Thursday, December 25, 2014

Freedom Beckons


    Why do we tend to get stressed out around Christmas?

    I mean, I know that many of you who are here this evening know “the reason for the season.”  You know Christmas is about Jesus.  You know this is a time to proclaim peace on earth and goodwill to all.  You know the reason the angels proclaimed the message to the shepherds on the hillside long ago.  You know the reason the shepherds ran to Bethlehem to see these things which have taken place.  You know why Mary pondered these things in her heart.  You know all of this.  Many of you have heard this story year after year after year. 

    And even if this is one of your first times to hear this story, you have perhaps an inkling about what it is about.  You have an inkling about this Jesus character.  Christianity is the world’s largest religion after all.  You’ve probably heard a little something about Him.  And Christmas is the time when we celebrate His birth.  You probably know this fact about Christians–at the very least.  And you may wonder why it is many, many Christians become very worked up about this holiday.  You may wonder why Christians say with one breath, “Peace on earth!” and then complain about all the stuff they have to do to prepare for Christmas!

    There is a reason for this.  There is a reason that even though we know what this day is about, we still find ourselves stressed out and worried.  There is a reason that even though we know Christmas is about Jesus, we still wonder whether or not our relatives will appreciate the gifts we give them.  There is a reason that even though we know the main point of Christmas is to announce the birth of Jesus, we still get caught up in the frenzy and commercialization of this society.  There indeed is a reason, and it is one we do not like to hear.  No, we don’t like to hear it at all.

    We did not do it tonight because of the festive nature of Christmas Eve, but just about every other Sunday in this congregation, we begin our service with a confession.  We say publically and in unison, “We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”   I told you, we don’t like to hear the reason.  We don’t like to think we are in bondage to anything.  We don’t like to think we are controlled by anything.  We like to think that we are free and in charge of our own lives.  We like to think that we do a pretty good job of being decent people.  Sure, we might make a few mistakes along the way, but mostly we don’t hurt anyone or anything.  Surely, I am not a sinner–I am not in bondage to sin; that cannot be!  I am free to make my own choices and my own decisions!  No one or no thing has a hold on me!


    If that is the case, then tomorrow, or tonight, when all the family is gathered together for your Christmas meal, make your plate and refuse to join them the rest of the day.  Lock yourself in your room and refuse to take part in the celebration going on around you.  Or, when you return to work, walk in and announce, “I am not going to do any work today!  I am free!  I can do what I want, and I choose to do no work today!”  Or, on the 26th of December, walk into the bank and walk behind the counter and take as much money as you want.  After all, you are free, remember?  You can choose to do whatever you want, remember?  No one has a hold on you or can tell you what to do!

    Do I have your attention yet?

    Why wouldn’t you do any of those things I just said?  Why wouldn’t you close yourself off from your family Christmas celebrations, or refuse to do your job at work, or take money from a bank?  Why would you refuse to do such things?  Well, you probably know the consequences.  You know that if you did such things, you would end up in a heap of trouble–either from your family, from your boss, or from law enforcement.  You wouldn’t do any of these things because you would be adversely affected–having to sleep in the dog house, losing your job, or ending up in jail.  And who of us wants to face those consequences?  Do any of you want to end up on the receiving end of your family’s wrath; your bosses anger; or in incarceration?  No.  I didn’t think so.  None of us want to end up in those positions.

    Now, here’s the question: why?  Why don’t we want to end up in those positions?  What is our reason for avoiding such situations? 

    Well, obviously, most of us don’t like making our family members angry.  We don’t want to deal with their ire at us.

    We obviously don’t want to tick off our bosses and end up unemployed.

    And we don’t want to end up with a criminal record. 

    In each of these cases, the consequences reflect very poorly on us.  And we don’t do such things because it hurts us.  Think about this for just a second.  Our motivation for avoiding such things is to save ourselves from any sort of grief, trouble, or danger.  Our motivation for avoiding such things is pure, self-interest.

    Which is why even though we know what Christmas is supposed to be all about, we still get stressed out and upset.  There is still a very deep seeded part of us that wants to avoid people getting angry and upset with us.  There is a very deep seeded part of us that wants everyone to be happy with us and embrace us.  There is still a very deep seeded part of us that wants to wow our spouses and our kids and our grandkids and our nieces and nephews and aunts and uncles so that they will like us and love us and not be angry or disappointed with us.  And so we run all over the place going to Christmas programs and buying presents and baking cookies and making dinners and decorating to the nth degree–all to make sure we look good and are admired by others. 

    And when we are trying our best to impress others; to maintain our image; to keep them happy with us, are we truly free?  No.  None of us are.  We are constantly having to look out for our own interests.  We are constantly having to preserve ourselves.  It’s almost a requirement because of the way the world works and operates.  We cannot escape looking out for ourselves at some point and time.  We just can’t.

    And one of the classic definitions of sin is to turn inward toward one’s self–to act in one’s self interest–to consider how things reflect upon one’s self and one’s identity.  Sin is looking out for me, and not doing things strictly for the benefit of another person–and certainly not doing things for God’s benefit. 

    So, if we are forced to look out for ourselves and act with self preservation in mind, then we are focused on ourselves.  If we are focused on ourselves, we are not focused on serving others, and we are not focused on serving God.  We become the center of our own lives, and we live those lives out trying to please everyone else. We are not only in bondage to everyone else, we are also in bondage to our own self-interest!

    And how can we escape this reality?  How can we get out of this?  Is it possible?  Is it possible to cast aside self-preservation?  Is it possible to escape trying to please everyone? 

    Let me ask you this: have you ever met someone in life who loves you no matter what you do?  Have you ever met someone who will continue to interact with you and be with you even when you are at your worst?  Have you ever met someone who will patiently sit through your outbursts of anger; endure your yelling and screaming; hug you when you are in a state of anger and frustration; stay by you when you are even trying to push them away?  Have you ever met someone who shows you such love and compassion when you do not deserve it?  Has a love like this entered into your life and melted your heart so that you do not feel like you have to walk on egg shells around them?  Have you ever been with such a person where you can feel almost totally and completely like yourself? 

    And have you ever felt yourself saying, “I want to be a part of this person’s life.  I want to do things for them, not because I have to, not because I know it will make them love me more–for they already love me–I want to do these things because I know it pleases them.  I know it brings joy to their life.” 

    I will submit to you, that when you did such things, then you escaped the cycle of self-preservation, not because of your action, but because you have experienced a deep, deep sense of love–a love that has caused you to want to be the best that you can be, not for your own sake, but for the sake of the other.  In a very real way, then you have experienced a taste of freedom.

    Now, imagine if you could have that kind of love infect your entire life and entire being.  Imagine you could have that kind of love overwhelm each and every relationship you are a part of.  Imagine that kind of love played out to the point where you became the type of person who actually showed that love to others.  Can you imagine how life changing it could be?  Could you imagine how it could change the world? 

    But it all starts with being loved by someone outside of one’s self.  It all starts with being loved when we were unlovable.  It all starts with someone seeing us at our worst and still giving us their best.  Freedom only beckons when we receive such love.

    2 The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.  4 For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.  5 For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood  shall be burned as fuel for the fire.  6 For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. -- Isaiah 9:2, 47

    ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’  --Luke 2:11-14

    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. --John 3:16-17

    My brothers and sisters, tonight we remember the God who loved us with that kind of love.  We remember the God who, when we were unlovable sent His Son to love us deeply enough to die for us.  We remember the God who breaks our shackles and saves us from ourselves that we do not need to live trying to save our selves and act with self preservation, but we can freely love and do for others as He has done for us. Merry Christmas.  Amen.

