Friday, January 25, 2008

One and Only Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (January 27, 2008)

[To help the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm the pastor, I present these "passes" on the appointed lessons for the succeeding Sunday. Because we use lessons drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary, I hope that other Christians using the same texts each weekend, will find them helpful as well.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 9:1-4
Psalm 27:1, 4-9
1 Corinthians 1:10-18
Matthew 4:12-23

General Comments:
1. As we come to the second to last Sunday of the Epiphany season, the lessons for this Sunday deal with common Epiphany themes: the light of God, revealing His character and purposes; sharing the saving Good News of Jesus Christ; and God's desire for all people to follow Christ and be saved from sin and death.

2. These themes will be drawn together completely next week, when we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord, just before the start of the Lenten season on February 3.

A Few Comments on the Texts:
1. Isaiah 9:1-4: Few would dispute that this passage was composed in about 733BC by the original Isaiah. It was a frightening time for God's people, Judah, the southern kingdom, all that remained of greater Israel, the rest of which had already been conquered.

Isaiah pictures it as a dark time when the people of God looked for the light of hope. Northern neighbors threatened their nation. King Ahaz considered forming an alliance with the Assyrian Empire in order to get the help needed to fight off the probable invaders. But that too, was a course fraught with danger, both for Ahaz and for his country.

2. Isaiah foresees a ray of hope. He says that God will deliver Judah. He conveys this prophecy of hope in a poem which extends beyond our appointed lesson to include Isaiah 9:5-7:
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Most scholars today tell us that these words most immediately referred to a king who would stand up to potential invaders and be the channel through whom God's deliverance would come to His people. But many others would insist that the words also apply to a future king, Jesus.

3. In verse 1, we're told that the awaited king will come from "Galilee of the nations." This, of course, refers to the region near the Sea of Galilee. Although part of Judah--also sometimes called Judea, many of God's people regarded the people from this area suspiciously and disdainfully.

That's because the region was also home to many non-Jews. The term for non-Jews was Gentiles, ethnoi in the original Greek of the New Testament. It means "the nations."

The jarring prophecy from Isaiah then, is that Judah's great deliverer would come from a suspect region of Judah. And in fact, there were Gentiles and numerous other suspicious characters on the family trees of Jesus' earthly parents, Mary and Joseph.

The area where Jesus would grow up some seven-hundred years after Isaiah wrote the words of our first lesson, was far more cosmopolitan than other parts of Judah. Those in the fishing trade would have, by necessity, been conversant in several languages. So would the people of tiny Nazareth, which was located not far from major trade routes linking the East with Africa and southern Europe.

4. Psalm 27:1, 4-9: The light motif is seen in this lesson, too. We who live in the First World, where we take electric light so for granted, sometimes forget how dark the darkness can be. It also causes us to forget how brilliantly illuminating the light of Sun, stars, and Moon can be. If you've ever been without light in a remote area, you know both how frightening darkness can be and how welcome the light is.

For people in the ancient world, darkness was foreboding. This is why people preferred to be in the safe confines of walled cities at night.

But the psalmist says that there is brighter light and a firmer stronghold that we can have: God Himself.

Like Paul in the New Testament, David would say, "If God is for us, who is against us?" (Romans 8:31)

These aren't triumphal, self-aggrandizing declarations that David is making. Instead, they're the statements of a grateful, undeserving sinner thankful for the amazing grace of God!

5. 1 Corinthians 1:10-18: As I mentioned in the pass at last week's lessons, there were tons of problems in the church that existed in the first-century Greek city of Corinth. Here, the first century preacher and evangelist Paul, who started the church, deals with one of the problems: factionalism. As Paul writes in verse 12:
...each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ. [Cephas is the Latin version of the name, Petros, Peter]
But Paul condemns that sort of thinking. Neither Apollos, Cephas, nor Paul was the sinless king who died on a cross for them. That was Jesus!

Many divided churches can trace their fractured lives to the ungodly penchant for memorializing Christians rather than following the living Christ. Paul would have none of that! Even if one of those the Corinthian Christians memorialized was him.

6. One of the things I always smile over in this text is the passage in which Paul wrestles to remember who he did and didn't baptize:
I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) (1 Corinthians 1:14-16)
Apparently, Paul wasn't keeping score (or maintaining very good parish records). He was just doing his job, which he describes in verse 17:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.
Of course, my call as a pastor is different from Paul's; I'm called to preach the Gospel (the Good News of new and everlasting life that comes to all who turn from sin and follow Jesus Christ) and to baptize. (And to keep records, I guess.)

