Friday, February 24, 2012

How Involved Should the Church Be with Politics? Try Almost Not At All

How involved should the Church be in politics or public policy debates?

How about, except in extreme circumstances, not at all?

At the end of the Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday, we're told:
Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news." (Mark 1:14-15)
Did you notice what was missing?

Jesus thought highly of John the Baptist, whose ministry was about calling God's people to turn from sin and trust in God to prepare for the coming of God's Messiah. (This is a Hebrew word that means Anointed One and which was rendered in the Greek language used by all the New Testament's writers as Christos, Christ. Jesus was revealed to be that Messiah or Christ, of course.) Jesus once said, "Truly, I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist..." (Luke 11:11).

But in spite of Jesus' high opinion of John and of the faithfulness with which John pursued his God-given mission and, in spite of the clear injustice of John's arrest or imprisonment, the moment the injustice is perpetrated, Jesus doesn't speak up.

He doesn't agitate for John's release.

He doesn't go to the next meeting of the Jewish leadership council, the Sanhedrin, or wait for the next public appearance of the King Herod Antipas to register complaints.

What's missing is anything akin to political activism on Jesus' part.

Instead, He proclaims the gospel (the good news). Jesus is saying that He is the Messiah Who has come to bring God's reign into the world. "Repent (turn away from sin)," Jesus says, "and believe that I am the Good News of God."

If there had been pundits or talking heads in those days, they might have thought Jesus' first foray into public ministry was anemic and irrelevant. "What about John?" they might have asked. "Aren't you going to go after the authorities to obtain his release? What kind of a leader are you, anyway?"

People undoubtedly did ask questions like these.

If they did, it wouldn't be the last time Jesus disappointed people looking for some other kind of kingdom of God than He was offering.

The people of first century Judea, where Jesus lived, wanted a king who would give the Roman occupiers and the puppet Herodian kings the boot, someone who would give them what was rightly theirs. They wanted a king who would put together a great army and do their bidding.

They wanted a revolution and when Jesus refused to lead one after the roaring welcome they gave to him on what we have since come to call Palm Sunday, they lost their patience with Him and lobbied for His execution on a cross.

Jesus refused to be the King they wanted.

He refused to play political games.

He knew that no amount of lobbying or activism would ever bring God's kingdom into the world.

He knew that even if He bowed to the ways of the world and took control of all the earthly kingdoms that ever were or ever would be, the fundamental issue confronting the human race would not be resolved.

That fundamental issue is that every one of us is born in sin (Psalm 51:5), a condition of alienation from God, and the fact that we can't save ourselves from it or its gravest consequence, death.

It all goes back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. A serpent persuaded them to disobey God and the human race then became infected with the poison of sin. Jesus came into the world in order to absorb all that poison in His own body on a cross. "For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin," 2 Corinthians 5:21 in the New Testament says, "so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God."

To be righteous is to be right with God. We're born "not right" with God because of the poison of sin we inherit from our parents.

When Jesus absorbed that poison, He made it possible for us to be right with God and have new lives with Him, starting imperfectly in this world and then, when we are resurrected by God the Father as Jesus was on the first Easter Sunday, in eternity with God.

Jesus wanted to cleanse us from the poison of sin. He knew that He couldn't accomplish that through political action, but only by proclaiming and living out the good news that those who dare to follow Him will be part of His new creation.

Jesus didn't do politics. And, the Bible, God's Word, seems to me to teach that unless governments or kings command us turn our backs on God or the will of God, the Church shouldn't do politics either.

Individual Christians should feel free to be engaged in politics, but not in the Name of God or in the name of Christ's family, the Church.

The Church has much bigger fish to fry than the passage of this or that law or the election of this or that candidate: We're out to invite as many people into God's kingdom as we can.

Politics and public policy would only distract us from doing that.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Repentance: Changing Our Way of Thinking

[This is the text I prepared for this evening's Ash Wednesday worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. But it's not exactly what I preached.]