Monday, December 22, 2014

An Unexpected Visit

    How many of you here this morning have ever had an unexpected visitor?  Most of us probably have at some point and time in our lives.  Second question: how do you normally react to an unexpected visit?  This often depends upon the circumstance and who the visitor is.  I mean, I remember when the bishop of our synod, Michael Rinehart unexpectedly popped in to see me a couple of years ago.  I had no idea he was in the area.  I had no hint of his arrival.  There was just a knock on my door, and there stood my bishop!

    Of course, I welcomed him in, and he stayed for a short visit before heading on to accomplish more of his busy schedule.  I can say that I enjoyed his visit and that he got a chance to meet my wife and kids.  Even though he and I do not see eye to eye on many things, it was still thoughtful and kind of him to drop in and talk about things other than churchy stuff.  When he left, I was glad that he stopped by.  Despite the fact that he saw my living room with toys scattered all over it and a month’s worth of dust coating several picture frames and what not, I was still glad he took the time to drop by.  The circumstances were fine, and the person was welcome.

    Of course things could be much different.  I mean, I also remember when my wife and I were living in Seguin.  We had invited some folks over to the house for a get together.  We were sitting on our back patio enjoying our visitation.  Then, our two female dogs decided to have an altercation.  It wasn’t a pleasant sight, and I had to rush in to break things up before they literally killed each other.  As I am trying to separate these dogs, some sales folks were hitting up the neighborhood.  I am there with my dogs growling at each other–holding them down while having house guests, and this lady starts trying to sell me stuff while talking to me through the backyard fence.  She was completely oblivious to the circumstances and kept trying to go on and on.  “I’m not interested,” I managed to get out.  She left.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience.  Crazy circumstances.  Complete stranger.  Not a good unexpected visit.

    Many times, it is such circumstances that govern those unexpected visits.  They color how we view them and experience them.  The circumstances can make those visits very pleasant and fulfilling, and they can also make those visits miserable.  With such matters in your head now, I would like you to join me in looking at our gospel text this morning from the first chapter of the book of Luke.  This snippet from scripture is often called “The Annunciation.”  It is the time when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and announced that she would bear Jesus.

    As we read through this, I’m going to read it just a little differently than what you have in your bulletin this morning.  There is a reason for this–especially as I work to point out the circumstances surrounding the angel Gabriel’s appearance.

     In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Grace is upon you, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

    You will notice I changed the greeting of Gabriel from “Greetings favored one” to “Grace is upon you, favored one.”  This is closer to the original Greek text, and it’s important.  It explains why Mary is perplexed by this greeting.

    The Greek word for grace carries a very important connotation, especially during this time period.  It designated a ruler’s special favor toward someone.  Think about that: grace designated a ruler’s special favor toward one of his subjects.  So, the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, a 12-14 year old girl who is betrothed to a man named Joseph; Mary, who has little or no power or prestige; who doesn’t have any political connections to anyone; who is almost as insignificant as they come in those days.  Gabriel comes to her and basically says, “The Ruler’s special favor is upon you.  The Lord is with you!” 

    Can you see why Mary is perplexed?  Can you see why she might have difficulty with this greeting and tries her best to understand?  There is nothing she has done to deserve such a greeting.  She has no connections with the powerful to deserve such a greeting.  She is nothing special in the eyes of the world or in the eyes of the community.  She’s just a very young woman in an out of the way town.  And yet, on this unexpected visit, she is told, “Grace, the favor of the Ruler is upon you!  The Lord is with you!”

    Gabriel then further explains; follow along and listen for the change, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found grace with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

    “You have found grace with God.”  God’s gracious disposition has turned toward’s Mary, and God wants to use her for a grand purpose.  God wants to use Mary as part of God’s plan to reconcile the world unto Himself.  God will send Mary a son who will be named Jesus–and frankly, Jesus is going to be awesome.

    I mean think about this in such terms–pretend you are engaged to be married.  You are waiting expectantly for your wedding day, and then a complete stranger comes up to you and says, “God has given me a vision, and in the very near future, you will conceive and bear a child.  That child will be the President of the United States.  He will be so great, they will change the constitution to allow him to preside and lead for as long as he possibly can.  His name will be known throughout history and for generations to come.”

    You’d probably think the guy telling this to you was crazy.  You’d probably think there is no way this could happen.  You would probably doubt to the nth degree the possibilities of this fortune. 

    Even Mary was perplexed about this.  “How in the world can this be?” she said.  “I am a virgin–a young girl, from lowly status, who is not rich, who does not have any connections, who will be looked down upon if I become pregnant before I am officially married, who will suffer all sorts of scorn, who will be an embarrassment to my husband.  How can this be?”

    And Gabriel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

    We oftentimes read this and hear the thing about the Holy Spirit.  We also hear that Jesus will be the Son of God, but we usually skip over that statement, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  God’s power will surround you–engulf you.  Think about those words for a moment.  Think about what it would be like to have God’s power coming over you as you walk through life on a daily basis.  Do you think you would fear?  Do you think you would panic?  Do you think you would worry and stress?  Most likely not.  You would know you are in very good hands.  You would know that no matter what happens, God would be with you.

    Is it any wonder Mary finally says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord.  Let it be with me according to your purpose.”?   Gabriel has come to her and told her that God’s grace is with her.  She has undeservedly found favor with God, and He is smiling down upon her.  He wants to use her to fulfill His promise to the world, and He will overshadow her and engulf her throughout this whole process.  It’s a fantastic promise!  Brought about by this unexpected visit.  A visit that points to Jesus–the God who came to earth in an unexpected way, and once again, the circumstances were of the utmost importance.

    For you see, the Messiah wasn’t completely unexpected.  People were waiting for a Messiah who would come and restore the kingdom of Israel.  They were waiting for Him to drive off all of their enemies and make them powerful once again.  They were waiting for a Messiah who would bring peace and justice to the world through military means.  And many believed that their faithfulness would bring this about.  If they were just holy enough; if they were just faithful enough; if they just followed God’s commands enough, then they would find favor with God; then God would be pleased enough to come down.

    But the circumstances ended up being quite different.  God made His visit much more unexpectedly.  Not as a king on a throne.  Not as a great military leader.  But as a baby born in a stable.  As a carpenter who had calloused hands.  As an itinerant preacher who proclaimed the Kingdom of God; who healed the sick; who fed the hungry; who made the blind to see.  As a man wholly and totally devoted to the will of His Father in Heaven; a Father who longed to be reconciled to the world and His children; a reconciliation that could not be brought about through conquering armies and temple sacrifices and doing enough good things.  A reconciliation that we could not accomplish on our part by our own works.  A reconciliation that could only be brought about by a cross.

    And this too was unexpected.  This too was a complete and utter departure from everything the world had known or has ever known.  Every other religion demands its followers to earn their own salvation.  Every other philosophy believes the answer to that which plagues humankind is work harder.  Be better.  Do more good.  Achieve perfection or be as perfect as you can be.

    The unexpected news of Christianity is God became flesh and reconciled the world unto Himself while we were imperfect and broken.  Jesus loved us and died for us when we were unlovable.  We found grace–favor with our Ruler, our Creator, when we deserved it least. 

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”

    God’s reconciliation project is about to begin.  We will celebrate the news of His unexpected visit in a few short days.  Let us prepare our hearts to receive the news. Amen.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Full Heart

Sometimes, I question my sanity.

I've definitely been doing that the last few days as I have gotten caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season.  Some of it is beyond my control.  I mean, when you have three children; and they are involved in school Christmas programs; and all of the programs are on separate nights; and they have Christmas parties at school and at church...

And you are a pastor in a church: where there are Christmas cantatas, sermons to prepare, people having end of the year surgeries (rational since deductibles have been met and it makes financial sense to not put things off), meetings, and all the other preparations leading up to Christmas Eve candlelight service...

