Category Archives: Articles

Article: Freedom, Holy Week and Me

Here we are. It is near the end of Holy Week. It is arguably the most important week in Christian history. For many the final days of Jesus’ life has no meaning. For some Christians this week has very little impact in their daily lives.

All people are looking for freedom and empowerment but most will not turn toward Jesus to find it. Most would rather find that freedom and empowerment by listening to voices that tell them what they want to hear.

“Do what you want, it is your life.”
“Seize the day.”
“If it feels good for you then don’t worry about the impact.”
“Don’t think about others, do what is right for you.”

Some of those statements have an element of truth, freedom and empowerment. But when these messages are embraced without consideration of consequences or boundaries people get hurt and relationships are damaged. If unchecked, freedom turns to isolation and toxicity.

Christ too offers freedom and empowerment. It is found at the cross and is realized through his death. Yet the freedom and empowerment found in Christ is always within the context of communal relationships and not rampant individualism.

If you are still reading this, I hope you will why Holy Week is so important to the life of the Christian.

As for me, this is more than extra services at church. The older I get the more I see the need for one who can save me from myself and what I selfishly want. I often see that my biggest problems are not other people or issues external to me.  I am reminded of the Pogo comic from 1970 when he said, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” I can see that everything is tainted with sin even things that are supposed to be good. That is why Holy Week is so important to me. I need Jesus to forgive my waywardness and lead me on new paths of real freedom. Empowered to love others and not just myself.

Knowing all of this and being acutely aware of my shortcomings causes me to draw close to Jesus versus run away and avoid Him at all costs. I am drawn to the quiet of the upper room. Like a silent intruder watching the disciples and Jesus partake in that first Holy Communion… wanting to eat bread and drink wine with this ragtag group of believers.

Even with all the horror, I run toward the cross. I don’t want to look but I feel I must. It is my sin that Jesus is bearing.

In a painting of the Crucifixion by the famous Dutch artist, Rembrandt, our attention is drawn immediately to the cross and to Jesus who hangs there. (see picture above)

Then looking at the crowd gathered around the Cross, we note the attitudes and actions of these people (if you look close enough). Notice the man in the turban. This is Rembrandt himself.

Yes, the famous painter included himself in this painting. I understand why. All Christians should spiritually stand near the cross to see cost of forgiveness and salvation. As uncomfortable as it is, I find it necessary.

Finally, I wait. I wait near the tomb awaiting the resurrection. I need to hear the good news of God’s love and that all is forgiven. I need to see that nothing can hold back the power of God’s love. Hearing the words “Christ is Risen” tells me that I can have true freedom from myself while I nurture and empower others around me in love.

I wish you a blessed Holy Week and a Happy Easter.

Christ is Risen!

Pr. Ben

Article: Holy Week

We are about to enter Holy Week. The setting for the entire week is Jerusalem and Bethany. There is so much going on that we can’t possibly cover it all in worship. However, I wanted to give you an overview of the most important week in Christianity.

Here is a possible timeline of the events of the week.

Saturday:

  • Jesus arrives in Bethany six days before Passover (Jn12:1)
  • Stays with Lazarus, Mary and Martha (his Judean home)
  • Possibly the supper and anointing in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper where Jesus is anointed by Mary. (Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-8)

Palm Sunday:

  • Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Mt 21:1-9; Mk 11:1-10; Lk 19:28-38; Jn12:12-18) Fulfills the prophecies of Isaiah 62:11 and Zechariah 9:9
  • Jesus weeps over seeing Jerusalem and predicts its destruction. (Lk 19:39-44)
  • Jesus cleanses the temple. (Mt 21:10-17; Mk 11:11; Lk 19:45-46; Jn 2:13-25)

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday:

  • Jesus curses the fig tree. (Mt 21:18-19; Mk 11:12-14)
  • Parable of the wicked tenants (Mt 21:33-46; Mk 12:1-12; Lk 20:9-19)
  • Returns to Bethany at night.
  • Jesus denounces the scribes and Pharisees (Mt 23:1-36; Mk 12:37-40; Lk 20:45-47)
  • Jesus teaches in the Temple (Lk 21:37-38)
  • Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple. (Mt 24:1-3; Mk 13:1-4; Lk 21:5-7)
  • Possibly, on Wednesday, the supper and anointing in Bethany at the home of Simon the leper. (Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Jn 12:1-8) Mark’s account is just after he says that it was two days before the Passover.

