Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The God "Problem"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

God Needs Nothing From Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Jesus' Help Wanted Ad

I wonder what it would be like to write a “Help Wanted” add for church membership?  I mean, if you were going to write something trying to get people to join the church, what might it look like? 

Here’s my tongue in cheek version:

Come to church so that Jesus can give you your best life now.
Easy, flexible scheduling.  No commitments.  No pressure.  Work church around your current lifestyle.
Receive irrevocable benefits with no obligation on your part.  Attend when you want, involve yourself where you want, little or no financial obligation necessary.
Be comforted that you are loved and accepted just as you are with no need to change or grow, and receive assurance that the problems you are experiencing are just temporary and are caused by something outside yourself.

Okay, maybe that’s a little bit over the top, but maybe not by too much.  I tend to think that we like our Christianity easy.  We like our Christianity comfortable.  We want it to be like that free ice cream cone some restaurants give you as you walk out: sweet, satisfying, leaving you with a pleasant taste in your mouth and a smile on your face.

But Jesus’ own help wanted ad, is far, far different from such a thing.  Jesus’ help wanted ad that he sets forth today is far less sweet, far less pleasant, and far less appetizing.

It all starts when Jesus and his disciples are walking around Caesarea Philippi.  Ever the teacher, ever the instructor, Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?”  What’s the going word on the street?  What do people think about all the things that I’ve done? 

Jesus gets an ear-full.  “Some say you are John the Baptist.  Other folks think you are Elijah.  Some say you are a prophet.”

It’s not much different today.  All sorts of folks have their opinions about who Jesus was.  Some say he was just a great moral teacher.  Others put him as a founder of a religion on the par with Buddah or Mohammed.  Others even say he didn’t exist.  There’s all sorts of stuff going on about who Jesus was and what he really did or didn’t do.  The more things change the more they say the same. 

But, ultimately, the question of who Jesus is isn’t about those folks out there. Ultimately, the question of Jesus identity comes down to every single one of us in here (points to heart).  And Jesus knows that.  Jesus understands that greatly, and so he brings it home.  “Who do you say that I am?”

I’m sure there was a pregnant silence.  I’m sure the disciples sat there for a few seconds waiting.  Thinking.  What was the right answer?  What should they say?  They’d seen a lot.  They’d seen Jesus feed the five thousand. They’d seen him calm the storm.  They’d seen Jesus cast out demons; heal the paralyzed; and bring the dead back to life.  They’d heard his preaching and teaching.  They had knowledge that few others had.  What could they say that would bring it all together?  How could they answer and account for all of these things?

Peter finally breaks the silence, “You are the Messiah.”  And Jesus sternly warned everyone to keep quiet.

Do you wonder why Jesus said this?  Do you wonder why, after such a big announcement, after such an important revelation that Jesus would demand silence?

It’s really no wonder if you understand what everyone believed the Messiah was supposed to do.  The Messiah was supposed to cleanse the temple.  The Messiah was supposed to defeat Israel’s enemies.  And the Messiah was supposed to bring God’s justice to the world.  Of course, the way the Messiah was supposed to bring God’s justice was to enthrone himself as the king of Israel, and Israel would then rule the world.  These were the expectations of the Messiah.  This is what every single good Jew was taught about the Messiah.  This is why the Jewish people longed for the Messiah.  They wanted a temple free from corruption.  They wanted their enemies, in this case the Romans, off their backs.  And they wanted the power and prestige that came from being the world’s powerhouse.  For Peter to announce that Jesus was the Messiah and for Jesus to offer him no correction otherwise was a HUGE deal. 

And Jesus knew that.  Jesus knew what the expectations were, but he also knew he would accomplish them in quite a different fashion.  For he would cleanse the temple–but not as expected.  And the enemy he would seek to overthrow was not any earthly power, but a power that enslaved every person on earth–from the most powerful king to the lowest slave.  The power and enemy that must be overthrown was the power of sin.  And God’s justice would be revealed in the most unexpected of places–on a cross at Calvary.  Jesus knew all of these things.  Jesus knew that his path was far different than the expectations of his followers and of his fellow Jews.

