Friday, December 25, 2009

No Place No More

Here are my notes from Christmas Eve preaching in Cokato, MN.  You can listen to the sermon by clicking here.

The gospel according to Luke, the second chapter.
1 In those days the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

Christmas Message- click here to listen.
“No Place No More”

When the Lord comes—when he comes to be with us
(That’s what “Immanuel” means—God with us…)
When the Lord comes to be with us even a nowhere place like Bethlehem—a place so tiny that there’s little evidence of it even being there when Jesus was born…
When the Lord comes Immanuel to be with us even a nowhere nothing no-place like Bethlehem can become a place of songs and glory

And this is a sign for you—
no matter how rejected and despised you may be God still longs to come and make his home in your heart. In your life. To make your life sing.

Dear Friends in Christ, Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, and from the Holy Spirit, who comes to place his Word in our hearts.

Our Lord came to Bethlehem.

It wasn’t because that place was good—it wasn’t.

Actually, it was just the opposite.

Our Lord Jesus suffered his first rejection there—actually his second… his step father Joseph wanted out when he found out his fiancée was pregnant…

It required an angel to straighten him out.
“Joseph, Son of David: Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Luke 1:20-21)
And so, brought into line by an angel warrior, Joseph played his part.  But no one else did.

If Joseph and Mary were traveling to his ancestral town to be registered, where were Joseph’s other relatives when they needed them? Why did they need to be outdoors? There’s a stable in our imaginations, but just what it was we don’t know. Mary could have just given birth to Jesus outdoors, with just some cloth under him, with just some cloth to wrap him…

It was a no where sort of place. A no place place where Jesus was born.

And, you know what? God meant it to be that way.

When the angels had to be summoned again to draw some attention to this gift of God that was being given, the angel made it clear that the manger bed, the fact that Jesus was born without a good place, they announced THAT was the sign:
You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.
It’s not the swaddling clothes that were unusual… It was normal in those days, and in many places today, for children to be wrapped tightly after they are born…

The sign was the manger—the fact that Jesus had no place to be born… just a no where town with two people, Mary and Joseph, who seem to have been left out in the cold by the rest of the world.

And that sign is for you when you are left out, when you are abandoned, when you have no place.

That sign continued through Jesus life. Like it says in Luke 9:58 where Jesus says:
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests;
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
As long as Jesus lives he seems to be in borrowed quarters. During his ministry he seems to be constantly traveling. There is someplace he seems to have for awhile in the town of Capernaum, but that seems to be a place he just retreats to from time to time.

He's usually out under the stars or staying with other people. And when he goes to his home town he's thrown out--they try to throw him over the cliff. (Luke 4:29)

It is for people who know they have no real place in this world that Jesus comes. Those who are secure, who think they belong, who are getting by on their own, they don’t get that.

During Jesus lifetime it was those with a secure place who hated him. Jesus challenged the normal order of things, saying that he came, not for those who are in good situations, but for those whose lot his hard: for the sick, for the rejected sinner, for the hungry, for the grieving, for those who can’t help but cry out in their pain.

And when Jesus comes to those places during his ministry, when Jesus goes to the nowhere places—to the other side of the sea of Galilee where no respectable people would go, to the brokenhearted mothers and fathers whose children were given up for lost, even to the tombs where Lazarus had been dead four days—he brings healing, forgiveness, and new life.

And all those nowhere places: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Siloam, Capernaum, the land of the Gerasenes, and to the prison and the CROSS where he was spit on and rejected and killed as a criminal—to all of those nowhere places Jesus gives such glory that we sing about them today.

Even his tomb was a borrowed one. Not that he needed it very long…

So, if you are in a nowhere place now, if you have no respectable place, Jesus comes to you, even if it is your own fault. Especially if it is your own fault and you know it.  For Jesus came to save us—all of us—from our sins.

That’s the glorious good news! Good news that we are called to bring out into the world, wherever the curse is found. He comes to make his BLESSING known!

He rules with truth and grace! He rules the left out and the walked on and the displaced. He rules the refugee and the criminal and those that no one else wants. He brings his blessing and that blessing makes those no places into places of grace. They are no place no more.

And we can accept that,and we can participate in that.  We can know Jesus in forgiveness, and at the altar tonight.

If, however, you are more or less comfortable, if you think you do have a place, then Jesus calls you to know his love, and then to follow him, to follow him into every kind of uncomfortable circumstance, to bring God’s love as Jesus did, to those who are left out.

To those who are outside. Outside like Mary and Joseph.

As it says in Hebrews 13:
12 …Jesus suffered and died outside the city gates to make his people holy by means of his own blood. 13 So let us go out to him, outside the camp, and bear the disgrace he bore. 14 For this world is not our permanent home…
We may think we have a place in this world… but we really don’t… we’re really all sinners and outcasts…
14 For this world is not our permanent home… we are looking forward to a home yet to come.
Hebrews 13 continues…
15 Therefore, let us offer through Jesus a continual sacrifice of praise to God, proclaiming our allegiance to his name. 16 And don’t forget to do good and to share with those in need. These are the sacrifices that please God.

Because Jesus comes to be with us in that manger—in this no place place in this rejected world… we can be assured that no place is no place no more. 

Through Jesus love, when we share it, every place becomes Jesus’ place, a place of grace, a place of hope, a place of truth and love… a place of joy.

That’s what we have to share in this community. That’s why we get together, week after week, to share his love.

In the end, we will have a forever place, and it will never be taken away—a place with Jesus—a place with God.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Dwelling Among Us

My daughter Naomi wrote this today:
When you think about Christmas, what images come to mind? Twinkling lights on a tree loaded with gifts beneath its boughs?  Snowflakes drifting lazily through the crisp air? Reindeer and a sleigh with a jolly fat man circling the globe? Family, friends, love, warmth, tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy? And when you think of the Nativity, the time of Jesus' birth, do you picture a silent night with a virgin so tender and mild rocking her baby no crying he makes with the cattle lowing and the angels singing sweetly from the sky?

All of those images come to my mind.  But a new picture of Christmas has been emerging in my consciousness and it's impossible for me to see the picture any other way now.
Take to read the rest of what she wrote--you can read it by clicking here. You'll be glad you did.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Manger Sign

Luke 2:7 says Mary laid the baby Jesus in a feed box, because there was no place for them...

That is a sign for us! 

When we know we have no permanent rightful place in this world, God comes to us. 

And when God comes, your no place life is no place no more

Now it is a holy place--a place of beauty, a place of singing, a place of joy

Your heart--your life--just like the manger of our Lord.

Come and see what God can do in your life tomorrow, Christmas Eve, Dec. 24 - 4:00 p.m. or 11:00 p.m. Candles and carols, preaching and prayers, unending love.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Alongside the Preacher

At the 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning men's Bible study I said something about what I was had prepared for preaching the next day.  My basic preparations to that point can be seen at Trusting Good.

But things changed.  It wasn't until sometime later on Saturday that the relationship between Elizabeth and Mary moved to the center of my thinking.  I'd like to think that the Holy Spirit was at work as I prayed and prepared.

You can find my final notes for preaching below, including introductions to the scriptures and gospel.  There were at least five rewrites.  The assigned scriptures (Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:46b-55; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45) can be read by clicking here.

Then there was the actual sermon.
  • The 8:30 version mostly followed the notes below.  You can listen the sermon by clicking here--it does not include the "Scripture Introductions."  
  • The 11:00 sermon is faster paced and does not follow the notes.  The audio of the 11:00 a.m. "contemporary" worship hour preaching can be found by clicking here.

