Saturday, January 29, 2011

For Baseball Geeks Like Me

If you're a baseball geek like me, you'll love Joe Posnanski's blog. (Of course, if you're baseball geek unlike me--I happen to always be a bit behind on the things everybody else seems to know about--you're already reading Joe's Blog.) Anyway, each post is packed with so much circuitous, Bill James-y, baseball nerdiness that you can't help loving it. Besides, he makes a lot of sense and knows his stuff in the minutest imaginable detail. It's a great blog!

God: Irrevocably Faithful

In his book, God Gives Second Chances, Pentecostal preacher R.T. Kendall writes about the strange phenomenon of people who have turned away from God, yet remain the Church, sometimes in positions of leadership, and still evidence the spiritual gifts God has given to them. He writes:
People ask, How can a person's gift flourish when they are living in sin [whatever the sin might be]? I can only answer with Romans 11:29: "For God's gifts and his call are irrevocable"...This verse refers principally to God's own decree that He will not change His mind, but Paul is also saying that whether or not a person has repented of their sins is not a necessary condition for receiving or maintaining a spiritual gift...Spiritual or ministerial gifts are sovereignly bestowed on a person, not because of one's good works...
I thought of Kendall's point during my morning devotions using today's installment of Our Daily Bread. Written by David C. McCasland, it's based on 1 Kings 10:23, 11:1-10. That passage is about ancient Israel's third and most powerful king, Solomon.

When Solomon came to the throne, he was just a boy and overwhelmed by the responsibilities that had been thrust upon him. Early in his reign, Solomon was visited by God in a dream. "Ask what I should give you," God told him. Solomon told God how daunting his responsibilities were and then made his request: "Give your understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil..." (1 Kings 3:3-14). Solomon asked for the gift of wisdom and God granted it to Solomon.

Solomon possessed that wisdom until the end of his days. We're told that he was the wise composer of Proverbs and of the more world-weary Ecclesiastes, which, as McCasland points out, in spite of a depressing fixation on life's supposed "vanity" (or futility), ends with this bit of wisdom:
Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
But, though given the gift of wisdom by God irrevocably, Solomon misused his gifts to walk away from God and to buttress his level of comfort and power in this world. He did this at the expense of his own relationship with God and that of his country. (See Jesus' words here.) Look at the verses on which the Our Daily Bread piece for the day is based:
Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom.
King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods”; Solomon clung to these in love. Among his wives were seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines; and his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David. For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who offered incense and sacrificed to their gods.
Then the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice, and had commanded him concerning this matter, that he should not follow other gods; but he did not observe what the Lord commanded. 
What happened to Solomon was a personal tragedy, of course. But his splintered allegiance also impacted his people, God's chosen people. Along with Solomon and his 1000 wives, they embraced false gods, their allegiance to God alone fractured. They embraced dependence on things like power, wealth, and sexual adventurism, rather than on God alone. When spiritual leaders or people whose faith we admire turn from God, it can have a terrible effect on us all.

In fact, when any member of the Church "defects" from God, it can effect many people. And sometimes, their defection may be unknown to us and unnoticed even by the defectors themselves. That's the focus of something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about in the portion of The Cost of Discipleship I read last evening.

Bonhoeffer talks about Jesus' discussion of wolves in sheep's clothing, people who never did believe or who have departed from faith, who may be in the midst of the Church:
The disciples of Jesus must not fondly imagine that they can simply run away from the world and huddle together in a little band. False prophets will rise up among them, and amid the ensuing confusion they [that is, the the followers of Jesus in His Church] will feel more isolated than ever. There is someone standing by my side, who looks just like a member of the Church. He is a prophet and a preacher. He looks like a Christian, he talks and acts like one. But dark powers are mysteriously at work...Inwardly he is a ravening wolf: his words are lies and his works are full of deceit. He knows only too well how to keep his secret dark, and go ahead with his work. It is not faith in Jesus Christ which made him one of us, but the devil...His ambitions are set on the world, not on Jesus Christ. Knowing that Christians are credulous people, he conceals his dark purpose beneath the cloak of Christian piety, hoping that his innocuous disguise will avert detection. He knows that Christians are forbidden to judge, and he will remind them of it at the appropriate time...Thus he succeeds in seducing many from the right way. He may even be unconscious himself of what he is doing.* The devil can give him every encouragement and at the same time keep him in the dark about his own motives.
That, to me, is both chilling and instructive. Like the proverbial frogs in the kettle, unaware that the temperature of the once cold water in which they settle is being brought to a boil, we can become so accustomed to the evil around us and within us, that, without our even knowing it, we defect from the God Who sent His Son Jesus to die and rise for us and in Whom, with our words, we may even confess every Sunday morning.