And so, Jesus began to break them in.  Jesus began to teach them, openly and plainly.  He didn’t want to sugar coat it.  He didn’t want to leave them with any doubts or questions.  “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” 

This was too much for the disciples to hear.  This was too off.  This wasn’t right.  This was unheard of.  Never had this idea ever been expressed by any single teacher of Israel.  Never had this idea entered into any conversation about the Messiah.  This could not be the way that things would happen.  Jesus must be out of his mind, and so Peter takes it upon himself to correct Jesus.  In fact, it’s a bit stronger than correct.  You see, the Bible here reads rebuked.  Peter rebuked Jesus.  This is the same word the Bible uses when demons are rebuked.  Peter thinks Jesus has a demon.  Think about that for just a minute.  Peter speaks to his teacher in the same way his teacher spoke to demons.  That’s not good.

And Jesus responds in kind.  Jesus rebukes Peter in the strongest of terms, “Get behind me Satan for you are setting your mind on human things instead of divine things.”  Somehow, Jesus’ response is much more forceful.  Somehow Jesus response puts Peter to shame.  It might just be because the same voice that calmed the storm and brought the dead to life is now the one offering the rebuke.  And that rebuke stings.  There is no hint of softness in it.  There is no hint of tactfulness.  There’s no, “You might want to think about what you are saying, Peter.  Your opinion might be wrong.” 

No.  I’m quite sure that if Jesus would have said this in a church, there would have instantaneously been a movement to get rid of him.  “He needs anger management.”  “He needs counseling.”  “No good religious leader should ever call one of his flock Satan.”  Jesus’ actions here are very, very uncomfortable.

But he’s not done.  If you think his words to Peter are out of bounds, just wait until you hear what he says next.  Just wait until he gives you his help wanted ad.  “If anyone wants to be my disciple, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For if anyone wants to save his life, he will lose it, but if anyone loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel, he will find it.”

This is discipleship according to Jesus.

This is discipleship according to the Bible.

Deny yourself.  Give up your expectations.  Give up your hopes.  Give up your dreams and desires.  Give up all the things you wanted and what you wanted God to do for you.  Put them all away.  Deny your self.

Pick up your cross.  Do you know how the disciples would have heard this?  Do you know how revolted they must have been when Jesus said this?  Jesus basically told them, prepare to die.  When we think of carrying a cross, oftentimes we think of the trials and tribulations we face in life.  And they are tough, boy are they tough.  It’s tough to face a chronic illness.  It’s tough to work at a job you hate.  It’s tough to deal with broken relationships in your family.  There are many, many tough things we face in life, but they are not the cross.  The cross was an instrument of torture and death.  If you were carrying it, you were headed towards suffering.  You were headed towards pain and agony.  You were headed towards death. 

Give up all your hopes and dreams and desires, prepare to die, and follow me.  For if you want to save your life, you will lose it.  But if you lose your life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, you will find it.

That’s discipleship.  That’s the job description.  There is no sugar coating it.  There is no explaining it away.  This is the demand Jesus puts on his followers.

And if you are like me right now, you are thinking, “There’s no way.  There’s no way I can do that.  There is no way I can give up all of my hopes and dreams and desires.  There is no way I can die to all of these things.  There is no way I can lose my life like this.  This is impossible.” 

And it certainly is impossible.  The disciples couldn’t even do it.  When Jesus was arrested, they all ran away.  When Peter tried to follow and was confronted, he denied Jesus three times.  None of them were willing to face the cross.  None of them were willing to lose their lives.  They all fell far short of Jesus’ call.  And they knew it.  They, like we know that we haven’t even come close to what Jesus demands.

At this point you may be sitting there thinking, “Then why am I even here?  If Jesus’ disciples couldn’t do this and if I can’t do this, then why do I even bother showing up here?”

It’s because Christianity isn’t primarily about what you do.  It’s about what God has done in Jesus.  It is darn near impossible for us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross and follow Jesus.  But guess who did deny himself?  Guess who did pick up his cross? 

You know the answer to that question.  You know who carried his cross to Calvary.  You know who was hung on that cross, and you know who suffered and died on it.  He did this precisely because he knew that we couldn’t.  He knew that the power of sin is too great within each and every one of us.  He knew that the power of sin would keep us focused on ourselves; would keep us trying to preserve ourselves.  He knew we couldn’t break out of sins power on our own.  And so he died for us.  When we couldn’t follow him and didn’t deserve to be his disciples, he died for us.  He bore our shortcomings.  He bore our sinfulness.  He suffered on our behalf.

