Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Audio of Today's 'Read the Bible in a Year' Discussion (Isaiah 34-54)

At Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, we're reading the Bible together over the course of a year. Each Wednesday, we have two get-togethers, one in the morning and one in the evening, to discuss the readings for the week.

Today, we discussed Isaiah, chapters 34 to 54. Isaiah is an important book for Jews and Christians. Chapters 52 and 53 figure large in the latter part of the discussion.

Along the way, we also make connections to the Biblical texts to Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism, David Brooks' The Social Animal, Bette Midler, Jimmy Carter, dysfunctional families, the work of prophets, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, name-it-and-claim-it preachers, and most importantly, the redemption and hope that come only through the God revealed through Jesus Christ and foretold by the prophet Isaiah.

In last week's discussions, I pointed out that there are a variety of theories on the authorship of Isaiah. But I am persuaded that the entire scroll was authored by the sixth century prophet to whom the first thirty-nine chapters of the book are attributed without dispute.

And remember that if you're going to be a prophet, you'll never reap a profit. But God will be with you now and in eternity!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Romney and the Mormon Question

A Baptist pastor from Dallas introduced Texas governor and Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry to a gathering of conservative Christians the other day. He extolled Perry as a born again Christian and later said that Christians should vote for Christian candidates over candidates like former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and presumably, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, both Mormons. Later, the pastor asserted that Mormonism is a cult.

Thus has begun the latest tempest in the already tiresome 2012 presidential campaign. Reporters are asking Perry and other candidates in the Republican field if they agree that Mormonism is a cult and whether being a Mormon should disqualify a person from being president.

The word, cult, is, of course, a loaded one. It evokes images of people like Jim Jones or practitioners of voodoo, mind control, or witchcraft, all of whom use a variety of techniques to brainwash and subjugate people. If culthood is defined in these ways, Mormonism can hardly be labeled as a cult.

But, traditionally, orthodox Christians have said that sects or groups that claim the label of Christian while departing from central teachings of the Bible are cults.

Without going too deeply into the subject, Mormon doctrines are significantly different from the teachings of the Bible. Whether in its understanding of the Trinity (God's disclosure of Himself as one God in three Persons, seen in the Bible, though the term "trinity" isn't used); how a person is saved from sin and death; or what happens to believers who die; and the role of Jesus Christ in salvation, among other topics, Mormonism can't be defined as a Christian group.

But the more pressing issue before the country, is whether Christians should, as the Baptist pastor seemed to imply, refrain from voting for Mormons for president.

I think that Christians should refrain from voting any candidate for president (or any other office) who intends to force her or his religious beliefs on others. That would apply to Christian candidates, too.

But however deeply I disagree with Mormon doctrine (and I do) and however desperately I may want, as a Christian, to see Mormons come to faith in the God of grace revealed in Jesus Christ (and I do), I don't think a Christian should refrain from voting for a candidate simply because the candidate professes a different religion.

If we Christians believe that the God of the Bible is the sovereign Lord of history, we must also believe that God can use believers and unbelievers alike in the pursuit of His purposes. 

Since March, members of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I'm pastor, have joined me in reading and discussing the Bible over the course of a year's time. This past week, we've read Isaiah, chapters 44 and 45. These chapters fall in the part of Isaiah in which God uses the prophet to tell His people, Israel, that He's about to let them return to the promised land. God's people had lost the land God once had given them because of their faithless reliance on false gods, military power and alliances, and economic prosperity instead of on God alone. Many of God's people had been exiled and would eventually live under the rule of Persia and its king, Cyrus, who ruled his country during the 6th.-century BC.

Although Cyrus didn't worship God, God said that He would set Cyrus apart to free Israel free from exile. In Isaiah 44:28, God says of Cyrus:
"He is My shepherd and shall carry out all my purpose."
Then comes this in Isaiah 45:
Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him— and the gates shall not be closed: I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name. For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me.  
The term, anointed, used for Cyrus in our English translations of the Bible, is a stunner! The Hebrew word it translates is messiah, the term that was used for Israel's kings and which came to be applied to the specially anointed king God promised to one day to send into the world to set sinners right with Him for eternity. In the Greek of the New Testament, the term is rendered Christos, which is in turn transliterated into English as Christ.

The passage from Isaiah isn't saying that Cyrus was THE Messiah, the focal point and Savior of the universe. Christians believe that Jesus is that Messiah.

But the Isaiah passage does tell us something useful: That God can use even those "who do not know" Him to accomplish His purposes. Nor would Cyrus be the last unbeliever to be used for God's purposes. So, in my judgment, it doesn't make sense for Christians to refrain from voting for a candidate for public office simply because the person isn't a Christian.

