Saturday, December 01, 2007

Change Lives

Get involved with the Boys and Girls Clubs in your community. Having recently served on the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Clermont County for four years, I can vouch that the clubs do change young people's lives for the better. And that's good for our communities...ultimately for our country.

From the 'Better Living' archives: here, here, here, and here.

Third Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons

[To see the first pass and an explanation of what these passes are about, go here. To see the second pass, go here.]

Verse-by-Verse Comments, Matthew 24:36-44 36 “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
(1) After telling the disciples that temple at which they marveled would one day be destroyed, Jesus also reveals that the entire world that they knew (and that we know) will one day come to an end. One day, the risen and ascended Jesus will return to earth, judge the living and the dead, and fully establish His kingdom. The disciples wondered what authenticating “signs” would take place to prove Jesus’ portrait of the future would take place. Jesus spends thirty-two verses on these signs. Then, He comes to this passage.

One point seems to be that even of you know the signs, you cannot know when His return will happen. That isn’t for us to know. And it isn’t an appropriate subject for our speculation. Our call is to trust Christ and live as faithfully for Him as we can each day. Period.

(2) With three words, “nor the Son,” Jesus says that even He was ignorant of when His return would happen. One commentator suggest, rightly I think, that Jesus didn’t know this as part of His voluntary laying aside of divine power--something Paul talks about in Philippians 2:5-11--when it came to His personal comfort.

Jesus, “true God and true man,” as both the Bible and the historic creeds of the Church affirm, certainly possessed and used divine power while on earth. But He always did so in the service of His mission, which was to save a fallen human race from sin and death. His miracles were signs of Who He was and of the authenticity of His promises to all who follow Him. But Jesus came to “search and save the lost” and to be a servant of all.

Difficult as it is for us to imagine, I believe that Jesus chose to remain ignorant of those things that would bring Him more comfort and hope than other members of the human race might have when we face suffering and death. Jesus came to the earth in order to be one with us so that He could win new life for us. Jesus trusts that the future is in the hands of the Father. He calls us to trust in the same way.

37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
(1) Jesus recalls the events recounted in Genesis 6, when God called eight believing but imperfect people, Noah and his family, to build an ark and ride out a flood that would destroy a human race that had totally rebelled against God.

While Noah and family built the ark and watched God gather animals from throughout the world, the rest of the human race went on with its business. Some of their activities, as Jesus tells it, were mundane and innocent. But through it all, they were heedless of God, eliminating God from their decisions and their thoughts.

Jesus says that “they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.” Similarly, humanity will go along its merry way before Jesus returns, many people completely heedless of Christ. Like those outside the ark in the days of the flood, they’ll be caught by surprise.

40Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
(1) Much is made of these verses in certain Christian circles. These folks refer to what Jesus describes here as the rapture, a word that comes from the French and literally refers to being seized or taken away. Knit together with a few things written by Paul, what’s called “the rapture” projects that on Christ’s return, believers will meet Him in the sky.

But in the case of these two verses, we have to be careful to note what Jesus does and doesn’t say. We mustn’t read into these words what isn’t there. Jesus says nothing about where those taken go. Nor does He say anything about what happens to those who remain in the field or grinding meal.

These verses are a mystery, really.

42Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
(1) Spiritual wakefulness entails keeping our lives focused on God and on God’s will. The object is to not be caught up in worrying about the past or the future, but to remain faithful to God today.

These words are similar to what Jesus told the disciples who fell asleep as He prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. If we don’t stay alert and remain focused on God, we’re apt to become discouraged or fall away from God.

(2) Once again, Jesus underscores the fact that we don’t know when He is returning. Instead of concerning ourselves about when He will come back, our call is to be faithful to Him now.

43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
(1) Jesus closes out this discourse by sharing a mini-parable. Only Jesus would be so sacrilegious as to compare Himself to a thief. His point: Thieves don’t tell you when they’re going to break into your home. You have to be prepared for them by doing things like securing the dead bolt and locking the valuables. By maintaining a relationship with Christ, we secure our eternal lives. We’re prepared for His return whenever it happens.

