Friday, March 25, 2016


Christ Died for Me (Condensed) (Luke 18:31-34; 23:33a) (3/20/16)

As an adult returning to the faith, one of my first questions of my pastor was, “Why did Jesus have to die?”  Why did Jesus have to die?  I mean, this was God.  Why couldn’t he have come to earth, looked around, declared our salvation and go back to heaven?

How about you?  As Christians we believe that Jesus died on the cross.  We all say he died to save us, but how does that work?  We’d all like a pat answer.  We want to know the formula.  I’m not sure there is a formula, something as simple as two plus two.  More than likely it is a drama, a metaphor, a story.  We need a story to understand.

So when I asked my pastor Frank why did Jesus have to die, he gave me a story to read.  I can’t remember the book, I can’t remember the author, but remember the story:
“This young couple, madly in love, married.  But unfortunately, three or four years into their marriage the wife was unfaithful, had an affair which she grievously regretted.  It tore her apart.  Just looking at her faithful, loving husband filled her with guilt and regret and destroyed her relationship with him.  All he the husband knew to do was to try to love her all the more.  He longed for the relationship they had once known but it seemed never to be.  Twenty years passed by.  The guilt and the broken relationship remained.  On spring in the garden, the two were on their knees preparing the flower bed and he looked at her in love and said, “I forgive you.”  She lashed out at him and said, “How dare you forgive me.  You have no right to forgive me!”

What we are talking about here is our strong desire for atonement, reconciliation with God.  At-one-ment.  We want our relationship with God restored, the relationship between God and sinful humanity

Incarnational Theory of Atonement

So, let’s start with my story.  “How dare you forgive me.  You have no right to forgive me.” 

Unless you have walked in my shoes, experienced my grievous guilt, your words alone cannot reconcile us.

Jesus came and lived among us, experienced our temptations, lived as we lived, vicariously shared our experiences, and then took to the cross all of the sins and guilt of sinful humanity so that in his humanity he could experience the grievous guilt of us all.  Because he shared our sin, shared our guilt, he has the right to forgive us, to reconcile the broken relationship with us.

This is called the incarnational theory of atonement.  It is not just a formula, it is poetry, an emotional drama played on the cross that explains why we are separated from God, why God had to become like us in order to save us, why he had to suffer to bring us back into relationship with him.

The incarnational theory of atonement.  There are a dozen such theories all giving us a little different picture of the drama that we call salvation theory.  Some work for us, some don’t.  Some find us right where we are.  In other cases, we need a different story, a different drama.

Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement

That was the incarnational theory.  A second one.  The most popular is the “Penal Substitution Theory.”  Christ substituted himself to pay our penalty.  Humanity’s sin has cause a great gulf between us and God.  Because God is perfect and we are not, because God is holy and we are not, there is a gulf between us that cannot be bridged.  And without that gulf being bridged, we will experience God’s wrath.  Because we are sinful, we deserve punishment.  There is nothing we can do ourselves to avoid God’s wrath.  Try as we may, we fall short and are judged.  Jesus took our place, took the punishment for us all, took it to the cross, and in so doing bridged the gap between us and God. We have received God’s just punishment through Jesus’ substitution, and we can be reconciled with him.

Like all metaphors, all stories it breaks down.

Here’s where it breaks down for me.  It portrays a wrathful God.  While there is judgment in the New Testament, it doesn’t seem to portray the loving, forgiving God that Jesus describes.  It doesn’t tell of the seeking God of the lost sheep, the searching God of the lost coin, the longing God of the Prodigal Son who celebrates when reconciliation takes place.  It doesn't sound like good news at all. It doesn't seem to portray grace.

If it works for you fine.  If parts of it work for you fine.  If it doesn’t, set it aside or combine it with another story. I think the next two will be helpful.

