Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Another Way of Looking At It

Oh that you would rend the heavens aand come down….” The cry of the prophet Isaiah is the cry of many of us today. That Christ would return and we could all go to heaven.

Yet we don’t know when that will be. Just sitting around and waiting for it to happen is not what Christ had in mind for us when He said, “Go therefore andmake disciples ofall nations….”

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, and many of us are still basking in its warm glow of family, friends, and food, what can we do now to carry out the mission Christ has given us?

I propose another way to look at this weekend, the first weekend in Advent 2011.

I think there are three reactions this first weekend after Thanksgiving brings.

Many people put up Christmas lights, their tree, and decorations this time of year. I won’t go into all the commercialism about Christmas in the stores – that’s been done in movies and TV shows and it’s become a cliché.

But many are now into the spirit of “full speed ahead” to Christmas. I’m included in that. I’ve produced my 2011 Classical Christmas show that will be broadcast very soon. I listen to Christmas music on my office computer. At home we have Christmas music on and we watch Christmas movies on Friday nights.
These are very visible and obvious things to do and will naturally draw attention. It can be a good way to tell people about Jesus as you have their attention.

Another reaction is the exact opposite. I know of people – good, Christian brothers and sisters – who are just as visible and obvious about not getting into the more public Christmas spirit at this time of year. And there’s nothing wrong with this – because it can bring glory to God and because doing this can also draw attention and the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be shared just as powerfully.

The third reaction is in the middle of the first two reactions. This is the reaction I most want to have. I really look forward to Christmas. Yet I also have to check myself so that I do not go overboard, trying to do all the Christmas things all at once.

I am eager. I pray to be patient – or at least as patient as possible – in my expectation of Christmas.
This third reaction reminds me of being eager yet patient for the coming – that is, the 2nd Coming – of Jesus Christ. How do I do that, though?

Where can I learn how to be eager yet patient?

By putting myself in some Old Testament Shoes.

1 Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome things that we did not look for, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. (Isaiah 64:1-3)

700 years before Jesus was born, God’s people were also expecting the coming of Jesus. They didn’t know how long it would be until God sent His Messiah. Much was going on – foreign enemies threatening them and actually attacking them. Their internal situation was also in question with some chasing after false gods.

Isaiah spoke for God as a prophet and I suspect also spoke for many of the people in their eager and hard-to-be patient expectation of their redemption that would come from God.

The question on everyone’s mind was “God, where are you?” Not unlike today, I imagine.
We are asking this question because of all the problems in today’s world. Wars, famine, crimes, economic failures, lack of jobs, infidelity, immorality, and all the others sins that plague us today.

The prophet Isaiah and the people 700 years before Jesus was born faced the same sins. The prophet is looking for God. Then he looks into his own heart and the heart of his people – as should we.

6 We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Isaiah 64:6)

When we ask where God is amidst pain, danger, and sin, we should also ask ourselves who we are. Not because God is absent because we are sinners – that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying that we need to understand ourselves and our sinful condition in order to understand where God is and what He is doing. We are directed to the mirror of the Law to recognize ourselves as well as to be prepared to recognize who God is.

8 But now, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64:8)

God formed Adam out of the clay of the ground. In a sense, we are all formed out of clay. And we have a Master Potter – God our heavenly Father. The people of God 700 years before Jesus’ birth were told this again and again. In the same way we have to be reminded that God is our Father and we are the work of His hands.

All the more so as we wait – in whatever way we wait – for both the first and 2nd coming of Jesus Christ.

Now let’s take off our Old Testament shoes and put on our Advent 2011 shoes.

It is so important to be in a Bible study because we all need to look for God where God is. We need to know God and how much He loves, cares, and saves us.

God is here in His Word. God is here in the Sacraments. Worship and Bible study are an excellent – if not the most excellent – way of preparing for Christmas and the 2nd Coming of Jesus Christ.

We also need to recognize who we are in Jesus Christ.

Because of our sin, we cannot come to God. We cannot save ourselves. We need help. That is why God sent Jesus Christ to be our Savior. In order to save us, Jesus had to be God. But in order to save us – we who are clay – Jesus also had to be clay. He had to be born of a woman. He had to live the perfect life in our place (because we could not). He died once and for all to take our sins away. He rose from the dead to seal our eternal life and ascended into heaven with the promise that he would return again to take us to heaven – that would be the 2nd Advent.

