Monday, July 12, 2021

The Love That Conquers All!

[This message was shared during the funeral service for a disciple of Jesus who was a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
Nearly one year ago, Ruth Olson lost her earthly life to cancer. I don’t need to remind any of you of what deeply committed disciples of Jesus both she and Bob have been. 

Ruth’s trust in Jesus was remarkable. She loved Christ. She also loved Christ’s Church. Even as she faced death, Ruth faithfully prayed and cared, as she was able, for her family, the Church, and for others.

There are some who might look at Ruth’s faith in Christ and, particularly in the wake of her passing, see it as delusional. 

But Ruth, like all Christians who confess an informed faith in Jesus, was among the least delusional people of all. 

Disciples of Jesus face facts the world wants to forget. 

The world, for example, may want to forget that all, including Christians, sin (Romans 3:23), but Christians don’t; as Christians, we forthrightly confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” 

The world may try to deny that death comes to all of us because we were born into the condition of sin, an inborn alienation from God and the life that only God can give; but Christians confess that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12) 

The world too may want to deny that the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) But for followers of Jesus, facts are facts and denial is the way of everlasting separation from God. 

Death also comes to disciples of Jesus, to people made righteous, right with God, by the gracious gift of faith in Christ that God pours into them through the Gospel given in Word and Sacrament.

Death is a hard reality; it can even cause grief-stricken disciples to tell Jesus, as Martha did near the burial site of her brother Lazarus in our Gospel readings, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) 

But there is a deeper truth than our sin and death. 

There is a greater reality that has the power to veto and reverse the dominion of sin, death, and darkness into which the human race is born. 

That greater reality, that deeper truth is the love of God given to the whole universe through Jesus Christ. 

It is through His love that God makes once-condemned sinners righteous, fit for eternity, and able to face suffering, life, and death with faith, able to live in the certainty that all who trust in Jesus have eternal life with God. As Jesus assures us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Our second Bible lesson for today, Romans 8:31-35, 37-39, chosen by Ruth, comes from the New Testament book of Romans, a letter written to the Christian church in Rome in about 55 AD. 

These verses form the capstone of a section of Romans that deals with the supreme power of God’s love given in Christ. It begins in chapter 5, where Paul says: “...God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit,” Who gives witness to Jesus and His Gospel and because of this powerful love, our hope in Christ is never disappointed, even in the face of death. (Romans 5:5) 

Throughout the chapters of this section of his letter, Paul celebrates what God gives to those who believe in Jesus: peace with God, life in Christ, freedom from the condemnation of the Law, the capacity to live in the Spirit, that is, to live each day in utter reliance on Christ alone. 

This is the deeper reality--the certainty of God’s grace and love for us--in which God empowers believers in Jesus to live. 

God loves you desperately despite your sin and sets all who believe in Christ free from the power of sin and death.

In our lesson, Paul poses and answers seven questions. 

The first introduces all the others: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” (Romans 8:31) 

What, in other words, are we to say in the face of the reality of Jesus dying to take our punishment for sin and His resurrection to open up an eternal relationship with God to all who repent and believe in Him? What can we say in the face of a love so vast, so never-ending? 

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension are better attested by more witnesses closer to the events to which they give witness than is true of any other ancient figure or event. 

More importantly, two-thousand years of Church History affirm that beginning with people like the once-impulsive, hot-headed Peter and the murderous, religiously fanatical Saul (who became Paul), the crucified, risen, living Jesus, transforms the lives of those who trust in Him and His righteousness rather than themselves or their self-righteousness. Jesus Christ gives those who follow Him peace and hope beyond all human understanding.

Paul goes on to ask two questions in quick succession: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32) 

You see, the cross of Jesus isn’t just the death of death for all who trust in Jesus, it’s proof that God intends to give those made righteous through faith the very inheritance that once belonged to Jesus alone, all the life and joy His kingdom can offer. He gives us an honored place in His house! 

When God gave the apostle John a glimpse of eternity beyond death, John heard the four angels surrounding God sing to Jesus about the inheritance He shares with all of His disciples, His saints: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10)

Paul then asks, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:33) 

God has chosen to give His perfect righteousness to those who turn to Christ. The Law shows us to be guilty, but Jesus acquits us. God’s promise stands for all eternity: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!” (Romans 10:17)

Next question: “Who then is the one who condemns?” (Romans 8:34) 

Who, Paul asks, has the power to condemn Ruth or any of the saints who face God covered in Jesus’ righteousness? Nobody, Paul says, because “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Even as we draw our last, labored earthly breaths, no one can condemn those covered in Jesus’ righteousness!

Then comes Paul’s sixth and seventh questions. 

