Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 8, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Ken Klaus, Speaker Emeritus of The Lutheran Hour
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: 2 Corinthians 12:9
Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! To those who are given eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts and minds to believe, those words change everything. To those who believe, they are God's reassurance that the thorns of life are temporary, while God's love lasts forever. May this be our faith and hope. Amen.
Generally speaking, I love atheists. My most recent encounter with an atheist was during an incredibly long wait at the local department of motor vehicles. Both of us, along with a fair share of North Texas, were waiting in the line to renew our driver's license. He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a Christian pastor and, more particularly, a Lutheran minister.
Now, I started out by saying I like atheists, and I do. I like them because, more often than not, they've spoken about Christianity more often than many Christians; they've read the Bible, they've studied their arguments, and they come to any discussion prepared to make their case against the faith. The vast majority of the atheists I have met have been very gentle and cordial as they've made a presentation against my beliefs. There is never any shouting or name-calling. They don't get rude, and they don't get nasty. No, my atheists act very much like a first-grade teacher does when she knows she is about to pass on to her pupils some information which she knows is going to enrich the rest of their lives.
It took but a minute for my newfound friend to share that he had been raised in the church but had fallen away in college and now was an atheist. That was the place where I was supposed to ask, "And just what made you fall away from the faith?" Well, I didn't say that. Instead, I replied, "You're an atheist. That's wonderful. I've been wanting to talk to an atheist for some time now. You see, I've been very impressed by some of your advertising."
I mentioned the picture of a nun who was saying to her class, "Now, remember children, what do you do when an atheist asks you a logical question?" The nun was pointing to a blackboard which had the following answers: you should dodge, deflect, deny; then you should ignore. Accuse the atheist of being stupid, and, finally, promise to pray for them."
When I asked, "Is that really what we Christians do?" he said he had run into all of those responses at one time or another. It was then I promised him that I wouldn't do those things, with the exception of saying a prayer for him. Then I asked, "What about God, especially the God of Christianity, turns you off the most?"
You could see my friend was choosing his words very carefully. He knew he was going to be speaking about things which were very important to him, but he really didn't want to offend me, or at least make me angry. As best as I am able to remember, this is what he said: "I didn't always have a beef with God. In fact, once upon a time, I had a pretty solid faith. But my faith took a hit. No, make that my faith took a series of hits which eroded my belief. The first hit was when my mother died; she had cancer and, at the end, the drugs didn't take away her pain. I prayed to the Lord and asked Him to make her better. He didn't do that. I asked Him to make it stop hurting. He didn't do that. I asked Him to take her home, and it took a long time for that to happen. If I had been God I wouldn't have allowed that wonderful lady to suffer that way.
Not so long after that, my father lost his job. He was a good worker and gave his best to the company. But he got let go when others, who weren't such good workers but "who knew somebody," got to keep their positions. Well, that didn't seem very fair. God shouldn't allow that to happen. He told me about an acquaintance he had had with a policeman. The officer had been called to a home, and he had gone in good conscience. He certainly didn't expect to be ambushed, but he was. It was a fake call, and he was murdered in cold blood. He left a wife and three children. But the person or persons who did the shooting were never caught. God shouldn't have let that happen, either," he said. "Or the people who are starving, or the folks who died in a tsunami, or an earthquake, or a mudslide or ..." His voice trailed off, and he grew silent. Eventually, he concluded: "If there is a God, and He is supposed to be a loving God, then I don't think He ought to let those things happen. I know if I were God I would, in pretty short order, change those kind of things."
At that moment, two things happened simultaneously. The first thing which happened was, I said to him: "Without minimizing what you've said, you're telling me, God has disappointed you. You feel that if there is a God, and He has the ability of fixing the things in this world which are broken, He ought to do so. You are incredibly disappointed in Him. You are saddened that you think you could probably do a better job than He has been doing. And... even worse, you have concluded that if God can change things and hasn't, He's not worthy of worship. And if He doesn't have the power to change things, He isn't worth worshipping. Did I leave anything out?"
