Saturday, February 16, 2008

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 3 (Rerun)

[I'm re-presenting this series I first wrote back in 2004. I hope that people find it helpful. This post represents a slight revision of the third installment. The first two installments are herehere.] and

In the first two posts of this series, I've talked about how it's understandable when we wonder why tragedy befalls the innocent. I've also observed that generally speaking, God doesn't seem to answer that question.

But on the pages of the New Testament section of the Bible, there is an example of a time when God did give a reason for one of His innocents' suffering.

A man named Saul from the city of Tarsus was not always innocent. Burning with an Osama bin-Laden-like zeal for his faith as a Jew, convinced that followers of the risen Jesus were dangerous heretics, he approved murdering these people who would later be called Christians.

He also gained authorization from religious authorities in Jerusalem to go to synagogues in other towns and regions to have his fellow Jews confessing Jesus as Lord excommunicated from the faith and worse.

But, Saul's life changed. On his way to the city of Damascus, carrying authorization papers, Saul encountered the risen Jesus. He himself became a follower of Jesus and eventually, undertook a life-long mission of carrying the Good News of Jesus to the world. Gratified and stunned to learn the truth about God--the truth that God wants to save us and not condemn us, that eternity and forgiveness are free gifts from a gracious God and not things that we can earn---Saul, now renamed Paul, spent the rest of his life telling the world about Jesus Christ and the new life He makes possible.

Much of the New Testament is composed of Paul's letters to early Christian congregations spread around the Mediterranean basin. Paul proclaimed that the power of sin and death over one's life could be erased when, as a matter of faith, one received Jesus Christ as God and Savior. He said that on the cross, Jesus paid the debt all of us owe to God for our rebellion against God. Faith, says Paul, is a surrendering trust by which we go through death, dying to sin, in order to rise to a pure, new life with Jesus Christ.

In his magnum opus, the New Testament book of Romans, Paul writes:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. [Romans 6:5-10]

Paul's life of faith and of sharing Jesus wasn't easy. He never generated enough personal income to be able to devote all his time to preaching, working as a tentmaker throughout his adult years. In addition, he suffered a series of misadventures and persecutions as a follower of Jesus. Tradition holds that he was ultimately executed for his faith. Clearly, Christ's forgiveness and the gift of reconciliation with God that Paul claimed to have because of his faith in Jesus didn't make his life easier. In fact, it had the opposite effect. In one of his New Testament letters, Paul recounts some of his experiences as a follower of Jesus:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (Second Corinthians 11:24-28)

It all could cause a person striving to follow the God met through Jesus Christ to ask, "Why?" Or, to at least ask God to change things, to make life a bit easier.

We know of at least one source of suffering that did incite Paul to ask God for relief. It was an unspecified "thorn in the flesh," an affliction that may have been physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual. We simply don't know what it was. That may be for the best because the fact is that no matter what the source of our suffering in life, the impact on us is amazingly similar. Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh in Second Corinthians:

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (Second Corinthians 12:2-10)

According to Paul, God refused to remove suffering that had come to him from Satan. Why? To keep Paul from becoming filled with spiritual pride.

If Paul is to be believed, God allows even devoted believers to be hit with suffering and tragic circumstances as a means of protecting them. Protecting them from what? A famous passage from the Old Testament says, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).

A few years ago, former President Bill Clinton published his memoirs and discussed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a liaison that nearly shattered his presidency and deeply wounded his second term in office. Clinton said that he'd had that affair simply because he was capable of having it. Period.

Sometimes we can become full of ourselves, mistakenly thinking that our successes or good fortune emanate from our talents, innovativeness, cleverness, perseverance, tenacity, or charm...never considering that even our capacity for developing such gifts come from the One Who crafted us in our mother's wombs.

The first of the ten commandments in the Old Testament book of Exodus says, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). Theologians from Martin Luther to Paul Tillich and C.S. Lewis have reminded us that whatever is most important to us in life is our god. Speaking for myself anyway, I've found that no false god--be it money, power, sex, houses, cars or whatever--has waged a fiercer war for my ultimate allegiance than one persistently alluring god: Me...My Ego.

Through his suffering and God's refusal to relieve it, Paul was driven to acknowledge his dependence on God for all the best blessings in his life.

I learned this lesson myself on one especially memorable occasion, not from suffering but from weakness. Some time before, I was invited to give a presentation to a group in metropolitan Cincinnati. For months, I thrashed over what I would say to them. After a good deal of prayer, I created an outline for my presentation. But on the morning of the presentation, just hours before I was scheduled to speak, I woke up feeling flu symptoms. I was achy all over, felt as though a temperature was coming on, and in spite of a good night's sleep, fatigued. On top of that, I simply sensed that my presentation wasn't what the group needed to hear. And so I prayed, "God, You know better than I do. Guide me. Fill me with Your Spirit. Get me through this thing physically. And put Your words in my mouth."

The appointed moment came. I was given an introduction that was so complimentary, I was tempted to look around the room to see who'd been selected to speak in my place. I approached the microphone. I hardly remember what I said. But God was in it. The post-presentation Q-and-A session went well. So did the luncheon conversation. I came home gratified, if exhausted.

