Friday, February 27, 2015

Heaven on a Sunday by Paul McCartney

"Restful, like Devon on a Monday
"Cooling my fingers in the bay
"We've been learning a song
"But it's a long and lonely blues

"If I only had one love
"Yours would be the one I'd choose.."
Love the image of sitting dreamily on a boat, reclining, and dipping fingers into the bay to feel the cool water.

The song seems to be the wistful wishing of a couple whose love, for whatever reason, can't be. So, they've been learning a song, but they can't sing celebrations together, just "a long and lonely blues."

This ballad is among the last tunes on which Paul McCartney's late wife Linda sang background vocals. Their son, James, also provides the guitar solo.

Devon, mentioned in the second verse, is a county in the southwest of England. Its south edge sets on the English Channel. On its north is Bristol Channel, which seems likely "the bay" in the song.

The video is part of an autoplay of Macca material. I don't usually link to stuff on Youtube that automatically takes you to other songs. But I had no other option for linking to Heaven on a Sunday. It's a pretty little thing. Just thought of it as I was heading for bed.
"Peaceful, like heaven on a Sunday
"Wishful, not thinking what to do
"We've been calling it love
"But it's a dream we're going through

"And if I only had one love
Yours would be the one I'd choose"
That, I think, is sigh-inducing.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Teach Us to Pray, Part 1

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio during this evening's midweek Lenten service.]

Psalm 98
Luke 11:1-2
From Luke, chapter 11, verse 1: “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”

This passage comes less than halfway through Luke’s account of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That means it appears well before Jesus’ disciples knew that Jesus was God as well as a good man.

But at this point, it’s probably fair to say that they
did understand two things about Jesus.

First, they understood that
He was magnetic. The disciples felt pulled into Jesus' orbit.

And second, they knew that Jesus prayed.

And because learning to pray--something we can always afford to learn more about--is the focus of these midweek Lenten services, it’s on this second thing that the disciples understood about Jesus that we’ll be focusing in the next few weeks of Lent.

In the Gospel of Luke, the words pray, prayed, and prayer are used many times of Jesus. (Try going through the Gospel of Luke sometime and underlining every time those words appear.)

A few examples:

Luke 5:16 says that Jesus was in the habit of withdrawing to quiet places to pray.

Luke 6:12 says that Jesus went to a mountain to pray and did so all night long.

Luke 22:41 says that in the Garden of Gethsemane before His betrayal and arrest, Jesus withdrew a stone’s throw from the disciples and prayed.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Luke 3:21 says that as Jesus was baptized and was praying, the heavens opened up and a voice from heaven said that Jesus was God’s beloved Son.

Luke 9:28:35 says that the Transfiguration, which we talke about on a recent Sunday morning, happened as Jesus was praying.

The point is that
Jesus prayed a lot!

So, it may seem the most natural thing in the world that one of the disciples--interestingly, never named, meaning it could have been any one of them--would ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”

This probably wasn’t as pious a request as it seems, though. By this point in Jesus' ministry, Peter had made his confession of Jesus as the Messiah and he, James, and John had seen Jesus transfigured on the mountain. But all of the disciples were a long way from understanding Who Jesus was, what it meant to confess Him as Messiah or Lord, or what it meant to pray.

One clue to the ignorance with which the disciple asked to be taught to pray is that after he says, “Lord, teach us to pray,” he adds, “as John taught his disciples.”

This is club-thinking, like someone at Kiwanis saying, “Hey, the Rotarians have dinners, shouldn’t we have dinners, too?”

It’s keeping-up-with-the-Joneses thinking, like ancient Israel saying, "All the other countries around us have kings.
We need a king too."

So, the disciples' request for instruction on how to pray is a bit suspect.

But, among the many wonderful things about Jesus is that even when the requests we bring to Him are ill-formed, misinformed, or silly, He still listens to us.

Jesus heard the disciple’s request to teach him and the others how to pray, overlooked the ignorance and misinformation behind the request, and gave him—gave
usa model for prayer that can accommodate everyone from the youngest believer to the most seasoned saint.