7. Paul concludes with a simple, true observation:
For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Corinthians 1:18)
When I was an atheist, the Gospel seemed ridiculous. But when I allowed myself to trust Jesus, it became the power that changed and is changing my life forever. (Romans 1:16-17)

8. Matthew 4:12-23: After being tempted in the wilderness by the devil and after the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus begins His public ministry. On hearing of John's arrest, Jesus goes to the very Galilean region Isaiah mentioned in our first lesson. But Jesus doesn't go to Nazareth. Instead, He settles in Capernaum. Some suggest that Jesus did this because it would have been easier to escape from the authorities who had just arrested John--who had, after all, proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah--from Capernaum than it would have been from Nazareth.

The editors of The Life Application Bible suggest other possible reasons for Jesus' move:
He probably moved (1) to get away from intense opposition in Nazareth, (2) to have an impact on the greatest number of people (Capernaum was a busy city and Jesus' message could reach more people and spread more quickly), and (3) to utilize extra resources and support for his ministry.
It's possible that people are overthinking Jesus' motives here. Capernaum was just twenty miles from Nazareth. According to Luke's Gospel, Nazareth had repudiated Jesus and His claims of being the Messiah. Jesus would later counsel His disciples to make attempts to share the Good News and the call to repentance wherever they went, but also not to waste time or energy in places they weren't wanted:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. (Matthew 10:14)
Jesus may have done this in Nazareth and simply settled in the hometown of some Galilean fishermen who had received His message gladly: Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. This too, conforms to the counsel Jesus would give to His disciples:
Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. (Matthew 10:11)
Many believe that Jesus lived in the home of Peter, when He wasn't traveling, throughout His ministry years.

9. Whatever the reasons for Jesus' move, Matthew cites Isaiah 9:1-2 and points out that Jesus did, in fact, come from "Galilee of the nations."

10. In v. 17, we see the basic message which Jesus proclaimed, the same message which John the Baptist, the one charged with preparing the way for Jesus, had proclaimed:
"Repent [that is turn from sin and to God], for the kingdom of heaven has come near."
11. Our Gospel lesson from John last week would suggest that the encounter between Jesus and the brothers Simon Peter and Andrew in Matthew 4:18 isn't their first meeting. But this doesn't make the brothers' quick acquiescence to Jesus' call to follow any less remarkable. We are to call whenever our Lord calls us, but not many of us will be called to leave our home areas. We can follow Jesus' call and stay in the places we've lived our whole lives.

12. In speaking of fishing for people, Jesus was employing imagery familiar to Simon and Andrew. Part of what we see in God coming to earth and being one of us in the person of Jesus is God's commitment to making Himself accessible to us. Jesus often used words, images, and stories that His listeners could readily identify with and understand.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Who Would McCain, Romney, or Huckabee Pick for Vice President? (Part 1)

Unless Rudy Giuliani pulls off a Florida surprise in next Tuesday's primary, there are now three Republicans with some chance of winning their party's presidential nomination: John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Mike Huckabee. Recently, I speculated on who might be the vice presidential running mates of Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the event that one of them becomes the Democratic nominee for president. But what about the remaining Republican contenders?

Each would have their own particular needs when it came to selecting running mates. In this post, I want to address what and who McCain will likely need in a running mate.

McCain should, by all rights, be the clear frontrunner, given the usual orderly succession of Republican presidential politics. That he isn't results in part, from the fact that neoconservatism, with its advocacy of Wilsonian intervention in foreign affairs, has at least temporarily changed the definition of conservatism. Additionally, on at least two major issues--immigration reform and campaign financing--McCain has departed from conservatism. Some will also mention his opposition to President Bush's 2002 tax cuts. Others will excoriate his participation in the Gang of Fourteen, ignoring how the compromise struck by those US Senators in 2005, made it possible for the President's conservative nominees for the US Supreme Court to be confirmed without controversy.

Be that as it may, McCain, an orthodox Goldwater-Reagan conservative who is an advocate of strong national defense, restrained government spending, Second Amendment rights, and an end to abortion, doesn't have the luxury that Ronald Reagan had in selecting running mates in 1976 and 1980.

Reagan, of course, didn't get the nomination in his 1976 challenge to Presdent Gerald Ford. But he came close partly because he made a daring and unprecedented announcement that if were nominated, his running mate would be moderately liberal Republican Senator Richard Schweiker. Reagan's conservative backers forgave him for this shrewd maneuver and moderately conservative to liberal Republicans gave Reagan a closer look, assured that he wasn't the right wing cromagnon they'd assumed he was. The ploy almost worked.

