Saturday, March 10, 2012

Anger and How God Can Turn It Into Love

As Jesus' behavior in tomorrow's Gospel lesson (John 2:13-22) will remind us, there are times when it's OK for us to get angry.

When God is being dishonored or an injustice is being perpetrated against the weak or defenseless, anger is very appropriate. Righteous indignation is no sin. In Ephesians 4:6, the book of the Bible which provides the verses on which today's Our Daily Bread post is based, we're told, "Be angry but do not sin" (Ephesians 4:26).

So, anger isn't a sin in itself. But when anger leads to grudge-holding, when we use it as an excuse for not forgiving others, we sin.

Our moments of anger present us with enormous spiritual dangers. We risk losing our relationship with God and so, losing our salvation.

Here's why: After teaching the disciples to pray, "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors," He goes on to tell them (and us): "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but it you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses" (Matthew 6:12, 14-15).

The greatest danger associated with anger then, is that it can tempt us to see ourselves as gods, standing in judgment over others.

Jesus says that if we're intent on holding onto our anger, we'd better prepare ourselves for seeing God judge us by the same stringent standards we apply to others. Forgiveness and new life are available still as free gifts to all who repent and believe in Jesus. But if we add conditions to our willingness to love and forgive others--even our "enemies," those same standards will be adopted by God to us. In spite of His desire to forgive and embrace us, God will let us lie in the beds we ourselves make.

Jesus puts it this way: "For with the judgment you make you will be judged..." (Matthew 7:2).

But by God's grace, through Christ, we can be free of anger that destroys us, destroys our relationships, and drives wedges between God and us, between us and other people.

Anger should be like a thunderstorm. No matter how fierce a thunderstorm may be, it always passes on.

That's why after telling us, "Be angry, but do not sin," Ephesians goes on to say: "Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil" (Ephesians 4:26-27).

In other words, either get things resolved (Jesus gives a process for conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20) or, if you don't feel it's serious enough to warrant trying to resolve things with the other person, then forget about it, never give it another thought, let it go.

(It's instructive that the usual New Testament word for forgive is aphiemi, which literally means release. When we forgive others, we release them of the "debt" they owe us. We also release ourselves from the tension and pain that come to us when we hold onto our grudges.)

A few weeks ago, one of our Saint Matthew young people asked a practical question: "How can I love a creepy classmate?" Jesus tells us that we're to love others as we love ourselves.

How do you that with people who are creepy?

Or, for that matter, how do you love someone with whom you're angry?

How do you love the volatile and unloving who may readily spark your anger?

I'll tell you one way it can't be done. It can't be done if we, with gritted teeth, resolve to love others. Resolve to love the unlovable on the strength of your own goodwill and you'll break that resolution quicker than the ones you make on New Year's Eve each year!

But here's a technique I've mentioned before, one that works for me. "Lord," I pray, "I'm finding it hard to love so and so. You tell me that without Jesus, I can do nothing, and I'm really feeling my powerlessness in this situation. So, God, I'm asking you to push me out of the way. Love this person through me. Work Your love for them in me until, by Your grace, I learn to love them." God has never failed to answer that prayer. (It usually takes a long time.)

It's comforting to know that God honors the prayers of those who humbly admit their shortcomings and ask God to compensate for their weaknesses.

David speaks for me anyway when He prays to God in Psalm 51: "You desire truth in the inward being...You have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, You would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise" (vv. 6, 16-17).

Comforting to me also are the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians: "...I will boast...of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me...whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

God gives the strength to be faithful and to keep striving to be faithful, to those who honestly admit their human weakness and their need of the strength that comes from Christ, in every aspect of their lives.

In today's post from Our Daily Bread, writer Dave Branon reminds us of directives for Christlike behavior given in Ephesians 5 and other places in the New Testament. Place like Ephesians 5:8, that says, "Live as children of the light," meaning that the lives of people who believe in Jesus ought to reflect the presence of Jesus, the Light of the world, in all that they do.

Or Ephesians 4:29-32, where we're told to avoid "evil talk," to give grace to others, and put away things like bitterness, wrath, anger, wrangling with others, slander and malice, and instead embrace a life in which we are "kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you" (Ephesians 4:29-32).

