Saturday, March 15, 2008

Friday, March 14, 2008

One and Only Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (March 16, 2008)

[In these passes, I hope to help the members of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. But because the Bible lessons we use are the ones appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary, used in one form or another by Christians everywhere. I also hope others will find them useful.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
2. Matthew 21:1-11

General Comments:
1. We'll be celebrating this coming Sunday as Palm Sunday, rather than as the Sunday of the Passion. We'll remember the Passion in its entirety on Good Friday, when we'll consider John's account of Jesus' Passion (His suffering and death).

2. Still, there is more than a few hints that Jesus will suffer and die in the events of Palm Sunday. The biggest hint is found in the welcome Jesus was given when He entered Jerusalem on the Sunday before His arrest. He was treated like a conquering military hero, something that totally ignored all that He had said about Himself. For people who wanted a political and military messiah who would throw out the Romans and rid them of their tax burdens, Jesus was bound to disappoint. Jesus wanted the people to come to terms with the fact that our biggest problems in life aren't "those people," but them...their sin, their selfishness, their impotence, their rebellion against the God they needed. No wonder they killed Jesus. To this day, we face every day, the same choice confronted by the crowd on the first Palm Sunday...whether to receive Him as the God over our lives or to kill Him.

Comments on Each of the Lessons
1. Isaiah 50:4-9a: A little background on Isaiah, from a pass I presented here in late November:
Isaiah was a prophet who lived in Judah (or Judea) during the eighth century BC. (For background information on Judah, the "southern kingdom," go here.)

The Archaeological Study Bible says:
Isaiah's primary ministry was to the people of Judah, who were failing to live according to the requirements of God's law. But he prophesied judgment not only upon Judah but also upon Israel [the Northern Kingdom, whose worship life centered on the city of Samaria] and the surrounding nations. On the other hand, Isaiah delivered a stirring message of repentance and salvation for any who would turn to God.
The authorship of Isaiah is debated by Biblical scholars. Traditionally, the entire book was attributed to Isaiah.

By contrast, some scholars think that Isaiah had very little to do with it, that the writings were produced by a group of prophets who operated in the original Isaiah's "school of thoughts."

A third group of scholars believe that chapters 1 to 39 were written by Isaiah, son of Amoz. They attribute chapters 40-55 to a second Isaian prophet they refer to as "Deutero-Isaiah" and chapters 56-66 to a third author, who they call "Trito-Isaiah." Whatever the truth about authorship, two things should be kept in mind:
  • Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Christians and Jews have always seen in Isaiah the Word of God.
  • Those in the ancient Near East didn't share our views regarding authorship. It was considered perfectly legitimate for an author operating within the tradition established by a prophet or a rabbi to write in the name and the voice of that person.
2. Chris Haslam, who, it should be noted, takes the three-author theory of Isaiah as the truth, has some interesting thoughts on this passage:
The part of Isaiah written in exile (Chapters 40-55) contains four servant songs, sections that interrupt the flow of the book but have a unity within themselves. The first (42:1-7) begins “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen ...”; in the second (49:1-7) the servant, abused and humiliated, is commissioned anew; in the third (our passage) he is disciplined and strengthened by suffering; and in the fourth (52:17-53:12) even the Gentiles are in awesome contemplation before the suffering and rejected servant. In late Judaism, he was seen as the perfect Israelite, one of supreme holiness, a messiah. In the gospels, Jesus identifies himself as the servant (or slave), the one who frees all people.

