Presented on The Lutheran Hour on January 7, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Dale A. Meyer, Guest Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Breaking News!)
Copyright 2018 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Isaiah 60:1-6 ("Arise, shine, for your light has come.")
O God, we humbly ask that You give us Your Holy Spirit in this new year, the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ who puts confidence in our hearts and joy in our lives. His epiphany changes everything. Help us to recognize the darkness of this present world but to trust that Jesus is the Light that no darkness can overcome. In His light we see light. Amen.
Pastor Klaus and I with all the people of Lutheran Hour Ministries wish you and yours a happy and blessed New Year. And what will this new year be like? Isn't that the question! With great insight Oswald Chambers wrote, "There are stages in life when there is no storm, no crisis, when we do our human best; it is when a crisis arises that we instantly reveal upon whom we rely." No storm, no crisis-routine lives, that's what we all want, but if this new year brings crisis, upon whom will you rely? My answer is trust the Lord Jesus.
You and I are living in a time of profound change. Generations before us wouldn't believe the changes you and I are experiencing in our lifetimes. Almost every morning and evening Diane and I turn on TV and watch the news. Have you noticed how news anchors begin almost every program by saying, "We have breaking news!"? Wouldn't it be great if the news anchor said, "No breaking news today; let's go straight to weather and sports?" But no, we're assaulted with plenty of breaking news, and it's shaking the foundations. Nothing is normal any more. Permit me to list three of the profound changes that have happened in our lifetimes.
There has been a change in what people believe about Jesus. The Barna organization surveys the beliefs and practices of Americans. I know some of you listeners are outside of the United States, but you may see some of this in your own country. The Barna organization summarizes "Five Popular Beliefs about Jesus." First, "the vast majority of Americans believe Jesus was a real person." Second, people are not sure Jesus is God. Here's a quotation from Barna. "People are much less confident in the divinity of Jesus." Most adults believe Jesus was God (56 percent), while about one-quarter say he was only a religious or spiritual leader like Muhammad or the Buddha (26 percent). The remaining one in six says they aren't sure if Jesus was divine (18 percent).
Third, "Americans are divided on whether Jesus was sinless." Fifty-two percent He committed sins. Fourth, "Most Americans say they have made a commitment to Jesus Christ." I wonder though, in light of doubts about His divinity and sinlessness, what does a commitment to Jesus really mean? And the fifth popular belief about Jesus today is about how you get to heaven. "People are conflicted between 'Jesus' and 'good deeds' as the way to heaven." The president of the Barna organization sums it up: "Americans dedication to Jesus is, in most cases, a mile wide and an inch deep."
Just as there has been a profound change in what people believe about Jesus, there has also been a profound change in morality. The Barna organization put this statement to people: "The best way to find yourself is by looking within yourself." Ninety-one percent of Americans agreed, and-listen to this-76 percent of practicing Christians agreed. Here's another statement they put before people. "To be fulfilled in life, you should pursue the things you desire most." Eighty-six percent of Americans agreed and 72 percent of practicing Christians agreed. I'll share one more statistic for now. "The highest goal of life is to enjoy it as much as possible." Eighty-four percent of Americans agreed and 67 percent of practicing Christians agreed. It seems the majority of Americans have forgotten that Jesus says, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matthew 16:24). Barna summarizes with a very troubling statement: "While we wring our hands about secularism spreading through culture, a majority of churchgoing Christians have embraced corrupt, me-centered theology."
So, we're living in a time of profound change in beliefs about Jesus and in morality. This deterioration in biblical faith and morality is being accelerated by omnipresent media and technology.
All this has everything and everyone stressed. Many traditional businesses are struggling to make it in this new world of online commerce. Government is dysfunctional at many levels. And the institutional church is struggling, too. Mainline denominations are in decline. You might see the decline in your own congregation. I'm privileged to preach in different congregations week after week. I get into some congregations that are vibrant and growing, but I also get into many congregations where people are discouraged. Their congregation isn't what it used to be, and their pessimistic about the future. "Happy New Year!" Really? Peggy Noonan is a weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal. She reflected on all the profound and worrisome changes around us as she was rereading a book by Dean Acheson. He was the secretary of state under President Harry Truman. Peggy Noonan wrote, "Everyone's in the dark looking for the switch." Isn't that a great description of our society today? "Everyone's in the dark looking for the switch," she wrote. "When you're in the middle of history, the meaning of things is usually unclear... In real time, most things are obscure...." And then she quotes Dean Acheson. "'Only slowly did it dawn upon us that the whole world structure and order that we had inherited from the nineteenth century was gone.'" I think that's where we're at this new year. The world has changed. We'll be living the rest of our lives in a new abnormal. What's ahead seems dark and we're groping for light.
Wait! We have breaking news. In John 8:4, Jesus announces, "I am the Light of the world." And now another report is coming in, this from Isaiah, chapter 60: "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you." St. Peter says you are God's people "that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). And Jesus Himself says, "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:16). So many people in the world are groping in the dark. The breaking news is that God has sent us light from above. He sends Jesus Christ to you, to me, to His church.
