Saturday, May 03, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (May 4, 2008)

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too. These reflections are coming late in the week, for which I apologize.]

This Sunday's Bible Lessons:
Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

The Prayer of the Day:
O God of glory, your Son Jesus Christ suffered for us and ascended to your right hand. Unite us with Christ and each other in suffering and in joy, that all the world may be drawn into your bountiful presence, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Some Thoughts:
1. Tomorrow will bring the seventh and final Sunday of the Easter season. Next Sunday will bring us to the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the day that the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying followers, emboldening them to proclaim the message that all who repent (turn from sin) and believe in Jesus Christ will have everlasting life with God.

2. This past Thursday was Ascension Day. Falling forty days after Jesus' resurrection, Ascension Day recalls the day when the resurrected Jesus ascended to heaven. According to our first lesson from the New Testament book of Acts, Jesus told His disciples just before ascending, that they should go to Jerusalem and await the coming of the Holy Spirit, Who would empower them to share the message of Jesus in words, actions, and living. Ten days later, on the first Pentecost, Jesus' promise would be fulfilled when the Holy Spirit came to the praying disciples.

3. The "glory of God" is an important theme in all of the lessons for tomorrow. Closely related is the use of the term "clouds." In Old Testament times, as in the account of Elijah being taken up to heaven, and in, to cite one example, Luke's telling of Jesus' transfiguration, clouds descend from heaven; within them, the glory of God is manifest. Even in our lesson from First Peter, we're told that suffering for faithfulness to Christ manifests God's glory, replicating Jesus' giving of Himself for our redemption. When we suffer for our faith, Peter asserts, we participate in Christ's suffering and so, in His glory.

4. Psalm 68 is thought to be among the most ancient of the psalms in the Old Testament worship book. It's thought to be a kind of liturgical drama recounting God's faithfulness in moving His people from slavery in Egypt to the promised land. By recalling God's past faithfulness, we're inspired to trust God in good and bad times.

5. First and foremost, John 17:1-11, is a prayer by Jesus to the Father. We eavesdrop as He prays for His Church, including those of us who are part of the 21st.-century Church.

I derive great comfort, encouragement, and hope from knowing that, despite the odds, the Church continues to exist twenty-one centuries after Jesus prayed this prayer. The Church today is an answer to Jesus' prayers. In the spirit of Peter's words in our second lesson, I'm sure that Jesus is inviting us not only to participate in His sufferings today, but also to participate in His prayers, including the one offered in the Gospel lesson.

Quote of the Day

"Hope doesn't come from what you can do. Hope comes from what God can do." [Bruce Bickel and Stan Jantz, God is in the Tough Stuff: Where to Turn When the Going Gets Tough, 2005.]

I Need Nothing But Jesus Christ

From today's Our Daily Bread devotion, based on Philippians 3:1-11:
In 1927, John Sung boarded a ship from the US bound for Shanghai. He had been in the States for more than 7 years, earning three degrees in that time, including a Ph.D.

As the ship neared its destination, Sung threw all his diplomas, medals, and fraternity keys overboard, keeping only his doctorate diploma to show his father. He had received Jesus Christ and was determined that for the rest of his life he would live only for what counted for eternity.

Many older Christians still living in East and Southeast Asia came to know Christ through the ministry of John Sung, who has been called China’s Billy Graham for his evangelistic work. His actions demonstrate what Paul wrote in Philippians 3:7, “What things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.”

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Church: Essential for Anyone Serious About Growing Up Spiritually

[The following was the daily inspiration from my colleague, Glen VanderKloot, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois.]

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + +

Thought for the Day:
"Spiritual transformation is not a matter of trying harder, but of training wiser. Trying to live for Jesus doesn't work, but training ourselves does, which is why we need a team of people around us to help." [John Ortberg]

Scripture:
1 Timothy 4:8 NLT: "Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come."

Prayer:
"Lord, transform my life through training myself to live for Jesus. Amen"

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If you would like to receive Glen's fantastic daily emailed inspirational pieces, contact him at olwf1@gliq.net and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Thank You...

to those bloggers who have recently mentioned pieces that have appeared here or at The Moderate Voice (where I also blog) in recent weeks.

James Oliphant of the Chicago Tribune talked about my post on the distinction between being a pastor and a spiritual mentor on the Tribune's Washington, D.C. blog, The Swamp, here.

