Sunday, August 29, 2010

Humility: How to Enjoy a Feast

Have you ever sat in the wrong seats at a ticketed event, like a sporting event or a play? That can be embarrassing, especially when you think, “Wow, we really got good seats,” and then an usher appears, asking to check your ticket, and then you have to move to seats that are less than ideal. That can be really awkward. A lot of times, those mistakes are unintentional, but they are still embarrassing nonetheless.
What would be worse would be going to a dinner or banquet and, even though you are not the guest of honor, or a member of the wedding party, you decide to sit at the head table. Then the host would have to come over and ask you to move. Everyone would feel uncomfortable. Someone who knows you well enough might ask you, “What were you thinking?”
Jesus describes a similar scenario in today’s Gospel lesson, and he offers what, at first, just seems like good social advice—proper etiquette, if you will. When you show up at a wedding banquet, Jesus says, take a lesser seat, and let the host decide where you belong. Makes sense. You’ll certainly avoid the embarrassing scene of being asked to move And you just might enjoy the honor of having the host say, “Move up here, to a better place.”
What I would suggest to you today is that this “where should I sit” story is more than just a lesson in manners or social interaction. If we look closely, we will see Jesus highlighting a fundamental attitude he wants us to have. That attitude is humility.
Humility is a peculiar virtue and is easily misunderstood. The author and performer Garrison Keillor has gotten a lot of mileage out of describing the extreme humility of the people of the Upper Midwest., where folks are brought up to be deeply mistrustful of any compliments, to the point that they don’t believe they have any good qualities at all! But humility is not self-hatred. At the other end of the spectrum are those who are well acquainted with the language of humility, but don’t believe a word of it. When they say, “It was nothing,” they really mean, “I was awesome, wasn’t I?” It turns out, false humility is just pride in disguise.
Now we have named the real enemy: pride. “Where should I sit at the banquet” is really a question of pride. How important do I think I am, really? What do I think I deserve? These are important questions to consider, not just when it comes to choosing a table at the next wedding you go to, but in all of life, including how you relate to God Himself.
Here’s what I mean: we are tempted to seat ourselves at God’s best table based on us; on what we do. We perceive that our kindness toward others, or our link to a church, or our belief that we are really being obedient to God means that we deserve a plum position of some sort. These attempts at self-glorifying seem appropriate, because we are constantly told that hard work will get you moving up the ladder. You deserve good things because you’re a good person. Ok, you’re not always good, but you’re not as bad as the people sitting next to you. Pride plants the idea in my heart that God owes me something. Pride says that what matters most is what I want. But Jesus is saying that if you bring a prideful attitude into His kingdom, the least that’s going to happen is that you’ll end up embarrassed. The reality is that pride is a far more serious threat to faith. Not surprising, then, that pride takes a beating in Holy Scripture.
Listen to these passages that leave no room for pride in the Christian heart: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3: 23). “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse (Galatians 3: 10). “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all out righteous deeds are like a polluted garment (Isaiah 64: 6). We cannot barge into God’s banquet and demand a seat based on our best performance. God will not allow it. So where does that leave us? Embarrassed and awkward? Maybe. Recognizing our sin can make us feel that way. But when we confess those sins and own up to them, we are voluntarily taking the lesser seat. When we finally see how helpless sin makes us, we are beginning to understand what real humility is. And when we come in repentant humility to the feast of God, you will let the host seat you wherever he wants to. That is the great news for us today: barging into his banquet won’t work; but when you come confessing your sin, when you come to the party in humility, the host will be happy to come out and get you and bring you to where you belong.
This summer my son and I had the experience of waiting in a long line for a special store to open. We got in that line about an hour before the store was to open, and even so there were quite few people in front of us. There was no way that we could’ve forced our way in. But with about forty minutes to go, a friend of ours who worked in that store came out, saw us waiting, and said, “Come with me.” We waltzed past those who had been ahead of us in line and right through the front entrance. It was a pretty great feeling. It really is about who you know.
That’s how it works in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. We can’t muscle our way in—the truth is we don’t deserve to be there at all. Jesus was made like us in every way so that he could step in for us, be punished on a cross for us, suffer hell instead of us. Jesus became one of us to defeat the devil and to break the power of death by rising to life on Easter. When we approach God’s feast in humility, the crucified and risen Savior actually comes out to get us to bring us in to where he is. He comes out with forgiveness and life, saying, “Friend, move up higher!” Move up higher—be washed in the baptismal water and joined to Jesus. Move up higher—receive forgiveness of your sins and be reconciled to others. Move up higher—hear the Word of God and let the Holy Spirit create a new heart within. Move up higher—eat and drink at the feast of the Lord, where Jesus’ body and blood are offered for pardon and peace. Let’s never forget that all of us are here in the kingdom of God, feasting at His table, for one reason alone: we have a forgiving, gracious Host. With humility and faith in Jesus, let’s live gratefully and generously. Your host will seat you now!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

