Thursday, December 31, 2009

What Day Is It?

In just under an hour (in my time zone) we will enter a new year. This is a big deal according to the attention given Times Square (and other places). Closer to my home, Hershey (PA) drops a "kiss." Dillsburg (also PA) has a pickle. You get the idea. According to our culture, New Year's Day is the big holiday for this week. It's the book-end to this "holiday season."

In the Church Year it is still Christmas, a day that is so important that it takes eight days (Octave) to give it proper due. And tomorrow is not so much New Year's Day as the celebration of Mary as Theotokos – the "God-bearer." This is one way the Church exalts and gives explicit witness to the truth that Jesus Christ is fully Man and fully God. Mary gave birth to the God who entered our world to be with us. Jesus came as God because He had always been God: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Jesus came as Man because He was born of a human woman – the Theotokos – chosen to bear "very God of very God, one in being with the Father."

Time is, in one sense, quite artificial. It will not endure. Another year is.... another year in which we wait for the consummation of all God has promised. It is okay to celebrate another year and to pray for God's blessings in coming days. But the basis for trusting in such a thing is the real meaning of Christmas – that God came into our world to save us, born of a woman.

So yet again, while "the world" says "Happy New Year," I join the Church in saying one more time: Merry Christmas!


Holidays are a break in the routine, which can be a good and refreshing thing. Often there is more "down time," and I assume many of us spend extra time with extended family.

I also find that a break in the routine can be destructive to prayer. Those of us who pray the Liturgy practice "ordered" prayer – and a break in routine is quite antithetical to ordered prayer.

Add to that a malevolent "spirit of Christmas" that is obsessed with materialism and other self-indulgences which seems to permeate the atmosphere even when one tries to avoid it, and so the holidays can result in an all-out war against holy days.

One solution is so obvious: keep the order, even when other daily routines are broken. It seems so simple.... but that malevolent spirit fights such a sensible decision.

I need mercy – the very thing that Jesus brings. Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Holy Days

As we live in this Octave of Christmas, may our Lord's grace and peace fill each of your lives. And may these days truly be holy days as we open ourselves for the Spirit of Jesus to fill us.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Getting What We Want

Luke 1:5-25

Christmas in our culture is a time when people are invited to focus on their desires. "What do you want for Christmas?" is a repeated question. Usually the answer is something material. The world tries to convince us that getting some "thing" is crucial to our happiness.

It’s not unusual for most people to have a list of things they would like. Christians are called to have desires which are rooted in our relationship with Jesus: to be more like him, for our children to know him, and to see his kingdom extend more and more into our world.

One reason the Bible is a timeless book is that it tells the stories of people, and people aren't all that different when it comes down to our basic needs and desires. We all want to belong and to be secure. We are most comfortable in a family situation where there are people to receive our love and give love in return. We want to feel that there is some meaning in our existence and purpose in what we do.

As Luke sets the stage for what we call the Christmas story, he introduces us to two people who have lived most of their adult lives with unfulfilled desire. Zechariah and Elizabeth were both well along in years, but they had no children. There are some couples in our culture today who take great pains not to have children, but that is an attitude that would have been unknown in the Bible's world of eastern culture. Children were security in a couple's old age. They were a blessing from God –– like a divine stamp of approval upon the marriage.

Then there are the natural feelings that usually exist between a husband and wife. I can still remember the excitement I felt as a hoping and then expectant father because there was going to be a new person coming into the world who would be a combination of me and my wife –– the woman I loved. Our first child was, to me, a tangible expression of the union that Libby and I have in our relationship.

I remember some worried and disappointing days, too. Libby and I have a fertility problem and it took over a year for her to conceive Jeremy. We both consider him a special gift from God to us because since then we have not been able to have other biological children. (But that opened the door for our Katie, another gift from God, who came to us a different way.) It's probably impossible for those who have had no fertility problems of their own, nor been close to those who do, to truly identify with the ones who are infertile for one reason or another. You look at those who so easily conceive and find it hard to share the joy because of your own disillusionment and jealousy. You fight a special kind of pain when you hear of all the women who have abortions –– those not wanting a child and yet conceiving –– when you want one so badly and it doesn't happen. So you wonder if God is at all fair and if he really cares about the desires of your heart.

I guess Zechariah and Elizabeth had some intense feelings like that. I'm sure they had prayed countless times –– like Hannah, Samuel's mother –– but nothing had happened. I do not know if they were still praying for children at this stage in their lives. It does not seem that Zechariah was expecting God to do with him and Elizabeth what had happened with Abraham and Sarah. By this time in their lives it seems that they had resigned themselves to their seemingly allotted roles.

