical Commentary on Luke says:

The place of repentance here takes us right outside the framework of the parable, which focuses exclusively on the role of the shepherd.  Studies often protest that this verse obscures the fact that Jesus scandalized the Pharisees precisely by his failure to demand repentance in the normal way...
This is a very important point...one that I didn't quite realize until John pointed it out.  You see, Jesus' call for repentance comes as a response to what He has done.  Repentance, for a Christian, comes as a result of contemplating the nature of what Jesus has already done for you.  The cross leads to repentance.  It was contrary to what the Pharisees taught then.  It is contrary to what many, even within the Church, teach now. 

For when you see the pains that the Good Shepherd endured for your sake
When you see He carried you to God through the cross
When you see His nail pierced hands and feet
When you see His sacrifice on your behalf

It changes you deeply.
There is no way you could ever live the same.
Once the Shepherd, at great cost to Himself, has brought you home.
And thrown a party because you were there.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Why Abide in Jesus?

     Jesus says in our Gospel reading this morning “Abide in me as I abide in you,” and then He goes on further to give us the results of what will happen if we abide in Him.  This morning, I will attempt to do three things: 1) Answer the question of why we should abide in anything.  2) Show how abiding in anything other than Jesus will lead to disappointment and chaos.  3) Show why you should abide in Jesus above anything else.  It’s a rather large task before us, so let’s jump right in.

    The first thing we’ve got to deal with is why we should abide in anything.  Well, really we don’t have a choice but to abide in something.  The Greek word used by Jesus here is μένω which can mean several things: “abide”, “remain”, “to remain in a place”, “to stay in the house”, or even “to stay alive” or “to stand fast.”  And we all stand fast; we all remain; we all stay alive in something.  However, most of us don’t really take the time to think about where we abide; where we stand fast.  We are kind of like fish who are surrounded by water.  It is so natural for a fish to live in water, he wouldn’t know what it was like to live in anything else.

    So it is with how we live.  We simply go through most of our lives believing certain things we have been taught–things which are deeply imprinted within our hearts.  For instance, most of us, since we live in the U.S. have a deeply imprinted belief that if we work hard, do the right things, then we will achieve some measure of success.  We have a deeply imprinted belief that all people are equal and have certain inalienable rights.  We have a deeply imprinted belief that we are free to do as we choose as long as we do no harm to anyone.  These are so deeply ingrained that if we were taken out of our culture, we would indeed be like a fish out of water.  Many of us would have a very difficult time adjusting to anything else.  Why?  Because we abide in this particular worldview.  We stand fast in this particular worldview.  And even if there are those of you here this morning who question this particular worldview, you need to realize, you have a worldview of your own.  You have a way of looking at things that help you understand reality.  You have a way of looking at the world and dealing with all the information in the world that helps you cope with life and make sense of things.  We remain or abide in those worldviews most of our lives.  And it is very hard to change them.  Very hard.

    But sometimes we run into things that force us to deeply consider why we believe what we believe.  We run into things that force us to ask ourselves, “Is this where I want to continue to live?  Is this where I want to continue to abide?  Do I need to shift my thinking or change how I view the world?”  I have run into this more than a few times with folks throughout my career as a pastor.  Usually, these times occur when someone experiences deep sadness or loss.  If someone loses a job or a spouse or is faced with cancer, such questions usually arise.  I mean, if you have been taught that if you work hard and do good things, then you should be successful, then what happens if you lose your job or fall on hard times?  Were you not working hard enough?  Were you not good enough?  Do you see how this affects such a worldview?  I hope you can, because now we are getting into territory number two: the vast majority of worldviews will lead to disappointment or a sense of superiority over others where you hold others in contempt.  Let me say that again: the vast majority of worldviews will lead to disappointment and a sense of superiority over others where you hold others in contempt.

    Let me try and illustrate this by turning to recent events in Baltimore, MD.  Many of us have seen the images of rioters destroying property and burning buildings.  Many of us have seen the video of the mother slapping around her teenage son.  Many of us know the reason the riots have occurred is a reaction to what happened to Freddie Gray in the back of a police van and the accumulated distrust of a community toward law enforcement officials.  Pundits are pointing a lot of fingers and spreading a lot of blame, but let’s delve deep, very deep.

    Let’s begin with looking at those who blame the police for the violent uprising.  In a very real way, they hold the police officers in contempt because they believe the police have used their power and authority abusively.  This side believes they are continually victimized, and they justify the actions of the rioters by saying, “At some point all the anger and frustration boiled to the surface, and they lashed out at injustice.”  The folks are disappointed in a system which seemingly keeps them burdened and heavy laden without allowing them the freedom to escape poverty.  Many become hopeless, and I think it’s why these communities have a prevalence of drugs.  A lot of folks in these communities only live for their next fix.  Disappointment reigns as does contempt for those who they see as oppressing and abusing them.

    On the other hand, there are those who blame the rioters themselves.  There are those who believe if folks just followed the law and obeyed the rules, then they could improve themselves.  They tend to say, “These folks are just looking for an excuse to get something for nothing.  They are just waiting for an opportunity to do whatever they want, and they have no regard for the law; they have no respect for officers.”  The folks on this side of the street believe they are morally superior to those who are rioting, and they are disappointed with a system who will not crack down on such lawbreakers.  In reality, there is very little compassion being shown by this group, in my opinion.

    Now, I will say that this oversimplifies things a bit.  For we could nuance things very easily and say that there are more groups involved in this whole ordeal, but to keep time in mind, I will only deal with these two groups.  Can you see how the two worldviews lead to disappointment and contempt for others?  Can you see how the two sides are at great odds with each other?  Can you see how there is very little room for compromise or agreement on anything?  When worldviews like this clash, enmity and strife become the norm, and inevitably, worldviews will clash. 

