Rob Moll: What Neuroscience Tells Us About Lenten Disciplines

From Christianity Today online.

Fasting can train and shape these [subconscious] processes, giving us the ability to exert control over other desires. One study found that students who intentionally practiced good posture for two weeks showed significant improvement afterward on measures of self control. The ability to control our relationship to food is, of course, one of the most difficult of the disciplines. Self control is like a muscle; it can be exhausted by overuse, but it can also be strengthened with exercise.

An interesting piece. Read it all.

A Prayer for the Feast of the Annunciation

Pour your grace into our hearts, O Lord, that we who have known the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ, announced by an angel to the Virgin Mary, may by his cross and passion be brought to the glory of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

We Would Like to See Jesus

Sermon delivered on the fifth Sunday of Lent, March 25, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 53.1-13; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33.

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

In this morning’s gospel lesson, John reports that some Greeks come and want to see Jesus. In response, Jesus gives a rather strange answer. He doesn’t say to Andrew and Phillip, “Hey! That’s great! Glad to see that some of the Gentiles are finally getting with the program. Bring them here so I can tell them all about me.” Instead, Jesus starts talking about seeds dying and him being lifted up. What’s that all about?

And despite what the enemies of Christianity might claim, I suspect there are still quite a few folks out there—maybe you are one of them—who would like to see Jesus but just can’t seem to find him. Perhaps they are looking for him in all the wrong places. Perhaps they don’t know what to look for or even where to start. So this morning I want us to look briefly at how we might respond to seekers’ requests to see Jesus. If someone asked you to see Jesus, how would you respond? Where would you tell that person to look? In considering our response to this request to see Jesus, we will have a chance to look at Jesus’ strange response to Andrew and Phillip and see how this ties into both our Lenten disciplines and our mission statement.

As we have seen over the past several weeks, God created his creation and creatures to be good and then created human beings to be his wise stewards over it all by reflecting God’s goodness and glory out into the world. But we humans didn’t get the memo and decided that we would rather play God than let God be God, and that has caused all kinds of problems ever since, not the least of which is our alienation and exile from God, the Source and Author of all life. This separation from our life source must lead to death—if you need to be on life support to live and are disconnected from it, what other outcome can there be? Not only that, as we have seen, our sin has also allowed evil to gain a foothold into God’s good creation to corrupt it and dehumanize us so that we are regularly afflicted by all kinds of nasty things in this life.

Furthermore, we have seen that God in his wise and eternal providence has always planned to redeem his broken and fallen world and its people through human beings. And so he called his people Israel through Abraham to be his agents of healing and redemption. But Israel turned out to be as badly flawed and rebellious as the people she was called to help God redeem, and a good deal of the OT narrative tells us how this drama between God and his people unfolded, most of which is not very pretty.

That is what makes today’s OT lesson so remarkable (and unexpected) because in it God promises to make a new covenant with his badly flawed people, a covenant that at its heart involves radical mercy and forgiveness offered to his people so that they would really know God. Total forgiveness of sins was needed because without that, God’s people, both then and now, would never really have the needed basis for healing and would essentially remain as alienated and hostile toward God as they had always been. After all, you never can really get to know someone if you remain hostile and alienated toward that person, and our relationship with God is no exception. And because we are so profoundly broken, we will need more than radical forgiveness. We also need God’s Spirit in us to transform us and build on the forgiveness offered. What this is pointing to, of course, is God’s promised new creation that Jesus’ death and resurrection launched.

This brings us to today’s gospel lesson and it too is not what we expect. In responding the way he did to Andrew and Phillip, Jesus is essentially telling us that he realizes his hour had finally come to complete his work as Israel’s Messiah (cf. John 2.4, 7.30, 8.20). How does Jesus know that his hour has arrived? Because foreigners had come to see him, apparently a clear sign for Jesus that the time had come for him to launch God’s promised rescue plan for his people and the world by going to the cross for us. Because he did for Israel what Israel could not do for itself, Jesus could fulfill God’s call to Israel to help redeem his world and reestablish his sovereign rule, i.e., the kingdom. Jesus would do that by drawing to himself all those who seek healing and redemption with God, Jews and Gentiles alike, by being lifted up on the cross and bearing the full wrath and fury of sin and evil—and God’s righteous judgment on both. In the process, sin and evil would be defeated and God’s rule would be established on earth as in heaven. And God would be glorified by his healed and redeemed people once again reflecting God’s glory out into his world, the way God always intended. This is not a job for the faint-hearted or a sin-stained people and could only be accomplished by God himself becoming human.

