Saturday, December 13, 2014

"10 Historical Myths About World Christianity"

From a professor at the University of Edinburgh.

Good Intentions

Pastor David Wendel's 2014 Advent devotions are rooted in the passages of Scripture found in the daily lectionary of Lutheran Book of Worship. The verses explored by Wendel are part of the Gospel of Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion:
But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and death."
Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me." (Luke 22:33-34)
The interchange between Peter and Jesus happens just before Jesus' arrest and subsequent execution. 

Peter, we know, isn't good for the promises he makes here. On the black night of Jesus' show trial, Peter is identified by people in the crowd as one of Jesus' followers and on three occasions, denies any association with Jesus. 

The seasoned Christian has a tendency to either lament Peter's spinelessness or to take comfort in our own fear.

But maybe we should have a different reaction. 

All of us tend to condemn those who say one thing and do another. And for good reason. There are few things more contemptible in others--or in ourselves--than intentionally committing to one thing and failing to do it. Or intentionally committing not to do one thing, then doing another. With other Christians, I often confess to God that I have "sinned against [Him] in thought, word, and deed, by what [I] have done and by what [I] have left undone."

It's still sin to willfully break our promises to God. Peter still needed to repent and reclaim his faith in Christ after Christ had risen (John 21). 

But the evidence indicates that Peter's "denial" was not seen by Jesus as being on a par with Judas' "betrayal." 

There appears to be a difference between what we often call "good intentions," the breezy, thoughtless promises we make that carry no commitment and no real intentionality, and those promises we truly intend to make but that we allow our sinful natures to prevent us from fulfilling. 

In the former cases, our spirits are disengaged from and indifferent to the promises we make. 

In the latter, our spirits are willing but our finite, selfish human natures--what the Bible calls our "flesh"--is weak, irresolute, flaky. (See here.)

I think that Peter's denial fell into this latter category. Unlike Judas, there was no premeditation in Peter's failure to stand by Jesus. He'd had actual good intentions.

That's why, I think, Jesus didn't give up on Peter. On the first Easter Sunday, an angel tells the women who have come to Jesus' tomb, thinking Jesus was dead that, in fact, Jesus had risen from the dead, then gives these instructions: "...But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee.'" (Mark 16:7)

The angel, God's messenger, singled Peter out for inclusion.

Peter remained part of Jesus' plans and within the scope of His forgiving grace despite failing to meet the bold commitments he made on the Thursday of Jesus' arrest.

I take comfort from this. 

Like Peter, I've made bold commitments to Jesus. And I have failed to keep them. Sometimes spectacularly so, at least in my own mind.

But the God we meet in Jesus penetrates my heart and knows the difference between so-called good intentions and the actual variety. In his charge to his son, Solomon, King David in the Old Testament said: 
"And you, my son Solomon, acknowledge the God of your father, and serve him with wholehearted devotion and with a willing mind, for the Lord searches every heart and understands every desire and every thought. If you seek him, he will be found by you; but if you forsake him, he will reject you forever." (1 Chonicles 28:9)
In Jesus Christ, God grades those who genuinely repent and trust in Christ as their only hope on a grace curve.

He "remembers that we are dust" and, so meets us with forgiveness when we, seeing our failure to fulfill our intentions to love God and to love others, repent and seek His power to live differently today than we did yesterday.

It's to bring the possibility of such grace to us that Jesus was born, died, and rose again: to make us right with God, to help us to live in the light of heaven and not the darkness of hell, and to give us life with God that never ends.

Thank God for that.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'The Sword of Contention'

That's the title of this new novel by my friend, Mike Adams. Just downloaded my copy onto Kindle.

It's a work of historical fiction peopled by some real life characters and their actual circumstances in sixth century Britain.

"Don't give up on Me"


In the Bleak Midwinter by James Taylor

Jesus' Agenda of Radical Transformation

Pastor David Wendel, assistant to the Bishop of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), has produced an Advent devotional, which you can download here. The Bible verses are drawn from the daily lectionary appointed for the Advent season. Today's devotion is really worth taking the time to read:

Wednesday of the Week of Advent II
Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again.” –John 7:53-8:1

There are those in Christianity today who celebrate what is called “radical hospitality.” They have read the Scriptures and convinced themselves that the Lord Jesus Christ was radically hospitable, welcoming all people, regardless. In a sense this is absolutely true. He spoke with all people—those who thought themselves righteous and those who knew they were terrible sinners. There was no one Jesus wouldn’t speak with, sit with, or engage in conversation. We wouldn’t rightly call this “hospitality,” but love, kindness, mutual respect and regard for all God’s created children. We do well in life and in our congregations to have that same love, kindness, respect and regard for all people—even the greatest sinners!

