Saturday, April 27, 2013

Stetzer: No Reason for Christians to Be Anti-Muslim

Writes evangelical leader and researcher Ed Stetzer:
I am not naive about the issues involved in Islam and Islamic countries. I have spoken in national publications and before Muslim imams to the fact that there are real issues with how Muslim-dominated countries refuse to allow the right to convert and have not adopted the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So, as an evangelical leader and researcher, I have no vested interest in -- and receive no personal benefit from -- speaking out for my Muslim neighbors and friends. Yet, while it is irresponsible not to see the link between radical Islam and terrorism, it is the height of ignorance to assume that all (or most, or even many) Muslims are terrorists...
...Don't be so lazy to assume that the worst of a group represents the entire group. They hardly ever do. Perhaps a better idea is to meet them, learn about them, and treat them as your neighbor. You don't like to be stereotyped. Neither do I. So let's not do it to Muslims.
Read the whole thing, please.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

ELCA Seminary Prof Claims Ancient Fertility Idol is the Holy Spirit

You can't make this stuff up.

The prof ostensibly addresses the prophet Elijah and asks:
“When you killed the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal but not the four hundred prophets of Asherah was it because you really didn’t mind a little goddess worship on the side?  Are we feminists right in saying that Asherah was just the Canaanite articulation of the Holy Spirit and not really another God?”
Huh? A false deity otherwise identified as such in Scripture is really the Third Person of the Trinity? I don't think so.

But, I wonder, did any bishop or seminary president ask to speak with the prof about this? Or is false teaching simply accepted as part of being a big post-modern church?

Worried That You're Not Doing Enough...Maybe You Shouldn't

The great thing we begin to see as we read the Bible is that we can not and we must not work to have the kind of faith in Christ that produces good works, God-honoring works, what the Bible calls "good fruit."

That's God's job! Totally!

All we do is make ourselves available to God and He fosters faith and He creates the good fruit. We say, "Here I am, Lord," and He does everything else!

"Everything else" includes freedom from sin, death, and the devil. It also includes the changed way of life that God begins to work in the life of any person who remains available to the God Who in Jesus Christ became human, died for our sin, and rose for us.

Ephesians 2:8-10 says: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

Think about that: God has already made the good works He wants us to do; we will find them along the way as we follow Jesus Christ!

As, with open wills, minds, and hearts, we expose ourselves to God's Word and to the Sacraments, God will give us growing faith, transform our wills, and work good fruits within us. All we do is supply our availability. The grace of Christ will do the heavy lifting.

Honestly, this is the hardest part of Christian faith for me: I am not in control. God is!

Faith is a matter of giving up control and letting God do His thing in us through Christ.

"Let go and let God," is more than a catchy motto then. It really is what it means to be a Christian.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Richie Havens and the Perils of Looking On the Outside

Just read that Richie Havens, the singer, has died. What took me aback is that he was only 72. To me, Havens had looked ancient for decades.

But some people look old even at young ages...and vice versa.

These thoughts on Havens made me think about Leon Redbone. When he first came to prominence in the mid-1970s, I remember that he (or his publicists) cultivated a whole mystique about his age, the implication being that he was ancient and had been plying his career as a ragtime troubadour for...well, for forever.

And he looked ancient. Even Bob Dylan, that master cultivator of mystique, mused in a Rolling Stone interview I read back in the day about how old Redbone was, certain, at least for the benefit of RS readers, that Redbone was advanced in years.

But I just checked: Redbone is just 63 years old.

For the record, in the picture taken of Redbone in 2010 which appears in the Wikipedia entry about him, he looks younger to me than he did in 1975. Well, Dylan did once write, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." 

Of course, it's notoriously stupid to judge people by outward appearances. In a passage I mentioned in yesterday's sermon, the prophet Samuel, in Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as Israel's first king, is set to anoint Eliab because he evidently looked like a king from central casting. "But the Lord said to Samuel, 'Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature...for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16:6-7).

