Monday, December 6, 2010
Sunday, March 14, 2010
I love a good sandwich.
There is just something about inserting a delicious piece of meat (yes, meat is required for any REAL sandwich) between two otherwise tasteless loaves of bread that suddenly makes the bread worthwhile. As I read Luke 18, I couldn't help but notice that there is a big fat sandwich right there in the text.
The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.' But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
I also do not think it is a coincidence that the two proud ones mentioned would have been the cream of the crop in ancient Jewish society. Today so many of us have grown up with the image of Pharisees as the villains of the Bible that when they are mentioned we get the image of scowling bad guys twisting their mustaches as they plot against Jesus. However these were some of the most respected men of their community. The many additions they made to the Mosaic Law were to help the law become doable and accessible to the people. As other nations descended upon Judea, the Pharisees preserved their identity as God's chosen people. In many ways these were the good guys.
Likewise the rich young man would have held a place of respect in the community. At that time as well as today, Judaism focused primarily on blessing and curses in this life, and placed little emphasis on an afterlife. Those that became rich in this life without falling into obvious instances of corruption such as tax collecting were obviously blessed by God. The way this young man approached Jesus and the shock from the crowd when he is humbled strongly suggests that he was one everyone believed to be a righteous man blessed by God.
Between these two men are the children. In the midst of many accomplished and learned adults, Jesus tells us to receive the Kingdom of God like these children.
Please understand, I am in no way suggesting that we should cease all learning and not study the Bible in detail. God has given us much to learn as we grow. However as we learn we must be careful not to become so proud that we make the ways of God subservient to our ability to understand.
I will never understand exactly how God is able to bring a heart from death to life when His word is proclaimed. I don't know exactly how the gifts won on the cross are delivered in Baptism or the Lord's Supper. However I do know that on the cross Jesus died for my sins, and the sins of the whole world. He died for the very sins of pride and arrogance that occur when we try to squeeze God into our limited understanding. I know that for some reason, far beyond my understanding, He eagerly delivers these gifts to us.
There is a great deal of Pharisee and rich young ruler in all of us. We have all committed the same sins. Jesus is harsh with these men, just as He is often harsh with us, in order to break our trust in our own knowledge and to break our pride in our own accomplishments. He makes into little children that hunger for the bread of life that He gives. He makes us into people that trust and gladly accept his gifts, and know the warmth of His smile upon us.
May God take us all from Pharisees and rich men to trusting children in this time of Lent.
Sunday, February 28, 2010
March is upon us!
The month of March seems to be when everyone turns Irish. Here in Champaign Urbana it comes early with University students celebrating unofficial St. Patrick's Day one week from now. For me March is a time to remember just how much of a Geek that I am. While everyone else turns Irish by throwing on a green shirt and drinking darker beer, I'm pulling out my documentary on the real St. Patrick and re-reading his Confession.
The truth is that Patrick has become one of my favorite historical characters. Many people do not realize that he was the first missionary to venture beyond the borders of the Roman Empire without a Roman army preceding him. He most likely never chased any snakes from the island, but did introduce the Gospel in a way that would change the people of Ireland and the rest of Christianity forever.
One thing I find myself doing repeatedly at this time is reading the hymn that has come to be known as St. Patrick's Breastplate. I will admit that there is some doubt as to whether or not Patrick himself actually wrote the hymn, but by comparing it to his Confession I think that if Patrick did not write it, he would have surely loved it.
Something that struck me as I read the hymn this week is how overtly Trinitarian it is.
I arise today
in a mighty strength,
calling upon the Trinity
believing in the Three Persons
saying they are One
thanking my Creator.
So often I fall into the habit of thinking that I only deal with one part of the Trinity at a time. When I pray I am speaking to the Father. When a Pastor reminds me of how I am forgiven I hear the words of the Son. When I am comforted in difficult times I feel the warmth of the Holy Spirit. This isn't inherently wrong. Scripture makes it apparent that the members of the Trinity take on specific roles. However the more I learn of God, the more apparent it becomes that I am never really interacting with just one member.
In my reading of Luke this week I saw a beautiful picture of the Trinity.
We do not worship some solitary being, but an entity whose very existence is defined by a loving relationship. The same God that awed Patrick still saves us, sustains us, and makes us into His children.
I encourage anyone who reads this to take time to read old hymns and prayers. Feel free to start with the Lorica of St. Patrick, also known as his Breastplate and the Deer's Cry.
Monday, February 22, 2010
First off, yes, I know that this post is over a week late. I have no excuses!
Anyway, last time I was taking a look at the often quoted passage from Luke dealing with "new wine". Check the previous post to read the passage in its entirety. I will however, repeat my question.
If we make this passage about comparing new and old practices in the church, are we in fact missing the point completely?
My answer to this question would be yes, here's why.