And then he gave us his righteousness.  He gave us his glory.  He gave us his status as a beloved child of God.  We didn’t earn this status.  We didn’t deserve this status, but it is given to us by sheer grace.  And when we are grasped by that sheer grace; when the Gospel becomes real to us, something happens.  We are changed.

This change was evident in the lives of the disciples.  You know, the ones I told you about earlier who ran when Jesus was arrested; who denied him when confronted.  Those same disciples, when Jesus appeared to them after the resurrection and offered them peace; offered them forgiveness; then went out into the world and suffered for him.  They went out into the world leaving behind themselves and most of them dying in proclaiming the love of God in Christ Jesus.  When they understood how much they were loved and how they had been forgiven, they were changed.  And they gathered together to hear what Christ had done for them so they would never forget the sheer grace of God.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, you have received the same love that the disciples received.  You have received the same grace that the disciples received.  Jesus has poured out his life for you and redeemed you.  When you walk out into the world and find that you are being dragged away from discipleship; when the cares and concerns of the world try to entice you and whisper sweet words of temptation; when the Evil One tries to tell you that you aren’t worthy to follow Jesus; look to the cross.  Look to the Savior who is the Messiah.  Let your heart be filled with His love and His power, and you will find something surprising.  You will find something contrary to the way the world works.  You will find that you are denying your self.  You will find that you are seeking God’s will instead of your own.  You will find that you are losing your life, but that you have found something much greater.  You have found the Risen Lord; you have found Jesus. And in him, you have found abundant life.  Amen.

Why Are We Here?: Prayer

Today marks the last sermon in the series that I have been preaching “Why are we here?”  To recap, I’ve spoken with you about preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, worship, evangelism, working for peace and justice, passing down the faith to our children, the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren, and fellowship.  Today we come to the last piece: prayer.  We are here to pray.

From the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible, people pray.  The heroes of the faith pray: Abraham, Sarah,  Jacob, Rebecca, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Deborah, David, Elijah, Elisha, Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John–just to name a few.  The people of God are urged to pray.  “Pray without ceasing!” Paul writes.  James says, “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. 14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”  The book of Psalms has often been referred to as the prayer book of the Bible.  Prayer is modeled.  Prayer is urged.  Prayer is commanded.  We are called to pray.

Jesus’ disciples noticed how much Jesus prayed.  They noticed there was something unique about the way he prayed.  They saw how he would go out by himself early in the morning, late in the evening, and even throughout the night and pray.  And so they begged him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

And Jesus taught them.  Jesus taught us.  And what he taught causes me to wrestle deeply with my own prayer life. What Jesus taught about prayer causes me to wrestle with the reality of who God is and who I am.  What Jesus taught about prayer causes me to think deeply about how I should pray and what I should pray.

Because Jesus told us explicitly, “When you pray, do not heap up a whole lot of empty phrases like the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”  I don’t know about you, but when I hear these words from Jesus, I start to question what the point of prayer is.  If God already knows what I need, and if God already knows what I am going to ask, and if God doesn’t want to hear me just run off a string of words over and over and over, then what is the point of prayer?  Why even bother with prayer?  Why even bring a petition to God if He already knows what I and every other person on this planet needs?  What’s the point of our time of intercessory prayer later in worship?  Are we simply heaping up empty phrases by placing our petitions out there if God already knows what is needed?  Oh how I wish I had this all figured out up in my head.  I don’t.  At least not yet.

What I do know is that Jesus then taught his disciples a prayer.  It’s the Lord’s prayer.  I guess that in reality, one could say that this is the only prayer that a Christian needs.  I guess that in reality, one could say that this is the only prayer that a church needs to pray.  “Pray in this way,” Jesus says.  He doesn’t offer this as a suggestion.  He doesn’t say, “Well, if you want a really good guide to pray, you might want to do it this way.”  No.  “Pray in this way.”

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.  10 Your kingdom come.  Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”  Other versions of the Greek text add “For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen.”