Or, Colossians 4:6, where Paul says: "Let your speech always be gracious."

If those directives and Jesus' command that we love others as we love ourselves intimidate you (and if they don't intimidate you, they should), don't throw in the towel or decide that being a Christian is just for spiritual superstars. The God Who loved you enough to go to the cross for you and then rose to open up eternity to those you when you (daily) repent and (daily) believe in Jesus, also loved you enough to (daily) give you the power to love others as you have been loved.

We begin to acquire that power when we confess our weak inability to love and ask Christ to fill us with His love.

And the power to love others as Christ commands grows in us as we keep offering that same prayer of weakness and need to God every day.

You may be barely conscious of the changes God brings into your life as, in Jesus' Name, you daily admit your weaknesses to God and seek His strength to love as You have been loved. You'll hardly feel how God turns your anger into love.

But God will notice...and His judgment is the only one that matters.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Life Isn't Like 'Let's Make a Deal'

"Good works are not the means of salvation but the result."

That sentence comes at the end of today's installment of Our Daily Bread. I found the entire piece moving.

But as it moved me, it also conveyed great Biblical theology, based on Micah 6:1-8. (Incidentally, be sure to read the hyperlinked passage from Micah before reading the hyperlinked Our Daily Bread post.)

So often, we see the frequently-quoted (and beautiful) Micah 6:8, in isolation from its context. Viewed in that way, it's possible for us to think that God is commanding the performance of good deeds--doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God--as means by which we earn God's forgiveness and grace.

But when you look at the verses immediately preceding verse 8, you see that the theme here is that forgiveness and relationship with God cannot be secured by the performance of good deeds. We can't earn God's favor, forgiveness, or the new and eternal life, what we Christians call salvation, that only He can give.

Life with God isn't like being a contestant on Let's Make a Deal.

Life with God is like this:

  • FIRST, we surrender to and receive God's grace. God already loves you. God already has done everything needed for you to be reconciled to Him. He did it all through Jesus Christ. You don't have to make deals with God by performing guilt- or fear-induced good works.
  • THEN, good works become not ways of winning the approval of people or of God, but of expressing our thanks to God for all His undeserved gifts, most especially the gift of Christ, God in the flesh, Who lived, died, and rose to give all these gifts to who will divest themselves of their addiction to sin (repent) and surrender their whole lives to Christ (believe only in Him).
When you know that Christ has saved you from sin and death, without any merit or effort on your part, you want to trust Him with every part of your life. You want "to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God..."

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Read the New Testament with Us This Year!

Yesterday, our congregation finished reading the entire Bible in a year at a pace of three chapters a day, twenty-one chapters a week. Both as a Christian and as a pastor, it's been an exhilarating experience!

People who have hung in there for the full year and participated in our weekly one-hour discussions of the readings are saying that, as a result of the experience, they feel "more centered" and confident in their faith, closer to God, and more appreciative of the deep connections between the Old and New Testaments. I feel he same way.

All of which is why today, I'm excited that we've started to read just the New Testament in the same way in the coming year. At this slower pace, we'll be able to delve more deeply into God's Word and get to know the God revealed to the whole world ultimately in Jesus, better.

It should be a great journey!

You might want to join along, wherever you are. It's simple: Just read five chapters of the New Testament--from Matthew to Revelation--each week over the coming year. You can use Saturdays and Sundays either to "take a break" or, more likely, to catch up.

To help you to better understand what you're reading, I'd suggest that you get a readable commentary on the New Testament. There are lots of good ones out there. But let me recommend two:
Eerdmans Companion to the Bible
The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament
Both are a tad pricey. But, after all, you're investing in your development as a Christian and at Amazon, you can snag both for reasonable prices. I found the second one at Half Price Books for $17.49.

If you have a good study Bible, you may want to forgo buying a commentary. The good ones won't provide you with as much great background information as a good commentary, but they will help you understand what you read. I would suggest you consider buying one of these two:
Life Application Bible
Study Bible
Dig into God's Word. You will not regret it!

Why I Cringe When Presidents Say, "God Bless America"

In recent years, it's become standard practice for our presidents, Republican and Democrat, to end their speeches with variations on the statement, "God bless the United States of America."

On the face of it, it seems noble, a prayer from the political leader of the nation that God would favor America with His grace.

