Saturday, January 23, 2010

What Happens in Prayer

"True prayer is God the Holy Spirit talking to God the Father in the name of God the Son, and the believer's heart is the prayer room." (S.W. Zwemer, cited here)

What's Wrong with Reading the Horoscope?

Julie started reading the daily horoscope a few months ago. She thought it was interesting that on some days, the guidance she found there seemed exactly relevant to her situation. She didn't really believe in it, mind you.

At least, she didn't believe in it at first. But as the days wore on and Julie continued to read her daily horoscope, she found that while she still didn't really believe in what she read, she still told friends, "It's amazing how often it seems to be true." Julie had become a horoscope "evangelist."

Julie also started wearing clothing using the horoscope's colors of the day. If the horoscope said that thirteen was her number for the day, she would order a baker's dozen of goodies at the pastry shop on her way to work.

The thing is that Julie is a Christian. She should know better. We all should know better.

In my daily devotional reading this morning, a passage from 1 Chronicles came up; it contains the Bible's epitaph for Israel's first king, Saul, a man who started out strong in faith, but who in his impatience, had come to depend not on God, but on himself....and other things. The passage says:
So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord; moreover, he had consulted a medium, seeking guidance, and did not seek guidance from the Lord...(1 Chronicles 10:13-14)
There's nothing innocent or harmless about reading horoscopes, messing with Ouija boards, playing with Tarot cards, or going to a spiritual "advisor" who claims to know your future.

As much as you tell yourself and others that you don't really believe in that stuff, consulting them will inevitably diminish your dependence on God for guidance and "daily bread." You will, as mentioned in last Sunday's sermon, "hedge your bets" when it comes to trusting wholly in the God revealed to all the world in Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther, pointing to Jesus as God in flesh, was fond of saying that any time our faith, the things in which we trust, can be termed as "Christ-and-somehing else," we have fallen out of relationship with Christ. Christ will not share His throne or His eminence with anyone or anything. Not horoscopes. Not Ouija boards. Nor, for that matter, with the wisdom of the world, your country, your political party, your life philosophy, piety, or good religious works.

Christ is the way and the truth and the life. Christ alone.

If I had the chance, I would tell Julie to throw out the horoscopes and simply pray, "Today, Lord, your will be done in my life."

UPDATE: I just found this prayer while re-reading Prayer Power Unlimited: Achieving Intimacy with God Through Prayer by J. Oswald Sanders. It's a prayer composed by Erasmus:
O Lord Jesus Christ, who hast said that Thou art the way, the truth, and the life; suffer us not at any time to stray from Thee, who art the way; nor to distrust the promises, who art the truth; nor to rest in any other thing but Thee, who art life; beyond which there is nothing to be desired, neither in heaven nor on earth; for Thy Name's sake.

Faith Tidbit #27

Scholars refer to the Ten Commandments as the decalog. This is a compound word from an ancient translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, which was commonly read by diaspora Jews in the days of Jesus and the apostles. Deca, which appears in our common word, decade, means ten and logoi means words. Thus, the commandments are referred to as the ten words. The original Hebrew texts of the Old Testament give no title to the Ten Commandments. As noted in The Lutheran Cyclopedia, "The Bible gives us no basis for numbering of the Commandments or of determining their respective position..."

Friday, January 22, 2010

This is so good!

When Joe Stowell had a mishap, he learned something about himself...and about God's will for God's people.

Home Win for Buckeyes Critical...Hopeful It Sets Table for Away Win at West Viriginia on Saturday


Faith Tidbit #26

Obeying the Ten Commandments, important as they are, cannot save us from sin, death, or futile living. (We're incapable of complete obedience to the commandments anyway.) In the New Testament, the Ephesian Christians were reminded that, “by grace you have been saved through faith” in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ and not obedience to the Ten Commandments is what saves us. Even before Jesus came into our world, God's people were saved not by adherence to the law, but by their faith in God and God's promises. Genesis says that Abraham "believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness." In other words, Abraham had a right relationship because he adhered perfectly to God's law. (In fact, Genesis makes clear that on more than one occasion, Abraham deliberately acted in ways contrary to God's law.) But, Abraham received the gift of a right relationship with God, the meaning of righteousness, by trusting in God. The Bible says that when we receive God's righteousness as undeserved gift, God justifies us.

