976) Tookie, Mickey, Santa, and Jesus (1/2)

Stanley Williams  (1953-2005)

     Ten years ago today, Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams was executed by the state of California for the 1979 murder of four people.  Williams was the founder of the notorious Crips gang, one of the largest and most violent of the many inner city gangs around the country that has caused so much death and chaos in many urban areas.  Tookie Williams had been a bad boy and his actions have resulted in many ruined lives.

     But, said his defenders who opposed his execution, Tookie was a changed man.  He had become kinder and gentler.  He even wrote books for children warning of the dangers of gangs.  Others disagreed, saying he had not changed.  He never expressed any remorse over the four murders, and some believe he continued to direct gang activities even from prison.  Also, they said, he never cooperated in any way with the authorities by giving information to help in curtailing criminal gang activity.  Who is right?  It would be difficult for anyone not directly involved to make a judgment on how much he had changed.

     But if a man like Tookie Williams really had changed, that would be of interest, especially to Christians.  We believe in the power of God to change lives.  After all, three of our biggest Bible heroes were involved in murder.  Moses killed two Egyptians who were mistreating a slave.  King David had an officer in his army killed after David committed adultery with the officer’s wife.  And the Apostle Paul, before he was converted, stood by approvingly as a mob stoned to death Stephen, a leader in the early Church.  But all three repented, all were forgiven, and all had their lives changed in dramatic ways.

     We believe in the possibility of such change, but we do not want to be naïve.  Anyone who has ever worked in prison ministry knows that jailhouse conversions are often phoney.  But many times they are authentic, and as Jesus once said, there is great joy in heaven whenever a lost lamb is found or a prodigal son returns home.  As Christians we pray for and rejoice in changed lives.

    Sixty years ago there was another highly publicized change in a known criminal.  Mickey Cohen was a major player in the world of organized crime in the 1940’s and 50’s.  He spent several years in prison, but other times moved about freely and became a celebrity.  Cohen was a charming guy and loved being in the spotlight.

Mickey Cohen  (1913-1976)

     One day Mickey Cohen announced to the world that he had become a Christian.  Many people were thrilled.  This big-time mobster was talking like a Sunday School boy, saying all the right things about how Jesus died for him and has now forgiven him all his sins.  Mickey Cohen even had a highly publicized meeting with Billy Graham, though Graham wisely kept the contents of that conversation to himself.  This kind of publicity went on until it started to become clear that even though Mickey Cohen was saying he was a firm believer in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, he continued to run his organized crime ring as before.  Finally, his pastor had a talk with him. “Mickey,” he said, “what are you doing?  You are a Christian now.  You can’t continue with your criminal behavior– robbing, killing, illegal gambling, prostitution, and all that.  You have to obey Jesus now.  You have to change your life.  You have to live like a Christian.”

     Mickey became very irritated with his pastor.  He said, “What do you mean I have to change my life?  Everyone kept telling me all I had to do was believe in Jesus, so now I do.  And you said Jesus forgives me of whatever I do, right?  So that’s that.  I’m not going to stop what I’m doing.  Are you crazy?  This is my business.  There are Christian football players, Christian cowboys, and Christian politicians– why not a Christian gangster?”

      Everyone can see there is something wrong with that.  We must not only enjoy hearing about changed lives, we must expect, even demand, such change; not only of others, but also of ourselves.  Is Mickey Cohen the only one who has ever disregarded God’s clear commands, thinking to themselves, ‘Oh well, I know I will be forgiven’?  Yes, Jesus died on the cross to forgive us of our sins, and yes, God loves us with an everlasting love.  But if we believe that at all, we will certainly want to know what God expects of us and then be determined to do it.  Remember, this is God we are talking about here, and God is big and eternal and powerful, and we are so little and weak and temporary.  God does wondrously give his love and forgiveness freely to all sinners, including murderers.  But the Bible says God will not be mocked.  He will not stand for us abusing, ignoring, or despising his word and command.  (continued…)

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Luke 15:7  —  (Jesus said), “…There will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Galatians 6:7-8  —  Do not be deceived: God will not be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.

Leviticus 18:4  —  “You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees.  I am the Lord your God.”

Luke 11:28  —  (Jesus said),  “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”

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Save me Lord, you who have the power to save us all.  Grant that I may long for and do those things that are pleasing to you and profitable for me.  Lord, give me comfort in my anxiety, help in time of trial, solace when persecuted, and strength against every temptation.  Grant me pardon, Lord, for my past sins, corrections of my present ones, and protect me against those in the future.  In Jesus name I pray.  Amen.

–Latin, 11th century

914) Why Should I Obey (b)

     (…continued)  We like obedience from others, but for ourselves, we might demand good reasons to do what we are told, and thus, be given the proper motivation.  Here are some examples of things that motivate us to obey.