In 1980, Reagan announced to an electrified Republican convention immediatelty after he was nominated, on the night before he officially accepted the nomination, that his chief rival in the run-up to the convention, George H.W. Bush, had agreed to be his running mate. Before the elder Bush tapped the late strategist Lee Atwater to change his image to that of conservative fire-eater, he was regarded as a moderate to liberal wimp. Conservatives didn't much care for him. But Bush's frequent appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, especially when he was ambassador to the United Nations, would, Reagan undoubtedly reasoned, reassure moderates in the general electorate that he could be trusted in the White House.

Because McCain doesn't enjoy the trust of his fellow conservative Republicans, he will be forced to select an authentic, card-carrying conservative to be his vice presidential running mate. This will assuage the concerns of the Limbaugh wing of the party. But it will do him little good among a general electorate inclined to throw the Republicans in the Potomac because of the Bush war in Iraq and fears over the economy.

At present, Mike Huckabee, even though the neocon national security crowd and Wall Street conservatives made squeamish over his economic populism don't much care for him, would seem the likeliest running mate for McCain. (And vice versa.) The two seem to genuinely admire one another and each represent not only different elements of the Republican base, but also different important segments of the general electorate.

But one has the feeling that Democrats would relish having Huckabee on the ticket. His religious pronouncements are easy to misconstrue, for one thing. He probably also wouldn't soothe those Wall Street conservatives.

Whoever the seventy-one year old McCain chooses will have to be at least fifteen years his junior, which is to say someone in his or her fifties or younger. A governor or former governor would be good as well, offsetting concerns that McCain has spent too many years in Washington and has had no executive experience in politics.

A dash of drama for a ticket that would be entering the fall campaign as pronounced underdogs would also be helpful to McCain. Possibly the most interesting thing that McCain could do is announce that his running mate is a woman. And the Republicans may have a far larger stable of women qualified for the presidency and vice presidency than the Democrats have. But every potential running mate that McCain might consider must, for one reason or another, be dismissed: Elizabeth Dole and Kay Bailey Hutchinson are, like McCain, senators, the latter having sometimes been beclouded by ethical questions; Olympia Snow and Susan Collins, are both senators and more liberal than McCain needs to please critical neocons; and, maybe the woman most qualified to be President of the United States, former New Jersey governor and federal EPA administrator Christine Todd Whitman is also deemed too liberal.

McCain may tell the neocons where to get off and instead, gambling that upset conservatives are unlikely to vote for the Democratic ticket, pick someone completely off everybody's radar.

Or, he may roll the dice and select Joe Lieberman as his running mate. The 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president ostracized by the Move-On-wing of his party, forced to run as an independent in his most recent re-election bid in Connecticut, is currently campaigning for McCain anyway.

A McCain-Lieberman ticket would appeal to an electorate hungry for elected officials less vociferous in their partisanship and more oriented to seeking and implementing practical solutions to public policy needs. In Lieberman, McCain would have a running mate with proven vote-getting abilities in the northeast, a section of the country which Republicans have had to nearly write off in recent years.

Granted, Lieberman is more liberal than some of the potential Republican Veep candidates I've passed over above. But Lieberman's firm pro-Iraq War stance has made him an acceptable liberal to many conservative Republicans.

I'll examine Huckabee's and Romney's vice presidential imperatives in a post or two early next week.

"Socrates was a Lutheran Pastor"

That's the title of this post in which my son, Philip, discusses his decision-making process regarding going to seminary to prepare for becoming a pastor.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

What is Love?

My son tackles that important topic in a post over on his blog. A sampling:
When we love someone we are now faced with the truly terrifying fact that we are performing the very act that God Himself performed at the beginning of the age and then at the turning point of history. It was from love that God acted out and created His joy. And when we are allowed to love, we feel like a child who is being allowed to drive His father's car for the first time; intimidated but exhilarated at the same time. It is this and a hundred more things that make love worthwhile. That is what love truly is.
Read the whole thing!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Would Kennedy's Expression of Faith Be Acceptable in 2008?

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was scheduled to deliver one more speech during his tour of Texas. It was to have been given after he rode in the motorcade in which he ultimately died, felled by Lee Harvey Oswald's bullets.

In the speech, Kennedy was going to speak of the life and death struggle between the United States and the free world, on the one hand, and Soviet totalitarianism on the other. Kennedy, like his immediate predecessors Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower, believed that the US needed to be, in Roosevelt's phrase, "the arsenal of democracy."