But if I hadn't awakened feeling so crummy and insecure, I might have gone ahead with my planned presentation. It may have gone okay. Then though, I would have learned to depend on myself rather than on God.

From his thorn in the flesh, Paul learned reliance on God. Sometimes God allows the innocent to suffer because it's only through our weakness that the greater power of Christ can dwell in us and touch the world around us. It also may prevent us from declaring our independence from God, inciting us to keep the door of our hearts and wills open to the God Who has an eternity of good He wants to pour into our lives.

One last point. No loving Christian would ever tell another person that their suffering is being allowed by God to teach the suffering friend a lesson. That would be arrogant and un-Christian.

Remember that Paul gained insight as to why God refused to heal him of his thorn in the flesh not in conversation with others, but in his own personal prayer interchange with God. The insight that some of our suffering may be from God is a personal one, between God and the sufferer alone. The very best thing we Christians can do when others talk with us about their suffering is keep our pie holes shut, listen, and offer to pray for them.

God willing, more tomorrow...

By the way...

my son now has his own Blogspot blog. He's been writing on myspace for some time, but decided to take the plunge with a real blog.


to the following blogs for linking to posts on this blog in recent days:
Mere Orthodoxy
The Stones Cry Out
Done with Mirrors
PSPC E-pistle (the blog site of Palma Sola Presbyterian Church, Bradenton, Florida)

By the way, Rick Moore, blogger at Holy Coast, who has linked to posts here more than once, has asked me to be one of the guests on his Blog Talk radio show on March 3, the night before the Ohio presidential primary. Topics will be the primary, as well as my blog series on How Christians Might Think About the 2008 Presidential Election. Rick, a conservative and a Christian, knows that I don't do endorsements and that I don't believe that there is a single Christian political agenda, but that I often analyze what's happening in the body politic. It should be a fun conversation. You might want to tune your browser to the show on March 3. I appreciate Rick's invitation!

And while we're thanking bloggers, I also should thank Joe Gandelman, editor in chief of The Moderate Voice. Back in November, Joe invited me to be one the growing stable of writers on this site he founded. It's been exciting because right now, The Moderate Voice is one of nine blogs that are part of's The Ruckus. The pieces I write on politics, of course, hue to no ideological viewpoint, simply analyze what's going on this presidential election year. But if you go The Moderate Voice or Newsweek's Ruckus, you'll find a lively and diverse conversation on this election year. Thanks, Joe, for letting me be part of it all.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Third Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 17, 2008)

[The first pass, including an explanation of what these passes are about, can be found here. The second pass is here.]

General Comments: John 3:1-17
1. As mentioned in the first pass, this is the first of four consecutive weeks when we'll have Gospel lessons from John.

The word gospel means good news. The Old English word was godspell. It translated the Greek New Testament word, euangelion, which literally means good news. The good news is that sin and its rightful consequence, death, needn't have the final say on our lives. All who turn from sin and trust in Jesus as their God and Savior have life forever.

Martin Luther described John 3:16, composed of words spoken by Jesus in this Gospel lesson, as "the gospel in a nutshell."

2. Of the four Gospels in our New Testament, John is the most unique. The other three--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--are called the synoptic gospels by scholars, synoptic meaning roughly seeing things the same.

John speaks often of incidents not mentioned by the other gospel writers. He doesn't see things in quite the same way the other three do.

John is the most extraordinary writer of the four, drawing on Hebrew Scriptures, Greek philosophy, and his own poetic sensibilities to present Jesus as "the Word made flesh."

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’
(1) The Pharisees often took the heat from Jesus, and rightly so. They wanted to hold God and the people hostage to religious law, even adding reams of their own humanly-instituted regulations to the laws given by God in the Old Testament.

The law exists, first of all, to establish community order among the ungodly.

It exists, secondly, as we said in the previous pass, to be a mirror, showing us our distance from God and our need of His forgiveness.

A third use of the law is a means by which Christians may engage in the healthy sort of self-examination assumed in Psalm 139 and to guide us as we seek to express our gratitude to the Lord for the free gifts of salvation and everlasting life, given through Christ.

The Pharisees thought that by obeying the law, which they thought that they could do perfectly, they could earn salvation.

They also used the law as a battering ram against those they deemed their spiritual inferiors.

But, in many of their beliefs, the Pharisees were closer to Jesus than many other Jews. They, for example, believed in an afterlife. The Sadducees didn't.

(2) A common motif of John's Gospel is the opposition of light and dark. In the prologue to the gospel, he describes Jesus as the light of the world and says that the world rejected Him because it loved darkness.

This same motif plays out in the verses immediately following those in our lesson, more of Jesus' words spoken to Nicodemus:
And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.’ (John 3:19-21)
In consideration of this motif, commentators (and I) have usually seen Nicodemus' appearance at night to indicate not only that, almost against his will, he found himself attracted to Jesus and Jesus' message, but he was still in darkness.

