Saturday, March 24, 2012

No Throwaway People

"If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up" (Psalm 27:10).

For God, there are no throwaway people!

God gives us the freedom to walk away from Him. But God's desire to be there for us forever is so fierce that He took on flesh to live among us, to die for us, to rise for us, and to give new, eternal life to all who will turn from sin and believe in Christ.

Even when you or those you love have this life taken from you, God will never leave you nor forsake you.

You simply need to turn to Him in faith in order to have and be sustained in the relationship with Him we all need.

This is simple, but not easy.

Turning to--really surrendering to--Jesus Christ entails giving up on all the habits and sins we use to make ourselves feel important or worthy or safe and, instead, concerning ourselves with the opinion and will of just one person, God.

Turning to Christ means crucifying the old sinful self so that the new self can derive life from God, the only one Who can really give us life!

"Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21).

God loves you and wants you to be with Him today and in eternity.

With God, there are no throwaway people.

(For more on Psalm 27, see here.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

Cut Off What?

This past Sunday, a young member of the congregation had a question. "Pastor," he said, "I've been reading the New Testament a chapter a day with the rest of the congregation. What does Jesus mean when He talks about cutting off your hand and stuff?"

The place where Jesus "talks about cutting off your hand and stuff" can be found in the gospel of Matthew in the New Testament, specifically chapter 5, verses 27 to 30.

Jesus is explaining some of the Ten Commandments, given by God to Moses about 1500 years before Jesus was born. This is what Jesus says:
"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 with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go to hell."
Throughout this section of teaching we've come to call the Sermon on the Mount, recorded in chapters 5 through 7 of Matthew's gospel, Jesus uses hyperbole, exaggerated language, to make His points. It's all on a par with the exaggerated image Jesus paints when He says elsewhere: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24). Through that hyperbolic image Jesus was showing that wealth can create the illusion of control in those with money, making it deity in place of the only one Who can give them life, God.

In the words the sixth grader asked me about, Jesus isn't telling us to literally cut out eyes or lop off our hands, any more than He's suggesting that eyes or hands can cause us to sin. Wills held hostage to selfish thinking cause us to sin, not the body parts that facilitate our sin.

What Jesus is saying is that, when we trust our lives to Jesus, whatever tempts us to violate God's will or whatever habits may routinely lead us into sin can be confessed and turned over to God.

Christ died on the cross to take the punishment for sin we all deserve and rose from death to give new and everlasting life to all who will turn from sin and entrust their lives to Him.

When faced with temptation, Christ can help us to resist it and the death it brings and to, instead, choose life with God. The Bible promises: "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it" (1 Corinthians 10:13).

When we've caved to temptation and sinned and recognized our wrong, we need to approach God in the Name of Jesus immediately and seek forgiveness. The Bible also promises: "If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

Sin dehumanizes us and carries us away from God. Because all sin "and fall short of the glory of God," anyone who wants the life with God made available only through Jesus Christ, will find themselves in a daily tussle with temptation and sin as long as they remain in this world.

Ask God to help you resist your temptations and trust that, through Jesus, you have the forgiveness of your sins and the power to resist the devil. That's the way you'll be able to cut off that "stuff" and enjoy the life God has in mind for you.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tebow Jets Deal May Be a Disaster...But Not Because He's a Christian

Tim Tebow is going to the New York Jets.

There are legitimate questions about whether Tebow can be an effective quarterback in the NFL. It was because of those questions that the Denver Broncos were anxious to unload him once they had secured the services of Peyton Manning. The Jets' acquisition of Tebow may prove to be one of the all-time bonehead moves made by a National Football League team.

But the negative reactions of some sports journalists to the move seem to be go beyond legitimate questions about quarterback mechanics, leadership ability, the willingness to be a back-up, or Tebow's on-the-field potential.

For example, in this interview, New York Post sports writer Bart Hubboch raises legitimate concerns about how much help Tebow can provide to the Jets, the motives behind the trade, and the effect the Tebow acquisition may have on Jets starting QB Mark Sanchez.