God is There When We Set Out on New Ventures

Kay Weaver talks about leaving the Evangelcial Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to be part of a new Lutheran congregational venture.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

"Source of Life"

That's the title of a wonderful post by Patrick Oden. Some of what he says:
Sin is an orientation, and as such it may include the list of usual vices but also includes anything that becomes, for us, a distracting source of our identity. Indeed, I think that it is often more dangerous to be caught up in the socially acceptable distractions. Being approved by the world means we are not constantly reminded of our need for grace, for redemption, for renewal. We strive and strive, doing ‘good’ works, but miss the mark because we are not finding our life in God...

...Holiness is an orientation. It is an embrace of the source of life who brings us new life, and brings us to the place we truly are most alive. In turning to God, in orienting ourselves to God and letting everything else fall into place around this orientation, we do not lose the created things or the joy or the hope or the freedom.
Biblical Christianity is not a religion, per se; it's a relationship of trust with the God we cannot see. Something of Him and His nature may be seen by us in God's people, the Church...or in a breathtaking sunset...or in service rendered in Christ's Name.

But, as the voice of God the Father taught Peter when Peter sought to build booths memorializing Jesus, Moses, and Elijah at the transfiguration, faith isn't about experiences, moments, or human works, however pious or lauded by others. "This is My Son, My Chosen," the voice said, "Listen to Him!" (Luke 9:28-36)

In our cluttered lives, it becomes difficult to remember that to have life, Jesus Christ is all we need.

This was the lesson Jesus taught His friend, Martha, on a day when He and His disciples visited her and her sister Mary. Martha, you'll remember, worked to do the right thing, treating the guests with hospitality.

The Gospel of Luke which describes this incident, says that Martha was "distracted." Mary, her sister, by contrast, sat at Jesus' feet and listened to Him. Martha got upset and asked the Lord to tell her sister to get busy. She seems within her rights, I suppose. But Jesus tells her:
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
There are lots of things we can do in life that seem like the right things to do and that the world will commend us for doing. But unless our aim in them is to follow Christ, to "listen" to Him by paying heed to His will for us, to heed His call to be human "beings" more than human "doings," the life of God given by Christ is not in us.

God gives life through Jesus Christ. "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," Jesus says. "No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

We must never allow our involvement in "good" things, whether it's regular worship, Bible study, prayer, service to others, or family time, to delude us that these things, in themselves, bring life. Only Jesus Christ brings life. Only Jesus Christ is life.

The call of Christian is to give up anything that we use to define ourselves and to give us life, other than Jesus Christ. All other ways are dead-ends. Only Christ gives life. Our surrender, imperfect and halting though it inevitably is, happens in a daily process the New Testament calls discipleship.

Read Patrick's entire post.

Faith Tidbit #25

A third kind of law or commandment appearing in the Old Testament is the moral law. It's also sometimes called the Mosaic Law, because it was first revealed by God to Israel through Moses, in the ten commandments. The commandments appear in Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21. They're also explained in much Leviticus, chapters 18-20. The moral law reflects God’s will for all humanity for all time, including today.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

How Christ Understands Freedom v. How Americans Understand Freedom

This comes from scholar and pastor Roy Harrisville's commentary on this coming Sunday's Gospel reading, Luke 4:14-21, in which Jesus, after being tempted in the wilderness, reads Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2. Harrisville is right on, I think:
Americans are used to the idea of freedom as license to do as one wishes. Jesus, however, understands freedom differently. It is a release from captivity to death, the will of others, and the will of the self. Jesus will preach the freedom of slavery to God's will and service to the neighbor (Luke 22:24-27). Such a definition of freedom can only be grasped from the way Jesus will fulfill the words of Isaiah's prophecy.

