Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Reckoning with Our Sins: Remembering Emmett Till

Just as we must never forget the Holocaust, we must never forget what happened to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy murdered by white racists in 1955. His murderers were acquitted of their crime, then sold the story of how they killed the child to Look magazine.

The reason Emmet Till was murdered was that he was thought to have "flirted" with a young white woman. That was unacceptable in the Jim Crow South.

We must never forget the poisonous, murderous barbarisms that racism incites and justifies. Yet, to this day, there are white people who want to erase the memory of Emmett Till,  just as there are white people who want tours of the Old South's slave labor camps (otherwise known as plantations) to go easy on references to slavery.

Unless we reckon with the reality of the sin of racism and the place it has played in our history and plays in our present, we will not be free to become the society we are called to be. Racism is a sin, a violation of God's command that we love our neighbors, even those that our ethnic communities have taught us to hate or disdain. (See here.) Like all sins, God can forgive racism for which we repent in the name of Jesus. But until we honestly wrestle with racism and own it before God, we cannot be forgiven or have any part of God's kingdom.

This report from NPR's All Things Considered today was sobering.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Eyes Opened to New Life

"...if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age [the devil] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." (2 Corinthians 4:3-4)

When I was an atheist and thought that Jesus was a nice guy that Christians misconstrued, I was unable to hear or to see Who Jesus really was, is, and claims to be. My eyes were blinded to the gospel by the devil whose resentment of humanity's place in God's eyes--the only of God's creatures made in the image of God--has placed a veil over human thinking until it's finally pierced by the gospel truth that we are sinners in need of saving and that we are only saved by God's grace through faith in Christ.

But God doesn't give up on enlightening we sinners to the truth of His gospel--the good news--for the human race that can save  us from sin, death, and ourselves. This is why the apostle Paul told the first-century Christians in Rome, " For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile." (Romans 1:16)

The eyes of unbelieving people can be opened to see and believe in the gospel, to believe in Jesus, so that we're no longer blind and no longer dead in our sin. This is what God is doing to and in me through Jesus.

My call is to keep sharing Christ's Gospel. The Holy Spirit can used my simple sharing of it to open the eyes of the blind and bring them life with God.

Gracious God, help me to faithfully proclaim Christ and His Gospel so that through this Word, the Holy Spirit can open people's eyes and give them life with You that never ends. Amen 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Place Where Riffraff Are Welcomed

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

Luke 13:22-30
Today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 13:22-30, begins with a question from a member of the crowd squeezing in around Jesus: “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

We don’t know the motive of the person asking the question. But we can surmise that the crowds--even the disciples--were beginning to feel uneasy by what Jesus was saying and doing. In applauding the repentant faith that He had seen in notorious sinners and outsiders like prostitutes, tax collectors, and Roman soldiers, Jesus seemed was saying that belonging to the kingdom of God He came into the world to bring didn’t come by the things taught by the rabbis, the scribes, and the priests

The Jewish religious teachers of Jesus’ day said that if you were Jewish, you were in the club. All Jews were righteous, they thought. All non-Jews, Gentiles, were not righteous. All Jews would therefore be saved, they reasoned. 

The Pharisee sect of Judaism would have said that not all Jews were saved, only the ones who obeyed their interpretation of God’s laws. 

So, Jews were being taught largely that salvation, life in God’s eternal kingdom, came only to those who either were members of the genetic club or who did righteous things.

But Jesus has been saying things in chapters 12 and 13 of Luke that said their confidence about salvation was misplaced. Jesus is teaching that salvation comes only through faith in the God now revealed definitively to the world in Jesus Himself. Jesus’ fellow Jews and all other people needed to follow Jesus, to repent for sin and trust in Jesus, submitting to Jesus’ Lordship, so that His grace could transform them. This upset people. 

It still upsets people. The moment you suggest to people that there's nothing they can do and no way that they can be good enough to earn salvation from God, they offer up a million objections. People want to preserve the illusion of their own intrinsic goodness.

No wonder that the man asked Jesus, “Lord, are only a few going to be saved?” 

Jesus responds in Luke 13:24: “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.”

