Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Learning to Pray (Second Midweek Lenten Devotion)

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

Matthew 26:36-46
Matthew 26:29
Luke 10:9

To focus our thoughts on the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer—“Thy kingdom come, [and] Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”—I want to share two quotes from Jesus found in the Gospels.

First is Luke 10:9, where Jesus says, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.”

And second, Matthew 26:29, where, during the Last Supper, Jesus tells the disciples, “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”

These two statements from Jesus underscore the strange paradox in the New Testament’s discussion of “the kingdom of God.” A paradox, you know, is a situation that seems to be made up of two contradictory conditions. In the case of Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God—throughout the Gospels—the paradox is that God’s kingdom is already here (and we who belong to Christ are already in it), but it has not yet come. It’s already, but not yet.

The original Greek New Testament word that we translate as kingdom is basileia. It’s a less static or stationary word than our word, kingdom. It really means reign. You can be in the kingdom of God no matter where you live. And because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb, the kingdom of God has already come to believers. The kingdom isn’t a physical place, then.

That, you know, was, partly, the mistaken idea Jesus’ first followers had. Lots of Old Testament prophecy had said that the Messiah or Yahweh—God Himself—was coming to the earth to establish the kingdom of God.*

Peter, James, John, and the rest believed that Jesus was the Messiah who would bring God's kingdom into the world and that's one of the reasons they were so devastated when Jesus was crucified. They had expected Jesus to be the Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and get rid of the fake royalty, the Herod family, and establish God’s kingdom on earth. They thought that the kingdom of God was a political or economic program.

When Jesus rose from the dead, their hopes of an earthly rule by God were revived. That’s why in the New Testament book of Acts we read about the disciples asking the risen Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s as though they’re telling Jesus, “Hey, that resurrection thing was a neat trick. But when are you really going to get down to business and enact the kingdom?”

We may be inclined to laugh at the disciples and say something like the kingdom of God is spiritual, not physical. But that’s not true either. Those who live in the kingdom of God are called—even commanded—by God to live in certain ways here and now. We’re to love God, love neighbors, seek justice, and believe in Jesus Christ. The already/not yet kingdom of God is meant to be more than some private, ill-defined spiritual interchange that happens inside of us. It’s meant to change the ways in which you and I live each day.

If we have any doubt about this, we simply need to look at how Jesus teaches us to pray in the second and third petitions of the Lord’s Prayer. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”** Jesus teaches us to pray that God will reign here on earth today as directly, as totally, and as completely as He reigns from His throne in heaven.

But here’s the really dangerous thing about these two petitions: We ask God our Father to reign over this clump of earth, over you and me. We are clumps of earth, by the way. The scientists say it. But the Bible said it first: Remember that when God made Adam, He did it by scooping up dirt from the ground and breathing life into him.

To say, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is to invite God, first of all, to reign over our lives. As Martin Luther puts it in The Small Catechism, “God’s kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but we ask in this prayer that it may come also to us.”

On the night of His arrest, Jesus prayed that the Father would create some other way to bring His kingdom into being than for Jesus to go through the cross. But then He prayed, “…yet not I want but what you want.” Not my will, but Thy will be done, in this lump of clay, on this piece of earth.

It’s a fine thing for us to think of neighbors, friends, and even enemies when we pray these two petitions. We want the kingdom of God to come to all people. We want everyone to come to believe in Jesus Christ as God and Savior and so become part of God’s kingdom. We want God to reign over our church, homes, communities, schools, government leaders, and so on. We should pray that God’s kingdom come and God’s will be done among these people and institutions, these clumps of earth.

But what Jesus, Who taught this prayer and then said this prayer Himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, shows us is that we must also be willing to live this prayer. God brought His kingdom into the world through a flesh and blood Savior. It’s God’s plan that His kingdom will continue to come and His will keep on being done in this world as it is in heaven through the flesh and blood lives AND prayers of Christians.

It’s interesting to remember that Jesus didn’t teach what we know as the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples on His own initiative. He didn’t wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll teach the guys how to pray.” He taught the disciples how to pray after they asked Him to do so. They had seen the kingdom of God in Jesus and they wanted to know how the kingdom could come to them, too.

Maybe if you and I would take up these two petitions earnestly, asking God to reign over us and have His way with us right in the guts of our everyday lives, others might ask us to teach them how to pray.

May the Lord teach us how to pray these petitions and mean them. Amen

*See Ezekiel 34:11-16, Zechariah 14:1-5, Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 40:3-5, and Isaiah 52:7-10.

**See Matthew 6:10.

[I really appreciate the discussion of these two petitions in N.T. Wrights book, The Lord and His Prayer. It distills, far better than I've done here, much of my own thinking about them.]

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Living Under the Shadow of Christ's Wings

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

Luke 13:31-35
A prominent New Testament scholar tells about a discovery made after a barnyard fire. The fire had swept through the chicken coop. But beneath the burnt bodies of several hens were found very living peeping chicks. The hens had saved the lives of their little ones, who may never have realized the danger they faced.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is warned that He should avoid going to Jerusalem. There, it’s said that the king, Herod Antipas, was planning to kill Jesus. The threat is plausible. Herod was one of several sons of Herod the Great. That Herod was king when Jesus was born. It was Herod the Great who ordered the murder of the baby boys in Bethlehem after the maji told him that the Messiah had been born in David’s city. The son, Herod Antipas, was the one who had murdered John the Baptist. He also, according to the ancient Jewish historian Josephus, generally liked to silence troublemakers.

Whether the Pharisees who warn Jesus away from Jerusalem speak for Herod Antipas or not, Jesus tells them to carry a message back to him. Calling Herod “that fox,” Jesus says that He’s coming to Jerusalem at a time appointed by God and nothing that Herod may threaten, say, or do will prevent Him from going there.