(2) Notice that once again, Jesus uses a form of the word “know,” as He does throughout this passage. Here, it’s “if the owner of the house had known.” There can be no “know it all” Christians. We don’t know it all. And we know even less if reverence, respect, and awe for the God we know in Christ isn’t central to our faith. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7).

Friday, November 30, 2007

So, What Does Romney Think About the Bible?

Is former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney breaking with his fellow Mormons?

Is he engaging in politicalspeak?

Or does he simply not know what his own Mormon religion teaches about the Bible?

These questions came to my mind several nights ago after listening to Romney's response to the YouTube-submitted question of Joseph from Dallas, Texas, during the most recent Republican presidential debate.

In a question which one blogger described as being "from some scary guy who thrust a Bible at the camera and intoned in a rather threatening voice," Romney, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee were asked, "Do you believe every word of this book?"

Giuliani and Huckabee gave answers one might have expected from them. Giuliani's was the response of a post-modern guy who's given little or no thought to the Bible or faith issues in spite of being a Roman Catholic. Huckabee, the former Baptist pastor, answered in a way which could be sliced and diced by those of varied confessional backgrounds, but would nonetheless be similar to the responses given by most Christians.

Romney's response seemed, at best, incomplete.

I'm privileged to be reviewing an advance copy of a new book by my blogging colleague, Andy Jackson. In it, Andy draws from the pronouncements of the Mormon religion itself to discuss what the Latter Day Saints believe about the Bible, which is what the YouTube questioner had in mind when he used the phrase, "Word of God." (In fact, he appeared to specifically reference the King James Version of the Bible. But I won't get into that here.)

All Christians would agree, I think, with something like the formulation of my own Lutheran movement, which says that the Bible is "the authoritative source and norm of [Christian] life, faith, and practice." In the Bible, God discloses Himself and His will to we limited, mortal human beings and all that we Christians say about or do in the Name of God must be measured against what God reveals about Himself there. (This is what the word, canon, refers to; canon is a means of measurement.) We don't have the freedom or the right to claim as true anything about God or about life with God that's less than, more than, or outside of what the Bible teaches.

But, according to the Mormon sources cited by Andy, Mormon teachings don't have as high a regard for the Bible as traditional Christian teaching. Both in the writings of the religion and the pronouncements of its prophets, presidents, and apostles, beginning with Joseph Smith, the Bible is seen as a severely corrupted book with impoverished notions as to how one is saved from sin and death.

Furthermore, the Bible is regarded as an inferior form of revelation when compared to The Book of Mormon, The Pearl of Great Price, and Doctrine and Covenants.

And none of these written sources are deemed as authoritative as the latest visions given to the religion's luminaries.

A devout Mormon can speak of the Bible as the Word of God, but certainly not in the same way Christians do. If Romney knows that, then, as long as he was going to answer the "scary" man's question, honesty should have impelled him to mention that.

A Mormon could serve honorably as President. I said this in 2005. But we have every right to expect that a Mormon (or a Baptist, or a Buddhist, or an atheist) won't soft-pedal her or his religious views when asked directly about them and when he or she chooses to answer such questions.

This was Romney's response to the question about whether he believed in the Word of God:
MR. ROMNEY: I believe the Bible is the word of God, absolutely. (Applause.) And I try to live by it as well as I can, but I miss in a lot of ways. But it's a guide for my life and for hundreds of millions, billions of people around the world. I believe in the Bible.

MR. COOPER: Does that mean you believe every word?

MR. ROMNEY: You know -- yeah, I believe it's the word of God. The Bible is the word of God. I mean, I might interpret the word differently than you interpret the word, but I read the Bible and I believe the Bible is the word of God. I don't disagree with the Bible. I try to live by it.
"I don't disagree with the Bible." Not exactly, "Here I stand." And nobody says that he has to have a "Here I stand" view of the Bible in order to be President. At least I don't say that. Believing in the Bible as the Word of God isn't a requirement for holding the office of President.

The problem is that Romney appears to want to say that he has the same view of the Bible as historic Christianity, in violation of the tenets of his own religion.

Instead of trying to fudge on this issue, which it seems, is his aim, why doesn't Mr. Romney just say what he thinks or simply tell people to lay off his religious views?

