Monday, December 21, 2009
Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” Matthew 16:26
A few years ago, Americans were collectively outraged when the corporate fat cats of Enron made off with millions from a company they had run into the ground while their loyal and hardworking employees suffered the loss of pension and livelihood. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair. The government's prosecution of these corporate scoundrels provided what we all knew that justice demands.
While we all could smell the rat in the Enron scandal, we tend to believe our own stew has a less pungent odor. We tell ourselves, “I haven't stolen anything.” “I haven't cheated anyone.” Perhaps not, but the greed that moves the executive to swindle and the thief to steal is the same greed that cools our hearts with a love of money and possessions. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil,” writes the Apostle Paul.(1Timothy 6:10) He is proven right from the scandals made public in the news and in the scandals that live on privately in our own hearts.
Jesus had it right. “A man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) Of what then does life consist? What is it that gives life value? Again, Jesus has the answer. “Do not seek food, clothes, what you will eat or drink... Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
It is the Kingdom of God! A kingdom that does not decay, that won't grow old, that won't wear out, that won't need to be replenished or replaced. God's kingdom is eternal. God's kingdom will be going strong long after the polish has worn off the Rolls Royce and long after the Rolex has stopped counting time. God's kingdom is forever.
But what of that justice? If the Enron execs got what they deserved for their greed, what about us? What is the cost for our sins? Higher than we can pay. It's one thing to sin against your neighbor, it's quite another to sin against God. You can pay off your neighbor and make that right. But you can never pay off God.
So God paid for us what we could not pay. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1Peter 1:18-19) God sent Jesus, his own son, to die in our place, to pay our debt for our guilt so that we could inherit the kingdom of God.
How's that for a return on an investment! We put in nothing but our sin. We receive in return the riches of heaven. It's hard to imagine. But that is God's gift to us.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Thursday, October 15, 2009
It is with some humor that I recall the 1999 visit of Pope John Paul II to the city of St Louis. I was a student at Concordia Seminary at the time and recall the local news coverage of the event. Everything was related back to John Paul's visit. Every night the local news would air the “Papal Traffic Report”, the “Papal Weather Report”, and the “Papal Sports Report” (okay, not really, but you get the point). Everything was related to the Pope's visit, whether it related or not – to the point of being a bit ridiculous.
There is little to no difference between this and the overemphasis on relationships on the part of the ELCA. Meeting in convention during the month of August, the ELCA decided to position itself as a “relational church body”, a church body ultimately concerned with preserving a positive relationship among all groups and categories of people regardless of race, creed, color, lifestyle or orientation. Of course, we are referring to the official approval granted to same sex couples at the recent Church Wide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
Let it be said, an emphasis on relationships is not, by itself, a bad thing. After all the Bible does have something to say about relationships. As human beings we exist in all kinds of relationships: husbands & wives, parents & children, masters & slaves, citizen & Caesar – the Word of God and Jesus himself has plenty to say about all these relationships. But when Scripture would deal with these relationships it always does so in the categories of our sin and God's grace, God's law that condemns our failures in these relationships and God's Gospel that forgives those failures, our repentance for our sin and God's unconditional response of forgiveness. (We also might add in our response of forgiveness to each other as we receive and enjoy God's forgiveness.) In this light, all relationships are governed through the theological lens of the Cross of Christ.
The ELCA would run it differently. Instead of applying Biblical categories of sin & grace, law & Gospel, repentance & forgiveness they employ categories of relationships that they have gleaned from social sciences. While paying lip service to Lutheran theology what they are most concerned to discuss are the relationship categories. Instead of letting Lutheran theology and Scripture speak for itself, it is all crammed back in to these categories.
Prominent in the discussion of Human Sexuality is a category that they call “trust”. Christians talk about trust all the time. We use the term to define our relationship to God. We “fear, love and trust in God above all things.” No problems there. But when “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” (the official social statement adopted by the assembly) discusses trust they have a different sort in mind. Theirs is a trust that has been ripped open, dumped out, and then stuffed full of a new meaning. To quote: “Trust, as used in this statement, is a fundamental characteristic of right relationship. God is unfailingly trustworthy to us and all of creation. Just as we learn by faith that a right relationship with God is a relationship of trust rather than rebellious self-assertion, a right relationship with the neighbor is one in which each seeks to be truly worthy of the other’s trust.”
Notice what happened. Instead of trust describing how we relate to God as people who are completely and totally dependent upon him for all our needs of body and soul, trust is simply a component of successful human relationship whereby we behave in a manor that does not violate the confidence of another. It's all about relationships.
The same can be said of sin. A faithful, biblical understanding of sin understands that what makes sin to be sin is that it is offensive to God. It is something God address with a particular command. Not so here. The definition of sin has shifted. Speaking in reference to the Sixth Commandment “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” would have us understand as sin those things that simply violate trust. Observe:
“Promiscuity and sexual activity without a spirit of mutuality and commitment are sinful because of their destructive consequences for individuals, relationships, and the community. (emphasis added) The Apostle Paul’s list of vices (e.g., fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry) warns believers of the dangers of gratifying “the desires of the flesh,” thereby turning away from belonging to Christ and God’s kingdom (Galatians 5:19–21). The breakdown of trust through the sexual adulteration of the bonds of the committed, intimate, and protected relationship of marriage wreaks havoc for the family and the community, as well as for the people involved.”
Faithfulness to the Word of God takes a back seat. What has suddenly become the most important thing is faithfulness to the new ethic of trust.
Trust continues to take center stage even when it directly intersects with discussions regarding the correct understanding of the Word of God. “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” is not so much concerned to take on those biblical passages that do deal directly with the issue of same sex relationships. The document acknowledges that there are different understandings of these all important Biblical texts. However, in the interest of the new ethic of trust we are instructed to set these differences aside and simply respect the bound consciences of those with whom we disagree all in the interest of “Christian Freedom”. All in the interest of trust.
One must wonder, if trust is the primary ethic running the ELCA, how long will it be before those who violate trust through a faithful proclamation of God's Word are suddenly the sinners?