God's Love Is Wide, But His Door Is Narrow

Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”
And we say, “Really? A narrow door? Isn’t it a bad thing to be narrow-minded?” Here we have more uncomfortable words from Jesus—words that put us, His disciples, at odds with conventional wisdom. For while it is true that God’s love is deep and wide, the way to that love is a narrow door. Salvation—being re-routed from hell to heaven—is the work of Jesus alone. This is the holy, Christian, apostolic message: “There is no other name for people to call on to save them.” No other name but Jesus.
If you really live by this narrow truth, you can expect some blowback, or opposition. Jesus never said discipleship was easy.
One of our members here at St. Paul’s tells the story of being invited to say a few words at a nursing home memorial service for his father. Now, his father had never made a confession of faith—it was just something that he didn’t talk about. So when it came time to talk, this Christian man made a clear witness to Jesus as the one and only way to heaven. Then he went on to say that he hoped his father went there, although he could not be sure.
If you can imagine a wheelchair-bound angry mob, that is what this man faced after the service. They rolled up to him, fingers wagging, “How can you say that? Of course your father went to heaven! He was a good man.”
And that is what passes for conventional wisdom and cultural spirituality today: as long as you’re a basically decent human being, heaven, if you care to think about it, is a shoo-in for you. But that’s not the narrow door of which Jesus speaks. In fact, our Lord ups the ante considerably when He teaches that mere knowledge of Him is not enough either! Being a “passing acquaintance” of Jesus isn’t going to do it! Listen to His words: “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, “Lord, open to us,” then he will answer you, “I do not know where you come from.” Then you will begin to say, “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.” But he will say, “I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!”
To put this in everyday language, just knowing about Jesus is not enough. Having your name in a church record book is not enough. Participating in the rituals of the church is not enough. Even calling yourself a Christian is not enough. The question is, do you trust in Jesus? Do you believe the things you say about Jesus in our creeds? Do you believe the things you say about yourself in our confession of sins? Is it your sincere conviction that you deserve nothing but punishment for your sins and sinfulness? Do you truly believe that Jesus has provided the only way out from under God’s wrath through His innocent suffering and death? Do you believe that his resurrection paved the way to heaven not for “good people” but for repentant sinners? Jesus has some alarming news to share. People who are, in fact, casual acquaintances of Jesus are going to be mighty surprised on the day of judgment, whether that’s the big one or the little one of their own death. “Hey Jesus—I knew about you!” isn’t going to work. “Jesus, I believe in you—Jesus, I depend on you completely—you are my life…” That is the relationship He is looking for from us. “Jesus is someone that I know because I’ve met Him in His Word, I trust in what He’s done for me, and I thankfully live life His way!” People who have that attitude are being drawn through the narrow door by the undeserved, unending love of Jesus, the Son of God.
However, there are still those who object to this singular focus on Jesus. And, truth be told, in our private thoughts we may harbor an occasional doubt or two. The idea of all religions being equal in value and validity can be persuasive, especially when we have connections to people who practice those religions. But consider this scenario:
Just imagine that a new, mutant virus begins to spread around the world, creating a panic that makes last year’s swine flu scare look like a birthday party. People are dying by the thousands. There is talk about the 21st century Black Plague. The virus is introduced to the United States through air travel, and the plague begins to spread rapidly inward from both coasts, cutting a wide swath of death across our country. Then, in an amazing turn of events, a cure is discovered. Pharmaceutical factories work around the clock, cranking out pills that, once swallowed, can reverse the effects of the disease, and restore life to the individual. In every case where they had been tested, they proved to be effective, with no adverse side effects. The pills also worked as a vaccine, ensuring that the virus would never be able to kill the person who had taken them. Best of all, the pills were free and readily available to all who wanted one.
How likely is it that someone would say, “I don’t think the plague is a problem?” Or “I won’t get sick. I’ve never been sick before, and I won’t catch this either.” Or “I don’t think it’s right that the cure is only in pill form—I want mine as a shot!” Or “I don’t believe that this pill will help. I’ll go chew on some plants instead, that ought to work.” Human nature being what it is, I have to grant that some folks might actually answer that way. But by and large, I believe most people would gladly take the pill that would save their lives.
There is one cure for the plague of sin, and His name is Jesus. He has negated sin’s heavy price at the cross of Calvary. He has reversed the effects of death with His resurrection. He offers protection and peace to the person who takes Him as Savior and Life-giver. He invites you to help yourself to His gifts at no cost and to live in connection with Him. Turn away from sin. Turn away from self. Run to the open arms of Jesus. A celebration that lasts into eternity is waiting for you through His narrow door

