Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Snake Bitten!

Have you ever been snake bitten?
Not literally bitten by a snake, but felt paralyzed by events in your life.
Have you ever felt fear that made you unable to move, to act, to make progress in your life?
This is what sin does to our lives.
It paralyzes us and makes us unable to move ahead, to make decisions that are good and positive.
It is what the Israelites are experiencing in our reading this morning.
They are so consumed with what they lack that they forget what they have.
They forget that it was God who saved them from slavery and bondage in Egypt.
They are so fearful that they will not get to the Promised Land.
If we live in fear we are often unable to see what God is doing, and what needs to be done.

I will admit that this story from the Bible is a challenging one.
We have to wrestle with the idea that God sends snakes to bite and kill his people.
I would like to make a couple of observations.
One God does not directly harm anyone.
It is a small point, but an important distinction.
Two, I can completely understand what God does here.
It comes from being a parent.
Nothing annoys me more than when my kids act like spoiled entitled brats.
They just had a birthday and gotten tons of presents. (More than I got when I was a kid.)
And the next day they want something else.
The presents they got are not good enough.
They seem to forget all too quickly what they had been given.
That is what is happening in this scene.
God has already sent manna, water, and quail.
The people complained they were thirsty.
So God made water flow from a rock in the desert.
The people complain that they are hungry.
God made bread fall from the heavens.
The people complained that the bread wasn’t good enough.
God made quail fall from the sky so they could eat.
And here they are after all that still complaining that it is not good enough.
I can totally understand God’s actions.
You know we are quick to point out God’s actions and totally forget the sin that is committed in order to make the action happen.

That might help you with this story or not, but for me God actions makes sense within the context of the relationship he has with the people of Israel.
But the next part is what is so amazing.
God gives a way out.
God offers a way for people to be saved.
Simply look at the pole with the snake and you will be saved.
Notice God does not remove the snakes, but offers a way out.

This whole story is then reinterpreted in the Gospel of John.
Jesus becomes the saving agent.
We will be snake bitten.
We will sin.
We will complain that we don’t have enough.
We will be selfish.
But, if you want a way out, look towards Jesus.
Jesus is our way out, our way forward.

If you are in a situation in your life that paralyzes you, makes you afraid, makes you wonder about the fairness of the world, then look towards Jesus.
In Jesus you will find your answer.
In Jesus you will find you way forward.
In Jesus you will be healed of your snake bite and be allowed to live again.

It might sound too simplistic.
I mean we find ourselves in pretty complicated situations.
Life can be complicated.
The answers that we seek are not always very obvious.
Sin is hard to untangle.
Does Jesus have all the answers?
Most of my week is filled with untangling sin.
Not in some superficial theological way, but in the very real life of people’s existence.
What I see are people snake bitten, people who are lost in sin.
The parents who are disappointed by life and so they take it out on their kids.
The young married couple fighting all the time because they are both to stubborn to compromise.
The regret of someone who feels they have wasted their life, the single person who doesn’t like their job, the wife who cheated on her husband, the person who cheated someone else out of money and just got out of prison.
The husband dealing with regret that he wasn’t better of a man, the homeless person who can’t break the cycle, real life in all of its complication and brokenness.
Once in a great while there are practical solutions.
Most of the time what is needed is a spiritual solution.
Most of the time what is required is a real searching of our soul.
And then there is God who offers us a way out if we only look in the right direction.

If we only look towards Jesus Christ we can stop being snake bitten.
If we only admit our sin and failure and ask for forgiveness God is willing and able to offer it, to give it.
Are we willing to look in that direction?

I once had a woman come to me who was in an abusive relationship.
It was one of the harder things I had to deal with as a pastor.
It was one of those things they just don’t prepare you for in seminary.
The worse thing about it was that she blamed herself.
She was too bossy, too demanding.
Maybe if she just backed off things would be better.
The practical answer was that she should leave him.
She had not sinned but the sin of her husband was breaking the marriage vows.
But that had all sorts of consequences that at this time she was not willing to deal with.