This new ethic creates such grave danger for Christians and for non-Christians alike. Suddenly something that God has clearly identified as sin in his Word has been recategorized and redefined. Homosexuality is no longer sin. It is now simply just a relationship. There is no need for repentance. If there is no need for repentance there is no need for forgiveness. The effect of this move is catastrophic. Christians troubled by and struggling with the sin of homosexuality will stop struggling. They will give themselves over to this sin and they will give themselves over to God's judgment. Unbelievers hardened in their sin will be affirmed and will not be called to repentance.
God's judgment for the sin of homosexuality is important. Likewise God's judgment for every other sin. Why? The world is full of sinners. But the problem with most sinners is that they refuse to believe that they actually are sinners. Most sinners refuse to believe that they are actually bad enough to be condemned. (In that light, we would do well to remember Adam and Eve's sin that resulted in their expulsion from Eden – they ate a piece of fruit; not exactly an “FBI's top ten most wanted list” kind of offense!) We are all guilty. But we need to hear God's law and God's judgment so that we are moved to repentance and so that we are pointed to our dire need for Jesus.
We proclaim the Law, but not simply as an excuse for condemning others – far from it! We proclaim the law as a means for diagnosing sin. Once the sin is diagnosed the medicine of the Gospel is applied. Liberally and often. Homosexual (and heterosexual) sinners need to hear the life giving promise of salvation won for them by Jesus on the cross.
Monday, October 12, 2009
A few years back when I was serving in a different district I became acquainted with a congregation that was looking to "revitalize" itself. The senior pastor had cooked up a scheme whereby he would generate new life in his own congregation (a congregation he felt needed to be “revitalized”) through a church planting program. The congregation's method was to plant a new congregation every few years with the intention that this planting process keep them infused with excitement.
I might ask, why is it that when we see the effects of sin drawing away the life of the congregation, our assumption is always that we are the ones who have the where-with-all to do anything about it? (I suppose we might also just as well ask why individual Christians feel the need to "do something" (i.e. go to a conference, recommit myself, etc.) when we personally feel the need to be revitalized?) The aforementioned example proposed an outreach/daughter-church-planting program to build up the congregation. There are plenty of other “revitalization” projects and processes that are currently en vogue in our own Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Most of them share the common theme of "structure and governance". Most of the time a key component in the changes involves bylaws.
Perhaps we should take a step backward as we are considering how to take the next step forward. History has wonderful lessons to teach if we are but willing to listen and learn.
Perhaps we should take a step backward as we are considering how to take the next step forward. History has wonderful lessons to teach if we are but willing to listen and learn.
There is a great piece written originally by Friedrich Pfotenhauer for a conference of visitation pastors back in 1936 that speaks to this “contemporary” issue appropriately and beautifully. It has been translated by Matt Harrision and appears in print in At Home in the House of My Fathers. A worthy read. Check it out and read it here.
Pfotenhauer offers to us today the following guidance:
"First, we must guard against trying to elevate this spiritual life with means that cannot accomplish what we seek. An attempt has been made to elevate spiritual life in the home congregation by rousing the Church to missions and directing her sight to the misery of the churchless and especially the poor non-Christians. To be sure, the work of mission is a glorious and invaluable thing. But to speak and act as though it were through participation in the work of mission that the Word of God must be made living and powerful is simply wrong. To forsake at home the confession of the external Word and the heavenly doctrine while rambling afar in the opinion that the Church must be saved and enlivened with mission is Schwarmgeisterei."
He goes on:
"Others would heal Joseph’s wounds with tighter church governance. They say, if our presidents, visitors, and commissions had more authority, if they could prescribe things to congregations and the congregations had to obey, then life would be brought to these dead bones. Without question, if such a yoke were laid upon the necks of the children, many external works would be produced. Indeed, it wouldn’t even be that difficult to get the money to begin flowing. But that would in no way elevate spiritual life. In fact, it would suffer a terrible retrogression. The Gospel tolerates no hierarchy."
Finally he concludes:
"If we desire to elevate spiritual life, then we must be completely confident in the way of salvation. God from eternity has established and laid down clearly and plainly in His Word this order of salvation. If we do not follow this, spiritual life will neither be begotten nor elevated. And since the way of salvation is so very foreign to human nature, unless we constantly take note of the Word, we will go astray in doctrine and practice.
"Spiritual life comes about, and will be maintained, through faith in Jesus Christ, through confidence in the declaration of justification, which God has created through the redemptive work of Christ and proclaimed in the Gospel. And this spiritual life is realized immediately through holiness and piety, and through living in the commandments of God."
There is much more to his address and it is entirely worthy of reading. The basic point it this: if you want to see revitalization both in the church and in yourself, cling to Christ... where He has promised to be... in His Holy Word! In His Sacraments! There you will find Christ. There you will find the Spirit of Christ. Let us not fall prey to these new measures that would wrestle faith away from Christ where He can be found in His Word. Let us not attach faith to what is its only alternative - our own "good" works!
Monday, October 5, 2009
I am all about playing nice and partnering together with other denominations. While we do not affirm their doctrinal positions, we do acknowledge the "felicitous inconsistencies" and count them as our brothers in Christ. No problems there.
However, there were a few things in the article that struck me as odd. The first was not so much what the article said, but more what it did not say. The article was a general report of the ongoing cooperation between the two church bodies that was discussed in a recent meeting of the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation (CLC) on September 28-29. It acknowledged the gap existing due most recently to the August 19 decision to accept homosexual relationships, but it acknowledged the common priority of human care. The article mentioned as representative voices President Gerald Kieschnick, Raymond Hartwig, and Sam Nafzger. These men are certainly capable representatives of the LCMS. However, it does strike me as odd that there was not a representative from LCMS World Relief and Human Care. This is after all the organization that is most involved in these ministries in the LCMS and it would have provided greater representation and understanding of the work being done. In short, where was Matt Harrison?
Second question. The article reported that Sam Nafzger commented that, "We believe, teach and confess some things that bind us together such as our common understanding of Baptism."