     Example #1.  On the playground, the biggest bully often sets the rules and must be obeyed.  If the big bully says to a little guy, ‘you don’t get to play here,’ the little guy better obey and leave, or risk going home with a black eye.  This is not a good rule and it should not have to be obeyed, but the little guy does not have the power to resist.  On a much larger level, the Nazis got all sorts of good people to do all kinds of terrible things, because the alternative was oftentimes immediate execution.  Many obeyed, even though they did not want to.  Some disobeyed and were executed.  The motivation to obey was fear.

     Example #2.  In the military and many other jobs, there is a chain of command.  The person in charge may or may not be wise or competent, and he or she may or may not be making the right decisions.  But they must be obeyed, or if challenged, that challenge must be done through proper channels.  This never works out perfectly, but in any organization you cannot have everyone just doing whatever they want to do.  The highest ranking officer, or the boss in charge of you, holds all the cards and must be obeyed, whether or not you think it is a good idea.  There are good leaders and bosses and there are those that are not good, and, those in command do make mistakes.  On the other hand, the one in command may indeed know more of the situation than those being led, and be right even when it doesn’t look that way to those under his or her charge.  Either way, there are good reasons to obey, in this case, the primary reason is the need for order.

     Example #3.  Imagine being in a group of soldiers on patrol.  The enemy opens fire and you are wounded while the others are able to seek cover.  Another soldier runs out into the enemy fire to rescue you, but in so doing he also is wounded.  You recover from your injuries; but he was shot in the spine, and though he lives, he is paralyzed for the rest of his life.  While you are both in the hospital you receive a request from him.  He wants to see you; not to ask for anything, but just to see how you are doing.  He can’t come to you, so he is asking that you go to him.  Will you obey that request?  Of course you will.  Why?  There would be many reasons.  We could begin with gratitude, and add indebtedness, and then perhaps even brotherly love.  Fear would not be a required reason in this case.  Every part of you would want to freely obey such a simple request from a man who saved your life.

     Example #4.  Your name is Lazarus and you are dead and buried and unconscious and not aware of anything.  All of a sudden, you are awakened to consciousness by someone calling your name.  It is cold and damp on the stone slab beneath you, but all you can remember is being sick.  You realize you are no longer sick in bed, but dead and in a tomb.  Your name is again called, and now you recognize the voice.  It is your good friend Jesus.  He has awakened you from death and he is commanding you to come out of the tomb.  Now you have a choice.  Will you obey him, or, will you disobey him, shouting back in reply, “No, I don’t want to?”  Of course, you will obey him.  You are dead and he is offering you another chance at life.  Would that not be reason and motivation enough to obey?

     Obedience is a big deal in the Bible.  God expects us to obey him.  Well, we might ask, (and often do in one form or another), why should we?   What reasons are there to motivate us to obey God?  The above examples provide some insight.

     First of all, if we believe in a good God, we must believe that he would command us to do only that which is good for us.  We might not understand all of God’s commands, just like an employee might not understand or agree with all of his bosses orders.  But if God created this world and this life in the first place, it would only make sense to believe that He knows what is best for a well ordered life.  The ten commandments are not given to us as ‘busy work,’ but as a guide to how life is best lived.  It is in our own interests to obey them.

     If that isn’t reason enough, we would still want to obey God out of fear. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom,” says the Bible.  Fear is not the sum total of wisdom, nor is it the best reason for obedience, but it is a place to begin.  God is the boss, you know, and he is bigger than any of us, and he holds all the cards.  We should want to obey him in every way.  In many Bible stories, when people will obey God for no other reason, they are threatened with punishment.  Fear is an effective motivator, though it is clearly not the one God prefers.

     There are far better reasons to obey God, and these are illustrated in the story of the two soldiers.  The saved man had all sorts of reasons to obey the simple request of the man who saved his life, and all those reasons apply to our relationship with God.  Gratitude was one reason.  If you would be forever grateful to someone who saved your life, wouldn’t you be even more filled with gratitude to the one who gave you life in the first place?  Everything we have and everything we are and our very lives are all gifts from God, and so we have every reason to not only be grateful, but also glad to do whatever God asks of us.  Also, like the saved man, we are indebted to God, and for all of that, we should be obedient to God out of love.

     Finally, like Lazarus in John 11, God calls us out of death into life.  He called us into this life, creating us out of nothing; and promises a resurrection to new life after death for all who believe in him.  When this God calls to us to himself, like Jesus called to Lazarus out of the tomb, are we going to say “Do I have to?”

     When Martin Luther wrote his explanations to the ten commandments in the Catechism, he began by teaching us what should motivate us to obey God.  His explanation to each of the ten commandments begins with these words; “We should FEAR and LOVE God (so that we do or do not do what the commandment says)…”  Obey God because you love God, yes, but if that isn’t reason enough, then obey out of fear.  Either way, it is best to obey God.

