Saturday, May 08, 2010

On Prayer

"Prayer in its highest form of faith is prayer which carries the whole man [sic] as a sacrificial offering." (E.M. Bounds, Praying That Receives Answers)

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Roman: It's Time to Pay the Piper

Hey, Roman Polanski! You're perfectly willing to use the media to present your "case." So, decrying the possibility your being served up on a media platter if you are successfully extradited to the US doesn't move me. You broke the law and then skipped the country. It's time to pay the piper, man!

'Pilgrimage of Progress'

That's the name of this fantastic documentary about four African-Americans who studied at The Ohio State University in the late-40s and early-50s. Each faced challenges at Ohio State and in life. But all four went on to achieve great things. I knew something of the story of Judge Duncan, but not of the other three alums. Take the time to watch this video, created by The Ohio State University Alumni Association, and be inspired!

A gift from a parishioner...

I'm not sure what Tony was trying to tell me. But it's a funny shirt.

[Click to enlarge.]

Understanding Revelation, Part 4 (Revelation 21:1-6)

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church earlier today.]

Revelation 21:1-6
Have you ever noticed how much we like new things? We buy a car and for the first few weeks after we drive it off the lot, we savor that “new car smell.” We pick the first strawberries of the season and can’t wait to clean them, layer on the sugar, and put them on top of freshly-baked shortcake. And when friends share our enthusiasms, we might invite them to drop by to see our new flat screen TV, our new computer, our new game system. 

Advertisers know all about our love for new things. TV commercials are often filled with phrases like, “new and improved.” They know that will get our attention. And politicians know how much we love new things, too: Woodrow Wilson campaigned to bring what he called the New Freedom; Franklin Roosevelt had the New Deal; John Kennedy had the New Frontier; Richard Nixon touted the New Federalism; and Bill Clinton talked about the New Covenant.

I think that one of the reasons we so love new things is that, after a time, we become aware of the flaws of the old things. New things grow old. Fuel pumps and transmissions go out on the new car or it gets dinged on the grocery store parking lot and the car isn’t new anymore. We pick the last strawberries of the season, forget all about them, and they go bad before we even think about eating them; we’ve grown tired of them. Presidents’ new programs go well until they run into things like Congress, interest groups, unforeseen circumstances, and sometimes, their own faults.

The result is that after awhile, as much as we want things to be new, we grow skeptical, even cynical about claims that anything can truly be new or improved. That’s why the Who sang, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.” It’s why Paul Simon sang, “Everything put together, sooner or later, falls apart.”

Maybe the biggest reason we like new things so much is that, deep in our hearts, we know that this world is not as it was meant to be. We know that we ourselves don’t live as we were meant to live. When we’re honest, I think, we even grow frustrated with ourselves, we tire of our old resentments, our old unfairness to others, our old failure to love—maybe even to love God--as we want to. We want to be “new and improved” people.

That yearning on our part is understandable. We were made in the image of God. Death, decay, our sin, growing old: None of these things were part of God’s original plan for you and me. God made us for an everlasting fellowship with Him. God made us to stand upright in His presence, with no need to hide from God, as the first human beings tried to do, after they had disobeyed God the first time. God made us to walk in what the Bible calls “newness of life.” The Bible says that God “has put eternity in [our] hearts.” But, you and I are born into a world alienated from God, all of us born with a predisposition to go our own ways, to sin. It’s our inheritance and we start spending that inheritance the moment we’re born; no one is more self-centered than a baby and if their parents don’t “hop to” at the first cry, a lot more crying is apt to follow! Even newborns need to be made new.

As our lives go on, we become more and more aware of our desire for what the Bible calls “a new thing.” But because we, as we grow older, are as self-driven as babies—though maybe a little more polite about it—we go "lookin’ for love [newness, life, hope, a sense of wholeness, happiness] in all the wrong places.”

Marriages hit snags and instead of recommitting themselves to doing the hard work of loving one another till death parts them, husbands and wives give up or take up with someone else or a string of someone elses.

People become frustrated with their lives or become bored by lives that seem to offer them little opportunity and, anxious for something new, dive deeply into things like alcohol, food, personal pleasure, money heroin, or oxycontin.

Preachers aren’t immune from looking for newness and eternity in bogus places, either. I once heard about a respected older pastor who told a bunch of younger ones who were wrestling with discouragement, “There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be made right with a new suit and a new book.” I like books, but there’s only one book that can make us new!

