Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What exactly does a "people leader" do?

I happened across something called the 'People Strengths Quiz' online. As the title implies, it's supposed to tell you about your biggest strength as a person. The possibilities were people pleaser, people leader, people guru, and people persuader.

This was a test I couldn't "psyche out" the way you can with some instruments like Myers-Briggs, where one can figure out what they're going for and, if you were so inclined, push the test toward the outcome you want. So, whatever the result of this simple instrument, I was going to be a bit surprised, I guess.

The test told me that I'm a "people leader." Fortunately for me, that's what the work I've been called to do entails.

But the result got me to thinking about leadership, my experiences with it, and my reflections on it.

Some people misunderstand leadership, I think. It's not about being the BMOC (or BWOC), the person who barks orders out to others.

A leader is, above all, a servant, who strives to help people move from today's point A to a better and preferred point B and beyond.

Leaders are also persuaders. Persuasion isn't manipulation from afar. It is, in fact, intensely personal and collaborative.

[Clockwise: Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln]

This is true even when the leader has coercive power over those being led. Years ago, I heard Pastor Bill Hybels tell the story of a new member of his church, a retired colonel. The colonel told Hybels that pastors' claims to be leaders were laughable. "When I gave an order," he told Hybels, "people did what I told them to do." Hybels answered, "That may be. But when people don't do what I tell them, I can't order them to get down and give me 150 pushups."

There's something to that, of course. But when I told the story to Curtis "Mike" Scaparrotti, now the commander of NATO forces and a son of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, where I formerly was pastor, he smiled and pointed out: "You still have to be able to persuade." (That's probably why Scap is a general!) He understands something I first heard said by Pastor John Maxwell about leadership: "First people have to buy into you. Then they will buy into where you want to lead them." Once trust is earned, leaders can be persuasive.

Another way of describing persuasion is teaching. Franklin Roosevelt said that one of the primary tasks of a president is to be a teacher. Presidents (and all leaders) have to take the information they have, distill it, weave it into a vision, and communicate it in accessible ways.

The most challenging lesson FDR had to teach the country during his presidency was about its need to prepare for the possibility of war in light of the rise of fascist Germany and Italy and Imperial Japan.

[Franklin Roosevelt]

This wasn't an easy lesson for the country to accept. After World War I, the country wanted "a return to normalcy" and isolationism was the rule of the day. Roosevelt slowly taught the country the need for preparedness. Miraculously, during this period, he convinced Congress and the country to adopt the Lend-Lease Program, which helped the British fend off a German invasion of their nation.

While the country's military preparedness wasn't where it needed to be when Japan attacked the country on December 7, 1941 and Germany quickly thereafter declared war on the United States, America's teaching president had moved the country closer to being ready for the fight than it would have been had he remained passive.

One of the things I learned from my student teaching experience and have continued to learn from my thirty-two years as an educator of all ages in the Church is that the teacher only has to be one lesson plan or two ahead of the students. Leaders have to try to think one to four steps ahead, far enough ahead to cast a vision, but not so far ahead as to lose people.

All of which means that leadership is a collaborative process. Leaders who don't vision with those they lead and leaders who don't recruit other leaders to help them implement that vision will soon find that they're leading nobody.

Finally, a "people leader" who wants to have a lasting positive impact on others really needs to be in constant touch with God. I think that's true whatever one's field. I try to begin my day five days a week in Quiet Time with God, seeking what God wants to show me, teach me, and call me to do and be that day by digging into His Word. I also pray for guidance. What I've learned is that when we rely on God, He helps us to do what we are incapable of doing in our own power.

I'm not sure I entirely understand or agree with the "people leader" categorization in this test, but it caused me to reflect a bit on my role as a leader in Christ's Church and, occasionally, in other contexts.

One thing I know for sure is that I've failed many times as a people leader. Some of my mistakes have cost me the trust of people I loved and trusted. I try to learn from my failures and mistakes, seeking God's forgiveness and help to do better tomorrow than I did today.

This lifestyle is what Martin Luther (a great leader) called "daily repentance and renewal," turning in trust to the God we meet in Jesus Christ in order to own our sins, receive God's forgiveness, and be reshaped by the Holy Spirit. It's a way of life that can help any of us: people pleasers, people gurus, people persuaders, or people leaders. And everybody else.

