Friday, May 29, 2009

Your Prayers Would Be Appreciated

Two days ago, my Dad went for a follow-up on a colonoscopy he had undergone two weeks earlier. The doctor had seen something not to his liking.

On Wednesday, it was discovered that his colon was perforated. That necessitated emergency surgery.

During the operation, it was also found that he had a hernia, a tumor that proved to be cancerous, and two aneurysms.

Both the hernia and colon were successfully addressed. The pathology report came back yesterday and indicated that the entire tumor was removed and Dad won't have to undergo either chemotherapy or radiation treatment. A vascular specialist said that the aneurysms will be monitored and addressed at the appropriate time. Knowing of several people who have undergone successful surgery for aortic aneurysms lately, I feel comfortable with that and obviously, given all that hit my Dad in one day, my family and I are relieved.

The surgeon told us that Dad was doing well enough immediately following surgery that he could skip the surgical ICU and go straight to intermediate care. Doctors and nurses marvel at his resilience at nearly age 80.

But he's had some rough days. You can imagine the pain he's in after such massive invasive surgery. I'm also a little concerned about his breathing, but I'm happy that a doctor has ordered albuterol treatments.

My father is an incredibly sweet guy and funny. On Wednesday afternoon, as I was leaving the hospital, I had a prayer with Dad and the family members who were in the room and gave him a kiss. "I'll be back tomorrow, Dad," I said. "You don't have to come back, Bub," he told me, paused, and finished, "But you'd better."

Please keep my Dad in your prayers. Thanks.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

McCartney and Dylan Set to Collaborate?

They've been signaling their mutual interest in a musical collaboration quite a lot in the past several years. The most recent issue of 'Rolling Stone' contains a Dylan interview in which he is, by turns, uncharacteristically candid, then typically obscurantist. There, he makes clear--or, as clear as Dylan makes things--that he would love to work with McCartney.

Now, according to Gibson Lifestyle, that collaboration will happen:
Recent months have seen both Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney express interest in working together. Now, according to Britain's Daily Express, that collaboration is set to become a reality. The newspaper reports that the legendary rockers will head into the studio together this summer, presumably to work on new songs as a duo.
"Paul has a home in California not too far from Bob's, so the idea is for the two to meet when Paul is in California over the summer," an unnamed McCartney spokesman said. "They'll obviously want to work in privacy and it's felt one of their homes will be the best bet. Getting these two together for any length of time is difficult schedule-wise but they both want this to work out. The music that comes out of this will be fascinating to hear."
Dylan's latest album, Together Through Life, recently topped both the American and British charts. Last year McCartney released an acclaimed album under the auspices of his alter ego, The Fireman.
I've been listening to and getting to know the latest Dylan collection and was hugely pleased with McCartney's adventurous Fireman release late last year. Artistically then, both still more than cut it.
Bring on an LP and please, a tour!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A Look at This Coming Sunday's Bible Lesson

[Most weeks, I present a few comments on at least one of the Bible lessons around which our worship will be centered on the succeeding Sunday. It's designed to help the people of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. But because we used a lectionary plan used by most churches in the Western world, others may find the notes helpful, too.]

Pentecost Sunday
May 31, 2009

The Bible Lessons:
Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
Romans 8:22-27
John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

The Prayer of the Day:
Mighty God, You breathe life into our bones, and Your Spirit brings truth to the world. Send us the Spirit, transform us to Your truth, and give us language to proclaim Your gospel, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

General Comments on Acts 2:1-21:
1. Pentecost already was a festival on calendar of pious Jews. It was a harvest festival, falling fifty days after the Sabbath of Passover week. For more, see here. On the Christian calendar, Pentecost is one of the three great festivals of the Church Year, along with Christmas and Easter. The first Christian Pentecost happened fifty days after the first Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, and ten days after He ascended to heaven.

2. The they mentioned in verse 1 are presumably the group of 120 Christ-Followers mentioned in 1:15.

3. The events of Pentecost fulfill the promise Jesus made in 1:8, that He would send the Holy Spirit. The Spirit would make it possible for them to boldly witness for God in spite of their fears. The gift of the Spirit would also fulfill Old Testament prophecy, Peter points out. We'll discuss that more in the verse-by-verse comments.

4. The first Christian Pentecost introduces what might be called "the era of the Holy Spirit." The Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity and has always been present from eternity. But in the era in which we live now, it's the Holy Spirit who makes faith possible and who gave birth to the community through which God speaks to the world today, the Church. (For more see here and here.)