The Perfect Penitent Theory of Atonement

The next is from CS Lewis called “The Perfect Penitent.”  (See Mere Christianity pg 44 for a full explanation)

Lewis emphasized that we may not need to fully understand how God through Jesus Christ has reconciled us to him, but it does work.  I does work, we just need to know the outcome.  Here it is: “Christ was killed for us.  Somehow his death has washed away our sins, and by dying, he has disabled death itself.”

He starts out by saying we are not just sinful, we are rebels.  It is our nature to rebel against God.  As an army in rebellion, we must surrender, submit, lay down our arms.  But not only that, we must repent, turn around, eat humble pie, kill the rebellious part of ourselves, our sinful nature.  That’s hard.  Army in rebellion, surrender, repentance, killing our sinful nature. That’s hard.

If it were easy, we could do it ourselves.  But if it were easy to do, we probably wouldn’t be in this fix in the first place.

Here’s the predicament that Lewis proposes: Only a bad person needs to repent; but only a good person can repent perfectly.  That same badness that make us need repentance, turning back to God, keeps us from being able to do so.

We need a perfect penitent.  But only God is perfect.  But since God is perfect, he has never needed to repent.  Repentance is not in God’s nature.  There’s nothing in God’s nature that tells him to surrender, to submit, to suffer, to die to self.  God could never be the perfect penitent.

But, suppose God became man, he could help us.  And because he was the perfect man, he could be the perfect penitent.  He could surrender, he could submit, he could die to self, he could repent perfectly because he was also God.

That is the picture.  Lewis is quick to point out that it is only a picture, it is not the real thing.  The real thing is that “Christ was killed for us.  That his death has washed away our sins, and that by dying Christ has disabled death itself.” 

The Moral Theory of Atonement

That with the moral drama of the cross, that God is trying to change your heart.  Because you witness the drama, you are part of the story and therefore become a changed person. 

In getting ready for today, I bumped into a story of an amazing man, a man named Brennan.  He was not always an amazing man.  In fact, his name was not always Brennan, it was Richard and he was part of sinful humanity.

Born in Brooklyn in the 30s, he spent two years attending St. John’s University, dropped out, joined the Marines and was serving in the Korean War.  While in a foxhole in a lull of battle, he and his best friend were sharing a candy bar, a grenade rolled into the foxhole and his best friend without hesitation rolled onto the grenade.  Instantly horrified, he looked at his friend as his friend turned his head toward Richard and winked.  Then it was over.  His best friend was dead, killed and he was alive. Richard came home from Korea and changed his name from Richard to Brennan, the last name of his best friend.  He was a changed person. The life, death and sacrifice, the moral drama of his best friend had changed him.

In a way, that’s what happens to us isn’t it?  It is the moral life of Jesus that changes us, the sacrifice of our best friend, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” that loves us and gave his life for us, who told us “No greater love than this than to lay down one’s life for a friend.”  And when we see that, we change our name too, to Christian.

The Moral theory of Atonement that the moral life of Christ including that of laying down his life for all of us changes us.

There other theories and they may be helpful: Jesus as the Passover Lamb who saves us as the blood of the lamb did for the Children of Israel; Christ the Victor who took on all the forces of darkness including evil itself.  Just when it appears as though evil has won on the cross, God overcomes death.  “O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”  Christ the Victor.  “New Covenant Theory”  “This is my blood of the New Covenant poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” 

All of it drama, poetry a love story.  When it fits, use it.  Where it doesn’t, set it aside.  What matters is the outcome: “Christ was killed for us; and somehow his death has washed away our sins, and by dying, he has disabled death itself.

God has done so through His mighty acts in Jesus Christ “who loved us and gave his life for us.”

Jesus came to experience life, to vicariously take all of our sins, all of our suffering, all the guilt, all of our pain to reconcile us to God.  In the same way he lifts our sins from us, our grievous guilt from us, so that a man and a women on their knees in a flower bed can be reconciled and experience love again.

One last thing, the cross, the cross Rick, why the cross?  The extreme cruelty of the cross?  Yes, I understand that Jesus died for me, by why the incredible cruelty of the cross?