It's when he's asked about Tebow's possible positive effect on the Jets locker room that Hubboch seems to lose his way.

By all accounts, Tebow is an upbeat and fiercely competitive "team" guy. Anyone who's seen the video of his half time rant to his Florida Gator teammates in the national championship game must concede that. And while we might rightly wonder if that sort of cheerleading is welcomed in pro locker rooms, the accounts that I read from the Broncos locker room this past season indicated that Tebow is a team guy. Period.

But Hubboch says he doesn't understand why Tebow would be regarded as a positive force in the locker room. OK, he says, "he's very religious, he's a virgin, and he's a model citizen."

Are these the kinds of things that people refer to when they applaud Tebow's positive locker room presence?

I do applaud Tebow's willingness to be overt about his faith in Christ and to put that faith in practice by doing things for fans that most players don't.

But that isn't what I would call being a positive force in the locker room. I don't think that most semi-knowledgeable sports fans would either.

To me, any athlete who is a positive force among teammates is someone who thinks team first, works hard, and is focused on winning. From what I know, Tebow fits that bill and you can never have enough people like that on your team (assuming they can play).

What Hubboch seems to be reacting to is Tebow's faith and his expressions of that faith.

Early in the interview he deplores the fact that Tebow will bring "divisiveness in the locker room and in the fan base." In part, Hubboch was referencing the "quarterback controversy" that may result from Tebow's mere presence in the locker room. His subsequent remarks make clear, however, that so far as he's concerned Tebow's overt discipleship doesn't suit his tastes.

Tim Tebow won't bring divisiveness to New York or to the Jets unless people like Bart Hubboch decide to reject Tebow simply because they don't like him for the manner in which he follows his Lord or professes his faith.

That would hardly be fair and I think it ought to be labeled for what it is: bigotry (intended or not).

The Jets' deal for Tim Tebow may prove to be a disaster. But if it proves to be so, it will be because Tim Tebow can't do on the field what the New York Jets need for him to do. It won't be because he's a Christian, a virgin, or a model citizen.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How You Can Keep Anger from Controlling Your Life

Anger isn't always wrong. This is important for Christians to know.

But, as a way of life, it's destructive to our health and to our relationships with others. Proverbs 29:22 says, "One given to anger stirs up strife, and the hothead causes much transgression."

It's no doubt because of the destructiveness of anger that Ephesians 4:26-27 says, "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not make room for the devil." In other words, get your anger with others resolved or give up the anger. Unresolved anger turns into hate, which is a synonym for "grudge."

We should also shy away from associating with constantly angry people. In Proverbs 22:24, a passage cited by Pastor Rick Warren on Twitter this evening, we're told, "Make no friends with those given to anger, and do not associate with hotheads."

I think that this is even good Biblical advice to us when considering whether to watch, listen to, or read angry political pundits. Stay away from them as readily as you would stay away from constantly angry people in daily life. Associate long with such people and you become an angry person too: After all, computers aren't the only thinking machines for which it's true to say, "Garbage in, garbage out."

Pray for chronically angry people, asking God to give them new attitudes.

Treat them with love and respect.

But don't associate with them.

So, what if you find yourself drifting into a chronic attitude of angry hatefulness toward other people or toward life?

The nineteenth century geologist and Christian evangelist Henry Drummond wrote a remarkable booklet about love called The Greatest Thing in the World, and said that when we find an angry temper gaining a foothold in our lives: is not enough to deal with the [outward expressions of anger]. We must go to the source and change the inmost nature, and the angry humors will die away themselves. Souls are made sweet not by taking the acid fluids out but by putting something in--a great new love, a new spirit, the Spirit of Christ...The Spirit of Christ interpenetrating our spirit, sweetens, purifies, transforms all. This only can eradicate what is wrong, work a chemical change, renovate, reinvigorate, and rehabilitate the inner [person]. Will power does not change [people]. Christ does.
He goes on to quote the prescription found in Philipians 2:5: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..."

