Friday, November 23, 2012

Amazing Video of Baby Yawning in the Womb!

"We already know that unborn babies can stretch and even hiccup in the womb," says a report from The Telegraph, "but new research from the University of Durham concludes that they can also yawn." This stunning video makes that point.

Read the entire Telegraph report here.

When People Worship "Stuff"

When "stuff" is our god, the video above, shot at a Walmart where people were trying to take advantage of a cell phone sale, this is what "worship" looks like.

Worshiping false gods is inherently destructive of relationship. When we worship false gods--money, status, ourselves, dope, booze, or whatever, we destroy our relationships with God, others, and the people we were meant to be.

When the one true God of creation calls us, through Jesus Christ, to follow Him, it's a call to love the God we worship AND the neighbor God created. Move closer to Christ and you're less likely to dehumanize, take for granted, hurt, or gossip about the people you encounter.

But there's something more to getting straight about what or who will be the object of our worship.

You see, cell phones and other stuff eventually die.

God is immortal and in Christ, He has conquered sin and death for us in order to give us a life that is the opposite of the frenzy you see here.

Let Christ be your God!

What Money is For

From today's installment of Our Daily Bread: "The challenge of riches is living with thankful hearts to God and open hands to others." See here.

Money itself isn't condemned by the Bible. 1 Timothy 6:10, in the Bible's New Testament is often misquoted to claim (or accuse) the Bible of this attitude. (Even by Pink Floyd in the song, Money, on Dark Side of the Moon.) Money is not the root of all evil. The misquoted passage says that, "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."

Jesus does say that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the eternal kingdom Jesus came to bring to those with faith in Him. He says this to His disciples after telling a rich man to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and follow Jesus.

But Jesus isn't saying that wealth is intrinsically bad. It just happened that money was this young man's particular idol of choice and it becomes such for lots of people.

The simple truth is that not everyone can handle wealth, no doubt far fewer than actually have wealth. The rich young man who incited Jesus to use His "camel through the eye of a needle" metaphor, was apparently not handling his wealth in a way that had him in sync with God. (Matthew 19:16-26)

Because wealth buys so much in this dying world, it's easy for the wealthy to delude themselves into thinking that they are, in a sense, gods in themselves.

Or, they can develop a material notion about life itself, thinking that anything that can't be bought, sold, touched, or manipulated, isn't real, even God Himself, Who, after all, has been revealed materially only once, in Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Savior.

Yet the Bible is filled with wealthy people who retained their faith and their wealth. Because God came first, they were able to use their wealth in a way that honored and loved God and gave practical expression to their love for others. The list includes Abraham and Sarah, Lydia, Matthew, and Joseph of Arimathea, to name just a few. And the fishermen who followed Jesus--including Peter, Andrew, James, and John--were at the least, members of the upper middle class of their time.

Each came to see their wealth as a gift from God over which they were to exercise good management. The Biblical word for this is stewardship.

In another part of 1 Timothy, on which today's installment of Our Daily Bread, quoted and linked above, is based, the apostle Paul writes:
Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy (1 Timothy 4:28).
Paul is not saying that everyone who has acquired wealth stole it. He is saying that the thieves who had come to faith in Christ needed to leave their sins behind by learning the true object for acquiring money while we live on earth.

And this is it: We acquire wealth so that we can take care of the needy.

The needy, of course, can include the neediest people of all: those who have never come to know or follow Jesus Christ. Proclaiming the good news that God so loves every person on this planet that He gave His Son Jesus, so that all who will turn from sin (repent) and believe in Jesus (surrender their lives to Him) will have everlasting life is the job of every Christian. Even our money should be marshaled in the effort to help others to fill their need for Christ.

But the needy also include the poor, whether in our own community or around the world.

The needy also include the victims of disaster, wherever they live.

Understanding why God entrusts our wealth to us, no matter how wealthy we may be by world standards, should alter the decisions we make about how we spend our money.

Followers of Jesus Christ, grateful that God has already saved them by His grace through our faith in Jesus, are set free from the temptations of money and can ask themselves each day, "God has given me new and everlasting life through Christ. God gives me my daily bread. In response, how can I use what God has given to me in order to address the needs of others?"

Maybe one day I'll be content with how my life daily answers that question. But I haven't gotten there yet. God is still working on me.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Labor Pains

Mark 13:1-8
What I know about birth pangs or labor pains is, as it can only be for any man, second-hand knowledge. Mine comes from having seen my wife, Ann, go through labor with our two kids.

Ann was a champ! But after seeing what she had experienced first with Philip, who was 10-pounds, 9-3/4-ounces when he was born, and then with Sarah, who was 12-pounds, 2-ounces at birth, I could well understand what she told me shortly after Sarah was born. “Mark," she said, "if you want any more kids, you’ll have to have them with your second wife.”

I bring this up because, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, the key to understanding today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-8, is its final verse, where Jesus says, “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles. These are the beginnings of sorrows.”