[Martin Luther making his defense before emperor and church officials at the Diet of Wurms]

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Prayer for America

We offered this as a prayer petition during worship at Living Water yesterday. If you feel so inclined, would you join in offering petitions like this as we move toward Friday?
Almighty God, Lord of all the nations, this week will bring the inauguration of a new president. To him and to those who serve in all three branches of our federal government and to thosewho serve at all levels of government in this country, grant wisdom and the faith and humility to act on that wisdom. We ask that all office-holders will be successful not on their terms or on ours, but on Your terms alone. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Inviting All to 'Come and See'

John 1:29-42
Over the past week, I found myself in a discussion with a few atheists on Twitter. This particular group of atheists not only denies that God exists, they also claim that Jesus is a figment of Christian imagination, a myth. I pointed out to them that a New Testament scholar, Bart D. Ehrman, himself an atheist, has looked at the documentary evidence and told his fellow atheists: “Whether we like it or not, Jesus certainly existed.”

But my Twitter correspondents would have none of it. Like the members of the Flat Earth Society, these atheist tweeters would not be confused by the facts.

And there are a lot of verifiable facts about Jesus. In their book, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture, three New Testament scholars have a helpful chart comparing the documentation we have for the New Testament, containing our most complete and earliest accounts of Jesus, compared to documents recounting other ancient history.

[Click to enlarge.]

I’m not going to give all the details. I’ll just say that the facts speak for themselves. As you can see, we have much more documentation, extending back closer to the days when the events of the New Testament--when Jesus lived, died, and rose--took place than we have of other ancient historical events. The unflinching witness of the early Church for, not just the existence of Jesus, but also of His death, resurrection, and ascension, is more extensive than the evidence routinely cited to document the lives of ancient figures like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

But when I pointed all of this out to those atheist tweeters, guess what? Not a single one of them told me that they were convinced. So far as I know, none of them, have come to faith in Jesus Christ. Yet.

And I may never know if they do. Sometimes as Christians, our job isn’t to “make the sale” of discipleship, it’s simply to plant the seed. Other Christians who come into those people’s lives may cultivate and water the seed. Still others may harvest it for God.

With the apostle Paul, we can say: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.” (1 Corinthians 3:6) Our job as followers of Jesus is to keep on in the disciplemaking business.

One of the atheists, skeptical of my life history--of being someone who moved from atheism to faith--asked me how I came to believe in Christ. I told him: “I opened to faith when I saw the freedom & love in which Christians I knew lived.”

It was after repeated encounters with real people who authentically sought to live as disciples of Jesus that my iced-over heart, my resistant mind, and, toughest of all, my stubborn will began to be pried open to the grace of God and the new life that only comes to us through Jesus Christ.

It was the lives and witness of the people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio, whose humble commitment to Christ through the ups and downs of life and their acceptance of me caused me to want to know more about Jesus Christ and, eventually, in their fellowship, to give my life to Him.

This brings us to the central theme from today’s gospel lesson that I want us to focus in on this morning. Take a look at it, please, John 1:29-42.

We’ll start at verses 29-34: “The next day John [the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is the one I meant when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.’ Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.’”

Often, people tell me, “I could never share my faith with someone else. I wouldn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t know how to answer people’s objections.”

John the Baptist’s witness for Jesus in these few verses should give us the confidence we need to be witnesses for Jesus ourselves. All John did was talk about the encounter he’d had with Jesus and how he had come to see Jesus as the perfect sacrificial lamb sent by God to erase the power of sin and death over our lives. He affirmed his own personal faith in Jesus Christ. From his own relationship with the God revealed in Jesus, John was able to point others toward Jesus.

Listen: If you have a relationship with Jesus--if you believe in Him, His Holy Spirit will empower you to tell others about what Jesus means to you.

And the deeper you go in that relationship with Jesus--through daily quiet times of prayer, confession, and Bible reading, regular worship, involvement with Bible studies and the mission efforts of the Church, and devotional times with your children--the more you will have to tell about Jesus.

A Christian disciple really can’t tell her or his life story without talking about the impact of Jesus Christ on their life story.

When we know Jesus, we’re able to share Jesus, whether it’s with family members, friends, classmates, or co-workers. And that’s how disciples are made.

This point is driven home in the balance of the gospel lesson. Verse 35: “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’ When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus.”

What is it that caused those two disciples of John the Baptist to simply get up and follow Jesus? The same thing that will cause our friends, relatives, and acquaintances to follow Jesus when we point to Him.