Psalm 51
You know, sometimes we forget that the Word of God in the Bible arose from specific historical circumstances or specific encounters between God and real life human beings, like you and me.

Take, for example, Psalm 51, which we read responsively a short time ago. It was written by Israel’s King David, later in his reign, sometime after 1003 BC. And it arose from a specific situation.

Open a Bible to 2 Samuel 12. David had committed adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his most loyal soldiers, Uriah. Bathsheba became pregnant. David tried to make it look as though Uriah was the father. But that didn't work. So, David made arrangements for Uriah to get isolated and exposed to enemy fire and killed in battle. The king God refers to as “a man after My own heart,” was guilty of adultery and murder!

In 2 Samuel, God sends the prophet Nathan to confront David for his sins. Nathan does it by telling David the story of a poor man who owned a ewe lamb. This ewe lamb was so beloved that both the poor man and his family see the lamb as another one of the children. When a rich man down the road has visitors, he decides that as a good host, he has to throw a big dinner for them. But he doesn’t want to use any of his own flock for the main course. So, he steals the poor man’s ewe lamb and serves it up at dinner.

Look at David’s reaction in 2 Samuel 12:5-6. “So David’s anger was greatly aroused against the man, and he said to Nathan, ‘As the Lord lives, the man who has done this shall surely die! And he shall restore fourfold for the lamb because he did this thing and because he had no pity.”

The king had spoken and rendered his verdict. But there was a question: Who was the man who had done this awful thing?

Nathan gives the answer in verse 7, telling King David: “You are the man!"

He goes on: "'Thus says the Lord God of Israel: “I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your keeping [This, by the way, doesn’t mean that God had given David permission to take these women as his wives. It means that God had given David control over that which his predecessor, in that patriarchal society, had control.]...and [I] gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if that had been too little, I also would have given you much more! Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord to do evil in his sight? You have killed have taken his wife to be your wife...”’”

Through Nathan, God was telling David, “I gave you blessings you never could have earned or deserved. I did these things for you out of pure divine and fatherly love and mercy. But instead of gratitude, instead of trying to follow the way of life I revealed long ago in the Ten Commandments, you decided to go your own way. Why?”

You know, every time a Christian deliberately flouts the will of God, I’m sure God asks the same question: “I went to the cross for you, endured the beating, the punches, the spitting, the insults, the nails, the thorns plaited into a mocking crown, and a slow agonizing death...all for you. I took the punishment for sin you deserved. I rose from death to open eternity up to you. I did all these things to give you a new life freed from the power of sin and death. I set you free to become the person I made you to be. And I want to spend eternity showering blessings on you. So, why would you block Me from your life by deliberately doing anything that I have shown you is the way of death? Why?"

Having been confronted for his sins, David might have reacted in a number of ways.

As king, he could have simply ordered Nathan’s death. It wouldn't have been the first time David had ordered the murder of an innocent man, after all. But David didn’t do that.

Or, he might have made excuses, like the ones I've heard people make in counseling sessions through the years:

“My wife hasn’t been fulfilling my needs.”

Or, “You must understand, Nathan: Bathsheba and I really love each other.”

Or, “If I hadn’t ordered Uriah’s death, the poor old devil would have died of a broken heart anyway knowing that his wife loved me and not him.”

But David didn’t make excuses either.

Or, after hearing Nathan out, David might have set up a commission to discern, given the ways the world had changed and grown more complex since God gave the Ten Commandments, whether sin and murder might not be sins any more. “If our consciences are bound to a different idea,” David might have said, “it could be that now, when we know so much more than God did hundreds of years ago, adultery and murder are OK.”

But David didn’t lash out at Nathan, didn’t make excuses, or appoint a commission to cover the truth with lies.

Look at how David did react, in verse 13: “I have sinned against the Lord."

That's it.

