Thursday, January 17, 2008

Most Recent Posts at 'The Moderate Voice'

I've been speculating about who would be Senator Obama's and Senator Clinton's vice presidential running mates.

See here and here.

My most important posts on the 2008 presidential election appeared last year. The series, How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election is linked in its entirety here.

My One and Only Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (January 20, 2008)

[Each week, I try to preview the Bible lessons for the upcoming Sunday's worship celebration. I do this to help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm the pastor, to prepare for worship. But because we use the lectionary texts for the Church Year, I hope that most Christians will find the passes helpful.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm 40:1-11

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

General Comments:

1. Epiphany is a rough season for we Lutherans. That's because historically, Lutherans have been good about doing acts of mercy and kindness, but reticent about verbally sharing their faith with others or inviting folks to worship. The Epiphany season of the Church Year, with its focus on the ways in which the identity of God has been revealed in Jesus Christ, also is a call to followers of Christ to share their faith in Christ, to be witnesses.

The lessons for this coming Sunday contain strong affirmations of the universal Lordship of the God first revealed to Israel and ultimately disclosed in the person of Jesus, along with calls to share that God with the whole world.

2. Isaiah 49:1-7: This passage presents us with the second "servant song" from the Old Testament book of Isaiah. The first one was our first lesson last Sunday.

3. In any book of Old Testament prophecy, texts usually deal with both immediate contexts and secondarily, more distant ones.

Some scholars claim that this passage deals most immediately with the Babylonian king, Darius, who God chose to help the Israelite exiles to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. (Thanks to my colleague, Chris Adams, for pointing this out.)

4. Be that as it may, the passage is more significantly, a call to God's servant--Israel and ultimately, Jesus--to be "a light to the nations." What's striking is the counterintuitive call issued by God to His servants in verse 6. It basically says, "Because you failed to win My own people back, I'm now going to send you with a message of salvation to the whole world."

This is similar to the counterintuitive call Jesus issues to His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20. In it, He essentially says, "You scattered to the four winds when I was arrested and crucified. The only one who came close to being dependable was Peter. He stayed close to me...then denied me three times. Now that you've failed at that, I want you to go to all the world, making disciples of all nations."

In spite of their failings and with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, Jesus' first witnesses fulfilled that mission. It remains the Christian mission today in spite of our failings.

5. Psalm 40:1-11: This is an exuberant affirmation of one who has given witness of the greatness and grace of God.

6. 1 Corinthians 1:1-9: Paul here opens his letter to the first century Greek church of Corinth. Some wonder if, given the overt sinning of the Corinthian church, Paul is being disingenuous in his opening affirmation of the congregation. He tells people who, in just a few verses, he will scorn for their selfishness, sexual immorality, and spiritual pride, "I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given to you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him..."

Is Paul just buttering up the Corinthian congregation? I don't think so. Two points...

(1) The Bible teaches that, so long as we live on this earth, believers in Jesus are simultaneously "saints and sinners." A saint is one who imperfectly turns from sin and believes in Jesus Christ as Lord and God. Although I'm a saint, I'm also a sinner. This was true of the members of the Corinthian church, as much as it is of me...and all believers.

(2) Notice that Paul doesn't laud the Corinthians here for any great works of love or faith. He's thankful that the grace of God, the force which turns sinners into sinners, has been given to them. Paul might like the church members that C.S. Lewis mentions in The Screwtape Letters--the fanatical bridge player, the vain person with the ridiculous hat, people whose sinful habits haven't gone away although they are believers in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit won't exorcise the last vestiges of sin from us on this side of the grave. The "old Adam" and the "old Eve" don't give up easily. But it's a testimony to God's grace--His charitable acceptance of repentant sinners--that even people like fanatical bridge players, vain egomaniacs, recovering alcoholics and junkies, and other sinners like me are nonetheless part of His kingdom. No doubt this is why Paul's expression of thankfulness for the grace that's come to the Corinthian Christians is genuine.

