How NOT to be God’s Image-Bearer

From Fox News online. No additional commentary needed other than to say this man desperately needs our prayers.

Jose Ayala didn’t make the best first impression at a welding shop near Del Paso Heights, Calif., Monday, but the shop owner Chris Johnson won’t soon forget him, Fox 40 reports.

Ayala showed up to his interview naked and high on meth, and cell phone footage of his fight with police has gotten a lot of attention on the internet.

Ayala was eventually subdued by police officers and bystanders, but it wasn’t easy, as the video shows.

Police contacted everyone involved in the video and the scuffle with Ayala, suggesting they get an HIV test. Apparently, Ayala is HIV positive

Read the whole sad story.

Fox News: Conservative Leaders Demand Apology from Huffington Over Anti-Catholic Column

If you are a Christian and think the Christian faith is not under attack in the USA, you had better wake up and smell the hatred. To be sure we are not being actively persecuted as the church is in other countries, but this is how persecution begins, especially when you have mainstream media who are by and large hostile toward the Christian faith and Christians. All it takes is a gradual shift in culture and a few strategically written laws to make things quite ugly for Christians.

This requires our serious attention and prayers. There is some very disturbing stuff here, all in the name of “satire.”

Right.

The Enemy loves “satire” like this and you can be sure will use it to spread his venom and hate.

I have included a link below to the original post so that you can read it for yourself. Wake up, O sleeper, before it is too late!

From Fox News online.

A group of socially conservative leaders is demanding Huffington Post publisher Arianna Huffington apologize for allowing a column to be published on her website that compares Catholics to pedophiles and attacks communion as a “barbaric ritual.”

In the letter dated Tuesday and obtained first by FoxNews.com, the group — never fans of the online news site — writes that the website, recently purchased by AOL, is “complicit in bigotry” for publishing columnist Larry Doyle’s article about Rick Santorum’s Catholic faith.

“Larry Doyle’s recent anti-Catholic screed in the Huffington Post, ‘The Jesus-Eating Cult of Rick Santorum,’ is bigoted and unacceptable, and a perfect example of ‘flame-throwing, name-calling, and simplistic attack dog rhetoric'” that Huffington pledged to avoid when she launched the Huffington Post in 2005.

“His column should be taken off your site, and you should issue an apology for ever publishing such trash,” the group wrote.

In his so-called satire published Friday, Doyle, a novelist and former writer and producer for “The Simpsons,” writes that many readers would be “shocked to learn” about Santorum’s religious beliefs, which stem from the church’s history in the Crusades “and its current role as the tactical arm” of the fringe North American Man-Boy Love Association.

Santorum, in following orders from the  pope, a “former” (Doyle’s quotes) Nazi who Catholics believe “chats with God,” has made “no secret of his plans to implement his leader’s dicta on allowed uses of vaginas and anuses, but has said little about what additional dogma he will be compelled to obey.”

Read it all.

It’s Leap Day

From Anglican Mainstream.

LITURGICAL THEME FOR THE DAY:  Structurally, the Gregorian calendar is indistinguishable from the Julian calendar. The only thing that separates the Gregorian from the Julian calendar is the correction of the leap year day. Pope Gregory XIII “corrected the calendar” by deleting three leap days from the years that begin the centuries, except those divisible by the number four. Leap day is the extra day that accumulates every four years due to the length of the astronomical year being 365.241299 days and not 365. It can be seen that the fraction .241299 is not quite 1/4, which would be .25.

Read the entire meditation.

Notable and Quotable

 For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to “invite Jesus into your life.” Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life’s a wreck. Jesus calls you into his life. And his life isn’t boring or purposeless or static. It’s wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.

–Dean Russell Moore, A Purpose-Driven Cosmos

Russell D. Moore: A Purpose-Driven Cosmos: Why Jesus Doesn’t Promise Us an ‘Afterlife’

From Christianity Today online.

There’s a cemetery plot, somewhere out there, waiting for your corpse. Regardless of who and where you are, you will one day be quite dead. And in 100 years, chances are no one will remember your name—including the people carrying your genes in their bloodstreams. We see our mortal future in everything from the natural forces that sap our hair color to the bacteria that eventually grind our bodies to a maggoty pulp. The universe rolls around us frenetically, and, in every single case, it eventually kills us.

That’s not just a matter of our individual destinies. If we are honest, the world around us seems pretty good proof that the gospel isn’t true. Doesn’t the cosmos seem to be just as the nihilists describe it: a bloody, merciless machine in which power, not goodness or beauty, is ultimate? What, then, is the meaning of life? What’s the purpose of history? If it’s all heading nowhere, then what difference at all does my existence make?