All these things have had more than their usual impact on me this year for some reason.  I've been confused several times as to what date it is.  This morning, I slipped and told my oldest, "Good night" as I was hugging her as she left for school.

You would think I would try to cut out all the extraneous stuff.  (I actually managed in a small way to do that in one area this year.)  But, not really.  I took on assisting a local dayschool with their Christmas program--playing guitar and helping to lead the children in their singing.  Practice is important, and I've carved out space to do just that adding one more thing to the schedule...

But I won't complain.  Not at all.  I love those little kids at that dayschool.  I've always enjoyed working with them and singing with them.

Oh, but the icing on the cake came early.

Yesterday, I practiced with the group.  After arranging today's practice, I made one last gesture toward the Pre-K class.  I went up to them and started giving them high fives congratulating them on a great practice.  I was encouraging them and telling them how awesome they were and how well they would do tomorrow at their performance.

Suddenly, one little girl rejected my high five gesture with these words, "I want a HUG!"

Well, far be it from me to turn that down.  Especially since I know how kids at this age often react to those of us who are clergy.  Good, bad, or indifferent, they tend to see we religious figures as "God" or "Jesus."  You may scoff and laugh at that, and believe me, when I look in the mirror, I do to.  It's about the furthest thing from the real Truth as possible, but I assure you, in their little minds, they really do think such thoughts!

And I know it.  I also know that I am leaving a huge impression in their minds with how I interact with them.  I know that even though they will grow out of their misguided perceptions, they will remember in the deep recesses of their memories how "God" treated them.  (For my congregation members who read this, perhaps you can understand why I interact with little children the way I do now.)

This little girl wanted a hug, and she was going to get a hug! 

And she did, but she wasn't alone.

In a heartbeat, almost every other Pre-K kid wanted a hug too!   So we did the group hug thing.

Four times.

Five to six kids each time.

Some of them literally threw themselves at me, and I was glad I was strong enough to catch them.

And as I walked away and climbed into my car, I realized my heart was literally bursting with an indescribable joy.

Sure, some of them might think of me as God, but the reality is something far different.  Far, far different.  It is embodied in what Jesus said to His disciples:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. --Matthew 18:1-5


Monday, December 15, 2014

Pointing to Jesus

   Many moons ago, I sat down with a church call committee.  In the midst of our visitation, I asked them, “What makes your church different than any other organization that seeks to help people?  What makes you different than the Salvation Army, or the Rotary Club, or the Knights of Columbus?  What sets you apart from all of these other groups that get together and do good things?”

    There was silence around the table.  No one had an answer. 

    Now, perhaps you do.  Perhaps you know what sets a church apart from those other service organizations, but I don’t want you chiming in just yet.  I mean, if you did, this sermon would practically be over and done with, and I don’t want folks to be disappointed with such a short sermon. :-) So, I want to take some time and think through this for a few moments.  I want us to think about what might truly set us apart from other service organizations and why folks should consider joining a church as well as supporting service organizations.

    And we will start in perhaps an interesting place–with the church’s shortcomings.  Some folks might get a bit twitchy about this, and I understand.  Usually, you want to talk about your strengths and minimize your weaknesses, but things work a little differently in the Christian faith.  You might have figured that out a bit.  In fact, St. Paul says this in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, “...But on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. [For] He (God) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”  Think about that for a few.  It is a very interesting statement that Paul makes essentially saying that we Christians aren’t called to hide our weaknesses.  We are to put them forward for a very particular reason–a reason I will talk about in a little while.

    So, let’s talk about some of those shortcomings.  Let’s begin with the economic shortfall.  I mean, some of you are aware of those websites that rank charities.  They base their judgements on how much money is actually spent on charitable functions and then how much goes toward overhead, maintenance, and salaries.  The more money you spend on ministry, the higher your rank.  Guess where most churches and congregations would actually fall?  I mean, look at our own budget as a congregation.  Yes, we do quite a bit through our community care fund and extra giving campaigns during the year, but what percentage of our budget goes to ministries outside of ourselves?  What percentage is not spent on salaries, building maintenance, and supplies?  Being generous, less than 10% of our budget is designated to be given away outside of ourselves.  Where do you think that would rank on those charity websites?  We definitely would not be getting five stars.  In fact, there are many, many more charitable organizations that serve more people and have less overhead than the church.  One could argue they do a much better job of it too especially in weeding out those who try to take advantage of the system.  We are nowhere near the top when it comes to helping others.

    Second shortcoming–we don’t do very well relationally either.  I mean, there is nothing to distinguish us from any other social club where people have disagreements; where people get angry with one another; where people refuse to attend meetings because they don’t like what someone said or did; where people ignore each other; where people are content to stay within their own little group and refuse to seek out someone who is a stranger; where people have a difficult time welcoming new ideas and new thoughts–especially if that new person sat in my spot in my pew!   In fact, there are many congregations where such things are worse than in other social and charitable organizations!!!   Congregations are usually very, very tough places for an outsider to break into–even though we say we follow Jesus who tells us clearly to “Love one another for by this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Congregations are oftentimes very tough places to find people who forgive one another.  We allow squabbles and misunderstandings to fester and cause strife time and again. 

    Third shortcoming–we tend to hold our leaders to rigorous standards and expect them to be perfect because they “work for God”, but when they comment on our sinfulness, we are quick to say, “Who are they to tell us what is wrong.  They put their pants on just like we do.”  And those of us who are leaders oftentimes enjoy our elevated status until we realize we are broken and cannot live up to others’ expectations.  And we then wonder why folks get angry with us when we try to let our hair down.  In a word, I guess this shortcoming can be wrapped up in the words pride and hypocrisy.  Too many times, we embody these words.  It is quite unfortunate.

    I could keep going with more shortcomings, but I won’t.  I won’t because sermons aren’t meant for bashing what is wrong with the church and the world.  Sermons aren’t meant for pointing fingers and spreading guilt.  Sermons have a very different purpose–just like the church has a very different purpose.  They each have a purpose which is embodied in the main figure of our Gospel lesson this morning: John the Baptist.

    Hear once again what the Gospel writer John says about this figure of faith, “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.”

    Let’s stop right here.  It shouldn’t be too hard to see what John the Baptist’s purpose was.  John came to testify to Jesus.  John came to point the way to Jesus.  John was here not for John’s sake but for Jesus’ sake.  The next few verses make this abundantly clear.

    This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and
Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ 20He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, ‘I am not the Messiah.’ 21And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ 22Then they said to him, ‘Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’ 23He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord” ’, as the prophet Isaiah said.  24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. 25They asked him, ‘Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?’ 26John answered them, ‘I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.’

    It’s important to realize at this juncture just how influential John was at the time.  For nearly 400 years, the Jewish people had waited for God to speak.  For the past 400 years the people of Israel hadn’t seen a prophet and were mystified by God’s silence.  Suddenly, John the Baptist appeared in what we might consider the armpit of the Judean countryside.  He wasn’t preaching and teaching in the cities and towns; he was way out in the middle of nowhere, and people flocked to hear him preach.  They recognized that something was going on here.  They recognized that John met all the criteria of a prophet in his word, deed and power.  God was finally speaking!!  And of course, those in power wanted to check this out.  They wanted to get the scoop themselves.  They wanted to figure out just who this character was and how he was able to draw such crowds.  And they tried to pin him down.  Are you the Messiah?  In the strongest possible terms, John answers, “I am not.”  Well then are you one of the important folks of ages past?  Are you Elijah?  “No.”  Are you the Prophet Moses spoke to us about.  Again, “No.”  Well then, for heaven’s sake, who are you?

