Friday, July 20, 2012

After Aurora: What the World Needs Most

As Alan Knox rightly points out, every Christian is called to "preach" the gospel. This fact is part of what it means to be a member of what Martin Luther called, "the priesthood of all believers."

And, given the frail and fleeting nature of life on this earth we have seen underscored in the Aurora, Colorado tragedy, every person on earth needs to hear the gospel.

And what is the gospel? It's "the good news" that Jesus receives sinful human beings who repent and believe in the power of His death and resurrection to transform them from enemies of God to God's friends for eternity. Jesus summed up how the gospel is activated in our lives in a short sermon found in the gospel of Mark:
"The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
By a sheer act of charity (what the Bible calls grace), God creates faith in Christ in those who are willing to believe and by that same grace, God counts our faith in Christ as rightness with God.

That's the power of the gospel we Christians ought to proclaim (preach) with love and consideration, without coercion or apology. Every Christian should be able to affirm with the apostle Paul:
"...I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith [in Christ], to the Jew first and also to the Greek [non-Jews or Gentiles]. For in it the righteousness [rightness] of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written [in the Old Testament book of Habakkuk], 'The one who is righteous will live by faith.'" (Romans 1:16-17)
More than ever, the world needs the gospel of Jesus Christ and it's the call of every Christian to pass it on!

Prayers and Thoughts for the Colorado Tragedy

Today, we need to be in prayer for all the victims of the Colorado movie theater tragedy.

From eleven years ago, here is a column I wrote for the Press Community newspapers in Cincinnati in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks that might have some relevance today: Four Things to Tell Children After 9/11. (One of the points made is so specific to the 9/11 attacks as to be irrelevant. But you can judge for yourself whether the other three points are helpful.)

Doubt in the Life of the Christian

Recently, talking with friends, one asked me if I ever doubted Jesus' resurrection or the resurrection from the dead that Jesus promises all who turn from sin and believe in Him.

I had to answer honestly that the resurrection isn't something I doubt.

The facticity of Jesus' resurrection is supported by another fact, it seems to me: That the very first followers of Jesus were emphatic that Christ's death and resurrection were central to their proclamation about Christ. Something like 500 people staked their lives on the claim that they had seen the resurrected Jesus.

There was nothing in it for them financially.

There was nothing in it for them socially or politically.

In fact, by insisting that, as Jesus had taught during His pre-crucifixion and pre-resurrection ministry, Jesus
  • was born of a virgin, 
  • was both fully God and fully human, 
  • was sinless, 
  • suffered and died for sinful humanity, and 
  • was raised by God the Father in order to open a new, eternal relationship with God to all who died to self (repented) and entrusted their lives to Christ, 
the first Christians were putting their lives on the line.*

To confess all these things, was to subject themselves to ridicule, rejection, and persecution.

If they were all guilty of hysteria, you would have imagined that at some point in their lives--and some apparently lived a long while after Jesus' death and resurrection--the hysteria would have broken.

If they were involved in some financial conspiracy--and there is no record intimating that anywhere that I know of--that too, would have broken down.

In fact, if history, even recent history, shows us anything, it's that conspiracies almost inevitably break down, especially under the force of the kind of political and religious persecution to which Christians were subjected in the earliest years of the movement.

Of course, the weight of facts can't get you to faith. Faith comes to those able to say, "Lord, I don't understand it all. But I trust Jesus. I find Him credible. I want to turn away from a life without Christ and live with Him as the center of my life. I want to believe. Help me do that."

Faith, as I've said before, comes to those willing to believe.

But, that doesn't mean that doubts ever go completely away. We are human, after all.

For me, the doubts never revolve around Jesus' resurrection or His promise to raise me and all those who have believed in Him at "the last day."

Instead, the doubts that sometimes accost me revolve around today.

Despite a thirty-five year track record in which the risen and living Jesus has sustained, encouraged, and empowered me, I sometimes wonder whether He's going to sustain me in the next challenge.

The God I know in Jesus Christ has been so powerful in my life through the years and yet, when facing new challenges or hurdles, I wonder, "Are you with me, Jesus? Have you had enough of me?"

