Saturday, March 17, 2012

"Mainline Churches Are in Denial"

The problem with declining mainline churches (like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) and growing, non-denominational megachurches is the same: Too much us and not enough Jesus.

How a Former Atheist Proves You Should Never Stop Praying

My great grandmother was a wonderful person and I adored her!

She was the first adult who ever spoke to me as though I were an adult. She talked with me about history, current events, and the flowers in her yard. (I continue to be interested in the first two topics, but the flower thing never took with me.)

Unbeknownst to me, grandma called me her "little preacher" and prayed that I would become a pastor.

She died when I was eight years old.

A few years later, as a thirteen year old, considering what I thought that science taught about the formation of the universe and seeing the sorry state of the world as proof that a good and all-powerful God couldn't exist, I became an atheist. I held onto that belief through my years in junior and senior high school and college.

Frankly, my atheism was buttressed by my egotism. I felt self-sufficient. I was like the French mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace who said of God, "I have no need of that hypothesis."

At the age of twenty, I married a woman who was, by her own admission, "a social Christian." She was the member of a Lutheran congregation where she enjoyed being in worship each Sunday for the fellowship. I started attending worship with her because she would get angry with me when she found me still sacked out after noon, when she returned home. (In spite of that, by the way, we're still married thirty-seven-plus years later!)

Among the people of that congregation, something happened to me. The congregants weren't fanatics. They were ordinary people. There were housepainters and professors, salespeople and plumbers, housewives and retirees. They lived normal lives and sometimes outsized problems. But Jesus was at the center of their lives. They really prayed, really repented, really believed. The God they knew in Jesus seemed to make a difference to them. Their faith impelled me to explore more deeply the beliefs they espoused.

I can't point to exact moment when it happened. (Though I can point to an exact moment when I realized that it happened...a story for another post.) But I realized after a time that I had come to believe in, to trust, this God shown to the world in Jesus. I believed. I still do, even more.

Eventually, within the fellowship of that Lutheran congregation, I sensed that God was calling me to become a pastor.

Twenty-two years after my great-grandmother died, twenty-two years after she offered her last prayer for me, I was ordained as a pastor.

James 5:16 in the New Testament says: "The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective."

God never forces faith on anyone. But I'm convinced that because of the prayers of my great-grandmother, asking God to work in my life, God spared no effort to bring me into relationship with Him.

And I'm further convinced that if I were still an atheist today, God would still be orchestrating things to cause me to continuously trip over Him and His grace.

If you've been praying for someone or something for a long time and you're convinced that what you're asking of God is consistent with His loving will even though heaven seems to have shut its doors to you, don't give up.

Keep praying!

God continues even to respond to our prayers after we've left life in this world.

I am living proof of that!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

How Can Jesus Expect Me to Be "Perfect"?

We've just started reading the New Testament in year at Saint Matthew, then getting together to discuss the week's readings during hour-long groups held on Wednesdays. Today's reading is Matthew, chapter 4.

But one ambitious Saint Matthew member is reading a bit ahead and had a question about this verse at the end of Matthew 5:
[Jesus said:] "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)
The question: "How can we be perfect when we were born imperfect and subject to sin?"

Great question!

Here's what I wrote in response [expanded just a tad]:

The term translated as "perfect" that Jesus used here is "teleios," which also can be translated as "complete" or "whole."

(At least one commentator points out that it can also mean true, sincere, truthful, or loyal, indicating that being "perfect" also means remaining steadfast loyalty to God, including, of course, God the Son, Jesus. This makes sense when considering Jesus' words in Matthew 24:13, where he tells Christians facing prospect of rejection and persecution for their faith in Him: "...the one who endures to the end will be saved." The word translated as "the end" is related to the word translated as "perfect" in Matthew 5:48: In Matthew 24:13, it's telos; in Matthew 24:13, it's teleios.

The idea is to honor or keep the commands Jesus explains in Matthew 5:31-47 because of a desire to honor God.

When the Bible speaks of "keeping the commandments," there is a recognition that in our fallen nature, we human beings can't perfectly obey the law. Paul speaks for us in the New Testament book of Romans when he writes, "...with my mind I am a slave to the law of God [the commandments], but with my flesh I am a slave to sin" (Romans 7:25). Like David (and the rest of the Biblical writers), Paul knew that he, along with the rest of the human race, "was born guilty" (Psalm 51:5).