Here, David is exemplifying what the Bible--both the Old and the New Testament in their different languages--calls repentance.

In the Greek of the New Testament, the most common word for repent is metanoia. It means to have a change of mind.

The person who repents--or lives the lifestyle Martin Luther called, “daily repentance and renewal”--is saying, “I got off track. I was thinking my way. I was following my own sinful nature--the nature that David mentions in Psalm 51:5, when he confesses, ‘I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.’ But now, aware of the sins I’ve committed by following that way, I’m asking God to change my mind, to change the way I’ve been thinking. I’m asking God to help me think His way, not mine.”

This is what Paul is talking about in Philippians 2:5 when he exhorts followers of Jesus: “Let this mind be in you which also was in Christ Jesus.”

God wants us to take on the mind of Jesus: a mind that doesn’t look out just for what I want in this moment, but that wants what God wants, even when what God wants isn’t pleasant for me.

To repent is to confess that when God and I disagree about anything, God is always right and I am always wrong.

After David said plainly, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan told David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.”

This all reminds me of what Paul says in Romans 6:23: “...the wages of sin is death [death is what we sinners deserve], but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Only the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus can set us free from death--separation from God--and hell.

And that can only happen when we repent and trust in Christ, relying on Christ alone to give our lives meaning.

On this Ash Wednesday, as we remember that we are creatures of God formed from the dust and that we will return to dust again one day, we also remember this: If we will change our minds, turning to Christ and to the way of God, rather than to the ways we prefer, this dust will rise again.

We can live each day knowing that while God will never force Himself on us, if we will keep turning to Christ--living, as the New Testament puts it, "in Christ"--nothing will ever separate us from Him.

And we can trust the promise that Jesus made to the sister of His friend, Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me, will never die" (John 11:25).

Had David steeped himself in God’s Word, remained in fellowship with other believers, or been praying the day he first set eyes on Bathsheba--in other words, if he had allowed God to reign over his thoughts--the terrible chain of events that followed never would have taken place.

That’s one lesson we can learn from David’s experience: Life with God belongs to those who seek live life God's way and not our own.

But there’s another lesson, a lesson about God’s grace and goodness: If, when we have sinned, we can forgo our tendency to block out the truths of God we don’t like and instead, let God change our minds, acknowledge our sins, and trust in God to do the right thing--even when it means consequences we don’t like--our relationship with God can be restored.

Life with God belongs to all who repent for sin and trust in Christ. May repentance and renewal be our way of life not just on Ash Wednesday or during Lent, but every day we live on earth. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How to See Jesus

[This is the sermon prepared for today's worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. While the one given had a lot of what's here, this isn't the actual sermon delivered.]

Mark 9:2-9

On this Transfiguration Sunday, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season, we’re going to explore the Gospel of Mark’s account of the day that Jesus took three of His disciples--Peter, James, and John--to a mountaintop and His glory as God was made plain to see.

But to set the stage, we need to look at a passage in the Gospel of John. So, turn to John 1:14, please. John, you remember, says that Jesus is the Word, Who was with God and was God. John then says this: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...”

The biggest word in that verse is the verb, dwelt. In the Greek in which John originally wrote his gospel, the word translated as dwelt is eskenosen. It’s the verb form of a noun, skene, which means tabernacle or tent.

John is saying that God Almighty took on flesh and experienced everything that we human beings experience because He pitched His tent among us.

Now, the idea of the tent or the tabernacle was important in the centuries before Jesus, in Old Testament times. In the 21st. century BC, God called a couple He later renamed Abraham and Sarah to leave their comfortable lives in the land of Ur, in what is today known as Iraq, and go live in a place God would show them after they’d gotten their start. God said that He would also make this childless and elderly couple the ancestors of God’s own people, of which we as people who confess Jesus Christ as Savior and God, are part. From the moment God called, Abraham and Sarah knew that they were just passing through this life and so, lived in tents or tabernacles.