You know that, in the Bible, God’s Word, seven is the perfect number, the number of completion and wholeness to God’s activity. 

On the seventh day, God declared the Creation “very good.” 

In the book of Revelation, when Jesus, the Lamb of God, opens the seventh seal, the angels are unleashed to bring the curtain down on the life of this universe so that Jesus can return in glory to give everlasting life in the new heaven and the new earth to His people. 

Paul asks: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35) We might ask, “Shall cancer, or grief, or sorrow, or adversity?” 

No, Paul says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37) 

There you see it again, the love of God. Not our love for God. Not sentimental, Hallmark card love. But God’s tough, resilient, devoted, death-destroying love for us poured into us from the cross and the empty tomb and even today, through the Holy Spirit, from the very throne room of God--this love makes disciples of Jesus “more than conquerors.” 

Our sin and our death have been vanquished by Jesus and believers in Him live in a hope of which we cannot be robbed, the very hope in which Ruth lived her life and faced her death.

This is why Ruth chose these words from Scripture for you today. She didn’t want to point to herself. She wanted to point to the Lord Who, by His charity, His grace justifies all who trust in Him. 

She wanted you to know the deepest truth and the greatest reality of which Paul seems to almost sing at the end of this passage from Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

In the days and years ahead, however long or short, may God’s Word fill us with faith in Christ so that we too will live each day in the certainty that nothing...NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen

Monday, July 05, 2021

Willing to Believe?

[Here's yesterday's message from worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below the text is the YouTube video from the second worship service. Have a good week. God bless you!]

Mark 6:1-13
By the time of the events recorded in today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 6:1-13, the gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus has already created a stir by announcing that in His appearance, the kingdom of God has invaded the world and that, in response, people need to repent and believe in Him.

Jesus has already undergirded the legitimacy of His apparent claim to be Messiah and God-in-the-flesh by performing notable miracles.

Now, disciples in tow, Jesus comes to His hometown of Nazareth.

I’m convinced that Jesus did this quite deliberately. We’ll see why in a moment.

Once in Nazareth, Jesus goes to the synagogue. It was the custom then to ask visitors or members of the synagogue who had been away for a time to speak on the reading from the Torah for that day. So, Jesus was bound to be asked to teach. It’s likely that Jesus’ disciples went to the synagogue anticipating that Messiah-come-home would receive a hero’s welcome. They would soon be disabused of such ideas.

Mark tells us that while listening to Jesus, the hometown crowd was “astonished,” the word Mark uses in the original Greek meaning they were shocked, at a loss to explain Jesus’ words, wisdom, or miracles.

Their astonishment doesn’t spring from faith or pride though. The Nazarenes are appalled by what they see as Jesus’ presumption.

Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…?” Mark says, “...they took offense at Him.” (Mark 6:3)

Two scorpions in a bottle with an open top would rather sting each other to death than help each other escape. As human beings, let’s face it, we’re not much different from the scorpions: Our sinful natures resent it when others are higher than us, especially when those others are people we think we know, even when that other we think we know is God Himself.

Jesus had already revealed Himself to be God and Messiah by the time He returns to Nazareth in today’s lesson. But the Nazarenes refuse to believe in Jesus or the gospel of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Him He brings. As a consequence, Jesus, Who has been performing miraculous signs right and left everywhere He went “...could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them…” (Mark 6:5)

Faith, of course, is a gift from God. It comes to us when, through the Word spoken, read, or explained to us or given to us in Holy Baptism or Holy Communion, is used by the Holy Spirit to create belief in Jesus within us. As we’re told in Romans 10:17: “ comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” You can’t manufacture or talk yourself into faith in Jesus. Faith isn’t derived from feelings or thoughts.

The question is whether we’re willing to receive the gift of faith or not?

Are we?

God’s Word tells us that Baptism saves us, because when the water covers our heads, we participate in both Jesus’ death and His resurrection. Baptism, the apostle Peter writes, “now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21) And Baptism, the apostle Paul says, causes us to be “buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) Are you willing to trust in the salvation that God’s Word says you already have?

God’s Word tells us that we can only confess that Jesus is Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit: “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 12:3 says. Are you willing to believe that the 

Holy Spirit is working in your life and empowering you with faith?

Jesus, the Word of God, says to His followers in reference to the signs of the Kingdom He opens to all who believe in Him, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) Are you willing to trust in that promise?

Jesus commissions all of us who bear His name to go and make disciples, teaching them to observe all that He commanded them, then getting them baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, promising that as we faithfully pursue this mission He will be with us “always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Are you willing to take Jesus at His Word?