     God calls us into a relationship with Himself.  God wants to be our Father.  We like to sing What a Friend We Have in Jesus. “We love God because he first loved us,’ says the Bible.  This is not the language of a contract, or of a good deal, but of a loving relationship.  We know from experience that rebellion and disobedience is hard on a relationship, but obedience strengthens the relationship.  

     Thus, every act of obedience brings us closer to God and every act of disobedience drives a wedge between us, causing us to drift away.  

     Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:28)

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Deuteronomy 10:12-13  —  What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?

Proverbs 9:10a  —  The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

John 14:15 — (Jesus said), “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

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 We most humbly beg you, O Lord, to give us the grace to be not only hearers of the Word, but also doers of that Word; not only to love, but also to live your Gospel; not only to favor, but also to follow your teachings; not only to profess, but also to practice your blessed commandments; all to the honor of your Holy Name, and to the health of our souls.  Amen.

–Thomas Becon (1511-1567), English reformer

913) Why Should I Obey? (a)

     Joey and Lucas are five-year-old cousins.  Not long ago they were together for a family picnic.  Joey got there first and within five minutes was creating chaos, just like he always does wherever he go.  He was running, jumping, hollering, tipping things over, reaching into the fruit bowl with his muddy hands to pick out all the grapes, plowing into great-grandma and almost knocked her to the ground, pulling the hair of the other kids, squirting everyone with his jumbo-size bazooka squirt gun, and finding endless ways to irritate everyone around him.  All the while his mom and dad were yelling at him, telling him to stop, shaking their fingers at him, and making all kinds of empty threats.  Joey was unmoved by anything they said, and his reign of terror went on all day.

     When Lucas got there, he joined right in, running and jumping like kids do, and it looked like the trouble would be doubled.  His dad said nothing while the boys were just playing, but as soon as he saw Lucas join Joey in pushing another little boy, he called his name.  Lucas immediately stopped and looked over at his dad, who was signaling Lucas to come over to him.  When Lucas arrived with his head hanging low, his dad said quietly but firmly, “Lucas, you can have fun here, but I want you to behave, and I don’t want to have to tell you that again, okay?”

     “Okay, Dad,” said Lucas, and he went back to playing with the other kids.  From then on, Lucas behaved.  Never again in the entire day did his dad have to discipline him.  Obedience is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

     But to be honest, we might have to clarify that by saying obedience is a wonderful thing when expected of other people.  Within each of us there is a bit of Joey– a rebelliousness against obedience to the rules, and a desire for the freedom and independence to do whatever we want to do.

     A while back I read an interesting survey.  I forget the details, but it went something like this.  First question:  Many wealthy people have been caught paying far less taxes than they really owe.  Should there be closer scrutiny on these people in order to increase needed revenue?  Yes, of course, most people said.  Second question:  Would you welcome closer scrutiny of your own tax returns?  No, of course not, most people said.  Obedience is a wonderful thing– for other people.

     Obedience, as you recall, is a big deal in the Bible.  The words obey, disobey, obedience, disobedience, and other forms of those words appear hundreds of times in the Bible.  The closely related words sin, sinners, and sinning, appear well over a thousand times.

      Obedience is what God demands of us, but disobedience is what God often gets from us.  And it is this disobedience to God’s commandments that creates all kinds of trouble for us and for the whole world.  It is our disobedience, our sin, that made it necessary for Jesus to die on the cross.  And it is that forgiveness of our sins, bought and paid for on the cross, that we need most of all.  Obedience is a big deal in the Bible.

     In the second chapter of Ezekiel God says to Ezekiel:  “I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day.  The descendants are impudent and stubborn.  I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus saith the Lord God.’”

     God is angry because His people are not obeying him.  That is what usually happens when there is disobedience– someone gets angry— parents, teachers, employers, co-workers, or God.  (continued…)

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Joshua 22:5  —  Be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul.

Psalm 128:1  —  Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him.

Ephesians 5:3-6  —  But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people.  Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.  For of this you can be sure:  No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater— has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.

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Open our hearts, O Lord, and enlighten our minds by the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may seek what is well-pleasing to your will; and so order our doings after your commandments, that we may be found fit to enter into your everlasting joy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

–Saint Bede  (673-735)

866) The Problem of James (b)

 

     (…continued)  One of the keys to this is in our understanding of faith.  Here too there is a tension in how the Bible defines and presents faith.  Is faith itself something we do, or, is it a gift of God?  We can find Bible passages that seem to describe it both ways.  Ephesians 2:8 says that even faith is God’s gift, and not “from yourselves.”  Luther included this truth in his catechism explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s creed when he wrote, “I believe I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”  But in many other places, including many of Jesus’ own words, we are commanded to have faith, and to be faithful, implying that faith is something that we do.

     Ephesians 2:8 says that faith is “the gift of God.”  But a gift can be rejected.  A gift can be ignored.  A gift can be left on the table and not even picked up.  So even though faith is a freely given gift, we still have to be faithful.  And this brings us back to what James is saying in his little book.  He says faith without works is dead.  Another way we might say that is to say that faith without works WILL DIE.  