Some six-hundred years later, about 1450 BC, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, having been freed from slavery in Egypt by God, spent forty years in a wilderness before entering the land God had promised their ancestors. In the wilderness, they slept in tents.

During their journey, the Old Testament says, God led them by a cloud. God was in the cloud, a bright and overwhelming presence shining within it. God’s perfection would kill any imperfect human being who came directly into His presence and, in fact, the Abraham’s descendants--the Hebrews, AKA Israelites, AKA the Jews--begged their earthly leader Moses not to let them be exposed to God’s presence. The cloud in which God’s presence and glory were shrouded were OK at a distance distance. But they didn’t want to see God up close.

But the fact is, God has never wanted to be removed from us. God cares about us. And while we should always approach God with reverence and awe, knowing that He is the Creator and we are His creatures, we also treasure knowing that we were made for intimacy with God, an intimacy God craves. That’s why God didn’t want to stay in the cloud away from His people.

Turn to Exodus 25:8. There, God is giving instructions to Moses on how His people are to worship Him and He says: “And let them [God’s people] make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.” By now, you can guess what God told Moses in the original Hebrew: “Build a tent, a tabernacle, for Me, that I may pitch My tent, live, among them.”

For many years, God’s people lived in tents while the presence of God lived among them in a tent that also housed the Ten Commandments. In the very inner sanctum of this tent was a place called “the holy of holies,” the place where the holiness of God dwelt on earth.

Five hundred years after God gave those instructions to Moses, King Solomon built a temple which, like the tent in the wilderness, was a copy of God’s heavenly throne room. In the midst of it was the tabernacle, the holy of holies, the place where God pitched His tent. It could only be entered only once a year, on a day known as Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A priest, after making several sacrifices for his own sin, would enter the holy of holies to sacrifice a perfect, unblemished lamb for the sins of God’s people, then sprinkle the waiting worshipers with the blood of the lamb, assuring them that their sins from the previous year had been atoned for and forgiven. A curtain concealed the holy of holies, a wall that the people feared to breach, afraid, just like their ancestors, of meeting God face to face.

Now, we come to our Gospel lesson, Mark 2:2-9. Take a look at it, please.

Six days before the events the lesson recounts, Jesus told His disciples: “Truly, I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

Now, Jesus takes His core leadership group--Peter, James, and John--to a mountaintop. While there, verse 3 says, Jesus “was transfigured before them [His appearance was radically changed], and His clothes became dazzling white...” Suddenly, Peter, James, and John, though they didn’t yet understand it all, saw Jesus in the bright splendor of His deity.

Look now at verse 4: “And there appeared to them Elijah and Moses...” The main strands of the Old Testament scriptures are the Law and the Prophets. The Law and the Prophets pointed to Jesus and here was Moses, the great Lawgiver, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, conversing with Jesus.

Look at what happens next, in verse 5. “Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings...”

Can you guess what the word translated as dwellings might be in the original New Testament Greek?

It’s skenas, the plural word for tents or tabernacles.

Jesus says nothing to Peter’s well-meaning but misguided suggestion. But there are two problems with what Peter wants to do.

First: Peter is putting Moses and Elijah on the same level with Jesus. Peter still doesn’t understand that Jesus is God in human flesh.

Second: When the Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us, God signaled that He was busting out of the confines of tents or clouds or any of the other straitjackets in which we try to put God.

God wants to come into your life right now, today, with all its messiness and drama, boredom and challenge, joy and sorrow.

God wants to be your friend and Savior.

God doesn’t want you to wait for the sweet by and by to have an intimate relationship with Him.

God wants in on every part of Your life, to clean up what is sinful and ugly and to give you a new life.

Peter doesn't understand any of these things about God yet. It's out of this ignorance, Mark tells us that Peter suggests building coequal dwelling places or monuments for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Peter “did not know what to say,” Mark tells us in verse 6, “for they [Peter, James, and John] were terrified.”