    (One quick comment will help you understand something that happens... During the message I point to the "meek and mild" angel in our church's manger scene.  Earlier, as I talked with the children, I said the Bible describes angels as mighty spiritual warriors--the heavenly army.  Angels are not cute!  That's why they always are saying "Don't be afraid!")
The process of preparation and preaching changes every week.  One of the men who had been there for the Saturday morning men's Bible study said how different the 11:00 a.m. message was than what I had originally prepared at Trusting Good.  It certainly was.  I pray that the result was guided by the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.  But, as I say in this message, I do need people to come alongside me to encourage, and correct.

Please do not hesitate to share your comments, your critiques, and your corrections.  Like Mary was open to Elizabeth's counsel, I hope I will be open to yours.


Notes for Dec. 20, 2009

SCRIPTURE INTRODUCTION: Can we trust God to do good in every situation? In our first reading we hear Micah giving good news to Bethlehem—but soon afterward the whole country is destroyed and its capital city becomes a heap of rubble. After the Micah reading, we’ll join in verses 46b through 55 of Luke 1—Mary’s song… And after that we’ll hear from Hebrews—we’ll hear how Christ came in a body that was going to be sacrificed! How can we trust and believe God for good? That will be the subject of our preaching today.

GOSPEL INTRODUCTION: The family story of Jesus is mysterious and fascinating. Jesus’ Father is God himself. Jesus’ mother is Mary, an unmarried girl who knows God’s promises and is willing to let God do what he has planned. After God works his miracle, becoming a human being in Mary—Mary carries Jesus as he develops like any human child—After God works his miracle in Mary’s body Mary goes away from her home to her aunt Elizabeth’s. God had told Mary that her aunt would understand… important for an unmarried girl to know… Elizabeth would understand because something similar was happening to her… she was unexpectedly pregnant too… so, Mary, perhaps because it wasn’t safe for her to be at home… Mary goes to stay with this aunt … The gospel according to Luke, the first chapter…


Yesterday I mislaid my wedding ring. I hate it when I lose something valuable… I tried to remember where I might have left it… went upstairs and downstairs, looked on by our bed, on my dresser, in a couple of drawers… retraced my steps over and over again… then, when I gave up, came back here to work… and found it on my desk.

What does THAT have to do with our scriptures today?… well, for one thing it’s a confession. So often, almost every day, I get SO anxious. I get worried and overreact and it’s like my whole world comes crashing down… well… not really about the ring… but… I do get worried… Yesterday I was talking with men about how we get worried… like about our kids, or when we lose a job or our bodies have something wrong with them… so often when we have personal pain or personal loss or personal worry we lose our NATURAL ability to trust that things will turn out okay…

So often I need to ask someone to pray for me because I’m anxious and worried… someone needs to help me put my focus back on the promises of God. Those promises, they bring me the truth: goodness and rightness and peace will win in the end.

Which is stronger right now in your life—anxiety—or trust? If it’s anxiety, are there small signs of God’s purpose and God’s good in your life that can give you reason to praise God every day? Or do the worries win?

For Mary, the main character in our gospel, I’m not sure which feeling came out on top until she saw Elizabeth… after all, it wasn’t for no reason that she left her parents home for her aunt’s. Matthew’s gospel tells us her fiancé didn’t understand… his first reaction was to want out of the relationship… and what must her close family and friends have thought? A virgin pregnant?

No, she had to get away… so she went to the home of someone who would understand. And when she got there, Elizabeth greeted her with love, with joy, and with complete understanding. And God blessed that encounter with a little signal of joy… the baby inside Elizabeth—her miracle baby—the gift of the Holy Spirit in HER—that little one gave a little leap—a little leap of joy that Elizabeth could use to reassure frightened Mary… The Holy Spirit does the same thing in us, by the way… the Holy Spirit inside us will give little moments of joy that will allow us to remain strong in faith… those little kicks of joy may seem so small… but they are from God, and when tie them with God’s promises, they can push back the darkness… That’s what happened in a physical way to Elizabeth… the baby leapt and Elizabeth saw that as a sign from the Lord… she reassured Mary, and the result was that Mary could join Elizabeth in praising God.

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant, from now on all generations will call me blessed.

God needed to get a message of reassurance to that girl—and he used Elizabeth to deliver the message, to remind her of what the angel had first said to her…

Back in Luke 1 verse 30… the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary,” say those words with me… “Do not be afraid, Mary… for you have found favor with God. And, behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus…

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.

All Mary had to hang onto was simply the very first part of the promise having come true… The rest was still to come… but with Elizabeth’s reassurance, a reassurance born of the how God had blessed her, and with the little leap of the Holy Spirit baby in her womb, Mary could believe what God was doing… even when she could not see it yet…

And then she breaks out in song about promises that had not yet come true! —My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior… verse 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts; he has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly… verse 53 He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty…

The fact is that, at the time Mary sang, nothing had really changed. She was still far from home, the Romans were still in control, and, in fact, after Elizabeth’s child, the one who was given to her as a miracle—and Mary’s child—Jesus—after they had grown, they would both be KILLED by the powerful people of their world. No, the big promises of God, the world changing promises, they had NOT come true.

But still, somehow, Mary believed. And she sang as if the promises had all come true already! … My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed… for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

How can we trust God for good like that? How can we trust that God is going to work everything out for good?

When something happens to make me anxious, or when I am worried about how things are going in my family or in my church or in my world, can I trust that God is going to make things work for good so I can praise him?

Sometimes, even when I’m anxious, I can. Part of that is a generational blessing. I’ve been raised since childhood on God’s promises. Since the time I was a kid I’ve been getting to know God and God’s Word. But still, so often, I need someone to come alongside me and pray with me and even believe for me. To come alongside me like Elizabeth came alongside Mary, and help me trust for good.

When I am reminded of God’s promises… here, in church, and by friends who understand, when I am reminded of those promises I can accept any little miracle—even one as trivial as finding my wedding ring… or seeing someone be found by God, or seeing a little healing or a bit of joy… I can see little signs of God’s presence and praise and thank God that he has not forgotten, and that, eventually, he will work it all out for good.

As we get ready for Christmas, and as we get ready for the new year, let’s grow deep into God’s Word. And let’s reassure one another and pray for one another. God will provide all we need. God will work things out for good. And, because of what Jesus has done for us, God will not condemn us or reject us. God will give his wonderful promises, and his wonderful future, to you—and, someday, to the whole world.

Monday, December 21, 2009

When Hope Hurts

The following was shared at our staff meeting this morning. It's from the blog Stuff Christians Like written by Jonathan Acuff on Dec. 19. You can read it as it was originally posted -- plus the 116 comments by readers (as of now) by clicking here.
Nine Words that Changed My Life

Sometimes, hope hurts.

It shouldn’t. The phrase, “hope hurts” should be an oxymoron like “Lady Gaga gospel album.” But I promise you, it’s not.

Sometimes when you’re so deep in a season of hurt, you get used to the bad. You start to think you deserve it. You start to expect it and get comfortable with it and get numb to it. And like a creature that lives so far down on the bottom of the sea, you adapt to it. You cobble together little survival mechanisms that help you get through. You get by.

But hope is tenacious …

Even in the darkest of my days, when I’d journal about suicide and despair, a fragment of hope still bounced about softly in the dryer of my head. (When you’re married with kids and have lots of laundry to do, 42% of your metaphors and analogies become housework flavored.)

There was a problem though, there was a painful obstacle between me and hope. You see, I was so far down the path of hopelessness, I was so lost and selfish and bent on destruction that I found myself in a terrible lose-lose situation. For example: If my wife was kind to me, I felt hurt because she didn’t know how hurtful I was secretly being to her with porn and a cadre of lies that would have killed her. If my wife was mean to me, I felt hurt because she had been mean to me. Any way I turned, simply resulted in more grossness.