7. John 1:29-42: Twice in our lesson, John identifies Jesus as "the Lamb of God."

Those familiar with Old Testament sacrificial law will know that each year on Yom Kippur--the Day of Atonement--a pure, unblemished lamb was sacrificed at the temple in Jerusalem. That lamb bore the sins committed by God's people Israel in the preceding year.

But in Jesus, John identifies the Lamb Whose death on a cross will atone for the sins of the entire world. Jesus underscores the universality of His mission in John 3:16, of course. The New Testament book of Hebrews, written, or more accurately, preached, by a Jewish Christian to other Jewish Christians, asserts that Jesus' sacrificial death wiped out the power of sin and death over believers in Christ "once and for all."

8. Two mega-themes suggest themselves as one reads our Gospel lesson, each encapsulated in a word. The words are: abide or live (meno in the original Greek) and witness (martureo in the original Greek). (An allied word to the second is semeia, meaning sign. More on that momentarily.)

John is obsessed with the incarnation, the enfleshment of God in the person of Jesus. His prologue, for example, speaks of the Word made flesh who dwelt among us (John 1:14). Jesus is the active, life-giving Word of God. Once, in a particular place and time, He lived, remained, or dwelt among us. The word meno is used repeatedly in John's Gospel. It can be translated as lived, dwelt, abided, or remained. Jesus uses this verb repeatedly, for example, when He speaks of how He abides in the Father and we are to abide in Him (John 15).

In this Sunday's Gospel lesson, the question posed by John's disciples to Jesus is to be taken both literally and figuratively, I suppose. They want to know where Jesus is staying or living.

But, at another level, they want to know if Jesus is with them. Is He with the human race? Or is He just one more promising savior who lets us down in the end? We human beings, in spite of pretending to be world weary or cynical, are constantly looking for saviors, be they politicians, entertainment personalities, psychologists, financial gurus, generals, or preachers. All will disappoint, especially if they spend their time trying to prove themselves to us. Jesus has nothing to prove. He tells us, as He did John the Baptist's disciples, "Come and see."

9. John's Gospel is often referred to as "a book of signs." In John 20, the evangelist gives a mission statement for his Gospel:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
The Gospel of John is designed to be a witness--or a sign--that points others to Jesus Christ as "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6).

Throughout the Gospel, Jesus performs signs and a premium is put on witnessing. (The word for witness in the original Greek of the New Testament is martureo, from which our word, martyr comes. Witnesses don't always meet with happy endings here on earth, which may partly explain why we are sometimes hesitant to share our faith with others. I'm not throwing stones; I'm as hesitant as the next person.)

As Brian Stoffregen points out, Jesus Himself is a sign of a sort in John's Gospel. Here, He's called "the Word," a message from God pointing us to salvation and new life.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Be Ready for Anything

Last week, a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer called me regarding an article she was writing on the recent tragedies that have stricken the West Clermont Local School District in which I was somewhat involved during our seventeen years in the area. Among other things, I chaired a levy renewal effort in the district back in the mid-1990s.

During the course of the last several years, a graduate of one of the district's high schools--the same school from which our two children graduated--was kidnapped by sectarians in Iraq and has been missing ever since; a middle school vice principal left her child in an SUV on a hot summer day, killing the child; and a beloved elementary principal inexplicably took her own life.

Although the West Clermont district is the nineteenth largest of Ohio's 600-plus school districts, the suburban Cincinnati area retains its rural sensibilities. These tragedies have had an impact on more than the households of district's 9100 students or the staff of its thirteen schools and its main office.

"I've seen you at numerous school functions and you preached at the community memorial service for Eileen Murphy [the principal who took her own life]," the reporter, Cindy Kranz, told me as we spoke by phone last week. "I wondered what you thought about how the district handled these tragedies." I told Kranz that I thought that the district's administration, under the leadership of Superintendent Gary Brooks had done a fantastic job in dealing with all of them, striking the proper balance between compassionate engagement and sufficient distance to allow the district to move on in the face of each tragedy.

