Saturday, May 26, 2018

What Was and Wasn't Said at the Royal Wedding

Over on Facebook, a friend from junior high days commented on a post in which I mentioned that some, apparently, had complained about the thirteen-minute sermon given at the recent royal wedding. My friend said he thought that the sermon was long and then wrote:
Really, if you boil it down, all sermons could be shrunk to this: "Worship God and don't disrespect him. Follow the laws. Be kind to each other. And if you don't you're going to Hell!" People don't need long lectures anymore.
I told him that no truly Christian sermon would go like that at all, then, linking to the transcript, asked him to tell me where he saw any of his characterization of a sermon was seen in the royal wedding sermon. He responded by citing the Most Reverend Michael Curry's mention of what's called "the Great Commandment": to love God and to love neighbor.

It's been a few days since that exchange. I've been waiting to respond in the right way. Hopefully, I did so today. Here's what I wrote:
...I've been waiting for a time to give a more thoughtful response to some of your comments. I don't really have the time right now. But responding to you is too important to me to wait any longer.  
I hope that you'll be patient with me. And I promise that I won't continue this thread beyond here unless you choose to do so. But I feel the need to clarify some things.
If, in the citation of the "the great commandment"--love God, love neighbor-- you heard the royal wedding preacher saying, "Do these things and you'll not go to hell," I feel the need to clarify. 
That's NOT what he said.

Remember his reference to Jesus?

If I could obey God's commands, like to love God, to love neighbor, to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, I wouldn't need Jesus. 
But it's because I am TOTALLY INCAPABLE of obeying God's law, the appropriate consequence for which is God's condemnation and my death, that God, Who loves sinners like me despite my being completely undeserving, that God became human in Jesus Christ.

Jesus led the perfectly sinless life and was able to offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice for my sin when He voluntarily died on the cross. When I trust in Christ, He covers me with the forgiveness and new life He earned for me on the cross. His resurrection confirms His ability to do that for anyone who believes in Him. 
God's commandments--or His laws--CANNOT, to use your language, save me from hell.
By that, I mean that I can't have a right relationship with God by being good. BECAUSE I CAN'T DECIDE TO BE GOOD. It's not in me. Everyone falls short of God's will for human beings. 
God's law exists for three purposes, then: 
1. To show us our distance from not only God's expectations of us but, truth be told, our own expectations of us. 
2. To drive us to the cover of Christ, Who has obeyed the commandments perfectly for us, gaining forgiveness and new life as gifts from God. This is what Christians mean when they speak of "grace," an English translation of the New Testament word, charitas, which gets transliterated into English as charity. (The New Testament writers wrote in Greek, the second language of the first-century world, as English is today.) You don't earn charity. It's conferred. When we trust in Christ, God confers the charities of forgiveness and new life on believers. 
3. The third use of God's law is as a guide to believers who are grateful to God for grace. After God sets me free from sin and death, as a grateful disciple, I want to live in ways that God has designed for human living. I fail at this every day, causing me to turn back to God in the name of Jesus, for forgiveness and the help of God to live differently today than I did yesterday. 
All of this is why I said earlier that no truly Christian sermon states or intimates that if we behave in certain ways, we will be saved from sin and death.

A Christian sermon might say, "This is the will of God for human beings. This, in fact, is how we behave. But God loves us and has sent Christ to erase the power of sin and death over the lives of those who turn from sin (repent) and put their trust in (believe in) Jesus." That's what Christian preachers do when they refer to God's laws.

And even the capacity to believe in such good news is beyond me because I'm a creature of a bad news world. God gives belief to those who are willing to believe. They're like the man who told Jesus honestly one day, "I do believe; help my unbelief." That's what I ask God to give to me every day, belief...and have been since the days when, as an atheist, I became enamored of Christ, the Bible, and the "ordinary" Christians of our home church in Columbus, and asked God to help me to believe. He keeps me giving me this gift every day.