John the Baptist had a relationship with those disciples. John had "street cred."

When people know you and trust you, they’ll be interested in your Savior. If people buy into you, they’re more likely to buy into the Lord you follow.

Discipleship is born in relationship, not salesmanship.

Discipleship is born in relationship, not programs.

As someone has said, “Passing our faith onto others is nothing more than one beggar telling another beggar where to find the bread of life, Jesus.” “Look!” John the Baptist said, “there’s the Lamb of God!”

The rest of the lesson goes on in the same vain. Verse 38: “Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’ They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means ‘Teacher’), ‘where are you staying?’ ‘Come,’ he replied, ‘and you will see.’ So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).”

A few months ago, I read about a Lutheran congregation that made a decision: They were no longer going to be a welcoming church. They got rid of their designated greeters and said that everyone was going to be a greeter. (We have greeters at Living Water, but it seems like everyone is a greeter anyway.)

Being a welcoming church, you know, is all about how you welcome people once they enter your building. For we in the church, our buildings, our sanctuaries, our class rooms, our worship services,  our learning events, and our fellowship groups all unfold in our comfort zones, here among people we know. They happen on our home court or our home field. That’s nice. But being welcoming isn’t really how you fulfill Jesus’ great commission (Matthew 28:19-20).

In our lesson, Jesus invited the two disciples of John the Baptist to come and see.

Then Andrew invited his brother Simon Peter to check Jesus out.

Jesus didn’t wait to welcome people once they showed up; He invited them to know Him better.

Andrew didn’t hang around Jesus and wait for his brother to show up; Andrew went to his brother, then invited him to know Jesus for himself.

That’s why that Lutheran congregation decided not to be a welcoming church anymore; they decided to be an inviting church. They would grow as disciples themselves and then, instead of waiting for people to show up at their church, they would go out and invite others to know and follow Jesus.

Welcoming churches are passive; inviting churches are active.

Welcoming churches wait for the unchurched to come to them; inviting churches are empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus into their communities.

Welcoming churches stay in their comfort zones; inviting churches “go in peace [and] share the good news” with the world beyond its doors.

Welcoming churches may reach up and sometimes reach in; inviting churches reach up to God, reach in to fellow disciples for growth and Christian fellowship, and reach out to the world beyond that fellowship so that all the world can know and follow Jesus, trust in Him and have His presence in their lives today, and live with God for eternity.

This past week we visited our son and daughter-in-law in Texas, where our son is a pastor. One day, he and I walked to a local bakery. While we were there, a young couple walked in and my son, temperamentally an introvert, struck up a conversation with them. In no time, he'd learned that they were new to the area and where they lived. A few moments later, the man had his cell phone out and was showing pictures to Philip. In a few brief moments, Phil introduced himself and who he was and where his church was. We checked out and there were friendly goodbyes. As Phil and I walked from the bakery, he said quietly, "And that's what I do."

That's what we're all called to do: To love our neighbor and invite them to come and see our Savior Jesus.

In 2017, as we move to more firmly establish a culture of discipleship at Living Water with our partners in the North American Lutheran Church and Navigators, I pray that we all will make the effort to grow in our relationship with Christ so that we become an inviting church, a fellowship of Christians who move into the world with boldness and humility to invite others to “come and see” the Savior Jesus: the way, and the truth, and the life.

Let’s not be just a welcoming church; let’s be an inviting church!

Let’s ask everyone we know, personally and lovingly, to “come and see” Jesus Christ.

Let’s make disciples! Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message during worship on January 15, 2017.]

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Stick to the job at hand, Franklin!

I have long been an admirer of evangelist Billy Graham.

For years, I financially supported his organization with small contributions.

My ministry and my life as a Christian have been enriched by attending two Billy Graham Schools of Evangelism.

And, in what turned out to be the penultimate evangelism campaign of his illustrious career, I served on five different committees for the Billy Graham Mission in Cincinnati, held at Paul Brown Stadium. I served (and was the only Lutheran on) the invitation committee that asked Dr. Graham to come to the Queen City. Later, I chaired a regional prayer team, two other teams, and, finally, as chair of the counseling team, that group of counselors who met people who came forward to give their lives to Christ after Graham issued his call to faith in Christ.

