Monday, October 26, 2015

Semper Reformanda

See VIDEO here

Then Job replied to the Lord“I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you.  So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning.     Job 42:1-2, 12a(NLT)
They came to Jericho.  As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”  And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”  So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.  Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”  Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.     Mark 10:46-52(NLT)
 Although today is Reformation Sunday, the actual date for the anniversary of the official Lutheran event is October 31, 1517.  It was the day that Martin Luther nailed 95 statements or theses to the chapel door at Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther maintained the church should always be in the process of reformation (ecclesia semper reformanda est).  Despite the cost in suffering, great faith trusts in God to bring about renewal in the midst of re-thinking our ways, and relinquishing our stranglehold on what others should think about God, and how we should serve Him.

Traditions have been known to be off-center occasionally.  For the church, Semper Reformanda (always reforming) is the business of navigational course-corrections!

Other Reformations

While we do celebrate Reformation Sunday, it is not the only reformation in history.  There have been many.

·       The oldest book in the Canon of Scripture is Job.  We read Job’s resolution with God.  After losing everything, family, reputation, children, wealth and health (not to mention the peace and quiet he used to have when his wife still respected him), Job finally hears a response of his heart’s crying out to God; heaven responds, and Job’s confession is that God is good, even if the suffering God allowed is painful.  It was a reformation of Job’s attitude.

·       In Mark’s Gospel account we find the blind man, Bartimaeus, crying out to God for his sight.  In persistent blind trust a sightless man leans his whole trust on Jesus.  His well-placed faith is rewarded; Jesus performs a “reformation” on the man’s optical ability and changes the man’s whole outlook.  Bartimaeus also makes a confession, but somewhat different from Job; his is more of an action – he becomes a disciple and follows Jesus from that moment.

·       Actions or words, the confession is the same – God, my Redeemer.

How many reformations can we count?

Starting with the earliest of church history…

Paul had (at least) two reformations to his credit; the first was on the Damascus Road when Saul the persecutor of the church became the Christian-loving, Church-planting Paul!                                                      

And a second reformation came with the transformation of a blue-blooded Hebrew scholar (a kind of “uptown preacher”) who couldn’t bear to see the Gentiles without a witness.  He became a Gentile-loving street preacher – apostle to the heathen.
·       The disciples had to shake dust off their feet and go on down the road to those who would listen…reformation!

·       Peter had a reformation on a roof top when he dreamed about a bed sheet full of barbeque…kosher was no longer the order of the house.

If you fast-forward through church history there are schisms and purging galore – reformations enough to keep a myriad of history majors recording and classifying until their laptops burn up.  There were rifts and separations (or reformations) over:
·       The Trinity, the Divinity and Humanity of Christ.
·       Transubstantiation & Consubstantiation (The presence of Christ in the Eucharist)
·       Indulgences (Paying money to Rome for forgiveness)
·       Infant baptism vs. believer’s baptism.
·       Scripture in this or that language.
·       Predestination vs. Free Will
·       Public or Private confession.

Reformation has always come on the heels of questions about theology and doctrine, and the different opinions about the answers.

The framework for the answers is always the condition of the human heart. 

·       Job humbly confessed that God was in charge.
·       Blind Bartimaeus bowed in total trust before Jesus.
·       Reformer catalyst Martin Luther showed the repentant condition of his own heart with the first of his 95 theses:

Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance.
Luther believed in a reformation of the heart.  That is different from a crusade.  Today we have just as many theological debates going on as ever (probably more since people discovered Facebook).

The question for our generation is:
Which of the cries for reformation are from the heart, and which are from the flesh?

Let me unpack some of that. 
Reformation cries are from the heart when the heart is longing for God in the same way that Jesus laid out the great commandment (love God with all you’ve got), and its cousin (love your neighbor as yourself).

Flesh cries are simply expressions of will – unchecked selfishness!
There are, among the theological/ecclesiological debates of this day, (probably) good arguments to be made for carnality or spirituality, flesh or heart; it mostly depends upon your own vantage point.

Some of the current debates:·       The Worship Wars (Contemporary, Traditional, Liturgical, Free style?)
·       Inerrancy Wars (How do we interpret the Scriptures)
·       Sexual & Gender issues (Who can be where, do what)
·       Organization issues of the Emergent Church (What really constitutes a church; does it need a building?)

