Friday, February 25, 2011

No Tears in Heaven

Several years ago, a woman approached me during a church fellowship hour. She was visibly upset about something that a friend had said to her.

"What did she say?" I asked.

"We were talking about heaven," she explained. "I said how comforting it is to know that my parents were in heaven. I told my friend: 'They have no more sadness and no longer cry or grieve.' But she said, 'That isn't true!'

"Then she mentioned Revelation 21:3, where it says that God 'will wipe every tear from their eyes' and said, 'They'll still cry. But God will wipe away their tears.'"

"Pastor Mark," she said imploringly, "is that true?"

I told the woman bluntly, "Your friend is wrong."

We were outside of a Sunday School classroom. I said, "Let's go in here for a second." I pulled a Bible off a shelf and turned to Revelation 21:3 and invited her to read that verse and the next one.

They say:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
I explained to the woman that this passage is part of a vision that John received of the new heaven and the new earth that Jesus will establish after He's brought an end to this old heaven and old earth, which groans under the weight of our sin. All who have turned from sin (repented) and entrusted their lives to Jesus Christ (believed in Him) will be citizens of this new creation. There, God will live among His followers the way Jesus, God-in-the-Flesh, lived among the human race here on earth.

"You can see here that the tears God will dry are those from our lives in this old creation, with its sin and imperfections and tragedies," I told her.

The Bible doesn't sugarcoat how tough life in this world can be. But those who persist in turning from sin and trusting Jesus will enter the new creation, where God will wipe away those tears from the old creation.

"The promise is clear," I pointed out. "It says, 'Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.'"

The woman, visibly relieved, asked me why her friend would have said such what she did.

"She could simply be misinformed," I said. "But I've noticed that there are two extreme, unbiblical positions that Christians sometimes fall into when it comes to this business of suffering and pain.

"One group embraces a triumphant theology. A lot of the TV preachers seem to be in this category. They think that if you become a Christian, everything will come up roses in this life as well as the next. But Jesus says to Christians, for example, 'In this world you face persecution.' No sugar-coating there. Then he says, 'But take courage; I have conquered the world!' Jesus is going to give us a new world."

With a smile, the woman asked me, "I take it my friend is in the other group."

"She may be an exponent of what a buddy of mine used to call, 'wallow theology.' These folks take the Bible's theology of the cross, the belief that we must submit to crucifying our sins and that we must go through death with Jesus in order to rise with Jesus--which is what the Bible teaches--and take it in a wrong direction.

"They seem to believe that life is altogether bad and it always will be. Their idea of the resurrection, if they even believe in the resurrection, because a lot of wallowers don't believe in the resurrection, is that the new creation will just be more of what this life is like.

"Some wallowers also seem to think that the new creation will be a sort of eternal group therapy session in which we'll call up all the bad things we experienced in this life and cry over them."

By the way, Jesus does teach that one group of people will weep after the curtain has been drawn on the old heaven and the old earth. They're the people who have refused to repent in Jesus' Name or trust Him as their God, people who by this refusal have condemned themselves to hell. Jesus says that they will live in an "outer darkness," the twilight of death and aloneness that will be hell, where they will weep and gnash their teeth. "Gnashing of teeth" is a description of what people do when they regret their decisions. In hell, regrets will last for eternity. That's why there will be crying and unending grief there.

We can avoid the errors of triumphalists and the wallowers, by the way, when we:
  • Read the Scriptures for ourselves; 
  • Never interpret a single passage of Scripture in isolation from another, but pay attention to the witness of the whole Bible; and 
  • Pay heed to what Martin Luther called "the plain sense" of a passage apart from a framework that someone with their own agenda may want to impose on it.
I prayed that in our conversation, I eased this woman's mind. I hope too, that in presenting her story, you've been helped.

This old creation isn't perfect, though even here we can know the healing, help, and hope that only Jesus brings.

But the new creation Jesus has secured through His death and resurrection for all who follow Him, will be perfect. Our old tears will be dried. Death, mourning, crying, and pain will be in our rearview mirrors. And we will be with God forever!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

You Go, Sarah!

Snapped this picture of daughter Sarah last night. She was among Dean's List students honored last night at Hocking College, where she's getting her Associate's Degree. She'll be a student at The Ohio State University in the fall.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Guardians of THE Story

Riffing off of Fahrenheit 451, that's what Deb Grant says that Jesus-Followers are meant to be. Excellent!