Meanwhile, we are again at the beginning of the Season of Advent. Many are going full-speed ahead to Christmas where they will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and our salvation. Many are taking a more low-keyed approach to the holiday season and will have a different opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus at this time of year. And some of us will be in the middle of these two reactions.

Yet we are all eager for the coming of Christ. We are all trying to be patient in our expectation of the return of Christ. And we all – in our own ways and observances – can share the Good News of Jesus Christ who came and will come again.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Forgiveness

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.” – Matthew 18:15

According to Ken Sande, founder of Peacemakers Ministries, there are four promises one makes that involve real forgiving:
  1. I won’t brood over this incident.
  2. I won’t dwell on this incident, bringing it up again to use it against you.
  3. I won’t talk to others about this incident.
  4. I won’t allow this incident to create distance between us or hinder our relationship.
Does your family have an “incident” that keeps being brought up year after year or at more frequent family gatherings? For example, Uncle Ervin getting drunk and violent at the family picnic in the summer of 1967. Or cousin Suzanne being confronted by her husband at the family Christmas party in 1978. These incidents can become almost legendary, taking on the status of a “Hatfield-McCoy” type of legend.

But when they are continually brought up again and again for whatever reasons, they take on a life of their own. They also cripple any healing that can and must happen.

Some of the things we do or say do get out in the open. The consequences of that are enormous. But if we help that along by talking to others about wrongs that happen to us, we tear apart the healing process.

It’s natural to want to tell someone else when we’ve been hurt. We want to have someone else bear our burden with us. While there are circumstances where this is necessary and helpful, not everything should be shared. It could hurt both you and the person who has wronged you.

That’s why Jesus says that the first step in the forgiving process is to “go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”

Jesus wouldn’t have said it if He wasn’t willing to model forgiving in this way. And so He did. His death on the cross was personal. It was between Him and you. Your sin separated you from God. But God loved you so much that He sent Jesus to restore you with His death and resurrection.

This salvation is also your power to forgive others. As God has forgiven you in Jesus Christ, so you can also forgive others when they sin against you. Your relationship can be restored through the power of the Gospel.

Keep that in mind when your family gets together this day to celebrate Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Pilate's Choice

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Is this kind of stuff in your job description? Is it what you expect in life? 

Probably not.

It was in Pontius Pilate’s job description. As Governor of the Province of Judea for Rome he was always making serious choices, yet at the same time he is, for us, a sort of everyman. He was troubled with difficult situations just as we are when he tried to resist certain pressures, listen to his spouse, have courage, recognize goodness, then make a choice. He did well for nearly 11 years. But he never quite recovered from his brief, face-to-face encounter with Jesus Christ. Three years later, with what became called “The Samaritan Uprising” he was undone. He made a wrong choice.

The result? He was exiled to Gaul (France) in shame and disgrace, committing suicide there in AD 38.
Pilate was good at keeping the peace. But keeping the peace isn’t always the same as doing what’s right. 

Sometimes keeping the peace is just the opposite of doing what’s right. Sometimes we choose not to apologize. Sometimes we choose not to forgive. At what cost this peace — at home, at work or at play? Sometimes peace, as the world defines it, is the wrong choice. Sometimes it’s better to take the risk. 

Sometimes we need to something hard in order to do what is right; to do what we should.

Did Pilate lose sight of that?

Do we?

It was just another early Spring workday for Pilate when Jesus showed up. One can imagine Pilate dropping whatever he was doing, and then going to see this criminal brought to his court. It’s just another day of the week to keep the peace and to keep his post. Just another life to judge. Ask questions, listen, weigh the evidence, then decide. Live or die.

The governor may have smirked at the irony of the circumstances — a captured, bound man accused of claiming kingship. A powerless peasant, really. An unarmed Jew from the underclass. Pilate asks, “Are you a king?

It’s a question he may not have been asking seriously. He probably did not take the matter of Christ’s kingship as soberly as we do on Christ the King Sunday.

On the face of it, it’s a preposterous question. Obviously, to Pilate, Jesus was not a king. He had no army. He had no city. He had no funding. No robes. No weapons.

He had nothing.

He was nothing.

