Friday, April 28, 2017

Majoring in God's Majors

These are reflections from my quiet time with God today. I explain quiet time here.
Look: “After Jesus and his disciples arrived in Capernaum, the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax came to Peter and asked, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes, he does,’ he replied. When Peter came into the house, Jesus was the first to speak. ‘What do you think, Simon?’ he asked. ‘From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?’ ‘From others,’ Peter answered. ‘Then the children are exempt,’ Jesus said to him. ‘But so that we may not cause offense, go to the lake and throw out your line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Take it and give it to them for my tax and yours.’” (Matthew 17:24-27)

This is another one of those passages that I’ve allowed to slide past my consciousness. In my mind, I think, I connected it to the question about paying the Roman tax which resulted in Jesus telling us to, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”

But this is an entirely different issue, though probably raised, as the other one was, by opponents trying to “get the goods on Jesus.”

The temple tax of two drachmas per year was owed by every Jewish male. The proceeds went to support the operation of the temple. Two drachmas represented two days’ wages for the typical laborer.

Peter is asked, “Doesn’t your teacher pay the the temple tax?” Apparently without caring or knowing about the real answer, Peter says that Jesus does.

I suppose that Peter thought that was the end of it. But when Jesus and the disciples come “into the house” (House often is a codeword in Matthew for the assembled people of God, the Church), Jesus, in the know, asks Peter a seemingly hypothetical question: “What do you think, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth collect duty and taxes—from their own children or from others?” When Peter rightly answers, “From others,” Jesus says that means that the children are exempt. Then He tells Peter to throw his fishing line into the lake, then open the mouth of the first fish he catches to find four drachma, two for Jesus’ temple tax and two for Peter’s. Jesus does this, He says “so that we may not cause offense.”

I’m not entirely clear here: Is Jesus calling Himself the Child of the great King, God the Father? Or is He calling disciples like Peter children of God through Christ the King? I suppose that either or both of the interpretations is possible and it may not ultimately matter.

But several points are clear.

One, Jesus as the King is exempt from the taxes and all other temporal obligations imposed by earthly kings, even the “earthly authorities” who run the temple. So, Jesus may not, in fact, have paid the tax that Peter so breezily assured the two-drachma tax collectors that Jesus paid. The disciples may have been exempt by Jesus’ reason as well, since they were “children of the King.” As Christians, we also exempt from any coerced “tax” to support Christ’s Church. (This makes the preferred status of “state Churches” in Europe dubious, to say the least.) I take it that Jesus has not paid this tax.

Two, Jesus has, to use a bad pun, “bigger fish to fry” than to dispute over whether He needs to pay the temple tax. So, to avoid giving offense to those for whom this is a big deal, Jesus pays the tax.

In other words, if Jesus not paying the temple tax was going to be an impediment to people following Him, He would pay the temple tax. 
The gospel is offensive enough to human sensibilities--the gospel that God took on flesh in Jesus and offers new and everlasting life to all who repent and believe in Jesus. There’s no point in creating artificial, tangential reasons for offending people when what we really want is for them to know Jesus Christ as their God, Savior, and Lord. So, Jesus tells Peter after making the point that He doesn’t “owe” the tax (and maybe His followers don’t either), to pay the tax.

Three, Jesus covers Peter’s temple tax obligation. The point here has nothing to do with financial obligations. Jesus isn’t commending a “prosperity gospel” here, because money isn’t what this entire incident is about. He IS NOT saying, "Believe in Me and I'll make you prosperous."

What Jesus is doing here is paying the price for Peter’s obligations. In this sense, it becomes a foretaste of what Jesus will do on the cross. He pays the penalty that we owe God for our sins. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us...He redeemed us [or bought us out slavery to sin and death] in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” (Galatians 3:13-15)

All Peter had to do was receive the gift of two drachma that covered his temple tax obligation.

Peter could have said, “That’s ridiculous! Whoever heard of a four drachma coin landing in the mouth of a fish?” (Although I can think of a man who landed in the mouth of a fish!) Peter could have thought, "I don’t trust such nonsense. I’ll just scrounge together the four drachma and pay it myself." He could have gone to Judas, the treasurer of the group, for the money needed and the whole bone of contention would be erased.

But we have no record of Peter, who often messed up and failed to trust Jesus, doing anything but what Jesus directed.

When we trust Jesus, He pays our debts for sin.

Listen: Lord, what do You want to teach me on all of this, because it’s rich?

One thing, I think, is for me to refrain from doing anything or saying anything that gives undue offense. This doesn’t mean that I should be a mealy-mouth. It means that I should stick to the gospel and stick to loving You and loving others. Even that will cause offense; but if people are offended by Your gospel, so be it. I just need to get out of the way and not offend them because of me, my words, my faults. As Your ambassador, I need to speak Your words and not my own, lest people think I’m speaking in Your name when I’m not.

