Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Oak Island, Toes, and Treasure

If you ever want to hear a really weird story, look into the history of Oak Island, Nova Scotia. Oak Island is the site of the so-called Money Pit, a place where numerous excavations have taken place to recover treasure believed to be buried there.
The story begins way back in 1795, when a 16-year-old boy and his friends discovered a circular depression in the sand and started to dig. They seemed to find layers of logs and stones on their way down that had been placed there deliberately. They gave up digging at 30 feet.
Eight years later, a professional company made a 300 mile journey to dig at the same site, and at 90 feet down they allegedly found a stone on which had been inscribed, in ancient characters, “forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried.” Since then, approximately ten official excavations have taken place, using a variety of techniques to try and reach the level described on the stone, only to have the shaft fill up with seawater or simply to find nothing. Even so, as of 2005, a portion of Oak Island was for sale with a price tag of $7 million dollars, and as of today, nothing of value has ever been found in the Money Pit. I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not the time, the money, and the loss of life has been worth it.
That kind of makes me wonder what your treasure is and how far you would go to get it. Would you go as far as this Green Bay Packers fan? He tailgated and then stayed through the entire 1997 NFC Championship game. Because the temperature was 17 degrees below zero, he acquired frostbite, and three of his toes had to be amputated. His response to all this? He said, “You know what? I got 7 good toes that I can lose—If I can go, I’ll stay the entire game next time.” It evidently was worth it for him to lose toes to be present at a professional football game. That was his treasure. So what’s yours? How far would you go to get it?
Jesus told a couple stories about treasure that I think you’ll find intriguing. You heard them as part of today’s Gospel lesson, but listen again and let our Lord paint the picture for you. He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”
As stories go, the plots of these tales are simple enough. Upon further inspection there is an interesting contrast between the two. In the first story, there’s a sense that the man stumbled across the treasure in the field. Nothing in Jesus’ story (or in common sense) suggests this guy was out poking around fields looking for treasure. The treasure, you could say, found him. In the second story, however, you’ve got a merchant actively searching for fine pearls. He was on the hunt, looking for the best. And he found a pearl of great value. And even though one man was looking for treasure and the other one wasn’t, their reaction to finding their treasure is the same. They recognize the worth of what they’ve found, and they sell all they have in order to possess the thing they value most. Although Jesus’ parables lend themselves to a variety of interpretations, certainly one point Jesus means us to “get” in this case is that those who find the kingdom of heaven—the kingdom of God—the kingdom of Jesus Christ—treasure it. It becomes the thing that they value most, whether they were looking for it or not.
That kind of makes me wonder what your treasure is—and how far you would go to get it? Does all the evidence in your life point to the fact that God’s kingdom and His concerns are indeed your greatest treasure? Or does the evidence take you in a different direction?
Let me ask the question a little differently, thanks to our Packer fan. What would you be willing to lose a couple of toes for? A better-paying job? A bigger house in a nicer neighborhood? Would you lose a couple digits for the sake of popularity or power? A better body—or improved health? The chance to meet someone you admire? Would you do without a couple toes if it meant that someone you know would come to faith in Jesus and be saved?
Now that’s a little extreme of course, but you understand my reason for asking is to make sure you recognize what Jesus and His kingdom are worth. Because it’s one thing to know who Jesus is and it’s another to treasure Him. It’s one thing to admire Jesus and it’s another to put all your trust in Him for forgiveness, new life, and salvation. It’s one thing to toss a dollar in the plate as it passes by and it’s another to sell all you have and buy the field; to invest not just your finances but your very self in His kingdom.
You see, Jesus didn’t do what He did on the cross to just make you a better person; He didn’t endure the whip to just give you life pointers; He didn’t let the nails pierce his flesh to make sure you were well off and successful. He did it to prevent you and me from having to endure eternal torment in hell! He did it to save our lives for eternity! He did it so that you can look death right in the eye and say: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that I will see Him” Jesus bought and paid for a full ride to heaven for us with his holy, precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. That means there’s no hell for you; no bitter separation from all that is good at the end of your life! Do you see and believe that that’s what Jesus is worth?
In a way, you are the treasure that was found in a field. You are a pearl of great price. Jesus sold all He had to buy you. He gave all He could give to redeem you from sin’s downward spiral. And He did so with joy. He did so with passion. He did so knowing that this is what He had been born to do—to lay down his life for his friends, and take it up again on the third day. All because you are his pearl; his treasure; his creation; his child. What is that worth to you? Amen.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

