Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Speaking the Faith to Children

I led the following in-service for our preschool staff. Discussion on this topic is always interesting.

Answering the Questions of
Mini-Theologians (a.k.a. Preschoolers)

Where is God? I can’t see Him.

“God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." John 4: 24

“Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him? declares the LORD.(B) Do I not fill heaven and earth? declares the LORD.”
Jeremiah 23: 24

God is spirit, which, by definition, means we can’t see Him, because He has no body. However, He “fills heaven and earth,” according to Jeremiah 23: 24.

Therefore we can say God is everywhere and all around us all the time. A good comparison here would be air. We can’t see air, but we know it is there—we need it to live. Unlike air, God has given us special ways to learn about Him, such as His Word, the Bible; churches, pastors, and teachers; Christian families, etc.

Who is Jesus?

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 14And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1: 1-2; 14

…we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life.
1 John 5: 20

God may be invisible and everywhere (like air), but Jesus gives children (and us) something more to hold on to. Jesus is “God with skin on”. God became a human being, and that is Jesus. He died, came back to life, and went back to heaven, but one day he will come back. Because Jesus is “God with skin on”, He understands what it means to be hurt, afraid, hungry, tired, happy, etc. The love of Jesus comes to us through Christian people and whenever we learn about Him.

Where do people go when they die? Where is heaven?

And he said to him, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
Luke 23: 43

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
John 3:16

People who believe in Jesus go to be with Him when they die. That is probably the clearest statement the Bible makes about heaven. From the Bible’s standpoint, “heaven” is getting to be with Jesus forever, in the presence of those who have died in the faith. You get to spend time with your best friends and you never have to go home, because you’re already there.

What about those who do not believe? With young children, I would go in this direction: We don’t want to be apart from God. We believe in Him, so we never have to be apart from God. We will be with Him forever and ever, thanks to Jesus.

Where is heaven? That’s one of those questions like “Where is God?” Heaven is where God is. Right now we can’t see Him or heaven. We get “sneak peeks” of heaven in Christian worship, or when the gracious love of Christ is shared between people. At the Resurrection, Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Philippians 3:21) Finally we will be able to see everything!

Will our pets be in heaven? There’s no strong reason to say “no.” Animals were obviously a part of God’s original creation, and the Bible teaches that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8: 21) We can reasonably assume that animals are part of “creation itself.” You might not see your "Spot" in the life of the world to come, but there might be restored animals there to enjoy. That’s good news for children as well as adult pet owners!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

He Saw The Wind

22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When) evening came, he was there alone, 24but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them. 25And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying,) "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."
28And Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." 29He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. 30But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me." 31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?" 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying) "Truly you are the Son of God."