Voracious reader Mark Olson mentioned this post dealing with proposals for a summer holiday from the federal gas tax on his blog, here. Mark catalogs all sorts of interesting reading on his site.

Pastor Jeff linked to my post on Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's root canal on his fantastic site, Conblogeration, here.

Rick Moore mentioned my Earth Day piece on his blog, here.

Marcia Ford of We the Purple talked about this piece I wrote about presidential debates here. Marcia is a terrific and prolific author.

Thanks also to a group of bloggers who call themselves Watcher of Weasels (funny, Weasel was my wife's name for me when we were in high school) who liked one of my posts on Jeremiah Wright. The bloggers who linked to that piece are: Done with Mirrors, Cheat-Seeking Missiles, Hillbilly White Trash (I'm not calling anybody names...that's the name the blogger gave to the site!), mrontemp, bookwormroom, Rhymes with Right, The Colossus of Rhodey, Wolfhowling, and Webloggin.

Thanks to all!

[UPDATE: Thanks also to Kleinheider of the PostPolitics blog of the Nashville Post for linking to my piece on pastor vs. spiritual mentor, but frankly, I found the title a bit strange.]

[ANOTHER UPDATE: Further thanks to Deborah White of About.com's US Liberals blog site for mentioning and quoting from my spiritual mentor/pastor piece.]

[YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks also to Matthew Brown of Good Brownie for his mention of the same post. And thanks to Greg Wythe of Gregsopinion.com for linking to it as well.]

[AND ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to Doug Mataconis of Below the Beltway, who cited another of my posts on the Wright controversy.]

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

'He Was My Pastor...Not My Spiritual Mentor'

Last night, I met with a group of twenty adults from Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation I serve as pastor. We were discussing some of the common reasons people give for not associating with a local church. One of these objections was, "I once had a bad experience with a pastor (or a congregation)." I asked the class members to tell me how they might respond if a friend said this to them.

Several answered and the gist of their responses was simple: "I don't attend Sunday worship and I'm not involved with my church because of the pastor. I'm here because this is my Christian family. This is the fellowship in which I worship God, hear God's Word, and receive the Sacraments."

They admitted that if a pastor has deficiencies, it can be tough to keep coming to worship week after week or to be involved in the church's ministries. But each person who spoke said that Jesus Christ is the reason they're involved with the Church, not the pastor.

To a pastor who cares about Christ and the Church, their sentiments were wonderful to hear. It means that even when I mess up, I'm working with a congregation that has a strong commitment to Christ and to the mission Christ gives to Christians. I've always subscribed to the notion that the best churches compensate for the weaknesses of their pastors and use the spiritual gifts of their members to pursue their ministries, often in spite of their pastors. As a pastor conscious of my own deficiencies, this is a huge comfort.

I bring all of this up because this afternoon, after returning from a lectionary study in Chillicothe, Ohio and spending time with the family of a wonderful member of Saint Matthew who passed away this afternoon, I came home for a late lunch during which I flipped on CNN and saw Senator Barack Obama's press conference regarding the most recent public statements of Jeremiah Wright. Wright was, of course, Obama's pastor for twenty years. Many of Wright's public pronouncements have been at variance with what Obama has been talking about during his run for the presidency. Senators Clinton and McCain have both attempted to make political hay of the fact that Obama remained a member of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and that in his speech in Philadelphia a few weeks ago, Obama refused to completely disassociate himself from Wright.

Today, Obama made a point with which the folks in last night's class at Saint Matthew would totally agree:

...Now, to some degree, you know -- I know that one thing that he [Wright] said was true, was that he wasn't -- you know, he was never my, quote-unquote, "spiritual adviser."

He was never my "spiritual mentor." He was -- he was my pastor. And so to some extent, how, you know, the -- the press characterized in the past that relationship, I think, wasn't accurate.

But he was somebody who was my pastor, and married Michelle and I, and baptized my children, and prayed with us at -- when we announced this race. And so, you know -- so I'm disappointed...
For some, it may seem that Obama is trying to put too fine a point on things. But, in fact, my experience as both a pastor for the past twenty-four years and as an active adult layperson for some eight years before that buttresses the senator's point. A pastor can be a spiritual mentor, particularly for those who seek out the pastor's counsel. But a pastor isn't a spiritual mentor to every member of her or his parish.

Clinton, McCain, Obama and the Political Third Rail of Taxes

Regular gas was $3.55 a gallon here in southeastern Ohio yesterday.