In vv. 4-6, God has “opened my ear”; he has commissioned the servant as one who is taught, i.e. like a disciple. God has made him a “teacher” (a prophet) of the “word” of God, to bring God’s comfort to “the weary”, his fellow Israelites – who reject God. He has accepted this command: he is not “rebellious”. They have tortured him (v. 6), as they did prophets before him, but he has accepted their “insult and spitting”. In vv. 7-9a, in courtroom language, the servant says that, because God helps him, he is not disgraced; he confidently accepts the suffering (“set my face like flint”), and will not be put to shame. God will prove him right (“vindicates”, v. 8). He is willing to face his “adversaries”, his accusers – for the godly to “stand up together” with him against the ungodly. He is confident that, with God’s help, none will declare him guilty.
3. As I've indicated before, one good way to get the gist of a passage is to paraphrase it, put it in our own words. Here's how I've paraphrased our lesson from Isaiah this week:
Every day, God wakes me up. "Get up," God says, "There are things you must have down cold so that you can teach others." I listen, so that with a single word from God, I can encourage those with flagging faith and weak wills.

When God wakes me, I don't bury my head on the pillow or wallow in the everyday concerns of life. And I don't yell at God like rebellious children refusing to get up when their parents call them to the breakfast table.

Instead, I became a real rebel, a rebel against the world's ways of doing things. I didn't strike back when the world struck me; I just turned the other way. When people pulled my beard on one side of my face, I gave them the other side. I didn't cover myself when they insulted me or spat on me.

God helps me and so I can incur such dishonor. God helps me and I am intent on doing God's will! God helps me and relying on Him alone for my honor is never a shameful thing!

One day, God will affirm that the course I've followed--the course that the world has scorned and insulted--is the One God set for me, set for all.

Who will adopt this way of life? Walk with me!

Who will stand against me? Let's have it out right now!

No matter what the world says or does, God is my helper! Who will dare to call, "Guilty!" those the Lord calls, "Guiltless!"?
4. Psalm 31:9-16: One of the things that won me over from atheism to Jesus Christ some three decades ago was the Bible's realism. The Bible's men and women of faith--people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Naomi, David, and others--weren't perfect. They had crises of faith and they did wrong. Their stories are told without being sanitized.

I also love the realistic wrestling that people of faith engage in on the pages of the Bible. Job lashes out at God for his string of tragic misfortune. Moses doubts God during the wilderness wanderings. Abraham, not once but twice, palms his wife off as his sister, making her the concubine of kings, fearful that if the kings learned he was Sarah's husband, God would stand idly by as he was executed. Peter sticks his foot in his mouth...repeatedly

In the Psalms, we have songs of worship like the one from which our lesson is drawn. Here, the psalmist cries out for help in fearful circumstances. It isn't easy to follow God. But here, the psalmist declares confidence in God's help even in the face of hard times.

5. Philippians 2:5-11: Philippians is one of the most extraordiary books of the New Testament. It's a letter written by the apostle Paul to the church in the Greek city of Philippi. Paul founded the church, with the help of his traveling companions, during his second missionary journey, recorded in Acts 16:11-40. The letter was written in about 61AD in Rome, where Paul was a prisoner for his faith in Jesus Christ.

In spite of Paul's grim circumstances, the letter is filled with joy. That joy is rooted in Jesus Christ, Paul says.

6. In our lesson, Paul urged the Philippians to interact with one another with humility. Humility is a repudiation of selfishness and conceit, an embrace of mutual encouragement and servanthood. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit," Paul writes in the verses just before those of our lesson appear, "but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

This is subversive stuff. We all recoil at the selfishness we see in others. Yet we tend to rationalize that our selfishness is okay. But if everybody always looks out for number 1, chaos ensues, as we see in an American society that puts a high premium on indivdualism.

The call to follow Jesus is a call to think less of me, to think of God and others.

7. And as our lesson demonstrates, in calling us to love God supremely and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, God isn't calling us to do any more than He Himself has done in Jesus Christ.

8. The words of our lesson probably were the lyrics of a song the early Church sang when it worshiped together.

9. Matthew 21:1-11: It's interesting to note that this lesson begins on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, the very road on which Jesus set His fictional parable of the Good Samaritan. In that story, Jesus told about what happened to a man who was traveling in the opposite direction. The road was filled with rocky crags and hiding places and thieves often used it to terrorize travelers. It was an ominous place and may suggest, in a literary sense, the "ambush" that awaits Jesus in Jerusalem.

