Monday, June 27, 2005

Five Cardinal Rules

[This is an excerpt from an email I received concerning the changing characteristics of communication in our modern 'media' age. I'm interested to hear what you readers think of these 'Five Cardinal Rules', agree or disagree. I think there is some truth to some of them, but not others :) ]

Contemporary scholarship suggests at least five cardinal rules for preachers
in the media age. Some are new, but most are tried and true.

1. Whether in text, audio, or video, those who fill our pews have become
accustomed to messages that are brief, to the point, fast-paced, and
powerful. The 20-minute, three-point sermon is long out of date in such an
environment. We may bemoan the fact that brevity does not allow for
theological depth. Nevertheless, to avoid the click of the changing mental
channel, we must come to the point quickly.

2. The media environment is one that is based on the telling of stories.
Writing and print can be used referentially, to record data and to work out
detailed logic. Oral and electronic means of communication are more emotive.
Therefore, a body of thought known as narrative theory suggests that the
preacher attempting to reach a media-soaked congregation will do better with
stories than with subtleties of doctrine or exegesis. Jesus¹ parables
endured, often when the context of where and when he originally told them
had been lost. The gospel itself has come to us primarily in the form of
story. Preachers, to be effective, must use narrative to the fullest. Tell
stories, jokes, parables, and tales.

3. Today¹s dominant media make use of visual as well as aural or textual
channels to communicate. Preachers, too, must be visual. Just because a
congregation can¹t afford a fancy video projection system is no reason not
to use visual means to get meaning across. An object used for a children¹s
sermon can be carried over to become a visual aid for the homily. Pictures,
charts, or even the good old-fashioned chalk board can be employed. The use
of visuals, such as stained glass windows and symbols sewn into paraments,
has a long history in the church. Just make sure that the visual is large
enough to be seen from the back pew. Painting pictures with words can be the
next best thing. Use visual imagery in illustrations, in setting the scene
for narratives, and in describing biblical settings.

4. If one has video projection technology available, commonsense
communication practice demands that the visuals enhance the sermon and
neither compete with the spoken word nor replace it. If a visual is too
³busy,² with excessive movement, highly textured background, poor color
contrast, or just too much text on the screen at once, attention will be
turned away from the preacher and diverted to deciphering the image. Keep
PowerPoint® slides simple. Use a large font and a few words for emphasis,
not an entire text. Avoid the temptation to utilize elaborate animations or
to cram a few more lines onto the screen. Use the visual only when speaking
about it, then switch to a blank slide or one suited to the following point.

5. Finally and most essentially, oral presentation must be truly oral.
Written language and spoken language are different. Media professionals are
paid a great deal of money to write and read scripts in a way that doesn¹t
sound like reading. The skill is difficult. Most people can¹t read from a
manuscript and still sound natural and conversational. However, an
extemporaneous sermon < carefully planned, prepared, and practiced < can be
delivered in a conversational style. In extemporaneous delivery (not to be
confused with impromptu or unprepared delivery) the focus is on using a few
notes to order key ideas while using everyday vocabulary and maintaining
near constant eye contact with the congregation. In this mode, the voice
naturally becomes more expressive, and attention is maintained.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sermon on Matthew 10:34-42

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text is Matthew 10:34-39,

34 "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn "`a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law-- 36 a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' 37 "Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Jesus says that anyone who loves their family more than Him, whether it be father, mother, son or daughter, is not worthy of Him. He also says that anyone who does not take up their cross and follow Him is not worthy of Him. Which raises the question of “Who is worthy of Jesus?” Are we worthy of Jesus? We might take a hint from John the Baptist in answering this question. He publicly professed that he was not even worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals! And Jesus had said of John the Baptist, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” So when the question is asked this way, “Who is worthy of Jesus?”, we know the answer: not us. But in the very next thing Jesus said after calling John the Baptist the greatest among men was, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” So John’s great status on earth did not equal great status in heaven. Which leads me to ask the question a different way: “Can one become worthy of Jesus?” After all, St. Paul speaks of us walking “worthy of the calling” (Eph. 4:1), having a manner of life “worthy of the Gospel” (Phil. 1:27), and to walk in a manner “worthy of the Lord” (Col. 1:10). So if we, like John the Baptist, weren’t worthy of Jesus—can we become worthy? And how?

Jesus’ answer was “whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” So we must take up our cross and follow Jesus. But how does that make us worthy of Jesus? Is it that Jesus needs us to add some of our own suffering to what He already suffered, in order to prove our worth to Him? No. The answer lies in the words, “and follow me.” This was Jesus’ way of saying, “Believe in me; Trust in me; Walk after me as I lead you.” And where was Jesus going? What was He teaching that He wanted us to believe? He calls us to believe that He is the true Son of God, sent by the Father from heaven, and that He is going to the cross to suffer the ultimate price for our sins. In other words, to follow Jesus is not only to know that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but also to trust and believe that this is in fact for me! To stake everything on the fact that He is our Savior and we will follow Him. We became worthy of Jesus, not by our self-worth or by our own sufferings, but by Jesus’ worth and His sufferings! His great worth as the innocent Son of God and His precious blood and innocent sufferings and death bought us and gave us worth. We are worthy of eternal life because we have been given His worthiness as a gift, by faith in Jesus.

