Thursday, January 16, 2014

Read the Bible in a Year (Days 4-11)

Genesis 10-33 (January 10-17)
Psalms 4-11

1. Genesis 11 tells the story of the tower of Babel. This is a tale of the hubris and pretense of human self-sufficiency that results from sin. As was true of Adam and Eve when they were banished from the garden in which they could eat the fruit from the tree of life, God's dispersal of the builders of the tower is an act of grace. When we human beings get our ways in acting like God, our souls are endangered and the happiness of those who become our victims is harmed.

2. Genesis 12 begins the narrative of Israel's patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

After the disasters of Eden, the flood, and Babel, Abraham and the patriarchs represent a fresh start for the world. As Jesus pointed out to the Samaritan woman at the well, salvation is from the Jews. The Jews--Israel, Hebrews--were called to be God's people and, in the course of time, become the nursery into which the Savior of the world, Jesus was to be born.

3. The patriarchs obviously weren't chosen by God for His purposes for their virtue, strength, or power, but solely by virtue of God's grace. Abraham's trust in God brings him righteousness (Genesis 15:6). This has always been God's MO. God ultimately revealed Himself to all the world in Christ. All who believe in Him, God in the flesh, have forgiven sin, reconciliation with God, and eternal life with God. Ephesians 2:8-9 says: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast."

4. Genesis 18 begins with the narrative of God's visit to Abraham and Sarah. Saint Augustine believed that the three persons who visited them were the one God in three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Buttressing this notion is the Old Testament's tendency to speak of the "angel of the Lord" (literally messenger of the Lord) in ways that seem to make God Himself the messenger. In any case, it is clear that Abraham is visited by God.

5. It's this incident in Genesis 18, that gives rises to the words of the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews: "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2) And Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46, that when we serve the "least" of the world, we really are serving Him. In the great commandment, Jesus says that loving others is on a par with loving God Himself. So, when we show hospitality, as Abraham did to the three strangers to his tent, he was welcoming God...and would have been even if none of the strangers was God.

This is how invested God is in every human life. However marred by sin, every human being bears the image of God.

What if we took this attitude toward every person we encountered?

What if our churches displayed this attitude of reverence and welcome for every person--those known to us and those not known--who worshiped with us on Sundays?

What if Christians took this attitude? How many more people would be open to receiving the good news of new and eternal life for all who turn from sin and trust in Christ if this was our attitude?

6. At the end of Genesis 18, God prevails upon God, ultimately for the sake of just 10 righteous people who might be found in Sodom, to spare the city. God delights in co-conspiring with those who, with faith and helplessness, prevail upon his mercy in prayer. But God will not go where God is uninvited. The real tragedy of Sodom may be that Abraham was so limited in his praying. What might have happened had he prayed that God simply spare Sodom and help the people repent for sin and trust in God's grace? We'll never know.

Never be afraid to ask God for the whole enchilada. He may say no, maybe, wait, or yes. Those answers are within His power. But never be fearful about approaching God with what may seem like big prayers.

7. In Genesis 20, Abraham repeats the same sin he committed earlier, lying, telling people that Sarah was his wife in order to save his skin. For me, this is a great comfort. Abraham exhibits here what some people call an "abiding sin," a sin to which we may be particularly prone.

We're all sinners and prone to sin as a result. But for us as individuals, there seem to be sins to which we're especially prone, ones we find especially enticing. Abraham's lack of trust in God drove him to this sin of lying to men of power and throwing his wife under the bus, so to speak. Yet, Abraham appears to have continued in the general direction of following God. 

We all sin. But if we will keep following Jesus, living in what Luther called "daily repentance and renewal," the direction of our lives will remain firm. God will forgive our sins for the sake of Jesus' self-sacrifice on the cross and send His Spirit to help us resist committing the same sins repeatedly. 

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, in the New Testament: "No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it." That's a great promise!

And another great promise is found 1 John 2:1. There, John is encouraging believers to avoid sinning against God or others. Then he writes: "My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One." 

8. Genesis 20: God strictly forbids child sacrifice. This makes God's command of Abraham to sacrifice Isaac almost incomprehensible. But one of the lessons this strange and disturbing incident seems to convey is that the promise of God doesn't depend on human beings; God is the provider. And, in the end of course, God provides Abraham with a ram to sacrifice in his son's place.

(Centuries later, God would disdain the sacrifice of unblemished lambs for His people's sins, offered annually. Instead, He would offer His own Son to pay the price for our sins forever, so that all who turn from sin and trust in Christ, have forgiveness and everlasting life.)

For more, you might want to read this, Does God Punish Parents Through the Suffering of Their Children? NO!

9. Genesis 24: The narrative of Isaac's marriage to Rebekah is one of pure romantic delight. In that era of arranged marriages, here were two people who fell in love despite the context.

10. Genesis 25-27: Despite the love that Isaac and Rebekah shared, their household was less than functional. Mom favored Jacob. Dad favored Esau. In the midst of these negative family dynamics, God was still working. God was still gracing this family. And God still intended that this line, centuries later, would be the family into which the Savior Jesus would be born.