But faith in Jesus is not just words.

Our Gospel lesson for tomorrow, Matthew 5:1-12, which includes the beginning portion of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus shares what are called the Beatitudes, we read this:
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.
We cannot and, as Christians, should not seek to, control the faith or beliefs of others. And we cannot control the things that happen to us in our lives. But we can do this: We can, like the disciples on that mountaintop, come to Jesus. And when we fail, we sin, or we get hurt by life, we keep coming to Jesus.

God is irrevocably faithful. And if we will come to Jesus each day, whatever befalls us, we will not only be blessed, we will know that we are blessed, and live in the Kingdom of heaven now and in eternity.

*My underline.

Quote of the Day

This from someone named Edgar Watson: "The most destructive criticism is indifference."

That's sort of the flip side of, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

Of course, our indifference may be a judgment either on ourselves or on that to which we're indifferent. Hmm.

Happy Birthday, Marty!

Today is the birthday of my brother, Marty, who happens to be a very talented Voice Over Artist.

ADDED: Marty's blogged reflections on the recent experiences of announcer Ted Williams, who Marty knew back in the 80s.

David Frye is Dead

Back in the day, all our Nixon impressions were really impressions of Frye imitating Nixon. He suffered the same fate as that previously dealt to Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader, whose comedy career largely went away when JFK was assassinated.

Following Nixon's resignation, Frye was seldom seen or heard again. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but as a source of income, it usually has pronounced ups and downs.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Who is "Pure in Heart"?

In studying the lesson on which I'll be preaching this Sunday, Matthew 5:1-12 (The Beatitudes), I've been looking at Dietrich Bonhoeffer's chapter on the passage in The Cost of Discipleship. I love what he says about, "Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God":
Who is pure in heart? Only those who have surrendered their hearts completely to Jesus that he may reign in them alone. Only those whose hearts are undefiled by their own evil-and by their own virtues too. The pure in heart have a child-like simplicity like Adam before the fall, innocent alike of good and evil: their hearts are not ruled by their conscience, but by the will of Jesus. 
The old saw about letting your conscience be your guide is foolish nonsense. Unless our consciences are guided by the God revealed in Jesus Christ, we will always drift into self-delusion, harm to ourselves and others, and dishonor to the One Who made us. (I know. Being an imperfect sinner, I "drift" a lot, which is why I repent--that is, turn back to Jesus for forgiveness and new direction and new life every day.)

Martin Luther famously told the Diet of Worms, "My conscience is captive to the Word of God." God grant that I will be just such a captive and so be set free to be an innocent child of God, my true self.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let God Come to You

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

Isaiah 9:1-7
More than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God had a quarrel with His chosen people, Israel.

Israel, of course was called to be a light to all the nations of the world regarding God’s goodness, love, and power. But often, the people of Israel forgot who they were. That was the cause of God’s quarrel with them.

But really, when you think about it, the people of Israel were no different from you and me.

When things are going well, we get so full of ourselves that we leave no place for God. When that happens, trouble starts.

A woman Ann and I knew came to faith in Christ as an adult. She got a good start on her Christian life. But then, we saw her less and less at church. Then her husband stopped coming to church. Finally, one night, the husband called me with sad news. The wife, who had gradually left no place for God in her life and had made it uncomfortable for the husband to any longer be in worship, had taken up with another man. “Why?” the husband asked her. “I got tired of being perfect,” she explained. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you never were perfect.”

When things are going well in our lives, we can fool ourselves into thinking that it all has to do with our goodness (our perfection), rather than with God’s goodness (and God's perfection). We can lose touch with God. And when you lose touch with God, without even knowing it, you can begin to lose your integrity, your morals, your relationships, and the life that only God can give.