She was snake bitten, not by her sin but by the sin of someone else.
It caused her to get lost in her fear, shame, and feelings that she was worthless.
What helped was the spiritual answer.
God did not want this for her life.
God did not desire for her to be hit.
She needed courage, conviction.
I could sense that what was at the heart was a real loss of her own self worth.
This too can be a spiritual wilderness for us.
To somehow undervalue our self worth makes us broken people.
To deny what God wants from us leads to despair.
Could she see that in her life?
Could she turn to the God who lifted up Jesus for her, a God who loved and cared about her beyond her own limits to love herself.

That is really the question that we all have to struggle with this morning.
Can we see beyond the snake bite, beyond our shame, and inadequacy to what God lifts before us?
Can you?
Even in the face of death can we see beyond that limited human life to something even greater in store.
Jesus is lifted up on the cross for us, but also beyond that to his resurrection and ascension.
Jesus might not answer every question, but Jesus gives us the answer to the biggest questions.

Are we worthy?
Yes, you are because God so loved you to give you a way out.
Are we forgiven?
Yes, because God loved us enough to send his only son to offer forgiveness.
Are we loved?
Yes, by a God who dwelt in this world filled with darkness God offers us light.
Is there a way to cure the snake bite?
Yes, by looking God who gives true life.
As we here today let us look to God to save us from our snake bites.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Gift of the Ten Commandments

Since my joke went over so well last week I have decided to risk it another week and open with a joke this week.
What is the Lutheran Ten Commandments?
Just pick your favorite five.
I suppose this joke is told because Lutherans can come across to some as antinomian, or people without the law.
We Lutheran tend to be worldly people.
We don’t refrain from drinking, playing cards, dancing, watching certain movies, reading certain books, or listening to certain music.
Martin Luther himself was a rather crass person.
He used inappropriate words, drank beer, and used tavern music to make hymns.
But we should not mistake this for a person who thought less of the law.
In fact, anyone who has ever spent time with Luther’s Catechism knows that Luther had a very high respect for the Ten Commandments.
In fact, I would argue he elevated them.
He made them into more than mere window dressing we put over our religious nature to pretend that everything is fine.
He went deeper into the meaning of the Commandments and set the bar so high that it is impossible for us to obtain what Luther believed about the commandments.
First and foremost Luther saw the commandments as pointing us towards our sin, and therefore drawing us closer to Jesus Christ who saves us.
For Luther our true selves are revealed when we tried to play God and pretend that we could be “good Christians” by simply following a set of laws.

What then do we say this morning about the Ten Commandments?
First it must be said that the commandments are a gift from God.
We should not despise them because they point us to what God would intend for our lives if we could escape our sin.
The commandments were meant to be a gift to Israel who up to this point are wondering in the desert.
The Ten Commandments becomes the way in which Israel can find the good life they are searching for.
God loves them enough to give them these commandments as a way to live a full life God intended.
I don’t have time this morning to go through each commandment one by one.
That sermon would take too long and well you probably wouldn’t stay to listen anyway.
So I want to concentrate on just one commandment.
I want us to think about how our lives would be if we could just follow one of the commandments.
I would like to concentrate on the commandment that tells us not to covet.
Imagine how good our lives would/could be if we simply did not covet.
If we could somehow find contentment in our lives, how good our lives would be.
If we did not measure our worth based on what other people had we could find joy in simply being who God made us to be.
If we did not covet, every day we would be able to wake and count our blessings.
I know for me I often covet things that others have.
A friend who gets a new television set.
I covet when a colleague who preaches so eloquently that I only wish to someday be able to explain the Gospel in such a way.
God gave us this commandment because to live by it would mean a blessing for each of us.
I know that I am always searching for contentment.
I am praying that I will be able to be satisfied with my life and the things in it.
Because the truth is that my life is nothing but blessings.
I have a great job, a wonderful wife, two great kids, a roof over my head, plenty of food on the table.
Life is good.
But there is that part of me always wanting something better.
Looking at someone else and thinking that perhaps if I just had what they had then I would really be happy.

Friday and Saturday our youth group fasted for 30 hours.
We raised money for poverty around the world.
But I think we did something that was of extraordinary spiritual value.
We reminded ourselves of what the blessings we have.
By not eating we were reminded of how much we get to eat.
I told the kids that the spiritual discipline of fasting hopefully produces two results.
On the one hand, we learn to be thankful for what we have.
We learn to be content with what God has given.
And secondly, we learn that this world is not fair or just.
That for someone living on this planet, a planet that God made and gave us all plenty of food, not to eat for 30 hours is just wrong.

