Friday, September 07, 2012

Moving from Belief to Action

Bob Logan tells about a church where each member is encouraged to spend one hour in service outside of the church for every hour spent in the church, presumably in worship, study, small groups, fellowship, and meetings. The idea seems to be: Breathe in God, breathe out God.

What a simple and exciting way for Christians to hold ourselves accountable to Christ for being more than hearers of the Word, but doers of the Word!

Putting my faith into practical action is definitely something I need to do more of, because, as the apostle James reminds us in the second Bible lesson many of us will be considering this coming Sunday, "faith without works is dead."

Our works cannot save us from sin and death. Only the crucified and risen Jesus Christ can do that. But works of service in Christ's Name are a sure sign of actual faith and not just intellectual (or cultural) assent on our parts.

"I wonder what would happen if the church sought to be culturally distinct rather than culturally compliant?"

See here.

A Ride Like No Other

We Christians pray, "Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

But it's doubtful that any of us (especially, I think, I) have any notion of what we're asking for.

I am convinced though, that when God's kingdom comes to us in our every day lives and when it comes to us finally, fully, definitively, on the day of judgment when Jesus returns to this world, it won't look much like the visions of the kingdom spouted either by the Christian Right or by Liberal Protestantism.

Any time we try stuffing the God we know in Jesus Christ into our little ideological boxes or preferred paradigms the way these folks do, we end up engaging in idolatry, worshiping a false Jesus or ourselves.

God defines His kingdom. Our job as Christians isn't to define the Kingdom of God for God or others, but to be so totally surrendered to Jesus Christ, that the kingdom flows to us and from us to the rest of the world in all its richness and wonder.

People who think they can control God are delusional. You can't control a hurricane, even less God. The best we can do is surrender daily to Christ, let God's Spirit take control of us and then, go along for the ride.

That's how the wild, mighty, uncontrollable God of the universe does His will and brings His kingdom to us and through us, to others. His kingdom comes only to those who let go and let Christ be in charge.

It boils down to this: Do you want to drive, knowing that ends in death and separation from God? Or do you want to be God's passenger, knowing that it ends in the full, rich, scary, fulfilling, everlasting life for which you were made?

Who wants to go along for the ride?

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

The Call of Rainbows

 I was able to get this video of the lower part of a rainbow on Labor Day. (My wife was driving and I was sitting in the passenger seat, by the way.) We were driving on Route 32 in Pike County, Ohio.

I love rainbows. They always remind me of the covenant God made with Noah and all his descendants, including you and me, after the great flood which had decimated all but eight members of the human race, those who had remained faithful in living in what Martin Luther called the "daily repentance and renewal" that God gives those who believe in Him.

Genesis 9:8-17 says:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”

God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.” 
Of course, I understand (sort of) the scientific explanation of what rainbows are and how they are formed. But, Genesis tells us of Who forms rainbows and why.

Whenever I look at a rainbow, I'm also reminded of God's never-ending love for the human race. In their way then, rainbows also point to the ultimate expression of God's love for us, when God the Son, Jesus, Who, gave Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin so that all who repent for sin and entrust their lives to Him will, like Him, rise and live with God forever.

Rainbows call us to repentance and belief in the God Who makes every single one of them.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Lone Eagle

My wife and I have "car books."

When we go places, she drives and I read. The books we share are our car books.

We just finished A. Scott Berg's biography of Charles Lindbergh. We both loved it!

Lindbergh was a complicated man whose accomplishments extended well beyond piloting The Spirit of Saint Louis from New York to Paris in 1927, a feat that brought him a fame unprecedented before that time and unmatched since.

The Lone Eagle forever stained--or put an asterisk next to--his status as hero by his involvement with the America First movement prior to World War II. As the movement's most prominent speaker, seeking to avert US involvement in the war, Lindbergh appeared less than concerned about the menace of Nazi Germany or its persecution of Jews.

Years earlier, as an eighteen year old, Lindbergh left the University of Wisconsin after being a student there for only a year, receiving low marks. Yet he was undeniably brilliant. Within a few years of his 1927 flight, he developed a technology that became an essential element of organ transplants.

He remained active in commercial aviation until just a few years before his death, was an early voice in the environmental movement, provided invaluable service to the US during World War II, did great work in the fields of geography and anthropology, and was an amazing writer.

As we read Berg's book, my wife and I found ourselves drawn to Lindbergh in so many ways. His achievements and intrepidity are amazing.