Holy Thursday, Thursday Night, Early Friday Morning:

  • The first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and preparation for the Passover for Jesus and the disciples. (Mt 26:17-19; Mk 14:12-16; Lk 22:7-13; Jn 19:14)
  • The Last Supper (Mt 26:20-25; Mk 14:17-21; Lk 22:14, 21-23; Jn 13 “before the Feast of Passover”)
  • Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; the betrayal of Judas and the arrest of Jesus.
  • Jesus taken to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest. Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas (Jn 18:12-25)
  • Jesus taken to the high priest Caiaphas’ home where the scribes, elders, and the chief priests had gathered. (Mt 26:57-75; Mk 14:53-72; Lk 22:54-71)
  • Peter denies Jesus three times.
  • Jesus was kept overnight in a cistern below Caiaphas’ home.

Good Friday:

  • Early in the morning, the Sanhedrin meets, they lead Jesus to Pilate. (Mk 15:1; Mt 27:1-2; Lk 23:1; Jn 18:28)
  • Pilate sends Jesus to Herod (Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee) (Lk 23:6-7)
  • Herod mocks Jesus and then clothes him in gorgeous apparel, and sends Jesus back to Pilate (Lk 23:6-12)
  • Pilate examines Jesus and finds him not guilty of the Jew’s charges against him. Pilate has Jesus flogged and plans to release him. (Lk 23:13-16; Jn 19:1-13)
  • Jesus is crowned with thorns. (Jn 19:1-6)
  • Jesus is sentenced to death and is crucified at 9:00 in the morning (Mk 15:25)
  • Jesus dies at 3:00 and is buried in the tomb. (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34; Lk 23:44)

 Holy Saturday: Jesus’ body in the tomb.

Easter Sunday:

  • Early in the morning of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (Joana?) brought spices to anoint Jesus’ body. The stone had been rolled away, the tomb was open, the body was gone, and they were told by an angel (two angels, a young man or two men in white clothes) that Jesus had been raised, and to go tell the disciples that Jesus has risen and would see them in Galilee. (Mt 28:1-10; Mk 16:1-8; Lk 24:1-12)
  • The disciples did not believe the women, but Peter ran to the tomb. (Lk 24:10-12)
  • Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and tells her to go to the disciples. She is the first person on record to see the risen Jesus. (Jn 20:11-17)
  • Matthew’s account: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were on their way to tell the disciples what the angel had said, when Jesus met them and said, “Hail!” “And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.” (Mt 28:5-10)
  • Mary Magdalene tells the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”. (Jn 20:18)
  • Jesus appears to Peter (Cephas) (Paul’s account in 1Cor 15:5)
  • Two disciples walking to Emmaus recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread. (Lk 24:13-32)
  • The two disciples immediately return to Jerusalem, find the Eleven gathered, and are told that Jesus has appeared to Peter (Simon). (Lk 24:33-35) “While they were saying this, Jesus stood among them…” (Lk 24:36) “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week…Jesus came and stood among them…” (Jn 20:19) “Now Thomas…was not with them when Jesus came.” (Jn 20:24)

See! A lot going on! I have also attached a graphic of another timeline for you to look at.

Even if you don’t read the entire timeline, please take the time to come to church this week. Make the journey from the gates of Jerusalem to the upper room, to the cross and finally to the empty tomb.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: Jesus’ Family

If you were to ask Jesus about the relationship with his family at the beginning of his ministry he might have said, “It is complicated.” When Jesus began his ministry it wasn’t clear what his family thought of his career choice. Jesus’ step-father (Joseph) was either a carpenter or a stone worker depending upon the translation. In those days, many male children learned the family business.