Jesus begins: “When you pray, say, ‘Father, hallowed be Your Name.”

Matthew’s Gospel remembers the beginning of Jesus’ instructions a bit differently. Matthew renders Jesus’ words as: “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your Name…”

The Small Catechism, Martin Luther refers to, “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” as the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer. Here, we’re encouraged to see God not as some distant deity, but as our loving parent who wants to hear from us.

When our son first went away to college and our daughter went to Florida to work at Walt Disney World in their college program, every telephone call and every email we got from them were important to us.

Our prayers can become the telephone calls or conversations with the Parent Who always has our backs, One with Whom we can share our most intimate thoughts, our deepest desires, our greatest fears, worst sins, most noble hopes, and most urgent requests. Our Father wants to hear from us.

But after this note of intimacy, the prayer Jesus teaches us introduces another element that should be part of our praying as well. He does it in the words, “Hallowed by Your Name (or Thy Name).” The word “hallowed” means revered, sacred, inviolable, respected, glorified.

New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says: “This prayer starts by addressing God intimately and lovingly, as ‘Father’—and by bowing before his greatness and majesty. If you can hold those two together, you’re already on the way to understanding what Christianity is about.” [Italics added.]

Pulling those two things together—the loving intimacy of God and the overpowering, perfect, majestic holiness of God—will also, I think, help us learn to truly pray.

In Jesus Christ, we know that God is willing to go with us into our deepest valleys and can, if we will let Him, move our biggest mountains.

“God is great, God is good,” a prayer many learned as children says. The Lord’s Prayer, in effect, begins, “God is good, God is great.”

Either way you put it, it’s wonderful to know that the perfect, powerful God Who is in charge of the universe also is ready to hear from us anytime.

It seems to me that knowing these two things--that God is infinitely great and holy AND that in Jesus Christ, He makes it possible for us to speak to Him intimately and personally--is the first step in truly learning how to pray.

More next Wednesday.

In the Face of Barbarities, Praying

Praying today for the 150 people--Christian men, women, and children abducted by Isis yesterday--that God will sustain, encourage, and provide for them and bring them to safety.

Praying also that the Holy Spirit will empower them, like the 21 martyred by Isis in Egypt last week, to endure in making the good confession for the God Who can save from sin, death, and themselves, any sinner who repents and believes in the crucified and risen Jesus, God in human flesh.

Through faithful, steadfast Christian witness, God can save and transform even the most murderous enemies of Christ and His Church. (Those conversant with the Bible will think of Saint Paul, who murderously terrorized Christians only to be changed for eternity by the grace of God in Christ!)

Praying also that the Church everywhere will be emboldened to spread the good news about Jesus so that, reconciled with God through Jesus, they will seek to understand and work with their neighbors, not hate or kill them. This is needed in every nation of the world, the United States as well as Syria, France as well as Iraq!

Praying also that God will guide the leaders of the world in punishing and bringing to justice those perpetrating these barbarities. The Bible is clear that God has instituted governments to hold in check those unwilling to voluntarily yield to the rule of God--and His call to love God and to love others--in this imperfect world. May God empower all governments to do their duty in destroying the forces of chaos, violence, and nihilism in our world.

And praying that God will undertake to do whatever He deems needed, knowing that my wisdom about all that needs to happen is minuscule, in these circumstances. Paul says in Romans 8:26-27 that God's "Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God."

I don't know exactly what to pray for; but I know Who to pray to.

So, in my ignorance and faulty wisdom, I ask that God's kingdom come and that God's will be done on earth just as it is in heaven.

Monday, February 23, 2015

'House of Bricks'

Sesame Street's take on House of Cards, the Netflix reboot of the 1990s British series about cynical political intrigue and manipulation, is funny.

Taking the Time

The passage of Scripture appointed from today's 5x5x5 Bible Reading Plan is Acts 24.

The New Testament book of Acts is like an old friend to me, maybe sometimes a bit too familiar.

Acts, a history of the early Church from the moment of the risen Jesus' ascension through about three decades later, is the first book of the Bible I read after I became a follower of Christ. (I had been an atheist for the preceding ten years or so.)