To Pilate.

Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with an unexpected question of his own. (How often are we faced with unexpected questions in our lives when facing terrible or tricky choices?) “Governor,” says Jesus, “why ask your question? Do you think I am a king, or were you told I am a king?

Pilate may have wondered, “Is this stupidity, insolence or some kind of strength?” But he plays the situation with humor and skill — it is, after all, just a game to him. With slight irritation and perhaps a smirk, he replies, “How should I know? Am I one of your people? Your people, your leaders, brought you here to me.” Then getting to the serious point, he asks, “What have you done?

The expectation of the most powerful man in Judea, the representative of Emperor Tiberius, is that Jesus will answer directly.

Jesus does not.

Instead he replies that he is a king, but from another world.

Ahhhh. Another world. Hmmm. A game is afoot. This amusing man is harmless.

So Pilate displays some sportsmanship. Jesus is no threat. The peace will be kept. There’s no justification for killing him. It’s an easy choice. But at the end of this little interview, Pilate rhetorically asks Jesus, “What is truth?

What is truth? It’s not a serious question. It’s an unimportant and dismissive question. It’s a game question. It’s a sports question. It’s a question like “Who’s gonna’ win the game this Sunday?”

But there is another answer, because there is such a thing as godly truth, as opposed to gaming truth.
As it was, Pilate had godly truth standing in front of him, but he was so distracted by playing the game of keeping his post and keeping the peace that he missed it. He loses his footing, he drops the ball, he strikes out — because in making the wrong choice about Jesus, he loses power and he ultimately loses his life.

Jesus tells us that He is the way, the truth and the life. The Epistles further elaborate that Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension are the way to salvation, can be counted on to always be true and give us eternal life. That’s the truth that Pilate missed in his gamesmanship. It may be that we, too, miss this truth when we become so pressured by difficult choices that we forget, or never notice, that Christ is standing within us, beside us and among us as he told us he would.

In life we are not abandoned. God is present always.

It’s in the hard places in our lives that we must ask the tough questions while seeking godly truth. Then we should listen to the answers, weigh the evidence, judge and act — just like Pilate. Only let our choices be truth-seeking, not game-playing.

In the end, Pilate gave Jesus over to the whims of the furious rabble. He did the politically expedient thing. He kept the peace. Maybe he prevented a riot. He believed he had done the right thing.

That’s where Pilate and the rest of us are similar. When we are presented with life’s difficult choices we may choose to be expedient rather than do what is ultimately right. Making the right choice isn’t always easy or popular.

But is it Christian?

So what’s the hardest thing for you? Is it learning to forgive when we are hurt? Apologizing when we would rather not? Raising our children with love, kindness and direction every day, tirelessly? Loving our enemies, both personal and national? Having courage and faith in the face of our child’s death? These acts take hope and courage and are more challenging than anything in sports.

But we’re going to face them. No doubt about it. That’s what life is all about.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Saint? Sinner? Both?

I’ve been having an ongoing argument  discussion with a friend and brother in Christ.

It is about being “sanctified.”

The gist of the argument  discussion is:

Him: We are sanctified. We’re perfect right now! God forgave our sins!

His key Bible verse is “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10 ESV).

Me: We’re in process of being made perfect. A process that was started in our Baptism and will be complete when we go to heaven.

I have two key Bible verses (not that having twice as many as his is better – that’s not my point):

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but  press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:12 ESV).

“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin” (Romans 7:15-25 ESV).

There is a Latin phrase – simul justus et peccator - which loosely translated means “At the same time saint and sinner.”

Even though Christ died and rose again to forgive my sins and give me eternal life, I still have flesh and blood. I am forgiven but I am not perfect. I still sin yet am going to heaven because of my faith in Christ.

It is hard to wrap my head around that, as it is for my friend that I am having this discussion with. I’m saved. I sin. I’m forgiven.

I don’t want to sin anymore, but I’m right there with St. Paul.

I know that I shouldn’t sin. I even know how I can not sin – do what God wants me to do.

But I’m kind of like a major league baseball player. He knows how to hit a ball but does it less than 40% of the time he tries. I suspect my not-sinning average is below that, but hopefully you get my drift.

So I keep on trying. I live, breath, pray, repent, and keep at this thing called my Christian life.

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!