Tuesday, July 08, 2008

A Look at This Sunday's Bible Lessons (July 13, 2008)

[I try--most weeks--to present some thoughts of the appointed Bible lessons for the coming Sunday. I do this to help the folks of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm privileged to be the pastor, to prepare for worship each week. (It helps me too.) But I also hope that these pieces will help others, since we use the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), the plan of Biblical lessons used by many Christian churches.]

The Bible Lessons:
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word. By your Holy Spirit help us to receive it with joy, live according to it, and grow in faith and hope and love, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

A Few Thoughts:
1. As I've explained before, some scholars believe that Isaiah was written by three different authors over an extended period of time. Because the ancients didn't have the same understanding of authorship that we have, it was considered legitimate for a writer trained by a particular teacher or trained by teachers operating in a teacher's school of thought, to write in that person's names. Scholars claim to be able to discern an Isaiah, a Deutero-Isaiah, and a Trito-Isaiah, each writing at distinctive times in ancient Israel's history.

2. According to Lutheran scholar Ralph Klein, our first lesson, from Isaiah, comes at the end of Deutero-Isaiah (Second Isaiah), a section of the book composed of chapters 40 through 55.

3. Klein goes on to say of the Isaiah passage:
  • The prophet compares the sureness of Yahweh's word of promise to the regularity and effectiveness of rain and snow, which do not just bounce back to the sky, but soak into the ground and bring forth abundant crops.
  • God's word too does not return to God empty-handed, but carries out the tasks God has assigned to it.
  • Verse 12 returns to the theme of a new Exodus, which has emerged often in the previous sixteen chapters. The deliverance of Israel will lead to a new creation, a re-creation, of nature. The mountains and hills will hail this day with singing, and all the trees will give liberated Israel a standing ovation. Instead of weeds and other noxious plants there will be cypress and myrtle.
  • These events will lead to Yahweh's honor; they will be an everlasting sign which will never lose its effectiveness.
4. Psalm 65 is a psalm of thanksgiving and praise. As the notes in the Life Application Bible point out, verses 1 and 2 indicate that this psalm came in fulfillment of vows made by the writer of the psalm, traditionally ascribed to King David. The editors of the notes write:
In Old Testament times, vows were taken seriously and fulfilled completely. No one had to take a vow, but once made, it was binding (Deuteronomy 23:21-23). The vow being fulfilled here is to praise God for his answers to prayer.
I cringe to think of how often I've prayed desperately for something and after God has answered the prayer, often in ways far more fantastic than I would have imagined, just gone on about my business, as though His grace was what I deserved, not a word of thanksgiving passing from me to God. That's nothing less than shameful! At least in this instance, David wasn't so mindless: He thanked God.

5. In our lesson from the Psalm, David says that the water God sends to earth accomplishes something. It brings growth. In just the same way, our other lessons remind us, God's Word accomplishes good things in those open to it.

6. In last Sunday's lesson from Romans, Paul wrestled with the fact that the law of sin that lives in all of us thwarts even the good-intentioned from doing the right thing. (Anybody who's ever made a New Year's resolution knows all about this!) He asks, if we can't be relied on to live according to God's law of love for God and neighbor, even when we don't want to us, who can save us from futility? He answers by saying, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" We throw ourselves on God's mercy and God helps us.

How? That's the question that today's lesson answers.

7. It begins by reveling in the fact all "who are in Christ Jesus," that is, all who repent of sin and follow Jesus Christ, are free of the rightful condemnation for sin that is the common lot of all humanity.

8. Paul then draws a contrast between what he calls "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus" and "the law of sin and death." The Spirit of God (also the Spirit of Christ), the Holy Spirit, enables us to trust the Good News of Jesus Christ. Once we are under Christ's lordship, we're set free from the old domination of sin which, barring what He accomplished for us through His death and resurrection, otherwise would have led to our everlasting separation from God.