But Kennedy also suggests in his undelivered speech, as he had in other speeches previously, that the US couldn't rely entirely on its military or economic might to confront Soviet totalitarianism. He asserts:
We in this country, in this generation, are-- by destiny rather than choice-- the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility-- that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint-- and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of "peace on earth, good will toward men." That must always be our goal-- and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago: "Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. "
What "was written long ago" is the first verse of Psalm 127. The Psalms, of course, were the worship song book of God's ancient people, the Israelites. It appears in what we Christians call the Old Testament, one of the 66 books of the Bible. Like Jews, Christians regard the Psalms as a sacred book, part of the Word of God to which the apostle Paul refers in the New Testament when he says, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16).

As a Christian, I believe that the verse cited by Kennedy speaks a profound truth. I'm convinced, from my admittedly biased perspective and from my study of History and of life, that if we believe that strength of arms or large sums of money will, alone, protect us from the horrors of the world, we are naive. Of course, in a world in which people do horrible things--a world, in which, the Bible teaches, sin has taken hold, things like governments and armies and police forces are necessary. Doing without those things, also from a Christian perspective, would be naive.

I believe that nations, as much as people, need God.

But it's less acceptable these days for presidential candidates or presidents themselves to dare to make assertions like the one Kennedy planned on making in Dallas on that horrible day.

To me, there is ample evidence from history demonstrating that even the strongest empires have, like the Soviet Union, rotted from the inside, been destroyed from the outside, or, as was the case with Rome, succumbed to both inside and outside forces, because of their failure to rely on God.

But if Kennedy were to say this today, he would be written off by some as a lunatic, derided by others for trying to force his religious views down others' throats, dismissed by others for simply appealing to people's religious sympathies without having such sympathies himself, or hailed by some for speaking the truth as he saw it.

In any case, a statement that would have been unexceptionable in 1963, would likely be deemed controversial, even inflammatory, today.

The reaction would be especially harsh if a Democratic president or a Democratic candidate for president were to make such a statement. For some reason, Democrats today are more generic in their allusions to faith. They risk riling up a portion of their base if they say too many nice things about God or about a specific understanding of God. By taking this hands-off approach to God and to the Judeo-Christian understanding of God, Democrats have effectively conceded many Christians, and not just those identified with the Religious Right, to the Republicans.

All of which makes Senator Barack Obama's overt expressions of faith in Jesus Christ and his willingness to challenge the Republicans for the votes of Christians, a willingness he expressed again in last night's Democratic debate, so interesting. Obama suggests that his views on things like equal opportunity are directly rooted in his faith in Christ and that if Democratic candidates advanced some of their ethical agenda as, in part, expressing their faith in Christ, Christians would give them a fair hearing and even their votes.

I have said many times before that as a Christian, I have zero interest in forcing others to adopt my faith or the ethic that I may think results from that faith. (Although I have every interest in sharing my faith in Christ in the hope that they too, will become followers of Christ.) But I've been critical of the affable Mike Huckabee, for example, for, I think, going over the line by campaigning as a "Christian leader" rather than as leader who happens to be a Christian.

But we definitely get a clearer picture of who a candidate is when she or he says things like Kennedy planned on saying on November 22, 1963. Granted, some pols may say them simply in an effort to garner votes. Kennedy himself may have done this. We know that he was an indifferent Christian at best. Be that as it may, the mere expression of such notions as those advanced by Kennedy in his undelivered speech, can tell us too, something about what the candidates think of the electorate.

The Democratic candidate who speaks with such specificity about his faith, whatever his or her faith, might warrant a chapter in Kennedy's Pullitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage.

What do you think?

[The picture above was taken during Kennedy's last actual speech, delivered in Fort Worth, on November 22, 1963. It's from the John F. Kennedy Library collection.]

[UPDATE: This post elicited a really interesting comment over at The Moderate Voice. It comes from one who identifies herself as Damozel:
Speaking as a Christian , I too believe that people need God. I also believe that a nation, like an individual human, needs a connection with God.

But I am married to an atheist who certainly doesn't seem to. Perhaps he does and doesn't know it, though he seems to be able to live a meticulously ethical life without it. In the meantime, he has a very low tolerance for what he calls "Christian name-dropping," meaning people talking about Christ in the social or political arena.

I don't particularly feel I need or want to know about a candidate's faith; it seems to me that this is a private matter. While I'm all for spreading the Gospel, I don't think Caesar is the right person to do the honors. After all---as Christ frequently reminds us in the Gospel---putting on a show of faith is the easiest thing in the world. He was particularly severe, wasn't he, against those who used their religious faith as a means of winning social advantage or approval....?.