"No," he said. "That's about it. If I can do a better job at being God than He does, what kind of divinity is He? He's certainly not worthy of being worshipped."
As I said, there were two things which happened at the same time. My summary of what he had said, was the first thing. The second thing which happened was this sermon. That's right. Our discussion was the beginning of this message. It is a message which I shared with him two weeks ago. You see, before we left each other, we exchanged email addresses. I shared this message with him immediately after it was written. Since then we have talked. The content of those visits is something I am not privileged to share on this broadcast. On the other hand, I can share what I wrote to him. This is what I said.
"My dear friend. Thank you for making the time we spent together at the license department pass so very quickly. You might remember I promised that I would not follow the suggestions of the nun who said we should, when visiting with an atheist, 'dodge, deflect, deny, ignore or accuse." I have prayed for you, and as I did, I gave thanks for your honesty and complete candor. It was time well spent, and I am appreciative the Lord brought us together for those minutes. You should know that, even as I prayed for you, I also prayed for me. More specifically, I prayed for the words to help you with the belief that you could do a better job than God when it comes to running this sad, sinful world.
"To say that you are not alone in feeling this way is an understatement. The truth is I cannot think of anyone who has not come to the same conclusion. The feeling is as close as we can get to being universal. If you look through the Bible, you will see that the Lord's perfect world was ruined when sin arrived. That catastrophe occurred because Adam and Eve had both concluded the Lord was holding out on them, and they believed they could improve on His work. When they disobeyed the Lord, all the evils which have weighed so heavily on you-the sickness and death of your mother, the murder of your policeman friend-every injustice reported on the evening news became part and parcel of our lives. Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the radical transformation brought about by that sin. We had walked away from God, slammed the door on His endless love and largesse. We said we didn't need Him and we didn't want Him.
"At that point God could have said, 'Okay, have it your way.' To His credit, He didn't do that. Instead, He did something neither you nor I would ever do. Knowing we could never pay for our sins, knowing we could never rescue ourselves from the penalty of sin, the temptations of Satan, or the certainty of death, the Lord sent His own Son into this world. It was His job to be all we could never be. According to God's promise, Jesus came into this world and healed the sick, became a Friend to the lonely and outcast, the Physician to those who were incurable and the Savior to all who would believe on Him. And how did this world treat this gentle, loving Lord? They didn't want Him. No, they rejected Him. Once again humanity tried to keep control. Jesus' enemies in church and state, His friends and neighbors rejected Him, spread lies about Him, trumped up charges against Him, and murdered Him.
With a thought, with a word, Jesus could have swept the world clean of all rebellious ingrates. Instead, He chose to forgive us. With nails in His hands and feet, with a crown of thorns upon His head, He loved and forgave us. Never before or since has such injustice been countered by undeserved love. On a cross outside Jerusalem's city walls, Jesus gave His life, so we might be forgiven and saved, so we might once again experience the gentle hand of a gracious God. Jesus' resurrection-His undeniable resurrection from the dead-gave proof to any who would see that His work of buying us back had been successful and had been accepted by our Heavenly Father. Now, because of what Jesus has done, believers are no longer enemies of God; they are His children.
Now, I would not have you think that any of us are perfect children or even good children. We are still disobedient, and we still fail our Lord in many ways. But we are forgiven children who know God cares. At least we should know that God cares. Unfortunately, there are those times when people forget. They forget and convince themselves that they can improve on what the Lord has done. Sometimes they forget for a little while. That is what happened to the apostle Paul. He took a look at his life and thought he was doing pretty good. No, make that, he was doing very good.
Paul had been successful as an enforcer against Christianity, and as an apostle He had been successful in beginning congregations and shaping the early church. In fact, Paul was so pleased with himself that the Lord sent him a reminder. Paul calls it a "thorn in the flesh." We don't know what this thorn was, but Paul found it to be a great inconvenience. Three times he prayed that the thorn should be removed and when the Lord replied, He said, "Paul, that thorn was sent to keep you humble. It is an ongoing reminder that I am God and you are not. It is a reminder that you are the sinner, and I am the One who has forgiven and saved you."
