Thursday, February 26, 2015

An Open Letter to the Gulf Coast Synod Assembly Planning Team

Greetings in the name of Christ,

To begin, I would like to thank you for your diligence and hard work in putting together this year's Synod Assembly.  I know these events are fraught with all sorts of frustrations.  I nearly lost several hand fulls of hair in simply helping to plan the main worship service at one of these things!  Therefore, this letter is not intended to add to your misery even though it is highly possible it will. 

My office manager received by mail a letter regarding the upcoming Synod Assembly and its focus on evangelism.  Pastor Pedro concluded with these words, "Evangelism is a topic that might be uncomfortable or be fraught with misconceptions.  We hope that you will use the enclosed bulletin insert to encourage your congregation to rethink evangelism and to encourage their participation in this year's Synod Assembly."

I had to chuckle a little bit after reading Pastor Pedro's assertion's about evangelism being fraught with misconceptions and then read the flyer which stated, "Evangelism can take many forms including social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement.  Preach the gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words."

I chuckled, and then I mourned.  I chuckled because ten, five, even a year and a half ago, I would have unhesitatingly published this flyer in the church bulletin.  I would have encouraged these exact words!  But I mourned because I have changed, and as I read there was an obvious, at least to me, misconception. It has to do with, in my understanding, the nature of evangelism and the nature of the gospel.

First, evangelism.  Most of us are familiar with the Greek root of the word.  "Evangelion" is literally translated "good news."  Evangelism is the spreading of the good news.  Of course, we must ask then, "What is the good news?"  For those of us who are Christians, this means, "What is the Gospel?"

That final question seems to be a bit tricky these days.  I asked a pastor at the Theological Conference in New Braunfels how may different definitions of the Gospel we would get if we polled all the pastors in attendance, and she replied, "At least 200."

This poses a bit of a problem for if evangelism is the spread of the Gospel, and we have 200+ definitions of the Gospel, just what are we trying to spread? 

That's just the first problem.  The second problem I can see, comes from semantics.  I think we can all agree that the root definition of Gospel is "good news."  What do you do with news?  Can you "live" news? 

As Lutherans, in theory, our shared identity revolves around the fact that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who lived the life we were supposed to live and died the death that we deserved to reconcile us unto God while we were still sinners.  This is the Gospel of which St. Paul says, "There is no other Gospel!"  How do you convey this without using words?

You simply cannot tell others what Jesus has accomplished for them by means of social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement.  Proclaiming the Gospel requires, well, proclamation.  We must declare what Jesus has done.  If we are not focusing on the cross, then we are not doing evangelism.  If we are not talking about God's action and are focused on our own actions (social justice, radical hospitality, and community involvement), we are not doing evangelism.  We are not telling good news.  We are not getting people to Jesus. 

It is my contention that in these days, we in the church spend an awful lot of time trying to get people to fall in love with us.  We want people to fall in love with our congregations and join.  We want to reverse the trend of membership decline by emphasizing our actions and our concern for the poor and oppressed and marginalized.  While these things aren't necessarily bad in and of themselves, they are misguided.  We need to lead people to fall in love with Jesus; not our church; not our congregations; not ourselves.  Anything that does not get to Jesus; anything that does not lead people to the cross; is not evangelism.

And as a result of people falling in love with Jesus?  Well, there will be social justice.  There will be radical hospitality.  There will be community involvement.  These are fruits of evangelism.  They are not evangelism themselves.

I really and truly do not expect anyone to agree with the points in this letter.  I realize that I am very much on the fringes when it comes to serving the ELCA in theology and in practice.  Yet, I love this church for Jesus died for this church.  I love her even when I vehemently disagree with her, and I willingly serve within her bounds though she and I are often at odds.  I want the decline to cease just as much as I know you do.  And I am absolutely convinced and clear that unless we put Jesus front and center of our evangelism and proclamation; unless we work to proclaim Jesus and His actions, the decline will continue.

Thank you for your consideration.

Kevin Haug
Pastor, St. John Lutheran Church
Cat Spring, TX

Monday, February 23, 2015

A Living Hope

    There is a story about an old man who one morning got to his bus-stop to wait for the bus. Shortly after a little boy joined him, stopped at the bus-stop, and then walked past him and went and stood further down from the actual designated bus-stop. The old man called out to the boy 'Hello lad, you are standing in the wrong spot. The bus always stops right here so come back and wait here'. The boy said no, that he was fine and would be OK. The old man insisted saying that in all his 30 years of waiting for the bus, it had never stopped anywhere else but at the bus-stop and still the boy refused to budge. He politely told the old man that he was not moving and would remain where he was. So the old man gave up feeling sorry for the little boy. He was sure to miss the bus. Then along came the bus. It stopped briefly where the old man was and then slowly moved only to stop right in front of the little boy. The little boy smiled and as he got on the bus, he stopped to look back at the stunned old man saying 'Sir, one thing I forgot to tell you was that the bus driver is my father and he had told me to wait right here!'

    Ah to have such certainty and such hope!  Ah to be able to say unequivocally, “I know I can stand right here, and all will be well.  I know things will be taken care of, so I do not need to worry.  I do not need to fret.  I do not need to be stressed or anxious.  I know, beyond a doubt that things will work out.”

    Now, there might be a few of you who would say, “I see what you are saying, pastor, but if we knew the future, that would remove all the excitement of wondering what is going to happen next.  There wouldn’t be any surprises or anything like that.  Knowing the future wouldn’t be all that great.”

    I hear what you are saying.  Believe me, I do, but I also know this: what you believe will happen in the future directly impacts how you live today.  Let me say that again: what you believe about the future directly impacts how you live today.

    Case in point: if you knew that you would win the lottery six months from now, would you change the way you looked at life and the things you did?  Of course you would.  If you knew you would die in a month, would it change the way you looked at life and the things that you did?  Of course it would.  Let me bring this home in another way; a way that is plausible for us around here.  If you knew that four days from now a squirrel would walk across the high lines and blow a transformer and that it would take three days to make repairs, would you keep doing the same stuff or would you prepare for what was happening?  Of course you would prepare.  What we believe about the future directly impacts how we live today.

    But there are a couple of problems here.  First off, we simply cannot see the future.  Our sight is far too limited to be able to grasp what will happen far into the future, so in one way, we are kind of doomed.  Yet, I also know that there is something about the human spirit which longs for and demands future possibilities.  We call this hope.  The human spirit drastically needs to hope.  I mean, do you know what happens to a person when the lose hope?  Do you know what happens to someone when they do not believe there is a future for them?  Yes, they become depressed, and eventually they die.  In the worst cases, they take their own lives.  We need to hope.