At the point of time in this story Zechariah had something else on which to focus. Zechariah was a descendent of Aaron, which means he automatically served as a priest, as did all other descendants. This also meant there were too many priests. To give all a chance for service, they were divided into twenty-four sections. Except for special seasons of the year, an ordinary priest like Zechariah was only able to serve one week, twice a year. For those who loved their priestly service (and we can assume Zechariah did because of his character –– upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly, v6) it was the highlight of their lives.

This particular occasion was especially unique. A priest was allowed to offer the incense only once in his lifetime. This time the lot had fallen to Zechariah. On the day of this special honor, Zechariah was standing there in service as representative of the people. One of the things he would have been doing is praying for the spiritual redemption of Israel, as the assembled worshippers were praying outside (v10). All of the faithful had their hearts set on that time when God would fulfill his promises to David and bring glory to Israel.

Suddenly Zechariah was aware of the presence of someone else in the holy place with him. An angel was there with this message, your prayer has been heard (v.13). The question I want to ask is, what prayer? The angel goes on to say that Elizabeth is going to have a son, so it would seem that their prayer for children has finally gotten a response. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the prayer for children was anywhere current; Zechariah had been praying with and for the people that God would fulfill Israel's promised destiny. That's the prayer that is being answered in this context (and let's remember that Luke is setting the stage for Jesus as that fulfillment), but in the answering of that prayer God is using this faithful man and woman to bring it about and is granting their personal heart's desire all at the same time. That brings up the one thing I want you to hear today: God gives us our heart's desire when it coincides with his activity.

We should be careful to see something here. Zechariah and Elizabeth did not just want a child. Yes, they wanted a child, but along with that –– or even more than that –– they desired that God would have his rightful place in their hearts. It was because of this that their desire for a child was also given. One day in the future, the one to whom their son was a forerunner said these words, But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well (Matt 6:33). Zechariah and Elizabeth had already learned this lesson through their relationship with God.

For the sake of balance, though, I want to add some qualifiers to this subject of our desires and God's giving. From this story of Zechariah we can discern two important factors: First, for God to be the motivation behind our desires being granted, he must be given his rightful place in our hearts. Second, once God has been given rightful place, the thing we desire must be subjected to his desire for us. So, there needs to be a sober assessment both of who God is and of the thing that is the desire of our heart.

In the book of James we are told that we may not receive the things for which we ask because we ask selfishly (Jam 4:1-3). In other words, we can think only of ourselves and not about God or other people. It's so easy for us to presume that because we want something, God wants us to have it. Maybe we seldom take the time to sense what the Holy Spirit would say about it. I'll just add that if we are sensitive to the Holy Spirit in that way, then we are giving God his rightful place in our lives.

There's one other factor in this matter of God giving us our heart's desire, and it's something I find very frightening. The Scriptures tell us that sometimes God lets us have the desire of our hearts even when we do not give him his rightful place as Lord and when the thing we desire is not in our best interest. But instead of our desire ending up in blessing, it turns out to be a curse. Sometimes God allows that to happen to remind us who he is and how we only make things hard on ourselves when we demand our own way.

The story I use as an illustration of this horrible reality is found in Numbers 11. We are there given the account of the Israelites grumbling about the manna they had eaten for so long. They wanted some diversity in their menu. They complained so much and so gave in to their stomach's desire for meat that God blew a huge flock of quail into their camp. They had their meat –– but along with it God sent sickness. Writing about the incident years later, the Psalmist said (106:14,15):

In the desert they gave in to their craving;
in the wasteland they put God to the test.
So he gave them what they asked for,
but sent a wasting disease upon them

The wording of the King James translation is even more haunting: And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul.

If you stop to think about it, humanity can be divided into those who desire what God wants and those who have their own desires regardless of God. That was Eve's down-fall in the garden, and she persuaded Adam of the same. We've all had the same problem ever since. The terrible thing is that God will let us have our own way and wishes if we persist hard and long enough.

But there's good news. God also has a desire for us. That's why we can want to know him and want good things instead of the selfish things that will only leave us broken and bitter. God had worked a great thing in Zechariah and Elizabeth, but it wasn't for their sakes alone. God was setting up the ultimate deliverance from our own selfish desires.

I'm sure that Zechariah didn't understand all of that. He wasn't even sure he believed what he'd heard. The angel had to give him a tangible sign, and it wasn't pleasant. We might think about that if we're ever tempted to ask God for a tangible sign to increase our faith. We might get it, and it might not be easy.

During Advent we are invited to remember the things God did in the earthly preparation for his Son's appearing. I want your to remember three particular things from this initial story.

First, we can get an overall awareness that God is working his purpose out. He is involved in our world in fulfilling his promises.

The second thing is that God works in the lives of people like you and me to accomplish his intentions. Zechariah and Elizabeth were normal flesh and blood people with desires and frustrations just like we all have.