And this is where we have to pay close attention because this is not how we expected God to free us from sin and death and put to rights his good but fallen creation. We didn’t expect God to end our exile and alienation from him by becoming human and allowing himself to be pierced and hung naked on a gibbet to die a criminal’s death so that God’s kingdom could be implemented on earth as it is in heaven and we could finally live as we were created and meant to live. No, if we are honest with ourselves, we expected (and probably really wanted) God to rescue us in a sexier and more spectacular manner, similar to the way he brought his people out of Egypt at the Passover. Most of us really want our God to use shock and awe to defeat evil and all who are opposed to his gracious and sovereign rule. We want the God who is seen in the pillars of cloud and fire to lead us. But a crucified Messiah? A crucified God? Not so much. It was true for the people of Jesus’ day and by and large it remains true for us today.

And if we understand how God’s kingdom comes and that we are rescued from our sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, we are now ready to help people who come to us and ask us to help them see Jesus because we know where to find him. We will resist the temptation to first show them the risen Lord and high priest (although he is) as the writer of Hebrews and Jesus himself remind us. Neither will we tell folks to look for Jesus in spectacular or supernatural acts (although he can be found there too). No, we will point folks to the cross of Jesus and invite them to imitate Jesus in his suffering, just like we do. This means that we will have to take our relationship with Jesus seriously and do what he tells us to do, which is to deny ourselves and take up our cross each day. This will involve us putting to death, by the power of the Spirit living in us, all that is opposed and hostile toward Jesus, and here is where our Lenten disciplines come into play because this is what we are focusing on during the season of Lent. We also learn God’s will for us in Christ by drinking deeply of Scripture and taking our prayer life seriously so that we know how to live as fully human beings in the manner God created us. This will inevitably point us back to Jesus, the only true human ever to live.

It also means we understand that we are part of something much, much bigger than us as individuals. We are part of the Church, Christ’s body. Together we are the folks whom Christ calls to help him advance the new creation that his death and resurrection launched. That means we are called to live as Jesus our head lives, in loving and humble service to one another. Being part of a living body means that we are fully invested in its life and each other through our active participation in that life. Otherwise we become like amputated members and wither and die. And so we worship and participate in the eucharist regularly. We participate in the ministries to which God calls us—being readers or teachers or servers or whatever. And we bear each other’s burdens. An important way we do that is through our intercessory prayers. It is not particularly fun or uplifting to be reminded of the massive suffering that is going on around us (and sometimes in our own lives) to begin our worship. But when we bear each other’s burdens in this way we are denying ourselves, taking up our cross, and bringing the love of Jesus to bear on those who desperately need it.

Following Jesus also means we are ready in the power of the Spirit to bring his values and healing love to bear on others through our actions (and sometimes words) so that Jesus can use us to reflect God’s glory out into the world and help him bring about his kingdom. But what does that look like? Well, as Jesus and the author of Hebrews remind us, it means we give up doing business the way the world demands so that we can be his kingdom-bearers. That means we learn the path of obedience through our suffering and bearing the world’s pain and hostility just as our Lord did. We all know how the world wants us to work. It’s the “every-person-for-himself” model of doing business. We are told to value things like money, prestige, and power over everything else because they can help us get what we want. We are encouraged to be pushy and assertive because, well, it’s a jungle out there and we need to take care of ourselves. We don’t mind running over others if they get in our way because as C.S. Lewis astutely observed 60 years ago in his classic book, Mere Christianity, our self-aggrandizing behavior is really a manifestation of our human pride. We are concerned about having more than the next person or beating him at his own game because we want everybody to see that we are superior to them and nothing irritates us more than when we fail in that endeavor.