All I'm saying is this: If you ever heard a sermon and didn't hear the good news about Christ: new life and forgiveness as free gifts for those who believe, you didn't hear a sermon. Any preacher who ever intimated that you and I could be saved by the good stuff we do would be a liar. Only Christ can do that.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

A King, an Illegal Order, and Who Wins in the End

During my quiet time today, I read 1 Samuel 20-22.

There, the paranoia of King Saul is on full display. He's intent on ridding himself of David, who he sees as his enemy. Because of Saul's murderous intent, David is on the run.

When Saul learns that a priest named Ahimelek gave food to David and a few of David's men and that Alimelek "inquired of the Lord," that is, asked God to reveal His will to David, Saul is furious. He sees the priest as a co-conspirator with David, even though Ahimelek had done similar things for Saul and Saul's people. (Even though David was not conspiring against Saul, for that matter!)

Saul then issues an illegal order. He commands his guards to kill Ahimelek.

Although loyal to the king, the guards refuse to do what he commands: You don't kill priests for simply doing their work, for one thing. And you don't kill innocent people.

Unbowed, Saul ordered Doeg, his chief shepherd to kill Ahimelek. He killed Ahimelek, along with a total of 85 priests!

Saul had once been anointed by God to be the king. But the Spirit of God had left Saul when Saul stopped trusting in God and started trusting in himself, his power, and the trappings of his office. Nothing became so important to Saul as retaining the power that had been given to him.

But without faith in God, his use of power became self-serving. He worked at destroying the lives of those who got in his way, often, as with Doeg, with the help of people too weak or too ambitious to tell him, "No!"

God saves people from themselves--from sin, death, and futility--as a free gift to those who trust in God as ultimately revealed to everyone in Jesus.

When we have faith in Christ, God empowers us to live for more than just ourselves.

When we have faith in Christ, we understand that we belong to God forever and nothing can separate us from God's love, not even death.

But when, like Saul, we live for whatever this dying world has to offer us, we wreak havoc on our own lives and the lives of others.

As a man and as a ruler, when he turned away from God, Saul became a conduit for hell to enter the life of his country and his family. Saul hated Ahimelek because he was a conduit for the love and grace of God. So, Saul had Alimelek cut down. But who was the stronger? The one who fought for a piece of a world that we can only hold onto for a human lifetime? Or the one who fought to help others know the grace and love of an eternal God?

And who, Saul or Ahimelek, still lives in peace with God? Here's a clue: "...everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Joel 2:32)

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, May 21, 2018


[This was shared yesterday, Pentecost Sunday, during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Acts 2:1-21
Today brings us to the third great festival of the Church Year. There’s Christmas, then Easter, and now Pentecost. Of course, Christmas and Easter get all the publicity...and those two festivals attract the crowds. Pentecost is the most ignored of the Church’s most important festivals.
Why is that? 

Maybe it’s because the Holy Spirit, the One Whose coming fifty days after Jesus rose from the dead Pentecost celebrates, doesn’t really call attention to Himself.

There's probably another reason. Painters and cartoonists may show God the Father as a white-bearded old man. And Jesus has been the focal point of endless artistic renderings for the past two-thousand years. But the Spirit, even though the Bible says He has a personality--Jesus calls Him a Counselor, a Comforter, an Advocate--is hard for us to picture.

The Holy Spirit, of course, is sometimes shown as a dove. That’s because Luke’s Gospel, for example, tells us that when Jesus was baptized, the Holy Spirit came to Him in the bodily form of a dove, a bird that the ancient Jews thought of as pure.

Sometimes the Spirit is shown as fire. This is appropriate not only because in our lesson from Acts today, the Holy Spirit rested on 120 praying followers of Jesus like tongues of fire, but also because of some properties that fire shares with the Holy Spirit. Fire enlightens, destroys, and purifies. So does the Spirit of God, depending on our needs at the time: He can show us the way to Christ. He can decimate our excuses and rationalizations for sin, kill off our old selves so that our new selves can rise, as happens in Holy Baptism and every time we repent in Jesus’ name. He can also purge us of sin and free us from temptations to sins that would contaminate us and separate us from God.

