Thursday, July 21, 2011

One of My Prayers

One of my prayers is that, one day, God will help me to be as good a person as people think I am.

Growing Into Forgiveness

Matt Anderson talks about his road to forgiving someone who hurt him deeply:
And so I am beginning to feel that forgiveness isn’t an event, an accomplishment one can check off their to-do list and move on from. That’s what I wanted, and was expecting. I wanted a moment I could look back on and say, “Now I have Forgiven!” But my heart is fickle and easily injured, its pride frequently bruised, and in these moments the old hurts come flooding back, replacing any sense of growth with the same old pain, and making a fool of me and my “moment” of forgiveness.

If forgiveness isn’t an event or decision after all, but is instead much more like many other emotional or spiritual states in its maturation, then growth means living more often in the good, the virtuous, the loving, the kind—ultimately, the Godly—parts of who you are, and that moments of anger, hatred, cruelty, selfishness, or self-pity occur less often and pass more quickly. 
Read the whole thing.

How Do You Tell False Prophets from True Ones?

"Beware of false prophets." Jesus says this in Matthew 7:15.

But what's the difference between a real prophet, a person who speaks God's Word truthfully, and a false prophet?

One major difference is seen in an incident we recently considered at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church. (We're reading the Bible together in a year's time.)

The incident, recounted in 1 Kings, chapter 22, and retold in 2 Chronicles 18, revolves around the preparations of two kings for battle: Ahab, a thoroughly evil guy, of Israel (or Samaria), and a decent king named Jehoshaphat. They had formed an alliance and were getting ready to go into battle with the King of Aram.

Before taking to the field though, Jehoshaphat suggested that they should consult with God on the matter. So, Ahab got a group of four-hundred "prophets" together and asked them to give God's direction about their plans. "Go to it!" the four hundred replied enthusiastically.

But Jehoshaphat must have thought their answer was too glib. "Is there no other prophet of the LORD here of whom we may inquire?" he asked Ahab.

There was one other prophet, Ahab said. His name was Micaiah. "But I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster," Ahab revealed. Jehoshaphat, the more pious of the two, told his counterpart, "Let the king not say such a thing!"

So, Ahab relented. Micaiah was called to come speak with the two kings, both sitting on thrones. He was warned by one of Ahab's underlings that if he knew what was good for him, he'd tell Ahab what he wanted to hear, that God would give him success if he went into battle.

Initially, his voice dripping with sarcasm, that was exactly the "prophecy" Micaiah gave. Perturbed by his manner, Ahab pressed Micaiah to come clean. Micaiah told the king that he, Jehoshaphat, and their armies would lose the battle. For his honesty, Ahab had Micaiah imprisoned and put on reduced rations.

Of course, Ahab and Jehoshaphat went into battle (a decision Jehoshaphat regretted) and it turned out  as disastrously as Micaiah said that it would. Ahab died from wounds he suffered in spite of precautions he took to avoid being identified by the enemy.

There are several ways to know when someone claiming to speak for God really is speaking for God.

One way is to see whether what they say dovetails with the character and will of God as revealed in God's Word, the Bible.

Another is if they are delivering promises so good that only God could deliver on them (like resurrection for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ).

But, in the story of Micaiah, Ahab, Jehoshaphat, and the four hundred "prophets," we see another way of telling the difference between true prophets from God and false prophets.

False prophets will always tell you what you want to hear. If you're a person with a lot of money, false prophets tell you that God prefers the prosperous and that those without money are deficient in their faith. If the prevailing winds of culture say that sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman is OK, false prophets will tell you that God agrees. If you're a king or president who wants to go into battle, false prophets will tell you that your cause is just, no matter what the Bible teaches about doing justice, loving kindness, or walking humbly with God and that real power doesn't reside in superior arms, larger armies, or fatter war appropriations, but in the God Who, over the long haul, fights for those who humbly trust in Him.

True prophets risk everything to tell you what you might not want to hear, what would be safer for them not to say, in order to help you live in sync with God, the only One Who can give you life, eternity, or purpose.

True prophets are willing to be proven wrong. They don't care the side on which the bread is buttered. Micaiah told Ahab after he'd given a prophecy the king found distasteful, "If you return in peace, the LORD has not spoken by me" (1 Kings 22:28).

False prophets play to human egos.

True prophets make themselves accountable to God and let the chips fall where they may.

That's why they're so rare.

[You might want to check out 1 Kings 22 and 2 Chronicles 18.]

Suffering Turns Some Away from God

But, Philip Yancey observes what in my thirty-five years as a Christian and in my twenty-seven years as a pastor I have also seen: suffering turns other people to God.

The God we meet in Jesus Christ isn't a good luck charm. Bad things happen to faithful people. Death comes to us all.

