Monday, December 31, 2007

What Role Should Religion Play in Politics?

What role should religion play in politics?

That question has suggested itself for many reasons during the already too-long 2008 presidential campaign.

It’s a question of particular interest to me because I’m a lifetime political junkie, a student of history, and a Lutheran pastor.

There are, it seems to me, three main reasons we’re asking the question in a major way this year.

The first is the candidacy of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Personally, while I have the same disagreements with Mormonism as those advanced by evangelical Christians, I’ve never felt that Romney’s religion should preclude him from consideration for the presidency.

Article 6 of the Constitution says that there should be no religious test for holding federal office. As an American, I believe in the rightness of that provision.

But I also believe in it because I’m a Christian. Jesus’ command to love my neighbor entails appreciating the abilities and skills of all people, even those who don’t share my faith.

While polls show that there are some Christians who simply would not vote for a Mormon for president, I don’t think that this is anything like a majority view.

And frankly, I think that the question of whether a Mormon would be accepted in a position of political importance was answered in 1953. It was then that Ezra Taft Benson, a high official in the Mormon religion, was confirmed as Secretary of Agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration. In those days, the post was a lot more important and highly visible than it is today.

In 1968, Mitt Romney’s father, Michigan governor George Romney ran for the Republican presidential nomination. His bid came to grief over what I thought was a vicious misrepresentation of something he told a New Hampshire radio interviewer about the Johnson Administration’s attempts to, as he saw it, brainwash him regarding the War in Vietnam. The media and Romney’s opponents, Richard Nixon among them, portrayed the former auto executive as susceptible to brainwashing, not strong enough to be president. It’s a tragedy that George Romney’s candidacy was brought to an end in that way. Despite the exaggerations of his son, the elder Romney was deeply committed to civil rights. He was a can-do guy. But it wasn’t because of his Mormon religion that Romney, who later served as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Nixon Administration, failed to become president. His Mormonism wasn’t even considered. Nor should it have been.

Two factors have made Mitt Romney’s Mormon affiliation significant this year. One is the importance of the Religious Right in the Republican coalition. Frankly, I dislike the Religious Right. (And the Religious Left, for that matter.) There is simply no way to draw a straight line from faith in Jesus Christ or the Bible as the Word of God to a consistent political philosophy. As a Christian leader, it deeply disturbs me when pastors or other Christian leaders presume to say that Jesus is a Republican or a Democrat. Or that God is a liberal or a conservative. Christians who make such claims subordinate the Deity, the One I believe to be Lord and Creator of heaven and earth, to temporary, temporal philosophies and preferences. In effect, they shove God aside and instead, worship their parties or platforms. Nonetheless, the Religious Right has put a premium on candidates conforming not just to their political views, but also their claimed religious doctrines.

Romney’s Mormonism also became important because, quite frankly, he made it that way. Over a year ago, Romney supporter Hugh Hewitt asked Christian pastor-bloggers to say whether they felt that Romney’s religion should preclude his being considered for president by Christians. Mine was the first reply Hewitt published, I believe. Simply, I said that, no, Christians should not dismiss a Romney candidacy because he was a Mormon.

But clearly, the Romney campaign felt something like paranoia on this issue. The prime campaign biography, written by my friend Hewitt, is called A Mormon in the White House? It was one of many elements of an effort on the part of the Romney campaign to earn the support of the Religious Right.

Every politician, of course, wants to gain support with important constituencies by demonstrating that they hold common beliefs and values. But Romney has appeared to attempt to appeal to the Religious Right by blurring the very real differences that exist between Christian beliefs and Mormon teachings.

This, it seems to me, was an incredibly stupid thing to do, politically speaking. That’s because the Religious Right has changed. For all my criticism of it, the Christian conservative political movement has attained a certain maturity. One characteristic of that maturity is that voters who identify with the movement no longer move in lockstep with their so-called “leaders.” Another is that neither its leaders or its rank and file voters expect that politicians are going to agree with them on every issue. Pat Robertson, after all, has endorsed Rudy Giuliani. The movement is also wary of pols who give lip service to all their issues yet, like many Republicans for the past twenty-five years, have done nothing to change what they see as wrong in Washington and the United States.

Mitt Romney would have done better at appealing to the Religious Right if he had, instead of trying to appear to be a kind of Baptist Mormon, simply said, as John Kennedy did of his Catholicism in 1960, “I’m not a Mormon running for president. I’m an American running for president who happens to be a Mormon.” He could have then taken his own religious affiliation off the table and simply demonstrated common political cause with those to whom he’s been trying to appeal.

Romney, in his “Faith in America” speech, delivered at the presidential library of George H.W. Bush, seemed, in part, to deliver such a message. But then, he said that freedom needs religion and religion needs freedom. While I personally believe that the Judeo-Christian tradition fosters the kind of civility and respect for neighbor that allows for the functioning of democracy, Christian faith, in particular, hasn’t needed freedom of religion to grow. Indeed, it seems to grow best and strongest when its natural inclination for subversiveness is given full vent. Historically, Christian faith has always grown strongest under the threat and persecution of repressive regimes. Freedom, then, isn’t a necessary prerequisite for religious belief. Nor is it impossible for freedom to develop without religion.

Be that as it may, after seeming to want to take religion off the table, Romney put it back, appearing to arrogantly tell those who have no faith that their participation in the political process was unwelcome.

A second reason we’re asking what role religion should play in the 2008 presidential campaign is the candidacy of Mike Huckabee. The former Arkansas governor is also a former Baptist pastor.

Being a pastor should not automatically disqualify a person from consideration for the presidency or any other political office. (Although as a pastor who has run for political office myself--I ran for the Ohio House of Representatives in 2004, I no longer think it’s a good idea for preachers to be candidates while still serving as pastors.) One ordained clergy person has served as president, James A. Garfield, his presidency cut short by an assassin’s bullet. (Garfield, a congressional veteran of unimpugned personal integrity, is considered to have been one of the most well-prepared persons ever to become president.)

Ordained clergy persons have served in other elective political offices with distinction. The late Father Robert Drinan, a Democrat from Massachusetts, served in Congress until Pope John Paul II banned priests from serving in elective political office, forcing Drinan to step down. Today, Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, a former Congressman, is popular.

But I have been disturbed by the ways in which the affable Huckabee has used his faith and his one-time status as a pastor. Advertisements in Iowa have touted him as a “Christian leader.”

He also, I believe, draws less than obvious lines between his religious and his political convictions.

Take the matter of homosexuality, for example. Most Christians accept the traditional teaching that homosexual practice is contrary to God’s will, on a par with premarital sex. Sex, it’s taught, is a gift from God reserved for married people to seal their relationship, provide for their mutual enjoyment, and, sometimes, to create families.

But this is a religious view, not a political one. The Christian should have no interest in imposing it on others through the political process in a pluralistic society. A Christian might well believe that if states authorize homosexual unions, it will not threaten traditional Christian marriages and it will allow states to do the same thing they do with heterosexual unions: safeguard health, ensure insurability, and provide for the custody of children and the disposition of property when relationships are broken by death or other causes.

Yet, Huckabee seems to want to impose a particular Christian approach to this issue. He seems to want to coerce people into living as if they were Christians. But Christian faith and Christian behavior can never be coerced.

A third reason we’re asking what role religion should play in the 2008 presidential campaign, I think, is the existence of a nasty strain of atheism exemplified by such people as journalist Christopher Hitchens. It dismisses any positive attributes associated with religious belief and, effectively, calls for its total elimination from cultural life. Frankly, I think that this is, partly, the natural and unfortunate pushback against the legalism and arrogance associated with the Religious Right, which has done great damage to the cause of Christ, in which I deeply believe. It saddens me.

So, what role should religion play in the 2008 campaign?

For all voters, I do think that questions about candidates’ religious convictions are legitimate insofar as they tell us something about them. These convictions may, in fact, tell us nothing. For one thing, candidates may lie about their religious convictions. Generations of politicians have said, “God bless America,” while, in their daily lives, worshiping their egos, their bank books, or their libidos, among other little gods. Candidates who espouse certain religious beliefs also may not, in fact, adhere to their convictions with much commitment.

