"Up Close and Personal"#86-38
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 19, 2019
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
(Q&A Topic:Up Close and Personal)
Copyright 2019 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: John 15:26-16:4
You can't get to know a person from a distance. You can't. You cannot get to know a person from a distance. My father-in-law, Rod, tells a story of how he met his wife, Christine. "I got the perfect girl for you," his friend John said to him. It was September of 1972. Rod and John were football players, and they were walking down to practice that afternoon at the college where they attended.
"Who is she," he asked.
"She's right over there," John pointed to a young woman sitting alone in the bleachers across the field. She was there watching the soccer match. It was too far to get a good look at her. "Hey, Mr. Derrickson, can you take a picture for us," John said to the guy standing there with a camera. Mr. Derrickson was the school photographer, and he was there at the soccer match taking picture with his telephoto lens.
John pointed to the young lady, and then he hollered out, "Hey you!" Just as she turns, Mr. Derrickson snaps the photo. Now, in those days, kids, you had to wait a long time to get your photos developed, so by the time he actually saw the picture, Rod had practically forgot about the girl. It was the following week and they were in the locker room, and the football captain had just passed out photos from the game from the prior weekend so that each player could see their action shots. Right there, in the middle of Rod's photos, was this beautiful young woman.
She had a mysterious look on her face like, "Who's yelling at me?" Rod reverently wedged the photo in the back of his football locker, and after he secured his gear, he gazed through the metal mesh of the locker door one last time and thought to himself: "I wonder who she is. I wonder who."
A lot of people have this question about the universe. "I wonder who. I wonder who made all this. What's it all here for? What's it mean? Is this all there is?" Whenever we answer these questions, or even when we ask these questions, we are engaging in something called "theology."
That's kind of a fun word. Why don't you say that with me? Theology. Biology is talk about natural life and geology is talk about minerals and earth, and pieology, that's just tasty pizza, and theology is talk about God. It's God talk, and when you talk about God, you're a theologian. Why don't you say that? I'm a theologian. I think you are a theologian. I think we're all theologians. It comes to us naturally. We have these questions, and we talk about them. Even if you're an atheist and you tell people that you don't believe in God, you're still kind of talking about God in a roundabout way, or at least the concept of God, so I still think you're a theologian.
Professional theologians call this "natural theology." Natural theology are those thoughts and words about God that come to us naturally. Even though North Americans don't go to church as much as they used to, most of us still believe in God—some kind of God who got all this started, who created it all. The question is who is he? Or maybe you prefer, who is she? Or maybe you prefer to think of God as an it, like a divine power or force, or spark within you. Who is God? What is God?
When we try to answer these questions, it's kind of like trying to get to know a person from a distance, like my father-in-law Rod and the mystery girl. See, when you try to get to know someone from a distance, you inevitably have to fill in the gaps. Because you haven't gotten to know them personally, you fill in the gaps with your own background, your own biases, your own expectations and fears. Sociologists call this filling in of the gaps—those are our "meta-perceptions." I'm dropping a lot of terms on you today. We've got theology and natural theologians and now meta-perceptions.
Well, meta-perceptions are the thoughts that I have thinking about what you're thinking about me, and what you think I think about you. It's a mouthful, so we could just squish it all into one word and say meta-perceptions, and meta perceptions are misleading. Studies show that meta-perceptions are often wrong. We miscalculate how other people think of us. The studies indicate that we are often suspicious. We are often overly negative, self-centered, and self-conscious in our meta-perceptions. For example, author Christena Cleveland cites studies that indicate that women tend to think that men are judging them more harshly than they actually are and vice versa, same for men.
Studies indicate that people of a certain color, race, or ethnicity think that people of another color, race, or ethnicity don't desire their company, but it's not true. It only feels like it's true because both groups tend to think that the other group doesn't want to be around them. Meta-perceptions mislead me. Meta perceptions mislead you to think that the other person is thinking the worst about you when in fact it's far more likely that they are probably A) thinking good things about you or just neutral things about you or B) they're not thinking about you at all because they're too busy thinking about what you're thinking about them.
