Monday, December 22, 2008

Two Babies in the Manger

This is my sermon to the children and parents at our Sunday School Christmas Service, Sunday, December 21, 2008.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank You for Christmas and for coming to us to save us. Amen.

I want to thank all of you for being here tonight to tell the story of Christmas. Thank you for coming to the practices, memorizing your parts, and for all the beautiful music.

One of you said this passage just a few minutes ago: "But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart?" (Luke 2.19).

Do you know what a "miracle baby" is? (One little boy said, "It's a baby that does miracles!" Yes, that's a good answer. But I was thinking that...) A miracle baby is a baby we didn't expect. We are told about several miracle babies in the Bible: Isaac, Moses (It was surprising that he lived.), and Samuel. Jesus was especially a miracle baby.

All of you are special babies/children because there's only one of you. We can't go anywhere in the world to find another person like you. You are all gifts of God. And that's why Christmas is so important. God who made you, loves you and wants to be with you.

Mary was thinking about her miracle baby. She thought about what the shepherds told her: "He is the Savior, Christ the Lord." Another way to say that is that Jesus is God's Son, and He came to save us from our sins.

You know what sins are? We've talked about that before. Sins are the bad things people do, the bad things we do. None of us can stop them. But God can. And that's why He sent His Son Jesus at Christmas. One day Jesus, the miracle baby, would grow up to be a miracle man. He would die on the cross and rise again to take away our sins.

God wants us to keep these things in our hearts too. To help us remember, I'd like to tell you a story about a little boy named Mischa.

Mischa lived in Russia in an orphanage. Do you know what an orphan is? (Children answered - someone with out a mom or dad.) In Russia, for many years children never heard the story of Jesus and Christmas. But a few years ago missionaries came to this orphanage and told the children the same story you've told us tonight.

To help the children remember or ponder these things, the missionaries decided to help the children make their own little mangers. They cut up pieces of cardboard, cloth and paper to make little mangers and little baby Jesus' to go in the mangers.

But Misha had two babies in his manger! The missionaries asked why? With the help of a translator Mischa told the story of Christmas. He had everything down just right. He told about Mary and Joseph, about the Shepherds and the Angels and about the Wisemen.

But then he started to add to the story a little...

After Maria put Jesus in the manger, He said to me, "Mischa, do you have a place to stay?" I said, "No. I don't have a momma or a pappa, and I don't have any place to stay." Jesus said to me, "Would you like to stay with me?" I said, "Yes, I would like to stay with you, but I don't have a gift to give you like everyone else." Then I thought about a gift I could give to Jesus. So I said, "Could I keep you warm? Would that be a good enough gift?" Jesus said, "Yes, that would be a good gift." So I got into the manger with Jesus and He said I could stay with Him forever.

Jesus came to us at Christmas so that we could stay with Him forever. He is the one who will always take care of us. That's a good thing for us to remember this Christmas.

Prayer: Dear Jesus, thank You for coming at Christmas. We are glad that we can stay with You forever. Amen.

Note: The Mischa story is apparently true. Click here for the full account.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Marshmallow Test and Self-Control

When the Apostle Paul stood before Felix he talked about righteousness, self-control, and the judgment to come (Acts 24.25). Self-control is an important part of the Christian life. We are constantly bombarded with temptations that would drag us away from Christ. But how do we resist?

Professor Walter Mischel has been studying the phenomenon of temptation for years. He uses a very simple test: He offers a four-year-old child a marshmallow but also promises, "If you wait a little while, you can have two marshmallows." He leaves the room for ten minutes and then returns. About a third of his subjects waited for him to return and received the second marshmallow. Later in life these children turned out to be much more successful than those who couldn't wait. Now Mischel wants to run brain scans on these subjects to see if he can understand the physiology of self-control. Read more about his work here.

I don't know about the "physiology" of self-control, but I do know about the "spirituality" of self-control. Paul lists self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit:

Galatians 5:22-24 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. 24 And those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

As Christians we have a wonderful opportunity to pray for this blessing in our life.