But I cringe every time I hear it. In fact, I hate hearing it!


First of all, it sounds to me less like a humble supplication for God's help than a xenophobic assertion of American superiority. There are many things about America I love and I am happy to be an American. But God loves all people and all nations. No exceptions.

Secondly, it's an appeal to our egos.

That's what politicians (and advertisers) do, of course. They appeal to our vanity. They woo us with soft soap about how good we are and how much we deserve.

Back in 1976, I remember that Jimmy Carter told us that we deserved a government as good and honest as the American people.

The candidates out on the trail in this miserably depressing campaign season, thirty-six years after Carter's successful run for the presidency, are launching similar appeals to our vanity. (I was going to say "launching similar cow pies." Aren't you glad that I resisted phrasing it in that way?)

To invoke God in such appeals is simply disturbing. The God we meet in the Bible--both the Old and New Testaments--wants to give us much better and more enduring blessings than the politicians envision in their stump speeches and position papers. But we block those blessings from our lives when we insist on living for "me, mine, and my kind."

The God I believe has been revealed to the world--first, through ancient Israel and ultimately, through Jesus Christ--calls us to acknowledge our selfishness and then divest ourselves of it, to rely completely on the compassion, grace, wisdom, and will of God. Christians are to check their egos at the foot of the cross and let God call the shots in their lives. Pride in country is one thing. But there's no place for red, white, and blue swagger in the Kingdom of God.

The Bible shows us that there are greater dangers in this life than those from which governments or nations can protect us. (Even acknowledging the legitimate and God-given role that governments can play in our lives.)

Before these other dangers--our own sin and the waste and heartache it brings to us, others, and the created order, the inevitability of our deaths, and the futility of a life lived in selfishness toward our Creator and other human beings--governments, presidents, and kings are impotent.

That's why these words appear in the New Testament portion of the Bible:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
The God shown to the world in Jesus Christ, Who took the death sentence our sin merits and then rose from the dead, doesn't promise us a perfect life in this world. He also doesn't promise that He will validate our egotism or xenophobia.

But if we will humble ourselves by turning from our sin and surrendering our lives to Him, He will fill us with a sense of purpose and peace in this life and the certainty of eternal life with God. He will help us to live in the relationships of tough love toward God and neighbors that He wills for the human race, not just Americans.

A third reason I'm disturbed when presidents end their speeches with, "God bless America" is that it sounds like a perfunctory add-on designed to appeal or placate the religious demographic.

The Second Commandment given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai says: "You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless those who take His Name in vain."

In explaining the commandment in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther wrote:
We should fear and love God so that we do not use His Name superstitiously or to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call upon Him in every time of need, and worship Him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
I hope that presidents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama are sincerely using God's Name in God-honoring ways at the ends of their speeches.

But, as a student of history, I can tell you that George Washington didn't end all of his presidential addresses in this way. Neither did Abraham Lincoln. Neither did most of our presidents.

In fact, it seems that the more distant we grow from God in post-Christian America, the more God's Name gets used in our political rhetoric, as though we were invoking some ancient and forsaken incantation over our spiritually befuddled, take-one-from-column-A-and-two-from-column-B nation.

I'd love for our national leaders to use God's Name less and to rely on God more in their decision-making.

I'd like to keep the Name of God sacred and not hear it used as an appeal to national egomania.

When Christ becomes the center of our lives, the prayer, "God, bless America" becomes a little less meaningful.

We're more inclined to pray, "Thank You, God, for all the undeserved blessings--forgiveness of sin, new and everlasting life--that You've given to me. How can I share them, along with Your physical and financial blessing to me, with others?"

Or, we're inclined to ask God to turn America, starting with ourselves, to humble submission to Jesus Christ alone.

Or maybe, we might feel compelled to ask God to teach us how to encourage our neighbors--and our presidents--to end their speeches not with a benediction, but an exhortation: "America, bless God!"

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Have Your Say...Bruce Springsteen's 'Wrecking Ball'

I used to be a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. And I caught the bug before TIME and Newsweek magazines both featured him on their front covers in the same week. Along with Jon Landau, the Rolling Stone music critic and subsequent Springsteen producer, in the Boss, I thought I detected the future of rock and roll.