That’s it.  That’s the prayer.  That’s what we are called to bring before our heavenly Father.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  At least to begin with.  “Lord, teach us to pray.”  This is what the disciples asked.  And Jesus gave them the Lord’s Prayer as instruction.  So, let’s take a step back for a moment and ask the question: what was Jesus teaching his disciples in this prayer?  What message was Jesus conveying to them.  Did He mean that these were the only words we should ever say in a prayer, or was He teaching something deeper?

Well, we know that throughout the Bible, there are other prayers.  And we know that those prayers do not have the same wording as the Lord’s Prayer.   So, there must be a deeper teaching here.  There must be a deeper sense and message that Jesus is trying to convey to his disciples and to us.  So, what is it?  What is that message that is relevant to our personal prayer lives and to the prayer life of the church?  What is that message that makes prayer central to the life of the church?

I am struck every time I teach what Martin Luther said about the Lord’s prayer in his Small Catechism.  There seems to be a running theme in every explanation about the petitions of this prayer.  Please listen carefully:

God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also.

The kingdom of God certainly comes without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may
come to us also.

The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.

God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.

We pray in this petition (forgive us our sins) that our Father in heaven would not look at our sins, or deny our prayer because of them.  We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we as that He would give them all to us by grace...

God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive or mislead us...

We pray in this petition in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul...

Did you catch how Luther brings every single petition of the Lord’s Prayer back to a radical dependency on God?  Did you catch how Luther brings every single petition of the Lord’s Prayer to a place where we seek to have our eyes opened to this reality?  Did you see how Luther takes us away from our wishes, our will, and our desire, and instead urges us to seek God’s wishes, God’s will, and God’s desires? 

Richard Foster puts it this way in his best selling book Celebration of Discipline, “To pray is to change.  Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us.  If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic in our lives.  The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ.  In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.  Progressively we are taught to see things from his point of view.”

This is why we pray.  This is why the church prays.  We enter into a conversation with our heavenly Father to seek His will; to seek His ways; to see things from His point of view.  We set aside our own wishes, our own wants, our own desires and instead place ourselves at His beck and call.  We come before Him and ask Him to continue to transform us into the people that He has called us to be–that we may grow into the image and likeness of Jesus.  We acknowledge before Him that we are dependent upon Him for everything we have and everything we do.  We acknowledge before Him that we need His grace and His mercy.  We acknowledge that we are here to do the work He has called us to do, and we ask Him to show us where our hands are most needed and what message is most needed by the world.  After all, this church is not our church.  This is God’s church.  We are here to do His work and share His message.  And how can we do that if we are not submitting ourselves to Him and asking Him for his direction?  We can’t.  And so we must pray.  The church must pray.  We are here to pray.  Amen.

Why Are We Here?: Fellowship

Today, as we continue to look at Why We are Here as a church, I am going to being with an admission that I have been making some very wrong statements throughout my time as a pastor.  Chalk it up one more time to my imperfection and lack of knowledge.  Throughout my years as a pastor I have often times said, “The church is not a social club.”  Now, when I have said such things, I have often had in the back of my mind, the negative aspects of a social club: the refusal to let certain people in; the payment of dues; the struggling for positions of power and prestige.  These things are certainly downers in social clubs, but as I have studied the scriptures and came to understand more and more the function of the church, I have come to the conclusion that the church indeed is a social club.  It is a place where Christians not only gather to hear and study the Word and receive the Sacraments.  It is also a place where Christians gather together in fellowship.  We are Here as a church to provide Christian fellowship.

Now, the first question that we need to grapple with is: what do we mean when we say fellowship?  The Bible uses a particular Greek word in reference to fellowship, and that word is “koinonia.”  This Greek word is derived from the root, “koinos,” which was a prefix in ancient Greek. If you were to add this prefix to words meaning “living,” “owning a purse,” “a dispute,” and “mother,” you would get words meaning “living in community together,” “owning a purse in common,” “a public dispute,” and “having a mother in common.” So we see that the root of the word, “fellowship,” means “to hold something in common.”  – 

So, if Christian fellowship means that we hold something in common, what exactly are we holding?  The answer is: we are holding the certainty that we have been saved by God’s undeserved love poured out through His Son, Jesus Christ.  Together we hold that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that we deserve His punishment.  Yet, instead of receiving that punishment, God sent His only begotten Son into the world to bring salvation instead of condemnation.  God sent Jesus to take our sins upon Himself and offer Himself as a sacrifice of atonement.  On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins facing the fires of hell so that those who believe and trust in Him will have eternal life.  We know that this was accomplished for us with nothing done on our part.  There was nothing we said or did that caused God to act on our behalf, and this is why we call it sheer grace.