Notice that being content is not the same thing as being complacent.
I should be content with what I have, but I should never be complacent about the state of the world as it currently is.
I have an obligation and a call by God to do everything in my power to make it different.
I have a call to make sure that all children not just my own, but all children go to bed at night safe and fed.

Luther in the Catechism says that it is not enough to merely not want what our neighbors have.
We should also, “be of help and service to (our neighbor) in keeping what is theirs.”
Our thoughts should not be only about our own happiness and desires but also of that of our neighbor so that we aid them in attaining the same things that we enjoy.
By doing this we truly live contented lives because we are not concerned with our neighbor getting more than what we have.

During lent it is always good to take time and thank God for our lives.
To look at our lives and be content with what we have.
What would your life be like if you could be content with what God has given?
How much better would it be?
I guarantee that life lived in thankfulness is better than one lived always thinking of the things that we don’t have.
St. Paul wrote in his letter to Philippians, “for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.”
I pray to God that we too might learn to be content with whatever we have.

We can see from this one commandment what great spiritual gains we would have to learn not to covet.
We see that our lives would be so much better if we could learn to be content .

Why then don’t we do it?
I would suggest that the problem with the law is that we use it as a measuring stick.
Instead of seeing it as a gift that God has given us to help us live a more godly life, we use as a way to judge ourselves and others.
It is always the danger with the law.
The law stops becoming something that gives life and instead becomes for us a way to decide who is a better Christian than others.
Who is more religious than others.

This is precisely why we need Christ.
We need Christ because Jesus reminds us of our true selves.
Jesus reminds us that without God as the center of life we cannot do it on our own.
The key to our contentment is for me to release myself absorption to God.
I know that I cannot by myself of my own free will choose to be content.
But knowing God more leads to a more content life.
I can see that all the things I have in my life are really just temporary.
They all can go away.
The only thing that I can really count on is God.
The commandment when see through this prism are not about being good so that I can please God.
Rather they become about learning to trust God in all things.
The commandments help us to know God and know what God has created in our lives.
To admit the things that God needs to redeem in our lives, and to rely on God to make us holy through the Holy Spirit.
Through this process we can see all the things that God has given us and be thankful.
We can admit when we have been ungrateful to God for this life.
And we can trust that God will continue to make us more content with life.

God gave us the Ten Commandments because God loves us and wants us to have life and have it in abundance.
When we hear God’s word we learn of God’s love for us and we desire to have our lives shaped by God alone.
May we all continue to hear God’s word and allow the Holy Spirit to shape us so that we might learn to live a contented life, because of the riches of Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Hope Against Hope

This lent we are hearing stories of God’s promises.
It started last week when we heard the promise that God made to Noah after the flood.
It continues this week with a promise that God makes to Abraham and Sarah.
God promises that Abraham will be the father of many nations, and Sarah that she would be the mother to many nations.
This promise seems impossible, improbable.
Abraham and his wife Sarah are 99 years old.
How can they have a baby?

In our time we are rightfully suspicious of promises.
How many times in our lives have they been broken?
Politicians make us promises all the time.
They tell us that they will cure all the ills of the world if only we vote for them.
Then we are crushed when they fail to follow through on those promises.
Our loved ones sometimes make us promises and often times they fail.
I am always amazed at how many martial vows are broken by a cheating spouse.
I am amazed at how many parents fail to live up to the promise of being a loving supportive parent.
I am amazed at how many friendships end because the unspoken promise go unrealized.
I am amazed at how many churches fail because the promise is broken between a pastor and the congregation.
I know that there have been times when I promised my kids something, and for whatever reason I was unable to keep that promise.
I know there have been other times when I have let people down because of an un-kept promise.
Yes, we have all experienced the pain of un-kept promises, and we all have been responsible for un-kept promises.