Anyway, may God comfort those who mourn Richie Havens' passing and may we all focus on what's on the inside--of ourselves and of others--more than we do on the outside, even when publicists call our attention to the shaky evidence of what we see there.

What God Does in Unlikely Media

What a powerful message in today's installment of Our Daily Bread. Wow!

Be sure to read Genesis 2:1-7 before reading it.

Be Patient!

[Jesus said:] “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matthew 13:32)

When it got to be this time of year back when I was a kid, the hardest thing in the world was knowing that school was going to end soon, but having to wait and wait and wait for it!

Waiting for good things to happen, having patience, is tough.

But this brief parable told by Jesus is part of a string of parables He tells in Matthew 13, all of them with the same theme: the Kingdom of God comes to the patient.

That’s true not only of those who patiently trust in Christ.

It’s also and even more true of the God Who patiently puts up with a world that wants nothing to do with Him.

For centuries now, the God of all creation Who has patiently put up with human sin and all its manifestations--including selfishness, greed, bigotry, injustice, violence, and arrogance--has planted the seeds of His kingdom in this fallen world.

Jesus Christ died and rose again so that all who believe in Him may not perish but may have eternal life as part of God’s new creation, the kingdom of heaven.

Some days, like the days that saw the Boston bombings, that kingdom can seem pitifully small; churches can seem like nothing more than holy huddles hanging in there in a world where materialism and passing pleasures are the gods of choice.

And there are times when the kingdom doesn’t grow as we pray and hope: Husbands, sons, daughters, friends, neighbors, and grandchildren for whom we’ve prayed and with whom we’ve shared our invitations to get to know Jesus for years still don’t believe.

The society in which we live has become so arrogant, so materialistic, and so far from God that many Christians--conservative, liberal, mainline, evangelical, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox--have, in practical terms, given up on God altogether.

An elderly woman, a lifelong churchgoer, told me not long ago after I had talked about Jesus’ second coming to finally and fully institute His kingdom “I don’t think that will ever happen.”

Early Christians faced a world similar to our own and were disappointed that Christ hadn’t yet returned. How long would they have to wait? When was Jesus going to make His kingdom manifest and powerfully present to the world?

The apostle Peter told them to be patient, to see the seeming delay of the kingdom of heaven as an opportunity. “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness” he writes in 2 Peter 3:9 to the first-century Church, “but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.”

Christ hasn’t fully established His kingdom yet, Peter is saying, in order to give His Church the chance to reach more people with the gospel.

Instead of lamenting the sorry state of the world and of our congregations, we need to stir ourselves to prayer and to witnessing for Christ.

We need to be about the great commission, to make disciples, to teach people all that Jesus has commanded, to baptize people in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, knowing that no matter how puny the kingdom may seem to our faulty, sin-tinged, earthbound eyes, Christ is with us always and He is still doing new things in the lives of those who trust His Word.

Jesus is telling us in this little parable: “Church, Christians, don’t lose patience!”

We who follow Christ have a simple task: To keep speaking the Word about Jesus Christ.

Paul says in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the Word of Christ.”

So, if by words and actions and invitations, we will keep true to the Word of Christ and keep sharing it with others, faith will spread and the mustard seed Church will grow.

If you’ve become discouraged by the evil and the hard-heartedness you see in the world, the aversion to God, that tenacious human desire that can be traced back to the garden of Eden, to “be like God,” let Jesus’ words encourage you this afternoon.

Jesus is not absent.

He hasn’t left us orphaned: He’s given us His Holy Spirit.

And the Holy Spirit has inspired God’s Holy Word, He’s created the Church, and He uplifts us with the promises of the forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the dead, and the life everlasting to all who endure in faith.

Still we can sing with confidence of the old hymn: “This is my Father’s world; Oh, let us not forget/That, though the wrong seems oft so strong. God is the ruler yet.”

God is still at work. In your life. In my life. In the life of the world.

And one day the kingdom built on Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to life with God the Father, will blossom in full.