9. Verse 4 makes clear that God's implacable requirement of righteousness are fulfilled in us not because of our obedience to the "first law," the laws embodied in the Ten Commandments and in Jesus' response to the young man about the greatest commands of God. When it come to obeying these laws, we have failed and failure leads to death.

But by the power of the Spirit, we are able to believe in Christ, Who has obeyed the law perfectly and payed the penalty for sin--death--on our behalf.

Belief in Christ then, is obedience to "the law of the Spirit," the means by which God graciously makes it possible for rebel sinners to be fit for eternity with God.

Those familiar with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will see how C.S. Lewis worked this element of Biblical faith into the novel. There, Edmund turns traitor against Aslan, his siblings, and the people of Narnia. According to what's called "the deep magic" of that world, the White Witch, sort of a devil figure, has right to take Edmund's blood as "forfeit" for his treachery. She demands that Aslan turn Edmund over to her. Instead, Aslan gives his own life in Edmund's place. In this way, the "deep magic" is assuaged, just as in Christ's death, the appropriate sentence of the law that all sin deserves death, is fulfilled.

In Narnia, Aslan, resurrected like Jesus, later explains, there was "a deeper magic." It held that "when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead...death itself would start working backwards..." The deeper magic of our real world is what Paul calls "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus." As we trust Jesus Christ, our own death works backwards. We are made alive with Christ!

10. In the balance of the lesson from Romans, Paul talks about those who "live according to the flesh" over against those who have "set their mind on the Spirit." This is really no different from the contrast between the law of sin and death and the law of the Spirit.

Please note that when Paul talks about "the flesh," he isn't talking about sex, as many erroneously conclude. He's referring to people who have a "this world is all there is" mentality. Afflicted by this perspective, we no longer look at things from God's point of view. Life "in the flesh" can even take over among people who confess Christ as their Lord. Most frequently, it causes them to be closed-minded, to turn their churches into museums, and their faith into tales of what God did "back then," rather than relying on God to lead them through life today. Among those who don't profess belief in Christ, living "in the flesh" leads to all sorts of ills: materialism, racism, sexism, promiscuity, selfishness, traditionalism, and so on.

11. The Gospel lesson from Matthew happens on the same day that Jesus runs into opposition from the religious leaders of His nation and He claims that His true family aren't the mother, sisters, and brothers among whom He was raised in Nazareth, but all those who do the will of the Father. (See here.)

12. The great question with which we're left at the end of Matthew, chapter 12, is if Jesus is the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy of a Savior, why is Israel, including it seems, His Nazareth kin, repudiating Him?

13. In Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus answers that question through a string of parables, most notably the one that begins the chapter, in verses 1 through 9, which Jesus goes on to explain to His disciples (and to us) in verses 18 through 23. For a detailed exploration of this passage, go here. There, I also explain a little bit about parables.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Another Big Enemy of Our Holy Resolves: Us

Last week, I wrote this piece both for our church's newsletter and the blog. In it, I talked about how the devil will work immediately and feverishly to undermine positive resolutions we make.

The piece has elicited emails and personal conversations, people sharing their own stories of how they seemed immediately thwarted by "unseen forces" from fulfilling their own "holy resolves."

Of course, the devil isn't the only one who works to keep us from living life God's way. As I mentioned in that piece last week, Martin Luther, in The Small Catechism, succinctly identifies the three main thwarters of our doing the right things in our lives: the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.

The second Bible lesson read in our Lutheran churches yesterday, written by the apostle Paul in about 65AD, had a thing or two to say about that last thwarter of holy intentions. I like the way Eugene Peterson renders the yesterday's lesson in The Message, a wonderful paraphrase/translation of the Bible:
What I don't understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can't be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God's command is necessary.

But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can't keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don't have what it takes. I can will it, but I can't do it. I decide to do good, but I don't really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don't result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time.

It happens so regularly that it's predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God's commands, but it's pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge.

I've tried everything and nothing helps. I'm at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn't that the real question?

The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different. (Romans 7:15-25)
The wonderful thing is that the God Who "justifies" sinners like me, reconciling us to Himself in spite of our sins as a free gift, simply because we repent and believe in Jesus Christ, "sanctifies"--or makes us holy--after we've come to believe in precisely the same way, as a free gift.