Dear Lord, there are so many temptations that try to pull me down and weaken my faith. Help me to trust in You and to resist temptation. Help me set good goals for my life, and give me the strength to reach them. Lead me in the paths of righteousness for Your name's sake. Whatever successes this might produce, I pray that they might be for Your glory and for the blessing of my neighbor.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Prayer for the 2008 Elections

Lord of all nations, bless our country especially in the upcoming election. Bring us leaders who will enact and enforce laws that protect and prosper all human beings. We pray for the protection and preservation of the unborn, the aged, the handicapped, and the sick. We pray for economic justice that those who work and invest may receive the fruit of their labors. We pray for educational opportunity that each person may grow in wisdom and skill. We pray for the continued freedom to believe and worship according to conscience. We pray for citizens who will take responsibility for themselves and their neighbors. We pray for the punishment, restraint, and rehabilitation of criminals and for protection against the enemies of freedom. Bless this country and grant that each one of us would be a part of that blessing by living according to Your will. In Jesus' name. Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

90 Minutes in Heaven

Can a person die, go to heaven for 90 minutes, and then come back to tell about it? That’s what Pastor Don Piper does in his popular book 90 Minutes in Heaven. Don was is a terrible car accident, and the EMT’s left him for dead. Another pastor who happened onto the scene prayed with him and sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” When Don started singing along with him, he was astonished (freaked!). Finally Don was rushed to the hospital where he miraculously survived.

Don describes some of the things he saw and heard in heaven during the ninety minutes he was left for dead. But most of the book is really about his recovery from the accident. Don’s testimony raises a question about Near Death Experiences (NDEs). Do they really happen? Can people die and come back to earth again?

I’m always careful neither to criticize or affirm these experiences. They are personal, and I prefer to leave them to the individual. However some NDEs contradict the Bible and have to be disregarded. In a recent Bible study we looked at eight instances of people mentioned in the Bible who died and were brought back to life. None of them told us what the afterlife was like. Paul had a vision of heaven, but he refused to talk about it. John, on the other hand, had several visions of heaven in which he saw some very interesting things.

Probably the most important thing about an NDE is that they are not as important as the Bible itself. An NDE shouldn’t be the basis of anyone’s faith.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Is Barak Obama the Antichrist?

In the Sermon on the Mount of Olives (Luke 21.5ff) Jesus talked about the turmoil that will precede the end of the world: wars, famines, earthquakes, and persecution. Jesus makes it clear that the world is not going to get better and better; rather it will descend into selfishness, hatred, violence and destruction. In desperation people will look to anyone who can save them. This is where the doctrine of the Antichrist comes in.

Apparently in our school this has become quite a topic. Some of the children are saying that Senator Barak Obama is the Antichrist. So I addressed this topic briefly in our chapel service this morning (September 18, 2008).

St. John speaks about the Antichrist in his first letter... "Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us..." (1 John 2.18-19). Notice in this passage that anyone who turns away from Jesus and teaches things contrary to His teaching is an "antichrist." But there is a premier Antichrist coming.

St. Paul speaks about this in 2 Thessalonians... "Let no one deceive you by any means; for that Day will not come unless the falling away comes first, and the man of sin is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself above all that is called God or that is worshiped, so that he sits as God in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God" (2.18-19).

In each case this premier Antichrist is one that arises out of the church as a false teacher. There have always been good and bad political leaders. It is a distraction to label one of them the Antichrist. In the past Caesars, Adolf Hitler, Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Bush have been identified by some as the Antichrist. But the Bible tells us to look in the church or to those associated with the church - to look to for false teachers who claim to speak for God.

So, I'm sorry, I disagree - I don't think Barak Obama is the Antichrist. More importantly I wouldn't worry so much about politicians as I would those who claim to speak for God. Do they? I think Joel Osteen is an small "a" antichrist because he teaches things clearly contrary to Jesus and the apostles. When we Lutherans look around and ask who "sits as God in the temple of God" we say that the closest candidate for that office is the papacy. Who else in the Christian community claims to be able to speak for God? If you would like to learn more about that, read "The Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope."

As the end of the world comes closer (John said, "It is the last hour..."), we would do well to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and His word. Then we will not be deceived.

Luke 21.18 "Take heed that you not be deceived. For many will come in My name, saying, 'I am He,' and 'The time has drawn near.' Therefore do not go after them."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

No Fear?

Everywhere you look these days you see the decal: “No Fear.” The motto has arisen from the generation of young people who are into extreme sports such as grinding skate boards down handrails and racing bikes down steep mountain sides. I well remember my own issues with fear. When I was in the fourth grade I jumped for the first time from a high dive at Ellenberger Pool in Indianapolis. In my senior year of highschool I flew an airplane for the first time by myself in Vandalia, Illinois. There is a satisfaction to be discovered when we face fear like that and overcome it.