It's really sad when you think about it, and we do the same thing as natural theologians. We try to get to know God from a distance. We fill in the gaps according to our own meta-perceptions. For example, a lot of people are angry and judgmental towards themselves and towards others, and so they imagine God or gods as angry and judgmental. A lot of people deep down hate themselves. They're not comfortable in their own skin, and so they imagine gods that hate them and hate others. A lot of people think that in order to be something and to be worth something, you've got to accomplish something, and so they imagine gods that demand performance and accomplishment and perfection.
A lot of people feel like they're out of control, like they're a leaf blowing in the wind, and so they imagine gods just like us that suffer right along with us. We create these gods in our imaginations and then we try to impress them or avoid them. We manipulate them or sedate them or exchange them. Martin Luther, he was a theologian who lived about 500 years ago, he had a term for this. He called this a "theology of glory." Am I a theologian of glory? Are you a theologian of glory? What makes someone a theologian of glory?
A theologian of glory imagines that God follows their feelings, that God fits to their meta-perceptions, and so if you say, "I feel really good about myself, and so God must love me," you might be a theologian of glory. Or if you say, "I hate myself right now, and so God must hate me," you might be a theologian of glory. If God is simply the echo of your own feelings and your own thoughts, if God is the reflection of your own meta-perceptions, then you are a theologian of glory. I am a natural at this. I am a natural theologian of glory.
So, let's review. It seems left to our own devices we become theologians of glory, and that's because we're doing natural theology. That is, we're trying to get to know God from a distance, but you can't get to know a person from a distance. My father-in-law learned this. So it had been a couple of months since he wedged the photo of mystery girl in the back of his locker. His friends John kept bugging him, "Have you even talked to her yet? Have you?"
Like the origin of the universe or the meaning of life, she was a mystery to him. All he had was this distant picture and his own messed up meta-perceptions to deal with. The school dance was coming, so Rod was going to ask mystery girl to go with him to the dance, but it turns out she already was going with some other guy. That didn't stop Rod. He went up halfway through the night to mystery girl and her date as they were dancing, and he said, "May I have the next dance?" The mystery girl indicated that she'd be okay with this. Her date gave Rod a dirty look, and then they began to dance, and they talked. For the first time face-to-face, they talked.
Mystery girl says to him, "So I hear you've got a picture of me in your football locker." Uh oh. See, mystery girl's date had been walking through the football locker room the other day and saw a picture of his date to the dance in the back of some other dude's locker, and he noted whose it was and he was just telling her all about this creepy stalker named Rod, and here he was. You cannot get to know a person from a distance. Doing so will always get you in trouble, but that's what we try to do with natural theology. We try to get to know God from a distance.
In contrast to natural theology is revealed theology. Let me give you another example to illustrate the difference between the two. Imagine you go to lunch with someone that you've never met before, and you sit down at the table, you shake hands, and right away the person says to you, "You don't need to tell me anything about yourself. I've already learned all about you. I've Googled you." What would you say to them? You'd say, "You don't know me," because they don't know you.
Why don't they know you? Because you haven't revealed yourself to them. That's how personal knowledge works. That's how legitimate personal knowledge works. It must be revealed. It doesn't come naturally. It needs to be given, and that's why we call it "revealed theology." Revealed theology is when God stops being a distant mental picture and sits down at the table with you and says, "Let me tell you about Myself."
We have been listening to this biography, 2,000-year-old biography of this Jewish Man named Jesus of Nazareth on this program, and I have been encouraging you, I have been inviting you, I have been pleading and begging with you to listen to the Gospel of John because the Gospel of John makes an astounding claim, that in this Man, Jesus of Nazareth, the one true God who created and rules the universe has just sat down at the table and said, "Let me tell you who I am."
In John 14:27, Jesus says, "If you have seen Me, you've seen God, the Father." He said in John 10, "I am the Son of God. I and the Father are One." If you know Jesus, then you know God. Now, imagine if the person that you just sat down at the table with said that, how would you react? It's kind of hard to accept. A lot of people have trouble with this. How can a Jewish man, born 2,000 years ago, be the revelation of the one true God who made the universe? Doesn't anybody else get a say on who God is or what God is? Don't I get a say? But Jesus would not back down from this claim. He would not compromise.