But that is not how we help God bring the kingdom on earth as in heaven because those kinds of behavior produce malice and strife and anger and all the other swell works of our fallen nature. Instead, if we have crucified our sinful nature, folks will see us witnessing to our faith in Jesus by our humble and selfless actions and this is where our mission statement comes into play because our actions should always reflect our faith. Consequently, folks will see us forgive others who wrong us, even when that forgiveness is undeserved. They will note how patient we are, especially toward folks who really irritate us or who do not live up to our expectations—Oops! They will see us challenge powerful interests who are exploiting others for their own greedy gain. They will watch us anything that dehumanizes us wherever we encounter it and however we reasonably can. People will observe our tireless service to those who cannot possibly give us anything in return and wonder why we care for the least and the lost. And when they do and ask us to see Jesus, we can point them to ourselves and others like us because we embody the living Lord in our transformed lives. We are not bragging when we tell others that they can see Jesus in us because we are always mindful of our profound brokenness which causes us to be less than perfect and the terrible debt that God has paid on our behalf. No, we behave this way because we have God’s Spirit living in us and enabling us to really know him, in part, because we have put in the required sweat equity that enables us to know that God’s promises are true, just the way Scripture tells us must happen (cf. John 7.16-17; 10.14-16).

And because God has demonstrated that he works in surprising and unexpected ways, we learn to adjust our expectations regarding the results of our labor because as we have seen, sometimes reality doesn’t always match our perception of it. So, for example, we labor tirelessly to feed the poor but hunger still persists. We work to combat poverty and injustice but they continue on, seemingly unabated. We pray for healing and peace, only to see some for whom we pray die and warring madness continue. But because of what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, and because we have his Spirit in us and know God, we do not lose heart or hope because we know that God uses our suffering and anguish to bring in his kingdom. We think of his cross and how those around Jesus looked at it as his ultimate defeat and shame. But out of his death came new life, new hope, new creation. We look at the prophets and how they were beaten and killed. But the kingdom still came and God’s voice was not silenced. And we remember that like so many other things in the kingdom, the criteria of the world are not usually the best way to measure its progress because the first will be last and the poor will be the richest, etc. This will allow us to transcend our apparent failures because we have God’s Spirit in us and we know that in the cross of Christ evil and death have been defeated and that Jesus is using us to bring about his kingdom by following his example of humble and selfless suffering.

All this requires a healthy dose of an informed and Spirit-led faith, and this too will be a sign for others who want to see Jesus. They will wonder how we can face our apparent failures with such confident and hopeful expectation. We will tell them that our hope shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who has read Scripture and understands how God is rescuing his fallen world and broken people, a rescue plan that culminated in Jesus’ death and resurrection. We believe the promised new creation has been ushered in on earth as in heaven and that its fate is not up to us. Jesus is Lord! Instead, we are simply doing in response to God’s love what he calls us to do and because we know him so intimately, we trust that things are firmly in his hands, despite appearances to the contrary. And when we are able to witness our faith to others in this manner, we will also know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

Fox Sports: NFL Suspends Saints Coach for One Year

From Fox Sports.

The NFL disciplined multiple members of the Saints organization for their participation or connection with the bounty system that was run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-11. Williams was suspended indefinitely. Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season. General manager Mickey Loomis is suspended for the first eight games and linebackers/assistant head coach Joe Vitt for the first six.

New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees said he was “speechless” about the NFL’s ruling and wants to know the reasoning behind it. “I am speechless,” Brees tweeted. “Sean Payton is a great man, coach, and mentor. The best there is. I need to hear an explanation for this punishment.”

Read it all.

I’m an old football coach and appreciate toughness, clean play, and hard blocking and tackling as much as the next person. Football is a violent game and not for everyone. But I absolutely support the NFL in handing down these penalties because what New Orleans (and apparently other clubs) allowed and encouraged is antithetical to the game and good sportsmanship. There is simply no room for this kind of behavior at any level of football. Period.

That is why I find Drew Brees’ comments so stunning. Given the bounties his teammates put on other men playing his position–all with the approval, tacit or otherwise, of the coaching staff–he of all people ought to get why the NFL did what it did. But Mr. Brees gives every indication of not getting it and that leaves me speechless. Sean Payton may be a great man, coach, and mentor. But not in this case. In my book, any coach who allows a bounty system to exist on his team–and then lies about it because he surely knows it was wrong–does not practice greatness in any shape or form (again, at least in this instance) except to allow and tacitly encourage thuggery.