Just last week, I was facing a hurdle. I was feeling distant from Jesus.** But here's what happened: In prayer, I owned my feeling of distance with Jesus. The simple sharing of that reality in my life with Christ was the opening Jesus took to assure me of His presence and our intimacy.

Whatever our doubts about Christ or the new life He offers to those who surrender to Him, the antidote is always the same: To come to Him honestly. To surrender to Him again each day. When we do, we learn the truth of the New Testament when it tells us that nothing "will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:31).

*And, by the way, recent studies indicate that the so-called diversity of Christianities of the early Church, in which it's supposed that the first followers of Christ had more diverse proclamations about Jesus than what are found in the New Testament, have proven false. The proclamation about Jesus clearly incorporated the above elements from the outset. Groups and documents claiming contrary things about many of the above points came later.

**It's important to remember that faith isn't contingent on our feelings or on our rationality. Christ is alive and the gracious Lord and refuge for sinners, whether, at any given moment, we don't feel or think those realities.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Why Resist Evil?

[This is the sermon prepared for delivery at this morning's 10:15 worship service with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. You are invited to worship with us any time.]

Mark 6:14-29
With its account of John the Baptist’s execution, our gospel lesson from Mark for today is so laced with evil that it’s disturbing. I’d rather just close the Bible on this passage today and move on to Holy Communion.

But that’s no way to treat the Bible, God’s revealed Word. Second Timothy 3:16, in the New Testament, says that, “all scripture is given by the inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” That’s true even of the disturbing parts.

And when I think of it, what I see in today’s Gospel lesson is a lot like what I see in life on Monday through Saturday. As wonderful as this life can be, there are things I would rather not face. These are the evils—like the inhumane things that human beings sometimes do to one another—that, when you learn of them, make you wonder, “How could this have happened? How can people be so cruel or sadistic?”

And I’m not talking just about murders or holocausts. I’m thinking also of the everyday evils, the cutting, harsh ways in which we all can diverge from the clear will of God to love God and love neighbor:

The husband or wife who ignores the spouse.

The parent who discourages a child.

The child who is disrespectful to the parent.

The customer who berates the clerk at the store.

None of us wants to be mistreated. Yet, often we can find ourselves subjecting others to the very disrespect or callous disregard that we hate to receive!

We all are sinners, of course. That’s the burden that the sinless Jesus came to take from us, the weight He took on His own shoulders on the cross so that all who repent for sin and trust in Him will have life with God forever.

As Christians, we’re called to do daily battle with our sin, which, if ignored, acts as a wall between God and us, between life and death.

We’re called to keep grabbing the strong, outstretched hand of Jesus Christ so that the power of sin and death over our lives can be destroyed by God’s powerful grace and deathless love.

That isn’t always as easy to do as it seems it should be.

You’ve heard me speak before about the frog in the kettle. A frog haplessly plopped himself into a kettle full of water that set on a stove top. Shortly after he got there, someone turned on the burner underneath the kettle. The frog, being a cold-blooded animal, adaptable to the world around him, didn’t realize he was being boiled to death.

Only insane people set out to be evil. Yet, like the frog in the kettle, sometimes people who should know better, are capable of evil, of cruelty to others. We allow our kettles--our environments, the world and the people around us--to dictate how we will act and react in everyday life. We adapt ourselves so well to the world around us that we boil ourselves in our own sin.

Herod Antipas was a man who should have known better than to fall into evil. He had been schooled in God’s will through a thorough knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we know as the Old Testament. On top of that, Herod had good political reasons for avoiding evil: Though his family had no legitimate claim on the honor, they had for generations held themselves to be Israel’s royal family. It was so important to Herod Antipas to be seen as the “king of the Jews” that he had undertaken to build a new temple on Mount Zion, the same spot in Jerusalem where, a thousand years before, King Solomon had built the first temple. Both spiritual training and political common sense should have kept Herod from evil.

But our Gospel lesson for today tells us that Herod perpetrated a horrible evil: Ordering the execution of John the Baptizer, whose crime was speaking the Word of God.

How that happened, a story you know well, comprises most of the lesson. Please turn to it, Mark 6:14 to 29. The stotry comes in what the moviemakers would call a flashback. Herod gets reports about the miracle-working ministry of Jesus and is convinced that John, whose beheading he had ordered, has come back from the dead. The memory of his evil clearly haunted Herod.