But then comes the nagging question, “What about that take up your cross part? What is our cross?” After all, isn’t the message of much of popular Christianity that if you just believe in Jesus, that everything in life is going to be wonderful and positive for you? Don’t we hear televangelists say that if you just have enough faith then God will bless you with wealth, success, and great health? (This makes me wonder about the poor, the failures, and the sickly—who Jesus just so happened to spend most of His ministry with). Perhaps some of you have heard of a new book by the Houston-based TV preacher Joel Osteen, called “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential.” It sounds wonderfully optimistic and promising doesn’t it? And isn’t that what Christianity is all about: ‘Our Best Life Now?’ Does Jesus promise glory, health, wealth, and success here and now if we just have enough faith and follow the right steps? Well, lets listen again to what Jesus actually said in today’s text, and consider that. “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Boy, what a contrast! According to Jesus, our Christian life is not going to be free from trouble, but that we should in fact expect suffering! Not peace but a sword. This is what Jesus means when He says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” He means that their will be sufferings, persecutions, trials, and difficulties that arise as a result of believing in Him. He means that it should come as no surprise that believing in Jesus can cause your very own family members to turn against you. “A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household,” Jesus says. The world hates us because it first hated Jesus. And the world hates the offense of the cross, which proclaims Christ’s death and resurrection as the solution for mankind’s lost state. So the real preaching of the Gospel presents a stumbling block and division to the world, and even as close as within our families.

And that is perhaps where it hurts the most. Many of you know firsthand just what this means—you have seen the division within your own family over faith in Christ. Perhaps the relationship where this division is most sharply felt is that between a husband and a wife. For some of you who are married to an unbelieving spouse, you know that cross of suffering that you bear because of their unbelief. The burden may come differently for each person. For one person, they may suffer the constant ridicule of their spouse whenever it comes to matters of faith. “Do you really believe that nonsense? That Jesus-stuff is for the weak-minded.” Yet the believing spouse bears this ridicule for the sake of Christ, and patiently endures this cross, silently praying for God to break their heart of stone and bring them to faith. For the believer knows that we must love Jesus even more than our family or friends, and that to surrender our faith for the sake of peace on earth or in the family is to judge ourselves unworthy of eternal life. For the believer knows that a few years of earthly peace is absolutely nothing in comparison with the eternity of peace and rest that awaits us in heaven.

But we remain with the painful divisions in family. Some have become Christians while their parents or children remained unbelievers, and have experienced rejection or being disowned from the family as a result. There’s no way around it. Jesus promised this kind of suffering would accompany the Christian life. And this is the kind of suffering that we will endure—suffering that God places upon us. This is suffering that comes as a result of the message of the Gospel—not suffering that we choose for ourselves or inflict on ourselves. When Jesus said to take up our cross and follow Him, He wasn’t asking for self-torture and mutiliation. It’s said that some men in Mexico and the Philipines will actually have themselves crucified, and suffer until they’ve lapsed into a coma before they are taken down. That is not what Jesus is asking for. Nor is it pleasing to God when we create our own sufferings, as if our cross could be self-chosen. No, the sufferings of the Christian are God-chosen, and they come as a result of faith in Christ.

Martin Luther describes this kind of suffering well in his explanation of the Lord’s Prayer, saying “For where God’s Word is preached, accepted, or believed, and bears fruit, there the blessed holy cross will not be far away. Let nobody think that he will have peace; he must sacrifice all he has on earth—possessions, honor, house and home, wife and children, body and life. Now this grieves our flesh and the Old Adam, for it means that we must remain steadfast, suffer patiently whatever befalls us, and let go whatever is taken from us.” This describes Jesus’ words quite well. We must sacrifice everything, even possessions, home, family, and life and count it all as nothing before God. And this greatly grieves our flesh and our Old Adam, that we might lose these things. We must let go of whatever is taken from us.
But what the Old Adam can’t realize and know, is that in giving everything here on earth up for loss, and clinging to Christ alone as our true and only possession, we have in fact gained everything. For Christ is all in all, and as He says in today’s lesson, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Because to find our life here on earth, among possessions or family and friends, instead of in Christ, is ultimately to lose it all. For it’s of no profit to gain the whole world while losing our soul. Instead, Jesus tells us that whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For when we count everything in this life as nothing—losing our life for Jesus’ sake—then we will truly find our life in Christ. Because in Christ Jesus, there is a far better life in store for us. And we’re not talking about your “Best Life Now,” as the book I mentioned earlier put it. No, not even the best material pleasures this sin-sick, dying world has to offer would be worth calling “Our Best Life.” You won’t find your best life here. Instead, beyond the temporary suffering Jesus calls us to endure in this life, there awaits in heaven “Your Best Life Forever!” Because when God’s final judgment comes at Jesus’ return, He will fashion a new heavens and earth that far surpasses the glory of this world, and He will bring us at last to eternal rest with Him. Joys await us that know no ending. And for this, we know its nothing to give up what we have here on earth, and count it as nothing.

