Friday, November 29, 2013

Helplessness Can Lead Us to God

"No man can meet God without discovering that he can not fully understand God...

"We can endure a great many things with a calm mind if we can see the reason for, or the purpose of, our suffering. It is that which we cannot understand and which therefore seems meaningless that irritates us and makes us rebellious more than anything else. For that reason no aspect of God becomes a stumblingblock to us more easily than His inscrutability. It reminds us of the poignant words of Jesus, 'Blessed is he, whosoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me' (Matthew 11:6).

"For this reason no aspect of God breaks down our self-conceit and our self-sufficiency more quickly than this. For the first time we come to a point where we do not know what to do. We are unable to go back to our former life, and we cannot find the way to God. We have not learned as yet to surrender to a God whose ways are past finding out. As a result our whole being is in a state of rebelliousness. That which is incomprehensible always fills us with paralyzing fear.

"Every one who continues in this fear and does not flee from God or his own conscience, and who tarries in the presence of the inscrutable God, experiences a miracle, God breaks down his self-conceit and self-sufficiency. Without knowing how, the helpless soul is drawn into the fellowship of our incomprehensible God..." (Ole Hallesby in Prayer)

Two Kinds of People

"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened." (C.S. Lewis)

If we truly want the God made known to all the world in Jesus Christ, He will have us and we will have Him. And whether we truly want Him, as is true of anything or anyone we truly desire, it will be manifest in the choices we make each day.

Jesus says, "But seek first [the Kingdom of God] and His righteousness..." (Matthew 6:33)

Prayer: God, help me to be the kind of person who chooses Christ and who so chooses life. I know this is only possible by the power of Your Holy Spirit, Whose help I ask for now. I pray it in the Name of Jesus. Amen

[See here.]

If You're Going to Get Hated, Make Sure It's for the Right Reason

"Just as Jesus could not help but produce enemies, so [His] disciples will have enemies who hate them. That they will be hated, that Christians have been and will continue to be hated, is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness; but if Christians are faithful, they will be hated. They will be hated because those who have gone to the nations in Jesus' name cannot help but produce enemies who refuse to acknowledge the challenge that Jesus's people present to any loyalty not determined by discipleship to Jesus." [from Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006), p.202. Part of his chapter on Matthew 24 and 25.]

It's no surprise that Christians incur hatred for their faith in Christ.

The problem with the Church today is that many Christians seem to almost want to be hated for the wrong reasons. That happens when they confuse faithfulness to Jesus Christ for being apologists for their political philosophy, their class, their social views.

God is not a Republican. God is not a Democrat.

God is not wealthy, middle class, or white.

God is God.

He has been revealed definitively in Jesus Christ.

Christians, if we're going to get people to hate us, let's make sure it's for being faithful to Christ and not for any other reason!

Thursday, November 28, 2013


There are many things for which I'm thankful this Thanksgiving Day. But one stands out above all others.

Most of all, I'm thankful that by God's grace--His charitable love, I have been saved from my sin, eternal separation from God (death), and eternal and daily futility through faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus died and rose for rebel sinners like me.

And when I turn from sin and trust in Him, I have life with God.

More than that, despite my sins and resistance to Jesus' Lordship, for which I daily repent, I am able to live with God and, contemplating the wonder, power, and love of God, I am "being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory."

Love like that is beyond comprehension.

But it can be experienced!

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38-39)

And the Holy Spirit will help you know and walk with Christ each day.

And that's one more thing for which to be thankful!

Throw in with Christ and each day on earth and eternity itself will be thanksgiving...without the family arguments, plumbing problems (the 2013 challenge du jour at my house, by the way), turkey fires, traffic jams, and indigestion.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What is the Church Year?

[Eight years ago, while serving in a parish in the Cincinnati area, as we were beginning a new season of Advent, I presented this explanation of the Church Year. I've renewed it several times in the intervening time, including during my six years at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan. The article, in all its incarnations, remains one of the most popular pieces to appear on the blog. Now with a new Church Year upon us, starting this Sunday, December 1, my first Advent season with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, I thought people might find this overview helpful.]