Your family may not be perfect. (No such animal exists.) But God can still bless and use you and your family.

11. Genesis 27: Blessings had meaning to the ancient Israelites. And we must acknowledge to this day, that words have power.

12. Genesis 28-31: Jacob gets a few comeuppances in these chapters. First, he becomes a fugitive from his brother, Esau, after he had cheated Esau. Second, Laban, even more of a schemer than Jacob, tricks him into long years of labor so that Jacob can finally have Rachel as his wife. (Poor Leah!)

13. Genesis 32: Jacob wrestles with God. Jacob seeks a blessing from God. God does bless Jacob, but at the cost of a lifelong limp. The limp would serve as a lifelong reminder to Jacob of his vulnerability.

God blesses those vulnerable enough to admit their need of God. But if they're fortunate, God will leave a mark vulnerability on their lives so that they never forget Who is in control or the grace He bears on those who are faithfully dependent on Him.

14. Genesis 33: Jacob's worries about his brother prove ill-founded. Worry about the futures we can't control is endemic to humanity, an outgrowth of of our desire to be in control, to "be like God." But worry does little for us and it gets in the way of faith. (I am an experienced worrier, by the way!)

You might want to check out this post, DO NOT WORRY!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Prayer, Part 1

[This was prepared to share with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday, January 12.]

Luke 11:1-4
No subject causes more confusion, insecurity, and, at times, even doubt among Christians than prayer.

People ask, “What am I allowed to pray to God about? Will God be mad at me if I ask for the wrong things? What am I supposed to say?”

On top of basic questions like these, there are times when almost every Christian feels that God has turned a deaf ear to their desperate prayers.

Or, they feel that the path that seems so clear and right to them is being blocked by God.

In circumstances like these, we may wonder where God is, if God is, or, if God is there, why He isn’t responding as we devoutly beg him to respond.

Today, we begin a four-part series on prayer. Three weeks from today, we’ll consider the mystery of unanswered prayer.

But today and over the next two Sundays, we’ll consider how to pray and, along the way, why.

This morning, I ask you to turn to Luke 11:1-4 (page 725 in the pew Bibles). There, Jesus is seen by His disciples doing what He often did. He’s praying.

Jesus‘ disciples were taken with the fact that, at every opportunity He had, Jesus prayed to His Father. Seeing how important prayer was to Jesus and remembering that John the Baptist had taken time to teach his disciples how to pray, the disciples make a simple request. “Lord,” they say to Jesus, “teach us to pray.”

In response to their request, Jesus proceeded to share with them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew has a slightly different version of the same prayer.

And the version we use during worship is sort of a mashup of the Matthew and Luke versions, along with the addition of a doxology--”For Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever and ever”--that the Church has been adding to the prayer ever since the late first century. (Doxology is a compound of Greek words and it means word of glory.)

Nonetheless, when Jesus was asked how to pray, He shared this prayer.

That doesn’t mean that all our praying should parrot the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus warns us against prayer that’s mere repetition. In Matthew 6:7 (page 678), Jesus says: “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

Vain repetition  isn’t prayer!

Nor is long winded praying.

But in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us much of what we need to know about how to pray. So, what exactly does He teach us?

Back to Luke 11:2, please. Jesus begins the prayer with, “Father.” Other translations insist on what we have traditionally been taught: “Our Father in heaven.”

In The Small Catechism, Martin Luther calls this the introduction to the prayer. And, though only four words in length--Our Father in heaven, it is amazing: Through Jesus Christ, we are given the privilege of an intimate relationship with the Creator of the entire universe!

As many of you know, the word translated as Father is, in the Aramaic language in which Jesus daily spoke and first taught this prayer, Abba, is a word used by small children of their daddies.

Galatians 3:26 in the New Testament says that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” That’s why we’re privileged to call the first Person of the Triune God our Father!

In teaching us to address God the Father so intimately, Jesus is telling us that God is never too busy to hear from those who follow Jesus Christ or are open to knowing God the only way you can, through Christ

Jesus once told the story of a widow who had been swindled and who sought justice from a corrupt judge, a judge who only found in favor of plaintiffs who paid him bribes. Initially, the judge wouldn’t hear the poor widow out. But she wouldn’t stop nagging the judge. She petitioned him constantly. In Luke 18:4-5, the corrupt judge in Jesus' parable caves. He says: “Even though I don't fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually come and attack me!”

Now, don't misunderstand! Jesus is not saying that our Father in heaven is like that unjust judge. Jesus says that if an unjust judge who has no respect for God or people can eventually be forced into listening to a poor widow’s pleas, how much more will the pure and incorruptible God Who sent His only Son so that all who believe in Him will have everlasting life be quick to hear us when we call to Him?

The God Who, through Jesus, we know is our Father, wants to hear from His children and we need never hesitate to call out to Him.