    “I am the one Isaiah speaks about.  I am the one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the pathway of the Lord.”

    The Pharisees then ask John, “Well, then why are you baptizing?  If you are not all these important people, then why are you engaging in something so important?”

    John looks at them and says something very interesting, “ I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, 27the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”

    This is an intriguing answer because it doesn’t seem to offer a compelling reason that John is baptizing.  It doesn’t seem to give the Pharisees any satisfaction.  John simply states what he is doing–baptizing with water, but then he basically says, “It’s not about me.”  It’s not about me.  It’s about the one who is standing among you who you do not know.  It’s about the one coming after me–the one I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”  This statement would have floored those around John.  I mean, here was a man who was obviously a prophet–the first prophet that had been seen in Israel in 400 years; a prophet who was drawing people from all over the place, and this prophet says, “I am not worthy to be the slave with the lowest job on the social totem pole–the slave that is the lowest slave in the household.  I am not worthy to even be this in His presence.”

    A man of God; a prophet which Jesus later in the book of John says, “Up until this time there is none greater than John.”  Think about that.  A man who up until that time there was none greater considers himself unworthy to have the lowest job possible of untying Jesus’ sandals.  But such is John’s resolve to point to Jesus.  Such is John’s resolve to get out of the way so that the true light of the world can take center stage.

            Why?  Why would John go to such a length even though he is a prophet?  Because John’s job pales in comparison to Jesus’.  John’s job is tiny in the scope of things.  Sure, John is preparing the way for Jesus, but it is Jesus who is coming to reconcile the world unto God.  It is Jesus who is coming to be the sacrifice of atonement.  It is Jesus who is God made flesh and dwelling among humanity.  God made flesh.  The perfect God who comes down to die for His creation.  And no human is indeed worthy to untie the sandals of God.  Every human is far too broken in comparison to God.  Every human is too sinful in comparison to God’s perfection.  The best one can do is point to the perfect when one is imperfect and admit, freely confess that we fall far short.

    And it is this very thing which makes us different than any other charitable organization.  It is this that makes us very different from any social organization.  For we do not tout ourselves.  We do not point at what we do.  We do not say, “We are the best organization around.  We do tons of good for our community and people.  We get along perfectly without any problems, and we think exactly alike.  We have the best preaching and the best worship music and the best programs.”  No.  We do not do those things at all, for we know that we are not the important ones here.  For we, like John, know our imperfections.  We know we are not great.  We know we are not perfect.  We know what we do pales in comparison to what Jesus has done.  Our imperfect works are simply means by which we point to Jesus–for it is He who entered into our world to save 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 may be saved through Him.

    And thus, we admit our shortcomings; we admit our imperfections; we show our brokenness, because Jesus came into the world to save broken people–people like you and me.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Go Ahead. Protest. For All the Good it Will (not) Do.

My thoughts turned to the protests occurring in select areas of the U.S. after several stories showing questionable to infuriating behavior by police:

The Michael Brown case in Ferguson, MO
The Eric Garner case in Staten Island, NY
The Tamir Rice case in Cleveland, OH

In two cases, grand juries did not issue indictments against the police officers.  We are still waiting on the third. 

People are angry.  Some of them justifiably.  They are taking to the streets; to the schools; to colleges and universities; and other arenas to voice their displeasure with the system and call for change and justice.

Good luck.

As the Occupy Movement I think has discovered, so will these: no real change will be forthcoming.  There will be no justice. 

Why do I say such a thing? 

It's not because I am a pessimist.  It's not necessarily because I am a realist.  It's because I don't think we have a shared agreement of what justice is.  We are a nation that is floating and adrift because we no longer have shared understandings about what words mean.  We have lost any sense of transcendent meaning.  We have no idea what Justice--with a capital J--means.  We have lost any sense of what is ultimately right and what is ultimately wrong, and you cannot have Justice without knowing what is right and what is wrong.

We live in a society where we parse words and sayings, take them out of context, and mold them and shape them to suit our own understandings and definitions.  We twist things to suit our own particular motivations and agendas.   In doing so, we can excuse certain behaviors and actions that blatantly contradict the law.

For instance, the U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights is explicit in Amendment 4:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Try to cite it as you go through an airport.  Is it "reasonable" to search every single person who boards a plane?  Think about it.  If you question being searched, you will be detained--possibly arrested, certainly inconvenienced. 

Amendment 2

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

For the better part of the history of our nation, this was an assurance that folks could own fire arms without any infringement.  Not so today.  Not in the least. 

In both of these cases, Constitutional scholars disagree vehemently as to how these texts should be interpreted.  They parse and define words to suit their own particular points of view, and leave many scratching their heads as to how such interpretations are arrived at.

How does such a thing happen?

In a word: postmodernism.  Rooted and grounded in Nietzsche's philosophy (reason taken to its ultimate, logical conclusion), postmodernity has removed any sort of transcendent, overarching narrative which joins any culture or people together.  It removed any shared definition of words and stories.  Everything now hinges upon perspective.  You see something from one particular point of view.  I see it from another, and who is to say who is correct?  Who is to say whose interpretation is true?  If you even think to know the Truth, then you are arrogant and wishful. 

This train of thought has seeped into our culture and infected it.  Yes, I used the term infected purposely for perspectivism leads down a dark road--a very dark one.  For there can be no agreed upon definition of good.  There can be no agreed upon definition of evil.  There can be no agreed upon definition of justice.  Ultimately, it is the ones who are in power who call the shots and define the terms as they see fit.  And if you wish to rise up, you may.  However, make sure you are strong enough and powerful enough to overthrow those in power.  For in the end, only might makes right.

You might think me jesting in such commentary, but allow me to take us to Ferguson, MO for just a moment and to the aftermath of the grand jury's decision.  Let us visit the riots and looting and burning of local businesses. 

Who of us if walking into one of these stores broke windows and doors and took merchandise would not be guilty of burglary?  Who of us would not stand accused and arrested if caught?  Many would consider our actions wrong for they violate the law.

But were there those excusing such behavior?  Were there those defending those who did such things appealing to extraneous circumstances?  Yes.  So that which is wrong wasn't necessarily as wrong as once thought because of the reasons behind the looting and rioting and burning.

Right isn't necessarily right.
Wrong isn't necessarily wrong.
It just depends upon where you sit and from what perspective you view the events.

And yet, there is the cry for justice?  Will the shop owners get justice?  Or is justice the crowd's burning of those shops?  Tell me.  Please.  Inquiring minds want to know.

Until we can begin to arrive at a place where we share definitions...
Until we can arrive at a place where we have an understanding of right and wrong...
Until we can arrive at a place where we have an agreed understanding of justice...

Your protests are meaningless!!  They will not change anything!!!

But it is not enough simply to point out that which is wrong.  Alternatives must be offered.  I point toward C.S. Lewis as a starting place.

C.S. Lewis in his book the Abolition of Man includes the following allegory about his own journey to Christianity.  During that journey Lewis was "captured" by the Spirit of the Age.  Here is what Lewis writes:

Every day a jailor brought the prisoners their food, and as he laid down the dishes he would say a word to them.  If their meal was flesh, he would remind them that they were eating corpses, or give them some account of the slaughtering: or, if it was the inwards of some beast, he would read them a lecture in anatomy and show the likeness of the mess to the same parts in themselves...Or if the meal were eggs, he would recall to them that they were eating the menstruum of a verminous fowl, and crack a few jokes with the female prisoner.  So he went on day by day.  Then I dreamed that one day there was nothing but milk for them, and the jailor said as he put down the pipkin:

'Our relations with the cow are not delicate--as you can easily see if you imagine eating any of her other secretions.'