In chapter 24, the apostle Paul is being held in Roman custody. The charge on which he's being held, false, is that he has profaned the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, specifically by allowing Gentiles into portions of the temple open to Jews alone.

For the Romans, conquerors and governors of Judea, the defiling of the Jewish holy place would have been a matter of indifference, except if it caused disruptions of the public order. The accusations lodged by the powerful among Paul's fellow Jews was that Paul was being disruptive, though Paul claims that he's in hot water with some--one thinks of the Sadducees, highly important among the Jewish leadership who didn't believe in life after death--because he has spoken of the resurrection of the dead.

Paul is kept a prisoner for two years in Jerusalem, albeit with some liberties. This delay occurred because Felix, the Roman governor of Judea from 52 to 58 AD, "well informed about the Way"--"the Way" being the Christian movement--thought he could pry a bribe from Paul's fellow believers to achieve his release.

Once, Felix sent for Paul and, with his wife, Druscilla, listened to the apostle teach. But Felix was a man who had always acted to get what he wanted, irrespective of how it hurt others.

This is where the verse that I considered for today comes in:
And as he [Paul] discussed justice, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present; when I have an opportunity, I will send for you.” (Acts 24:25)
The grace of God, which includes forgiveness of sins and the promise of new life through faith in Jesus Christ and the promise of Jesus' help and presence for me everyday I live on earth, is something I cherish. I know that these blessings of God are free gifts I can't earn, but only receive by faith in Christ.

But I also know that I cannot receive these gifts if I insist on sinning like the rest of the world.

I am human. I sin everyday, however unintentionally. And I must ask God to show me my sins--unintentional and otherwise--everyday, in case I come to presume on God's grace, secured for me and all people by the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross.

In gratitude for what Jesus has done for me, I want to live a life pleasing to Him. Despite my imperfections, I want to be an instrument that He can use for His purposes each day. Un-repented sin can stand in the way of that.

Conversely, when we have faith in Jesus--meaning when we trust Him with our sins and deficiencies and to save us from the death our sins deserve--He helps us, by His Holy Spirit, to live more justly toward others, with more self-control.

Jesus, according to Mark's gospel, called people to repent, that is, turn away from sin (something I have to do multiple times every day) and believe in the good news that God so loves us He sent God the Son Jesus to die for our sin and to rise from the dead, so that all who believe in Him won't perish--won't be separated from God--but live with God for eternity.

Paul was sharing this message with Felix and Druscilla. But when Paul began to talk about justice, self-control, and judgment, Felix became frightened and sent Paul away.

Paul hit too close to home. We can't be just or self-controlled when we're guided by the things of this world--whether they're our stomachs, our traditions, our desire for security, our countries, our love of money and power, our families, or something else.

To claim that we are just or that we do exercise self-control in our lives apart from the gifts of grace operating within us through faith in Christ is a delusion. I know that.

Without Jesus, we all stand naked in sin, deserving of death, and susceptible to judgment by God.

This is what disturbs Felix and so, he sends Paul away.

But as I contemplate this passage, I realize that I often send the message of God away. I send God away.

I hurry through my Bible readings.

I avoid making a personal application of what I read in God's Word and think, instead, of how it applies to other people. Or how I might use it as an illustration in a sermon or a lesson.

I hurriedly skip meditating on God's Word in order to offer pious prayers for justice and protection and healing for other people. There's nothing wrong with praying for other people, of course, unless I use such prayers to deflect God's attention from my deficiencies and God's desire to alter my character. In other words, to elude the judgment and recognition of sin that must happen before the grace of God can flood into that place in my life too.

I avoid the pain of letting God search me and know my heart, to detect the evil in me, to rip it out of my soul to die, to be replaced by a humble, childlike dependence on Him in another facet of my life.

I can be like Felix: well-informed about the Way of salvation, Jesus, but sending Him away when He gets too close.