But a candidates’ religion is at least as legitimate a field of inquiry as their resumes, hobbies, and organizational memberships. Each may tell voters something important about their presidential wannabes. (In turn, presidential candidates should feel as free to say, “This far and no more” in talking about their religious convictions as they do about, say, their sex lives.)

I wouldn’t necessarily vote against someone because he was an atheist (something I used to be) or for someone because she was a Lutheran (something I have been for the past thirty-one years). But I am interested in knowing what effect, if any, those convictions have on the ways candidates make decisions, view other people, prioritize justice, think about national life, and so on. This seems reasonable to me.

The problem is that some candidates seem more interested in running for national pastor than for President of the United States. That seems like a mistake to me.

[FYI: Here is a link to a series I did early this year on how Christians might view the 2008 presidential race. And here is a series on how one of our presidents, Abraham Lincoln, once dismissive of religious belief, theologized in his second Inaugural Address. Finally, here is a piece I wrote on the question of how Christian George W. Bush’s second Inaugural Address was. It wasn’t.]

[This is being cross-posted at RedBlue and The Moderate Voice.]

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Who's Your King?

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 2:13-23
Anglican bishop Tom Wright tells of preaching at a big Christmas service where a well-known historian, also well-known for his skepticism about Christianity, was persuaded to attend. After the service, the historian approached Wright, “all smiles,” he says.

“I’ve finally worked out why people like Christmas,” he told Wright. "Really?" Wright wondered and asked the historian to explain. “A baby threatens no one," said the skeptic. "So the whole thing is a happy event which means nothing at all.”

Wright says, “I was dumbfounded. At the heart of the Christmas story…is a baby who poses such a threat to the most powerful man around that he kills a whole village [of other babies] in order to try to get rid of him…”

The king who wanted to get rid of Jesus was Herod the Great. He was the father of the Herod (the one also known as Herod Antipas) who saw to it that Jesus would be crucified some twenty-eight to thirty-three years later.

This Herod wasn’t a nice guy either. He was so intent on holding onto power during his lifetime that he had two of his sons murdered. He commanded that when he died, one member of every family in Jericho, where he ruled, would be killed. That way, he reasoned, everyone would be sad when he died. So, his decision to take the lives of the innocent baby boys in Bethlehem was consistent with his warped character.

But let’s be clear about something. Unlike Wright’s skeptical historian, Herod believed there was a God Who had promised to send a new king for the world. He even believed that the prophecies had come to pass in Bethlehem. But he didn’t like any of that! As novelist Frederick Buechner has written, “For all his enormous power, [Herod] knew there was somebody in diapers more powerful still.”

Herod’s view of Christmas then, wasn’t that different from that of many people. He was certain that all the events of the first Christmas that you and I believe in happened in precisely the way we say. He would even agree with us that all these Christmas happenings were from God. But that didn’t matter to Herod. He was the king and he didn’t even want anyone, not even God, to replace him!

So, in an attempt to thwart God’s power, Herod ordered the murder of every child in Bethlehem two years of age or younger. That this was horrible, any decent person will readily agree. It puts Herod in company of Stalin, Hitler, and other tyrants of history.

But on this fifth day of Christmas, as we prepare to move into a new year, let me ask you something. I need to ask it of myself all the time. It's this: Who is the king of your life? Who’s in charge?

You see, it’s one thing to believe that the baby born in Bethlehem two-thousand years ago was God-in-the-flesh, Who came to our world in order to die and rise for us. Many believe that as much as Herod the Great believed that. But the real question that confronts us is whether we’re willing to let Jesus be our King, the final authority over our lives. We may not slaughter the innocents; but are there ways in which you and I try to prevent Jesus from taking the throne of our lives? And are we willing to surrender to Jesus, giving our obedience to Him?

At 7:30 on a Christmas Eve morning a few years ago, I sat at my computer, writing. I’d been up for an hour. The day before had been spent digging my family out of the snowstorm and helping some neighbors do the same. I was intent that this day, I would get my sermon done. You see, that particular year, Christmas fell on a Saturday and I didn’t want the need for a Sunday sermon hanging over my head all Christmas day.

It was then that I heard the sound of a car obviously stuck in the snow. I looked out a window and saw that our neighbor had backed her car into a pile of ice created at the end of her driveway by the township snow plow.

For a few moments, as I watched my neighbor’s tires spinning in the ice ditch in which she was becoming increasingly buried, a little drama played out in my conscience. I had my agenda, after all. I’d done a lot of pushing of cars the day before. I was in my warm house, the king of Mark World. If I slithered away from my window, my neighbor would never know that I simply chose to ignore her situation.

But then, things that God has taught us all in Christ came to mind. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of My family, you did it to Me.” “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you...”

I also thought of Joseph in our Gospel lesson, who, in spite of the danger risked his own life so that Christ could fulfill His mission on earth. I thought of Christ Himself, God-enfleshed, Who left the comforts of heaven to enter our sometimes dangerous world in order to share our life and through His cross and resurrection, to win eternity with God for all who trust in Him.

So, Philip, our son, and I put on our coats and gloves and tried pushing our neighbor’s car out of the ice. We weren’t successful. In the end, she had to call her brother, who was able to use his truck and some chains to yank her car free. Nonetheless, I felt better about myself after failing than I would have had I just gone back to my computer and successfully created the Sunday message of an unrepentant hypocrite.

I didn’t go out to help my neighbor because I’m such a wonderful guy. As my hesitation to help proves, I’m a sinner saved from everlasting separation from God only because of what Jesus has done for me.

But as the experience of Joseph in today’s Gospel lesson shows us, the call to follow Christ never comes at a convenient time or under circumstances convenient for us. It always comes in the midst of living life, while we pursue our own agendas. Life with Jesus Christ is what happens when we lay aside our own plans.

Herod heard the call and decided not just to ignore it, but also to kill the very living Message of heaven. Because that’s what Jesus is: God’s Message that we can have our sins forgiven and our lives made eternally new when we follow Christ!

I’d like to tell you that I always follow when Christ calls me. That I always obey God. That I always step down from my throne of power and let Jesus rule my life. But I would be lying if I said any of those things. Often, I try to act like a king, taking the road of selfishness and self-absorption, hurting God and hurting others. But I take comfort from the words written by one of Jesus’ followers, the apostle John:
If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He Who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
On the cusp of a new year, let’s make it our aim to dethrone ourselves and let Jesus be our King. We may not always succeed. But if doing so is our intent, our lives will eternally be the better for it!

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 30, 2007)

[Go here to see the first pass at the lessons and to find an explanation of what these passes are about. The illustration on the right is by Cerezo Barredo and is appropriate both for this text and for the John 1:1-14 test used on Christmas Eve. The words on the book, in Spanish, mean, "The Word became flesh."]

[General Comments, continued]
7. Hebrews 2:10-18: The New Testament book of Hebrews was traditionally attributed to Paul. Almost nobody believes that today. The book is a sermon or a set of sermons addressed to Jewish Christians who, in the face of persecution for their Christian faith and their spiritual immaturity, are considering a return to Judaism.

The preacher, most notably in chapter 11, draws on the examples of faithfulness found in the people chronicled in the Old Testament. He says that those Old Testament people of God faced persecution but kept believing in the promises of God ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. We must be no less faithful, the preacher says, now that Christ has come, died, and risen for us.

8. The text refers to Jesus as "the pioneer of their [our] salvation." Jesus has gone ahead of all who believe in Him, blazing the trail, so that, like Him, we will experience resurrection beyond death.

9. Verse 10 says that this pioneer was "made perfect through sufferings."

This is a bit confusing. Wasn't Jesus already perfect?

Yes. But the word rendered as perfect here is teleios, which means not so much perfect as complete. The idea here is that the pioneer, Jesus, completed His mission by dying and rising for us.

A form of teleios is what Jesus used just before He died on the cross. It's rendered, "It is finished," but more accurately should be translated in a grammatically awkward way, "It is completion."

The pioneer of our salvation fulfilled His mission by undergoing the suffering that completes His link to our humanity.