So while we are still in this world, left with suffering in the here and now, is it our burden to carry alone, as if Jesus had left us or forsaken us? By no means! Christ promised never to leave us or forsake us, and He has given us the means to bear up under such sufferings. For by faith we are in the body of Christ, who Himself bore the sufferings and wrath of the cross on our behalf, so that we wouldn’t have to. Our sins are forgiven so we can follow after Him and be counted worthy for His sake. Through His Word He strengthens us on the journey home, with constant promises of His forgiveness and all-abiding love. Through our Baptism He crucifies our old sinful flesh that resists God’s grace and promises. Through the Lord’s Supper He gives His very body and blood for our forgiveness while uniting us with fellow believers in His body. And as fellow believers in one body, we strengthen each other and bear one another’s burdens as we walk through this life toward our heavenly home. A heavenly home where we will find out just how true it always was that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will find it. For in Christ, we have found everything. Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Hodgepodge of Book Tags

Ok, Since Theomony and Wildboar book-tagged me, I'm going to make a hodgepodge of answers from the categories I've seen on other folks' sites that have done this ;) I'm also going to ignore categories I can't fit :P

Here's the spiel from Wildboar: (followed by the numbered questions from Theomony)
Imagine that a local philanthropist is hosting an event for local high school students and has asked you to pick out five to ten books to hand out as door prizes. At least one book should be funny and at least one book should provide some history of Western Civilization and at least one book should have some regional connection. The philanthropist doesn't like foul language (but will allow some four-letter words in context, such as expressed during battle by soldiers). Otherwise things are pretty wide open. What do you pick?

Alrighty then! To the chase!

First to the spiel categories:
Funny: "Grendel" by John Gardner was an off-beat, funny retake on the classic Beowulf epic, told from the perspective of the dysfunctional monster Grendel. I've lost my copy of the book, and apparently so has the local library! Must be popular!

Western Civilization: This is a toss-up "All Quiet on the Western Front" about WWI I think, was very good, but also depressing. And "The Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara was an excellent historical fiction account of the battle at Gettysburg in the Civil War.

Regional: ?? I can't think of much that would qualify as 'regional' literature, and I can't think of the title or author of the book, but I read a really interesting book about Old Detroit that a lady I know pulled out of a heap of books a library was going to throw away. It was published probably in the 40s or something, and so it was long before the current decay had struck the city where I was born. Apparently, during it's boom, Detroit was considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world, taking part in the "City Beautiful" movement. Sadly, one would never guess this now. But anyhow, the book was fascinating for me, a Detroit local, to learn about the peak of Detroit's liveliness in culture, architecture, sports, industry (esp. automotive), etc.

On to Theomony's questions!

1. How many books do you own?
Good question. Never have attempted to count. I have kept almost all my biology and chemistry textbooks from college (at my parent's home), plus a lot of books I accumulated or inherited as a kid, and those fill up a 7' x ~3' bookshelf, so what's that? A couple hundred? (I have no clue :). Then I have all my theology books that I've gotten at seminary, which are probably two to three times that, so as you can see, this is very sketchy estimating :) All told, I'd guess I have close to a thousand, although that seems like such an easy number to overestimate.

2. What was the last book you bought?
This is a tricky question since I just bought about 6 books to donate to my vicarage church's library, and those aren't for me. But the most recent book(s) I've purchase for myself are 1) The Concordia Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord, which I've not received just yet, and 2) One Nation Under Gods, a History of the Mormon Church by Richard Abanes.

3. What was the last book you read (are reading)? I read a few chapters/essays in "The Social World of Luke-Acts" ed. by Jerome Neyrey, which had some interesting insights, but wasn't as useful as I'd expected/hoped. I'm currently reading "Preaching Christ from the Old Testament: a contemporary Hermeneutical Method" by Sidney Greidanus (a Calvinist!), which I started in a homoletics class at sem. Its very good so far, though I'm re-reading what I'd already covered. I do think in his reaction against certain types/methods of preaching Christ in the OT, he unnecessarily eliminates certain valid methods because he fears abuse, but he offers much in the way of positive insights as well as cautions. I'd like to be reading something fiction right now too, but haven't found something I'm interested in yet.

4. What are some books that meant a lot to you?
Ok, like Floyd here, I have to say first and foremost the Bible and the Book of Concord are the main books that have truly influenced and affected my life, thanks be to Jesus Christ my Lord!
Beyond those obvious ones, here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:
1) "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defoe--I often dreamed as a child about an adventure on a deserted island like Crusoe's, and sometimes still do!

2) "Why I am a Lutheran, Jesus at the Center" by Daniel Preus
3) "Spirituality of the Cross" by Gene Veith
4) "The Defense Never Rests" by Craig Parton --all three of these are excellent primers in Lutheranism, each from a different angle.

5) "Darwin's God: Evolution and the Problem of Evil" by Cornelius Hunter--an excellent philosophical and scientific examination of evolution! Shows brilliantly how much of evolutionary arguments against design are predicated on a 'negative theology.'

6)"Law, Life, and the Living God:The Third Use of Law in Modern American Lutheranism" by Scott R. Murray--excellent examination of the 3rd use! caused me to reexamine some of my own thinking.

7)"Romance of the Three Kingdoms" by Luo Guanzhong--don't think sleazy American romance novels! This is a beautiful epic of Chinese history during the dissolution of the Han Dynasty ~200 AD, and is a true classic. Lots of heroism, war, political intrigue, and great dialogue!