     The faith is freely given.  Salvation is ours “without any merit or worthiness on our part,” as the catechism says.  But if one repeatedly refuses to pay any attention to God, carelessly disobeying God without any regret or any confession or even any thought of God; if one insists on turning away from God; then the gift is rejected and faith will die.  The Bible does not spell out exactly how and when that happens.  In fact Jesus says that on the last day there will be many surprises among the saved and the unsaved.  The Bible doesn’t give the specifics.  But the Bible is constantly going back and forth between the promises and the warnings.  The promises are wonderful:  the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting– all freely given.  Salvation is all by God’s grace, so we can have complete assurance.  We can know without a doubt where we stand with God.  But at the same time, the Bible issues warning after warning, and command after command:  don’t turn away, don’t disobey, believe, have faith, and stand fast.  

     It is not that God will reject and turn away from us, but by continued disobedience and unbelief, we may, in time, turn our backs on God.  God has given us the awful freedom to be able to do that.

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John 14:12a  —  (Jesus said), “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.”

I Corinthians 16:13  —  Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong.

James 5:8  —  Be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.

I Peter 5:8-10  —  Be alert and of sober mind.  Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.  Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

Revelation 14:12-13  —  This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.  Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this:  Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.”

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Almighty God,
You alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners:

Grant Your people grace to love what You command and desire what You promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

865) The Problem of James (a)

     The New Testament book of James has been a source of controversy ever since it was written almost 20 centuries ago.  Martin Luther, for example, did not like it at all.  When he published his first German translation of the Bible, James was not in its usual place right after the book of Hebrews.  Rather, Luther put it at the end, along with a couple other books he wasn’t too wild about.  In later editions he changed his mind and included all the books in their usual order, but Luther never grew very fond of James.  He called it a ‘straw Gospel,’ criticizing it for hardly ever mentioning Jesus.  The name of Jesus appears only twice in five chapters.

     But the primary problem for Luther and many others is the emphasis in James on the place of good works in the Christian life.  All would agree that God expects us to obey his Law.  Many books in the Bible contain all kinds of laws and rules and admonitions to obey.   But Martin Luther rediscovered the grace of God, and proclaimed that we are saved by faith and not works.  Yes, we are expected to obey God’s Law, just like children in the home are expected to obey their parents.  But a child’s place in the home is not dependent on the number of rules that are obeyed, and neither is our place as God’s children dependent on our goodness.  It’s all by the Grace of God, said Luther, pointing to Ephesians 2:8, where Paul wrote “For it is by grace you have been saved, THROUGH FAITH, and this is NOT from yourselves, but it is the gift of God, NOT by works so that no one can boast;” and Romans 3:23,  “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and we are justified FREELY by his grace;” and Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

     But James seemed to say something else, and thus has been a thorn in the flesh for many theologians and preachers.  Paul seems to put all the emphasis on God’s grace through faith, but James created confusion by saying “What good is it if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such a faith save him?  No, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is DEAD.”  

     But what is the alternative?  Shall we say that it doesn’t matter what we do?  Is that Christianity?  Someone once said to me after a sermon on God’s grace, “You preachers make it all sound too easy; it can’t be like that.”  James would say the same.

     There has always been this tension in Christianity between faith and works, because the tension is in the pages of the Bible itself.  In terms of strict logic, this may look a contradiction; but we are not here dealing with logic, we are dealing with a relationship.  And when one looks at this in the context of a relationship, this is no more a contradiction than it is for a mother to know in her heart that she will love her children forever no matter what, while at the same time be saying to them, “You better do what I tell you to do, or else!”  Or else what?  Well, of course there might be consequences, but total abandonment and rejection of the child forever is usually not one of them.  In the same way, in God’s infinite wisdom and providence, there may well be consequences for our disobedience, as God seeks to bring us back to faith and obedience.  But we can talk about that without saying that our salvation is dependent on our obedience; just as we do not say a child earns his or her place in the family home by their obedience, good will, or completion of daily chores.

     The Bible tells us these two different things at the very same time.  It says, “You are saved by grace– it is all God’s doing and none of your own.”  And at the same time the Bible says, “Everything you do matters.”  Martin Luther did not like how the book of James talked about faith and works.  But when Luther preached about the Christian life, he could sound very much like James, emphasizing the importance of an active and obedient faith that does indeed work.  Luther would do both, sometimes proclaiming God’s grace, and other times proclaiming what we MUST do in obedient response to that grace.  

     James and Paul did not contradict each other, but merely emphasized two different aspects of the same truth.  Paul comforts us with the unconditional love and acceptance of God’s grace, and James reminds us of how we ought to respond to that Grace with faithful and obedient lives.  (continued…)

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Ephesians 2:8-9  —  For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

Romans 6:23  —   For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

James 2:14  —  What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds?  Can such faith save them?