10. Each of the accounts of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday differs. For example, only John mentions palms. (Mark does speak of "leafy branches" as well as cloaks. Luke talks only about people's cloaks. Matthew speaks of cloaks and "cut branches.") Irrespective of the Gospels' differences however, Jesus is welcomed like a conquering hero.

11. However, Jesus' mode of transportation should have indicated something of His intentions. If Jesus had martial intentions, He would have entered the city on a steed. Instead, Jesus chose to ride into the holy city on a donkey, a symbol of peace, of the homely pursuits of everyday life untouched by military power plays.

12. The disciples and the crowd hail Jesus as the rightful heir of David. "Hosanna" is a Hebrew word meaning, "Save now." The word was customarily used in the liturgy for the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jewish festival of the harvest. (This is the word found in Psalm 118:25, quoted here by the crowd.)

13. The last verse of the Gospel lesson sets us up for what follows. Despite their acclamations, the crowd still doesn't "get" Jesus. The most they can say of Him as that He is a prophet. They have little notion that He has come to do battle with their sins. They only see Him as the instrument of their selfish, self-centered desires. Their disappointment with Jesus will lead the crowds, in just a few days, to call for His blood.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Quote of the Day

“Jesus lived among everyday people, just as we do. He spoke to them of life and death issues in mundane settings. And, He did not wait for people to come to Him. He went to them.” (Richard G. Capen, Jr., Finish Strong: Living Your Faith in the Secular World and Inspiring Others in the Process, p.4)

See here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Quote of the Day

“Christians, like snowflakes, are frail, but when they stick together they can stop traffic.” (Vance Havner, quoted in Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?, p.275)

Check out Ecclesiastes 4:12.

Q-and-A: How Can We Build and Sustain Our Faith on a Daily Basis?

[The broadcast of the Sunday worship celebrations of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, is the longest continuing live radio show in Ohio. I'm the pastor of Saint Matthew and thanks to the efforts of a Saint Matthew member, Tony Funk, we broadcast live again yesterday in spite of a Level 3 snow emergency which had necessitated the cancellation of worship. At the beginning of the broadcast on which the Bible lessons were read and I shared the sermon, we asked listeners to email any questions they might have. This is one of the questions that came in.]

The first thing to realize about faith is that it's a gift from God. "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit," Paul writes in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 12:3).

It's God Who builds and sustains faith in us. But God only does this in particular kinds of people. To understand what "kinds of people" I'm referring to, think of a baseball or softball outfielder. The outfielder has no control of the pitch thrown from the mound or how the batter hits the ball. But to field hit balls, outfielders can position themselves to receive them. In just the same way, we can position ourselves to receive faith in Jesus Christ or to grow in that faith.

Among the ways we do this are daily prayer and daily reading of the Bible, God's Word for us. Another way to position ourselves to receive faith or growth in faith is to participate regularly in worship with other believers (even if they sometimes rub us the wrong way). And, we should receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. That's because, as He promises, Jesus is truly present in the bread and wine of Communion. In the Sacrament, Christ actually enters us and in some mysterious way, builds up our faith.

Prayer, God's Word, worship, the fellowship of the Church, and Holy Communion, along with Holy Baptism, among other things, are what we call means of grace, tools God uses to give faith to those ready to receive it.

I would advise that we pay attention to these means of grace and not worry too much about how large or small our faith is. One of my favorite prayers in the New Testament involved a father who approached Jesus for help with his son, who was filled afflicted with a demon.

The father's faith was small and tentative. "If you are able to do anything," he says to Jesus, "have pity on us and help us.”

Jesus responds, "“If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.”