But keeping the law doesn't mean being perfect in obedience to God's commands. Only Jesus has accomplished that feat.

Keeping the law means honoring the law and invoking the help of God to obey.

Keeping the commandments also entails repenting for sin. So, in Psalm 139:23-24, David prays, "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."

In a similar vein, John writes: "My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous..." (1 John 2:1-2, see also 1 John 1:8-10).

Sunday, March 11, 2012

What Was Jesus So Mad About?

[This is the sermon that was prepared for delivery during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

John 2:13-22
After the parsonage was broken into during the Christmas season a few years ago, Ann and I experienced what all victims of break-ins feel: a sense of being violated. Our personal space, we felt, had been desecrated by greedy hands. It made us furious.

You may have similar or even worse stories of being violated or of your world being desecrated by evil. If so, you can understand something of what Jesus felt and why He acted as He did in today’s Gospel lesson.

Please turn to the lesson, John 2:13-22. It begins: “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.”

By this point in His earthly life, Jesus lived in Capernaum, a town on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. From Capernaum, Jesus and His disciples walked the eighty miles south to Jerusalem for the Passover. You may be thinking right now, “That can’t be. The verse says that ‘Jesus went up to Jerusalem.’ But when the Biblical writers spoke of “going up” or “going down” to a destination, they were thinking topographically. Capernaum stood at about 700 feet below sea level; Jerusalem is about 2500 feet above sea level. Whatever direction you came from, you always went up to Jerusalem.

Passover, of course, is the Jewish celebration remembering God’s deliverance of His people Israel from slavery in Egypt about 1500 years before Jesus’ birth. No matter where Jews lived, they were expected to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem at least once in their lifetimes. Jesus was, of course, God as well as human. He was also a faithful Jew. And so He went to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem.

Now look at verse 14: “He found in the temple those who sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers doing business.”

The temple, as we’ve mentioned before, was the one place on earth where God chose to dwell among His chosen people. He did so in the holy of holies within what was called the tabernacle of the Temple.

The word holy means set apart. God had set apart this place on all the earth as the place where He would meet those who worshiped Him, seeking His forgiveness and direction over their lives, offering sacrifices for their sins and praises for His grace and blessings.

The temple was a holy place. But what Jesus saw when He arrived at what was called the Court of the Gentiles of the temple, a place where non-Jews who were respectful of God were allowed, infuriated Jesus!

This holiest of places on earth, set apart for the worship of God, had been turned into a shopping mall, a place of wheeling and dealing.

As you know, one of the things worshipers did when they arrived at the temple was offer sacrifices to God. Depending on their incomes, they might offer oxen, lambs, doves, or, if one was exceptionally poor, grain.

Because many Passover celebrants traveled long distances, they weren’t always able to bring their offerings with them, instead purchasing them in Jerusalem. The temple priests allowed merchants to sell livestock in the place of worship. And because the temple had its own money system, they also let “money changers,” people who dealt in foreign currency exchange, do business in the Temple court.

The temple priests undoubtedly argued that, in this way, they provided a vital service to people who had traveled hundreds, maybe thousands, of miles to celebrate the Passover.

But it was more sinister than that.

Under the Romans and their almost-Jewish kings, the Herods, the chief priests of the Jewish faith were appointed by the Roman governors. Being the chief priest was a plumb job for which many of the priestly types vied.

The Romans got a cut of all the temple taxes collected.

The entire system, this collusion between what we would call "Church and State," was driven by greed and selfishness. It desecrated the place where God dwelt.

This explains what happens next, in verse 15 to 16: “When [Jesus] had made a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and the oxen, and poured out the changers’ money and overturned the tables. And He said to those who sold doves, ‘Take these things away! Do not make My Father’s house a house of merchandise!‘“

Jesus is furious!

The house of God had been, as people say today, monetized. People who should have known better were ignoring the fact that the Temple was a space set apart for God to meet His people, not a place to transact business, or toady up to their Roman overlords, or adulterate faith in the one true God of the universe.

The anger that some of you may have felt if your home has ever been broken into is just a hint of the fury Jesus felt at seeing the house of God being used wrongly!

Verse 17 says that Jesus’ disciples now remembered a passage from Psalm 69:9, written by King David about one-thousand years earlier. Take a look at it: “Because zeal for Your house has eaten me up.”

Think of that. David is saying that God is so central to his existence that passion for God’s house, for the place where God lived, had devoured him.