Now John had been in the pit a shorter time than any of the others: and at these words something seemed to snap in his head and he gave a great sigh and suddenly spoke out in a loud, clear voice: 

'Thank heaven!  Now at last I know that you are talking nonsense.'

'What do you mean?' said the jailor, wheeling round upon him.

'You are trying to pretend that unlike things are like.  You are trying to make us think that milk is the same sort of thing as sweat or dung.'

'And pray, what difference is there except by custom?'

'Are you a liar or a fool, that you see no difference between that which Nature casts out as refuse and that which she stores up as food?'

'So Nature is a person, then, with purposes and consciousness,' said the jailor with a sneer.  'In fact, a Landlady.  No doubt it comforts you to imagine you can believe that sort of thing;' and he turned to leave the prison with his nose in the air.

'I know nothing about that,' shouted John after him.  'I am talking of what happens.  Milk does feed calves and dung does not.'

Are we willing to point out the lies and the foolishness of those who want to lead us down paths of relativism?  Are we willing to challenge those who say there is no transcendence?  Are we willing to say unequivocally, "There is such a thing as Justice!  There is such a thing as Truth!"

Of course, you might say, "Isn't this an arrogant sort of approach?  Are you telling me that you have the Truth?"

No.  I don't.  But I think the late Dallas Willard was onto something when he said, "Truth in belief and idea is, in a certain respect, similar to the sighting mechanism on a gun or rocket: if correctly used it enables us to hit what we hope to.  But in truth's case we need not see what we are aiming at.  Truth and the meaning upon which it rests takes care of the aim itself."

I am not certain we relish a search for Truth.  I am not certain we are willing to argue it passionately and vehemently anymore.  In the name of tolerance, we have pushed the quest for Truth to the back burners and decided should accept the idea of truths.  It won't work.  Not now.  Not in the long run.  Without any semblance of Truth, we will never have Justice.  Remember that as you protest.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Why Change?

Ismael commented on my last sermon, and he asked a very good question:

If I'm doing good and helping other people causing as little harm as I can... why to change?

Why indeed?

Of course, the simple answer is, one shouldn't.  I mean, I think we should all do good and cause as little harm as possible.

But let's delve a little bit deeper.  First, let me ask: what is good?  How do you know what is good?  What is bad?  What is indifferent?

Do you judge it based upon a particular outcome or the results?  Do the ends justify the means?
Do you judge something to be good because there is such a thing as intrinsic good and intrinsic worth?

If there is no God and no transcendent reality, then there is no such thing as intrinsic worth and intrinsic goodness.  That which is good or that which is bad is only a matter of perspective.  (Nietzsche)  I have seen a few attempts to argue for transcendence (Luc Ferry, A Brief History of Thought), but I think they fail to establish any sort of true argument for something beyond; or in other words to get to an "ought" from "is".

And if there is no way to establish something good because it is necessarily good by definition, then one is almost forced to enter into teleological ethics.  (The end result is the most important.)  Of course, teleological ethics rests on the premise that we should do the greatest good for the greatest number, but why should that be the case?  What grounds do you have for suggesting that this ought to govern our thought?  (That is the first problem.)  The second problem comes when the greatest good for the greatest number adversely affects the minority.  It was the greatest good for the greatest number to have slaves do all the agricultural work in the U.S. 200+ years ago.  It was not good for the slaves themselves, of course; but what recourse do you have for proposing that things should change?  The arguments against slavery all came from establishing the fact that slaves were people who had intrinsic value and worth and should not be claimed as property.  It was an appeal, not to the greater good, but to the Greatest Good--transcendent goodness.

We could probably spend more time arguing this point, but I will not belabor it any longer.  Ismael agreed with much of what I said in my sermon by his own admission in regards to transcendence and ethics.  Therefore, I will move on to the next issue--the issue of motivation.

Why does one engage in doing good and limiting the amount of harm caused?  If one is not engaged in doing good because something is inherently good (there is no transcendence), then essentially there are two motivations for doing good: 1) I like doing good and feel like what I am doing is good.  2) The other person needs me to do something for them, and I do it for their sake.

#1, I think we can agree is selfish motivation.  If I am pursuing good because of how it makes me feel, then I am engaging in it because I get a certain benefit from it.  I feel better about myself.  I feel good about what I have done and accomplished.

One may ask: what is wrong with this?

Nothing, to begin with.  The problem comes when others do not share your vision of what is good.  If I am a tolerant person who believes in allowing folks freedom to do things, then (by definition) I must also be tolerant of those who are intolerant.  Rarely does anyone do this.  In fact, those who preach tolerance are oftentimes vehemently opposed to those they deem intolerant.  They become just as self-righteous as those whom they deem intolerant!  Examples abound of this throughout the blogosphere.  One will suffice.

Before the ELCA website Living Lutheran changed its format and did away with comments, a very interesting exchange took place in a discussion over the ELCA's change to allow practicing homosexual clergy.  "Michael", a proponent of the change, adamantly defended the church's new position by saying, "If there are those in the church who don't like the decision, then they can just find another church."  Do you see the hypocrisy in the statement?  For if "those in the church who do not like the decision" should just find another church, then why didn't "Michael" do so when the church held the opposite position previously?  Why did "Michael" and others who fought for change simply leave previously?  Answer: Self-righteousness.  It pervades our churches and our society.  Why?

This is the inevitable outcome of doing things for one's self.  It becomes all about me, and I become self-righteous, narcissistic, and I even use others to accomplish what I want, convinced I am doing good.  (I do not say such things as someone who is immune from this.  I have been there, done that in a real way and am in a constant battle with my self-righteous, self-centered self.)

#2, might not seem to be such a bad thing.  I mean, we should do good to others for their sake and not our own.  We should be sensitive to their needs and concerns and do our best to ease their suffering.  There doesn't seem to be a downside to this one.

On the surface.

But as one who has experienced such things; as one who works in a helping profession, I can say quite honestly, if you live for others and try to satisfy their needs and ease their sufferings, you will burn out.  There is not enough of you to go around.  Plus, you will run into someone who does not have any boundaries who will literally suck you dry and take every ounce of energy you have.

You will strive to live up to their expectations and their needs, and you will eventually fall.  Evidence abounds for this among care-givers.  Not only will you burn out, but you will spend your entire life seeking your value and worth from others.  You will desperately want to hear their affirmation.  You will desperately want to receive their pats on the back.  And when such things are not forthcoming, you will fall deeply into despair.  It is not a pleasant place to be. 

Now, here is where things get interesting because one could argue for a third option.  One could "change one's mind" --remember, we are not talking about changing one's actions because I think we can agree that the actions of doing good and helping others are laudable--and say, "I neither act for myself nor act for others.  I seek to do good because there is an ultimate Good."

For the sake of this blog post, I will call that ultimate Good, God.  Why?  Well, if there is an ultimate Good--an ultimate sense of what is right and what is wrong--then that had to come from somewhere.  We didn't make it up.  If we did, we are right back to perspectivism and Nietzsche.   If there is a natural law of what is right and wrong, then it is logical to assume a Law Giver--an ultimate Good. (C.S. Lewis develops this argument much more fully in Mere Christianity.)

Now, I must ask myself whether or not I achieve that ultimate Good?  Do I accomplish the good I need?  Do I do a reasonable enough job of accomplishing enough good and easing the suffering of others?  Do I fulfill this sense of the natural law that I find inherent in nature?

I think, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we do not.  We know that we do not ease the suffering of others as much as we could.  Most of the time, we give out of our abundance--where it doesn't affect our lifestyle or our ability to do the things that we want to do.  We give as long as we are comfortable.  We ease the sufferings of others as long as we don't feel put out by it.  We enjoy the fruits of others' labor even if that labor cost someone else dearly.  At the very least, we are contributors to the brokenness and injustice of this world.  We do not live up to that natural law.

