Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Following an Offensive Savior

To suffering and persecuted first century churches in Asia Minor, the apostle Peter wrote, "...if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this Name" (1 Peter 4:16).
Peter's argument in the section of 1 Peter from which the verse is taken is basically this: Suffering is inevitable in this world. It's an imperfect, sinful place, after all. Christians may, in fact, experience suffering they wouldn't otherwise undergo because they are Christians. The message that Christians bear, that the suffering Savior Jesus calls all people to surrender to Him because He is the only way to rightness with God, offends most of the people of the world.  
But, Peter says, whatever suffering you may endure, keep glorifying the God Whose Son died and rose for you. Jesus Christ deserves our unreserved allegiance and total devotion!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Deciding How to Live

[This was shared during the 10:15 AM worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, today.]

James 3:13-4:8
Robert Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken, begins:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could. 
Anyone who has ever had to make a decision in life can identify with those lines. We all must make decisions.

Some decisions we make, of course, have more importance than others.

The career path we will follow.

Who we will marry.

How much effort we will choose to put into our relationships.

What to do in caring for elderly parents.

Life is filled with consequential decisions and, as we make them, we feel the need for wisdom.

In today’s second lesson, James, the earthly brother of Jesus and leader of the Christians in Jerusalem, says that there are two kinds of wisdom. And the consequences these two divergent forms of wisdom bring into our lives are dramatically different. Turn please to the lesson, James 3:13-4:8.

James begins with a question:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him [or her] show by good conduct that his [or her] works are done in the meekness of wisdom.” 
Now, truth be told, we don’t like being told to be meek. We flinch when Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “the meek will inherit the earth.” But, we don’t want to inherit the earth. We want it now! We’re not into delayed gratification.

And if the rows of self-help books you find in most bookstores are any indication, our idea of wisdom has to do with being shrewd and bold about getting what we want when we want it, no matter who or what gets in the way.

James well describes the shrewd, plotting wisdom that the world usually recommends to us:
"But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly [from the world, not from God in heaven], sensual [it gratifies the parts of us slated for death], demonic [from hell, the place of everlasting punishment and condemnation for those who turn their backs on Jesus Christ]. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there." 
The problem with the wisdom generated by human beings is that it’s me-centered. Buy into the “wisdom” of this world and you may achieve things that the world considers great, but you will not be in alignment with God’s will that we love God and love others as we love ourselves. You will, as Jesus says, "gain the world and lose your life."

This sort of death-dealing wisdom even has been given place in the twenty-first century Church.

For example, some conservative denominations and Christian megachurches wrap Jesus in the American flag to justify everything about American traditions and values, to give them the sheen of holiness. In doing so, they subordinate Jesus to the United States, engaging in an idolatry that appeals to those who are certain that, even if God isn't a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative, liberal, libertarian, or socialist, God is an American. This false wisdom may help churches get along with people who would rather not be confronted with the truth about the flaws of this nation we love, but it will leave the people who accept it far from the true God of the universe we know in Jesus.

Sadly, many embrace other forms of false and worldly wisdom in the so-called "liberal" denominations, like our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

An official web site of our ELCA, called Living Lutheran, recently published a sermon by Pastor Delmer Chilton, an assistant to the bishop of the ELCA’s Southeastern Synod. His text was Mark 7:24-37, a passage of the Bible that we looked at a few weeks ago. It deals with Jesus’ encounter with a Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile, a non-Jew, whose daughter had a demon.

Jesus, you’ll remember, at first appears to refuse the woman her request. “Let the children [by which Jesus means the children of Israel] be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Dogs” was the put-down term Jews used about Gentiles, who they believed could never be saved from sin and death nor be right with God. But we know that Jesus came to die and rise for all people, giving eternal life to all who turn from sin and believe in Him alone as God and authority over their lives.

We also know that Jesus is God the Son: all-knowing, all-powerful. “The Father and I are one,” Jesus tells us [John 10:30].

So, we are momentarily mystified by Jesus’ seeming refusal of this woman’s request.

But as we pointed out a few weeks ago, the word that Jesus uses for dogs is the word for puppies. The Syrophoenician woman immediately picks up on Jesus’ playful phrasing, understanding not only that Jesus is going to grant her request, but that He is using this incident as a memorable sign that His grace can reach and change the life of any person, whatever their nationality or former religious persuasion. As Jesus will put it elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, “The one who believes in Me and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe in Me will be condemned.”

