Saturday, September 22, 2012

Seeing Christ

Despite our imperfections, as we follow Christ, others can see Him at work in and through us. See here.

The Closer You Grow to Christ, the More Desperate Your Need of Christ!

It shouldn't come as a surprise to Christians.

But it nearly always does.

In fact, one can describe it as a predictable element of the Christian life.

What is it? Being tempted to intentionally sin against the will of God as revealed in Scripture despite a fervent faith and a heartfelt desire to live according to God's will.

As R.T. Kendall writes in God Gives Second Chances: How to Get Up, Dust Off and Be Used Again By God When You Fall:
You should know that if you are a chosen vessel, you also are a target of Satan. Jonathan Edwards said that when the church is revived, so is the devil. The closer you get to God, the more devil will be aware of you. [italics added by me]
That's why prayerful reliance on and surrender to Jesus becomes more important as you grow closer to Christ!

The closer you grow to Christ and, God forbid, the more self-confidence you have in feeling that you know what you need to do each day in order to maintain your closeness to Christ and to avoid the temptation to sin, the greater the danger you are in.

This is why, in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther says that we should remember our baptism--the moment when God crucified our old selves in order to let our new selves to come to life (John 3:3-8)--through repentance and renewal in Christ's Name every single day. Luther writes that baptism signifies that:
"the old Adam [our old sinful selves], together with all sins and evil desires, should be drowned by daily sorrow for sin and repentance and be put to death and that the new person should come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever."
Don't ever get smug or self-satisfied about your spiritual progress!

Belonging to the "Christian club" is not going to save us from sin, death, or temptation.

We are saved from these things only by God's grace, given to those with faith in Jesus Christ, to be sure, but only "provided you continue in [God's kindness, given through Christ]; otherwise you will be cut off [from God]..." (Romans 11:22) Jesus says: "the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13).

Jesus' words to the disciples who fell asleep in the face of temptations to betray and abandon Him, apply as much to us in our everyday lives, filled with similar temptations to turn our backs on Christ: "Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Matthew 26:41).

Peter was one of the disciples who fell asleep, didn't pray, and so, turned His back on Jesus on the night of Jesus' arrest, on the day before Jesus' execution. It may have been with this bitter experience in mind that Peter later wrote to the churches in Asia Minor: "Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).

As long as Christians are living in this world, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves will hound us, striving to separate us from the new life all who believe in Jesus have. Don't ever think you can fight off those temptations your own! We can "resist" the devil, as Peter puts it (1 Peter 5:9) through daily submission to Christ. We then let Christ fight for us.

Luther in his hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God:
No strength of ours can match his might [the might of the devil]
We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight
Whom God Himself elected.
You ask Who this may be?
The Lord of hosts is He!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord,
God's only Son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.
Christ fights for those who surrender to Him. We need to rely on Christ's grace and God's forgiveness as much each day we age in Christ as we did "the hour [we] first believed"!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

'Robin Hood Obama?'

One day after the revelation of a videotape in which Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said that the 47% of US taxpayers who did not pay income tax were dependent people who would not vote for him, an audiotape of President Barack Obama applauding " least at a certain level," has surfaced.

The tape is from an event that took place at Loyola University nearly fourteen years ago. Obama, careful in his phrasing, doesn't advocate a wholesale confiscatory redistribution of tax dollars. Nor is it clear that he's even talking about federal monies, as the other references are to local government agencies, which have separate taxing authority.

But the suspicions of many are bound to be aroused by any talk of redistribution of wealth, conjuring up images of Robin Hood taking from the rich to give to the poor.

And while that conversation will happen as a result of this audio's disclosure, I'm more interested in the underlying assumption behind most talk of redistribution.

While I've often addressed the dangers of materialism and consumerism (sinfully caught up in them as I may be as an American). But there is a school of thought that says that continuing economic growth, even if it allows more of the have-nots to enter the ranks of the haves, is both negative and unrealistic: Negative, because growth inevitably leads to environmental degradation, this school of thought says, and unrealistic, because the pie is only so big.

It's on this latter point that most talks of use of the tax code for resource redistribution often hinges: The belief that growth is inherently limited and that consequently, the job of government is to redistribute wealth.

In an article in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, Danish scholar Bjorn Lomborg shows that assumptions of the finitude of potential economic growth, first posited some forty years ago, are inaccurate. Human beings are very creative in expanding the overall economic pie, with new technologies, some of them both economically and environmentally friendly

Does Barack Obama believe in wealth redistribution through the tax code? What does he mean by that, if he does? And on what economic assumptions does he build if he does think the federal government should play Robin Hood?

These are all questions raised by the audio.