None of Jesus’ family except for Mary and Joseph were mentioned by name until after the resurrection. James, Jesus’ half-brother or step-brother became the head of the Church after Jesus. James even has a book in the New Testament. Although we don’t know James back story, I assume James didn’t believe that his half-brother Jesus was the Son of God during His ministry. Yet after the resurrection, he became a leader within the Church. The resurrection of Jesus changed everything for James and many others.

When Jesus was preaching, teaching and healing, His family didn’t know what to do with Him. In Mark chapter three we hear how Jesus family struggled with his identity.

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”

 I know this is a surprising revelation for some for two reasons:

  1. Jesus has more family than his mother and step-father.
  2. They think Jesus is crazy.

I am sure if you grew up with someone it would be a hard thing to accept that they are now preaching, teaching and healing in God’s Name.

Even people in Jesus’ hometown of Nazareth found it difficult to accept that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s love (see Luke 4:14-30). They tried to kill him for the things he said in the synagogue.

A little later, Jesus’ family comes to find him again after they thought he was “out of his mind.”

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.”

He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” Luke 8:19-21

Although we don’t know why they came to see Jesus this time, if the past is any indication, they weren’t coming over to say “hi” and tell him to “keep up the good work.

Jesus uses the situation and the moment to teach the people around him. “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

What might be perceived as a slight to his family (if they heard) is a promise for the rest of us.

What I find interesting is that Jesus doesn’t say anything about faith in this moment. He is completely practical. When you hear biblical instruction and then actually do it, you will be a child of God.

We don’t have to be related to Jesus to be in His family. He provides a way for us to be adopted into His royal family: put in to practice the things he taught us.

That’s what I need to hear…every day. A reminder to act like a child of God because I am a child of God! Even when I fail, the cross of Christ reminds me that I can start over at any time. I need lots of “do-overs.”

We don’t know what happened to the rest of Jesus’ family but it is clear that Mary (his mother) and James were also children of God because they followed Jesus’ teachings later in life.

As child of God, I need a Heavenly Father to guide me. I need a divine parent to watch over me and I need a big brother like Jesus show me the way.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

Article: Vows Made

Once a year I participate in something called a Chrism Mass. It is a worship service that blesses and consecrates oil for anointing. We use anointing oil for baptisms but it can be used for other purposes as well. I did not go to this worship service for the oil. I went because it is also the one time a year I renew my ordination vows. It is not required but I choose to go every year. I also participated in a service like this when I lived near Chicago.

The Chrism Mass worship is geared for pastors and deacons but all are welcome because corporate worship is always public and never private. I was surrounded by colleagues from the Bay Area. From as far south as Carmel and as far north as San Francisco. After the service, we ate lunch together. Oh and our bishop was there too.

As we came to the part of the service where we renewed our ordination vows, I was especially struck by one of the promises. “Are you resolved to continue to preach faithfully and teach diligently the word of God as it is found in the Holy Scriptures and taught in the confessions of this Church?” The response to this question and the others was “I am so resolved.”

 This question corresponds to one of my ordination vows which also relates to the constitution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America under section 7.31.02.

 As I reflected on this vow, it occurred to me that over the years, various people do not understand that I am bound to this promise. That somehow, the things I say and the decision I make as a pastor are totally based on personal opinion and nothing else. Sure, I have opinions. Everybody does. However, when it comes to the work I do, I feel compelled to turn to the scriptures. I trust the Scripture not only to guide me but also to mold me.

I also understand that not every pastor does that. Sigh.

I was having a great theological discussion with a member via email and I described myself as being an orthodox Christian. Not the denomination (Greek or Russian Orthodox) but that I believe in the traditional, historic and theological beliefs passed down through the Bible and the Lutheran perspective as found in the Book of Concord. That might surprise some of you.

If I did not have the scriptures as a foundation I would be lost. What would be the point of preaching? Or teaching? Or even making a decision? It would be all based on opinion or personal preference. That is not appealing to me at all.