But the same dogged determination, rationalism, and willingness to stand alone that put Lindbergh in the cockpit of The Spirit of Saint Louis also could make him a tyrant with his children and a verbal brute with his wife.

It also gave him a confidence in his ability to control things that, in the end, seems to have vetoed any thought of a surrendering faith in God.

And so, toward the end of Berg's book, when he describes Lindbergh's determination, in the final days of his life, to fly from New York, where he was hospitalized, to Maui, where he intended to die, I found my throat thickening as I read of the commercial pilots in Hawaii who took off their caps in respect for the pioneer being carried on a stretcher across the airport tarmac.

But I also felt sadness as I read of Lindbergh's passing, uncovered by the grace offered by Jesus Christ that we all will need when we come face to face with God.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Called to Be Readers and Doers of God's Word

[This sermon was prepared to be shared during 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Mark 7:1-23
Please go to the end of today’s gospel lesson, to Mark 7:20-23. Jesus says:
“What comes out of a [person], that [is what] defiles a [person]. For from within, out of the heart of [people], proceed evil thoughts, adulteries [tha'st sexual intimacy outside of marriage by people already married], fornications [that’s sexual intimacy outside of marriage, something that is always wrong], murders, thefts, covetousness [that’s craving the possessions, status, or relationships of other people], wickedness [this is maliciousness or cruelty], deceit, lewdness, an evil eye [looking upon anyone with hate], blasphemy [dishonoring God], pride [arrogance], foolishness [acting apart from the revealed wisdom of God].” Now look where Jesus says all of these human behaviors and attitudes start: “All these things come from within and defile a [person].” 

This is the conclusion to which Jesus drives in today’s long gospel lesson. It’s true to say, as Martin Luther teaches in The Small Catechism, that evil comes from “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.” But no one can force us to sin. Only we can defile ourselves.

We perpetrate sin when, after flirting with sin, we allow it to take charge of our thoughts and actions. Sin is an inside job!

The devil doesn't make us sin.

And we can’t claim that we sin because we’re following orders or because we need to go along to get along with others.

Nor can we say that we sin because we are the hapless victims of our own inborn sinful impulses and inclinations.

Nobody and nothing that pushes us from outside ourselves can make us sin. Any sin that ever defiles us starts within us.

If you are mired in some sin this morning, you will only get free when you can admit, "I am the only one to blame for this" and then turn to the crucified and risen Christ to seek forgiveness and the strength to live a clean life with Him at the center of it all.

Jesus happens to teach this lesson that it’s what comes from inside of us that dirties our lives and souls because of a confrontation He has with the Pharisees. The Pharisees thought that if they kept certain religious rules and traditions, external actions, they would make themselves holy and clean.

They thought, for example, that if people washed their hands before eating, it would mark them as people of faith and goodness. They were horrified that Jesus’ disciples didn’t engage in their religious washing ceremony before dinner. Today, of course, we know that washing or sanitizing our hands is a good way to prevent disease. But the Pharisees knew nothing about hygiene. Jesus says that no matter how many times a day we wash our hands, we won’t be clean on the inside apart from repentance and faith in Him.

The Pharisees who confronted Jesus also believed in something called Corban. Corban was a religious creation. God’s law says that we are to honor our fathers and mothers. That may mean providing for their needs when they are no longer able to do so. Under the Pharisees’ law of Corban, they could piously tell their parents, “The money I was going to use to help you, I’m going to give to God instead.” Giving to the cause of the God we know in Christ through our church is an essential part of the Christian life. But if we ignore God’s will for our lives just to impress God, we’re not only disrespecting those we have been commanded to care for, we’re sinning against God. God cannot be bought off!

We inevitably will sin against God any time we replace God’s Word and God’s will with our traditions, our reasoning, our wisdom, our feelings, our preferences. A young woman once told me, "It can't be wrong that my boyfriend and I are having sex. We love each other so much." She and her boyfriend were replacing the revealed will of God with their own supposed wisdom!

Whenever we trust our hearts more than we trust what God teaches us in His Word, we defile ourselves and wander from God.

So, how do we avoid going down the path of the Pharisees encountered by Jesus in today’s gospel lesson? How do we ensure the things going on inside of us--the attitudes that lead to our behaviors--are godly and clean? 

We must stay open to maintaining a strong personal relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ. A relationship with God is a gift of grace given to us through Jesus Christ. All who repent and believe in Christ have life with God. But it can be a huge challenge to de-clutter lives of ways of thinking and seemingly pious traditions that prevent the crucified and risen Jesus from calling the shots in our lives!