People would respect him for such legitimate responses, I think.

But lame answers, in which he appears to aim at "splitting the difference" and make everyone happy without really saying anything do not help his candidacy.

Second Pass at Bible Lessons for This Sunday (December 2, 2007)

[For the first pass at these lessons, along with an explanation of what the passes are about, go here.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

General Comments (continued)
9. Psalm 122: The Psalms were the worship songbook for the people of Old and New Testament times. To this day, of course, hymns and praise songs are written using the Psalms. Many are attributed to King David, an accomplished musician.

Just as our worship today requires different kinds of songs depending on the themes and seasons, the Psalms also contain different categories songs. Among these are laments, praise hymns, creation psalms, and others.

Psalm 122, as its superscription indicates, is "A Song of Ascents." This was one of the songs that religious pilgrims would have sung as they ascended Mount Zion, where the temple in Jerusalem was located, during one of the major festivals. Jesus Himself may well have sung this song with his family and friends on their famous trip to Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was twelve.

10. Romans 13:11-14: The New Testament book of Romans is the most extraordinary of the letters of Paul we have in the Bible. Paul wrote it sometime between 54 and 58 AD. He was probably in the Greek city of Corinth when he dictated it to a secretary called an amanuensis.

Just prior to the writing of Romans, Paul had collected offerings from members of dispersed churches in Asia Minor (mostly modern Turkey) for the purpose of helping the needy believers in Jerusalem. Paul was going to take the offerings to Jerusalem. After that, he planned to take a missionary trip to Spain, preaching the Good News of Christ, winning new believers, and establishing churches there. His plan further was to pass through Rome, where a church had already been established. There, he hoped to encourage the Christians there and maybe, to raise an offering to support his efforts in Spain. Paul had already traveled thousands of miles, by ship and by foot, mostly, in his mission of sharing Christ. He hope to add many more miles. Romans was Paul's way of introducing himself to the church at Rome.

11. As in the text from the Old Testament and the Gospel lesson, Paul is dealing with apocalyptic themes in this passage, referring to the Day of the Lord when the risen and ascended Jesus will return to the earth. He encourages the Christians at Rome to conduct themselves as followers of Jesus as they await that day. The best preparation for Jesus' return isn't endless speculation about it, but to simply strive to be faithful followers of Jesus, "putting on" Christ.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

But Is the Line Item Veto the Right Thing?

"The line-item veto is unconstitutional determined not by John McCain, but by the Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court found that the line-item veto is unconstitutional. If I hadn't challenged that, I would not have been carrying out my fiduciary duties for the people of New York City. That was money that was illegally deprived to the people of my city. I fought for them."

So said former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani in Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate. Giuliani was responding to a shot fired by Arizona Senator John McCain. McCain was speaking of how readily he would wield a veto pen as President to thwart pork barrel spending, also known by the harmless-sounding euphemism, earmarks.

Said McCain: "...we'll give the president of the United States a line-item veto, which Rudy Giuliani opposed so that he can protect his $250 million worth of pork."

McCain was referring to a lawsuit in which Giuliani, as mayor, successfully prevented former President Bill Clinton from exercising an asserted line item veto over federal spending earmarked for projects in New York City. The US Supreme Court ruled Clinton's assertion unconstitutional, clearing the way for the pork to be sent to New York.

The line item veto, enjoyed by more than thirty US governors, gives chief executives the ability to sign spending bills into law while scratching out specific appropriations they deem exorbitant or unnecessary. Chester Alan Arthur was the first President to support the enactment of such a veto power. Ronald Reagan asked for legislation legitimizing the line item veto.

Giuliani is right in stating that the Supreme Court has ruled the line item veto unconstitutional. No one can dispute that, although McCain did on Wednesday evening. But in stating repeatedly, as he did in both the November 28 and the earlier October 9, debates, that "the line item veto is unconstitutional," he also sort of avoids the issue. In the two debates, first Governor Romney and then Senator McCain, were challenging Giuliani's bona fides as a proponent of fiscal responsibility.