What was Peter thinking? What was he thinking when he got out of that boat? I suppose we’ll never really know the answer to that question. I can remember as a child playing hide-and-seek with my father—sometimes he would pop out from some dark hiding place, scaring me half to death, but I vividly recall when he did that, running to him, not away from him. Maybe that’s what was going on inside of Peter. Maybe in his fear, his first impulse was to run to his Teacher, even though he’d be running on waves.
It isn’t that crucial for us to figure out why Peter called out “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” What is crucial is what happened next. What is crucial is that, for a few moments, it worked. Peter got out of the boat and walked on water and came to Jesus. To state the obvious, it was a scary situation. The disciples were in a boat in the dark in churning seas. Add to that scene the appearance of their teacher walking along on top of the waves—this would be more than enough to rattle anyone. But once Peter has the assurance that it really is Jesus, he hops out and goes directly to his Master and Lord. He just happens to be “going” on top of a wind-whipped lake.
Are you able to relate to that impulse? Have you ever been in a scary situation, a situation that would be enough to rattle anyone—and did you go directly to Jesus for help? Do you remember what happened when you did?
Well, we know what happened next to Peter. He had been doing the impossible. He had been stepping on the waves and it had been working, because Jesus was the focus. Getting to Jesus was the goal. But you know what happened next. Peter saw the wind. And when Peter saw the wind, he was afraid, and he began to sink. And this is precisely the point at which you and I can jump in and tread water with Peter—because we know what it means to “see the wind” and be afraid, even though Jesus is there.
It’s easy to “see the wind” when you find out your job is in jeopardy, and naturally, you fear for your family and how you will provide for them. Have you “seen the wind” at the doctor’s office, when he comes in the room and the news is not good? Have you “seen the wind” in a family that is fracturing, and breaking up before your very eyes? Have you “seen the wind” in current events—in wars and rumors of wars, natural disasters, end-times prophecies and predictions? Do you “see the wind” in a situation where there are no easy answers, and you are powerless to do anything about it? The cold wind of fear blows through our all of our lives, and when we give that wind our full attention, things get worse, not better. When we give the wind of fear our full attention, like Peter, we start to sink. If we’re giving that wind our full attention, that means we’re not giving Jesus our attention. Without Jesus, there’s only churning water, bitter wind, the fear of the unknown, and the terror of death.
Peter saw the wind, and he was afraid, and he began to sink. But Jesus was still there, and Peter remembered. Peter remembered Jesus, causing him to cry out, “Lord, save me!” And that is exactly what Jesus had come to do. He came not just to rescue Peter from drowning, but to rescue him from the storm of sin. He came not just to rescue Peter, but to do the same for you and me.
You may be “seeing the wind” right now in your life. The wind of fear may be howling, and you may feel like you’re sinking. If that’s the case, I urge you to remember Jesus. Call out to him, “Lord, save me!” That’s exactly what He has come to do. He has come not just to walk on water, but to walk up Calvary’s hill and take the punishment for your sins on the cross. Having paid for your sin in full, he walks out of the tomb on the third day—providing the greater miracle of eternal life to all who believe. In faith, we cry out, “Lord, save me!” And He does. You can walk on the water of your baptism, remembering the faith and life God gave you from the font. You can drink from the living water of Christ’s forgiveness—his blood poured into you, along with His Body at His Supper. Hear the very voice of Jesus saying to you today, “Take heart, it is I. Don’t be afraid.” A life of faith is a life of remembering. It is remembering Jesus is there, even when we see the wind. It is remembering to cry out, “Lord, save me.” “Lord, have mercy.” “Lord, hear our prayer.” It is remembering your baptism, and remembering Jesus in Word, Bread, and Wine. “Lord, save me” is our song, it is His church’s anthem, every “hosanna” we sing is the same petition: “Save us now,” Lord Jesus.
Matthew supplies us with Jesus’ response to Peter’s desperate plea. He writes, “31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you) doubt?" 32And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of Peter. He didn’t let Peter drown. In his justice, he probably could have. “Peter, you doubter, here’s your reward!” But none of that with Jesus. It’s all about mercy. And there in the fellowship of that little boat, with the disciples worshipping Jesus, confessing Him as God’s own Son—what do you know? The wind stopped.
In fear, we rush to Jesus. We see the wind, we’re afraid, we sink, we remember, we call out, Jesus rescues us, he restores us, we worship Him, the wind ceases. There is peace. A life of faith is a life of learning and re-learning this pattern, established on the blustery Sea of Galilee. “Lord, save me!” Amen.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Pizza Buffet Spirituality