Now I have been in plenty of situations where I was looking for something positive to say and blurted something out that I later regretted. I daily ask the Lord's forgiveness for these sins - and there are many of them. But this does give pause to ask the question, does the LCMS share with the ELCA a common understanding of Baptism? I am not convinced that we do.
Baptism is God's gift for sinners of which I am the worst. I daily confess my poorly chosen words, not to mention my thoughts and actions, that are offensive to God and I rejoice that I have been baptized and those sins are not counted against me. But this baptism is God's gift for sinners who have repented of their sin. (Acts 2:38) If the ELCA has placed a stamp of approval on sin then what need is there for repentance, what need is there for baptism? Read their document - sin is not sin because it offends God. It is sin because it "exploits", "shames", "abuses" another person, because it has "destructive consequences for individuals, relationships, and the community." (See "Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust" p. 4, p. 5)
If this is true, then I don't need to repent when I have violated God's law, I only need to repent when I have made someone feel badly. (I suppose, by that definition, I will then need to repent when I do preach God's law that convicts us of sin and makes us feel ashamed and guilty). While we might still have the Bible and the Book of Concord on the bookshelf in our respective studies - I do not believe that we read them and understand them the same way. I am not convinced that we share a common understanding of baptism.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
More on the gospel of relationship...
So let's suppose Mr Bell is right - God is like a daddy running home with his infant, cherishing the time together as the two of them run through the storm. Does that really provide you any comfort?
I recently visited a correctional center and had the opportunity to listen to some of the residents tell their stories. Most children are afraid of monsters under the bed - one recalled screaming every night afraid that the monster under his bed was his father. Another, a girl, recounted tales of being raped repeatedly by her father. Others were sold to perverts by their mothers in exchange for a hit of cocaine. These people were incarcerated because their lives were as close to hell as one can get here on earth and they had no where to turn. They escaped their lives through drugs and alcohol. Their lives were in ruins as a result.
Put yourself in their shoes and then watch Mr. Bell talk about how he loved running through the rainstorm with his son, how he never felt closer and cherished the memory - kind of rings hollow, doesn't it? God could have saved me from abuse and heartache so bad that I had no place to turn but to that thing that I saw in my parents and hated? But he didn't? Because it made him feel special? Does that comfort?
Not in any meaningful way..
But what about a God who loved you so much that he sent his son to die for you so that all of the sin that has clung so closely to you is washed away. All of the sin that you wished to escape, but didn't. All of the sin that caught up to you and destroyed you just as it did your mother or your father. All of the shame that you feel because you have become the father or the mother that you were trying to escape. All of the pain that you feel because of it. He has made it his own. He became you so that you could become his.
There was a girl who told her story. She was so ashamed. She hid her eyes from any contact. All she could do was express the hope that nobody else wind up like her. She felt that she was too far gone to save. Not for Jesus. Not for Jesus who became her sin. Who claimed her sin as his own, who paid the price for her sin.
Middle to upper class families driving to their local mega church in their shiny mini vans might hear a "relationship gospel" and think it sounds novel and nice. But the "least of these", the sinners, the people Jesus came to save might think it hollow. They might even find it offensive. Sinners need more than nice sounding ideas. Sinners need the gospel.
Friday, July 10, 2009
I think some are searching for God's purpose because they really want to know. But they are searching for God's will in the wrong place. It's almost like going to see a palm reader, or a tarot card reader, or checking your horoscope. From time to time people contemplate major life changes: school, marriage, job, children, location, etc. These are big things. They are intimidating things. People want to know if they make the change and go back to school, change jobs, get married will God still bless them.
Of course He will. But not because you finally found "His will for your life". God does have a will. Here it is: obey the commandments (love God, love your neighbor), and die to yourself and be saved for the sake of Jesus.
But we freak out. Stuff doesn't always go the right way. Sometimes people make a change and get stressed out, loose money, get too busy, depressed, whatever. We really want to avoid those bad things. We think that if we can tap in to God's master plan we can avoid that stuff. Good luck. It's a sinful world. Bad stuff happens. But that doesn't get in the way of God's will.
Read Ephesians 1. God loves you. He chose you from the beginning of the world. He sent his Son to die in your place on the cross for your sin. You will go to heaven. That's God's plan for your life. That's God's will. We spend so much time worrying about His plan and purpose in this life that we make it way more complicated that it needs to be. Read the Commandments. Confess your sin. Believe in the God/Man hanging on the cross for you and be saved.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
"Jesus loves you, but I'm his favorite!" I saw that stuck to the back of a minivan the other day. I had to stop and take notice. You see lots of bumper stickers that say "Jesus loves you" "Smile God loves you" or other such nondescript niceties about the love of Jesus. This one was unique in its cynicism, yet also unique in its honesty.
I say unique in its honesty because isn't that what the sinner in us truly wants to believe? Sure Jesus might love you. Sure he loves everyone. But He loves me the most. Isn't that what's behind this "purpose driven" craze that has invaded the church?
Call me cynical, but I believe that it is. We are not content that Jesus simply love us, that he simply give us heaven for free, that he simply wash us clean from our sins. We want more. We want life with meaning. We want life with a purpose. (And if we were truly honest, we want, no... I want Jesus to give to me a purpose that Jesus hasn't given to you!)
Let's be honest. We want to be special. We want to be the favorite. We want to be numbered among those spiritual elites who have found their purpose. We want to be the guy who puts his arm around the less fortunate brother who doesn't have a purpose and tell him we'll pray for him, we want the smug satisfaction of knowing that we have found that one place that God wants us to be and that we are living a glorious life as the result of it. Isn't that what's it's all about? A glorious life? A favored life? An I'm-better-and-more-chosen-than-you kind of life?