But things do not stop here.  We also need to be aware of the fact that Jesus gave us His righteousness.  Jesus gave us His glory.  We are celebrating two baptisms this morning, and in a mind boggling statement about baptism in the book of Galatians, St. Paul writes, “For as many of you who are baptized in Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  Those of us who place our trust in Jesus are wearing Jesus.  We no longer walk around thinking of ourselves.  We no longer walk around acting for ourselves.  We no longer walk around chasing the desires and temptations of the world.  Instead, we seek the things of heaven.  We walk with one foot in heaven.  We operate as though we were imitators of Jesus Christ.  This is something we hold in common, and it draws us together in fellowship.

But why does it draw us together?  There are two reasons that I would like to talk about this morning.  First, it is a witness to the world, and second, it is the way we strengthen each other to face the world.  Again, our Christian fellowship is a witness to the world, and it is how we strengthen one another to face the world.

Jesus gave us a great command, that we love one another.  He said, “By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  When you think about all of the various social clubs that are existence, they all have boundaries.  These boundaries are absolutely necessary so that you can tell who is in and who is out.  The question is: how are such boundaries drawn?  Usually, those boundaries are drawn according to race, gender, and socio-economic standing.  We see such things continuing to happen in our society today.  Look at a list of all the different organizations on college campuses: they are generally geared around race and gender.  Others are geared around socio-economic standing.  Heck, I’d argue that even Little League in some places is a socio-economic social club.  I might be ticking a few folks off by saying that, but when you have to pay a $125 fee to play, buy your own bat, glove, helmet, pants, and shoes, you are looking at having to spend at least $250 to play Little League ball.  What about the parents who cannot afford that? 

The church has a different boundary–it’s not based on race, gender or your socio-economic position.  It’s based on your belief and trust in Jesus Christ and your willingness to live out the tenets of the Christian faith in your life.  That’s it.  If you believe in Jesus and seek to be His disciple and live according to His calling, you are in.  Period.  There are no other qualifications.  There are no other boundaries.  Believe in Jesus and strive to follow Him.  You might think that this is easy, but it isn’t.  Our second lesson highlights this difficulty calls us to pay attention to it.

The church in Corinth had a practice of getting together and eating a meal before celebrating the Lord’s Supper.  All were supposed to join in and dine together before dining together, but here’s what started to happen.  The wealthier folks in the church started getting a bit resentful of the poorer members of the church.  They decided to meet early and eat early.  They would eat and drink all the food and wine, and when the poor showed up, there was nothing left.  Then, they would share in the Lord’s Supper.  Effectively, the church began to have divisions right along socio-economic lines.  Paul writes to them to condemn this practice.  Essentially, he says, “This is not Christian fellowship.  This is not living in accordance to the will and practice of Jesus.  By doing this, you are condemning yourselves.  Don’t fall back into those old ways of doing things.  Share with one another.  Love one another.” 

You see, in that day and age, rich and poor did not sit down together.  There were clear societal boundaries drawn against this.  But the church acted differently.  In the church, rich and poor ate together.  Slaves and free ate together.  Men and women ate together.  This was something new and bold.  This was something that turned the world upside down.  This was something unique.  Paul is reminding the church in Corinth about this because when the rest of the world saw the church acting in such a manner, it caught their attention.  It made them curious.  It made them question their own morals and values.  If such people could come together in this fashion–people who normally wouldn’t give the time of day to one another eating together–what strange power must be at work?  The church’s fellowship became a witness to the world.  It must do so again.

That was point one.  The second point has to do with building one another up. It walks hand in hand with number one, and to show how this happens, I’m simply going to tell a story.  It’s a story that I’ve used before, but it bears repeating.  A man once prayed to God and asked God to show him the difference between heaven and hell.  God agreed, and God took the man to hell.  The man was completely and totally surprised.  Hell was beautiful.  There was a gigantic banquet table laid out with all the finest foods.  There were succulent cuts of meat.  There were the freshest of fruits and vegetables.  The aroma of the bread set one’s mouth to watering instantaneously. 