Our passage comes at about the midpoint of a long section of Luke’s gospel called the travel narrative. It runs from Luke, chapter 9, verse 51, all the way to chapter 19, verse 27. The theme of this section is set at its beginning when we’re told that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus tells us why He is going to Jerusalem in today’s lesson: “It is impossible for a prophet [and Jesus is the greatest of all the prophets, as well as being Messiah and God-in-the-flesh]…impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem…”

Jesus has a mission, which Herod in this week’s lesson, every bit as much as the devil in last week’s lesson, wants to keep Jesus from fulfilling. It’s in Jerusalem that Jesus will fulfill it. God’s will—God’s plans—will triumph not only over the devil, but over the plans of puny human rulers and other wielders of power. In Jerusalem, at a time set by God the Father, Jesus is intent on sacrificing Himself on the cross, taking our punishment for sin, so that all who trust in Him will live forever with God.

In our lesson, Jesus says that Jerusalem is the only place He could possibly do this. Jerusalem, of course, was the holy city of the ancient Jews and their nation’s political capital. In Jesus’ day, Jerusalem was also the place which the Romans, who had conquered what had once been known as Israel, used as their base of operations.

Every sin you can think of was accepted in Jerusalem. Every injustice. Every dirty deal. And the leaders of what we would today call “church and state”: the priests at the temple, supposed guardians of true faith in God and the Jewish puppet kings and their advisers who wielded power by submitting to Rome instead of God, went along with the sin.

More than that, they got involved with it. It lined their pockets. It gave them nice homes and servants. It gave them influence and power. Jerusalem, like much of our world today, had become a corrupted, dark place that closed its ears to God, God’s Word, and God's will.

It was only by going into this heart of darkness that Jesus could do what He set His face to do. He would do something very similar to what the mother hens did in the face of that barnyard fire. In fact, Jesus speaks of what He will do in Jerusalem in those very terms. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” He laments, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to you. How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing…”

Jesus’ desire is to gather not only Jerusalem, but Logan and Saint Matthew, you and me, and all our neighbors, under the protection of His maternal wings.

He will give His very life in order to gather us in, saving us from death, and giving us life.

The most critical question each and every human being faces—the question of our lives—is whether we will let Jesus gather us in or go our own ways?

Will we live in the shadow of the Lord’s wings or not?

We may find that, as was true of Herod and even of the religious Pharisees, a lot within us and around us keeps us from taking shelter with Christ. It means swallowing our pride, for one thing. This is hard. The sin within us resists.

We don’t want to acknowledge that we’re not in control of our lives.

We don’t want to admit that we’re involuntary sinners who need a Savior to set us on the right path.

We don’t want to deal with the fact that, absent the help of God, we’re incapable of becoming the people we sense we could be.

So, we try blocking out the truth about ourselves and our need for God with lots of habits—many not bad in and of themselves, but destructive when taken to excess—from mindless TV channel-surfing to overeating, from sex outside the bounds of marriage to overwork, from gossiping to indulge a pretense of being superior to others to harboring resentments of those who have more than we do, from a lazy indifference to difficulties faced by neighbors to frenzied activity and achievement designed to prove to the world—and to ourselves—that our lives are worth something.

Jesus wants to free us from all that. He wants us to walk free and forgiven, free and filled with hope, free and full of life, free and without worry, free and certain of our eternal destinies.

Under Jesus’ protective wings, we aren’t given lives devoid of risk, or challenge, or even the possibility of adversity, pain, or tragedy.

But we are freed from the weight of our past.

We are freed to begin becoming the people God made us to be.

We’re freed to live each day in the awareness that God loves us and will stand with us forever.

When we dare to throw away all the props we use to shelter us from the unpleasantness of life and the reality of our need for God and the salvation He offers through Jesus, God gives us life, an incredible gift that only the Creator of life could possibly give!
Author Steve Smith tells of a man who lived a “safe” life. [He tried to shelter himself from life’s realities the way the Pharisees supposedly sheltered Jesus.] He decided not to love too much because love cost too much. He decided not to dream too much because dreaming only brought disappointment. He decided not to serve too much because serving got your hands filthy and got you into trouble. When he died, he presented his life to God—undiminished, unmarred, and unsoiled by the messiness of a fallen world. He proudly said, “God, here is my life!” And God said, “What life?”
I don’t know about you, but that’s not the kind of interchange I want to have with God when I face Him in eternity. Someone has said, “Life is not a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

Jesus could have played it safe, He could have skipped out on going to Jerusalem. But He knew that without His death and resurrection, our lives would be meaningless pilgrimages to eternal separation from God. He chose instead to spread out His arms on the cross and welcome all who will receive Him as their Lord and King into the shelter of His grace. No matter what life brings our ways, what Jesus accomplished in Jerusalem makes true and everlasting life possible for all with faith in Him.

Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem, face down the evil of the devil and the world, suffer agony on the cross, and rise from the dead so that you and I could play it safe. Jesus did all of that so that, like the chicks saved by their mother hens, we could live!

He calls us to join Him in the risky business of facing the evil of the world with love, confronting sin with the gospel, filling the needs of the hungry, the jobless, the victims of natural disasters, and others with Christian service, praying even for our enemies, and not only reading God’s Word but praying for God’s help in living that Word.

Christian living isn’t always safe living. But it is living!

And it’s made possible when we dare to take shelter under the wings of just one God, just one King, just one way, truth, and life. It happens only under the wings of Jesus. May that be the way we all live each day! Amen

[Agnus Day appears with the permission of]