One may choose to argue this point, so let me delve into it just a little further.  C.S. Lewis showed in his book The Abolition of Man, that nearly every culture and philosophy shared the common axiom "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  Nearly everyone I know believes this axiom should be followed.  Some folks do relatively well in sticking to it, but not fully.  How so?  Well, if I am going to do unto others as I would have them do unto me, then if I were poor and hungry, then I would want folks to help me out whenever I was in this state.  I would desire them to give me enough that I might be able to have the necessities of life.  Perhaps an individual would not be able to give me enough to sustain me, but through a collective effort, I would have enough.  This would mean, that if I had enough, I would give a little bit to every poor person I encounter.  I would willingly and graciously give to everyone who begged, even if it were a trifle amount.  The question is: do I do so?  Do I give even a little bit to everyone who begs from me--who believes him or her self poor and in need?  Regardless if I do not think they are in need, do I still give because the other believes he or she is in need?   Does anyone fulfill this to the extent of what is required?  Short answer: no.

So, where does that leave us in relationship to the Law Giver?  If we are not fulfilling the Law to the extent necessary, where does that leave us?  If we have no sense of shame or guilt, then it leaves us exactly nowhere.  I can simply go about my life thinking I am good enough even if I don't follow the universal axioms.  I can convince myself that I'm doing my part and should be satisfied with doing that part even if it isn't the fullest extent of what I can do.  If you find yourself in this category, then I simply make one observation: you cannot judge another person ever.  You cannot make any sort of moral judgement or statement about the beliefs and practices of another for you have no moral high ground to operate from.  You cannot tell anyone "you should do unto others" because you are not following the axiom yourself, and you must be content with what others choose to do and allow them to be just as satisfied with the job they believe they are doing as you are satisfied with yours.

But if I know that I do not follow the axiom to the extent it needs to be followed, and if I have a sense of shame and guilt about this, then I know I need to do something to rectify the situation.  I need to somehow make amends for not following through in doing what I know I am supposed to do.  I need to make things right within myself and with the Law Giver.  And how do I do that?

Every other religion and philosophy says, "Try harder."  "Do more."  "Overcome your selfish nature by your own strength."

The problem is, we cannot.  Why?  Well, first off, we are acting in our own self-interest when we do such things.  We are not acting in the interest of others or in the interest of the Greatest Good.  Our self is at the center, and we will head right down the path of self-righteousness.  Secondly, even when we try harder, we still will not accomplish the extent of following the axioms.  "Do unto others..."  If I followed this to the extent necessary, I would exhaust my resources and then be dependent upon others to give to me.  In a perfect world, that might work out, but we do not live in a perfect world...  History is replete with folks who say try harder, and time and again, it doesn't work out.

Only Christianity offers an alternative.  Only Christianity says, "You cannot make amends for your failure to follow the axioms of the Law Giver.  You cannot overcome your guilt and shame by trying harder.  You cannot walk a path that will not lead to self-righteousness or to self-destruction on your own.  You will either be dominated by self or be dominated by others.  Therefore, since you do not have the ability to change and overcome; since you cannot break out of this reality, the Law Giver will act to change the situation."

And the Word became flesh and lived among us...

God took on flesh and lived among us, not to take advantage of us (as in many of the Greek and Roman myths), but to die for us.

In no other religion or philosophy does God die on behalf of His creation.  Only Christianity.  (There is much, much more to it than this.  Books have been written explaining this further.  I am trying to condense it into a very small blog post, and I am just not doing it justice!!!)

And Christianity says, "To the extent you believe in what God has done for you, you will be able to overcome your selfish nature and accomplish following the great commands; not because you have to or because your self-worth or satisfaction or salvation depends upon it, but because you are thankful for what has been done on your behalf."

It is a radical departure from every other train of thought, and it is either crazy because it goes against the way the world works, or it is brilliant because its origins do not originate in the way the world actually works. 

And it is this last point which leads me to say this is why one should change.  For in Jesus we find a path that does not lead to self-righteousness (it can't because we have to acknowledge our inability to follow the universal axioms).  Neither does it lead to destruction of self through trying to please others (for we do not get our value and worth from pleasing others and doing all the right things).  It also answers how we are justified in not following the universal law or axioms (not by our own action but by the action of the Law Giver), and frees us from the guilt and shame of not fulfilling what we know we should do.  And last, it gives us the ability to point to what we ought to do because the Laws are still in effect--they are our guide in right and wrong, but we point to them in humility not in arrogance.

(If you would like to delve into this more, I highly recommend C.S. Lewis' book Mere Christianity and Timothy Keller's book The Reason for God.  I cannot even come close to doing justice to what these apologists have done in explaining the Christian faith.)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

I Know it was only a Dream, but...

Have you had one of those dreams?

One of those dreams that is so vivid and real?

A dream where you are heading to a place of beauty and serenity?

A dream where as you travel toward the destination, the colors become more vivid, more eye-popping, more unbelievable?

A dream where you rise and climb and from a distance see a place that words cannot describe?  Because it is so overwhelming in how it looks?

And yet, this destination is at a distance.  You know you will not arrive there--at least for the time being.  But the destination is not altogether strange.  It is somehow familiar.  Somehow, deep in the recesses of your heart and soul, you know of this place.  Somehow, in some way, the imprint of this place was molded into you.

And so, while it is new and exciting and different, it is also familiar and comforting and old.

I dreamed this dream.

I saw this place.
The Christian says, "Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist.  A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”  --C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Monday, December 1, 2014

Oh That You Would Tear Open the Heavens

   “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”  So begins the writer of Isaiah 64.  For many of us who believe in God, this statement rings true.  God, why don’t you dispense with all the subtlety?  God, why don’t you stop messing around?  God, why don’t you stop procrastinating?  God, why don’t you just reveal yourself to the world in such a fashion that everyone will tremble before you and absolutely know that you are real; that you take an interest in what goes on in our lives; and that you are indeed worthy of worship?  God, why don’t you just show yourself to all of us?

    I mean, wouldn’t it be nice if God did just such a thing?  Wouldn’t it be nice if God revealed Himself to us all so that there would be no doubt?  I mean, we could stop all the silly debates between believers and non-believers.  We would truly find out if there were many paths to one mountaintop–if every religion indeed was pointing toward the same God.  We would be able to revel in God’s glory or be terrified of His wrath and power.  At the very least, our priorities might change.  If God revealed Himself to us and made the mountains tremble, then, perhaps then, people would make worship on Sunday mornings a priority.  No longer would other things compete for their time and energy.  If anyone dared to try and usurp the time which belonged to God, we would be able to point to His rending of the heavens and say, “Ahem!  Do you remember when God did this?  Do you want to rekindle His anger?”  Think of how God’s appearance would change the world.  Think about how it would clear up your doubts if you had questions.  Think about how it would affirm your faith and convictions if you are a believer.  Would there even be a downside?

    Is it any wonder the author of Isaiah 64 says, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!”?  It seems to be the most rational action God could take.

    Seems to be.

    But let’s take a moment or two to continue reading what the author of Isaiah 64 says, and I want to take just a minute to put this snippet into context.  We believe this portion of Isaiah was written as the ancient Israelites returned from their exile in Babylon.  They had been taken captive and had spent 70 years away from their homeland.  Many wondered what had happened to their special relationship with God.  Many wondered if God had deserted them.  Many had turned to false worship and other gods.  Others to lawlessness.  In these last chapters of Isaiah, there seems to be a dialogue going on between the people and God, and chapter 64 is part of that dialogue.  The people are talking to God and pleading with Him.  It is refreshingly honest.