But there is a danger in thinking that we can overcome all fear on our own. Ultimately it comes down to the fear of death itself. Luther complained about the moto: Qui mortem metuit quod vivit perdit id ipsum. “He is a fool who is afraid of death, for through such fear he loses his own life.” Luther goes on to say, “The advice might be helpful if man alone could replace fear with something else. But casting fear away like this is no different than the expression “Let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15.32). (What Luther Says, p. 364).

Christianity offers a much different approach to fear and especially to the fear of death. Don’t look to yourself. Don’t cast yourself off the cliff hoping to be lucky. Look to God. He alone deals with fear and with death itself. The Christian’s motto is not simply “No Fear” but “Love casts out all fear” (1 John 4.18). For more on the topic of the fear of dying see my sermon “On Being a Christian: Dying.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ichneumon Wasp and the Problem of Evil

One of our members brought me an Ichneumon Wasp that he found buzzing around in his garage recently. This wasp would give most people a scare with what appears to be three, five inch long stingers dangling from it abdomen. But as it turns out they are not stingers, rather they are "ovipositors." With these long tubes the wasp is able to lay eggs near beetles and other insects that are deeply embedded in trees. The larvae then feed on the bugs, and in this way they are extremely helpful for controlling pests.

I was amazed to hear how this little creature operates, and how God has designed this world with a delicate balance between "every creeping thing that creeps on the earth." Charles Darwin didn't think so. In a letter to American botanist Asa Gray, Darwin wrote: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."

Why did I immediately see God's design in the Ichneumon while Darwin saw something unworthy of a "beneficent and omnipotent God"? The reason is that Darwin's view of God is just too small. Most atheists reject God because of the problem of evil. They can't believe in a God who can be good and all-powerful and also allow evil to exist. (I don't think wasps eating beetles is necessarily evil, but Darwin was a very sensitive man!) Darwin's view of God did not include the possibility that, along with allowing evil to rise up in this world, God might turn evil into good.

Wasps killing beetles or cats playing with mice may not seem very nice to us. But I believe that God knows what He's doing, and I'm amazed that even in a fallen world God is still working everything together for good. Jesus is certainly the ultimate example of God's good overcoming this world's evil.

Galatians 1:4-5 [Jesus] gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

For more on my approach to Creation and Evolution, see my Bible study (with Audio files, handouts, and Powerpoint slides).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Confrontation and Compromise

Chapel Service for Concordia Publishing House

June 18, 2008

1 Kings 18:1-16 And it came to pass after many days that the word of the LORD came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, "Go, present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the earth." 2 So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab; and there was a severe famine in Samaria. 3 And Ahab had called Obadiah, who was in charge of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly. 4 For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water.) 5 And Ahab had said to Obadiah, "Go into the land to all the springs of water and to all the brooks; perhaps we may find grass to keep the horses and mules alive, so that we will not have to kill any livestock. 6 So they divided the land between them to explore it; Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself. 7 ¶ Now as Obadiah was on his way, suddenly Elijah met him; and he recognized him, and fell on his face, and said, "Is that you, my lord Elijah?" 8 And he answered him, "It is I. Go, tell your master, 'Elijah is here.' " 9 So he said, "How have I sinned, that you are delivering your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? 10 "As the LORD your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to hunt for you; and when they said, 'He is not here,' he took an oath from the kingdom or nation that they could not find you. 11 "And now you say, 'Go, tell your master, "Elijah is here" '! 12 "And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from you, that the Spirit of the LORD will carry you to a place I do not know; so when I go and tell Ahab, and he cannot find you, he will kill me. But I your servant have feared the LORD from my youth. 13 "Was it not reported to my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the LORD, how I hid one hundred men of the LORD's prophets, fifty to a cave, and fed them with bread and water? 14 "And now you say, 'Go, tell your master, "Elijah is here." ' He will kill me!" 15 Then Elijah said, "As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely present myself to him today." 16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him; and Ahab went to meet Elijah.

This is one of the topics that I would include in a book: “Bible Stories You Didn’t Get in Sunday School.” But there are many Biblical insights and blessings to be found in these “minor” stories.

“Obadiah” means “servant of the LORD.” There are twelve men by this name in the Bible. This is not the prophet who wrote the one chapter book that is between Amos and Jonah. He came along later.

This Obadiah was the right hand man of the most wicked king that had ever ruled Israel.