As with Job, there is suffering in these issues.  No matter which side we eventually come down on (hopefully God’s side), these issues represent human beings who are in the throes of turmoil.

Like Bartimaeus, who came out of blindness to follow Christ, and the Reformers who were always pushing towards the light, we must come out of our own haze.  A cry from the heart will accomplish that.  God always hears the cries of a heart longing for reformation.
Reformations are always costly.

An author tells the story, A while back there was a news item about a number of youths, who, in the days following the September 11 attacks, stormed into the restaurant of a man they deemed to be the enemy by proxy because of his Middle Eastern descent. They tore the place apart.

The police caught the young men that same evening, but when asked to press charges, the restaurant owner declined. He couldn’t see how it would make things any better.

A few hours later, the young men returned, apologized and spent the night helping him clean up the damage they had done. The owner clearly acted in a way that brought the best out in others. 

And isn’t that what reformation of the heart is supposed to effect – the love of God which seeks the best for others?
So, what shall we say about reformers here in this building?

First – shall we be Semper Reformanda – always reforming?  Do we dare change anything?  And, if so, what shall we entertain in light of the reformers of history?

·       The Reformation was a time to come out of blindness…..centuries of moral decay.  Who couldn’t do with a little Bartimaeus-kind of medicine, a little eye-opening light….right here in Randolph County?

·       The Reformation was a time of suffering.  Choosing the path that includes suffering is never easy, but it comes with the tough choices you know you should make after your sight clears-up.

·       Job never saw his best work; how God opened up for us understanding of the meaning of our suffering by allowing us to watch Job’s suffering through Scripture.  Job chose to honor God in the midst of his suffering!

Luther is a good example.  When the organized religion of his day condemned him as a heretic, Luther was ordered to appear at an inquisition which was convened as a “kangaroo court” to convict and get rid of the trouble maker.
Luther was confronted with choices.  He was convicted and ordered to recant, or suffer the punishment of heretics…death.  Through the means of Holy Scripture God had spoken truth deep into Luther’s soul.  But powerful men told Luther he must recant, deny his faith.

At the moment where faith in God and the judgment of angry men met, Martin Luther stood up and spoke out what would become the rally cry of the Reformers:
Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason….my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  I cannot and I will not recant anything; for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.
The Reformation was a time for giants of the faith who followed the call, even if it led to a pile of wood and a stake.

Should we be people like that? 

Should we pick up a piece of wood and follow Jesus?  It seems He did say something about carrying a piece of wood.  He said, if anyone would be my disciple, let him deny himself, pick up his cross and follow me.

We are writing this chapter of history.  Should Christ not return in my lifetime I dearly pray it will be said of my life that I stood captive to the Word of God.

I urge you to do the same.
Semper Reformanda!
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

[1] Title Image: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, October 19, 2015

Out of the Whirlwind

Sermon VIDEO here

Then the Lord answered Job from the whirlwind:  “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorant words?  Brace yourself like a man, because I have some questions for you, and you must answer them.  “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you know so much.  Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line?  What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?   Job 38:1-7(NLT)
Even people who do not know the story of Job have heard the expression, the patience of Job.  The story so often centers on the disaster of the first chapter; how this really good man got a raw deal, while God just watched while the Devil destroyed the man’s life.

But it is really worth reading the next 36 chapters to watch Job’s friends attempt to comfort him, but wind-up missing the mark on the compassion scale; they did much more harm than comfort!  They suggested that Job was a bad guy, and that’s why bad stuff came his way.  But, in reality, Job was a good man in the midst of a really rotten circumstance!For the first thirty-seven chapters, Job asks God the angry question –why me?

As the 38th chapter begins God finally ends his silence.  Job, tell me…eons ago when I was mapping out the universe and laying the foundations upon which you now stand…Job, buddy, just where were you?

God never answered Job’s question the way Job wanted…He simply pointed out that Job didn’t have a clue, and he’d better think twice before parading his goodness in front of his Creator.

After God spoke Job cringed…it works that way!

Job had to humble himself and eat a little dust.  You see, Job knew that God knew Job inside-out.  Job may argue for his being a righteous soul in front of his friends who came to “help” – but Job knew it sounded as empty as the Grand Canyon when he tried to float that before Jehovah!  So Job apologized to God, and things went better for him afterward.