    “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.  4 From ages past no one has heard,   no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”

    This opening statement hearkens back to the time when God appeared on Mount Sinai to give the Law of Moses to the people.  God rent the heavens and came down upon that mountain.  Fire and brimstone shook the earth, and the people trembled as the Lord spoke.  The author says, “Do it again.  Make the nations tremble at your presence.  Vindicate those who wait for you and you alone.”

    Then the author continues, and I find this next part extremely fascinating, “5 You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.  But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed.  6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.  We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.  7 There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”

    The candor here is remarkable–absolutely remarkable.  If verse five is translated correctly–it is very ambiguous in the Hebrew–these sentences almost seem to be a rebuke of God.  Did you catch it?  “Because you hid yourself, we transgressed.  There is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.”  If I am reading this correctly, the author, lifting up the situation in Israel says, “You know, God, the reason people are sinning; the reason no on is looking for you, is you are absent.  You are not revealing yourself to us.  You are hiding.  It’s all your fault.”  Now, the author is admitting guilt on the part of the people.  He is admitting the people have transgressed–have sinned.  He is admitting the people are in the wrong, but the author is also pointing the finger at God and trying to say that God has some culpability in this matter.

    Striving to persuade the Almighty even further, the author, speaking on behalf of Israel says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.  9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity for ever.  Now consider, we are all your people.”  Here we have a reference to God creating humankind out of dust.  We are indeed the work of God’s hand.  We are created in the image of God.  And just as Adam and Eve sinned and God did not turn His back on them; the author says, “Do not be exceedingly angry at us.  Do not hold our sin against us forever.”  And, in addition to this, Isaiah references the covenant with Abraham.  “Consider, we are your people.”  You made a covenant with us.  You promised to bless us so that we may be a blessing.  You should keep your promises.  And, if we were to read the rest of Isaiah 64, we would get to the point where the author asks, “Haven’t we been punished enough?  Haven’t we suffered enough?”

    Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!!!  Oh that you would reveal yourself and make everything right!!!   Oh that you would reveal yourself and make the nations tremble!!!  Oh that you would stop punishing us and bless us remembering your covenant with us!!!

    This is a remarkable piece of scripture because if you look at it in this fashion, you almost get the sense of the Israelites trying to tell God how to be God!!  This is what you should do to make the nations believe; to make us believe; and to make everything work right!!!

    There’s a lot of chutzpah in this snippet from Isaiah 64, and some of us here this morning might say, “Well, it takes a lot of guts to be this way toward God.  It takes a lot of guts to come before Him in such a fashion.  They should be more humble.”  Really?

    I mean, how many of us are truly humble when we come before Almighty God in our requests toward Him?  Before you have a knee jerk response and say, “Well, I am humble when I make my requests before God,” let me push the envelope a little bit.  How many of you, when you really stop and think about it, believe that if God just answered your prayers in the way you think they should be answered, then everything in the world would be perfect?  Be honest.  How many of you believe that if God would just give you everything you asked for, then the world would be a pretty good place? 

    God, if you would just let the Democrats win, then all will be well.

    God, if you would just teach my neighbor to be a little more considerate when his dogs are barking at 4:30 in the morning.

    God, if you would just get my kids to behave, then I would be at peace.

    God, if you would just give me the strength to deal with my pushy boss and nosy co-workers.

    God, if you would just let traffic be a little lighter on the way to work this morning.

    You see, we oftentimes like to make our claims on God and plead for Him to act in the way we thing He should act.  We like to think we have some special insight into humanity and into how things work, and if only God would act “correctly,” then everything would be great–especially for us.

    Yeah, I’m saying we have just as much chutzpah as the Israelites did when they spoke to God in Isaiah 64.

    But, let’s take just a second to process their requests.  Do you know what happened when God revealed the Law to the Israelites on Mount Sinai?  Do you know what happened when He made the mountains tremble and made the people shake with fear?  40 days later, the people turned from God and made an idol and worshiped it instead of their Creator. 

    Do you know what happened when God struck down the Egyptians with 10 plagues?  Do you remember what happened when God revealed His power through the plague of death?  A few weeks later, Pharaoh sent his armies after the Israelites once more. 

    Do you know what happened after God delivered the people of Israel from the Egyptians by parting the Red Sea?  A few days later, they were complaining and wanting to go back to Egypt.

    Each and every time God has torn the heavens and come down making people tremble and putting His fear into them, the people eventually revert back to what they were doing in the first place.  Each and every time God has revealed Himself in power and in might, the nations trembled, the people trembled, they stopped sinning for a time.   But they always returned to their nefarious ways.  They always turned away from God once again.  The cycle repeated itself over and over and over.  And so the answer from God was always, “No, I haven’t punished you enough.  You keep sinning.  You keep turning away.  It doesn’t matter how much I reveal myself to you and show you my power.  Your hearts are never changed.”

    And so, if God showing His absolute power never changes people–if that never changes hearts.  If us begging Him to reveal His power in giving us what we want won’t change us or change the world, what will?

    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.

    “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” the author of Isaiah begs.  And God says, “O.K., I will, but not in the way you expect.  I will not come in power.  I will not come in majesty.  I will not come with prancing armies and great wealth.  Instead, I will take on flesh and live among you.  I will become poor.  I will become limited, and I won’t act to instill fear.  I will act to instill love.  I will not reveal my power so that you live in fear; I will reveal my power in love for you.  A love that will not lead to a throne room, but a cross.”

    For it is on that cross that Jesus deals with our selfishness.  It is on that cross that Jesus deals with our fear.  It is on that cross that Jesus obtains our salvation and our righteousness–not because of who we are but because of who He is.  He is the spotless Lamb of God; born without sin, who lived without sin, who fulfilled God’s Law and God’s will since we could not do it on our own.  Who prayed, “Father if it is possible, let me avoid this cup, but never-the-less, not my will but yours be done!” 

    And in following the Father’s will, Jesus obtained our salvation.  Jesus clothed us with righteousness even in the midst of our brokenness.  And now, we no longer need fear the punishment of God.  We no longer need to fear that He will hold our sin against us.  We no longer need to blame God for our own iniquities.  He has come down.  He has torn the heavens open.  He has revealed His glory to us–the glory of a Father’s only Son.

    Today, we begin our preparations to hear the good news of the day when our Savior tore open the heavens and came down.  Today we begin the preparations for the announcement that our Savior has come to earth–not in fire; not in brimstone; but in swaddling clothes and in a manger.  Today we begin our preparations to hear of how God came to earth as a baby, weak and powerless so that our selfish nature is beaten back not by fear but by love.  Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Call to Evangelize

    There is a story, a joke really, that I heard many years ago delivered by one of my pastors in a sermon.  There was an old Lutheran pastor who died and ascended to the pearly gates where he was met by St. Peter.  The minister of the Word gave his name, and St. Peter began looking through the Book of Life.  After several minutes, Peter looked at this Lutheran pastor and said, “I am sorry.  I do not find your name in the Book of Life.  You may not enter. There is another place for you.”

    In a heart beat, the minister found himself in the depths of hell.  There were many who were weeping and gnashing their teeth.  As this faithful Lutheran looked around, he saw many of his colleagues.  He saw St. Paul.  He saw Martin Luther, John Calvin, Zwingli, and other Protestant reformers.  His soul in torment, this pastor then went up to Martin Luther.  “Good doctor,” the pastor said, “what happened.”

    With a sad, dejected look, Luther looked at the faithful, Lutheran pastor and said, “Maybe it was works.”