Finally, when we submit our desires to God and give him his place in our lives, we can find the ultimate desire of our heart satisfied. It may be that God will give us the thing we've wanted. It may be that it will never come. But if it doesn't, and God is the true lover of our souls, then we will someday come to the realization that our desires have been met after all. Let's never lose sight of the fact that above everything else about us, God is wanting to remake our character to be like his own. He wants that to be our first desire, too.

Other desires will come and go. Some will be good ones and others not so good, because we are that kind of people in that kind of world. Sometimes these desires will be fulfilled in our lives; other times they will not. In the coming and going, though, let's not lose sight of what God is doing in our world –– what he has done in the lives of people like Zechariah and Elizabeth and what he is wanting to do in us. Sometimes it will be through the desires we already have. Sometimes it will be through new desires God gives us.

Maybe you are struggling today with unfulfilled desires. Whatever our desires, I hope you've gotten a glimpse of the God who can give us our desires or change them or give us the grace to live with them. But whatever it is, let's first of all be people like Zechariah and Elizabeth in their commitment to allow God to be God in the realities of life. That's where we'll find our desires being fulfilled.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Thoughts on a Snowy Day

Snow on a December Saturday offers more time for reading, reflection and writing. Editorial pieces from two of my regular periodicals have occupied some of my thoughts. One begins with this observation: “The two most enjoyable activities of mankind are gossip and metaphysics –– people like to talk about other people, and they like to talk about how the world works.” The other quotes Eleanor Roosevelt: “Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas.”

From those complementary quips each editor goes in his own direction. One gives tribute to the passing of a man whose social circles cause me to think of how small my world is, while the other focuses on the huge societal shift in which reading substantive material is being displaced by entertainment, sound-bites and bottom-of-the-screen tickers.

So much of “life” in our culture is surface. Our obsessions are comfort, convenience and personal security –– one way to understand what St. John calls “worldliness” in his first letter. The focus of attention is appearance, both physical attractiveness and material opulence. Again, this is what Christian Faith warns against as the kind of worldliness that separates us from God.

How do we keep our bearings in this world? The “formula” is so simple.... and so hard: Be still and know that I am God. It is hard for us to be still; the pace of life around us is “hurry.” It is hard for us to find quiet; we are surrounded with noise.

If our routines are so harried that we are usually only reacting to the stimuli around us, how are we to know how to respond? In an ever-increasingly complex world, how are we to know what to think and how to choose our actions unless we (and by this I especially mean people who say they are committed to Jesus Christ) are taking the time to open ourselves to the wisdom of God and to live in the Spirit (instead of “the flesh”)?

I hardly watch TV but I (cannot help but) notice the “trash” magazines that clutter the check-out lanes in supermarkets –– the ones whose covers are full of immodest women and whose captions are consumed with bodies and affairs. I think about the inexcusable amount of money that is paid to the people who are at the top of our entertainment scale: actors, singers and sports players, while many in such things as human services and food production can barely make a living.

Our American society has not had to face a total crisis of security since the first half of the twentieth century. I cannot imagine today’s city-dwellers voluntarily ordering themselves in a soup line as they did during the Great Depression. I cannot imagine the total population complying with things like gas rationing as they did during World War II. I fear that the spiritual strength for internal restraint has so eroded that we are only one major crisis away from anarchy.

Spiritual life is not just “warm-fuzzies” when we go to church (if it is that at all!). Spiritual life is entering into the Spirit of God so that we know who we are as image-of-God beings.... as people who face every day a hostile (fallen) environment.... as people who are invited to so follow the One who came into our world to reveal Father-God that we become like Him.... and in so doing, live distinctive lives as we face the varied circumstances of life.

These are some of my thoughts on a snowy day.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

An Unwanted Gift?

Another seasonal sermon from my archives:

Luke 14:15-24

One of the inevitables at Christmas is unwanted gifts. From the stereotypical ugly tie to who knows what, many people will be given gifts this Christmas that they really do not want. Most department and discount stores have come to expect this. The service desk expands from one counter to maybe a dozen tables which take over a whole area of the store to give extra help for returns and exchanges.

I distinctly remember one gift I received when I was maybe thirteen years old that I thought was an insult to my years. One of my uncles was a widower and usually ate Sunday dinner with us. As I remember it, he must have noticed that I liked model cars (at that period of my life), and so on this particular Christmas he gave me a car.

The trouble with this car was that it was not a model. It was made of formed plastic and had snap-on axles with wheels. It was the kind of toy car that four-year-old boys like to push around on the floor while making motor noises with their lips. Now remember, I was thirteen.

I had a cousin who would have been just the right age for that car, so I thought my uncle had gotten our presents confused. That was my immediate reply when I opened the car from its gift-wrap: "Oh, you got my present confused with Eddie's."