But we still have that question, don’t we?

Why Is there Suffering?

Now, the reality of trouble and suffering in the human family is not in question here – we all know people who suffer; we have all had our share of suffering.  Job even stated the reality that we are born into having trouble as certainly as the sparks fly upward from a fire.[1]

The real question we all have is, If God is good, AND God is kind…WHY do we suffer?  We want to know why God thought it necessary to put us through suffering in this life.

I’ve asked that question; a lot!

One of the times I asked the question was a number of years ago when I had pain in my right foot – constant pain.  It was the kind of pain that made you wonder if you are descended from Job.  The pain was every minute of every day; it was my companion for every step I took in a day.  For good measure it throbbed all night. 

Extra Strength Tylenol by the truckload didn’t help; Cortisone injections didn’t touch it a bit.  Finally the doctor said the s-word – surgery!  I’m not particularly fond of surgery, but by that time I would have allowed him to cut off both arms and do a frontal lobotomy if he said it would help.

The surgery itself was uneventful.  My surgeon snipped a nerve or two, shortened a bone here, refashioned a socket there, and I went home to wait for the moment I could walk without pain. 

Somehow it never turns out the way the textbook pictures it.  Three weeks after surgery I took my first step without the cast, and the pin holding my toe together decided to relocate to a different neighborhood.  The next week I was back on the operating table.  This time he used titanium and super-glue!  The toe has held together quite well since then. 

However, during the recuperation I had to stay off my feet for several weeks, and in that sedentary lounging I managed to allow my blood to clot in all the wrong places. 

Silly me! 

When the clots broke apart (like sparks flying upward!!!) they headed directly for my lungs.  Now, I’ve never been kicked in the chest by a mule, but if you have, I’d like to compare notes.  The pain was incredible.  Elizabeth came home from work to take the whimpering preacher to the doctor…again! 

The pain was down to a manageable nuisance by the time the doctor examined me.  He told me my pain should be in the foot…after all, that’s where the surgical incision was – not in my chest!  It was fortunate for me there was a nurse, who was a better diagnostician than her boss.  She said I think he’s thrown a clot.  Well…a quick trip to the hospital for x-rays confirmed the nurse’s diagnosis, and they admitted me on the spot.   

The emergency had passed…and (supposedly) if the clot didn’t kill me on the spot, it was simply a matter of staying calm, spending a week in the hospital with an IV of heparin (rat poison) dripping into your arm so it can break-up the clot. 

Well, frankly, I don’t “stay calm” when I contemplate receiving a bill from a medical facility for a week’s vacation.  However, I managed to stay semi-calm, and agreed to stick around.

Unfortunately Thomasville Medical Center had its share of emergencies that day, and the only bed available in the whole hospital was in Romona-Land!  Now, I’m sure you don’t know Romona, but I do.  Romona was the nurse-in-charge of Intensive Care at TMC.  Romona was also the organist at the church I served as pastor. 

Before the cold sheets of the hospital bed could rob all the warmth from my body, Romona marched through the doorway like a general in charge, and grabbed the IV needle from the nurse who was preparing to invade my blood supply.  Here, she said, I’ll do that.

Now, it was really good to see a familiar face at that moment; it was especially good to see Romona.  When Romona was playing the organ for our services, I could look over at her and she’d know exactly what song my look called-for.  I was beginning to feel comfortable, so I began to tell her that the IV really ought to go in my left arm because I was going to send Elizabeth to get my computer, and with my right arm…, but before I could get another word out, my organist – my dear, sweet quiet-spirited organist, shoved a thermometer into my open mouth and growled… Preacher, you’re in MY house now, just try to keep your mouth closed.”  She turned into Nurse Ratchet!

Trouble got my attention! 

It got Job’s attention. 

I believe that is one of the benefits of trouble and suffering…it gets your attention.  There is value in suffering.

But, to tell you the truth there are only two things I can say about the question which is yours and mine – why, really, do we suffer?

1.      It is a fair question; it is Job’s question. 

2.      I don’t know.

There is a lot of stuff offered by preachers, philosophers and skeptics to try to make us believe that somebody on planet earth has understood God.  But it is conjecture only! 