“God, I do not understand,” the man said.  “I thought hell was a place of torment.”

God replied, “Just watch.”
The citizens of hell began filing into the banquet hall and taking their places at the table.  The man looked at God with a questioning glance.  God said, “Look closely.”

At that moment, the man saw that the citizens of hell had no elbows. They could not bend their arms.  Satan took his place at the head of the table and commanded all to eat.  The citizens of hell began trying to satisfy their hunger.  But each time they picked up a portion of food, they could not get it into their mouths.  All of the food and drink ended up on the floor as the citizens of hell continued on in their hunger and thirst.  The man begged God to take him away from such an awful sight.  “Please, God, please show me heaven.”

God then took the man to heaven, and curiously enough, the man was confronted by the exact same scene.  It was the exact same banquet with the exact same food and drink.  The citizens of heaven walked in, and they too had no elbows.  The man gave a questioning glance to God, and God said, “Just watch.”

The Son of Man took his place at the head of the table and blessed the food.  At that moment, the feast began, and the man saw right away the difference between heaven and hell.  In heaven, the citizens fed one another.

The world encourages us to look after ourselves.  The world encourages us to take care of number one.  The world encourages us to participate in a dog eat dog fight until the strongest rises to the top.  But the church offers another way.  The church offers a different set of values and understanding. The church offers a way of living based upon the grace of Jesus Christ who poured out Himself for all.  When the church practices Christian fellowship, it offers a glimpse of heaven–where there are no distinctions based upon race, gender, or socio-economic status and where all feed and strengthen one another.  This is koininia.  This is Christian fellowship, and it is one of the reasons we are here as a church.  Amen.

Why Are We Here?: The Mutual Conversation and Consolation of the Brethren

Today, we come to a very interesting concept in the life of the church and one of the reasons the church is here: the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.  That’s probably a weird phrase to you, and perhaps you might wonder where it came from.

It actually comes from some of our foundational documents as the Lutheran Church.  It comes from what is called the Smalcald Articles.  I know, it’s a funny name.  These were written by Martin Luther in 1537 as he was preparing for a church council.  Some have called it his “last will and testament” in regards to his beliefs regarding the church.  In article 4 titled, “The Gospel,” he wrote the following:

We will now return to the Gospel, which not merely in one way gives us counsel and aid against sin; for God is superabundantly rich [and liberal] in His grace [and goodness]. First, through the spoken Word by which the forgiveness of sins is preached [He commands to be preached] in the whole world; which is the peculiar office of the Gospel. Secondly, through Baptism. Thirdly, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar. Fourthly, through the power of the keys, and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brethren, Matt. 18:20: Where two or three are gathered together, etc.

Luther writes that we experience the Gospel, the good news of God through the preached Word; through the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion; through the power of the keys, which is confession; and then finally, through the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.  Luther cites Matthew 18:20 “Where two or three are gathered together, etc.

I found it interesting that even though Luther labels the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren here as a place where grace is experienced, he never really defines it.  He never really elaborates on it.  He kind of just leaves it there and says, “Have fun trying to figure it out!!!”  So, what does it mean?  What is it all about?

Well, let’s look at what is said and what is cited.  First, there is mutual conversation.   Mutual–which is something that is done between two or more parties, and conversation–which is talking to each other.  How does simply talking to each other build one another up?  The writer of Ephesians is pretty clear about that in our second lesson today.  Please listen again: 25 So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil. 28Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. 29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

I think the key here is: starting at the beginning 1) tell the truth with  2) the intent to build one another up.  I think holding those two things together is vitally important.  We are called to tell the truth. But the truth can be brutal.  I mean, we all know the jokes that get told about wives who ask their husbands, “Does this dress make me look fat?”  Has anyone ever answered that question honestly?  I mean is there a husband who would look at their wife and say, “You know, honey, that dress makes you look like you’ve been eating a half-gallon of Blue Bell every day for the past six months.”?  No one would dare do that.  But what if it was true?  To speak the truth in such a manner would be to destroy that person.

And so, there is the qualifier: speak the truth with the intent to build up.  Speak the truth with the intent to encourage and strengthen a person.  Speak the truth with the intent to bring them to a place where they may know they fall short, but that they are deeply loved and cared for.