I believe that this de-cluttering begins and is built on regularly spending time in God’s Word, the Bible. The Bible is no ordinary book. It gives life. Hebrews 4:12 says: “...the word of God is living and powerful...”

The Bible, unlike any other book, also is incorruptible, meaning that, unlike the things of this world, it cannot die and fills with incorruptible life to all who believe in the God it reveals. First Peter 1:23 says that Christians born from above through water and the Word at Baptism, are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, through the Word which lives and abides forever.”

The Bible also claims to be God’s gift of milk, bread, solid food, and even dessert for His people. The apostle Peter tells us to “crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” God wants us to grow up in our faith by feeding us on His Word. Most people in America own Bibles. But most never crack them open. Consequently, they never experience the joy and assurance of living day to day with God’s gracious guidance in their lives. They’re like people starving to death even though they have refrigerators full of food.*

God gives us His Word because He wants us to know Jesus Christ as the only way to forgiveness for sin, a right relationship with God, and everlasting life.

He also wants us to be able help us grow up and thrive as believers in Christ.

When we fill up on God’s Word, it crowds out the attitudes and behaviors that otherwise will defile our lives and separate us from God. It sets our lives moving in God’s direction.

And when we stock our minds with the truths of the Bible, we won’t mistake our human ways of thinking or our pious traditions for the will of the God Who made us.

You may say, “But, pastor, the Bible is hard to understand.” It can be and, in this lifetime, you and I will never understand everything about the Bible. But I guarantee that we will never understand anything about the Bible if we never read it. There are also great translations of the Bible that are easier to understand. Ask me about them and I’ll help you find the one that’s right for you.

You can also understand the Bible better if you read and discuss it with other Christians. That’s why our Sunday School classes and Read the New Testament in a Year discussion groups are so important. If you’re not involved in a study like this, I urge you to get involved. If the studies we have are at times inconvenient for you, get with me and I’ll help you get a group organized that is at a better time for you and, maybe for others as well.

You may also say, “Pastor, I don’t have the time to read the Bible and get involved with a discussion group.” Let me tell you something: A man I know of had to have heart bypass surgery. Before his surgery, he exercised only sporadically. He said that he didn’t have the time. After the surgery, he remarked, “It’s amazing the amount of time I could find for exercise when I realized that without it, I was hastening the end of my life.” He’s now approaching age 80, healthy, and still exercising every day. 

When we don’t exercise our spiritual muscles through regular reading and group study of God’s Word, along with prayer, intentional service in Christ’s Name, regularly worshiping and receiving Christ’s body and blood, and regularly telling others the good news of Jesus Christ, we grow flabby in our faith.

We also create holes in our souls which will give room for evil thoughts and sinful behaviors. Ephesians 4:27 tells us, “do not make room for the devil."

When instead, we make room for God’s Word, worship, service in Christ's Name, and so on, our inner life changes. We have peace with God and we can live our lives in that peace, no matter what the world may think of us, do to us, or say about us. 

Of course, it’s not enough to simply know about or be able to talk about the Bible. I’ve always loved learning, stockpiling facts. Because of this trait, I confess that sometimes I’m satisfied to just add to what I know about the Bible, failing to translate the faith I know about into tangible everyday living. But, in places like James 1:22, part of our second lesson for today, God’s Word tells us to “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only.”

That’s why I love this suggestion from Pastor Rick Warren: After you’ve read or discussed a passage of Scripture and prayed about it, asking God to tell you what He wants you to do based on what He’s taught you in the passage, write down, on a piece of paper or type into your computer or smart phone, the “action step” you’re going to take based on God’s Word.

“This action step should,” writes Warren, “be personal (involving you), practical (something you can do), and provable (with a deadline to do it).”

I’m asking God to help me define action steps every time I read the Bible. I want to more faithfully live the faith in Jesus I confess. I hope you’ll join me in adopting this habit. Read the Bible, then plan to tangibly live what God tells you in it.

It’s time for we Lutherans who claim that the Bible is the authoritative Word of God to knock off our excuses and actually start reading and standing under the authority of the Bible again!

It’s time to put our faith into action!

Let God’s Word be the final authority over your life.

Let its truth fill you so that, as you yield control of your life to Christ, what you say and do and feel comes from your God and not from your sin.

Let God's Word fill you with its power and life today and every day. Amen

*I'm grateful for the insights of Pastor Rick Warren, in his book The Purpose Driven Life, for the preceding two paragraphs.