The great baseball player Satchel Paige once gave this advice to someone–don’t look back, they might be gaining on you. Now there is some wisdom in that statement. An unhealthy focus on the past could keep us from going forward with confidence into the future. And while we can find God in the events of the past as well as in the events of the present, He is also to be found in the future. God isn’t bound by time, which is just a human construct.
Still, there is value in our past, especially insofar as it warns us of the failures and dangers our ancestors faced. As George Santayana wrote, if we fail to study the past we are doomed to repeat it.
That’s been true in my life also. I was raised in the church and taught its importance. But then I drifted away and, as a song puts, walked where demons dwell. But God had determined that I was to be one of His and so He led me back from the brambles onto the narrow pathway. Still, I did many things that I am now ashamed of, and I need to focus occasionally on those sins to remind myself of the glory of the Gospel–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me.
The congregation I now serve has a long past–191 years this coming Sunday. There have been times of success and times of failure. Times of growth and times of decline. There have been pastors who stayed for a quarter of a century and pastors who barely got unpacked before leaving. The Gospel has been purely proclaimed and sometimes not so purely. A lot of things can happen in 191 years.
I will be focusing on some of this history for the next month in my sermons. My goal will be to remind us of our first love as a congregation–the spread of the Evangelical Lutheran faith. We need to go forward with God’s message in the world of the 21st century. We need to proclaim His Gospel in a world full of sin and misery. Looking back will teach us something. It will teach us that while we were also sinners, even in our churches, Christ is always faithful and we are always being empowered by the Holy Spirit to accomplish that for which we have been called.
I hate filing. It’s boring and I can always find an excuse for doing something more “important.” So for quite some time, rather than filing my sermons neatly in appropriate folders I’ve just been dropping them in a drawer, rendering them fairly useless if I want to look up something that I may have already said–or just about anything else for that matter. So I’ve hired my granddaughter to put my files in order.
This got me thinking about what else I may be failing to keep in order. Is my spiritual life organized and in the process of deepening? Are my prayers as full as they ought to be? Is the rest of my labor at church focused or is it just a hodgepodge like my files were? Am I being the type of pastor God wants me to be to the people here at St. Paul’s or am I failing to be that which I should be just because I’m too lazy to do what needs doing?
My wife and I are going on vacation next week and I want to spend some time pondering how I can be a better servant, a better pastor, a better subject of the King of kings.
Now I suspect many who read this are just as likely as I am to avoid unpleasant tasks. No one wants to do boring things and no one, especially, wants to do hard things. But putting them off just makes more trouble down the road, and there won’t always be someone like my granddaughter to pick up the slack. So here are a few questions for you to ask yourself this week:
+How go things with your soul? Is your life a good reflection of the life of a follower of Jesus? +What work for God and His people have you been putting off? +Are you simply drifting in your spiritual life, showing up on Sunday for church but not doing to much else? +Are you praying for anything other than your self and your immediate loved ones?
There are a lot of other questions you could ask, but you get the idea.
My readings this morning included Psalm 2. The psalmist touches on something that is important for Christians to remember–God will always have His way, no matter the vigor with which people oppose Him. I thought I’d share some thoughts about this psalm.
The Western world is a mess. If you don’t believe that, then you haven’t been looking. Of course the great problem with the world is sin–believing that we can do a better job than God in the ordering of creation. Mocking the Lord will always get a laugh on television and holding His people up to ridicule will always find its way into the editorial pages of our major newspapers (and not a few minor ones too).
But look how God responds to those who despise Him and His people. “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (v.4) The mighty of this world, the powerful men and women, the cultural leaders, the haters of all things holy–God does not try to make excuses to them or explain His will. He does not call on His people to alter what has been taught amongst them from time immemorial, He does not bend to the fashions of the world and seek to seem relevant in the eyes of secularists. No friends, God laughs at them for He knows who is in control of the universe.
The next time someone attacks your faith or attempts to tell you God is simply a myth we have created to make ourselves feel safer–well, you can just smile at them because you know exactly what God thinks of them and what that will mean in the long run.
Oh, and in case you’re unsure about God’s victory, you can believe it because I looked in the back of the Book, and He wins.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning? (please don’t say the alarm clock, you know what I mean). Seriously, why bother to get up and face this world we live in? Well, I think there are some pretty good reasons.
First, we get up because God exists. Simple as that sounds, it’s profoundly true. If God didn’t exist, neither would we. But for any agnostics out there, if God didn’t exist there would be no reason to get up and go out into a world which would so very often give us pain. If God didn’t exist, why would we want to go through all the terrible things that happen in our lives, knowing that we were just animated carbon on our way to being inanimate carbon and that ultimately there was no meaning to life? If I didn’t believe in God I would have killed myself long ago.
Second, we get up because God has given us a new day. It’s unfortunate that we so seldom recognize that important fact. God, who holds all existence in the palm of His hand, who wills everything’s existence, has chosen to give us another day here on the 3rd planet from a minor star in a corner of the universe (okay, so the universe doesn’t have corners–you still know what I mean) We are here today because God wants us to be here. And with the new day come new opportunities to do the work He prepared for us before the beginning of time.