Being a Christian is a relationship with a Person Who has "been there, done that" when it comes to human suffering. He suffers with us.

And by His resurrection, we know that in the lives of all who trust in Him, suffering and death will not have the last laughs.

Whether our lives are at ease or we are in pain, we need a relationship with Christ.

Suffering makes no sense. Jesus Christ does!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Does God Punish Parents Through the Suffering of Their Children? NO!

Does God cause the suffering or death of children because of the sins of their parents?

As we've been reading the Bible together in a year at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church, that awful question has been suggested by our reading of the experiences of David, Israel's greatest king, and Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11:1-12:17). While Bathsheba's husband was off in battle, David slept with Bathsheba. She became pregnant and to cover up his misdeed, David arranged for Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, to die at the front. Bathsheba married David and the newlyweds then awaited the birth of their child. Through the prophet Nathan though, God told David He was not pleased with things David and Bathsheba had done and that the child Bathsheba would soon birth would die as punishment for their sins.*

I can't begin to explain this strange incident. So, I won't try.

But I don't believe that God causes suffering or death to come to the children of people who sin.

If that were so, every child would suffer and die in their cribs.

That's because we're all sinners who, whether in our minds or in our actions, sinfully violate the will of God.

But I believe that we can turn to the Bible to help us wrestle with this question.

The Bible isn't a how-to manual filled with glib bullet points. Individual passages or chapters of Scripture aren't to be taken in isolation to explain the way God operates. When considering any question, we need to remember a principle set out by Martin Luther, the Reformer: "Let Scripture interpret Scripture."

The Bible is a library of sixty-six books inspired by God over thousands of years. The whole library must be considered when facing tough questions about God, life, and ourselves.

So, what does the whole library of Scripture tell us that might help us understand whether children suffer or die because of the sins of their parents?

One passage that might be brought up is Exodus 34:7. There, God told Moses that while He forgave repentant sinners, He would visit "the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children to the third and fourth generation." But I don't think this passage is relevant to this discussion. The subject of the Exodus passage isn't whether God causes suffering or death to the children of sinners.

In it, God is simply saying that when parents persist in sin--such as failing to honor God as God, for example, or abusing their children verbally, physically, or psychologically--it has an impact on their kids and grandkids.

The words from Exodus are a call and a command to exercise what might be called "intergenerational ethics," recognizing that our sins can have a terrible impact on subsequent generations. Any counselor involved with family therapy will underscore the importance of this warning.

Another Biblical vignette that might merit consideration appears in Genesis 22. There, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Then, just as Abraham is about to do this, God provides a ram to be sacrificed in Isaac's place. God directs Abraham, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me."

"What kind of a sicko God tells someone to kill his kid?" a good friend asked me years ago. That's a good question, especially if the passage is seen in isolation.

But in fact it was told to the people of ancient Israel to draw a contrast between Yahweh, their God, the God of the Bible, and the false idols worshiped by the surrounding culture. The false gods commanded the sacrifice of children. This was reprehensible to the God of Israel and He repeatedly forbade His people from engaging in such barbaric practices.

The lesson Abraham learned was that God will always provide a way to reconciliation and peace with God--Jesus later claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, the only means needed for reconciliation with God. God will never command the sacrifice of a child because of someone's sins, God was telling Abraham.

This truth is further underscored by a passage from the farewell discourse of ancient Israel's leader, Moses, in Deuteronomy. Through Moses, God says:
Parents shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their parents; only for their own crimes may persons be put to death. (Deuteronomy 24:16)
This command is reiterated frequently in Scripture:
[Speaking of Amaziah, a king of Judah] But he did not put to death the children of the murderers; according to what is written in the book of the law of Moses, where the Lord commanded, "The parents shall not be put to death for the children, or the children be put to death for the parents; but all shall be put to death for their own sins."** (2 Kings 14:6, also 2 Chronicles 25:4)
The prophet Jeremiah upholds this same principle when he writes:
...all shall die for their own sins...(Jeremiah 31:30)
Through another prophet, Ezekiel, God says:
"Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine; it is only the person who sins that shall die. (Ezekiel 18:4)

"The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of the parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own." (Ezekiel 18:20)***
But the question before us--whether children suffer or die as punishment for their parents' sins is answered definitively by God-in-the-flesh, Jesus. Check out this familiar incident from Jesus' ministry  (italics and bold print are mine):
As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him." (John 19:1-3)
I don't believe that Jesus here means that God caused the man to be born blind, but that his blindness was an opportunity for the power of God to be revealed. Our weakness and need are always opportunities for God's grace to bring us strength and peace with God and ourselves. But more importantly for our question, you see, Jesus repudiates any notion that God causes the children of sinners to suffer because of their parents' sins.