Servanthood Deserves Applause

Read about this "outstanding woman you should know" from Hilliard, Ohio, near Columbus. Small things done in the Name of Jesus Christ have an impact, though they rarely get noticed. I'm glad the many things Colleen Barta does for others in Christ's Name are being noticed. I've been privileged to know thousands of people like her through the years. They are the great ones among us!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Especially Thankful for George Washington Today

Watching what's happening in the Middle East, where sick men have held onto power for decades, I'm thankful to live in the United States.

Here, we take for granted the peaceful transition of executive power.

The human instrument by which that incredible blessing has come to us was George Washington.

As I've pointed out before, Washington turned down the offer of absolute power more than once. Most notably, of course, he did when he resigned his commission as general of the US Army at the close of the Revolutionary War and then again, when he refused to hold onto the presidency, instead voluntarily retiring to Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia.

The pressure on Washington, who, except for periods when the American cause appeared lost during the Revolution, was an almost deified public figure, to become a dictator was almost constant. In one famous incident during the war, Washington learned that American officers, disgusted with Congress' failure to pay them their salaries, were plotting to overthrow Congress and give absolute power to Washington. In his typically self-controlled manner, Washington called the officers together and defused their plot, calling it shocking. Always a master of political theater, Washington won the day when, as he prepared to read a letter from the Congress, he paused to pull out a pair of eyeglasses. Nobody had ever seen Washington wear glasses before. He explained, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Grown men who had watched Washington's heroics during the war and loved him, began to weep. The plot was extinguished and this country's trajectory toward becoming a true republic was established.

In their book, The American President, Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, observe that in its formative years, the United States, a nation that declared itself into being, but whose constituent states had little experience of working together or of seeing themselves as part of a single nation, had little in the way of a national character. The galvanizing Washington, they say, lent his character to the United States. The new country took shape largely in his image.

That's a very good thing. Had the United States borrowed Thomas Jefferson's character, for example, one could see it quite quickly devolving into what the founders called "mobocracy," a chaotic and splintered mess. Had it borrowed the character of of John Adams, it likely would have broken apart under attempts at too much centralization. Washington, as general and as first US president, exercised the incredible self-control and focus of purpose that was his trademark to allow an unlikely collection of independent colonies to become what it has become (and still strives to be): a place in which liberty and mutual accountability are held in balance to maximize the freedom of people, a model for most of the democratic nations of the world.

Washington was not perfect. While it's clear that he was moving toward a belief in emancipation of slaves, he shared the blindness of whites in his time to the sin of racism. As a general, he was less of a military tactician, his plans often bogging down from their Rube Goldberg-complexity, than he was a political general, recognizing fairly early in the war that his main obligation was to keep his army intact and win a battle of attrition against an empire he hoped would tire of fighting.

As president however, Washington had perfect pitch. Always good at listening to the best counsel from the best minds and then making the best decisions, he showed this capacity throughout his eight years. Recognizing that the United States needed time to develop free of outside pressures, he wisely steered clear of aligning the country with either Great Britain or France in their struggles. Knowing the country needed to be established as a unified entity, he embraced Alexander Hamilton's plan for assuming the massive debts the states had incurred during the Revolution, thereby knitting the country together. Sponsoring Hamilton's broader economic plans, Washington ensured that free enterprise would flourish in the United States.

During most of his second term, Washington endured vicious--and anonymous--attacks on his character sponsored by Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, among others. But Washington, as always, bore it and overcame it, comporting himself with dignity.

My son once asked me who my greatest heroes were. You have to be careful about naming heroes. I never want to engage in hero worship; the only Person I worship is the God made known in Jesus Christ.

I esteem the apostles, who carried the Gospel of Jesus into the world. Martin Luther and Billy Graham are also special figures to me.

But in the political realm, George Washington is without peer, a man who overcame his own rugged upbringing, his lack of formal education, and volcanic passions, learning to control himself and so, becoming the farmer-statesman he early envisioned himself becoming. I agree with historian Garry Wills, who, in an interview on CSPAN once said that George Washington was the greatest political leader of all time.

I think that's indisputably true. And even King George III, the monarch from whom independence was gained in the American Revolution, seems to have agreed. Informed by American painter Benjamin West that it was Washington's intention to go home to Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolution, King George said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." Washington did and in his time, he was.
Below are links to some of my favorite Washington biographies.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Be Perfect? Are You Talking to Me?

If you're like me, when you read or heard the last verse in today's Gospel lesson, you may have felt  intimidated. In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

Perfect? I'm not that!

Is Jesus just toying with us the way a cat plays with a mouse it's going to kill?


The word translated as "perfect" from the original Greek of the New Testament is "teleios." It means things like true, sincere, truthful, or loyal. It doesn't have the meaning of flawless moral perfection or any other kind of flawless perfection, for that matter.

