Saturday, November 24, 2007

French Fries and Salvation (Luke 21 5-19)

I try to watch what I eat these days, and I gained a word of knowledge from it: Everything smells like french fries, but nothing tastes like them.

What do I mean, and what do french fries have to do with the anti-Christ?

Well, obviously, eating healthier means leaving out the french fries, which creates a problem in a lot of restaurants that serve them, because they smell good. But even though I smell french fries, I know I’m eating lettuce or something else good for me, and the twain ne’er shall meet when it comes to taste. The atmosphere may give the impression I’ve got the real thing in front of me, but my tongue knows I don’t. So do my arteries, though, which is probably a good thing.

In this passage, Jesus warns his listeners to beware of people who proclaim they are a Messiah. He knows that after he returns to the Father, people will claim to be him, with a new message or a change in the old one. They will try to create a following of their own by claiming to be Jesus or to be his messengers, but they will actually lead people astray.

Now, we don’t face this problem today in the same way the disciples did. Think about it: Our first response if we run into someone who claims to be Jesus is to call the hospital and try to get the poor guy some help. Two thousand years of Christian history give us perspective the earliest church did not have, since many of them believed Jesus would return very soon.

But we still face it. Our false saviors today usually don’t take the name of Christ, but they still make claims on our lives that only Christ can make. They may not promise salvation by name, but they still promise salvation’s ultimate goal. They promise to make us whole where we are broken.

Remember, salvation in Christ means we are reconciled to God. Christ heals the relationship between God and humanity, broken by our sin. The Holy Spirit begins to renew and repair the damaged and disfigured image of God within each of us. We were broken, but now we are healed and being made whole.

A false savior will promise us this kind of healing and renewal. And they’re all over the place, big and small. Other religions offer different gods. We know if we follow them, we can’t follow Christ – at least, we know it if we understand the differences between the different faiths.

But we don’t notice the smaller false saviors so much, and here’s what I mean. Watch commercials sometimes – I’m not singling them out, but they illustrate my point pretty well. Commercials are little parables about how you and I – the viewers – are somehow less than whole people. Our breath is bad, our home is dirty, our car is old, our brand of soap does not attract supermodels, and so on. Because of these shortcomings, we are supposed to be miserable. Or at least unhappy.

So the advertised product swoops in to the rescue! Our breath is minty fresh, transplant surgery could be done on our kitchen floor, the police pull us over to admire our new wheels, and we actually have to hide from all the supermodels who seem to have less than honorable intentions towards our well-soaped persons.

All the commercial lacks is an actual “Hallelujah!” to be just like a religious experience of salvation.

Now, few of us really believe the commercial’s claim to salvation. We know that we’re really just buying a truck, for example, and we don’t really become as tough as the Ford ads make Toby Keith look. So what’s the problem? We don’t buy the message, we just buy the product.

As long as we do just buy the product, then we have no problem. And the idea of deodorant as savior is so ridiculous it presents few people with a real anti-Christ they might follow. But the real anti-Christs offer the same “substitute savior,” and in much less ridiculous form.

How many people do we know who invest themselves in another person so thoroughly that person becomes their savior – the one who makes them whole? Or others who look to a cause or an idea for their meaning?

People, causes and ideas are all important, but they are only people, causes and ideas. God may call us to them. God may call us to champion justice or to proclaim dignity and freedom for all people – I know he does, in fact. But those things do not save us, and they do not save others. Only God does that, through the life, death and resurrection of his son. That, and that alone is the message of salvation.

Anything else – well, it may smell like the good news, but it doesn’t taste like it.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Get Outta Here! (Matthew 28:16-20)

In a way, the disciples had it easy.

Oh, sure they lived in a world without modern sanitation, nutrition and health care, and they were often persecuted for their faith. Arrested, beaten, tortured and sometimes killed – obviously we’re better off than they were in many ways, and I don’t want to trade places with any of them for any longer than it would take to see Jesus heal one sick person.

But in one way, they had it over us. They hadn’t yet gotten this weird idea that “church” was a place you go to, like we have. Yes, believers met in the synagogues to hear the scripture read and they went to the Temple to pray, if they lived in Jerusalem or nearby.

They didn’t have churches yet, though. They didn’t have these buildings they went to and made members at, so they didn’t have to take that extra step that we do – the extra step of going out from our place of worship to bring people into what we call the body of Christ.

When Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world, he spoke literally. They were to journey to different parts of the world they knew and proclaim the gospel. They didn’t have to worry about the distinction between proclaiming the gospel in church and proclaiming it everywhere else, because they didn’t yet have a line between church and “everywhere else.” Everywhere was everywhere else.