1 Kings 16:30 Now Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him.

Ahab was influenced by his wife Jezebel to bring Baal worship to Israel. Eventually this led to outright conflict with Jezebel killing as many true prophets of the LORD as she could get her hands on. But Obadiah secretly worked to save at least 100 of these prophets, risking his own life. Ahab was so evil that as the three year drought wore on he cared only about his horses and began looking for the last bits of pasture so they could stay alive. He sent Obadiah looking in one direction while he searched in another. Obadiah encountered Elijah.

These two men were very similar. Both feared and served the LORD, but in different ways. Elijah was a “confronter.” He was called by God to preserve the faith of God’s people by taking Ahab on directly. Obadiah, on the other hand, was a “compromiser.” He compromised in a good sense. He served wicked Ahab, but used his service to help God’s people. He could have refused. He could have given his neck to Jezebel and perished with all the prophets of Israel. But instead he used his position to work for a greater good. No doubt it must have grieved him that some of his labors helped to prop up and support Ahab. But his goal was always to work for the greater good of God’s people.

We are also sometimes put in the position of being and Elijah or an Obadiah. Sometimes we must take our stand and be prepared to die: The accountant realizes that his or her employer is using unethical business practices. It is time to turn matters over to the IRS. The parent whose child has chosen a homosexual lifestyle refuses to allow them to bring their partner home and to stay over night at their house. At risk is their entire relationship, and there is a real possibility that they will never see them again. Heart-breaking decisions. Hills that we must sometimes die on. This is the Elijah approach.

At other times God places us in situations that call for the Obadiah approach. Jesus prayed for His disciples…

John 17:15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.

Obadiah realized that he could use his position to save some of the prophets. Sometimes we are caught in difficult situations and decide to stay because we believe that we can work for a greater good. A pastor is called to a church that decides to use “Standard Publishing” for its VBS program. The pastor provides “Gospel” helps for all the lessons and eventually persuades the church to purchase their VBS materials from CPH. The teenage son or daughter we love starts to run with some sin-loving friends. Do we forbid them to be together? Or do we talk with our child and explain our concerns and say, “I just want you to rub off more on them that they on you.” Difficult decisions – when to be an Elijah, when to be an Obadiah. God can and does call us to use both approaches.

Here the words of James are encouraging…

James 1:5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.

So many important things to pray about… Such a great God who listens and answers with wisdom in Jesus. Jesus came to go beyond confrontation and compromise. Jesus came to crush evil and to make all that it does temporary. There are different ways to work against it, but in Jesus we know that all will turn out for the good. Amen.

Hymn: My God, My Father, Make Me Strong TLH 424

1 My God, my Father, make me strong,

When tasks of life seem hard and long,

To greet them with this triumph song:

Thy will be done.

2 Draw from my timid eyes the veil

To show, where earthly forces fail,

Thy pow’r and love must still prevail

Thy will be done.

3 With confident and humble mind

Freedom is service I would find,

Praying thro’ ev’ry toil assigned:

Thy will be done.

4 Things deemed impossible I dare,

Thine is the call and Thine the care;

Thy wisdom shall the way prepare

Thy will be done.

5 All pow’r is here and round me now;

Faithful I stand in rule and vow,

While ’tis not I, but ever Thou:

Thy will be done.

6 Heav’n’s music chimes the glad days in;

Hope soars beyond death, pain, and sin;

Faith shouts in triumph, Love must win

Thy will be done!

Text: Frederick Mann, 1846–1928 ES IST KEIN TAG

Tune: Johann D. Meyer, 17th century 8 8 8 4

Text and tune: Public domain Ps. 143:8

My Background

I grew up in a Christian family. My parents were Lutheran school teachers in Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois. I studied chemistry in college. My college part-time job was as a United States Marine Reservist. I am married to Carol, and God has blessed us with five children. I graduated from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1984. I received an STM degree from the same institution in 1998. I have served in three places: St. John's Lutheran Church, Beemer, Nebraska; Kearney State College Lutheran Campus Ministry, Kearney, Nebraska; and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Collinsville, Illinois. I've been a part-time instructor at Concordia Seminary beginning in 2006. I love God, His Word, and the opportunity to serve His people. One of my goals in life is to be able to read the New Testament in Greek and the Book of Psalms in Hebrew. I am committed to the theology of the Christian church as it is explained in the Book of Concord (1580). I follow much of the wisdom of Dr. CFW Walther in my ministry, although I am not one of his descendents (except by baptism). When I have time I love to read (mostly audio), exercise, work around the house, hang out with my kids, play bluegrass music, and fly airplanes (for real or on the computer).