The gospel of the kingdom doesn’t shy away from such questions, but our preaching tends to swerve around the answers it gives. Often we Christians start our gospel proclamation with triumph over sin. Fair enough: The gospel of Christ is indeed the reversal of sin, and of death and hell. But without a broader context, such teaching can treat Christ as a means to an end, a step from the alpha of Eden to the omega of heaven. In a truly Christian vision of the kingdom of God, though, Jesus of Nazareth isn’t a hoop we jump through to extend our lives into eternity. Jesus is the kingdom of God in person. As such, he is the meaning of life, the goal of history, and the pattern of the future. The gospel of the kingdom starts and ends with the announcement that God has made Jesus the emperor—and that he plans to bend the cosmos to fit Jesus’ agenda, not the other way around.

…Perhaps we dread death less from fear than from boredom, thinking the life to come will be an endless postlude to where the action really happens. This is betrayed in how we speak about the “afterlife”: it happens after we’ve lived our lives. The kingdom, then, is like a high-school reunion in which middle-aged people stand around and remember the “good old days.” But Jesus doesn’t promise an “afterlife.” He promises us life—and that everlasting. Your eternity is no more about looking back to this span of time than your life now is about reflecting on kindergarten. The moment you burst through the mud above your grave, you will begin an exciting new mission—one you couldn’t comprehend if someone told you. And those things that seem so important now—whether you’re attractive or wealthy or famous or cancer-free—will be utterly irrelevant.

One of the best pieces I have read and worth your time to read and reflect deeply on.

Reflections on the Shootings at Chardon (OH) High School

From Fox News.

One student was killed and four were wounded during a shooting early Monday at an Ohio high school, authorities said. A suspect, whose name has not been released, is in police custody. Civil deputy Erin Knife with the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office said the shooting was reported around 7:30 a.m. Monday at Chardon High School. The suspected gunman, believed to be a student, fled the school on foot and was later apprehended after turning himself in. Authorities have not released the juvenile’s name because he has not been charged yet.

Read it all and weep over this sad, sad story.

UPDATE: Tragically, two more students have died. A terrible tragedy gets worse. May God have mercy on our souls.

Once again evil has reared its terrible ugly head, this time manifesting itself in another school shooting. Every time we hear stories like these, we ask the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” Even with all our technology and enlightened thinking, we still don’t know what to do with the problem of evil when it confronts us.

What follows are my own theological musings on this question. I don’t claim to have all the answers and the Bible is quite reticent about addressing this question. We are told, for example, that the serpent tempted Eve and caused the downfall of the human race. But we aren’t told why the serpent was in paradise in the first place. Having said that, I do think there are some partial explanations for why God allows evil to happen, especially when the evil is directly tied to human sin as in this awful story.

In my recent sermons I have talked about God’s purpose in creation and how human sin turned away from God’s creative purpose for us. God created humans to be his image-bearers, to reflect his goodness and love out into the world as wise stewards of his creation.

Like it or not, understand it fully or not, this is the main way God chooses to interact with his worldthrough the wise stewardship of humans who reflect God’s goodness and love.

Sin occurs when humans fail to live up to these tasks of being God’s image-bearers and wise stewards, when we seek to reflect our own damaged image out into the world (or reflect the world’s brokenness instead of God’s goodness back to itself). When that happens, sin also serves as a conduit for evil of all kinds. Thus we see kids shooting other kids, among other things. No one, I repeat, no one, who is God’s true image-bearer would do what happened today.

That, I think, is primarily why God allows evil to exist–because God operates mainly through wise human stewardship and we are more often than not unwise. God allows evil to exist, not because he doesn’t care about us or is a distant God who is far removed from the activities of his creation and creatures, but because God has given us the freedom to be stewards in the manner he created us. Otherwise we would be slaves and not human at all. And if that were the case, we would be incapable of having a real relationship with God. Of course that would be directly antithetical to God’s good creative purposes for us. So when we abuse the freedom God gives us and fail to be wise stewards and/or outright reject God’s call to us to be his image-bearers and turn almost completely inward on ourselves and our own brokenness and evil (as the shooter clearly did), evil is allowed to happen. To the cognate question as to why God has chosen to establish the ground rules for interacting with his creation in this manner, I wouldn’t have a clue.

Sin caused the world to fall under a curse and we are called to bring God’s healing love to others by being God’s true image-bearers by following Jesus in the power of the Spirit. The more we know God, the less tolerable sin is for us and the more we are enabled by the Spirit to reflect God’s love and image out into his world. Simply put, we become what we worship. Clearly the shooter did not have any remote image of God in him, at least when he did his heinous work, and we see what happens when we refuse to be the humans God calls us to be.

None of this is going to be of any comfort to those who have lost loved ones today or who have wounded children fighting for their lives in the aftermath of these shootings. Neither does it negate or diminish the terrible tragedy that occurred today and our hearts our broken as we grieve for the family of the dead students and pray for those wounded in this attack. Likewise, God’s heart is broken because this is not what he created humans for. When I am overcome by grief over evil like this–as I am today–I try to remember the cross, where Jesus, God himself, suffered and died for us to defeat evil and show us the way back to being truly human, the way God intends for us to be human, and so to bring his healing love and redemption to a world created good but now terribly broken and weighed down by sin and evil. And yes, that means we need to be praying for the shooter as well, that God turns his heart back to God.