Springsteen's emotive vocals, which he said were inspired in part by Roy Orbison, and lyrics that were topical, timeless, and poetic, undoubtedly paved the way for U2 and a whole gamut of passion rockers.

But right around the release of Nebraska (1982), three decades ago, Bruce lost me. The passion seemed forced and instead of bravely scoping out new musical territory, as he had on The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle and Born to Run, Springsteen seemed bent on repeating other peoples' musical histories while trying to vivify his music with "conviction."

He's a massive talent and he's laid down some of the greatest rock and roll of all time, but I just haven't been into Springsteen for years.

I rarely buy music any more. I grow more frugal as I grow older. I bought one release in 2010, none in 2011.

But Springsteen has a new LP out. Should I give it a chance? Lady Gaga loves it (for its "passion"), while Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune pans Wrecking Ball, the title of Springsteen's newest studio release. Frankly, I couldn't care less about LG's musical tastes, though Kot's arguments, given Springsteen's decades-long track record, ring true.

What do you say? Have you bought Wrecking Ball? What do you think?

The Kirk Cameron Firestorm (Preceded by Some Cameron Caveats)

But first, a set of Cameron caveats...

Actor and evangelist Kirk Cameron has gotten a lot of flack for his comments on homosexuality, offered in response to questions posed to him during the Piers Morgan Show on CNN several nights ago.

Cameron said that homosexuality is "unnatural" and contrary to God's will for human beings. He also said, in response to another question by Morgan, that if one of his six children indicated an orientation to homosexuality, he would advise them that it's not always right to act on our feelings.

A firestorm of condemnation has befallen Cameron since, particularly from the Hollywood community. Most notable of all, maybe, was the response of Alan Thicke, who played the father to Cameron's character on the TV sitcom, Growing Pains. Said Thicke on his Twitter account:

Thicke's remarks reflect a common mis-perception about the Old Testament. The stereotype, even among misinformed and Biblically-illiterate Christians, is that the God of the Old Testament is severe, harsh, unbending, and brutal, whereas the God Who comes into the world in the person of Jesus is, as someone memorably put it, "Mister Rogers in a bath robe," a softie. I even heard a pastor of my own denomination once say--I'm paraphrasing--that, "in the Old Testament, God hadn't really gotten the hang of being God and improved His performance in the New Testament."

For the record, Jesus, the One we Christians confess to be God incarnate (in the flesh) saw no difference between Himself and the God revealed in Old Testament times. In John 10:30, Jesus is quoted as saying: "The Father and I are one."

Also for the record, Jesus repeatedly gave His stamp of approval to the law God gave in Old Testament times. Notably, in Matthew 5, Jesus says:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished [until Jesus fully ushers in His kingdom on His return to the earth]. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of God." (Matthew 5:17-19)
There are several important points to be made here:

(1) There were three kinds of law in the Old Testament.

There was ritual/sacrificial laws, from which even regulations about diet emanated. These were rooted in the sacrificial system in which people offered up lambs, birds, or, if they were especially poor, cereal to pay the penalty for their sin to God.

But Jesus, the New Testament says is "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world," Whose "once and for all" sacrifice has done for all eternity what the sacrificial system could not do: make us right with God. So ritual/sacrificial law is no longer needed or operative.

A second kind of law in the Old Testament was civil law. It functioned to regulate the everyday lives in the same way laws passed by Congress, state legislatures, and city councils function today. We don't live under a theocratic government system today. So Old Testament civil law, meant to govern the Hebrews in the promised land, is no longer valid.

But in the passage from Matthew above, Jesus is talking about the Mosaic Law, the Ten Commandments. They are valid for all time.

(2) The law of God cannot save us from sin, death, or eternal separation from God. That can only be accomplished by Jesus. The law of God can act as a mirror, showing us how far we are from God and how hopeless it is for us to try to be "good enough" to get into God's kingdom. Entrance into God's kingdom and "good graces" comes about only for those who repent (turn from sin) and believe in (entrust their whole lives to) Jesus.

At the top of my blog is a personal confession:
I'm a sinner, no better than any other human being. I have no personal bragging rights. My only boast is that, in spite of my many sins and my numerous faults, through God's grace, given in Jesus Christ, my sins are forgiven and I have a new life.
I'm not perfect and there is no person in the world is more of a sinner than I am.

