Tuesday, March 18, 2003

What To Do When We Don't Know What to Do

When I was a teen, I read historian Barbara Tuchman's book, The Guns of August. It tells the story of how the international community drifted, almost against its will, into the First World War. One incident Tuchman recounted took palce shortly after that war's armed hostilities began and involved a conversation between the German foreign minister and a visitor to his office. How, the visitor wondered, had it all happened? How had the Great War begun? The foreign minister, in obvious exasperation replied, "Och! If we only knew."

Last evening, President Bush issued an ultimatum to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and his regime. Bush told Saddam to depart from Iraq within forty-eight hours or face attack.

There is a surreal quality to all of this. My favorite sports journalist, Tony Kornheiser, spoke for most of us, I think, when he noted on his radio show this morning that he never thought things would come to this.

I never imagined that Saddam would be so in control of things within his country that he could dig in his heels this long in ignoring the commitments he made to disarm at the conclusion of the Gulf War.

I never imagined that the US would actually be doing something America has never done and which presidents from John Quincy Adams to Dwight Eisenhower always repudiated--an American pre-emptive attack.

I certainly never imagined that Robin Cook, a former foreign minister in Tony Blair's government, would sacrifice his political future by resigning from the Labour government in protest of that government's alliance with the Bush Administration regarding Iraq.

I never imagined that the world, which was so firmly in America's corner after September 11, would be so opposed to America today.

It isn't my intention to express whether the President is right in the course he has chosen.

But I doubt that any of us could have imagined the events that have unfolded since President Bush's September 12, 2002 speech before the United Nations General Assembly. Nor could we have imagined the trepidation and fear that even the President's most ardent advocates express about the prospect of war in Iraq and its possible consequences.

Now, we are left to do what we must always do: PRAY!

Today, I received an e-mail from my colleague, Glen VanderKloot, pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois. Glen pointed out that there is a movement calling Americans to pray for America and for American military personnel every evening at 9:00 P.M.

I like that idea. But I would also like to suggest that at the same time, we pray for the following people and concerns:

(1) Pray that the innocent people of Iraq, the primary victims of Saddam Hussein's tyranny, will be protected from danger and harm.

(2) Pray that the developers and owners of weapons of mass destruction the world over will find more productive, creative ways to use money and resources.

(3) Pray that God will create a hunger in the hearts and minds of world leaders for Jesus Christ, His righteousness, and His wisdom. Pray too, that God will give them the courage to act on what God shows them.

(4) Pray that world terrorism will not be encouraged by this war or its aftermath.

(5) Pray that there will be peace in the Middle East.

We don't know everything. But through Jesus Christ, we do know God and we know that God can guide us through the current international crisis. May God bless our world!

Monday, March 17, 2003

Losing to Win

Mark 8:31-38
[Message shared at Friendship Church, Amelia, Ohio on March 16, 2003]

In 1968, at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, a runner named John Stephen Aquara was in the marathon, representing Tanzania. Shortly after the race began, Aquara fell, causing serious injuries to both a knee and an ankle. He received some medical attention and then, bandaged and still bleeding, he got back on the trail and resumed the race. He limped, hobbled, and skipped. Two hours after the other competitors had finished the race, John Stephen Aquara crossed the finish line. He even took a victory lap around the stadium. When a reporter later asked him why he had continued in the race when it was clear he could win no medal, Aquara replied, "My country didn’t send me seven thousand miles to enter the race. They sent me here to finish the race." [from Zig Ziglar's Over the Top]

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I identify with that true story. Twenty-seven years ago, after a period of childish, willful rebellion against God, I received Jesus Christ as my Lord. Whether we’re among those fortunate people who can say there never has been a time when they didn’t believe and follow Christ or if we’re among the thick-headed, thick-hearted variety I represent, the moment we turn from sin as a way of life and come to trust Jesus as our God and our only hope, our eternal destinies are assured. The believer in Jesus lives in the certainty that the Savior Who died and rose for sinners like us gives eternity with God to all who surrender to Him completely.

But our lives from that point aren’t meant to be spent just waiting for eternity. The Bible says that followers of Jesus live as aliens in a foreign country and that each of us, in our own ways, are to be "ambassadors for Christ." The Bible also says that life is a race and that each of us are to run it like competitors going for the gold. We’re to live each day we have on this earth with purpose and meaning and faithfulness to Christ even if everyone around us thinks we’re crazy. As followers of Jesus living in this world, we’re to be like John Stephen Aquara. We’re runners God has sent into the world not just to enter the race, but to finish the race!

Our Bible lesson for this morning gives us a good indication of what’s involved in the race that you and I are to run. Just before the beginning of the incident that our lesson recounts, Jesus’ key follower Peter has made a stunning confession. He says that Jesus is the very reflection of God in a human being. Jesus, Peter says, is the Messiah and the blessed Son of God the Father. Jesus tells Peter that he’s absolutely right. What a feeling that must have given to Peter and the other disciples. Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, about to begin His rule, and they were in on the ground floor.