Like Barack Obama, I am a Democrat because the party's concern with community and the welfare of others seems cognate with my beliefs about what Christ requires of me.

I'm sympathetic to him on that score, but it's not a point in his favor politically as far as I'm concerned for him to talk about it. As far as I know, ALL the candidates affect to be Christians of one kind or another. It doesn't seem to play much of a role in how any of them---including, as you rightly note, Kennedy---behave privately.

I don't see why it requires courage for even Dems to talk freely about God. It would take much more courage for a candidate to acknowledge atheism, agnosticim, or membership in a religion that the average American doesn't know anything about or understand. In any case, it's not something they ought to have to talk about, so long as they convince me they will operate within the law and make ethical choices....
I responded:
By and large, I agree with your husband.

Mostly, I think that politicians should keep expressions of faith out of their political discussions. One reason for that is, more often than not, such talk represents nothing more than pandering.

For nearly thirty years now, for example, some Republican pols and many leaders of the Reigious Right have been eliciting some Christians' votes and financial backing by, as your husband puts it, "name dropping," draping their platitudes and platforms in Christian piety. Yet there's lots of evidence that, at least as it relates to the politicians, these expressions are mere plays for support.

I also don't believe that one can not posit a straight line between one's confessions about God and one's positions on political issues. I'm generally wary of politicians and preachers who do this. Rare is the political issue that is so clearly addressed in the Scriptures, for example, that a preacher or a pol can say, "Thus saith the Lord." That's why, while I do blog about politics, this pastor has almost never advanced a political position on issues. I don't want to drop the God bomb on people.

But, taking an example from history: The British politician William Wilberforce, one-time parishioner of John Newton, the former slave ship captain and composer of 'Amazing Grace,' took it as his life's mission to "reform the morals" of Great Britain. This led to his leadership in such causes as abolishing slavery in the British Empire and ending cruelty to animals. In fact, at one time or another, Wilberforce was an active member of the boards of some 400 organizations, whose causes he carried to Parliament. The thing that drove Wilberforce's positions on public positions was his faith in Christ and it would have been ridiculous for him to have pretended otherwise.

All I'm saying is that for a candidate to say, "One reason I feel this way" has to do with my faith in Christ, or God, or Allah, or whatever, is nothing more than "truth in advertising." They may be fibbing, in which case the voting public will have to attempt to be discerning.

I am wary of pols who talk about their faith all the time. Too often, they do so in an exclusionary way, as if to say, "I'm one of the righteous few (and such and so is not.)."

This is an unacceptable approach for Christian politicians. Christians believe that they are, like the rest of the human race, ordinary sinners who have been saved by the grace of God, not by their own merit. Christians are called to regard themselves as being no bettert--or no worse--than others and to put the interests of others ahead of their own.

But if one's religious convictions, whatever they may be, even atheism, have had an impact on one's positions on some issues, it would be disingenuous to not say so. And, in some circles, it would be, I think, quite courageous.

Thanks so much for your thoughful comments. I really enjoyed reading them!

Mark Daniels]

I've Been at It Again at 'The Moderate Voice'

Here. It's about the ironies of Fred Thompson's now-finished campaign for the presidency. A sampling:
One of my theories about leadership, an art that I’ve studied since I was a boy and which I’ve practiced for more than thirty years, is that it only belongs to those who persuade us to “buy into” them.

Buying into a leader involves a complicated and situationally-influenced combination of trust and likability. In 1960, for example, a slim majority of US voters bought into John Kennedy because his brand of youthful energy was compelling for a generation of Americans grown tired of the grandfatherly visage of Dwight Eisenhower. But, irrespective of whatever abilities or virtues Kennedy possessed as a leader, much of his ascendance was a triumph of packaging over reality. The forty-three year old Kennedy, a victim of various afflictions, was probably in poorer health than Eisenhower, even though the seventy-year old former general had suffered from a heart attack and a stroke during his time in the White House.

Whether Fred Thompson could have ever been packaged as a likable guy is anybody’s guess...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"I Have a Dream"

The entire speech by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is here.

Come and See

[This was shared during worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio this morning.]

John 1:29-42
I made a discovery about myself this morning. I was shaving and when I came to my neck, I noticed that as I looked into the mirror, I was squinting. Why was I squinting? It wasn't because my eyesight is that bad. Then, I realized what it was.

When I was a little boy, I sometimes watched my father as he shaved and sometimes, as he did so, he also smoked. (He quit smoking years ago, by the way.) But often, when he came to shaving his neck, dad squinted.

The things we see can have a powerful impact on us.