But God's law has taught me my need for grace, God's charitable forgiveness and new life. Jesus gives that grace. The grace Jesus offers becomes mine when I surrender to Jesus.

Thereafter, my call is to daily surrender to Jesus: daily repent, daily follow Him.

In this imperfect world, with our inborn impulses to go our own ways instead of God's way, we need to know God's law. We need to know the truth about sin and the truth about the grace God offers to sinners through Jesus.

And we need people who are brave enough to share these truths with us. Otherwise, we will only walk away from God and the new and everlasting life that can only come to us through repentance and belief in Jesus.

This is why Jesus takes God's law so seriously and why, if anything, Jesus is more strict about the Ten Commandments than God is seen to be in the Old Testament.

During His famous 'Sermon on the Mount,' which many people know by the short set of beatitudes that Jesus gives near its beginning ("Blessed are the poor in spirit...Blessed are those who mourn...Blessed ate the meek..and so on), Jesus explicates the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses and the people of the world at Mount Sinai centuries earlier.

A small sampling of what Jesus says shows Him applying a much stricter interpretation of the commands than is explicitly made by God in the Old Testament. A few examples:

  • "You have heard that it was said to those in ancient times, 'You shall not murder'...But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister [Jesus here is referring to grudge-holding refusal to forgive], you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council [this refers to the leadership of Christian communities, congregations]; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire..." [Yes, Jesus believed/believes there was/is a hell. It's what He came to save us from.] (Matthew 5:21-22)
  • "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery in his heart." (Matthew 5:27-28)
Jesus claims that the Ten Commandments apply to much more than our behaviors. They go to our motives.  When our motives are wrong, Jesus says, we violate God's commands even before we have done a thing. That's strict. And it's in the New Testament, not the Old.

So, apart from affirming all of the Ten Commandments, what exactly do Jesus and the New Testament have to say about sexuality and homosexuality?

To start with, in Matthew 19:4-5, Jesus quotes two passages from Genesis in the Old Testament to give His understanding of marriage:
"Have you not read that the One Who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, the two shall become one flesh'?" 
Jesus clearly sees marriage as a covenant involving God, a woman, and a man.

There are some who read these words and say, "Jesus lived a long time ago. He didn't know the things about sexuality we know today." But Christians believe that Jesus is God and that God invented sex. God has no ignorance either about how sex is supposed to work or how it's not supposed to work.

Some also, thinking of Jesus as simply a first-century Judean man (and not also, as the New Testament teaches, God), will say that Jesus couldn't have possibly observed the gay lifestyle we see today. This is a strange argument. It's offered by the same people who claim that varied sexual orientations have always existed in human beings. Yet, they argue in this case that homosexuality as known today is a unique historical phenomenon beyond the comprehension of Jesus. Of course, this argument is a logical inconsistency. In any case, various sexual practices were more widely present and known in the first-century world in which Jesus lived while on earth than are probably known or touted today. Yet He still insisted that sexual intimacy is for a woman and a man in marriage. Period.

If we invest any credibility in Jesus, especially if we believe that He is God in the flesh, Who came to die and rise to bring new life to people made dead by their sins (you and me), then everything He asserts must be seen as the truth and not as the mere opinions of a person many today insist on disdainfully describing as "a great teacher."

This, of course, is not the last word on sexuality or homosexuality in the New Testament. Take, for example, Romans 1, where God's Holy Spirit inspires Paul to write:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:18-27)
Here, homosexuality is seen as a notable outgrowth of our human penchant for suppressing the truth about our sin--and so suppressing the truth about our need for forgiveness or for God.