I enjoy a good theological discussion. It does not bother me in the least to have people disagree with me on theological grounds. After all, we have many denominations don’t we? It is good to talk about issues using scripture as a foundation for dialogue even if there is not universal agreement.

There is one other reason I take this and my other ordination vows seriously. There is an admonition found in the book James within the third chapter. Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. This verses causes me to pause. I am held to a higher accountability. I will be judged by God with more rigor for the things I say and the things I do. I do not take that lightly.

If you ever wondered what makes me tick, now you know.

This renewal of vows was good for me because it made me stop and think about what I have promised to do until I take my last breath.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

 

 

 

Article: Paths of Right Standing Re-Visited

On Wednesday night worship during the season of Lent we have been exploring the 23rd Psalm. Last night I spent some with the words “God guides me in paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3b.

A number of Bethelonians (or is it Bethelites) heard me speak on this passage but I feel led to share some more reflections with those who could not attend (or live in Cupertino). For those of you who were there, this is mostly new material. Think of this as a director’s cut with bonus material. Ha!

Let me begin with a bold statement: God wants to lead His people. Not for selfish purposes or to cause detriment. I am reminded of the verse in Jeremiah most of you know, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Jeremiah 29:11

 God already knows the rest of our lives and God wants to guide us toward the future that He has planned. Can you imagine that? God knows how it ends. Not just the world, but the lives of everyone and wants to lead us toward hope and a future. An eternity with God, in my opinion, is quite a future! However, God is not just talking about the end (which is really a beginning) God is also talking about the journey towards that end. God wants to lead us.

Of course there is something that gets in the way of God leading us, we do. Free will is second greatest gift God gave humanity (Jesus being the first) and we use that freedom to walk our own paths. After all, we know what is best for us or so we think. Yet God never gives up on us. Even when go down our own path that usually leads nowhere or worse, a more dangerous path, God is there guide us back. We just need to stop long enough to listen and reflect and hear the voice of Jesus calling.

Yes, there are times when things happen beyond our control that often lead us to a dead end. Grief and trauma caused by other people and events can cause our lives to careen into a ditch. Even when life will never be the same again, Jesus is in that ditch waiting to help us out when we are ready to move forward.

Not only does God want to lead us but God wants to lead us towards Him. “Paths of righteousness” are paths of right standing with God. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the “junk” that comes between God and ourselves (better known as sin) is removed. See how good God is? Jesus even eliminates the barriers to growing closer to Him. God wants to lead us closer to Him throughout our lives. Paths of right standing.

Now here is the really cool part of this… the closer we are to Jesus the more he rubs off on us. It works like this in our other relationships too. The more time we spend with people, the more impact they have on us and visa-versa. (Rachel tried to limit my contact with the children growing up for this very reason. I’m kidding!)

Imagine, the more time we spend walking on the path of righteousness the more we will reflect the love, compassion and values of Jesus. I totally need more of Jesus in my life especially when I am driving or backing out of a parking space and other drivers don’t stop. I am sad when I see Christians who say they believe in Jesus but do not reflect His love toward others on a consistent basis. They believe in Jesus as a concept but Jesus has not changed their hearts as they walk their own paths. They prefer to cast God in their own image and have God approve of what they believe in. Often this manifests in God hates what I hate (or fear).

There is a reason God wants to draw us close and transform us so that we look a little more like Jesus and a little less than ourselves. This is that reason: God would love for us to share that right standing with others.

God leads on paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake. God asks us to share His love.  The other night at the Lenten service I was wearing my trusty llama socks. I was thinking about (but didn’t talk about) how God enlists us to be sure-footed Jesus loving llamas on the path of right standing, guiding others through the rough terrain toward the greatest Sherpa we have ever known. Jesus has walked these treacherous trails of life and has provided us the path to take. As his llamas, we can guide others on that same path… for His name’s sake.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben

Article: Quo Vadis?

Do you know the legend of Saint Peter’s death? There are several versions but nothing recorded in the scriptures.