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anyone, although it's designed to give worshipers who attend Sunday to Sunday, a full exposure to the most important elements of life with Jesus Christ.

Nor does keeping the Church Year "save" a person from sin and death, though the readings from God's Word appointed throughout the year can, in the person willing to let that Word do its work, will be saved.

The Church Year is one of those Church customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also to help believers to grow in their faith. Knowing Jesus as Savior and holding onto Him with sustained belief is how we are saved from sin and death and give us eternal life in Jesus' Name. When the Church Year does that, it's a tool in the hands of God, human invention or not!

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holiday (that word contracts two words: holy day) that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews like Jesus, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week of the new creation!)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. The theme of Advent is waiting. This season remembers more than just the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. (And it's even less a remembrance of our own waiting for Christmas to roll around.) Advent also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in every part of lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. Advent's blue, the color of the sky, reminds us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing about The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. Our current date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. As such, the setting of the Christmas date was meant to be an act of subversion, allowing Christians to proclaim, We know the true Light of the world! Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day we commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus, to Bethlehem. It was there that Mary and Joseph lived with their Child for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave gifts to one another.) The Epiphany Season is composed of between four and nine Sundays after January 6. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, which always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, on top of a mountain, accompanied by three of His disciples, Jesus' image was transfigured by the luminescence of heaven and God spoke, confirming Jesus' identity and mission. On the two bracketing Sundays of the Epiphany Season, the color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others, shining the light of Christ on those around us.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal and precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days.

The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is used in entirely different ways today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate and is related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another.

Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is one of the most moving worship services of the year. At many congregations, there is a service called Tenebrae commemorated on this night. Tenebrae comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us, the Light of the world and all humanity snuffed out as a consequence of our sin.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity. In this season, Christian churches submit to the power and authority and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. The historic creeds of the Church proclaim that the Holy Spirit brings us to faith, establishes Christ's Church, and brings the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons, revealed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, on the Sunday closest to November 30, with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lessons during its year are often taken from John.

Through my years as a pastor, I've felt free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," looking at Biblical texts not appointed in the lectionary, in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world. But the lectionary does provide a well-rounded diet of Biblical material which, when looked at in a disciplined and devoted way, can help Christians develop a deeper faith.

[The image above, showing the cycle of the Church Year, comes from Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]

Monday, November 25, 2013

Who's Your King?

[This was prepared for delivery during this morning's worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio. But it barely resembles the actual sermon delivered. If you visit the Living Water web site in the next several days, you should be able to listen to the sermon.]

Luke 23:33-43
Today, the last day of the Church Year, is Christ the King Sunday.

Our Gospel lesson this morning may seem like a strange text to use on a day devoted to declaring Jesus to be the King of kings. It’s Luke’s sparse account of Jesus’ crucifixion on the first Good Friday.

Kings are treated with honor by their subjects. They get parades, 21-gun salutes, brass bands, palaces. The person sentenced to crucifixion, by contrast, was not only killed, but also labeled as nobodies, the refuse of the world.

On Good Friday, Jesus doesn’t fit our usual picture of a king.

And yet on that day, one man at least, did understand that Jesus Christ is King.

Please go to Luke 23:33-43 (page 737 in the pew Bibles). It begins: “When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals--one on his right, the other on his left.”

It’s interesting how Luke describes the two men between whom Jesus was crucified. The other gospel writers use words to describe them that can be translated as bandits, revolutionaries, or thieves.

But the word used by Luke, which is translated in our Bible as criminals, is, in the original Greek, kakourgous. It’s a compound word which means simply doers of bad.

To me, this is a clever word choice by Luke because we have to admit that we all can be doers of bad. Look, please, at Romans 3:10-12, page 784 in the pew Bibles. It says: "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good [not good-doers, in other words, but evildoers] [And, lest we think we can get off the hook, the passage says again] “no not one." Sinless Jesus was crucified between two sinners who weren’t Osama bin-Laden or Adolf Hitler. They were doers of bad things, just like you and me. That’s important to remember on this Christ the King Sunday.