Their fright no doubt increased with what happened next. Look at verse 7: “Then a cloud overshadowed them [a cloud again] and from the cloud came a voice, ‘This is My Son, the Beloved; listen to Him.”

Not long after these events, the God Who came to tabernacle among us would die on a cross and, strangely, the curtain of the temple, the wall between God and the human race, breached only rarely, would tear in two, from top to bottom.

No longer would human beings need to offer sacrifices or live without the constant, sustaining presence of God in their lives.

Through Jesus, all who turn from sin in His Name and trust in Him alone as their God and King can have immediate access to God.

Need your sins forgiven? Approach God in Jesus’ Name.

Need guidance on how to live your life? Come to God in Jesus’ Name.

Wrestling with a tragedy or setback that has befallen you? You may not get an answer to the question of why, but you will get God by your side.

Jesus Himself was and is the only sacrifice needed to bridge the gulf between a perfect God and imperfect people like you and me. He is, as John the Baptist said of Jesus, "the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world."

After the voice of God the Father spoke on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus stood alone with Peter, James, and John.

But those three apostles still could’t yet understand what you and I can understand, if only we will open our wills, minds, and hearts to Jesus. Here's why. Notice that Jesus says, in verse 9, “to tell no one about what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

You see, none of us can really see Jesus for Who He really is, God in human flesh, until we see the cross of Jesus and know that it was our sins--yours and mine--that made Jesus’ death necessaryThe wages of sin is death and sinless Jesus took the wages we earned on His sinless body.

And none of us can see Jesus for Who He really is until we accept by faith the testimony about His actual, physical resurrection from the dead. Jesus rising from the dead is the sure sign that He and He alone is the way to new, eternal life with God.

Until Jesus' death and resurrection happened, no matter how amazed Peter, James, and John must have been by Jesus' transfiguration, they could not see Who Jesus really was...and is.

Today, at this moment, you and I can't see the risen Jesus physically. But we can see Jesus by faith in Him. Here are five ways that can happen:
  • First: Read the New Testament. The New Testament is the cradle in which the baby Jesus can be found, His cross can be experienced, and His empty tomb can be seen. Starting on March 8, you can be part of Read the New Testament in a Year, digging into and discussing the second great part of God's written word for the human race, the Bible, with other members of the Saint Matthew family. As we read and discuss and pray over the New Testament, we're going to see Jesus together. 
  • Second: Pray in Jesus' Name.
  • Third: Receive Holy Communion every time it’s offered. “This is my body; this is my blood,” Jesus says of the bread and the wine. In Communion, Jesus literally comes to us and enters us. He is as present and as powerful for us when we receive the body and blood by faith in Jesus, as He was to Peter, James, and John at the Transfiguration.
  • Fourth: Spend time in fellowship with God’s people, including regularly worshiping, studying Scripture, and praying with people who believe in Jesus. The Bible says that "iron sharpens iron," meaning that as we challenge and affirm one another, we grow. If you're intent on seeing Jesus, you can't go solo; you need to hang out with and learn from other believers.
  • Finally: Ask God to show you the ways in which you may have displeased him. King David prayed, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting." We need to submit to a spiritual examination by God and to confess the sins God makes known to us. Jesus died a rose to tear open the curtain--the wall--that sin had put between us. Our sins, the things we do that hurt God or hurt others, can become new walls between God and us. When we ask God to show us the walls we’ve erected against His will, God forgives our sins and dismantles the walls, and we get a clearer view of Jesus, God in the flesh.
Jesus wants to pitch His tent in your life every day. He wants to live with you now as well as live with you in eternity.

These five things--reading the New Testament, praying in Jesus' Name, receiving the Sacrament, living in fellowship with believers in Jesus, and asking God to show you your sins so that they can be dismantled by the forgiveness He offers to all with faith in Jesus--can be means by which Jesus helps us see Him in our lives today.

May you always see Him clearly, starting now.