Truth be told, God does have a plan and he does have a purpose; but not the type of plan that most of us are looking for. (Isaiah 55:8) God's plan is salvation. God's plan is that your sinful will and mine be broken and that we be turned to Him in sorrow for sin and then turned to Him in faith for salvation. God's plan is that we be saved from this world of sin and be sealed for eternity. And God's love is too great to be so exclusive. It is his free gift for you and not just for you but for the whole world. (1 Timothy 2:6; 1 John 2:2)
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
The overall tone of the convention was very positive. There was a good deal of discussion on several topics with several view points represented. Yet there were few attempts at power grabs or political positioning. Viewpoints were offered with gentleness and respect. This was good.
There were only a handful of resolutions for the convention to consider. The first had to do with the further dividing up of the district from three regions to five. I did not see a down side to this. The geographic distance and number of congregations in certain regions made them a bit unwieldy for the vice presidents. The division simply makes the division of congregational oversight more equitable among the v.p.'s.
This got tricky, however, when repositioning the District Board of Directors. With the previous arrangement there was equal clergy and lay representation. The new configuration swayed the number to the side of the ordained. There were some who proposed different methods to re-arrange this, no practical arrangement was found so the discrepancy carried.
The elections to the various positions went well. The reviewer is only 2 1/2 years to the district and has yet to learn who's who so it is difficult to offer much comment other than that there seem to be willing servants at the various positions.
Other resolutions were also before the convention. Of significance was a series of resolutions that had to do with allowing a vote in convention to commissioned ministers as well as ordained ministers serving a non congregational call (such as an RSO, a mission at large, a seminary, etc.). These resolutions were significant because they represented a shift in the way we conceive of the synod.
Representation at conventions has historically been granted to congregations; one vote to the pastor and one to a lay person as representation of the relationship between the office of the ministry and the priesthood of the baptized. The resolutions before the convention were designed to give a vote to constituencies of voting blocks according to what is "fair". The language of the resolutions stated that it is not "fair" that commissioned ministers not be granted a vote, that it is not "fair" that ordained ministers serving a call other than a congregation not be granted a vote. These are theological issues that need to be considered theologically and not according to fairness. They need to be sorted out by our theologians before they are turned over to our policy makers. Theology works according to the Word of God, not according to what is fair (i.e. women's ordination & closed communion to name a few).
The series of resolutions were divided into 4 separate resolutions to recommend a change to the BRTFSSG. The first two passed before the convention realized the theological shift that was occurring but then it turned down the second two. It is good that not all were passed. It is however somewhat unusual and ironic that the convention decided to grant a vote to commissioned ministers yet not to seminary professors.
A resolution was presented from the floor to memorialize the Synodical convention to refrain from voting on the recommendations of the BRTFSSG until 2013. This was accepted by a 2/3 majority and reflects a hesitancy on the part of the convention to rush in to radical changes in the structure and governance of the synod. This was good.
The convention also viewed the video presentation from President Kieschnick. I have read comments on the presentation, many present a high degree of criticism. I did not personally take any offense to the presentation, but at the same time was not moved by it in any significant way, especially to the extent that the changes of the BRTFSSG would appear to be a necessity. Much to the contrary.
The presentation of the BRTFSSG was given by Robert Greene. He did a fine job of presenting and answering questions. There was an extended time given to Rev Greene for his presentation. This was helpful. There were a lot of questions that were asked. The three hours of time were fully utilized.
President Kieschnick was not able to attend the Ohio Convention . In his place was Rev Dean Nadasdy, the fourth vice president of Synod. Pastor Nadasdy talked very positively about the condition of synod, mentioning many new developments as a cause for celebration and an indication of the unity within synod. During a question and answer session, one of the pastors in the district asked about the financial condition of synod, wanting to know specific numbers in the interest of transparency and accurate information. Mentioned in the question was the rumor that the seminaries might be sold. Pastor Nadasdy's response was of some concern.
Pastor Nadasdy emphasized that he was speaking for himself and not officially for any synodical entity, but he opined that this might be a good idea. He said that perhaps the seminaries could be sold and a few of the Concordias could be turned into divinity schools. His proposed benefit was that we might be "better equipped to engage the world."
I am not sure what he meant by this. I do not know what he intends when he says "divinity schools". Nor do I understand what he means when he talks about better engaging the world. I can only assume that he intends to say that through the study of theology along side other disciplines we will have broadened areas of expertise.
As I said, this was of concern. Pastor Nadasdy mentioned our unity of confession. I don't know that such unity exists. With the system as it is, our synod already demonstrates too great a disparity in practice in terms of worship practice and communion fellowship, even the ordination of women. To juxtapose our theological education alongside other disciplines would mean less study of theology. This could only further undermine the current (dis)unity of confession. Again, Pastor Nadasdy did not further elaborate on the particulars of this idea, but the fact that this idea exists among those in positions of authority and influence in our synod is of concern.
Overall, the convention was positive. The tone and discussion was conciliatory. A few good things were accomplished and few things were lost.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
I spent some time last night watching the special on ABC Earth 2100, that supposedly chronicles the disasters that will converge on the human race over the next 100 years. "Scientists" interviewed on the program were predicting that the earth would run out of fresh water, food would be scarce, a global pandemic would wipe out at least half the world population, ocean levels would rise and much of modern day society would become a wasteland. These days we have raised the vocation of "scientist" to that of a prophet.
Scientist love to make predictions; they love to make their predictions scary. After all, who would buy your book if all you predicted was that everything will stay the same. You've got to predict something big and bad if you want to make any money. Unfortunately the track record of these doomsday predictions isn't very convincing. Over the years these doomsday predictions have come up short and just been flat wrong. Deuteronomy 18:22 tells us that prophets who are wrong are no prophets at all.
That said, Christians can listen to the point of view of the "prophets" and hear the flap about climate change and take away one or two valuable points. Modern societies are not always the best stewards of God's creation. They should be. Christians especially should be. God gave us this world. He likes it. He thinks it's good. (Genesis 1:31) Therefore Christians should be concerned to take care of it. This is part of the Christian's vocation to serve his neighbor. After all, it's not serving your neighbor if your neighbor has to clean up all the trash that you threw out your window as you were driving by.