Next, we’re told: “Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’"

In those days executed people usually prayed something like, “May my death atone for all My sins.” But Jesus, supremely confident that He has led a sinless life, is concerned for the sins of others. He in essence prayed this His death might atone for their sins.

This isn’t a man at the mercy of His accusers or executioners, but a man in control, in charge. A king. On a cross. Willing to accept the punishment that His people--the whole human race--deserve in order to set the free to live in God’s kingdom.

Let's face it though, giving of self to the point of death for the benefit of others is not the way we usually see kings--be they magnates, the superstars of film, music, and sports, presidents, prime ministers, and royalty--act.

Their usual M.O. is built on a simple consideration: What’s in it for me? 

Three different times, Jesus is challenged--mocked, really--to act like a king, to look out for Himself at the expense of others.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Three times the devil went after Jesus to behave like an earthly king, to take power over the world without first conquering our sin and death through His cross and empty tomb. “If you are the Son of God...” the devil had taunted Jesus, “then turn this stone to bread, worship me and you’ll be on easy street, throw Yourself from the temple and give the world a convincing demonstration of Your power that will wow the crowds and do no good for them.” Jesus had resisted every temptation, you’ll remember.

But remember how that encounter between Jesus and the devil ended. Luke 4:13 (page 718): “When the devil had finished all his tempting, he left [Jesus] until an opportune time.”

Good Friday was that opportune time.

Jesus, suffering so much and knowing, because He was also God, how much more there was yet for Him to suffer in fulfilling His mission as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of every doer of bad things on the planet, was deemed ripe for temptation by the devil and those who worked for him in the world.

The devil, through his agents, once more tempted Jesus three times on that Good Friday.

And each time, the temptations were the same as those of the devil in the wilderness: "If you’re King, act like the kings we know. Take the easy way. Look out for number one. Wow us with your power. Seize control of this world."

In verse 35, we’re told that “the rulers [that’s the religious elites of the time] even sneered at [Jesus]. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.’" In verses 36 and 37, we read: “The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’" And verse 39 tells us: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’"

What’s interesting is that in two of these temptations, there’s an acknowledgment that Jesus had the power to save!

They knew that Jesus had raised people from the dead, saving them from death.

That He had given given fresh starts and new lives to notorious sinners, saving them from the consequences of their sin.

They knew that Jesus had fed thousands with a few bits of bread and fish, saving them from weakness and hunger.

They knew that Jesus had healed many diseases and infirmities, saving them from calamity.

But that wasn’t what Kings did! Kings only did things for others as a way of buying their loyalty, their gratitude, their subservience.

And maybe those who mocked and taunted Jesus, like the devil himself, really knew the truth about Jesus, that He was and is the King.

In that case, they might have really wondered, why Jesus didn't save His own neck, take control of the world by power wielded for whatever ends He chose?

That’s the way kings have behaved for centuries. The Roman emperors gave the people bread and circuses in order to keep the reins of power.

The moguls of the entertainment industry are committed to giving people what they want.

They want a king who will look out for number one and to placate them, give them what they want and who will never tell them that they’re sinners lost from God, sinners in need of God's grace and salvation. Kings are egotists who through the wily use of lies, feed human egos!

But Jesus Christ came to bring God’s kingdom not to those who are confident of their own goodness or righteousness.

He doesn’t play to our egos. “...the Son of Man came,” He says in Luke 19:10,  “to seek and to save the lost."

If we don’t know that we’re lost without the forgiveness and new life that Jesus died and rose to make possible for all who believe in Him and know that things of this world that earthly kings might give us are dead and useless, we will never see Jesus as our King.

And, absent that soul-shaking realization, none of us can ever see His kingdom or be part of its. Until we understand that we need Jesus and His cross, we remain outside of the Kingdom.

No one--not the religious leaders, not the soldiers, not the first of the two criminals quoted in our lesson--understood this.