Faith Tidbit #24

A second type of law or commandment appearing in the Old Testament is civil law. Ancient Israel wasn’t a pluralistic democracy like we have in the United States. It was a theocracy. The people were all of one religion and they were ruled by God Himself. Ancient Israel is in the distant past, though. The civil laws that occupy much of Old Testament books like Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and Numbers no longer apply. As Christians, unless governments dare to command us to do things contrary to the will of God, are duty-bound to "be subject to the governing authorities" for the good of all our neighbors, whether they share our faith or not.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Faith Tidbit #23

Reading the Old Testament, we see that there are three different kinds of commandments or laws that God gave to ancient Israel. First, there was ritual or sacrificial law. This regulated what and when pious Jews were to sacrifice for their sins. Such sacrifices are no longer needed. Jesus is, as John the Baptist proclaimed Him to be, "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world." And the New Testament book of Hebrews notes that Jesus came into our world to be the once-for all sacrifice for our sins.

Adding to Something We Talked About in 'Shack' Discussion Group on Monday Night

"It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20).
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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

"To love our neighbor means to make the persecution, suffering, and injustice of our fellow human beings our own."

"It is the business of all who follow Christ." Good thoughts for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

Faith Tidbit #22

The first five books of the Old Testament--Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--are referred to as the Pentateuch. As scholar John Drane notes, the five books contain "accounts of humanity's beginnings..., accounts of Israel's forebears..., and accounts from Israel's escape from Egypt and journey to the promised land...But above all it contains 'laws': regulations for religious and social life, and great moral laws built on the ten commandments."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

God Revealed in Joy

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

John 2:1-11
During last week’s adult Sunday School class, I mentioned that the Gospel lessons for the Epiphany Season each year remind me of the jumbled images you see projected on Jumbotrons at a major league baseball game. A picture of a ball player, cut into maybe sixteen squares, is shown. Gradually, the squares are put in their right places to, eventually, reveal a clear picture of the player.

Each Sunday’s Gospel reading in the Epiphany season, in effect, moves another square into place and we see more clearly Who Jesus is and what He means for us.

Of course, because Jesus is the Word made flesh, truly God and truly human, there are mysteries about Him we will never fathom.

Nowhere in Scripture am I more struck by the unknowable mysteries of Jesus, than when I read today’s Gospel lesson, John 2:1-11.

The incident itself is probably familiar to all of us. It happens early in Jesus’ ministry. He and his five disciples—more would be added later—are invited, along with Jesus’ mother, to a wedding in Cana, a town not far from Nazareth.

Wedding feasts in those days usually went on for seven days. While drunkenness was always prohibited to God’s people, wine was served with every meal.

At some point during this particular feast, the wine gave out. For some reason, Jesus’ mother got wind of this crisis and went to Jesus. She hoped that Jesus would do something about the situation. It would have been considered deeply embarrassing for the bridal family to run out of wine.

Jesus’ initial response to His mother is jarring. “Woman,” He says to her, “what has this got to do with you and me?” That always reminds me of the way my grandfather addressed my grandmother when he was upset with her. She was no longer Evelyn, but Woman, as in, "Woman, what do you want from me?"

I think that Lutheran pastor Deb Grant helps us to understand Jesus’ reaction. She says, “Mary was the first to believe that Jesus was the Son of God. She knew his potential. She knew he was capable of great things and had yet to reveal them. Jesus abruptly puts her in her place. It sounds rude to us. The time was at hand…for Jesus to fulfill God's purposes for him. It was important that Jesus [make] clear to Mary that she had no authority over him. The best thing that Jesus could do for his mother was to be her savior.”

Mary seems to understand this. She doesn’t argue with Jesus; she simply turns to the servants of the bridal family, telling them, “Do whatever he tells you.”

You know what happens next. The bridal family has six stone water jars on hand, jars used for religious purification rites. Jesus tells the servants to fill the jars with water. The water turns into wine.

Our Gospel lesson closes by saying that when the newly called disciples see this, Jesus’ glory is revealed to them and they believe—or trust—in Him.

What about this event caused the disciples to trust Jesus as Messiah, as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world?

We could spend ages on those questions. But I want to suggest something about this miracle—this sign pointing to Who Jesus is—that may have convinced the disciples to believe in Jesus.

