Thinking About Memorial Day

Yesterday was Memorial Day and it is an important holiday in the minds of many people in this country.  And in mine.  It is important for us to remember those men and women who have died in defense of the United States.  Many of their sacrifices have ensured that America remains free.  I honor them for that.  But I also pray for the day when we will no longer be adding names to that list.

I first arrived in Vietnam in early June of 1968.  I landed in Ben Hoa and then spent about a week in Saigon before being sent to Phu Bai, an area a few miles south of the old imperial capital of Hue.  On my journey north I spent a few days in Da Nang.  Now the army didn’t want people in transit just sitting around so we were all sent on details.  I was sent to work at the morgue.  While I had already seen a fire fight in Saigon, I had yet to see any dead Americans.  I got to see quite a few that day.  They were all young men, some probably weren’t even men yet.  They were laid out naked with cotton over their eyes and genitals and tags on their toes.  I can still close my eyes and see those  bodies and if I ever smell formaldehyde it will trigger that memory.

Lots of people died in Vietnam after that day.  And then in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and not to forget other places where we have chosen to project our power in the world.  Some of those who have died were “good” people–others not so “good.”  But they all died young.  The saying used to be that young men die in wars and nothing can change that.  Now, I guess, we have to say that young men and women die in wars and nothing can change that.

I’m not a pacifist, but neither do I believe that Christians ought to be blase’ about this.  Ought not those called by the One who said that we are to love our enemies and pray for them be just a bit more vocal about not going to battle at the drop of a political hat?  Ought not Christians, when praying for those who defend us, pray also that they will never be deployed without to do so without something more than an economic or political goal to be attained?

War is the result of sin–each and every war, each and every time.  Jesus came to save us and to change us into men and women more like Him.  Think about that.

 

 

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How Much Do You Owe?

A few years ago the talking heads on television were all debating who was responsible for the recession and the collapse in housing.  Some said it was greedy bankers.  Others said it was the fault of government policies that encouraged the greedy bankers to make bad loans.  Everybody had a villain in mind–except the blame was never directed at the real culprits–us.  You see people in this nation had amassed an unsustainable amount of debt and when the least little fluctuation happened it all fell apart.  As Pogo once said, we have met the enemy and it is us.

Debt is never our friend, it is always our enemy because as long as it exists we can be called to account.  It is, I fear, what awaits our nation in not too many years.

There’s another type of debt that all of us owe.  That’s the debt we owe for being poor sinful beings who have sinned against God in thought, word and deed without any excuse.  If you default on your mortgage, you can walk away from your house.  But there is no walking away from the debt sinners who to God.  It must be paid in full.  The only way we could pay that debt on our own is to endure the eternal wrath of God.

But God, pure and holy, perfect and just, had mercy upon us and sent His Son to bear our punishment.  We didn’t have to pay what we owed.  Jesus paid that debt.  We didn’t have to suffer for what we have been and done.  Jesus suffered for us.  We didn’t have to see the grim visage of an angry God.  Jesus did that when He cried out on the cross, My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?

This was far better than having someone pay off our mortgage for us.  This was life eternal in the presence of the divine.  We owed a debt that we couldn’t face paying.  Now we owe a debt that we could never pay and so we cling to the cross, where we meet the God who saved us.

Sermon Prep

For the last 2 days I’ve been looking a materials for Sunday’s sermon.  The text is from 2 Corinthians 3–where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.  It’s a wonderful statement–well every statement in the Bible is wonderful in its own way–but still this is a particularly good one.  I thought as I sat down with it that it would be an easy text to preach on.  But God had more in mind than I first thought.  I actually see the possibility of multiple sermons on different aspects of what this freedom Paul speaks of truly can mean.  Too many ideas can create writers block just as surely as too few.

But my problem this week illustrates for us something about God’s Holy Word–it is inexhaustible.  No matter how many times we read or study the Bible or even just a small part of the Bible, God has something unexpected for us there.  No matter how often we open it and seek His face, we will always find it.  No matter how much we think we know, we will always be surprised by what we didn’t  know.

Now we can read a novel, even a good novel, and find if we try reading it again that it becomes rather boring.  Frankly, I think many of the novels published today don’t even deserve a first reading–but then that’s a topic for another day.  Still, no work of fiction can be read repeatedly  with the same delight as we have when we take the time to read what God has to tell us over and again.

I think that’s because there is a major difference between the Bible and any other written work.  Only the Bible can qualify as a carrier of truly Good News.  Only the Bible can illustrate for us both our inability to be who we are meant to be, and God’s ability to make us into that image of Him that we could be.  And it is without any doubt indispensable for salvation for in it God.