To the contrary, what Coach Payton allowed is a sad manifestation of the win-at-all-costs mentality and it shows a horrific disregard for the safety and welfare of other human beings. There are some sick individuals who likely admire these traits.  But I don’t, and I wouldn’t want men with that mentality mentoring anyone I know because it would surely find a way to infect the one being mentored.

I hope this sends a much-needed wake-up call to the owners, coaches, and players in the NFL and elsewhere. If you want to kill a game, just allow this kind of nonsense to continue.

I also hope Coach Payton truly learns a lesson here and repents of this wickedness. If Drew Brees is correct in his assessment of his coach, then I have reason to hope that that might just happen. And if Coach Payton does truly change his ways, I would be the first to support his return to coaching because everyone deserves at least a second chance.

In the meantime, well done Commissioner Goodell.

The Way of the Cross or the Way of Yourself? What Motivates Your Lenten Disciplines?

Sermon delivered on the third Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 20.1-17; Psalm 19.1-14; 1 Corinthians 1.18-25; John 2.13-22.

 

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

Last week we looked at how evil uses human sin to propagate itself and why, in part, God allows that to happen. We saw that while humans were created good (along with all of God’s creation) we have used our God-given freedom to reflect our own disordered image and glory out into the world instead of God’s. This is a real problem because typically God chooses to use humans to rule his creation and when we refuse to cooperate, evil uses our sin to spread itself. That is one reason why God became human so that in Jesus he could bring in his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven through his life, death, and resurrection. As God’s Messiah, Jesus became for Israel what Israel could not be for herself—God’s faithful representative through whom God would bring about healing and reconciliation to the world and it’s people. Thus, while none of us can do what Jesus did on the cross, he still calls his followers to help bring in his kingdom to his broken and hurting world by imitating him. Consequently, the essence of Christian discipleship is to follow Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up our cross each day so that we are equipped by the power of the Spirit to fulfill Jesus’ call to us. And as we noted last week, this is quite consistent with the primary way God has chosen to interact with his creatures and creation.

Of course, this is what the season of Lent is primarily about. It is a time when we look intentionally and critically at our discipleship, at how well we are following our Lord and helping him in his work. And so this morning as we approach the midpoint of this Lenten season, I think it is appropriate for each of us to stop and ask ourselves this question. Are we following the way of the cross or are we simply trying to earn God’s favor or put him in our debt by what we do? (The question assumes that each of us is engaged in some form of self-denial and Lenten discipline. If you are not, well, you already have your answer to the question.) We need to ask this question because we are so profoundly broken that there is always a danger that even our best intentions can get distorted (cf. Psalm 19.11-12). Today’s lessons provide us with a useful framework to help us with this task by reminding us of God’s intentions for us and all that he has done for us in Christ.

In today’s OT lesson, we read a passage with which we are all familiar—the Ten Words (or Commandments) of God. Because we are so familiar with them, there is always a danger that we will read them as simply being a set of rules we must follow to find favor in God’s sight. But that is a limited way to look at what’s going on here because the Ten Words are really God’s framework to help us be the kind of people he created and called us to be in the first place. One of the drawbacks of the Lectionary is that we don’t always get the full context of the story in the assigned lesson. Today’s lesson is an example of this and I want to read a couple of verses from before and after our lesson so that we can have the proper perspective and context for reading the Commandments (read Exodus 19.3-6, 10-12, 16-19; 20.18-21).

Do you see what’s going on here? God is preparing his people to be agents of his healing and redemption, i.e., his holy or called-out people. This is much more than just “following the rules.” In our expanded lesson we see the proper human reaction when entering the presence of God. When that happens we immediately become aware of our sinfulness in the presence of Perfection (cf. Peter’s reaction to Jesus in Luke 5.8) and how difficult it is for us to be the holy people God calls us to be, precisely because we are so profoundly inward focused. We notice at once that humility is a prerequisite attitude needed to hear and obey God’s commandments and we observe God’s passion for stability, order, and justice. The commandments remind us that we cannot turn inward on ourselves and focus exclusively on our own desires. We are to stay focused first and foremost on God because we become what we worship. Having a big enough perception of God and his holiness will also help us be the people God calls us to be. That, in turn, will affect the way we interact with other people. Simply put, if we are able to develop the character needed to obey God’s Words, we will be able to reflect his glory out into the world and be wise stewards of it (cf. Psalm 19.1-14). When that happens, God can use us to bring his healing love to others who, like ourselves, desperately need it.