I think that it’s also good, as we think of what I call Jesus' temple tantrum, to note how the rest of that verse goes: “And the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me.”

“I so identify with You, Lord,” David was saying, “that when You are insulted or shown disrespect, I feel it.”

This passage helps us to understand that it wasn’t the desecration of the temple as a place that aroused such fury in Jesus.

You see, the Temple was meant to be “a shadow” of the heavenly throne room from which God reigns. The holy of holies was an earthly hint of the power and majesty of God’s presence in heaven.

If the people were buying and selling as though they were lining up for an attraction at Disney World had no zeal for the place where God had graciously promised to meet them on earth, what sort of zeal did they have for God Himself?

How far had they wandered from God?

The answer was obvious. Jesus needed to take emergency measures, driving those who were driving a wedge between God and His people out of the temple.

Jesus showed the same fury for His people that the God of the Old Testament had shown when His people had wandered from His commandments.

Go back to the Gospel lesson, to verse 18. “So the Jews [here referring to the temple priests] answered and said to [Jesus], ‘What sign do You show us to us, since You do these things?”

According to the apostle Paul, himself a Jew, writing in 1 Corinthians 1:22: “Jews request a sign...”

Jesus had already given one sign of His authority and identity as God, at Cana, where He turned water into wine.

Now, in response to the priests’ demand, Jesus gives a new sign of Who He is, a miracle that will require patient faith to see and believe. Look at verses 20-22. “Jesus...said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews [the priests again] said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?’ But He was speaking of the temple of His body. Therefore, when He had risen from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this to them; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had said.”

The temple in which Jesus and the others stood wasn’t the first one built on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Two had been destroyed.

Then Herod the Great, the puppet king installed by the Romans, who was on the throne when Jesus was born, had started construction of the temple in today’s Gospel lesson. It was still being built during Jesus' time on earth.

But its days too, were numbered.

In 70AD, about forty years after Jesus' death and resurrection, while crushing a Jewish rebellion, the Romans destroyed the temple.

To this day, all that remains is wailing wall in Jerusalem.

But the temple’s days were numbered in another way. Look at John 1:14, a passage we looked at together a few weeks ago. It says: “...the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...” You’ll remember that we said dwelt literally means tabernacled or pitched His tent.

God no longer would live in buildings so easily desecrated by human beings who forget the fear and love for God that make up faith in God.

The fullness of God dwells in Jesus.

He is the Holy of the holies.

He is the One Who brings God into our lives.

He is the One Who gives us a new birth when we turn from sin and believe in Him.

Short-sighted human beings thought they could be their own gods, buying and selling and sinning with no accountability to God. (We still think that. it seems.)

So, they tried to tear down the new and best Temple. They crucified Jesus. But He rose again.

As Jesus says later in John’s gospel, “No one takes [My life] from Me, but I lay it down of Myself, I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again...”

This, Jesus says, is the sign of His authority, that He, by his own decision voluntarily gives Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin that nobody has to buy or pay for.

Nobody--not the devil and not sinful people trying to swipe our money, or plague our consciences, or build their own egos at our expense--can put themselves between God and us.

“What shall we do to be doing the works of God?” Jesus was once asked. “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him Whom He sent.”

Jesus was outraged that people who should have known better forgot that God had blessed them out of pure fatherly and divine mercy, made them His own people, and called them to be a light to all nations, helping the nations see that all who will turn from sin and believe in Him will live with God forever.

But, because of God's grace, through Jesus, God’s presence on earth is no longer confined to a tabernacle on a Judean hill!

We worship God “in spirit and truth,” wherever we may be, when we become followers of Jesus.

You can worship the God we know in Jesus Christ at work, in your car, at your home, in your relationships, in the decisions you make.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 says that whoever turns from sin and believes in Jesus Christ is a temple of the Holy Spirit where God dwells!

By belief in Jesus, God can be with you and working in your life all the time.

It turns out that through Jesus, Christians are the places where God today dwells on earth.

The holy of holies can be found in anyone who gives up on being in control of their lives and allows Jesus to take the throne.

Don’t let your life be broken into by the desecrating power of sin and death!

May each of us give Jesus free reign to drive sin from the tabernacles of our souls.

And, may God help us to honor Him by turning from sin each day, surrendering ourselves completely to the will, the grace, the Lordship, and the life that only comes to those who walk with Jesus.