Traditionally, his arrival at night has also been seen as indicating that he feared his fellow Jews, especially his fellow religious leaders. He didn't want others to see him spending time with Jesus.

More recently, other commentators point out that historically, rabbis worked day jobs and therefore could only discuss spiritual issues at night. This began a tradition which held for years. Rabbis would hold their discussions with one another in the evening hours. (The term rabbi means teacher and one so designated was a teacher of Old Testament faith.)

If this is what's at play in this text, it would indicate that Nicodemus was paying Jesus a compliment. A great teacher of Israel had come to discuss theological issues at the time of night reserved for rabbis who regarded one another as equals.

My own feeling is that all three explanations are at play. Nicodemus, as his words to Jesus indicate, is in darkness as to how one can have a relationship with God and live with God for eternity. He is undoubtedly afraid of what others will say about him associating with Jesus. And, it seems apparent, he does think highly of Jesus. Nicodemus, like most human beings, acted out of a complex of many motivations.

(3) Nicodemus refers to Jesus' signs as authenticating that Jesus has come from God. Sign is the typical way referred to His miracles in John's Gospel in fact. A sign never points to itself. The purpose of an exit sign, for example, isn't for us to stand in awe of it. It points the way out.

In modern times, advertising that appears on TV are signs. But the most effective TV ads aren't necessarily the ones we remember for their elaborate special effects or humor. They're the ones that point people to the product being advertised. (That's why those annoying commercials that annoyingly told us, "Head On. Apply directly to the forehead," were better than some of the sophisticated ads you see on the Super Bowl.)

In just the same way, Jesus' miracles--His signs--were meant to point people to Who He was. Jesus was not just a miracle worker. Not just a dazzling entertainment. The miracles weren't ends in themselves.

When, for example, in John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, the sign itself shouldn't have been a big deal. Lazarus, after all, was brought to live a life that would, eventually, end in earthly death again. Instead, people should have seen in this miracle a sign that Jesus had dominion over life and death.

When, in John 6, Jesus fed more than 5000 people, many of them followed Him, as He says to them not because they saw in this miracle a sign of Jesus dominion over our greatest enemies--things like starvation and death, but simply as someone who could wrestle up another quick meal for them. (Check out Jesus' upbraiding words to them in John 6:26-27.)

Nicodemus appreciates Jesus signs. He even appreciates that the sign indicate that Jesus is from God. But, as his subsequent dialog with Jesus indicates, he still has no idea of what the signs point to, that Jesus is God in human flesh.

3Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’
(1) This passage has been, if not mistranslated, at least misinterpreted. It's often rendered as "born again." But, in fact, "from above" is a far more literal and faithful interpretation.

The word in the original Greek is anothen. The prefix, ano--the adverbial form of the Greek prefix, ana, means up. The suffix -then means motion from a place. (See Brian Stoffregen's notes on this.)

The idea is that new birth, new life, comes from above. Jesus is upbraiding Nicodemus for not seeing that His signs point to the new life that comes through Jesus, Who is from above. Nicodemus only sees a wonder worker he doesn't yet understand.

4Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’
(1) Like many religionists, Nicodemus is thinking so literally that he can't see what Jesus is trying to show him.

5Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.
(1) This clearly references Baptism, which is not an act of religious dedication enacted by human beings, but an act of salvation graciously enacted on human beings by God.

You might want to read what Martin Luther says about Baptism in The Small Catechism.

6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’
(1) Once more, we see underscored the reality that the new birth comes from God, from above.

9Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ 10Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
(1) These are realities that can only be apprehended by faith. This new birth cannot be earned. We cannot decide to follow Jesus. We can only decide to walk away when He reaches out, as He does in Jesus, to save us.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 2 (Rerun)

[Here, I present, with some modification, the second part of a series I first wrote back in November, 2004. I hope that you find it helpful.]

In my first post on this topic, I said that it's natural for us to wonder why we suffer because somewhere in the recesses of our collective DNA, there is this notion that our lives are meant to be good and eternal.

But even if it's natural for us to do so, is it right for us to ask, "Why?"?

Years ago, a friend of mine attended the funeral for a young man who had been killed in an accident. My friend, a committed Christian, was appalled by what he saw among the parents and siblings of the dead young man. They were going around praising God for the death, saying that their loved one was now in heaven, and asking mourners wasn't it all just too wonderful for words? "They were in complete denial, Mark," my friend told me. I think that he was right.

It is true, of course, that followers of Jesus Christ live and die with hope. I love what Paul says in the New Testament book of First Corinthians:
"...Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ..." [First Corinthians 15:20-22]
"If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [First Corinthians 15:19]
When I preside over funerals, I often tell the families and friends of the people who have died: "If what we say about Jesus conquering death for all who believe in Him isn't true today, it simply isn't true at all."

Jesus isn't just our Lord when life is going well and we're living large. He's also our Lord when this world hands us its worst. That's because we believe that on an Easter Sunday two-thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead, certifying His power to deliver on all His promises, even beyond our deaths and our funerals.