During the 3rd. and 2nd. centuries BC, Jewish scholars living in Alexandria produced a Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. (This is often referred to by the Roman numerals, LXX.) Jesus Himself was no doubt knowledgeable of this translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, as were the writers of the New Testament. This is important because the use of the word, teleios gives us insight into how the word is meant when used in the New Testament, including in Matthew 5:48.

For example, the Septuagint version of Genesis 6:9 tells us the Noah was true or loyal to God, unlike the rest of his generation. In the Septuagint's rendering of Job 1:1, God boasts of Jobs sincere loyalty to Him. And in Deuteronomy 18:13, part of Moses' sermon to the people of Israel as they're about to enter the promised land, Moses encourages the people, as the NRSV well translates it, to "remain completely loyal to the Lord your God."

Only Jesus has led a perfect, sinless life, of course. It's only through Him that our sins can be forgiven. In essence, Jesus gives His perfection to those who turn from sin (repent) and believe in Him, covering our sins with His perfect sacrificial life and death. In response to this incredible gift, believers in Jesus are called to be true to Him. This entails living in a lifestyle of daily repentance and renewal: a life of turning honestly to God each day, owning our faults, and receiving the forgiveness of sins and the help of God in facing off temptations in the future.

Jesus makes a tremendous promise to those who remain true to Him: "The one who endures [in believing in Him] to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). Teleios loyalty to Jesus is nothing other than faith in Jesus.

Breathe easy. Jesus isn't playing with you. Be sincerely loyal to Jesus Christ and, despite your faults, all eternity will be opened to you.

[A helpful source: Matthew (The Anchor Bible Commentaries) by W.F. Albright and C.S. Mann.]

A Strange Way to Live

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

Matthew 5:38-48
I was meeting with a group of fellow pastors when one of them brought up the subject of committed Christians they had known. “Being around people like that,” this pastor said, “always inspires me.” We all agreed. Then, one of our number said something I’ll never forget. “You know,” he said, “every committed Christian I’ve ever known is…sort of strange.” He didn’t mean it as an insult. He meant that the committed Christians he’d known weren’t afraid of being different, weren’t afraid, as Jesus Himself put it, to let their “light so shine before [the world]…that [others]…see [their] good works and give glory to [God] in heaven.” I think my colleague was right: People committed to following Jesus Christ are strange.

And that can be hard.

Australian Graham Stains and his wife, Gladys, became missionaries in India in 1984. There, among other things, they oversaw a leprosy hospital. In January, 1999, Graham and his sons, Philip and Timothy, 10 and 8, traveled to a village called Manoharpur. As Graham had done for 14 straight years, the three went there to provide Bible teaching along with training in health and hygiene. Graham knew that some of the tribal Hindus in the area opposed any Christian teaching. There had been at least sixty attacks on churches in the territory between 1986 and 1998. But felt called to share with them the Gospel of new, everlasting life with God for all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus. He also wanted to serve the people there. It was cold when Graham and the boys arrived. They slept in a station wagon. One night, about 50 people approached the vehicle, “screaming and swinging axes and other weapons.” They beat the missionary and his sons, put straw under their station wagon, and torched it.

If I had been in the position of Gladys Stains, Graham’s widow, I fear that I would have dissolved into a fierce hatred for the people in that region of India. I would, I fear, have become angry with God. Were I in her position, I think I might have looked for revenge. And I likely would have gotten the next plan out of India.

But Gladys responded strangely. She and a daughter, Esther, remained in India, continuing to share the Good News of Jesus and to minister to lepers until 2004, when Esther went to medical school and Gladys left to be near her.

In 2005, Gladys’ strange way of life was recognized when she was given “the Padma Shri award for distinguished service,” India’s equivalent to a knighthood in England. Gladys even said that though she loved and missed her husband and sons, she saw it as an honor to them that God had counted them worthy to give their lives in the cause of sharing the Gospel with those who, as evidenced by their cold-blooded murder of three innocent believers, so clearly needed that Gospel.

For a world that values self-preservation and self-promotion, Gladys’ faith is strange. But in our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells us that it’s strange people like these who populate his kingdom and He wants us all to be like them.

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts from today’s bulletin and turn to this morning’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 5:38-48. Here, Jesus continues the Sermon on the Mount. Read the first verses of the passage along with me silently, please:
[Jesus says:] You have heard that it was said, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 
Jesus begins here by citing Leviticus, chapter 24. It says, “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return; fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.”