Now, the rendering of that last phrase in the New King James Version, the translation of our pew Bibles and in our bulletin, is frankly, not very accurate. A literal rendering of Jesus’ words there from the original Greek in which Mark and all the books of the New Testament are written, arche odinon tauta, would be, the beginning of birthpangs these things are. That’s why the translation of this passage in the New Revised Standard Version, which we use in adult Sunday School class, puts Jesus’ words this way: “This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

I spent so much time talking about this phrase and its translation because these few words by Jesus are important!

In the Old Testament, especially in the writings of the prophets, the imagery of labor pains coming before the birth of God’s kingdom in people’s lives was often used. But Jesus uses the image of birth pangs in this passage differently. He’s not talking about the end of the world (He slides into a discussion of that seamlessly later on in Mark, chapter 13) or about the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom, but about the end of the temple in Jerusalem, an event that would happen in 70 AD, about forty years after Jesus spoke these words, when the Romans tore the temple down.

But there’s still a lot for us to learn as followers of Jesus from today’s Gospel lesson. Please turn to it, Mark 13:1-8.

It begins: “Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!’”

“Wow!” the disciple is saying, “isn’t this a great place?” But Jesus seems unimpressed with the temple. Look at verse 2: “And Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another that shall not be thrown down.”

What a downer! The disciple who pointed to the beauty of the temple probably at least thought that he was making pleasant conversation. Or more probably, he thought that he was displaying pious faith in God by being impressed with the temple.

But Jesus gives the disciple no affirmation, in effect telling him (and us) to never confuse the eternal power of God with buildings, no matter how imposing or pretty.

I have to say that when the call committee here at Saint Matthew showed me the sanctuary at the conclusion of our first interview, I probably didn’t register much delight.

It’s nice, don’t get me wrong. But Ann and I learned a long time ago that God can be worshiped in all sorts of places. The mission congregation with which I worked during my seminary internship met in a Lions' hall. When we arrived on Sunday mornings for worship, we were often met with the smell of stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer. And for twelve-and-a-half years, at the mission church I served before coming to Saint Matthew, we worshiped in a broken-down old school gym.

Corrie ten-Boom found the holiest place of worship in the concentration camp in which she and her sister were incarcerated during World War II was the garbage dump crawling with rats and smelling of human waste and rotting food. It was the only place where she and her sister could go to remember God’s Word, sing hymns, and praise the God they knew through Jesus Christ.

Buildings crumble and fall.

Stained glass cracks.

Only God and those who turn from sin and trust in Christ as their only hope live for eternity.

Jesus was telling the disciples, including us, “Don’t put your trust in buildings, or traditions, or liturgies, or human beings or their works. Don’t even trust yourselves. Put your trust in Christ alone!”

Go back to the lesson, to verse 3. Jesus is now sitting opposite the temple on the Mount of Olives and four of the apostles--Peter, James, John, and Andrew--have a question. Verse 4: “‘Tell us when all these things will be? And what will be the sign when all these things will be fulfilled?’”

Now, you need to notice something here: In answering the four apostles' questions, Jesus never actually answers their questions. As we'll see, Jesus isn't being evasive in not answering them. In fact, Jesus has a more important point to make!

Look at what Jesus says, starting in verse 5: “‘Take heed that no one deceives you. For many will come in My Name, saying, ‘I am He,‘ and will deceive many. But when you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be troubled; for such things must happen, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be earthquakes in various places, and there will be famines and troubles.”

Every single thing Jesus describes as signs of the impending destruction of the temple are events that have been going on from the moment Adam and Eve rebelled against God and consigned all of us to our inborn bondage to sin.

Can anyone name a time in human history, ancient or modern, when there weren’t wars and rumors of wars? Neither can I!

Can you think of a time in history when there weren’t disasters, earthquakes, and troubles? Neither can I! And I was a Social Studies major who is a life-long of history.

Ecclesiastes 1:9 says: “..there is nothing new under the sun.” That verse doesn't say that history repeats itself; because, quite simply, history doesn't repeat itself. But that verse reminds us that the world is no more and no less sinful or foreboding today than it was the moment God banished Adam and Eve from the garden.

Different sins become more popular at different times. But the same old sin, death, disasters, calamities, and warring have been going on for centuries.

In light of this fact, Peter, James, John, and Andrew might have said to Jesus, “But, Lord, all these things You describe as signs and events that will happen before the destruction of the temple are things that happen every day, year in and year out, and have always happened!”

And had they actually said that, Jesus could have answered, “Exactly!”

The temple came down at the precise moment when Jesus foresaw that it would fall.

But the disciples and no one else had any need to know when that would happen.

As hard as it is for we human beings to accept, there are some things we cannot know and never will know.

Geneticists, epidemiologists, and actuaries may be able to tell us our likely life expectancies, for example. But only God knows the exact moment He has appointed for the ends of our earthly lives. King David prays to God in Psalm 31:15: "My times are in Your hand..." And Job, in the midst of His pain, tells God: "A person’s days are determined; You have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed" (Job 14:5).