While Christians are conscious to be conscientious stewards of God's good world, that does not mean that we think of it as our salvation. ABC news promised us that if we change our behavior and started living a greener lifestyle we could look forward to a Utopian world where there is lots of food and clean air and clean water for everyone. Environmentalism is our means to self salvation.
This is not the world as the Bible describes it. A quick read through Revelation 8:8-12 is helpful. Because God wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth he will send natural disasters. Crops will burn up and be destroyed. (Revelation 8:7) The oceans will be disrupted and the living things in them will die. (Revelation 8:9) Our clean drinking water will be polluted. (Revelation 8:11) The sun will be darkened. (Revelation 8:12)
This is good prophecy. This is true prophecy. All we need to do is think back over the headlines from the past few years to see that God has done this very thing. Remember the floods in Iowa and Indiana? Remember the devastation to the farmland? Remember the polluted drinking water? Remember the loss of life? Remember Katrina? The tsunami? Remember the devastation to local commerce and maritime trade? All these disasters were predicted right there in Revelation. God said he would send them. But these disasters won't be the end of us. God limits these disasters. Revelation tells us they come in thirds. (Revelation 8:7, 8:9, 8:12) Natural disasters are not intended to destroy all of God's world, only part, because He wants sinners to know that the Judgment is coming and they must repent.
Our own modern day false prophets tell us the world is ending. They are correct. The world is ending. But the salvation they proclaim is self salvation. "No Jesus? No Repentance? No Problem! Just use less gas. Buy new light bulbs. You can save yourself and your children." The thing is, it's that sin, that self-worshipping and self-saving sin, that got us here in the first place.
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Whoever cast Daniel Craig as James Bond did the franchise a huge favor. After all, the guy plays Bond like a man. Yeah, he gets beat up. Yeah, he gets bloody. But he’s tough. He can take a punch. He’s forceful. And a Daniel Craig Bond powers himself through the plot on the sheer force of his will. Perhaps the Christian Church USA should stand up and take notice.
They, after all, are still stuck in the Pierce Brosnan era. Think about it. Your average CCUSA Jesus is a Pierce Brosnan Jesus. He looks good. He’s got great hair. He has a quick wit and always just the right thing to say. And he’s got just the right tricks up his sleeve to get him out of a pinch. Do you ever see Brosnan’s Bond beat up and bloody? No. Do you ever see a CCUSA Jesus beat up and bloody? No! (But you sure see him with a wink and twinkle in his eye and smile on his handsome finely-groomed face). Perhaps we could cast Jesus in the sequel to Mama Mia. He could sing his own praise songs.
This is not the Jesus of the Bible. Take a read through the gospel of Mark. You’ll see. You’ll see a man’s man. He’s powerful. (Mark 11:12-14, 20-25) He commands respect. (Mark 1:16-20; Mark 1:27; Mark 15:5) He’s in control. (Mk 6:50) He stands up to and doesn’t run from confrontation. (Mark 2:23-28, Mark 3:22-30; Mark 11:27-33; Mark 14:62) He knows how to take a beating. (Mark 15:19-20) He’s got a firm handle on his mission and purpose and he won’t let anyone set him off track. (Mark 1:15; Mark 8:31-34; Mark 9:30-32; Mark 10:33)
In short, the Jesus of the Bible is a man. A man with a purpose. A man who had put his mind to the job he came to do and let nothing stand in his way ‘till the job was done. That job was your salvation. Thank God in heaven that Jesus is a man. Thank God in heaven that Jesus is not a wus.
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Pentecost is a wonderful day. In fact, when most Christians talk about the Holy Spirit the first thing that comes to mind is Pentecost. For example, modern day Christians who believe that they have a special helping of the Holy Spirit are called “Pentecostals”. They believe that the Holy Spirit measures himself out in greater portions to some Christians who are more deserving and that you can see radical evidence of the Holy Spirit when He has come.
Most Lutherans know we do not look for the Holy Spirit in such radical means such as speaking in tongues or in faith healing, but still we might be tempted to follow the same line of thinking. Often Lutheran Christians are tempted to think that the Holy Spirit gives himself in greater measure through our feelings or through the things that we say or do. For example: have you ever taken a “spiritual gift inventory”; a personality test that is supposed to tell you how the Holy Spirit wants you to serve in the congregation? Or perhaps have you ever heard someone say, “I felt the Holy Spirit leading me to do such and such”? Or maybe your have heard someone refer to a person, maybe even a congregation as “Spirit filled”. While we don’t confess a Holy Spirit who causes us to say or do things we can’t understand, we still are tempted to give Him in greater measure to some than to other. Do not be deceived! The Holy Spirit is not to be cut apart like pieces of a pie.
I believe this happens because sometimes Christians confuse the First Article of the Apostles' Creed (the work of the Father) with the Third Article (the work of the Holy Spirit). In the First Article we learn that God creates each and every one of us with the gifts of our bodies and the accompanying talents and abilities. Some are good artists. This does not mean their art is inspired by the Spirit. Likewise some are good writers. This does not mean their writing is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Still others are skilled musicians and composers. This does not mean their music is inspired by the Holy Spirit. God gives all talents. He gives talents to paint and sculpt and draw. He gives talents to write. He gives musical talents. He also gives talents to farmers so that they can farm. He gives talents to mechanics so that they can repair engines. He gives talents to doctors so that they can help people to heal. All of these talents are gifts from God, but they are gifts He gives both to Christians and to unbelievers. Any one of these gifts can be used for God’s glory and in service to our neighbor or they can be used for sinful and selfish gain. Likewise, when a farmer’s crops grow or when your mechanic gets your car running again we don’t assume this was the work of the Holy Spirit. At times we feel compelled to give preference to some of God’s gifts as being of greater spiritual merit than to others. Paul reminds us that all are members of the body of Christ and the whole body is built up through all of the gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31)
Also, at times Christians believe that they have received a special nudge from the Holy Spirit to go to a certain place and do a certain thing. Be careful of these nudges. (1 John 4:1-3) Sometimes God, who is concerned to provide for you a job, food to eat, good health, and the like will provide opportunities for you. This is because He is good and because He loves you. But be careful that you do not assume that these are His specific will for you, that you should do this and no other. When we have done this we have confused God's good work of caring for his creation with His gracious work of providing for our salvation.