I’m going to move away from the example of the husband, wife and dress thing and talk about something else in regards to this.  I’m going to talk about that wonderful evolution in schools where everyone gets a trophy for simply participating.  You’ve all heard about this, right?  The intent of this is to make sure no one’s self-esteem is damaged, so even if you come in dead last in a race, you still get a prize.  But is this helpful?  Is this truthful? 

No.  Of course it is not.  You and I know that we live in a world that is not fair.  We live in a world where people are vastly different.  We live in a world where some people are faster than others.  If you are in a race, and you are slow, you will lose.  I know this from many, many personal experiences!!!  (Please don’t ask me how well I fared in running track.)  And we need to be able to acknowledge such things.  We need to be able to help one another understand such things and deal with such things.  To deny this reality is to deny the truth.  But to tell someone they are slow and leave it at that is to deny someone compassion.  Because is it not better to acknowledge what the person’s slowness, but then to say, “You know, you lost that race.  You are not as fast as the others, but your worth and value is not tied to that race.  Don’t let that race define you.  There are much more important things than a race.”

Do you see how that can build another person up?  Do you see how you can acknowledge reality while building another person up?  Do you see how that is more honest and equips a person to face the reality of life? 

It’s patently biblical, and it runs hand in hand with what we say about grace.  Grace is love that is given to us when we don’t deserve it.  We all fall short of the glory of God.  This is an acknowledgment of the truth.  But it is a harsh reality.  It is a harsh thing to say, and I know there are some who cringe when those words come out of my mouth.  Yet, they must be spoken in accord with the Gospel.  For the Gospel says that despite your sin, your God loved you enough to die for you.  Your God loved you in your imperfection and paid the price to ransom you.  Therefore, your value and worth does not hinge upon you being perfect, but it hinges upon God and what He has done for you on the cross.  This is building one another up in love.  This is having mutual conversation.

But what about consolation?  I had a long conversation with one of our church members this past week.  He shared with me his experience working in the corporate world, and some of the things he said to me were extremely eye opening.  He told me that he loved his job and was excited to do the things that he did.  That included getting up way before the crack of dawn to head to work only to get home late in the evening and have just a few hours with his kids.  Day after day he did this, but because he enjoyed his job, was good at it, and had fun doing it, he was able to endure it quite well; however, he also told me that there are a lot of people who don’t love their jobs who go through the same routine.  They are up every morning before dawn; they go to their places of work and spend all day; they miss out on family time; and, because we are ever connected, are often called in to their jobs even when they are supposed to be off.  It’s miserable.  It’s not fun.  Folks are beat down on a weekly basis, and they need support and consolation.

There’s that word again.  And where can they get it?  Where should they get it?  Through the church.  Through our conversations and gatherings with one another.  This is what our first lesson from the Book of Acts is all about.  Paul is out and about preaching the Gospel, and then folks who were not happy with his proclamation showed up.  They incited the crowds and had Paul stoned.  They thought he was dead.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I have never had that bad of a day.  I have never had folks take stones and try to kill me.  There have been some rough days.  There have been times when I came back from a rough hospital visit and been depressed because off the sadness of the situation.  But I’ve never had it as bad as Paul had it. 

But what happened next speaks exactly to what can happen in the church.  You will note that “the disciples surrounded him.”  They protected him.  They gave him a place where he was no longer taking the shots.  Given room and safety, Paul was able to get back up and head back to preach the word.  Given a chance to recover, Paul was able to continue on in the mission he was given.  He was consoled. He was strengthened by other Christians in the faith.

I wonder what it would look like for something similar to happen in our congregations.  Are there places in the church where people can come together, be surrounded and protected by fellow disciples and given a place of safety, given a place where healing can take place?  Are there places where people can find others who have traveled such roads who can share their wisdom of how to navigate such rocky places and not only survive but thrive?  Are there settings where such mutual conversation and consolation can take place?

The great hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds” includes the following words, “We share our mutual woes, our mutual burdens bear, and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.  From sorrow, toil, and pain, and sin we shall be free; and perfect love and friendship reign through all eternity.”  It’s a glorious picture of what the church is called to be.  It is a glorious picture of mutual love and building up.  It is a glorious picture of why we are here: to participate in the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.