I need to refrain from any behavior that might destroy my credibility for fulfilling my one mission, making disciples.

I need to refrain from any behavior that might keep me from being the one thing You call me to be, a disciple.

I suspect that this is part of why Jesus says, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)

Secondly, as a pastor, I need to refrain from laying obligations that You don’t command onto people or even to seem to do so. I’m not conscious of ever having done this with people; but this is an important cautionary lesson.

The temple tax was a kind of work. Yes, giving is part of the Christian life. But whatever giving we do to the cause of Christ in the world should be rendered joyfully, as an outgrowth of a maturing relationship with Jesus, not because someone from the Church reminds us to pay our “temple tax.”

Thirdly, I need to be more trusting. When Jesus told Peter to sink his line into the lake, catch a fish, and pull a four-drachma coin from the fish’s mouth, the record indicates that Peter did just that. There’s no indication that, even when Jesus was tried on trumped-up charges before Pilate, that Jesus’ payment of the temple tax was in dispute.

I need to trust what Jesus tells me to do and who He tells me to be. I need to trust His answers to my prayers, whether the answers are yes, no, or wait. I need to trust that I am forgiven not because of my works but because of what Jesus has done for me on the cross and from the empty tomb.

Respond: Lord, today, help me to major in the majors. Help me to not pursue my own agenda or seek affirmation for myself or the things I want, but help me to only pursue Your agenda, give You glory through my interactions with others, and only say those things needed to help people experience Your concern and love. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]




Monday, April 24, 2017

Living in the New Creation (AUDIO)

Here. (During the course of the message, several examples of ancient and modern eight-sided baptismal fonts were shared.)

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during yesterday's worship services.]


Living in the New Creation

John 20:19-31
Our gospel lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter recounts two incidents that happen within the space of a week. The first happens on the evening of the very first Easter, the Sunday on which Jesus rose from the dead. The second happens one week later. Because this lesson comes up every year, it may be worn from familiarity. But let’s ask God to help us to experience it in a fresh, new way this morning.

Freshness and newness, in fact, fill our lesson. Newness is what it’s all about!

John tells us that the first incident happens “On the evening of the first day of the week.”

The phrasing is a deliberate reference to the first creation account in Genesis, which tells us that God created in seven days.

The ancient rabbis taught that the human fall into sin happened on the seventh day. And for centuries, they had looked ahead to a “new day” or an “eighth day,” when God would create anew and that perfect peace--the perfect shalom--that existed between God and His creation on the first through sixth days would be restored.

It’s for this reason that many ancient and contemporary baptismal fonts are eight-sided. Here's a sampling of what I mean...







When a person is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God makes them part of the new creation secured through Jesus’ death and resurrection. The baptized are ushered into the perfect shalom of God’s eighth day, the first, only, and eternal day of the new creation, the eighth day that never ends.

It’s from this understanding of things that Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

As Jesus’ disciples huddled behind locked doors on the evening of the first Easter Sunday, they had no idea that the new creation had begun. They were still quaking in fear before the old creation.

Take a look at our lesson, starting at verse 19: “On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.”

In the new creation, the Word made flesh, Jesus, is no longer constrained by the limitations of humanity that He once voluntarily accepted to meet us where we live. This goes beyond being able to walk through walls (although that’s pretty cool). Now, Jesus moves freely between time and eternity, flesh and spirit, so that all who believe in Him have the peace of knowing that not even death can hold us down.

Like our Savior, beyond the gates of death, we will live untethered from death, untethered from fear.

And we can experience that eternal reality even now as Jesus comes to us in His Word, in the sacraments, and in the fellowship of Christian believers.

How confident, hopeful, at peace, and without fear are we to be? Back to our lesson, starting at verse 21: “Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! [‘Here’s My shalom,’ Jesus is saying.] As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”

We should be confident, hopeful, at peace, and without fear, first of all, because Jesus breathed on them. He breathes on us.

Jesus infuses us with the very life of God, when we are baptized children of God and when we trust Christ and His promises of new life, forgiven sin, constant presence, and eternity.

Jesus breathing on us echoes what God did at the creation of the first man, as recounted in Genesis 2:7, part of that book's second creation account: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

In the Old Testament Hebrew, the word translated as breath, ruach, can also mean wind or Spirit. The same is true of the Greek word, pneuma.

Jesus breathes the pure breath of heaven, the Holy Spirit, into all who believe. He makes all who believe in Him brand new. Why shouldn’t we be at peace, confident, hopeful?

We should also be confident, hopeful, at peace, and without fear because God, the almighty God of the universe, has entrusted us, His new creatures, with an important mission.