Ancient Israel fell out of touch with God. The eight chapters of Isaiah that precede our lesson present God’s indictment of a people so full of themselves that they had no place for God anymore. Through Isaiah, God said that the people of Israel were rife with wrong:
  • Bribery was an everyday part of their life.
  • They were indifferent to the plight of widows who, in those days had no property rights.
  • They didn’t take care of orphans, of whom there were many in those days of short life expectancies and of childbirths often ending in the deaths of mothers.
  • They had become like Gomorrah in their sexual lives, taking an “anything goes” approach.
  • Instead of worshiping God alone, they took a breezy attitude that all gods and all religions were really the same.
  • They relied on other things to help them to make decisions, rather than relying on God alone. 
In Isaiah, chapter 8, God warns that for living like this--choosing the world's darkness over God's light, His people would be enslaved by foreign conquerors. Israel would see, God said, “only distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish…[and] be thrust into deep darkness.”

That’s where our first lesson, Isaiah 9:1-7, begins. Would you pull out the special insert?

Notice that verse 1 actually begins with the word, “But.” God is saying, “Nevertheless…In spite of…Even though. Even though you’ve brought this darkness onto yourself, I’m nevertheless going to make something new and good happen. You don’t deserve it, but I’m going to send it because I love you.”

Read verse 1 aloud with me, please:
But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.
Zebulun and Naphtali, named for two of the sons of Jacob from Genesis, were regions of ancient Israel. They were well north of Jerusalem and bordered the region of Galilee where, seven hundred-plus years after Isaiah, Jesus would be raised. At the time Isaiah wrote, the people of Israel were in the clutches of foreign conquerors who stole the produce of their land and sent some of their best and brightest people back to Assyria to serve as slaves. Because of their geographic positions, Zebulun, Naphtali, and even Galilee often bore the brunt of foreign intrusions.

In this verse, God is revealing that He not only will free Israel from the Assyrians, but will also one day shine the full light of His glory and love in Zebulun and Naphtali. God will enter these places of slavery, God reveals through Isaiah, and offer freedom to the whole human race. From Galilee, a place where not only Jews, but also many Gentiles, lived, God’s light would be revealed. Gloom would be banished!

Read on, aloud please, verse 2:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 
When I was in junior and senior high school, the light in my folks’ bathroom was a regular 100-watt incandescent lightbulb. Morning and night before the mirror that hung below that bulb, I’d slather on the Noxzema, scrub myself clean, and pop my zits. In that mirror, by that light, I looked OK. But I’ll never forget my first day of classes at Ohio State, Summer Quarter, 1971. I had a class on West Campus and needed to go to the restroom. There were fluorescent lights there and I caught sight of myself in the mirror. That was the first time I realized I had a major acne problem. Later, when a girl I was dating—Ann—told me about a dermatologist, my time in that light made me open to her suggestion.

Light can show us our flaws. Get close to Jesus, read about God’s will for our lives in the Bible, or ask God in prayer to show us how our lives can better reflect His love for us, and we see things about ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise know or acknowledge. When you’re in the darkness of your own sin, you need the light of God to show you your flaws. That’s the first step into relationship with God.

And it's an essential continuing step for the maintenance of our relationship with God. Psalm 139: 23-24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.”

This is why, if we will pay heed to them, even God's commandments are gifts of grace. Obedience to them cannot save us. But attention given to them will show us the places we need to grow in our lives, the sins of which we need to repent, the temptations we need to look out for. God's commands are a mirror that show us who we are and send us to God to help us be the people He has called us to be.*

But light does more than show us our flaws, the sins for which we need to repent. Light can also show us the way. God wants to light your way through the dark passages life sometimes brings. A woman came to me with a problem. “Have you prayed about it?” I asked her. “Yes,” she said, “but God hasn’t shown me how it will all turn out.” “God never will show you how it will all turn out,” I told her. “He’ll just give you enough light to take the next step.”

That’s not entirely true: God has shown us how things will ultimately turn out. If we follow Jesus, we’ll end up with Jesus for eternity. But, along the way, we just keep following His light.