James 2:17  —   Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

James 2:26  —  For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.

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Pray as though everything depended on God.  Work as though everything depended on you.

–St. Augustine

844) Do It Anyway

 THE PARADOXICAL COMMANDMENTS

By Kent Keith

 People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
Love them anyway.

 If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

 If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.

 The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

 Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.

 The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
Think big anyway.

 People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
Fight for a few underdogs anyway.

 What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.

 People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

 Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you have anyway.

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     Dr. Kent Keith published The Paradoxical Commandments as part of a book he wrote for student leaders in 1968 when he was an undergraduate at Harvard.  These maxims for finding meaning in the face of adversity took on a life of their own, making their way into countless speeches, advice columns, books, institutions, and homes around the world, oftentimes in altered versions.  One of those versions was seen on a plaque on the wall in Mother Teresa’s children’s home in Calcutta, India.  The words were reprinted in a 1995 book about Mother Teresa titled A Simple Path, and for that reason, most people believe she is the author.  An altered version of that already altered version is the one that has become most famous.  It is reprinted below as The Final Analysis.  

Kent M Keith

Dr. Kent Keith

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THE FINAL ANALYSIS

Here on Kent Keith’s comments on this version, from his website: http://www.kentmkeith.com

“The last two lines in this “final analysis” version trouble me, because they can be read in a way that is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus, the life of Mother Teresa, and the message of the ‘Paradoxical Commandments’ themselves.  The statement that “it was never between you and them anyway” seems to justify giving up on, or ignoring, or discounting other people.  That is what Jesus told us we should not do.  Jesus said that there are two great commandments—to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  So in the final analysis, it is between you and God, but it is also between you and ‘them.'”

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In 2006 Martina McBride recorded a song based on the words on the wall at Mother Teresa’s children home.  She wrote “Anyway” with Brad Warren and Brett Warren, and it made it to #5 on the Country Western charts.

You can spend your whole life buildin’
Somethin’ from nothin’
One storm can come and blow it all away
Build it anyway

You can chase a dream
That seems so out of reach
And you know it might not ever come your way
Dream it anyway

[chorus:]
God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good
When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should
But I do it anyway
I do it anyway

This world’s gone crazy and it’s hard to believe
That tomorrow will be better than today
Believe it anyway
You can love someone with all your heart
For all the right reasons
And in a moment they can choose to walk away
love ’em anyway  [chorus]

You can pour your soul out singing
A song you believe in
That tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang
Sing it anyway
Yeah, sing it anyway
I sing, I dream, I love
Anyway
yeah

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See the video at:  
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Deuteronomy 10:12  —  What does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul?
Leviticus 19:18b  —  Love your neighbor as yourself.  I am the Lord.
Mark 12:28-31  —  One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating.  Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”  “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this:  ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these.”
II Corinthians 8:21  —  For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of man.
Colossians 3:23  —  Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.
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636) Was Jesus an Obedient Son? (part two)

     (…continued)  This is one of those places where we wish the Bible would tell us just a little bit more of the story.  Mary and Joseph certainly knew from the circumstances of his birth that Jesus was to be someone very special, but they did not yet know all that would mean.  So it is no wonder that here they are left a bit confused.  One day, Jesus is just one of the kids playing in the backyard, and the next day he is talking with, and making quite an impression on, the best scholars in the Jerusalem temple.  And then he replies to their concern with that strange comment about being in his ‘Father’s house.’

     All we can do is go on what we have in the text.  Despite the apparent conflict with his parents, what we have here is Jesus not being sinfully disobedient, but rather, Jesus being obedient to a higher authority.  The Bible says that Jesus was tempted in every way just as we are, but that he was without sin, so Jesus was not here breaking the fourth commandment by not honoring his parents.  Rather, he was beginning the more important work for which he was born.  Mary had some sense of this, because at the end of this story it does not say that she grounded Jesus for three weeks for his disobedience, but rather that she “pondered all these things and treasured them in her heart;” the same thing she did after the visit of the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth.

     Actually, this story illustrates an important ethical principal.  Jesus was sinless.  We are told that in the book of Hebrews, and in the very last verse of this story we are told that Jesus returned to Nazareth with his parents and that he was obedient to them.  Jesus did obey the fourth commandment and did honor his parents.  But in this story he had to obey the Heavenly Father, and obedience to God over-rules obedience to parents every time.

     In one of my college classes many years ago the teacher was going on and on about how there are no moral absolutes.  For example, lying cannot always be wrong, because what if you were in Germany in WW II and the Nazis came to your house looking for Jews who they would most certainly kill.  Would you then be obligated to tell them the truth about the Jews hiding in your basement?  No, of course not, he argued, and so therefore it is not always wrong to lie and there are no moral absolutes.  Back then this was called ‘situation ethics,’ meaning that right and wrong depended not on some overall divine moral law, but on each situation.  Well, for someone who is already of a noble and upright moral character that might work.  But for many people, especially college students, it can easily mean that in whatever situation I am in, I am free to do whatever I want to do.  How convenient!