I've also read and learned a lot from Billy Graham's books like Facing Death, The Holy Spirit, Angels: God's Secret Agents, and others. Billy Graham's preaching and teaching have been a source of inspiration to me from the moment I came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Along with Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Phillipp Melanchthon, Martin Luther King, Jr., and my mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, Billy Graham is one of my heroes as a Christian servant-leader.

But I have become disgusted with the overt political pronouncements being made by Mr. Graham's son, Franklin, now head of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA).

Billy Graham grew close to presidents, of course, especially to Democrat Lyndon Johnson, for whom Graham almost decided to lead the War on Poverty. Graham was nearly as close to Johnson's successor, Richard Nixon.

[Billy Graham and Lyndon Johnson]

After being used by Nixon though, Billy Graham decided that while he would be available as a pastor to presidents, he would never again allow himself or his message to be co-opted by a political figure. He had bigger fish to fry: to make disciples of Jesus Christ by proclaiming the good news of new life and the forgiveness of sins for all who repent and trustingly surrender to Jesus.

When pastors or evangelists get involved with politics, they risk alienating groups of people who associate political parties and candidates with the good news, the gospel, and so reject Jesus with the candidates or parties they don't like.

Franklin Graham seems to ignore this lesson learned by his father. (One I've had to learn myself after mistakenly making a run for the state house of representatives while still serving as a pastor.) The younger Graham has recently made statements that seem to intimate that God preferred Donald Trump in the recent election.

That's ridiculous. I guarantee that I know as many committed, prayerful Christians who supported candidates other than Trump in the recent presidential election as those who did back the real estate mogul.

I think that it's fine for Graham to offer an opening prayer at the Trump Inauguration this coming Friday. I myself have offered prayers for the openings of a legislative session of the Ohio House of Representatives and, more recently, of a session of the Centerville (OH) City Council. We need to pray for public leaders, both in our public and private praying.

But both clergy and the Church should stand clear of seeming to stamp the approval of Jesus on particular political parties, policies, or candidates. It's an unauthorized misuse of Jesus' name and it inhibits our capacity to reach others with a far more important message than any that might be offered by any office-holder or political party: The message about Jesus than can transform believers from God's enemies to God's eternal friends.

Some day, when I'm no longer involved daily in pastoral ministry (I think I may retire in about ten or twenty years...I'm only 63 and feel as though I'm just getting started!), I may get engaged in publicly talking my politics.

But until then, I'm sticking with commending Christ. I'd rather that one person would come to faith in Jesus through the witness of Christians like me than see fifty million people vote for the candidate of my choice. The reason for that is simple: The candidate of my choice may be a bust, but Jesus will never let anyone down, now or in eternity. Only Jesus can give us life with God that never ends.

Just my two cents' worth.

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

The Trumpster Tweets

Actor Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker on one of the animated Batman TV series, gives voice to another figure with people he identifies as his enemies, the Trumpster. No matter your politics, this is funny.

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

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Contentment and Going for Broke

I spend Quiet Time with God most mornings. (Quiet Time is explained here.) The focus of my time with God today was Genesis 10 and 11 and Psalm 4. God seemed to most speak to me in two verses from the Psalm. (If you would like help in starting your own Quiet Time with God for five days a week, let me know. I'll be glad to point you to resources that will help you do that.) Here's some of what I wrote in my journal today.
Look: The Psalm seems to begin with a plea from David to his people. Some scholars suggest that it was written as “David was asking his enemies to reconsider their support of Absalom” during Absalom’s rebellion against KIng David, his father. [Life Application Bible]

But then, a shift takes place. David talks about his own approach to life and, he can’t seem to help himself. He praises God:

“There are many who pray: ‘Give us more blessings, O Lord. Look on us with kindness!’ But the joy that you have given me is more than they will ever have with all their grain and wine.” (Psalm 4:6-7, Good News Translation)

David seems to be saying that he has learned contentment. He’s not always looking for more; he thanks God for what he has.

That’s easy enough for a king to say, I suppose. And given that David’s son, Absalom, is appealing to the people’s sense that David isn’t sharing enough, this statement by David may have landed like a lead balloon in the eyes of his opponents. Didn’t David understand their grievances? Probably. David probably also understood that this was a rebellion of elitists, of people like Henry Ford, who, when asked how much a man needed to live on, answered, “Just a little more.”