Giuliani's contention that in bringing the suit, he was simply protecting the interests of his city, may have some merit, although it sounds an awful lot like the argument of every sectional and special interest group when it comes to pork barrel spending. Their arguments roughly run like this: "I'm against earmarks, unless they're earmarks that go to my community or to my preferred class of people."

But Giuliani appears to want to drape his lawsuit in the wifty legitimacy of constitutionality. It's a bit of a dodge.

The implicit question in McCain's and Romney's shots at him which Giuliani might more profitably address is, "Leaving aside the merits of the $250-million of New York pork, do you believe in a line item veto? Would you support a line item veto, something which even the Republican you and the other candidates for president invoke as the patron saint of your party, Ronald Reagan, supported? Or, was Mr. Reagan wrong?"

I would be interested in how Mr. Giuliani--and all the other candidates for his party's nomination--would respond to that question. (I'd also like to know how the Democratic candidates stand on the line item veto.)

It was Andrew Jackson who first made energetic use of presidential veto power. He did so to stand up against the interests he thought controlled the Congress. He deemed it a legitimate weapon for the President, who was elected by the whole country, to use in preventing interest groups of various kinds from getting laws passed benefiting the few.

But the presidential veto is usually impotent when it comes to spending measures. Illegitmate pork can easily be folded into legitimate and necessary spending measures, forcing President's hands. The President can choose to veto appropriations bills, which often go to the White House late any way, because they contain objectionable pork spending or simply accept such bills as the best that's likely to be produced by a Congress prone, even when its members are personally incorruptible, to spend money in the ways that constituents, city councils, and important supporters want them to spend it.

While Presidents are human beings and therefore as subject to corruption as the next mortal, it's easier for the President to speak for the whole country, as Andrew Jackson knew, than to push the petty, budget-busting agendas of congressional districts and individual states. The Constitution is a commendable, remarkable document. I have the deepest respect for it as the best thinking of what should be regarded, I think, as America's greatest generation. (The Constitution is, I think, greater than the Declaration of Independence. That document enunciated principles of liberty. But the Constitution was how the generation who secured American liberty decided it would use its liberty effectively and well.) The Constitution was not without its flaws, as its countenancing of slavery attests. The Framers knew too, that the document wasn't perfect and that circumstances would change, meaning that the power to amend it was essential and built into it.

The failure to give the US President the ability to veto specific items of spending within massive appropriations bills appears to me to be a design flaw in the Constitution.

For McCain to say that the line item veto is constitutional, which he did say on Wednesday night, is flat-out wrong. For Giuliani to say--repeatedly--that it's unconstitutional is irrelevant. The question, as I say, is whether advocating an amendment or at least, advocating exploring the possibility of such an amendment, is advisable.

[This is being cross-posted at The Moderate Voice.]

[UPDATE: In the comments here, my friend, Charlie Lehardy, makes a similar point to one I made in the comments on this post over at TMV. You might want to check out that discussion here.]

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (December 2, 2007)

[Each week, I consider the assigned Bible lessons for the following Sunday in several "passes." These summarize some of what I'm thinking about and learning of the lessons. Hopefully, the posts help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, the congregation of which I'm pastor, to prepare for worship. But they may also help worshipers at other churches to do the same thing, as the lessons used almost always come from the lectionaries common to most churches in North America. At Saint Matthew, also, I'm currently using these posts for our adult Sunday School class.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 2:1-5
Psalm 122
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

General Comments:
1. This weekend brings us to the first Sunday in Advent. For an explanation of Advent, go here.

2. You'll notice that these lessons for the beginning of the Church Year touch on similar themes to those assigned two Sundays ago, near the end of the preceding Church Year. (Go here.) The texts assigned two Sundays ago dealt with "the Day of the Lord," which in Old Testament times referred to when God would restore the faithful people in Israel and in the New Testament dealt with the risen and ascended Jesus' return to the earth in order to fully establish His eternal kingdom and to vindicate those who follow Him. These lessons deal with the same subjects. A similar continuity in themes always exist between the ends and beginnings of Church Years.