And that is one of sin’s goals. Not simply to remove the good from your life, but to have it actually serve as a weapon of mass destruction.

Have you ever felt that way?

Have you ever felt completely unworthy when someone offers you love?

Have you ever been ashamed of the lies you’re living when someone offers you truth?

Have you ever felt undeserving of something good, because deep down, you believed that person wouldn’t really love you if they knew who you were?

It’s very possible that I’m the only one, and that’s OK. But I do need to tell you about the 9 words in the Bible that changed the way hope felt for me.

I’ve written about this before, but I’m a big fan of “edge verses.” I’m a big fan of looking on the periphery of a scene in the Bible and seeing all the deep truth that often gets hidden amidst a major scene. And in Luke 22 that certainly happens.

Jesus is on the threshold of getting crucified. He has the last supper with his disciples. He is sharing his thoughts on the father and the concept of serving and ruling. There is a sense of great importance heavy in the air. In the middle of that, he has a short conversation with Simon about how he is going to betray him.

It’s going to happen. Jesus knows this, but he wishes it wasn’t. He says to Simon in Luke 22:31-32:

Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail.

And then, in 9 words, he explains a big part of the reason I thought a mess-up like me could be a Christian.

Jesus tells Simon:

“And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

That’s it, those are 9 really simple words, but they demand a second look.

Do you see what Jesus is saying in that first half of the sentence, And when you have turned back? He’s saying:

And when you fail.

And when you sin.

And when you blow it and sell me out like a common thief.

And when you literally and physically turn your back on me.

And when you ruin it all.

When you turn back.

That concept is part of why our God is so different than everything we expect. We can turn back. There’s a return. There’s a comeback. There’s a loss and a brokenness and a state of falling, but you can turn back. That door is open. When I read the phrase “And when you have turned back,” I read a loud, wild picture of what grace really looks like.

Then you get to the part that is so easy to miss, the comma. Thank God for the comma, because that’s not how I would have written that sentence.

Mine would have looked more like:

“And when you have turned back, repent for three years before you try to get within a mile of my holiness.”

“And when you have turned back, don’t think for a second you’re qualified to tell other people about me.”

“And when you have turned back, here’s a long list of works you’ll need to do in order to clean yourself of the mistakes you’ve made and the consequences you’ve earned.”

But Christ doesn’t do that! He throws in a comma. He continues the sentence and simply says, “strengthen your brothers.”

Four years ago I ruined my life, but you know what?

God gave me the gift of the comma.

And that’s why I write Stuff Christians Like.

I have turned back. Not once, not twice, but a million times. And now it’s time to strengthen my brothers.

I don’t know what you’ll get this Christmas for a present, but please know this, God wants to give you the comma. He wants to give you grace. He wants you to know that when you have turned back, you can still strengthen your brothers.

It’s time to accept the comma of grace.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Trusting Good

This coming Sunday we will hear Elizabeth's words to Mary: Blessed is she who believed that there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.  Because those words of blessing and promise come from God's Word, they apply not only to Mary.  They also apply to us.

When we believe, when we trust God, we will be blessed--we will experience what is good.
  • Blessed are those who believe God will provide.  The phrase "God will provide" comes from the time God called Abraham to sacrifice his son, but then provided a substitute at the last moment.
  • Blessed are those who believe God is in control.  This does not mean that everything is God's "fault," but it does mean God promises to work everything out for good in the end when we trust him.
  • Blessed are those who know their sins have been forgiven, that God has carried them to the cross, that God no longer holds anything against us!  And how wonderful when we can release those who owe us an apology.  What joy!
When we trust God, God works everything out for good.  Trusting God brings blessing, peace, happiness and joy, even in the midst of trials and pain and sorrow.  Trusting God means trusting that we are truly held in his care, and no matter what happens, in the end, joy will come that will never be taken away.

In the Christmas story, Mary believed.  She trusted God.  When the angel said she would be the mother of Jesus, she said "Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." When she recognized the angels words as God's Word, she surrendered her will and let the Lord do as he wished--and oh what joy there is because she did.

Through Mary's trust, God provided a substitute for all the sacrifices you or I could justifiably be asked to make--and we could never pay off what we owe.  Through Mary's trust, God showed that evil and sin and death would not and will not win, God came into the world through Mary--and through Mary and her family's care the boy Jesus grew to be a man who would defy the devil, shatter sin's power and destroy death.  Mary could have panicked at the way God invaded her life, but she believed, and, so, was blessed.  In this way, she is a perfect example for us.

What is going on in your life today?  What is going on in the the life of our church?  What about in your family? Can you believe God is going to work it out for good? Here are some words of assurance from the Lord:
Psalm 31:19
"O how abundant is your goodness that you have laid up for those who fear* you, the goodness you have accomplished for those who take refuge in you..."
Psalm 32:10
"Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord."
Psalm 34:22
"The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned."
Psalm 125:1
"Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever."
Proverbs 29:25
"The fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the Lord is secure."
Like it was for Mary, Christmas for us is all about trusting God, trusting that God is going to be true to his promises.  We really don't know much about Jesus' mother, but we do know that Mary and her family loved and trusted God's Word.  Look at the songs Mary and her family sing in Luke 1 (verses 46-55 and 68-79).  The songs are all about God's promises, promises that he had made way back in the time of Abraham and Sarah, 2000 years before the birth of Christ, promises given to God's people through Moses and David and the prophets of the Old Testament.  Promises that Mary and her family had hung onto for generations.

When Mary and her family sang those songs they were still trusting that God was going to make them come true.  Those songs are full of praise even though nothing truly great had occurred.  Oh yes, women had conceived and would give birth, but the songs are much bigger than that, speaking of the victory of justice and goodness and joy.  Those songs are full of trust that God knows what he is doing even when things happen that they cannot completely understand.

Then think about the songs we sing at Christmas.  In many ways, we are still waiting for sin to be done away with, for evil to be beaten... and death still looks dark.  When we sing "Joy to the World," "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" and "Silent Night," we sing even though all is neither calm nor bright, though we are still bowed under our burdens, even when the curse is still found and thorns still "infest the ground."  Pain and tragedy and brokenness and sorrow still wreak havoc among us.  But when we DO trust that God is at work even in the darkness, we do find goodness and love and peace slipping into our midst.

How can we trust?  When we remember the main event of the scriptures, that Jesus died and rose again, taking the burden of our sin and giving us the promise of new life.

So, this Christmas, and in the next year, let's trust God for good even when nothing great has yet occurred.  Let's dig into God's Word for those promises of good and let him take control.  And through the relationship of trust we have with God, goodness will prevail, and we will find peace and joy and love and all the things we long for most in 2010. 
*"Fearing" God is not the same thing as being afraid of God.  See yesterday's post Fear of the Lord.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Fear of the Lord

As I've been preparing for Sunday worship, I've run into the relationship between "fearing" and "trusting" God.  The following article from the Taizé Community is helpful.  The original article can be found by clicking here.

What relationship with God is expressed by the words “to fear God”?

Different words are used to express a relationship with God. We can believe in God, love him, and serve him. Sometimes we hear the words “to fear God.” This expression is hard to understand, but since it is not rare in the Bible, it is worth reading a few texts attentively in order to try and grasp their meaning better.

First of all, there is fear as a background of all religions. Manifestations of the divine generate strong emotions, at times even panic and terror. They both fascinate and frighten. There can be no encounter with the unexpected reality of God without a moment when we are unsettled. It was this way from the appearance of God on Mount Sinai down to the first Easter morning: the woman who came to the tomb “were afraid” (Mark 16:8). But in the Bible, in almost all cases, the emotions awakened by a manifestation of the divine are immediately followed by the words: “Do not be afraid.” Religious fear or awe is not a value in itself. It is not meant to last, but should lead to confident trust.