A suffering God like that surely takes no pleasure in murder and surely grieves with us all on this dark day.

Let us pray. Merciful God, hear the cries of our grief, for you know the anguish of our hearts. The evil behind these shootings is beyond our understanding and more than we can bear. Accept our prayer that as Daniel, Demetrius, and Russell have been released from this world’s cruelty so may they be received into your safe hands and secure love. We pray that justice may be done and that we may treasure the memory of their lives more than the manner of their deaths. For Christ’s sake. Amen.

Love

The following is an appropriate follow-up to yesterday’s sermon on the love of God. I am not a big poetry fan, but this poem speaks to me. George Herbert was an Anglican priest in 17th century England and he is one of my heroes. He is one after whom I try to pattern my own ministry. May his work speak to your heart and mind too.

From here:

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

—George Herbert, Love

Too Little Piety?

We often hear the criticism that the Church is afflicted with piety, but the real trouble is that its piety is not deep enough! An important contribution would be the liberation of the term “piety” from its present damaging connotations, reinstating it as a term of respect. We, indeed, have a little piety; we say a few prayers; we sing meaningfully a few hymns; we read snatches from the Bible. But all of this is far removed from the massive dose that we sorely need if we are to be the men and women who can perform a healing service in our generation.

The seat of our disease, says Helmut Thielicke, “is not in the branches of our nerves at all but rather in our roots which are stunted and starved.” The eloquent German points out that Martin Luther prayed four hours each day, “not despite his busy life but because only so could he accomplish his gigantic labors.” Luther worked so hard that a little desultory praying would not suffice. “To work without praying and without listening,” continues Thielicke, “means only to grow and spread oneself upward, without striking roots and without an equivalent in the earth.”

—Elton Trueblood, The New Man for Our Time

How are your roots doing these days? Might this be an area in which you exert a bit of Lenten discipline?

The Rainbow and the Cross

Sermon delivered on the first Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the 40 day season where we focus on confession, self-denial, and repentance, and on Ash Wednesday we looked at why we engage in these Lenten disciplines. If we care anything at all about our relationship with God, Lent is also a time when we must be honest with ourselves regarding both our own lives and the overall human condition because as we will see, our human pride and willful rebellion against God has not only made a mess of things, it has also cut us off from our lifeline, which is God. Our Lenten lectionary (the assigned lessons) starts us off with a covenant, God’s covenant, and so this morning I want to paint for us a stark picture of contrasts between human behavior and God’s to see what we might learn from it so as to help us keep a proper perspective during these 40 days. Having a proper perspective will, by God’s grace, help enable us to observe a truly holy Lent.

This morning’s OT lesson starts with the aftermath of the great flood that destroyed every living creature on earth, human and animal, except for Noah, his family, and the creatures he brought on board the ark. But to help us better understand the powerful grace note that we find in this morning’s OT lesson, we need to quickly survey the events that preceded the flood. As we saw on Ash Wednesday, God made his creation good and then created humans to reflect God’s image out into his good creation by being wise stewards over it. This is one of the reasons God created us. But things went terribly wrong in paradise and we got ourselves kicked out, primarily because we weren’t satisfied with being God’s creatures and wise stewards. No, we wanted to be God’s equals and things haven’t changed much between now and then, have they? We are still busy trying to create God in our own image (cf. Genesis 1-3).

Then in Genesis 4-6 we see the cascading effects of human sin. For example, shortly after our expulsion from Eden, we see murder and fratricide introduced. Then we see stronger doses of pride which led to the introduction of polygamy and blood revenge. Genesis 5 sums up the sad state of human affairs when we are determined to reflect our own glory instead of God’s. In it, we read about Adam’s family line, each ending with the sad refrain, “and then he died.” The moral train wreck that is humanity turned inward on itself reaches its climax in Genesis 6 where we read the terrible words, “The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled” because every thought and inclination of the human heart was only for evil, which resulted in great wickedness on the earth (cf. Genesis 6.5-7).

But right when we are about to throw up our hands in hopelessness and despair over the way the Genesis story (and our own) are turning out, we read the little sentence at the end of Genesis 6: “But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (v.8).  Ah! Perhaps a glimmer of hope for humans after all. Sadly, however, there was no hope for the people of Noah’s day. The flood did come and everyone and everything except the folks and animals in the ark were destroyed.

This brings us to today’s lesson where the story picks up with the aftermath of the flood. Human wickedness did bring God’s terrible judgment, not just on us but on all creation. It was true in Noah’s day and it is true in our own. This reminds us of how miserably we have failed to reflect God’s good image into his world through our wise stewardship of it as well as what Paul writes in Romans 8 when he talks about all of creation groaning as it waits for its liberation that will accompany human redemption that will be part of God’s promised new creation. It seems that the destiny of humans and God’s creation and its creatures are inextricably tied together in ways we do not fully comprehend.