3. In fact, Advent, a word that means coming, refers to God's coming to us. Historically, the season has had more to do with the apocalyptic, God's revelation or self-disclosure at the end of time, with God coming into the world to render judgment against humanity's inhumanity, than with the anticipation of Christmas.

Of course, the anticipation of Christmas does fit in with the revelation or the coming of God to us, because Jesus is, as the Old Testament book of Isaiah tells us, Emmanuel, a Hebrew word meaning God with us.

(In the New Testament Gospels, Luke typically refers to the return of the risen, ascended Jesus to our world with derivatives of the Greek word, apocalypto, whereas Matthew, the Gospel around which our new church year is built, speaks in four places of the parousia (coming) of Christ. By the way, all four of those instances happen in Matthew 25, three of them in this Sunday's lesson.)

4. Isaiah was a prophet who lived in Judah (or Judea) during the eighth century BC. (For background information on Judah, the "southern kingdom," go here.)

The Archaeological Study Bible says:
Isaiah's primary ministry was to the people of Judah, who were failing to live according to the requirements of God's law. But he prophesied judgment not only upon Judah but also upon Israel [the Northern Kingdom, whose worship life centered on the city of Samaria] and the surrounding nations. On the other hand, Isaiah delivered a stirring message of repentance and salvation for any who would turn to God.
The authorship of Isaiah is debated by Biblical scholars. Traditionally, the entire book was attributed to Isaiah.

By contrast, some scholars think that Isaiah had very little to do with it, that the writings were produced by a group of prophets who operated in the original Isaiah's "school of thoughts."

A third group of scholars believe that chapters 1 to 39 were written by Isaiah, son of Amoz. They attribute chapters 40-55 to a second Isaian prophet they refer to as "Deutero-Isaiah" and chapters 56-66 to a third author, who they call "Trito-Isaiah." Whatever the truth about authorship, two things should be kept in mind:
  • Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Christians and Jews have always seen in Isaiah the Word of God.
  • Those in the ancient Near East didn't share our views regarding authorship. It was considered perfectly legitimate for an author operating within the tradition established by a prophet or a rabbi to write in the name and the voice of that person.
5. Isaiah wrote at a time when a great foreign power, Assyria, threatened Judah. Isaiah said that his homeland lacked the strength to withstand this threat because of its faithlessness toward God. He called Judah to repentance. Eventually, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, would fall to the Assyrians. Judah would eventually fall to the Babylonians some time later.

6. There's some question about whether chapter 2, the first five verses of which form our first Bible lesson, is an insertion, since it repeats the introduction of the prophet found at the beginning of chapter 1.

7. Like the Gospel lesson, which calls people to pay attention to Jesus, God-in-the-flesh and not to speculate about when the Day of the Lord will arrive, Isaiah calls the people of Judah to attend to God.

As in the Gospel lesson, the day isn't a fearsome prospect. In fact, it's to be anticipated by believers.

In Isaiah's prophecy, it will be a time when agricultural implements, often used in battle when farmers were called into battle to protect their invaded homelands, will be turned back to agricultural uses. It will also be a day when the faith of God's people will be vindicated as God puts things to right.

8. As in the Gospel lesson, Isaiah affirms that God is in control of the future. Our call isn't to be caught up in speculation about when the Day of the Lord will arrive, but to confidently be about God's business whatever the day.

What is that business? A few Biblical passages can answer that question:
  • He [God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)
  • [Jesus said:] “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)
  • [Jesus said:] "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
[More on the remaining lessons later in the week, I hope.]

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What is the Church Year? A Bit of an Explanation (REPEAT)

[Two years ago, as we were beginning a new season of Advent, I presented this explanation of the Church Year. It remains one of the most popular posts I've written for this blog. As we prepare, this Sunday, to begin another Advent season, I thought people might find it helpful.]

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anybody else. Nor does keeping it "save" a person from sin and death.

But the Church Year is one of those customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also help believers to grow in their faith.