In other contexts, fear of God is a lasting and not a transitory reality. “Fear of the Lord is pure, lasting for ever” (Psalm 19:10). The explanation of this unchanging fear is not to be found in a religious emotion, but in the political language of the time. Treaties of protection stipulated that those benefiting from this protection should fear and serve their protector faithfully. In God’s covenant or pact with Israel, the same words express a faithful commitment to God: “What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to follow all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul?” (Deuteronomy 10:12). Fearing, loving and serving God are all synonyms here. Fear of God is no longer an emotion but a stable attitude of faithfulness to the covenant.

In the psalms, fearing the Lord means “keeping his covenant and faithfully following his precepts” (Psalm 103:18). “Those who fear the Lord” form “the great assembly” of the faithful gathered together in the Temple to worship God (Psalm 22:26). In this context, fear of the Lord corresponds approximately to what we would call religious devotion. That is why it can be taught: “Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:12). “Teaching fear of the Lord” does not at all mean to awaken fears, but rather to teach prayers and the commandments, to initiate someone into a life of trust in God. “You who fear the Lord, trust in him” (Sirach 2:8)*.

When we recognize how the Bible uses the word “fear,” we can translate it in many cases by “worship” or “love,” and translate “fear of the Lord” by “faithfulness.”

Can fear of the Lord still mean anything for us today?

The current unwillingness to speak of fear of God is certainly justified, insofar as the language of fear has clouded over the fact that God is love. To avoid this danger, as far as possible another vocabulary is employed. Nonetheless, in both Testaments, there are passages where fear of the Lord is the key expression that cannot easily be replaced.

According to the prophet Isaiah, the fear of God eliminates the fear of human beings. “This was how the Lord spoke to me when his hand took hold of me and he taught me not to follow the path of this people, saying, ‘Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy; do not dread what they dread, have no fear of that. The Lord your God you will proclaim holy, him you will dread, him you will fear.’” (8:11-13). It is obvious that Isaiah is calling for courage and trust, but he calls that trust dread and fear! This is a rhetorical expression, but it is also more than that. Isaiah knows that fear in uncontrollable. So it is as if he was saying, “You are unable not to fear. Well then, fear God! Focus on God all the energy that animates your fear.” This fear of God that absorbs all other fears is not easy to define, but it is certainly the source of a great inner freedom.

Shortly afterwards in the book of Isaiah, fear of the Lord is a charisma of the Messiah: “On him will rest the Spirit of the Lord: the spirit of wisdom and insight, the spirit of counsel and power, the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:2). Fear of the Lord is a gift of the Holy Spirit, just as much as wisdom and power! This gift can also be called humility. Fearing the Lord means recognizing God as the source of all good. This attitude of transparence was at the heart of Jesus’ life: “I do nothing of my own accord. […] It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his works” (John 8:28 & 14:10).

The apostle Paul wrote, “With fear and trembling work out your salvation, remembering that God is the one who operates in you both the will and the operation” (Philippians 2:12-13). Since Paul affirms that salvation comes from faith, “working out salvation with fear and trembling” must be an aspect of faith. Faith is not a facile assurance, but a “trembling” trust, a trust that is alive, surprised, vigilant. Our salvation is a miracle that God “operates in us,” and that is why we must be fully attentive to it. “Working with fear and trembling” means becoming aware that every instant is an encounter with God, for God is at work in us at every moment.

“Fearers of God, praise him; all the race of Jacob, honor him; revere him, all the race of Israel!” (Psalm 22:24). The progression of the verbs is surprising: “praise, honor, revere the Lord”! Here, fear is prayer that has reached the point where it no longer knows what to say: praise that has become astonishment, silence and love.

Letter from Taizé: 2004/4


Taizé is a Roman Catholic community which recognizes and uses books like Sirach from the Old Testament Apocrypha. For a Lutheran perspective on the Apocrypha, see Not Scripture.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Response to the Vote

Last Sunday evening at our church we voted on the "Common Confession" (click the colored words in this blog to learn more).  There was an opportunity for people to speak from 6:30-7:30. More spoke against than in favor.  Then ballots were distributed and we voted.  The Common Confession failed 62-84.

Before the vote, I briefly shared two reasons why I thought it wise for our church to approve the Common Confession.
  1. I believe the ELCA has violated its own confession of faith.  In its constitution, our church says that the scriptures are authoritative for our "proclamation, faith and life." Even so, though we find no blessing of same sex relationships in scripture, the denomination to which we belong (the ELCA) will now officially support such blessings. 

  2. I thought approving the Common Confession would allow our local church to retain some of our members who are particularly upset about the approval of same sex blessings in our denomination. As one of its points, the Common Confession upholds the marriage of male and female as "an institution created and blessed by God."
During the past few weeks and months I've been writing and speaking on this topic.  You who follow this blog have learned where I stand.  For me, this is a matter of our church's foundational teaching more than it is about sexuality or homosexuality.  It has to do with our church's future and what will be guiding us as we move into 2010 and beyond.  That's why it hasn't been enough for me to just have our church "take a stand" as regards homosexuality.

It's so important that we look at this issue NOT as about sexuality, but as about the truth of God's Word. If we start with by asking how we feel about homosexuality, we will be divided.  Our opinions on issues do not unite us.  The only thing that unites us is God's Word--the Word incarnate, the Word spoken in Law and Gospel, and the Word written and recorded in the Bible. The danger is that we are being driven from the foundation--taken away from the Word of God as the one thing that holds us together as a church.  Also, if we start by talking about sexuality, we will, as some said on Sunday night, be guilty of the worst form of judgmentalism.  . 

In my sermon of Nov. 22 entitled It's About Truth (Not Power) I said this:
"No one who knows Jesus can hate or reject or discriminate against anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation. We need to be totally open to having people of all kinds come to the Lord here… But, because, from the Word of God—and from the testimony of God’s creation, we see that God has blessed the bond of one man and one woman as the way life comes into the world we cannot say that same sex marriage is the same.

It’s just not according to the Word of God. It’s because we can’t find scripture to bless same sex marriage that we cannot support this move. It’s not because we want to discriminate or because we’re homophobic or hate gays. If that’s why we have a problem with gay marriage we must repent. The love of God for all people is not up for debate. But neither is the truth of God’s Word.

That’s what the Common Confession is about. Look at the seven points… The Lord Jesus Christ, the Gospel of Salvation, the Authority of Scripture, a Common Confession of Faith, the Priesthood of All Believers, Marriage and Family, the Mission and Ministry of the Congregation. Please spend some time studying this and the commentary that goes with it.

This is not about power. You may like Lutheran CORE and the 16 other groups who have proposed this statement-- Mount Carmel Ministries, World Mission Prayer League, the WordAlone Network, the Fellowship of Confessing Lutherans, Youth Encounter. Or, on the other hand, you may consider those groups to be troublemakers and fear mongers…

But please do NOT think of this as about power or politics. We can adopt this Common Confession and NOT become a part of CORE or make any other changes to our church affiliation—honestly—this isn’t about that.

What is important is that the Word of God be proclaimed and that the truth be made known—that’s what the Common Confession tries to do. That’s what the Bible study we’re doing at 10:00 is trying to do also—to focus on the truth—truth that centers in love."

If what I have been saying and writing hasn't been clear, if you think I've been dishonest or judgmental, please talk with me according to Matthew 18:15 and help me understand where I have failed. If you feel I'm still not listening, use the next verses of Matthew 18 as your guide. Just remember that, for me, this is not a matter of sexuality or homosexuality first--this is a question of on what basis we make any decisions in our church. As Martin Luther said: "Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason, I am bound by the Scriptures adduced by me, and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God, and I am neither able nor willing to recant..."

