Saturday, June 25, 2011

Good Question from Wednesday Night Discussion Group

On Wednesday night, during one of our weekly Read the Bible in a Year discussion groups, a great question was asked about the prophets Elijah and Elisha, whose stories are told in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Kings.*

God empowered both of them to perform miracles, including bringing several dead persons back to life. The question raised was why neither Elijah or Elisha were hailed as the Savior of the world the way Jesus would be by some people about nine centuries later.

Here are a few possible answers that cross my mind.

First: Both Elijah and Elisha lived before anyone really considered the possibility of a Messiah. The two prophets lived in the northern kingdom of an Israel that had fractured in two after the death of King Solomon. The north, which took for itself the name of Israel, was mired in idolatry and arrogance while enjoying relative prosperity and stability. They weren't looking for redemption from Israel's God.

Second: Even if the people of the northern kingdom had had hopes for a Messiah, chances are that they would have been just as wary to see Elijah or Elisha in that role as the people of Judea (and their Roman overlords) were to see Jesus as Messiah eight centuries later. A Messiah/Savior rightly demands on our lives that we, as self-centered people, prefer not to meet. That's one big reason that many people spurn Jesus to this day.

Third: Neither Elijah nor Elisha ever made the same claims for themselves that Jesus made for Himself.

In John 10:30, for example, Jesus flat out says, "The Father and I are one."

Earlier in John's gospel, He tells some of His fellow Jews in a grammatically awkward phrase, "Before the Father was, I AM." "I AM," ego eimi in the Greek of the New Testament, translates the Hebrew noun and verb that Israel's God gave to Moses as His Name at the burning bush, Yahweh.

Jesus claims to be God in human flesh. From any other person, even miracle workers like Elijah and Elisha, this claim would be blasphemous. And it was on the charge of being a blasphemer that the Jewish religious leaders of His day sought Jesus' execution.

But Elijah and Elisha claimed simply to be prophets, people who go before others to tell them (and show them) the Word of God.

*Go here and type in 1 Kings, chapter 1 [1 Kings 1], if you want to see what we've been reading lately. Then, keep following the arrows leading you to the next chapters.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Kindness Can Change Everything


God Has a Sense of Humor

Yesterday afternoon, I was stoked about pulling into the drive-through line at our local McDonald's. I was going to buy some bottled water.

No! It wasn't the water that I was excited about. I got into line mainly to use our congregation's new "This Meal's on Us!" card. I was going to pay for my bottled water and also pay for the order of whoever was ordering in the car behind me, then ask the cashier to give the card to that person. The card would explain why some stranger had just paid for their order.

Each "This Meal's on Us!" card tells the recipient that God loves them, no strings attached, and that Saint Matthew Lutheran Church stands ready to serve them in other ways in which they might need help.

I ordered my bottle of water, pulled up to the pay window, explained to the cashier what I was doing, and handed her both my credit card and the "This Meal's on Us!" card. The cashier processed the two transactions and gave the receipts to me.

I saw mine; a buck-fifty for my water.

Then I looked at the receipt of the next car. The person had ordered an iced-tea from the dollar menu!

At that rate, I was tempted to drive through three or four more times. But I had a shut-in to visit.

I'd sort of hoped, for my first personal kindness outreach in a while, to pay for an order that included about fifty Big Macs. You know, some stunner that would cause a tapped-out agnositc construction worker who'd been drafted to pick up burgers for the whole crew to break out into the Hallelujah Chorus.

But instead, God put a person in the line behind me who only wanted an iced tea from the dollar menu.

It was a humbling reminder that we don't undertake acts of kindness in Jesus' Name to get goose-bumpy thrills for ourselves.

We do them to share Jesus in the ways God determines to be necessary at the time. Then, we leave what happens as a result in the hands of God's Holy Spirit.

As my buddy, Pastor Steve Sjogren likes to say, "Small things done with great love will change the world." I'm learning to trust that God will use the small acts of faithfulness we do to bring positive changes to the world, one person--even one iced tea--at a time.

Meanwhile, as He puts me gently in place for my grandiose visions, I have to smile. God has a sense of humor.

Want to Know God? Read the Bible

Right now, members of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, and I are reading the Bible together in a year's time. We're reading it straight through, about three chapters a day, from Genesis to Revelation.

Here are a few thoughts underscoring the importance of constant study of Scripture that I've run across in the past few days.