Before we go any further, let me ask if I have gotten you sufficiently depressed yet? I hope so because until we see the utter folly of the notion of human self-help, which the biblical narrative consistently and powerfully stresses, or the inevitability of human progress, which is one of the lies our culture has bought into, we will never be ready to hear the glorious good news of God’s character and what his faithfulness and constant love for his stubborn and rebellious people have brought about! Neither will we be able to observe a holy Lent because too often we turn our Lenten practices into a program of self-help couched in religious terminology.

Of course, there are those who would disagree with this assessment of the human condition. They would cite the remarkable gains we have made in science, technology, and medicine, for example, as proof that we are better off than those of Noah’s day, and certainly we are in some ways. But for every good that has come out of science, technology, and medicine, an evil cognate has appeared. For example, jets have made travel easy and our world smaller. But they can also be used to fly into buildings. The taming of the atom and its corresponding benefits have also produced the atom bomb with its terrible destructive capacity. We have never been more efficient in our killing because our toys have gotten so sophisticated. Medical science has improved our quality of living and extended our lifespans. But we still don’t know how to deal with end of life issues adequately that advancements in medicine cause. And then there are the earthquakes, tornadoes, and tsunamis that regularly afflict us and which we cannot control. Our toys and lifestyles have gotten more sophisticated and our standard of living has advanced tremendously, and this is mostly for the good. But my point remains. The human condition remains essentially unchanged from Adam’s day to our own. We still seek primarily our own glorification, not God’s. Twitter or Facebook, anyone?

Returning to our lesson, we are now ready to hear its wondrous good news. In the wake of human wickedness and with no indication that things are really going to change, at least regarding the human condition, God makes a covenant with Noah. What is so remarkable about this is that Noah did not promise God anything in return for God’s covenant promise, nor did Noah particularly deserve it. Righteous he was, but he wasn’t sinless. But God promises never again to destroy any of his creatures by a flood—ever. And as we look at human history after God made his covenant with Noah, we see that human sin and folly continue unabated. For example, in Genesis 11 we read the story of the tower of Babel, that pitiful symbol of the futility of human pride that seeks to make us God’s equals. Surely God foreknew that the human condition would continue to manifest itself in much the same way as it did before the flood. But God still made the promise to Noah and his descendants. Remarkable. Unbelievable.

And here is where we must pay close attention to what the story is telling us because in the covenant the very heart of God is being revealed to us. It is a heart that is faithful to his creatures. It is a heart full of love for us and which wants us to turn from ourselves and back to him so that we can live and not die. That is what the rainbow symbolizes—God’s great love and faithfulness toward his creatures. Don’t get all bent out of shape over the language used here. God doesn’t need reminded that he won’t destroy us because God knows everything. Like so much language in the OT, the words are written more for our benefit than anything else. We are the ones who need to be reminded and reassured of God’s constancy and love because we are so inconstant, fickle, and unloving. The rainbow is a covenant sign of God’s promise to Noah and his descendants, Jew and Gentile alike, that he would never again destroy us, despite who we are, despite our dismal track record of carnage, failure, folly, and mayhem. The rainbow is a tangible reminder of what God’s heart is really like and from that we can have real hope.

“But wait!” you say. “God only promised not to destroy us by a great flood! That’s hardly an airtight guarantee. After all, there are countless other ways God can destroy us!” If you are asking the question, you probably aren’t sold on the truth that the heart of God pulses love for you. To the point, however, Scripture does make it clear that God’s judgment awaits those who refuse to be reconciled to him. But there is an even greater covenant sign of God’s great faithfulness and love for us that should end any of our doubts and fears. It is the cross of Jesus Christ, God become human. As Peter reminds us in today’s epistle, God has taken care of the root of the problem, human sin, by taking on our flesh and dying for us even though we are utterly undeserving of the reprieve! In the cross of Christ we see sheer grace in action as we watch Jesus’ blood being poured out for us so that we might be able to live as free men and women in the Messiah.

What both the rainbow and the cross remind us is that God is a God who loves and pursues us relentlessly because he wants us to live, not die. We see this relentless love for us manifested in other ways too. For example, Peter reminds us of our baptism and we remember that in our baptism we are buried with Christ so that we will rise with him again (cf. Rom. 6.3-4). Baptism is another sign of God’s sheer grace because it reminds us that God loves us first and claims us, even before we know what it means to be claimed! Sure, we all know baptized folks who grow up and act like they never heard of the Lord, but that is not God’s fault! God loves us enough to allow us to walk away from him, even when it means our own destruction, because love can never force the beloved to return the love offered. No, baptism is a visible reminder (a sacrament) that demonstrates God’s faith, love, and relentless pursuit of his creatures. Just as God said to Jesus at his baptism “you are my beloved,” so he says the same to us at ours.

Then there is that strange story in Peter’s epistle about Jesus preaching to the imprisoned spirits. Whoever and wherever they are, surely one of the reasons Peter tells us this is because it illustrates the truth that Jesus really is the Hound of heaven who wants even the worst of us to enter a life-saving and -giving relationship with him. These are just three examples of many that we find in Scripture that reveal to us the very heart and character of God. There are countless others that I encourage you to explore so that you come to know this God who loves you and has given himself for you in a great act of redemption on the cross.