I've preached it to many, but I don't always practice it myself: I must let God tear down these walls, to stop me from hurrying, to give me the guts to listen and to apply what His Word tells me when I would rather move on with my day and my agenda. I need to do this so that I can live for Him alone. (It's the only reasonable thing to do in response to the fact that He has lived and died and risen for me.)

God, give me the guts to take the time often each day to stop and listen to Your Word. Forgive me for so often, like Felix, turning You away when, for my soul's sake, I need to let Your Spirit do His work. I need to let Your Spirit convict me of sin and, as I repent and trust in Christ, to set me free to be trusting and faithful in yet another aspect of my life. Help me to take my cues for living from You alone. Help me to live the reality that I confess (and preach) that Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life, and that there's no way to You or the life You want to give me except through daily surrender to Jesus Christ alone. In His Name. Amen

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Why is That in There?

[This was prepared to be shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

Genesis 22:1-18
Few Bible passages will ever be more difficult to understand than today’s first lesson, Genesis 22:1-18. 

Twenty-five years after promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac is born, the apple of their eyes. Isaac is to be the first in a long line of descendants to the couple. God has promised Abraham that he will be the father of many nations and that Israel would be a light to the nations. Today, we know that Israel was the means by which God would take on human flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, dying to pay for our sins, rising from the dead, and giving forgiveness of sin and everlasting life with God to all who repent and believe in Him. 

So, what on earth is God doing, in today’s first lesson, telling Abraham to take his one and only son, the son that he loves, and offer him as a sacrifice?

Some atheists look at this passage and claim it shows that the God of the Bible is a barbaric fiction, the product of a vicious imagined God. But God isn’t barbarous. We know that God had told His people never to engage in the child sacrifice prevalent in surrounding the cultures surrounding His chosen ones, the Israelites. In Leviticus 18:21, for example, God tells His people: “Do not give any of your children to be sacrificed…” God regarded child sacrifice as an abomination

Some Christians look at this incident and, embarrassed and confused, say it’s not important. That would be an easy way out. But just because we don’t fully understand something in the Bible is no reason to try to erase it from its pages

One of my professors at seminary told us about doing devotions with his wife. They were reading a lengthy and boring passage from Leviticus. “Ron,” she asked, “is this really that important?” “It must be,” he said. “It’s in there.” 

Genesis 22:1-18 is “in there.” So, let’s consider this incident, knowing that we will never understand God completely and certain through Jesus Christ that God is no monster

And let’s ask why is this passage “in there.”

Verse 1: “Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, ‘Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. Then God said, ‘Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.’” 

Up to this point in Genesis, we know that Abraham has been less than reliable, less than faithful, to God

To save his own skin, he lied to two different kings about Sarah, saying she was his sister and not his wife. 

When God didn’t seem to be working quickly enough to deliver on His promise of a son, he quickly accepted his wife Sarah’s plan of taking her servant to give them a son. 

Abraham’s faith in God was a bit deficient. Imperfect. (A bit like yours and mine.) 

Yet God had a mission for Abraham. But Abraham had many temptations ahead of him, including the temptation of turning his son into an idol to take the place of God as the most important consideration in his life. 

God needed to test Abraham, to forge his faith. So, he devised a plan to do so. 

God often forges the faith and characters of those who believe in Him through testing and discipline. It’s how we grow. It’s how we learn to depend on Him as our only God, our only source of meaningful help, our only source of hope. 

Hebrews 12:6 tells us that, “...the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.” So, maybe the first reason this account of Abraham and Isaac is in the Bible is to warn all of us who follow the God of Israel ultimately revealed in Christ that there will be times when God will test our faith, when we will be called out of our comfort zones, when we will have to grow up in our faith.

You know what happens next. Abraham takes Isaac to the region called Moriah, to a place that God was going to show him, carrying all that he would need to sacrifice his son. 

Moriah is mentioned only twice in the Bible, here and in 2 Chronicles 3:1, which recounts something that happened centuries after the events of today’s lesson. Take a look at that passage now, if you would (page 300 in the sanctuary Bibles): “Then Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David.” 