In verse 40 though, we hear though from the second criminal: “But the other criminal rebuked [the first]. ‘Don't you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence [as Jesus]? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’"

I love this man more than almost anyone we meet in Scripture! He is so honest, so humble, so open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so ready to enter the Kingdom of God!

This man knows that Jesus is the King.

And he understands that the only way any of us can see the Kingdom is if we first see that we are sinners in need of a Savior and can confess that Jesus is that Savior, allowing Him to be our King, to reign over us with His forgiveness and grace.

But, notice, he does not ask Jesus to take away his cross!

He understood somehow what we must all understand if we are to have Jesus as our King. Jesus calls all of us to take up our crosses and follow Him.

The wages of sin is still death and those of us born into sin will, unless Jesus returns during our earthly lives, die.

And even in this life, we will face all sorts of crosses, all manner of death.

We must, like the second criminal, own our sins and crucify them through daily confession, repentance, and renewal through the crucified and risen Jesus.

And along life’s way, we must refuse to follow the path of ease and self-glorification.

In this world, we can only follow Jesus on the narrow path of the cross and self-denial.

On this path, we are called to resist the temptation to please ourselves, instead of God.

We’re called to forgo the applause of the world in order to one day hear the “well done” of our Savior.

We’re called to live according to God’s will even at those times when God’s will is the last thing we want in our lives.

We’re called to keep trusting in God even when our prayers seem unanswered or are answered in ways that leave us grieving and inconsolable.

And we are called each day to confess our sins and, like the second evildoer, ask for mercy without any pretense that we deserve it and in the full conviction that we cannot live without God or the mercy He gives through Jesus Christ alone.

Each day, we have before us the way of death or the way of life. Jesus is the way of life. Like the second criminal, we must see that there is life only in Jesus!

In verse 43, Jesus responds to the confessions of the second criminal: “Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’"

This self-confessed evildoer was assured by Jesus that because of his faith in Jesus, he would not be lost to God forever. By repentance, his old sinful self had been crucified and by his faith, Jesus assured him, wherever Jesus is, there is His kingdom and there are those who have become citizens of that kingdom by faith in Christ the King!

And when does that happen for us?

Today! Salvation and life with God comes and is revived within us whenever we confess our sins and confess our faith in Christ the King.

At the very moments we repent and trust in Christ and at every moment we are renewed through repentance and God’s gracious forgiveness, we are in the Kingdom!

The kingdom of God can come to us through every today of our lives, no matter what’s going on in our lives or in the world.

The angels announced at Christmas, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you...”

In the synagogue of Nazareth after reading Isaiah’s prophecy about the messiah, Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

To the tax collector who turned from his sin and trusted in Christ, Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”

God wants us in His Kingdom, even now in this imperfect and dying world.

But you know what?

We can know that Jesus is King.

We can know what the Kingdom of God is.

We can even know how we become part of Jesus’ Kingdom.

But the real question for each of us is this: Is Jesus Christ our King?

Are we daily reclaiming our faith in Him as the only Lord over our lives, priorities, and decisions?

Are we daily turning to Him in humble recognition of our sins and our need of His forgiveness?

Is Jesus Christ our King?

I ask the question not to incite guilt or fear. That would be presumptuous on my part because I know that I am a sinful human being who falls way short of the glory of God!

Instead, I ask the question to give hope.

You see, the God we know in Jesus Christ is the King Who gives second chances.

And third chances.

And unnumbered chances.

To an evildoer who was being justly executed for his sin, but who sought a new chance, a new life, Jesus eagerly and lovingly gave not just the promise of eternity, but also the promise of being with him today, now, in all the remaining moments of this life.

If you’re anything like me, I know that you need those second chances.

Not breads and circuses.

Not tax breaks or the latest bauble or googog the world offers.

You need Jesus Christ.

Today, Christ our King offers no less than life eternal with God, beginning with His stubborn, loving presence with us today, right now, to all who turn from sin and latch onto Him as their only God.

May Jesus Christ be our King every day we live! Amen