The Work of the Holy Spirit has to do with your salvation. Remember the Apostles' Creed. We confess, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.” These are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are God's gifts that He gives to Christians for forgiveness and salvation.
Recall Jesus' words in John 14. “These things I have spoken while I am still with you. But the Helper (or intercessor or advocate), the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” The work of the Holy Spirit is to point us to Jesus. He is the one who calls us to faith through the Word of God. He is the one who keeps us in that faith through the Word and the Sacraments.
So where do we look for the Holy Spirit? In the Bible. In preaching. In the words of absolution spoken on Sunday (John 20:22-23). In the Lord's Supper. You can be sure that the Holy Spirit is working in these place for you. He doesn't divide himself up. He doesn't give more of himself to one and less to another. The “weak” Christian and the “strong” Christian get the same amount of forgiveness: the whole thing, every time. Enough to last a life time.
This Pentecost, rejoice that the Holy Spirit has been given to you, and is alive in your heart through the Holy Word of God (Hebrews 4:12)
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Listen to the interview here:
Be sure to check out the vast resources they have available at www.issuesetc.org
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Christ, Coffee, and Freshly Baked Cookies... "I'll have a Large Double Mocha Latte, a Blueberry Scone, and a Side of Jesus. Go light on the Jesus."
The evidence is everywhere. If you go to your local Christian bookstore you will be hard pressed to find portraits of a suffering Jesus or a crucifix with a corpus. You will, however, find plenty of portraits to hang on your walls that depict Jesus with his arms open for an embrace, you will find Jesus with his head back and mouth open in a full belly laugh, and you might even find Jesus with children playing soccer and swinging on tire swings.
And what of the books? You will likely find a copy of The Shack, Wm. Paul Young's novel about a man who meets God face to face(s). He gets to spend a weekend with God in the woods baking cookies, fishing, going for walks (even on the water), looking up at the stars, and having deep heart to heart conversations.
You can pick up a copy of Love Dare and its companion movie Fireproof so that you too can “fireproof” your marriage. And if you really want to shore up things with your spouse, head on over to Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas where Pastor Ed Young will tell you that the best way to get closer to God and your spouse is by seven straight days of sex. The Christian faith has become all about "relationship".
Not that relationship is bad. Nor is it unrelated. The Bible has lots to say about Christian relationship - both the relationship of the Christian to God and the relationship of the Christian to the neighbor. The thing is, the picture is not pretty. It's like we say in church. "I have not loved God with my whole heart. I have not loved my neighbor as myself." That sets the stage for a pretty poor relationship.
The Old Testament people of God had a relationship with God. God lived literally in the middle of the camp. He invited them to come spend time with him every day. However, every time they stopped by God's tent for a visit something had to die. A lamb, a bull, a pigeon if you were poor had to give up its life for your relationship with God to continue. Doesn't really put you in the mood for the taste of a latte or the smell of freshly baked cookies...
The New Testament people of God get in on the relationship too. The New Testament calls it koinonia. We often translate that as "fellowship". Sometimes we think fellowship is what we get when we all get together and enjoy each others' company. It's not. Fellowship, koinonia is not about us. It's not about our interpersonal connections. It is what we get when God joins us to himself, (1Cor. 1:9) to his own mystical body, through His sacrament so that through Christ we are joined to one another (1Cor. 10:16).
Just like our Old Testament counter parts, this doesn't happen without there being a death. We can't go over to God's place without someone loosing His life. Unless there is first a death, a sacrifice, a propitiation (1 John 4: 10) there is no relationship. So that's what there is. And the picture is not pretty. There is a cross and a bloodied figure on that cross who cries out to a God who has forsaken him (one relationship broken) and disciples who have abandoned him (12 more relationships broken) and his own people who have despised him (a whole slew of broken relationships!) But his failure is our victory. The koinonia can begin, first between you and God and then, through Christ, between you and your neighbor.
With all this misplaced talk of relationship, the result is a real tragedy. We are supposed to do things that benefit the relationship. We are supposed to spend time with one another, be "vulnerable" with one another, see the positive in one another, do nice things for one another. While these are (or can be) really good things, these things do not fix the problem.
If the problem is sin and if sin is that we are turned in on ourselves, the solution is not to follow a plan, a prescribed set of behaviors. These might open your eyes to help you see things are not right, but they cannot fix the sin. Sin is fixed through the Gospel. Sin is fixed through a Spirit-directed confession of sin that empties the self of rights and reasons and excuses. Sin is fixed when we confess our sins to each other and when we forgive the sins that have been committed against us. Sin is fixed when we confess our sin to Christ and He absolves us through his called and ordained servant.
The Bible has lots to say about relationship. It is God's to give, ours to ruin, and then God's to restore. He does this. He does it in Jesus.
Friday, April 24, 2009
As I said before, Mr Giglio has more rhetorical skill and writing style in his little finger than I have in my whole body and his presentation is incredible inspirational. And I love all that he says about this great big wonderful world that our God has made for us to enjoy. But when it gets right down to brass tacks, Mr Giglio misses the point.
A few Decembers ago my parents decided that they wanted to treat the family to a holiday outing. My parents, my siblings, our spouses, their respective families and I all went to Chicago for a special weekend. The entire event was crafted around fostering family togetherness and creating a lasting memory for their children and grandchildren. For my father, the pinnacle of the event was a meal at Lowry's, a world-famous restaurant that specializes in prime rib. The meal was fantastic, the service was like no other the experience was incredible. The point of that meal was that it was a time for the family to be gathered around the same table and enjoy some of the best food available together so that we could have an opportunity for family togetherness and an event that we all would remember. It was just that.