But no matter what our hope and no matter how sure we are that "all who call on the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21; Psalm 55:16; and other places), we still experience loss when loved ones die, or when we lose our health, a job, or a marriage, or when we experience any tragedy. It's normal even for Christians to experience grief.

The New Testament tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," not for all circumstances. In other words, our circumstances may be lousy or painful, but we can be thankful that even in those times, the God we know through Jesus Christ is with us.

Although my friend attended the funeral I mentioned many years ago, I still wonder why that family reacted as they did to their loss. Maybe they were taught that any other reaction would reflect faithlessness, a lack of trust in God. Maybe they thought that an angry God would punish them in some way.

If they entertained such thoughts, they obviously hadn't spent much time reading the Bible. Back when I was moving from atheism to faith in God, I spent some time exploring the Bible as I never had before. One thing that kept striking me me then was how honest the Bible is. No facts are sugar-coated. Great heroes of faith---from David to Moses and Peter and Paul---are seen warts and all.

And when people of faith mentioned in the Bible encounter mysteries about God and about life with God, they honestly own up to being confounded and confused. In the Old Testament's book of worship songs, the Psalms, for example, there are whole genres of songs called laments: community laments and individual laments. In them, believers in God express sadness and bafflement at their suffering. They complain about the seeming inactivity or insensitivity of God. In Psalm 13, for example, the psalmist talks to God:

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long? [Psalm 13:1-2]
If any believer was worthy of being zapped on the spot, at least according to religious thinking, it was the writer of those words, traditionally held to be David, a person the Bible describes as a "man after God's own heart." But God didn't zap David.

A man named Job didn't get zapped either. His story is told in a lengthy and eloquent book of the Bible's Old Testament. Job was such a good man that God bragged about him. But in rapid order, Job was subjected to a series of personal tragedies. He lost his vast property and land holdings, all his children were killed, and he became afflicted with a disease. At first, Job seemed to handle things well, insisting that he would keep worshiping and serving God. But, understandably, Job broke. He never stopped believing in God. But, despite the saying, "the patience of Job," Job exhibited a lot of impatience...with his circumstances, with other people, even with God. And neither the Bible or God reproach Job for that!

Three friends came to visit him and for a time, simply allowed Job to "vent," sharing his feelings of sadness and grief and mystification that a good God would allow all this to happen to him. It was then that Job's friends made a huge mistake. They tried to explain what had befallen Job. In a nutshell, they were sure that Job was guilty of some secret sin and that God was punishing him. While Job wouldn't have claimed perfection for himself, he was sure that the friends' explanations were off-base. He tells them, "If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!" (Job 13:5) (I laugh every time I read those words, remembering with embarrassment and regret all the stupid explanations I've tried to offer for the bad things that have happened in my own and in others' lives.)

Job then complains bitterly to God and about God. Given their "theology," Job's friends may have felt vindicated in their "explanations" of Job's plight. They may also have considered moving a few feet away from Job just in case a stray lightning bolt from heaven hit them.

In the end of the book of Job though, God responds to all that Job and his friends have said. But God offers no explanations. First, God upbraids the friends for pretending to know what they couldn't possibly know, for judging their friend Job as worthy of all the suffering he was enduring. He even tells them that they were wrong and that Job, who they'd accused of being impious and unbelieving for expressing anger with God, was right!

Then, in a long discouse, God reminds Job of a few simple facts: God is God, Job isn't, and no matter what, God would be with Job.

In a way, that may not seem like an especially satisfying resolution. But, remember Paul's words, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [First Corinthians 15:19] This life, consequential as it may be for eternity is just a blip on our journeys. Paul, a man who certainly had a lot of suffering in his life, said in another place:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. [Second Corinthians 4:17-18]
Ultimately, every person I have ever observed to have come to a place of peace in dealing with life's tragedies has done so because they've adopted an eternal perspective. They know that this life isn't all there is to life and choose to trust God in spite of the mysteries and unanswered questions. And in the midst of those mysteries, they discover comfort in knowing that the God of all creation is with them always.

Summing up this post:
1. It's normal for us to grieve.

2. It's normal for us to ask God why we suffer.

3. God won't zap us for wondering why we suffer.

4. Even when we grieve, we have an eternal hope when we trust Jesus Christ as our God and Savior.

5. God is God.

6. We're not God.

7. God is with us.
More on point 7 in my next post. [Use the Comments post below to dialog, give feedback, and tell me if this is helpful at all.]

Thursday, February 14, 2008

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 1 [Rerun]

[This is the first installment of a series I first presented here over three years ago, on November 2, 2004. I'm going to present all its installments over the next several days.]

For several months now, our congregation has been praying for the infant daughter of friends of congregational members. We learned this past week that the little girl died at six months of age.

The question naturally arises: Why?

It's a searing question, whether you're a person of faith or not. For those who claim no faith, as was true of me back in my days as an atheist, the question is thrown down as a gauntlet, a rhetorical salvo meant to be the last word in any debate over, if not God's existence, His power or His compassion.