Rick Warren, the pastor who wrote The Purpose Driven Life, tweeted this five days ago:
We cant watch TV for 3 hrs then read the Bible for 3 min & expect to grow spiritually.
And I just read this from the final chapter of David Platt's fantastic Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (it comes as part of his plea to readers take on an experiment in radical Christian living that, interestingly, includes taking a year to read the Bible in its entirety):
I want to put a particularly strong emphasis on this step of the Radical Experiment [reading the Bible through in a year's time]. The Christian marketplace is filled with books today--some of them healthy, and some of them not so healthy. To be honest, I have been very hesitant to write this book, because I look at our bookstores and think, Do we really need another one? I suppose only time will tell if it was worth it, but time has already spoken on one Book.
God has chosen by his matchless grace to give us revelation of himself in his Word. It is the only Book that he has promised to bless by his Spirit to transform you and me in the image of Jesus Christ. It is the only Book that he has promised to use to bring our hearts, our minds, and our lives in alignment with him. I'm not saying that God has not used or blessed other Christian books throughout Christian history, but there is only one Book that he has perfectly inspired by his Spirit for the accomplishment of his purpose. When you or I open the Bible, we are beholding the very words of God--words that have supernatural power to redeem, renew, refresh, and restore our lives to what he created them to be.
Of course, there are passages of Scripture that trouble us or that we can't explain. But as you read the Bible daily, great themes of faith emerge, themes that will bring your faith and your relationship to God alive. 

Don't be satisfied with a second-hand knowledge of God, a verse here, and a devotional thought there. Such things can be helpful to us. Hearing or reading the perspectives of others on passages of Scripture--like you get a daily devotional--can be a great antidote to our penchant for riding our personal hobby horses as we skim the Bible just for things we like. (And as readers of this blog know, I do read a daily devotional. But I also read and study chapters of the Bible each day, not just in preparation for preaching, but for other reasons.)

The daily reading of Scripture will move your relationship with the God ultimately revealed to the whole world in Jesus Christ to a ever-deepening level of intimacy, dependence, true awe of God, and true confidence in your living.

And, as with any relationship of love, the key is not some chimerical entity people call "quality time," it's quantity time. If we don't spend lots of time with God--in things like daily Bible reading and study, daily prayer, regular service in His Name--along with weekly group Bible studies and weekly worship, our relationship with God can only be superficial.

If you want more than a superficial faith or a superficial understanding of God, you can begin to address that desire by reading the Bible every single day.

This is What Love Is


Monday, June 20, 2011

It's About Life and Death: Some Thoughts on God's Love for You

Today's Our Daily Bread devotion based on Psalm 117, a two-verse hymn of praise composed of just 30 words in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation I usually use when I read the Bible. David Roper, the writer of the devotion, cites a translation of the passage taken from The New International Version (TNIV) (I've italicized words I want to briefly talk about below.):

1 Praise the LORD, all you nations; 

   extol him, all you peoples. 
2 For great is his love toward us, 
   and the faithfulness of the LORD endures forever.

   Praise the LORD.
Here's Psalm 117 as rendered by the NRSV (I've italicized the words corresponding to the ones italicized above):
1Praise the LORD, all you nations! 
  Extol him, all you peoples!
2For great is his steadfast love toward us,
  and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the LORD!
The word from the Psalm's original Hebrew translated by the italicized phrases above, is a form of the Hebrew word, hesed. It specifically refers to God's covenantal faithfulness. The word means that God will not break the promises He makes in His covenants.

A covenant is a compact or agreement.

In Old Testament times, covenants were made (or cut) by conquering kings with their subject peoples. "I will be your king," a covenant might begin. "I will protect you from violence and thievery. In response to this, you will pay taxes, obey the laws, and be subject to service to the king."

Israel's God--YAHWEH, I AM--made a covenant with Israel. You see it embodied in the Ten Commandments, which begin, not with commands, but with a promise. "I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out the house of slavery..." (Exodus 20:3). Before issuing a single command of His moral law (valid today and for all time, by the way), God promised to be the God, Lord, and Protector of His people. It's only after issuing this promise that He says, in effect, "In response to this gift of grace, I expect you to fulfill the following commandments."

In Jesus, a new covenant has been instituted by God for the whole world. Jesus expresses it in, among other places, Mark 16:16:
The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.
As was true in Old Testament times, when the patriarch Abraham believed in God's promises and God counted him righteous--right with God, free from the debt of sin which would have otherwise have cost him his life for eternity, under God's new covenant, those who believe (or trust) in Jesus, God-in-human-flesh, are forgiven their sins and freed from death in order to live with God eternally.

Jesus puts the same point in a different way in John 3:16-18:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the 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."
This is the kind of love--hesed love, covenantal love--that Psalm 117 talks about. "I have done this for you (in ancient Israel's case, the this was deliverance from slavery in Egypt, in Jesus' case, the this is deliverance from slavery to sin and death), now entrust your life to me. 