As we move towards Christmas (when we celebrate the Word of God becoming flesh and living among us), and as we move into 2010 I hope we will continue to talk together.  I hope no one will give up.  God has been working among us.  There has been a lot of positive energy in our church.  It's just sad that our ELCA has thrown us into such confusion.  I hope we will be patient, filled with the Spirit and, if at odds with each other, willing to begin againPlease join me in prayer, asking our gracious heavenly Father to mercifully help us be both faithful to God's Word and absolutely loving to all

Friday, December 11, 2009


When my kids were small I would give them patience with a smile and fun sort of hand gesture.  Maybe I gave it too many times because now and then I lack patience myself.  I'm always wanting things to turn out for the best now

How is your patience these days?  As it says in the quote below, "the great biblical illustration of patience in operation is God himself."  And if God has been patient with us, can't we be patient with one another?

The following is from the Tyndale Bible Dictionary
PATIENCE - Ability to deal with trouble, evil people or circumstances without losing one’s temper, without becoming irritated and angry, or without taking revenge. It includes the capacity to bear pain or trials without complaint, the ability to forbear under severe provocation, and the self-control that keeps one from acting rashly even though suffering opposition or adversity.
The usual Hebrew expression for patience is related to the verb “to be long” and involves the idea of being long to get riled or slow to become angry. Two different Greek words were translated by the KJV translators with the word “patience.” One of the words has the idea of “remaining firm under” tests and trials and is better translated “endurance” or “steadfastness.” The other Greek word is related to the above Hebrew meaning and refers to patience as “long-spiritedness” or “calmness of spirit” even though under severe provocation to lose one’s temper.
The great biblical illustration of patience in operation is God himself. Several passages speak of him, in conjunction with other gracious attributes, as “slow to anger.” In a context that stresses Israel’s rebellion and provocation of God, he is contrasted as a God who is forgiving, gracious, compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness (Neh 9:17). The psalmist declares, “Thou, O Lord, art a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15, see also Ex 34:6; Nm 14:18; Ps 103:8; Jl 2:13; Jon 4:2). In addition, the virtue of a patient spirit on the part of mankind is extolled in the Old Testament, especially in Proverbs (Prv 14:29; 15:18; 16:32; 25:15; see also Eccl 7:8).
The New Testament also stresses the patience of the Lord. It is God’s kindness, forbearance, and patience that lead people to repentance (Rom 2:4). God was patient in holding off the Flood for the sinners of Noah’s day while the ark was being built, thereby giving more time for repentance (1 Pt 3:20). Probably the greatest of the NT references to God’s patience is in 2 Peter 3:9. The delay in Christ’s return is not an indication of slowness on God’s part, says Peter, but of his long-suffering, not being willing that anyone should perish. A specific reference to Jesus Christ’s patience is made by Paul, who claimed that, in his case, Jesus was able to demonstrate perfect patience (1 Tm 1:16).
Patience, which is an attribute of our God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, is also to characterize each Christian. Paul’s prayer for the Colossians is that they might demonstrate this quality (Col 1:11). It is one of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5:22), an attribute of love (1 Cor 13:4), and a virtue (Col 3:12; see also 2 Tm 3:10). In addition, Christians are exhorted to be patient (1 Thes 5:14). If we are not, we will be treated as the slave in a parable that Jesus told. This slave pleaded with his lord, to whom he owed a great sum, for patience, promising to pay all. The lord was patient and forgave all the debt, until he found out that the slave had refused to show the same patience to a fellow servant who owed him a pittance in comparison (Mt 18:26–29).
In some contexts, the word “patience” takes on the more general meaning of waiting long and expectantly for something. The farmer waits patiently for the crop to come (Jas 5:7b). Abraham waited patiently for God’s promise to give him the land of Canaan to be fulfilled and died without seeing what was promised, although still believing (Heb 6:15; 11:39). Finally, all Christians are commanded to be long-suffering until the coming of the Lord (Jas 5:7a).
Who are you about to give up on? Can we wait a bit longer to see what God will do?

The Spirit Difference

Notice the difference in these verses between the "works of the flesh" and the "fruit of the Spirit" in the following scripture from Paul's letter to the Galatians. 
  • By whom or by what are you being led today?  
  • How does this apply to our conversations, thought and actions related to disagreements in the church?  
You'll notice that the "fruit of the Spirit" does not include direct opposites of the "works of the flesh."  Instead, the Holy Spirit brings something completely new.
Galatians 5
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

How to Begin Again

"While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son..." Romans 5:10
Whose responsibility is it to promote reconciliation when there has been sin and estrangement?  You'd think that it would be the responsibility of the person who has done the dirty deed or made the slanderous comment.  Aggrieved parties generally think that guilty should bear the burden.  But God has another way.

God understands that we are his enemies.  God does not suffer from any illusions about that.  He knows we are provocative rebels who use any excuse to reject him and, sometimes, to do things that we think would make him reject us.  As someone once said to me, it's a lot easier to leave a relationship if we think we're hated.  Sometimes we do bad things just in order to get God to leave us alone.

But God will not be provoked.  No matter what it is that we have done, said or plotted in our minds, he will not give up on his love for us.  HE pays the price of reconciliation even though WE are the guilty!  Incredible!

He pays the price.  No matter how often we sin.  He keeps demonstrating his love--all the way to the point of giving his life for us in Jesus Christ.  And then, to top that off, through his Word, through his Spirit, through his people, he take our hand so we will have an idea of what to do next.  He himself meets us and guides us along the path to bring us home.

I am so thankful that God doesn't make us figure out how to make things better.  He will take any sign of sorrow, any tiny bit of repentance, a mustard seed of faith--and then his overflowing love breaks down the walls.

Without that incredible and powerful love, we would be lost.  Like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, he comes running to us, guilty as we are, and, with tears, welcomes us home with a feast, with a robe of honor, and with a ring of promise. "This brother was dead, but now is living.  He was lost, but now is found."

Generally speaking, we're not good at reconciliation.  Many of us have a past littered with former friends and broken relationships.  We may smile and tolerate one another, but many of us feel little warmth.  So God demonstrates how!  He runs to us, taking the initiative, goes out of his way for us, takes the steps necessary to help us feel his welcome and to bring us home.  He woos us with his love.  He is not willing that ANY should perish.  And then, once we know that love, he commissions us to do the same:
"...If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us..." (First Corinthians 5:17-20)
Can we believe that every sin is done and over and paid for and that EVERYTHING is made new?  There is no doubt.  Jesus paid the price for EVERY sin.  Is this why Jesus makes his radical demands in his so-called "Sermon on the Mount"?  Love your enemies.  Pray for those who have done you wrong.  Let people take what is yours and don't demand it again.  I think so.

This is the only way to true reconciliation.  When we have received that gift of total forgiveness, then we can share the same with others.  When we remember that we are recipients of God's amazing and UNCONDITIONAL LOVE we can do good to tall.  We do not do good to enemies because we are good people.  It's only because we have already received the reconciliation we do not deserve.  We're simply passing along what he has first given to us.

How does this fit your life today?  Any thoughts?  Please comment or email me at

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Word of God

When I got up this morning I found that I had gotten a text from a dear friend.  In it he referenced Romans 8:28.  I'm sharing it in its context this morning as encouragement for all of us with a prayer for God's peace and guidance each day.

Romans 8

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons/daughters of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; 21 because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons/daughters, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. 27 And he who searches the hearts of men/women knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

First Christmas Gift 2009

Here's what I'm thinking about as I'm getting ready to preach tomorrow.