In his ELCA official web site sermon, Delmer Chilton ignores all that Jesus claims about Himself throughout the rest of the gospels and says that Jesus really was going to turn the Syrophoenician woman down until she taught Jesus what it means to be God and Savior of the world. Chilton claims that after this encounter, “Jesus stands corrected...the woman has helped Jesus understand a difficult part of Scripture and a difficult part of his call.”

Folks, this is the cunning, shrewd, self-serving wisdom of the world dressed up as Christianity. It’s the same kind of sin the devil has been enticing proud people into embracing since the garden of Eden.

You see, if you whittle God down to your size, then you, not God, can call the shots. You can tell God how to be God. You can decide what truths in God’s Word you’ll accept as authoritative over your life and what ones you’ll ignore or denigrate. It allows you to remake Christian truth in ways that are more palatable to you.

Operating from the same mindset, the pastor of an ELCA congregation in Santa Fe, New Mexico told another newspaper a few weeks ago that Bible “is not a talking book” [a surprise to anyone who’s been taught that the Bible is the Word of God in which God speaks to us] and then, he asserted, the Bible “doesn’t tell me what to do.”

Turn please, to 2 Timothy 3:16. It says:
“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof [that means censuring or rebuking for wandering away from God’s will], for correction, for instruction in righteousness...” 
There are things we may not understand in the Bible, but it is the living Word of God, the place we go to find hope, salvation, truth, and God's will for our lives. It records God's definitive disclosure of Himself, first to ancient Israel and ultimately to all the world, through Jesus Christ. This is the God Who will give us wisdom for every decision we may face in life, if will will only ask for it in Jesus' Name. James 1:5 reminds us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him [or her] ask God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given...”

The kind of wisdom that we need isn’t the wisdom of the world, or of the devil, or even from within ourselves. James describes it in James 3:17: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy.”

Life is too big for us to figure it out on our own.

We need the wisdom God gives to those who humbly surrender their lives to Jesus Christ. Look again at our text, at James 4:7-8:
“Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
In my own life, whether before I turned from atheism to faith in Christ or in the years since I fell in love with Jesus, I have always gotten into spiritual danger, relational danger, and the danger of forgetting who God made me to be and who Christ, by His cross and resurrection, freed me to be in when I do three different things.

I've gotten into trouble when I have followed my own thoughtful analysis of circumstances, instead of following Jesus. God gave us our brains. So, we are to use them. But if my brain isn't subordinated to the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, I will inevitably make unwise choices. As Proverbs 14:12 reminds us: “There is a way that seems right to [human beings], but its end is the way of death.”

I've also gotten myself into trouble when I have followed my heart instead of following Jesus. God gave us our emotions and they can bless our lives. But if my heart isn't subordinated to Jesus Christ, I make unwise decisions. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the human heart "is devious above all else; it is perverse..."

I've also gotten myself into trouble when I've followed the crowd or some individual I respect or like, instead of following Christ. Proverbs 11:14 tells us, "Where there is no guidance, a nation falls, but in abundance of counselors there is safety." It's good to get the advice of other people. But if those other people aren't following Jesus, their advice is, at best, suspect.

I've gotten myself into trouble in life then, when I haven't followed the wisdom of God.

But, how can we operate from God’s wisdom, rather than the wisdom of the world?

For me, one passage of Scripture seems to best summarize God’s counsel and command for those who want to live in the wisdom of God every day of their lives.

Please turn to Romans 12:1-2.

It says:
“I beseech you therefore, [brothers and sisters], by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
Wisdom--as well as life, hope, and joy--comes to those who give their all to the God Who gave His all to us in Jesus Christ. Wisdom comes to those who surrender to Christ! 

Jesus says, “...wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction [that is, to hell and separation from God], and there are many who [take this route]...[But] narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

We all have decisions to make in life. Surrender to Jesus Christ and God will guide you to make wise choices.

Sometimes those choices will lead you through pain and growth and maturity you’d just as soon not acquire.

But when you choose to follow Jesus Christ, you will always be living wisely.

You will always be on the way that leads to life. Amen