These changes that distress us can prove to be a blessing in disguise. I say that because these changes give us an opportunity to learn anew, or to learn for the first time, what faith really is. Think back 50 or more years ago. America was, quote, "Christian" America. Most people went to church, or at least knew they should go to church. Most people knew about the Bible and its main characters. Most people knew about Jesus, whether they truly believed in Him or not is another question. And the morality of America 50 or more years ago was publicly based on the Ten Commandments, which were often displayed on government grounds and in government buildings. In that environment, the things of God and the things of public society... it is important to keep that distinction in mind; there are things of God and there are things of man. In America, 50 or more years ago the two easily became mixed together. Church and public life were homogenized, the clear differences blurred. In the America many of us grew up in the distinctiveness of following Jesus could get lost. But now, "Christian" America is gone. Many think that Jesus was just a normal person with sins. Morality is whatever benefits my desires. The Ten Commandments are off the public square and out of many hearts. That makes this new time an opportunity, a strange blessing to understand anew, or understand for the first time, what faith really is and how faith changes us.
Every one of us has feelings. Many people view faith as something internal, subjective. Most Americans understand faith simply as feelings-whatever is in your heart. That's why many people don't care what you believe as long as you're sincere and don't hurt anyone. When Barna put forward the proposition, "People can believe whatever they want, as long as those beliefs don't affect society," 79 percent of Americans agreed and, disturbingly, 61 percent of practicing Christians agreed. Now we all have things in our hearts, but are they true or not? That leads us to the second aspect of faith in the Bible, and this second aspect is most fundamental. This part of faith is outside of us, not in us. It's external, not internal. It doesn't well up within us but comes to us from outside. This second aspect of faith in the Bible is something we look to, something we focus on, something that shapes who we are and affects what is deep down within us. What is the external focus of faith? The focus of faith is not our family, although family is a precious gift from God. The focus of faith is not the church, although God be praised for the church. The focus of faith is not a more Christian America, which might be nice but, breaking news, we're not going back to the 1950s. The focus of faith is Jesus Christ.
Yesterday was Epiphany. The word "epiphany" means appearing. Christians around the world celebrate that there has been an appearing, an epiphany we can trust amidst all the changes and crises that swirl around us. Remember Peggy Noonan's great line, "Everyone's in the dark looking for the switch?" The message of Epiphany, indeed, the message of the Bible, is that the light has come, and this light is filled with promises for you and me. Promises ... that's a good way to understand the Bible, a book of promises. Some of them are terrifying. Ezekiel 18:4 promises, "The soul who sins shall die." Romans 6:23 promises, "The wages of sin is death." Eternal death is as dark as it gets. No wonder then that Psalm 143 prays, "Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you." We do need some breaking news! The breaking news is God keeps His promises! Look outside yourself to the epiphany of Jesus Christ. Although you and I have sinned, Jesus takes our place under the condemnation of sin. The Bible says, "He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). On the cross, the innocent Son of God paid the eternal price for your sins and for mine. Quoting 2 Corinthians again, "In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Corinthians 5:19). "The wages of sin is death," but Romans 6:23 goes on, "the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." This good news "now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). The external focus of faith is Jesus Christ who fulfills all the promises of God. 2 Corinthians 1:20-"All the promises of God find their yes in Him. That is why it is through Him that we utter our amen to God for His glory."
So "Arise, shine for your light has come." Whatever comes to you this new year, trust the promises of God for your way forward. "The Lord is my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid!" (Psalm 27:1). "When the cares of my heart are many, Your consolations cheer my soul" (Psalm 94:19). "Those who look to Him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed" (Psalm 34:5). When the darkness is thick around you, be like the wise men who followed the star to Jesus. The changes that disturb your calm and the crises that rock you are times for you to consciously practice faith. Follow the promises of God to the confidence that awaits you in Jesus Christ. Oswald Chambers said, "Anything that savors of dejection spiritually is always wrong."
The same is true for the church on earth. People sometimes tell our seminary students that this is a bad time to get into the ministry. I meet people who are discouraged about the future of the church. Do you believe? Times and conditions around us might be bad, but the Lord of the church is alive and leading us through the darkness. It's not our church; it's His. The future of the church is not on our shoulders; it's on His cross, His resurrection, and His coming again to take us to heaven. The future of the church doesn't depend upon our human strategies, our meetings, our budgets. The church can be confident about the future because of His promises. "Everyone's in the dark looking for the switch"? We've got a story to tell, an epiphany to share. So break forth with the joyous Good News! The word of witness will not return void. Isaiah promises God's "glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.... Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and exult." "Arise, shine, for your light has come." Amen.
Reflections for January 7, 2018
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. That was Dr. Dale Meyer. Now joining us from his home in Texas, here's Pastor Ken Klaus. Hello, Pastor.