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after the risen Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven that the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holy day that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the earliest practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jesus' fellow Jews from Judea, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week.)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. Its theme is waiting. This season remembers more than the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. It also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in our own lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. The color usually associated with Advent is blue, like the sky, reminding us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing, The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. The date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day historically used to commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus to a house in Bethlehem, where Mary and Joseph apparently decided to live for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave one another presents.) There are between four and nine Sundays after the Epiphany. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, that always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration, the occasion when on top of a mountain, three of His disciples saw His image transfigured in the luminescence of heaven while He spoke with two figures of Old Testament faith, Moses and Elijah. On those two Sundays, the associated color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal which precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days. The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is really misused today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate, related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was to be executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another. Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is the most somber and one of the most moving worship services of the year. At our congregation, as is true of many churches, we have a service called Tenebrae. This word comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons made up of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, usually on the last or next-to-last Sunday in November with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lesson during its year is often taken from John.

I feel free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," looking at Biblical texts not appointed in the lectionary, in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world. But the lectionary does provide a well-rounded diet of Biblical material which, when looked at in a disciplined and devoted way, can help Christians develop a deeper faith.

[The image above, showing the cycle of the Church Year, comes from Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

What is Advent?

My friend and colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot presented this overview (which I've edited slightly) to explain what Advent is about back in 2004. Since this Sunday, December 2, brings us to the First Sunday in Advent, I thought that I'd present his devotional piece on Advent once again:
Advent is the four weeks before Christmas when we prepare for Jesus. Some people have an Advent calendar with small doors they open each day until Christmas Eve. Sometimes there are pictures and Bible verses behind the doors, sometimes a treat. The Advent wreath is another way we celebrate the season. Each Sunday during Advent we light another candle on the Advent wreath. But why do we do these things?

Advent begins of the Sunday nearest November 30 includes four Sundays. [This year Advent begins on December 2.]

The word Advent means "the coming.” Since the fourth century when Advent was a time to prepare for baptism to the Middle Ages when Advent became a time to prepare for the second coming of Jesus, Advent has been and still is a time of spiritual reflection and anticipation.

Today Christians still view Advent as a season to prepare for the second coming of Jesus. Surprisingly, it is only since the 1900's that Advent has come to be a time of anticipating the Nativity on Christmas Day.

The Advent wreath is just one symbol of the season. While no one is exactly sure how it began, it is thought that they began with pre-Christian people who lit candles as a sign of hope in the long dark winters. In the Middle Ages, the Christians adapted this tradition and used Advent Wreaths as part of their spiritual preparation for Christmas. St. John tells us that Jesus is the light that has come into the world. By the 1600's both the Lutherans and Roman Catholics had formal practices surrounding the Advent wreath.

The Advent wreath is a circle that represents the never-ending love of God. It can be decorated in many ways. Often the branches of evergreens are used which remind us that with Jesus we will have eternal life. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. Some churches use three purple and one pink candle while others use all blue. There can also be a white candle in the center that is lit on Christmas Eve for Jesus.

No matter how a wreath is decorated or the color of the candles, we light it each Sunday to remind us to prepare the way because Jesus is coming.

The light has come into the world,
and people who do evil things are judged guilty
because they love the dark more than the light.
People who do evil hate the light and won't come to the light,
because it clearly shows what they have done.
But everyone who lives by the truth will come to the light,
because they want others to know that God is really
the one doing what they do.
John 3:19-21 Contemporary English


Dear God, thank you for sending your Son, Jesus,
and for things like Advent wreaths that help remind us
what Christmas is all about. Amen

Sunday, November 25, 2007

'On Leaving'

As regular readers of this blog know, after seventeen years in my former parish, I recently accepted the call from the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to be their pastor. I wrote a series of posts, Hello, Goodbye, detailing my reflections on leaving one parish and heading to a new one.

It turns out that while my wife and I were prayerfully wrestling with the decision to make this transition, two blogging pastors I respect were going through the same process.

One was Pastor Mark Roberts, who went from a southern California congregation to a place called the Laity Lodge in Texas, moved shortly before we went from Cincinnati to Logan. Mark wrote about his move here.

Recently, Pastor Craig Williams has left a congregation he started nineteen years ago. He's written about the change here.

Craig was supportive and encouraging to me as I made my move. He will be in my prayers now.

Craig is one of the most thoughtful and interesting bloggers around.