The mistake people make, however, is in thinking that Jesus welcomes even the greatest sinners without confronting their sin. In our reading for today, Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem, teaching. And the Pharisees bring to him a woman caught in adultery, asking the Master what ought to be done with her, as the Law of Moses commands that she be stoned to death. In response, Jesus answers with some of the most memorable words ever spoken, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” And all walk away, for they were all sinners. And does Jesus now say, “Nice to meet you— have a good day”? Does Jesus now say, “Go and keep on living as you have been living—in adultery”? No—he says, “Go, and do not sin again.”

This is certainly not radical hospitality. This is not acceptance of the woman, regardless of her sin. This is not welcome for the sinner, come as you are—remain as you are. Rather, Jesus offers radical transformation. Jesus isn’t about issuing judgments and condemnations, so much as calling people to life-changing transformation, as a result of their encounter with him.

Lord Jesus, as you come to us in Word and Sacrament, turn our hearts and transform our lives that we may go and sin no more. Amen.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Welcome to Our World by Michael W. Smith

One of my favorite Christmas songs.

Just Arrived...

My copy of Goliath by Steve Taylor and The Perfect Foil.

The Lovers That Never Were by Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney's voice on this one, co-written with Elvis Costello, sometimes seems a bit strained to me. And I could have done without the background repeats on the final run through the chorus.

One other aspect of the song I don't like is its accusatory tone in the second verse. People often have good reason for not pursuing relationships that have nothing to do with unkindness, even when they love the other person...sometimes because they love the other person.

Ultimately though, I feel that this is a great sad song about a love that never happens.

Favorite line: "I know there will be a parade of unpainted dreams."

The Lovers That Never Were appeared on McCartney's spotty 1993 release, Off the Ground.

Here are the lyrics:

I have always needed somebody girl
But I close the doors to keep out the world
But for you, I would be here all alone locked in a photograph
All of the clocks have run down, lover beware
We'll be the lovers that never were

I hang patiently on every word you send
Will we ever be much more than just friends?
As for you, you sit there playing this game you keep me waiting
When all of the clocks have run down all over the world
We'll be the lovers that never were

For as long as the sun shines in somebody's eyes
I believe in you baby, so don't tell me lies
For as long as the trees throw down blossoms and leaves
I know there will be a parade of unpainted dreams

And I know dear, how much it's going to hurt
If you still refuse to get your hands dirty
So you, you must tell me something, I love you
Say goodbye or anything all of the clocks have run down
Times at an end, if we can't be lovers we'll never be friends

For as long as the sun shines in somebody's eyes
I believe in you baby, so don't tell me lies
For as long as the trees throw down blossoms and leaves
I know there will be a parade of unpainted dreams

Published by
Lyrics © Universal Music Publishing Group

This Cracked Me Up

Well played, Mr. President.

Christians: Ebenezer Scrooge, George Bailey, and the Grinch Can't Do What Only You Can Do

It's that time of year again. The time when one of Christians' favorite indoor sports is lamenting how advertisers, retailers, and the big bad media have taken Christ out of Christmas. These lamentations are often accompanied by references to how different things were "back in the day."


Think of the Christmas classics that have warmed our hearts for decades.

How much of Christ is there in It's a Wonderful Life? It's my favorite movie. But there's no mention of Jesus' birth in it, except for the incessant rehearsal of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by one of George Bailey's daughters.

The only mention of Jesus in The Bishop's Wife comes at the end, during the bishop's Christmas Eve sermon, when he holds Jesus up, not as the Savior of the world, but as an example of good living.

Most of the Christmas Classics--from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to The Polar Express, from A Christmas Carol to Christmas in Connecticut--have nothing to do with Christmas.

They're wonderful, heart-warming stories. But they're not about Christ at all.

The media, advertisers, and the retailers have always loved turning the Feast of Christ's Nativity into a festival of winter sentimentality and materialism. It sells. And it's less controversial. (The rare exception being, A Charlie Brown Christmas, among others.)

So, why the laments? The culture's Christ-less Christmas is nothing new. We Christians need to get over it.

Many of the Christian laments and groanings are rooted in a more basic problem: We Christians are terrible about passing our faith along to others in our personal relationships. For decades, Christians have relied on the culture (or the preacher or the Sunday School class) to pass along the truth that God came into the world in the Person of Jesus Christ, took our rightful death sentence for sin, and rose from the dead so that all who turn from sin (repent) and believe in Him as their only God and King, have life with God, imperfectly in this imperfect world and perfectly in the perfect world to come.

We can't trust the culture to share that message. It's not the job of moviemakers, toy manufacturers, or Macy's. It's someone else's job altogether.