But one of the most interesting New Testament passages of all is 1 Timothy 1:8-11. Here, without saying that's what he's going to do, Paul proceeds to interpret the Ten Commandments as God's will for the human race. Here's what he writes, with a note on the commands to which he's referring in brackets:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it legitimately [We use God's law illegitimately if we make obedience to it a condition for salvation. No one is capable of keeping God's law. But Christ has kept it for those who turn from sin and believe in Him. He then fills believers with the Holy Spirit, Who helps us as we surrender each day to Christ, to resist sin, identify the sins we have thoughtlessly committed, seek forgiveness in Jesus' Name, and receive the power to continue to the process of being made over in God's image.]. This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful [The First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before Me.], for the unholy and profane [The Second and Third Commandments: You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless those who take His Name in vain; Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy], for those who kill their father or mother [The Fourth Commandment: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God give you], for murderers [The Fifth Commandment: You shall not kill, fornicators, sodomites [The Sixth Commandment: You shall not commit adultery], slave traders [The Seventh Commandment: Paul clearly found slave trading a particularly onerous form of thievery, involving the theft of a person's freedom and livelihood, so violating the stricture, You shall not steal], liars, perjurers [The Eighth Commandment: You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor], and whatever else [Paul leaves out specific reference to the Ninth and Tenth Commandments. But its clear where he's going with his comments} is contrary to the sound teaching that conforms to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.
Both fornication and sodomy are listed as ways of adulterating the gift of human sexuality. This means that premarital sex and any extramarital sex, heterosexual and homosexual, is contrary to God's will. It's not a worse sin than any other sin. But it is a sin and to engage in it unrepentantly is spiritually dangerous.

After Kirk Cameron's appearance on his show, Piers Morgan commented:

Maybe not. But I can tell you one thing that didn't take Cameron by surprise and that's the outrage, censure, and condemnation he's undergone since making the comments. He knew when he opened his mouth in response to Morgan's questions about homosexuality, I'm sure, that he was going to be savaged by a culture that is moving away from the Old and New Testaments and from Jesus. He knew that his comments would be welcomed in the same way any belief that runs counter to the prevailing culture is welcomed, with scorn and derision.

That's why, irrespective of the many ways in which I disagree with Kirk Cameron on faith and politics, I agree with Morgan who said that Cameron had been brave in the straightforward manner in which he answered Morgan's questions.

The New Testament tells Christians to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:26-27). I think that's what Cameron did on Morgan's show when speaking about homosexuality.

Think of it in this way: If you had a cure for cancer or AIDS and had a friend (or even someone who hated you) who suffered from those afflictions, wouldn't you rightly be considered a monster if you didn't share that cure with them? Of course you would be!

If you believe that God condemns sin, but releases people from the power of sin and its consequence, death, by repenting and believing in Jesus, trusting God's wisdom to be greater than our own, what choice do you have but to speak the truth in love, to warn people of the trap of unrepented sin that leads us away from God?

It doesn't surprise any Christian to see people being so condemnatory of Kirk Cameron today. The Savior Who both Cameron and I, in different ways, follow, once said, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6). People didn't want to hear that truth; so, they killed Jesus. The truth of the Bible always crashes our parties of self-worship and self-indulgence. But if we will only listen and believe, God will make us part of His new creation. And to be part of that new creation for all eternity makes all the hell we take from others for daring to speak God's truth in this life worth the trouble!

I don't go for your lame acting. I don't go for your "end times" fixation. I don't go for your mixture of politics and theology. But you go, Kirk!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Radical Problem, Radical Therapy

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

Mark 8:31-38
Imagine a scene with me. You're in your doctor's office for a consultation. A few weeks earlier, you found something that wasn't quite right and went to see the doctor. She ordered up some tests and now you're back to see her to learn the results. She enters the office and says, "I'm sorry, but it's very serious. You have cancer and the prognosis is not good." Your heart is sinking until she offers this word of hope: "But I have a treatment regimen that's going to make everything OK." Shuddering with excitement, you listen closely as she tells you the treatment: "I'm going to give you a facelift."

You know that can't be right: When you're up against a major illness, a superficial remedy won't do. In the face of radical maladies, only radical therapies will do.

We human beings are confronted with a major malady. It's called death and it's the result of sin.

You and I were created in the image of God. That means that we are unique among all of God's creatures and creation. We are the pinnacle of God's creation. But sin has distorted our very natures. And because the human race is the pinnacle of the creation, charged with being God's good managers of all things, the Bible says that all creation groans under the weight of our sin.

The Bible uses that word, sin, in two different ways.

One way the Bible talks about sin is as a condition of our birth, what the Bible scholars and theologians call original sin. This is what David is referring to in Psalm 51:5. The psalm is a song of repentance on David's part, composed after he had committed adultery and then had his lover's husband killed. David asks for forgiveness and renewal from God, taking complete blame for his sins. Then he says this: "Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me."