With an honesty that touches me every time I read his words, the father tells Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

What's noteworthy here is that Jesus doesn't demand a bigger or deeper faith of the man. Jesus doesn't tell the man to come back when he trusts Jesus more. Jesus sees that the man trusts as much as he is able and, as it turns out, his tiny faith in a big God is all that's needed. Jesus honored the man's prayer, offered from an admittedly small faith, and the boy was healed. (Mark 9:14-29)

Jesus once said, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.cast out the demon.'" (Luke 17:6)

Don't worry about the size of your faith. Little faith in the great big God of the universe is all you need. And, as you position yourself to receive faith and to receive growth in faith, both of them gifts from God, God will increase your faith, often without your even realizing it. Be attentive to the means of grace and God will build and sustain a growing faith in Jesus within you.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Quote of the Day

"We should pray with few words but with deep, meaningful thoughts. The fewer the words, the better the prayer. The more the words, the worse the prayer. Few words and deep meaning are Christian. Many words and little meaning are pagan." [Martin Luther]

See Jesus' words in Matthew 6:7-8.

Our Greatest Privilege...and Responsibility...as Christians

[Today, worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio was canceled because of the Level 3 Snow Emergency here. But thanks to Saint Matthew member, Tony Funk, acting as emcee and engineer, our congregation's weekly radio program, which usually presents our Sunday worship service, was on the air. I presented the Bible lessons and my sermon, then answered emailed questions. Here's the sermon I presented this morning.]

Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm 130
John 11:1-45
In his book, Good to Great, author Jim Collins, tells about his interview with the late Admiral James Stockdale. Stockdale, unfortunately, got tagged with the reputation of being something of an oaf after his 1992 run as Ross Perot’s vice presidential running mate. It’s an undeserved reputation, though.

While being held as the the highest-ranking US officer in the so-called Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp, where he was tortured more than twenty times in eight years, Stockdale applied his brilliance and self-discipline and courage to survive and to help others do the same.

When Jim Collins met Stockdale, the Admiral was doing some studies in the field of Philosophy at Stanford University, where Collins taught. In preparation for their meeting, Collins read Stockdale’s memoirs of his POW experiences.

“As I moved through the book,” writes Collins, “I found myself getting depressed. It just seemed so bleak.” And then he thought, “If it feels depressing for me [to read about it], how on earth did he deal with it when he was actually there and did not know the end of the story?”

When Collins met Stockdale, he asked the admiral about that. “I never lost faith in the end of the story,” Stockdale replied. “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Collins let that astounding statement sink in for a while and then asked Stockdale who, of his fellow prisoners, didn’t make it out. “Oh, that’s easy,” he said. “The optimists.” That seemed to contradict what Stockdale had just said about never doubting the end of the story. Confessing his confusion, Collins asked Stockdale to explain. Said the admiral: “The optimists...They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

Writes Collins: “Another long pause...Then he turned to me and said, ‘This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.’” I’m going to repeat that last sentence: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end--which you can never afford to lose--with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

Here’s the point of my sermon this morning: The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope. You see, God has come into our lives in the Person of Jesus Christ, shared human life with us, gone to a cross where He took the rap for our sins, and then rose from the dead, promising that all who repudiate and walk away from their sin and hold onto Him as their only God and Savior will live in joy with Him forever. Following Jesus brings hope because, through Him, we live in the certainty that we know how the story ends.

But we aren’t called to be what Stockdale called optimists. In my thirty-two years as a Christian and twenty-four as a pastor, I’ve seen those kinds of Christians, the optimists, come and go. They’re like firecrackers. When a firecracker is first lit, it’s a beautiful thing. The colors and the noise and the spectacle are dazzling. And you think, “Wow!” But firecrackers always burn out as quickly as they light.

Christian firecrackers are those people who get all excited about having God in their lives and love the warm and fuzzy feelings they get as they first fall in love with Jesus. They feel like they could climb the highest mountains without rest stops. But then they hit snags. The snags can be as small as “not getting anything out of worship today,” as though worship was about them. But worship is about our praising God, not God or the preacher or anybody else entertaining us. Or the snags can be the tragedies to which all of us who live in this imperfect world are subject.