I can't be critical of atheists and agnostics who ask "Why?" in this way. Years ago, after I had come to faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a woman I've known since we were in junior high school, an atheist, wondered how I could possibly believe. She pointed to all the suffering that goes on in the world and asked, if there were a compassionate and loving God, how I could claim faith in Him. It's been my experience that most agnostics and atheists are people with good hearts, offended by the pain that they see in the world and unable to see how an omniscient, loving God could stand by and seem to observe it all passively.

In fact, it strikes me that many who resist faith in God are by and large, more compassionately attuned to the agonies endured by majority of the human race over the course of human history than are many people of faith. I have greater respect for the honest resister of faith who resists because he or she cares about people than I do for the pew-sitters who mindlessly embrace church membership because their parents were church members. Whether it's a simple case of the zeal of a convert or not, I've also found that most former atheists or agnostics make more passionate, compassionate Christians than most church members who receive their "faith" by osmosis or family habit.

In coming posts, I hope to address the question of why good or innocent people suffer in some detail. I also hope to delve into some of the other issues surrounding the experiences of undeserved suffering we can go through in life. For today, I simply want to deal with why we ask the question, "Why?"

One of my seminary professors, the systematic theologian Walter Bouman, used to tell us that in spite of all the progress the human race has made through the centuries, the ratio of births to deaths is still running one-to-one. (A line I've lifted from him countless times in the twenty-plus years I've been preaching!)

Death and tragedy are and have been constant companions of the human race for most of history. Yet, we seem to view each death as a cruel, unfair encroachment on our happiness and the happiness of the one whose life is snuffed out. We see the death of young people as particularly tragic, a violation of the proper order of things.

In spite of the pattern of tragedy and sadness we see in the world (and in our newspapers) each day, illnesses, hurricanes, earthquakes, marital breakups, youthful rebellion, crime, crooked politics, job losses, mass starvation, genocide, abuse, and a whole host of other tragedies throw us off. They make us yearn for "getting back to normal," as though "normal" was a life devoid of these events, a life to which we've been usually accustomed.

In fact, sadness and tragedy seem to be the normal state of things in the world. So, it's curious that we find sadness and tragedy so offensive and hurtful. Shouldn't we be used to it?

No, I don't think that we should. I believe that deeply embedded in our collective DNA is the memory of a time when tragedy and sadness weren't part of the human experience. We weren't meant to live under their shadows. Somehow, deep within each of us, there's an awareness that life is meant to be good. And so, we're right to be offended when tragedy strikes. In an ultimate sense, it is unnatural.

The opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of the universe by God. However you interpret those chapters, a few facts emerge:

1. God is good. It's in the nature of God to give. After all, God gave the gift of life to everything from the frilled lizard to human beings. Creation is a voluntary act of giving on God's part.

2. God's creation is good. God says that it is, repeatedly. And when God fashions human beings, He looks at everything He's created and declares it all, "very good!"

3. Death wasn't part of the human scene until the first human beings deliberately rebelled against God's will. That had consequences. In fact, the New Testament book of Romans says that because human beings are the pinnacle of creation, its caretakers, the whole universe groans under the burdens and consequences of human sin.

(Keep in mind that God doesn't mete out punishment every time we sin. Thank God for that! But sin is an inborn disease with which every human being is afflicted at birth. That has its results, evident in all of us.)

If we are offended by the tragedies of this world, it's understandable. Until sin entered our world, tragedy and death were foreign to our lives. No one who asks, "Why?" should feel ashamed. Human tragedy offends God, too.

More tomorrow...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Second Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lesson (February 17, 2008)

[The first pass, which also explains what these "passes" are about, can be found here.]

(General Comments, continued)
5. Psalm 121: This is among the Songs of Ascent or pilgrim psalms that were used by the ancient Israelites as they climbed the holy mount, Mount Zion in Jerusalem, site of the temple. These psalms comprise a whole "book" of the Psalms, which includes Psalms 120 to 134.

6. This is a frequently quoted passage of Scripture. As Artur Weiser notes in his fantastic commentary on the Psalms:
This psalm produces by the simplicity of its language and piety a deep impression...It does not show us the bold soaring of a man's [sic] faith to the high places where storms rage; it does not portray man's struggles and inner tensions--but with the calm and comforting assurance of an unshaken trust it takes its course in a peaceful and straightforward manner. In this inward stability lies its strength...
In other words, this psalm shows us another face of the same theme running through the other lessons for this coming Sunday: faith, trust in God.

7. But faith is not about us. It's always about God. God creates trust within us and He nurtures it. It is the Lord Who helps, the Lord Who keeps, and the Lord Who protects. Faith is not some grit-your-teeth-convince-yourself-to-believe phenomenon. It's the response of those who, like Abraham have done nothing to earn God's regard but have the desire to trust in God. God turns that desire and turns it into faith. Faith is the gift of a gracious God to those who put down their dukes of resistance, acknowledging God's greatness and the legitimacy of His judgment on our sin, and allow God to manufacture faith within them.

8. Romans 4:1-5, 13-17: Romans was Paul's magnum opus as a theologian and evangelist. He wrote it as he prepared to visit Rome, where he intended to minister to the young church there and then move on to Spain to present Christ and establish new churches.