Many people I know are curbing their summer travel plans. They're even doing more planning when it comes to everyday errands, combining them so as not to waste gas.

This, of course, as average fuel prices climb, is happening across the country and the three leading presidential candidates have noticed. They've also noticed that the big oil companies are reporting record profits.

First, Senator John McCain and now, Senator Hillary Clinton have said that they want to give US drivers some relief at the pump. They would both suspend the federal gasoline tax during the summer driving season. Senator Barack Obama has opposed the idea.

Obama has, in effect, put himself in the position of opposing a tax reduction.

That can be a dangerous stance to take. Early in the administration of George W. Bush, the President proposed tax cuts. Supply side economics insisted that if the federal government reduced Americans' tax burdens, the economy would be stimulated and overall federal revenues would increase as a result of increased investment in the economy and greater personal income. The Bush tax cuts went into effect, but in the Senate, two members of the President's Republican party opposed the plan: Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and John McCain of Arizona. At the time, McCain argued that reductions in taxes ought to be matched by reductions in spending.

McCain's classic conservative position didn't match the new conservative orthodoxy however, an orthodoxy which I think, results from a misreading of the Reagan years. Reagan, you'll remember, got Congress to pass tax cuts as well. At the same time, Congress went along with massive increases in Defense Department outlays, endorsing the Reagan policy of trying to bring down "the evil empire" by forcing the Soviet Union into an arms and spending race that, it was thought, would bring the Soviets to their senses or to their knees. The Soviet Union collapsed, I believe, under the weight of the moral and fiscal bankruptcy of communism and because of a combination of the policy of containment in place from 1945 on in the US and the stupid decisions of the Moscow regime, the stupidest of which being the war in Afghanistan, where Muslim zealots like Osama bin Laden fought a guerilla war of attrititon designed to bleed the Soviets of people and money.

But Reagan insiders and apologists like Peter Robinson--whose book, How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life is excellent, by the way--conclude that in the end, budget deficits don't matter. I doubt that Reagan himself, a stalwart opponent of deficits for decades, would draw the same conclusion, seeing the deficits his administration ran as temporary, and regrettable, expedients, necessary in the face-off with the Soviet Union, essential to causing the Soviets to reduce their nuclear stockpile.

McCain's initial refusal to support the Bush tax cuts has won him a world of hostility from believers in the new conservative orthodoxy.

Being There

See here.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Jeremiah Wright: Obama's Root Canal

Howard Kurtz writes:
Barack Obama needed this like he needed a root canal.

Just when the Jeremiah Wright furor seemed to be dying down, the ex-pastor is back and suddenly inescapable. On the tube with Bill Moyers. Speaking to the NAACP. Showing up Monday at the National Press Club.

There it was yesterday, that endless loop of Wright shouting "God damn America" over and over. Yet another opportunity to talk about how he thinks the US of KKK-A created the AIDS virus to kill blacks.

This is rather amazing. At great political risk to himself, Obama refused to disavow Wright even as he tried to distance himself from the reverend's more inflammatory rhetoric. Wright might have repaid the favor to the man whose wedding he handled by laying low, at least until November.

Instead, Wright is mounting a media blitz that he has to know--has to know--is going to damage the most famous member of his former church. No matter how reasonable he sounds, he just reignites the controversy and throws his friend under the bus.
Root canal might be more attractive to Senator Obama and his campaign right now.

Someone should remind Reverend Wright that the heat of a campaign is not a time when he can explain himself.

If there are ways to explain his comments--and I believe that many of them can be explained, it would be better for him to wait until after November. Until then, all will be YouTube-driven, sound bite frenzy, hardly a time when intemperate words can be explained coolly.

To me, the Wright story has always been more complicated than the sound bites or the editorial cartoons conveyed. In looking at some of Wright's pronouncements and in heeding some who know him well, I've concluded that he is a basically solid Christian minister who nonetheless adheres to some reprehensible, indefensible ideas. When he is prophetic, as he can be in the most positive Biblical sense, he nonetheless also displays an allegiance to notions that are in turn, kooky, dangerous, or bigoted.

It appears that Wright is so bent on "clarifying" himself that he can't or won't defer addressing what he regards as unfair assaults on his character and his message until the election is over.

The results could be the scuttling of both his own reputation and the election of his former parishioner to the presidency.

His desire to speak out is, I suppose, understandable. His timing is horrible.