Until that day, keep planting the seeds of faith in yourself and in the world: Trust in Christ as your only true and lasting hope, worship God with other Christians, pray in Christ’s Name, read and study God’s Word, receive the Sacraments, let the whole world know about the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

I promise you that in ways none of us can imagine, the seeds of the Word about Christ that God has patiently planted in you and that you, in turn, patiently plant in others, will be infinitely greater and more beautiful than words can describe.

Like the grace He gives freely to those who repent and believe in Him, the kingdom of heaven will be “so high you can’t get over it/So low you can’t get under it/So wide you can’t get round it/Oh, wonderful love!”

What a day it will be when Christ returns and reigns over His new creation!

If it seems far away and leaves you dumbfounded, afraid, or impatient, just remember how patient God is with you and then, in response to His love, be patient with Him and keep planting the word about Christ everywhere! Amen

[This message was shared during a gathering of the local conference of Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (WELCA), held in the facilities of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, yesterday.] 

The Pope Talks About the Power and Ministry of All Believers in Christ

These comments by Pope Francis to mostly lay employees of the Vatican bank are worth considering.

His assertion that the Baptized have the power of the Spirit to share their faith in Christ in words, as well as in actions, apply as much to Lutherans and to other Christians as they do to Roman Catholics.

Martin Luther spoke and wrote of the "priesthood of all believers" (based, in part, on 1 Peter 2:9-10). All baptized believers in Christ have the ministry of making disciples, of building up the faith in Christ of our fellow believers and of telling those who don't yet know or believe in Christ about "the hope that is in us" (1 Peter 3:15-16).

Because the Holy Spirit comes to every believer in Holy Baptism, every believer has the power to fulfill the call God has issued to us.

I continue to be heartened by the ministry of the Roman Catholic pontiff. While we Lutherans have obvious differences with his Church, we can joyfully affirm that Roman Catholics, like all who confess the Name of Jesus, are our sisters and brothers in Christ!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

'Break Open the Sky' by TobyMac, featuring Israel Houghton

This tune has been on my mind and playing on my iPhone a lot lately. You might want to listen to it and then check out 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:2. Some day, Jesus is break open the sky and fully, finally establish His kingdom. What a great day that will be! (Talked about it last Sunday.)

Two Great Tunes We Heard Tonight

First, The Backstabbers by The Ojays. "What they do?" (You can skip past the ad in a few seconds on this one.)

Then, Hotel California by The Eagles. "You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave! "

Free Will? (Part 14, The Augsburg Confession)

[This was shared during both worship services with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio this morning.]

John 15:1-5
Do human beings have free wills?

Most people, when asked that question, would probably say, “Yes.” So, when they try to explain why two brothers from Chechnya allegedly perpetrated the Boston Patriots’ Day bombings and killed an MIT police officer, most people would likely say that their behavior was an exercise of their free will.

But under other circumstances, these same people may defend their own poor choices by saying that, in a moment, their free will was overridden by forces beyond our control.

“I know it was wrong for me to say all those cutting things,” they will explain. “But I was having a bad day.”

“I know it’s wrong to have sex outside of marriage,” others might say. “But I just got swept away by the moment.”

So, do we have free wills then?

Are we born with the ability to make the right choices in our lives?

Can we choose to walk with God and according to His will? 

Article 18 of The Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of Lutheran Christianity, summarizes Lutherans’ understanding of what God reveals in the Bible about the human will. The first paragraph says:
Our [Lutheran] churches teach that a person’s will has some freedom to choose civil righteousness and to do such things subject to reason. It has no power, without the Holy Spirit, to work the righteousness of God, that is, spiritual righteousness. For [quoting 1 Corinthians 2:14 in the New Testament] the natural person [that is the person born equipped with original sin without a saving relationship with the crucified and risen Jesus Christ] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God...This righteousness is worked in the heart when the Holy Spirit is received through the Word...”
Human beings, like say, my imaginary friend Ted, have wills that are free to choose what the Confession calls civil righteousness, the kind of righteousness that causes the world to say that Ted’s a nice guy.