I'm sorry to have to reveal this to you, but if you had human parents, you were born guilty, too.

Sin is a debt we owe to God and you and I are born with a debt so crippling we could never possibly pay it off.

But if that sounds bad, it gets worse.

Being born in sin means that we have an inborn inclination to add to our debts by sinning ourselves. (This inborn inclination to sin is what the Lutheran confessions call concupiscence, a predisposition to use God's good gifts at the wrong times, or for the wrong reasons, or with the wrong people.)

The other way the Bible talks about sin is the way you and I usually use the word: a violation of the will of God as expressed in the Ten Commandments. We fail to honor God as God. We fail to show as much concern for others as we do for ourselves.

Because of the condition of original sin, our sins are stubbornly evidenced in all our thinking, speaking, and living. In Romans 7:15, the apostle Paul writes: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want [anything that expresses love and regard for God and others], but I do the very thing I hate [anything that has me setting off on my own without regard to the will of God]." "I sin," Paul is saying, "and left to my own devices I cannot help myself."

Now folks, this is serious business. We are born in sin and we find ourselves incapable of refraining from sin. Paul reminds us elsewhere that there is only one outcome we can expect from the sin that, in both its forms, live within all of us: "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). We sin and deserve to die,  separated from God forever.

"Wait a minute," you might say. "I know I'm not perfect. But I've never committed any of the really big sins. I've never murdered someone. I've never committed adultery. I've never embezzled thousands from my employer."

In James 2:10-11, we read: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the One Who said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' also said, 'You shall not murder.' Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law."

If we violate one of God's commandments--from taking God's Name in vain to bearing false witness about a classmate, church member, or neighbor--God considers us in violation of all His commandments.

In sin, we have a major problem. The prognosis is death.

And even we who confess Jesus as our King and God need radical therapy every day.

That's what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel lesson. Turn to Mark 8:31-38.

To understand this passage, we need to set the stage. Shortly before the incidents recounted in our lesson, Jesus had a conversation with His disciples. "Who is everybody saying that I am?" Jesus asks. The disciples report that some say He is John the Baptist returned from the dead. Others say that Jesus is actually Elijah, who had lived and been carried into heaven by a chariot of fire some nine centuries earlier. Others, the disciples reported, said that Jesus was "the prophet," a mysterious figure whose appearance many had been awaiting. "But," Jesus asked the disciples, "who do you say that I am."

In Mark 8:29, Peter says, "You are the Messiah [or, the Christ]."

The title, Christ [from Christos as it appears in the New Testament, which was written in Greek] or Messiah [from the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written], means Anointed One.

The kings of God's people--called variously Hebrews, Israelites, Judeans, Jews--were always anointed with oil on being enthroned.

In Old Testament times, as much as eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, God had revealed through the prophets that there would one day come a special Christ--Anointed One--who would reconcile God and the human race.

Through the intervening centuries, anticipation had risen and fallen for the promised Christ. And there were certain expectations that people developed about the coming Christ or Messiah.

The people of first-century Judea, the place to which Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, came to live, thought that the Messiah would make what would amount to cosmetic changes, the moral equivalent of a facelift as a cure for cancer.

To them, the problems they faced had nothing to do with themselves or their own deficiencies. They wanted a king who would toss the Romans out of their land. They wanted an end to oppressive government regulations. They wanted the rich to pay their fair share in taxes and ease up on the poor. They wanted a king who would do their bidding, using the latest Gallup Poll as his guide for pleasing them. As is true for us today, their idea of what God should do in their lives was very different from what God had in mind.

That's why Peter's declaration of faith in Jesus as the Messiah was so dangerous. Jesus had to make sure that Peter and the rest of the disciples received some instruction on what it means to confess Jesus as the Christ. He didn't want to feed their false expectations. Jesus had come to do more than offer facelifts to dying people!

Look at Mark 8:31: "Then He began to teach them that the Son of Man [a title Jesus often used for Himself] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again."

The therapy for our sin, Jesus is saying, begins with Him. He, Who never once sinned, undergoes the suffering and death we deserve for our sin so that the debt can be paid for all who repent and believe in Jesus.