8) "Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man" by J. Budziszewski--fascinating bio/apologetic of a former nihilist who came to Christianity, speaking about the woeful effects of suppressing conscience.

9) "In the Beginning Was Information" by Werner Gitt--shows how Information Theory utterly contradicts the theory of evolution, particularly the essential step of organizing information out of chaos to create the first cellular life.

10) "Perelandra" by C.S. Lewis--I was completely intrigued by Lewis' re-imaging of the Fall and the excellent dialogue in this book. I also want to note here that I love almost all I've read by C.S. Lewis, including Narnia; and also Tolkien's LOTR and Silmarillion. Both excellent authors!

11) "Evolution: Theory in Crisis" by Michael Denton
12) "Darwin's Black Box" By Michael Behe--both interesting rebuttals of evolution, Denton is an atheist molecular biologist, and Behe is a Roman Catholic biochemist (i think that's right)

13)"My Side of the Mountain" --another kid's book, but a great adventure story about a boy who runs away from home to live in the Catskills. My childhood dream!

that's all I can think of for now, but I know there's more ;)

5. Tag! I tag the four gentlemen from Evangelical Lutheran, Floyd, Burt, Hess, and Winter. Have fun!

P.S. Thanks to Wildboar and Monergon for tagging me!
P.S.S. Though I didn't provide links for the books, I have reviews of several of the above on I enjoy reviewing books, and currently have ~75 reviews on Amazon.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

What is sin and what is Not?

As I was browsing the Book of Concord on repentance, I came across this excellent paragraph that addressed a question I'd been thinking on recently. I often wonder in certain circumstances what is sin, and what is not, especially, for example, in regard to the 8th Commandment. So here popped out this quote and set me straight about that ;)

"And in Acts 17:30: 'Now God commands all people everywhere to repent.' He says, 'all people'--no single human being is excluded....This repentance is not fragmentary or paltry--like the kind that does penance for actual sins--nor is it uncertain like that kind. It does not debate over what is a sin or what is not a sin. Instead, it simply lumps everything together and says, "Everything is pure sin with us. What would we want to spend so much time investigating, dissecting, or distinguishing?' Therefore, here as well contrition is not uncertain, because there remains nothing that we might consider a 'good' with which to pay for sin. Rather, there is plain, certain despair concerning all that we are, think, say, or do, etc."

I know I've read that a couple of times before, but how easy to forget!? Truly repentance shouldn't be trying to sort out what is sin and what is not, which is a waste of time! Our repentance should be whole and entire, confessing EVERYTHING, not trying to hold out on some idea that this or that 'may not have been sinful.' Plain and simple, we realize that our whole life is sin, and that sins aren't just little disconnected actions, but in fact flow out of our very nature, as everything is pure sin with us. As Paul says in Romans 14:23b (ESV), "For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin." So much easier to confess all we are, think, say, or do is sin than to agonize over trying to separate sin from 'non-sin' in our lives--as if we could even do a pure and wholesome act with no sin. For God is faithful and just to forgive our sins! Thanks be to God!