'How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election'

Earlier this year, in the face of the appallingly early start of the 2008 presidential race, I wrote a seven-post blog series dealing with some "lenses" through which Christians might view the election. Now that the first pre-convention contest is set at little more than a month from now, the series may be of greater interest.

In it, I make no effort to say what God's political preferences are. No matter how confidently some may claim to know God's political party or candidate choices, no one can really say what these may be. But I do believe that for Christians who sincerely want to apply their faith to the way they exercise their votes, the Bible, God's Word, does define some important considerations. I tried to describe those in 'How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election.'

Let me know if you find the posts in this series helpful:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

See the King?

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

Luke 23:33-43
A family was moving to a new town. As they approached the outskirts of the place, they decided to stop at a local filling station and ask the attendant there what the town was like. “Well,” he said, “what was the last place you lived in like?” The family said, “It was awful. Neighbors were unfriendly. Delivery and repair people never showed up on time. Dogs barked at all hours. Our bosses were scrooges and the kids never once had a good teacher.” The attendant considered their answer for a while and said, “This place is pretty much like that. You’d be better off moving on.”

Later that day, same scenario. Another family showed up at the filling station and wanted to know what this new town was like. “What was your old town like?” the attendant asked. “It was great,” the family said. “Everyone was so friendly. The businesspeople did their best to get things done on time and always went above the call of duty. We had great bosses and the kids’ teachers were fantastic! Even the dogs were quiet.” The attendant considered their answer and said, “This place is pretty much like that. You’re going to love it here!”

Sometimes what we see is the thing we’re looking for.

We see it because we’re open to seeing it.

I bring all of this up because on this Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year, our Gospel lesson seems, at first, to be out of place. After all, we’ve just come through Thanksgiving and Black Friday and are looking ahead to Christmas and all the January bills. But the Gospel lesson is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, an account of the first Good Friday.

But the lesson seems out of place for an even more important reason: Nobody seems less like a king than a man executed on a cross.

Not many will look at the crucified Jesus and see a king, let alone the King of kings. A young woman our daughter Sarah knows rediscovered her faith in Jesus while she was a teenager. When that happened, she bought a simple cross necklace and put it on. One morning, her father spotted her wearing it and asked what was going on. (After all, he'd raised her to be a good little agnostic.) She explained that she wanted to be able to see the cross in the mirror every time she washed her hands or combed her hair. It would remind her of Christ. Her father was repulsed. “Do you have any idea what happened on the cross?” he asked. He went on to explain in detail what a humiliating and life-crushing experience crucifixion was.

To that young woman’s father, Jesus’ death on a cross was proof that Jesus was no king, just another pathetic victim of the world. To him, the story of Jesus on the cross ended not in the Savior paying the price for our sins and in His resurrection from the dead so that all who repudiate their sin and believe in Jesus will live with God forever. To him, Jesus’ story ended in death for Jesus and for us all. Intent on making his own way in the world, what that man wanted to see was exactly what he saw.

In our lesson today, the jealous religious leaders who sought Jesus’ death, the cynical soldiers who gambled for His clothes, and one of the criminals crucified with Him all saw Jesus as they wanted to see Him. Each in their way, taunted Jesus, seeing Him as a loser headed for utter humilation and defeat. “He saved others,” the religious leaders say. “If He is the son of God, let Him save Himself.” “If you really are the king,” the soldiers taunt, “save Yourself.” “Aren’t You the Messiah?” one of the criminals asks, “Then get us off the hook and save yourself.”

Whether the leaders, the soldiers, or the first criminal harbored notions that Jesus really was the Messiah, God’s anointed King, it’s hard to say. One suspects that the religious leaders knew that Jesus was the King, but wanted to get rid of anyone who might threaten their guilt-tripping stranglehold over the people of first century Judea.

And I think that the others who taunted Jesus that day were cynics who believed, like the father of our daughter’s friend, that life must end at the grave. Even the crowds who gazed on these events in silence appear to see only hopelessness in Jesus’ crucifixion.

I suppose most people who take the time to consider Jesus on the cross see things that way. They can’t see how Jesus’ crucifixion proves that He is the King of kings.