In today's installment of Our Daily Bread, we're reminded of God's instructions to His people, Israel, delivered through Moses, just before Israel entered the Promised Land. God gave His people what's become know as the Shema:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
A relationship with God is passed on person to person: parent to child, child to parent, friend to friend, co-worker to co-worker, neighbor to neighbor, classmate to classmate.

We can't rely on a culture that isn't so much antagonistic to Christian faith as it is, as it always has been, indifferent to Christian faith, to pass it on to our neighbors and friends.

People do not come to faith in Christ by cultural osmosis. It's passed on from one flesh and blood human being who believes in Christ to another flesh and blood human being.

That's why, writing decades after Jesus' resurrection, the apostle Peter told Christians living in what is today called Turkey: prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,  keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (1 Peter 3:15-16)
As a Christian, I believe that everyone who calls out in faith to the God revealed in Jesus Christ will be saved. But, as Paul writes at another place in the New Testament:
How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14)
Paul wasn't talking about professional preachers proclaiming the Good News of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

He was talking about every Christian, in their sitting at home, in their walking along the road, in the morning and in the evening, being ready to do things like...

  • offer to pray for others to the God with whom they have intimacy through Christ;
  • offer to help them when they need child care or a lift to work;
  • serve meals to homeless people; 
  • be considerate of those others disrespect;
and, in a thousand other ways, earn the right to tell others about the eternity of hope through Christ that causes us to gratefully love God and love the people for whom Jesus Christ died and rose...everybody.

You might earn that right with something as simple as telling the clerk at the store, "Merry Christmas" or "God bless you" during this Advent season.

Jesus isn't relying on the culture to share His gospel with the world. He's relying on people who follow Him to do that.

Christians, that's us. Will we do it? 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Getting Ready for a New Day

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, yesterday.]

Mark 1:1-8
Truth is a rare commodity, it seems... 

From the advertisers who tell us that their products will make us happy, healthy, or sexy to the friend who soothingly says that that article of clothing doesn’t make us look fat... 

From the bigot who claims, “I’m not prejudiced” to the politician who insists that the other guy is a crook...

Truth is often is short supply.

One reason for this is that truth isn't always the socially acceptable option. 

During Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign for president, a reporter visited his mother Miss Lillian in Plains, Georgia. “Miss Lillian,” he said, “your son says that he will never lie to the American people. Has he ever lied?” Miss Lillian replied, “Oh, I suppose he might have sometimes told a little white lie.” When asked what might constitute 'a little white lie,' she responded, “You remember when you came in here and I told you that I was glad to see you?” 

Miss Lillian told her little white lie because sometimes, maybe more often than we like to admit, we would rather be lied to than to be told the truth. The truth can hurt

Especially when it tells us things about ourselves, our characters, our actions, or our lives that are less than moral or healthy or wise or Godly.

Today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 1:1-8, brings us face to face with John the Baptist. Even though John lived in New Testament times, he was, in a way, the last of the Old Testament prophets. 

You see, the chief characteristic of a prophet wasn’t that they foretold the future, although their messages often contained such “prophecies.” The main thing a prophet did was tell the truth. Prophets told and sometimes acted out truth that God had revealed to them

They shared God’s truth whether people wanted to hear it or not. 

Many of the prophets over the centuries, for example, told Israel that it needed to turn back to God at the very moments when Israel was dividing its loyalties between God and various idols. (Just to cover all the bases.) This message of return to God was the last thing Israel wanted to hear when everything in their lives seemed to be working so well, when the GDP was high, when there was full employment, when their military seemed invincible. 

They believed that their worldly success indicated that God was for them and that the prophets were wrong. 

They couldn’t believe that a loving God would mind it if they mixed in a little self-reliance in with His calls for utter reliance on Him alone. 

They couldn't imagine God being offended when they lied and cut corners to get ahead of those they saw as the undeserving people of their society or those from other countries, religions, and races that they encountered. 

And they certainly would not have liked it when one of the prophets spoke God’s truth to their selfishness, idolatry, materialism, and injustice. Micah wrote: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8, ESV]

But there were other times when the truth of the prophets came like healing salve to wounded skin or like living water for thirsting souls. 

For example, in the first two verses of today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Isaiah speaks to an Israel that had been conquered, seen its livelihood destroyed, witnessed its best and brightest sent into exile, all because it had arrogantly walked away from God. 

Now, what was left of Israel had humbly turned back to God and through the prophet God said, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” [Isaiah 40:1-2]

Prophets always told God’s truth. 

Prophets called people mired in sin and arrogance to repent, to repudiate their sin and turn back to God. 

Prophets also called people who did repent to trust in God’s forgiveness and grace.

This is exactly the message of John the Baptist. Take a look at today’s Gospel lesson on page 699 of the sanctuary Bibles. Verse 1: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.” This is the title that Mark gives the gospel.