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Refresh and Expand your Knowledge of the Christian Faith!

~~~This article will appear in my church newsletter next week, and I thought I'd ask for any last-minute corrections, additions, improvements from any of you bloggers. I'm hoping to generate an interest in the Book of Concord among the members, many who might not even know what it is. I'm including (on my blog only) a link to and old post I wrote about the analogy (not my own) of the Confessions being like a map to the Bible. Your thoughts are appreciated! ~~~

Titus 2:1, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.” As Christians we have both the joy and the responsibility of teaching sound doctrine. The pastors and teachers of the church are given this responsibility in a public office, and parents are to do the same in the home among their family. Learning the doctrine (teachings) of Scripture is a joy for Christians because all of doctrine is centered around Jesus Christ and the working of God’s salvation for us through Him. As we study the Scripture and the teachings therein, we grow in our faith and knowledge and are strengthened for our daily living. And the teaching of sound or wholesome doctrine, and the avoidance of what is false, is also a great part of our responsibility, as St. Paul wrote to Titus.

But as happens all too often, we as Christians sometimes find ourselves struggling to understand the big picture of Scripture, and how all the different parts of the Bible fit together. Sometimes this may even make us reluctant to tell the message of the Gospel to others, be they friends, neighbors, family, or co-workers, because we are afraid that we might embarrass ourselves. Maybe we don’t feel confident enough in how well we understand the Bible; maybe we fear that we will say something wrong; maybe we’re afraid that we won’t be able to answer a person’s questions. For all of these reasons and more, its important that we as Christians study and grow in our faith. To do so, we must begin with diligent reading and study of the Bible, and regular hearing of the teaching and preaching of God’s Word. Furthermore, we can and should take advantage of other resources and books to aid us in refreshing and expanding our knowledge of the Christian faith.

It is for that reason that I want to take advantage of this month’s newsletter to inform everyone of a special offer from Concordia Publishing House. One of the most excellent resources we as Lutherans have for studying the Christian faith is now being made available in a specially designed new format for laity (that’s you!), and that book is the Book of Concord. Concordia Publishing House is releasing this month, a new edition of the Book of Concord, titled Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions-A Reader's Edition of the Book of Concord. Some of you, no doubt, may ask: “What is the Book of Concord? And how can it help me grow in my Christian faith?” Well, the Book of Concord is the collection of the Confessions of the Lutheran Church at the time of the Reformation. The Confessions are the public statements of what our church believes concerning our Christian faith. They provide a “collective confession of what the Scriptures are saying, what they mean, how they are to be used, how the various truths in the Scriptures fit together and support one another. The Confessions are a road map, a traveler’s guide, a rule of faith for understanding the Holy Scriptures” (quote taken from Rev. Paul McCain, CPH interim CEO).

And what makes this new edition of the Book of Concord so unique is that it is specially designed with the layperson in mind, to make it accessible and reader-friendly. It includes thorough Scripture-referencing, glossaries of names, places, and terms, Biblical and Reformation artwork, a one-year reading schedule, and many other features that make it easy to use and understand. The Book of Concord functions like a 'road map’ to the Bible, topically arranging the teachings of Scripture and explaining that ‘sound doctrine’ that St. Paul urged Titus to teach. I want to emphasize how much you as a lay-person can benefit in the growing and enriching of your faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ through the study of the Book of Concord alongside your regular study of the Bible. Not only will it help you to better understand your Christian faith, but it will give you comfort in the knowledge of God’s salvation for us in Christ Jesus, and it may even embolden you to share your faith as you get a better grasp of what we believe. I think this new reader’s edition of the Book of Concord will make an excellent addition to every Christian’s home library, and you can check CPH’s special offer out for yourself at . They are offering it this first year of publication for the special price of $20, which is a very reasonable price for such a valuable resource. CPH will also be sending a copy to each LCMS church this month, and so you may get a chance to look it over before you buy. I hope that everyone takes advantage of this great opportunity to refresh and to grow in their Christian faith and Lutheran heritage.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Sermon on Romans 5:6-11

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text is Romans 5:6-11,

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

There’s a lot of talk today about knowing where you’re from; remembering your roots. Some celebrities who have had a rise to fame, either as a singer, musician, actor, sports star, or wealthy businessman, are often heard to say that they always try to remember their humble roots. Of course there are just as many or more celebrities who do just the opposite: in their rise to fame, they try to forget their past and their pride in their achievements leads them to look down upon the less prestigious.

There is a similar temptation for us as Christians, to forget where we came from. To forget our roots—what our status was before Christ saved us. It’s especially easy if we live an outwardly moral life, and if things are going well for us, to develop a kind of forgetfulness of how great our sin was and is in God’s eyes. This forgetfulness can turn into a sort of self-righteousness as well; that doesn’t want to see oneself as a poor, miserable sinner. When we lose that awareness of our depravity before God, and don’t see our own sin, then forgiveness seems less important. An example of this kind of thinking is the statement from the playwright George Bernard Shaw: “Forgiveness is a beggar’s refuge; a man must pay his debts.” Sadly, he underestimated the weight of sin, so that he thought he could actually pay the cost. On the other hand, the first part of his statement rings true: we are all beggars before God, and forgiveness is indeed our refuge. And there is no shame in that. And furthermore, there is a man who did pay our debt—Christ Jesus! So beware of the danger of minimizing sin; thinking that we can pay the cost, or that maybe forgiveness is just there for our occasional 'slip-ups' or mistakes, but that most of the time it's not really what we need. When self-righteousness leads us to think this way, then we no longer comprehend God’s grace. Grace becomes just that little bit of whiteout to cover some minor blemishes. Do you see how our sinful mind can work?

