Saturday, May 10, 2008

'Lonesome Town'-Paul McCartney with David Gilmour

I've always loved Paul McCartney's cover of Ricky Nelson's Lonesome Town, featuring David Gilmour on guitar and harmony vocal. It appeared on Macca's Run, Devil, Run, an LP composed of rock and skiffle tunes from the 1950s and 60s plus McCartney compositions in the same vein.

Here's a sound check performance bringing McCartney and Gilmour back together again.


A Good Read

Yesterday on his blog, my brother, comedian Marty Daniels, recommended a free e-book published by the publishing arm of the Bruderhof, an international group of small Christian communities. In between prayers and visits during an overnight Prayer Vigil in the sanctuary of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, the congregation of which I'm pastor, I was able to read Freedom from Sinful Thoughts by J. Heinrich Arnold.

While I have quibbles with bits and pieces of Arnold's book (and can't quite figure out where the thoughts he attributes to the apostle Paul on page 22 can be found in the New Testament), I recommend downloading this book.

I have found this often to be the case in books that come from Bruderhof: I have minor quibbles, but on the whole deeply appreciate the profound insights into the God of the Bible and how to live with Him at the center of our lives each day.

Our thought life is a powerful thing. While Arnold affirms, with the Bible, that there is another dimension of life, that of angels and demons in which a cosmic battle not only for our eternal souls, but for the life of the universe, is being waged and from this spiritual realm, the devil seeks to hurt God by enticing us to walk away from God for eternity, that doesn't negate our responsibility as rebels against God. God's words to the resentful and self-absorbed son of Adam and Eve, Cain, are words for us as well, "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Genesis 4:7). Such mastery entails holding all of our thoughts captive to God aware, as James writes in the New Testament, "one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death."

As Arnold, who died in 1982, says early on in this practical, moving book, "Many Christians do not believe in the reality of this fight [against temptation and their own sin], let alone in the reality of evil. This book will be of no use to them. Rather, it is intended for those who have known sin, who earnestly seek to be freed of its weight, and who long for purity of heart."

Don't waste your time by reading this book if you deny the existence of right and wrong and the need for us to surrender our lives completely to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

But if you want to surrender and you want to experience the power of reconciliation with God that belongs to those who trust Christ, by all means read Freedom from Sinful Thoughts.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Looking at Acts 2:1-21, This Sunday's Bible Lesson (May 11, 2008)

[Each week, I present some thoughts on the Bible lessons for the succeeding Sunday. In doing so, I hope to help the people of the congregation I serve, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, to prepare for worship. And because, we will almost always use the appointed lessons for the Church Year, I also hope that these thoughts can help others prepare for worship too.

The Bible Lessons: Acts 2:1-21 or Numbers 11:24-30
Psalm 104:24-35
1 Corinthians 12:3b-13 or Acts 2:1-21

John 20:19-23 or John 7:37-39

[We have many different optional Bible lessons for this coming Sunday, Pentecost Day. I'm going to focus solely on Acts 2:1-21, which gives the account of first Christian Pentecost.]

The Prayer of the Day:
O God, on this day you open the hearts of your faithful people by sending into us your Holy Spirit. Direct us by the light of that Spirit, that we may have a right judgment in all things and rejoice at all times in your peace, through Jesus Christ, your Son and our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

General Comments:
1. Pentecost already was a festival on calendar of pious Jews. It was a harvest festival, falling fifty days after the Sabbath of Passover week. For more, see here. On the Christian calendar, Pentecost is one of the three great festivals of the Church Year, along with Christmas and Easter. The first Christian Pentecost happened fifty days after the first Easter and ten days after the risen Jesus ascended to heaven.

2. The they mentioned in verse 1 are presumably the group of 120 Christ-Followers mentioned in 1:15.

3. The events of Pentecost fulfill the promise Jesus made in 1:8, that He would send the Holy Spirit, Who would make it possible for them to boldly witness for God in spite of their fears. The gift of the Spirit would also fulfill Old Testament prophecy, Peter points out. We'll discuss that more in the verse-by-verse comments.

4. The events of Pentecost also, in a way, reverse the conclusion of the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel. There, filled with arrogance, the people of a city called Babel, decided to build a tower which, they thought, would make them as great as God. To save from themselves, God confused them by causing them to speak different languages. Their inability to communicate made working together impossible and soon, worked stopped and the people moved in every direction, establishing their own countries and customs. (For more, see here.)