     It is far better to maintain that there are moral absolutes:  that lying is always wrong, and killing is always wrong, and stealing is always wrong, and so forth.  But then, with that firmly in mind, it must be added that sometimes in this wicked world moral absolutes will conflict with each other, and then one moral absolute must over-rule the other.  Sometimes this is easy to figure out and sometimes it isn’t.  The case of the Nazis at the door is an easy one.  You lie to them to prevent them from unjustly killing an innocent human.  The intent of the fifth commandment is to protect life, and if you have to tell a lie to protect a life, of course you will do that.  In some cases, you might even have to take one life to protect another life, and this can get very complicated.  But one must begin by affirming the moral absolutes, not disregarding them.

     This little story from the childhood of Jesus does just that.  Jesus is sinless, and he is an obedient son to his earthly parents.  But here he is obeying a higher authority.  In some ways, this story reminds me of a few confirmation students I have had over the years, teenagers who had to go against their parents wishes to come to church and Sunday School and confirmation.  You don’t see that very often, but when you do, it is an illustration of this principle in action.  Jesus’ parents were not keeping him away from God, but it is clear in the story that Mary and Joseph had a different understanding from Jesus’ own understanding of what it would mean for Jesus to obey God.  Here, as in other places, Jesus would set aside the lower authority to obey the higher.  Later on in his ministry, Jesus got in trouble with the religious authorities by healing a lame man, because Jesus broke the law about doing no work on the Sabbath Day.

     In one of the prayers that follow Holy Communion in the Lutheran liturgy we pray: “Almighty God, you gave you Son both as a sacrifice for sin and as a model of the godly life;” and then adds, “enable us to conform our lives to his.”  Here in this story, at 12 years old, Jesus is already providing such a model, teaching us to live, as he was teaching the teachers and elders in the temple.  May we have the wisdom to do as the prayer says and conform our lives to his in this, and every way.

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Acts 5:29  —  But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

Hebrews 4:14-15  —  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

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Almighty God, you gave your Son both as a sacrifice for sin and a model of the godly life.  Enable us to receive him always with thanksgiving, and to conform our lives to his; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Lutheran Book of Worship, prayer #243

635) Was Jesus an Obedient Son? (part one)

File:Albrecht Dürer - Jesus among the Doctors - Google Art Project.jpg

 Twelve-year-old Jesus Among the Scribes, Albrecht Durer, 1506

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LUKE 2:41-51:  Every year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of the Passover.  When he was twelve years old, they went up to the festival, according to the custom.  After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.  Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day.  Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends.  When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him.  After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.  Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.  When his parents saw him, they were astonished.  His mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us like this?  Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.”

“Why were you searching for me?” he asked.  “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”  But they did not understand what he was saying to them.  Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.

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     In 2008 the Dr. Seuss book Horton Hears a Who was made into a movie.  Along with the wonderful animation and great humor, the movie contains several positive lessons about life; lessons about doing the right thing, about courage in the face of adversity, about having the strength to persevere, and about helping your neighbor, no matter how small and insignificant they might be.

     But along with all those positive messages, there is one scene that did not give a very positive message.  At the very end a little child saves the day, and he does so by saying a very loud and firm “NO” to his domineering, overbearing, and very wrong mother.  This mother was a problem in the story, because she was always opposing her son Horton the hero who had heard the Who.  The little child was obviously right, and did save the day by saying ‘no’ to his mother.  But that did make me wonder what kind of message that sent to the little viewers for whom the movie was made.  It was probably not intended to send the wrong message.  After all, the rest of the movie was filled with such positive lessons.  But that loud NO by one so small, to that very key figure of authority in a child’s life, was a bit troublesome, at least for me.  But perhaps my wife is right when she tells me that I read way too much into every movie I see, and I should just lighten up and enjoy the story.

     The story of the boy Jesus in the temple contains a bit of conflict between Jesus and his parents.  As I was preparing to preach on this text, I was reminded of the disobedience of Horton in Horton Hears a Who.  I remember even as a child wondering about the behavior of Jesus in this text.  This is the only story we have about Jesus from the time of his birth to time of his ministry, and it contains this apparent disobedience of Jesus.  What are we to make of that, especially in light of the Biblical teaching that Jesus was sinless?  Aren’t children supposed to obey their parents?  Does this story, like Horton Hears a Who, send the wrong message?