·        Some say God punishes sin and that’s why we suffer.  Now, it is true that God punishes sin, but you cannot explain children being killed by a suicide bomber in Baghdad that way. 

·        Some say we must suffer to collect better karma than we had in our last incarnation. 

·        Some say we suffer because we have no faith, or God is just that mean.  You can choose that if you will, but God never said that. 

God didn’t answer Job, and, even today He doesn’t lay out all the reasons why deranged people take guns and start exterminating human life.  

In the case of Job, God simply informed the human that a mortal could not understand.  And therein we find our frustration, as well as the only answer we have:  we are like Job, we cannot understand God’s ways; some suffering is in God’s hands only, and we will not know why until heaven.

So, Preacher, Am I Supposed to live with that?

Preacher, where does that leave us considering all the pain and suffering in this world?  How can we remain somewhat sane in the face of the brutality of man with men, and natural disasters and children who die in mudslides or terror attacks?  How can we explain the murder of innocent children, or abuse by parents who are supposed to protect their little ones? 

Who can accept such things? 

The same answers as before; it’s a fair question, and I don’t know.

The 18th century philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, Give me the benefit of your convictions, if you have any; but keep your doubts to yourself, for I have enough of my own.[2]

I couldn’t agree more.  And so I will leave you the way God left Job…We were not there when God created this universe.  We do not understand the most infinitesimal fraction of the depth and breadth of what God has done.  And if we cannot understand even the basics of the creation in which we live, how can we understand the motives and purposes of the Creator who is greater than His creation?

But we are not left to whither and dry-up on the vine; God has told us Who He is in Jesus Christ.  He came to us and said, Do you want to know the father?  Look at me…follow me…love me…commit your life to me.  For in me dwells all of what is in the Father; you see me, you know Him.[3]

In trusting Jesus Christ don’t expect all suffering, whether self-inflicted and deserved, or undeserved, to vanish.  That’s not the point. 

Jesus is not a self-help vending machine….put in a prayer – out pops a pre-packaged healing for what-ails-you!  Rather, it is a matter of the created being getting-in-step with the Creator, so that God can direct your path away from sin and bring you close to Him.

Your suffering is just that – it’s your suffering.  It has a purpose, and God may or may not reveal that purpose to you in this life.  All we can really say about it is that you have a choice to do one of two things:

1.      You can attempt to figure your suffering out; in which case you will wind up in the madness of Job, and at odds with God…

-          or    -

2.      You can do what Job finally did – submit.  You can trust God’s grace and know that He is God.

In choosing to trust God you will not utterly eliminate suffering from your life; it is too much a part of the human condition. 

However, the Bible says that the end of Job’s days were better than the beginning.  Whether that be in this life, or the next, it is not bad to trust the voice out of the whirlwind! 

That’s what Job did in the end; he knew he was no match for God, so he gave in and trusted…no matter what.

And so, in pain or in sunny days, I choose His grace; I choose to love this God who speaks out of the whirlwind of suffering and pain; I choose to trust and cling to Him…he is God! 

In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

[1] Job 5:7
[3] Colossians 2:9

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Gift of Atonement

Watch the Sermon VIDEO here

Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets.  And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe.  The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven.  This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is greater than their names.  Hebrews 1:1-4(NLT)
And furthermore, it is not angels who will control the future world we are talking about.  For in one place the Scriptures say, “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, or a son of man that you should care for him?  Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor.  You gave them authority over all things.”  Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out.  But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority.  What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.”  Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.  God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory.  And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation.  So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father.  That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.  For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters.  I will praise you among your assembled people.”  Hebrews 2:5-12(NLT)
The writer of Hebrews uses a word later in the chapter[2] that calls us back to the genuine focus of the table, hilaskomai is translated as atonement (ἱλάσκομαι - to conciliate, that is, (transitively) to atone for (sin), or (intransitively) be propitious:—be merciful, make reconciliation for[3]). 

With that word we move from the Christmas tree to the cross. 

Atonement is what happened to our sin problem on the cross; it is what blotted-out the stain of original sin.  God was merciful towards all human beings in doing something which was impossible for us to do – forgive our sin. 