But this was more than Peter could bear!

We have no idea how much attention, if any, he and the other disciples paid to Jesus' prediction that He would rise from the dead. But we do know that he heard Jesus loud and clear when it came to predicting that He would suffer, be rejected, and be killed.

Look at Mark 8:32: "Peter took Him [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke Him." Peter manhandled Jesus, taking Jesus off somewhere away from the rest of the group. The word rebuke, epitimao in the Greek in which Mark originally wrote, means warn, upbraid, condemn, set straight.

Imagine this! Peter has just declared Jesus to be God's Anointed King and now he has the audacity to tell Jesus how to do His job!

But if Peter thought he was sparing Jesus embarrassment by taking Jesus aside, Jesus has no intention of sparing Peter any embarrassment. Jesus knows that Peter is speaking for a lot of people when telling Jesus not to mention things like suffering, crosses, or executions.

Look now at verse 33: "But turning and looking at His disciples, [Jesus] rebuked Peter and said, 'Get behind Me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." 

You'll remember that last Sunday, we considered Jesus' encounter with Satan in the wilderness. Satan tempted Jesus away from suffering, rejection, and the cross. But Jesus knew that He needed to stay the course, whatever pain He caused Himself. 

Now Jesus applies the name of Satan to His right hand man, Peter! Peter may have thought that He was doing a nice thing, like the church member who says, "Pastor, I know that the Bible says that Jesus is the only way to eternity with God, but you make people feel uncomfortable when you tell the truth like that." "Niceness" of the kind Peter exhibits here leads people away from God. "Niceness" like that suits Satan's purposes just fine. Jesus, in essence, is telling Peter, "I am the great Physician and My suffering, rejection by others, and death on a cross are the first part of the cure. So, get out of My way!"

Then, Jesus gives the second part of His radical therapy for our sin and death. Look at verses 34 and 35: "He called the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, 'If any want to become My followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Here we see that to believe that Jesus is the Christ--the King, the Lord of all--is more than just saying the right words on Sunday mornings. 

To believe that Jesus is the Messiah is, first of all, to surrender ourselves, even to the point of discomfort and death, to God's only aim for our lives, our sole aim in life. Do you know what God's aim is for your life? Colossians 3:18 says: "And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit."

God aims to make us like Jesus! 

That means that you and I need to remain focused--day to day and moment to moment--on Jesus. 

We need to daily repent for sin and allow the Holy Spirit to renew us. 

As we stay focused on Jesus, through all of life, the Holy Spirit works a miracle: We who have been distorted by sin are made over in the image of Christ! 

It doesn't happen overnight. 

It doesn't happen within our time on this earth. 

On the way to our resurrection from the dead, we won't avoid suffering, rejection, or death any more than Jesus did. 

But we become more and more like Jesus. 

1 John 3:2 says to those who dare to follow Jesus, "Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when [Jesus] is revealed [on His return to the earth], we will be like Him..." We will be made over into the truly human beings God intended us to be when He made the first man and the first woman.

To believe that Jesus is the Messiah is, secondly, to embrace the very life style of Jesus. When, through Jesus' death and resurrection, you understand that you are number one in God's eyes, you no longer feel the need to "look out for number one." You can start to look out for others the way Jesus looks out for us. 

Philippians 2:3-4 says: "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others."

John Stott tells the story of a college classroom in India. The professor, a Hindu, realized that one of his students was a Christian. "If you Christians lived like Jesus Christ," the professor told the student, "India would be at your feet tomorrow." 

No Christian wants to have others at their feet. But our joy as Christians is only made complete when we share Christ with others and they too, come to believe in Jesus as the Christ.

Sin and death threaten to separate us from God for eternity.

God's cure is radical, but sure. 

It begins with the Christ, God the Son, suffering, dying, and rising for us. 

And it's fulfilled when, after confessing Jesus with our lips, we confess Him with our lives, taking up our crosses and following Him: submitting ourselves to the death of our old sinful selves, committing ourselves to letting God make us over in the image of Jesus Himself, and embracing the very life of self-sacrifice and unstinting love that Jesus lived.

May God give us the power to have a faith that's more than words, a faith that shows in our whole lives. May we submit to the radical cure that gives us life with God forever!