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
(1) Were these first Christians afraid? Probably. Were they praying? No doubt. But they were also doing what the risen Jesus told them to do just before He ascended to heaven: waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. Faith often involves waiting.

2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
(1) In Old Testament Hebrew, there is a word (ruach) which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit. A similar word exists in New Testament Greek, pneuma. It's God's ruach that bears down upon the watery chaos in Genesis 1 and brings life into being. God also breathes ruach into Adam to give the first man life. Here, the very life-giving breath of God breathes His Church, the fellowship of believers committed to Christ's mission for it, into being. (For more the life-giving power of God's Spirit or breath, see Ezekiel 37:9-14.)

(2) Luke, the writer of Acts, shows us that this wasn't some gentle little breeze. The Holy Spirit came into the place where the first Jesus-Followers were gathered "like the rush of a violent wind." The Spirit filled the entire house...there was no escaping God for the believers who were there! And the noise of the moment attracted a crowd.

3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
(1) This is different from the gift of tongues which the New Testament talks about elsewhere. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14, that's a worship language which God gives to some Christians as a means of building up the church internally.

The Holy Spirit is given to every believer in Christ. It's the Spirit Who makes it possible for once-fearful followers of Christ like Peter to share the good news of new life for all with faith in Jesus with boldness and humility.

(2) The Holy Spirit has been referred to as the "shy member of the Trinity." (The Trinity describes one of God's many mysterious attributes: God is one and yet is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) And yet the Spirit's appearance on Pentecost was an occasion for sensory overload. First, He filled the house where the disciples were sitting with a roar. Then, He appeared visually in some way. Finally, He sent the disciples out onto the streets of Jerusalem, each telling the story of God's mighty deeds in various languages for all to hear.

(3) Jaroslav Pelikan, an emeritus professor in History at Yale University, points to the use of "fill" and "filled" throughout Acts. The disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, but are accused of being filled with "new wine." On the brink of martyrdom, Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, prays for the forgiveness of those who murder him.

In his helpful book on the Holy Spirit, Billy Graham mentions that all Christians are given the Holy Spirit, but, we require new fillings of the Spirit to sustain our faith and faithfulness throughout our lives.

Without submission to Christ, as evidenced in these first followers of Jesus after Jesus had ascended to heaven, other things may fill us--fear, greed, hopelessness, whatever. This is why Martin Luther spoke of the importance of living in "daily repentance and renewal."

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
(1) The "devout Jews" were in Jerusalem, the center of worship for God's ancient people, as explained here.

6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
(1) The crowds didn't hear a strange language, as would have been the case if the first Christians were speaking "in tongues." They heard intelligible accounts of God's mighty acts in their own native languages, the ones they spoke in their dispersed homelands. (I can't help but think here of the lyrics in a new U2 song: "Let me in the sound, Let me in the sound...Meet me in the sound.")

7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
(1) How is it possible, the crowd wonders, for these Galileans to speak in their languages? This really is the miracle of Pentecost: God empowers the first Christians to share the Good News in accessible ways!

(2) Notice that the disciples weren't apparently confined to speaking of Jesus' death and resurrection. They were recalling for this international gathering of their fellow Jews "God's deeds of power."

This underscores Luke's emphasis, evidenced both in his Gospel and in Acts, on the unity and consistency between the God revealed in Old Testament times and the God seen in Jesus and now, in the Holy Spirit.

This, according to Luke, is exactly what the resurrected Jesus emphasized when He met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus back on the first Easter. Recalling the Law and the Prophets from the Old Testament, He demonstrated how His death and resurrection had been the plan for the Lord's Messiah always and that the means of salvation--trust or belief in the God ultimately revealed in Jesus--has always been the same.

We Christians tell the story of God's mighty deeds, especially Jesus' death and resurrection, the central event of human history, so that people will call upon the Lord and so, be saved from sin and death. As with the first Christians, it is the Holy Spirit Who gives us the ability to do this.

12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
(1) People always try to explain away the miraculous intervention of God in human life, including Jesus' resurrection. Even religious folks do that. In Old Testament times, a devout woman begged God for a child. Overcome with emotion, the priest thought she was drunk. But she wasn't drunk and God gave her a child destined to be one of the great figures in Israel's history, Samuel. (See here.)