Verses 3-5, show us that one day, beyond what you and I can see right now, God is going to bring an end to this age of violence in which we live.
  • One day, murders with assault rifles will end. 
  • So will wars. 
  • So will selfishness and insensitivity to the needs of the poor and the hungry. 
  • So will child abuse and spousal abuse. 
  • So will unkindness. 
  • So will abortion as a form of birth control. 
All the ways in which we kill others, in fact, will come to an end.

Jesus, Who has died and risen to bring life, will ensure that all who repent and believe in Him, will be freed from the violence of this world forever.

In Matthew 5, in a portion of His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Blessed are the meek; for they will inherit the earth." Eternity, He tells us, will belong to those bold enough to surrender their lives and wills to Christ alone, through faith alone, and God's Word alone. We can’t see the day foretold in the words God gave to Isaiah or those of Jesus yet, but that day will come when Jesus returns and makes His whole creation—including you and me—forever new.

Now, please read verse 6 with me:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Seven hundred-plus hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God revealed that a particular child would be born and that, among other things, this human child would also be Mighty God.

Some are troubled that Jesus’ given name isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament prophecies about Him. I’m not troubled by that at all. If the prophecies had said, “Watch for Jesus, a carpenter from Nazareth, Whose mother is named Mary and Whose father will appear to be Joseph,” where would faith come in?

God wants us to have a relationship of love with Him, a relationship in which we choose to love Him for Who He is. And so the prophets, while never identifying Jesus by name, do identify Him by Who He would be.

That’s why people like Anna and Simeon, two people who knew God through His Word, could look at the baby Jesus when He was just eight days old and know He was the Savior, while doctors of theology, who loved earthly power and prestige, didn’t see Who Jesus was and passed a death sentence on Him.

Yesterday, in Catechism class, we watched the film, The Nativity Story, a deeply moving telling of the story of Jesus’ birth.

In one of the early scenes, the young Mary is shown with a woman in Nazareth who told the local children a part of the story of the prophet Elijah, as recounted in 1 Kings, chapter 19.

During the reign of King Ahab, an unprincipled compromiser who allowed his wife, Jezebel, to bring the worship of a foreign god called Baal into Israel, Elijah was used by God to defeat the prophets of Baal at a place called Mount Carmel. Elijah’s faith in God was vindicated.

But when Jezebel heard about what happened, she vowed to kill Elijah and, terrified, Elijah ran. He was certain that he was alone and that nothing could help him. In a panic, he desperately looked for God. After hiding in a cave, Elijah sensed God directing him to go to a mountain and look.

Then we’re told:
And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake;  and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:1-12, New King James Version)
Are you looking for God?

Be still.

Stop striving.

Quit trying so hard.

Let Him come to you, not only in prayerful silence as He did with Elijah, but most emphatically, in Jesus, the child and mighty God foretold by Isaiah seven centuries before Jesus’ birth.

Let Jesus come to you in His Word and in studying it with others as well as on your own (I wish that every adult here were in Sunday School class each week), in prayer you offer in Jesus' Name, in the fellowship of imperfect believers that is the Church, and in the Sacraments of Christ’s Church, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

You are not alone.

And in Jesus Christ, you are assured of an eternity with God.

Let Jesus guide your steps, one step at a time and you will see Him, know Him, and love Him because you know He first loved you. Amen

*In his introduction to a book of lectures from last year's conference, Seeking New Directions for Lutheranism, Lutheran theologian Carl Bratten writes:
The gospel does not nullify the law [God's commands]. After all, [Martin] Luther devoted a part of his Catechisms to teaching and explaining the Ten Commandments. It would come as a huge disappointment to him that Lutherans today are crediting him for replacing the law with the gospel...
In a lecture included in the book, Braaten speaks of "the gospel" and notes, "I do not mean the "gospel" in the narrow sense as opposed to the law, but in the wider sense that comprehends the whole counsel of God, the twofold Word of God, both law and promise." One reason that my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) has fallen into error is that it dares to denigrate God's inviolable commands, subordinating them to a culturally acceptable "gospel" that doubts or denies the need for repentance, faith in Christ alone, or an understanding of the Bible that stands under the Bible as the authoritative source or norm of our life, faith, and practice. I pray to God that this will change.