Perhaps we can understand then when people are cynical about God’s promises.
God makes a lot of promises.
In our baptisms God promises to be with us throughout our lives.
God promises to be with us and love us.
I know that people in their lives sometimes feel that God has not always kept that promise.
When something goes bad they wonder where is God and why has God left them.

This is why stories like that of Abraham and Sarah are so important for us to hear again.
Abraham and Sarah had no logical reason to believe that God would be good to God’s word.
After all even they seem to know that people don’t start having a family at the age of 99.

In fact, they are so suspicious of God’s promise that they already tried to circumvent the process.
Abraham had a child with their slave Hagar.
It seemed like a good plan.
If Sarah was barren then perhaps someone else could lend a hand in the process.
Again, one can understand why they did it.
They can understand the despair that comes with realizing that maybe all of your dreams won’t come true, or that maybe God would not come through with what God promised.

And yet of all the promises God has made we can look at this one and see the results.
Now with all these years of hindsight we can see that what God says is true.
We are here this morning because of that promise.
We are here because we too are children of Abraham and Sarah.

This is the thing though it took a rather odd route to get here.
Yes, Abraham and Sarah did have their child, but there was still nothing that would make us think that it would work out like this.
We are part of that promise because St. Paul re-interrupts what it means to be a child of Abraham and Sarah.
It used to be about circumcision, and following the law.
But Saint Paul says it is about faith.
That what we share with Abraham is not the law but faith.
We are Abraham’s heirs through our faith in God who makes what seems improbable and impossible true.

This week I heard a joke on Prairie Home companion.
Last week I told a joke that totally bombed.
I decided this week I have to try and redeem myself.
So a monsignor, a Pentecostal preacher, and a rabbi challenge each other who could convert a bear.
After going into the woods, they come back together to share what happened.
The monsignor says well I totally converted a bear.
I started by reading the catechism, then I threw holy water on him, totally changed the attitude of the bear became gentle as a lamb.
Next week the Bishop is going to go out and give him first communion and confirm him.
The Pentecostal minister said well I too converted a bear.
I started by wrestling with him.
We rolled around until we got to the water.
Then I held him under and baptized him.
He came up and was totally changed was as gentle as a lamb.
The Rabbi was there in a body caste.
He looked at the other two and said, “Well maybe I should not have started with circumcision.”

This is the problem that is confronting St. Paul and the early Christian community.
As they convert Gentiles to Christianity, in order for them to be part of God’s promise the question is do they have to be circumcised, and follow all the dietary laws of Israel.
St. Paul’s answer is that we are part of God’s promise by having faith.
Now faith is not about never doubting.
Doubt is a natural part of our relationship with God.
Even Abraham and Sarah had doubts.
Faith is about not living in fear.
It is about hoping against hope that God is there with us and is working everything out for the best.

This is not always easy to do just as it wasn’t easy for Abraham and Sarah to believe that they would have a child at such an old age.
But the thing is that it worked out even better than they could have imagined.
So many people of faith today link their heritage back to Abraham.
Christians, Muslims, and Jews all believe they are part of God’s promise to Abraham.
One of the great things about what St. Paul says is that it widens the scope of what people of his time envisioned.
It made God even bigger than what was religiously narrowly defined.
I think that we are always better off when we widen the scope of who is and is not part of God’s promise, because God’s actions are not just for a few, but really for all of us.
And because of what St. Paul says we can believe that God followed through on his promise to Abraham.

That is what makes this story so important is that for us it is one of the times when we can see that God’s promise come true.
In fact, God is not done.
God is always widening the net until all are under the promise.

In your life you might have moments when you doubt the promise.
There might be times when you feel the world falling apart, or when it seems impossible that God is looking out for you.
I can imagine that people who just experienced tornadoes are really struggling to believe that God is with them in their lives.
That is what faith does for us it gives us hope even when everything is lost.
This morning I want to encourage you to hope against hope.
Because even though politicians let us down, even though our spouse let us down, even though our family lets us down, even though our friends let us down, even though we let others down, God is always true to God’s promises.

The God who claimed you in your baptism keeps his promise to you.
As we say in Baptism as we place the cross on our foreheads, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
We are sealed by God so that we are raised to new life, freed from death and sin.
Hold on to those promises, hope against hope, and grow strong in your faith as you give glory to God. Amen