Sunday, January 31, 2010

I Want To Know What Love Is

A young man went off to college, and at every break, he would bring home a different girlfriend. His father was amused.
But every time, his mother would say something. “Son, she’s beautiful, but isn’t she a little too serious?” Or with the next, Mom would wonder, “I don’t know, she’s so picky.” And with another, “She just strikes me as too quiet for you, my dear.”
At last, the young man brought home this splendid young woman. So bright and brash! He had this sneaking suspicion that he had found someone a lot like his Mom, a suspicion confirmed by the fact that his mother was almost instantly thrilled with the girl.
It didn’t take long for his father to take the young man aside and say, “Son, I’ve always kept my opinion to myself. As long as you’re happy, I’ll love this girl. But I can’t put my finger on it: there’s something about her I just don’t like!”
Ah, love. There is something about love that inspires human beings. Countless stories have been told; countless songs have been sung; countless poems and novels and screenplays have been written about love. Storytellers have tried for centuries on end to get at the fundamental truths about love, and have attempted to define what love is; how to acquire it; how to keep it; and what you should do if you lose it. The singer-songwriters and screenwriters and authors of our 21st century popular culture are fairly uniform in the way they define love: it can be summarized as a feeling that sweeps you off your feet—a huge rush of emotion—and since these are the storytellers we listen to most of the time, we have come to accept that this is the ideal when it comes to romantic love. We have also come to accept what the same storytellers say about the downside of love—they say that this “knock-me-off-my-feet-type feeling” can disappear at a moment’s notice, and if the feeling is gone, then love is too. So cut your losses and go hunting for that feeling with someone else. That’s human culture’s idea of love. But is that what the Bible says about love?
What adds to the confusion about love is that “love” is one of those words that is notoriously elastic—it can stretch in many different ways, depending on the context. For example, so far we’ve been talking largely about romantic love as our culture defines it. Something else is being expressed when a parent says, “I love my kids.” Same word, but there’s something else at work. Same thing when your friend says to you, “I love you, man.” And then the word can simply be used to mean we really enjoy something, like, “I love my Nintendo Wii” or “I love the Browns (you poor soul)” or “I love ice cream.” Love, as a word, is messy, and it can be hard to pin down just what is meant by it. One thing I’m afraid of is that Christian people hear Jesus say stuff like “Love one another,” and because of confusion surrounding the word “love,” they get the wrong idea. They think, “I could never have warm, fuzzy feeling for that guy.” But that misses the point. When Jesus talks about love, He’s not talking about feelings—at least not in the late 20th--early 21st century sense of love being an intoxicant. When he talks about love, he’s talking about a conscious decision to look away from self and to look to the needs of others, and to work towards meeting those needs. And it should not surprise you that Saint Paul talks about love in the same way. You see it in the Epistle reading today. Paul provides us with a detailed definition of godly love. It is challenging to come to terms with this Scriptural definition of love, because it really has nothing to do with the “knock-me-off-of-my-feet-type” love that is far more prevalent and popular. But the truth is that the Bible’s definition of love that we encounter today is higher and better and more rewarding, because this love comes from God Himself.
Listen again to what Paul says love is (or is not):4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8Love never ends.
Now that is quite a list, and if you take it seriously, it explodes a lot of modern myths about love. Remember, Paul is simply saying that this is what love it or what it isn’t. That means if there’s something going on in a relationship that is the opposite of what is described here, it may be a lot of things, but love is not one of them. Impatience or mean-spiritedness—not love. Jealousy or bragging—not love. Arrogance—rudeness—“my way or the highway”—not love. Irritability or resentfulness—not love. Love rejoices in truth. Love can always be counted on. I don’t hear much talk about love “rocking your world” or “blowing your mind” here. Instead, love is the will to do the right thing for someone else.