Then, Kranz asked me, "I've always heard that God never gives you more than you can handle. But all of this seems like an awful lot for Dr. Brooks and the district to handle. What do you think?"

I told Kranz that I've never subscribed to the notion that God metes out tragedies for us to handle.

In fact, I don't believe that tragedies come from God. Those come from three sources, identified in The Small Catechism, the classic statement of faith which generations of Lutherans have studied, as "the devil, the world, and our sinful selves."

In fact, it's been my observation that the severest tests in life come to those who are closest to God. Because misery loves company, I believe that the devil and the world strive to tear us from God's hands. Because accepting God's forgiveness and new life entail surrender to Jesus Christ, I know that our sinful natures rebel at the thought and seek to do things to keep us from following God. Severe tests and tragedies often result from these realities.

One of the notable aspects of life in the West Clermont Local School District was its openness to the religious community. They afforded that community no special treatment. They accorded non-Christian persons respect and they would have been loathe to force Christianity down people's throats. (Several of its leaders, in fact, were members of religious groups not recognized by most Christians as being part of the universal Church.) But the district recognized the desire of Christian people to help the district, in part because of Jesus' command that Christians love their neighbor. The administration would turn to the clergy, for example, just as it turned to other professionals in the community, seeking support and advice. For several years while I was there, the district welcomed an annual prayer gathering to which everyone in the community was invited and where we asked God to keep students, teachers, administrators, and staffers inspired and safe through the school year. (In fact, I note with sadness that all these tragedies befell the district after we clergy, not the administration, dropped the ball and stopped holding these annual events.)

My point?

When you hear of a tragedy, don't be quick to judge the victim. People close to God and people open to God may be the likeliest victims of tragedy.

Jesus once encountered a group of people certain that those who had fallen victim to sudden tragedy were somehow spiritually deficient. But Jesus would have none of such notions:
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Luke 13:1-5)
"Life comes at you fast," the current ad campaign for an insurance company says. So does death. So does misfortune. Tragedy comes because we live in an imperfect world.

The question in the face of such events isn't so much, "Why?" No one I've met is smart enough to answer that.

The real question is, "Are we ready?" Are we ready for tragedy? Are we ready for death?

The only people truly prepared for such events are those who turn from sin and receive Jesus Christ as Lord over their lives.

I don't believe that God sends us tragedy. But I do believe that He can help us cope with tragedy. And I believe that He can give us hope beyond any tragedy we may encounter.

Turn to Christ and you will be ready for anything!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Why Jesus Was Baptized

[This was shared during worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 3:13-17
As I was studying our Gospel lesson this week, I thought of an old joke. A woman was expecting twins and wanted the children to be polite. During a regular check-up, she told her doctor about this worry. The doctor said, “I tell you what. Every night before you go to bed, gently rub your belly and say, ‘Be polite. Be polite.’”

The woman followed the doctor’s instructions. Years passed and, oddly enough, she never delivered her twins. What happened was a mystery only solved when doctors did an autopsy and found two little old men in the woman’s womb. They were telling each other, “After you,” “No, after you.”

A similar bit of dialog happens between John the Baptist and Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus shows up to undergo John’s baptism. But John says, in effect, “Me baptize you? It should be the other way around. After you.”

Now, when you think about it, John’s objections make sense. John’s baptism was all about repentance. It was for sinners who wanted to renounce their sin. But, unlike the rest of us, Jesus was sinless. He had nothing for which to be repentant. If you and I had been in John’s place, we might have objected to Jesus’ intention of undergoing a baptism of repentance as much as he did. If for no other reason, we might have objected just to be polite.

But here’s something that should be said about Jesus: Whenever people stood between Him and doing the will of God, He wasn’t polite. He was insistent. He would do the will of the Father no matter what.

