Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Why Jesus Threatens Rulers...and Us

This coming Sunday, January 6, brings us to Epiphany Day on the church calendar.

This day commemorates when wise men from the East followed a star to the house where the baby Jesus was living with His parents. (The word epiphany means to shine upon or to manifest and refers less to the star than to Jesus Himself, the light of the world, God revealed in human flesh.) The star was a sign to the wise men that a new king had been born, one foretold by Old Testament prophecy, with which they were familiar.

Before getting to Bethlehem, the wise men--logically--decided to stop in Jerusalem to ask the ruling king of God's people, Herod, where they could find the newborn king. But Herod had no idea about the birth. And, as they would come to understand, Herod didn't really welcome the news.

Matthew 2:3 says, "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him." Why were the leaders of Jewish religious and political life disturbed?

It's simple. They, especially Herod himself, didn't want any rival kings. They, like the Romans and millennia of despots who followed, were rocked because Jesus' lordship trumps the governments and pretenses of all earthly kings and rulers. Those who seek to rule as gods, without accountability to God or to others, are always threatened by Jesus. That's why Hitler coerced much of the Church in Germany. It's why Communist rulers tried to destroy the Church. It's why despots like Putin, Xi, and others hate the true Church that proclaims Jesus is Lord.

Truth be known, Jesus poses a threat to each of us because of our inborn human desire to be like God, rulers of our own fiefdoms.

But, as the Old Testament reminds us, wisdom starts with the fear of the Lord, the recognition that God is God and we're not and that life is only ours when we yield to the lordship over our lives of the One revealed to all the world in Jesus.

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

Sunday, December 30, 2018

A change to the College Football Playoffs?

I've probably watched a total of six quarters of college football this season. Between big money despoiling the game and the risk of head injuries that are endemic to the sport (to which I don't want to be an accessory), I've pretty much given up on my former Saturday obsession.

But after the convincing defeats meted out to Notre Dame and Oklahoma in yesterday's championship semifinals, it gives me the impetus to throw in my two cents on an idea I have for changing the College Football Playoffs (CFP). Feel free to take the idea for what it’s worth. (And it’s probably not worth much.)

Here's the idea. Instead of expanding to an eight-team playoff as some are so fevered to do--many being the same people who wanted this format when just two teams were picked for a championship game and said they’d be content with a 4-team playoff), what if the committee delayed announcing the four entrants for the CFP AFTER all the bowl games are played, say on January 2?

That would give lots of bowl games greater significance and incentivize players who want to showcase their talents for NFL scouts as they play against top-tier opponents.

I'm sure that if the CFP committee could delay picking the four teams in the playoffs until after defeats like the ones suffered by Notre Dame and Oklahoma, neither of those teams would be involved in the national championship.

With a little adjusting, this approach would only add, at most, two games to teams’ seasons.

It’s possible that under this format, perennial also-rans like UCF, with convincing bowl wins over Power 5 opponents, could get invited into the CFP. (Which may be one reason that the Power Five conferences wouldn't adopt this idea.)

The Fine Print

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this morning.]

Luke 2:22-40
Whenever people get new high-tech gizmos, as some of you may have received on Christmas morning this year, their response usually follows a two-step pattern. Step one follows the initial excitement over getting the gizmo: They try to make it do all of the things that they’ve heard it can do. Step two follows the realization that they don’t understand everything about the gizmo: They have to stop and read the instructions, including the fine print, the tough stuff. This can be overwhelming. But the promise is that if we’ll put up with the pain, there will be gain.

Our gospel lesson this morning sort of follows this same pattern. Only both the pain it talks about is infinitely more difficult and the gain is eternally more sublime.

And today, God asks us, “Will we take the pain in order to experience the gain?”

The lesson recounts an incident that took place many weeks after Jesus’ birth. On that night, the shepherds went to the child and confirmed for Joseph and Mary what this couple already believed they’d heard from God, that this baby really was the Christ, the Savior long promised by God. That must have been a moment of quiet euphoria for Mary and Joseph. They weren’t crazy. The two of them truly had been chosen by God to play a part in the salvation history of the world. (Just as you and I have our roles to play in salvation history as we follow Christ and share Him with others.)

Take a look at our lesson, please, Luke 2:22-40. It begins: “When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took [Jesus] to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons.’”

Under Old Testament law, a woman who had given birth was required to wait several weeks, then be purified--offering a sacrifice--in order to be able once more to fully participate in Jewish religious life. (By the way midwives had to undergo such purification as well. Because Joseph acted as Mary's midwife, some scholars believed that both Mary and Joseph were at the temple to offer sacrifices for purification.)

So, purification was one reason for the visit to the temple. But Mary and Joseph also went there to consecrate or dedicate their child to the Lord, God the Father.

They were soon to learn through two unexpected interruptions, only the first one of which we’ll talk about this morning, that God had them in the temple for other reasons. Have you found yourself in a similar situation? You go somewhere for your reason and then learn that God has you there for His reasons. Our niece told us yesterday about going to the grocery to pick up a few items. But while there, she ran into a friend going through a tough time and spent an hour-and-a-half listening and offering encouragement. On that day in the temple, there were two things that Mary and Joseph needed to be told. That's the reason God wanted them to go to the temple when they did.