There is a place we sometimes go (that shall remain nameless) that is a pizza buffet. You pay one price and then you can eat all you want. I really like pizza, so it seems like a good deal. But the thing is, the pizza itself is just OK. It’s not bad pizza. We wouldn’t go back if it was bad. But it’s not great pizza, either. You can eat until you’re full, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as deep-dish, Chicago-style stuffed pizza.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that God routinely uses food language to communicate His love to us. It’s language that we get. Everyone knows what it means to be thirsty or hungry. We can tell the difference between a carefully prepared meal and a bag of junk food. I think we even understand, at some level, that sharing a table with someone means something; it implies a relationship that we desire and want to nurture. Our Lord uses all these food-related ideas and more as a way of describing his desire to serve us and give us life.
For example, you have today’s Old Testament Lesson, which really is enough to make your mouth water. The Almighty God invites everyone to his feast. He talks about His gifts in terms of water, wine, milk, and bread. He sets His table with “the richest of fare.” Come, enjoy the best, the Lord God says. It’s free. It’s for you.
In our Gospel lesson, it’s more of the same. There Jesus sets the table for thousands of hungry people and miraculously satisfies their hunger. The Lord of creation demonstrates his compassion by meeting physical as well as spiritual needs. There’s also a hint here, I believe, of an even better meal that is to come, a meal at which Jesus will again take bread, give thanks, break it, and give it to his disciples. Jesus uses food language—and food itself—to nourish us and build up our faith. He wants to give you nothing less than full pardon of your sins; confident life in Him today; and true peace in knowing you do not stand condemned, but you stand to inherit eternal life, thanks to his passion, death, and resurrection. He sets the table with these delights and says, come and eat. I made them just for you.
But back to our pizza buffet for just a minute. If you remember, my biggest gripe with it, and it’s not a huge gripe, is that the pizza is just OK. You can fill up on the stuff, but it’s not like having something really good and tasty. That’s not a big deal. What is a big deal is when people bring a pizza buffet mentality to their spiritual lives—when they chase after happiness or fulfillment and fill up on things that are just OK. God asks the question through his prophet, Isaiah: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?” Why, indeed? Why do we fill our lives up with things that are just OK—things that don’t bring us any closer to Christ? Why do we work to fill our homes with things that cannot remove guilt, or soothe a conscience, or just make us better? Why do we devote so many hours to staring at images flickering on a screen, when there’s so much life to be lived, and so many greater God-given gifts to be enjoyed? Are you eating what is good? Do you regularly feast on the richest fare that Christ provides? Or are you spending money on what is not bread, and laboring for things that cannot satisfy? Are you going to the pizza buffet looking to pig out on something, anything, hoping that it will fill you up?
It doesn’t take long to become spiritually malnourished. Just keep your Bible closed. Just stay away from church for a while. Tune out the preaching and teaching of God’s Word. Stay away from the Supper of our Lord. Stop speaking to Him in prayer. Forget about your baptism. That’ll do it. If you stop eating food, you’ll die. We know this. Faith is no different! And this is one of the greatest dangers we face as Christians. We start filling our lives with commitments and pursuits and pastimes that aren’t bad—they’re just OK. But in filling our lives with “just OK” commitments and pastimes and pursuits, we forget the great stuff. We pass on the holy things, the best things. We think we don’t have time for them. We settle for the OK buffet. Then when life knocks us for a loop, we find out, too late, that faith has shriveled—it’s atrophied like an unused muscle—we have no clue what the Bible says about our situation or even where to look. Our strength is gone and we can’t think straight because we haven’t been eating the good stuff!
It’s not too late to start eating right. Again, through Isaiah, God says: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Eating what is good begins with believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It begins with savoring His mercy—he will not punish us according to our sins. It begins with appreciating His grace—He wants to serve you, feed you, and give you life. Eating what is good means finding out more about this Jesus, who would rescue us from Satan’s power, by learning about Him in Holy Scripture. Eating what is good means believing that a simple, humble church service (with new hymnals to boot) is, in fact, the setting in which Jesus serves us. That’s why it’s called a Divine Service—God is our server. Every time we gather, our Lord brings out the great stuff and gives it away for free. He adopts through Holy Baptism. He convicts sinners, distributes forgiveness, creates faith, and instructs us through His Holy Word. And yes, he sets a table and feeds us His own body and blood to forgive our sins and to keep our faith lively and active. When you keep eating what is good, you will discover that your appetite for the great stuff, the holy things of God, will grow. You’ll find yourself saying “no thanks” to things that are “just OK,” in order to have time for the really good stuff—the stuff that tells us again who Jesus is and what He did for us; the stuff that tells us who we are because of Jesus—that “stuff” being the Holy Bible, good devotional materials, the Divine Service, whatever is Christ-centered. This is the food group that we need. This is the food group that the Lord attaches His promise to. He says: “Listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” Did you hear the promise? Eat what is good, and your soul will delight—not in something “just OK”—but in God’s “richest fare,” the best gifts God has to give, lovingly prepared for you by Jesus himself. The promise is that your soul will delight! You will find your way home to the feast of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Take the Lord God up on this promise. Eat what is good. Amen.