We live in an age when people, if they ever think of God, say that God is such a nice guy that He won’t send anyone to hell. Let’s be clear: Jesus, God in the flesh, did die on the cross for everyone. But He doesn’t force salvation on anyone. He doesn’t force anyone to repent or believe in Him. He gives us the freedom to say no, to move through this life, presuming to be gods unto ourselves until this life ends. The doorway to a life apart from Jesus is wide open to everyone and, by our inborn sinful nature, it's the path, the easy one, that we most want to follow. 

But Jesus says that there’s only one way--a narrow way--to life with God. And that narrow way is Jesus

“I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me,” Jesus says in John 14:6. If we don’t enter God’s kingdom through Jesus, we can’t get it in, we won’t get in

Jesus expands on this theme in the next verses: “Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” 

There will come a time when the door allowing us to leave lives lived apart from God, the narrow way, will be closed to us

Death will come and then it will be too late to enter eternity with God through repentance and faith in Jesus. 

No matter how much people pound at heaven’s door, those who haven’t entrusted their lives to Christ will pound in vain. 

And it won’t dot these people any good to say, “We made big offerings to the Church. We sang hymns and praise songs...even the ones we didn’t like and almost never complained about them. We volunteered for outreaches.” 

To people like this, the owner of the house--Jesus--will say at the Judgment, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” Jesus doesn’t truly know-- that is, have a relationship with--those who have no relationship of faith with Him. Christ only knows those who have opened the doors of their own lives and let Him in. Without such humble daily surrender to Christ, we’re just playing at religion; we’re only toying with Jesus.

To a church filled with lukewarm faith mentioned in the book of Revelation, the crucified and risen Jesus said: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” [Revelation 3:20] Jesus offers a relationship of intimacy and trust with Him, not just because it feels good, but because we need this relationship today and in eternity! Without a relationship with Jesus, we are dead now, though we may still be breathing, and we are dead for eternity.

With a relationship with Jesus, we are alive, even in life’s darkest and most difficult times. And one day, all who trust in Christ will be alive in a kingdom of perfection with God for all eternity.

To His fellow Jews, suffering from the delusion that being Jewish or that doing good works was all they needed to be saved--the way some people today think that all you need is to be Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, or on the church rolls somewhere--Jesus says: “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out.” Those who turn from Jesus or who take Him for granted or who keep him removed by an arm’s length in this life, will have an eternity of regret

But Jesus doesn’t end His answer at that. He says in verses 29-30: “People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed, there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” I take great comfort from these final words from Jesus. People from the world over, from every background, are already part of God’s kingdom initiated by the crucified and risen Jesus. 

Jesus takes in all we riffraff! When Ann and I were first engaged, her family didn't care for me at all. They raised all sorts of objections and laid down trivial conditions on their support for us getting married. One of Ann's dear friends crystallized things when she told her, "The problem, Ann, is that they're looking for Secretariat. Mark isn't Secretariat." I was no thoroughbred racehorse, only a donkey, riffraff. The blessed thing is that Jesus loves riffraff and will welcome into His kingdom all who turn from sin and turn to Him. 

That's the good news that transforms the life of every person who follows Jesus, Jew or Gentile, the world over! Together, we whose lives are being eternally transformed by the grace of God given to us through Jesus cherish what Ephesians 2:8-9 teaches us: “ 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.” I am a wretched sinner whose only boast is that I have been saved from myself by the crucified and risen Jesus.

I belong to God not because I’m good, because, in fact, I’m not. 

Nor do I belong to God because I have the right genes, which, in fact, I don’t. 

I belong to God--I am saved from sin and death, futility and regret--because God is good and by His grace through the faith in Jesus that His Holy Spirit gives to me, He covers me with the goodness of Jesus and the power of His sacrifice over death, accomplished on the cross

Those who are saved are simply those who want, more than anything, to know and be with Jesus! They follow the narrow way: Jesus Himself.

The apostle Paul talked about this central desire of those who seek to follow Jesus in Philippians 3:10-11: “I want to know Christ--yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” 

May we seek each day to know Christ, the narrow way, Who opens up life and eternity to all who repent and believe in Him. Amen

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