Friends, I can tell you with certainty, if we are willing to believe God’s Word in Jesus Christ, we will believe.

I can say with equal certainty, that if we aren’t willing to believe, we won’t.

The gift of faith is there for us to be received one day at a time. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves [meaning, deny your skepticism, deny your addiction to sin, deny your need to be in control or to know how everything’s going to turn out] and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Are we willing to believe in Jesus?

Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes weren’t willing to believe. Nor did they have a faith in Jesus that would cause them to share Christ and His Gospel with others. To see this must have been stunning for the disciples to see.

Listen: It’s possible for people to receive the Gospel, whether through the Word or the Sacraments, and for people still not to believe.

If you carry the Gospel to others, they may refuse to believe in the only Savior Who can give them eternity with God. As Jesus is about to send the disciples out in pairs to share His message and do His signs, this is what Jesus wants the disciples to know. If you follow Jesus and, from a place of love, you share Him with others, expect to be rejected. Expect it. If you are faithful, you will have your good news spurned, even by those closest to you.

This is why Jesus tells the Twelve as He sends them out, “if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:12) Disciples should expect to be rejected for their faith in Jesus just as Jesus Himself was rejected.

But, as disciples of Jesus, we need not be discouraged.

Instead, we need to pursue our faith-sharing mission with urgency. The reason for the urgency is simple. When the people we know die, they will have no more chance to repent and believe in Jesus.

Jesus Himself makes this point in His parable of Lazarus and the rich man. After each of them die--the rich man who paid no heed to God or neighbor and Lazarus, the poor beggar, who trusted in God despite his suffering, the rich man goes to hell and Lazarus is safe in eternity in the bosom of Abraham.

The rich man begs first, that Abraham will send Lazarus to bring him relief from the condemnation he chose in rejecting God. Then he asks that Abraham will send Lazarus to preach repentance and faith to his brothers.

But Abraham says that can’t happen; beyond the gates of death, there is a fixed chasm between the living and the damned that can no longer be crossed. God alone can close the gap between Himself and those of us born into sin and separation from Him. He did that in Jesus.

And Jesus sends those of us willing to believe that Jesus is God-come-to-us to people who will die under condemnation if someone doesn’t take the risk of sharing Jesus with them! “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Are we willing to believe in Jesus?

Are we willing to share that belief in Jesus?

God has already done everything necessary for us to have such faith and to live with such belief.

Our call is to get out of God’s way so that we can believe and we can share Christ with the world.

A few days ago, our son posted on Facebook, “God gave me the opportunity to share my faith with someone today. Please pray that the Spirit guides and enlightens both proclaimer and recipient of the Gospel.” Philip doesn’t know what God will do with the Word about Jesus he planted in the life of that spiritually-disconnected person. And Philip will be the first to tell you he doesn’t have all of life together and that there are times he’s probably had the opportunity to share the Gospel and he hasn’t. (I know that’s true of me as well.) But, quite honestly, when I read that post, I was proud of his willingness to trust in Jesus and share Jesus’ Gospel with someone.

Friends, God is only looking for people willing to believe in Jesus; He will do the rest.

May God daily work such willingness in us. Amen

Friday, June 25, 2021

Three Petitions for Worship This Sunday

Here are three petitions we'll be including the Prayers of the Church during morning worship at Living Water Lutheran Church this coming Sunday, June 27. Feel free to make the prayers your own.

Gracious, almighty God, You have dominion over all things. We thank You that You hear our prayers offered in Jesus’ name. Above all, we thank You that through the crucified and risen Jesus, You have done all necessary both to save us from sin and death and to make us Your holy people. In all circumstances, help us to take refuge and hope in Christ alone. Let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Gracious Lord, the world with its worldly thoughts, ideologies, and prescriptions crowds around us, making it difficult for us to see the Truth only revealed in Jesus, the Way, Truth, and the Life. Forgive us for the ways we allow the devil, the world, and our own sinful natures to lead us to bitterness, suspicion, envy, or the ancient human desire to be You. Forgive us too for sometimes thinking that Your Church is something that we must control rather than seeing it for what it is, the body of Christ, Your eternal people, to which, as disciples of Jesus, we are all mutually accountable. Fill us with Your Holy Spirit so that in all we say, do, think, and pray, we seek to honor Christ alone. Let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Lord of the nations, we lift up to You for guidance and encouragement all the leaders of the world and of this country that we might lead peaceful lives. Protect those in military service from danger, harn, and temptations. Let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The New Testament Book of Galatians, Part 8

This study somehow was cut off before we were done tonight. We'll look forward to picking things back up when we resume on Facebook Live next Tuesday evening at 9:00 PM Eastern Time. God bless you.