The best known appears in the Acts of Peter, a third-century work that records Jesus closest  disciple’s death. When the Neronian persecution began, Peter leaves Rome rather than face crucifixion with other Christians in the Hippodrome.

As he flees south along the Appian Way, he encounters Jesus walking toward the city. “Quo vadis, Domine?” Peter asks. “Where are you going, Lord?”

Jesus, in what became known as the “Quo Vadis Legend”, replies. “To Rome, to be crucified again.”

Peter, once again humiliated, thinks further, turns, and goes back to the city where, at his own request, he is crucified upside down, feeling himself unworthy of being crucified in the same way as his master.

All we know for sure is that Saint Peter was martyred in Rome in the second half of the first century around the same time that Saint Paul was killed. It is widely accepted that Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded.

When I think of this legend I can’t help but think about our struggles to remain faithful.

As the persecution increased, as the story goes, Peter fled Rome. Life would be easier if not safer somewhere else.

OK, so we are not under any sort of persecution in the United States, but it is clear that many Christians park their faith in the garage when it conflicts with a deeply held personal belief or we become strangely silent in moments when there is controversy. It is as if we spiritually flee Rome when “the going gets tough.” Whether it is an internal conflict or an external struggle, many runaway from Christ and who Christ calls us to be.

I am not pointing fingers here. Only you can discern if you are one of these types of Christians. Of course, it helps to be self-aware and it is essential to understand what scripture says about the nature of God and what scripture says about how Christians might live. That could be some of the problem. It is hard to have a Biblical worldview if a person doesn’t know their Bible.

We could go through history (recent and ancient) and see this play out over and over again in different ways. For example,  The Spanish Inquisition that began in the 1490s. Instead of preaching the good news of Jesus to all people, the Church persecuted anyone who was not Christian. Many were forced to convert to Christianity under duress and many others died.  Another example, slavery and racism in our country. Many Christians have been on the wrong side of these issues throughout our nation’s history and some still are.

It is not only issue driven. It can also be our response to anything. Last night at our Lenten worship, Dave Denny talked about a preacher on the campus of DeAnza College who was spouting all sorts of angry words about who God hates (including a banner just to be crystal clear). You can see where a person like that will make life more difficult for other Christians (like us) to talk about Jesus because people will now assume that all Christians are like that.

As Peter left Rome, he saw Jesus headed toward that same city. The conversation they had changed Peter’s mind and he went back. I am hopeful Jesus is having those same conversations with people today through prayer, worship and conversations between Christians.

The truth is this: we follow a God of love. A God who willingly died on the cross so that we might see the depths of that love. More than that, Christ’s death is the way God deals with our lack of faith and bad attitudes (sin). The cross is a sign of reconciliation. God calls us back to Him through that cross. It is through the One who died on that cross who can remove our brokenness and replace it with love.

One of the reminders of Lent is to follow Christ all the way to His crucifixion. We are called to take up our crosses and follow Him (Mark 8:34). It is a call for every Christian to put our selfishness and bad attitudes to death. It also is a reminder that there are more important things than saving our own lives (our agendas, our personal beliefs, etc.…)  and some things are worth dying for.

Christianity is not meant to be a side dish or a condiment to enhance our entrée. The call of Christ is to leave our personal ambitions and agendas behind to become the love of God in this hurting and broken world. Leave the judging to God (Romans 2:1-4). Hate has no place in God’s Kingdom.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

 

 

Article: Greed is just one our problems…

He who loses money, loses much; He who loses a friend, loses much more; He who loses faith, loses all. – Eleanor Roosevelt

 Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves.” ― Horace Mann

 In a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy. ― Matt Taibbi

 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. – St. Paul of Tarsus

 No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. –Jesus of Nazareth

Unless you gave up the following the news for Lent, you already know about the tragedy that occurred in Parkland, Florida yesterday. There are 17 families grieving the loss of a loved one because they were killed by a disturbed lone gunman.

It causes me to shudder when I think about Christians receiving ashes yesterday with the words, “remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” for some in Florida it was prophetic.