David is saying that what God has given to him, much of which could not be measured in material things, but in joy, is more than any of the craving rebels will ever have. You can have stuff, power, and success and still not be content, not have joy. Joy seems to not be happiness, but contentment that I have because I live in peace with God, a peace that passes understanding and a peace that never ends. My sins are forgiven. I have been made new (2 Corinthians 5:17). And God is walking with me through everything I experience in life (Psalm 23; Romans 8:31-39; Matthew 28:20).

Paul writes to believers in the New Testament: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)

The risen Jesus tells His followers in John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

It is this peace that I think David is talking about, a peace not dependent on outward circumstances, but on God alone.

Paul had that contentment, though, unlike David, he was far from wealthy or powerful: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

Paul isn’t saying that he’s content with the circumstances he’s in (he was imprisoned at the time he wrote them), but that he’s content in the midst of whatever circumstances.

There’s a difference.

I think that David’s sentiments here in Psalm 4:6-7 are compatible with Paul’s from Philippians 4:11. David is trying to convince the rebels to lay down their arms. There is nothing wrong with followers of the God we know in Jesus wanting things: outcomes, situations, etc. But they view everything through the perspective of faith. What they want will not stop them from thanking God for the eternal relationship with Him they already have through faith in Christ. And not getting what they want will not destroy their faith.

Listen: Lord, I swing between wanting outrageous things that are clearly not in Your will, on the one hand, and giving up on asking You for anything, on the other.

Neither is faith: one is covetousness; the other is resignation. Both are sins, failures to trust in God as God.

I allow my thoughts and feelings to shape my faith and moods at any given time, rather than allowing myself to be shaped by what You teach in Your Word.

In John 16:24, Jesus says, “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.”

To ask in Jesus’ name, as I have reminded people over the years (and which I need to constantly remind myself), doesn’t mean that Jesus’ name is a good luck charm that makes the request acceptable to God. That would be superstition and attempted manipulation of God.

John, who records Jesus words there, helps to clarify their meaning in his first letter: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (1 John 5:14)

So, to pray in Jesus’ name is to ask God to grant our prayer request only if their consistent with the will, the character, and the intentions of the God we know in Jesus.

I take this as a license to go for broke: to ask for anything. But I also take it to mean that, when we sense from God’s Word or the promptings of His Spirit that the things we’re asking for aren’t in His plan, for whatever reason, that we will change our prayers.

Even when God says, “No,” that’s an answer to prayer.

And, as David reminds in this passage from Psalm 4, the joy God has given us by allowing us to be in relationship with Him is greater than all the good stuff this world has to offer.

And in Christ, we know that an eternity of perfection is in store for those who remain faithful in following Christ. Paul talks about this in 2 Timothy 4:8: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

There are some prayers though that we may pray for long years and even if there is no hint of improvement, we must keep praying them because we know that they are consistent with the will of God. This includes prayers like those in which we ask that God will send workers into the harvest so that new millions will come to faith in Christ (Matthew 9:38); that God will orchestrate the coming to faith of some prodigal we may know (Luke 15:11-32); and that God’s justice and mercy will come to all people (Micah 6:8), to name just a few. These are big prayers and there’s a lot of sin and bad habits and demonic opposition to the fulfillment of any of them. But when I know that something we pray for is in the will of God, I must not stop. Such persistence in praying--driven by love and not by selfishness--is one way I acknowledge the joy that God has given to me through Christ and that I want all people to experience.

Respond: Today, let me be intentional in thanking You for all Your blessings, most especially for Jesus. Help me pray for workers in the harvest; for justice for the oppressed--for blacks, the unborn, refugees, women, minorities around the world; for the return of prodigals who have left You; and for me to be a disciple-maker. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, January 02, 2017

"Celebratory Gunfire"...Really?

I found it jarring when I was in my hometown of Columbus last week to see a billboard imploring people not to engage in "celebratory gunfire"!

Celebratory gunfire? That's a thing in the United States?

I remember seeing video of Saddam Hussein and his cronies firing off "celebratory gunfire" several times. But I didn't imagine that anyone would be so stupid as to fire off guns to celebrate in this country. Especially in city or suburban areas, where the chances of harming a child are so great.

I'm told that there have been incidents of "celebratory gunfire" in Columbus.