    The question becomes: what is the solution?  Can there be any sort of resolution?  Can we just agree to disagree?  No.  I don’t think so.  The stakes are very high.  We need law and order.  We also need freedom.  We need to deal with those who break the law, but we also need to deal with the injustice of they systems which have kept people in poverty.  And more laws will not do it.  You see, people know they shouldn’t be breaking the law.  Cops know they shouldn’t abuse criminals–the vast majority don’t.  People know they shouldn’t riot–the vast majority don’t.  I mean, why do you think some cops try to destroy or appropriate cameras which catch them abusing others?  Why do you think many rioters covered their faces and hands and ran from cameras?  They know they are doing wrong!!!  We know we are doing wrong, even when our worldview tells us we are wrong, we still break the law!!! 

    I’ve outlined the problem, I think.  Hopefully, I was clear.  So, what is the solution?  Jesus says, “Abide in me.”  You may try and stop me here and say, “Well, why should I abide in Jesus. Aren’t there Christians who fall on both sides of those worldviews?  Aren’t they divided on those lines as well?”  Yes, Christians are divided on those lines as well, but if they are abiding in Jesus, they will not hold others in contempt, and they will not be filled with disappointment.  What do I mean by that?

    Well, I need to do a little bit of work here because we have to get to the heart of Christianity.  We need to see what distinguishes Christianity from all other worldviews–all other religions–all other philosophies.  Every other religion and every other philosophy will look at what is going on in Baltimore and say, “We’ve got to try harder.  We’ve got to follow the law better.  We’ve got to love our neighbors better.  We’ve got to work to overcome this division.  We’ve got to follow the tenets of our religion better.”  The emphasis is all on us.  We’ve got to do it!!  But as I pointed out earlier, we already know what to do.  Trying harder isn’t going to get us there.  It hasn’t throughout history.  It won’t now.  So what will?  Only a change of heart.  And how do hearts change?  How do hearts lose their contempt for others?  How do hearts turn from anger and hopelessness and disappointment to love and hope?

    Christianity says: Trust in what Jesus has already done for you, and to the extent you trust in Him–to the extent you abide in Him–to the extent you make your home in Him–to the extent you stand fast in Him–you will begin to love others.  You will begin to erase the contempt you once had for them.  You will no longer see yourself as superior to them.  You will not be disappointed, instead you will have tremendous hope which will give you abundant life.

    How is such a thing possible?  How does abiding in Jesus do this? 

    You have to realize what Jesus did for you.  You have to realize that when every other worldview says, “Try harder to be good, and then you will receive the rewards,” Jesus says, “There is no way you can achieve the standard that my Father and I set.  There is no way you can ever work hard enough.  There is no way you can be perfect.  You are and always will be a failure in this respect.  But I love you even if you are a failure.  I accept you even if you fall short.  I will never stop loving or accepting you.”

    “How can I trust you on this?”  You might ask Jesus?

    And His answer is the cross.  His answer is, “I died for 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.

    You see, when you believe that Jesus died for you when you were a sinner; when you believe you were accepted when you least deserved it, you are humbled.  You cast aside your haughtiness and your self-righteousness because you know you didn’t measure up; but you don’t grovel in victimhood and self-hatred because you know you are accepted.  You can neither be too high nor too low.  And your heart finds peace.  Your heart finds itself longing to love even those whom hurt you.  Your hearts finds itself full of hope that there can be a better way and that reconciliation is possible.  And you have proof of that with the resurrection.  Because Jesus lives, you will live also–not only for eternity, but you will live with a lasting, assuring hope.  Nothing can ever take that from you.  There is never then an need to escape the world and live for the moment–you are now abiding in the True Vine.  You are now getting your identity from Him.  You are now getting your sustenance from Him.  You now have an unending source of love and hope and compassion flowing through you.  A love that makes reconciliation possible–not because of anything you have done or how hard you have worked, but because of what Jesus has done for you and even for the one who opposes you.

    Let us pray.  Lord Jesus, you abide in us even without us asking.  You died for us when we least deserved it.  You accepted us when we were failures.  You rose to give us hope.  May we abide in you.  May we trust you.  May we find our identity in you that our divisions will cease; that we may be reconciled to one another; and that peace may reign.  In your name we pray.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Christian Colleges Losing Christianity?

Dennis asks the following question:  A topic that has grown in me is the change in the Concordia Colleges. When I attended (67-71) the Colleges were schools for Christ-servant oriented students. Now it seems that they are little more than public universities. In my small view the church is being lost in the chase for funds. Am I wrong?

To get the discussion going, I'll put in my $0.02.

I attended a Christian College (Texas Lutheran College now University).  There are more than a few things that I have found intriguing about my experience then and now that time has passed.

Here are a few notables:

1. I was told that at one point national church bodies once gave a large percentage of the college's budget.  That number had dwindled somewhere near only 1%.

2.  Most of the capital improvement projects were not funded by the church.  Nearly every one during and after my college years was given by individuals and corporations.

3. My alma mater changed its name from Texas Lutheran College to Texas Lutheran University because "college" was getting a bad rap, and they were losing potential students.  (and therefore, potential $$$)

4. Society, in general, pushes science and technology instead of the liberal arts.  Christian colleges who seek to be Christ centered have found themselves a bit devalued because of a more "secular" push in society.

All this is to say, in a very real way, follow the money.  Colleges/Universities have become very big businesses these days, and they will cater to those who give/pay.  If the larger church isn't giving and paying like it was, it will not have as much influence.  Just my opinion.