It’s the most important mission in the world. He’s given it to us even though, alone, we are completely unqualified to discharge it.

But Jesus fills us with His holy breath and then tells us that, in His name, we’re to proclaim His forgiveness to those who repent and believe and to proclaim God’s condemnation--in hopes that they will repent and believe--to those who balk at repentance and faith.

We’re to wield what Jesus calls elsewhere, “the keys of the kingdom.”

We’re to do so with humility and love. We’re to do this without confidence in ourselves, without a sense of superiority. Christians should never act "holier than thou"!

As followers of Jesus, you and I know that we are nothing without Jesus. We know that we have been saved not by our own goodness, but by what Jesus accomplished for us in His death and resurrection.

But Jesus gives us His Holy Spirit and says, effectively, “Act on My behalf, just as I have acted on behalf of My Father.”

Listen: When Jesus saves you from sin and death and then gives you the same mission He fulfilled on this earth, it doesn’t mean that your life on this earth will be easy. But it does mean that as long as you walk seeking to follow and share Christ each day, your life will be imbued with the same sense of possibility, peace, and hope that must have filled Adam when God breathed life into him.

Christian, Jesus says that you are a new creation. 

So that leads to some questions: What are you going to do about it? How many people are you going to invite to come along with you in experiencing the new life you have through Jesus?

And keep in mind that Jesus refuses to give up on anybody. He cares about everyone--from the most indifferent churchgoer to the most rabid atheist. He loves and died and rose for all people. He wants all people to believe that He “is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing...may have life in His name” (John 20:30-31).

All of which leads us to Thomas.

How many Thomases are there in your life?

How many times are we Thomases?

Keep in mind that, according to the original Greek in which John wrote his gospel, Jesus doesn’t describe Thomas the Apostle as a doubter; He says that Thomas is unbelieving.

How often do we regard the good news of Jesus or the promises of God with unbelief?

God’s Word tells us that it’s impossible for us to believe without the Holy Spirit’s breath giving life to our faith (2 Corinthians 12:3). Yet people can put up roadblocks to the Spirit and refuse to believe.
They either deem the message too good to be true or they’re so tied to the way things are in this old creation that they can’t imagine a new and better creation.

There are times when I preach or when I talk with people about Jesus that I can almost physically feel and see their resistance to the good news that we have in Christ’s death and resurrection. They prefer the things they know in this dying world to yielding their lives to a Savior they’ve never seen.

This happened again this past week during my mother's funeral. As I preached the good news of conquering death for us through Jesus' death and resurrection, I could see people resisting that message; their arms weren't folded, but their minds were closed. This was the posture of Thomas when the other disciples told him that they had seen the risen Jesus.

Verse 24: “Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ A week later [The Greek in which John wrote this account actually says, “after eight days."] his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting [John says, in the Greek, that Jesus told Thomas, ‘Don’t be unbelieving.’] and believe.’ Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

Thomas, the unbelieving one, ends up making the most resounding confession of Jesus we find in all of John’s gospel: “My Lord and my God” he says to Jesus!

His confession is made all the more amazing when one considers Thomas’ track record.
  • It was Thomas who complained that Jesus was talking in riddles: ““Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5) 
  • And it was Thomas who sarcastically told the other disciples after Jesus had decided to go to Bethany, within the grasp of people who wanted to wipe out Jesus’ movement: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:16)
But now the unbeliever believed that Jesus is God, that Jesus is risen from the dead.

If there are people in your life who are like Thomas or if they’re tepid in their faith, distant from God, do not give up on them.

Pray for them.

Ask God to bring people into their lives who will invite them to come and see and know Jesus.

Ask God to for the opportunities to share your own life with Jesus with them.

In the meantime, live with the confidence and peace that is yours because, through your faith in Jesus, you have life in Jesus’ name; you’re part of the new creation!

I witnessed for Christ at the Kroger deli counter again this past week...and I wasn’t wearing my collar, so no "home team" advantage. The conversation started when I noticed a fellow customer was wearing a Buckeyes ball cap. We started with college football and ended with Jesus! God can use any entry point as a chance to help people to know the new life Jesus died and rose to give all people! Our task is to simply keep planting the seeds of the gospel in people's lives.

Make your mission the one that Jesus has given to every one of us, the mission that John tells us, in the last two verses of our lesson, animated his writing of the gospel. “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book,” John says. “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

We who belong to Jesus are ambassadors to this old creation from Christ’s new creation.

Live in peace and share Christ boldly! Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for yesterday morning's worship services.]


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Praying for Others

Yesterday, I drove by a mosque, from which worshipers were leaving. I prayed that God would protect all who had just been there from danger and hate.

I prayed too, that they would have the opportunity to come to know and follow Jesus, who shows us the face of God and saves us by grace through faith, not by our good works or piety.