There’s a twist here, too, that we need to pay attention to: when Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, he’s really talking about how Christians should love each other and everyone in their world. All the weddings at which this passage has been featured notwithstanding, these words are not first and foremost about the love between husband and wife (though they certainly apply). Loving others—having the will to do the right thing for whoever is your path that day—is what Paul calls a “still more excellent way” to live than having a bunch of spiritual gifts. And remember—this Godly love is much more than some touchy-feely kind of thing. Love that comes from God is a real mental choice. It is a commitment to care—even when I don’t feel like it. As Christians, we are to love people even though they are unlovable, unbearable and undesirable. Why? Because there are times when you are unlovable, unbearable, and undesirable—and God still loves you.
We can only harness this type of love in our connection with God. He is the pioneer in providing this love to the world. The most famous Bible verse of them all says it best: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God’s will to do the right thing for his creation caused him to sacrifice his own dear Son—parents, please imagine what it would be like to exchange the life of your child for anyone else’s (sounds impossible, doesn’t it?)—but that was God’s choice, and it shows just how valuable you are to him. Jesus’ commitment to care for His creation led him to the cross, and Holy Scripture says two amazing things about that commitment. Number One: Jesus had moments, such as in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He didn’t feel like being horribly beaten and nailed to a wooden killing device. And Number Two: He did it anyway. Hebrews 12: 2 says that Jesus, “for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame…” The joy set before Jesus was the joy of knowing that his death and resurrection were going to set things right. His joy was in knowing that after going through the terror of hell and death, you would belong to Him, and that made it worth it.
The love Jesus has shown you calls you to something deeper than your natural response. It isn’t easy to love people—Jesus’ sacrifice makes that obvious. It isn’t easy to have the will to do the right thing for people who have hurt you or betrayed you or changed your life for the worse with their choices. When Jesus’ choice to love you finally flips your switch, and you choose to love others His way, it is never a matter of “I love you because…” You are saying, “I love you anyway.” That’s not anyone’s idea of romantic love, but it is the love that matters most. It is the love that has saved you from destruction. It is the love that can save others through you. To let Jesus’ love overflow from you is indeed the most excellent way to live.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Paying Attention Yet?

It’s probably difficult for us to grasp the depth of emotion in today’s reading from Nehemiah. The occasion described in the Old Testament Lesson is a public reading of the Book of the Law of Moses--a public reading of the book of the law of Moses that lasted for hours. And already you might be thinking to yourself, “Yikes, what could be more boring?” That’s because it’s almost impossible for us to “put ourselves in the shoes” of the Judeans, who had lost everything, and were finally back home.
It might be easier to relate to these people, who stood listening to the Word of God with attentive ears, if our stories were similar. We might be more able to figure out why they would cry and bow and lift up their hands in response to God’s Word if we walked the proverbial mile in their shoes. That would mean living lives of practical atheism. That would include ignoring God’s Word for a long time and buying into the values of other cultures. That would include loving our possessions and building our world around getting more and better stuff. Well, gee, maybe we have more in common with them than we first thought. Oh, but then there’s this. Finally after this period of complacency and spiritual unfaithfulness, the Lord said, “No more.” He allowed the consequences of their sins to drop on them. Conquering armies swept into Jerusalem, leveling the city walls meant to protect them, and the people who felt that a life of luxury was their God-given birthright whether they paid any attention to God or not were captured and pulled from their homes and taken to other countries, where they would live as strangers in exile. Their homes; their temple; their customs; their treasures and the Word of God itself; all would be nothing but memories. They gambled on a life lived without paying attention to God, and they lost.
But a time of mercy came. The Lord allowed some to return to Jerusalem, and raised up a leader named Nehemiah, who would undertake a building project of epic proportions: nothing less than rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Many were dead set against the idea, and plotted to do harm to Nehemiah, but he remained committed. The project was completed in fifty-two days, and the result was that the nations surrounding Jerusalem were afraid, because they could read the writing on the wall: that the Lord God had caused this to happen with His blessing. And after many months of people coming back to their homes, this event that we started off talking about was scheduled and it went off as described in chapter eight.