I think it is important to note that Jesus does not actually call for any change in practice here. He does not say, "fasting is something attached to the old ways, I'm doing away with it." In fact He acknowledges that fasting will continue.
"The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."
So if the practice of fasting will continue, why the talk about new wine? What is so new? First let's look at fasting in the Old Testament. It is interesting to note that many of the fasts performed by the Pharisees that confronted Jesus were not prescribed in the books of Moses, but had rather been added on top of God's law. One of the few times when the Bible does call for a fast is in association with the Day of Atonement, or Yom Kippur.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the LORD. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. And whoever does any work on that very day, that person I will destroy from among his people. You shall not do any work. It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your dwelling places. It shall be to you a Sabbath of solemn rest, and you shall afflict yourselves. On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath." Leviticus 23:26-32
A key component of "afflicting" oneself was fasting. This passage makes it very clear that fasting was required to properly prepare oneself for the Day of Atonement. It goes so far as to say that anyone who does not fast is cut off from God's people! Therefore we can see that in the minds of the Pharisees fasting was born of the law; it was something a person must do to receive God's Atonement.
The fasting Jesus suggests is much different. He puts fasting into the context of a wedding celebration. If this were like the fasting associated with Yom Kippur, then it would occur before the wedding celebration as a cleansing action to prepare for the feast. However Jesus has the feast happening first followed by a time of fasting.
This fasting seems to be less about preparing oneself and more about longing for another. The fast does not earn the love of the Bridegroom but flows from a love and longing for a gracious Bridegroom that has brought a great feast to His bride. This fasting is borne of Grace.
The more I read this passage the more I see it has nothing to do with guitars versus pianos, or ecstatic hand waving versus quiet reverence. Rather it compares the way of the law with the way of the Gospel. The question this passage asks us is, "why do we do what we do?"
I think this is a very relevant question this time of year. We have entered the season of Lent, a season often marked by fasting. If you choose to fast in some way, whether it be an elimination of food or perhaps some form of entertainment or anything else, why are you doing it? Are you fasting in the hope that God will provide you something, such as physical possessions or a spiritual experience, or are you fasting out of gratitude for what Christ has already given you?
God provides us our daily bread, but we do not live on bread alone. We live in the freedom of the forgiveness won for us on the cross. We feast in the righteousness that has been imputed to us by Christ. When we fast, let it be borne out of a longing for our great God and Savior, who has so richly blessed us. May we, the bride of Christ, remember the feast of victory provided by the Lamb of God, and anticipate his return.
Compared to the rat race in which we so often find ourselves, this is truly new wine.
Sunday, February 7, 2010
Sunday, January 31, 2010
To clean up, you need to get dirty.
I'll never forget my first day on the job as a janitor. I was a college student needing a little extra money and found a part time job helping to clean the residence halls. It was a warm sunny day and I was honestly in a good mood. I met the full time guy that was in charge of the building where I would be working, and he handed me a snow shovel.
Did I mention it was warm outside?
It turns out that we needed to empty the garbage rooms. Normally this would be a relatively easy task. Each room contains large bins that are wheeled out and tipped into the compactor. One can usually dispose of all the trash while minimizing any actual contact with the waste. However we had just finished a three day weekend and the bins had overflowed to such a degree that we had to literally dig a way out with them. We then refilled each bin twice with what was left on the floor.
By the time the day was done, I stunk of the refuse of college freshman. Not my best day.
We've all had our share of dirty jobs, and I'm sure if I asked around there are plenty of people that can come up with much better stories than me. My point is that to clean a mess of any significance, we often have to become immersed in the mess ourselves and in the end, we get dirty.
In my reading this week, Jesus came across a dirty person. Luke 5:12 tells us that this man was a leper, which meant he was dirty on multiple levels. He was dirty physically; leprosy is a disease that makes itself obvious, covering the body with sores and legions. Every time this man looked at his skin he would have been reminded of what was wrong with him.
He was dirty culturally. A disease that manifests on the skin cannot easily be hidden and he would have been shunned by his former friends and neighbors. Beyond that he was legally obligated to remove himself from society. If he were to encounter anyone he was to cover his face and shout "Unclean!" so people would know to stay away.
Finally he was dirty spiritually. Such a disease made him unclean according the laws of Moses. He was prohibited from participating in any religious activity. He could not go near the temple to worship. He could not present sacrifices. He was effectively cut off from God.
When we consider the context, the actions of this leper are downright shocking. He approached a Rabbi that was gaining respect in the community when he was obligated to avoid Him. Furthermore he had the audacity to actually ask this man for something!
"Lord, if you will, you can make me clean."
The proper response would have been for Jesus to turn his back on this man and abandon him before He himself became infected.
However that is not what Jesus does.
Jesus stretches out His hand and actually touches this physically, culturally, and spiritually dead man. He then speaks the words that this man will never forget.
"I will, be clean."