You see, Ted pays his taxes, holds a steady job, has never gotten a traffic ticket or been arrested, takes his family out to dinner once a week, coaches his kids’ baseball and basketball teams, shovels snow and rakes leaves for his neighbors, and gives a generous offering to the church every Sunday. When Ted dies and family and friends gather at the funeral home for the visitation, someone will likely say, “Ted was such a good man. He surely must be in heaven.”

But the people apt to say such things could well be told, “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged." Ted’s well-meaning friends would be guilty of judging Ted worthy of eternity because of the outward acts he chose to do. The Bible teaches that you and I are capable of choosing to do those things that elicit the applause of the world, that look good on the outside. But that’s not how God judges us!

As God told Samuel in the Old Testament: “...the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” God judges us fit for eternity not on the externals that may wow the world, but on what goes on inside of us: in our hearts, our wills, our minds. And it’s precisely inside of us that we are incapable of fearing God, believing in God, trusting in His grace, or doing what God wills.

We can decide to live with civil righteousness, worldly righteousness. But we cannot decide to live in spiritual righteousness. We are incapable of freely deciding to live as Christians. We are incapable of freely deciding to live according to the will of God.

Saint Paul puts it this way in Romans 7: “For we know that the law [of God] is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin...nothing good dwells within me...I can will what is right [that is, I can want to joyously and happily do the right thing because I want to do the right thing], but I cannot do it...

And the prophet Isaiah spoke for the whole human race, even exemplary guys like Ted, when he wrote: “...we are all like an unclean thing, and our righteousnesses are like filthy rags...our iniquities [our sins] have taken us away.”

It’s this reality that we can only choose an external, worldly righteousness, but are incapable of choosing, much less living, with a spiritual, internal, eternal righteousness that causes you and me as Lutherans to confess each Sunday, “We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves."

So, what hope do we have?

Please turn to John 15:1-5. Jesus is speaking to the disciples in the upper room on the night of His arrest. He begins: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.”

These words come a few short verses after Jesus says in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

And after He says in John 10:30, “I and My Father are one.”

Here, in John 15:1, Jesus is expanding on the claims He has made about Himself earlier: He is God. He is one Person of the Trinity. And He is the vine, the new life of God invading a world dying in its sin. God the Father is the vinedresser, the One Who tends and nurtures this vine, which is the body of Christ in the world.

Look at John 15:2. Jesus says: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He [the Father] takes away and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear fruit.”

This is an amazing verse! Consider three things it tells us.

First: Everyone who believes that Jesus has died and risen to give forgiveness of sins and everlasting life to them is a branch of Christ, drawing new life and forgiveness of sins from Christ.

When we are connected to Jesus, God does the works of true spiritual righteousness through us, not because, like Ted, we’re good guys or good women, but because the goodness and life of Christ surges through the lives of those who humbly submit to Christ as their God and Savior.

Usually this will happen without our being aware of it or self-conscious about it. Many of you as followers of Jesus can probably remember times when someone has told you that that thing you did or that thing you said, something you don’t even remember doing or saying, was what shored up their faith in Christ or brought the truth of Christ to them clearly for the first time.

Many of you have heard me talk about my friend Sig, a committed Lutheran Christian man who, along with his wife, was involved in Christ Renews His Parish and marriage enrichment weekends, helping people to bring their lives and marriages under the renewing grace and love of Christ. Sig worked for a major company in the Cincinnati area. So was a man I’ll call Bob, who joined my former parish shortly after it got off the ground. During a conversation with Bob, I just happened to mention Sig and Bob told me, “Sig was a huge influence on me. I wanted to have Christ in my life the way I saw Sig did.” Though they worked for the same company, they were at different facilities, and they had only met a few times years before. Yet Sig's faith had made an indelible imprint on Bob. The next time I saw Sig, I mentioned what Bob had said. Sig was puzzled: He could barely remember meeting Bob and told me that he had no idea what he might have done to influence Bob for Christ so positively.