10. Through this suffering Jesus establishes His fellowship with us and "is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters." Furthermore, "because He Himself was tested by what He suffered, He is able to help those who are being tested."

11. Matthew 2:13-23: The incidents recounted here follow the visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus. According to Matthew, their visit occurred some time after Jesus' birth. In fact, Joseph, Mary, and the Baby seem to have taken up residence in Bethlehem, since we're told that the wise men found Jesus not in a stable, but in a "house" (Matthew 2:11).

12. In any case, the birth of Jesus and the visit of the wise men, often bathed in sentimentality by us all, is quickly followed by the intervention of a violent world. Joseph, who like his Old Testament namesake, is a man of dreams, is warned by an angel--the word literally means, messenger--to take the child, Jesus, to Egypt. (v. 13)

Egypt was often a place of refuge for God's people. In the Old Testament, Joseph, the son of Jacob, is taken to Egypt as a slave. But with the passage of time, his skills as an administrator and an interpreter of dreams become known and he's made, essentially, prime minister of the country. Eventually, he takes in his entire family, embryonic Israel. (Of course, later, God's people will become slaves and God will raise a leader to take them out of Egypt to the promised land. More on Moses in a moment.)

13. The Herod who sought to destroy the child was Herod the Great. He reigned as a kind of puppet king--with some power--under the dominion of the Roman governor. The Roman empire found it useful to employ local "rulers" as a way of "softening" their iron rule. Herod's claim to the throne was, by most accounts, illegitimate. But he had managed to ingratiate himself to Rome and maintain his crown.

The Romans looked the other way as Herod engaged in one violent act after another. Although Matthew's account of the killing of boys two years of age or younger in Bethlehem is found nowhere else, it's consistent with other written accounts of Herod's rule that we do have. Herod was so sick, in fact, that before he died, he arranged for a member from every family in Jericho, the city where he lived, to be killed so that when he did die, the whole city would be in mourning.

14. The "killing of the innocents," when Herod's orders were put into effect, probably resulted in the deaths of about 20 children. That's because, at the time, it's estimated Bethlehem was a town of about 1000 people.

15. The baby Jesus is spared. But this isn't preferential treatment. This Child has a mission. He must die for the sins of the world. The final Bethlehem innocent to die will be Jesus Himself, on a cross.

16. In yet another dream, Joseph is told to go back to "the land of Israel." Herod the Great has died. His kingdom is divided among Herod's three sons. Herod Archelaus is the most violent of the three sons. He rules in the south, including Bethlehem, where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had formerly lived. In yet another dream, Joseph is told to take his family to Nazareth in the Galilee region.

Galilee was regarded negatively in Judea. Intermingled with God's people were Samaritans and Gentiles. Although Nazareth was close to a trade route that brought three continents together, it was regarded as a backwater, spiritually and otherwise, by the Jewish people. This is why, in the Gospel of John, Nathanael asks his friend Philip, when told of the new preacher from Nazareth, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

17. The words of the angel to Joseph in v.20, are reminiscent of the words of the Lord to Moses, then in exile in Midian, found in Exodus 4:19.

You may remember that Moses, as an infant, had been spared a death sentence from a malevolent ruler, the Pharaoh in Egypt.

Concerned by the rising strength and the numbers of his nation's Hebrew slaves, Pharaoh had ordered that the Hebrew midwives kill all the newborn boys. The midwives lied to protect the children and Moses was one of the babies born after the Pharaoh's order was issued.

His mother placed him in a basket in the reeds of the Nile for protection and he was found by the Pharoah's daughter, who raised Moses as her own, with his mother recruited to serve as Moses' nurse.

Later, Moses, killed a taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave and he became a wanted man. He went to Midian, where he became a shepherd and married.

But God wasn't through with Moses and called him to go back to Egypt. It was safe, at least for the time being, because "those who were seeking your life are dead."

There is a sense in which Jesus, then, is a new Moses. But, He is greater than Moses. Unlike Moses, whose temper caused him to act rashly against the Egyptian taskmaster, to resist the will of God, and to rebel against God in the wilderness, Jesus remains forever faithful to God the Father, perfect in righteousness, and intent on the completion of His mission.

Friday, December 28, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 30, 2007)

[In these passes, I hope to help prepare myself and the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, Logan, Ohio, where I serve as pastor, for worship on the upcoming Sunday. But because we use the lectionary that is basically the same one used by most Christians in North America--and elsewhere, I hope that everyone will find these looks at the Bible lessons helpful.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

General Comments:
1. The Church Year has entered the twelve-day season of Christmas. It begins with Christmas, what's called "The Nativity of Our Lord," itself and extends through January 6, Epiphany, the day when the Church remembers the arrival of the wise men who brought gifts to the baby Jesus. (Because of the wise men, our custom of Christmas gift-giving began as Epiphany gift-giving. Later, the custom of some small gifts given on each of the twelve days of Christmas began.)

2. The order in which the Sunday Gospel lessons come at us this year is a bit bizarre. They're out of sync. We mentioned a few weeks ago, for example, that the Church Year begins about nine-tenths of the way through Matthew's telling of the story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. In the following two weeks, we looked at the ministry of John the Baptist and last Sunday, even though it was still Advent, we considered Jesus' birth from the vantage point of Joseph, his earthly father.

Today's Gospel lesson looks at events just after the arrival of the wise men. Next Sunday, we'll go back to the wise men!

Part of this is a simple trick of the calendar. January 6 has always been reserved for the celebration of Epiphany. In former times, not that long ago, worshipers would gather on that Epiphany Day, no matter the day of the week on which it fell. Now, we take advantage of celebrating Epiphany whenever a Sunday presents itself for that. Often, over the years, I've used the lessons appointed for the day on the Sunday nearest to January 6. This year, January 6 will fall on a Sunday. Without marking Epiphany in this way, the season of Epiphany begins with no indication of what it's about.

All of that will start next week. I just wanted to alert you to the fact that, at least as it relates to the Gospel, we're going to continue jumping around the story of Jesus out of sequence.

3. Isaiah 63:7-9: One of the best things believers can do as they face tough times or periods of doubt is to remember God's past faithfulness, not only in Bible times or in the lives of others, but in our own lives. It's a way of reminding ourselves--and when appropriate, others--that there is no expiration date on God's promise to never leave us or forsake us. Isaiah 63:7-9 is really a psalm, a worship song, probably composed in a tough time, designed to encourage believers with reminders of God's faithfulness.

4. As I've mentioned several times during the Advent season when all of our Old Testament lessons were from Isaiah, this book may have been written by three different authors. If so, our lesson was written by the person that scholars call Trito-Isaiah (Third Isaiah). (It was thought acceptable in Biblical times for writers or teachers who were part of the school of thought or piety established by an esteemed teacher to write in the voice of that teacher.)

It's thought that our lesson was written after the Babylonian Conquest of God's people, which happened in about 587BC. This was a good time for God's people to remember God's faithfulness.

5. The term steadfast love actually translates a single Hebrew word, hesed. It has a very specific meaning, being a technical term describing God's covenant faithfulness. Through Abraham and later, through Moses, God made a covenant with the people of Israel. He would be their God and they would be His people.

Isaiah is reminding God's people that God has always been faithful in His covenant relationship with them and He wouldn't stop being faithful in the face of the cataclysmic events they then faced.

6. Psalm 148: This is part of a group of five psalms that come at the end of this worship book of the Old Testament. They're all classified as praise or hallelujah psalms. This is a call for everything from the inanimate objects of the universe to God's highest creatures, human beings, to join in praising God. This psalm was the inspiration for Herbert Brokering's hymn, Earth and All Stars.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Malnutrition Up in Darfur

See here.

Despite an increase of aid, the fundamentals in Darfur and Sudan remain the same. A malevolent regime backs a terrorizing military group, displacing thousands, making it impossible for people to farm and confining many to camps. Aid workers are often unable to get to those whose lives hang in the balance.

Pray about the situation. God can use prayers in Christ's Name to give wisdom and solutions we don't know or can't see. (See here.)