And this is precisely what we should do with the covenant signs of God’s holy love for us. We should read and reflect on them constantly because they give us every reason to respond to God’s relentless pursuit of us. We respond by saying yes to God’s gracious invitation to us in Jesus to come and live with him both here and now and forever. We don’t do this on our own, of course. Instead, we do it in and through the power of the Spirit living in us, another of God’s gracious gifts to us to help us overcome our sin and live. As Peter reminds us, the same Spirit that transformed Jesus’ mortal body at his resurrection will do the same for us in the new creation and we have that power available to us right now to help shape us into the people God created us to be, into the very image and likeness of Jesus, the only truly human being to live.

And so Lent and the Christian faith are about our response to God’s love and gracious pursuit of us, not self-help. In other words, we partake in our Lenten disciplines and seek to live the Christian life, not to try and earn God’s love and favor or put him in our debt, but to respond to God’s heart of love for us. And because we are responding to God’s love for us, our behavior will increasingly reflect love back to God and outward to our fellow humans. We love because God loved us first (cf. 1 John 4.19), all with the help of the Spirit living in us.

Of course, we can expect to be attacked along the way as we seek to respond to God’s love for us in Christ. We will be tempted just like Jesus was. But that’s OK because his temptation story in today’s gospel lesson reminds us that the Spirit will use even our temptations to help mold us into the very image of Jesus and equip us with a heart just like God’s. In fact, apparently the Spirit insists that we be tempted so that he can use our temptations to help us grow in our love and faithfulness to God’s call for us. Yes, this will be long and difficult work and we will stumble from time to time because the Enemy is strong and we are weighed down by our body of sin. But Christ and his love for us and his Spirit living in us is stronger.

Think deeply on these things this Lenten season (and beyond). Read the stories of God’s covenant signs that culminate in the cross of Christ. Remember that the cross is God’s symbol of justice and give thanks to God that his heart and passion for you are so wide and deep and long that he doesn’t repay us for who we are and all that we have done in our rebellious pride. Then let that love work on you and in you and through you so that  you will naturally want to reflect God’s love in Christ out to others so that they too can learn about or know better this Hound of heaven who loves us despite who we are. The God who gave his covenant promise to Noah, to Abraham, and ultimately to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, is the same God who loves you right now. As you get better at responding to the mind-boggling love that God has shown you in the cross of Christ and in the power of the Spirit, you will not only increasingly realize that you have Good News, you will also be able to share it as wildly and relentlessly with others as God has shared it with you, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Lent: Getting Ready to Live as a Citizen in the New Creation

Sermon delivered on Ash Wednesday, February 22, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 58.1-12; Psalm 103; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for confession, self-denial, and repentance. But why do we do these things? What’s the point? Is it because Christians are inherently masochistic or are there better reasons? I suspect that many who call themselves Christians couldn’t answer these questions and so tonight I want to lay out for you why we observe a season of Lent. To do that, we are going to have to go back to the beginning to see God’s intention for us and his creation and then look quickly at what happened instead. Then we are going to have to look at God’s promised future for those who love him, for those he calls in Christ, so that we can be reminded what we are here for and where we are going.

In Genesis 1-2 we read the creation stories. While they are doubtless familiar to most of us, I suspect we miss a critical piece of information regarding how God works and his intentions for his human creatures that are contained in these narratives. In these stories, we read that God created humans to be wise stewards over his creation (cf. Genesis 1.26-31; 2.19-20). That is what it means to be created in God’s image. To be wise stewards and rule over God’s good creation requires that we be obedient to God’s will for us. If we don’t obey God, how can we possibly reflect his glory and be wise stewards of his creation?

This, then, is how God intended things to work. God still does. And as we read in the creation narratives, this is indeed how things worked until human sin entered the picture (cf. Genesis 3ff). The essence of human sin is an unhealthy focus on us and our needs and desires, rather than a single-minded focus on God and obeying his will for us. That is why one of the biblical terms for sin, hamartia, literally means to miss the mark so that when we repent, we turn around and change course. In other words, when we really repent, we stop being essentially self-centered creatures and become God-centered creatures so that we can once again be his true image-bearers and wise stewards.

And we can all think of examples of good and poor stewardship. Think of the advances in science, medicine, and education that have improved the quality of our lives and allowed us to treat each other and God’s good earth wisely. Then think of hate-mongers like Hitler or the unbridled greed that led to the stock market crash of 2008 that wiped out billions of dollars of hard working folks or the terrible abuse of humans and animals that we read about on a regular basis, and you can quickly understand how badly we have strayed from God’s good intentions for us and how grievous it is to God. This is also what our OT and gospel lessons are about. God is telling his people Israel what he expects of them as his called-out (holy) image-bearers. They are to pursue justice and righteousness so that the poor and oppressed are cared for because they too are God’s image-bearers. Moreover, both Jesus and Isaiah are reminding us that God does not so much care about our religious activities as he cares about why we do what we do in God’s name. In other words, God cares about our inner motivations. We must therefore always ask ourselves whose glory are we seeking, our own or God’s? If we do not seek God’s glory in all we do we are missing the mark, i.e., we are sinning, and being less than fully human.