But of course none of us on our own can do this because sin is such an integral part of our human nature. The Good News is that God knows this about us and has acted decisively on our behalf to reconcile us to him and thus end our exile from him so that we have a real shot at being his image-bearers. God did this in the cross of Christ. In Jesus, who is our sinless representative, God condemned sin in the flesh so that he would not have to condemn humans. In dying for us, Jesus laid the necessary groundwork and foundation for us to be reconciled to God so that by the power of his Spirit living in us, God could use us to be the people he created and called us to be. This is what Jesus was cryptically telling the Jewish authorities in today’s gospel lesson. By his actions, Jesus was announcing God’s judgment on the Temple and all the broken human systems it had come to represent. No longer would the Temple be the place where God came to live with his people on earth. No, after his death and resurrection, Jesus was telling them (and us) that God would dwell with his people through him, and all because of Jesus’ sin-bearing death, which brought an end to our exile from God forever so that we could once again be God’s loving and wise image-bearers. This gift of life is ours by faith. None of us deserve the gift but God in his outrageous love and mercy offers it to us anyway because he created us to live and enjoy a real relationship with him. And as we saw last week, real faith in Christ always manifests itself in corresponding action. In other words, we do the hard work of following Jesus out of a desire to please him and as a grateful response for what God has done for us through Christ, not to earn favor in God’s sight or put him in our debt. This is why, for example, that we have ordered our mission statement, Changed by God to make a difference for God, the way we have. Our action always stems from our relationship with Jesus and in response to his great love for us. To do otherwise makes us nothing more than busy social activists who will perforce have limited success for the reasons we have just seen.

Yet despite all that God has done for us, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, the human condition remains so profoundly broken that many fail to believe or understand God’s great gift to us in Jesus. The cross is foolishness to the wise (not the same as biblical wisdom that begins with the fear of God) because many of the worldly wise do not believe there is a problem with the human condition to begin with (or think they are smart enough to fix it) and therefore look to human systems to make the world or themselves better. This, of course, is simply another manifestation of human pride that steadfastly advocates self-help as the solution to all our problems. And we all understand this dynamic. Who among us has never been caught basking in our own cleverness only to be tripped up in ways we never expected or anticipated?

Likewise, the cross is a stumbling block (skandalon) for the Jews because while most expected the coming of God’s Messiah to deliver them from their enemies, most never expected that the cross would be the way God accomplished this for his people and through them the world. No, every good Jew knew that to be hung on a pole meant that the person was under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 21.23). And so most Jews of Jesus’ day didn’t want or expect a Messiah like Jesus. They expected God to rescue them in a much more spectacular manner. And as we think about these objections to the cross, we see that what they have in common is a hubris that often leads to arrogance or an attempt to pigeonhole God to behave according to our limited and finite expectations. And this blinds those who hold these views to how desperately they need God’s healing love or how God really works to bring that love to bear. That’s why, in part, most enemies of the cross cannot conceive of any need for a cross or a crucified Messiah.

This brings us back to our question about our Lenten disciplines. Are we engaging in them out of a profound and grateful desire to respond to God’s great love for us in Christ or are we doing them as a form of self-help? Ultimately this is a matter of the heart and only God can see the heart. But there are some things we can look at to help us discover our true motives for our Lenten disciplines and more broadly, our Christian discipleship. First, we must look at our views of the cross. Do we look at it in awe and wonder and love or do we see it as foolishness? Our views of the human condition will be very useful in helping us answer this question.

Second, while putting to death our sinful nature is always painful, at least initially, if we are trying to do this out of a genuine desire to please God, we will find that there eventually emerges a newfound joy and energy in us. For example, we will find it easier to forgive people and extend mercy to them, especially those we dislike. We will find ourselves looking out for the needs of others as much (or more so) than we do our own needs without actually feeling put out about it. We will notice that we have an energy and joy in serving others instead of being bur-dened or tired out by our work. We will also notice the fruit of the Spirit manifesting itself in our life more than the fruit of our old self-centered nature. Again, some of this is not always self-evident. That is why we need a trusted Christian friend(s) who will speak to us honestly. And if we bristle at their criticism and/or seek to compare ourselves and our progress with others, that is usually a telltale sign that we are pursuing our disciplines for all the wrong reasons.