    But it is hard to have such a hope.  It is difficult, to say the least, to grasp and hold such a thing.  Why?  Because we are consistently disappointed.  We consistently are bombarded by bad news.  We are consistently fed images and stories of pain and suffering and injustice which lead us to fear; to worry; to anxiety; and a longing to find something, anything which will stem the tide of such things.  What do I mean by that?

    Well, I remember many years ago shooting fireworks off at my grandparents’ farm.  We used to love to do this, and my Aunt Lucy would feed our excitement.  She’d go out and buy a whole lot of fireworks, and we’d laugh and watch this stuff fly into the sky and burst into all the radiant colors.  We’d ooh and aah most of the time, but every once in a while we’d get a dud–which was met with a chorus of boos or...well...let’s just say that I remember my Aunt Lucy bringing a rather large bottle rocket out once.  It looked really, really cool.  We set that sucker up, lit the fuse, and stepped back.  We figured there would be some sort of huge explosion, but all the thing did was make a loud noise as it just shot up into the air.  There was no explosion.  There were no fireballs.  There were no pretty colors.  “Aw, hell,” my aunt said, “That was a waste of five bucks!”  Disappointment reigned on that one.  Not because it was a dud but because it just didn’t measure up.

    And that’s the thing about our hope a great deal of the time.  We tend to misplace it, and when we do, we find only disappointment.  And the worst part of this is the default position of our hearts is to misplace our hope!  The default position of our hearts lead us to put our hope in the wrong things because we are born sinful.

    Now, you might think I am crazy in saying that.  You may say, “Pastor, how in the world can a child be born into sin?  Kids don’t know right from wrong.  They have no idea how to choose between good and bad.  They can’t do wrong things because they are too small.  They are just innocent beings.”

    Let me address this in this manner:     Today, Hunter Hewson is being baptized.  This is their second rodeo with baptism, so I didn’t meet with them this time, but I did meet with them, just like I meet with all the families who are baptizing their children.  When I have everyone together, I ask them, “Who is the most selfish person in this room?” 

    There usually is a moment or two of uncomfortable silence, but then, most of the time, realization dawns.  The parents point at their child.  They see suddenly how selfish a little baby is.  When that baby wants food, what does it do?  When that baby wants to be held, what does it do?  When that baby is uncomfortable and wants its diaper changed, what does it do?  When anything is happening that the little baby doesn’t like what does it do?  It screams bloody murder!  Why?  That child expects you to take care of it. Why?  Because in that child’s universe, the universe revolves around that child.  You can call it an evolutionary mechanism to help us survive if you like, but giving it a scientific function doesn’t change anything.  That child thinks he or she is god.  We are born that way.  We are natural born idolaters.  Our hearts are not immediately tuned to God.

    And because of this, there are two things that happen. #1. We learn that other people are there to take care of us and address all our needs.  We begin placing our hope in others.  However, when others don’t address our needs, what do we do?  We turn to ourselves.  In the case of an infant, they cry until they are taken care of, and if they aren’t taken care of, they double their efforts and cry harder!  They take the initiative to make sure someone listens!

    Such is the case with most of us in life.  We place our hope in others, and when we are disappointed, we then turn to ourselves  I mean, I am pretty sure this morning each and every one of us here have experienced such disappointment.  Each and every one of us here have experienced such frustration.

    Maybe you spent 20 years or more working for a company, giving them your all and expecting them to continue to employ you until you were ready to retire.  Yet, you were fired or forced to resign because someone younger and cheaper was hired.  And you were disappointed.

    Maybe you voted for a particular political candidate expecting them to change the nature of how politics worked on the local, state, or national level, and then nothing changed–or this person was caught in a scandal–or the person actually voted for something you were against.  And you were disappointed.

    Maybe you started attending church in the midst of a personal crisis or a time of grief and anxiety.  You thought that people would reach out to you and help you; greet you warmly; and help you through the rough times; but they didn’t.  You found out they were hurting as well and consumed with their own problems.  Or they never even greeted you or made you feel welcome.  You left vowing never to come back because you were disappointed.

    Some of us learn this lesson the hard way.  You can never place your hope in people without eventually finding disappointment.  And even if you find someone you can trust; even if you find someone who lifts you up and is always there for you; even if you find someone who loves you and cherishes you to no end–I hate to break this to you–that person will eventually die.  And if you don’t die before them, you will sink into a level of depression that will consume you. 

    Sorry to be such a downer on this, but it is my job to tell you the truth.  And, of course, I am not the only one.  There are more than a few people who will tell you not to put your hope in others.  Instead, they will tell you, put your hope in yourself!  (Like that’s going to solve anything...)

    I remember watching the movie “Bruce Almighty,” and one of the main points at the end of this movie is brought forth by Morgan Freeman who plays the character of God.  He says to the main character played by Jim Carrey, “If you want a miracle, son, be the miracle.”  Think about that.  The statement basically says, “It’s all up to you.  Take control.  Take charge.  Make things happen.  You can make a difference and change everything around you.”  Anyone ever felt like you could accomplish this?

    Maybe you did.  Maybe you felt deep in your heart you could change the world, but eventually, you will run into disappointment in yourself as well.  I mean, perhaps at first you won’t.  You will be able to accomplish a few things within your sphere of reference.  But then, you may get a notion to think larger.  You may become disturbed about violence around the world.  You may become disturbed about kids using drugs in the community.  You may become anxious about the public school system, and you decide to get involved and make changes.  You start working only to find, folks have different ideas than you.  Folks undermine your efforts and subvert you.  You find that no matter how hard you argue that ISIS should be peaceful, they continue to kill and maim and destroy.  You find out that you can’t make as big a difference as you once thought.  You can only affect a few things–even though you would like to do more.  You find your limitations and you become disappointed you can’t do more.  Hope then fades.

    So, if you can’t put your hope in other people and you can’t put your hope in yourself: where can you put it?  Is there a place you can put your hope that will not disappoint?  Will not fade?  Will not die?

    1 Peter 1:3-5 says, “3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”

    I want to go through this step by step because there is a lot, and I mean a lot packed in here!  Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who by His great mercy has given us–given us, mind you, a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Why is this so significant?