It leaves us asking that same questions that we have already asked several times already in 2018, “Why?” and “How can we end this?”

The status quo is not acceptable. Cold blooded murder is not acceptable under any circumstance as a Christian. Not that I need to say that, but I guess I do.  The killing of innocent people is not the “trade-off” for the constitutional right to bear arms. There is no such thing as acceptable losses in order to preserve the freedom to own an automatic or semiautomatic weapons from a Christian point of view.

Some people will want to tell you that this is only a “mental health issue” and not a gun issue. Others will say that if someone wants a gun bad enough, they will procure one. Still others will say, it is “too soon” to talk about solutions knowing that it is never the right time. Another group will tell you that it is the time for “thoughts and prayers” and we should not try to “problem solve” in this moment or at the time of other tragedies in our recent past. All of these arguments are excuses for inaction.

As you know, we have a school at Bethel and we are located across the street from Cupertino High School. I suppose that makes me think about these things a little more seriously. As I write this, I can hear our children playing on the playground.

Is there a solution to this madness or should we expect a new normal or violence in the United States?

I refuse to believe that school violence or mass shootings is our new normal. There is no doubt that there are many things that contribute to the increase in violence: family and societal breakdown, the lack of political compromise, a mental healthcare system where people are not receiving the care they need either from a lack of personal assets or community funding and the list goes on.

And there is one more thing contributing to this ongoing problem: greed. Greed has the ability to make you do and say things that are contrary to your core values. The promise of more money can cause your moral compass to spin. A person who has traded their morals for money have lost their way.

The amount of money being spent by organizations to support politicians directly or indirectly is staggering and disheartening. It is the kind of money that will make a greedy person drool. I am not singling out the “gun lobby” on this. There is way too much money in politics period. This type of money prevents honest discussions and compromise on a whole range of issues including common sense gun laws, background checks and the sale of deadly weapons at unregulated gun shows in various states.

Money gets in the way of fixing a lot of things at the national and state level because lawmakers are beholden to their donors whether directly or indirectly.

Greed is not the only problem  but it is a big problem in finding solutions that protect people especially when we elect and trust lawmakers to work for the good of the community and not just special interests.

Within the first amendment of The United States Constitution it states that the government shall not abridge “the freedom of speech, or of the press…” yet we have libel and defamation laws. Even the Supreme Court once ruled that yelling “fire” in a crowded theater does not constitute free speech because it is “dangerous speech” (Schenck v. United States, 1919). Can we not have stronger protections as it pertains to the second amendment?

Is it not time to put the sixth commandment above the second amendment?

Everything I have written about are “heart issues.” As a nation we have a serious heart condition. It is time to do some soul searching and problem solving.

Last night at Ash Wednesday service I said that “Love is the most powerful force in the universe.” I stand by that statement because it is love that raised Jesus from the dead and love that turned Saint Paul from killing and persecuting Christians to becoming Christianity’s greatest theologian. It will take our active love and concern to slow this cycle of increasing violence.

Let us pray…
Lord of Love,

We pray for everyone affected by gun violence, domestic violence and senseless violence. We sense there is something really wrong with the ways things are in our world. The problems seem insurmountable and never ending. We despair at the mess humanity has created for ourselves.  Fill our hearts with your love so that we are protected from the sin of violence and greed in our own lives. We ask that you use us as your children to bring real change and lasting peace to our communities, our nation and your world. Please show us the way. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

God bless you all,
Pr. Ben

 

 

Article: Transfiguration

If you go to Bethel Lutheran Church (I assume most people reading this are from Bethel) you are going to hear about Jonah’s response to God for not destroying Nineveh this Sunday. (If you need to catch up, you can listen to the first 3 sermons of this series on this website.)

BUT… it is also Transfiguration Sunday, but we aren’t really going to talk about it on Sunday because of Jonah. Sorry. Especially if that is your favorite church holiday. It is not a total loss, I am going to talk about the Transfiguration right now!