Now, you get to know Him by listening to the Gospel of John and to the other Gospels, you might be surprised that Jesus makes a lot of compromises. He's actually quite casual when it comes to religious matters that tend to get religious people all spun up. For example, a person came to Him once and asked Him, "Jesus, where should we worship: in the old place or in the new place?" Jesus answered, "Those things used to matter, but now, one place is as good as the next." That's my paraphrase of John 4. Then you go to John 5, and they say, "Jesus, when does it count as work on the sabbath? See, the Bible says we can't work on the sabbath, and so if we carry something on the sabbath, does that count as work, Jesus?"
Jesus is like, "Carry what you need to on the sabbath day and do the work of God every day." They came to Him and they said, "Jesus, this woman has committed a terrible crime, and the Bible says that we should stone her to death. What about You? Are You tough on crime or not?" Jesus indicates, "There is a time to punish sin, and there's a time to forgive, without retribution." See, Jesus could compromise on all these political and legal and religious questions, but He would not compromise on this—because He has not come to give one way among many ways to God.
He says that all ways to God must go through Him. He is the voice of God, He is the one true revelation of God, and this made a lot of theologians mad. It upset a lot of people, and they crucified Him for it. You see that? Good, natural theologians of glory, just like you and me, to protect their perceptions about God put Jesus on a cross. In contrast to a theology of glory is a "theology of the cross." The theology of the cross is the death of our attempt to make God into our own image. See, we wanted gods that are like us. We wanted strong and powerful gods that would affirm us just the way we are, but we have a God who came in weakness and willingly died because of our misperceptions.
We wanted a God that would hate us and condemn us just as much as we hate and condemn ourselves, but we have a God who loves us and forgives us so completely that not even His own death would keep Him from us. We created gods and imagined gods that are like us, that are fickle and feeble and unreliable, but the God that we have, the God who created us, is faithful and true. The theology of the cross shows us that the way to glory, the way to true glory, the way to God's glory, leads through the death of our own (glory). Jesus leads on this way, and He helps us take up our cross, and die to our own miscalculated meta-perceptions, and dine with Jesus. We come to care less about what other people think of us and to care more about how we can serve them as Jesus serves us.
Almost 50 years later, my father-in-law still has that photo of mystery girl, not hidden away in his locker but out in the open on his dresser, and if you see this picture, you know where her daughters and granddaughters get their good looks. For five decades, she has shown him, and he has shown her the self-giving, cross-bearing sacrificial love of Jesus—not from a distance but up close and personal. So what does this mean for us? It means that we should stop imagining what God might think of us and who God is and what God is—and listen to Jesus. Jesus will tell you how God feels about you. The Father Himself loves you.
See, John 16:27, the Father Himself loves you. If you haven't been baptized, you need to know that the Father Himself loves you, and He wants you to go and find a Christian community that will baptize you, and He will get up close and personal with you. He will give you His Spirit. He will make you His child, and then you get personal with that baptized family of God, and Jesus will get closer. As Jesus gets closer, I promise you that you will see that He is better than any of us could've imagined. If you're willing, I invite you to pray with me.
Heavenly Father, I am Your child, I'm Your son. It's hard for me to perceive this. It's hard for me to understand that You would have me call You "Father," and I admit that I don't appreciate fully all that You have done to make me Your son, and I don't appreciate fully all that You have done to make the people around me Your daughters and your sons, and so I pray that You would help us to know You more closely, more personally, through Jesus, Your Son, because He lives and He reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at https://www.lutheranhour.org, which includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for May 19, 2019
Title: Up Close and Personal
Mark Eischer: Now, back to Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Once again, I have joining me in the studio my good friend, the Rev. Dr. Jason Broge. He is the director of design and development for Global Ministries with Lutheran Hour Ministries. You and I, we've talked a lot about the Gospel of John, and a main emphasis in the Gospel of John is knowledge.