Paul had a short-term memory loss, but people can forget for so long they develop a case of permanent amnesia. They no longer see how God sacrificed His Son on the cross so they could be saved. They no longer look forward to a place where there is no sin, sorrow, or sadness, no pain, problems, or hurt. They can only see the here and now. How I wish they could, like Paul, yes, the same proud Paul who received that thorn in the flesh, also say, "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us." You should know those words were written to the church in Rome. In that city, Jesus' followers were being arrested, tortured, and slaughtered without mercy. Still, Paul wanted them to believe that their temporary sufferings were inconsequential when they were compared to the everlasting joys of heaven.
My friend, you spoke of how your walk away from God began when you watched the death of your mother. I can understand how you feel. I have done over 300 funerals, including those of my own mother and father. The ages of the people I buried ranged in age from 104 years to 28 seconds. Some died after a long and protracted illness; others died in a short second. You should know it has always been the Lord's plan that His children would live forever. That is the way it was in the Garden of Eden; that is the way it was when these people breathed their last.
No, it is not the Lord's will that people die, but He can use death, in whatever form it may come, to take His people into heaven. You should know that many of the people I've buried died after a long and lingering illness. So often they had nothing else to cling to other than their hope of heaven. When the doctors could do no more, when the medicines ceased being effective, when everyone else stood by in helplessness and sorrow, they knew that their Lord Jesus would be with them. When they died, the Lord Jesus was there, and He took them by the hand and led them through the valley of the shadow of death to the heaven He had won for them.
Looking at this sinful world, people often ask, "Why doesn't God do something?" My answer is He has. Oh, my dear friend, He has. He has given us peace of mind by forgiving every sin. He has dispelled loneliness by telling us He is with us always. He has comforted mourners with the knowledge of a future reunion. And for those who think, "I could run this world better," He says, "Please do." Do you see the starving of the world? Take to them the bounty stored up in the world's warehouses. The Lord has given us the ability to feed everyone. Do you see wars and hatred? Peace calls for no more than the citizenry of this world to say, "No more. We shall all live in peace and harmony." Are their terrorists so filled with prejudice that they can think of nothing more than destroying the innocent? Then stop them. These people do not live in a vacuum. There are those who know of their plots and murderous intentions. Let them make a phone call. Can we do better than God? Who is preventing us? Certainly not Him. Why should we hold the Lord accountable when He has given us everything to change this world for the better? No, we cannot bring about perfection, but we can change ourselves so the oceans are no longer a landfill for plastics, so our cities are no longer breeding grounds for crime, so our homes are filled with love.
Can we do better? If so, then we should. But if not, it is time for us to approach the Lord in repentant humility and say, "Lord, be merciful to us sinners." And then, forgiven by His grace, in the Name of Jesus, we should do our best to live our lives in thanksgiving to Him. And that, my friend, would be a change worth seeing.
And to you my listeners, this message of change is also for you. If you need to know more about the Savior we have spoken about, we are ready to help you. All you need do is call us at The Lutheran Hour. Amen.
Reflections for July 8, 2018
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. That was Pastor Ken Klaus. Dr. Dale Meyer joins us now in the studio. Dr. Meyer, what did you think about the message?
Dale Meyer: Wow! That was a great message, and Pastor Klaus got my attention immediately when he said, "I love atheists."
Mark Eischer: Well, I think we should. I mean after all, God would have all people to be saved, and what makes us any different or any better than those who don't yet know Him?
Dale Meyer: Well, as Pastor Klaus said, sometimes we're taught to avoid them.
Mark Eischer: Is that because we're afraid we wouldn't have the answers?
Dale Meyer: That could be. It could be. And you know, Mark, atheists are asking the same questions all of us are asking. Does God exist? If He does, is He involved in the world? If He is involved in the world, how come things are so terrible? We're all asking those questions.
Mark Eischer: But what makes the answer a Christian gives different?
Dale Meyer: Jesus. We've been taught, and that is no credit to us, it's a credit to God and to those who spoke the word of Jesus to us, but we've been taught to believe that the unseen God is present in this world in Jesus. I just love that passage from 2 Corinthians 4, the "God who said, 'let light shine out of darkness,' has
shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."