    First, we might wonder how Mary and Joseph could have left town without checking to see if Jesus was with them.  Verse 44 simply says they thought he was with the rest of the group.  We might think that is assuming a bit too much about a mere twelve year old, but we must consider the fact that age twelve then was probably like age seventeen now.  Today’s seventeen year old is on the verge of adulthood.  Graduation from high school is just around the corner, and then it is off to work or college, and either way, it will mean far greater independence.  In ancient Israel, there was no public education, and so no high school graduation to mark the beginning of adulthood.  You were just a little boy at home, until you were old enough to go to work for someone as an apprentice.  That could very well mean leaving home, which was often done by age 13.  Girls stayed home little longer, but even they were often engaged to be married by their middle teens.  Jesus’ father was a carpenter, and perhaps an independent businessman, and so Jesus may have already been working as Joseph’s apprentice.  At age twelve you were on the verge of adulthood, so it is not unreasonable for Mary and Joseph to just assume Jesus was taking care of himself and getting along in the caravan.  Only after a day of travel did they realize Jesus wasn’t with them, and they became afraid something may have happened to him.  So they hurried back to Jerusalem to look for their son.

     Then there is this confrontation in the temple.  A relieved, but frustrated Mary says to Jesus after they found him, “Son, why have you treated us like this?  Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety?”  The printed page does not reveal the tone with which this was said, and it looks to be a fairly mild reprimand, but still, a reprimand.  The response of Jesus is polite, but firm.  “Why were you searching for me?” he asked, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”  It is interesting that both Mary’s reprimand and Jesus’ response refer to the father of Jesus; but they are obviously talking about two different fathers.  This leaves Mary and Joseph quite confused.  Luke tells us that they did not understand what Jesus was saying to them.  (continued…)

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PRAYER BASED ON THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT and LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION:

O God, you command us to honor our fathers and mothers.  May we so fear and love you that we do not despise or anger our parents and others in authority, but respect, obey, love, and serve them, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

631) Teach Obedience

By Amy Henry, married, mother of six, teacher, and correspondent for World magazine.  This article, entitled “Why I Can’t Teach Your Child,” was posted October 3, 2014 at:  www.wng.org

     Four times I asked him to take out a piece of paper.  Four times I asked him to find a pencil.  Each and every time we reached a new vocabulary word, I stopped reading and told him to write it down.  By the time the history lesson was over, I was exhausted and so was he, I suspect.  Whether the directive is to get out a book, pick up a piece of trash, or sit in a particular seat, I am met with stiff resistance, if not outright refusal to cooperate.

     Ah, the life of a teacher.

     Brand-new, beautiful books about Troy and Egypt and King Arthur sit on my classroom shelves begging to be read, but at this rate I can’t get through the lesson in time for us to actually read them.  The whole class goes without field trips or art projects and sits twiddling their thumbs while I deal with Mr. Uncooperative.  Day after day after day …

     It smacks of my mother’s return to teaching after 25 years “off” to raise her own children.  After finishing a grueling master’s program, my mom got a coveted position as a fifth-grade teacher at a new charter school.  The summer before she started, she scoured garage sales and thrift stores for beanbags and books to fill her reading corner.  She put art on the walls and decorated her room with the passion of one who loves learning and can’t wait to instill this love in her students.

     Her new career lasted a whopping two years, every day a misery.  Instead of reading in the corner like she had envisioned, she spent all her time writing up disciplinary forms in triplicate, calling parents, and sending kids to a principal who would just send them right back.  After drawing a line in the sand with her worst-behaved kids, she was told by their parents that they wouldn’t allow detention, taking away the only real consequence she could deal out.  Empty, the reading corner did nothing but gather dust…

     In reading through my student’s files, I see the hopes and dreams of parents who are sending their kids to our school with grandiose expectations that we will instill a love of learning and set ablaze the fire of curiosity in their children.  But I tell you, no matter how hard I try, no matter how many resources I have, without obedience none of that can happen.  I can teach an ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic child with severe anxiety issues the world; but I cannot teach a doggone thing to a high-functioning, intellectually bright, whippersnapper of a kid who won’t obey.

     All that to say, dear parent, I can babysit and keep your child warm and alive until 3:15 every day, but it’s not my job to teach obedience:  It’s yours.

     For the sake of their education, teach that so I can teach them.

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In a 2014 Pew Research survey of parents with at least one child under 18 living in their household, only 12% checked obedience as one of the three most important characteristics to teach their children.  Granted, there may be three things even more important than obedience, but only 62% checked obedience as ‘especially’ important (no limit on the number of characteristics that could be checked as ‘especially important’); and 38% did not consider teaching obedience important enough to check at all.

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Deuteronomy 32:45-47a  —  When Moses finished reciting all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words I have solemnly declared to you this day, so that you may command your children to obey carefully all the words of this law.  They are not just idle words for you—they are your life.”

Proverbs 5:22-23  —  The evil deeds of the wicked ensnare them; the cords of their sins hold them fast.  For lack of discipline they will die, led astray by their own great folly.

Proverbs 10:17  —  Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.

Proverbs 19:18  —  Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death.

Ephesians 6:1-3  —  Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  “Honor your father and mother”— which is the first commandment with a promise— “so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”

I Timothy 3:4  —  He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.