Through the events of the first Christian Pentecost, the Holy Spirit made it possible for followers of Jesus Christ to communicate in ways that were understandable to the varied representatives of the Jewish disaspora gathered in Jerusalem for the festival. Instead of using their communication skills to glorify themselves, the first believers went around, "speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

5. The first Christian Pentecost introduces what might be called "the era of the Holy Spirit." The Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity and has always been present from eternity. But in the era in which we live now, it's the Holy Spirit who makes faith possible and who gave birth to the community through which God speaks to the world today, the Church. (For more see here and here.)

Verse-by-Verse Comments:
1When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.
(1) Were these first Christians afraid? Probably. Were they praying? No doubt. But they were also doing what the risen Jesus told them to do just before He ascended to heaven: waiting for the promised Holy Spirit. Faith often involves patient waiting.

2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
(1) In Old Testament Hebrew, there is a word (ruach) which can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit. A similar word exists in New Testament Greek, pneuma. It's God's ruach that bears down upon the watery chaos in Genesis 1 and brings life into being. God also breathes ruach into Adam to give the first man life. Here, the very life-giving breath of God breathes His Church, the fellowship of believers committed to Christ's mission for it, into being.

(2) Luke, the writer of Acts, is at pains to point out that this wasn't some gentle little breeze. The Holy Spirit came into the place where the first Jesus-Followers were gathered "like the rush of a violent wind." The Spirit filled the entire house...there was no escaping God for the believers who were there!

3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
(1) This is different from the gift of tongues which the New Testament talks about elsewhere. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 14, that's a worship language which God gives to some Christians as a means of building up the church internally. The Holy Spirit is given to every believer in Christ. It's the Spirit Who makes it possible for once-fearful followers of Christ like Peter to share the good news of new life for all with faith in Jesus with boldness and humility.

(2) The Holy Spirit has been referred to as the "shy member of the Trinity." (The Trinity describes one of God's many mysterious attributes: God is one and yet is three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) And yet the Spirit's appearance on Pentecost was an occasion for sensory overload. First, He filled the house where the disciples were sitting with a roar. Then, He appeared visually in some way. Finally, He sent the disciples out onto the streets of Jerusalem, each telling the story of God's mighty deeds in various languages for all to hear.

5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.
(1) They were in Jerusalem, the center of worship for God's ancient people, as explained here.

6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.
(1) The crowds didn't hear a strange language, as would have been the case if the first Christians were speaking "in tongues." They heard intelligible accounts of God's mighty acts in their own native languages, the ones they spoke in their dispersed homelands.

7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”
(1) How is it possible, the crowd wonders, for these Galileans to speak in their languages? This really is the miracle of Pentecost: God empowers the first Christians to share the Good News in accessible ways!

(2) Notice that the disciples weren't apparently confined to speaking of Jesus' death and resurrection. They were recalling for this international gathering of their fellow Jews "God's deeds of power."

This underscores Luke's emphasis, evidenced both in his Gospel and in Acts, on the unity and consistency between the God revealed in Old Testament times and the God seen in Jesus and now, in the Holy Spirit.

This, according to Luke, is exactly what the resurrected Jesus emphasized when He met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus back on the first Easter. Recalling the Law and the Prophets from the Old Testament, He demonstrated how His death and resurrection had been the plan for the Lord's Messiah always and that the means of salvation--trust or belief in the God ultimately revealed in Jesus--has always been the same.

We Christians tell the story of God's mighty deeds, especially Jesus' death and resurrection, the central event of human history, so that people will call upon the Lord and so, be saved from sin and death. As with the first Christians, it is the Holy Spirit Who gives us the ability to do this.

12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
(1) People always try to explain away the miraculous intervention of God in human life, including Jesus' resurrection. Even religious folks do that. In Old Testament times, a devout woman begged God for a child. Overcome with emotion, the priest thought she was drunk. But she wasn't drunk and God gave her a child destined to be one of the great figures in Israel's history, Samuel. (See here.)

14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.
(1) This demonstrates the power of the Holy Spirit. Just seven-plus weeks before, Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Now, in spite of the implicit danger of being associated with Jesus, Who was executed, Peter stands up to give witness to his faith in Christ.

15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o”clock in the morning.
(1) Peter evidences having done the very first thing any witness for Christ must do. He listened. His words come in response to the questions and accusations of the crowd in Jerusalem.

(2) Peter is arguing that it's way too early for all these people to be drunk; the taverns aren't even open yet!

(3) These people aren't under the influence of spirits, but of the Spirit.