If we lived then and I shared the gospel with you and you accepted it, what happened next? Well, we might meet with some other believers for dinner and praise God while we did. We might read some scripture together, if either of us could read.

But we didn’t have a place where we went every week and compartmentalized our faith and set it aside from the rest of our lives. Lots of people worked in their homes, so they didn’t even divide home from work, let alone divide a “work week” from a “weekend.”

So when they thought about sharing the gospel – and I’m not na├»ve enough to think they were all saints who thought about nothing else – the only people they could think of to share it with were the people they met every day. The people they worked with or worked for, the people they dealt with or sold stuff to or bought stuff from or knew down the street…you get the picture.

We’re called to share the gospel with the same groups of people, but we’ve given ourselves a different place from where we “go into all the world.” Of course we can share the gospel today, and of course what I’ve called our “extra step” doesn’t prevent that.

Unless, of course, we forget that it’s there. Which I am guilty of pretty much most of the time.

Instead of taking the gospel into the world around me, the world of waiters and store clerks and checkout workers and everybody else I deal with regularly, I have made the church my world, so to speak. I may see the same young person at the bookstore three or four times a week and speak with them pleasantly, but what do I know about his or her faith or place of worship? Bupkis, that’s what.

I don’t mean the kind of in-your-face pushiness that asks every random stranger, “IF YOU DIED TONIGHT, DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU’D SPEND ETERNITY?” Try that tactic and get introduced to some nice young men and women in crisp blue uniforms. As well as get banned from many businesses and homes, all without actually bringing the gospel message to the person whose life you have just frightened out of them.

What I do mean is to look at the people we do know, even if it’s not very well, who we encounter nearly every day, and start to wonder about them as people. Begin to pray about them and for them, and start to speak with them often enough and sincerely enough that the chance may come for you to ask them about their church or invite them to yours.

It starts, though, with the wondering – does this person go to church? Would this person want to go to my church? Those are questions we can’t answer until we get to know a little bit more about them and their own faith and beliefs.

We trip ourselves up by thinking we need to be deep friends with people before we ask them about faith stuff. We don’t, not really. We need to be friendly. We need to be polite. We need to back off if a person isn’t interested, but maintain the friendliness and consideration we’ve been showing up until now. We need to know what we’re talking about – which is definitely one thing we’re supposed to need the church for.

But above all else, we need to go. Out there. Because that’s where they are, waiting to hear the good news we have to share with them.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Doubter's Reality (John 20 19-31)

We had a guest speaker again last week, so I've dusted off another oldie.

Poor old Thomas. Forever the doubter, right? Wasn’t there when Jesus appeared to the disciples so he insists on his own personal encore before he’ll believe it. As if the word of the other disciples wasn’t enough for him.

Well of course it’s not good enough for him. Remember who these guys are. They’re one short because their treasurer sold Jesus out for money. Their leader denied knowing Jesus three times before breakfast. They all, Thomas included, bugged out when the soldiers arrested Jesus.

Sure, the disciples have a credibility problem, but I think Thomas figures them for delusional more than he figures them for liars. They wish Jesus was back and everything was all right, and they wish for it so hard they might start to see things, like him back and standing with them.

What we know of Thomas from his other appearances in John teaches us that Thomas doesn’t play wishing games. Jesus didn’t listen to the disciples who warned him that he risked his life by going to Jerusalem – and Thomas spoke up and said, “Let’s go die with him then.” Thomas deals in reality, no matter what it is.

I believe that’s why he wants to touch the scars, and not just hear about it from the disciples.

Thomas, like the other disciples, saw Jesus heal people. He didn’t say, “Now, you people shouldn’t look down on someone just because they can’t see,” for example. “You should get rid of the barriers your society creates for him and view him as a person of equal worth to the rest of you.” Sure, he would love it if they did that, just as he would love it if we did it today. But he didn’t raise consciousness or increase awareness or whatever.

No, he just healed them. Blind, deaf, mute, lame, possessed, whatever. Real people who had real problems received real healing.

And Thomas also saw Jesus arrested and he knew Jesus died. Maybe he came back and maybe not. But if he was just some spirit, some pretender who just looked like he suffered and looked like he died while somehow being above it all, then he had lied to them.

So Thomas wanted to see the scars. Was this man the one who walked with them, who healed and taught the people and who died on a cross? If he lied about suffering and dying, why believe him about anything else?

If the resurrection was just a big ol’ no-harm, no-foul do-over, then Thomas wanted none of it. Whoever or whatever had showed up to tell the others he was risen had better be a real person or he had lied in everything he said and did.

