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"Stranger Than Fiction"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 28, 2018
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Stranger Than Fiction)
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Romans 3:19-28

A reading from Romans 3. Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those under the Law so that every mouth would be stopped and the whole world held accountable to God. You see, no human being will be declared to be in the right on the basis of the works of the Law, but rather through the Law, we come to know our sin. But now, a right standing with God has been revealed apart from the Law. Although the Law and the prophets bear witness to it, this right standing comes into effect through the faithfulness of Jesus for everyone. Everyone who trusts.

You see there is no distinction. There is no difference. All have sinned and are falling short of God's glory and yet as a free gift, by God's grace, they are declared to be in the right through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God put Jesus forward in the place of mercy, through faith by His blood. God did it to demonstrate that He is in the right through passing over sins from beforehand in God's patience. God did it to demonstrate that He is in the right now, in this present time, and for Him to declare to be in the right, the one who trusts in the faithfulness of Jesus. What becomes of our boasting then, it is excluded. By what sort of law, of works? No, but by the law of faith, for we hold that one is justified by faith, apart from the works of the Law.

Let us pray. Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and earth, You give and You take away. Blessed be Your Name into the age of the ages. Through faith in Your crucified and risen Son Jesus, You have put things right again. You have made us right. You have made us into Your beloved sons, Your beloved daughters. Sustain us in Your promise, which neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can take from us. Through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Harold thought he was going crazy. On a mediocre Wednesday morning there he was brushing his teeth when he heard it, the voice of his author, narrating him in the omniscient third person. "When others' minds would fantasize about their upcoming day, said the voice, or even try to grip onto the final moments of their dreams, Harold just counted brush strokes." Harold answered. "All right, who just said, 'Harold, just counted brush strokes'? And how do you know I'm counting brush strokes?" That's a scene from the 2006 movie Stranger than Fiction. Will Farrell plays Harold Crick, an IRS agent coming to grips with the fact that he has an author.

How would you feel to be in Harold's position? What would it be like to have an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent narrator writing you into existence? Not because you've justified yourself by what you could do, but only because your author wished for you to be a part of the story. What if the only reason for your life was the free and gracious choice of your author? In other words, what would it mean to be justified by grace alone?

This week marks the 501st anniversary of the day, Martin Luther, a monk and professor from the University of Wittenberg in Germany, posted his 95 Theses. Now before we go any further, I want to make sure everyone listening knows the Lutheran password. If you don't identify yourself as a Lutheran, you might not have realized that we have a password. So here it is: "justification by grace through faith." So, what does it mean? Sometimes we Lutherans, we treat it like a password, a code or magical formula, and we repeat it to prove that we're real Lutherans. But what does it mean?

Here's what it means. I'm not God and you are not God. God is God. God is God with us or without us, but God became God for us when He became the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Back to the first part. I'm not God. You're not God. God is God. Just a couple of months before he posted his famous 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther wrote the following: "Man is by nature, unable to want God to be God. Indeed, he himself wants to be God and does not want God to be God." I think the possibility of being in something like Harold Crick's situation is very disturbing for us smartphone-toting, self-defining early 21st century individuals. See, we've been told to write our own stories, and so it's strange to imagine that we might have an author. It's a strange thing, letting God be God. It's a strange thing being justified by grace alone.

Grace alone was the phrase the first Lutheran Protestant reformers used to describe the one-way relationship between God and God's creatures. God gives, creatures receive, passively, like characters in a story. The Bible describes God is the author of the story of the world, so if we can think of the world, the universe and everything that happens in it is one great long story with all of us as characters in it, then we must think of God as the author of this story. This means that God is the Creator, but not merely like a designer. An author does more than design. For example, my smartphone had a designer, but that person hasn't touched this machine in a long, long time, if ever. The majority of this creation's lifespan is spent far removed from its designer. Not so with an author.

As long as the story's being told, the author never leaves. The author is continuously present in, with, and under all the characters settings in terms of plot. An author is a creator, but not in the same way that a mother and father are creators. A father begets, and a mother gives birth to their child. Right away, the parents began to interact with the child as a fellow person who's like them in every way, only smaller. Mom and dad smile, baby smiles back. They ask questions. Soon she answers. There's give and take, a two-way relationship.

In contrast, the author character relationship only goes one way. The author exists on an entirely different level. For example, Harry Potter, Ronald Weasley, Hermione Grainger--they don't have access to J.K. Rowling. They're not even real in the same way that J.K. Rowling is real. Their author makes them what they are. Characters can't give anything to their author that their author hasn't already given them first. It's a one-way relationship.