When anger threatens to take center stage in our own characters, we must ask God to get rid of the "I-Me-Mine" thinking that causes us to adopt anger and hatred as our default position and to instead replace it with with Jesus-thinking. (Philippians 2:5-11 explains what Jesus-thinking is like.)

If you'll be patient in praying that, enforcing it by daily reading God's Word and by getting involved in a local church where you can undertake acts of kindness in Jesus' Name and pray, worship, and study with other believers, anger will be put in its proper perspective in your life.

The Spirit of Christ will displace your anger and Jesus will take first place in your life, where He belongs.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Whining in the Wilderness

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

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
Ann and I wouldn't point to ourselves as parenting superstars, by any means. But one of the rules we had for our kids as they were growing up was, “no whining.”

We banned whining because whiners do more than just make unpleasant sounds. Whiners, whether they’re children or adults, are really saying: “I want to be the most important person in this relationship, this family, this business, this church, this country, this world.” “I want life to go the way I want it to go.” Or, like Adam and Eve in the garden: “I want to be like God.”

Whining is especially galling when it comes from people who repeatedly go down destructive pathways in life, then complain that the rest of the world hasn’t been fair to them. A man I know has been married multiple times and complains that women are impossible to get along with, not once seeming to consider that the source of at least half of his marital problems can be found by looking in a mirror.

Today’s first Bible lesson recounts God’s reaction to the whining of His people Israel during their wilderness wanderings from Egypt.

They had been slaves there.

God miraculously freed them so that they could go to the land He had promised them.

The trip should have taken eleven days. But it took the Israelites forty years.

That’s because, in spite of God’s grace and blessings, the people repeatedly caved into the common human temptation to do things their own way and to ignore the will of God.

Please look at Numbers 21: 4. We’re told: “Then they journeyed from Mount Hor by the way of the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom and the soul of the people became discouraged on the way.” The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible says that the people “became impatient on the way.”

Now, if you adults have ever settled in behind the wheel to take a long trip and five minutes into it heard a voice ask, impatiently, from the back seat, "Are we there yet?," you know exactly what the Israelites are doing here.

They were whining!

Now look at what they had to say in verse 5: “And the people spoke against God and against Moses ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?...”

Talk about gall!

Here, in effect, the Israelites were saying, “God, why did you answer our prayers and set us free from slavery in Egypt? Why did you take us from a place where we did back-breaking labor for masters who whipped us, beat us, and owned us?”

We Christians can be like this. “Yeah, God,” we seem to say, “I know that Jesus died on a cross because of my sins. I know that through baptism and my belief in Christ, You are saving me for eternity. I know that You’ve given me a new life and that nothing can separate me from Your love. But, really God, when are you going to let me call the shots?”

Even we who bear the Name of Jesus and have the free gift of new life through Him, can be world class whiners!

There are two things we tend to forget in our daily lives.

First, we forget that we aren’t God. We didn’t invent this amazing thing called life. We didn’t create the universe. We aren’t in charge and never will be!

The other thing we forget is that, like the Israelites, you and I haven’t yet reached our promised land. We’re in the wilderness.

Turn to 1 Peter 2:11. Peter says: “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts [he’s talking about all desires that are contrary to the will of God; in other words, “Don’t get hung up on the things we crave in this world...”] which war against the soul...”

Sojourners and pilgrims. The NRSV renders those words as “aliens and strangers.”

The moment we are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are no longer citizens of this world. We're just passing through.

We can expect to be attacked by the tests and temptations that come from, as Martin Luther puts in The Small Catechism, “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.” This world isn't perfect and never will be.

But, thankfully. our ultimate destination is not in this wilderness.

Our destination as believers in Jesus is what the New Testament book of Hebrews calls “a better country,” the eternal kingdom of God.

This fallen world, wonderful though it can be, is a faint hint of the perfect, sinless, eternal new creation God is preparing for us.

Now, go to Numbers 21:5. The people are still whining: “...There is no food and no water, and our soul loathes this worthless bread.”

The “worthless bread” they’re talking about is the manna that God had been giving them virtually every day of the forty years they were in the wilderness.