Third, we get up in the morning because we have sure and certain hope in our future and we have that hope because Jesus Christ died upon the Cross, enduring the punishment we deserve for the sin that clings so stubbornly to us, and He rose from the dead on the 3rd day that death might be forever defeated for His chosen people.
Finally, we get up in the morning because we just might meet someone today who needs to hear the Gospel and that there might be joy in heaven.
Go in peace and serve the Lord.
I’ve heard a lot of sermons in my life and I’ve preached a lot of sermons too. Any preacher who is serious about his calling spends a lot of time each week preparing for those 20 or so minutes on Sunday morning. Sometimes we get feedback on how we did, sometimes we don’t. So we don’t always know if the words of our mouths or the meditations of our hearts have been pleasing either to God or to the congregation. We can only pray that something good will result from our efforts.
The question that always stands out, though, is what makes a good preacher. Some people have honed the art of public speaking to such a sharpness that they are bound to surpass your average run of the mill speaker. I’ve read that Patrick Henry was such a talented public speaker that people would often lose track of time during his orations, thinking only a few minutes had passed when it was actually over an hour. Must a good preacher have such a skill? Or maybe a good preacher is a man whose knowledge of Scripture astounds even other pastors and who fills his message with a list of supporting passages almost too long to follow. Or maybe a good preacher is a man who can, in the pulpit, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
Well, in my opinion, there is only one way to measure whether or not a preacher was good on any given Sunday—did he proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you? I don’t care how clever the argument, how well delivered the sermon, how sonorous the tone of his voice–if a preacher doesn’t tell you that you, yes you, are a sinner deserving of eternity in hell but that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, bore your punishment on the cross at Calvary, rose from the dead on the third day and promises salvation to all who confess with their mouth that He is Lord and believe in their hearts that God raised Him from the dead–if you don’t hear that the preacher wasted 20 minutes of your life.
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he came among them determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That is what matters in the pulpit. It is a message so profound, so filled with meaning that every preacher ought to be able to find 60 different ways to express it every year of his ministry. I pray God shows each of us who dare to speak to His assembled people in any congregation how to do this small but immeasurably great service.
I have just gotten over an attack of diverticulitis. I won’t go into the details but it’s not pleasant. Indeed, it’s quite unpleasant. Even after being on antibiotics for 10 days my energy level was still pretty low and I couldn’t work a full day for almost two weeks.
Now I’m sharing this with you because I want to talk about another illness that affects me–and you too, whoever you are. That illness is sin. Yes, nasty old sin, that condition that has been handed down over the generations like some sort of genetic deposit. I have blue eyes. My father had blue eyes. My grandfather had blue eyes. I’m a sinner, my father was a sinner, my grandfather was a sinner.
Now it’s not fashionable to talk about sin these days. People don’t like being told that there’s something inherently wrong with them. They want words of encouragement. They want to be told how very special they are, how God wants them to be all they can be and so He is busy up in heaven making all good things just for them. Everybody wants to have the dessert without having to eat the Brussels sprouts. But there’s no getting around it and no avoiding it–all of us who are human are sinners who cannot and will not stop sinning. I can have what appear to be brown eyes by wearing colored contacts, but my eyes will still be blue. In the same way, I can appear to the world like the quintessential “good person” but I’m still going to be a poor miserable sinner, unwelcome in the presence of God, no matter what the guy next door might think.
I’m not at all sure I would have gotten over the diverticulitis had I not gone to the doctor and received the correct treatment. Had I just tried to ignore it, I could very well have died. To defeat the genetic disease called sin I must seek the proper treatment too. That means I must meet Jesus Christ at the Cross on Calvary. I must receive the gift of faith through the work of the Holy Spirit and when I receive that divine medicine, then and only then can my deadly sin be defeated and then and only then can I look forward to eternal life in the presence of God.
Diseases can do all sorts of bad things to our bodies. But only sin can truly condemn us to eternal death. And there’s a cure for that–Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for me and for you.
In my reading this past week I came across a rather long quotation from the 19th century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon. I won’t give it to you in its entirety, but I think it’s worth pondering, especially for those of us who are called to preach the Word in God’s Church.
Spurgeon noted that even in the 1880’s people were writing books and articles defending the Gospel against those who would bring it into disrepute. He allowed as how that was probably a good and needed thing, but he also noted that when the Gospel needed defending it was because the Gospel was not being preached as it should.
Then he drew this analogy–it would be as if you had a lion in a cage and you were worried about the fate of the lion against its enemies so you were calling in soldiers to defend the lion. Spurgeon noted that it was likely that the best way to defend the lion was to allow it to defend itself. In other words, let the lion out of its cage. And so he said the best way to defend the Gospel is to let the lion out.
In far too many churches the lion is kept in a cage with a sign above it that says “Assumed”. Too many preachers believe that the people in front of them know and believe the Gospel so they spend their time in the pulpit talking about things like how to have a good marriage, or how to avoid sin, or how to raise faithful children. They preach about everything except Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you. They ignore the fact that St. Paul, after his relative failure in Athens where he proclaimed Christ in a rather philosophical way, came to Corinth determined, he says, to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
No one should ever assume that people know the Gospel and believe it, nor should we assume that they don’t long to hear it proclaimed every time someone is in the pulpit.
Just let the lion out–He’ll take care of Himself.