I can only describe it one way: God chose the cross to show that there was no length, there was no limit that God would not go to, to show his love for us.  He would put on display all of his Power, his unlimited love, to save us. There is no lengths to how far go would go to show us his love. Paul tells us, “The message of the cross is foolishness for those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” The incredible power of God’s love.

It is the love of God, the unfathomable love of God that he would enter this world to demonstrate his unlimited love for us.

There is one last part of the story, of this drama. And that is no one asked Jesus to die for us. No one asked Jesus to enter Jerusalem this day knowing that his destination was the cross.  It is a pure act of grace. Grace. We not only did not ask Jesus to die for us, we did not deserve it. “You were saved by faith through grace,” each and every one of you. It is not something you did.  You are incapable of saving yourself. You received salvation by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christ was killed for you; he has washed away your sins; he has overcome death itself.  Grace.  Here’s what you must do: Trust that it is so.  That is faith.  Amen.

Friday, March 18, 2016


Sermon Summary, Mar 13, 2016, “Make America Good Again”

We’re finishing our series on where faith and politics meet; not to take sides, Jesus didn’t come to take sides, he came to take over!  What do we mean by “Make America Good Again”?  Alexis de Tocqueville aptly said, “America is great because she is good, but if she ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”

We believe we are a good nation, but a quick read of the paper will show we make many opportunities to be good again: Our schools are leaving too many children behind; we are too good with our prisons; not so good with families with over 40 percent of our children born out of wedlock destining too many to a life of poverty.  We are not so good with basic needs: Water with lead extends far beyond Flint, MI; nutritional food is too expensive; our Veterans need care; we have too many homeless including whole families.  And the list goes on: abuse, perversion, drugs.  We have lots of opportunities to be good again.

And we have had visionary leaders who have called us to be good.  JFK asking “not what our country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  Asking what we can do to make our country good again.  Reagan calling us to “be a bright, shiny city on a hill.”  Asking us to be good again so that we can be a beacon to the nations.

Of course Reagan was not the first to call us to be a city on a hill, Kennedy did so as President-Elect and added another biblical injunction “For those for whom much has been given, much is required.” (Lk 12:48)  And we know that it was from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, that we are called to be salt (to be good) to be that city, to let our light shine, so that our good works can be seen.  We are called to be good. Jesus used the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount to tell us what was required from relationships, to family to praying for others, loving our enemies and ends with the Golden Rule. Others are important if we are to be good.

And what did Jesus’ Bible (the OT) say? In hundreds of places we are called to be just, to do lovingkindness, to be righteous (ie to be fair, to actively pursue compassion and mercy, to do the right thing). To be good, a vision of good for leaders and people.

Teddy Roosevelt was our most popular President.  His father taught him to view the world in terms of right and wrong and to always view himself as being on the side of right.  When his father died, he pledged to live his life as his father would have wanted him.  He fought corruption and unfairness and demonstrated compassion at every level. He held two press conferences a day to keep his vision in front of the American people.

When you cast our ballot this year, seek out a visionary that you believe can unleash America to be good again.

Saturday, March 12, 2016


Sermon Summary, March 6, 2016, “Christianity and ISIS”

(To get a full appreciation for the complexity of the issue, I highly recommend that you watch the forum on ISIS at  It is essential to our role as Christian witnesses) Some sermon points:

Each religion has fundamentalists, for Islam those who interpret the Quran in 7th century terms.  Among the fundamentalists are extremists like ISIS who think those who do not believe as they do, deserve to live.  They are a threat to other Muslims as well as us, and to civilization.  They are “apocalyptic,” seeking to bring the final, end-time battle at Dubiq, a village in northern Syria (as well as the name of their magazine, “Dubiq”).

The world has 1.5 billion Muslims.  Only a few are our enemy.  Our Muslim neighbors are always going to be with us, and we must learn to live with them.  In fact, it will be impossible to prosecute a battle against extreme Islam without the help of Sunni Muslim nations.  We cannot fight, we cannot occupy, we cannot defeat radical Islam without them.  We need them.  Yet all of the players in the Middle East have security interests and conflicts (e.g. Sunni-Shia) that seem to supersede their desire to fight ISIS.  At this point, there is no coalition of the willing.  Somehow we need to change that.