The late Lutheran writer R.A. Dell, whose Senior Catechism taught generations of young Lutherans what the Christian faith is about, pointed out that in Luke 18:1, Jesus says that believers “should always pray.” In other words, prayer isn’t an add-on to the Christian life. It’s central to it. Jesus commands Christians to pray.

But Dell also puts his finger on why Jesus makes this command when he says, “Prayer is a communion with God, in which we bring all our joys and sorrows to Him as our dear Friend.”

We call God our Father because prayer is the intimate conversation that God our Father and our best friend wants to have with us! Knowing this is key to knowing how to pray.

Prayer isn’t a skill to be learned, but the conduit for a relationship to be savored.

But we dare not forget that prayer is also an encounter with the Lord of the universe Who is infinitely greater than us in power and goodness!

God is the friend of believers in Christ. But He is not our buddy!

When we come before Him, we should be ever mindful of God's holiness and power.

Go back to Luke 11:2, please, and read the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, the first thing Jesus teaches us to ask from God in prayer: “Hallowed be Your Name.”

Jesus teaches us that when we come to God in prayer, we need to acknowledge that God is the King and Creator of all, Who deserves to be loved, feared, honored, respected, and surrendered to.

The hardest lesson a parent must teach her or his child is that the child isn’t the center of the universe. It's a hard lesson to teach and it's a hard lesson to learn! You and I are born in sin, meaning that Adam and Eve have passed onto you and me a desire to “be like God.” None of us is the center of the universe!

But when each of us places our own desires and impulses first in our priorities, our lives and the life of the world gets out of whack.

Everything that is wrong with our world--everything that is wrong with me, I confess--is the result of this kind of sinful me-first thinking.

When we pray that God’s Name and God’s will be hallowed--respected, revered, held in awe--we are saying, “God, I bow my knee to You and I beg You to put the world and me right by ensuring that You and Your good will are of first importance!”  

This petition that God’s Name will be hallowed and respected and praised by us and by the world bears a relationship to the second commandment. There, God tells us, “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold guiltless those who take His Name in vain.” To do anything vainly is to do it for no good purpose, uselessly.

When we use God’s Name as a swear word, or as a witty punctuation, as often happens on sitcoms, we are violating the holiness of God’s Name.

It’s a privilege to be given access to God by knowing Him and His Name. That’s why Luther says that “we should fear and love God so that we do not use His Name superstitiously or to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call upon Him in every time of need, and worship Him with prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.”

When we ask that God’s Name be hallowed, we’re asking that He would give us the faith to use His Name only to petition Him in Jesus’ Name, to praise Him for His goodness and grace, and to thank Him for His blessings.

By praying that God's Name will be hallowed, we militate against our inborn selfishness and re-orient our hearts, minds, and wills toward pleasing God the creator, not his creatures.

Back to Luke 11:2. The second petition Jesus teaches us to pray is, “Your kingdom come.” Notice that we’re at the second petition of this prayer and Jesus still doesn't want us to pray for what we want.

In the second petition, we’re still praying that God will help us put God’s priorities first. In this case, we pray that His kingdom will come.

God’s kingdom is God’s reign. God’s kingdom exists when and where people voluntarily submit to the rule of the Lord we know in Jesus Christ, where people take up their crosses (that is, acknowledge their sin), repent, and believe in Jesus Christ as their only God and Lord, and so, have the assurance of life with God, now and in eternity.

As Luther says, “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we [are able to] believe His holy Word and live a godly life now and in eternity.”

King David was encouraging the people of ancient Israel (and Christians who, through Jesus, have come to believe in Israel’s God), to live under the reign of God when he sang in Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God! I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”

I am convinced that, in these times, there is no more important prayer for us to pray than that God’s kingdom will come, that Christ will rule as King over us all.

The world needs a new awakening to the goodness of God and to our need of the new life that only comes from the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.

And we Christians need to realize that being a follower of Jesus Christ isn’t about being a nice person or keeping our mouths shut in the face of evil.

Those who live in the kingdom of God love all their fellow sinners while hating all sin, whether it's the sin inside themselves or the sin enslaving the world to Satan and hell.

They are intentional about sharing Christ in loving ways with the people in their lives who don’t know Christ.

We need for God to come and reign over us, to turn our lives and the lives of our churches, our countries, and our world to Jesus Christ. But this will not happen if we Christians are not intentional about regularly, in our own ways, praying that God’s kingdom will come to our churches, our friends and neighbors, our homes, and our world. When we ask for God’s kingdom to come to us and to our relationships and our world, God goes to work.  

So, how do we pray?
  • First, believing in Christ, we come to God our Father, authentically and helplessly as children who need Him for life and guidance, forgiveness and hope.
  • Second, we pray that His Name will be respected and honored, first by us and also by the world.
  • And third, we pray that His kingdom, which comes without our help but which we can only receive through faith in Christ, will come to us afresh each day, finding us truly submissive to Jesus, tapping into the power of the Holy Spirit to live lives of devotion and holiness.
These, Jesus says, are the starting points of true prayer. More next Sunday. Amen