One of my sisters also told me that she saw an interview with a fellow who lives in Ross County, to the south of Columbus, who said that he didn't see the problem with celebrating the new year by firing off a few rounds. When a reporter reminded him that it was illegal to discharge a weapon in such a way within city limits, the fellow said that he didn't think it was so bad if people did it once a year.

He meant, I suppose that when you're happy (and possibly a bit inebriated) on New Year's, it's OK to shoot bullets into the air. Whatever makes you happy, right?

Except, of course, bullets have a way of hitting innocent bystanders and what results is something other than celebratory for them and their families.

Frankly, I think it's nuts that people would even think to fire off a gun to "celebrate."

And the fact that we have to be told that "celebratory gunfire" isn't a good thing is even more nuts!

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

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Don't give up on God; God hasn't given up on you!

Matthew 2:13-23
The Old Testament tells us that God called the descendants of Abraham and Sarah--the people known as Israel--to be “a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles [or the nations]. (Isaiah 42:6)

In other words, ancient Israel was called to be a people who trusted in God and told the nations about God so that they could come to trust in Him and follow Him too.

While generations of Israelites--or Hebrews, as they are sometimes called in the Bible--thought that being God’s people was all about sharing Abraham’s DNA, that’s never how it’s worked in God’s eyes. Being in relationship with God always depended (and still depends) on one thing: faith.

After Abraham--then called Abram--heard God’s promise to make him the ancestor of a great nation, Genesis 15:6 says: “Abram believed the Lord, and [God] credited it to him as righteousness.” In the New Testament, the apostle Paul writes “that those who have faith are children of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:7)

If you’re going to be a light to the nations, you have to be connected to the power source. God was to be Israel’s power source, enabling others to see the need for repentance for sin and faith in the great and good God you and I now know through Jesus. (Today, through Christ we know, He can be our power source for the same mission of giving light to the nations!)

If you read your Bible (or pay attention to your own life), you know that faith in God hasn’t always been exhibited by those who saw themselves as members of the club, whether they thought they were members by birth or by occupying the rolls of some church.

Faith in God is trust in God. That’s what makes a person a “child of Abraham.”

The Bible chronicles how God kept working with the Israelites, the genetic descendants of Abraham-- forgiving them, chastening them, shaping them, calling them to faith-- and how most of this people gave up on trusting in God, even when He showed up in their neighborhood in the Person of Jesus.

Ancient Israel is no more, of course. The modern state of Israel that bears its name has a citizenry composed of people who are, like their ancient forbears, genetic descendants of Abraham. But modern Israel shouldn’t be confused with the ancient people called to be a “light to the nations.” In God’s time, that role fell to one person, the God-man Jesus. Jesus was the perfect child of Abraham--the perfect person of faith--who, unlike ancient Israel, has cast the light of God onto the entire darkened world and destroyed the dark bonds of death for all who believe in Him.

In Jesus, the life of Israel was re-lived. Only this time, it was lived with perfect faith in God. By living and dying as He did, Jesus cast the light of heaven into the darkness of our world. (Just think of Jesus' forty days in the wilderness and Israel's forty years in the wilderness. Jesus was faithful to His Father, Israel was not.)

On the cross, perfectly righteous Jesus earned the right to be our perfect, sinless Savior.

And when He rose, He guaranteed that those who believe in Him won’t be put to shame by sin or death, but will have everlasting life with God.

So, let’s see what happens in the life of the young, new Israel, when Jesus was a toddler, in today’s Gospel lesson. In it, we're given three short narratives from Jesus' infancy, each punctuated by a reference to the Old Testament.

Matthew starts: “When they [the they are the wise men who had just visited from the east] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. ‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my son.'”

Now, what’s interesting about that last line--"Out of Egypt I called my son"--is that, while it’s from the Old Testament and appears in a prophetic book, it’s not a prophetic passage.

Hosea 11:1 are words of history, God recalling how He had called ancient Israel out of Egypt. “When Israel was a child, [God says] I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son…”

You’ll remember that ancient Israel had first gone to Egypt to be protected by one of its own, Joseph, and to escape the famine the rest of the world was suffering. Later, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 430 years.

In His time and according to His plan, God called Israel, His “son,” out of Egypt. God the Father protected God the Son Jesus so that Jesus could fulfill the very reason that God had called Israel into the being in the first place, to bring “life and immortality to light.” (2 Timothy 1:10) That happened when Jesus died and rose for us all, Jews and non-Jews.

Please read on. “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.’”