Call on the African Union to bring in more troops to help aid workers get through to those in need. The AU Chairperson is His Excellency, Mr. Alpha Oumar Konare. His email address can be found here.

Call on the United Nations, through representatives from the US and other countries, to bring more pressure to bear on the Sudanese government in Khartoum.

Ask the President and members of Congress (House and Senate) to give the Darfur crisis higher priority, including providing helicopters and funding.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

I know...

that this is basically a five-minute commercial. But it tells something about Logan, Ohio, where we live, and its surrounding area. It's a great place to visit!

"Isn't There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas is All About?"

Latch Onto the Promise of the Manger

[This sermon was shared during the Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church.]

John 1:1-14
She was a member of the first parish I served as a pastor. She had been seriously ill for several years. Now, in the waning days of Advent, while the Church awaited the coming of Christmas and the return of Jesus, she took a turn for the worst. "It will be her Advent soon, Pastor," her husband told me. "In a short while, she'll see Jesus coming to be with her in heaven."

Before I left his wife's room that night, we shared a prayer. We asked God to ease her pain and to allow her to see the Lord's coming, His Advent, soon.

Just before Christmas, as I prepared for worship, I got the telephone call. She would soon die. I drove quickly to be with her and her family. I got there just after she passed from this life to be with Christ. With tears in his eyes and a smile on his face, her husband told me, "It is her Advent, Pastor."

You know, there's a lot of sentimentality and silliness attached to Christmas. Hawkers of everything from jewelry to flannel underwear call it a magical time, especially if you buy what they're selling. Every year, hundreds of people, disappointed by the false promises made by the Christmas industry, take their own lives, unable to cope with the realities of a world in which wars rage, arguments go unresolved, and illness and death refuse to take holidays.

Christians aren't immune to the message of the fake Christmas touted by the movies, television commercials, and popular songs. They look at their own sometimes painful lives and wonder what good the baby in the manger does.

But it's important to remember that when Jesus calls us to follow Him, the same Jesus Whose birth we celebrate tonight, He doesn't call us into a kingdom of sugar plum fairies. Heavenly perfection belongs only to those who have followed Him through life in this world. Christmas is a signpost of coming attractions. In the meantime, you and I live here.

A devotion in the most recent issue of Our Daily Bread reminds us, "Let us at all costs avoid the temptation to make our Christmas worship a withdrawal from the stress and sorrow of life into a realm of unreal beauty. It was into the real world that Christ came, into the city where there was no room for Him, and into a country where Herod, the murderer of innocents, was king.

“He comes to us, not to shield us from the harshness of the world but to give us the courage and strength to bear it; not to snatch us away by some miracle from the conflict of life, but to give us peace—His peace—in our hearts, by which we may be calmly steadfast while the conflict rages, and be able to bring to the torn world the healing that is peace.”

God is the author of miracles, of course. And we should never forget that or cease to pray for them. But the greatest Christmas miracle of all is the one described by the evangelist John in the prologue to his Gospel, which we'll hear in its entirety in just a few moments:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and lived among us…"
God came to the world in the person of Jesus and through His death and resurrection can make the same promise to us that He made to the sister of His friend, Lazarus:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die."
What that promise meant for that man in my first parish is that even amid the sorrows and the grief of this world, he could be filled with joy, the joy of Christmas. He had the confidence, the hope, and the serenity that belongs to all believers in Jesus Christ.

The promise of Immanuel, of God with us, can also have an impact on how we live each day on this imperfect planet. I once knew a man named George (not his real name). George was a veteran of World War II. A soldier, he had fought and trudged across Europe through one battle after another. He had seen and experienced the death, disease, and privation visited on humanity by human evil. “I promised God,” he once told me, “that, with His help, if I could do anything to prevent a child from going hungry or a family being without heat or running water, I would do it. I didn’t want to kill any more.”

George came home, went to college, became an engineer, married, and started a family. But he never forgot his promise. Until he died in his late-seventies about five years ago, he headed the outreach ministries of his congregation, a Lutheran church in the Cincinnati area. I’ve known George to go out to remote rural households on blustery nights just to deliver a bag of groceries to a family in need. When his church ran out of budgeted funds in November, I knew that George would call me. “Pastor,” he’d say, “there’s a family that needs help. Could your church help them?” “Yes, George,” I’d say.

Some who saw the things George saw during the war spent their lives trying to forget them. That’s understandable. I might have reacted in the same way. But George looked at war’s horrors from a different perspective. His vow to use what he saw and experienced as a springboard for living life differently shows us that you and I need not be overwhelmed by the sorrow or difficulties of life. We can face them from the perspective of people who know that they belong to God forever and confident of our places in Christ’s kingdom, be empowered to love our neighbors and to bring something of Christ’s kingdom of love to this needy world!

Christ came at Christmas and He comes to all who call on Him any day to give us the strength and peace to live each day, to let us know that, no matter what, in life or death, in happy times or sad, He is our God, He is our Savior, and He will never leave us or forsake us.

Latch onto that promise, the promise of the manger, made with the flesh and blood of Jesus Himself, as we celebrate Christmas tonight.

"Pete's Christmas Garden"

That's the title of this insightful post by the always-wonderful Charlie Lehardy.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Christmas and "Pagan Customs"

I just finished talking with our daughter on the telephone. She told me about a conversation she'd had with a guy at work that nearly made me bust a gut.

This fellow told her knowingly, "You know, most of the customs of Christmas go back to the pagans. Even the date for Christmas goes back to them."

He said this with a triumphant knowing tone, as if to say, "This all proves Christmas is bunk."

But any informed Christian can tell you that we have no idea when Jesus was actually born. No Christan claims that December 25 is the actual birthday of Jesus. It's just the day we've chosen to celebrate the birth.

For centuries, residents of the northern hemisphere have celebrated varied holidays involving light, just around the Winter Solstice. In the first century Roman world in which Christianity was born, the festival of Saturnalia, celebrated in honor of a god of agriculture, took place during the Solstice. Evergreens were hung. Gifts were exchanged. Candles were lit.

Christians, a marginalized minority, appropriated the customs of the "pagans" in order to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the One they believed was "the light of the world." This is Who the evangelist John wrote about in the prologue of his Gospel:
...The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God... [John 1:9-13]
The Christian reclamation of old customs may have been a somewhat subversive act for a persecuted band of believers to employ to worship and honor the God they'd come to know through Jesus Christ. But people who think that it all disproves the revelation of God in Christ are guilty of poor logic...or wishful thinking.

Approaching Iowa: A Tale of Alternative Universes

The results of the Iowa caucuses, coming on January 3, will likely tell different stories in the presidential nominating races of the Republican and Democratic parties.

That shouldn't be surprising. For months now, the campaigns for the two parties' nominations have unfolded like tales from parallel universes. The datelines and the timelines are the same, but the plotlines are altogether different.

Democratic voters are generally happy with their field of presidential contenders.

The Republicans have been restive. For months, people hankered for former Tennessee senator Fred Thompson to enter the race, for example. But once he did--"belatedly" according to the current bizarre standards, he was met by a collective yawn.

The respective parties' debates have found Democratic and Republican candidates spending time talking about different topics, almost as though they were speaking to two different countries. Democrats talk more about health care and Republicans focus more on illegal immigration.

But it's the difference in politics in the two parties that most interests me right now. The stakes associated with the Iowa caucuses and then, the New Hampshire primary, which happens on January 8, are very different for Democrats and Republicans.

At present, it appears that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee will win the Iowa caucuses in the Republican Party. That will afford the affable former clergyman a bit of a bounce in his bid for his party's nomination.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that Huckabee will automatically become the presumptive Republican nominee if he wins in Iowa. Such cautions are especially appropriate in the Republican universe.

In 1980, for example, George H.W. Bush narrowly won in Iowa, taking 32% of the vote. The elder Bush pronounced that he had Big Mo--momentum--in his corner as he headed to New Hampshire. Because the Bush family had strong New England roots, many presumed it would be a likely spot for a Bush to win, thrusting him toward the GOP presidential nomination. But it didn't happen. Big Mo shifted his allegiance and Ronald Reagan was nominated for the presidency.