    First off, we need to see that God gives us this hope.  It is not something we can achieve or accomplish on our own.  It is given to us through a new birth, and this is the hardest part of it.  How are we born anew?  To be born anew means that something has to die.  We have to die.  As Jesus said, “For if you want to save your life you will lose it, and if you lose your life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, you will find it.”  We have to die.  That selfish nature we are born with has to die.  And how is it put to death?

    It is put to death when we hear the Gospel.  It is put to death when we hear we are saved by sheer grace and not by our own efforts.  When you realize you cannot live the life you should live and that you are deserving of death, you are brought to your knees.  Yet, when you understand that Jesus has lived the life we should have lived and died the death we deserved, you know you have worth.  You know you have value, and you know you have hope?

    And where does that hope reside?  The resurrection.  For by living the life we should live and dying the death we deserved, Jesus opened the way for us to become children of God, and what do children get from their parents?  As Peter points out, we receive an inheritance that is  imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.  We have a living hope!  We know who we can trust.  We can trust Jesus!  We can hope in Jesus!  For in Him we have been reconciled unto God.  And in Him we see what the ending will be.  We see that our final destination will be resurrection to life eternal.  Not because of anything we have done but because we know the “bus driver” is our Father.  A Father who deeply loves us and was willing to die for us.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him!”  This is a hope that will never, ever disappoint, fade, or die!  May it capture our hearts!  Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Church Needs to Die

34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  --Mark 8:34-35

It is quite hard to believe that this July, I will be celebrating 15 years of ordained ministry.  Lots has changed in that 15 years. 

One thing that hasn't is a repeated mantra that I have heard over and over and over again at conferences, in sermons, and read in books:

The Church must change, or it will die!!!

Now, for the record, I once believed this.  I once believed it down to my very core.  I believed that the Church must always be reforming--and to an extent, it must always re-form.  But re-forming does not mean changing.  It does not mean examining our core beliefs and understanding and changing them to fit a culture or a context which has trouble understanding those beliefs and concepts.  There is a reason there is such a thing as apologetics!!!

Reforming, at least in the Church, is a process of going backward to go forward.  It is a process of returning to the basics of the Christian faith which propelled it forward in the ancient world.  It is a process of returning to the bedrock foundation of the Christian faith: we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus who lived the life we should live and died the death we deserved to reconcile us unto God.

When this core statement, the Gospel, grasps the heart and the heart grasps it changes you to your very core and being.  For many years, I had heard the Gospel, but I never understood it.  I figured Christianity was best served by focusing on the Law--the doing; particularly loving God and loving one's neighbor.  How simple was that?  It should be relatively easy for everyone to agree upon that?  Right?

But it isn't.  Not in the least.  For loving God and loving the neighbor, while we can agree on the basics, is not easily fleshed out.  It is not easily applied, and it fails to address what is really wrong with the human heart.  

For while I might desire to love God and love my neighbor, more oftentimes than not, my heart centers on myself.  I only love God and love my neighbor in so far as they help me accomplish my goals and my desires.  Unless my heart is deeply affected or moved by the plight of another, I remain content to keep my business as usual approach to life.  And, here is the kicker, oftentimes I engage in loving God and loving my neighbor because "it makes me feel good."  It becomes all about me.

Most of the time, when we examine ourselves, it indeed becomes all about us.  It becomes all about what we want and we desire.  It becomes about how something makes me feel or about how something works to my advantage.  

Institutions are no different.  They may begin with all sorts of lofty goals and ideals.  They may begin with an outward focus, but before long institutional preservation becomes the order of the day.  This is especially true of the Church.  We spend a lot of time, effort and energy trying to get people to fall in love with the Church--of whatever denomination we are a part; of whatever congregation we are a part.  And if things start going south, we proclaim: the Church must change or die!  What is at the heart of this statement?  Self-preservation.

"For those who want to save their life..."

Yes, Jesus' teaching applies to the Church as well.  If we are interested in saving ourselves; if we are interested in preserving our institutions; if we are changing so that we don't die, we will do exactly that.  We will die.  A slow and painful death.

But there is a remedy.  

"Those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Die now.  Die to self.  Die to what we want and what we think will save us.  Quit trying to focus on making people fall in love with us, and work to get people to fall in love with Jesus and His saving action.  Reform.  Return to the Gospel and let it change the hearts and minds of those who hear it proclaimed. 

The Church doesn't need to change.

It needs to die.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Awe Inspiring

    This week, spurred on by conversation at our staff meeting, I began to wonder how often we are awestruck in our lives.  I mean, how often do you find yourself struck with wonder or terror to the point where you fall on your knees or are rendered completely speechless?  I asked that question of my Facebook friends this week, and the responses were actually pretty few and far between.  There was only one who claimed to have such experiences regularly, and indeed, in my own experience I would argue that we rarely experience a deep sense of wonder; awe, or even terror anymore.  I would almost like to argue that we are desensitized to it.

    You may wonder what I mean by that, so let me explain in terms of technology.  There is an urban legend surrounding one of the first motion pictures to be publicly screened.  The film’s name is “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” which was a silent documentary about a train arriving at a station.  The legend tells that people were so awestruck and terrified seeing a life sized train coming toward them that they ran to the back of the theater to avoid being hit!  Now, whether or not that actually happened is disputed by some, however, according to one report in Der Spiegel, folks really were this terrified and awestruck!   Fast forward several decades, and I can tell you that there were many who were awed by the film Star Wars that came out in the late 70's.  George Lukas pushed the envelope when it came to special effects, and for a good chunk of time, movies were special effect driven.  People came to be blown away by what they were seeing on the screen.  But what is happening now?  Can a film get away with simply a lot of special effects?  They cannot.  Because we can computer generate basically anything, no longer do special effects cause us any awe, wonder, or terror.  We are completely desensitized to it.

    I think I could say the same about the news.  I mean, every time you turn on the television and watch the news there is another story trying to scare you to death.  Depending on the day, we either have to worry about terrorists, murderers, kidnappers, severe weather, or some sort of disease bursting into our lives.  There have been so many crises pumped into our homes that we are no longer shocked by the stories.  We’ve heard it all and seen it all when they wanted to show us.  So we hear about the slaughter of hundreds of people by ISIS and most of us shrug our shoulders.  Meh.  What can I do about it anyway?  Desensitization.