David Brooks on "Thurston Howell Romney"

After an extensive overview of how many Americans, of every class, receive federal support or subsidies in various ways and how Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney could talk about that fact in more sensitive ways, conservative columnist David Brooks concludes:
Personally, I think [Romney's] a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?

Every Parent Should Read Gladwell's Article on Jerry Sandusky: Be Your Child's Advocate!

Malcolm Gladwell dissects the sexual molestation horrors perpetrated by Jerry Sandusky and his ilk here. It's astounding the degree of patient planning and trust-building to which these monsters devote themselves to gain the trust of their victims and their parents.

I am convinced this is not an isolated phenomenon. During her public school career, our daughter had two male PhysEd teachers who "creeped her out" with what she felt like inappropriate language and advances.

In each case, the perps claimed mystification at our daughter's reactions to their cleverly ambiguous attacks.

Nonetheless, we stuck to accepting our daughter's judgment in each case and I said that she had to be transferred out of their classes.

Subsequent events demonstrated that her wariness of the two teachers was warranted. Both eventually got caught up in scandals and were convicted of criminal charges for having sexual relations with underage students.

Reprehensible as these teachers were, the victims of their predatory behavior were not the kinds of kids Sandusky picked on. He liked boys, for one thing. He also tended to psychologically manipulate what, at one time, would have been called "at risk" youngsters.

But as Gladwell shows, while the MO of these sexual predators is similar, they all work assiduously at establishing the trust of their communities and good "youth advocates and friends" before starting to force themselves sexually on their prey.

Nonetheless, the moral of all these stories should be plain: If your child feels uncomfortable around an adult authority figure who seems to be making sexual advances, do not quickly dismiss your child's allegations. Believe them first. Few children are going to make up such personally-humiliating stories. Be your child's advocate! Presume that they are innocent and not gratuitous liars or participants in "mass hysteria."

Thanks to Samantha Ettus for tweeting about this piece and to two friends mentioning it as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Who's in Charge: God or Your Tongue?

[This was shared during the 10:15 worship service at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

James 3:1-12
The book of James, from which our second lesson for today comes, is a practical handbook for Christian living.

We might wonder why we need such a thing. After all, we’re Lutherans: We know that all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ are saved from sin and death and have life with God that begins now and will be lived in perfection in eternity. “‘Nuff said, preacher, the Browns/Bengals game is on at 1.” Who needs a handbook?

Thank God, salvation, life with God, and the comfort and power of the Holy Spirit’s presence are all free gifts given to all with surrendering trust in Jesus Christ!

But, according to the Bible, even after we’ve been baptized, affirmed our belief in Christ, and become part of God’s kingdom, we still live in this world until either Christ returns or we die and rise into eternity with God.

And as long as we draw breath here, the old Adam (or the old Eve) in us must, as Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “be drowned by daily sorrow for sin and repentance and be put to death.”

It’s only then, Luther says, “that the new person [can] come forth every day and rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

As was true of Jesus in the wilderness, even after we're baptized, the devil works on us everyday to push us away from God. So does the sin within us and around us.

So, unless we stay open to God’s grace and guidance and remain submitted to the God we know in Jesus Christ as the final authority over our lives, the temptations to take God’s grace for granted and to take up any sin that pleases us can overrun us and steer us, bit by bit, away from an eternity with God to an eternity in hell.

James’ guidebook for Christians isn’t a “how to get salvation” book. It’s more like a mirror that we can hold up to our lives and, first, see our need of Christ’s forgiveness and, second, see our need of the Holy Spirit’s help in living a life in response to God's gracious love.

In the Bible lesson from James we looked at last week, we were encouraged to turn from the sin of partiality to some people over others. In today's lesson, the issue is controlling our tongues, the words that we speak.

This may not seem like a big deal to us. But it is to God.

Turn to our lesson, James 3:1-12, please.

In verses 2 and 3, James anticipates our dismissal of our words as being “no big deal,” as something that could possibly stand in the way between God and us. He says that little things--like small bits in the mouths of horses or tiny rudders on the backs of giant ships--can exercise great control over and have a huge impact on big things.

Then, look at what we’re told next, starting in verse 5: “...the tongue is a little member and boasts great things. See how great a forest it kindles! And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity [that means immoral or grossly unfair living]. The tongue...defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell...”

James goes on to say that we know how to tame wild animals, but no human being, no human effort can tame the tongue or the damage it can do.

In verses 9 and 10, he hands out his most severe indictment of the damage done by our mouths, in effect, repeating it twice in different ways just to make sure we get the message:
“With [the tongue] we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the [likeness] of God. Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.”
Our words are powerful. I think the reason for this is simple. We are the only ones of God’s creatures “made in the image” of the God Who spoke and brought the whole universe into being.