In the first three chapters of the letter to the Roman church, Paul said that adherence to "the law," by which he meant the laws presented by Moses, could not save a person from sin and death, couldn't give a person everlasting fellowship wth God. One function of the law is to show us our sinfulness and, because death is the consequence of sin, our tragic distance from God. As Martin Luther said, the first function of the law is to drive us to despair. It's a mirror that shows us that, as we Lutherans often say on Sunday mornings, "we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves, [that] we have not loved [God] with our whole heart, we have not love our neighbors as ourselves..."

But God doesn't want to leave us in despair. His desire is for us to turn to Him and find in Him forgiveness and the power to turn around (repent), to walk again with God. A passage in the New Testament, also used frequently in our Lutheran liturgy, tells us:
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (First John 1:9)

2. In our lesson, Paul then shows that even Abraham, the great patriarch of God's people, the Israelites, the first recipients of God's laws, salvation and reconciliation with God never was a matter of obedience to the law. It was always a matter of faith in God and in God's promises. Even Abraham, he asserts, was not saved by his works--the good works of obedience to the law--but by faith. Look at some of the way that Eugene Peterson, Presbyterian Bible scholar, pastor, and poet renders Paul's words in his masterful rendering of the Bible called The Message:
If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we're given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, "Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own."

If you're a hard worker and do a good job, you deserve your pay; we don't call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it's something only God can do, and you trust him to do it—you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked—well, that trusting-him-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift.
The path to faith in God is comprised in part of recognizing that we cannot live on our own. Before God can set us free from sin, God must first crush us with the awareness that on our own, we can do nothing. (But with the God we meet in Jesus Christ, we can do all things.) We need God.

Nor can we ever hope to be good enough to merit eternal life with God. We turn to God for our salvation. God gives life and God gives the new life to those who trustingly turn to Him. We all need new life from God because we are all sinners doomed to death without God's grace.

This is a crushing blow for our egos. But once we've come to terms with the realities about the people we see in the mirror, it comes finally, not as a crushing blow, but as comfort and power, hope and joy, and life with God that lasts forever!

God is the implacable foe of our sin. God is the resolute lover of our souls. Both statements are true.

God stands ready to give us forgiveness and life. The question always is: Will we let Him? Abraham (formerly Abram) believed in God and God's promises and God counted Abram's trust as righteousness. We are saved from our unlawfulness not by obeying a law we can never obey completely, but by throwing ourselves into the arms of the God Who loves us completely and lived it out (and died it out) on the cross.

This leads us to that greatest of all Biblical passages, one that will appear in this Sunday's Gospel lesson:
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. (John 3:16)
[More later, I hope.]

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

First Pass at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (February 17, 2008)

[Each week, in anticipation of worship on the following Sunday, I present these "passes," looks at the Bible lessons appointed for the week. I write these pieces to help the people who worship with us at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, to prepare for worship. But I hope that, because we use the lessons appointed for the Church Year, that others will get some benefit from them as well.]

The Bible Lessons:
Genesis 12:1-4a (through "as the Lord had told him")
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, our leader and guide, in the waters of baptism you bring us to new birth to live as your children. Strengthen our faith in your promises, that by your Spirit we may lift up your life to all the world through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

General Comments:
1. Last Sunday's lesson from Genesis told us that humanity fell into sin by its failure to obey God or resist temptation. This Sunday's lesson from Genesis moves us to the beginning of God's project of restoring fallen humanity to a relationship with Him. In the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, John 3:1-17, the culmination of God's salvation "project," Jesus Christ tells Nicodemus and us that freedom from sin and its chief consequence, death, belong to those who believe (literally trust) Jesus Christ.

2. The great theme of the texts from Genesis, Romans, and John for this Sunday is FAITH. We are saved from sin and death not because of what we do, but because we trust the God Who first gave the promise of salvation to Abram (later renamed Abram) some four-thousand years ago. We believe in the God Who, in Christ, has done everything necessary for us to be acceptable to God.

3. This Sunday marks the first of four consecutive weeks in this Lenten season in which our Gospel lessons will be from the Gospel of John.

4. Genesis 12:1-4a: This marks the beginning of the second of two great sections of Genesis.

The first section, chapters 1 to 11 provided an account of the beginnings of the entire human race, its fall into sin, and its inability to break free of its bondage to sin.

In this second section, comprised of chapters 12 to 50, we read how God began the project of saving the whole human race through one family, starting with Abram and Sarai (later Abraham and Sarah), moving through their descendants. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and his wives are the patriarchs and matriarchs of God's people, Israel. That people, meant to be a light to all the nations of the world, will, in turn become the cradle of the Savior "from above": Jesus.

Verse-by-Verse Comments on Genesis 12:1-4a
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
(1) This section of Genesis, as was true of Genesis 1:1, begins with God speaking. Abram, the nomadic son of Terah, is told by God to leave his nomadic ways and settle in a place that God will show him.