To get the manna, they never had to plant a single seed, water a single sprout, or remove a single weed.

Like every blessing that God gives to us and that we take for granted--from breathing to everlasting life for those who trust in Christ, the manna was simply there for the taking. It was a gift of grace.

But the Israelites wanted more!

Someone has said that the key to contentment is to want what you already have. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have dreams or ambitions. But in the wilderness, God wants to teach us to not let our dreams--our desires--supplant God in our priorities. God wants to show us that nothing this world may offer us can match the gifts God wants to give those willing to receive them by faith in Him.

God wasn’t happy to hear His people whining yet again. It was a sign of faithlessness, selfishness, and sin.

Look at verses 6 and 7 back in our first lesson: “So the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people and they bit the people and many of the people of Israel died. Therefore the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you...”

The people had broken God’s commandments. I can name three: They had failed to honor God as God (first commandment). They had used His Name for something other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving (second commandment). They had borne false witness against both God and Moses (eighth commandment). That's why God allowed the serpents in the desert to be so deadly to the Israelites.

The rebelliousness of the first generation to be freed from Egypt already knew that God wasn't going to let them get into the promised land. That didn't mean that God loved them any less. It simply meant that their sins had blocked the blessing of living in the promised land from their lives. But now, in the seventh rebellion against God in the wilderness recorded in the book of Numbers, God was trying to bring His people to their senses. Whenever we replace God's judgment about what's right and wrong, wise and foolish, or good and bad with our own judgment, we're on a collision course with hell. God sent the serpents to wake His people to the deadliness of sin.

Apparently, the people were awakened because verse 7 says that the people asked Moses to pray for them. Moses did.

Now, look at verse 8: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery [or burnished bronze] serpent, and set it on a pole, and it shall be that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.”

What a weird prescription!

Why was this God’s fix?

In the hymn Amazing Grace, we sing, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

Before the undeserved grace of God can bring us forgiveness of sins, we have to be aware that we have sin that needs to be forgiven.

Before we can have our relationship with God restored, we need to know that we’re separated from God.

God doesn’t force forgiveness and new life on us. We must receive it by faith.

When the Israelites turned to the bronze serpent, they were reminded that their sin was what triggered their situation. Forgiveness, healing, and life could only come to them when they acknowledged their sin and trusted in God.

Now look at John 3:14 and 15, from today's Gospel lesson.

Some 1500 years after the incident in our first lesson, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

In the wilderness, the bronze serpent became the repository, the scapegoat, for the rebellion and sin of God’s people and through their honest repentance, the means by which their lives were restored.

In our own wilderness, it’s easy for us to wander away from God, to get caught up in our own agendas, to think that God has wandered from us.

That’s where the Savior on a cross comes in.

The New Testament tells us that God made Jesus “to be sin who knew no sin.”

Jesus volunteered to be the repository, the scapegoat, for our sin.

He calls us to turn our eyes away from the wilderness and turn instead to Him.

Every time we picture Jesus on the cross and remember again that He had no sin, but that our sin--your sin and my sin--put Him there, we’re forced to acknowledge our need of Him. We confess our sin.

Our faith in Him is renewed and the life and forgiveness that only Jesus can give floods us once again!

The wilderness in which you and I live each day is hard.

But God lets us decide whether he or our sin has the last word over our lives.

Look at Jesus‘ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 to 18:
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. He [or she] who believes in Him is not condemned; but he [or she] who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the Name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Christians who observe friends and acquaintances who aren’t believers going through difficult times, knowing that I was once an atheist, will often ask me, “How do they get through it, pastor? How can they face a life without hope?”

Good questions.

The bottom line is that, while we’re here in the wilderness we will never have all of life’s answers. But it’s clear to me that life without Jesus is a hell of hopelessness and futility, while life with Jesus is filled with God’s purpose and strength.

Turn to Jesus each day.

Acknowledge your sin. Seek His forgiveness.

Affirm Him as the only way to life with God.

And He will stand by your side.

He will lift you up.

And He will give you life, here, now, in the wilderness...and beyond.