I wrote a series of posts on Wright from my perspective as a Lutheran Christian pastor:
Is Wright Wrong? Part 1
Is Wright Wrong? Part 2
Is Wright Wrong? Part 3
Is Wright Wrong? Part 4
Is Wright Wrong? Part 5

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Renewing Rural Life

[This message was shared this evening with the Hocking County Granges as they commemorated Rural Life Sunday in the chapel of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

After I learned that today is Rural Life Sunday for the Hocking County Granges, I decided I need to poke around on the Internet to learn just what that entailed. I did know a little about the Grange. My mother-in-law grew up in Wellston, where her father was deeply involved with the Grange. It was a center for the community’s social life and an advocate for rural and farm interests.

But what, after all, does a city slicker who grew up in Columbus and graduated from a little college on North High Street—you may have heard of Ohio State—know about rural life?

A little bit. During my seminary years, Ann, our then-one year old son (he's now 26), and I lived in Benzie County, Michigan. I don't know whether this is still the case, but back in those days, Benzie County was the smallest Michigan county in population. Year round, 11, 500 people called the place home. But when the snowbirds came back to stay in the cabins on one of the county's 28 named lakes, the population ballooned to 36,000. The biggest town had about 1800 people. (Several years after we lived there, the ABC radio news network reported that Benzie County had finally gotten its first traffic light!) In spite of the loss of many businesses and industries, people still cherished and strove to hold onto living there. We learned while there that there's something special about life in rural communities where people know and look out for one another.

This was underscored during the six years I spent as pastor of Bethlehem Lutheran Church near Okolona, in northwestern Ohio. But I learned even more than that. It was while living at Okolona that my faith in Jesus Christ grew more than at any other comparable period of my faith life. In a very real sense, the people of my first parish taught me how to live as a Christian in the everyday world.

One of my teachers was John Baden. John was deep into his seventies when I met him, long retired from farming, but still in love with rural living. “You know, Pastor,” he told me, “if you’re a farmer, you have to have a lot of faith. You have no control over the sun and rain. You have to trust that God will provide.”

That’s really true of anyone who seeks to build a life in the Hocking County countryside or in small towns like Logan, Gore, McArthur, Rockbridge, or other communities that dot our area. You have to trust that God is going to renew towns and villages and rural areas just as He renews the earth every spring.

In fact, on my prayer list each day is a petition for not just the spiritual renewal of Logan and Hocking County, but also for its economic revival. I’ve come to appreciate the rural life as a life that helps people grow strong in their faith and in their love for neighbor and that allows them to enjoy a life less stressful than that lived by big city dwellers, a life in which it’s easier to see the stars in the nighttime sky and the power of God reaching right into our daily existences.

I want places like the communities of Hocking County to be able to provide the opportunities for making a living that will allow young people to stay in Logan, Gore, McArthur, and Rockbridge. I’m praying and I’m trusting that God will answer these prayers.

But in the meantime, how do we live?

In my exploration on the Internet, I ran across the thoughts of Judy Pressler, one time state chaplain of the Grange in Pennsylvania. Her message was called, “Step Into the Light of Springtime.” I really loved what she wrote. Listen to some of it:
…Spring. That is on everyone’s mind…how hardy those little daffodils, crocus and hyacinths are. They have peeked their heads out of the ground a couple of times already only to get slapped down again with a cold snap and get covered with snow and ice…

They are a good example of [a Scripture verse…Matthew 5:16 [where Jesus says:] ‘Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven’…
Now, this is a particularly important verse for we Lutherans. It’s the verse we use every time someone is baptized. We present the baptized person, whether an adult or a child, with those words, urging them to live their faith in Jesus out loud in public. You see, Jesus and the Bible are insistent that our faith in Him is not a private, personal matter. Faith in Christ is a very public matter. We’re to love our neighbor, for example, out where the whole wide world can see it. We’re to tell others the Good News that God so loves them that He sent His only Son Jesus and whoever believes in Him will live with God forever. “A city on a hill,” Jesus once said, “cannot be hid.” Instead, people from miles around can see its light and its life. Similarly, our relationship with Jesus can’t be hidden. Like the daffodils and hyacinth that blossom like crazy in the spring, we’re to let the world know that Jesus is our Lord and our everything.

Jesus will be seen in the way we treat our spouses and our children, in the way we get along with our neighbors, in the courtesy we display for people while driving on Route 33 or at the meat counter in the Kroger store.

The wonderful thing about rural life for the follower of Jesus Christ is that it’s easier to have an impact, easier for others to see how much our Lord means to us.