And sometimes, the Spirit is seen as Wind. This too, is appropriate. The word translated as spirit from the Old Testament Hebrew is ruach, a word that also means wind or breath. It’s God’s ruach--His Wind or Spirit--that moves over the waters in Genesis to create the world. It’s also God’s ruach that God breathes into dust to make the first human being. 

In the Greek of the New Testament, the word pneuma has the same multiple meanings as ruach. Pneuma can also mean wind, breath, or spirit. 

But the problem with trying to picture something like wind or breath is that, as Jesus told the old Jewish teacher Nicodemus, you may hear the sound of the Spirit—and on the first Pentecost, the Spirit must have sounded like a tornado filling the house where the first disciples had been praying--but you can’t really see Him. 

You can only see evidence of His presence in the lives of those who trust in Christ as their God and King.

Maybe the Spirit’s insusceptibility to being pictured is why we attach so little importance to Pentecost. Maybe too, it’s easier to understand what Jesus does for us than it is to understand what the Spirit does for us. At Christmas, we understand that Jesus, God the Son, took on the burden of being human. At Easter, we understand that after offering up His sinless life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, Christ rose to give life to all who turn from sin and follow Him. 

But what exactly does the Holy Spirit do for us?

A lot of things. 

But I want to talk about just two things the Spirit does for us today, as seen in our first lesson, which comes from Acts 2.

First, the Holy Spirit gives us the courage to live past our fears. Before the events recounted in our lesson, 120 followers--disciples--of Jesus had gathered in a room to, just as Jesus had ordered them to do, wait and pray for the power of God to come upon them. 

When the Holy Spirit showed up “like the blowing of a violent wind,” they did something they probably couldn’t have imagined doing moments before: They went out onto the hostile streets of Jerusalem and told anyone who would listen about God's mighty deeds. They conveyed the message that all who call on the Name of the Lord will be saved.

The Spirit gives courage to people who pray. This is important to realize. It seems that the number one fear of Lutheran Christians is doing precisely what the Holy Spirit empowered the first disciples to do on the first Pentecost: Share the good news that all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ have life with God that never ends. “I could never do that,” we say.

Listen: When Ann and I find a new restaurant we like, we have no hesitation about telling friends about the place. We describe the food, the service, the prices. I bet that you’ve done the same thing. Why is it easier for us to talk about a restaurant that will, at most, feed us one meal at a time...for a price...than it is for us to talk about Jesus, the living Bread from heaven, Who is the only One Who can give us eternity? You know the reason: We let our fears, not Jesus, to control our thoughts, our feelings, our actions.

I remember listening to a devoted follower of Jesus say how upset he was with himself because it had been three whole weeks since he had last shared the good news--the gospel--of new and everlasting life for all who believe in Jesus with a spiritually-disconnected person. Three weeks. I prayed, “God, make me more like that. Help me to live past my fears so that I have that same passion for people who, absent a faith relationship with Jesus, will go to hell.”

The Holy Spirit also gives us a reason for living. Often, elderly people will ask me, “Why hasn’t God taken me yet? What am I still doing here?” These people think that because they’re less physically capable than they once were, their lives are less worthy of living. Children can also grow frustrated by the limitations of their youth. And the chronically ill think that their lives have less value because of what they can't do.

But you and I have value not because of what we do, but because of who we are

When we stand before the judgment seat of God in eternity, God won’t ask us, “What did you accomplish?” Instead, God will ask, “Were you a believer in the Lord Jesus? Were you a repentant sinner? Were you a grateful disciple? Did you live in constant fellowship with Jesus?” 