Last night, at suppertime, the doorbell rang.  What do you suppose I found?  No one.  Only my first Christmas gift!  On the top was written "HAPPY HOLIDAYS!"--and inside?  Water and dirt.

Maybe that's how some people will feel tomorrow when they come to church and hear a message based on Malachi (3:1-4) and Luke 3:1-20:
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come... But who can endure the day of his coming... for he is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap. (Malachi 3)
It might be good to get refined and cleaned, but who wants that as we're getting ready to celebrate Christmas?

Receiving that gift yesterday was like looking into my own soul.  As I looked through the dirty glass at the rest of the mess inside, I was reminded that I too am "by nature sinful and unclean" and that I have sinned in thoughts, in words, and in what I've done and left undone.  Seeing my own life reflected in that dirty jar of dirt was like listening to John the Baptist:
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9)
John the Baptist was Jesus' relative who was sent by God to preach and baptize just before Jesus.  John the Baptist was a bold, fearless preacher who lost his head to King Herod--he accused Herod of adultery because he and his brother's wife had arranged to divorce their spouses to marry each other.  Uncompromising--that's John.  And Jesus was no less provocative.  He taught that if I so much as LOOK at another woman and want her in a sexual way that I am guilty too--committing adultery in my heart.

When I look at this dirty jar I see an illustration of my life--a picture of my sin.

But it's not just sexual sin that John and Jesus preach against.  Luke 3:19 says that the reason King Herod shut John up in prison was "because of Herodias, his brother's wife, and because of all the evil things Herod had done."  John's message hit other sensitive places. For example, how would wealthy and powerful King Herod have reacted to this part of John's message:
And the crowds asked him [John], “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:10-11)
And how do you and I, if we have more than two coats and do have extra food and much more than what we really need to live... How do we react to that kind of radical talk?  Do we say, "Preach it, John! Dish the dirt! Make me feel really bad about my middle-class American life!"  And how do we react to Jesus, when he says
“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. ... I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who insult you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. (Luke 6:25-31)
How do we react to that?  We rationalize, we get out from under those Words of God somehow, don't we. Or, if we hear that kind of talk too often, we say our preachers are being too politically correct!  Or, if our family or sexual life is less than pure, we become liberal Christians.

Every time that God's Law comes down on us, we squirm to the left or to the right--forgetting, as we are learning in our Bible study these days, that the Word of God--the Law of God--it's a two-edged sword.  It does not let us escape.

Have a more-or-less intact family?  Well good for you!  But what about the way you look down on others who don't?  Take a good look at James 2:10--Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. Think some sins are "abominations" and others are not? Sorry!  All sin, no matter how "innocent" it may seem to you and me, no matter which commandment it violates--All sin is detestable to God and separates us from him forever--unless Jesus comes with his amazing love.

No matter how clean we may look on the outside--inside, away from public, we're like this jar.  Dirty, sinful, unclean--even dangerous... I walked into someone's house tonight with this jar.  They had clean white carpet--made them a bit nervous... And when I walk into someone's life with my expletive deleted?  As those who know me well if there isn't a lot of that under the surface in my life.  I am often selfish, sometimes cowardly, often unthinking--and many times I justify messiness by saying I'm just being spontaneous and filled with the Spirit of God.  We'd always like to think that real sin, real dirt, it's what is in you, or those out there--but certainly not in me.

But the truth is that this jar--this jar full of dirt--and this tough preaching from John and Jesus--it really is a gift.  It's a gift for three reasons:
  1. Without knowing my sin I won't look for a Savior.  Without knowing how desperately lost I am I will think I'm okay when I'm really not.  If I don't know I am dirty and sinful inside I won 't look for someone, Jesus, to come and give me forgiveness and cleansing and new birth.  But when I see my sin I just might look for the one John preaches about who will save me in the end.
  2. If I don't know my sin I will think I'm better than others--and if I do, I won't get along with hardly anyone--except maybe just a few people who let me be the best. If I don't know my sin I'll be intolerant and unforgiving. If I don't know my sin I will not be able to work with those who aren't just like me. I won't be patient.  I'll give up on people. 

  3. And without knowing my sin I won't take a good look to see if there actually is something good and worthwhile growing inside--a little bit of hope of a new day.  If you look closely at this holiday gift someone gave me, if you're not afraid to look in the muck, if you've allowed the savior to come right into the worst part of you, if you know your sin better than other people's, then you will see that there's a little sign here--a little sign of new life--a little sign of being born again.

It's true.  Look closely!  There's a little plant spring up in the dirt.  By looking at the muck of my life, by confessing my sins and receiving the Lord, God's love will cause little signs of his life to grow right here--right in me.

This jar--it really is a gift.  Thank you so much to whoever left it on my doorstep last night.  And John the Baptist--and the whole Word of God--it is a gift too when it jabs at me and makes me look at my sin, recognize my desperate need for a savior, gives me patience with others and the muck of their lives, and makes me rejoice with the tiniest signs of God's love.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Prayer for Transformation

Jeremiah 17:9  NRSV
The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse — who can understand it?
- other translations from the original Hebrew:
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?

The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?

What is the "heart"?  The "heart" in Hebrew is "leb" or "lebab."  The heart, in Hebrew thought, is the center of who we are.  Below you'll find an extensive study on the word "heart."  The word "heart" is the closest thing we have in the Bible to what we understand as "conscience." 

How can the devious, deceitful, perverse, incurable, desperately corrupt and sick "me" be set free to do God's work?  How can by conscience be delivered from bondage to serve God instead of my own sinful self?  Only through the direct intervention of God in Jesus Christ and through his Holy Spirit.

As it says in one of my favorite Bible verses: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2)

Come, Lord Jesus through your Word and Holy Spirit, to prune away the evil and let me be your servant!  Come and do that work in me even if it hurts. A KTIS verse of the day sent to me today by a friend says it this way: "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a loyal spirit within me" (Psalm 51:10).

Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly and change me from the inside out.  Will you join me in that prayer today?