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
(1) This demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit. Just seven-plus weeks before, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Now, in spite of the implicit danger of being associated with Jesus, Who was executed, Peter stands up to give witness to his faith in Christ.

15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning.
(1) Peter evidences having done the very first thing any witness for Christ must do: He listened. His words come in response to the questions and accusations of the crowd in Jerusalem.

(2) Peter is arguing that it's way too early for all these people to be drunk; the taverns aren't even open yet!

(3) These people aren't under the influence of spirits, but of the Spirit.

16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
(1) Another thing a witness for Christ must do is connect God's story with my story and your story. By knowing the Bible, Peter knows God's story.

(2) Peter is saying that there is a different explanation for this strange phenomenon. Simply, God's Holy Spirit has come to Jesus' believers, empowering them to witness for Christ.

(3) To prophesy, in Biblical terms, is to share God's truth.

21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
(1) In its way, this passage, lifted from the Old Testament prophet Joel, is "the Gospel in a nutshell." Gospel is the Old English translation of the New Testament Greek term, evangel, meaning good news. Christians have good news to share: God is for the human race. All who seek help and forgiveness from the God we meet in Jesus Christ will be saved from sin and death and have fellowship with God forever.

[These notes appeared last year in slightly different form. A little has been taken away and a little bit added.]

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Memorial Day Prayer

Written by my friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot.
Dear Heavenly Father,
As we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, we think of how they have followed in the footsteps of your son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Please hold our service men and women in your strong arms. Cover them with your sheltering grace and presence as they stand in the gap for our protection.

We also remember the families of our troops, and ask for your unique blessings to fill their homes and your peace, provision and strength to fill their lives.

May the members of our armed forces be filled with courage to face each day and may they trust in the Lord's mighty power to accomplish each task. Let our military brothers and sisters feel our love and support.

In the name of Jesus.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

What Jesus Reveals About God

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

John 17:6-19
As a pastor, I’m often with people in times of crisis or difficulty. As much as I hate to see people enduring such circumstances, the way I've seen many people do so has often been nothing short of inspiring.

That’s because it’s in times of crisis that those who see life with the eyes of faith can most clearly see God at work in their lives—helping them, encouraging them, strengthening them.

Often when I visit with folks going through hard experiences, I can remind them, “There are a lot of people praying for you.” And usually, they will tell me, “I know that. I can sense their prayers. There is no way I could have gotten this far without people praying for me.”

Our Gospel lesson for today indicates that it isn’t just other people who pray for us. One of the many things that makes the Church unique is that it’s the only gathering of people for whom Jesus has prayed. Think about that: Jesus Christ, God the Son, has prayed for us to God the Father. As believers in Jesus, you and I are beneficiaries of Jesus’ prayers. That includes all believers in Jesus, whether we feel that we are worthy of His love for us or not.

Some of you have heard me tell of my visit one day with an elderly woman in a nursing home. She was almost eighty, had a strong mind and while somewhat frail, still functioned well. When she knew that I was coming and would be offering Holy Communion, she got into her Sunday best and awaited my arrival.

But after I had shared a passage from the Bible and spent a little time visiting with her, she refused to take Holy Communion. I asked her why. She told me that she was unworthy of receiving Jesus’ body and blood. There was something that she had done when she was seventeen years old which, she said, made her too horrible a sinner to be in fellowship with Christ.

After she’d confessed her sin to me, I tried to explain that if she truly repented—in other words, if she truly wanted to walk away from her sins—she could be sure that she could walk into the welcoming, forgiving arms of Christ. Though we talked for a long time, she remained convinced that God could never forgive her.

But she was wrong. And if this morning, you think that God can’t forgive you, I want to tell you that you are wrong.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus prays on behalf of all believers. At one point, He says to the Father, “I have made Your Name known to those whom You gave Me from the world.”

The late, great Lutheran Bible commentator R.C.H. Lenski, who taught at Capital before I was born, writes that in this part of His prayer, Jesus is saying that, in His very Person—in Who He is and what He does—Jesus has revealed the heart of God. It echoes what John writes near the start of his Gospel:
No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, Who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.
Martin Luther said that if we truly want to understand Who God is and what God is like, we should look at Jesus on the cross.

We could spend a lifetime talking about the things Jesus reveals about the heart of God to us. But I want to focus on just three of them this morning.