This passage from Romans gives us a sharp correction from our forgetfulness. Paul reminds us again where we came from; what our status was before God saved us. We were powerless, ungodly, sinners, and enemies of God! Not a pleasant description! From our sinful nature poured out a disobedience to God, a rebellion against His Law. We stood powerless to help ourselves; powerless to turn our lives around. We were dead in our transgressions and sins—utterly powerless. That was our spiritual condition; yes we were ungodly sinners. And because this sin was something that dwelled within us, it didn’t matter if we were pretty good on the outside, in the world’s eyes. The opinions of the world don’t matter in God’s eyes. The praise of other people wouldn’t count for anything if God were to expose all your innermost thoughts and sins for His righteous judgment. Ungodly because we didn’t seek after God; powerless because even had we wanted to, we’d have been unable to seek Him on our own.

And enemies! Sometimes this comes as a tough pill to swallow because as humans we judge by external appearances, rather than by the heart, as God does. But we were actually God’s enemies before we were saved! As if we were fighting a losing war against God. And that is what sin always was, is, and will be: a futile resistance against the Holiness of God. Satan is like the foolish, prideful general who fights in a battle he can never win. Fighting a power far, far greater than him; with a wicked desperation and pride that can never give in, but only continue fighting the losing battle to the end. And like tiny pawns who signed on as enemies of God, we found ourselves hopelessly destined for the wrath to come. We were separated from God, at enmity with Him, and deserved death for our rebellion. But here’s where our story changed!

God had seen our wretched state and as a dear Father weeps over a child who has gone astray, He was moved by His great mercy to plan salvation for us. And then, as our text says, “at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” In God’s divine timing, He sent His Son Jesus to earth to die for the powerless, the ungodly, the sinners—God’s enemies! Perhaps we sometimes lose the utter surprise of this truth! Paul reminds us that it’s very rare for anyone to die for even a righteous person, though it does sometimes happen. Somebody dying for another person is a rather exceptional circumstance. And so we rightly honor those who have done so, with great bravery. We think of the fireman, policeman, and rescue workers who died saving the lives of people they didn’t even know on 9-11. We think of the soldiers who cast themselves in harms way to rescue a fellow soldier who was wounded, or to protect their troops from an attack. Many of these heroes may have sacrificed their lives out of a sense of duty; others may not have even had the chance to think about it, but just acted on instinct, or the instantaneous reaction to danger that moved them to protect a friend. These heroes and others certainly deserve our earthly recognition.

But what if circumstances allowed for plenty of thought and deliberation beforehand, instead of being thrown into the situation? What if it had to be a conscious, willing choice to step in and die for that person? It would be very rare for a person to give up his or her own life under these circumstances, but a person might—if it was for a good person. Given time to think, we might start to waver and weigh the significance of the decision. “Is this person really worth dying for?” What if the person were already as good as dead? What if they were a drug addict or a prostitute? What if they were your sworn enemy? What if they had brought this upon themselves? Now you can begin to see how miraculous Jesus’ self-sacrifice for sinners really was! He knew full well what He was getting into. He knew His death wouldn’t be short and painless, but quite the opposite. He knew that despite His great compassion and love for those He would die for, many would scorn and hate Him for it. He knew that we were already dead—in our transgressions and sins. And Jesus did die for the drug addicts, the prostitutes, and yes, even for the self-righteous. And as much as our sinful nature wants to deny it, Jesus died for God’s enemies, and before we were saved, that was us. We were God’s enemies, because of our sin. But despite it all, He died for us! He became our substitute, to rescue us from all the misery and guilt of sin—and its punishment, God’s wrath. This is why Paul calls attention to our sin, and that we were enemies of God before Christ saved us—because when we remember where we came from, what our ‘so-called’ roots are—it helps us to realize how great the compassion and mercy of God is, and to have an attitude of humility and repentance.

Christ’s death for God’s enemies was God’s demonstration of His love for us! This was how He showed us what True Love is—the Godly kind of love that knows no equal here on earth. The steadfast love and faithfulness that can willingly bear the hatred and scorn of enemies, and still look at them with true eyes and say, “I love you so much, that I’m going to die for you. For the mess of sin and death that you are in. I want to take that from you, so you can live again! To be back with me, the way things were meant to be.” The Father showed this love through Jesus Christ, who did just that, dying for His enemies, to reconcile us to God through His death.

Just like that! Jesus wasn’t searching for anything good in us, as if He had to weigh the decision of whether or not we were ‘worth it’ before He’d be willing to die for us. No, He knew we had nothing good to offer before God, and that we were even enemies of God, but He declared us innocent of any wrongdoing by His blood! Unlike the example I gave earlier about celebrities, we didn’t get where we are by hard work and determination—we are saved completely by grace, not a work of our own. He counted all our wrongdoing to Him, and all His innocence, He counted to us! And that’s what it means to be justified! Declared innocent; righteous before God. And Paul says, “Since we have now been justified by His blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through Him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to Him through the death of His Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through His life!” How much more shall we be saved! We had been engaged in a futile war against God’s Holiness by our sin, and Jesus captured us from enemy lines and forgave our crimes against God! He saved us from the certain punishment of God’s wrath that we deserved, by taking it on Himself. Saved for something better.

We were saved to become a new creation in Christ Jesus. Saved from the powerless, ungodly, sinful life we lived when we were still God’s enemies, to be saints in God’s Kingdom. Saved so that we might renounce ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12). And in Christ Jesus, we now have a new life that is marked by the working of the Holy Spirit, that is powerful in our weakness. A life not yet free of all sin, but one characterized by the love of Christ motivating us to do good. And a life where we are not God’s enemies, but soldiers in God’s army, dressed in the armor of God, resisting Satan’s attacks. And most of all, we were saved to be with God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for all eternity. Saved to rejoice in the love He has for us and has shown for us—the Love that reconciles His enemies through Christ’s death, and saves them by His life. Truly, a matter for rejoicing!