    Oh, it happens to us as members of faith communities as well.  Either one of two things happens to us.  One, we have been a part of a church our entire lives, and when we hear the story, we’ve heard it before; we’ve heard it explained before; and it is old hat.  There’s nothing more we think we need to hear.  We’ve got it down.  Desensitized.  Or, if you are here this morning, you may hear the story and think, “What in the world does this have to do with reality?  What in the world does this have to do with the world that I live in now.  How can something weird that happened 2000 years ago on a mountain have anything to say to this world today governed by smart phones, computers, and technology?  Haven’t we moved past all that superstitious stuff?”  Desensitized.

    And yet, I know there is part of the human spirit which longs to feel awe and wonder and terror.  I know there is part of the human spirit which longs to experience such moments because it is during those moments that we most feel alive.  It is during those moments when we often feel a deep sense of the presence of the Holy.  It is those moments which leave us with a lasting sense of peace, and so often we try to manufacture them.  We try to stage things which terrify us; which exhilarate us; which bring us a few moments of peace.  But it always goes away.  It always leaves, and we try to move on to the next high–the next mountain top experience where we find some sort of glory.

    This, of course, brings us squarely to our Gospel lesson this morning from the book of Mark.  It is a mountain top experiences shared by three of Jesus’ disciples.  It was a moment of awe and wonder.  Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a high mountain, and when they reach the top, Jesus is transformed in front of them.  His clothes become dazzling white.  Then, standing with Jesus were Moses and Elijah.  The glory of God was indeed shining at that moment!  It must have been a sight to behold, and we are told that it terrified the disciples. 

    Peter even spoke up, “Master, it is good for us to be here.  Let us make three tabernacles.  One for you.  One for Moses and one for Elijah.”  We are told that Peter said this because he didn’t know what else to say.  He too was overwhelmed; overawed.  Terrified. 

    Now, some people think that Peter is sticking his foot in his mouth here.  Peter does have a habit of doing such things, but I’ve had to rethink this a little bit.  I’ve had to rethink why indeed Peter said what he said, and I’m not sure it was because Peter was ignorant or stupid.  I’m not sure it was because Peter went completely brain dead.  In fact, perhaps, just perhaps, Peter was digging deep into the faith which he had been taught as a child.  Peter was digging back to another mountaintop where the glory of God had been revealed.  Peter was digging back to Mount Sinai when the shekaniah glory of God was revealed upon that mountain; where Moses entered into God’s presence, and God gave the Law including the 10 Commandments.  When Moses came down off that mountain, he was glowing with a radiant light.  And Moses instructed the people saying that God would now dwell in their midst.  God would dwell with a tabernacle.  “How good it is for us to be here, Lord.  Let us build three tabernacles: one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Surely this is a sign from God that He is dwelling with us.  This will be a center of worship and power and majesty.  The glory of God has been revealed!”  In a very real way, Peter’s statement makes a whole lot of sense!  But he doesn’t get it.  Not by a long shot.

    For right after Peter finishes his statement, a cloud enshrouds Jesus, Moses, and Elijah.  This would have terrified the disciples even more, for they knew the meaning of the cloud.  They knew that God shrouded Himself in the cloud on Mount Sinai.  They knew Gold lead the people by a pillar of cloud as they fled Egypt.  This cloud only mean that God Himself was now upon the mountain, and in the other gospel accounts, we are told that Peter, James, and John fall face down on that mountain!  They are overcome with terror.  And the voice of God thunders!  “This is my Son, the beloved.  Listen to Him!” 

    That last sentence is so important–so very important.  “Listen to Him!”  Why is this statement so important?  Because of what Jesus had been teaching His disciples right before this event.  Let me give you a reminder.  Mark 8:34-35: “He (Jesus) called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

    You see, God was affirming on that mountain what Jesus was teaching.  God was letting the disciples know that Jesus was speaking the absolute truth.  It was something they didn’t want to hear.  It was something they didn’t want to consider.  It was something they never could have wildly imagined.  The Messiah’s true glory would not be revealed in dazzling white clothes, but in red, red blood.  The Messiah’s true glory would not be revealed in three tabernacles, but in three crosses.  The Messiah’s true glory would not take place on this high mountain, but on another hill outside of Jerusalem–a hill called Calvary.  For the true glory of God would be revealed as He suffered and died for you and for me.

    Oh, you may think at this point, well, I’ve heard this before.  I’ve heard it numerous times.  I know that Jesus died on the cross, but what’s so awe inspiring about that?  Why should that cause my heart to pause?  Why should that make me fall to my knees or render me speechless?  Why should it fill my heart with peace and make me feel truly alive?

    Let me start to answer in this fashion.  You know, there are numerous reasons I have heard that people don’t attend church.  Oftentimes they say: those folks are a bunch of hypocrites.  And they are right.  We are.  They also say: those Christians over there are a bunch of judgmental people.  And they are right.  We are.  They say: those Christians over there go to church on Sunday but they are right back at Crossroads on Monday living it up.  And they are right.  We are.  They say: those Christians say they believe in Jesus but you almost can’t tell the difference in their lives.  They keep doing the same stuff they’ve always done.  And they are right.  We are just like that.  We are judgmental.  We are self-righteous.  We are self-centered, and we are broken.  We have fallen fall short of the glory of God.  We don’t even come close to being the disciples that Jesus needs us to be.

    At this point, if you are here checking out Christianity and have said such things before, don’t let your chest be pumped up just yet.  Don’t start thinking you’ve nailed things perfectly and you are somehow off the hook because what are you doing by saying such things?  What are you doing by saying that you don’t hang out with a group of people because of the things they do and how they act?  What are you doing when you point the finger at those of us in church and say, “You are judgmental!”  Aren’t you judging as well?  Aren’t you being self-righteous?  Aren’t you being self-centered?  Aren’t you essentially saying, “I’m not going to hang around with you because I am better than you.  You aren’t living like you should, and I don’t want to be like you.”  Well, guess what.  You are.  You are just like me.  You are just like us.  You are just as broken, and if you are angry at me for saying that, I think it’s because you know the truth but you just don’t want to admit it.

    The fact of the matter is, we are all broken.  We are all self-centered.  We are all self-righteous, and this self-righteousness and self-centeredness is at the heart of all the division we face in society.  It’s at the heart of racism, sexism, poverty, warfare, and misery.  We’ve made a mess out of things because of it, and if God had any sense at all, He would look down at us and say, “You know, this creation of mine is too self-centered; it is too self-righteous; it is too hard hearted.  They refuse to get along with one another, and they are constantly causing one another grief and pain and suffering.  I should just wipe them out.”  That would be the most reasonable thing to do.

