Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Creative Cartography

The Chinese government has submitted its claimed maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. Its proposals give credence to notions that the Beijing regime intends to exercise unquestioned hegemony in Asia, at the expense of neighboring nations. Read the BBC news article on their proposals here or, cut to the chase, and look at their proposed boundaries on a map.

I've been writing with considerable concern about the threat to international peace and stability represented by the Chinese government. See here. Go here for a rundown of recent writing about the Chinese government' human rights policies and its aggressive military and economic impulses toward the outer world.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

How to Know a God-Sighting

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

Acts 8:26-40
My wife Ann and I graduated in succeeding years from West High School in Columbus. So, I always enjoy going to her class reunions with her. They seem like reunions for me, too.

Four years ago, we were at Ann’s reunion and I had a conversation with Sandy. “How’s it going?” I asked. She told me about what was happening at the congregation of which she and her husband are members, a Lutheran church in another part of Ohio. Her husband was the president of the congregation and chair of the Call Committee at the time, looking for a pastor to replace one who had taken a call to another congregation some time before. They had already interviewed several candidates and none of them seemed to be a good fit for their church.

“But just today,” Sandy told me, “Steve spoke with a pastor. He sounds like he’d be perfect for our church, Mark.” In spite of those hopeful words, I could sense hesitation in Sandy’s voice.

“What’s wrong?” I asked. “This has been such a frustrating process,” she told me. “I’m afraid to hope.” Because Sandy was a friend from high school days, I decided to go where pastors aren’t supposed to tread. “Who’s the pastor?” “I shouldn’t say,” she said. “Sandy, it’s me. I won’t say anything.” She identified the pastor as Jon (not his real name), a friend of mine, and one of my very favorites. I told Sandy, “Snap him up!”

Last Sunday evening, Ann and I were at that church, where Jon has been the pastor for four years. We were there for a surprise party with 160 other people. Sandy was working in the kitchen. Steve was one of the speakers. We celebrated the 25th. anniversary of Jon’s ordination.

Just before Ann and I left, we spoke with Sandy. She said that God had used our little conversation at Ann’s high school reunion to reassure her that their sense about Jon was right. “It was a God sighting for sure,” she told us.

Every Christian who’s ever been dialed into God knows what Sandy meant when she said that. God sightings are those moments when you indisputably know that God is reaching out to you with a message, a gesture, some instruction, or reassurance.

But how do we know a God-sighting when we see it?

Our first lesson for today can help us with this question. It comes from the New Testament book of Acts. In Acts, we’re shown the history of the early Church from the day that the risen Jesus ascended into heaven until about thirty years later. Our specific lesson from Acts tells us about how, prompted by the Holy Spirit and an angel, a messenger from God, a layperson named Philip, shared the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection with a man from Ethiopia. The Ethiopian was returning home from Jerusalem, where he had evidently gone to learn more about the God of the Jews.

When Philip finds him, the Ethiopian is reading from the book of the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah. In accord with the custom of those days, he’s reading out loud. When Philip offers to explain that Isaiah wrote at least 550 years before Jesus’ birth, about Jesus, the Ethiopian invites Philip to tell him more.

Philip shares the whole Biblical story for the man, how Jesus was the culmination of Israel’s history and how, through faith in Jesus, all people can experience forgiveness of sin, God’s presence in their lives right now, and eternal life.

The Ethiopian comes to believe in Christ and asks if he can’t be baptized right then. Philip goes into a nearby pool of water with the man and performs the baptism.

Having served the function to which God had called him, Philip then disappears, traveling a road astride the Mediterranean coast, sharing Christ along the way. The eunuch returns to his homeland. Tradition says that the oldest Christian denomination in Ethiopia today was started by him.

This passage is filled with God sightings, although not everybody would have been as alert to them as Philip and the Ethiopian official were. Their experience here can help alert us to those moments when God is reaching out to us.

Before diving into some of the specific insights our passage gives us on this question, I should say that the number one principle for deciding if you've had a God sighting is whether the experience conforms with the character and personality of God as you know God through the Bible. If in what you think was a God sighting, you sense that you're being told to blow up a bridge or start a terrorist movement, there's a good chance you haven't had a God sighting. In this, as in all other areas, the revealed Word of God, the Bible, is the authoritative source and norm of our life, faith, and practice.

But what else might tell you that you've had a God sighting?

First: Our lesson in Acts tells us that God sightings usually happen when we particularly need help or reassurance from God.