There's another reason an Iowa win might not give Huckabee a big boost from Big Mo. Iowa's Republican caucus-goers are both more conservative and more evangelical than voters in New Hampshire's primary. The composition of Iowa's Republican caucus-goers is advantageous to Huckabee. The composition of New Hampshire's likely primary-voters is not. Not only New Hampshire' Republican voters more moderate and dramatically less evangelical, the state also allows independents to cast votes in the parties' primaries.

While Huckabee can certainly capitalize on an Iowa win, it's likely that such a victory will say less about enthusiasm for him, at least for the moment, than about a decided lack of enthusiasm for the presumptive frontrunners going into Iowa, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani.

A Huckabee win in Iowa then, will be a signal that the race for the GOP nomination is far from over. For Republicans, that will heighten New Hampshire's importance.

For some time, it's been clear that two members of the Republican field have built-in advantages for the New Hampshire primary race. One is Arizona's senator, John McCain, a maverick whose appeal among Granite State voters was strong enough to give him a win there in 2000.

But the Republican with overwhelming apparent advantages in New Hampshire was Romney. For any Massachusetts pol, campaigning in New Hampshire has always been like the Red Sox playing at Fenway Park. On the Democratic side, John Kennedy, Michael Dukakis, Paul Tsongas, and John Kerry all knew that they could count on New Hampshire to give their quests for the presidency boosts. In 1964, while he served as ambassador to South Vietnam for a Democratic president, former Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge, Richard Nixon's 1960 vice presidential running mate, won the New Hampshire presidential primary.

Given his advantages, the New Hampshire primary has always been a must-win for Romney. The stakes in the Granite State will only get bigger if he loses in Iowa. Failure to win in New Hampshire will spell the end of his quest for the nomination.

Romney operatives must be feeling that they're watching a train wreck, as their candidate, prone to gaffes and exaggerations, loses support in both Iowa and New Hampshire, watches Huckabee surpass him in the first state, and sees McCain revivify his New Hampshire constituency, all at Romney's expense.

If Iowa and New Hampshire produce two different winners and the elimination of Romney from the field, as I expect they will, the winner of the Republican nomination will be unknown through at least the South Carolina primary on January 26. Front-loading be hanged, the Republicans will have a race on their hands.

But in that parallel universe, the race for the Democratic nomination, a very different tale is likely to be told. In recent weeks, Illinois' senator Barack Obama, has been pulling even with or surpassing New York's senator, Hillary Clinton, not only in Iowa, but now in New Hampshire. If Obama wins in Iowa, as I expect that he will, the Democratic race, unlike the one among Republicans, will be effectively over. Barack Obama will then be the Democratic nominee.

The reason is simple. In 2004, the Democrats had a large field that included John Edwards, Wesley Clark, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, and John Kerry. When Kerry defied conventional wisdom and won in Iowa, Democratic voters became like traditional ward-heeling politicians, swallowing whatever misgivings they may have had about Kerry to back him. True-believing liberals forgot their loyalty to Dean and got on board with the Massachusetts senator. Democrats, many believing that the Bush Republicans had stolen the 2000 presidential election, were desperate to win. Dems decided to unite behind Kerry.

It almost worked. John Kerry got more votes than any Democratic presidential nominee in history. More than Franklin Roosevelt. More than Lyndon Johnson. Certainly more than Bill Clinton, who only mustered plurality votes in two successive elections. The problem is that George W. Bush got more votes, popular and electoral.

In the intervening years, the Democrats have built up even more desperation to put a Democrat in the White House. If the polls are to believed, quite a lot of independents and not a few Republicans agree with them. Democratic candidates are receiving more contributions from more contributors than their Republican counterparts. Crowds for Democratic candidates are larger and seemingly more enthusiastic than those for Republican candidates. Democratic rank-and-file voters, as much as the party's professionals, want to win in 2008.

If Obama defies the odds and stands down the formidable Clinton machine in Iowa, the trend toward the Illinois senator, in New Hampshire and elsewhere, will become a tidal wave.

Two parallel universes. Two differing scenarios. The result? The presidential nomination of the party which generally gives its nod to the candidate next in line up for grabs. The party which pioneered democratization in its nominating process to give more candidates a shot closing ranks to support one person ten months before the general election.

But, as I always say when making political prognostications: Or not.

[This has been cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.]

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Third Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

(General Comments, continued)

(11) Matthew 1:18-25: Matthew's Gospel opens (1:1-17) with a geneaology, tracing the fourteen generations from Abraham, patriarch of Biblical faith, to David, Israel's greatest king, and then from David to Jesus, who though not descended from human parents in the usual way, was placed under the custodial parentage of Joseph in the town of Nazareth.

After this, comes our Bible lesson.

(12) Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke give accounts of Jesus' birth. Luke does so, largely, from the perspective of Jesus' earthly mother, Mary. Matthew, on the other hand, tells it from the vantage point of Joseph.

Verse-by-Verse Comments: Matthew 1:18-25 18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.
(1) The term "Messiah" comes from the Hebrew. It means simply, the Anointed. It was used of Israel's kings, because they were anointed with oil as a sign of their being set apart for their work and of God's expectation that they would rule justly, in accordance with His will.

Over time, the term came to be associated with a particular King. The Messiah was the subject of much Old Testament prophecy especially in Isaiah.

Christos, in English, Christ, is the Greek translation of Messiah.

Matthew makes clear at the outset of his narrative that he regards Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

(2) Even while engaged--or betrothed, men and women in first century Judea who had entered this relationship were considered married, whether their union had been consummated and they had begun to live together or not. This is why Joseph would consider divorcing Mary.

In this era in which sex has become meaningless, it's difficult to imagine how scandalous it was for an unmarried woman to become pregnant. It indicated a cavalier contempt for God, Who reserved sexual intimacy for a couple who were married, a closeness reserved for their enjoyment, for celebrating their commitment to one another, and for creating children.

Naturally enough, Joseph, who knew that he hadn't had sexual intimacy with Mary, would have assumed that she had been unfaithful to him.

(3) The most important phrase in this passage is "from the Holy Spirit." The Spirit moved over the waters in Genesis 1 and life came about. The Spirit gives life. This makes sense because in the Hebrew of the Old Testament--ruach--and the Greek of the New Testament--pneuma, the word spirit means breath, wind, or air. In the second creation account in Genesis, God breathes His spirit into a clump of dust and gives life to the first human.

The Spirit brings life into being where it seemingly cannot exist. The Spirit did this in the womb of barren Sarah in the Old Testament. Now, Mattthew tells us, He did it again, causing an embryo to appear in the womb of a virgin.

19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
(1) Under Old Testament law, Joseph would have been within his rights to have divorced Mary. As punishment, she likely would have been taken just outside the village and stoned to death. Joseph couldn't do this to her, although he still felt violated. He would, he told himself, end their arranged marriage "quietly."

20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
(1) Joseph's plan was commendable. But God had other ideas.

(2) Joseph dreams like his Old Testament namesake, the son of Jacob. This Joseph will receive several messages from God in dreams. The best book I've read on this subject of dreams is by the priest and Jungian psychologist, Morton Kelsey.

(3) Angel, which translates the Greek word, angelos, means messenger. The angels are messengers from God. The best book I've read on the subject of angels is by evangelist Billy Graham.

21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
(1) The name Jesus, Yeshua (Joshua) in Hebrew and Yesus in Greek, roughly means, Yahweh Saves. Yahweh, the Name by which God identified Himself to Moses, means I AM and carries the notion that God is the foundational being of the universe: I AM WHO I AM. Theologian Paul Tillich used this name for God to speak of God as our "ground of being."

(2) The Messiah comes into the world to save us from the consequences of our sins, which are succinctly summarized in Romans 6:23, along with what God does for us in Christ:
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
(1) Although we're told that the child is to be named Jesus, the prophecy from Isaiah is cited by Matthew. It foretells the birth of a child to be called Emmanuel. But, given that Jesus is "God with us," I take this to be an apposition, a sort of descriptive nickname for Jesus.