This is what God's love is like. It's love that calls people away from the sins that will kill them, back to the only one who can give them life. 

It's not sentimental love. It's not mushy love. It's not about feelings. It's about life and death. 

Accepting this love and Christ's authority over your life brings life. Rejecting Christ's love and authority spells death.

Covenant love--hesed--does not smile indulgently on our sins. It demands that we turn from our violations of the ten commandments--every day--and entrust our lives to Christ. (For a good rundown of the ten commandments and their meanings, go here.)

God loves sinners and hates our sins. He wants to love us back into relationship with Him.

But if we choose our sins over God, if we refuse to turn to Him, God is one king who will not force us to obey. 

He tries valiantly to free us from sin (and its rightful consequence, death). Not only did He take on flesh to die and rise for us in the person of Jesus Christ, today He will orchestrate events, encounters, experiences, and send messages to our hearts and minds in order to win us over. (This post may, in fact, be something God is orchestrating in your life this very moment.)

But He will not force us to come to Him.

The message of the Bible is simple: Come to the God made plain to all the world in Jesus Christ. Turn from sin and trust in Him each day. Let God's covenant love change your life and your eternity.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

So, There's a Holy Trinity...What's That Got to Do with Me?

[Today, I did a re-run. Few sermons I've done in thirty years engendered more conversation than this one, given three years ago. I decided that on this Holy Trinity Sunday, I'd share it again. It was shared this morning during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Genesis 1:1-2:4a
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Matthew 28:16-20
I was about eight years old and I had a question. The first person to whom I posed it was my Mom. When I asked, she stammered. She probably hadn’t expected me to ask the question I asked at such a young age. And so, she told me that I should take my question elsewhere, not to my Dad, but to our pastor at the time, Reverend Blackburn.

I did. I walked up to him the next Sunday after worship and asked: “Reverend Blackburn, can you explain the Trinity to me?”

“Mark,” he told, “I think of the Trinity in this way. Water comes in three different forms: liquid; ice, a solid; and steam, a gas. But though it shows itself in different ways, it’s always water. In the same way, God shows Himself as three different personalities—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But God is always one God.”

That’s a pretty good explanation and it’s one I’ve used myself when inquisitive children ask me about the Trinity. But on this Holy Trinity Sunday, we may have other questions. First among them may be, “I lead a busy, often demanding, life. What does the Trinity have to do with the life I live? What’s the Trinity got to do with me?”

I hope to answer that question. But before I do, I should explain a little about the Trinity. The word “Trinity” is never used in the Bible. But repeatedly, by inference in the Old Testament and in plain words in the New Testament, the Bible affirms that three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—are co-equal, co-eternal personalities of the one and only God the universe.

We see the footprints of what the theologians call God’s “triune nature" in three of our Bible lessons for today.

Our first lesson, which is the first of two creation accounts from the book of Genesis, we’re told that a “wind” moved over chaos when God created. The passage might as readily have been translated to tell us that the “spirit” moved over the waters because, as I mentioned last Sunday, the Old Testament Hebrew word ruach can be translated as wind, breath, or spirit. So, at the very beginning, we see God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. And when I read Genesis 1:26, I picture God talking to Himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—when God says, “Let us make…”

In our second lesson, which is from 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul tells the squabbling Christians in the Greek city of Corinth to live out a commitment to what’s best for one another. Live in peace, he tells them, and then he invokes the three Persons of the one God when He says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” In this phrase, Paul puts the three persons of the Trinity on a par with one another, all one God, three persons.

Then, there’s our Gospel lesson, from Matthew. It recounts how Jesus gave the eleven apostles what we call “the Great Commission." Jesus told them and us to teach the whole world about Him and the new life He brings to repentant sinners who believe in Him. Then, Jesus says, we are to baptize, “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” putting both Himself and the Holy Spirit Who on an equal footing with the Father.

“Fine,” you might be saying, “I accept the Trinity, although I don’t quite understand it. But what difference does God being one God in three Persons make in my life?”

Let me suggest three ways it may make a difference to you and me as we go through our daily lives.

Ann and I had been married about five-and-a-half years when my father offered the only piece of advice I remember him ever giving to me. Dad and I were alone when he asked me, "Are you and Ann ever going to have children?" I gave an intelligent reply: "I uh...We uh..." Dad said, "If you're waiting for the perfect time to have kids, the time will never come. You'll never be able to afford them." Then, this man who's the father of five gave his closing argument for having children. Do you know what he said?  "Mark, there are no good reasons for having kids. Have them anyway."