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bible Study: the Gospel of John

Signs and Teaching

John calls the miracle at the Cana wedding “the first of [Jesus’] signs.”

Signs: Greek semeia; revelations of God’s mind and work. Not only are these miracles but they are actions demonstrating that Jesus is the Messiah.

John refers to “signs” seventeen times in his Gospel. What effect did these signs have on people? (See John 2: 11, 23—25; 12: 37—38; 20: 30—31)

After the “Cleansing of the Temple,” Jesus is asked to produce a sign that will give evidence to his authority. What “sign” does he give the Jews? (2: 19) What does John “give away” in verse 22? Why do you think he does this?

For that matter, why do you think John places the “Temple Incident” towards the beginning of his book, when the other Synoptic Gospels put it towards the end? (John 1: 11 might be helpful in answering this question.)

Why is Nicodemus willing to call Jesus “a teacher come from God”? (3:2) What stereotype does Nicodemus instantly explode? (3:1)

According to Jesus, how does one “see and enter” the kingdom of God? (3:5)

The original language adds clarity and a greater sense of wonder to Jesus’ saying about himself as the “Son of Man” in 3: 13. Rendered literally, it says, “And no one has gone up into the heaven except he who out of the heaven came down, the Son of Man who is in the heaven.” (Remember the full meaning of “Son of Man” from Daniel 7: 13.) What does Jesus say must happen to the Son of Man? (3: 13; Numbers 21: 9)

John 3: 16: Loved: Greek agapao; sacrificial, unconditional, selfless love

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bible Study: the Gospel of John

The Baptizer’s Message and the Calling of the Disciples

The Pharisees sent priests and Levites to ask John, “Who are you?”

Why would they ask, “Are you Elijah?” (2 Kings 2: 11; Malachi 4:5; Matthew 17: 12)

Who are they talking about when they ask, “Are you the Prophet?” (Deuteronomy 18: 15—18)

What identity does the Baptizer claim? (Isaiah 40: 3—5)

To what is John referring when he calls Jesus “the Lamb of God?” (Exodus 12)

What experience is John recounting in John 1: 32—34? (Matthew 3: 13—17)

It appears that Andrew was a “disciple” of John the Baptist before he was a disciple of Jesus. Who may have been the other of the “two” mentioned in v. 35? (The film assumes this is the identity of the “other” disciple.)