When you’re connected to the vine, you don’t usually think about the righteous things you do or even that what you do is righteous. Those deeds will be the simple, wonderful byproducts of staying connected to Jesus.

Second in John 15:2, Jesus says that, as we remain connected to Him, God will sometimes prune us. I don't know about you, but getting pruned is not something I particularly want God to do to me. The word in the original Greek in which John wrote his Gospel, katharizo, literally means cleanse. It's the root word for English ones, catharsis and cathartic, words often used of experiences, confessions, or conversations that cleanse our emotions or our psyches. Jesus is telling us that as we daily repent for our sin and surrender again to Christ, God cleanses us of sins committed, clarifies our thinking, purifies our living.

Sometimes, this will be extremely painful as God incites and empowers us to turn our backs on things we want to do. God replaces our corrupted, enslaved will with the will of a child of God living under the will and in the freedom of His grace! A man I know, an alcoholic, once told me of how painful it was for him to realize that he would have to give up beer for the rest of his life. There’s nothing inherently wrong with beer, of course. But as a person who suffered from an addiction, he knew that he would be ceding control of his life to the devil, the world, and his sinful self if he ever took another drink. Daily, he had to seek the power of God to make the right or righteous choice he could not make on his own. He had to submit to God’s pruning in order to stay connected to Jesus.

Finally, in John 15:2, Jesus says that God will lop off those branches that have given up on their connection to Christ. Those who refuse God’s grace won’t have God’s grace forced on them.

Now look at John 15:3. Here, Jesus, speaking to believers in Him, like you and me, says: “You already are clean [the word here is katharoi, the adjective form of that word that can be translated also as pruned] because of the word which I have spoken to you.”

The Word about Jesus, God-enfleshed Who loves sinners so much that He shared the death for sin they deserve (that we deserve) and rose from the dead as a sign that He conquers sin, death, and the devil for all who believe in Him, this Word, creates faith in those who listen. As Romans 10:17 puts it: “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.”

We can’t be saved by good works, by exercising that part of our will that’s free to do works that are pleasing to the world.

But we can be saved as we welcome into our lives God’s Word and the truth of God’s decision to die for us, to rise for us, and to count our faith in Him as righteousness, cleanses us from sin and makes us new!

Folks, that is very good news!

Our salvation and our eternal relationship with God does not depend on the good works we decide to do. These things depend entirely on the grace of God given in Jesus Christ and on the faith in Christ that the Holy Spirit creates in the lives of those willing to receive and abide in Jesus Christ, the true vine!

That’s why Jesus says what He does next in John 15:4-5: “Abide in Me [stay connected to Me, keep listening to Me, keep reading My Word, keep receiving My Sacraments, keep worshiping with like-minded believers in Christ, keep praying] and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”

Do human beings--you and I--have free wills?

The Bible and the Lutheran Confessions say we have free will when it comes to the decisions we make that relate to the kingdoms of this world--to pay our taxes, to be polite, to obey the speed laws, to obey our parents.

But we are completely lacking in free will when it comes to things of God’s kingdom.

Only God can cause us to willingly be sacrificial in loving others, joyful in giving to others, focused on God and not ourselves.

We can clean up our acts, but we can’t clean up our minds and hearts and wills, the places where sin starts, the places that God judges.

Only Christ and the Word about His death and resurrection and the new life He offers to those who believe in Him, can truly clean us up, from the inside out.

That’s why, like David in Psalm 51, we might well pray each day: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.”

God has come into the world in Jesus Christ so that whenever anyone who humbly trusts in Christ prays that prayer, God will answer it positively.

You see it’s God’s delight and it's God's will to give forgiveness, a purposeful life, and eternity with Him to all who humbly confess their inability to make themselves clean and ask that instead, their lives, their decisions, their wills are washed in the blood of the Lamb, Jesus, Who takes away sin.

God loves to answer that prayer, day after day till we see Him face to face! Amen