(2) The prophecy from Isaiah was originally applied to a king's son born hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. The term, rendered as virgin here, is, in the Greek of the New Testament and of the standard Greek translation of the Old Testament, produced many years before the birth of Jesus, the Septuagint, is parthenos. It can be translated as virgin. But can also be rendered as young maiden.

24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
(1) Joseph did as directed by the angel, taking Mary as his wife.

(2) This passage, along with others which speak of the family that Joseph and Mary subsequently had together, disprove the notion that their other children were produced by the Holy Spirit. In short, Mary and Joseph were a normal married couple. They had sexual relations.

The point of the virgin birth is not that sex is somehow dirty. God created sex. It's a good thing and only dirtied when we use it in the wrong ways.

The point of the virgin birth, then, is that the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ was a creative act from God through which He entered our lives, accepted our punishment for sin, and through Christ's resurrection, made it possible for all who believe in Him, to live with God forever.

[For more on this passage, you may also want to look here and here.]

Friday, December 21, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

[To see what these "passes" are about, go here.]

(General Comments, continued)
(7) Romans 1:1-7: These opening verses of Romans, like the beginnings of Paul's other letters now in our New Testament, conforms to the usual conventions of Greek and Roman letter-writing in the first century. (Greek was the Mediterranean basin's second language, much as English is today, which is why the New Testament was written in Greek. As Rome subsumed Greece and all the Mediterranean region--and beyond--under its imperial dominion, Greek and its conventions were adopted by the Romans.)

Letters didn't begin, as ours do, with the name of the addressee (ie, Dear Joe...), but with the name of the sender.

The sender's name was usually followed by an apposition. Paul pays particular attention to this because, as we'll see, Romans was written as a letter of introduction to the small band of believers who had little or no familiarity with him.

The addressee was usually mentioned at the end of the opening line of the letter.

(8) This introduction is long, running to seven verses. And it's a single sentence. Although Paul can compose lengthy sentences, this is even longish for him!

(9) But if you pay close attention to these verses, you'll see that in it, Paul summarizes the argument of the entire letter.

(10) The letter was written by Paul--actually dictated by him to a secretary known as an amanuensis, sometime after 57AD. Paul's purpose in writing it, as mentioned above, was to introduce himself to the small Roman church. There, he would serve them and encourage them in their faith, then take a collection for the purpose of supporting his ministry in Spain, where he would carry the Good News of Jesus.

Most scholars agree that the Roman church was composed of Jews like Paul, with few Gentile members at the time. This may explain why, in later chapters of Romans, Paul wrestles with the spiritual well-being of other Jews who did not believe that Christ was the Messiah.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 23, 2007)

[Each week I present several looks at the appointed Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday worship services. These passes will be more abbreviated than usual, because I'm not preaching this Sunday. Instead, our children will be presenting the annual Christmas program on that day.]

This Week's Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

General Comments:
(1) This is the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. Advent, as mentioned previously, is a word that means coming or appearing. In Advent, we not only remember how the world awaited the appearing of the Messiah in the centuries before Jesus' birth. We also remind ourselves that we await His return on what the Bible calls, "the Day of the Lord." The crucified, risen, and ascended Jesus will come back, judge the living and the dead, and establish His Kingdom in its fullness. (Of course, Advent is also the time when we "wait" to celebrate Christmas each year.)

(2) Isaiah 7:10-16: Throughout Advent, our Old Testament lessons have been drawn from Isaiah. This passage comes from that section of the book thought to have been written sometime between 740 and 700 B.C. Chris Haslam writes informatively of this passage:
Assyria, under Tiglath-pileser III, is intent on expanding westwards. The kings of “Aram” (vv. 1, 2, 5, 8, Syria) and of Israel (also called “Ephraim”) have formed a coalition to resist the advances of their common enemy. They have tried to convince “Ahaz” (v. 1), king of Judah and of the “house of David” (v. 2) to join the alliance; he has refused. Now they seek to put a puppet king on Judah’s throne. God has commanded Isaiah to “meet Ahaz” (v. 3) as he inspects the water supply vital to Jerusalem’s defence. Isaiah tells him: “take heed ... do not fear ... these two smoldering stumps of firebrands” (v. 4) who have “plotted evil against you” (v. 5). “If you do not stand firm in faith” (v. 9, trust in God) but rely on human counsel, you will be defeated.

God now speaks again to Ahaz: ask any “sign” (v. 11), any confirmation of my promise delivered by Isaiah – any at all in all creation. (“Sheol” was the subterranean abode of the dead.). But it seems that Ahaz has already made up his mind (v. 12) so, through Isaiah, God gives to the “house of David” (v. 13) not a “sign” (v. 11) to convince Ahaz, but one which speaks to future generations. God will keep the promise he made to David (through Nathan): “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me” (2 Samuel 7:16). “The young woman” (v. 14, most likely Ahaz’s wife) is pregnant; David’s line will continue; she will name her son “Immanuel” (meaning God with us). (This son was Hezekiah.) In a devastated land (paying heavy tribute to Assyria), where only basic food is available (“curds and honey”, v. 15), he will develop moral discrimination – unlike recent kings, who were deemed wicked, ungodly people. By this time, Assyria will have conquered both Syria and Israel (v. 16).
Ahaz represents many believers probably. At least at some times in our lives. Ahaz knows that he can go to God in prayer. God has even told Ahaz to pray. But he refuses because he clearly doesn't think that God will give him the answer he wants to hear!

(2) Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19: The historical context in which this Psalm was written is suggested by verse 2, in which three tribal provinces of the Northern Kingdom (called Israel or later, Samaria) are mentioned. This suggests that it was composed before the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, the same period of apprehension and fear addressed in Isaiah.

(3) The refrain of the Psalm, found in verses 3, 7, and 19, asks for restoration from God. The psalmist, said to be written by Asaph, clearly sees the rebelliousness of God's people as the reason that foreign powers are menacing them.

(4) In verse 17, the psalmist prays for the king to make the right decision. This is interesting in light of what the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah discusses: a king who refuses to seek God's counsel. In his book, Prayer, The Mightiest Force In The World: Thoughts For An Atomic Age, Frank Laubach suggested that we should not only pray that God would show leaders His will, but that they would be receptive to what God shows them.

(5) The psalmist describes the king as "the one whom you made strong for yourself." In their New Testament letters, both Paul and Peter, urge prayers for and obedience to leaders as the authority to govern comes from God, for God's purposes. (This doesn't mean that autocrats are to be obeyed blindly. Kings and presidents, like the rest of us mortals, are to love their neighbors as they love themselves.)

(6) This Psalm, with its recollections of Israel's wilderness wanderings, most likely was composed for use during one of the great annual festivals of Judaism, the Festival of Booths. For more on that, see here.

[More on Friday, I hope.]

Sunday, December 16, 2007


[This was shared with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, during the worship celebration this morning.]

Matthew 11:2-11
During a worship service in India, a missionary presented the Gospel, the Good News of new and everlasting life that belongs to all who turn from sin and follow Jesus Christ.

One man watched hundreds step forward to be baptized. But, as compelling as the missionary's words were, he held back, watching, wondering. At the end of the service, the man noticed that an Indian servant worked for the American missionary. He followed the servant to his house and knocked on his door.

“I was at the meeting tonight,” he explained. “I would like to follow Jesus. But I wonder about one thing. The missionary, does he really believe the things he says?” When the other man assured him that the missionary, though imperfect and a sinner in as much need of daily repentance as the next person, really did believe in Jesus Christ and really did seek to live a life pleasing to God, the skeptical man was ready to be baptized.

What won that man to Christ boils down to a single word: authenticity. The missionary believed in the God of love he proclaimed.

People the world over want to believe in Jesus Christ. People here in Logan and Hocking County want to believe in Christ. They want to be part of His Church.

That yearning for Christ and His family is behind the fact that Christianity today is the fastest-growing religion in the world. In places like India, China, across the continent of Africa, and elsewhere people like that man are being attracted to Christ through the authenticity of Christians.