There are lots of things we do that aren't really necessary. Having children is among them. So are creating art or music. So are starting a business, going on mission trips, telling someone about Jesus, perpetrating an act of kindness just to let them know that God loves them, no strings attached, or building a better mousetrap. There are so many things we do that we don't have to do.

But the desire to express ourselves or to give our love away is so powerful that we feel compelled to do the most extravagantly unnecessary things. This fact about we human beings, I think, is one way in which we reflect the presence of the image of God in us.

The Trinity makes a difference in our daily lives, first of all, because in the Three-in-One-God, we see overflowing extravagance of God's love! God gives us His love at least three times over!

God didn't have to create the universe or give us life. But He did.

God didn’t have to take on human flesh to die and rise for us. But He did.

God doesn’t have to reach out to us as He does today through His Holy Spirit, Who creates and nurtures the Church, inspired the Scriptures, and is still inspiring believers today. But He does.

God enjoyed completeness without us. But the Three-in-One-God wants us, wants us today, wants us for all eternity!

The Holy Trinity, this big, full God, cares about you. He’s invested Himself in all His fullness, in you and in your future. God does that over and over again. In the Trinity, God demonstrates, underscores, and underlines that you, your every moment, your every decision matters to God! That’s the first way in which knowing the Three-in-One-God makes a difference in our lives.

Here’s another way. Since the Middle Ages, artists have crafted paintings and sculptures for churches called Gnadenstuhl. In these works of art, Jesus is on the cross, lifeless following His execution. His arms or the crossbeam of the cross are held aloft by the Father, Who is behind Jesus. And from the two of them, a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, descends.*

We often think of the agony Jesus experienced on the cross, especially as He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But we don't often consider the agonies of the Father and the Spirit as they watched the Son bear the sins of the world.

If you’ve ever been a parent who listened to a child cry over homework that seemed too hard, homework it would be easier for you to do for them, but which you know they must do themselves, you know the Father felt agony as Jesus completed His earthly mission on the cross.

If you’ve ever been a parent or a sibling or a relative of someone addicted to drugs and alcohol, knowing that their agony would go away for a moment if you slipped them the money they needed to buy the dope or if you gave them a drink, but for their good, you refused, then you know how the Spirit felt as He groaned in sighs too deep for words at the sight of Jesus in His death throes on the cross.

If you've ever spent days or weeks with loved ones as they lay suspended between life and death, you know what both the Father and the Spirit went through as Jesus hung on the cross.

These agonies the Trinity endured for you and me. And when the Spirit comes to us in Baptism, He brings God's compassion for us in all that comes to us in life. The Spirit comes to fiercely protect us from a life alone, compassionately placing us in the community of the Church, a spiritual family that allows us to experience something like the connectedness enjoyed by the Father, Son, and Spirit.

In the Trinity, God stands with us in our joys and in our sorrows, in everything that we go through. We know this because the Trinity was there together on the cross, sharing our life so that we can share life with God forever.

So the Trinity makes a difference by assuring us that we matter to God and that God stands by us always: Jesus says this is so to the close of the age. Now, here’s a third way the Trinity makes a difference in our everyday lives: He draws us into community with Him.

C.S. Lewis, in his book Mere Christianity, describes how the Three-in-One-God does this when, for example, we pray. “What I mean is this” he writes. “An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God [God the Father]. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God so to speak, inside him [God the Spirit]. But he also knows that all real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God [God the Son]— that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying — the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on — the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. The whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary act of prayer.”

God in His fullness, Who cares about us even though He doesn’t have to, Who is able to stand with us in every experience, also makes it possible for us to experience fellowship, community, with Him and with His family, the Church.

Pastor Mary Anderson says that at the age of three, she had her first experience of how something could be three and one at the same time. She watched her grandmother taking her afternoon nap and said, “That's Grandmamma, Mamma, and Odelle." Her grandmother smiled as she heard her granddaughter call her by the names by which her grandchildren, her daughter, and her husband called her. As Anderson puts it, "Three names, three relationships -- and yet the same person.”

The Holy Trinity—God in three Persons—is a mystery and that’s as it should be. As I often tell my Catechism students, if you could explain everything about God, then you would be God and you're not. But when we think about all the different ways in which people see us from day to day—friend, employee, boss, parent, child--then the Trinity isn’t so farfetched. And it matters to our daily lives that God is Three-in-One. In the fullness of the Trinity...
  • God assures us that our every moment matters,
  • that He stands with us always, and
  • that He wants us to live in constant relationship with Him.
The writer of Psalm 8, our Psalm for today, is puzzled by something. He writes :
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Like the psalmist, we might well wonder why a God so big and so great would bother with us, too. But the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shows us that He does care for us. More than we could ever imagine.