To summarize, then, when human sin entered the world, we got ourselves kicked out of paradise, became alienated and estranged from God, and lost our full measure of humanity. When that happened, death entered the picture because when we are separated from our Source of life, we must die. This is the cost of our disobedience to God. It is a sad and terrible picture. We all know what it is like to live in a fallen world because we all have been afflicted by the evil and consequences of sin, both our own and others’. When we start to understand this dynamic, we are ready to understand why we need a season of Lent because Lent is a time when we are called to be quite intentional and work on the things that dehumanize us and make us miss the mark of being God’s image-bearer and a wise steward of his creation.

But thankfully human sin and death are not the end of the story. God loves us and intends for us to enjoy life with him in the manner he intended when he created us. That is why God called his people Israel to be agents of his healing love and redemption. But Israel turned out to be as badly flawed and broken as the people God called them to help redeem. Instead of being his image-bearers and wise stewards so that God’s mercy, justice, righteousness, and love could reign and bring healing and restoration, Israel turned inward on itself and became essentially self-focused. That is why God is so implacably opposed to idol worship, both for his people Israel and for all humans. The desire to worship is built into our genes. We will inevitably worship something and we will become what we worship. It’s an ironclad spiritual law.

This wouldn’t be a problem if we did not have free will and could only worship God. But we do have free will because God created us for relationship and real relationships can only happen if both parties choose to enter into them freely, our relationship with God included. But too often we end up choosing to worship ourselves and when that happens things get ugly (and scary) in a hurry. Israel’s idol worship helped turn them inward on themselves so that they failed to be the wise stewards and God’s image-bearers to God’s broken and hurting world. In other words, they disobeyed God’s calling to them. If you want to understand why God got so angry with his people in the OT and ultimately brought judgment on Israel, you have to understand this dynamic. Likewise with us. When we are more interested in focusing on ourselves instead of on God, how can we ever hope to have a real relationship with God, let alone enjoy life with him?

But God in his eternal mercy and wisdom understood and foresaw all this. None of this caught God by surprise and so as Paul reminds us in tonight’s epistle, God became human in Jesus and bore his own righteous judgment on our sins, the very things that make us estranged from God and prevent us from having our lifeline reconnected, so that we could live. Or to use Paul’s language, we have been reconciled to God. That’s why we call the day Jesus was crucified Good Friday. The whole history of the human race indicates we cannot be the people God created us to be without some radical help and in Christ’s death we got that help.

Moreover, Jesus’ resurrection announced that God had made good on his promise to usher in God’s new creation. We need to keep this hope in Christ firmly in our minds because this is our future and it serves to both remind us of what awaits us and to motivate us. Jesus’ death and resurrection remind us that God has overcome evil, sin, and death and promises to bring in a new age, the new heavens and earth, where all evil is banished forever and we will be given new resurrection bodies that are impervious to decay and death. We won’t be floating around on clouds playing harps forever—how dreadfully boring that sounds. No, we will be living in a recreated world in the manner God intended for us in the first place. Whatever that looks like, and none of us really knows, it will be glorious beyond our ability to think or imagine because God’s glory is beyond our ability to imagine. We didn’t do anything to deserve this mind-boggling gift from God, nor can we earn it. It is ours by faith and our faith will always produce a response that anticipates the promise. But one thing we do know. To live in God’s new creation means we will need to learn to act accordingly. Just like being a citizen in any country demands certain norms of behavior, so it will be in the new creation. To live in God’s sin- and evil-free world means that we will not be turned inward but God-ward. It means we will want more than anything to be obedient to God’s will for us so that we can truly be human and reflect God’s image outward in God’s new creation. And this, of course, is where Lent comes in.

Lent is a time where we announce our intention of becoming fully human and obedient to God in the manner God created us and intends for us. In the death of Christ, we have been reconciled to God and so this is in loving and grateful response to what God has done for us in Christ to end our alienation and exile from him, to reconnect us to our life support system, so to speak. We respond to God’s love in Christ for two reasons. First, as we’ve seen, we believe Jesus’ resurrection has ushered in God’s promised new creation and so we are called to the task to be his agents of new creation. In other words, we are called to be obedient humans who reflect God’s image out into the world so that we can be his true image-bearers. This means we have to root out everything in us that is hostile toward God and which dehumanizes us and makes us turn inward (or worship things that make us turn inward). But because we are so profoundly broken, we have no hope of accomplishing this on our own. Thankfully, however, as Paul reminds us in tonight’s epistle lesson, we don’t do this on our own. We do this in and through the power of God because we have been given the Holy Spirit to help us with deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. This is simply another way to describe the process of becoming fully human and obedient once again, just the way Jesus was.