Putting to death our fallen nature by the power of the Spirit and our sweat equity is hard work and usually takes a lifetime. But as we have seen, if we really do love the Lord and want to become fully human so that he can use us to bring his healing love and image to bear on others, we have to first be reconciled to him. In other words, we have to go by the way of the cross. We have to understand fully that left to our own devices we will always be hostile to God, and therefore less than fully human, because we are too profoundly broken to fix ourselves. This knowledge, while terribly painful to us, is essential if we ever hope to be a Christian disciple for all the right reasons. When we understand our predicament and by God’s grace learn to accept God’s great love for us in Christ and how God works to bring healing, hope, and restoration to his world, we really can have confidence that we are working not for ourselves but for the one who loves us and gave himself for us in a terrible and costly act. When that happens we will also know that we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

Following Jesus: How to Honor and Participate in God’s Plan of Redemption

Sermon delivered on the second Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16; Psalm 22.22-30; Romans 4.13-25; Mark 8.31-38.

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

This past week, we suffered another terrible calamity, this time in Chardon, OH, where a 17 year old boy shot and killed three fellow students and wounded two others. What is going on here? Where is God in all this? If God is good and really exists, why does he let this kind of stuff happen? Whenever we are confronted by the reality of Evil, we still do not know what to do with it, even with all our scientific and technological advancements and “enlightened” thinking.

Of course, what is implied in questions like these is our desire to have a God who is big enough to meet our needs, address our fears, and be there when we need him, because we all know that we live in a world created good but gone terribly wrong because of human sin. We want our God to be like Superman, who rushes in to rescue us before it is too late or who will use shock and awe to zap our enemies in some spectacular manner and instantaneously rid all the world of its evils (and evil people). How many of you expect (or want) a God like that? And here’s the problem, folks. When God does not behave according to our expectations, it causes some of us to have doubts and to lose hope and faith. And it certainly provides fodder for the critics of Christianity, as evidenced by the rise of the so-called new atheists.

Is God big enough to protect us? Is God there when we need him? Is God capable of shock and awe? You bet, and Scripture makes that abundantly clear (cf. Exodus 12.1-14.31; Psalm 73.1-28; Acts 23.12-35; Acts 27.27-28.10). God will indeed put the world to right in an instant one day when Christ returns in great power and glory to usher in fully God’s promised new creation. And when that happens there will be no doubt in anybody’s mind, God’s enemies included, that God is a God who is big enough to protect his people and defeat evil completely and forever. But a quick review of Scripture tells us another story about how God has chosen to confront the sin and evil that bedevil his good but fallen world. And so this morning I want to look briefly at what Scripture tells us about how God works to put to right his fallen world and end our exile from him forever so that we can have a better understanding of how God typically operates in his world and our lives. In the process, I hope it will answer some of your questions related to where God is in the midst of evil, how God typically interacts with us and his creation, and what it can mean for us as we continue our journey through this season of Lent.

As we have seen so far in our other Lenten sermons, God created his creation and creatures good and made human beings in his own image so that we would reflect God’s love and goodness out into the world and be wise stewards over God’s creation. The creation narratives alert us immediately to the fact that from the beginning it has always been God’s intention to rule his world through faithful and wise human stewardship. We might wonder why God would choose to establish his operational ground rules in this manner or even question God’s wisdom in using humans as his proxy rulers. But no one who is familiar with the biblical narrative can dispute that this is God’s intention for humans and that God interacts primarily with his creation through us.