What do you think of Philip’s “evangelism technique?” (v. 46)

In the span of two verses, Jesus is identified as both “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” This reference Jesus makes ties together two Old Testament events—what are they? What is Jesus saying here? (Genesis 28: 12; Daniel 7: 13)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Worried Sick

Jesus says to you, “Do not be anxious. Don’t worry.” What do you say to Him?
Do you say, “Well, Lord, it’s not that simple. You don’t know what I’ve been going through. There are so many terrible things going on in the world. I just can’t help it.”
Jesus says to you, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on.” What do you say to that? Do you say, “Yeah, Lord, that sounds very spiritual and everything, but I’ve got to put food on the table and clothes on my family’s back somehow!” Or do you say, “How can I not be anxious about life when I just received this diagnosis or when my loved one is in declining health, or they live far away, where I can’t help them?”
When Jesus starts telling his disciples “Do not worry,” we start to tune Him out. For so many of us, the idea of being free from anxiety is a beautiful thought, but so far from reality that we don’t even take it seriously. That’s a shame, because our Lord Jesus clearly intends for us, His disciples, to do something other than worry ourselves sick.
What does He intend for us? He lays it all out in today’s Gospel lesson. First of all, Jesus calls us to consciously reject worldly priorities. He does this first with the story of the Rich Fool. The meaning of the story is easy to understand: God calls this man a fool because he spent his whole life trying to accumulate more stuff; then dies, effectively losing all the stuff he had dedicated his life to gaining. Now sitting in church we may piously give our agreement to this story, but in our everyday lives, do our actions match our agreement? Have we consciously rejected “getting more stuff” as something that matters to us, or are we still on the treadmill of going after more, bigger, and better? In addition to being a meaningless goal, it brings with it many worries, to the point that we stop possessing our possessions and they start possessing us. Worry is neutralized when you consciously reject the lie that “getting more stuff” is going to make you happy. That takes some doing, especially when so much advertising is based on creating a desire in you for something you don’t have. That’s why Jesus doesn’t just say, “reject this mindset,” but continues by saying “replace it with something better.”
But before we get to that “something better,” Jesus pauses and asks us, His disciples, to reflect on His Father and our Father. Jesus asks us to think about the birds that fly around our backyards and the flowers beautify the landscape. God tends to them both. Neither birds nor flowers worry about their existence, yet God provides for them. And if that is the case, Jesus says, don’t you think that God is going to tend to you, as well? You are much more valuable to God than a bird, Jesus says, and that’s not a put-down to birds. It’s just that God values you more; so much so that His Son was raised up on a cross to take your punishment. He didn’t do that for the birds or the flowers; he did that for us, for you and for me, so we could be forgiven; so that we would trust Him with our eternal well-being, along with everything else.
That is the choice Jesus holds before you today. You can worry, or you can trust God. You can torture yourself with a thousand “what ifs,” or you can place your problem in the hands of the God who formed this world and still tends to it. You can worry yourself sick, or you can enjoy a healthy trust in your Father to do what is best for you. You are invited today to just trust that God knows what is best for you, and is working through every little detail of your life, to provide for you and put you on the path that will bring the most blessing to you. That doesn’t mean the most stuff; but that does mean freedom from the agony of anxiety. Just trust that your Heavenly Father knows what to do and will never leave you. Let go of the illusion that your worry is going to change anything. It’s not. Just trust that God has it handled and that He loves you and that His answers are the best answers. They are. The sacrifice of His Son on the cross is proof of how far He would go to care for you.
And when you just trust in the Lord, you are ready to replace old ways of thinking with something much better. Listen to Jesus describe that “better way”: “Do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after such things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you.”
Seeking the kingdom of God, Jesus says, is the better way to live. But what does that seeking mean, exactly? Well, at this point, it would be tempting to refer to what our sister in Christ Rachel is doing, by going to Taiwan to share the light of Jesus there. And that is wonderful work, make no mistake. It is a privilege to be a part of that and to be involved in sending her today. But what I am afraid of is giving you the impression that its only people like Rachel who are seeking the kingdom of God by going to far-off locations, or for that matter, that it is only professional church workers who are out there seeking the kingdom, and that’s simply not the case! He wants you to seek His kingdom, and you can do that without ever leaving this community! Seeking the kingdom means living in a way that shows God’s reality in your life. It means knowing what He says in His Word. It means valuing what He does for you in the divine service. It means adopting God’s priorities as the priorities that you will live by. It means giving freely from what you have and who you are in response to Jesus’ kindness. Seeking God’s kingdom means that you are sold on Jesus Christ and want to bring his compassion and mercy and truth into your corner of the world. Jesus promises that when going after His kingdom is your first priority, you will lack nothing. You’ll have nothing to worry about.

Why not try it, and see?