    But instead of wiping us out, God decided to forgive us.  He decided to wipe the slate clean.  You may be asking at this point, what does this have to do with Jesus?  Well, whenever you forgive someone, you decide not to offer retribution.  You decide to bear the cost of what harm was done to you.  If someone lies about you, rather than make them pay and lie about them, you bear the cost of the lie.  You bear the emotional pain and hurt.  Forgiveness comes with a cost. 

    Now imagine the emotional, physical, and spiritual cost of our self-centeredness and self-righteousness.  Imagine the cost of the wars that have been fought and the deaths that have been brought about by our division and hatred.  Imagine the cost of poverty and racism and sexism and fascism and all the other isms out there.  Can you imagine the burden that our self-centeredness has brought?  Can you imagine the terrible cost of humanity’s sin?

    If you can even begin to wrap your head around that, imagine the punishment due for that falling upon one man–one being who was fully human and fully divine.  Imagine that punishment falling upon the one who was there at the creation of the universe for whom and through whom all was made.  And imagine He endured that for you when you least deserved it.  When He knew you were self-centered, and self-righteous and hard hearted.  He did this for you because He loved 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.”

    Jesus revealed His glory on the cross as He did for you when you were least deserving.  If that is not enough to fill you full of awe, I don’t know what is.  Amen.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Speaking Truth to Power

I remember vividly conversations held time and again while I was in college, seminary, and then amongst colleagues.  Well, perhaps I shouldn't sound like my memory is infallible for I do not remember vividly the details of said conversations, but I do remember a theme which has been prevalent--especially with those who believe Christians should work to influence the political process and seek laws which are in accord with biblical theology:

We must speak truth to power!

In my particular denomination, this phrase connotes a strong prophetic theme.  Just as the prophets confronted the rulers of Israel and Judah for their injustices, we too must be prophetic.  We too must convince our rulers to seek justice: to care for the widow, the orphan, and the needy.

My schooling was heavily influenced by liberation theologians of one flavor or another, and this theme ran prevalent in all of them as well.  Those in power must be confronted.  We must speak truth to power!

The Church indeed must wrestle with a very important question: how are we to live together?  Many argue that this is the nature of politics.  How do we live and move and work with one another.  This is a question that the Church must enter into regularly as we engage Christians, non-Christians, religious and secular.  We are not isolated from our surrounding communities, and ethics always plays a role in the midst of our daily lives.

Yet, how do we engage the powers of our day?  How do we engage the leaders in our respective cities, states, and nations?  (Obvious American bias right there.)

One of the most interesting things, at least to me, regarding Christianity is how it has managed to thrive under just about every type of government imposed by humanity.  It has survived monarchies, democracy, communism, socialism, and everything in between.  No government has been able to squash it fully--although some have managed to repress it severely.

Sometimes, Christians have the privilege of engaging governmental powers without fear of reprisal.  Sometimes engaging governmental powers is a life or death matter.  It depends upon which type of government you engage.

Which leads us to the point where we must ask: how should we engage our government?  How should we seek to influence the political process?  How should we "speak truth to power?"

For I think the phrase is well worth using, but perhaps in a not so conventional way.

Len Sweet at the Theological Conference I attended a few weeks ago nailed the group with a question.  It was a question yours truly has wrestled with previously and made an argument for.  "When you hear the word Truth, what picture do you get in your head?"  Sweet asked.

In my head, I saw Jesus.  "I am the way and the truth and the life," He said.

Sweet followed up, "For we believe truth is not a concept but a person."

A definite point of agreement here.

Truth indeed, for the Christian, is not a concept but a person.  I think we tend to forget this when we seek to influence the writing of legislation.  We tend to focus on getting certain laws passed thinking that in so doing we are proclaiming the truth.  We are not.  Laws do not proclaim Jesus.

Interestingly enough, Scripture provides a fascinating look into the early Church and its engagement with the powers that be.  I encourage readers to take a look at Acts 24 and following. 

Notice how Paul handles himself as he comes before the powers that be of his day.  See what he is trying to accomplish.  Pay particular attention to Agrippa's statement in Acts 26:

Agrippa said to Paul, ‘Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?’ 

Paul replied, ‘Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am—except for these chains.’

Speaking the Truth to power.

Speaking Jesus to power.

That all may become as we are.

I have to wonder about my denomination's "advocacy" office in Washington, D.C.  Are they operating like St. Paul or like the prophets?  Are they speaking the truth to power or speaking The Truth to power? 

One of these things is not like the other.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Submit and Follow

    How many of you here this morning have ever heard the alarm go off on a given day and said, “I really don’t want to go to work today.  I just want to sleep.”?  How many of you have sat at work on Monday morning and thought, “I can’t wait for the weekend.”?  How many of you have gone on vacation only to return more tired than when you departed?  How many of you have ever felt the tinges of burnout?  How many of you who are retired find yourself busier than when you were working?

    If anyone here this morning didn’t answer yes to any of those questions, I want to offer my congratulations because the reality is, most of us fall into those categories at some point and time.  Most of us have felt the tinges of burnout, stress, worry, fatigue, and the like.  Most of us are worn to a frazzle and seem to have little energy for doing all the things we are supposed to be doing.  I ask you this morning, “why?”  Why do we find it so hard to find the energy and drive to do what needs to be done?  And if we are finding the energy, why does it seem like we have little or no happiness in doing such things?  Why is the mood of our nation and state and county, and perhaps even our church–especially on the denominational level so somber?

    You may have started to put two and two together at this point.  You may have started thinking about the line of questioning I am offering up and our Gospel lesson this morning where Jesus, after a long night of healing folks in Capernaum, gets up before the first rays of light and heads out to a deserted place to pray.  You may be thinking that I am going to put these things together and argue that you need to spend more time in prayer–that you need to take the time to recharge your batteries by connecting to your heavenly Father so that you can find the strength and energy to do everything that you need to do.

    I’ve done it before.  There are plenty of pastors who do and who continue to do such things.  But I’ve realized something. #1. I’ve realized that maybe two or three of you would take such a thing to heart, but you’d basically think to yourself, “Geez, now I have to try and find time to pray.  I have to try and carve out another space in my busy schedule to connect with God.”  For a time, you might be able to do it, but the odds are, within a couple of weeks, that prayer time will be cut shorter and shorter and shorter until it disappears.  The rest of you will either sit happy and content with your prayer lives or won’t even attempt it.  That’s the first thing I’ve realized.  The second thing I’ve realized is that admonishing you to do such a thing just reinforces the main problem.  Telling you, “pray to recharge your batteries so that you can accomplish all you need to do,” does not address the state of your heart.  It doesn’t delve down deep into the recesses of your soul to address the real issue.  And what is the real issue?