But then human sin entered the picture and we started reflecting our own damaged image out into the world instead of God’s. When that happened, it got us kicked out of paradise and things went terribly wrong in a hurry for the human race and all of creation, as evidenced, for example, by the recent string of natural disasters in this country. And here we have a major reason for why God allows evil to exist in his world. When we failed to live up to our call to be God’s good, wise, and loving image-bearers and turned inward on ourselves so that our desires became selfish and disordered, we gave evil a natural conduit in which to operate in God’s good creation. That’s why murder entered God’s world after the Fall along with a host of other evil (cf. Genesis 4.1-6.8). This, of course, does not address the question as to where evil comes from in the first place (why was the serpent allowed in the garden?). But it does help us understand how evil uses our fallen nature to operate and spread itself. To the point, no one who has had God’s image truly restored in him through Christ and the power of the Spirit would do what T.J. Lane did last week. No one. When we turn inward on ourselves and follow our own selfish and disordered desires instead of reflecting God’s wise and healing love out to the world, we give evil an opportunity to act through us.

Of course, God could compel us to act wisely and do good all the time. He could have prevented us from falling into sin. But then we would be his puppets and slaves and we would be incapable of entering into a relationship with God freely and willingly. You cannot have a real relationship with anyone, God included, that is entered into under compulsion and the creation narratives make it clear that God created us to love him and have a relationship with him so that we could be his wise stewards and image-bearers. Hence, God could not compel us to act good and wisely all the time because that would run contrary to God’s creative intentions for humans. This, then, is the sad state of the human condition. Humans have been given the freedom to choose and we have used that freedom to turn inward on ourselves instead of reflecting God’s good and loving image out into his world and being its wise stewards as God created and intended us to be.

This brings us to today’s OT lesson because here we see an important example of God acting through humans, in this case Abraham and his descendants, to put God’s broken and hurting world to rights by once again calling his people to be his true image-bearers. In Genesis 12.1-3 God called Abraham and blessed him so that he and his descendants would be a blessing to others. In other words, God called Abraham to be part of God’s plan to rescue his fallen world and broken people. And while today’s lesson focuses on God’s promise to give Abraham countless descendants, we should not lose sight of the fact as to why God called Abraham in the first place—to be a blessing to others. God’s promise to Abraham in today’s lesson is an integral part of that original promise because of course Abraham was mortal and so here we see God promising Abraham to take care of that little problem so that Abraham’s people, all people of faith, both Jew and Gentile, could bring God’s blessing, healing, and love to his world. That, of course, explains God’s often rocky relationship with Abraham’s physical descendants, the people of Israel, because they frequently failed to be the people God called them to be.

And of course we see in today’s Gospel lesson the supreme example of God working through humans to bring his healing love to bear on his world. God himself became human so that he could be Israel’s true representative, God’s Messiah, and so fulfill God’s call to Israel to be his true image-bearers and wise stewards, thereby allowing God to redeem his world and its people through Jesus’ atoning death. But this is not what God’s people expected or wanted and I suspect the same holds true for many of us today. No, as our gospel lesson plainly tells us, instead of dealing with sin, death, and evil by using shock and awe, Jesus expected to bring in God’s kingdom, God’s saving rule and healing love, through his death and resurrection. And Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms that if we want to be his followers, if we want to have God’s image restored in us by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can once again be wise stewards who reflect God’s healing love out into his world, we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him.

Do you get it? Jesus is calling us to do what it takes, by the power of the Spirit living in us, to restore God’s image in us so that God can use us to bring his healing love to the world, just the way he created us to do and has always called us to be! That is why Jesus got so angry with Peter, because Peter was intent on having God work according to Peter’s expectations, not God’s design, and this gave evil an opportunity to sneak in and do its terrible work, in part, by tempting Jesus to abandon his mission to go to the cross so that we could be reconciled to God. It also explains what Jesus is getting at in his stern warning that those who save their life will lose it, not because God is some angry and capricious God who is determined that we will not have any fun in this life, but because giving up all that is opposed to God and obeying Jesus is what needs to happen if we want to be God’s image-bearers and wise stewards and live with God in his promised new creation! There won’t be any evil or selfishness or sin in the new creation—thanks be to God!— and so Jesus is reminding us that we had better get busy right here and now, and work on developing the habits of heart and the Christian character needed to live directly in God’s presence. Jesus calls this denying ourselves and taking up our cross. Paul calls it crucifying our sinful nature. It all points to the fact that we have to work at developing the habits of heart and mind, the Christian habits and character, again with the help of the Spirit, that will allow God to use us to be his wise stewards and image-bearers once again.