How many opportunities to pray for people in all of their needs do I pass by each day?

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]


No Conflict Between Faith and Science

I value the sciences.

Science is useful and helps answer questions like what, when, and how? These are what I call mechanical questions, the answers to which allow us to understand the mechanics of our universe and what we might do to appreciate it, harness it usefully, and advance the condition of the world. Where would we be without science?

Science, of course, cannot answer questions like why and who as we look at our universe. These answers have to be revealed to us, which I believe they have been through the God Who first showed Himself to Israel and then to the whole world in Jesus Christ.

There is no conflict between Christian faith and the sciences. Science is incapable of telling us whether God exists or what He's like, although it may present us with tantalizing suggestions.

And God's Word, the Bible, cannot tell us the particulars of genetic engineering or the effects of solar flairs. It was never intended for that purpose.

But, in the Bible, we can learn about the One Who created the universe employing the very mechanics that science seeks to understand. And, it can give to us, when we trust in its message, what science cannot: life and peace with God that never ends.

I say, "God bless the sciences and all scientists, including the millions who are also Christians." May we be open to the facts science uncovers so that we may live more responsibly on the planet God gave to us.

And may all people be open to the truth revealed in Jesus Christ, as Jesus Himself tells it: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).

We need Jesus because even after you've answered the mechanical questions, only Jesus can guide us in using them responsibly, lovingly, and with an eye to justice.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]


Thursday, April 20, 2017

The reality of the demonic and not giving up on Christ!

These are my reflections on my quiet time with God this morning. (For more on what quiet time is and how you can have an intimate relationship with the God seen in Jesus Christ, see here.)
Look: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

I used to think that the whole idea of demon possession was ancient superstition.

At the age of 63, I say that I’ve seen too much of life to hold to such naive denials.

The concept of demon possession has been abused through the centuries. People have ascribed physical and mental illnesses to the demons. But simply because people have misdiagnosed issues as demonic possession doesn’t mean that demonic possession doesn’t exist.

I’ve come to believe that Satan, the most subtle of enemies, employs the most sophisticated marketing techniques to accomplish His doomed ambition of taking control of God’s creation. So, in parts of India and Haiti, for example, their culture and mindsets virtually unfazed by post-modernity, the devils still overtly possess people. In the post-modern West, the demons still possess people, but in more subtle ways designed not to call attention to themselves, to leave people’s naive notions of having “moved beyond all that” intact. What a putrid pile of stinking manure Satan and his demons are! They can even make themselves seem clean and aromatic, even as they drag their victims to hell with them.

In this passage, Jesus warns us against leaving vacancies in our lives, minds, and wills that can Satan and his demons can enter and exploit.

To me, it’s a warning against falling into what I call “cruise control Christianity.” This is a Christian faith of taking God for granted, not reading God’s Word, not praying, not giving ourselves to regular worship, not submitting to the mutual discipline and mutual accountability of regular engagement in a church, not regularly receiving Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In other words, if I don’t fill up on God, the demons will enter our lives. And that’s true whether they choose to do so overtly or stealthily, the latter being their preferred approach in the secularized West. (After all, the devils can get away with a lot more when people think that their existence has been disproved by science. It hasn’t.)

It’s important to be vigilant. Peter echoes Jesus’ warning in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” And Ephesians 6:12 warns believers: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Listen: I sense the Lord telling me: I am bringing you great blessings these days, Mark. I am using you as a matter of grace. You are watching how my Holy Spirit can transform and deepen people in their faith in Christ through a steady and intentional attentiveness to My Word and to the Church, My Body, the only thing that will survive the end of this universe. I have graciously forgiven your sins and graciously acknowledged your struggles with your own personal temptations and favorite sins. As you have surrendered to me daily, as you have reached out to me in countless particular situations which you knew that you could not face, let alone conquer, in your own power, I have renewed you with My Holy Spirit and I have set My angels over you.

But, as you know, I am not a coercive God. I force no one to believe in Me, to trust in Me, to walk with Me. I’m not a frustrated suitor or five year old child screaming at you to look at me, to pay attention to me.

I call you. And the closer you remain to Me, the more clearly you will hear me calling in all the everyday moments of your life. The greater the distance between us, the more faint My call will be to your spirit. I will never abandon you. I am with you always (Matthew 28:20). I will never leave you nor forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:50). But you are a grown-up and I will respect your decision to leave me behind or consign me to the position of afterthought.

Few people make that decision consciously. Our relationship is more like that of a married couple. Marriages and friendships rarely rupture over single events. When the ruptures happen, they’re the result of a steady, prolonged inattentiveness on the part of one person or the other or both. Couples and friends allow time and space to have their way. The same can be true in the lives of those who have fallen away for me. There is no room left in their lives for Me. I will never be the One to give up on our relationship or on You. And I will always fight for those who have wandered away like lost sheep. My love for all people never ceases. But, as I say, I will not force those who have turned from Me to be with Me, either now or in eternity.