A Word Study on "Heart" in the Hebrew language.
leb (לֵב, 3820), “heart; mind; midst.” Leb and its synonym lebab appear 860 times in the Old Testament. The law, prophets, and Psalms often speak of the “heart.” The root occurs also in Akkadian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Ugaritic, Aramaic, Arabic, and post-biblical Hebrew. The corresponding Aramaic nouns occur seven times in the Book of Daniel.
“Heart” is used first of man in Gen. 6:5: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” In Gen. 6:6 leb is used of God: “And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.”
“Heart” may refer to the organ of the body: “And Aaron shall bear the names of the children of Israel in the breastplate of judgment upon his heart, when he goeth in unto the holy place …” (Exod. 28:29); “… [Joab] took three darts in his hand, and thrust them through the heart of Absalom …” (2 Sam. 18:14); “My heart panteth …” (Ps. 38:10). Leb may also refer to the inner part or middle of a thing: “… and the depths were congealed in the heart of the sea” (Exod. 15:8); “… and the mountain burned with fire in the midst [rsv, “to the heart”] of heaven …” (Deut. 4:11, kjv) “Yea, thou shalt be as he that lieth down in the midst of the sea …” (Prov. 23:34).
Lebab can be used of the inner man, contrasted to the outer man, as in Deut. 30:14: “But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (cf. Joel 2:13); “… man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7).
Lebab is often compounded with “soul” for emphasis, as in 2 Chron. 15:12; “And they entered into a covenant to seek the Lord God of their fathers with all their heart and with all their soul” (cf. 2 Chron. 15:15). Nepesh (“soul; life; self”) is translated “heart” fifteen times in the kjv. Each time, it connotes the “inner man”: “For as he thinketh in his heart [nepesh], so is he” (Prov. 23:7).
Leb can be used of the man himself or his personality: “Then Abraham fell upon his face and laughed, and said in his heart, …” (Gen. 17:17); “… my heart had great experience …” (Eccl. 1:16). Leb is also used of God in this sense: “And I will give you pastors according to mine heart” (Jer. 3:15).
The seat of desire, inclination, or will can be indicated by “heart”: “Pharaoh’s heart is hardened …” (Exod. 7:14); “… whosoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it …” (Exod. 35:5; cf. vv. 21, 29); “I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart …” (Ps. 86:12). Leb is also used of God in this sense: “… and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul” (Jer. 32:41). Two people are said to be in agreement when their “hearts” are right with each other: “Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?” (2 Kings 10:15). In 2 Chron. 24:4, “… Joash was minded to repair the house of the Lord” (Heb. “had in his heart”).
The “heart” is regarded as the seat of emotions: “And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, …” (Deut. 6:5); “… and when he [Aaron] seeth thee, he will be glad in his heart” (Exod. 4:14; cf. 1 Sam. 2:1). So there are “merry” hearts (Judg. 16:25), “fearful” hearts (Isa. 35:4), and hearts that “trembled” (1 Sam. 4:13).
The “heart” could be regarded as the seat of knowledge and wisdom and as a synonym of “mind.” This meaning often occurs when “heart” appears with the verb “to know”: “Thus you are to know in your heart …” (Deut. 8:5, nasb); and “Yet the Lord hath not given you a heart to perceive [know] …” (Deut. 29:4, kjv; rsv, “mind”). Solomon prayed, “Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad …” (1 Kings 3:9; cf. 4:29). Memory is the activity of the “heart,” as in Job 22:22: “… lay up his [God’s] words in thine heart.”
The “heart” may be the seat of conscience and moral character. How does one respond to the revelation of God and of the world around him? Job answers: “… my heart shall not reproach me as long as I live” (27:6). On the contrary, “David’s heart smote him …” (2 Sam. 24:10). The “heart” is the fountain of man’s deeds: “… in the integrity of my heart and innocency of my hands I have done this” (Gen. 20:5; cf. v. 6). David walked “in uprightness of heart” (1 Kings 3:6) and Hezekiah “with a perfect heart” (Isa. 38:3) before God. Only the man with “clean hands, and a pure heart” (Ps. 24:4) can stand in God’s presence.
Leb may refer to the seat of rebellion and pride. God said: “… for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21). Tyre is like all men: “Because thine heart is lifted up, and thou hast said, I am a God” (Ezek. 28:2). They all become like Judah, whose “sin … is graven upon the table of their heart” (Jer. 17:1).
God controls the “heart.” Because of his natural “heart,” man’s only hope is in the promise of God: “A new heart also will I give you, … and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26). So the sinner prays: “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10); and “… unite my heart [give me an undivided heart] to fear thy name” (Ps. 86:11). Also, as David says, “I know also, my God, that thou triest the heart, and hast pleasure in uprightness” (1 Chron. 29:17). Hence God’s people seek His approval: “… try my reins and my heart” (Ps. 26:2).
The “heart” stands for the inner being of man, the man himself. As such, it is the fountain of all he does (Prov. 4:4). All his thoughts, desires, words, and actions flow from deep within him. Yet a man cannot understand his own “heart” (Jer. 17:9). As a man goes on in his own way, his “heart” becomes harder and harder. But God will circumcise (cut away the uncleanness of) the “heart” of His people, so that they will love and obey Him with their whole being (Deut. 30:6).
from Vine's complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words (1:108-109) by W. E.Vine, M. F. Unger, and W. White, W.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Together Under God

The Gospel for the next two Sundays tell Luke's account of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:1-20).  The last two verses aren't actually included in the assigned reading. Those verses are:
Herod the tetrarch*, who had been rebuked by him because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and because of all the evil things that Herod had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Eventually John the Baptist was killed.  He was executed by Herod. Why?  Because Herod just didn't like the things John was saying.  For one thing, John accused Herod of a personal sin--something connected with Herod's sexual and family life. He and his sister-in-law Herodias had divorced their spouses and married each other.

I'm sure Herod was offended in other ways too.  As a wealthy and powerful man, Herod would feel threatened by many other things John said--for example "Whoever has two coats must share with him who has none" (Luke 3:11).

That's what God's Word does, when we let it.  It offends us.  Look at Jesus' teaching in Luke 6:17-49. If that doesn't offend you either you're very poor--because the poor come out very well in Jesus' economy--or you're just not paying attention.  If you do pay attention, taking Jesus and John seriously, it will cost you a lot.

On Sunday night we'll be getting together to listen to each other and to vote on The Common Confession. Most of the attention has been on point 6 about marriage and family. That point was included because the Bible's teaching about this particular area of life has been seriously challenged in our denomination.  But that does not mean that those of us who have more-or-less intact families--with a father and mother who have remained faithful to each other--the specific inclusion of point 6 does not excuse us from our other responsibilities under God's law.

The Common Confession lifts up all of scripture as "the final authority for us in all matters of our faith and life." The strong teachings of the prophets** come at us from both left and right.  That's one reason that Hebrews 4:12-13 says God's Word is a TWO-EDGED Sword.  Yes--God's Word does limit God's blessing on sexual activity to "the biblical boundaries of a faithful marriage between one man and one woman."  But every middle class American comes under God's wrath as we refuse to share our goods freely and do not love our enemies.

Sin is sin no matter what kind it is. Sin is damnable and horrific whether it is personal or social, whether it's related to our family relationships or self-centered political goals.  One thing I've always appreciated about the Roman Catholic Church is that they seem to put equal emphasis on sins related to sexuality and sins related to other issues like war and poverty and environmental exploitation.  The ELCA has, in my opinion, become too "liberal" in the areas of sexual ethics, but, on the other hand, many of its social agendas seem well founded on scriptural norms.

Of course, that's too uncomfortable for us, so, unless we know the amazing love of Jesus, who died for the adulterer and people like me who have way more than two coats, we will ignore the part of God's law that makes us most uncomfortable. We will hate and discriminate against certain kinds of people or else we will accept every kind of behavior--at least those behaviors we're most closely connected to. Unless we know the amazing love of Jesus, who died for sinners of all kinds, we will not be able to make a community of people, depending on God's grace alone, who are together under God. 

But when we do know Jesus' love we can let the Word of God come at us with full force from both sides, from right and from left. It will convict us and push us and bring us to our knees, alongside every other sinner, and we, like Jesus, will not be ashamed to call all struggling and suffering people our brothers and sisters (See Hebrews 2:10-18), each of us equally in need of the grace and mercy of God.

Knowing that Word from both sides will bring us together under God--under God's law, yes, that will continue to convict us and push us to be more and more like Jesus--but especially under God's grace--and his amazing love--for you and for every other sinner here--and all around this big world.
* an ancient Roman term for "ruler of a quarter"
** "There is a tendency in a number of languages to translate προφήτης only in the sense of ‘one who foretells the future,’ but foretelling the future was only a relatively minor aspect of the prophet’s function, though gradually it became more important. Patristic authors defined the function of a prophet mainly in terms of foretelling the future. In New Testament times, however, the focus was upon the inspired utterance proclaimed on behalf of and on the authority of God. Accordingly, in a number of languages it is more appropriate to translate προφήτης as ‘one who speaks for God.’ (from The Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: based on semantic domains, edited by Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida,1989).

Strength to Accompany

At Christmas we remember how God came as "Emmanuel."  "Emmanuel" means "God with us" and we celebrate how God came to be with us at a particular time in human history in human flesh.  But our Lord also comes to be with us as the Holy Spirit empowers us to walk beside others in their lives today.