Here's how the Bible says it. "Who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counselor or who is given a gift of God that God should repay him for from him and through him and to him are all things to him be the glory into the age of the ages" (Romans 11:34-36). Here's how Job said it: "In God's hands is the life of every living thing in the breadth of all mankind. If God tears down, none can rebuild. If God shuts a man in, none can open. ... If God should gather to Himself His spirit and His breath, all flesh would perish together and man would return to dust" (Job 12:10, 14; 34:14). Job's belief that God is the author of all things, is the thorn at the throbbing source of his anguish. If we continue reading the perplexing book that bears his name, we hear him go on to say, "God has torn me in his wrath. God gives me up to the ungodly, cast me into the hands of the wicked. Why do the wicked live and prosper? Why are not times of justice kept by the Almighty?" (Job 16:9; 21:7; 24:1).

Imagine being trapped in a story like that. At a turning point in the story of Harold Crick, again, he hears his author, alluding to is past, interpreting his present, foreshadowing his future. Tying his tie, he hears the voice again: "It was remarkable how the simple, modest elements of Harold's life so often taken for granted would become the catalyst for an entirely new life."

By the end of day, Harold had enough. Again, he hears that voice in his head: "Harold suddenly found himself beleaguered and exasperated outside the bakery."

"Shut up!"

"Cursing the heavens in futility."

"No, I'm not. I'm cursing you, you stupid voice, so shut up and leave me alone!"

But even if you wanted out, you couldn't escape. You can't stop being a character in your author's story. That doesn't stop you from trying. You rebel against your author. Now that you realize he's here, that he's in, with, under everything, messing with you, you try to fight him, resisting the movement of the story, transgressing the boundaries of your setting, but the more you struggle, the more you only hurt yourself. The more you fight him, the more you find yourself fighting everyone around you. So, you began to resent your author. You hate him.

One day you try something new. To protect yourself, you start to tell a different tale. It goes like this. There is no author. The universe is an accident of unguided evolution. The idea of an omnipotent author is an infantile illusion from an age without smartphones. I must make my own meaning. I must create my own happy ending. I am the author of my story. It's up to me to justify my life as a life worth living, and so it goes. You know that when we reject God, the problem of justifying life in the face of evil and suffering doesn't go away. It gets worse. Now you and I have to bear the God-awful burden of justifying ourselves, justifying our actions, justifying our world, or else we pass the buck onto a government, and that will become our author and master. The question of justification is unavoidable. We cannot find meaning in life unless we receive it as a story, and there's no story without an author. And so, the problem is always the same. Which author do we trust?

Now Harold is standing at the bus stop and once more that voice provokes him: "And so, on this particular Wednesday evening, as Harold waited for the bus, his watch suddenly stopped. Thus, Harold's watch thrust him into the immitigable path of fate. Little did he know that this simple seemingly innocuous act would result in his imminent death.

"What? What? Hey. Hello. Why? Why my death? Hello. Excuse me. When? How imminent!?"

Harold bursts into his apartment, ransacks the closet, throws open doors, turns out drawers, searching for the voice. "Okay, where are you? I heard you. Come on, you stupid voice. Say something!" Desperate, now Harold becomes his own narrator. Harold frantically grabbed his lamp. Harold, incensed, shook it about the room for no apparent reason, smashed it on the ground, stomping it repeatedly. "Come on, say something! Say something! Say something!" Harold distraught. God, Harold distraught.

Then the author speaks not about you this time, but to you. Your author addresses you personally. Now I'm going to ask you to stop imagining and just believe. The part about God being your author, it's true. There's another part of the story that I haven't been telling you and you need to hear it before it's too late. Our author is not limited to one-way author-character relationships. Our author is not a solitary, unmoved mover. He's not an evil genius playing with us like puppets or avatars. He's a father. Before He even started this story from eternity, this Author has a give-and-take relationship with His Son, and in the power of His Spirit He loves His Son. And as much as He loves His Son, this is how much He loves you. That's why He created you, you know? So that you could become not merely a character in His story, but His adopted son, his adopted daughter. He justified your existence not because of what you could do for Him, but because of what He wants to do for you to bring you into an authentic two-way relationship--father-son, father-daughter, a relationship of love and trust. And to recreate this relationship of love for us. The Father sent His only Son to be born into history, to take the Name Jesus, to become a character in His own story. And as a character, the Son suffered all the unanswered questions that you and I suffer as characters in this strange and sometimes confusing story.

Jesus showed us what it looks like to actively strive and to passively suffer as God's beloved children, and in His death He showed us how to express doubt with Job-like faith: "My God, My God. Why have You forsaken Me," (Matthew 27:46). He said, "Father into Your hands, I commit My Spirit" (Luke 23:46). And in His resurrection, Jesus showed us how faith waits on the Author of life. God is God with us or without us, and yet God became God for us when He became the man Jesus of Nazareth.

"Faith alone" was the phrase the Protestant reformers used to describe the two-way relationship between God the Father and His beloved children. The reformers were just following the apostle Paul when they insisted that we are justified, we are put right with God, through faith alone. This means that we are rescued from our rebellion by hearing in Jesus the voice of our Author and taking Him at His word, trusting Him. Receiving His story is our story. That's what it means to be justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone. Amen. Amen.