16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.
(1) Another thing a witness for Christ must do is connect God's story with my story and your story. By knowing the Bible, Peter knows God's story.

(2) Peter is saying that there is a different explanation for this strange phenomenon. Simply, God's Holy Spirit has come to Jesus' believers, empowering them to witness for Christ.

(3) To prophesy, in Biblical terms, is to share God's truth.

21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
(1) In its way, this passage, lifted from the Old Testament prophet Joel, is "the Gospel in a nutshell." Gospel is the Old English translation of the New Testament Greek term, evangel, meaning good news. Christians have good news to share: God is for the human race. All who seek help and forgiveness from the God we meet in Jesus Christ will be saved from sin and death and have fellowship with God forever.

Another Gem...

from Pastor Glen VanderKloot's daily emailed inspirations:
Thought for the Day
"God will speak only when you stop.

"Only when I silence my heart can I seek God with any
hope of understanding what he is trying to reveal to me."

(Erik Reese)

Psalm 37:7 NLT:
"Be still in the presence of the Lord,
and wait patiently for him to act."

Lord, help me to quiet my heart so that I can hear
and understand what you are saying to me. Amen
For information on how you can receive Pastor VanderKloot's daily emails, go here.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Tools for the Journey

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

Acts 1:6-14
We were on our way to the Southern Ohio Synod Bible Bowl a few weeks ago, when I had to nip a problem in the bud. You see, two of our young people—whose initials are Jacob and Steven—were about to sing a rousing rendition of Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall. “No,” I said, “we aren’t going to sing that.” It isn’t that I object to singing about beer. It’s just that that particular song makes me nuts, all ninety-nine verses of it. It was for the safety of all my passengers that I stopped the song before we got anywhere close to that ninety-eighth bottle of beer on the wall.

Of course, the purpose of traveling songs is to help make the time pass more quickly. Parents and elders have been devising songs, games, and conversation-starters to entertain children during long trips for centuries. No parent wants to hear the most dreaded words of any journey: “Are we there yet?”

In a way, that’s the question asked of Jesus by the disciples at the beginning of our first lesson for today, from the book of Acts. Let’s set the scene. It’s forty days after Jesus rose from the dead on the first Easter. The disciples probably figured that by then, they and all the people of God had already been on a long journey with God.

They had a point.

Sometime around 2000AD, God had called a wealthy couple named Abram and Sarai, who lived in what is modern-day Iraq, to go to a land that God would show them and, in spite of their advanced years, to become the father and mother of God’s people, the Hebrews.

Through the ensuing centuries, through slavery and exile, triumph and humble faithfulness, God would give His people a land and a promise that one day, the Savior of the whole world would be born among them. Through Israel, the light of the world, God the Son, would come to offer new life and eternity with God to all who repent of their sin and entrust their lives to Him. The Son would establish God’s kingdom and destroy the power of sin and death forever.

When that Son—Jesus of Nazareth—showed up and revealed the will, the heart, and the identify of God, few people believed in Him. Not even God’s own people believed in Him. But, fitfully, imperfectly, several hundred people became followers—disciples—of Jesus. When He died on a cross, they mourned. When He rose from the dead, they exalted, then spent forty days as He taught them and prepared them for the future.

They thought that the long-sought future had arrived. That was the moment, they were sure, when Jesus would finally, fully establish the kingdom of God. He would throw out the Romans, get rid of the gas tax, and put a chicken in every pot and a Maserati in every garage. Sin and death would be no more, too. Those made righteous by faith in God would be in charge and the bad guys, who they were sure was everybody not like them, would be their slaves.

So, they ask Jesus, “Are we there yet?” Actually, our lesson tells us that they asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?”

They may have been disappointed with Jesus’ answer. He tells them not to worry about when He will put things right for all eternity. “It is not for you,” He tells them, “to know the times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority.” In other words, “Don't worry about how God will fully establish His kingdom. Instead, be about your mission until He does!"

But what is the mission that Jesus wants you and me to do as His Church?

That's an important question.

We’re on a journey, each of us. Followers of Jesus, like the rest of the human race, live on this planet for a length of time known only to God. How does Christ want us to use that time? Jesus could have taught us songs or games to pass the time. But Jesus makes clear in today’s lesson that He wants Christians, He wants His Church, He wants the people of Saint Matthew to do more than pass the time we have on this earth. Our mission is to share the Good News of new life for all who believe in Christ. In a wonderful sermon on this same text, Pastor John Jewell identifies three tools that Jesus gives us to pursue that mission.