My mother about keeled over with embarrassment. She understood what I did not, that my uncle only saw me liking little cars; he did not understand the difference between a model and a toy. All I knew was that I was stuck with an unwanted gift. This passage from Luke is about another unwanted gift, but it's more serious than a toy car. This gift is something from God.

What we actually have here is another story-parable which Jesus gave while He Himself was at meal. He had already said something about the attitude of guests at special meals, and about the motive of the host. One of the guests at this meal where Jesus was had the insight to see that Jesus was telling of values in God's kingdom, and his reply to Jesus causes the conversation to turn to the kingdom in an explicit way.

In keeping with the overall theme, Jesus compares the kingdom to a great banquet. In Jesus' time and society when someone gave a banquet, a person would send an invitation telling the day but not the exact time. On the announced day, the host would send servants to those who had accepted the invitation to tell them the time had come. It was an insult to accept the invitation beforehand and then not go once the time came. But that is what happened in Jesus' story –– the banquet was an unwanted gift.

Before we go on with this theme, there is something else to keep in mind. When dealing with Gospel accounts, there are three stages to consider. Stage 1 is what the story or teaching meant in its original setting with Jesus. Stage 2 is how the gospel writer adapts and uses the story or teaching. Stage 3 is how the story or teaching is applied on a more universal level. We tend to look for Stage 3 truth to help us with our own living, but we cannot truly understand Stage 3 unless we first have some understanding of Stage 1 and Stage 2.

The Stage 1 meaning of this parable has to do with God's invitation to Israel. Now that God has sent Jesus to tell them it is time to embrace His kingdom, Israel isn't responding. The result is going to be that God turns to Gentiles and other outsiders to find people who will fill His kingdom. There's more here, though, than a lesson on God going outside of Israel and a good illustration of bad interpretation. The implications of not wanting God's gift are for us.

What is it that makes a gift undesirable? Gifts that we receive at Christmas are either too big or too little, not the right style or color, or maybe we already have one like it. Whatever the specific reason might be that we would not want a gift, the underlying reason is that we do not need it. We have other options. One big reason I didn't care about the toy car was all the other things I had. If I had no other toys –– no hopes for any other gifts –– that car might have been the most wonderful gift in the world, even for a thirteen year old.

Let's apply that to the setting Jesus gives in the story. The reason the people who were originally invited did not come is that missing a banquet was no big deal to them. The host in this story had evidently not done what Jesus had recommended in the previous story. He had not originally invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. He had invited people who had resources much like his own. One man had bought a field. Another had five yoke of oxen which were new. These were not people who were anxious about their next meal. They were likely people who could, themselves, give a banquet.

This is a story, among other things, about people who have options. And people with options can afford to be more finicky than the person with little or no options. Offer a rather nice gift to a person who has the means to choose and buy what he likes and the chances are you may give an unwanted gift. On the other hand, offer a humble gift to a person who has nothing and it will be gratefully accepted.

That is why the host in this story turned to the people who were down and out. He had prepared a banquet. He wanted his house full of people enjoying his hospitality. And if his own circle of acquaintances would not come, then he would turn to people who would.

I have already said that part of the application here is understanding that God turned to people outside of Israel in a special way when most of the Jews would not accept the gift of His kingdom. But the application does not end there; what God was doing to Israel as a collective people He also does to us as individuals.

Just as God invited all of Israel to join in His Messianic kingdom banquet, He invites all of us to His kingdom table. And just as Israel thought she had no need of what God was offering through Jesus, there are many people today who treat God's invitation as an unwanted gift. Stage 1 is being continued in Stage 3.

Maybe you right away think of a neighbor or someone you work with who does not go to church, someone who is profane, someone who is a womanizer or some other notable sin. If that is what we think of here when the idea of rejecting Jesus as God's gift comes up, then we are not staying in the context of Stage 1. In Stage 1 it was the religious people who thought they did not need what God was doing. In Stage 3 we need to be careful that we do not do the same thing. Just as the Jewish people in Jesus' day thought God accepted them as they were, so we have people today who are products of the church who think they are really good enough. People who are outwardly moral.... people who have been through the church's rites of initiation.... people who are respected in the community.... people who have been elected to church offices.... The list could go on.

The dangerous thing about these people –– and some of us could be among them –– is that they think they have spiritual options. All of us are used to having options. We have options in the way we relate to the material world. We can decide whether to eat out today or fix the meal at home. Most of us had options of what to wear to church today. We have options of what we will do this afternoon. Maybe you never seriously think about it, but we have options as to what job to work and what state to live in. We live in a culture bombarded with options.

That does something to the way we see ourselves spiritually. We think we have options. If a person does not like the way it is at one church, he can go to another. (It would be interesting to see if people think God's requirements change from church to church.) But when it comes to our salvation.... when it comes to being accepted by God, we do not have options. God gave His greatest gift –– the One we celebrate at Christmas –– and in giving Jesus provided the one way that we can have salvation.