Now, may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting, Amen.

Monday, June 06, 2005

And Now for Some Silliness!

I think you'll find this 'home-grown' humor entertaining, especially all you Star Wars fans ;)
Store Wars Movie

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Sermon on Luke 14:15-24 “Come, You have been Invited to the Wedding Feast!”

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The sermon text for this 3rd Sunday after Pentecost is Luke 14:15-24,

15 When one of those at the table with him heard this, he said to Jesus, "Blessed is the man who will eat [bread] in the kingdom of God." 16 Jesus replied: "A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, `Come, for everything is now ready.' 18 "But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, `I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.' 19 "Another said, `I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I'm on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.' 20 "Still another said, `I just got married, so I can't come.' 21 "The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, `Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.' 22 "`Sir,' the servant said, `what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.' 23 "Then the master told his servant, `Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.'"

I don’t imagine anyone likes being “stood up” after having made an invitation. Whether you prepared a fine dinner for some guests, and they stood you up at the last minute, or whether you’d prepared a special date with that special someone; no one likes to be “stood up.” After involving our love and thoughtful preparation, and counting on the fact that our guest or loved one would come and enjoy the meal and our gifts or generosity, we might find ourselves hurt, disappointed, and maybe even angered when they reject our invitation at the last moment. So it should come as no surprise that when God invites us to His heavenly feast, He is shocked and angered when people reject His invitation. Especially considering that it was no small price He had to pay, and no small sacrifice for Him to make, to prepare that feast for us, and to receive us into His heavenly mansions. This is not a small matter of social etiquette or simply offending a host, but rather a matter of eternal consequences.

You see, in this parable Jesus teaches us about a man who has prepared a great feast, and sent out invitations in advance. When the time came for the feast, he sent out a single servant to go tell those who had been invited that the feast was ready. The man who prepared the feast is none other than God our Heavenly Father. But what is the nature of this feast? What is the celebration about? Several places in the Bible speak of this feast. The prophet Isaiah speaks of a grand feast on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, where there will be rich food and wine, and death shall be swallowed up forever (Isaiah 25:6-7). The book of Revelation further describes this feast as the “wedding feast of the Lamb,” where the celebration is for Christ the Lamb of God who was slain, being married to His Bride the Church (Revelation 19:9). So this grand feast that God our Father has prepared, is a wedding banquet for Christ and all believers! But we don’t have to wait till heaven to taste the rich food and wine of this great feast, for we are given a foretaste of this feast to come in the body and blood of Jesus, given and shed for our forgiveness, in the Lord’s Supper. There we partake in the heavenly manna, eating a feast of forgiveness here on earth, as we proclaim our Lord’s death until He comes again (1 Cor. 11:26). But how grand a feast it will be in heaven when He does come again!

Returning to the parable, who is the lone servant who the Father sends to the invited guests? And who were those invited guests? That single servant whom the Lord sent was Jesus, the Son of God Himself. God sent Jesus to earth to tell those who had been invited to the wedding feast, “Come, for everything is now ready!” Those invited guests were God’s chosen people, the Israelites. God had specially favored these people, to bring them the Gospel first, not because of any worthiness in them, but because of His grace. When Christ’s coming is promised in the book of Isaiah, the Lord says that He was formed from the womb to be His servant, to bring Jacob back to him and that Israel might be gathered to Him (Is. 49:5). So Jesus came as a servant to earth, announcing to the Jews that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, so repent, return to the Lord! Jesus was calling them to the feast that they had been invited to; the feast that was now ready.

But how did they respond to this invitation? They stood God up. They rejected the invitation, answering that they all had something better to do. They made excuses for their rejection, and shirked the servant who came as a messenger. One was more interested in looking over his new purchase of a field, than he was in joining the wedding feast. Another was too busy testing out his new oxen, to bother accepting the invitation. A third was too preoccupied with his new marriage to come. How could they despise this heavenly invitation for such worldly things? Did they not know their maker had provided all these things? Did they not know that He had even better things to offer at the banquet? What does earth and all its material goods have to offer in comparison with heaven? What did they think they were getting out of; something dull? Sadly, that is just how they acted. They traded their invitation to the great feast for some minor earthly pleasures and goods. And for this rejection of Jesus, God declared, “I tell you, not one of these men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.” God rejected those Jews who rejected Christ, who had been sent to them first, as invited guests.

And this is why the Isaiah passage I mentioned earlier also said, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6). It was too small a thing for Jesus to just bring back the chosen of Israel; God was also sending Him to be a light for all nations, to spread salvation across the whole earth. And this is just what happens in the parable. After the servant returns to tell of His rejection, the master sends Him back to gather people from the city streets and alleys, that weren’t originally invited. Jesus was sent first to the invited, then to the uninvited—the Gentiles. Jesus Christ went to the streets and alleys to gather the poor, the crippled, blind, and lame to bring them to the house for the feast. And this is just what Christ did. Throughout His ministry He sought out the poor, crippled, blind, and lame, healing them and more importantly forgiving them and granting them entrance to the banquet. He carried their infirmities, sorrows, and iniquities to the cross, to die for them, so they might enter His Father’s banquet.