The second reason we respond to God’s love in Christ is related to the first. As we have seen, living in God’s promised new creation demands that we have a heart and desire that are focused on obeying God, not ourselves. When we identify those things in us that are preventing that from happening, we are developing the needed character to live in the new creation. When we turn inward and worship ourselves by our greed, selfishness, pride, and abuse of our bodies (to name just a few) we are behaving in ways that are contrary to God’s good will for us so that we can live as fully human beings. We don’t have to find the temptations to do these things. They find us and every one of us knows how easy it is to develop bad habits and bad character.

But there will be no room for these character habits in the new creation. Instead, if we hope to be fully human and obedient to God (even though that is virtually impossible this side of the grave because we are weighed down by our body of sin), we have to work on developing the habits of heart and mind that are conducive to being fully human and obedient to God—love, faith, patience, kindness, compassion, and a passion for justice (to name just a few). That means, of course, that we must work at these things because they do not necessarily come naturally to us. In other words, we must develop the discipline to develop the necessary habits of heart and mind that will be demanded in the new creation. The good news again is that we don’t do this on our own, either. We do it only by the power of God through the Holy Spirit living in us. That is why it is a good idea to take up a discipline in Lent that is related to developing these godly character habits, things like prayer and fasting (here is where those prayer beads can help us) and regular reading and study of the Bible (here is where we can help the Spirit help each of us by helping each other keep on task).

What is it in you that you need to put to death (or continue to work on putting to death)? Think deeply on the things we have talked about tonight and ask God to show you what is dehumanizing you and causing you to miss the mark of being fully human and God’s image-bearer. Whatever it is, and whatever you give up for Lent, it should be directly related to that which is making you worship yourself or which prevents you from working for God’s righteousness and justice. And if you do give up something for Lent with the attitude that you can hardly wait for Easter so that you can resume what you’ve given up, you’ve missed the point completely because doing so is effectively telling God you want to continue to worship and obey yourself, not him.

This Lent, we all have to decide whom we will worship. Our natural human tendency is to turn inward and worship ourselves, which, as we have seen, will lead only to our further dehumanization and alienation from God. Sadly, this will result in God’s final judgment and our eternal death and permanent separation from God. That, by the way, is why there is such an urgency in Paul’s epistle lesson tonight. Not only do we not know the day of our death (when it will be too late for us to turn around), if we don’t act decisively to turn around and stop missing the mark, there may come a day when we pass the point of no return where we are unable to correct our course because we have become too hardened and dehumanized.

But when, by God’s grace, we choose to worship God and seek to be obedient to his will, we are laying the groundwork not only to cooperate with God here and now, but also to live with him in his new creation forever. We have this hope because we have seen his cross and believe in his promise to heal and be reconciled to us, which of course means we have Good News, now and for all eternity. May God grant you a holy Lent this season so that you come to know fully what it means to love God and be truly human.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Season of Lent: It’s Not About Self-Help

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

–Hebrews 12.1-3, 14 (NIV)

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

–Luke 18.9-14 (NIV)

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of a 40 day season we call Lent. It is a time for confession, self-denial, and repentance. To many in our contemporary society, Lent has become something of an anachronism because many do not see the big deal about confessing sin. In an “I’m OK, you’re OK” culture, we have forgotten that sin is terribly grievous in God’s eyes, that if something is not done about it, our sin will continue to separate us from God’s Holy presence and keep God and humans alienated forever. As the writer of Hebrew’s tells us in the passage above, without holiness, no one will see God.

For you see, God is perfect and holy. God cannot and will not allow any kind of evil to live in his direct presence. Unless something is done to take away all the evil and sin that remains in fallen humans, we have no hope of ever living in God’s direct presence. And while at first blush this may seem harsh to us, if we think about it seriously, it should make sense. Whatever your conception of heaven and the New Creation is, do you really want to spend an eternity being plagued and bedeviled by evil? Do you really want to spend an eternity living with your own foibles, fears, and weaknesses, not to mention the foibles and weaknesses of others?

But here is the rub. Because we are so thoroughly infected with sin and brokenness, we have no hope of fixing ourselves. We have no hope of ever living forever in God’s Holy presence because there is nothing we can do to eradicate our fallen human condition. Sure, we can decide to change our ways and work hard to do good things to and for others, but that is not going to help us because we will inevitably fail. Our sin still remains in us and we remain thoroughly infected. We have an inoperable cancer and no human power can change this. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself how many New Year’s resolutions you’ve kept over the years. Ask yourself about all those good intentions you’ve had that have fallen by the wayside. Ask yourself why no self-styled utopias ever succeeded. If you are honest with yourself, you will not like the answers you give.

This is what the Bible calls the human condition. You can read about it in Genesis 3. It is not a pretty picture nor do we like to think about it because frankly, it is very painful to do so. But not thinking about it or trying to wish away our condition does not change reality. Sooner or later each one of us will get smacked in the face with our own mortality and the mortality of those whom we love, and when that happens, the awful truth sinks in and the hopelessness that ensues can overwhelm us. Without some radical help, we and our loved ones are toast. We have no hope for the future beyond the living of our days and that is a terrible, terrible thought to contemplate.