Scientists and climatologists may be able to make accurate projections of the moments most likely to bring the destruction of this planet. But only God knows the time appointed for that to happen. In fact, it seems that only God the Father knows when that moment will come. Jesus, God the Son, said, "...about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).

So, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples when the temple will fall or what the signs of its impending destruction will be.

His non-answer told them that they were asking the wrong questions.

What Jesus is telling them and us is that, no matter what painful or difficult things may come to us along life’s way, the future is ultimately in God’s hands. Our call is to trust in Him even in the midst of uncertainties and our own limitations.

He's also saying that all the painful things that happen in this world, no matter how calamitous are just the labor pains of God's new creation.

That’s why Jesus says in verse 8: “These [things] are [just] the beginnings...” Or, “These are just the labor pains for what’s to follow!”

In fact, the Bible says that our entire life on this earth constitutes the labor pains of the new heaven and the new earth all who believe in Christ will live in and enjoy after this entire universe has fallen down, Christ returns, and the dead who have died believing in Him will rise again.

Romans 8:22 says that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” for that moment when, finally and fully, sin, death, and futility are put under Christ’s feet and the pain and tears of this fallen world will be things of the past.

This should give us hope! 

The athlete who keeps her focus firmly on her goal of winning  the prize endures all sorts of difficulties--arduous training, endless practice, injuries and physical rehabilitation--in order to attain her goal.

When we live each day in the certainty that God saves from sin and death all who retain their faith in Jesus Christ and have eternity with God as the prize for which they race, they can say with the apostle Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed to us” when, in the resurrection, we see Christ face to face!

 (Romans 8:18)

We have to be careful though. Faith isn’t fatalism.

Jesus isn’t telling Christians to sit around, letting life wash over them while waiting for Him to show up with a bunch of angels playing harps. (I personally hate harps, by the way!)

In fact, throughout Mark 13, where Jesus does go on to talk about the end of the world, Jesus tells us what we’re to do as we await the unfolding of God’s plans for our world and for our lives. We’re not supposed to sit, trying our best to look holy.

In Mark 13:5; Jesus says, “Take heed that no one deceives you.” Watch out that you don’t for those who tell you to hope in the things of the world--like money, power, a positive attitude, whatever--taking them as gods instead of Jesus.

In verse 9, Jesus warns Christians to “Watch out” that they not give up on trusting in Him. This applies to we Lutherans today, when our own the synodical officials in some parts of the country (not here in southern Ohio, it should be said) harasses or intimidates pastors and congregations into accepting false beliefs. We need to watch out when our own denomination ascribes the same level of authority to bishops, denominational assemblies, various church traditions, human experience, and science that the Lutheran Confessions claim belongs only to the Word of God found in the Bible.

Then, in verse 23, Jesus tells us to take heed, watch out, for people who point us to false Christs or to false versions of the real Jesus Christ and lead us away from eternal life with God.

And in verse 33, Jesus says to “Take heed, watch, and pray.” We have no idea when the end of the world may come; so we need to pray, as Jesus has taught us, that God will “deliver us from evil,” so that we don’t fall prey to sin and end up an enemy of God when we face judgment in eternity.

Jesus took back our fallen world once and for all when He offered Himself on the cross, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, then rose from the dead, opening up eternity to who trust in Him.

We don’t know what may happen to us or to the world in whatever time passes between this moment and the moment when the risen, ascended Jesus returns to bring judgment and the fullness of His kingdom to all who have believed in Him.

But we do know that there is no safer place we can be in this world (and the next) than in the hands of the God Who holds the future of this world and of eternity itself in His hands.

A new world is being born in this messy world in which we live. The labors of this world can be painful, even deadly. But if we will be patient and hold on tightly to Christ, we’ll have strength for the journey and an eternity of joy with Christ and all who, like us, have trusted in Him. Amen

[This was prepared to be shared during worship with the people and friends of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.]

A Prayer for Our Leaders

For Christians, praying for our leaders, no matter what their party, is our duty and joy, in addition to be an expression of patriotism. If you choose, join me in the following prayer at this time. Thanks!
Gracious God, Your Word teaches that You create earthly governments so that Christians who live voluntarily under Your Lordship will be protected from those who have no regard for You and Your will AND to give Your Church an atmosphere of peace within which the Good News of Jesus may be proclaimed by those of us who bear Christ’s Name to those who don’t yet believe in Him.
God, to these ends, bless our President, our Vice President, and the members of Congress of both parties with Your protection and Your wisdom.
Grant similar blessings to those who serve in state and local governments.
And help us to heed Your Word, including the directives of Jesus Himself, by praying for and honoring our leaders, being obedient to our laws, and rendering to You what belongs to You, while rendering to government what belongs to government. In Jesus' Name we pray these things. Amen