There are lots of questions I may want to ask God when, one day, I see Him face to face. But I'm persuaded from what I know of God through Christ and from the overwhelming evidence in the Bible that God doesn't bring calamity punish the sins of parents through the suffering or death of their kids.

That children suffer in a world weighed down by its alienation from God is a tragic reality. My heart aches for every parent who must watch their children suffer.

But, parents, if God has an issue with you and your sins, He'll deal with you. He won't punish your children.

*In 2 Samuel, the story of David and Bathsheba is seen as the beginning of a downward spiral in David's reign. But when the story of David's kingship is told again in 1 Chronicles, the writer shows no interest in this incident from David's personal life. For him, the moral deterioration of David's reign started when, in his official capacity, he ordered a census of his people. (More on this another time, maybe.)

**More on capital punishment another time, maybe. One sticky wicket at a time, please.

***"For the wages if sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). All sin and deserve death. But forgiveness and new life come to those who repent (that is, repudiate sin) and believe in (trust in) Christ. God only holds us accountable for our own sins, not those of others. And the power of sin to kill us is erased as a free gift for all who trust in Christ.

Don't Try Too Hard to Fit In


Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Kindness Outreach Chronicles (Part 3)

These are pictures snapped by my wife Ann during the Saint Matthew Kindness Outreach of July 9. During the outreaches, when traffic lights at busy intersections turn read, we offer free bottled water to drivers and passengers of stopped vehicles. We share the love of God, no strings attached.

In a world in which we're taught "there's no such thing as a free lunch," it can be hard to convince people that we're actually giving away anything without charge. But these give-aways are a great picture of how grace works. Grace, God's undeserved favor, isn't earned. But God won't force it on you either. You have to be humble and needy enough to willingly receive it.

In the picture above, Dick and Joy hand out bottles of water and Jacob hurries to make sure that everyone in the car gets their free gifts.

Above: Jacob shares another bottle of water.

Above: The preacher in action.

Be Patient: God Will Make Things Right

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

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
When I was in the first grade, we learned about how seeds become plants. To show us how the process worked, we were each given seeds and some dirt. We were told to take them home and ask our parents for an old cup and then plant our seeds in the dirt in the cup, put the cup in a windowsill where it could catch light from the sun, water the seeds slightly every day, and then watch what happened.

I did everything our teacher told us to do. But after a few days, I got impatient. Nothing had sprouted. I knew from our study at school that, at the very least, by that point, the seed should have been sprouting some roots beneath the surface. But, I wondered, since nothing seemed to be happening above the dirt, if anything was happening beneath it.

I just had to find out, so I could fix things. So, I poked around and found that below the dirt, my seed had sprouted a root that looked just like the one pictured in the mimeographed handout our teacher had given to us.

Just then, my Mom walked into the kitchen and explained that since that I had dug the seed from the dirt, it would no longer grow. (I don't know if that was true or not, but it's what my Mom told me.) My impatience had ruined everything!

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable—or story—that tells we Christians to be patient for the full flowering of God’s kingdom. We may not be able to see it clearly, but God has already answered the petition Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come.”

That’s why Jesus says elsewhere that the time of God’s kingdom “is coming and now is.”* God’s kingdom isn’t yet all that it will be when Jesus returns to this earth. But it is alive in our world and it is alive in all who turn from sin and trust in Christ as their God and Lord.

Our call, as believers in Jesus, is to patiently be about God’s business and to patiently trust that one day, as Jesus promises at the end of today’s lesson, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father.”

Please pull out the Celebrate inserts and take a look at our Gospel lesson. “Someone” (Jesus says the someone is Himself) sows good seed in a field. The field in this parable, Jesus explains, is the world in which you and I live.

Unlike last Sunday’s Gospel lesson, in which the seeds represented the Word of God, Jesus explains that the good seeds in this parable, are the children of God’s kingdom—those who believe in Jesus Christ.

Once, Jesus says, while everybody was asleep, an enemy—Jesus identifies this as the devil—goes into the field and sows weeds.

It needs to be pointed out that Jesus, in the original Greek in which the New Testament was written, identifies a specific kind of weed that was sown, the weed known as a tare. The problem with the tare is that, like people, masquerading as Christians or children of God, this weed looks exactly like wheat…until the ears appear.

By the time tares are seen to be growing alongside wheat, it’s usually too late to save the wheat!

That explains what happens next in Jesus’ parable. The slaves of the householder—servants of Jesus—discover the tares among the wheat. They go to the Master—Jesus—and ask if they can uproot the weeds and burn them. They think that by this strategy, they (and not their Master) can save the wheat.

This request and the thinking behind it is really no different from what I did as a first grader. I thought that I could speed up or fix the processes for growth that God Himself created by uprooting the seed in the cup on our kitchen windowsill. We need to trust that God knows what He’s doing. He doesn’t need us to “fix” things.