As the church calendar unfolds, this is the perfect Sunday for Transfiguration Sunday. Why you ask? Because it is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. This Sunday we are reminded in the gospel reading that Jesus is the Son of God (Mark 9:2-9)! Then on Wednesday we begin the journey toward Calvary, toward Golgotha, toward the cross. We need the reminder of the Transfiguration before we get to Good Friday. We must not forget that Jesus the Savior took on sin and death for our sake. The Transfiguration reminds us that Jesus is not just another rabbi but God Himself!

The story of the Transfiguration within the gospel of Mark is found right in the middle of the story. Mark reminds us right in the middle of the gospel that Jesus is the Son of God. It is the second reminder we have received in the gospel story. Near the beginning, John baptizes Jesus and we hear the voice of God declaring that Jesus is God’s son. Mark doesn’t want us to forget this as we move toward the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The message is clear, “Jesus is special.”

Shortly after the Transfiguration in Luke’s version of the gospel story it says, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Luke 9:51  That is why this Sunday is perfect for Transfiguration Sunday! Spiritually speaking, we begin our journey toward Jerusalem starting on Ash Wednesday with the declaration that Jesus is the Son of God on our minds.

I hope you make time to come to Ash Wednesday services next week (12pm or 7pm). I will be talking about love and why the season of Lent is all about love and our decision to return to the source of love. Jesus went to the cross because of God’s never ending love for us (John 3:16).

Last Sunday at our Congregational meeting, I talked about the importance of engaging people in loving conversations beyond our circle of friends at church. We are great extending hospitality to others but what is the next step? Growing closer in Christ Centered Community. Why is this important (beyond these being our core values)? Because it is a sign of God’s love in our lives and the lives of others.

Love is a powerful tool that is at our disposal. Let us stay close to the One who loved us so that we may love others in His name.

God bless,
Pr. Ben

Article: Evil

This might seem a little odd but let’s talk about evil. There are many within the Christian community who would deny the existence of Satan, the devil and demons. They often claim that references to such things in the Bible are myth and not to be taken literally.

I was curious about how many times these words show up in the Bible so I did a little research and this is what I discovered.

Satan is mentioned 58 times in the Bible.
Demons is mentioned 87 times in the Bible.
Evil Spirit(s) is mentioned 40 times in the Bible.
The devil is mentioned 37 times in the Bible.

That is quite a bit! It comes to a total of 222 times. That is not insignificant. Even Jesus talks about such things. Did he teach about these things as if they were figments of our imagination? Not at all. I would go as far to say that Jesus believed these things to be very real and not mythological. (Hint: we should too.)

One would think if the Son of God knew such things were fake, he would just tell us and not perpetuate a falsehood. Yet when Christians dismiss evil personified, they are also dismissing Jesus’ teaching authority and Jesus himself. That doesn’t seem very tenable for a Christian. Even Jesus taught us to pray, “deliver us from evil…”

Over the years, I have talked to other pastors who have encountered unexplained, negative spiritual phenomena and have asked for help. They often comment, “why don’t they teach us this stuff in seminary?!?” Which of course is a very good question. Why don’t they?

Yes, in the world there are people who are encountering bad stuff that is not of human origin. And yes, in my work, I have encountered it too. You don’t often hear about it because people don’t want to talk about it or be judged as weird or worse.

This is nothing like Ghostbusters. This is serious stuff. I do not think for a moment that Jesus is perpetuating myths in the scripture. I also think that evil prefers that people dismiss it as nonsense. There is no better way to operate in secret when people do not think you exist.

Do I think that some of the exorcisms that Jesus performed were more medical related than demon possession? Yes. Remember, the human authors of the gospels interpreted what they saw or reported what they heard from eyewitnesses. Does that mean all exorcisms were health related? Nope.

Do I think that all the bad things that happen in the world have demonic origins? No again. Humans do a pretty good job of doing terrible things without any help from below. However, I do not believe all suffering and misery is of human origin.