None of this should be taken as an endorsement of Mitt Romney and people who have tried to guess my political beliefs, to the extent that I have any political beliefs any more, from things I write here are usually way off, often wildly so. But I thought it might be worth mentioning to those who regularly read the blog that while I do think that Mormonism is a cult, I don't think that Mormons should be excluded from consideration for Christians' votes in civil elections.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

God Says, "Come to the Party!"

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

Matthew 22:1-14
Christians--especially I think, we Lutheran Christians--cherish the grace of God.

And we should cherish it!

Grace is God’s charitable regard for you and me and every human being. In fact, in the original Greek in which the New Testament portion of the Bible was written, the word we translate as grace is charitas, which we’ve carried over into English as charity.

This tells a lot about grace. Like charity, you can’t earn God's grace. It can be given. It can be received. It can be rejected. It can be wasted. But grace, like charity, cannot be earned.

It was because of God’s grace that God came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ and died and rose so that all who believe in Him will not die, but have life with God, now and in eternity. No wonder we sing about God’s “amazing grace.”

But grace is not and never has been everything you and I need to know about God! The Bible teaches that God’s grace is offered to us as a free gift. But we have the freedom to reject it.

In chapter 2 of the New Testament book of Ephesians, there’s a celebration of “the immeasurable riches of [God’s] grace,” expressed as God’s “kindness toward us in Jesus Christ.” Then it says “by grace you have been saved through faith.”

Grace brings God's gift of new life to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

And faith in Jesus Christ entails trusting Him enough to turn from our sins—that is, to repent—and to turn to Him alone for life.

If you’re going to take up God’s grace, you need to be committed day-in and day-out to laying aside your sin and trusting your whole life to Christ.

The grace of God’s forgiveness, acceptance, and new life is a blank check available to everybody. But you can only cash it through repentance and belief in Him.

You can accept God’s invitation to His heavenly party that never ends or you can turn it down.

This is what Jesus is talking about today in the Gospel lesson. Please pull out the Celebrate insert from your bulletin, go to the Gospel lesson, and let’s consider it verse-by-verse.

Once again, Jesus is telling a parable. The word, parabolos, the Greek New Testament word from which we get our word, parable, literally means to throw or roll along side. In His parables, Jesus told stories. But rolling alongside the stories were other stories, of deeper significance.

The first people to hear this parable from Jesus, particularly the religious elites of first century Judea, were like many Christian denominations and leaders today: They had replaced the revealed Word and will of God with their own notions about how God should work.

In this parable, like others that Jesus tells, He describes what the kingdom of God, the reign of God, is like.

Jesus says in verses 1 and 2 that a king, clearly a stand-in for God the Father, decided to throw a party for his son, who was getting married. In the parable, Jesus is the bridegroom and the banquet is the Kingdom of God.

Then in verse 3, Jesus says, the king sent slaves to tell the already-invited guests that the party had begun and that he was waiting for them to join the celebration. Jesus’ first hearers would have understood themselves as being on that invited guest list. They were, after all, the religious leaders of God’s chosen (or invited) people, Israel.

In casting Himself as the bridegroom, Jesus was laying His claim to be the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed king, the Son of God, Who the Old Testament prophets had said God would send into the world to set up His kingdom, overcome the power of sin and death, and bring God’s grace to the nations.

You'll remember that God the Father had already confirmed Who Jesus was. At Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew 3, for example, a voice from heaven said of Jesus, “This is My Son, the beloved…” Later, you'll also recall, when Jesus was transfigured in His appearance, the voice from heaven spoke again, this time saying, "This is My Son, the beloved; with Him I am well pleased; listen to Him."

But the leaders of God’s people wanted nothing to do with Jesus. That would mean signing over their power and influence to God. But they had a good gig going: lording it over other people, having people’s respect, wielding political clout. That’s why the invitees in Jesus’ parable, in verse 3, “would not come” to the marriage banquet. They turned the invitation down just as Jerusalem would turn Jesus down on the night of His trial before His crucifixion.

But the king, like God, was gracious. He wanted these arrogant, selfish people to be part of the banquet for his son. For centuries, God had used His prophets to call people—including people from outside of Israel—to repent and believe in Him.

God has always wanted all people to be part of His everlasting kingdom. But the prophets and messengers God has sent to issue His invitation to people, in Old Testament times and today, have often been ignored and worse.

In verse 4, the king in Jesus’ parable sent out servants who told his invited guests to come to the party. Everything was ready!

Look at verse 5, though. Some of the invited guests, it says, “made light” of the invitation. The phrase, made light of, translates the Biblical Greek word, amaleo, which means to treat with apathy or indifference. These invitees didn’t care about the invitation.