First: Jesus gives us power. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you will be my witnesses…” When you and I were baptized, we received God’s Holy Spirit, the very power of God for living. And throughout our lives, we can receive fresh supplies of God’s Spirit. God gives us His Spirit so that we can be about God’s business of sharing Christ with the world for as long as we live.

Some of you may have heard of Jim Cymbala. In one of his books, Cymbala recounts the struggle through which he and his wife went to keep that church alive. Some Sundays, he says, they were lucky to have twenty people. It was a challenge to his faith. No matter what Cymbala tried—and he tried all the newest church growth gimmicks, nothing changed. The Brooklyn Tabernacle was still the small, financially-strapped, conflict-ridden congregation it had always been.

In the midst of this, Cymbala became sick with a cough that wouldn’t go away. Two members of the struggling church, concerned for his health, sent him to Florida to spend a week at a condo they owned. While there, he went on an evening fishing expedition. But his heart heavy with worry about what would become of his church and him, Cymbala went to the back of the boat, away from the others who had lines thrown into the water. He sobbed and within his mind, he asked God what He should do.

“Pray. Just pray,” was the answer he sensed God gave to him. “Pray and I will give you a power that you don’t have yourself. Pray and I will send more people than you can contain in any building.”

When Cymbala first returned to Brookliyn, nothing had really changed much. He coughed less. But there were the same bills. The same twenty people. The same dilapidated building. But as he and those twenty people prayed, God sent them the power to keep going. Today, thousands of people worship each week at the Brooklyn Tabernacle. I don't agree with all aspects of Cymbala's theology, but I do agree that through God's Spirit, we're given a power to do and be more than we could ever ask or imagine.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul writes, “whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” We are never so powerful as we are when we come to the ends of ourselves and admit, “I can’t fight my temptations, I can’t face my troubles, I can’t fulfill your mission for me, Lord, on my own. I need Your power.” Jesus promises to fill our weaknesses with His power when we're humble enough to admit our need of Him!

Jesus gives a second tool for us to do our mission as His people: His promise. After Jesus ascended to heaven, the angels told the first Christians, “Jesus is coming back.” We still believe that today and as you scan all the promises God has made in Scripture and consider how many of them have already come to pass, you have a confidence that this one will come true too. The Lord Who died and rose will make good on His promise. We shouldn’t worry about the fact that 2000 years have passed since Jesus ascended to heaven. As Peter writes in another place in the New Testament, “The Lord is not slow about His promise…but is patient…not wanting any to perish, but all come to repentance.” We have this time to turn from our sin and follow Christ. We have it too, to invite others to follow Jesus with us.

The third tool Jesus gives us for fulfilling His mission for us is prayer. After Jesus ascended, His followers devoted themselves to prayer. On the first Pentecost, ten days later, they learned that through prayer, we gain access to the power Jesus promises His people!

E. Stanley Jones was a Methodist missionary to India in the middle part of the twentieth century and a good friend of Mohandas Gandhi. Once, at the end of one gathering at which he spoke, an obviously well-to-do woman approached Jones.

Jones writes: “As we shook hands, [she] said, “If I had what you have, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in.” [Later] she laid bare her tragedy: Her home was going to be broken up after Christmas--they would hold together till Christmas so as not to break the children’s hearts. We prayed and I asked her to pray when she got home. But she said afterward: “I belonged to the country club cocktail-gambling set and didn’t know how to pray. So I wrote God a letter: ‘Dear God, life has dealt me a very bad hand and I don’t know which card to lead. Please show me which card I am to lead.’ And I signed it.”

Reports Jones, “God heard that prayer expressed in the only language she knew.” Somehow, that woman and her husband were able to stay together and become reconciled. Jones says that the woman was able to hold her home together “by her changed spirit.”

One day, Jesus will return, finally establishing His eternal kingdom. Until then, He gives us a mission to make disciples of all nations and He gives us the tools with which to do it—His power, His promise, and prayer.

My prayer is that you and I at Saint Matthew will make full use of these tools.

That’s why I hope that every member will participate in this week’s prayer vigil, not as an end, but as a new beginning.

Let’s be the church most known in this community for its reliance on the three gifts Jesus gives in our lesson from Acts. Jesus’ power, His promise, and prayer are a lot less annoying that Ninety Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall and when we use them we’ll be doing more than passing the time. We’ll be changing lives, ours and the lives of all we touch!