Ezra, the high priest, read from the Book of Law from early morning until midday. The ears of the people were attentive to the Book of Law. This is truly a case of “you don’t know what you got ‘til its gone.” Hearing the Word of God again created a strong emotional reaction in the Judeans. They lifted up their hands. They bowed their heads and worshipped the Lord with faces to the ground. And they wept, they cried, as they heard the words of the Law. We’re not told exactly why they cried, but it isn’t too hard to imagine. They cried because they were finally back home. They wept because they realized if they had only paid attention to God’s Word in the first place, all that pain and heartache could’ve been avoided. The tears came because they finally understood the value of God’s Word and they had another chance to listen and learn and live.
What is it going to take for you to really start paying attention to the Word of God? God permits all kinds of wake-up calls to take place in order to open our ears and our hearts. If you recall, in the immediate wake of 9/11, churches were full; ears were attentive to the Word that gives life; but when it seemed that the coast was clear, the attention went back to T.V. and sports and the tabloids and business as usual and the extra seats in church were no longer necessary.
God is urgently seeking your attention. Will you give it to Him? Or will he have to resort to a wake-up call? An invading army is probably not going to whisk you away from your home, like the Judeans, but there are many “exiles” that He can use to get your attention. There’s the message from the doctor saying, you’ve got to come in for some more tests. There’s the sudden and unexpected death of a loved one. There’s the threat of losing your job. There’s the disintegration of your marriage and home. In amongst all these troubles, the Lord is calling out to you, “Are you ready to listen to me? Now are you ready to hear what I have to say in my Word? Are you ready to hear the answers that I have for you? If not now, then when? When will you pay attention to Me?”
Nehemiah and Ezra the priest saw the people crying as the Law of God was being read. They saw the grief and sadness as their people realized they had brought their trials upon themselves. So they spoke gentle words of comfort, saying, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep. Celebrate and share what you have, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
When you are paying attention to God, this is the message that predominates. Your Heavenly Father wants to wipe your tears away. He wants you to know the greatness of His love. To that end, He gave you the gift of His Son Jesus. He made His Son to be the blood sacrifice that would erase your sin. He raised His Son from death to share eternal life with you. He purchased you with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, wrote His name on you in Holy Baptism, feeds you heavenly food and drink at his table, so that you can listen to him with attentive ears and a willing heart—so that the joy of the Lord—the enjoyment of what Jesus has done and is doing for you will be your strength—so that you will live right there—enjoying the Lord, loving Him, listening to Him, believing Him, serving Him.
Does He have your attention yet?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Jesus--The First One In the Water

Imagine this scene, if you will. It’s a Sunday morning worship service; the front pews are packed with unfamiliar guests toting camcorders. Near the conclusion of the first hymn, four adults stand up, and one of them, holding a baby, comes forward to the altar. All of them look nervous, as if they might turn and suddenly sprint down the center aisle. The pastor reads from the hymnal and then motions for the adults to take the baby over to the side, where a gold basin is waiting. After speaking some more words together with the congregation, the pastor reaches into the bowl and douses the child three times as he says the name of God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. After a few prayers and a final blessing, the adults, looking visibly relieved, take their places back in the pew.
Now let me ask you a question. In that scenario, what just happened?
Some might say, “nothing much.” Some might say, “it was a rite of passage not unlike rituals in other cultures.” Some might say, “it was something we did to get Grandma off our backs.” Some others might say, “this symbolizes your sins being washed away.” Some other others might say, “I’m not sure what happened nor do I really care, but the baby sure was cute.”
Now, let me tell you what the Bible says just happened. Saint Paul writes that a person who is baptized is united with Jesus Christ in a death like his and is united with Jesus in a resurrection like his. So that baby held above the baptismal font has been connected to the crucifixion of Christ, and has risen with Jesus’ resurrection. Everything that Jesus did—everything that Jesus is—has been poured onto that little one and the same is true for anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In baptism, you die and live again with Jesus. That’s not just picture language. That’s reality for the Christian. What does that really mean? Listen to Paul:
“Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again…so you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
What might life be like if you and I kept this in mind? How might life be different if we remembered the value of our baptism every single day? How might the way you look at yourself be different if you just took the time to remember that God chose to adopt you in baptism? May I boldly suggest that if we would only take the time to reflect on what God has done for us in baptism, our whole outlook on life could be drastically different. But the truth is that much of the time our outlook on life is not that different from a non-Christian’s. We just plain forget (or don’t know what it means) that we’re baptized people.