Now imagine if years from now one of my children were to retell that event. And in the retelling she left out the food, the family, the environment, the event and instead talked about water. At the beginning of the meal, when we sat down to eat there were glasses of water on the table. The water had ice in it. Now don't get me wrong, ice water is great. It's cold, it's refreshing, it cleans the pallet. But it is just water, earth's most abundant resource. Ice water is available at every restaurant in the city of Chicago. Even the fast food places, even the gas stations, even the state prison serves water. To rave about water when there were so many other good things to be mentioned would be to miss the point.
That is exactly what Louie does. Sure God created the world. sure it's a big world. Sure it's a good world. But you can get a big god with a good, big world in many of the world's religions. Islam gives you a big god. Mormonism gives you a big god and (like Louie) they even put his son on a cross. But only Christianity puts that god, the God on the cross for us for our sin. To talk about God only as big, to give his saving work on the cross only honorable mention is like coming away from a lasting family memory and only talking about ice water.
Sure God is big. Sure God created a good and a big world, but for sinners dead in their sin, who are enemies of God is there anything better, anything greater than that God dead on a cross to forgive your sin and take you to heaven. Is there anything more exciting than that formerly-dead God risen from the dead and ascended into heaven where He has been given all authority in heaven and on earth? (Matthew 28:18) Is there anything greater than knowing the because He died, rose, and ascended there is nothing on earth that can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39)
"How great is our God?" Absolutely! How great it our God! Crucified! Risen! Ascended into heaven for you!
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Carrion foul sense death, they smell it. They gather when it is near so that they can feast on its fruit. Not too different from Satan. He loves to feast on the death of God's people. He loves to torture and torment and intimidate those who are dying. He loves to be the ominous threat hovering over the head of those drowning in sin pretending that he is waiting for his first opportunity to strike.
I had a longstanding member of the congregation die recently. His name was Ralph Burns. He was 86 years old. He fought in World War 2 and was one illness away from being sent to Iwo Jima to fight and probably to die. He got sick and was transferred after his unit shipped out.
All these years later that event still tormented him. He felt guilty, like he failed his brothers in arms, like he took the easy way out. He felt like a sinner. As he lay on his death bed he felt the hungry gaze of Satan staring down at him from the perch above his hospital bed. It cast a dark cloud over Ralph's conscience as he lay there waiting to die.
That is what Satan does – that Old Evil Foe, that dreadful accuser, that liar and that thief. He tells us that we are no Christians, that we are too wicked to be saved, that God doesn't want us and that he wouldn't have us. But, then again, Satan is a liar.
You see, we know better. We know that God does want us. In spite of our sin, God loves us. In spite of our wretchedness God thinks the world of us. And so he has moved heaven and earth to come to us with the intention that he bring us to where he is.
We have nothing to do with it. We are sinners. Ralph was right, he had failed. Even though he didn't intend to, even though he couldn't help that he got sick, he failed. He didn't do his duty as a soldier, as a husband, as a father, as a churchman. That's not to say he wasn't faithful. That's not to say he didn't do his best. He did by far better than most, if not all of us. But what do we know? We are sinners too. Even the least of sinners is still a sinner. Even the least of sinners still deserves to die in hell with the devil.
But we don't. Some do and that's tragic. But because of Jesus we don't. Ralph didn't. Ralph doesn't. Ralph won't. He is alive. Even though we had his funeral and buried his body and mourned his loss, Ralph is alive. Jesus said so.
In our text the risen Christ stood in the middle of his frightened disciples, gathered together and locked up because they were afraid to die and He spoke to them words of peace. “Peace be with you.” Jesus said. Jesus doesn't give peace like the world gives. Jesus gives true peace. Peace that comforts sinners. Peace that comforts a man on his death bed feeling the foul breath of Satan on his neck.
Jesus breathed. Just like God breathed on clay and gave life to Adam. Jesus breathed on the 10 frightened and fearful disciples with words of life and he gave them life, he gave us life, he gave life even in the face of death. “If you forgive anyone his sins they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them they are not forgiven.”
Jesus had pronounced forgiveness before. To a man let down through the roof in a crowded house. Jesus took pity on the man and announced to him that his sins were forgiven. The pharisees scoffed. Who can forgiven sins but God? Who can forgive sins but the one who has authority over sin? Only God. Jesus bought the rights to our sin, when he suffered for them on the cross. He paid the price. He bailed us out. And he did it with his own blood.
And since the debt is paid and the price has been laid down, Jesus has come back. He is restored to life to prove to you and to me that he has done it and so now he has the authority. All authority. All authority in heaven and on earth.
And what does he do with that authority? Does he keep it for himself? Does he guard it and defend it and keep us away from it? No. He passes it out. He gives it to his church. In his Church He gives it to pastors so that the authority to forgive sins, the authority that only God deserves has been given to man. You can forgiven the sins of the sinners and Jesus hears your voice and He says in Heaven, “Amen. Your forgiveness is my forgiveness.” The sins of the sinner are gone.
Ralph knew that.
While the Devil was doing his best to shake Ralph's confidence, to drive him to doubt and despair, God sent His man with His authority to pay him a visit. God sent to Ralph his pastor to go into the hospital room, beside the death bed to hear the confession and speak the absolution.
We speak those words all the time. Weekly. “I forgive you all your sin in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” We forget their power. Ralph did not. Not at that moment. With relief on his face and tears in his eyes Ralph said to me, “Pastor, It's so nice you can say that.” It took the faith of a dying man to get this sinful pastor to appreciate God's good gift.
So often we want God's gifts to be flashy, to be powerful, to fill up the pews and overflow the coffers. God occasionally gives those gifts and when He gives them they are good gifts. But the best gifts, God gives weekly, daily if you want it, abundantly and without limits. God gives his forgiveness, his absolution.
When we say we don't have sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is nowhere within us. But when we confess our sin, God who is faithful and just forgives us and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.
Would that we had the faith to believe it.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
I recently spent some time watching a video that has been floating around cyber space entitled "How Great is our God" with a preacher named Louie Giglio. If you have taken the time to watch the video you will know, Louie is a great preacher. If you haven’t watched it, a portion of it is posted here for you to see for yourself. Louie is emotional. He is passionate. He is knowledgeable and informative. He is engaging and interesting to listen to. As a fellow preacher, I wish I had a tenth of his skill.