I guess there is no one who is seriously involved in a Christian church who would disagree with that on the cognitive level. But when it gets to living out what it means to accept Jesus Christ as one's Savior, the consensus falls away. God's gift is for people who know they have sins which need forgiveness. It is not for people who think they are already pretty good, and for whom the Christian faith is merely a good option.

This story is a warning to people who are too proud to openly repent. This story is a warning to people who are self-sufficient. It is a warning to people who think they are good enough and so do not need redemption. It is a warning to people who will not admit their need of healing so long as everything looks good on the outside.

The warning is that God has no mercy on people who think they have spiritual options. People who think they are spiritually full have little reason to accept the invitation to God's banquet table. People who think they are good enough have little reason to openly and humbly accept the gift of God's Son.

Jesus says here that those who say no to the dinner will not taste it. Those who are excluded from the banquet have only themselves to thank. God will not drag the unwilling into it against their will. Jesus makes two things very clear: First, no one can enter the kingdom without the invitation of God. Second, no one can remain outside but by his own deliberate choice.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear what happens to people who treat God's great gift with contempt –– whose response to Jesus Christ is like that of an unwanted gift at Christmas:

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace? It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:28-29,31).

The people who are most likely to truly find the kingdom are those who know that life doesn't offer any other good options. God's gift does not come to us like a toy car to a boy who has other toys. The kingdom is not something we can return for a different model or style that we might like a little better.

I invite you to think again what it means for you that God gave us the gift of His Son. Is your response to Him one of convenience, as though you had other options? God wants us all at His banquet table, but He wants us on His terms. Do you treat God's Son as an unwanted gift?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

He Came To Die

I am taking a break from the First Corinthians series until the other side of Advent and Christmas. In the meantime I am posting some of my Advent-Christmas sermons written over a decade ago.

He Came To Die
Luke 13:31-35

In Advent we begin to think especially about the way God came into our world in the life of Jesus. Advent is a time to celebrate the hope of Life. It is a time of forgiveness and hope and peace. It is a time of wonder and excitement and joy.

There is another dimension, though, to the Advent – Christmas season that is often overlooked. Along with a message of life, the coming of Jesus was a promise of death. More than anything else, Jesus Christ came into our world to die.

Among other things, the Bible is a book about life and death. It speaks plainly about physical life and death, and of course it speaks directly about spiritual life and death. Those themes are not absent in the unfolding life of the One whose coming we are about to celebrate.

At first there was only life. There was God, and He is Life. With creation, we are told that from the beginning everything was good. The human creation was very good. It knew only life, physical and spiritual. God was in His beautiful world in a special way. The man and woman walked with Him and talked with Him. There was no death.

All of that changed when the man and woman disobeyed God. They sinned, and with sin death entered the world. Writing about that event Paul would later say, Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned... (Rom.5:12). The story of our world had become one of life and death instead of only life.

The drama began to unfold immediately. First there was a provision for life. God gave the man and woman animal skins for a clothing, and some see in that a shedding of blood for their sins. God also gave a promise: A seed from the woman would come to crush the head of the serpent who had tempted the man and woman in their disobedience.

Eve might have thought God's promise was coming quickly when the two boys were born. Instead of life, though, they gave a disturbing picture of death which follows us yet today. Cain, in his anger, killed Abel, and people are still killing people. We need the peace that Advent promises.

Cain killed Abel because Abel told the truth about God. God does not accept just any kind of worship; His worshippers must come His way. Cain did not like that, and he was the first of many people to kill one of God's prophets. Abel was, in a sense, the first prophet to be killed for standing for God's ways. The story of life and death was well under way.

How were people to understand this story of life and death? The tendency is for most people to act like Cain, thinking any sincere approach to God is good enough and resisting –– and even hating –– anyone who would say anything differently. How could God's ways be understood by people in whom God's life had been extinguished by spiritual death?

The Scriptures are a record of the steps God took both to teach people His ways and bring them to new life. And throughout all that God said and did, themes and patterns of life and death continued to recur. The theme of life and death was foundational to Israel's worship and salvation in the Old Testament. The symbolic death of a lamb was Israel's salvation when God brought them out of Egypt. That Passover theme continued throughout the Old Testament into the New Testament.

The entire book of Leviticus is based on blood sacrifice. In one place God told the people, The life of the creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life (Lev. 17:11).

Hundreds of years went by and Israel continued the blood sacrifice. When the Temple was built in Jerusalem which replaced the Tabernacle, they celebrated the day with sacrifices of 22,000 cattle and 120,000 sheep and goats (1 Kings 8:63).

But sacrificial blood on the altar was not the only blood shed in the Old Testament. The reaction of sinful people to God's truth brought the same pattern begun by Cain and Abel. By the time the kingdom was divided and in its final stages, Jerusalem was getting the reputation as a prophet killer.