Once, Jesus and His disciples were heading to Jerusalem and passed through a town in Samaria. Knowing that Jesus is a Jew headed for the Jewish holy city, none of the Samaritans in that town would share food, water, or hospitality with Jesus or His disciples. Two of the disciples, James and John asked Jesus, “Do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy this village, Lord?” They wanted to pluck up the weeds of unrighteousness, rather than trusting Jesus to take care of things with His own long-term plan. Jesus, instead, turned to James and John and rebuked (or reprimanded or condemned) them and left the disbelieving village intact, allowing the people there to live and grow with the hope that, somewhere among the tares, wheat—people who trust in Christ for forgiveness and life—might take root and grow there.

We see Christians impatient with the way God does things in our world today.

Some well-meaning believers, for example, insist that courthouse squares must have statues with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them.

Other believers send their bishops to testify before Congress, on the theory that it’s righteous and godly for the federal government to appropriate X-amount-of-dollars to combat this or that problem in the world.

Advocates of such steps are often quick to write off the faith or righteousness of those who disagree with them. But, no coercive step we may lobby a government body into doing will hasten the coming of God’s kingdom.

Both of them exhibit impatience with God and the way He intends to work in this world.

In the Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor and in the Great Commission to share God’s Word about Jesus in its fullness and make disciples, Jesus has shown us the role His followers are to play in the coming of His kingdom.

We’re to be patient. We’re to be patient in accepting that, by allowing wheat and weeds to grow side by side, God knows what He’s doing.

In verse 29 of the Gospel lesson, the Master of Jesus’ parable, instructs the slaves not to gather the weeds for fear that in doing so, the wheat would be uprooted at the same time.

It can be depressing for Christians to look at the world today. There are many things we might like to see uprooted.

We see people relying on material goods rather than on God to give their lives meaning.

We see people ignoring the needs of others so that they can pursue what they call “happiness.”

We see people ignoring God’s will that sexual intimacy is to be expressed between one man and one woman in a lifelong relationship known as marriage.

We hear people violating God’s command that we not bear false witness as they engage in gossip.

We see people consumed with resentment and hatred, murdering one another with words and with guns.

Even more depressingly, if we’re honest, we see how every day, we ourselves violate the Ten Commandments, failing to love God and to love neighbor.

We see how, because of our sins, we ourselves constantly need to come to God, seeking forgiveness in the Name of Jesus. (Personally, there are times, when I consider my sins, that I wonder why God puts up with me at all!)

When will this madness all come to an end?

When will Jesus bring His Kingdom to us in its fullness, ridding the world of its evil and ridding us of the evil that lives inside each of us?

We don’t know the answers to those questions. But we do know two things.

First, we know that evil will come to an end.

In Jesus’ parable, the Master lets the wheat and the weeds keep growing. But at harvest time—or, as Jesus explains, when Jesus returns to the earth—the weeds—all the causes of sin and all evildoers—will be thrown into the furnace of fire. There, Jesus says, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” as people spend an eternity regretting that they rejected Jesus’ free gifts of forgiveness and new life.

But the reapers—the angels or messengers of God—will also gather the wheat into the Master’s barn. Those made righteous by the grace of God given to all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ, will live with God for eternity!

When God’s people are gathered to Him in eternity, then their perseverance in turning constantly to Jesus for life and hope, forgiveness and new life, will be rewarded.

The apostle Peter says this about Jesus’ promise to gather us into an eternity without sin, evil, pain, or suffering: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all come to repentance.” The Lord is patient.

And this is why God is patient. God can do something that, so far as I know, has never happened in any farm field: He can turn weeds into wheat.

God can convert those imprisoned by sin and evil into the forgiven children of God. He will do this for anyone who turns from sin and trusts Jesus as God, Savior, and King of their lives.

Jesus hasn’t returned yet because He wants to use His Church—you and me—to share His message with all the world—wheat and weeds.

God wants all people to have the opportunity to live in His kingdom.

If you trust in Jesus, you can live each day in the confidence that Paul expressed in the New Testament: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” The lives we live here, no matter how long or short they may turn out to be, aren't even a fraction of the eternity God wants us to spend with Him!

Meanwhile, while we live this life, our call is clear. As Ephesians puts it, “Be careful how you live…making the most of the time, because the days are evil…”

Even in a world filled with the weeds of evil and sin, you can grow strong as a child of God!

Keep loving God and loving neighbor.

Keep repenting and believing in Christ.

Keep praying in Christ’s Name and keep sharing Christ with others in word and deed.

Know and be happy that you are already at this very moment, part of God’s kingdom.

And know that one day, in the presence of your Lord Jesus, sin and evil will be a thing of the past, and, with all believers in Christ, you will shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father.

That’s worth being patient for. Amen!

*Jesus used this phrasing several times during His ministry.