People can be that way toward the invitation of God to follow Jesus today. They feel they don’t need God. “What has God ever done for me?” they ask. “I’m the one who busts my chops to make a living each day.”

This isn't a new attitude. But God's Word repeatedly warns us against this arrogance. In Deuteronomy, Moses told the people of Israel: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is He Who gives you power to get wealth…”

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that:“[God] makes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.”

In another place in the Bible, the apostle Paul, while preaching in Athens, Greece, quoted one of the Greek poets to point out that in God, “we live and move and have our being.”

Everybody needs God, whether they know it or not.

Of course, the invitation we receive from Jesus isn’t for a private party. The Christian doesn’t think in terms of “Jesus and me,” but “Jesus and we.” In Jesus, God invites us to a banquet, an eternal kingdom in which we keep company not only with God, but also with everyone who repents for sin, believes in Jesus, and gladly receives God's pure Word of truth and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

We will need each other to be whole in eternity.

And, as we go through our lives on earth, we need one another as we worship together, seek forgiveness together, and receive grace together. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, we’re told not to neglect meeting together to worship regularly because when we do so, we encourage one another. I bet that one reason many of you are here this morning, is that you need the encouragement that comes from knowing God loves you and that you are not alone in trying to follow Jesus every day!

In verse 6, we’re told that some invited to the banquet went beyond ridiculing the slaves as they turned down their invitations. They seized, mistreated, and killed the slaves.

Verse 7 says that the king was “enraged” by this behavior. He sent soldiers to destroy that city that had chosen to ignore His invitation.

You know, God allows us to turn down the invitation to join Him in the kingdom. And that means God will also let us live eternally with the consequences of our decision. In the Gospel of John, Jesus told Nicodemus, you’ll remember, that if people choose the darkness of life without His grace, they will live with their choice for eternity. God doesn’t want us to make that choice. He wants us to come to the party!

In verses 8 and 9, Jesus says that the king in His parable does a stunning thing. He sends more slaves into the streets to “invite everyone to the wedding banquet.” He wanted to invite everyone, people who had never been invited before! Jesus was saying that through Him, God is now inviting all the riff-raff of the world—all the prostitutes and tax collectors, all the Jews and Gentiles, all the Cardinal fans and Brewer fans, all the Buckeyes and Wolverines and Cornhuskers—everybody is to be invited to be part of His kingdom.

For Jesus’ original hearers, arrogant in their spiritual pride, these words would have been scandalous! Jesus said something similar, though, when He told Nicodemus, “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.”

God invites everyone to His kingdom. God wants everyone to experience His grace. Everyone. No exceptions.

Our commission as Christians and church members is to share God’s incredible invitation to His kingdom with everyone so that they can be part of God’s kingdom too. That’s why I can’t wait to get started on some more kindness outreaches after my defibrillator is implanted this week!

But the last part of Jesus’ parable, beginning at verse 11, is written especially for those of us who are part of His Church today.

The king in Jesus’ parable sees a man at the wedding banquet not dressed in a wedding. The king is offended. Now, Jesus isn’t saying that we’ve got to wear our Sunday best to be in His kingdom. He’s telling people not to pretend to be part of God’s kingdom if they haven’t been clothed in His grace, if they haven’t repented for sin and believed only in Him.

The man in Jesus’ parable not clothed in his wedding garb was thrown “into the outer darkness, where there [was] weeping and gnashing of teeth.” A similar horrible fate awaits those who think they deserve to be in God’s kingdom just for showing up, sitting in a church pew, making an offering, or having their name in a church directory. Hell is the fate of all who reject the grace of God in Christ by refusing to turn from their sins and believe in Jesus Christ.

Those dressed in the robes of repentance and faith in Christ have grasped hold of God's grace. They are in the kingdom of God.

Think of it this way: You can only watch your favorite TV show when your TV set is on and tuned to the right channel. You cannot claim God’s grace if you refuse to repent for your favorite sins and if you think you can follow other “saviors” besides Jesus. If anything but Jesus is our Savior, we shut off the flow of God’s grace into our lives. Turn to Jesus though, and grace will spill all over your life, even in the most trying of circumstances!

Please pull out a pew Bible and turn to page 701. Look at James, chapter 4, verse 10. It says:
Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.
God’s grace offered through Jesus Christ is a free gift. It comes to those humble enough to confess their sin and to surrender themselves to Christ. As the great hymn reminds us, God’s grace is amazing!

Let it soak into every part of your life, let it usher you into God’s kingdom every single day. Repent and believe in Christ and grace will fill your life, now and in eternity. Amen