Of the evil king Manasseh it was said, he shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end (2 Kings 21:16). Josephus, the Jewish historian of almost 2000 years ago, said of Manasseh, "He spared not even the prophets, some of whom he slaughtered daily, so that Jerusalem ran with blood" (Antiquities 10.3,1&38). Zechariah the prophet was killed in Jerusalem (2 Chron. 24:20ff). Then there are the tales from the prophet Jeremiah –– of Uriah killed by King Jehoiakim (26:20-23) and of the attempt on Jeremiah himself (38:4-6). Legend has it that Isaiah was also killed in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem was the place of blood sacrifice –– legitimate and illegitimate.

The New Testament did not change that. The writer to the Hebrews uses the Old Testament sacrificial system to show what God had done once for all through the death of Christ, and how it was in continuity with all that God had done in the Old Testament. In fact, the ninth chapter of Hebrews is like a New Testament Leviticus when it says, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

The theme recurs in the New Testament over and over again. Peter explicitly said it in his first letter: For you know it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1:18,19).

And John, in his Revelation, says the Lamb is a central focus of worship in heaven (5:9):

And they sang a new song:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood
you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation

The book of Revelation also clearly says that God's faithful people will continue to physically suffer and die right up to the end. And at the end, God will consign those who have continued in their spiritual death to that state forever. So from beginning to end, the Bible is a book about life and death both physically and spiritually.

Christian faith is built on the belief that Jesus Christ is at the center of everything connected with life and death. In our preparation of Advent and with the coming of the Christmas message of life and hope and peace, we do not forget that Jesus came to die.

It was something Jesus never forgot. John tells us in the first chapter of his gospel that John the baptizer spoke of Jesus as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (1:29). Jesus was baptized under that shadow. It was at the heart of His temptation in the wilderness. He struggled with it in the garden on the night of His betrayal.

The previous four chapters of Luke are in the overall context of Jesus going to His death. Back in 9:51 Luke said, As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. All that happens from that point is, for Jesus, under the larger shadow of death.

In this passage Luke reports that some people came to Jesus with the news that Herod was wanting to kill Him. Three things come through in what Jesus said. It should not surprise us that what He says falls within the parameters of everything else the Bible says about life and death.

First of all, a threat is not going to stop Jesus from His work. He came to die, and He knows it. He had been doing His ministry under the shadow of death from the beginning. The New Testament language of sacrifice is not just flowery speech. When God promised Eve a Deliverer it was not purely mythological. When God gave the Israelites the Passover, He was acting within character; the true Lamb was yet to come. And when John tells of the Lamb being worshipped in heaven, he is telling of something that is real.

If there was any doubt of that, the second thing should erase it. The language disguises all that Jesus meant, although it is easier for us now that we can look back and see the significance of the third day (v.32). That phrase, along with the words, I will reach my goal, combine to speak of the culmination of all that God had been doing for thousands of years to bring the perfect sacrifice for sin. Jesus knows that Herod will not kill him; He must die in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was where the symbolic sacrifices had always been done. The drama that God had been building in that city for all those years had to be resolved there.

The third thing is the interplay between Jesus and Jerusalem. Jesus was not only to be killed in Jerusalem, He was to be killed through Jerusalem. What had been true for all the years would happen again: Jerusalem would turn on the One God had sent to save her. As she had killed other prophets, she would cry out for Jesus to be crucified.

Still, knowing those very people would cry for His death, Jesus affirms His love. He wanted to "mother" the ones who would yet kill Him, and He looked to the day when the effect of His death would be known. The passage ends on what sounds very much like an Advent saying: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

Such is the hope that is ours. The Lamb has been slain. The blood has been shed. The debt of sin has been canceled. God's justice has been fulfilled. All of this... because Jesus went to Jerusalem.

The one reason we can give ourselves to this time of Advent is because Jesus came into our world to go to Jerusalem. As we prepare to rejoice in the birth of God's Son, let's not forget that more than any other thing, He came to die.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Knowledge Is Not Enough

This is sermon #20 from my First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 8:1-13

Back in the 80's Lawrence Kasdan produced a movie which captured an almost mythic place among people of my generation. The Big Chill was about a group of "thirtysomething" people who had been friends in college, and were now reunited at the funeral of one of the group who had committed suicide. They stay together for the weekend and spend part of the time examining their lives.

One of the fellows writes for People magazine and another is a featured actor in a TV weekly drama. The writer had earlier done an article on the actor and had taken advantage of the friendship to get a revealing story. During the weekend the two get into a discussion in which the writer tries to excuse his actions. The actor then asks, "Why is it what you just said strikes me as a mess of rationalization?" Whereupon the writer answers, "Don't knock rationalization; where would we be without it? I don't know anyone who can get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations."