The angel who told Philip to take a wilderness road to Gaza showed up right after Philip and other Greek-speaking Jews who confessed Christ had fled Jerusalem because there was a general persecution against their kind. Philip was among those early Christians whose lives were in danger because of their faith in Jesus. But God was still reaching out to them, assuring them of His loving purpose for their lives.

God wants to do that for you when you face tough times, too. When Sarah S., of our congregation, was at Children’s Hospital, gravely ill with leukemia, her father, Bryan, was getting gas at a filling station in Columbus. He was returning home to Logan after a long day at the hospital. He'd already filled his tank. It was a February night with the first hints of spring in the air and he was just standing by his car, taking in the fresh air.

A woman before pulled up to the other side of the gas pump. She was driving an old clunker. Bryan noticed fluid leaking from the back of the vehicle. She saw Bryan and asked, "What are you doing here?" "I just filled my tank and I'm getting of a breath of air," Bryan explained.

The woman told Bryan, "I didn't want to stop. I just wanted to get home. But I was nearly out of gas and kept thinking that, for some reason, I was supposed to be here."

Without a word having passed between them about his child, the woman looked and said, "God wanted me to tell you that your little girl is going to be OK."

Now, what are the odds of that? I think that it’s safe to call that a God sighting! God sightings happen when we need them.

Second: Our lesson also shows us that when we encounter God and God seems to give us directions, God will usually tell us to do a hard thing that will force us to rely more heavily on Him. The angel told Philip to leave the ease and success he’d experienced in sharing the Good News of Jesus in Samaria and, instead, travel down a dusty road filled with foreigners and thieves. One reason Philip could be sure that he had heard from the Lord is that God had called him to do the harder thing.

Ann, our kids, and I loved our first parish in northwestern Ohio. A congregation of 450 members, our average attendance was 280. (The percentage of our baptized membership in worship each Sunday was among the highest in the Lutheran Church.) The people there loved God, taught us a lot about being Christians, and were fun, too. We could have stayed there happily for the rest of our lives.

The church had just approved a major new building addition in 1990, when I was asked to start a new congregation in the Cincinnati area. No building. No budget. No people. I would have to wear out several pairs of shoes going door-to-door in order to invite people to consider becoming part of this new venture of faith. It was a crazy thing to do. But we went, convinced that God has not called us to a life of ease, but a life of joyful reliance on Him!

Third: Our lesson shows us that when we encounter God, we can be certain that afterward, God will want us to share His Son Jesus with others.

Jesus says of Himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to [God] the Father, except through Me.”

In John, chapter 3, Jesus says, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Those who believe in Him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the Name of the only Son of God.”

Our eternal destiny rides on whether we entrust our lives to Jesus Christ. Don’t believe that because Pastor Daniels says it or because the Lutheran Confessions say it. Believe it because Jesus, the One Who died and rose for you, says it. And if you and I find Jesus credible, then we must believe it when He says that those without faith in Him are lost and that He has come to “seek and save the lost.”

People may ask why we give food to CHAP, or help to Lutheran Social Services, or prepare shoe boxes of gifts for children through Operation Christmas Child. They may wonder why we run a food drive for our county’s Jobs and Family Services.

We want to love our neighbor, of course. But our love has a particular aim. It’s the same aim we have when we put our worship on the radio each week and place signs in our front yards inviting neighbors to Easter worship.

It’s why we’re sprucing up the outside and the inside of the building, why we invited our high school prom-goers to have breakfast in our fellowship hall in the middle of the night, and the reason we have Sunday School, Catechism, adult studies, and Vacation Bible School.

It’s why we’re going to have a Friend Day to invite our non-churchgoing friends and neighbors to worship.

We do all these things because we believe that Jesus Christ is the only way to God and therefore the only way to forgiveness, hope, peace with God, others, and ourselves, and the only way to everlasting life.

Philip believed that too, which is why he ran toward the Ethiopian eunuch’s chariot. He felt a sense of urgency, the same urgency that you and I are called to have about others’ salvation. When we encounter God, we can be certain that God will want us to share His Son Jesus with others.

God doesn’t want to be a distant stranger—distant from you or from those we meet in our daily lives. We can be certain we’ve been blessed with a God-sighting that brings God up close...
  • when we’re in special need of help or reassurance;
  • when the instructions we sense tell us to the harder thing, the thing that will cause us to lean more heavily on God; and
  • when we know that the faith within us, renewed by our encounter, must result in our sharing Jesus with others.
Whether you sense God’s presence with you this week or not, know that the One Who died and rose for you, God-come-to-earth, Jesus, has promised to be with you always. In the end, as wonderful as it is, seeing God isn’t nearly as important as the fact that God always sees us, always cares about us, and is always by our sides. Amen