Consider the trip Jesus and the disciples took to get to the wedding at Cana.* Just a few days before, they would have walked near the town of Scythopolis, a place where the Greco-Roman deity, Dionysus, also called Bacchus, was worshiped.

Dionysus was the god of wine and he was always associated with celebrations. It was said that once, he even turned water into wine.

Many people in that region, their lives dependent on agriculture and wanting to cover all their bases, not only worshiped the God of Israel—the one God of all creation, who had told His people, “I am the Lord, your shall have no other gods”—also worshiped Dionysus.

Before the eyes of the disciples and all the wedding guests, Jesus did in real life what some thought that a false god no one had ever seen had done. This is one of those epiphanies, among the lights of revelation from God, that John referred to in the prologue to his gospel when he wrote, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, Who is close to the Father’s heart, Who has made Him known.”

This is all more than a historical jaw from a pastor interested in history, by the way. Even today, we struggle with whether we’ll depend on the God revealed to us in Jesus and the Bible, or if we’ll hedge out bets, mixing in other deities or dependencies.

A woman I know was on vacation with her family out West. She talked her husband and kids into going to some area that New Agers claimed had a particular spiritual aura. It was said that if you walked around the area, new peace and success would come to you. As they traversed the terrain, this woman’s enthusiasm grew. “I can feel it!” she would say. “Can you feel it?” Her oldest child, a kid who had just been confirmed, wasn’t buying any of it. “No, Mom, I don't feel it” he said. “What are you looking for? Don’t you know that because of Jesus, you can talk with God any time? What more do you need than that?”**

Nothing, really! But that doesn’t keep some Christians from hedging their bets, adding a little bit more to their Christian "religion," as though we needed anything other than the God we meet in Jesus Christ.

Some Christians, for example, pray on Sunday and then consult their horoscopes in the Monday papers.

Or, they pray for daily bread and then base the value of their lives on how much money they make.

Or, in the case of even some theologians and pastors, they sing, “Glory to God in the highest” and then dare to replace the revealed Word and will of God with their own thoughts, feelings, and interpretations.***

Many Christians divide their loyalties more innocently, worshiping with their congregations one day and then, thinking that they can’t bother God, relying on themselves or their own ingenuity the rest of the week.

The Old Testament prophet Elijah described this sometimes-depending-on God-and-sometimes-turning-to-other-little-gods as “limping.” “How long will you go limping along with two different opinions?” he asked the people of Israel. “If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal [a false god of those times], then follow him.”

Jesus made it very clear that He came to bring God’s grace and truth to the world, but to receive Him means to lay aside all bet-hedging. I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus tells us, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

The early disciples, Peter and John, after Jesus' resurrection and ascension, were told by religious authorities, on pain of death to never speak the Name of Jesus. They said they couldn't comply with their command. "We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard," they said. "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved."

The fact is that relying on anything other than God results from our desire to control our lives. We would rather have little deities we can manipulate than surrender our lives to the God we know in Jesus, acknowledge our sins, trust Him to bring forgive us, and to take us through good times and bad, all the way to eternity with God.

When the disciples at Cana saw Jesus turn water into wine, they saw the God Who had true dominion over the world. And they saw something about this God that I hope you see as you live from day to day.

In his book of daily devotionals, Hope for Each Day, evangelist Billy Graham, asks, “Have you ever watched a young couple communicate their love for each other without even a word?...Every glance, every touch, every smile conveys love. People deeply in love find absolute bliss simply being in each other’s presence.” He goes on to say that for those who have come to know God through Jesus Christ, “simply being in the presence of God brings joy.”

When Jesus turned water to wine at Cana, He showed us that God is the One Who can bring joy to us. The wine ran out and Jesus replenished it with even better wine.

When our capacity to cope with life runs out, Jesus gives us more strength than we imagined possible.

When our patience with family members or work situations runs thin, Jesus can help us endure.

When we grow weary, Jesus can renew our strength.

When our hope is gone, Jesus destroys our despair, stands by us, and throws down new bridges at the ends of what seem like dead-end roads. (There are many in this sanctuary this morning who have experienced these things.)