The writer could have been from Corinth. The Corinthians, you may remember, had written Paul a letter to which our 1 Corinthians is an answer. The letter from the Corinth Christians was full of rationalizations that tried to legitimize sub-Christian living. A few of their rationalizations went this way:

–– I belong to Paul/Apollos/Cephas (1:12)
–– All things are lawful for me (6:12)
–– Food for the stomach and the stomach for food (6:13)
–– It is good for a man not to touch a woman (7:1)
–– All of us possess knowledge (8:1)

Paul has, in turn, reminded them they are not ordinary people; they are people of the cross. The cross represents a wisdom the world does not understand. The world does not see beyond itself, but Christians know this world is not all there is.

One thing wrong with the Corinthians is their inability (or refusal) to connect what they know about Christ with a different way of living in the world. Paul has to confront them with being spiritual babies. He uses words like "carnal" and "fleshly" to describe them –– words that mean they are living as if they do not have the Holy Spirit. They are accepting immorality, they are tolerating Christians taking each other to court, they are trying to build a false spirituality that caters much more to self effort and self promotion than it does to actually following Jesus.

As chapter 8 begins Paul deals with yet another subject where the Corinthians are rationalizing Christian behavior. This time it is in the area of old relationships that had their basis in sinful identity. The specific situation is one that we have trouble identifying with today. The Corinthian world recognized many different gods. Christians call it idolatry because we believe in only one God, but that is not how the Corinthian culture saw it.

The worship of these so-called gods involved activity both directed toward the perceived deity as well as fellowship among the worshippers. This was accomplished by cooking meat dedicated to the "god." The smoke would ascend as incense and then the people would eat together the cooked meat.

The Christians at Corinth were arguing that it was alright for them to continue to go to those feasts. Maybe the food was that good. More likely there were still emotional ties –– friends and even family were still worshipping the false gods.... rituals and patterns that were familiar and "felt good." Their former way of life was woven into their consciousness. Paul knew they were only fooling themselves to say it didn't matter to return to the old hang-outs for merely a bite to eat. Rationalizing.

And what was the rationalization? A reality that no Christian would contest –– and Paul doesn't. The Corinthians said (v4), "we know there's no such thing as other gods, so why is it wrong to eat the meat?" The idea was that if idols are not real gods, then why should it matter if a Christian goes to the pagan temple to enjoy the food and festivities? They also said (v8), "food is merely food, and God doesn't care what we eat."

What do we say when other Christians show an understanding of truth but then apply it in a wrong way? Has it ever occurred to you that such is possible? You see, it's not good enough to know a certain Bible teaching or to understand a certain doctrine. Knowledge apart form appropriate application is useless. In the Old Testament Israel said God was the only true God; they knew in their minds that was true. On the other hand, the pagan people around them had more appealing religious practices. They had temple prostitutes who could make a man feel good. The compromise Israel opted for was to say the right things about God, but do what their pagan neighbors were doing. And it was compromise. Rationalization. What we do cannot escape the implication of what we believe. So for the Corinthians back then –– and for us today –– how we relate to this world and how we behave from day to day affects our faith (or shows the lack of it).

There is one big issue at stake here, along with two sub-implications that, together, form a second big issue for Christians living in a pagan environment. The first big issue is individualism. Individualism is a problem in the church today. Individualism in the context of Christian identity is a self-centered faith. And it shouldn't be surprising that self-centeredness is in the church –– look at our culture. Newsweek had an article about the trend of baby boomers coming back to religion. They look at churches from the perspective of shopping: they look for close, off-street parking, modern facilities, and an entertaining program. For them, faith itself is validated by its ability to make one "feel good." And many churches are growing by offering just that –– the parts of Christianity that make one feel good, with nothing being said about sin, personal responsibility and obedience.

One thing that made the Corinthians feel good was this word here in chapter 8: know-ledge. To simplify it and bring it to our day, it was enough to mentally possess the facts about who Jesus was and what he had done. One could then delve deeper and deeper into philosophical theology so that the further one went with profound speculations on Jesus and angels and Old Testament allegory, the more prestige such a person gained. Each person was free to develop alone. But speculations on Jesus and angels, profound or not, does not necessarily give one a relationship with God and his people.

Spiritual independence takes us in the wrong direction. Thinking we know something special.... thinking we know more than others only makes us proud. Spiritual independence and pride alienates us from God and other people –– just the opposite of what true Christian faith is supposed to do. So the word here –– the word to the Corinthians in their situation and the word to us –– the word to Christians trying to find their way in a pagan world, is that love is more important than knowledge. That is the second big thing here.