But take heart and hope because God has some very Good News for you. It’s called believing what God has done for you in Jesus. Jesus the divine surgeon can operate on you and rid you of the cancer of your sin that must otherwise keep you permanently separated from God, the Source and Author of all life. The Christian faith does not advocate self-help. Far from it. No, the NT advocates putting your whole hope and trust in what God has done for you in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. In his death, Jesus has borne the just punishment for our sins and because of his death, we have been made holy in God’s sight. I’ll let better minds than me explain how precisely this works; I confess I do not know how precisely this works other than it does.

Does this mean we sit back, relax, pop a beer and let Jesus do all the work in our lives? Hardly. When we put our faith in Christ, it changes us. He comes to us and lives within us, changing us over the course of our life. We still have to struggle and sweat in our faith journey, but we are confident that Jesus is helping us become the beings he created us to be. Having the Spirit living in us also reminds us not to make life about us. Instead we make it about loving and serving God for making it possible for us to live in his direct Presence forever.

In other words, having Jesus living in us keeps us humble. He reminds us of our need to come to him each day for guidance and strength. He reminds us that if we are to show our love to God in part by our loving service to others, we are going to need his strength. This, in turn, helps us to avoid the myth of self-help or that we can somehow ever be acceptable to God based on our own merits. We realize that we cannot be good in God’s eyes without Jesus’ help and his work on the cross. This keeps us from being like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable above, which is a good thing because it is so easy to fool ourselves into thinking we can possibly be good in God’s eyes based on our own merits.

But that is not true and that is why we have a season of Lent. Lent reminds us of the impossible plight of the human condition. It reminds us about the deadly seriousness and consequences of our sin. It reminds us that we cannot fix ourselves and our fundamental problem of life, that we need God’s grace and mercy to survive. Lent reminds us that we need to confess our sins to God and put our faith in Christ so that we can be truly forgiven. As the psalmist reminds us:

When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess
my transgressions to the LORD.”
And you forgave
the guilt of my sin (Psalm 32.3-5).

Our confession, repentance, and self-denial are necessary for us on a daily basis because they help us keep our minds right, they help us remember our human condition. The cross of Jesus is necessary to give us our present hope for a future and to ensure that living directly in God’s Holy presence is possible.

Repentance simply means we are working hard, with Jesus’ living Presence in us, to turn away from doing the things that separate us from God (think selfishness) and to turn toward those things that are pleasing to God (think selfless love and service to others). Self-denial is all about actively working to put to death those ugly things in us that prevent us from living joyfully in the manner that is pleasing to God. It is not about killing our core personality.

And when we repent, we are assured that God will forgive us because while God’s holy justice will not be denied, we remember that God is a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and full of steadfast love for his broken and rebellious creatures. This is not unlike parents who continue to love their wayward children who rebel against them. For a poignant and beautiful picture of God’s love for you despite who you can be, read the parable of the prodigal son.

Lent is the season where we get real with ourselves and with God. We acknowledge the seriousness of our sin and we work at putting to death all that is within us that keeps us hostile toward and alienated from God. That is why Lent is all about confession, repentance, and self-denial. It’s not a pretty or fun thing to do, but it is an essential and life-giving thing to do. But as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we are to struggle not as individuals but together as the people of God, the Church. We remember that we are in this together and that God intends for us to draw on each other for help and support as we seek to follow Jesus and be faithful disciples of his.

Lent also reminds us of the wondrous grace, love, and mercy of God manifested in Jesus. It is a time when we get intentional about following Jesus and all that that means to us and to others around us. Lent is a time when we can really focus on getting healed so that we can live our life with meaning, purpose, real hope, and joy. Lent is the time to remember that we really do have a hope and a future made possible by Jesus and him alone.

If you are struggling with things that weigh you down or are looking for life-giving meaning and purpose, then take a chance and give yourself to the God who loves you more than you dare to hope or dream. And if you are already following Jesus, then renew your commitment to him and ask him to help you lose yourself in him so that he can use you to bring the glorious Good News to his broken and hurting world that desperately needs to hear about the wondrous love and mercy of God in Christ.

Mark Roberts: How Lent Can Make a Difference in Your Relationship with God

A good piece from Rev. Roberts. Check it out.

A Pastoral Word: Let me note, at this point, that if you think of Lent as a season to earn God’s favor by your good intentions or good works, then you’ve got a theological problem. God’s grace has been fully given to us in Christ. We can’t earn it by doing extra things or by giving up certain other things in fasting. If you see Lent as a time to make yourself more worthy for celebrating Good Friday and Easter, then perhaps you shouldn’t keep the season until you’ve grown in your understanding of grace. If, on the contrary, you see Lent as a time to grow more deeply in God’s grace, then you’re approaching Lent from a proper perspective.