Let’s be clear about two things at this point.
  • First, God in the Old Testament is not commanding the rough justice of revenge. That’s not what “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” means. 
  • Second, God in the New Testament—Jesus—is not overturning Old Testament law. 
In Old Testament times, someone might steal a loaf of bread, for example, and be sentenced to having their hand removed. Or they might perjure themselves and be executed for it. In other words, punishments exceeded the crimes.

God gave the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" command to prevent that from happening. He wanted to ensure that the punishments meted out to people never exceeded the gravity of their wrongs. Revenge is never something human beings are to administer.

Jesus amplifies God’s Old Testament intentions with the commandment He gives to anyone who would follow Him in today's Gospel lesson. Never resist people who do evil to you, Jesus says. Keep doing good even when the world does its worst to you.
  • In Jesus’ day, being backhanded across the cheek was the act of an arrogant person who thought himself superior to another. The natural reaction for the victim is to slap back. But Jesus says, “Don’t stoop to seeking revenge. Maintain your dignity, rely on Me, and offer your other cheek as well.” 
  • In Jesus’ day, people were even more likely to take others to court than people are today. And in his day, most people owned only two articles of clothing: a cloak and a coat. One served as an outer garment, the other was like underwear. If someone sues you, Jesus says, don’t fight back. Let them take both your garments. Even then, you’ll remain clothed in the grace, love, and dignity of God. 
  • In Jesus’ day, Roman soldiers who had something to be carried could, at will, pick an ordinary person from off of the streets and force them to act as a pack mule for one mile. Jesus says that if you’re forced to carry something for a mile, confound those who treat you as a slave and volunteer to serve them for an extra mile. 
Jesus goes on to command us to give to those who beg and to loan to those who wish to borrow.

Folks, this is a strange way to live.

And Jesus makes this way of life sound even stranger in the latter part of our lesson. Look at what He commands in verses 43 and 44:
You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven… 
One question that Jesus' words may bring to our minds is this: Why exactly would anyone want to live the strange lifestyle that Jesus describes here?

Well, it isn’t because, if you hang in there, the world will recognize what a wonderful person you are. For every Gladys Stains, who received a major award from the country where she rendered her service to Jesus Christ, there are millions of believers who are put down, despised, shunned, and forever ignored for being faithful.

One good reason for pursuing the strange life style of loving God with our whole beings and of loving our neighbors as ourselves is that, in fact, those who live any other way aren’t really living.

Author Lois Cheney tells a parable about a man who saw that love was hard and so kept to himself; saw that the striving for high ideals was strenuous and so put his head down and focused on surviving from day to day; saw that serving and giving to others got one embroiled in challenges they wouldn’t otherwise have and so just took care of himself. When the man died, he approached God and said, “Here I am, Lord: undiminished, unmarred, and unsoiled, no worse for the wear. Here’s my life” “Life?” God asked. “What life?”

The strange life of love in which we keep on loving even when others—even others in Christ’s own church—may hate us, is, truly the only real way to live. Every other way of living is a living death: no risks, no challenges, no fulfillment, no God.

But how do we live such a life? Just this past week in an email many of you received, I shared a story of Martin Luther’s. It’s worth repeating. Luther spoke of what happened when the devil tempted him to sin. “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 strange and beautiful way of life Jesus commands in today’s lesson—the way of love that refuses to take revenge and stands strong in the power of God—is possible when we let Jesus Christ, the One Who died and rose to give us life—into the center of our lives. You see, Jesus lived the perfect life of love He describes throughout the Sermon on the Mount and if we will let Him into our every decision, our every moment of temptation, our every relationship, He will come to live inside of us and change our lives today and for all eternity.

Some of you have heard me say that there’s a prayer I offer up to God whenever someone vexes me, or is unkind to me, or just annoys me. First of all, I tell God how I’m feeling. Then I make a request. “Lord,” I say, “I find myself incapable of loving this person right now. But I know that you love him or her, just as you love me in spite of how annoying or wrong I can be. You sent your Son to die and rise for them, just like You sent Him for me. So, please God, love this person through me. Grant that they’ll only experience Your love from me.”

You know the strange thing? God has answered that prayer every time I’ve offered it. And, here’s something else: As I’ve let Jesus into those relationships in this way, God often has transformed those relationships and made a way for me to truly come to love as I love myself the very people I once found so impossible to love.

If you’re serious about living the life style of the Sermon on the Mount, there’s only one way for that to happen and that’s to let the Preacher of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus Christ, be the Master of your whole life.

Jesus will take up residence in your life.

He will give you a strange way to live.

But truly, it’s the only way to live!