To be forgiven is not something anyone can do for himself; it has to come from the outside. 

The “simple” definition (if there is to be anything simple with so complex an issue) is that we are all guilty of sin – God knows it and, because of His righteousness, must judge it – but God chooses to forgive us by grace.  The “debt” of sin is still a reality – someone must “atone” or pay the price; God decided to do just that by coming to us and dying for us. 

That’s what the manger was about; that’s the reason for the cross!  God came in grace and mercy to do something about our sin.   He didn’t come so we could sing about the sweet little baby, born in a stable – he came to die a violent sacrificial atoning death…so we could live!

The Difference

Two true stories illustrate the difference between life with or without the forgiveness Jesus came to bring with his Advent and Atonement:

Life without Forgiveness

In Bristol, England nearly 25 years ago… 10 ten year-old boys led a little toddler down a railway embankment and smashed his head in, leaving his body on the railway line. 
The story of the killing of Jamie Bulger was one of those events which made everyone look again at what it means to be human. Jamie’s killers were just children themselves, yet they were capable of this.  They were not psychotic; nor were they any more disturbed than many other children.  
The anger and desire for vengeance that came up against them was almost tangible….  They were children at the time of the murder, but spent the rest of their childhood away from their families in an institution, locked away from the rest of society.  When the possibility for release came about Jamie Bulger’s mother wanted them to be locked up for the rest of their lives.  She argued that her child cannot walk free back into her arms.  Those boys took her son’s life; they should not have their lives.  Even if they were released, there was a strong risk that they might get killed by vigilantes, so in one respect they will never be truly free.[4]
Our sin is just as “first-degree” as that group of boys who snuffed out the life of a toddler. 

And, we are just as captive by the penalty of our sin as they are of their prison made with iron bars.  Without forgiveness, we are slaves to sin and death; no chance of parole from eternal death!  Forgiveness requires atonement.

The Forgiven Life

The second true story is from Dr. Maxwell Maltz, a famous plastic surgeon:

One day, a woman came to see Dr. Maltz about her husband.  She told the doctor that her husband had been injured while attempting to save his parents from a burning house.  He couldn't get to them.  Both parents died, and the son’s face was burned and disfigured.  He had given up on life and gone into hiding.  He wouldn't let anyone see him - not even his wife. 

Dr. Maltz told the woman not to worry.  With the great advances we've made in plastic surgery in recent years, he said, I can restore his face.

She explained that he wouldn't let anyone help him because he believed God disfigured his face to punish him for not saving his parents.  Then she made a shocking request:  I want you to disfigure my face so I can be like him!  If I can share in his pain, then maybe he will let me back into his life.  I love him so much; I want to be with him. And if that is what it takes; then that is what I want to do.

Of course, Dr. Maltz would not agree, but he was moved deeply by that wife's determined and total love.  He got her permission to try to talk to her husband.  He went to the man's room and knocked, but there was no answer.  He called loudly through the door, I know you are in there, and I know you can hear me, so I've come to tell you that my name is Dr. Maxwell Maltz.  I'm a plastic surgeon, and I want you to know that I can restore your face.

There was no response.  Again, he called loudly, Please come out and let me help restore your face.  But again, there was no answer.  Still speaking through the door, Dr. Maltz told the man what his wife was asking him to do.  She wants me to disfigure her face, to make her face like yours in the hope that you will let her back into your life. That's how much she loves you.  That's how much she wants to help you!

There was a brief moment of silence, and then ever so slowly, the doorknob began to turn.  The disfigured man came out to make a new beginning and to find a new life. He was set free, brought out of hiding, and given a new start by his wife's love.  It's a dramatic expression of human love that gives us a picture, however faint, of the saving love of Jesus Christ, what we call the Atonement.[5]

That’s what this table is for…atonement, because of the great love Jesus has for you; it brings forgiveness and freedom…for you! 
So, come and dine…In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit!

[1] Title Image: Gustave Doré, via Wikimedia Commons
[2] Hebrews 2:17
[3] Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries ©2003, QuickVerse
[4] quoting Paul Roberts, “Sacrifice of blood and lives,” November 19, 2000, Cothan Parish Church Web Site, Reprinted with permission.
[5], quoting Maxie Dunnam, This Is Christianity (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 60-61.