Remember that I have said: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

Keep following Me, Mark. Keep growing in your faith in Me. Keep living in daily repentance and renewal. You’re either growing or you’re dying. Keep growing. Live in me because, it’s true: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Respond: Help me to remain connected to You, Lord, in all the ways You so graciously provide connection: Your Word, the sacrament, the fellowship of believers, prayer. Help me to be intentional each day in following You. After all: "Lord, to whom shall we [I] go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. He's also a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.]


The reality of the demonic and not giving up on Christ

These are my reflections on my quiet time with God this morning. (For more on what quiet time is and how you can have an intimate relationship with the God seen in Jesus Christ, see here.)
Look: “When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first. That is how it will be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12:43-45)

I used to think that the whole idea of demon possession was ancient superstition.

At the age of 63, I say that I’ve seen too much of life to hold to such naive denials of demon possession.

The concept has been abused through the centuries. People have ascribed physical and mental illnesses to the demons. But simply because people have misdiagnosed issues as demonic possession doesn’t mean that demonic possession doesn’t exist.

I’ve come to believe that Satan, the most subtle of enemies, employs the most sophisticated marketing techniques to accomplish His doomed ambition of taking control of God’s creation. So, in parts of India and Haiti, their culture and mindsets virtually unfazed by post-modernity, the devils still overtly possess people. In the post-modern West, the demons still possess people, but in more subtle ways designed not to call attention to themselves, to leave people’s naive notions of having “moved beyond all that” intact. What a putrid pile of stinking manure Satan and his demons are! They can even make themselves seem clean and aromatic. Even as they drag their victims to hell with them.

In this passage, Jesus warns us against leaving vacancies in our lives, minds, and wills that can Satan and his demons can enter and exploit.

To me, it’s a warning against falling into what I call “cruise control Christianity.” This is a Christian faith of taking God for granted, not reading God’s Word, not praying, not giving ourselves to regular worship, not submitting to the mutual discipline and mutual accountability of regular engagement in a church, not regularly receiving Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion. In other words, if I don’t fill up on God, the demons will enter our lives. And that’s true whether they choose to do so overtly or stealthily, the latter being their preferred approach in the secularized West. (After all, the devils can get away with a lot more when people think that their existence has been disproved by science. It hasn’t.)

It’s important to be vigilant. Peter echoes Jesus’ warning in 1 Peter 5:8: “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” And Ephesians 6:12 warns believers: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Listen: I sense the Lord telling me: I am bringing you great blessings these days, Mark. I am using you as a matter of grace. You are watching how my Holy Spirit can transform and deepen people in their faith in Christ through a steady and intentional attentiveness to My Word and to the Church, My Body, the only thing that will survive the end of this universe. I have graciously forgiven your sins and graciously acknowledged your struggles with your own personal temptations and favorite sins. As you have surrendered to me daily, as you have reached out to me in countless particular situations which you knew that you could not face, let alone conquer, in your own power, I have renewed you with My Holy Spirit and I have set My angels over you.

But, as you know, I am not a coercive God. I force no one to believe in Me, to trust in Me, to walk with Me. I’m not a frustrated suitor or five year old child screaming at you to look at me, to pay attention to me.

I call you. And the closer you remain to Me, the more clearly you will hear me calling in all the everyday moments of your life. The greater the distance between us, the more faint My call will be to your spirit. I will never abandon you. I am with you always (Matthew 28:20). I will never leave you nor forsake you (Deuteronomy 31:6; Hebrews 13:50). But you are a grown-up and I will respect your decision to leave me behind or consign me to the position of afterthought.

Few people make that decision consciously. Our relationship is more like that of a married couple. Marriages and friendships rarely rupture over single events. When the ruptures happen, they’re the result of a steady, prolonged inattentiveness on the part of one person or the other or both. Couples and friends allow time and space to have their way. The same can be true in the lives of those who have fallen away for me. There is no room left in their lives for Me. I will never be the One to give up on our relationship or on You. And I will always fight for those who have wandered away like lost sheep. My love for all people never ceases. But, as I say, I will not force those who have turned from Me to be with Me, either now or in eternity.

Remember that I have said: “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33).

Keep following Me, Mark. Keep growing in your faith in Me. Keep living in daily repentance and renewal. You’re either growing or you’re dying. Keep growing. Live in me because, it’s true: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

Respond: Help me to remain connected to You, Lord, in all the ways You so graciously provide connection: Your Word, the sacrament, the fellowship of believers, prayer. Help me to be intentional each day in following You. After all: "Lord, to whom shall we [I] go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. He's also a sinner saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.]


Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Hope in the Midst of Grief (Message at My Mother's Funeral)

Romans 8:31-39
John 11:21-27
[This was shared during my mother's funeral earlier today.]

I was seven-and-a-half years old and it was the Summer of 1961. It was a sunny but breezy morning, a beautiful day, the air clear of humidity, and I was laying in my bed, in that place between sleep and wakefulness.

The night before, we’d gone to my grandparents’ house to see my great-grandmother, who was dying. Mom ushered me to my great-grandmother’s bedside. “Grandma,” mom said, “here’s Mark. Do you remember Mark?” Grandma, her eyes hardly open, put the fingers of her right hand to her forehead and, with obvious frustration at her failure of memory, shook her head, “No.” I knew then that Grandma was not long for this world.

On the glorious summer morning that followed, mom sat on the edge of my bed and woke me. “Mark,” she said, “this morning, Grandma is walking the streets of gold with your great-grandfather.”

My great-grandmother was, it should be said, just like the rest of us, a sinner whose behavior and thinking often, in Saint Paul’s phrase, fell short of the glory of God. But my great-grandmother was also a saint, like all sinners who turn from sin and trust in the crucified and risen Jesus as their God and Savior. She had been saved from sin and death by the grace (or charity) of God that comes to all with faith in Christ. That’s what a saint is!

The image my mom chose to break the news to me that my great-grandmother had died, comes from Revelation 21:21, in the New Testament. It’s part of the vision John, the apostle and evangelist, saw of the heavenly city--part of the new heaven and the new earth that God intends to establish after He draws the curtain on this universe, which is plagued by human sin and death. God will replace it with a city in which all who have been made clean and new by Jesus’ blood, will live with God for eternity. John writes: “The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.”

I found comfort in thinking of my great-grandmother walking those streets in the perfect light of Jesus Christ’s love and rule. It's all the more comforting to me today because it happens to tell the truth about what will happen for all who trust in Christ.

The truth of Jesus’ resurrection and His promise of everlasting life for all who entrust their lives to Him--which is what it means to have faith--can also fill our days with peace, power, and freedom.

Even in the midst of grief.

Once, as you probably know, a friend of Jesus, a man named Lazarus died. Jesus deliberately waited to go to Lazarus’ hometown of Bethany until He knew that Lazarus was dead. Jesus, God in the flesh, intended to demonstrate the power of God over life and death. He would go to Bethany and raise Lazarus from death.

But Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary, also friends and followers of Jesus, had no idea what Jesus’ plan was. They only knew that they had asked for Jesus to come to Bethany as Lazarus lay on his deathbed, that Jesus hadn’t shown up, and that now Lazarus was dead.

There’s a note of condemnation in Martha’s words when Jesus does come to Bethany. “Lord,” she says, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But then, demonstrating that she understands that Jesus is much more than a nice man or a great teacher, Martha also says: “...I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Jesus told Martha: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”

And then Jesus asked the most important question any of us will ever have to answer: “Do you believe this?”

It’s the question I want to lay before you today: Do you believe this?

Here’s why this question is so important: When you know that, through Christ and your faith in Him, you belong to God for all eternity, you know that whatever this world can do for you or do to you, doesn’t matter much.

There is no one freer to live life with abandon, joy, peace, and love than the person who belongs to Jesus Christ.

You know how the game ends.

Believing in Jesus isn’t just about having an insurance policy for the sweet-by-and-by.

Believing in Jesus means that because you know Jesus has given you eternity as a gift of grace, you can live this life without fear!

You can live with God’s help in being everything God made you to be! You can love God and others with abandon. You can fight for justice. All because you know that there's nothing that this world can take away from you that means a thing.

That’s freedom!

When Jesus later called his dead friend Lazarus from the tomb, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the earthly powers-that-be; they feared that a guy Who could call people back from the dead might swipe their power. Jesus had to be done away with. (Although they didn’t seem to consider how they were going to really to do away with a Man Who had power over life and death.) But you can be sure that for as long as he continued to live on this earth, Lazarus, who like all of us, would someday die, lived with a fierce and joyous abandon.

When you know that one day, you will walk the streets of gold with all who have believed that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, you don’t have a lot to fear or worry about. That’s the life of joyful abandon and peace that God wants for everyone gathered here today.

None of this means that we won’t or shouldn’t grieve. We will grieve. The Bible doesn't say that believers in Christ don't grieve. It says that while we may grieve, we don't grieve as people without hope. So, we will grieve, although I have to say that I did a lot of my grieving for my mom over the past forty-plus years as she seemed, sadly, to turn in on herself more and more.

The abandonment she felt as a child. The depression that dogged her in her adult years. These things made living hard for mom.