Authentic Jesus-Followers are more like the fire in our winter fireplaces. They may burn with varied intensity over time and they may sometimes need to be stoked. But unlike the firecracker Christians who, like “rah-rah, team!” optimists, act as the source of their own flames, the fireplace Christians know that it is Jesus Christ Who sets their faith on fire and keeps it going. The Christians who keep on living with the hope that is the right of every follower of Jesus are the ones who understand that life on this planet may sometimes be brutal, but we still know how the story ends. It ends with the followers of Jesus being with God in a forever kingdom of peace.

Our Old Testament lesson for today records a vision God gave to the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s ministry as a prophet took place from 597 to 571 B.C. Long before Ezekiel was born, God’s nation of Israel had torn in two. The northern kingdom, called Israel or also Samaria, for its capital city, had long ago been conquered by the Babylonians, a people who lived in what is today Iraq. Then, in about 587 B.C., the nation of Judea, the southern kingdom, with its capital city of Jerusalem, and the nation from which Jesus would come many centuries later, was also conquered by the Babylonians. The common practice in those days was that a conquering nation would capture the conquered country’s ablest and most prominent citizens and send them back to the conquering nation to be slaves. This is what happened to Ezekiel.

It’s difficult for us to imagine how shattering this experience was for the people of Judea. Judea was more than just their homeland. It was also the center of their worship. They always believed that God’s presence on earth was to be found in the Holy of Holies tabernacle at the Temple in Jerusalem. When they prayed to God, they did so facing that tabernacle wherever they were in Judea or in their synagogues. Now that the Temple was all-but-destroyed and they were far from it in an unholy land, could God hear their cries? Did God care what happened to them? Was God out of their lives forever? Could God reach out to them with His compassion and power?

The optimists of Ezekiel’s day all died of broken hearts. They didn’t remember that they belonged to the God Who has charge and always has had charge of the ends of our stories. Like us, the people of Ezekiel’s day needed to be reminded of that. So, God showed Ezekiel a vision.

In a valley (or maybe on a plain, because it can be translated either way), God put Ezekiel in the midst of dead, dry bones. “Okay, Zeke,” God said, “start reminding these people of how the story ends for people with faith in Me. Remind them that death and humiliation are not the ends for those who follow Me. Proclaim My Word of hope to them!” You know how the story ends: “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” sprang to life again.

God is still in the hope-giving business. A man I knew came to my house in Cincinnati one evening. We’d been acquainted, but I didn’t really know him. Nor did I know what he wanted to see me about. He was successful, financially well-off, handsome, articulate. But as we spoke, he began to weep. “Three weeks ago,” he told me, “I watched my sister nearly die. She thinks she was saved by the medicine. They helped, I’m sure. But that wasn’t all. I watched my parents and others pray. For the first time in my life, I really saw God.” And, he reported, it wasn’t just because his sister had recovered that he was sure he’d seen God. You see, he’d seen God most in the depths, in the valley of dry bones, in Lazarus’ tomb where the stench of death was its worst. He’d seen the hope that comes from God. He’d seen how God gives life when all seems lost. He’d seen the end of the story and so, been given an inexplicable hope even as he acclimated himself to the possibility that his sister’s earthly life would soon end. My heart pounded in my chest as I listened to this man’s story. “What do you want now?” I asked him. “I want to give my life back to Christ,” he told me. And in the living room of my house, this man who had been baptized as a child and like a prodigal son, had wandered from God, surrendered to Christ once again. God gave new life and new hope to dry bones.

Belonging to Christ doesn’t mean that we are insulated from the realities of life. Christians still weep as Jesus did that day in Bethany recorded in today’s Gospel lesson. They wrestle with the seeming absence of God as surely the people of Judah did during their Babylonian exile. But Jesus, the God-Man, Who went to a cross and rose from the dead is our surety that we have a hope that can never be destroyed. He is, as He says, “the resurrection and the life” and all who believe in Him, even if they go down to the dust in this world, will never die. The primary privilege and the primary responsibility of every person who claims to follow Jesus Christ is to hope. Amen