The difficult thing about rural life for the follower of Jesus is that it’s easier to have an impact, easier for others to see us being hypocritical or, as is true for all of us, how we occasionally fall on our faces and live as something less than Christians.

But even when we fall on our faces, the great thing is that our neighbors will be able to see that, unlike an often cruel and heartless world, the God we know in Jesus Christ forgives us our sins and gives us brand new starts. God brushes us off and tells us He still loves us!

Judy Pressler also writes:
Those beautiful, fragile spring flowers sure do persevere to show off their beauty and bring a bright light after the long dark wintry days.

They won’t stay hidden under a blanket of snow very long! We can take a lesson from them.

Oh sure, we will get enthused with Spring chores: cleaning the windows, fertilizing the lawns, and washing our cars. That may be a first step....getting everything bright and shiny. But there is another step involved. We gotta let our lights and lives shine in ways that will get others curious about Who generates our inner light. We can’t let busyness, pride, gossip, jealousy and all those other “snows” cover our beautiful joy inside. The love in our hearts should melt all those distractions and serve as a beautiful light of hope in the future.
I agree. As we pray and work for the spiritual and economic renewal of our community, we need to let others see the light of Jesus Christ’s love shining brightly in our lives. When others see Jesus shining brightly in our love and service in Christ’s Name, they will be given an indispensable gift: hope.

Last week, a professor of meteorology named Edward Lorenz died. Lorenz was the scientist who came up with what’s known as “chaos theory,” called “the third great scientific revolution of the 20th. Century.” In a nutshell, chaos theory holds that “very small changes…can have very large and unexpected consequences.” The 1972 article in which Lorenz explained his theory was subtitled, “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Lorenz answered his own question with a resounding, “Yes!” (See here. Subscription necessary.)

And today, what I want to tell you is that as we consider how best to strengthen and renew rural life here in our community, never underestimate the impact of a life faithfully lived for Jesus Christ here and now.

Even the smallest act done in Jesus’ Name can have a positive impact. Mother Teresa had her own version of Lorenz’s theory. She said, “Small things done in great love will change the world.”

You can believe that! Some years ago, I read an exchange of letters between a young woman who had attended a Christian rock concert and a member of the band she saw perform. The young woman revealed that she had never heard of the Christian band until her friend asked her one afternoon to go hear them that night. It just happened that at the moment her friend called, the young woman was planning her own suicide. She was going to take her own life that night. When her friend called, she thought, “I’ll go to this concert and then commit suicide afterward.” At the concert, she and her friend sat in one of the first few rows. Sometime during the evening, the member of the band to whom she wrote her letter looked at her…and smiled. I knew then, she wrote, that I wouldn’t follow through on taking my own life. Isn’t God amazing?, the rock musician wrote. God can take something as small and insignificant as a smile and assure us that He loves us. That one single smile saved a young woman’s life. Small things done in great love can change the world!

Own Jesus’ words as your own personal motto and mission statement, “Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” If a butterfly in Brazil can set off a tornado in Texas, imagine the impact on Hocking County when you and I let Jesus Christ be seen in all that we say and do and are! Live and pray, serve and work in Jesus’ Name and the lives of all you know will be bettered not just today, but for all eternity!

Never Alone!

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

John 14:15-21
Two stories, both true.

In the first parish I served as pastor, a member was badly hurt in an accident. For some time, his life hung in the balance, meaning many hours waiting in the hospital for his family and friends. His wife had just given birth to their third child and was breastfeeding him. Because she needed to be at the hospital with her husband, this meant that she often retreated to a janitor's closet there, usually with her sister-in-law, to use a pump to get the milk to be sent back home to her son. While she did this, her sister-in-law read to her from the Bible, Christ in Our Home, and Guideposts magazine. Between readings, they would pray together. The women came to see the janitor's closet as a cherished spot, a place where they were sure they met God. They even gave the small closet a name. They called it The Pump and Pray Room.