It's not that knowledge is of no value. The Corinthians, in fact, had come to recognize some important truths. Of course those "gods" were not real. Of course God's main concern with us is not what we eat. But... what does the Christian do with that knowledge? The Corinthian answer is to use knowledge for self-convenience; God's word through Paul is to let love work in your life instead of practicing an independent, self-centered knowledge –– a rationalization that uses truth to make life convenient for you.

What is it, then, that love does? In what way does love counter this individualistic approach to religious knowledge? Well, first of all, love validates knowledge. Love is what makes knowledge worthwhile. Love is how Christian knowledge is applied. That is the general truth –– the foundation on which a true life application can be made. It is stated in vs2,3: Anyone who claims to "know" does not yet have necessary knowledge; but if anyone loves, this one truly "knows."

This means a focus on knowledge only shows someone who doesn't even know enough to be on the right track. It is the person who loves who shows knowledge of Christ and his ways. The person who loves doesn't need to talk about profound things to convince others of spirituality; love is the validation of knowing Christ.

Now there are two ways Paul applied this to the Corinthians' specific situation. The first is in v7 where he acknowledges the difference between reality and perceived reality. Yes, it's true that Christians know there are no other gods –– but that is not what the pagans think. And so what do the pagan people think if they see Christians entering into the activities that are specifically connected with pagan ways? Well, they certainly do not see Christian truth. They do not see Christian distinctiveness. They are prevented from seeing their error if Christians are justifying it by their participation. Love will not do that to unbelievers.

The second thing that love considers are Christian believers who are new or weak and immature. In v9,10 Paul projects the likelihood that another Christian who does not have as much "knowledge" will see the all-knowing self-centered Christian individual participating in something that does not seem right. But if the immature person says, "Well, if he or she is such a strong Christian and can do that, it must be okay," and then follows the example –– but deep down thinks it's wrong, then one Christian has tempted another to sin. And the text says such sin could "destroy" that weak believer, meaning it could result in spiritual death all over again so the person is lost to Christ. Love does not do that to fellow Christians. Christian knowledge is never an excuse to rationalize our behavior for our own convenience.

To make the matter clear, Paul ends this chapter by saying he would give up his right to eat meat altogether if the choice was between his tastes and appetite compared to people who might connect his eating with idolatry. That is love. That is following Jesus. Jesus gave up his rights as God's Son and died for us when he had committed no wrong. Paul is following Jesus –– willing to give up a right that could be perfectly legitimated by using knowledge. But Paul is not willing to put his individual knowledge above the good of others and the call to follow Jesus. Love does not rationalize. Love reminds us that sometimes Christian knowledge is not enough.

Now that's the principle in this chapter, but how is it applied in our day and culture? We do not have temple parties with tasty meat that's been offered to some bogus god. I hesitate to dogmatically say this Corinthian situation corresponds to exactly this or that today. We have the principle, and the Spirit can apply it to each of us in different situations.

I will, however, be a bit bold and mention three possible contexts to help you think about how this truth could work today. The first is language. The world has its own way of talking. It is often crude; it is often loose with its references to God. Knowledge and rationalization might say, "Those are just words; they're mere things we use to express emotions –– everyone says them. God knows I love him. Besides, Jesus has died for all my sins." The bigger question, though, might be the witness you are giving if you say things the way the world around us does. Who are you siding with if you flippantly say "oh my God" the way so many people do who never think of God as they say it? Whose side does it appear you are on if you use the same four-letter expletives profane people use?

Another context might be music. I'm thinking particularly of young people now. You can rationalize and say you just like the music –– that you ignore the words, but whose side does it appear you are on, what do non-Christian friends think if you listen to AC/DC, Megadeath and such stuff? Should Christian young people go to concerts, dances or parties where that kind of music is the focus of the activity? I'll not answer that for you, but it deserves an honest answer before God.

The last present-day context I will suggest is perhaps the one I think comes closest to the context here in Corinthians. It's the subject of alcohol. Knowledge says the Bible does not teach total abstinence. Knowledge says the issue is not what one drinks, but rather its inordinate use. But what is the perceived reality? It doesn't take much observation to see how alcohol is used (abused) in our culture. The places and activities broadly associated with drinking are not so unlike the things that went on in Corinth at the temple feasts. So what does love say? What does love say about going out and drinking one with the boys –– even if you do not get drunk? Whose side will the unbeliever think you are on? What does love say about drinking in public where a weak Christian –– perhaps one who has struggled with alcohol –– will see you?

Whatever your reaction was to these things, let me ask you one question –– was your response based on knowledge or love? Do you most want to rationalize –– or obey our Lord, who modeled laying aside rights and said that the disciple would be like the master?

You see, as Christians, it's not what we know; it's who we love. Christian knowledge isn't enough. A juicy rationalization can always get around mere knowledge. Our Lord calls us to love. Others trust us to be Christians. Whose side are you on?

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