Look! There is something is wrong in our lives, something that evidences itself in the lives of every one of us. We long for the newness of life that can only come from the perfect, sinless creator of the world, from God. The holes in our souls can only be filled by God, not by the junk with which we try to fill them. We can only be made new by God!

That’s why the words in our lesson from Revelation for this morning are worth our attention. Listen to them again:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."
The lesson presents a vision revealed to a man called John the Evangelist, literally, John the Sharer of Good News. John, at this point, some time between 81 and 96AD, was living in an exile imposed on him by the Roman Empire. John had gotten into trouble because of his beliefs.
  • He believed that God had come to the earth and that His Name was Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth.
  • John believed that because of God’s desire to give us new lives, Jesus died on a cross, willingly taking the punishment for sin that we deserve, a perfect sacrifice made for all of us. 
  • John also believed Jesus, not the Roman emperor of his day, was the ultimate authority and Lord of the world. 
  • John believed that all who turn away from their sin and entrust their whole lives to Jesus Christ have eternal newness of life. 
  • And John believed that Jesus rose from the dead as a sign that His promises to those who believe in Him are on solid ground. 
In those days, John's beliefs were seen as unpatriotic, threatening, and seditious.

Today, I suppose, most people would see such beliefs as unexceptional. Or silly. Or meaningless. Or, because he insisted as Jesus taught, that Jesus is the only way to God, even bigoted. But for those of us who agree with all that John believed and have experienced the living love and power of Jesus Christ, the beliefs John confessed are the most important truths that any of us can ever know. God offers us, as a free gift, the newness of life for which we all yearn. But God doesn’t force it on us. God respects our capacity to say no to Him. Yet with every fiber of God’s infinite being, God wants us to say yes to Jesus, yes to newness of life.

The vision that the risen Jesus gave to John was of a new heaven and a new earth, a place inhabited for all eternity by believers in Jesus, drawn from all the peoples of the old earth.

But God even gives tastes of the newness that comes to those who turn from sin and believe in Him in this world. He comes and frees us from our sins so that we can experience newness of life here and now.

Pastor Jim Cymbala tells the true story of a couple who came up to him after worship at his New York City church. They were moved by worship and asked him to bless their relationship. Before he did that, he said, he wanted to know a bit more about them. They explained that they had been seeing each other for two years. Cymbala asked, “Are you living together?” The woman blinked hard and the man stepped back. “Yes,” she said. “You’re putting me in a bind,” Cymbala explained to them. “You’re asking me to bless what God has expressed a strong opinion about.”

Sexual intimacy, God says, is for marriage alone. Those who have sexual relations outside of marriage are stealing a gift that God intended as a sign and seal of love between husbands and wives who have committed themselves, before God and the world, to one another.

Cymbala suggested that the man move to another place in order to avoid temptation. The couple reluctantly agreed. Over the period of the next several months, they received counseling. They learned more about God and God’s will for their lives. They wanted their relationship to be blessed by God. They repented for their sins and committed themselves to living in the newness of life that comes from Jesus.

Several months later, at the end of a midweek worship, Cymbala told the large congregation that something special was coming. The organist began the opening notes of the wedding march and this couple, committed now to coming to Jesus in total submission to Him, confident that he gives new hope and fresh starts to those who seek to do things God’s way, was married. Cymbala says that their occasional sobs of joy could be heard by all in that cavernous sanctuary.

The only bumper sticker I think that I would ever put on my car says simply, “Christians aren’t perfect; just forgiven.” And as long as we live amid the old heaven and the old earth, we’ll need to come to God in the Name of Jesus to seek forgiveness. I do it every day, many times a day. I call my frequent prayers of confession, “midcourse corrections.” And I need them because the old sinful Mark is still around causing trouble, prone to throwing me off course all the time!

But, no matter how many times we fall, God is willing to pick us up again. In Jesus Christ, we are made new, forever new, forever with God, forever living more of the life for which God made us.

If that’s a gift you want, it’s a very simple thing to claim. Tell God that you want to turn from all the false trails to newness, that you want to repudiate all your sins, that you want to be made truly new, and then let the outreached arms of Jesus save you to live a better life today and a life with God for eternity.

Surrender to Jesus and He will make you forever new! Amen!

[Thanks to Pastor Brian Stoffregen for suggesting this general approach to the text, to Pastor Heath Pukallus for his inspiring sermon, and to all those who prayed for me yesterday when I felt that my first go at the text this week was inadequate.]