Ken Klaus: Hi, Mark. So, today we are talking about the Light which has come to us, absolutely fascinating text.
Mark Eischer: And we caught that in Dr. Meyer's message, but what do you see in that passage from Isaiah? What makes it special, or as you said, "fascinating"?
Ken Klaus: I think it is fascinating, because it really is all but impossible for a person living in the 21st century, in North America, to appreciate Isaiah's enthusiasm about the light which has come. With his invention of a reasonably priced incandescent light bulb, Edison dispelled the dark. After that, things changed. Homes were lit, streets were lit, garages, barns, stores all had light. No longer were we confined to working during daylight hours. We had light and factories could run round-the-clock shifts. The change was profound.
Mark Eischer: Now in the northern hemisphere, December 21st and 22nd are the days of the year with the least amount of sunlight.
Ken Klaus: And the greatest amount of darkness. Now, if we were right about the darkness being a frightening time, then we could say, both literally and figuratively, those days are the darkest days of the year.
Mark Eischer: Which explains why many cultures right around that time of year begin to celebrate the return of the sun.
Ken Klaus: The Romans, the nation of power in the days of Jesus, they had a great celebration called Saturnalia right around that time. Saturn was their god of seed and sowing: a work which, most definitely called for long, sun-filled days. Well, when Christians were under persecution for their faith, they started to celebrate the Savior's birth around this time. Let the Romans celebrate the coming of the physical sun, and they would rejoice in the coming of the Son of God.
Mark Eischer: Takes us back, then again, to the words of Isaiah: "Arise, shine, for your light has come." And as we celebrate the Savior's birth, the Christian world indeed does shine during that time of the year. We have lights on the Christmas tree; our homes, our buildings, our stores and malls are all decorated with multi-colored lights. So, in a way, Thomas Edison's light gives us the ability to truly celebrate the coming of Jesus, the Light of the world.
Ken Klaus: Yeah, but old Thomas Edison, he isn't the star here today. In truth, when it comes to dispelling darkness and fear, a greater One than Edison has come.
Mark Eischer: Right, a greater one than Edison, in what ways is Jesus the greater One?
Ken Klaus: Well, Edison did dispel the night, but he knew his limitations. He never tried to bring light to the dark and fear-filled hearts of humanity. Fluorescent, incandescent, quartz-halogen, battery-powered flashlights are ineffective against the darkness of our sin-filled hearts. In human hearts-that's where the real darkness resides. The Lord doing battle with darkness-the Lord defeating the darkness of sin, the devil and death-is one of the great themes of the Bible. It is the theme in the beginning; it's still the theme at the end.
Mark Eischer: And that's the case because darkness was there at the beginning, and it will still be there when Jesus comes on the last day to be our Judge. Dr. Meyer touched upon that-that in spite of all the Lord has done, every year, people seem to be either afraid of the dark, or they love the darkness instead of the light.
Ken Klaus: Mark, the apostle John clearly described God's good intentions and humankind's ongoing disregard and disobedience for the blessings the Lord wished to bestow. In the third chapter of his narrative, John said, "For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the Name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God."
Mark Eischer: And our Lord is continuously extending that invitation to come and walk in that light of Christ. Unfortunately, many people, even Christians hold back, or perhaps they want to stay in the twilight, in the shadows. Why is that?
Ken Klaus: In doing research for our Reflection segment, I came across a story about an experienced and quite successful pastor who was asked to speak to a group of men studying for the ministry. The text he was using was Jesus' parable about the wise and foolish virgins. About half way into his message, the pastor reached the point where he was going to challenge his audience. He said, "Young men, would you rather be in the light with ten wise women or out in the dark with ten foolish ones?" The audience reacted the way you did, and the preacher realized what he had said. He finished the message, but nobody heard any of it.
Mark Eischer: Yeah, the point he intended to make was replaced by one which said, "There are many who would choose the darkness in order to satisfy their pleasure."
Ken Klaus: And he also said that while darkness stunts growth and leads to death, light promotes a powerful, positive change. He let The Lutheran Hour listeners know that when they walk in the light, they will be healthier and happier.
Mark Eischer: I guess bringing that into our discussion today, we might say that when God's people walk in the light of Christ-when they let that light shine-those around them will also see a reflection of that joy and a peace, which surpasses all human understanding. It's a peace the world cannot give.
Ken Klaus: Years ago, I was told of an artist who drew a winter scene. It showed trees, when people looked at the painting, it was dark and made them shiver. That's not what the artist wanted people to remember from his painting. He had a cabin there in the background; he took his brush and, having dabbed it into a muted yellow, he put a light in that cabin's window. And that light transformed that place. The picture was no longer cold and foreboding; the cabin was a warm haven, a place of comfort. Two-thousand years ago, the birth of Christ was God's light come into a sin-darkened world, did the same thing. Jesus transformed the canvas of our lives.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O Morning Star, How Fair and Bright" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House