Once, you remember, Jesus told the disciples—His followers—that He, the Son of Man, would go to Jerusalem, be rejected by the heads of the government and of Judean religious life, not to mention, the people and then by arrested, tortured, crucified, and then, rise from the dead. That was the will of the Father for His life, Jesus said. But Peter was horrified by all these predictions. He politely, if firmly, rebuked Jesus, telling Him, “Lord, this will never happen to you.” Jesus would have none of Peter’s dissent. “Get behind Me. Satan,” Jesus told His key disciple. “What you’re saying doesn’t come from God!” [See here.]

And we all remember what Jesus did in the temple in Jerusalem when money changers were using faith in God as a means of extorting poor people of their cash. [See here.]

So, when John the Baptist politely objects to baptizing Jesus, Jesus is insistent. He tells John, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” “Baptize me,” Jesus tells John, “It’s the right thing to do.”

But why is Jesus undergoing a baptism of repentance the right thing exactly?

When Jesus underwent a baptism of repentance He didn’t need, He was declaring His passion for us. He was cementing His connection to us. It’s no coincidence that immediately after He was baptized, Jesus went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The New Testament book of Hebrews underscores the importance of God becoming one of us when it says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

We can take great comfort from the fact that in Jesus Christ, we belong to a God Who understands what it’s like both to be tempted by sin and tested by adversity.

A woman in my first parish suffered from a rare form of cancer. They took her to the University of Michigan Hospital where she underwent experimental treatments. She was a faithful believer in Christ for whom we prayed. Yet, she nonetheless experienced a great deal of pain. One day, I drove to Ann Arbor for one of our visits and, since it was just the two of us, I asked her, “Do you ever get mad at God.” “I was very mad at God for awhile,” she told me. “But then I remembered that Jesus went to a cross. I know that He’s suffering with me and that one day, I’m going to be with Him forever in a place without pain. That’s what gets me through.”

I was teaching a class on prayer in my former parish. After class one night, a man who had sat in silence most of the evening approached me. “I have a problem with prayer,” he told me. “What is it?” I asked. “I just don’t feel that I should bother God,” he said. “I mean, I feel okay about thanking God for things. But I don’t feel that I have the right to ask God to help my family and me with our finances. Or to help my kids in school. Or even to heal people.”

We all know, of course, that when God answers our prayers, we may not always like or understand His answers. In addition to telling us Yes, God can also tell us Maybe, Wait, and even No.

But God wants to be invited into our lives. I’m here to tell you this morning, that no matter what test you’re facing in your life today, no matter what sin tempts you, you have an advocate and a friend in the God Who went to the Jordan River to be baptized and then to a cross to take all your burdens on His strong shoulders. Whatever your burden, Jesus Christ can bear it with you. He can even bear it for you.

The good news of Jesus impolitely insisting that John baptize Him that day on the Jordan is summarized well by Pastor John Jewell: “He came down to lift you up! He took your place so you could take his place! He lost his life so you could find your life! He came to be with you so you could be with him!”

And Jesus, it turns out is totally impolite and utterly tenacious in reaching out to us. He's willing to overrule...
prophets like John the Baptist,
apostles like Peter,
rulers like Pilate and Herod, and
religious leaders like the high priests in Israel,
to come into our lives and call us to receive forgiveness and eternal life through faith in Him.

Jesus refuses to allow our objections—polite or otherwise—to stand in the way of Him and us.

That’s good news! That’s our good news through Jesus Christ. And only you can keep Jesus out of your life. But, I hope that instead, you’ll take your cue from John the Baptist in today's Gospel lesson. After Jesus set John straight, he trusted that Jesus knew what He was doing.

Believe that whatever you face in life today or tomorrow, God will get you through…all the way to heaven. That's exactly what Jesus wanted you and me to know when He went to the Jordan to be baptized by John.