No Other Rock

A recent poll of Americans revealed that 70 percent of those who were asked “Do you think all religions lead to heaven” answered “yes.” Of those polled in Ohio, 76 percent said “yes.” Now let’s be clear: the word “religion” means something different than the word “denomination.” Christianity is a religion. Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran; those are denominations. So seven out of ten people (almost eight out of ten in our home state)—at least the ones that were asked—evidently believe that no matter if you are a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Mormon or whatever—it’s all good! All the elevators go to the same floor! I have to tell you, as a pastor and as a thinking Christian, that makes me profoundly sad, because not only does that reveal how Biblically illiterate we have become as a people, but it also reveals how ignorant we are of other religions, because some of those I’ve just named don’t even believe in a heaven where you exist as a person for eternity! 70 percent of a so-called Christian nation doesn’t know or care what the Bible says about the matter—neither do they really have a clue what other religions teach. They’ve bought into the school of thought that says: “You be a good person, you go to heaven.” The only problem is, the principal of that school of thought is the devil, and he is having great success in teaching this lie, not only “out there” in secular society, but also within the Christian Church itself. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider the case of the Episcopal priest in Seattle who has defined herself as both Christian and Muslim. This priest has said about Jesus, and I quote: “I don't think God said, "Let me send this special person so that I can kill him for the benefit of the rest of humanity." That's not the kind of sacrifice I think that God desires.” End quote. Her bishop—the supervising pastor in her area-- says that her declaration that she is both a Christian and a Muslim to be “exciting” in terms of interfaith understanding. This is really happening, and it’s not going away.
What’s so wrong with the thought that all religions drop you off at the same heavenly hotel? Well, just this: If you believe in the God that reveals Himself through the Bible, and you take Him at His Word and you let Him define your reality, then the message you get is that He is the only way to heaven—He is the only true God. And it’s not like he’s silent on the issue of other religions. Consider our Old Testament lesson for today from Isaiah 44. There Israel’s King and Redeemer, the Lord Almighty says: “I am the first and I am the last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let him foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one."
Does that sound to you like a God who would say, “Oh yeah, those other gods will get you to the same place anyway?” No way! The God of Israel; the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob; the God who led his people out of Egyptian slavery; the God who lived with his people in tabernacle and temple and who finally put on our flesh to die and rise in our stead will never share the stage with Allah or be put on a double-bill with Krishna. There is no other rock on which to stand when all other ground is sinking sand. It’s the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, or it’s false. It’s reliance, faith, and trust in Jesus’ death and his resurrection or it’s wrong. If the Christian Church loses this truth, the church is lost. If we individual Christians ignore what God has clearly said in His Word and start inventing a God that thinks like we do, then we’re in danger. To say that “All religions lead to heaven” is really to rebel against Jesus, who said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” It’s also to rebel against apostolic teaching. It was Peter who said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4: 12)” And really, it is to rebel against and call into question all that God has said; because nowhere are we given the freedom to cut and paste the parts of the faith we like and to ignore the rest. At that point, we’re just playing god. The God who said “There is no other Rock; I know not one” will not accept us as fellow gods either. Where we have remained willfully ignorant of what God says…where we have heard what God says but ignored it and gone our own way…where we have presumed to know better than God and adopted the world’s so-called wisdom…and where we have concluded that there’s really no sin that sticks to us… we need to repent. We need a wake-up call. We need to truly confess the words of the beloved hymn: “No merit of my own I claim; But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” We need to go to the only true God asking for mercy, which really is a matter of asking the Lord to not punish us as our sins deserve.
So here is the mystery and majesty of the true Triune God: He will not punish us as our sins deserve when we wholly lean on Jesus’ name. He will show mercy, because contrary to what human wisdom suggests, God did desire the sacrifice of His Son as the payment of our sins’ debt. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, could not be clearer on this very point. Jesus’ mission was to be our substitute in death; to die our death; to take our punishment instead of us, which He did on the cross. Because He paid the ultimate price, you and I are forgiven, fully and completely. But God doesn’t stop there. He plants the gift of faith in your heart to believe this Great News. He did not forgive your debt in order to make you an indentured servant, but to adopt you as his child and an inheritor of eternal life. He gives his children his very name in Holy Baptism. The Good Shepherd feeds His flock in the Lord’s Supper. His Word is our Solid Rock through the storms of life. He loves you and lavishes these gifts upon you. And let’s be honest: we don’t deserve them. But that doesn’t stop the persistent love of God, who gives us the treasure Jesus earned again and again and again. This we call grace.
And it’s grace that sets the true Christian faith apart from any other world religion or philosophy. It’s grace that marks the true Christian faith as the one authentic expression of God’s love for His creation. Without exception, every other religion or worldview gives you a list of things to do, and you do the list to earn God’s favor. You do the list to improve yourself. You do the list to make the world a better place. And if you do the list well enough, there might be some rewards for you. But inevitably, people can’t do the list very well at all, and it becomes a burden as they try harder or simply give up. Only the Christian faith, with its focus on the saving words and actions of Jesus, presents the way of grace, of God giving us what we could never achieve as a gift because He loves us already.
When the grace of Jesus hits home, it really hits home, especially if you’ve been laboring under a “do-this-list” religion. Let me introduce you to a man named Joakim. Joakim lives in Africa, but he speaks French, and one day he met a man who as it turned out was a Lutheran missionary. That Lutheran missionary asked Joakim to help him learn the French language. Joakim agreed. So the missionary and Joakim got together and took turns reading from a French-language Bible. They had been doing this for many weeks when one day the missionary asked Joakim if he was a Christian. And Joakim said, “I was a Muslim until the first day that we read the Bible together. I had always thought that Jesus was a prophet like Muhammed and that Islam and Christianity were basically the same. I thought Jesus was a law-giver like Muhammed. I never heard that Jesus came as a Savior to pay for our sins. I had always tried to be a good Muslim but my sin haunted me. Now I know that Jesus came to die for me and because of what He has done, I can be sure that I will go to heaven.”
There are souls like Joakim’s on the line all around us, and the only way they will ever have peace is through the pure message of Jesus’ gracious life, death, and resurrection. Let us always pray for courage to boldly broadcast that apart from Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there is no God; There is no other Rock who loves with such extravagant grace as Christ on whom we stand. Amen.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In Memoriam -- Jean Long

My mother-in-law, Jean Long, was received into the Church Triumphant on July 4, 2008. As Pastor Tom Zucconi said at her committal, our loss is her gain. My family has been moved by the outpouring of sympathy and support we have recevied from our Christian family.

The Service of Committal includes a prayer that I am finding to be increasingly beautiful. Here it is:

Almighty God, by the death of your Son Jesus Christ You destroyed death, by his rest in the tomb You sanctified the graves of Your saints, and by his bodily resurrection You brought life and immortality to light so that all who die in Him abide in peace and hope. Receive our thanks for the victory over death and the grave that He won for us. Keep us in everlasting communion with all who wait for Him on earth and with all in heaven who are with Him, for He is the resurrection and the life, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.