And when we die, the risen Jesus gives all who believe in Him life that never ends! All who follow Jesus know that God is the great joy-bringer!

In the marriage liturgy we use any time a couple is married here at Saint Matthew, there’s an ancient prayer we offer. It begins, “Eternal God, our creator and redeemer, as you gladdened the wedding at Cana by the presence of Your Son, so by His presence now bring your joy to this wedding…”

Jesus’ disciples knew that they were in the presence of God that day at Cana because they understood it’s always God’s will to bring us joy. In Psalm 16, King David wrote, “In your presence, there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures evermore.”

The past week brought sad days to our world. The earthquake in Haiti is heartbreaking.

And contrary to what some--like people whose initials are Pat Robertson--might say, the multiple tragedies that have befallen Haiti in recent years are not punishment from God.****

We live in a fallen, imperfect world where bad things happen. All human beings are born into sin and all of creation groans under the weight of an old world that is dying. Those groans--encompassing the tragedies and difficulties that come to the world world from which none of us is immune--are, the Bible tells us, the labor pains of the new heaven and new earth that Jesus will one day establish.

We await the return of Jesus, when He will set all things to rights and death and tears will be no more.

Even now, in the midst of the Haitian disaster, we see God’s Spirit moving in the hearts of millions—through their prayers, contributions of money, and acts of compassion—to bring joy and restoration to the people of Haiti.

Jesus' miracle at Cana is a sign that one day, God’s joy will have the last word in our world. It presents a clear picture of God showing us that beyond the wants and needs of this world, there will be a marriage feast which has no end.

In Jesus Christ, the whole world is invited to that feast.

You are invited. Amen

*This is discussed extensively in Following the Way: The Setting of John's Gospel, written by my late seminary professor, Pastor Bruce Schein. Rare is the day that I don't rely on his scholarship, remember his passion for Jesus Christ, or both.

**This is a true story, but I've changed a few details in order to protect the innocent...and the guilty.

***I once heard a Bible scholar from a major university report matter-of-factly that he and a group to which he belonged had cast votes on what in the Bible they believed. They voted, for example, that the resurrection had never happened, that Jesus never performed a miracle, and that Mary didn't become pregnant with Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. I wondered why he and his colleagues even bothered being church members.

***On his 700 Club TV show, Robertson claimed that Haiti's poverty, history of repressive governments, and numerous natural disasters resulted from the country having made a "pact with the devil." If acquiescence to the devil, the sinful world, or our sinful selves resulted in the kinds of experiences which are the lot of ordinary Haitians everyday, I would have died long ago. Jesus says that it rains on the just and unjust a like. And the Old Testament figure of Job, about whose piety even God bragged, was not immune from unspeakable tragedy.

In Scripture, wealth is usually associated with insolence and with heedlessness to God. Jesus saw the wealth of the rich man asking about how he could have eternal life as an impediment to his relationship with God, so much so that Jesus said that the rich man needed to give away all he had before he could meet God in eternity. Wealth in itself wasn't (and isn't) the problem. Abraham, the founding patriarch of God's people, the Jews, was wealthy, for example. The problem was the role that money played in the life of the man who approached Jesus.

This is why Jesus later observed to His disciples that it will be harder for wealthy people to enter eternity than it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Wealth is a powerful addiction, a consuming god that can create the false impression that it bestows all the blessed gifts to which we can aspire.

The poor know better. While no one wants to be poor and it's up to those of us with wealth to share our blessings--I say this from the perspective of a lower middle class American, wealthy by the world's standards--with others, the poor aren't addicted to their wealth. In that sense, they are more open to trust in God, not less.

Faith Tidbit #21

Jesus' turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) and the moment when water and blood came from the lifeless Jesus' pierced side (John 19:34), form what the scholars call an "inclusio" in the Gospel of John's account of Jesus' earthly ministry. Jesus came to earth to give eternal life to all who believe in Him. Christ's life comes to us in Holy Baptism (water) and Holy Communion (wine/blood and bread/body). In Baptism, God claims us His children and in Communion, God sustains us with the very body and blood of Jesus. Through these gifts, we experience the truth of Jesus' words, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).