(2) Could Abram have ignored this instruction from God. Of course. But his "yes" to God's command is an act of faith. Faith, in the Biblical sense, entails more than mere intellectual assent. As we saw from the Genesis and Matthew lessons of last week, even the serpent/devil, agrees that God exists. (James says that even the demons believe in God's existence and His essence.) But, do we trust God?

In last Sunday's two temptation accounts, first Adam and Eve and then Jesus, were challenged to trust God even when it would be easier not to, even when the tempter twisted God's words to make it seem that an act of self-willed non-trust would be an act of trust.

Here, Abram, a man who could have comfortably stayed with his extended family and the life he'd always known, trusted God.

We can't really take any credit for our faith and neither could Abram. Faith is a gift from God which only belongs to those who let God into their wills. In a sense, faith is putting our dukes down and letting God be God. It's ceasing to pretend that we are in control or know best. And, as a reading of Abram's life story presented in Genesis demonstrates, to trust in God through all the ups and downs of life is a struggle. God's gifts are free. But, as Abram, who left his comfortable past behind, shows us, it will, in many ways, cost us our lives.

2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
(1) God is making a covenant with Abram. In ancient Near Eastern cultures, it was common for a conquering king to make covenants with conquered peoples or other kings. "I will provide you protection," they might say, "In return, you will provide me with tax monies, soldiers, agricultural goods."

Here, God is declaring Himself to be Abram's Deity. But notice that unlike the covenants of earthly kings, God provides blessings. He promises that Abram, who, along with is wife Sarai, is childless, will become "a great nation" and that he "will be a blessing," which, through Jesus he clearly is. God exacts no price from Abram. God's blessings are free gifts that cannot be earned. All Abram needs to do is trust in God and God's promises.

3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
(1) The third segment of this verse seems to parallel the last promise of the preceding verse. Abraham is, above all, to be a blessing to others. The same is true of we Christians. In his first letter, the apostle Peter writes: are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
God saves us because He loves us. But He doesn't save us just for us. He also saves us so that we can throw out the lifeline--faith in Jesus Christ--to others.

4aSo Abram went, as the Lord had told him...
(1) It's difficult to imagine a simpler, more matter-of-fact way of describing what was a momentous move, momentous for Abram and his wife and momentous for the history of the world. Think of it; Salvation's story began when God told one man to go and that one man, along with his wife, trusted in God enough to move. Every great movement of God begins when one person trusts God when God beckons her or him to move out of their comfort zones.

[More tomorrow, I hope.]

Monday, February 11, 2008

I need exercise... I bought one of these today. It's only a hundred bucks at Brookstone. I'd tried the aerobic twisting stepper at the store several times and customer comments I've read confirm that it provides a surprisingly good workout. I got done working out with it a few minutes ago and it's goooood! Now, if I can just remain disciplined about using it.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

How to Beat the Devil

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

Matthew 4:1-11
Although thankfully, it’s happening with less frequency these days, even now the television and newspapers bring reports that some US soldier or Marine in Iraq has been wounded or killed by an IED, an improvised explosive device. A concealed device goes off just as US personnel approach it. The enemy, in the tradition of guerilla warfare, is unseen and blends in with his surroundings, only occasionally being exposed. Guerilla warfare is an example of what the tacticians call asymmetrical war because it’s typically used by those whose army or firepower can’t match a heavily-armed conventional foe.

All believers in Jesus Christ are engaged in a war far deadlier and far more destructive than the terrible conflict going on in Iraq these days. Unlike human guerilla warriors, the enemy we fight is never seen. The explosions he sets off in our lives may seem harmless or, to the unwary, non-existent; but unlike the guerilla warriror’s bombs that can only take away our earthly lives, this enemy’s weapons can, if we aren’t careful, lead to eternal separation from God. And though our common enemy is more powerful than any of us, separately or together, he nonetheless engages in asymmetrical warfare, luring us, under the cloak of anonymity, just as he lured Adam and Eve to rebel against God in the garden. Our enemy, the devil, is a vicious, heartless, miserable creature who thinks he can bring God down by destroying us, the children for whom Jesus Christ died and rose.

I know that saying this may cause some to tune me out. People may think that the very idea of the devil is an outmoded one, akin to believing that the earth is flat or that Pluto is a planet. Years ago, the Oxford University professor, expert on world cultures, and novelist, C.S. Lewis, gave a series of radio talks that became my favorite book other than the Bible, Mere Christianity. In one of his talks, Lewis told his listeners:
...someone will ask me, "Do you really mean, at this time of day [in other words, at this supposedly advanced stage of human development], to reintroduce our old friend the devil-hoofs and horns and all?" Well, what the time of day has to do with it, I do not know. And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns. But in other respects my answer is, Yes, I do..."
And so do I. I’m convinced that there is a devil and I’m not alone in that belief. According to the Bible, the devil was, originally an angel. That word, angel, angelos in the Greek of the New Testament, means messenger. Angels are messengers, wordsmiths, great communicators meant to be God’s letter-carriers. The devil, resentful of the station God gave to His highest creatures, rebelled against God.