For example, all my life I heard people talk about how beautiful Colorado is. “You’ve got to go to Colorado,” they’d tell me. “You can’t express how gorgeous and breathtaking it is.” I wrote their words off as hyperbole. Then, about six years ago, friends of ours offered us the use of a house they’d built on top of a mountain outside of Durango. We drove out and guess what? You’ve got to go to Colorado. Even though I really love Ohio, Colorado is gorgeous and breathtaking. But until we went and saw Colorado for ourselves five years ago, I couldn’t have said that.

In today’s Gospel lesson, John the Baptist, gives witness to who Jesus is twice. He points his own disciples and whoever else will listen to Jesus and says, “Look! The Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!”

Two of John’s disciples were curious enough to approach Jesus, Who asks them, “What are you looking for?” The response of John’s disciples to that question is, on first blush, strange. “Rabbi, where are you living?” The word we translate as living, in the original Greek of the New Testament can also be translated as, remaining, abiding, sticking with. "Teacher," these two curious men were saying, "give us the time to see that you’re not just some fly-by-night Savior, but that you’ve really come to be our Savior."

Now, if Jesus were a candidate as in the current presidential campaign, He might have spent some minutes trying to persuade the questioning disciples that He was really the Savior, that they really could entrust their lives to Him, that He really could bring forgiveness of sin and so, everlasting life, by transforming them from enemies of God to God’s friends. The Jesus campaign would release His answer on YouTube and CNN would have run the interchange time and again. But Jesus’ response is direct, almost curt. “Come and see,” He tells them. Hardly a worthy sound bite!

But we come to faith in Christ and come to deeper faith in Christ not through the compilation of evidence, though there is ample evidence that Jesus really is God and that He really did rise from the dead to bring everlasting life to sinners who repent and believe in Him.

Nor will our faith necessarily be strengthened through logical argument, though one can argue rationally for Jesus and His Lordship.

What really convinces us to follow and to keep following Jesus is when we experience Jesus. That’s why He told the disciples of John to “Come and see.”

There may be some here this morning who long for a real experience of Jesus, who want their faith to be more than just a habit. There may be some of our neighbors and friends who want to believe in Christ, but either find it difficult to believe in a Savior so wonderful and to believe that a Savior so wonderful could love or forgive them. What we all need to do is “come and see” Jesus. We need to experience Him and His goodness. Faith will take hold and faith will grow when we do.

But how do we see a Savior Who ascended into heaven two thousand years ago?

I used to love to play baseball and later, softball. I sometimes played in the outfield. There’s nothing that an outfielder can do about where a ball is hit. That really depends on the pitch selection and what the hitter does with the bat. But the fielder can get in a position to catch flies or cut off grounders. Similarly, we have no control over the God we meet in Jesus Christ. But we can position ourselves to meet Him, to see Him operating in our lives.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned a book on prayer written by Lutheran bishop Ole Hallesby that had a huge impact on my life. Rebutting a book by a prominent atheist, Hallesby wrote another book called, Why I Am a Christian. In it, he identifies five ways those who want to see Jesus Christ can do so.

First, we can read the New Testament. This past week, one of our shut-ins told me that years ago, she’d heard a TV preacher challenge his viewers to read a chapter of the Bible every day. “You know,” this Saint Matthew member told me, “that makes all the difference in my days.”

When we read the New Testament, especially the Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—we encounter Jesus Himself. As we submit to meeting Jesus in the New Testament, we find ourselves moving from doubt to faith.

Next, to see Jesus, we can pray. Even those who aren’t sure that they believe or whether they believe that God listens to prayers should start praying. A few weeks ago, I mentioned my own journey from atheism to faith. One of the things that helped me in this journey was my willingness, despite my unbelief, to begin praying. At first, to tell you the truth, I felt ridiculous talking to a God I wasn’t even certain was there. But as South Korean pastor Paul Yonggi Cho has observed, God is a gentleman. He will not go anywhere uninvited. In prayer, we invite the God we meet in Christ into our lives.

When we pray, we learn that God doesn’t expect perfection in our praying or in us. He takes our willingness to pray as affirmation that we want to “Come and see” Jesus.

One of my favorite incidents in the Bible involved the man who came imploring Jesus to heal his child. “If you can help, Lord, please do,” he prayed. Jesus said, “What do you mean ‘if’? If you have prayer as tiny as a mustard seed, you could move a mountain.” The man replied, “I do believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.” That man’s prayer was answered affirmatively. He believed to the extent that he could. He trusted as much as he could. Even doubters who want to believe in Jesus will, eventually, experience His presence and know that He is their Savior.