We’re then told about the night Herod threw a birthday party for himself, how the daughter of his wife—the wife he had stolen from his brother--had danced for him, pleasing Herod a lot, how—probably a little more than drunk—Herod had promised the girl anything in exchange for the dance, how she had asked her mother what to ask for and was given the chilling reply (in verse 24), “The head of John the Baptist,” and how, in spite of what Herod knew to be right, he complied with the girl’s wish.

It was an act of evil equal to anything you might hear about tonight on the Eleven O’Clock News. But I believe that our gospel lesson can help us to avoid falling into evil ourselves.

It does this by helping us to see that evil happens, first of all, when we want what we want more than we want what God wants. Herod wanted his wife’s daughter. He let himself be led by his lust and not by God.

That sort of thing can happen to us, too.

It may not be lust that leads us.

It might be materialism or acceptance or even a competitive spirit grown out of right proportions.

A woman, upset with herself, once told me, “I don’t know what happens to me at work. It’s like I’m a different person. I say and do things to get by or get what I want that, a few years ago, I could never have imagined myself doing.”

This woman was a frog in a kettle and she didn’t know how to get out! She was being led by things other than God.

Evil also happens when we’re more concerned with how we appear than we are with who we are. Herod kept his vow to his wife's daughter because he didn’t want to seem like a welcher to his guests. He didn't want to seem incapable of or unwilling to keep his word. He let the opinions of others lead him into evil.

Years ago, a pastor I know taught me a valuable lesson. One week, he made a mistake, one that the congregation needn’t have known about, not a sin, but a failure to make a deadline which cost the church some money. The first thing that pastor did the following Sunday morning during the announcements was stand up and apologize. If he had worried about appearances, he wouldn’t have said a word. But he was willing to admit his imperfections and gained credibility for it.

Evil also happens when we ignore the Word of God. Herod, in spite of the judgment against his actions he could hear in John’s preaching, liked to listen to John. He knew that John’s words were from God. Yet, at his birthday party, Herod turned a deaf ear to God’s Word and he ordered the execution of a man whose crime had been clearly speaking God’s Word.

It’s clear that to avoid evil, we need to:
  • keep God’s will foremost in our priorities, 
  • be focused on our character than our status, and 
  • remain attentive to God’s Word. 
It’s by these means that the God we know in Jesus Christ can free us from the push to selfishness and evil that exists within us and around us.

But that still leaves us with a question: What’s in it for us? At the end of our Gospel lesson, after all, Herod was still alive, still on his throne, and John’s body was taken away by his disciples for burial. Herod had caved into evil. John had remained faithful to God. So, does it really pay off for us to resist evil?

Of course, there’s the obvious answer to that question: Those who faithfully seek to follow the God we know in Jesus Christ will, in spite of our sins and failings, spend eternity with God. Jesus promises: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” from sin, death, and separation from God.

But there are more immediate rewards for those who commit themselves to keeping hold of Christ’s hand and resisting the temptation to sin. They’re mentioned in our lesson from Ephesians for today. We’re given, we’re told “every spiritual blessing.” Herod went to bed on the night he killed John the Baptizer knowing that he had done evil and that barring a renewal of his relationship with God, on a collision course with hell.

Unlike Herod Antipas, John the Baptist lived and died with the certainty that, even in the midst of things he couldn’t and didn’t fully understand, in resisting evil, in seeking to follow God faithfully, he had a Lord, a Friend, and an Advocate Who would never desert him, not even at the gates of death. Who, do you suppose, died a happier man: Herod Antipas or John the Baptist?

Sometimes, people ask me, “Where is God?” The simple truth is that God is present for all who want God around. God is present for all who call on the Name of Jesus Christ. If you want Jesus in your life, you can find Him in the Word of God, in prayers in Jesus’ Name, in the fellowship of the Church, in the Sacraments, in the neighbor you’re called to serve and share the gospel with each day.

And having Jesus Christ at the center of our lives makes all the difference in this life and in the one to come. And, finally, gloriously, eternally, joyfully, having Jesus Christ at the center of your life makes resisting evil worth all the trouble it can bring to our lives. Amen