Ever since then, the devil—along with our fallen world and the sin inside of us--has engaged in a propaganda campaign designed to sow discouragement, division, selfishness, and death among us, hoping perhaps, that by bringing us down, he can bring God down. It’s the devil’s aim to lure us to hopelessness, to indifference to God and neighbor, and to self-absorption. It’s in that very state of isolation that he wants to keep us forever, never to experience the love of Christ or the touch of others.

Hell isn’t a party where people do naughty things for eternity. It’s a place where those who have allowed themselves to be lured away from God live in a perpetual state of absolute aloneness and constant regret. We would be fools to think that we can face such evil on our own. As Martin Luther writes in A Mighty Fortress is Our God:
No strength of ours can match his might! [That is, the devil’s might.] We would be lost, rejected.
So, what can we do in the face of this evil? Jesus shows us what to do in today’s Gospel lesson. Three times, the devil tempts Jesus to diverge from the Father’s will for His life.

First, knowing that Jesus is hungry, the devil tries to convince Jesus to whip up instant bread from the stones available in the wilderness. Food is a good thing. And God the Father certainly doesn’t want Jesus to starve. But Jesus didn’t come into our world to make Himself comfortable. He came to share our discomforts and our whole lives. He came to die for us and to rise for us so that all who repudiate their sin and follow Him will live forever.

Next, the devil set Jesus up on the pinnacle of the temple and said, “If you are God’s Son, God will surely take care of you. So, take a dive, so that God can make good on His promises to you—and to all believers—to catch us. But Jesus didn’t come into the world to do pointless parlor tricks.

Finally, the devil tempted Jesus by offering Jesus exactly what He wanted—the world and all its kingdoms. The price: Jesus would have to worship the devil.

In each instance, the devil’s temptations were perfectly reasonable things, good things that Jesus wanted. The devil was offering them to Jesus without struggle, with no need to be obedient to God, and of course, on the condition that Jesus—and all of us--would forever be his slave. His come-ons were a little like what those check-cashing services offer people these days, instant gratification with a long-term price to be paid.

Jesus met each temptation not only by reciting the Word of God, but also by knowing the character, the grace, and the will of the Father Who sent Him to us. So, how do we meet our temptations?

Martin Luther said, “When [the devil] comes knocking upon the door of my heart and asks, ‘Who lives here?’ the dear Lord Jesus goes to the door and says, ‘Martin Luther used to live here but he has moved out. Now I live here.’ The devil, seeing the nail prints in His hands, and the pierced side, takes flight immediately.” The Bible says that Christ lives in those who let Him in. It’s only when we let Christ in that the devil can be turned away.

The devil, you know, wants to discourage you, sow discord in your marriage, cause you to hold grudges, foster disunity and dissension in Christ’s Church, consider violence as an answer to life’s problems, and make us all think that we are left to live life in our own power, with no one to care for us.

But those are all lies! Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died and rose for us and He’s living now, just waiting for you to invite Him to help you, help your family and friends, help our Church, and help our world. Jesus promises His followers, “I am with you always!” The only way you and I can face down evil are to rely completely on the God Whose love and grace for us are chronicled in the Word Jesus used against the devil in the wilderness!

In 1861, a Shenandoah Valley farmer named Wilmer McLean saw one of the bloodiest engagements of the Civil War, the Battle of Bull Run, fought on his property. McLean cared little about the reasons for the war. He just wanted to get away from it. So, he sold his property and moved to a place he was sure the war could never find him. Four years later, General Ulysses S. Grant chased Confederate General Robert E. Lee throughout Virginia. In Appomattox County, Grant sent a message to Lee, asking the rebel general to meet and sign a truce. The place where they met to end the Civil War was an old house in Appomattox Court House, Virginia. The owner was Wilmer McLean. No matter how much McLean tried, the war that he wanted to avoid found him.

You may not think that you are a party to the war that the devil is waging for your soul, or against his greatest enemy on earth, the Church of Jesus Christ. You may think that sort of thing may have happened back in the day, but not today. Christians often think that. But that’s dangerous thinking!

One day, seminary professor Howard Hendricks was approached by a smiling student who announced, “Dr. Hendricks, it’s been at least three years since I can remember the devil tempting me to sin.” Hendricks replied, “That’s about the worst thing I can imagine hearing from a Christian.” It either meant, you see, that that student was so far from God that the devil wasn’t bothering with him or that he was so insensitive to the reality of evil that he had been sidelined as a Christian.

Followers of Jesus Christ have an enemy sworn to kill us. But we have a Savior, a God Who is greater than all our sin and death. When evil assails us, no matter what its form, we need to put on the power of God so that we can withstand all that the devil throws our way and like Jesus, at the end of our Gospel lesson, let God care for us.

And this is how we do it: We let Jesus Christ into our lives. And then...
  • We pray for each other.
  • We worship together.
  • We take the Sacrament together.
  • We read God’s Word.
  • We pray for help.
Against these weapons, our enemy the devil has no power. When we use them, we can be certain that He cannot defeat us...ever!