First of all: Jesus reveals that God, not Nationwide, is on our side. In His famous encounter with Nicodemus, Jesus said that He had come into the world not to condemn the world, but so that the world could be saved from sin and death by Him. This will come as a disappointment to some judgmental people.

A man was bitter about the wife who had left him for another man. He cornered me one night, I'm not kidding, at a pool party. He wanted me to tell him that his ex-wife and her new husband were both headed for hell.

“I can’t say that,” I told him.

“But they sinned,” he said.

“You’ve never sinned?” I asked him.

The man allowed as how he had sinned. But he seemed to feel that the sins his ex-wife and her husband were worse than his. “Besides,” he said, “they’re still together. So, they’re just committing adultery every day.”

I countered by saying that I had known couples who had begun their lives together in just that way. They regretted what they had done. But they were committed to not repeating their sin. They had turned to Christ and received forgiveness and the power to go on living with God in their lives. They had, in fact, become exemplary Christians and even taken steps to be reconciled with their former spouses.

My pool party friend was disappointed because Christ shows us that God is willing to forgive repentant sinners.

I tell you what: I’m not disappointed by that! I’m grateful for it because I’m a sinner in desperate need of the forgiveness I receive through Jesus Christ. I’m grateful that, even when we’re not worthy, God is for us and wants what is best for us.

Second: Jesus reveals that God understands who we are and how difficult our lives can sometimes be. Once, you remember, Jesus came into the little town of Bethany, where three of his friends—the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus—lived. Lazarus, he was told, had died. Jesus’ response? He wept. He wept for those who mourned without hope for the resurrection. He wept too for the dying his friend had experienced.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says that Jesus has experienced everything that you and I go through in our lives. The cross where He died confirms that. Yet, Jesus promises to be with us always. The Bible also tells us that nothing can separate us from the love God offers us through Jesus. Can God forgive you and me? Of course He can; Jesus, God in the flesh, demonstrates that God understands who we are and how difficult our lives can be.

Third: Jesus reveals that God has compassion for us. Jesus was often surrounded by people hungry for His love and His touch. Once, the Bible says, He looked on the crowds and felt compassion for them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Life can sometimes leave all of us feeling that way: harassed and helpless.

As some of you know, early in my ministry, a man came to me to talk. He’d been sent by a counselor at Lutheran Social Services in northwestern Ohio. “Mark,” he told me, “this guy is at the end of his rope. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life. Our sessions have gone pretty well. But I’ve realized that there’s a spiritual dimension to his problems.”

When the man arrived, he looked haggard, disheveled. After awhile, we came to the nub of things. “I can’t believe that God will help me," he said. "I’ve screwed up too many times.” We talked for a long while. Eventually, as some of you who know me well will understand, I turned this man’s attention to Romans 8, where Paul writes, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

I’m not exaggerating when I say that as we read those words together, that man’s face lit up. “Would you write that down for me?” he asked. I wrote the passage on a 3-by-5 card and handed it to him. I urged him to look at the card periodically each day. I don’t know what happened in that man’s life from that point. But I do know that it came as really good news to him to know that God has compassion on us and that while we may walk away from God, the God we know through Jesus Christ will never walk away from us.

Early in my ministry, a woman approached me with a big concern. It was about my preaching; she didn’t like it one bit. In fact, she hated it.

Why, she asked, was I always talking about how wonderful God is? Shouldn’t I be bawling people out more for their sin?

Sin is serious business. God hates sin. But God hates sin because of what each one—whether it involves taking God’s Name in vain, murder, adultery, thievery, putting the motives and actions of others in a bad light--does to us.

Sin separates us from God.

It brings death.

It destroys our relationships with others.

It distorts our humanity.

God is the loving Father Who wants to welcome us home today and forever. Every time we’re tempted to see God as a cold, distant deity, we need to remember that when God came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, He was loving, compassionate, and involved.

We may condemn ourselves by not repenting for sin and not believing in Jesus Christ, but far from condemning us, on the night He was arrested, Jesus prayed for us. I preach about a wonderful God because in Jesus Christ that’s exactly what we see, the wonderful God of all creation!

There are many mysteries in life—suffering that doesn’t go away, prayers that seem unheard, temptations that dog us, relationships that go sour in spite of our fervent prayers, and others. But Jesus demonstrates beyond all doubt that each of us matters to God.

Jesus’ resurrection says that in the end, God will act lovingly and decisively on behalf of those who believe in Jesus. The Savior Who prays for us will never walk away from us. We can count on that!