    And for the second week in a row, we have before us a teaching of Jesus which seemingly indicates it’s all about our works.  Our eternal destination depends upon whether or not we are placed with the sheep or with the goats–the sheep being those who gave to the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the imprisoned.  Those who did not do such things–who did not care for the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and imprisoned are banished to eternal punishment.  There seems to be no wiggle room.  Everything hinges upon how you act in these circumstances.  Case closed.

    And so, Christianity basically boils down to whether or not you take care of others.  Christianity basically boils down to what you do.  Christianity is no different than any other world religion or philosophy that teaches to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  And just like last week, we are forced to answer the question, “What happened to grace?  What happened to what Jesus did on the cross on our behalf?  Why does Matthew continue on to the cross if everything is left up to our work?”

    Once again, I believe it behooves us to look carefully at this story.  It’s not really a parable, per se.  It’s really a story about what will happen when Jesus comes to claim His lordship over the entire earth and justice is fully and completely meted out.  Hence, this text is quite often reserved for Christ the King Sunday.  And justice is a huge theme the Bible.  Scripture is chalk full of God’s call to care for the poor and the marginalized.  It is chalk full of God’s desire for people to care for widows and orphans and those who are pushed to the edges.  I certainly do not want to minimize this or the church’s role in helping those in need.  It is very, very important.  But, our salvation does not hinge upon it.  Whether or not we get separated into sheep or goats is not based upon our actions.  I will state this firmly and confidently. 

    You may think I am insane given what is before us in this parable, but I told you before we needed to look at it carefully.  And that is just what we are going to do right now. 

    The story begins with a straight forward statement by Jesus, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from the goats,”

    We are going to stop right here for a moment.  It is obvious, I think, that the Son of Man is Jesus.  This has always been the understanding of the Church.  There is no controversy here.  The interesting part comes with the statement, “All the nations will be gathered before him.”  Many folks understand “all the nations” to mean everyone–each and every individual who is living and who has died will stand before the Son of Man for judgement and separation.  But I want to ask: is this the case? 

    I ask this for a couple of reasons, but the biggest one is revealed later in the story.  The King “will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

    The next part is most interesting–most interesting indeed.  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”  Do you find those questions as interesting as I do?  I mean, if you consider what those of you who have been raised in the church have been taught, if you consider that we have been taught from the get go that when we help the poor and the needy and the sick and those in prison, then we are helping Jesus.  Are our memories erased when we stand in judgement?  Do we forget all we have done throughout our lives?  Do we forget what we have been taught and what we believe?  The folks in the story are completely clueless.  They have no idea they helped Jesus.  None.  Why?  Why are they ignorant? 

    There are actually a couple of possibilities, but I am going to present to you this morning the one I think makes the most sense, and it goes back to what I asked earlier.  Who are “all the nations”?   In the Greek, the word ethnos is used here in verse 32.  Interestingly enough, it can be translated a couple of ways–it can be translated as Gentiles or as nations.  Translation is not an exact science.  There is interpretation which is involved, but we can get some assistance from how an author uses a word within the context of his work.  Matthew is no exception.  If we look throughout the book of Matthew and see how he uses the word ethnos, we discover something very, very interesting.  I will list several examples, and perhaps you can see the pattern that I saw:
Matthew 5.47:  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles (or the nations) do the same?

Matthew 6.7: ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles (or the nations) do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 

Matthew 6.32: For it is the Gentiles (the nations) who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

Matthew 10.18: and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles (the nations).

Matthew 20.25: But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles (nations) lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

Matthew 24.9: ‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations (Gentiles?) because of my name.

Matthew 24.14: And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations (Gentiles?); and then the end will come.

    I know those are quite a few texts to be read quickly in a sermon, but did you notice something about all those texts?  Did you notice how Matthew used them?  They all, without exception speak to those outside the Church!  Without exception, Jesus draws a contrast between those who follow Him and “the nations” or “the Gentiles.”  Do you see this?  And here is the most interesting question: would Matthew change his meaning for this particular story?  Would he break the consistency he has used up to this point?

    I don’t think so.  I don’t think so at all.  In fact, I think Matthew is being purposeful here.  He is making a contrast between those who are outside the church and those who are inside the church.  Those outside the church will be judged by their actions, and those inside the church are judged according to God’s grace.   But it’s not just the nation’s actions that count.  Those actions are very specific.

    For Jesus says this to them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

    Once again, Matthew is helpful in making sense of this statement.  For some believe Jesus is talking about all poor people.  All sick people.  All in need.  But I don’t think so.  Again, not to minimize the church’s call to minister to those in need, but Jesus here isn’t talking about judgement upon Christians and their actions.  He’s talking about judgement upon those who are outside the church.  Therefore we must ask, who are Jesus’ family?  Who are the least of Jesus’ family? 

    Matthew 12:46-50 “46 While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. 47Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ 48But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ 49And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! 50For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

    Pointing to His disciples!  Here are my mother and my brothers!  The one who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.  Jesus says, “My family is my disciples, and when you do things to the least of these, you do them to me.”  I hope you realize this is why the Church is oftentimes called the body of Christ in this world! 

    So, here we have the judgement of nations before us–the judgement of those outside of the church.  They are separated into sheep and goats.  Those who treated disciples of Jesus with compassion and care are let in, and those who treated the church with contempt and had no compassion are led away.  But that does leave us asking a very important question: what does this have to do with those of us who are in the Church?  What does this have to do with those of us who are under God’s grace–who are judged not by what we have done but by what Jesus has done?  How does this story impact us?  Or does it at all?

    Last week, we heard the parable of the talents.  We heard how this parable is about the attitude the slave has toward the master.  The slave who does not fear his master seeks the will of the master with reckless abandon.  The slave who does not fear his master seeks to expand the master’s wealth and kingdom.  The slave who does not fear the master throws himself into producing more for the master because he loves the master.  And it is the Master’s will–it is the Master’s joy to bring everyone into His kingdom.

    For you see, there is one more place in the book of Matthew where Jesus speaks about the nations.  There is one more place where Jesus speaks about those who are outside the Church.  Let me read it to you now from Matthew chapter 28, “‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

    You see, it is not God’s desire; it is not Jesus’ desire to judge the nations based upon what they do.  It is not God’s desire to judge them on how they treated those of us who are disciples of Jesus.  It is not God’s desire to have any goats to send into eternal punishment.  “Make disciples of ALL NATIONS!”  Why?

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.”

    God wants to bring everyone into His kingdom.  God wants to save the lost.  God wants to bring all to the fullness of what it means to be living with Him in glory.  God’s deepest desire is to share His love–the same love and glory He gets in the divine dance of the Trinity.  It is His desire to have the entire creation experience this dance.  And they cannot get into that dance by earning it.  They cannot get into that dance by working toward it.  Those of us within the Church know this.  We are too broken.  We are too sinful.  We know this to the depths of our souls. 

    And we know what Jesus has done for us on the cross.  We know that He endured the punishment meant for us.  We know that He endured God’s wrath for us.  We know that He clothed us with His righteousness so that we can stand before God with confidence on that last day–not with a righteousness of our own, but with the righteousness of Christ as our clothing.  In this, we have placed our hope and our trust, and in this, we know the rest of the world can place their hope and their trust.

    It therefore becomes our job to proclaim it.  We know the one who saved us wants to save the rest of the world.  We know the only way they will come to know the grace of God is for us to tell them–to proclaim the cross.  The cross on which the King bled and died to reconcile the world unto His Father. 

    Therefore, let us not be afraid to evangelize.  Let us not be afraid to make disciples of all nations–teaching them what God has done for them through Jesus Christ; so that on that day of judgement when Christ the King returns, there is no us and them; there is no separation of the sheep and the goats; there is simply the Church; those brothers and sisters of Jesus whom He died for.  For God so loved the world...Amen.