Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Audio of Today's 'Read the Bible in a Year Discussion (Psalms 111-145)

Here's today's discussion of the week's Bible readings. Tonight's discussion will be recorded too. If there's anything stunningly different from this morning's discussion, I'll post it here.

Read the Bible in a Year

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio

Monday, September 05, 2011

An Ancient Call to Post-Modern People

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

Ezekiel 33:7-11
God needs lots of Ezekiels today, people like Jon.

Jon is a man I know whose mother died when he was in his early twenties. Jon, his brother, and his sisters were comforted in knowing that their mother had trusted in Jesus Christ. They were confident that because of God’s gracious gift of the crucified and risen Jesus and their mother’s faith in Christ, she was with God for eternity.

But they were all concerned about their father. Though he had been a good husband and father in many ways, he had, years before, wandered from God. As a result of having no relationship with God, Jon’s Dad was shattered and beyond all comfort at the death of the woman he loved.

Christians grieve. But as the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians puts it, Christians need not “grieve as others do without hope.” Jon’s dad was hopeless and, as a result, he was falling into some destructive patterns of behavior—drinking too much, working too much, staying up all hours watching infomercials. Jon decided he needed to have a heart-to-heart talk with his father.

“Dad,” he said, “I love you and I’m concerned about you. Dad, you’re slowly killing yourself. You’re letting your grief over Mom kill you. And you’re killing yourself too, by relying on beer and work to get you through. I know you don’t want to hear this, Dad, but you need to get right with God. You need to lean on Him.”

Jon’s father began to protest at hearing another religious jaw. “Wait a minute, Dad,” Jon said, “think about Mom. She believed in Jesus with all her heart.” Jon’s dad, tears welling in his eyes, admitted that was true. “Dad, she’s with Jesus, don’t you think?” Again, Jon’s dad agreed. “Dad, I not only don’t want you to be separated from God, I don’t want you to be separated from anyone who has believed in Jesus. I want you to be with Mom again in eternity.”

At that moment, Jon’s dad realized how far he had walked from God and God’s people and how he needed to lay everything aside that he’d been using to make it through his days. Jon’s dad turned to Christ and slowly, started to live again with hope and purpose. When I met him five years later, he was a truly happy man, deeply involved with his church, especially in helping feed hungry people. He still missed his wife. But he had hope.

Jon, a heavy machinery salesman by trade, was used by God in that moment as a sentinel—a guard—warning his Dad of the judgment his father was bringing down on himself, but also showing him the new life that could belong to his dad if he would turn from sin and self-absorption and trust in God alone. The life of Jon’s father was saved for eternity because Jon dared to speak a word of truth to him!

Our first Bible lesson for today comes from the Old Testament book of Ezekiel. I can’t delve too far into the history of this remarkable book, but Ezekiel was a prophet and priest who, for years, had warned the people of Judah, the southern grouping of God’s people whose capital city was Jerusalem, that their continuing reliance on things other than God, their unjust and unloving treatment of others, and all their other sins would lead to the destruction of their country unless they repented and turned in faith to God.

These people—God’s people, the descendants of slaves who had been miraculously brought to a land filled with blessings showered on them by God, had turned a deaf ear to Ezekiel’s warnings. As the 33rd. chapter of Ezekiel begins, God calls Ezekiel again. He has more messages He wants Ezekiel to share with His people. God is about to orchestrate the devastation of Judah by foreign conquerors.

But God doesn't intend for that to be the end of the story. God meant the impending destruction and enslavement of his people in Ezekiel's time to lead a different conclusion.

God wanted Ezekiel to carry a new message to His people.

Now, if I had been Ezekiel, I might have thought, “I’ve had enough of the preaching business. No one wants to hear what God has to say anyway. Why should I waste my breath?”

But it was at precisely this moment that God came to Ezekiel again and, in some mysterious way, God told Ezekiel that just as Ezekiel had earlier prophesied destruction, now Ezekiel was to prophesy restoration. God was going to renew His people, give them back their land, allow them to rebuild their temple.

The key to the fulfillment of the promise of restoration was the same as the avoidance of the earlier (and ignored) threat had been: The people must repent for sin (turn away from sin) and trust in God alone. God told Ezekiel that Ezekiel must share this word with His people. Look at how God puts it in verses 8 and 9 of our first lesson: “If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.”

God called Ezekiel to play for high stakes. He was to tell people to turn to God. If he failed to share that message, the blood of those he feared or hated too much to share it with would be on his hands.

If he shared the message and people still refused to repent and trust in God, their blood would be on their own hands.

Now, folks, this is more than a history lesson. In this history, we see the hand of God and we also see how God still operates to call unrepentant sinners to restored fellowship with Him when they turn from their sin and trust in Him.

We see God operating this way in today's Gospel lesson. There, Jesus lays down a process by which a church member sins against another can be restored to fellowship with God and with the church. If the member at fault refuses to renounce his sin, Jesus says, the Church must excommunicate that person, stripping him of his membership and denying him the privilege of receiving Christ's body and blood. Jesus says that this action must be taken not to bring an end to the story, but to allow the one at fault to understand the full consequences of unrepented sin. When we refuse to acknowledge our guilt, we are separated from God and the life that only God can give. If the one at fault, at the end of the process Jesus lays down in Matthew 18:15-20, will repent, restoration will come. Forgiveness and new life will come.