But we who follow Christ have been helped to see things differently. Paul writes about these two different ways of seeing Jesus on the cross in First Corinthians in the New Testament. The “message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” he says. “But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Only one person in today’s lesson saw the power of God in Christ’s crucifixion. He looked at the suffering Jesus on the cross and saw not a defeated man, but the King.

He was so certain of Jesus being the King that he turned to Jesus and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus promised him not because the criminal deserved it, but because he had confessed both his sins and his faith in Jesus, that he would on that very day be with Him in paradise.

Why did that one man see Jesus as the King of kings that Good Friday?

As good Lutherans who read our Bibles, we all know that it wasn’t because he was smarter than the others, or that he was a better person, or that he had done more good things. None of these things create faith or give us our places in Christ’s kingdom. Faith that saves us from sin and death is a gift from God. In another place in the New Testament, Paul says, “No one can confess ‘Jesus is Lord,’ unless he is guided by the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3, TEV).

And in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, Martin Luther, says, “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy, and kept me in the true faith…”

God creates and sustains faith in those who are open to seeing Jesus as their Savior and their King.

Today’s Gospel lesson shows us that only one kind of person is open to seeing Christ as King. Only one kind of person will pay attention when God’s Spirit prompts them to confess their sins or follow Jesus Christ.

Michelle Akers was the first American woman to play professional soccer in Europe. After scoring ten goals in five games in the first-ever Women’s Cup in 1991, she signed an endorsement deal that brought her fame and money. She even got a tryout to be a place kicker with the Dallas Cowboys, her longest attempt going 52-yards.

But in 1993, she was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. “When it was really bad,” Akers says, “I couldn’t sit up in a chair. The racking migraines stranded me at home, unable even to get up to brush my teeth or eat.” Five minute walks required two days on the couch to recover.

Strength and hard work, the two kings on whom Akers had relied her entire life, could no longer be called on to help her. She says that it was unbearable to not be the “best in the world” or the person who could always bounce back from any injury.

“I was forced to spend a lot of time thinking about who I was. I didn’t like what I saw,” she says. Then, her husband left her.

It was then that Akers was invited by her strength coach to worship with him. She didn’t know why exactly, but Akers accepted the invitation. It was the beginning of a new life with Christ as her king.

Looking back, Akers says, she thinks that for years God had been calling her to follow. But, certain that she knew what she was doing, sure that she could make her own decisions, convinced even that she didn’t need forgiveness or help with living her life, she ignored God and the Church. Akers says “It took total devastation before I could [surrender] and say, ‘Okay, God. You can have my life. Please help me.”

Who sees Jesus Christ as King?

People who see that their lives are broken without Him.

They see Jesus as King first of all, because they see themselves as they are: as sinners in need of forgiveness, as ordinary human beings who cannot make it without the eternal God.

They're people who see that at the end of our power to cope or hope is a King Who fills His people with love and gives them the capacity to face any cross in the certainty that they belong to God forever!

Years ago, at a conference in San Antonio, I met a nurse who worked in a nursing home. She told about caring for a retired pastor who was dying and had, for some time, been in a coma. She knew his favorite song and so, standing by his bed, sang it to him. (You know the song, too. So, sing the refrain with me now.) “Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me; Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.” At that the pastor lifted himself from the bed and looked the nurse straight in the eyes to tell her, “Don’t you ever forget it!” Then, he fell back on his pillow and died.

In Jesus, the One Who, from His cross, forgave those who killed Him, we see the King...
Who stands by us no matter what...
Who heals our deepest hurts…
Who forgives our sins…
Who always loves us…
and Who gives all who turn from sin and follow Him paradise.
On this Christ the King Sunday, my message to you is simple: Don’t you ever forget any of that! Amen

[The image above incorporates the crown of a king with the first two letters of Jesus' title, Christ, from the Greek alphabet. Greek, being the language of international trade and discourse in the first century, is the language in the New Testament was written. Greek then occupied a place in the world that English does today.]

[Michelle Akers' story is recounted in Perfect Illustrations for Every Topic and Occasion, where it's taken from an article that appeared in Christian Reader in 2000.]