If I tell you about Jesus, I can only tell you about the Jesus I have come to know through the Word.  If I describe the Trinity as a God of love, I can only tell you that because the Bible says so.  If I can say that salvation is not a result of good works by men, but of one great work by God, I can only tell you that because the Bible says so.

One of the most important theologians of the 20th century was a Swiss named Karl Barth.  He was asked by one of his students to tell them what he considered the most important thing a theologian should know.  He replied that it was something his mother had taught him, Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Spend time today with that Bible the children’s hymn describes.  It will tell you so too.

Celebrities

I remember a few years ago sitting in the MVA.  As I waited my turn two ladies behind me were talking about some Hollywood people and their most recent escapades.  I was struck by the way these two ladies spoke of perfect strangers, using their first names only, as if they were old friends.  America today seems to most admire people who are famous largely for being famous, and they want to associate, however vicariously, with these strangers.  I find it both sad and, frankly, pathetic.

Now lest you think this strange view of the world affects only the worldliest of people, Christians seem also to be obsessed with celebrity.  Look at any Christian news site on the web and you will find a section on Christian entertainers and countless articles about the pastors of so-called “mega-churches”.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s great that there are actors and singers who follow the Lord.  But why should I care any more about them than I do about the plumbers and waitresses who know Jesus as Lord?  In the same way, why should anyone think that the pastor of a very large church has teachings that are more worthy than the pastor of a small or medium sized church?  None of this is very logical nor is any of it very Biblical.

I’m afraid that way too many American Christians are trying to find ways to emulate worldly people and worldly ways.  If “they” have non-Christian rock stars, well, we have Christian rock stars.  If “they” measure success by size and income, well, we too can measure success by size and income.  Where does this come from?

As I ponder this question I begin to think this search for celebrities who are Christians comes from a sense that somehow or another we must show the world that we are just as likely to be important as are the worldly people.  And that is truly something that ought to make us weep.  Why should we care to compare ourselves to those who reject everything we are to stand for?  Why should we think there is something inferior about being chosen by the Living God from the beginning of time to be His son or daughter if we can’t get into People magazine or have strangers who know our names?

The cult of celebrity springs, I believe, from a sense of emptiness in the soul, from a knowledge that we have a hole in hearts that needs filling.  But truly, Jesus is the only One who can fill that hole.  And when Jesus intercedes for us before the Father–well what more could we want?

Strangers In A Strange Land

Gershom.  That’s the name of Moses’ son whose mother was Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest named Jethro.  Now Moses was in Midian after fleeing Egypt for killing an Egyptian overseer.  He named his son Gershom because it sounds like the Hebrew word for stranger.  He says in Exodus 2 that he had been a stranger in a strange land.

That’s pretty much how life is for Christians.  Like Moses we’re here, we work, we get married, we raise children, but all around us things seem somewhat strange.  The customs of the place seem odd, the words used inappropriate, the dress a little off and the people a little different.  Like Moses, Christians live in this world as strangers in a strange land.

Some of you might be thinking now that it doesn’t feel that way to you.  You’ve lived somewhere all your life, you know the customs of the place, you can pick up the silent clues that make interaction with your neighbors possible.  Nothing seems to out of place to you–so you think, what in the world is this guy talking about.  This is my home, my native land.

My response is that you need to think a little more deeply about what you native land really is.  Is your native land a place where the Lord’s holy name is abused and profaned?  Is your native land a place where greed overcomes concern for the welfare of others?  Is your native land where random sex among near strangers is morally right?

I could go on with that but you get the picture, I think.  People who are reading this message would no doubt long to answer No! to those questions.  And that’s because this culture we now inhabit is strange to us, just as Midian was strange to Moses.  Those who seek to live as followers of Christ are indeed strangers living in a strange land.  This place isn’t our home country.  We are aliens here for we think differently, we speak differently, we act differently than the people around us.  I would go so far as to say that we all ought to carry passports with us.

If I were to design those passports you would open them and on the left side would be a picture of a cross and an empty tomb.  On the right would be your name and your nationality–citizen of New Jerusalem.  There would be no expiration date.

The Illusion of Familiarity

I recently read a book called The Everlasting Man by G.K.Chesterton.  Chesterton was an early 20th century English writer, journalist and (most importantly) a Christian.  His writing are chock full of all sorts of ideas and thoughts–sometimes almost too many for me to take in.  But I want to share with you one of those ideas–the illusion of familiarity.