I believe that Mark meant this sentence fragment to be the title of his book about Jesus. The story of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are only the beginning of the Gospel, the good news, about Jesus. It's only when people come to faith in Christ and only after Jesus has returned to judge the living and the dead and to usher in the new creation, that the Gospel will be completed.

Verse 2: “ it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”--’a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’” 

Because Isaiah was considered the more important of the Old Testament prophets, Mark only mentions Isaiah here. But part of what Mark quotes is also from Malachi. No matter, the point is that these Old Testament prophecies said that God was going to send a prophet to get things ready for the arrival of the Savior of the world

That prophet--that messenger--they’re talking about would “prepare the way” for the Messiah. 

Malachi said that this messenger would “make straight paths.” That’s road construction language. John appeared in the wilderness to be a bulldozer! 

He came to build a freeway to give the world access to the Savior. 

Through John’s ministry, all that might keep people from seeing and trusting in the Messiah--all their sin, cynicism, despair, and arrogance--was to be cleared away. 

He would clearly speak the truth about what they needed to receive the Messiah’s favor--repentance and faith. 

People would either accept that truth or they wouldn’t. But no one, after hearing John. could honestly say they didn’t know how to prepare for the coming, the advent, of the Messiah. Neither can we.

Verse 4: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” 

Mark is engaging in hyperbole here. He doesn’t mean that every house in Jerusalem and Judea was emptied. We know, for example, that the king who would eventually order John’s execution didn’t go out to hear John’s message. But he did hear about it. Which is what John got in trouble. Kings don’t always like to hear that they’re sinners in need of repentance and surrendering trust in God. Few people do
What was it, though, that, despite the distastefulness of his message, attracted the crowds to John? 

It wasn’t because of his dress or diet. Verse 6: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” Both his clothes and his food would have been considered weird ven back in first century Judea. 

And it wasn’t because John thumped his chest and proclaimed how great he was. He didn’t promise that his message would make anybody wealthy or healthy or trouble free. Verse 7: “And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.’” 

John was pointing to Jesus. 

At the very moment he did so, thousands of people were hanging on his every word. 

He was the center of attention. 

Some were even claiming that John himself was the Messiah. Heady stuff!

But John says, “I’m just a messenger. I'm an unworthy slave.” 

In those days, tying and untying the straps of a great man’s sandals was the job of the lowliest of servants. John says that he wouldn’t even be worthy of doing that for the Messiah about to appear. 

This is a truth about ourselves that we must all learn to accept

And it’s harder for us to accept than it should be. 

I know that it is for me. 

It’s the very truth that the human race has resisted and chafed under since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

It’s this : God our creator is infinitely greater than we are and we must submit to His will, not the other way around
In the Advent and Christmas seasons, we remember again how great God truly is. 

But His greatness can't be measured by the means that this dying world uses.

Jesus' greatness is beyond worldly greatness. The Savior Who was so great that John couldn’t get a job as his slave, bore the full weight of our humanity, becoming a servant of the whole human race, washed the feet of His disciples, suffered the consequence of our sin by dying on a cross, then rose from the dead so that, despite our unworthiness, all who repent and entrust themselves to Him can live with God forever. It's a truth summarized in the Bible's most famous verse. 

We know it by heart. But I'm not sure how much we take it to heart. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] 

This describes the great God worthy of our complete surrender!

Verse 8: [John said:] “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 

John’s baptism was a symbolic washing that repentant people underwent to demonstrate to God that they turned from sin and were ready for the Messiah to come into the world. In it, the person who was baptized was the main actor. 

Later, Jesus instituted a completely different kind of Baptism. In Holy Baptism, God sends His Holy Spirit, the same Spirit Who moved over the waters in Genesis to bring the universe into being, and gives new life in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He does this to people who are utterly incapable of helping themselves or of making themselves right with God, whether they're brought to the baptismal waters as infants, teenagers, or adults. God is the main actor. We are the recipients of His gracious will to make us part of His new creation.

The Messiah, John the Baptist was saying, was coming to make people new, to make the whole creation new. 
In Advent, we remind ourselves that the Messiah is coming again. 

We need to be ready for that day. 

We prepare ourselves in the same way that John’s preaching commended: We willingly confess our sins, turn from them, and trust the God we know in Jesus Christ to make us new. 

Confessing sin means accepting hard truths about ourselves. We’re not always the good people we think we are or portray ourselves to be. 

Trusting in Jesus means shelving all pretense of self-sufficiency. That wounds our pride. 

But when, day by day, moment by moment, we repent and trust, we are ready to meet the Messiah, our God and King. 

And that’s the truth about God and about us that will stand for all eternity. Amen

[For a discussion of Holy Baptism, see here. For more on confessing sin, see here. And, to see a discussion of repentance, look here.]