Another way for us to see Jesus is to take a good look at ourselves, asking God to show us ways in which we’ve failed to love God or love others. Sin can obscure our vision of God and sometimes, we fail to see our sin.

A young man came to see me years ago at my office in my first parish. He was frustrated because his wife, in spite of repeated promises, wouldn’t attend church with him. “Have I done anything particularly terrible recently?” she asked him. When he said, “No,” she said that she guessed she didn’t need God that week.

When we voluntarily ask God to show us the ways in which we’ve not loved Him or others, we remind ourselves both of our need of Him and of His willingness to forgive and be with us twenty-four hours a day. We invite Him into every part of our lives.

Another way to see Jesus is to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion every time it’s offered. You know, we Lutherans are sometimes accused of fudging things when it comes to the witness of the Bible. But we have always taken Jesus' words about the bread and wine of Holy Communion completely literally. Jesus said, "This is My body...This is My blood." We believe Him. And we believe Him too, when He says that He gives us this Sacrament for the forgiveness of sin.

In the bread and the wine, Christ comes to us. Father Richard Farar Capon calls Communion, “the hat on the invisible man.” The “immortal, invisible, God only wise” of Whom we sing in one of our hymns becomes visible and touchable in the Sacrament.

Another way we can see Jesus is to spend time in the fellowship of people we believe are authentic followers of Jesus. Thirty-some years ago, a woman named Martha Schneider, then in her sixties, took me under her wing to teach me about what it means to have Jesus Christ in my life. Martha died this past summer, deep into her nineties.

As she fostered my growth as a Christian, Martha asked me if I would help her with a Good Friday prayer vigil, in which members of the congregation would come to pray for half-hour stints overnight. (Ann said that Martha is the only woman she'd ever let me stay out all night with.)

Speaking from personal experience, it was people like Martha--people who lived wholeheartedly with Christ--who finally tilted me from doubt to faith. They were ordinary, humble people who lived with the same daily struggles, hopes, challenges, and joys that are the common lot of the human race, who were nonetheless empowered to cope and hope because of their relationship with Jesus Christ, made me willing to let Jesus into my life. They also encouraged and supported me as I posed my questions, owned my struggles, and invited Jesus to be my God and Savior.

Most of you here this morning and maybe many listening on the radio today know that these are five good ways to come and see Jesus. You may even have found it good to be reminded of these ways that you can see Jesus. I hope so.

But, there’s another reason I talked about them with you this morning. Just a few verses beyond our lesson from the Gospel of John this morning, a follower of Jesus—Philip—seeks out a friend of his—Natahnael—and says, “We’ve found the Messiah: Jesus, from Nazaraeth.” “Nazareth,” Nathanael says, “Can anything good come from there?” Philip doesn’t argue the point with Nathanael. He just tells him, “Come and see.”

When I saw Colorado for myself, I knew that what people said about its beauty was true. Your friends, neighbors, and others may wonder why you bother going to church. They may wonder why you take the time for Sunday School, women’s group, Lenten services, or giving food to CHAP. You could tell them that it’s because of Jesus. You could tell them that Jesus is your Savior. And I hope that at the right moments, you will tell them just that.

But the best thing you can tell them is what Jesus told those curious disciples of John the Baptist and what Philip told Nathanael. Come and see!

Come and see Jesus in the New Testament, in time spent in prayer, in letting Christ convict us of sin and reveal His forgiveness, in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, and in the fellowship of Christians.

If our spiritually disconnected friends will only come and see Jesus in these places, they will see a new and everlasting way of life. They will believe. And their lives will be changed forever!

How to Build a Marriage

[This message was shared during the wedding of Natalie and Andrew held in the chapel of Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, on January 19. The groom was, as a boy, a member of the first parish I served as pastor.]

Psalm 100
1 John 4:7-12
Natalie, Andrew: I’m honored to be here with you today.

As we stand here together, I’m reminded that back when I was Andrew’s pastor, he was shorter than me. I suppose that’s another way of saying what I’m sure you’ve heard many old people say and which I’ll say again: Life goes by fast.

All of which leads me to the only piece of advice I’m going to give you today. It’s this: Build your lives and build your marriage on Jesus Christ.

I could bore you with the details of statistics showing that marriages in which the couples make it a point to pray regularly and to worship together regularly three-hundred times more likely to be happily and enduringly married, but I prefer to focus on my personal experience.