It’s no coincidence then, that one of the first ways in which the Old Testament book of Genesis says that Adam, the first human being, expressed human dominion over creation was to give names--to speak descriptive words--over every other creature. This power--the power to give names or labels to people or things--reflects the image of God within every human being.

But after the fall into sin, we sinners naturally began misusing this gift of speech. In fact, James says, because sin has filled us, our tongues have taken control of us to the point that sometimes we speak without thinking or speak on the basis of malicious thinking, bringing harm to others and to ourselves.

And this is very serious business! Turn to Matthew 24:36-37. Jesus says:
“I say to you that for every idle word [every thoughtless meaningless word] [people] may speak, they will give account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” 
If those words of Jesus, God in the flesh, don’t make you squirm a little, you probably weren’t listening!

The failure to control our mouths is a sin issue.

Careless words, whether spoken in judgment of others, to criticize others without loving them, or to pass along the latest gossip, are not harmless things.

Unrepented, careless words put our eternal relationship with God at risk.

It turns out that God has not rescinded the Eighth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”

We “bear false witness” not just when we tell outright lies about others. Martin Luther writes of this commandment: “We are to fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.”

But, there is good news.

Our intemperate tongues (and all our other sins) don’t need to control us or our eternal destinies.

We can live differently.

We can move closer to God and not continually drive a wedge between God and us through our careless words.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells those who would follow Him into eternity: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him [or her] deny [themselves] and take up [their] cross and follow Me.”

The indispensable step in getting free of the sins of our mouths is to bring those sins to Jesus, to confess them to God, to admit that we have used our words to curse others, gossip about others and tear them down.

Drawing on the covenant God has made with us in our baptism, we need to drown our old sinful selves and allow, through the grace God bears for all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, our new selves to “rise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Back in Old Testament times, God’s people sang to God, “There is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered” (Psalm 130:4). That’s no less true today for us when we take up our crosses, confess our sins, follow Jesus, and receive God’s grace!

If, as you’ve been listening to this sermon, God has brought to mind ways in which you have misused the gift of speech, you can take this step right now. “God,” you can pray, “for the sake of Jesus, forgive me for using my words to bring pain to others or dishonor to You.”

Whenever we confess our sins to God in the Name of Jesus, there is forgiveness in God! As long as we are living on this earth, we can take advantage of the Bible’s promise that all who call on the Name of Jesus Christ will be saved!

But what then? What do we do next? How do we let God’s Holy Spirit guide us so that we don’t engage in careless or harmful talk?

Here are few suggestions.

First: We surrender our brains and our mouths to God, along with the rest of our lives. A good prayer to offer each day might be the one in Psalm 119:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”

Second: Before we open our mouths to share something critical of another human being, we should ask ourselves, “Does this help anything?” In Ephesians 4:29, we read these words: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”

Third: We ask ourselves another question: Would we say these words to Jesus Christ? In a very real way, whether our words build others up or tear them down, Christ hears every one of them. As Jesus once said, “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known” (Luke 12:2). Jesus also say that when we encounter others, we really meet Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Do we think that Jesus wants to hear what we have to say?

Fourth: If our words have harmed another person, it can be appropriate to apologize to them. They may not forgive you. But at least, you will have the satisfaction of making an effort.

Finally: Whether in conversation with others or in conversation with God, try silence. (This is really hard for me!) Proverbs 17:28 says that, “Even fools who keep silence are considered wise.”

But isn’t just to impress others that we should keep silence. James 1:19 says that we Christians should be “swift to hear, slow to speak.” God, after all, gave us two ears and one mouth and our communication probably ought to be in that proportion. When we remain silent and truly listen to others, we come to understand them more and judge them less.

Silence also can be a great way to build up our relationship with God. Through the prophet Isaiah, God said, “Listen to me in silence, O coastlands” (Isaiah 41:1). Sometimes, in our praying, we can get so busy speaking, often even telling God how to do His job, that we forget to let God be God. Silence before God can be a conduit by which God brings us comfort, hope, and guidance. In Psalm 46:10, we're told: “Be still and know that I am God.” Practicing silence is a good way to love God and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Before closing, let me add that controlling my mouth is a huge issue in my life. I like to talk.

So, each day, I ask God to crucify the old Adam in me, so inclined to fill the air with useless, self-referential words and instead, help me to honor Christ with my words and my life.

As some of you know, one of my most frequent prayer requests to God is: “Give me the right words and the right silences.” I want to honor the God Who gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him may have life forever. I don’t want my mouth to get in the way of God’s grace.

Even if you’re only a fraction as mouthy as I can be, you may be able to say the same thing. May we all seek God’s help in guiding and guarding the things we say and so, honoring Him with our whole lives. Amen