    Let me start in a rather intriguing place that doesn’t seem to have much relevance to our discussion so far.  I am going to start with the Sealy News’ story from a week or so ago about the Greater Church of Lucifer filing to do business in Austin County.  You may be scratching your head right now wondering how this fits.  Gimme a minute or so. 

    In the article, the founders of the “church” wanted to let everyone know they weren’t Satanists and that their intentions were purely benign.  They even said, and I quote, “There is a problem in following through blind faith. This is about self -empowerment and seeing oneself in a positive way.  The goal is to usher in a new age for the progression of mankind without the slavery of dogmatic thought.  We are all gods and goddesses of our own life. We are the captains of our own ship and have the right to control our actions.”

    Now, I know that these folks aren’t claiming to be Satanists or anything, but I will have you know this morning that there were some very similar words once uttered, and they came out of a snake.  But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ –Genesis 3:4.  You see, the serpent says, in not so many words, “Eat of the fruit so that you can be your own god.  You will know good and evil on your own.  You will have no need of the true God.  You can do it all yourself.  Be self-empowered.  Be self-reliant.  Control your own actions.”

    We know the man and woman ate of the fruit, and it has been downhill ever since.  Be reliant upon yourself.  Control your own actions.  Do all the things you want to do.  Why are you so tired?  Why do you burn out?  Why do you continually fill your lives with busy-ness refusing to say no to your work; to your family; to advertisers; to friends and others who put demands upon you? 

    Let me jump in with my own experience here, for it is no secret that not too long ago I faced the reality of burnout.  I will not say I wish I never went through it, for it taught me much, and led me to understand the Gospel.  However, I know now that it could have been prevented.  And no, I don’t mean by carving out time to pray.  I don’t mean by making sure I took my day off and used my vacation days.  I did all those things.  Really, I did.  So, why did I burn out?

    I remember sitting down with the council during that time.  I was asking for a sabbatical, and I can remember plain as day one of the things I said during that meeting.  I said, “I feel like I have been carrying this congregation for the past year.”  Along with the arrogance displayed in that statement, do you see who I thought was responsible for the life and ministry of this congregation?  Do you see who I thought was supposed to make everything work?  Do you see who I believed was the one who made or broke this church?  It was all up to me.  It was all about me.  It was all on my shoulders.  And if prayer was all about recharging my batteries so that I could keep carrying this congregation and making it work and what have you, prayer was just a means to me doing what I thought I needed to do.  Prayer was about me trying to get God to do what I wanted Him to do.  Prayer was about me trying to impose my will upon God.  And if I stand up here this morning and tell you, take time to pray so that your batteries will be recharged and you can continue the frantic pace you have set, then I am simply being part of the problem.  So, this morning, I am not going to tell you to be like Jesus and rise early before you head to work to go get your batteries recharged.  That won’t change a blasted thing and you will still be tired.  You will still burn out.  You will still have no joy in your life, and you will still be somber and angry and upset.

    So, what will I do in this sermon this morning?  Well, actually, I’m going to press further through this biblical text and show you something very interesting.  Jesus goes off to pray, and His disciples have a freak out.  Literally, they wake up the next morning to find Jesus gone, so they go hunting for him.  Yes, that’s the word that is used.  They have to track Jesus down.  We get a sense of their motivations when they finally find Jesus, and they tell him, “Everyone is seeking you.”

    Now, most of us might take this to be a good thing.  Most of us would think, “Man, if only everyone would seek Jesus.  If only everyone would search for Him to find Him, everything in this world would work out.”  We hear these words of the disciples in a similar fashion to Jeremiah 29:11-13, “11For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”  Who wouldn’t want this?

    Well, Mark is actually telling us something very different here.  Let me read to you what I found in one of my commentaries, “When the disciples find Jesus, they announce, “Everyone is looking for you.”  The language is deceptive.  The Greek word behind “looking for” (zetein) occurs 10 times in Mark, and in each instance it carries negative connotations.  Its first two occurrences refer to interference of Jesus and obstruction of his ministry (1:32, 3:32); its next two refer to disbelief and faithlessness (8:11,8:12); and the remaining occurrences refer to attempts to kill Jesus.  “Seeking” connotes an attempt to determine and control rather than to submit and follow.  In this respect, seeking for Jesus is not a virtue in the Gospel of Mark.  Nor are clamoring crowds a sign of success or aid to ministry.  Here, as elsewhere in Mark, enthusiasm is not to be confused with faith.” (Edwards: Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark)

    Seeking connotes an attempt to determine and control rather than to submit and follow.  Isn’t that how we tend to want Jesus?  Isn’t that how we tend to want God to operate?  Give me strength to do what I want to do.  Give me the joys of life and minimize my sorrw.  Give me insight to make the right decisions so that life will be wonderful and grand.  Prayer oftentimes becomes just this as we go to God and say, “MY will be done.”

    But Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “Let us go to the surrounding towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.”  Jesus won’t be bound by claims on Him.  Jesus won’t allow everyone, including us, to determine and control.  That is not what He is here to do.  He is here to proclaim the Gospel–God’s kingdom is arriving in Him.  And He is inviting us to be a part of that Kingdom not by determining and controlling Him, but by following and submitting to Him.

    At this point, some of you might be getting a little twitchy.  Some of you might be thinking, “Does this mean I have to give up control of my life?  Does this mean I might have to change my ways?  Does this mean I might have to think and be different?”  The answer is, well, yes.  It’s nothing less than an entire change of your entire being.  It’s nothing less than an entire change of your attitude.  It’s nothing less than an entire change of your person and being as you relinquish control.  And you may ask me, “Now, why in the world should I do that?”

    Here is why.  There are three times Jesus prays in the book of Mark.  There is this one when the people are trying to determine and control Him.  There is the time right after he fed the multitude with five loaves of bread and two fish.  And then the final time in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It is no coincidence that Jesus faced His final temptation in a garden–just as man faced his first temptation in a garden.  It is no coincidence that Jesus prayed, “Father if it is possible, please take this cup from me, but not what I want but what you want.”  For it was the same struggle that man and woman faced when tempted to go their own way–to do what they wanted and not what God wanted.  But whereas man and woman failed in the first garden, Jesus succeeded in His garden.  Jesus accomplished what we could not accomplish by being totally and completely obedient to His Father–and our Father.