This is the second event narrated by Matthew in our lesson. Herod the Great was, to the extent the Romans allowed it (and they allowed Herod to do a lot), a thug, a dictator.

Like Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, or Vladimir Putin, Herod never hesitated to murder anyone who got in his way. Herod had killed his favorite wife (his favorite wife) and several of his own sons, all, he thought, to maintain his power.

So, to Herod it was a no-brainer as to whether he should order those who worked for him to kill all the infant boys below the age of two in Bethlehem. In a town of 1000, which Bethlehem was, this probably meant the death of twenty children. Somewhere among them, Herod was sure, was the Child that the magi had mentioned, a King sent from God; Herod wanted no rivals.

The Old Testament verse that punctuates this second account in the gospel lesson is Jeremiah 31:15. This is also taken from the book of an Old Testament prophet. It’s also not prophecy, but remembrance.

In it God, recalls how the Israelites who lived in the northern portion of the promised land were, in the mid-eighth-century BC, conquered by a foreign army, the Assyrians. This happened because of the people’s continued faithlessness toward God. God allowed His people to be conquered in the hopes of bringing them back to Him in faith.

In connecting the weeping of the mothers of those baby boys in Bethlehem to the weeping of Rachel, the mother of the Joseph of Old Testament times, Matthew was pointing to the human sinfulness that gave rise to each event. The ancient Israelites were conquered and sent into exile because they had repeatedly turned from God, ignoring the calls of the prophets to repent and trust in God alone. The tragedy visited on the families of Bethlehem were the result of the sin of an earthly tyrant who wanted to “be like God.” Yet it all happened because the Child Jesus, righteous as Israel had never been, and, unlike Herod, a descendant of David, had come to save us.

The deaths of the innocents in Bethlehem are troubling. But the Savior was saved so that He could save well as the innocents who died on that horrible day.

Now the third incident in today’s lesson. “After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt [I think that had I been Joseph, I'd have tried not to fall asleep; but he was always faithful!] and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.’ So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.”

This incident isn’t punctuated by a particular verse from the Old Testament. The prophets never say, “He will be called a Nazarene.” But Matthew is right nonetheless. He presents an Old Testament idea. Take a look at Isaiah 11:1, written about 800 years before Jesus’ birth: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit.” Jesse was the father of Israel’s King David. The Messiah King would be a Branch--in the Hebrew, the word is nezer--of David’s family tree. Some scholars see a connection between that word for branch and the name Nazareth, which my mentor Pastor Schein used to call, appropriately, Sproutville, the place where the Branch of Jesse, the Messiah King Jesus, sprouted and grew up to be our King.

What does this all have to do with you and me?

When I was a young boy, we lived in a part of the city called the Bottoms. Whenever it rained, my neighborhood mates and I would go out to the kerbs and build dams made of grass, mud, and sticks. We'd build one dam after another to thwart the flow of the rain water. But while we could divert the water, we could never stop it. The water always found a way off of the street and into the sewer traps.

God is like that water. Puny human beings, like Herod or, sometimes, you and me, or faithless ancient Israel, may make a fuss for a while. We may get in the way of God’s grace and new life reaching people. We may take ourselves on side-trips into sin or even turn from God altogether.

But God will not be thwarted!

He will fulfill His purposes.

He will do what He sets out to do.

Even using faithless Israel as the means by which He brought the Messiah into the world! 

The dam was sidestepped, the obstacles were overcome, and God sent Jesus to be the light of the nations, our light. John 1:5 reminds us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

It’s good to know that God doesn’t give up on us! He sent His Son when all hope seemed exhausted. And when Jesus had given His life for us on the cross, the Father raised Him up: to give the hope and the certainty of His presence with us through all this life and on into eternity for all who believe in Christ, God in the flesh!

God always finds a way to deliver His grace, His love, and His help to those who trust in Him. Even when Israel was faithless, God was faithful to all that He had promised to Israel and to us! He’ll be faithful to you too! 

Isaiah 40:31 tells us: “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.”

Whatever is wearying you today, you have God’s promise that He will not give up until He has helped you and given you new and everlasting life.

God’s love is tough: Don’t give up on Him because He will never give up on you!

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

O Come All Ye Faithful by Pentatonix

It's the Eighth Day of Christmas. Here's the Pentatonix acapella wonderful take on a classic Christmas hymn.

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