The following is a from a chapter of a book by Gary Gunderson entitled Deeply Woven Roots. Youth director and seminarian Nate Bendorf shared it at our staff meeting today. Though the first example Gunderson uses in this chapter is of a pastor's visit, Christian visits and friendships normally occur between non-professionals, when a caring Christ-follower reaches out to someone in need.  And though the example here is of accompanying an older person, we are also called by God to befriend those whose pain and "incapacity" is less a matter of public knowledge.

I am thankful for those who have "accompanied" me with their time, their conversations, and their prayers during many stressful moments.  I've done what I have been able to do in walking beside others too.  I hope we will all be open to giving and receiving in such caring relationships.
It was just a business card next to my mother's bed, but I could recognize the Methodist logo from across the room, the one with the flame wrapping the cross. I didn't recognize the name, but that didn't matter. Fulfilling the most basic expectation of the congregation, the pastor had come by to see Mom, say a brief prayer, and leave a church bulletin.

She had spent a lifetime on the other end of such visits in other cities, even working for a while as the coordinator of visitation at our Methodist church back in Baltimore. I remember how she would pick me up from school, then stop by three or four homes on the way back to ours. The suburbs were quickly sprawling across former fields, and the visitation teams followed just behind the pavers. I had no idea then why we were visiting, what difference it made, or who noticed; it was just something the church did...

...My mom is still of the faith even though she can't get to the church building or hear the sermons or songs. It even hurts her to read much, so she is unable to read Scripture or discuss it in groups as she did for decades. In fact, she can barely hear it when read aloud, picking up mostly the rhythm and accents of familiar verses. But she is still quite literally and physically part of a congregation--they come to her. They accompany her.

For any one person, accompaniment means life itself in many dimensions, even amid frailty. It does not "fix things;' but it allows for continued connection, coherence, context in which meaning and value are still possible. For a: community, accompaniment also means life, the most tangible way that we are held up by and connected to others.

...Wendy Lustbader doses her book Counting on Kindness with a paragraph that gets to the heart of the issue:
The expectation that we will be able to count, on kindness during our time of need becomes one of life's most sustaining convictions. We hope that if we become incapacitated, our friends and relatives will stand by us. We hope that their help will arise out of affection rather than out of pity, and that we will bear our difficulties gracefully enough to keep on inspiring their loyalty. We suspect that the measure of good life is how we are treated at the end.
I suspect that the measure of a community is how we and those we love expect to be treated during the times of incapacity that we will surely experience. Will I be accompanied at all? Will I be surrounded only by those I can pay as long I have the money or insurance to pay them? Will I be alone when I have no power to compel others to help me? Will those I love be alone when I cannot care for them or protect them?
Read Acts 2:37-47 to see how powerful the Christian community was in "accompanying" one another when the Holy Spirit first came upon them.  We are NOT to be alone!

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Love Side of Faith

As we move into the next church year* on Sunday, we continue in the same direction as we have been going during the last weeks of the previous church year.  We look ahead to the time when this old world will come to an end.  Sin and death and the power of evil have been in power for thousands of years.  But, just as the Lord Jesus rose from the dead after confronting the very worst, so there will be new life in store for us as we trust in Him.

But how are we to survive and stay in the faith through all the terrors that evil brings our way.  The gospel lesson for Sunday lays out both hope and danger.  Sometimes we drift into "dissipation and drunkeness" or get weighed down by worry.  How can faith survive?

The reading from First Thessalonians for Sunday, together with the rest of that wonderful letter from Paul the apostle gives us the help we need.  We are maintained in faith and avoid despair, drunkeness and worry as we care for each other in the community of faith, as we gather to hear God's Word and be assured of His love.  Come to church this Sunday and be refreshed in the Love Side of Faith.
You can listen to how this sermon turned out
at the 11:00 hour on Sunday by clicking here.

*The church year begins on the First Sunday in Advent, four Sundays before Christmas which falls on Nov. 29 this year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

For the Beauty of the Earth

This is my preparation for  preaching at Wednesday's THANKSGIVING worship.  Come if you can at 7:00 p.m.  After worship we'll share some pie.

The scripture I'll be reading just before preaching is from Matthew 6:25-33.
..."Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you--you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

What God put in the Bible is there because someone needed it.  What we read in scripture Wednesday night someone will need to hear.  We needed to know that God is the creator of the earth.  We need to know that so we have someone to thank for all the blessings we enjoy.  And we need to know there is another kingdom--a kingdom not from this world--because though this world is beautiful in many ways, this world has lots about it that make us worry every day.

But under the troubles--under the ambiguities and pains we suffer here--under it all there is beauty--surprising, perfect beauty--beauty that we get glimpses of in this life--beauty that I hope and pray you will be able to get a glimpse of tonight.

Tonight, let's take time for some beauty!  Think about the literal beauty of the earth--but also the beauty of the gifts God has given, the bodies and experiences and talents--the beauty of loving relationships--the wondrous beauty of God's forgiveness...  As we do that we can see and experience how God lifts us from our worries and gives us thankful hearts.

In order to see those things, especially when we are worried, we often need to see them through other people's eyes--so, I'm going to ask some questions tonight... Where have you seen beauty?  Can you share so that others will know that even in ordinary people there is wonderful hope?  You hear enough from me every Sunday.  It's good for us to speak with one another... and we're NOT on the radio! So--get ready...!!! Here comes the microphone!   
  1. Who dares say a few words about something on this earth that you've experienced as just beautiful?  First, let's just focus in on God's good creation!  What beautiful places or have made your heart sing?  .  .  .  .  .  .  BEAUTIFUL! 

  2. Now--what about us... what about you and me?  When have YOU amazed YOU?  We give God credit when we say what we're thankful for in ourselves... What have you can do or what have you done that we might not be aware of?  Who has met a goal?  Who has accomplished something?  Who dares say a few words about yourself as a way of praising and thanking God?  We'll get to others in a minute... I'll start... now it's your turn...   .  .  .  .  .  .  BEAUTIFUL! 

  3. You'll see that we're following the order of worship... Beautiful Earth, Marvelous Me, now Wonderful Love.  What have you experienced among friends, family, people who have helped you and cared about you?   Loving and being loved is so important!  We are made to be in relationship with one another--it is not good that we be alone.  Do you know someone that was clearly brought to you by God?  How has caring love been something beautiful in your life?  (Time for sharing...)   .  .  .  .  .  .  BEAUTIFUL! 

  4.  In some of what we've shared we've already hard of God's amazing and forgiving love--God's amazing grace.  Can someone share briefly about how you've seen the beauty of God's grace in your life or in someone else's life?  These things touch very close to our hearts so sometimes we want more time to prepare--but if someone would like to...    .  .  .  .  .  .  BEAUTIFUL!  
So we are very thankful for the beauty of this earth... the beautiful creation of bodies and minds and talents, the wonderful gift of caring relationships--but what really makes it all beautiful, and not just a deceptive promise, is the amazing grace of God.  Because of God's total forgiveness, given at Jesus' cross, we can know there is a kingdom to come when all things will be made new.  Without that, all beautiful things fade.

Here's the truth: the beauty of this earth--the beauty we've shared here tonight--it's all just a little taste--a little taste of what God has for us in his kingdom.  You can know that grace by getting to know Jesus.  He is the one who is truly beautiful--his scared hands and feet, his pierced side--given for you so all your worries will be taken care of--his beauty, someday, will be given to you.

Let's share as much of that beauty as we can here in this life!  Let's not keep it to ourselves!  It will lift many hearts to know that there is beauty--sometimes beauty from ashes.  Because God's new kingdom is coming--and someday God will open the doors and welcome us to his kingdom, where we will share his beauty... and every worry, and every tear will be gone.