Even though Jesus conquered sin and death through His death and resurrection, there is still evil in this world (just look around). It will continue to exist until Jesus returns. Whether we see it or not, there is a spiritual battle going on. Someone wants to save humanity and someone wants to destroy it.  Despite what some Satanists think, the devil doesn’t want followers. He wants to destroy and will deceive people for that very purpose including his followers.

St. Paul clarifies the struggle we face in Ephesians 6:12:

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the principalities (the first thing, the origin of evil in this case), against the authorities (over humanity), against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

 What are we to do with this information? Nothing. That’s right nothing. Our calling as Christians is to cling to Christ and Him alone. Christ provides all the protection we need. There is no need to go out and look for evil to banish. As a matter of fact, it is a dangerous thing to do battle with these forces. Seriously. Those who mess around with such things often bite off more than they can chew, spiritually speaking. Instead, continue to grow in your trust of the Lord and God will watch over you.

My prayer for you is that you understand that there is more going on “behind the scenes” than you might think. Be spiritually aware and spiritually awake so that you continue to seek God and not a dangerous dead end.

God bless you now and always,
Pr. Ben

 

 

Article: Lists and Love

Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:10

These are profound words. Yet, they are often glossed over.

Believe it or not, this gets to the heart of what we believe. This is the center of our theology.

The ever-persistent Saint Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome so that they would know everything he did because he couldn’t visit them in person…yet.

Throughout this letter, he reminds the church in Rome that Gentile Christians are equal to Jewish Christians and that Jewish Christians are no longer under the Law of Moses. Instead, all Christians are given faith in Christ to live a life of love.

“The Law” is a hard habit to break and it is an easy trap to fall into when trying to follow Christ. It is alluring to simplify one’s faith into things you should do and things you shouldn’t do. Be good, don’t be bad. Jesus likes good people. Christians only do good things. Stuff like that. It is easy and simple to teach to people of every age.  Besides, even the New Testament is filled with lists of sins to avoid.  That seems pretty clear right?

Lists of behaviors to embrace or avoid may be extremely practical for some but it does not constitute our faith in Christ.

God doesn’t grade on performance. God doesn’t put gold stars next to your name in the Book of Life.  God didn’t give instruction of how to live as an end, but as a means to an end. Many Christians (pastors included) forgot what that end is. The purpose of all practical instruction (but not clearly stated near those lists) is to better love God and love the people around you.

Here is one of those lists:
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed… Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place… Ephesians 5:3-4

 This is sound advice for everyone. Not just Christians. This would be a positive message for anyone. More plainly, I wish every citizen of the world lived up this instruction. If someone dared to live into these instructions, would that make them a Christian even if they didn’t believe in Jesus? No. A Christian trusts in Jesus Christ the person. Moralism (being a good citizen) doesn’t require God.

Being a good person doesn’t make a person a Christian any more than a person who goes swimming is a fish. I wish every person was good, but that doesn’t mean they are a Christian. Why is it that we (within the Church) equate being good (and following lists) with being a Christian?  Sometimes I think it is laziness and the path of least resistance.

Long before there is a change in outward behavior, God changes our hearts. What does God change our hearts with? Love. The love of Jesus that forgives. The love of Jesus who would rather die than shut us out and leave us outside of God’s love. The love of Jesus who rises from the dead on Easter morning to show us that love wins.

Sadly, I have encountered “Christians” who have never experienced that kind of love. Or their moralistic behavior leads me to believe they have not felt the love of Jesus because they are fixated on behaviors and not love. Thankfully, I have only met a few, but they scare me.

Yes, there are times when we all speak up and say, “Don’t do that.” That’s not what I am talking about (in case you’re thinking I was vaguely talking about you, I’m not).

Behavior follows change. God does the changing in love with love.

Lists are good in the Bible if we know their place and their function. Lists are bad if we make them the centerpiece of our belief system. One doesn’t need faith if we are going to follow lists.

People change when they are loved. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Romans 13:10 That’s all God is trying to do. Love us so we can love others and point them to the source of all love.

Besides, at various points of my life I have been on the naughty list. I am thankful for the forgiveness that God offers in love.

God bless you,
Pr. Ben