Friday, September 19, 2014


Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. – Ephesians 5:1-2

Do you smell it? It is the smell of bacon frying. It is the smell of coffee percolating. It is Sunday morning. Worship starts in 3 hours. I amble through the kitchen toward these smells to start my day of worship. Somehow, it just wouldn’t be the same if I didn’t smell these things.

It is the smell of crunching leaves that have changed color and fallen. Of pumpkin pie spices and burning leaves. These are the smells of autumn (at least for me).

The smell of peanuts and stale beer. These are the smells of baseball, of a big-league ballpark.

The smell of pine and apple-cinnamon and mint. These are the smells of Christmas.

The smell of wine and freshly cut flowers. These are the smells of worship. This is what I smell as I stand at the altar preparing it for Holy Communion.

Smells are very powerful. They invoke feelings of seasons and events. The invoke memories (a whole episode of M*A*S*H was dedicated to this).

Smells are also part of our relationship with God. Starting in Exodus 25, God instructs his people to build a place of worship. There are specific items that are dedicated to smells. The Altar of Incense and various forms of incense would be used. Partly, I think, to have a distinctive smell associated with the worship of God. Partly to cover up the smell of all the sacrifices that would be made. But there is one more reason.

Our sin must raise a stink in God’s nose. The filth of our evil deeds. Our thoughts, our actions, must raise an awful stench to him.

How do we clean ourselves of this smell? I’m afraid it just isn’t possible for us to do this. No soap is strong enough to clean us of our sin. Oh, we certainly try. We apologize to those we wrong. Sometimes, if we’re guilty enough we will give money to the church or some charity to try to ease our conscience. But the smell lingers like smoke on your clothes after sitting around a campfire.

How can we get rid of the smell of sin in our lives? Sin has to be removed. It would be the love of Jesus Christ who “gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2)

As we head into the autumn and holiday season with all its distinctive smells, remember that we smell pretty good to God because of Jesus Christ and his death and resurrection for us. The next time you walk into a kitchen to smell the good smells there, thank God that Jesus takes away your stinking sin and makes you smell good with his righteousness.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Growing Up

I have spoken with many former church members and not-a-few former Christians.

Many of them have told me that they left the Church or left the Christian faith when they were younger – teenagers or early 20’s. When I ask them what it was that caused them to decide to leave, the same kind of story is told.

They had a question about God, they asked the pastor, and didn’t get the answer they were expecting (or wanted).

Steve Jobs was one such person. I never met or talked with Steve Jobs, but this story is documented in Walter Isaacson’s authorized biography.

The soon-to-be founder of Apple computers rejected Christianity because of one incident he had with a Lutheran pastor. Walter Isaacson tells the story:

“Even though they were not fervent about their [own] faith, Steve Job’s parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays. That came to an end when he was thirteen. In July 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor. ‘If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise even before I do it?’

The pastor answered, ‘Yes, God knows everything.’

Jobs then pulled out the Life cover and asked, ‘Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to those children?’

‘Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.’

Jobs announced that he didn’t want to have anything to do with worshipping such a God, and he never went back to church.” [Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs, pp 14-15, Simon & Schuster, 2011]

There are many supposedly enlightened people whose rejection of religion rests on just such a flimsy foundation. They are still living as adults on the basis of a rejection of a kindergarten version of the Christian Faith which they probably misunderstood in the first place.

When I was 13, I had some specific ideas about the world, my place in this world, and how I should live my life.
As I am now 36 years removed from those ideas, I certainly don’t live by many – if any – of them.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11 ESV).

It is sad if a person continues to think about the Church, God, and life in general, based on something that happened when they were younger.

The Good News is that God still loves each one of us with an unconditional love. He is ready and willing to welcome us back to Himself.

God’s love for us is the same today as it was when we were children. Jesus Christ still forgives all our sins, the Holy Spirit still prompts repentance, and the Father is ready to welcome us into His strong and loving arms.

Come back to church. God loves you and has an amazing plan for your life. Join a Bible study.

And pray for those who, at one time, decided to leave. Pray that the Holy Spirit can use you to help them see that God still loves them and wants them to be a part of a fellowship of believers.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

From Ground Zero to Holy Ground - A 9/11 Remembrance (repost)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. (Jeremiah 29:11-14)

How can the tragic attacks of September 11 be used for good? How could God allow this to happen? On the other hand, does September 11 really mean anything different for us? Have we really be effected by it? Has life really changed all that much? My question is, “How do we get from ground zero to holy ground?”