No shiny, happy pie in the sky would satisfy Thomas. He wanted the real meat of what he’d seen and heard in his time with Jesus. Jesus loved and cared for real people because they mattered to him. He healed them because their real hurts mattered to him. If that Jesus rose, then he’d have scars. He would show his people their pain mattered by keeping the signs he had gone through pain himself.

And now Jesus comes, and he invites Thomas to do what he said he wanted to do. “Touch the scars, Thomas,” he says. Thomas doesn’t even need to now. Meeting the risen Christ for himself is enough and more. “My Lord and my God,” he replies.

Because now he knows that Jesus is indeed what he says he is. He is the Son of God and the Savior of all humanity, a real person who came to love his Father’s people with a real love. He is the Lord of life and of death, and he showed it by really dying and really returning.

Such a being is indeed Lord and God, and Thomas acknowledges it the only way he can, and the way we acknowledge it today.

Real hurts need a real healer. Real sins need real repentance. And real people need a real Savior, and we have all of these in Christ the Lord.

Which sounds like good news to me.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Place Your Bets (2 Timothy 4:6-8: 16-18)

Probably everyone’s heard the phrase, “expect the unexpected.” It warns us to be ready if things don’t go the way we plan, and it’s good advice.

One of the things Paul says in this passage reminds me that when we’re dealing with God, “expect the unexpected” is more than advice – it’s pretty much standard operating procedure.

Paul tells Timothy how he survived a time of trial. The people around him deserted him, but God stood with him and prevailed. God “rescued him from the lion’s mouth” he says. That passage reminds some of us and probably reminded nearly every Jewish person who heard it of the story of Daniel, thrown into a den of lions because he defied King Nebuchadnezzar and stayed true to the Lord.

Although he faced more than one lion, Daniel survived unharmed. God protected him.

Had Las Vegas betting operations been around back then, I imagine they wouldn’t have even taken bets on the contest. Sometimes some events are so lop-sided they’ll refuse to list them, and one man versus several lions defines lop-sided. Common sense tells us the lions will win. They are bigger, stronger, have claws and bigger teeth and there are more of them. Everyone would bet on the lions and no one would bet on Daniel, so the bookies would close it down because they couldn’t make any money on the contest.

Most things in the world work that way, though. If an 8-man high school football team lines up against professional football players, common sense tells us the pros will win and the kids don’t have a chance. Sure, they might win. It’s not impossible, but it’s so unlikely that no one would risk anything on the matchup.

God’s standard operating procedure, though, calls us to expect the unexpected. Found a nation through which salvation will come to the world? Use a 100-year-old childless couple. Establish that nation as a stable operation to create the culture that will bring that savior to the world? Pick a group of people 400 years in slavery.

Time to give that nation a real king as its leader? One shepherd boy, coming up. Need to give that culture and people the finishing touches that will get them looking to the coming savior? Destruction and exile, at your service.

Bring the savior into the world? One poor Jewish teenager, please. Finish his work, re-uniting sinful broken humanity with its Creator? I’d like a shameful execution, if you don’t mind.

Paul credits his ability to stand and testify when he was on trial to God, not to himself. He was down for the count, with the referee already finished saying “t-” and halfway through “-en.” God rescued him from the figurative lion’s mouth of fear and inability to speak just as he rescued Daniel from the actual lions. Paul too stands in this pattern of God using the unlikeliest way to get his work done – a persecutor of the faith became its greatest preacher.

Why would God work this way? Just for the fun of it, to make people go, “Huh?” Sure, he probably chuckles some at the head-scratching, but I think there’s more to it.

For one, when things run so completely opposite of what we would expect them to do, we see God’s work more clearly. We often use the word “miracle” to describe it in fact, clearly labeling it a work of God. Well, it’s obvious God was involved, we say, because no human effort could have done that.

I believe God also works that way because of who he is – the Creator. The medieval church called the creation of the universe creatio ex nihilo, or “creation from nothing.”

Maybe you and I haven’t been in Paul’s deep mess, but most of us have probably found ourselves without much hope in some situation or another. It’s probably not all the way to “nothing,” but it’s close enough to make us believe the game is over in whatever area we’re dealing with, and there’s “nothing” to be done.

And that’s when the God of expecting the unexpected says, “Step aside” and creates something from what we thought was nothing. A new idea, a new inspiration, a new hope, a new start – he’s got a lot of good outcomes where we saw only bad ones.

Which is why, no matter what the oddsmakers say and no matter what it seems like is certain to happen, what you might call the divine tip sheet always tells us to bet on Daniel. His God saved him, and if his God is our God, then we just might be saved as well.

And that’s the good news.