It is a certain kind of knowledge, it's not knowledge from a distance, but "up close and personal knowledge," as I used in this message, that phrase, indicating that it is a knowledge of relationship with a person, particularly the Person of Jesus. Through Jesus, we come to know the Father.
Another element of that is that this knowledge always comes in relationship, not simply with Jesus, but in relationship with other followers of Jesus. And this relates to some recent work that Lutheran Hour Ministries has done.
We partnered with Barna and studied how a Christian's core relationships, namely, their household—people they live with—how those relationships engage them in a thoughtful and transformative faith. That's the kind of faith that would hold up through the storms of life, through doubt, passed on to generations. And we published these findings with Barna in a monograph called Households of Faith.
What do you see as the key lessons that we've learned through this study?
Jason Broge: There's been a number of things that really jumped out at me. One of the key ones is that we have really got a very limited view of what it means to be a household these days. We tend to think of our household as the people who live under the same roof as us.
If you look throughout Scripture, for example, both the Old and New Testament, the term "household" is much broader. It does not just mean the people who live under your, shall we say, "tent," in some cases, but it means the people that you abide with on a daily basis. It's this wider group of people, sometimes numbering up to 50, 70, even 100 people could be in one household.
So household is much broader than we think, and I think that is important for us to recognize because in a culture and a time when we tend to get very individualistic, we tend to think about what I do by myself, the Bible's encouraging us to think about what we do together, how we interact as groups of people, as the community, as the body of Christ, and in this smallest section as our own household.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, I think of all the times in Acts where it's mentioned that the whole household was baptized.
Jason Broge: Exactly, the picture that goes through my mind when I read those, my gut- reaction picture, is Mom, Dad, two kids, a dog, and a picket fence. Right? But that's not the picture; it's a much, much larger group of people. And again, the number could be 70 people. The whole household's baptized. It's not, "Oh, we got four more people who joined the faith." No, we're talking about 70 people who just joined the faith.
Mike Zeigler: Enough to birth a new church or house church.
Jason Broge: Exactly, you're ready to go. That limited view and getting us as Americans today to kind of step back and go, "Wait a minute! Who is in my household? Who do I have this intimate relationship with beyond the people who are just living here?" That's an exciting question that I'm excited to see us grapple with.
The other thing that really we've learned is what it means to be what we're calling a vibrant household. So we're looking at these characteristics that lead towards vibrancy, and they are, briefly, households that are having spiritual conversations together. Not just that you have spiritual conversations, but the household together interacts in that way.
And then the second aspect would be that these are households are practicing spiritual disciplines together. That might be worshiping together, going to church together; it might be doing devotions as a household; it might be praying as a household.
And then the third would be hospitality. Vibrant spiritual households are households where the household is inviting others in. And that would be that extended household, but it's also the other, the stranger, the person who is not connected.
Mike Zeigler: How does this work relate to the wider mission of Lutheran Hour Ministries?
Jason Broge: We at Lutheran Hour, our motto is we bring Christ to the nations and the nations to the church. And a part of that is going to be always equipping laity to share the Gospel. So, one crucial way is that we are equipping the next generation in our household by engaging in these practices, and deepening our faith, embracing the Gospel for our own lives.
But another key part of that is when we realize the value of hospitality, we become more comfortable with the idea of opening our households and our doors. We are inviting those who are not connected, a chance to connect, to come on in—to use a term we used last week, abide—to join with us, to invite those who don't have a spiritual home to come and test the waters with us and see what it's like.
I know a lot of people when you say, "Hey, I'm gonna invite you to church," get kind of standoffish. "I don't know if I want to go to church." But if I say to that same non-Christian, "I'd like to invite you to my house for dinner, to eat dinner with my household, and be a part of the rhythm of life in an evening, which means you're gonna be there while we pray before dinner, and who knows what my kids are gonna ask you. Knowing my kids, a spiritual question is going to come up."
We're inviting you to participate in life with us, and that's something that I find most people are warm and willing to accept. They want to be a part of that.
Mike Zeigler: I like that, we're inviting you to abide, not just with us, but with Jesus who is at the center of who we are.
Jason Broge: Exactly.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)