When Jesus touches this man an amazing thing happens. Not only does Jesus not become impure, but the man becomes clean. His skin is brand new. He is free to love his friends and family without the risk of defiling them. He can return to the temple, and present himself before the Lord.
Like this man, we are unclean. Our disease may not be as visible to the world as leprosy, but when we present ourselves to a holy God our impurity becomes evident. Our sin often damages us physically, destroys us culturally, and completely cuts us off from God. We have no more right to approach God than this man covered with rotting flesh.
However in Jesus God has stretched His hand out to us. Jesus entered our world, our mess, a situation far more out of control than that trash room in the dorm. Despite being immersed in this mess Jesus remained pure. Not only did He remain pure but by taking the consequence of our sin upon Himself He made us clean.
Now He invites us to receive the forgiveness that we never deserved, but He won for us anyway. We no longer need to fear our physical death. We are free to love as Jesus loved, not out of obligation, but out of thankfulness. We are free to approach our loving heavenly Father as the dear children He has always intended us to be.
God is willing, be clean.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
"I fought for them, and they spat in my face."
The other day I saw a TV show that mentioned some of the Vietnam protest movements of the 1960s. I was reminded of how I grew up with a very different perspective of these movements than many people my age. Many portrayals paint them as idealistic crusaders trying to bring about a better world. I look at the events as an adult and I believe many of them were, however that has never been my first reaction when I see such stories.
I am the son of a Vietnam veteran who came home and became a police officer. At an early age I learned about the reception my father received upon his return. So as a boy growing up whenever I learned about the protestors, they weren't heroes to me.
They were the people who called my dad a baby killer and spat in his face.
Before I go forward know that I am not out to make a political statement, so stick with me…
I have often tried to understand just what my dad has felt all these years. Political opinions aside, he went to a foreign country with an attitude of genuine service and responsibility, underwent unimaginable hardships (we recently caught a shot of him on a History Channel documentary carrying a dead comrade) and returned home to be hated by the very people he had served.
As I read from the Gospel of Luke this week I was reminded of my father's story. After His baptism, Jesus proceeded into the desert where he engaged in an intense spiritual battle with Satan himself. In many ways the original temptation of the first humans is repeated, except this time the Son of God is standing in the place of humanity, resisting the temptation completely and fighting the powers of this world on our behalf. From here he proceeds to Galilee, where His reputation grew. Then He went to Nazareth, His home town, full of the people He has come to save. They reject Him, mock Him, and get ready to throw Him off a cliff.
I have to make a disclaimer here. I am in no way equating my father with Christ, or putting him anywhere close. If I were to do so both of us would have to visit the Emergency Room to have his boot surgically removed from my hindquarters.
The comparison I make is that as I read this, I felt the same disgust for the people of Nazareth as I felt for the people that called my dad a baby killer. Jesus was serving them, fighting for them, and preparing to die for them, and they were completely blind to what was happening.
He was their one hope, and they wanted to kill Him. What was wrong with these people?
However as I read honestly I have to ask the question, are we so different?
If we look closely at the text, we notice that the people were not immediately angry at Jesus. In fact, in Luke 4:22 it records that "all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from His mouth." So what made them so angry? It was what Jesus said next.
And he said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Physician, heal yourself.' What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well." And he said, "Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown." But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.
And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian."
At this point they are suddenly ready to kill Him. Why?
There are a few things here that we can easily miss if we don't read carefully. First from Jesus' initial comment about Capernaum, we can see that miracles seem to have been happening in other towns, but not in Nazareth. This is verified by Mark's account of the visit to Nazareth. What makes the whole thing a little ironic is that they are rejecting Jesus' essential message from Luke 4:18-19 and then asking for more miracles as if Jesus is a traveling magician.
The second thing we see in Jesus' words is that He mentions two events from the Old Testament, Elijah helping Zerephath, and Elisha healing Naaman. The reason this is so significant is that both Zerepath and Naaman were Gentiles (non-Jews). In the minds of these people at Nazareth, the Messiah was coming for the Jewish people and the Jewish people only. No Messiah of theirs would ever be interested in helping some filthy foreigners.
So often we consider the Gospel, that Jesus defeated death and the Devil by substituting His life for our life, and then say "Ok that's great, now when will He get me that promotion at work?" We may not always be so vocal about our hate for other people but do a great job of ignoring the ones that bother us and refusing to serve them. Are we any different than the people of Nazareth?
Every time we turn our backs on people we don't like, every time we become flippant about Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and demand that God do miracles on our own terms, we show ourselves to be just like the people of Nazareth.
We spit in the face of Jesus.
As I look honestly at my life, I realize that I am a man of Nazareth. I thank God that Jesus is a much better man than me. Jesus loves me and you so much that He gave up His life to forgive the very sins that I am talking about. He stood as our substitute in life, facing and defeating the temptations that destroy us. He hung on the cross as our substitute in death, accepting the punishment that should have condemned us.
We spit in His face, and He saves us anyway.