Part of that may be due to the fact that you have no memory of the event because you were an infant at the time. Fair enough. I fall into that category. But our neglect of baptism’s blessings probably has more to do with our sinful nature than our memory. What I mean is this: baptism is an offense to all man-made religion. The biblical practice of baptism is offensive to all of mankind’s homemade, homegrown attempts to get to God. Why? Because God is the one doing the action. Part of the problem I naturally have with baptism is that I didn’t DO anything—it just happened TO me. And the sinner in me doesn’t like the sound of that at all. The sinner in me wants the credit for everything—even my eternal destiny. And that’s what so many people who live right next door to you believe—that there is no doubt that they will go to heaven when they die because why? They have been a good person. And along comes baptism, a practice founded on the Biblical teaching that human beings are dead in their sins unless God intervenes—a practice founded on the Biblical teaching that you don’t have it in you to climb up the ladder to God, so He climbs down the ladder to you—and there’s something about that truth that human pride just hates. This is one area where we ought to always let God’s Word change our mind, because it is so easy for something even like Christian faith to be about ME and how I’m doing and what I’m feeling and how hard I’m working. Returning to the Bible’s description of baptism is like pushing the reset button and starting over from the beginning. Baptism is the visible, tangible working out of this fact: the work of saving you from imprisonment in hell is God’s work alone. The work of building a bridge from earth to heaven is the work of Jesus Christ alone. The delivery system by which you receive the gifts that only he could give is baptism.
And so in today’s Gospel we are presented with a curious sight: there’s Jesus going down into the water to get baptized. It’s true that Jesus did not need baptism to be forgiven. We needed Jesus to be baptized, so that he would be “the first one in the water.” Jesus was wading into the water of our sin. He got covered with our dirt. In the Jordan River he began his work of doing things he didn’t have to do for people who couldn’t do them. Part of the baptismal bond you and I have with Jesus is this amazing exchange: Jesus gets our sin, and we get his perfection. Jesus gets our punishment, and we get the rewards that he earned. Now that does not seem “fair,” but that is the Gospel, and thank God—literally—that it’s the truth.
The baptismal connection that you have with Jesus is much like the umbilical cord that connects a mother and child in the womb. Of course, we know that a mother supplies nutrients and oxygen to her child through that cord in a continuous flow, things that keep the child alive and growing. What you may not think of is that the child sends something back through the cord as well. The baby sends back poisonous wastes, and the mother eliminates them for her child. Baptism is that connecting cord between Jesus and you. Through God’s extraordinary baptismal connection, all the waste of your sin flows continuously to Jesus and is removed forever by his shed blood—He’s absorbed all your poison into his body. In return, Jesus’ life-giving strength and perfection flow continuously to you. His life is always being renewed in you! And since you are connected with Jesus in this way, you stand next to him in the water as the Father says: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." The words apply to Jesus, and they apply to you, too. You are God’s beloved child. He is well pleased with you. You can consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Live in your Baptism!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Gift Fit for a King

The story of the wise men (or magi in the original language) is one that has intrigued me more and more in recent years. As a child, one simply accepts the story as is, which is not a bad thing, but a number of nagging questions surround this account; questions such as: who were these guys? Where were they from—besides “the East”? What was it about the star that caused them to undertake such a lengthy and expensive journey? Matthew keeps the details to a minimum, and where Scripture is silent, human speculation loves to play “fill-in-the-blank.”