They see Christians feeding the hungry, serving the victims of disaster, building houses for the homeless, teaching the illiterate to read, and other acts of Christian love. Through these actions, the faith of Christians and the Savior we follow are authenticated.

Christ has given us a mission. We call it the Great Commission. It's the mission of every Christian to make disciples of all people, to bring them the Good News of Christ so that, like us, they can live with God forever.

We're reminded of our mission and the way in which God wants us to do it every time we baptize. As happened last Sunday when we celebrated Baptism or will happen next Sunday, when we have yet another Baptism, we present the baptized with a candle with the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew, “Let your light so shine before others that they see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Our lives are meant to authenticate the faith we confess!

In today's Gospel lesson, we find John the Baptist in prison, facing the prospect of execution. All his life, John had known his mission. He was to prepare the world for the Messiah, the Christ. As last Sunday's Gospel lesson showed us, John was faithful in the pursuit of this mission. But John also had very specific ideas about what the Messiah would be like. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John said, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John had expected the Messiah to be a judge of the living and the dead. His expectation wasn't wrong, of course. Virtually every Sunday, you and I confess our belief that the Messiah will do just that on what the New Testament calls “the Day of the Lord.”

But as John sat in prison, he heard reports that the One he had thought was the Messiah wasn't judging people. Instead, He was healing them, feeding them, telling even notorious sinners like tax embezzlers and prostitutes that God forgave them their sins and wanted to spend eternity with them.

John was confused. He wondered if he'd been wrong about Jesus. And so John sent some of his followers to Jesus to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus could have given a lengthy theological treatise on His being the long-awaited Messiah. Instead, Jesus points John and his disciples to the evidence of His actions. “Go and tell John,” Jesus says, “what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

“I could talk until I'm blue in the face,” Jesus seems to say. “But to decide whether I'm the Messiah, the promised King, take a look at what I've been up to.” All the actions Jesus describes in today's Gospel lesson-from restoring sight to the blind to bringing good news even to the poor and marginalized of the world-were things that the prophet Isaiah said the Messiah would do when He first appeared.

Jesus' actions authenticated Who He was…and Who He is. Jesus' actions spoke louder than words, including His submission to a cross where He died for our sin and His resurrection, when He secured eternity for all who entrust their lives to Him.

As followers of Jesus, our actions speak loudly, too. Our lives demonstrate to the world either that the Good News of Jesus is true for us or just a lot of hot air.

A friend of mine once told me of the experience of his son-in-law, Bill. It was an experience that nearly robbed him of his faith. Bill, then about eight, was at church one Sunday, when a man stood up and gave an impassioned speech about the need for every member to support a missionary their church sponsored. Moved by the speech, Bill approached the man afterward and held out all the money he had, just a few cents, to support the missionary. The man barely looked at Bill and said patronizingly, “I don't want your money, son. It was just a speech.” That man's faith wasn't authentic. It was only words.

There isn't a perfect person in the church, of course. I like to say that the church is a hospital for recovering hypocrites, each of us guilty, either by thought or deed, of violating every one of the Ten Commandments. But we Christians authenticate our faith in Jesus and our Savior when others see that, sinners though we may be, we really mean it when we say that we believe in Jesus Christ, that He's the Lord of our lives, and the Savior of our souls.

In my former parish, inspired by the ministry of my friend, Steve Sjogren, we undertook what we called Kindness Outreaches, going out to major intersections on Saturday mornings to give away things like cold cans of Coca Cola in the summer or cans of soup in the winter. We handed these and other gifts to motorists when their cars were stopped at red lights. (The police let us do this!) In five years, from June 28, 1997 to June 22, 2002, we reached 15,861 people in this way. (I'm obsessive compulsive. I kept track.) When people asked us why we did this crazy thing, we explained by saying something like, “We're just trying to share the love of God in a practical way.”

I got a letter from a woman about our outreaches once. “My husband is an over the road truck driver,” she explained. “He woke up one Saturday a few weeks ago, cranky, demanding Chicken Noodle soup. I told him we were out of it, but that I was heading to the grocery store and would pick some up for him.”

The woman wrote that she had gone to the store, but on the way home, realized that she had forgotten to get the soup. “I didn't want to go back to the store though,” she said, “I decided that my husband would have to live without it. But then, I pulled up to the intersection of Glen Este-Withamsville Road and someone from your church handed me a can of Chicken Noodle soup. They said, 'Here, we're giving this to you because God loves you' and then walked away. When I got home, I told my husband, 'God must be looking out for you. He's even got people out on the streets so that you can have your Chicken Noodle soup.'”

The woman went on to say that she and her husband hadn't been to church in a long time. But after realizing that there were still Christians who believed in God and showed them what God's love was like that soup, a free gift, they were going back to their old church.

The world is looking for churches and for Christians that actually believe in the God of grace and love that we Christians proclaim. They don't expect Christians to be perfect. But they do expect us to be authentic.

If people see Jesus working in us, guiding us, and informing us in lives of service, love, and prayer, the Church will make disciples and continue to grow.

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church will make disciples and grow.

Authenticity. It was what Jesus used to confirm to John that He was the Messiah. And authenticity is what lets others know that the Lord we follow is real, His grace is real, and His kingdom is real.

The world needs authentic Christians. May we always be just that! Amen

Clinton, Obama, and the Experience Issue

With Illinois Senator Barack Obama in a virtual tie with her in Iowa polls before that state's presidential caucus, Senator Hillary Clinton and her husband are claiming that Obama is dangerously lacking in experience which the New York senator apparently possesses. The New York Times reports that former President Bill Clinton says that electing Obama would be "rolling the dice" for the United States.

This is a curious argument for Clinton and her campaign to make.

The reason it's so strange is that it's so at odds with the facts. Clinton began her first term in the Senate, her first political office, in January, 2001. It's true that Obama didn't enter the Senate until January, 2005. But by that time, he had already served ten years in the Illinois legislature, meaning that he has roughly double the experience in elective political office that Clinton has.

The only way that Clinton's experience argument will resonate with voters is if they think of "experience" in terms of years of public visibility. But it's precisely Clinton's years of public visibility that create her greatest problem as a candidate. After all her time in the public spotlight, she's viewed negatively by a daunting percentage of voters. I personally can't recall a candidate being nominated by a major political party with as much hard opposition--upwards of 40% in most national polls--as Clinton. Her "experience" then, could be a deficiency in many voters' eyes.

What's interesting about the three current front runners for the Democrats in Iowa--Clinton, Obama, and former one-term Senator from North Carolina, John Edwards--is that all of them have thin federal elective resumes. The experience of each appears to pale by comparison to their less popular rivals like Senator Joseph Biden, Senator Christopher Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson.

Elective political experience, it should be pointed out, isn't always a great predictor of an excellent presidency. George Washington spent limited time in the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress before becoming president. Dwight Eisenhower, though always a "political general," in the best sense of that term, had never held public office when he became president. They developed the skills necessary for the presidency while becoming two of the country's three greatest generals. (The third, Ulysses S. Grant, was a disastrous president.)

Nor is federal elective experience or even executive experience of much use in predicting who will perform well in the White House. When he became president in 1861, for example, Abraham Lincoln had served about a decade in the Illinois legislature and one term in the US House, back during the Polk Administration, and had no executive experience. (Obama's resume in 2007 is almost precisely the same as that of Lincoln's in 1860.)

On the other hand, some long-time officeholders were disastrous presidents. Franklin Pierce, Warren Harding, Martin Van Buren, and Richard Nixon, among others, are unlikely to have their images chiseled into the sides of mountains.

There probably is little way of knowing how experience is going to play out in a presidency. I nonetheless think voters take it into consideration and vote against candidates they think have too little experience. Steve Forbes, Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and the 2004-version of John Edwards would probably agree with me on that. (Of course, each of those candidates had other "issues" that we could go into, but inexperience as elected public officials played a role in their rejection by voters.)

Of course, Clinton is pushing the experience issue, something she spoke about earlier in the year but had not emphasized in recent months, because the momentum of the Iowa caucus campaign is shifting. Clearly, Obama is on the rise and Clinton is throwing this argument out to voters in an effort to stop her chief rival. Whether Obama can beat Senator Clinton may depend on her ability to convince voters that, as she's quoted as saying in that New York Times piece, she's been vetted and that electing Senator Obama to the presidency would be too dicey.