But still there was more room! The depth of God’s overflowing mercy had hardly been seen! God said, “There is still room! There is still room! Bring more!” And God sent Jesus to the roads and country lanes and everywhere, to gather in more for the feast. God wants a full house. And that is where God found us. We were not among God’s chosen, the Israelites; we were not first invited to the banquet, but nevertheless God sought us. Jesus sought us in our lost condition, came and found us and gathered us in to His banquet. And now we are those who have been invited to the wedding feast. We’ve been called in baptism, washed clean of our sin, and healed by the Holy Spirit of the spiritual illness of sin. We have our invitation and we are living to share that invitation with others.

But we must take care that we do not become like those who were first invited. When the time came for them to be called to the banquet, they each turned away to their earthly concerns, as if that were more important. As if they were more interested in what the world had to offer. We must watch out that we do not also begin to live as if we weren’t coming to the banquet. We cannot live our lives as if we were more interested in what this world has to offer, or as if we’d trade our invitation to the heavenly feast for something here on earth. We know that same uninterested rejection of God’s call that the first guests exhibited. All too often we find ourselves caught up in the things of life, be they mundane like checking out our new property or be they exciting like a new marriage. Yet God will not accept apologies for not being interested in the heavenly feast He has prepared for us. If we really are uninterested in the unending joys of the wedding feast that is waiting for us in heaven, then God will not give us a taste of His banquet. No, excuses for being uninterested aren’t accepted. God doesn’t want to be ‘stood up’ by us either. But what God does accept is the repentant heart of a sinner. He will hear our repentance of our sinfulness, of our wandering from Him, and He will gladly forgive. For He did not come for the righteous, but for sinners! He is calling us to live like we are going to come to His banquet. Live in repentance and in unbelievable forgiveness that doesn’t run out!

As we marvel at God’s abounding grace in providing a place for us at His heavenly feast, we may wonder how was this feast and the wedding garments made ready? This is the wedding feast that has been prepared by the sacrificial blood of the Lamb, who purchased His bride, the Church, by His death on the cross for sin. A costly price for a costly wedding feast! Having purchased the church, His bride, with His precious blood, Jesus our Heavenly Groom has also shattered death for us by His resurrection! His victory at the cross and empty tomb not only made a place for us at that wedding feast, but it also gives us the wedding garments to wear! Dressed in the pure white robes of Jesus’ own righteousness, we come not dressed as the spiritually poor, crippled, blind, and lame beggars that we once were—dressed in the rags of our sin and self-righteousness—but rather we are dressed magnificently as Christ’s Holy Bride, wearing the robe of His own righteousness, the only fitting thing to wear for such a glorious feast. We neither prepared the banquet, nor were we asked to. We didn’t volunteer ourselves to be invited, by giving Jesus our heart. No, rather, He sought us and invited us, poor unworthy sinners. He came to our lowest places and lifted us up, restoring us from our sin, calling us to fill His Father’s house. He made us poor sinners the guests of honor at the grandest feast in the heavenly Jerusalem, saying “Come, the feast is ready! Receive forgiveness, take my easy yoke, lay down your sins upon me. Come dressed in the finest robes of my righteousness!” So then let us rejoice to live as those who have been called to a heavenly feast, for indeed we are blessed to eat bread in the kingdom of God. Even here on earth, we are blessed with the heavenly foretaste of that great feast, when we eat the Bread of Life in our Lord’s Supper. And as we eat that body and drink the blood of Jesus, rejoice in the forgiveness given, and rejoice that we have a place at that heavenly feast that awaits us. Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Does Forgiveness Exist Objectively?

I came across this quote, discussing Jesus' amazing willingness to forgive his executioners, as I was reviewing my materials for VBS. I won't name which company/publishing house the quote is from, but needless to say, it wasn't Lutheran. What do you think of it?

"How could he think of forgiveness for them in a time like this? 'For they
know not what they do?' A person's continued and deliberate ignorance does
not make that person's sin excusable, nor does forgiveness come without
repentance; so Jesus' prayer did not assure the result requested.
Nevertheless, Jesus showed His loving, forgiving spirit, and he became an
example for all to follow (Act 7:60)."

The reason I'm interested in this quote is the phrase, Jesus' prayer did not assure the result requested. Now I certainly agree with the statement preceding, that continued and deliberate ignorance doesn't make a person's sin excusable; and I also would affirm that one does not receive forgiveness without repentance. But what can it mean that "Jesus' prayer did not assure the result requested?" The author apparently meant that those people weren't actually forgiven by the Father, because they did not repent. So even though Jesus willed for the sins of His tormenters to be forgiven ("His loving, forgiving spirit"), the Father had to deny His request, because they never repented. Of course, this could be questioned on at least one account, as the Roman Centurion apparently came to believe that "Truly this was the Son of God!" (Matt. 27:54). But what about those who did not repent? Did not Jesus truly forgive them? Or was it only a wish? He was paying for those sins in those last hours of His death.

So we have two alternatives as I see it: 1) Even though they had not repented of their wicked actions, and therefore did not receive forgiveness, Jesus nonetheless had objectively forgiven them, and that forgiveness was available to them. Or, 2) Since they did not repent, Jesus did not truly acquire God's forgiveness for them by His prayer. If the latter is the case, then apparently Jesus' forgiveness was(or is) a non-reality until they activated it by their repentance. In other words, their repentance brought about their forgiveness, not Jesus' love and mercy toward them (which was apparently ineffective without their repentance). Furthermore, this raises a difficulty with the action of Jesus and the Father's will, which are always directed to the same thing (John 6:38). And how does this translate to our lives as Christians, if this is the "example for all to follow"? Does it mean that despite our 'loving, forgiving spirit,' we haven't actually forgiven our enemies unless they repent? In what sense is Jesus' or our forgiveness actually sincere, if we are still holding back guilt against them? No, I believe forgiveness must be objective, even if the person does not benefit from that forgiveness because they have not repented and do not have faith in Christ to receive it. Otherwise, forgiveness is just the empty attitude or kindly disposition described in the quote, yet without the "result" of being held guiltless.