Verse 25 and forward: “Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God…”

This wasn’t part of Mary’s and Joseph’s plan. A stranger, an old man who, it turns out has deep faith has been praying that the Messiah would be revealed to him before he died appears. When the old man sees Jesus, he does a shocking thing, taking the baby Jesus from His parents, he cradled Jesus in his arms. The man’s name is name is Simeon, meaning God has heard in Hebrew. Simeon was overwhelmed with joy because he knew that, at long last, God had heard his prayers. The Holy Spirit had assured him that his prayers would be heard. And on that day, the Holy Spirit moved him to go to the temple courts.

Is there any good or godly thing for which you’ve been praying for years? Or that you started to pray for and then gave up, not because the Holy Spirit seemed to tell you that God wanted you to stop, but because you got tired of praying? Because you were discouraged. Because you felt defeated. Ann and I were talking about that very subject on the way here this morning. There's something we've prayed about for years and nothing seems to change. Have you been there?

Listen: In another chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is quoted telling a parable about a widow who had been wronged by someone in their community and a corrupt judge whose judgments were usually bought and paid for. The widow had no money. She couldn’t pay the judge off. (Any more than you or I can buy God off!) Jesus says though that because the woman would not give up on petitioning the judge to bring her justice, the unjust judge finally gave in and saw to it that the woman got all the money that was owed to her.

After telling this story, Jesus says that if an unjust judge can be worn down to do right by a person and hear their pleas, how much more will our loving God in heaven Who wants to do the right things for us answer our prayers?

There are, as we’ve said before, four answers that God can give to our prayers: no, maybe, wait, and yes. When we pray to God for answers, we’re asking God that His good and gracious will be done. We do the asking, but we leave the answering up to Him. And God will answer prayers offered in Jesus’ name at just the right time.

This isn’t magic. This is faith. And sometimes, God’s answers to our prayers will require us to give up on our imperfect will to yield to His good and perfect will.

Sometimes, God's answers to our prayers will mean turning away from sinful habits we enjoy so that we can embrace the blessings wants to give to us or to those for whom we incessantly pray.

Apparently, in Simeon’s quiet times with God, the Holy Spirit had assured him that he would see the Messiah. Now here Jesus was in the temple courts! You can understand why he scooped Jesus up into his arms!

Then Simeon did what people on whom the Holy Spirit rests always do: Simeon prayed some more! Verse 29: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Years ago, I heard a hospice nurse tell the true story of an old man in her care. As his life ebbed away, the man was in a coma. The nurse knew that the man deeply believed in Jesus, the only One Who can give us everlasting life with God. She didn’t know if he could hear her, but she decided to worship God and sing what she knew was his favorite hymn. “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so / Little ones to Him belong / They are weak, but He is strong” [You know the words] “Yes, Jesus loves me / Yes, Jesus loves me / Yes, Jesus loves me / The Bible tells me so.”

She had just sung those last lines when the man opened his eyes, pushed himself off the bed, and said, “And don’t you forget it!” In the next moment, he fell back to the bed and peacefully passed from this life.

In the temple, Simeon tells God that he can peacefully die because God had sent the Savior to bring new life not just to God’s first people, the Jews, but also to Gentiles, like you and me, who repent and believe in Jesus!

Mary and Joseph heard in Simeon's prayer further confirmation of Who their child was (and is).

But then came part two, the fine print, the kind of stuff we like to gloss over, the hard part (verse 34): “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Anyone who really gets around Jesus sees things about themselves they’d rather not see. Coming into the presence of the “Light of the world” is not an easy thing.

When we come to Jesus, we see our sins in the light of His perfection.

We see our mortality in the light of His eternity.

We see our weakness in the light of His infinite strength.

Like Adam and Eve after their fall into sin, we want to hide.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we want to farm out our relationship with God to preachers and Sunday School teachers.

But Jesus wants us to come to Him personally because it’s only when we see our sin and our neediness that we’re ready to turn to Him for life, strength, and hope. 

It’s only when we let Him crucify our sinful natures, that He can bring us to the life God has in mind for us: a life with God filled with His goodness!

Simeon was telling Mary and Joseph, especially Mary, a hard truth: The world would speak against her Son, the world would demean Him. And when she saw Jesus die on a cross, Simeon warned her, the pain in her heart would be like a sword piercing her soul.

Mary and Joseph needed to give up on any thought that they could control the Child, the Savior, Who had come into their lives.

This was the fine print that God chose Simeon to deliver that day in the temple.

It’s our fine print too.

This baby is the Savior of the world, the only One Who can dispense life to human beings who are otherwise destined for death and separation from God.

But like Mary and Joseph, if we’re to take hold of all the grace God wants to give to us through Jesus, we must daily surrender our wills to God’s will and ask God to give us the strength to let go of all that keeps us from following Him.

We need to accept the momentary pain that sometimes seems it will never end in order to experience the eternal gain Christ died and rose to give to those who trust in Him.

We need to daily ask God to make room for Jesus in our lives, because that’s really what faith is: God, through the power of His Word, spoken, preached, taught, and given in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, clearing out the sin and death in our lives to make room for Jesus.

And as we daily receive God’s grace given through Christ, we, like Simeon, faithfully pray and live and follow and see how God acts to give us resurrection life with Jesus. Amen

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