But there is more to be seen here than simply rhetorical style. Where Louie is successful at putting together a moving presentation, he fails at delivering to us the Gospel in all its fullness (Romans 15:19). He fails at delivering to us Jesus dead on a cross for the forgiveness for our sin. (1 Corinthians 1:23)
The theme of Mr Giglio’s presentation fits in with the Chris Tomlin song, How Great is our God. He is participating in a Chris Tomlin tour. Chris sings and then introduces Louie who comes out to do his presentation.
The video posted here is an excerpt from a larger presentation that lasts about 50 minutes. You can find them all on YouTube if you want to watch them back to back. Louie does a great job of convincing us that God is great, that God is big, that God is all powerful and sufficient and that is all really good. But for me, a sinner doomed to hell because of my sin, that is not good enough. I need more.
Louie does talk about sin. He says that because of sin we make God to be so small. Over the course of his 50 minute presentation Louie demonstrates that God is not small. Earth is small. On a small earth we are small people. In the vastness of the universe we are minuscule. Louie makes this point very effectively. God is not small. God is big, bigger than the universe. God is powerful, breathing out the stars and the galaxies, creating them with a word. But still this is not enough. I need more.
Louie’s big left hook (as he describes it) is a little protein molecule called laminin. Laminin is a molecule in every human cell that keeps the entire human body together. Louie effectively defines the central significance of this molecule. Louie rejoices in the fact that this molecule is in the shape of the cross. He uses that as his hook to bring in the “sufficiency of Christ”, “the supremacy of Christ”. He quotes the Apostle Paul who tells us all things hang together in Jesus from Colossians 1. Louie says, “So you’re at the toughest place in your life, how can you know that God is going to hold you together. You know because there is a cross standing over history.” Amen! That’s it. If only he would have ended here.
As soon as Louie tells us that Jesus made peace with God through his blood he blows right past it and gets on to what he seems to think is our biggest problem – to what he believes I think is my biggest problem – all of my baggage, my struggles, my hardships, the problems of this life. He says, “Yes I will accept that God died on a cross, but what I really need to know right now is does God see what I am going through?”
Yes my life has problems. Everyone’s life has problems. This side of heaven, we always will. According to Louie, my biggest problem is that I make God too small, too small to handle all my life’s issues. His solution is to make God big, big enough to handle my life’s issues. If my biggest problem was life issues then a big God would be great. But it’s not. Therefore, I need more.
My biggest problem is sin. Sin that makes God small. Sin that makes sin small. Sin that has doomed me to hell. I need Jesus – that big, universe creating, star breathing God, on a cross for me in my place and for my sin. I need that Jesus to suffer in my place as my perfect sacrifice to fix that biggest of problems that I am too small and too weak to overcome. Mr. Giglio gives me a bigger God. Being a sinner, all he has done is give me a bigger problem. Mr. Giglio, Louie, I need Jesus. I need Christ. I need Christ crucified!
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Oh, contraire my friend.
A Lutheran Altar is no place for the good, it is no place for the strong. It is no place for the healthy. As Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick." A Lutheran altar is reserved for those who are sick, who are sinful, evil, and weak. When my visiting friend was put off by our refusal to allow him to attend he was put off by the wrong thing. It is not that he was not good enough to attend. It is precisely the opposite. He was not bad enough.
The Catechism says that the Supper is "the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and the wine instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink." and that "These words, 'Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,' show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words." The body and blood of Jesus are the body and blood of Jesus for sinners.
For those of us who have a terminal case of sin, there is no better medicine than the body and blood of Jesus. For those of us who are dying in our own trespasses and sin, there is no greater hope than receiving the body and blood of Jesus into my mouth. That body and blood is life; and not just a little extra life tacked on to an existence that is going to end soon anyway. It is life that never ends. It is eternal life.
If you're not sick you don't take medicine. Likewise, if you're good you don't need forgiveness. If your only problem is that you need to have your memory jogged from time to time you don't need "the body and blood of Jesus given for us Christians to eat and to drink." This body and blood is God's gift for sinners. My friend was not welcome to come because he needed more than just some quality time with the other people sitting in the pews. He needed Jesus.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
I have lived the tragedy from both sides - felt it personally and ministered to it pastorally. All one can do is pray for God's mercy and hold tightly to His promise to provide it. Here Pastor Harrison does what God has called him to do - through the tragedy he points us to Jesus.
Thank You God for Your mercy that you have provided for us in Jesus!
To view this video in its original context click here.
Monday, March 2, 2009
But then came Jesus. The Sacred One came to suffer for the sin that used to make those encounters with God so deadly. He assumed into himself the punishment and death that we ought to endure when we enter into the Presence of the Holy. But do we die? Hardly! Instead the Holy One places his own body and blood into our mouths to eat and to drink! Imagine the carnage that would have erupted in a pre-incarnation communion service! Imagine the blessing that is ours because God makes us into a holy nation through the Communion of Saints!
These days people will say that because the curtain was torn in the temple the dividing line between the sacred and the common has been erased. These days people will assume that this means that nothing is sacred, that nothing should be sacred. How sad! Far from erasing the sacred, God in his loving kindness has invited us in - to take part in the sacred. God has opened heaven so that we could join him in the Eternal Feast.
Why is it that we feel so inclined to cheapen this magnificent gift? Instead of entering heaven with fear and trembling we load up the Holy of Holies with all the equipment for a rock concert. Instead of seeing it as first and foremost that we will be met by the “Light of Light descending from the Realms of Endless Day” we capitulate to a culture that has thrown away any notion of the sacred, that distorts God’s gifts into a patriarchal hierarchy that needs to be torn down and deconstructed
What God has made to be sacred remains sacred! Let’s remember what has changed. The sacred hasn’t stopped being sacred – God has simply done away with the need for a fence that keeps us out!