Jesus lays out this same pattern in his story of the prodigal son. The prodigal was allowed to experience the full consequences of his sin. But when he turned away from his sin and returned to his father, who, of course, represents God, his connection to his family was restored again.

When, six centuries after Ezekiel, God came to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, He gave the same message to the world which, up to that point, God had given to His chosen people. Today, through Christ, eternal restoration and renewal, the new life that Jon’s father grasped that day Jon and he had a heart-to-heart, is what God offers to all who repent for sin and believe in Jesus. Jesus put it this way according to the Gospel of Mark, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News.”

Also today, the call that God gave to Ezekiel, the prophet and priest, is a call that He gives to every believer in Jesus Christ. A passage that has played a critical role in Lutheran history, the basis for the Lutheran theology of "the priesthood of all believers," underscores this. Please take up a pew Bible and turn to page 703 and find 1 Peter, chapter 2, verse 9. Read it aloud with me, if you would:
But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. 
God calls every believer in Jesus Christ to be an Ezekiel, to be a Jon, who shares the life-changing news that all who turn from sin and trust in Christ live with God for eternity.

When we believe in Jesus Christ, God walks with us through every step of this life, giving us strength and peace we can find nowhere else.

We all know that the message about Jesus Christ isn’t something that most people are clamoring to hear today, no matter how desperately they need it. Words like those God instructed Ezekiel to share with His people sound like antiquated nail scratches on a chalk board to modern ears. Read them in verses 10 to 11 of our first lesson:
…say…’Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’
In an era in which...
  • freedom is institutionalized as selfishness and an excuse for greed, 
  • drug addiction right here in Hocking County is epidemic, 
  • child abuse and a coarse disregard for the humanity of others can be seen everywhere, 
  • sexual promiscuity of all sorts is seen as the inevitable result of irresistible biological impulses rather than the choice of a society that worships at the altar of self, and 
  • things like racial bigotry, the unjust treatment of women, and a sense of entitlement pervade our culture, 
the call to turn from sin and believe in Jesus Christ as the only way to live here and in eternity is not welcome. In sharing the message of new life through Jesus Christ, we run the risk of becoming the guests nobody wants to show up at the party!

But, here's a question we must all address:
Whose approval do we want more, that of a world hurtling toward death in its sins or that of heaven, which awaits repentant sinners with open arms? 
The answer, I think, should be obvious. Speaking for myself, I want to be on the side of the One Who will be standing when Jesus returns to claim His final victory over sin and death! And, if I can help convey the message of new life to people who don't know Jesus Christ, I am more than willing to live with the disdain of some.

God tells Ezekiel that He takes no pleasure when people spurn Him and follow the way of death rather than following Him. God still takes no pleasure in that. He wants to welcome all into relationship with Him.

Jesus, God in the flesh, demonstrated this same sentiment on the Palm Sunday before His arrest and crucifixion. You'll remember that Jesus was given a hero's welcome to Jerusalem. Later on that same day though, knowing all that awaited Him in the week to come, Jesus wept over the city. The days would come, He told this place that housed God's temple, that they would be crushed because they had failed to see that in Him, God had visited them and offered new and everlasting life to all who repent and believe in Him.

Today, there are people in our community—people in your own personal circles of acquaintance—who, right now, at this moment, are condemning themselves to eternal separation from God and who need you to be their sentinels.

They need you to warn them of the destruction to come for those who refuse Jesus’ outstretched hand of grace and forgiveness and of the new life that can be theirs if only they will quit struggling to be self-sufficient, self-contained, and self-driven and surrender to the only love that lasts forever, the love given to all through Jesus Christ.

Fine, you may say, I’m called to share Christ with others; how do I do that?

Well, it isn’t a matter of what you do. It’s a matter of who you are. As I've said before, God made you a human being, not a human doing.

By Baptism, you are already a child of God. Your belief in Jesus confirms that fact.

So, be a child of God. Live out the privilege of that.

Without apology or self-doubt, be the forgiven, free, and hopeful child of God Christ has already made you.

Ezekiel was a believer God used as a conduit for His message: repent and believe. If you and I try to make believers of others by our efforts or with our own messages, we will fail.

I used to be the kind of Christian and preacher who thought I could, by use of a program or a method or clever word games, win converts to Christ.

But the message I shared came from me, not God, and it was about me, not God.

I’ve never won anyone to Christ by being clever. But Christ has won people to Christ through me when I’ve gotten out of the way and let Christ live in me. He can do the same through all believers!

In Psalm 44, the writer remembers how God gave the promised land to His people: “…not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm give them victory; but Your right hand, and Your arm, and the light of Your countenance…”

God needs lots of Ezekiels today, people who will listen to the Word about Jesus Christ and then, in the power of the Holy Spirit, trusting that Christ is living in them (and He lives in all believers!), open their mouths to spread that Word to others.

That’s nothing other than being a Christian. That’s depending on God to be who we were made to be as children of God. That’s who Jon was. That’s who Christ can help us to be, who God made us to be, and who everyone of we know needs us to be: people who listen to God’s Word and then pass it on.

May we all be Ezekiels!


Sunday, September 04, 2011