If we're sincere about wanting to live life God's way, with love for God and neighbor, a commitment to justice for all people, compassion for the poor, and a desire to share the good news about Christ with others, God will help us overcome the sin in us.

God is willing to help us keep our holy resolves.

This side of heaven, we will do God's will imperfectly and the rebel sinner in us will cause us to fail to love God and love others throughout our lives. But as we submit to the God we know through Christ, even we rebels will at times evidence the love, goodness, and grace of the God Who went to a cross and rose for imperfect people like me.

Those are comforting thoughts for me as I ask God to help me each day to know and do His will.

Two Prayer Petitions from July 6 Worship

Here are two petitions that were included in our prayers on Sunday at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio:
Pastor: We thank you for the privilege of living in a land in which, without fear and in freedom, we can worship and serve You and others in Christ’s Name. Help us to honor our country best not by putting it first in our priorities, but You. And help us too, to live by the ethos of the true patriot: our country, when right, to keep it right and when wrong, to make it right. God, we thank You for blessing America and in response, we pray that You would help us be a blessing to others. Hear us, O God;

Congregation: Your mercy is great.

Pastor: We pray for nations and peoples that suffer oppression and scarcity at the hands of the powerful, that they may find restoration in your promise of life. Especially today, we lift up the imprisoned peoples of Zimbabwe, China, and Tibet. Hear us, O God;

Congregation: your mercy is great.
[In part, these prayer petitions are based on those provided to congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I invite you to pray these prayers for our country and our world with us.]

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Purpose: The Deeper Meaning of Jesus' Call to "Rest"

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

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

You may have heard the story before of the man who came upon a construction site and stuck around to watch some brick masons do their work.

He called out to one and asked, “What are you doing?” This guy, nose in the mortar, grunted impatiently, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m laying this row of bricks.”

But not satisfied with that answer, the man asked a second brick mason the same question, “What are you doing?” This second guy looked up and with a smile on his face said, “I’m helping to build a great cathedral! Just think of it, for as long as God wants it to be here, this will be a place where people will come to worship and praise God, get God's comfort, enjoy being with other believers, commit their marriages to God, baptize their children, and be sent out to serve others in Christ’s Name. I have a great job!”

Both brick masons answered the question accurately. But the second one had something the first one lacked. It’s that something Jesus wants you and me to have and He talks about it in today’s Gospel lesson. Let’s pray….

Gracious Jesus: Help us to find our rest in You. Amen.

"Life's greatest burden," Methodist Bishop William Willimon has said, "is not having too much to do, but in having nothing worthwhile to do."

That statement rings true, I think. It’s been my observation that most people are busy, busy to the point of exhaustion and not just with their daily jobs. But, like the first brick mason, not many are sure that the things with which they're busy really matter. And that can wear people out.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us, "Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

I have always thought that in those words, Jesus was inviting us to cast aside all the oppressive ways of living, all the sins, and all the scurrying we do to prove ourselves to an often bruising and demanding world and to instead accept the acceptance and thrive in the love that comes as a free gift to those who let Him wrap His arms of forgiveness, love, and hope around us.

I still think that's what He means. But, I've come to believe that's only part of what Jesus is inviting us to do when He says, "Come to Me, and I will give you rest." There's something more.

That something more is hinted at when Jesus goes on to say in our lesson: "Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light."

First of all, there's that word we see translated as “easy.” We like easy. We wish those easy buttons in the Staples commercials really did make all the tough and annoying challenges of life go away. In fact, we speak of people “taking it easy” as doing nothing but hanging out on the beach all our lives.

But in the original Greek of the New Testament, that word translated as easy was an adjective for something or someone that was useful, kind, good for a purpose, suitable.

An easy hammer was one well-suited to driving in nails, for example. In describing His yoke as easy, Jesus was saying that it would be the right fit for us. Chances are the first brick mason had no more business being a brick mason than I would have. I have no talent for it. It doesn’t fit me. Jesus’ yoke custom fits everybody. He has a custom-made one for all of us. That’s what makes it easy.