In John 14, Philip asked to see the Father. Jesus said, paraphrasing, "You've seen me. That's seeing the Father." I think the difference for Christians is that we acknowledge that God is unseen. He has hidden Himself from us, but He has loved us and come to us in Jesus. It was interesting in Pastor Klaus' message, to follow the progression. His atheist friend talked about the way God runs the world. Pastor Klaus shifted it to Jesus.
Mark Eischer: But we're not all pastors who have gone through theological training. How can we effectively witness to others?
Dale Meyer: Well, let me tell you as a minister myself, a seminary professor, there are a lot of situations where I'm not sure what I should say. I trust what the Bible says. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would give us the right words at the right time. I think the answer to the question is be comfortable in your own Christian skin. Don't think that you have to out-argue, out-debate, out-prove someone-be that an atheist or someone even within the church where you're having a disagreement about something. Just be comfortable in your Christian skin. Be there, speak honestly. Share what you believe, and if you have Bible passages that apply, use them. But don't try and be someone other than a genuine, authentic, transparent Christian.
Mark Eischer: Should you always be talking about Jesus?
Dale Meyer: I don't think so. There are times when bringing Jesus in will shut off any conversation and preclude the opportunity down the road to share Jesus. A friend of mine tells me that when you get on an airplane, and the person sitting next to you wants to talk, and you don't want to talk-you want to sit quietly on the plane and read or think about whatever, the best way to shut off that conversation with your seatmate is to say, "Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?" That will stop a conversation. I think that is true in our normal life on the ground. You always want to get to the point where you can share Jesus. But let it come naturally. When I'm in conversations with people that I don't know, and they may not be Christian people, I try and let it be known that I'm a church person. So, for example, when Diane and I last Sunday went to Home Depot after church, I kept my suit and tie on. I'm one of the old-timers that still goes to church with a suit and tie. I know that's kind of dated. The clerk said, "Oh, just came from church." Yeah. Yeah. That's my take on it, but if the opportunity presents itself to talk about Jesus, by all means do that.
Mark Eischer: Okay, now I'm a little bit confused here. One of the things you liked about Pastor Klaus' message is that he got right to Jesus, and he focused our attention on Jesus, and now you're saying that not necessarily all the time, or not necessarily right up front. What's the answer here?
Dale Meyer: I think there are at least two things. First of all, as Paul tells us, the message of the cross is offensive. As you're relating to a person who's an atheist, an agnostic, someone who is spiritual but not really into true Christianity, you don't want to present that offensive message right at the start of the conversation. Related to this is our great dynamic of Law and Gospel. To present Jesus as the Savior, and His cross as the only way that we have forgiveness and salvation, you first have to do the Law. The Law means getting to know the person. Where are you at? Where are you hurting? How do you think that by yourself you're going to manage life apart from God? Getting into these Law questions with a person is going to show you where Jesus can come in, where you can bring in the message of Jesus and apply His forgiveness and His hope and His eternal life to that person who is under the dominion of the Law.
The person that Pastor Klaus was talking to was struggling with basic Law questions. Basically the First Commandment-who is God? The atheist acts as if he or she is God, and so you want to start exploring, you know, "How's that working out for you?" Then you move into Gospel, at the appropriate time.
One of the things, Mark, that I think we should keep in mind, is that the Holy Spirit is the great director of evangelism so that if I don't talk to someone about Jesus and again, we want to do that, but we want to do it at the time that is ripe. The Holy Spirit sees this. The Holy Spirit directs other Jesus believers into that atheist's, agnostic's life, and we have to trust that the Holy Spirit who witnesses to Jesus, is also in charge of the overall evangelism program. We play our little part.
Mark Eischer: We're a part of the puzzle, but the Holy Spirit is orchestrating it towards His own purposes.
Dr. Dale Meyer: That's right. Hats off to Pastor Klaus for staying in that long line. I would have checked out and never, never had the opportunity to talk to that person.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"O Christ, Our True and Only Light" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)