This last question is critical, because it’s only those who live in constant fellowship with Jesus--not with their fears, not with their preferences--but with Jesus, Who will be empowered to live for Jesus and share Jesus with others, no matter what limitations may dog them. Their lives will have power because they live only in the power of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. 

One of my favorite passages of Scripture appears in Matthew 25. In it, Jesus describes how He will judge people at the end of the world. He turns to the people He describes as His sheep and tells them, in essence, "Because you clothed Me when I was naked, visited me when I was in prison, fed me when I was hungry, and so on, enter into the joy of eternity with Me."

But their reaction says everything. In essence, they tell Jesus, "We don't remember doing any of that stuff!"

So, Jesus' commendation of the "sheep" in His portrayal of the judgment in Matthew 25 shows us that we aren't judged for what we, in our own strength, are able to do. We're only judged on whether we have entrusted our lives to Jesus and so, without our even realizing it, become instruments through whom, Christ does His loving, life-giving work in the world!

Many of you have read Ole Hallesby's classic book, Prayer. The story he tells near the end of the book is something I come back to again and again. There was, in Hallesby's home village in rural Norway, a man who was practically an invalid from birth. He could do little work. As he aged, he became bedfast and had to be cared for by several women from the village. Though he had been limited in his mobility, his funeral was the most well-attended in Hallesby's village. Why? Because he had done what he could in response to Jesus' love and grace: He prayed. People would come from miles around to ask him to pray for family members, friends, or themselves and to receive his wise Biblical counsel. On his daily prayer list were babies and children he never met. That man's life had a deeper purpose and meaning although he seemingly could do nothing: By his surrender to Jesus, God gave him purpose.

Jesus is the eternal-life-giving dynamo; if we are connected to Him, if we trust in Him, if we are surrendered to Him, He will give us purposeful lives, no matter what our age or condition. We who are being saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ will always have a purpose, always have a reason for living: 
To give God glory and to point others to the God we know in Jesus.
The first followers of Christ must have wondered after Jesus ascended into heaven why they were still around. In Jesus, they’d glimpsed eternity and they wanted to be with Him. But here they were, stuck on a planet filled with people who would rather worship themselves, possessions, power, prominence, or their country, or their political party, rather than the God Who made them and died and rose for them. They were stuck living a life in which they would have to struggle and possibly suffer...because they believed in the crucified and risen Jesus. 

But when the Holy Spirit came, He gave Jesus’ praying followers a reason for living this as fully as they could. In short, the Holy Spirit gave them a vocation.

All followers of Jesus have the same vocation, whatever jobs they do, even if they can no longer do a scrap of work.

Some of you have heard me speak before of our friends Sig and Chris. They came to this country from Germany in the early-1960s. Sig was an engineer and Chris was a pediatric intensive care nurse. But above all, they were ambassadors for Christ! When Sig was dying, he was a patient at a hospital in Cincinnati. His room was a holy place, bathed in prayer, filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. When Sig would occasionally regain some semblance of consciousness, he would ask that Scripture or writings by his favorite writer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, be read to him. People who weren't even believers asked if they could spend time in that room, so palpable was the presence of God. Even as he lay dying, you see, Sig had a purpose for living. He had a vocation. He honored God and showed Christ to others even in his dying.

The Holy Spirit doesn’t get a lot of attention. The Spirit takes a backseat in the Trinity, content with being Jesus’ megaphone as Jesus speaks new life to us, content with silently supporting us as we call out to Jesus, follow Him, and share Him with others. The Spirit never calls attention to Himself. But He showers us with gifts, including the courage to live past our fears and a reason for living, a vocation of pointing others to Christ, serving them in Jesus’ Name and inviting others to follow Christ, a vocation that lasts our whole lives.

Today, I wish to all of you, a very happy Pentecost! May you keep in constant, prayerful contact with the Holy Spirit so that you will have the courage to live past your fears and a reason for living life every day you remain on this earth. Amen