As I’ve told some of you, the first time I came to Saint Matthew to speak with the Call Committee, I did so almost on a lark. I felt little inclination to actually come here. I loved my former parish and though I sensed that it might be time for me to leave there, I was far from clear about where God wanted me to go. But after that first interview, I wondered whether what might be a lark for me was actually a call from God. I phoned Ann on the way home and summarized my impressions in two words: “Maybe. Maybe.” As the weeks passed, the sense grew stronger that this was where God wanted me to be. But I wanted to be sure. “God,” I prayed, “if I’m supposed to be at Saint Matthew, grant that Ann will tell me so.” Four weeks after my initial interview, Ann and I came here for a second conversation, her first meeting with the Call Committee. About halfway here from Cincinnati, Ann turned to me and said, “I think that if this whole thing can be made to work, you should take this call.” I was sure that God spoke to me in that moment. (Ann tells me that, if I will only listen, I can often hear what God is telling me when she speaks!)

Some people will hear those stories and dismiss them as mere coincidences. The women in their Pump and Pray Room, skeptics are likely to say, simply enjoyed one another’s company and the soothing words of Scripture. But, these skeptics would tell me, they didn’t really meet God. Similarly, the skeptics might say that Ann’s words to me weren’t guidance from God, just her opinion. The follower of Jesus Christ would say otherwise. And our saying so is more than wishful thinking.

Today’s Gospel lesson from John continues the words Jesus spoke to His disciples before His arrest. His ‘Farewell Discourse’ contained last minute instructions Jesus had for His followers as He looked ahead not just to His crucifixion and resurrection, but also to the days and years that would come after He ascended into heaven. Jesus wanted those first disciples—and you and me—to know that He would not leave His followers alone.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” He promises us. When we face the uncertainties of life, when we make decisions, when we wonder whether God can love us when we sin, this is an awesome promise to hold onto. God will never leave us orphaned! But how can it be true? How is it that the risen and ascended Jesus can actually be with us now?

In our lesson for today, Jesus gives two mega-promises to believers, promises that should tell us that when Christians sense that they’re being helped, guided, or accompanied by God, they’re not just reacting to coincidences. They’re experiencing God-incidences, juxtapositions of God’s presence and our needs that are very real.

I’ll talk about those two promises in a moment. But before I do, I need to point out something important about this passage. You may have noticed it already. It begins and ends with a condition for the promises Jesus makes. At the beginning, Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” At the end, He says the same thing in reverse order: “They who love my commandments and keep them are those who love me.”

Now, folks, I don’t want to go too deep into the woods of Biblical scholarship. But it’s worth pointing out that whenever you have two similar verses bracketing a section of Scripture like this, it forms what the scholars call an inclusion, or an inclusio. Everything sandwiched between the two verses is related to them or amplify or explain them.

I once heard a preacher say that all the promises God makes in the Bible are like blank checks waiting for believers in Jesus to cash. The promises of forgiveness of sin and everlasting life for all who entrust their lives in Jesus Christ, for example, are promises that anyone who repents and follows Christ can cash. So too are the promises Jesus gives today. But in order to cash in on them, we must love Jesus by keeping His commandments.

Now, be careful here. Jesus is not rescinding what the Bible calls grace. There isn’t a single one of Jesus’ promises that we either deserve or earn. Every one of Jesus’ promises and blessings are free gifts we cannot earn.

Instead of concluding that Jesus is throwing grace overboard here, we need to pay close attention to the verb Jesus uses in both of those bracket verses. He talks about those who keep His commands as being the ones who truly love Him. Among the meanings of that word, keep, in the original Greek of the New Testament are: watch over, pay attention to, hold dear.

None of us can perfectly fulfill the commands Jesus or the Scriptures give. But every time...
you and I confess our sins together or in private, or
strive to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, or
forgive others as God forgives us, or
serve others as Jesus serves us...
we are paying attention to, holding dear, Jesus’ command.

We are living out our love and gratitude to the Savior Who died on a cross for our sins and rose from the dead to give us life.

We are, simply, giving first place in our lives to the Savior Who puts us first.

We are doing the hard work of loving Jesus each day.

All of this--holding Jesus' commands dear, striving to live our lives like Jesus--is the precondition for the two mega-promises Jesus gives in today’s lesson.

So, what are those promises?

First, Jesus says, to those who love Him and keep His commands, He will send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as Advocate is Paraclete. That’s not to be confused with a little bird. The word paraclete means called alongside. The Holy Spirit comes alongside believers in Jesus and makes the presence and love and power of God unmistakably clear to them. Believers in Jesus can experience the presence of the Holy Spirit with alongside of them every single day.