Ann and I have been married for thirty-three years now, a monument to her patience and love. But where did that patience and love come from? The key can be found in one of the verses of today’s reading from First John. It says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

The glow from a wedding day and the excitement from a honeymoon have caused many a couple to forget that their capacity to love one another and more importantly, their capacity to forgive one another, doesn’t come from inside of themselves. The feelings from this period of your lives, no matter how wonderful, cannot sustain you or your marriage through the inevitable and unknown challenges of the years ahead. You will have to import the tough love you need to have the beautiful marriage everyone here foresees for the two of you today. If I could summarize Saint John’s advice for you today, it would be this: Love one another and tap into the One Whose supply of love is never ending.

Give your lives and your marriage to God we know in Jesus Christ. Irrespective of the passage of time, the affirmation from our first lesson will always be true: “For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations”!

To the Garden of Victory

[This sermon was shared during the funeral on January 19, of a 94-year-old member of the parish I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Psalm 104:1, 10-19
John 6:35-40
This week, after Merl’s death, I visited another member of our parish. “I never realized what a knowledgeable man Merl was,” she told me.

He was knowledgeable, as evidenced by his degrees and the esteem in which he was held by fellow teachers at both the high school and collegiate levels.

But Merl didn’t care much about his degrees. On my first visit with him on November 20, he told me about the Ph. D. he never received. While on the faculty at Ohio University’s Lancaster campus, it was decided that Merl would go to Ohio State to receive his doctorate. He did all the necessary prerequisite courses, wrote a dissertation, and went before a faculty committee to defend his work. All went well until the end of the meeting, when the chair informed Merl that he would have to turn his handwritten dissertation into a typed one. Merl felt that he had already done the work and suggested that someone at the university could type it out. The committee told Merl that they couldn’t do that. “Fine,” he told the committee and simply walked out. When he went back to OU, he was told that they didn’t care; he was a full professor anyway.

I suppose most academicians, after having gone through the full doctoral process, would have gotten the dissertation typed. But Merl was, from what I can tell, more than anything a gardener. That's what he cared about. He was fascinated with the functioning of God’s natural order that can be observed in a garden. His nephews, I’m told, always enjoyed seeing the things Merl had grafted together on his farm, resulting in single trees that produced apples and peaches. And the last year he harvested grapes from his arbors, he had a bumper crop. This love of nature also incited Merl and his late wife, Margie, to donate the land for the nature center for Capital University, "in perpetuity," as he would say.

You know, God planted the original garden. Merl, I think, would have enjoyed Eden very much! Maybe only people like farmers and gardeners can fully share the sort of appreciation of nature that Merl had. It almost had to be someone familiar with farming or gardening who composed the words from our first lesson, found in Psalm 104: “You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
 and bread to strengthen the human heart. The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
 the cedars of Lebanon that he planted.”

But to the discerning, a garden can be a reminder of another garden, one through which we all must go. In the Garden at Gethsemane, In the garden, Jesus wrestled with the reality of His own impending death. He also invited the disciples to pray with Him there, no doubt to remind them that they faced death, too, and that, like Him, they dare not face death without the eternal God of all creation beside them, acting as their Advocate and Friend. At Gethsemane, Jesus offered His prayer, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

This is similar to the prayers which the famiy and friends of Merl and I have shared with and for Merl in recent weeks. We prayed with Jesus that God’s will be done.

Merl was entirely sanguine about death, if that was God’s will. I was with him on December 15, when the surgeon explained the dangers associated both with having surgery and with not having surgery. “You could die,” he told Merl. “Well,” Merl said, winking at me as he responded to the doctor, “that’s the way it is for everybody, isn’t it?” The gardener in Merl knew that all living things on Earth, even we human beings, die.

But Merl could enter his own Gethsemane fortified by another certainty, one which his beloved Margie wanted underscored at her own funeral and which we underscore today. It’s summarized in the words of Jesus, from John 6: “This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.”

All who pass through Eden and Gethsemane trusting in Jesus Christ will, in the end and for all eternity, go to what one of our Lutheran bishops once called, “the garden of victory,” heaven itself. Of heaven, the book of Revelation says, “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.”

We all must pass through Eden and Gethsemane. But thanks be to God that through Jesus Christ, that needn’t be the end of our journey. As Jesus told Nicodemus, the old teacher of religion, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” That’s as true today as it was on the days that Merl was baptized, taught in a classroom, or harvested his last grapes. The final destination for all who turn from sin and follow Jesus Christ is that garden of victory. May we all follow Jesus so that it will be the final destination of us all! Amen

[The garden themes in this sermon were suggested by a sermon written by my first bishop, Reginald Holle. It's found in Planning a Christian Funeral.]