But there’s a second hint that in inviting us to come to Him and find rest, Jesus means more than letting Him wrap us in grace. A yoke, you know, is a wooden bar put on the backs of oxen so that they can do work in the field. So far as I know, a yoke is never put on just one ox. Yokes are put on two oxen or a team of them. Jesus says, "Take My yoke upon you."

What's He saying? I think this: "I've got work I'm doing. I'm giving the love and provision of God away to the whole human family, so that all who follow Me will have life forever with God. It's sometimes hard work. It requires self-sacrifice and devotion. I laid down My life for this end. But it's fulfilling work. It's joyful work. And I want you to get in harness and join me in doing it! It'll be the lightest burden you've ever felt because finally, you won't feel that you've got too much to do or that you're doing something foreign to your God-given nature; you'll feel that you're doing exactly what you were made to do and I’ll be right beside you. You'll play precisely the role in my mission that was designed into your make-up before you were born!"

Jesus is inviting us to a new way of living. When we turn from sin and the death-bound ways of the world, Jesus empowers us to experience the sense of purpose for which we were made! When we submit to Jesus’ yoke, He gives us the ability to make the right choices, the ones that honor Him, provide adequately for our families, serve others, and fulfill our desire to be useful as well as busy. That's the yoke that Jesus wants to place on our shoulders.

There is a God-given joy that comes to us when we feel that, in however small a way it might be, whether on our jobs or in our lives as family members or neighbors, we're doing God's work for us, loving God and our neighbor in our own unique ways.

Years ago, I heard a sermon by a pastor whose daughter told him as he was tucking her in and having good night prayers with her that she wanted to be an actress. “When I’m playing a part,” the then-twelve year old told her father, “I feel alive!” Twenty years later, that girl is an actress. She never made it big in Hollywood. She found her niche as part of drama troupe at a large church where thought-provoking skits and plays honor God and entertain its community. But that young woman is at ease. She’s wearing the custom-fitting yoke of Jesus, honoring God by doing what Christ calls her to do.

So does a friend of mine who has two master’s degrees, one in Education and the other in Divinity. He’s a brilliant guy and he was always a far better student that I ever was. But he found his niche neither at a university or a church. Instead, he works in retail, allowing him, once he’s clocked out for the day, to do the work that, for him, is easy and that allows him to play his role in Christ’s mission in the world. He provides free computer software and hardware expertise to the large congregation of which he’s a member and to many people in his church and community. Yes, he takes on tasks that he wouldn’t otherwise need to take on. But what looks like hard, unnecessary, after-hours work to others—and would be for me—is easy for him. He’s using his God-given talents to honor God. Whenever we do that, whether on the clock or not, the burden is light. It’s easy.

The yoke of lives set free from futility, the easy burden Jesus invites us to experience in today’s Gospel lesson, comes to those who stop long enough to simply let Jesus love them...to those who have had enough of lives lived only for the almighty buck, or the high opinions of others, or to feed their egos...and who are ready to live with a sense of purpose.

They declare their dependence on God and let themselves be harnessed with Jesus in doing His will and His work in the world. When we allow the love and acceptance of God, given to us through Christ, to saturate our lives, we'll choose doing the important over the urgent and even when we're busy, we'll be at peace. Our hearts and our souls will have true rest, given by the Lord Who loved us all the way to the cross.

Today, why not make your own declaration of dependence on Jesus Christ? As we pray the Lord’s Prayer this morning, resolve that when you say, “Thy will be done,” really mean it. Be open to asking God to help you experience the authentic ease that comes from playing the part in God’s plans for the world which the Creator of the world made just for you. This week, make it your prayer to ask God, “Lord, what do you want me to do today? What ministry of service in Your Name do You want me to perform?”

Then, be prepared to experience the peace that comes from being harnessed as one with Jesus, going where God leads, being who God calls you to be.