The battle being waged by ISIS is primarily a “Narrative War.”  With a single beheading they outrage a world.  With two fighters they kill 14 in San Bernardino and terrorize a nation.  With eight fighters in Paris they kill 130 and still keep all of France under military emergency.  And they use “Narrative” against us.  We say, “No Muslim immigration.”  The say, “See how they hate us.”  We say, “No Muslim refugees.”  They say, “See how they hate us.”  We find it impossible to provide relief to starving villages.  They say, “See they do not care.” We need to overcome their story.

Paul wrote to a small group in Rome telling them “17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:17-21)

By doing “good,” we enter the Narrative War.  We begin by loving our Muslim neighbors here; and with caring for refugees and oppressed there.  With good, we convince the Sunni nations we have their best interests at heart.  We collectively destroy the ISIS Caliphate, the rallying flag for extreme Islam; then with good, with Christian witness, we do overcome evil. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016


Sermon Summary, Feb 28, 2016, “The Bible and Immigration”

I thought with my South Dakota upbringing, I never knew any immigrants, but the polka music on the radio belied that.  When I met Rosemary’s Dad, I found he was a refugee who escaped Bessarabia ahead of the Bolshevik Revolution.  My Granddad and family came illegally through Canada to Wisconsin when he was three.  When you see Rosemary and Rick you see a family from the stock of a refugee from Bessarabia and an illegal immigrant from Norway.  We are the American experience.

We are a nation of immigrants from Europe in the 1700s, Ireland who built our sewers and canals and Chinese who built our railroads in the 1800s.  We feared the Roman Catholic faith of the Irish and the “Yellow Peril” of the Chinese even resulting in our first significant immigrant legislation, “The Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882.  Refugees following WWI resulted in the next law of 1924 limiting quotas to the balance we had in 1890.  Finally, in 1965 we excluded race from our laws, and we’ve been operating primarily under that law ever since.

Each wave of immigrants have caused fears, but equally, the flight to America was driven by fear.  What mother would put her child on top of a train in Guatemala never to see him again?  Fear.

The speaks much to immigration because the biblical narrative is one of immigration.  We didn’t stay long in Eden.  The Abraham saga was one of immigration that consumed the whole of the Old Testament, so much so that God gave special instructions for the alien among them: 34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  (Lev 19:34) and Jesus in the judgment of the nations says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Mt 25:35b)

We have a new definition of neighbor, the alien among us.  “Welcomed” is a verb as love is a verb.  Like the Golden Rule, Jesus called this the sum of the all the law.  How are we doing? This week an Indiana man attacked a Chinese High School exchange student with an axe!  An act of “ethnic cleansing”!

We need to find the Sweet Spot, the balance of reasonable security and compassion so we can love our neighbor.  This I know: We will never completely seal the borders, we will never forcefully deport 12 million people, we will never have total amnesty, we will never pass a law that satisfies everyone or maybe even anyone.  We need a President and lawmakers who will work together to find a compassionate compromise.

We have aliens in our midst, many brought here as infants, who want to be part of and contribute to our society.  We need to search for a compassionate way to allow them to do so.
(This is another sermon for which a summary does little justice.  In the end, I told a story of a young Mexican man who had worked for me (my best and most positive employee) and who is currently in Minnesota.  Alberto had a dream to go back to Mexico, marry and bring his family to America.  I found pictures on facebook of him and his 11 year old son, a saxophone player and athlete.  We need to find ways for families like this.  Amazingly, after not talking to him for 12 years, he called on Sunday night and I had a video conversation with both he and his son!  God was definitely at work last Sunday!  PS. I had always thought him legal as did my employment agency, but what he had was great forgeries.  I'm glad I had the opportunity to be part of his life.)