Hebrews 12:11  —  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

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PRAYER BASED ON THE FOURTH COMMANDMENT and LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION:

O God, you command us to honor our fathers and mothers.  May we so fear and love you that we do not despise or anger our parents and others in authority, but respect, obey, love, and serve them, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.  Amen.

612) Obeying God in All Things

     The pastor and the church council were locked in a heated debate.  The council wanted to spend $7,000 to re-carpet the entire church.  The pastor said the old carpet was good enough, and if they had $7,000 extra dollars laying around, they should use it to catch up on their commitments to the global mission of the church.  The pastor quoted Bible verses to the council, and, the members of the council took the pastor on a walk around the church to show him where the carpet was wearing thin.  Back and forth they went, but no minds were changed.  Finally, the council president called for a vote.  The results came as a surprise to no one.  TEN were in favor of the new carpet, and only ONE, the pastor, was opposed.  “Well,” said the president to the pastor with glee, “that takes care of that: 10-1, you lose.”  The pastor replied, “I may have lost the vote, but I know I am right, and I am sure this is not God’s will, and I just pray that somehow God would open your eyes to the truth.”

     Immediately after the words left his mouth, there was a tremendous noise and a blinding flash of light.  A bolt of lightening came out of nowhere, crashed through the roof of the meeting room and hit right in the center of the table around which all were gathered.  The table was shattered into a thousand pieces and all ten members of the council were blown off their chairs and onto the floor.  Miraculously, none were hurt, but all were blackened by soot and their hair was singed.  As they picked themselves up off the floor, they were surprised to see the pastor sitting there as if nothing happened.  His portion of the table was not damaged, he was not blown off his chair, he was not black with soot, and not one hair was singed or even out of place.

     “Well,” said the council president, “I guess your prayers were answered.  God certainly did give us a sign as to what his will is on this matter, and it looks like God agrees with you.  But that still only makes the vote 10-2, so you still lose.

     What makes that story funny is that you would think that once God had spoken in such a clear and powerful way, that would settle the matter.  You would not think that God would get only one vote at a council meeting.  In our disagreements within the church, and, in our inner struggles as we try to figure out God’s will for our own lives and decisions; in all those areas, the problem is usually disagreeing about, or, not knowing what God wants from us.  His Word is open to different interpretations, and, His guidance on a particular matter may not be clear.  But when we do know what God wants, and God’s Word is indeed clear on many things, we should then certainly do what God wants us to do.

     Deuteronomy 11:1 says, “Love the Lord your God and keep his requirements, his decrees, his laws, and his commands ALWAYS.”  In Matthew 28:20 Jesus told the disciples to go into all nations, baptizing and “teaching them to obey EVERYTHING I have commanded you.”  God expects to be obeyed.  What he commands is good and just, and for our own good and the good of our neighbor, and God expects our obedience.  We are right in assuming that God should get more than one vote at a council meeting.  The God of the Bible takes no votes.  God issues commands and expects obedience.

     But how seriously do you take that?  Do you really even want to know what God expects of you in every area of your life?  In the use of your money?  In the content of your conversation?  In what it means when the Bible says to be always forgiving, always patient, always kind, always content?  Is your attitude filled with the kind of gratitude that the Bible calls us to have, or do you have too many thoughts of envy or jealousy, which God always warns against?  God has much to say about coming to him often in prayer.  Are you satisfied with your prayer life and habits?  When you do pray, is it ever to thank God, or is it always to ask for more yet?  Are you quick to ask ‘why me God?’ when things go wrong, but seldom ask ‘why me God?’ when all is well?  When you make a decision, is your first and foremost concern to find out what God’s will and command would be for you in the situation, and how you might please God?  Have you ever intentionally done something you knew was wrong, presuming on God’s easy forgiveness rather than fearing his wrath?  Do you really want Christ as your Lord, or do you want to be Lord of your own life?  

     There was clearly something wrong in that story at the beginning where the council president gave God only one vote, but at least God’s presence had been felt and his opinion had been acknowledged.  Does God get that consideration from you?

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Leviticus 18:4  —  You must obey my laws and be careful to follow my decrees.  I am the Lord your God.

Deuteronomy 13:4  —  It is the Lord your God you must follow, and him you must revere.  Keep his commands and obey him; serve him and hold fast to him.

John 14:23a  —  Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.”

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PRAYER BASED ON MARTIN LUTHER’S CATECHISM EXPLANATION TO ARTICLE ONE OF THE APOSTLE’S CREED:

O God, you created me and all that exists.  You have given and still preserve my body and soul with all their powers.  You provide me with food and clothing, home and family, daily work, and all that I need from day to day.  You also protect me in time of danger, and guard me from every evil.  Help me to remember that all this is done out of fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it.  I surely ought to thank and praise, serve and obey you.  Help me to do this through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord.  Amen.