In the movie It’s A Wonderful Life one scene refers to the end of World War II. The narration says that people wept and prayed on VE Day and VJ Day and you see scenes of people flocking to a church. When I talked with my clergy friends about 911 we thought that something like this would happen again. With such devastating attacks, we all made our churches available for people to come and pray. At my church at the time we had a prayer service. And at first, it did look like people would flock back to church to find answers to questions. But looking back now, it seems that America was more interested in getting back to the regular season of football and baseball. That was important. To “get back to normal living.” The jury is still out whether we can “get back to normal” post-911.
What affect has 911 had on America? So much pain and destruction has to have some affect on us. It has been said that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” (C.S. Lewis) I believe God is shouting to us, calling us from ground zero to His Holy Ground.

Like just about everything else man makes, we thought the Twin Towers would stand forever. And all indications were that they would. But in the span of a couple of hours, they were reduced to smoking rubble, burying over 2800 people. That site will forever be known as “Ground Zero.” The pictures from there are a part of who we are as a nation today. Smoking ruins, firefighters searching for people. The one that stands out in my mind is the one of the President of the United States with a bullhorn. It is that picture that gave me the words “From Ground Zero to Holy Ground.” Someone in the crowd yelled “We can’t hear you” as he was making a speech. He called back “But I can hear you!”

Can we hear God? God is calling us. He’s shouting at us. He calls us away from our own self-centeredness and things we make for ourselves to something that will last forever. He is calling us from ground zero and its uncertain stability to His Holy Ground that does not move and will stand forever.

When you hear the stories of 911, what do you think? The eye-witness accounts to show that 911 affected all of us, ordinary people and heads of state. But those stories are not the end. Each story can be followed up by God’s story. For God does have something to say about all this.

God tells us about His peace. It is not peace like the world strives for. So often the world’s peace comes after devastation and the loss of countless lives. But God’s peace came only after one suffered and died, not thousands. God’s peace comes to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Even in the midst of tragedy, among the smoking ruins in New York or Washington DC, the peace of Jesus Christ, the Son of God comes through.
Sometimes the Prince of this world – Satan – rears his head in a very public way and motivates people to carry out acts of terror and death. But Jesus Christ overcame Satan when He died on the cross. Satan is a defeated enemy. All these tragic events are but the last gasps of a vanquished foe. In the end they cannot harm us. In fact, they have backfired on Satan. He carries them out to try to defeat us, but the result is that many turn back to God and look for ways to make their relationship stronger with Him!

God also tells us to be ready. When those thousands of people showed up for work on September 11, 2001, or boarded those airplanes, they may not have given any thought that this was to be their last day on earth. But God repeatedly warns us that we do not know when our last day on earth will be. It could be today. In the mean time, God calls to us, shouts to us from ground zero, to be rich toward Him, to begin or strengthen the relationship with Him through Word and Sacrament and Worship. We are rich toward God because Jesus’ death and resurrection gave us the glorious riches of God’s eternal grace. No amount of smoking ruin can take that away from us who have been brought into the Kingdom of God.

A reading from Colossians seems to have been written with 911 in mind. “Since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you....” That has been true for many, many people. Since that day we have prayed, each time we gather for worship, for those in the midst of this tragedy, for our President, for our military personnel, prayed that the peace and comfort of Jesus Christ may be theirs.

Patience and endurance.” This is what we have been praying for. God calls us to be faithful to Him and to seek Him at all times, but especially in times of tragedy. It is so hard to be patient when we’re facing such tragedy. We want to know now about a loved one. We want an answer now. We are tempted to give up in the face of such horrible circumstances. But God’s call to us has been to be patient and endure. For a better time is coming. Ground Zero is temporary. Holy Ground is forever!

There have been so many questions in the past 13 years. The biggest one, it seems to me, has been “How could God allow this to happen.” The answer is not easy. God does love us. So much so that He doesn’t want us to take anything for granted. But with prosperity and financial success like we’ve enjoyed in this country, we are tempted to take many things for granted. Young people live life like they will live forever, that nothing can hurt them. But the world isn’t a peaceful place. It is a dangerous place. Nothing should be taken for granted. Least of all God. He is here. He does love us. He allows tragedy to get our attention and call us back to Him.

The call from Ground Zero is a call back to Holy Ground. The stable, rock-solid ground established for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. On Holy Ground there is no sin, there is no death. There have been many “ground zeros” and I suspect there will be many more. But there is only one Holy Ground. There is only one way to get there. God is calling us. Through the smoke and death and devastation God shouts to us, getting our attention. Now that the smoke and rubble have been cleared, we’re tempted to say that God’s call is gone, too. But God still calls. He is calling you and me. He is calling us away from ground zero and the death that will forever surround it. He is calling us to Holy Ground where there is life and peace in His Son Jesus Christ.

God is calling you. Will you answer? I pray that you will turn from ground zero to God’s Holy Ground, in Jesus’ name. Amen.