One of my favorite preachers, Pastor Craig Barnes became ill soon after being called to serve as senior pastor of National Presbyterian Church. “I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer,” he told a magazine interviewer. “The elders and I were tempted to keep it a secret. But we told everybody, and soon many people were holding me before God in prayer. It was great to be spiritually ‘held’ by a congregation — it cast out fear. My illness has been a tremendous life-changing experience: I try to live in the gift of the day, and not count on tomorrow.”*

You see what happened? Barnes owned his need and soon, a whole church was calling the Holy Spirit to come alongside him and his family. The Spirit transformed his response to his illness...and his life!

This past winter, the senior pastor of a large Pentecostal congregation in Chillicothe took a turn for the worst in his long battle with a killing disease. Throughout his long illness, I’m told that this pastor preached brave, faithful sermons in which he pointed out that no matter if he lived or died, Jesus was still his loving Lord. It was announced to the congregation that this pastor’s condition had worsened and that he probably wouldn’t live for long. The announcement was made right at the same time one of this past winter’s big storms hit. Worship had to be canceled. But the people of this congregation wouldn’t allow some snow to prevent them from doing what they sensed God called them to do. And so, on the night of a blizzard, snow accumulating all around, hundreds of them went to the pastor’s house. One of them knocked on the door and told the pastor’s wife that they had come to pray for him, for her, and for their family. “But I can’t possibly welcome all of you into the house,” the pastor’s wife said apologetically. “We don’t want to come in,” the church member said, “We just sensed God wanted us to pray for you. That’s what we’re here to do.” They then circled the house and did just that.**

Can you imagine the comfort that pastor and his wife felt at that incredible moment? The Holy Spirit, the One Who comes alongside God’s people sent the members of that Church, to come alongside and give His comfort to two people who loved the Lord Jesus and kept His commands. That fulfilled the first promise Jesus makes in today’s lesson.

There’s a second promise in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus says, “I am coming to you.” He goes on to say, “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me…” At one level, Jesus was telling His first followers that because they had believed in Him, because they had sought to love Him and keep His commands, they would see Him when He rose from the dead. Those who had rejected Him wouldn’t see Him. But at another level, He was saying that in succeeding history, the people who dared to believe in Him, people like you and me, would also see Him. Not physically. But in their lives, they would recognize His presence.

For decades now, many western European and North American Biblical scholars, skeptical about the Bible, have engaged in what has been called “the quest for the historical Jesus.” Some of these scholars claim to be able to decide what portions of the Bible are true and which ones are not. A few years ago, several of these scholars lamented “the fact that African-American scholars really have taken no interest in the on going discussion of the historical Jesus. A black pastor got up and said, ‘I have been listening to you worrying about why our people aren’t really talking much about the historical Jesus. You know, it is not a big issue in the black church. Because, you see, we ALWAYS knew who Jesus was!’” “We always knew,” he was saying, “that the risen Jesus is real and that He will not leave His people orphaned!” No matter how many well-to-do white scholars with too much time on their hands and too much hubris in their souls to accept God’s ability to bring about resurrections and to give new life, Jesus’ promise stands for all who love Him and hold His commands dear. He will come to us. He will be with us!***

Rosie was a member of Ann’s and my home church in Columbus. She was a sweet, hard-working person who rarely said anything in the adult Sunday School class. But one day, when a seminary student was teaching a lesson on the calendar of greater and lesser church festivals, she answered his question. “What special day might you like to add on to the Church Year that isn’t on the calendar now?” he asked us. Everyone was silent until quiet Rosie raised her hand. “I’ve always thought,” she said, “that we ought to have a day every year where we thanked God that we’re alive today. I’ve wondered whether I would have believed in Jesus back when He was walking on the earth.” We might all be able to identify with Rosie’s sentiments. But what really strikes me as I reflect on her suggestion three decades later is that what she said constituted the confession of faith of someone who loved Jesus and held His commands dear. In all the ups and downs of life, she’d found it to be true that in these times, two thousand years after Jesus died and rose and ascended into heaven, His promises are true.

Those who follow Jesus see Him working in their lives today. They’ve been comforted by the presence of His Holy Spirit. When they call out to Him, they’ve experienced Jesus coming to them.

Jesus’ message for us today is, I think, simple. But if we let it, can change our lives for all eternity. It’s this: Put Jesus first in your life. He will send His Spirit to you and He will come to you. With Him, you will never be alone. Amen

*I read about the interview with Craig Barnes at Homileticsonline.com.
**My Lutheran colleague, Pastor Rick Hinger, shared this true story with us several days after the incident happened.
***I found the account of this incident at Homileticsonline.com as well.