It is impossible to imagine Western civilization without Christianity.  Our culture is so completely shaped by the teachings of the faith that no one can escape it.  Our modern languages were shaped and molded by the men who translated God’s Word out of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  Phrases such as “apple of my eye”, and “the powers that be”, words such as “peacemakers”, and “scapegoat”, and literally hundreds like them fill our daily speech.

Christianity was responsible for treating women as the equals of men, teaching that all human life has value, the establishment of public hospital, the abolition of slavery, the spread of public education and the concept of the value of the individual in the wider community.  And we could go on for a long time from here.  All of the things we value in Western culture can be traced directly back to the values instilled by the teachings of Christ and His followers.  Pagan culture was so utterly defeated that it is almost impossible for us to conceive of what it would be like to be a part of it.

Because of its prominence, almost everyone in our culture believes they know what Christianity is all about.  People believe themselves to be sure of what Christ taught and what those of us who claim His Name believe.  Unfortunately that is untrue of the majority of Americans.  They believe themselves familiar with Christianity, but it is merely an illusion because their exposure to the faith is probably less informed than their exposure to the lives of Hollywood celebrities.

Let’s think of an example.  It seems that almost every time someone is confronted with an accusation of immorality on their part, the immediate response is, “judge not lest you be judged”.  There you go–true Christianity must mean–has to mean–that we can all do whatever we want without any complaint from anyone.  In fact, Jesus meant no such thing, but many people will say it because they have an illusion of familiarity.

The really sad thing, though, is that many folks who sit in the pews of churches around the country also have an illusion of familiarity with Christianity.  This can be because they attend infrequently or because they don’t pay much attention while they’re there, or they might even go to a church where the faith is poorly taught.  But whatever the cause, far too many Christians have what I call a children’s Sunday School understanding of Christianity.  They’ve never matured in their faith.  They’ve never taken the time to actually study God’s Word to see what it truly says.  Way too often they mix up Christian teachings with their secular views about culture and politics–projecting their ideas onto Jesus rather than His teachings into their lives.

If you want to be a serious Christian–and I pray that you do–then you have to take seriously what Jesus taught the apostles and what they have taught us through the ages.  Your familiarity with the Bible can’t be an illusion if you want to hear the words “well done, good and faithful servant” when He returns.  God sends us His Word, we need to take it for what it is and walk faithfully in the pathways He leads us.

Clogged Spouting

A member of my congregation called me recently to see if I knew anyone who could clean the spouting at her home.  We’ve had a lot of rain lately and when it comes down hard the downspout can’t handle the load.  I know from experience that when that happens you run the risk of getting water in your basement.

Well, that got me to thinking about how you and I can get our spouting clogged up and unwanted water in places where it doesn’t belong.  What do I mean by that, you ask?  Well, our lives in this world can get awfully clogged up with the garbage that infects our culture these days.  It’s really hard to avoid it.  Like rain, it falls both on the good and the bad, the faithful and the unfaithful alike.  An evening in front of the television can make pour all sorts of destructive stuff into our minds.  Sex, violence, smarmy-ness, and general unpleasantness seem to be the standard fare on the airwaves today.

Like the rain which overflows the downspouts, so this excessive flood of images and ideas can slowly but surely overflow into the place where our opinions and ideas are formed.  When this happens we very slowly begin to accept the unacceptable, we very slowly become hardened to that which is contrary to the Word and will of God and we begin to think the formerly unthinkable.

Think, friends, how your grandparents would react if you could somehow meet them and describe the culture and mores of 21st century America to them.  Do you think they would just say, well that’s nice?  I don’t.  I think they would be at least as appalled as I am when I look at the world around me.  I think they would be horrified by the evil around us–evil we don’t even notice anymore.

But just as our problems with the spouting have a solution–so also our cultural problems have a solution–the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for us.  When we come to an assurance of our salvation through the proclamation of the Gospel, the Holy Spirit begins the process of our sanctification.  One of the most important methods He uses to bring about change in us is the reading and the proclamation of the Word found in the Bible.  There we can find what we need to know to live as followers of the Christ.  There we can find the “software” that will block out the evil Satan spreads in our world.  There we will learn discernment.  There we will find comfort.

Does your spouting need cleaning?  Are there things in your life that don’t fit with the path of a sanctified believer?  I bet there are–just as there are such things in my life.  And we need to let the Word guide and teach us the right path so that the evil of this present darkness does not damage the foundation of our lives.