Though her argument doesn't square with history, voters in Iowa may buy it. If they do, Clinton will likely have done all she needs to do to secure the Democratic nomination and put Obama away. That's because Democrats in 2008, like Democrats in 2004, are so desperate to win the White House that New Hampshire Democrats, five days later, are likely to coalesce around the winner in Iowa, foregoing further intra-partisan wrangling in favor of creating a united front to face the Republican nominee in the fall. Democrats may be rolling the dice if they nominate Obama, as President Clinton suggests. But right now, his wife is betting her campaign on a different throw of the dice, her assertion that she is the experienced candidate for the presidency that her party wants and her country needs.

[This was posted last night at The Moderate Voice.]

Friday, December 14, 2007

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 16, 2007)

Verse-by-Verse Comments, Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

(1) In the Gospel lesson last week, we read and heard about John's ministry by the Jordan River. His prophetic message was about the Messiah of whom John had said:
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
Thus far, while calling people to repentance as John had done, Jesus hadn't enacted judgment.
This confused John. Jesus wasn't acting the way he expected the Messiah to act. John wonders if his identification of Jesus as the Messiah was right.

It's not that John's expectations of the Messiah were wrong. It's that they were incomplete, as we'll see.

4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
(1) Jesus points to His actions, foretold of the Messiah in Isaiah 42:7 and 61:1, as signs that He is the Messiah.

(2) A time of judgment will come, on what the New Testament calls "the day of the Lord." But Jesus' signs and the ministry of the Church exist to point people to Him as Messiah, God, and King and with that made clear, to their need to repent and believe in Christ.

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
(1) Last week, in one of these passes, I asked what accounted for the appeal of John and his stark message of repentance. Jesus asks the same question here. What drew people to John, Jesus concludes, isn't that he was a frail plant blown by the wind or he wore soft attire.

The reason, quite simply, is that John spoke the Word of God, plainly and bluntly. That's what prophets did. The prophets' mission wasn't to foretell the future. Instead, they held a mirror up before people to show them their need to return to God and to assure them that if they walked with God, their wholeness would be restored.

John's prophetic ministry was designed to prepare people to receive the Messiah.

10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
(1) Jesus cites Isaiah 40:3 and says that it refers to John. In popular piety, these words became associated with the Old Testament prophet, Elijah. In v. 14, Jesus will identify John's ministry with that of Elijah.

(2) Jesus speaks a good word about John. But his words show us that great as John was, he was just a man and though faithful in his ministry, as capable of being wrong about the Messiah as anybody else. Like all of us, John, in spite of his own predispositions, was called to believe what God revealed about Himself and His character in Jesus. Since Jesus performed all the signs of the Messiah, John was left with the same call we receive this Advent season and every day of our lives: Repent and believe!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is God Real?

Yes, but as Steve Taylor sang, "It's harder to believe than not to." (1)

Lutheran Zephyr talks about this here. It's a great post, even though he quotes a piece I wrote here.

(1) Harder to Believe

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 16, 2007)

[These passes are designed to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. In them, I look at the Bible lessons around which our worship will be built. Hopefully, other readers of 'Better Living' will be helped by these passes, since we use the lessons associated with the Church Year that are used in most congregations in North America and actually, the world.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:5-10
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

General Comments:
(1) We come to the third of the four Sundays in Advent, the season that precedes Christmas. This year, known as Year A of the three-year lectionary cycle, as in the other two years, the Gospel lessons for the middle two weeks of Advent feature John the Baptist. Last week, we read Matthew's account of John's ministry on the Jordan River. This week's Gospel lesson finds John in prison, with questions about Jesus. More on that later.

(2) More about the season of Advent here.

(3) Isaiah 35:1-10: Chapters 1 to 34 of Isaiah have contained many oracles of judgment against the nations for their rebellion against God, which includes injustice and inhumanity toward others. God's people aren't exempt from judgment for their sins. In the chapters immediately preceding our lesson, Edom is singled out. Some believe that the nation of Edom helped Assyria to conquer Israel and Judah.

Isaiah 35 brings a shift in emphasis. It isn't God's desire to punish, although the Bible testifies that God will ultimately accept our choices, whether to receive Him and His grace or not. (See here.) In spite of the sins of Israel and their exile, God wills to restore the well-being of His people. The call, as has been true in all the texts on which we've focused during Advent, is repentance, turning back to God.

You can find some general information on Isaiah here.

(4) A few thoughts on the Isaiah text...First, on v. 1, the wilderness is the place where death and the devil have made themselves at home, according to the Bible. But it's also the place where God made life spring up and where God breathed life into lifeless dirt in the case of the first man. But, even the wilderness will be a glad place when Israel is restored (and when the Messiah comes).

(5) I love v. 8. You can even be an imbecile, but if you're walking on God's way, you'll be okay. This gives me great comfort!

(6) Psalm 146:5-10: Psalm 146 is part of a set that ends the Psalms, the Old Testament worship book. Some call Psalms 146-150 the Hallelujah Psalms because "each hymn includes a call to worship, a statement of the purpose for praising God, and a renewed summons to praise. These Psalms all begin and end with the word Hallelujah (in the NRSV, translated as “Praise the LORD”)."

(7) The God extolled and praised in these verses is very different from earthly rulers. This one acts on behalf of those who can't act on their own, those who freely acknowledge that their "help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God."

For some, this humble realism is offensive. There is in our world today, a virulent, hateful, often violent atheism, represented by people like Christopher Hitchens and others. Like the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietsche, many post-modern atheists reject belief in God in part because they recoil at notions of God favoring the weak. Also influenced by the thinking of Charles Darwin, earthly existence, to them, is about striving to be Nietsche's ubermensch (overman), who uses his mastery--physical, intellectual, or otherwise--to conquer. It's an affront to their egos to acknowledge a God greater than themselves.

But what these post-modern atheists refuse to acknowledge is the incontrovertible evidence from history and from contemporary societies that, despite the misuse and misapplication of Christian belief by some, Christianity has always unleashed creativity, freedom, achievement, free enterprise, and scientific inquiry.

(8) James 5:7-10: The New Testament book of James, written by an earthly brother of Jesus, deals with ethics, how to conduct one's daily life. One of the reasons this is necessary is seen in this lesson. It's what the scholars call the delayed parousia, the seeming delay of the risen and ascended Jesus in returning to establish His Kingdom.

In a way, this is the same issue bothering John the Baptist in our Gospel lesson from Matthew. The early believers being addressed by James had expected Jesus to return sooner. This led to restiveness on the part of some and often, to a failure to keep living the Christian life.

James tells the believers to be patient.

(9) The word for patience used by James is longsuffering. He points to two examples of longsuffering. First, the farmer. In Israel, there are two major seasons of rain: October/November and April/May. The farmer must wait patiently for both these seasons, early and late, before being assured of a harvest to reap.

Second, James points to the prophets. This is a timely example for us. Unlike self-appointed prophets who have founded their own religions, the Old Testament prophets delivered their oracles without leveraging obeisance. They didn't seek to rule over others. They sensed that they were moved by God to speak certain messages, but accepted that, like those to whom they delivered their messages, they had to wait to see if God would either use those messages or confirm that they were, in fact, from God.

Based on what we see in the last of the great Biblical prophets, John the Baptist, in this Sunday's Gospel lesson, we see that the prophets even sometimes doubted themselves. John wondered if Jesus was the fulfillment of his prophecies delivered by the Jordan River? Had he gotten things right? Or was Jesus not the Messiah?

Above all, the prophets were ordinary, imperfect people who acted in faith and a willingness to be wrong. The same cannot be said of so-called prophets who founded new religions, who acted with little evidence of self-doubt, and who fiercely enforced their oracles on their followers.

James would say such false prophets not only have lacked a connection with the God Whose self-disclosure is recorded in the Bible, but that they also have lacked patience, the willingness to let God act and the willingness to be wrong.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]