    And by accomplishing what we could not accomplish, Jesus became spotless, blameless, pure and holy.  He was sinless as He gave up control when we seized it.  If you read through Genesis chapter 3, you see the punishment man and woman received for seizing control.  You see that every good relationship established by God became broken, and the end result was death.  The end result of us seizing control of our own lives and our own fates is death.  It is grief.  It is burnout and weariness and anger and joyless living.  And Jesus took all of that upon His sinless self.  He took our grief and burnout and weariness and anger and joyless living to the cross where He faced the punishment we deserved.  He faced the wrath of God due to us for our desire to be in control of our lives.  He took our place because He loved us.

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

    And to the extent you believe this good news; to the extent you trust in the saving action of Jesus; to the extent you understand what He has done for you, then you will understand the joys of submitting and following.  You will understand the joys of allowing Him to be Lord of your life instead of trying to satisfy your own desires.  Work will not become a burden.  Worship will be a joy.  Prayer will be sought after as you continuously seek to submit yourself to the One who died on your behalf to bring you abundant life both now and forever.  Amen.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Setting Up a Date with Jesus

I remember a Synod Assembly I attended several years ago.  The presiding bishop of the ELCA was in attendance, and he was there to keynote as well as preside over the election of a new bishop.  Well I remember his address to the gathered.

In the midst of his address, he asked us to turn to our neighbor and answer the question, "Why should I come to your congregation?"

The lady next to me said, "We are a warm and welcoming congregation who will accept you and treat you with kindness." 

I responded, "Our congregation truly cares about our community.  We have been actively involved in ministering to our neighbors by building a house for a needy family, paying electric bills and groceries, and making a difference in people's lives."

When the bishop took the stage again, he said, "Statistics show that 90% of you answered, 'You should come to our church because we are warm and welcoming and friendly.'  Very few of you will talk about anything your church is actually doing to help your community."

Deep within I had a wellspring of pride.  Yeah, our congregation is different.  We are doing it right!

What an ass I was.

Not that being warm and welcoming and friendly isn't important--it is.

Not that doing good things in your community and making a difference isn't important--it is.

But these are not what our congregations should be about.  These are not the things which should set us apart.  Neither is saying, "We are welcoming of all people."  or "We have a great music/youth/Senior Citizen/or what have you program."  or "We get along well with each other." or "We work for peace and justice throughout the world."

These are all fine and dandy, but they are all, and I mean all, focused on trying to get people to like us; to be a part of us; to bolster our congregation's attendance; to make people fall in love with our congregation or our denomination.

As such, they fall far, far short of the reality of the Christian faith.  For a congregation should not try to get people to fall in love with the church.  A pastor should not try to get people to fall in love with him/her.  We should and must work to get people to fall in love with Jesus.

At a recent theological conference, I looked around the room at my colleagues.  I noted how very different we are.  I noted how vastly different our theologies were.  In talking to a higher up in synodical structures, I asked, "If you asked the people in there, 'what is the Gospel?' how many different definitions do you think you would get?"  Her answer, "At least 200."  And we would fight about whose definition is right. 

"Look at us!" I said.  "What person in his right mind would fall in love with us?!"  We who are broken, divided, burned out, tired, floundering along without an identity or a shared understanding of the Gospel.  We who have been caught up in the anxiety of a changing world in which we no longer have a privileged position.  We who wring our hands as worship attendance drops, offerings disappear, and congregations close.  We who are focused on survival; who set goals yet never meet them; who talk about having peace in our hearts yet show forth worry and anxiety. 

We cannot try to get people to like or fall in love with us.  It won't work.  Look at us.

Which is why we must get people to look at Jesus.  We must get people to hear the news of what He has done in reconciling the world unto God.  We must get people to understand the radical nature of the Gospel (more on defining this later)--that God/Jesus died for us while we were still sinners; living the life we were supposed to live and dying the death we deserved. 

What we do takes a back seat to what God has already done through Jesus!  (Oh, all those other things begin happening, but only after what God has done becomes the primary focus and proclamation of the Church!)

All of our worship.  All of our activities.  All of our spending.  All of our programming should be an attempt to get people introduced to Jesus.  Until we make this our primary focus, we will continue to see decline and decay.  For churches do not change people.  Jesus does.

When is the last time you tried to set someone up on a date with Jesus?

If you'd like to know more about Him, just contact me.  I will be more than happy to introduce you.

Monday, February 2, 2015

You are Possessed!

    I want to leap directly into our biblical text this morning from the Gospel of Mark because there are quite a few things to consider–not the least this whole idea of the demonic.  I mean, those of us who live in this part of the world are not accustomed to talking about demons and angels and spiritual warfare.  Because of science and philosophy, we have basically decided these things are the stuff of legend and practiced by backwards cultures who have not been enlightened.  But I want to take a little bit of time this morning to show that in some way, we are not only all possessed, but we all deserve exactly what that demon received from Jesus.  Then, I want to show you what happens instead.

    Mark tells us that Jesus and the disciples He just called go into a city called Capernaum, and Jesus enters the synagogue to teach.  He begins teaching on the Torah, and He causes quite a stir among the listeners because he taught with authority and not like the scribes.  This was a big deal.  Why?

    Well, the scribes were big wigs in the Jewish community.  They combined the offices of Bible scholar, teacher and moralist, and civil lawyer.  They were highly, highly respected by a great many people, and they were those of a select few who could enter the Jewish High Court.  As scribes walked through the streets, people would defer to them, and the first seats in the synagogues were reserved for the scribes.  I’m giving you all this background information to show that folks listened very carefully to what the scribes said, and when the scribes were doing their teaching, they always began their teaching by saying, “Well, this text from the Bible according to Rabbi so and so, who said according to Rabbi so and so, who said according to Rabbi so and so, means this.”  You see, the scribes always appealed to other authorities to back up their interpretations of the Bible.  And along comes Jesus.  Jesus doesn’t make any appeals to other rabbis.  Jesus doesn’t make any appeals to any experts in theology.  Jesus stands before the synagogue and says, “Listen up folks, the Bible says this.”  Jesus is showing that He, Himself is authoritative.  He has authority to interpret the Scriptures on His own without the need to reference anyone else.  It was quite an unheard of thing.