And because we are so profoundly broken, this will take our constant effort and practice to develop the necessary characteristics, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (cf. Galatians 5.22-25)—that God can indeed use to bring his healing love to bear in his world. This is how God works and if we think about it, that’s really good news for us because God loves and respects us enough to invite us to help him in his mighty work of healing and redemption. What an honor! This is also what Lent is all about, a season of confession, self-denial, and repentance where we, with the Spirit’s help, focus on identifying and rooting out all that is within us that prevents God from using us as he intended when he created us. It’s not about getting ready to go to heaven. It’s about getting ready to do God’s work right now by having God’s image restored in us. Oh yes. In doing so, we also get ready to be citizens in God’s new creation. Awesome. Simply awesome.

And here is where faith comes into play because none of us can prove empirically or mathematically that Jesus’ promises or the promise of new creation are true. If that is one of your conditions for believing, you will never be able to claim the gift of life offered in Christ, as Paul reminds us in today’s epistle lesson. But when we have faith it will perforce change the way we act because faith always manifests itself in corresponding action. For example, we go to bed and set our alarms because we have faith that we will be alive in the morning and that the world will exist and we will have our job to which to go. We have faith in all this and act accordingly. We plan and save for retirement because we have faith that we will actually one day retire and be alive and healthy enough to enjoy the fruit of our labor. So our faith drives our work and we save for our retirement. Likewise with the Christian faith. If we really believe that God has chosen to interact with his world mainly through humans and that he has called us through Jesus to be part of the action, we will indeed work to deny yourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. We will engage in the terribly hard work of putting to death all the fun stuff in us like envy, rage, malice, selfish ambition, jealousy and the rest (cf. Galatians 5.19-21) because we know these things serve to dehumanize us by distorting God’s image in us and so prevent us from being his wise stewards. Otherwise, why would we try to do something like that? Simply put, if you don’t have faith in Jesus and you try to follow him by doing what he says in today’s gospel lesson, you are dumber than the day is long because life is short, you’re going to die, and so you’d better not waste any time getting yours while you still can (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.19).

But of course we do believe the promise that God loves us enough to call us to help him in his healing work by following Jesus in our lives. And so we live differently. How might that look? Let me end with where we started, with T.J. Lane. Yes, we must call for justice to be done because this young man murdered three image-bearers of God. But here is where it gets tricky. Here is where we must deny ourselves and take up our cross by resisting our urge to be self-righteous or vengeful. We must remember that Lane is made in God’s image too, even though that image is terribly flawed in him. And so we must do the hard work of forgiving Lane for his murderous acts and praying for him and his family as much as we are praying for the families of the victims, even when everything inside us screams otherwise. We must also ask God to turn Lane’s heart back to God (or maybe to God for the first time) because that is the loving thing to do and we should desire that all people find Christ, not just the ones we happen to like. Only then are we being God’s wise stewards and true image-bearers. Only then can God use us to bring his healing to the world.

Of course, being God’s image-bearer is precisely what we are trying to do as a church. This is what it means for the church to be the mission–to bring God’s healing love to his broken world and its people one person at a time in the context of our daily lives. There are millions of ways we can deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus. What is our Lord calling you to do? To whom does he call you to be his image-bearer? How will you respond to God’s outrageous love for you in Christ? Whatever the call, and however God intends to use you, remember what a privilege it is to serve the one who loves you and gave himself for you in a terrible and costly act so that you might have life in abundance. When you understand how God works to bring healing, hope, and restoration to his world and that you are an integral part of that plan, you will know what it means to have Good News, now and for all eternity.

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

Pray for the Storm Victims

Henryville, IN

Devastation in Henryville, IN

Another round of storms has devastated parts of our country again, and this time much closer to home. It is utterly heart-breaking to watch. Pray for the those who have lost loved ones and property. Ask God to bring real comfort and hope to them. Then be part of your prayers by donating time and/or money to help these folks rebuild. Let God use you to bring his healing love and comfort to these victims.

Prayer: O most merciful God, who does not shun a broken and contrite heart, look with mercy on your people who have lost loved ones and property in Friday’s storms. Bring your comfort and healing to them in real and tangible ways by stirring up the hearts of your people to be your presence to those in need. This we ask in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.