But Jesus didn’t let them feel triumphant for long. Jesus chose that very moment to tell the disciples that He would go to Jerusalem, undergo all sorts of suffering, be rejected by the religious leaders, be condemned by the government, be killed, and three days later, rise again. Mark, the writer of our lesson says that Jesus "said this quite openly"; He spoke "with plainness and clarity." Jesus spoke with such plainness and clarity [this phrase was used to describe this passage by the late Lutheran Bible commentator, R.C.H. Lenski], in fact, that he riled Peter up! Peter pulled Jesus aside, grabbed Jesus by the shoulders as though trying to talk sense into a man who had stepped out onto a fiftieth storey building ledge, and shaking Jesus began yelling at Jesus. One of the other four books of the New Testament that we call "Gospels" tells us that Peter said, "God forbid! This will never happen to You, Lord!"

In this little performance, Peter manages to make Jesus fiercely angry! Jesus condemns Peter passionately. He tells Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things!" Can you imagine? Jesus applies one of the names for the devil to Peter. The word Satan basically means obstructor or opponent. Peter thinks that he’s being a nice guy. He thinks that he’s encouraging Jesus to banish any negative thoughts about suffering or crosses from His brain. And Jesus tells Peter, "Get out of My way! The Father didn’t send me just to enter the race. He sent me to finish the race!" For Jesus, that means suffering physically. It means suffering rejection and death on a cross. And finally, it means that Peter didn’t seem to hear: rising from the dead.

After lowering the boom on Peter, Jesus calls together His disciples and the crowd of people who watch His every move and He tells them:

"If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake, and for the sake of the gospel [the good news of God’s gift of life to all who turn from sin and receive Jesus as their Master] will save it... [He finishes by saying] Those who are ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when He comes [back] in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."

Followers of Jesus are called to finish the race just like Jesus did.

Our race as followers of Christ is like a journey. In this journey, three major things need to happen. [This journey motif was identified well in the weekly exegetical e-mail authored by Brian Stoffregen.]

First: We're to say goodbye to our selfishness. This is what Jesus means when He says that we’re to deny ourselves. Jesus calls us to quit worrying so much about ourselves and think about others. I recently read about a woman who manages a North Carolina nursing center. She has personal relationships with all the residents and loves helping meet their physical and emotional needs. An avid gardener, she grows roses behind the nursing center and sees to it that each resident receives a fresh-cut rose on their tray each morning. She gives of herself, treating others as she wants to be treated because some day she knows that she may be a resident of that nursing center. But not yet. After all, she’s only ninety. [from Be All You Can Be by Michael B. Brown] When you know that God will preserve you here and in eternity, you can care about others, no matter your age or condition.

In our journey, Jesus says, we need to carry our baggage. That’s what Jesus means when He tells us to take up our crosses. A lot of people think that means enduring the everyday challenges, frustrations, or tragedies of life. But our experience tells us and the Bible affirms that everybody faces these things in life. They happen whether we want them to happen or not. Jesus though, is talking about something we voluntarily take, something we choose to endure, like He voluntarily took up a cross to save us from sin and death. Taking up our cross then, means embracing experiences we’d rather not go through, knowing that when we do, others may see Jesus in us and want the hope and life Jesus offers.

On our prayer concern list today, you’ll find the names of Tom and Barb Beckstrom. Tom is pastor of Covenant Community Church in Fairfield. A few months ago, Tom, Barb, and their neighbors learned that their new homes were built on a toxic waste dump. You may have read about their situation in the newspapers or seen reports about it on TV. Many of their neighbors have reacted with fierce hatred toward the builder, public officials, and others. But Tom and Barb have made a decision, Tom told me the other day, to be positive witnesses for Christ in the midst of this situation. Even as they seek to get their neighborhood cleaned up, Tom and Barb are resolved to demonstrate and live the love of Jesus Christ. They’ve made this resolution in spite of seeing the value of their home plummet and being concerned about the possible effects of their home’s location on their health. "This presents us with an opportunity to show Jesus to people," Tom told me the other day. "And Barb and I are on our knees a lot, asking God to help us be faithful." Tom and Barb have volunteered to go through this situation looking for ways to help others experience the saving love of Jesus. They’re suffering for the sake of others. That’s what people do when they take up their crosses.

Finally: We’re to actually take the journey Jesus gives us. That’s what Jesus means when He says "follow Me." Lots of people go to worship on Sunday mornings. But they don’t journey through their weeks with Christ! Day in and day out, we’re to put Jesus first and make following Him our highest priority. That isn’t always easy! Loving God and loving neighbor in a dog-eat-dog world can be hard. It may mean rejection and suffering of one kind or another, just as it did for the Savior we follow. But remember—always remember—that Jesus, as He says, in our lesson today, will never be ashamed of those who dare to follow Him. Followers of Jesus are life’s ultimate winners. We belong to God forever. And we want to take as many people with us to heaven as possible! Those who humble themselves by denying themselves, taking up their crosses, and following wherever Jesus leads may look like Clark Kent to the world. But in the eyes of the only One Whose opinion really matters, they look like Superman and Superwoman.

God calls us not just to enter the race. But to finish the race. Let’s be true to that call!