When the temple in Jerusalem was built by its third king, it was at the very place where Abraham took Isaac in our first lesson. God directed Abraham to the spot where, for centuries, believers in God would go to connect with God, offering sacrifices for their sins, their thankfulness, their joy. 

I think that that’s the second reason that this account of Abraham and Isaac is in there. God had set aside that very spot to be the place where sacrifices of faith would be made to Him. Centuries later, of course, the need for those sacrifices would be eliminated when God sacrificed His Son on a cross. But for many centuries, Moriah was to be a site of sacrifice for God’s people.

I believe that there’s another important reason for the inclusion of this difficult text in Scripture. Please look at verse 7: “Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, ‘Father?’ ‘Yes, my son?’ Abraham replied. ‘The fire and wood are here,’ Isaac said, ‘but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?’ Abraham answered, ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’...” 

Please look at Hebrews 11:17-19 (page 844). This passage is part of a New Testament chapter called, “the faith hall of fame.” The preacher says: “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.” 

When Abraham took Isaac to Moriah, he did so knowing that even if Isaac’s life was taken, God is the God of new life, the God of resurrection

The impossible thing that God had commanded of Abraham was designed to deepen Abraham’s faith. 

It’s like when Jesus commands that you and I be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. We know that we can’t be perfect; but when confronted by that command, in our helplessness, we learn to trust that God can impart His perfection and power to those who surrender to Him. 

By faith, Abraham understood that not even death is an impediment to the God you and I are privileged to know through Jesus Christ. Abraham knew that God can give back life to the dead. 

In Christ, we know that too. And that, in turn, can give us the freedom to live each day without fear. 

Christians are like people who watch a really frightening movie, but have been told before going to the theater how it’s all going to turn out. The scary parts are still scary. Our hearts will still pound at some scenes. Our palms will sweat. We’ll wonder how we’re going to make it through. But we know that in the end, everything is going to be all rightThis is a reality for all who believe in Jesus Christ.

That’s a third important reason our first lesson is in the Bible. But there is fourth and, I think, most important reason. Verse 11: “...the angel of the Lord [in the Old Testament, this phrase can mean the very voice or visage of God] called out to him from heaven, ‘Abraham! Abraham!’ ‘Here I am,’ he replied. ‘Do not lay a hand on the boy,’ he said. ‘Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.’” Then, in verse 16, we read: “‘I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.’”

Listen: Because Abraham had not withheld what was most important to Him, God was able to give what was most important to Him

What good and perfect gifts from God are we missing out on because we’re withholding our lives from Him? 

When, by faith, we yield control over our lives to God, we’re ready to receive the new life, the constant help, and the eternal hope that God gives to all with faith in Christ

God didn’t ultimately require Abraham to sacrifice His son. 

The sacrifice of Isaac would have done nothing but bring grief and loss to Abraham and the human race. 

But Abraham passed God’s test by his willingness to give his son to God

What might God be asking us to be willing to surrender to Him in order to know God and His blessings, to be God’s blessings to others? Lent may be a good time for us to ask that question of ourselves and of God in prayer.

Abraham’s test is one that God Himself would later pass...painfully, but ultimately triumphantly. Paul writes of God giving His Son in Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare [some translations say, did not withhold] his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” 

The Lord who provided a ram for sacrifice to Abraham and Isaac on that day long ago provides the lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world for all who dare surrender their all to Christ alone
It’s to point us to this fact that, I believe, among other reasons, this passage is in the Bible.

This is a difficult passage. I can’t explain everything about it. 

It would make my life as a Christian and as a pastor a lot easier if I didn’t have to wrestle with it, if God would just eliminate it from His Word, the Bible. 

But God never promised us easy lives. 

Or lives in which we were always in control. 

Instead, in Jesus Christ, God promised us new lives, lives filled with His blessings even in the midst of things we can’t understand or control here and now and then, beyond death, lives filled with perfect fellowship with Him and others in eternity for all who, like Abraham and Isaac, dare to surrender to Him

Genesis 22:1-18 remains in our Bibles. May we glorify and thank God for the truths we can understand in these verses even as we wrestle with the mysteries in them that we will never understand this side of heaven. Amen