For example, there’s the old Christmas and Epiphany standard, “We Three Kings of Orient Are.” Dr. Paul Maier points out in his book “The First Christmas” that in just the opening line of that song, three assumptions are made that are unverifiable and probably faulty. First is the number three, you know, as in “We Three Kings.” The three wise men…it is simply assumed by nearly everyone that three magi came to worship the newly-born King of Israel. But does Scripture support that assumption? Not necessarily. A close reading of Matthew 2 reveals that Matthew never mentions a number in connection with the wise men. The only grouping of three we are told about is the three gifts given to Jesus; and from that the assumption was made: three gifts, three givers; one gift per wise man. That is possible—but it’s also possible that there were two or twelve. Matthew never says.
Next, there’s the “Kings” of the title, which is in the right neighborhood, but is a few streets away from accuracy. Good scholarship and research tells us that magi were not kings per se; but would likely serve as top advisers to heads of state in the ancient world. Magi were both magistrates and magicians. They were part college professor; part doctor; part astrologer; part fortune teller. Today they might be called “futurists.” But whatever they were, they were not Chief Executives—more like cabinet members.
Then there’s the “Orient” of the title. That too, while not totally impossible, is unlikely, given what we know about the magi of Babylon and Persia (which correspond to modern-day Iraq and Iran, respectively). Located east of Israel, the histories of the cultures provide us with most of what we know about magi, and in the case of Babylon, there would have been direct interaction between Israelites and magi during the exiles, which may help explain why the magi were interested in the first place.
All of which is to say that the magi are mysterious figures when you really go digging for information. But there is no mystery as to why they made the journey. It was to worship the Child. It was to present their gifts to the King. About that Matthew leaves no doubt.
Even little children know the gifts that they brought: gold, frankincense and myrrh, and much has been said about the significance of those gifts. Today I just want to bring the story of the mysterious magi down to a simple level. Here’s a review of the facts we know: some non-Jewish, well-schooled individuals went through a lot of personal and political trouble to bring their gifts—and their worship—to Jesus. On a global level, this signifies that Jesus is for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or social standing. Much closer to home, we see the wise men bring Jesus their gifts and their worship…and we are given the chance to ask ourselves, “What gift do I have for Jesus? What gift can I bring the King of creation?”
After all, he is the greatest gift, born into the world to help the helpless—to save us from eternal darkness—to bathe us in the life-giving light of his forgiveness. His birth and perfect life—his suffering and death—his own resurrection and ascension into heaven to rule over everything—all is pure gift. Jesus is God’s gift to us sinners, who would be spiraling downward to destruction if He were not given to us. But given the gift of Jesus was—God, in flesh and blood, came to rescue you and me—and given the gift of Jesus is—that same flesh and blood offered in His Church through wine and bread for the forgiveness of your sins. He’s come to promise you eternal joy in heaven. There’s no other gift like this.
So as we kneel alongside the magi, I ask you again, what gift will you bring to Jesus? We can learn a lot from our children, you know. This past week I asked a group of four and five-year-olds that same question: “What gift will you bring to Jesus?” and do you know what one little girl said immediately? She said, “My heart.” I’m not sure a better or more profound answer could be given to that question. “My heart is the gift I will bring.”
What else would Jesus really want? He wants your heart—as broken or scarred or corrupt as it might be. He wants the very heart of you; wants you to turn away from yourself and turn away from sin and to turn to Him. He wants you to stop placing your trust in yourself or in the wisdom of the world, and wants you to place your trust instead in Him. He wants your heart so he can cleanse it and remake it to resemble His own. He wants you to believe His Word, and in so doing, to enjoy the unexpected gifts of forgiveness, wholeness, and new life.
Here is true wisdom, available to all. Jesus: God in flesh and blood—our rescuer. Lay your gifts before Him and worship your King.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Happy New Year

As you can see, I basically took the month off from blogging. It has given me some time to think about what I want the blog to be "about," and for the most part it will continue to be a clearing house of sorts of sermons, prayers, hymn stanzas, and the like, with perhaps a bit more in the way of devotional material and personal reflection.

If there's anything you might have an interest in seeing here at the Lake County Lutheran site, please leave me a comment and I'll see what I can do.

May your new year be blessed as you abide in Jesus Christ.