And it made things hard for our father, a man I love, appreciate, and respect more than I can say. Dad, like me and like the rest of us, you aren’t perfect. (I mean, for crying out loud, you don’t like garlic!) But you are a great man and a loving man whose care for mom all these years has been an example to us all.

We carry with us the hope that because of Jesus and our faith in Him, neither death, depression, nor anything else this world may bring us will have the last words over my mother’s life.

We can be confident that the person of essential sweetness and vitality we knew in younger years and even sometimes in her later years in the midst of her sad withdrawal, will re-emerge and be brought to perfection in the eternal city:

The woman who used to load up her kids when dad was working nights at the filling station and take us to Marina’s for spaghetti dinner because she was craving spaghetti. (Probably because she was pregnant, because she seemed to be pregnant all the time in those days.)

The woman who would laugh so hard at the jokes of my brother Marty or my cousin Susie that you thought she might burst with joy.

The woman of great creativity who used to enter her creations and take blue ribbons at the State Fair.

The woman who adored just being with her three girls: Betsy, Kathy, and Dianne.

The woman whose face brightened even as she lay dying as she caught sight of her dear son, Martin.

And, if we will trust in Jesus Christ, He will go to work on us in this life (we will become what Martin Luther called, "the Holy Spirit's workshop") and bring to perfection in the life to come, the people we were made to be, unintimidated by disease, death, doubts, hurts, fears, or anything else. It will be, as God said of the perfect world He created before the human race plunged it into sin and death, “Very good.”

If today I could presume to speak a word for my mom, now living in the perfect clarity of eternity, to you today it would be this: If you want to live this life to the full, follow Jesus. And if those streets of gold, laid open to us by the grace and power of God, sound good to you, follow Jesus. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]


Monday, April 17, 2017

Are you willing to believe in the Resurrection? (AUDIO)

Here.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for yesterday's Easter worship services.]


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Are you willing to believe in the Resurrection?

Matthew 28:1-10
When I was an atheist, as some of you know, one of the hardest things for me to understand about Christian faith was the resurrection.

I had known people who died. None came back from the grave.

I thought that the Easter proclamation that Jesus had risen and the Christian message that all who repent and believe in Jesus have eternal life seemed fanciful. I was a resurrection skeptic.

So, it turns out, were the first disciples of Jesus.

They’d heard Jesus say more than once that He was going to be crucified, then rise again. But when they heard Jesus speak this way, they seemed to ignore His resurrection talk, because they were horrified at the thought of His crucifixion.

So, on the Sunday after His death, Jesus’ disciples weren’t even thinking about resurrection. Jesus was dead and they were grieving.

This is what lay in the background of our gospel lesson for this Easter Sunday morning, Matthew 28:1-10. If you’re skeptical about Jesus’ resurrection or if you’re skeptical that a risen Jesus can give you forgiveness for your sin or life beyond the grave, nothing I say will make you believe.

But if you’re willing to listen to the experiences of those first skeptical disciples and note the way in which Matthew tells us about the first Easter, the Holy Spirit may pry open your heart, mind, and will to believing that the resurrection of Jesus and the new life that only He can give you are true.

Our lesson begins: “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.”

Unlike the other gospel writers, Matthew doesn’t mention the women going to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. That doesn’t mean that Matthew and the others disagree; Matthew just doesn’t think it’s important to how he wants to tell us about the first Easter.

In fact, the way Matthew opens his account of the first Easter, almost makes you think that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary didn’t know what they were going to do. This jibes with Mark’s account of the resurrection. On the way to tomb, Mark says, the women asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3)

Under normal circumstances, you’d want to say, “Well, they should have thought of that in the first place.”

But, as I’ve learned first-hand again this past week, when you grieve, you aren’t in normal circumstances. It’s hard to concentrate. You can’t decide what you should do next. So, you just do stuff, including, sometimes going to the loved one's burial place.

That’s what Mary Magdalene, the woman from whom Jesus had cast seven demons, and another of Jesus’ disciples, identified only as “the other Mary,” seem to be doing on the Sunday after Jesus’ death. The last thing they imagine is that they’ll see the risen Jesus.

Verses 2-4: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.”

“That seems pretty far-fetched,” we might say. You can bet that the people in the first century who first heard Matthew’s gospel would have had the same reaction. It would have seemed just as crazy as it does to us. An angel descended from heaven, rolled away a burial stone, and struck dumb armed soldiers who were overwhelmed by the appearance of the angel.

If Matthew had been most concerned with convincing skeptics, he may have been well-advised to leave out all the details--earthquakes, angels, heavenly luminescence.

But Matthew isn’t interested in making an impressive argument. He’s only interested in telling you the truth. 

It’s up to you to decide whether you’re willing to believe it or not. 