    It is at this moment of teaching, when folks are bewildered and awe struck by Jesus that a man enters the synagogue who has an unclean spirit.  Don’t kid yourself and think that Mark is trying to lessen the evil nature of the spirit that inhabits this man by calling it unclean.  Mark uses the words unclean and evil throughout his Gospel to refer to such spirits, and the connotation is clear–this guy is inhabited by something evil; something dark; something that is anti-God and anti-goodness.  The guy with this spirit walks into the synagogue and causes a major disruption. He is shouting at the top of his lungs, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

    Now, I want to stop and stay here a moment because there is a matter of importance to delve into. The phrase here “What have you to do with us?” is a very interesting statement–it’s a loaded statement in the ancient world, and it almost always–almost always indicates that someone is trying to place distance between himself and another.  According to one commentary I read, “The meaning can range from conflict between two parties..., or avoidance of conflict..., to simple disengagement of one party from another.”  (Michaels143) In this particular case, the demon recognizes Jesus; the demon recognizes who Jesus is as the Holy One of God; and the demon knows what Jesus is here to do–destroy us!!  Hence, when the demon says “What have you to do with us?”, the demon is saying, “I want nothing to do with you because I know you are here to destroy me!  Get away from us!”  You see, this phrase indicates that the demon is trying to put an inseparable gap between him and Jesus.  Why is this important?

    How often do we strive to put an inseparable gap between us and God?  Oh, you might think that just by being here this morning or by praying every day or by trying to do good things that you are pursuing God.  Others of you might think that you and God are just like this (hold up intertwined fingers).  Some of you might be here this morning out of curiosity trying to figure out what Christianity is all about and you don’t think this possession stuff and separation from God has anything to do with you, but give me a chance to address this for just a moment by starting with this question: in what do you place your ultimate trust?

    Think about that question as I say it one more time, in what do you put your ultimate trust?  You might not have ever thought of this question before, so let me get you to think in another fashion.  Complete the sentence: my life would be perfect if only... 

    Let me tell you how I would have answered that question not too long ago because there were several answers to that statement, and in my weaker moments, I still have these thoughts.  My life would be perfect if only I would win the Powerball.  My life would be perfect if only I could make my congregation grow larger.  My life would be perfect if only my work could get noticed and people would think I am extremely intelligent and a great pastor and they would invite me to come and speak in front of their churches and assemblies.  Do you hear what I am trying to put my trust in?  Do you hear in the background the things I thought were my saviors?  I was putting my trust in money; in prestige; in power; and in acceptance.  I thought these things would bring me joy and happiness.  And the lure of them was tremendous.  Every time I’d get a little extra cash, my heart leaped.  Every time the Powerball reached a certain level–at least over $100 million, I’d buy a ticket.  Every time folks told me how wonderful a sermon was, I found joy.  When new folks joined the church, I was on cloud nine.  Ah, but do you think it was ever enough?  Do you think I ever was satisfied by any of these deep down desires?  Do you think I found any sort of lasting joy and peace?   Not a chance.  Not a chance in the least.  Why?

    The demons would give me just enough to satisfy me for a time before crushing my spirit.  They would give me just enough to hope in them before whispering in my heart and soul–don’t you wish you had more.  And I wanted more.  You know, I knew down deep, I think, that it was wrong.  I knew these things should not drive me, but I could not help it.  I could not get away from those demons because...because I wanted them. I wanted money and power and prestige and status.  I wanted them badly.  If only I had them, my life would be perfect.  Do any of you resonate with such things?  I am not asking you to nod or say yes, but in your heart, do you know what I am speaking of?  I think each and every one of us do–because every human heart has such desires.  They differ from one to another, but every human heart desires something deep down which will satisfy it, and we, for the most part, don’t realize we are possessed by that desire–so possessed that we cannot tell where we stop and it starts.  The demon is in very, very deep.

    And, for those of us who believe in God, we wonder why God isn’t helping us get what we want.  Oftentimes we wonder why God isn’t helping us get that thing which we tell ourselves will make our lives perfect.  And, in fact, when something happens to us which actually puts a wall between us and our deepest desire–when we are faced with hardship or hurt, we cry out to God saying, “What are you doing to me?!!”  You know, that’s not very far off from “What do you want with me, Jesus of Nazareth?”

    Because what is behind that question to God?  Why do we toss our hands up in the sky and say, “God why are you doing this to me?”  Here’s what’s behind that question, and I’m sorry if this hurts, but it hurt me like hell when I first heard it too.  When we ask that question of God, we don’t believe we deserve what is happening.  We don’t believe we deserve any sort of pain or suffering or agony. We believe we have done enough good things and been good enough sort of people that we don’t deserve God causing us any sort of harm.  When we say, “God, why are you doing this to me?”, we are really saying, “God, I’m a pretty doggone good person, and I don’t deserve this!  Stop it!”  Do you see the self-righteousness of that statement?  Do you see how that statement is trying to put distance between you and God?  Do you see how it is putting an inseparable gap between you and God?  Remember when I said we were all possessed?  Remember when I said we deserve what happened to that demon?  Yeah, it’s not pretty.  We are all right there being confronted by the Holy One of God.

    And what Jesus does to that demon really isn’t pretty.  “Shut up!” Jesus says, “Be muzzled, tie a rope around your mouth!” –that’s actually what the Greek says.  “Come out of Him!”  And with a loud cry–a cry that is indicative of a death wail, the demon comes out.  And the people are amazed–actually the word means they are either amazed in a good way or they are terrified.  Perhaps they are terrified because Jesus just revealed He indeed is here in this world to destroy evil.  Jesus is here to defeat the powers of darkness, including the darkness which is deep within our hearts–with those demons we cling to.

    But here is the interesting twist.  Here is the message Jesus has for you and for me.  Instead of crushing us and destroying us–instead of tearing us out and sending us to our demise, Jesus Himself was tied up.  Jesus Himself was cast out by the powers that be and hung on a cross.  And while on that cross He cried out a death wail, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?!” as he endured the wrath of God that was meant for you and for me.  He took upon Himself the punishment which we should have received for trusting in false gods and for putting an inseparable gap between us and God.  And Jesus did this because He loves 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!

    1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”  God’s perfect love casts out our fear, our demons, and changes our hearts.   Our hearts are grasped by what God has done so that we begin saying something very different.  We say, “My life would be perfect, if I had Jesus.”  For in Him we find true fulfillment; true joy; and true peace.  May you find peace in Jesus.  Amen.