Reflections for October 28, 2018

Title: Stranger Than Fiction

Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. I'm Mark Eischer along with Dr. Tony Cook, and our new Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler. We thought we'd use this time to help our listeners get better acquainted with you. Tony, why don't you start off?

Tony Cook: Yeah. Well, first of all, welcome. It is great to have you here.

Michael Zeigler: Thank you.

Tony Cook: I thought it might be interesting if we would get to know a little bit about your family. Is there anything that you'd like to share?

Michael Zeigler: We enjoy each other.

Mark Eischer: That's good.

Michael Zeigler: Our house is a lot of fun. My wife, Amy and I, we've been married for 17 years. We have four children. The oldest is 15, the youngest is eight. We have a lot of fun. We have four chickens and a dog, and we live in the City of St. Louis. So, you're allowed to have chickens in the city. Just to give you a view into our family life, we had a fox attack our chickens a couple of nights ago, and my 15-year-old son and I drug ourselves, after our daughter woke us up and said, "The chickens are screaming!" My son and I had to go out with flashlights and shoo off the fox and didn't get a great night's sleep that night. Our house is a lot of energy and action. My wife always makes things fun, and the kids do as well.

Mark Eischer: Let's talk about your work as Lutheran Hour Speaker. Each Speaker that we've had has spoken to a particular context, and its issues. You represent now a different generation of Lutheran Hour Speaker, what do you see as the great challenge of our context?

Michael Zeigler: Well, as I understand the organization, we are an outreach organization. I think the challenge that we have is the same challenge that everyone in the church has, that our culture, at least in North America, has shifted, and there's some church hurt, and some skepticism, and often apathy toward what we have to say. Of course, I want to share Jesus, and I want to share the Word of God. So, I think that's the challenge, is how to bridge into that apathy and sometimes anger towards the church.

Mark Eischer: Our listeners might be interested to know that besides being the Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, you're also Lieutenant Colonel Michael Zeigler in the United States Air Force Reserve. Tell us a little bit about your military background and maybe get into the transition that you made from Air Force to the seminary years ago.

Michael Zeigler: My dad served in the military for 21 years in the Air Force. For one of those assignments we were stationed in Colorado Springs, which is the home of the Air Force Academy. And we had season tickets to the football games. When I saw all the cadets in their service dress run to the end zone and do push-ups whenever the Falcons would score a touchdown, I knew I wanted to do that. I didn't know what it involved but it just looked like really cool. So that had been my lifelong dream is to go to the Air Force Academy, and thanks be to God it happened. I almost didn't get in. I actually got rejected and then a month later, I got a call from the senator who got me my nomination and said, "Hey, do you still want to go to the Air Force Academy?" I fell on the ground, I was so excited that my dream was coming true. I had served five years on active duty. I wasn't a chaplain, actually. A lot of people asked me that. I served as an aircraft maintenance officer in Air Mobility Command, which is all the big planes; the cargo planes and the aero-medical evacuation and air refueling, those planes.

Tony Cook: Now, one of the things when we were going through all the candidates for the new Speaker--one of the things that stood out to me--was that you have a distinctly different style in preaching. Could you talk just a little bit about how you developed your preaching style?

Michael Zeigler: My desire is to be conversational. I think it relates back to the question Mark asked about the challenges that we as preachers face today. There's a book, you probably know the title, As One Without Authority. I don't remember who wrote it. But we can't as preachers of the Gospel, it doesn't work as well to lead with our authority. So, how else can we lead to connect with people, connect them to Jesus?

Michael Zeigler: That was part of it--just a desire to be conversational, the desire for me to be interested in what I'm saying, and to become a student of the Bible anew, every time I go back to the text.

Tony Cook: This is a unique opportunity now that you're just starting out, and people listening, getting to know you a little bit more. If there was one goal that you had in mind for what you hope God would do through your time here, what would that be?

Michael Zeigler: What drew me to this organization is the love of the lost, and to focus on outreach. That's what my goal right now as I can imagine it is to help that effort, to be a small part of that larger effort. Lutheran Hour Ministries is much bigger than just The Lutheran Hour. We're reaching out all over the globe. But if I can be a small part of that to speak to people who are on the fringe of the Christian faith or outside of the skeptics and the half-believers--and that's a lot of us who go to church every week.

So, to try to speak to where those two come together--where someone who goes to church but is not quite sure if they really believe all this, and then someone who's completely skeptical about it all. How can we reach them? What I hope from the listeners is that we'd be able to create something that they could share. Send the podcast link to your grandson or to your granddaughter, your niece or nephew and say, "Hey, listen to this and let's talk about it. Meet for coffee."

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"Almighty God, Your Word Is Cast" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.

"Salvation Unto Us Has Come" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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