And, if you are willing to believe, God’s Holy Spirit can help you to believe despite your skepticism.

This is exactly what happened to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. They come to the tomb convinced that Jesus is dead. Soon though, open to the angel’s message about Jesus rising melts their skepticism into faith. This happens even though they have yet to set eyes on the resurrected Jesus! Watch out: That can happen to us when we attend to God’s Word with an open mind! 

When I started going to worship just to get my wife off my back for sleeping in on Sundays, Jesus grabbed me by the lapels and said, “Listen, you! You have no idea what you’re talking about when you say I don’t exist, when you say that the resurrection is hooey. Listen to the witnesses to My resurrection. Listen to the people who risked their earthly lives, honor, and income to proclaim the truth they knew and experienced!”

As Romans 10:17 teaches us: “...faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.”

That’s what happened to me: I let the truth in God's Word do its life-giving, faith-creating work in me, the truth about a God Who loved me so much that He sent His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not be killed off by death, but will rise just as Jesus rose to live with God for eternity.

Folks, good news like that will change not only your eternity, it will have a direct impact on how you live right now. Verse 5: “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’”


In the Bible, the first thing an angel almost always says to the people they encounter is, “Don’t be afraid.” That’s because angels reflect the perfect righteousness and glory of God Himself. The angel says that the women shouldn’t be afraid and then says that, just as He’d foretold, Jesus was risen.

And then, the angel commissions the two women to teach the Church that Jesus was risen from the dead. “Go,” the angel says, “tell the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead. Then, they need to race to Galilee to catch up with Him!”

I’ve wondered why Jesus chose to meet the apostles sixty miles from His burial spot. Maybe this is the reason: After Jesus’ resurrection, some people said that Jesus hadn’t really died on the cross, only fainted or “swooned.” Muslims still say this. But try imagining a man who has fainted after being severely beaten and wounded, waking in a cave. He would still be weak, near death. Can you imagine such a sick, wounded person then tearing up to Galilee on His own?

Wounded men don’t run.

Dead men don’t run.

But Jesus, once dead, apparently now can do more the run. Jesus was living out the promise of the prophet Isaiah: “...those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

“I’m running to Galilee,” Jesus is saying through the angel messenger, “tell the eleven to follow Me there and catch me if they can!"

I love verse 8: “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”

The women didn’t have all of their questions answered. They hadn’t seen Jesus face to face.

But they had heard the Word about Jesus and they were running to tell the skeptics what they now knew by faith in Jesus.

Listen: Faith isn’t knowing every answer. Faith is knowing the One Who is the answer.

And here’s what I have learned: When I act with faith in the risen Jesus Who I cannot see, He shows Himself to me in ways I could not have imagined.

The women have no thought of actually seeing the risen Jesus; they simply believe in Him and are intent on proclaiming Him.

But look at what happens next! Verse 9: “Suddenly Jesus met them. ‘Greetings,’ he said.They [the women] came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’”

When Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” here, they are the same words spoken by the angel to them a few moments before. But I agree with Dr. Jim Nestingen that when Jesus says these words to the women at this moment, He means something different than the angel meant.

From what Matthew tells us, the appearance of the angel would have been terrifying. But from what Matthew says here, the appearance of Jesus seems to have been as understated and matter of fact as His greeting, just as it had always been throughout His earthly life.

That makes sense: When God the Son took on human flesh, He laid aside His glory. He entered the world as a baby. Jesus came into this world not to overwhelm us but to save us, true God AND true man.

I think Jesus is telling the women this: "Do not be afraid...of death; I have conquered. I have killed off its power over you. I’m alive and when you turn from sin and trust in Me by faith, you are alive! I give you a full share in My victory. Death can’t separate you from the resurrection life I have for you. Neither can sadness, adversity, family feuds, career setbacks, poverty, disease, instability, politics, economics. None of these things can separate us from God. This world may do its worst to you. But when you believe in Jesus as the risen King of your life, God will always have His best in store for you!"

So, are you willing to believe in the resurrection?

Then, militate against your doubt and your skepticism.
  • Act on your belief, however faint it may be. 
  • Run (or walk, or hobble, or crawl, or drive) from this place and, today, this week, find someone to tell or some way to act that shows the truth that Jesus is risen. 
  • Read one of the gospels and let their witness help you to know the risen Jesus intimately and well. If you will do this, I feel certain that you will do exactly what I did when I first started taking the gospels seriously and what I keep doing as I dig into them each day, you will fall in love with Jesus. To know Jesus is to love Him...because you know that He has loved you first.
I promise that if you’ll do any of these things in response to the Easter Word, you’ll meet the risen Jesus.

Don’t be afraid! Run with Jesus...you will never run alone. Happy Easter! Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for today's Easter services.]