Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents' Day Thoughts

Today is President's Day. I've been a student of the presidency since I was a small boy.

Despite the naive cynicism that "informs" the attitudes and beliefs of many today, our country has been blessed with more than a few great or good chief executives. (Naive cynicism, to me in this case, is the default position of people who don't know diddly but think they know the score and suspect that everyone in public office is a rotten scoundrel. There are some rotten scoundrels in public office, just as there are rotten scoundrels in every job field. To think that they're all bad or all good, for that matter, is naive.)

For me, four US presidents stand out as indisputably great: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. These four steered our country through important circumstances. They all shared an important characteristic: They overcame themselves and their own deficiencies and flaws to become their best selves.

We've also had some fine presidents I would classify as nearly great: Theodore Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, Harry Truman, James A. Garfield, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.

In history, there have been a few terrible presidents: Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, the sometimes well-intentioned Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon.

(Please note that I've included no presidents whose tenures were more recent than twenty-five years ago. Historical judgments must await perspective and the release of internal presidential documents.)

I have great respect for our constitutional system. With its division of power among three co-equal branches of government and system of checks and balances, it's a blueprint for government that takes into account the fact of original sin and human frailties. Its ratification effectively completed the American Revolution. Originally fought only for liberty (although, as we know, sadly not liberty for all), America's first "greatest generation" realized that liberty without mutual accountability was chaos. That's when the Constitution came into being, bringing it with a strong chief executive and central government within a federal system.

Even our greatest presidents made mistakes under the system the Framers created. That's because every president has been a human being. Washington initially placed too much trust in the smarmy, backbiting Thomas Jefferson; Lincon suspended habeas corpus; Roosevelt tried to pack the court; Eisenhower was too slow in embracing the civil rights movement.

But we can count ourselves blessed that most of our presidents have, once in office, tackled their responsibilities with patriotism and love for country. Chester Alan Arthur was a political hack who, once he was president, saw the impact that corruption has on politics and stood up to the bosses, becoming a champion of civil service reform. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson both voted against civil rights when they were in the Senate but became champions of the cause while they served in the presidency, especially Johnson.

Most presidents have felt the enormous need to grow up and see themselves as the custodians of America's future once they became president. Even Richard Nixon, when confronted with tearing the country apart by fighting to stay in power after his criminal acts became known, chose to resign for the good of America.

Sadly missing in the list of US presidents, of course, is a woman. I'm convinced that America has been prepared to elect a woman chief executive for more than three decades. And it will happen, I'm sure, sooner than later. Who that will be and what her party affiliation will be is anyone's guess.

Americans, presidents included, need to respect our constitutional system and be informed about current events and about our history. When we do these two things, we not only perform our most basic and important patriotic duty, we acquire some of the wisdom needed to vote the best candidates into office.

Happy President's Day!

Life in the Wilderness and Beyond (AUDIO)


Life for the Wilderness and Beyond

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Mark 1:9-15
On Friday, I was scanning Twitter for the comments people were making on the recent school shooting in Florida. One woman’s tweet particularly struck me. She said, “I can’t believe in a God Who would let children be killed in school.”

She’s not alone in such feelings. People often feel and say things like this. “My husband/my wife has left me,” someone will say, “How could God let this happen?” “My friend was killed in a car accident, my wife has died from cancer. Where is God?” For many, life on this earth is a savage wilderness and God seems like a distant and powerless being.

As Christians, we can be brutally candid: This world is a wilderness.

As beautiful and breathtaking and wonderful as this life can sometimes be, it’s also a fallen place where bad things happen to unsuspecting and even faithful people.

It’s a place where evil and deranged people prey on others.

It’s a place where death can come to people at early age, where death, weeping, and sorrow exist.

As Christians, we realize that while we live on earth, we’re looking for what the New Testament calls “a city” God has prepared for us (Hebrews 11:16).

We believe God’s promises given in Christ of “a country of [our] own” (Hebrews 11:15).

But for now, we are “foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

Every human being is an alien here, whether they know it or not. We weren’t meant for life in a brutal wilderness. Our very revulsion and questions in the face of tragedy demonstrate that fact.

But as hard as it can be to remember and cling to when the wilderness does its worst to us, we need never be alone!

God has not forgotten us.

And He never will.

Not when you’re at work or school.

Not when you’re at home.

Not when you rejoice in victories.

Not when you die.

God will never forget you!

Today’s gospel lesson finds God affirming this truth. Last week’s lesson from Mark narrated an event that happened near the end of Jesus’ ministry, the Transfiguration. This week’s lesson, Mark 1:9-15, takes us to the beginning of His ministry. The two events are connected in ways that remind us of God’s presence with us and His mission for us in this world, as well as God’s promise of life beyond the boundaries of this wilderness. So, please look at our our gospel lesson.

Verse 9: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'”

I love how graphic this verse is. After being baptized by John, Jesus looks up to see “heaven being torn open.” The phrase translated into the English as torn open from the Greek in which Mark wrote is σχιζομένους (schizomenous), the root of which is the verb σχίζω (schizo). (Yes, it’s where we get the word schizophrenia for a split personality.) This verb means to split, to cleave, to divide.

This is important!

When Jesus was baptized, God the Father was offering a preview of things to come. Through Jesus, God in the flesh, God was going to tear an opening in the wall that divided our perfect, loving, and holy God from His imperfect, sinful, and fallen human children.

This Jesus accomplished when He died on the cross. Mark 15:38 tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” The verb translated as torn there is ἐσχίσθη, a past tense form of the same verb in today’s lesson, σχίζω.

The curtain that was torn after Jesus’ crucifixion separated the area where pious Jews had worshiped from the place known as the holy of holies, where God was thought to dwell.

Listen: With the death of the sinless Jesus on behalf of sinful humanity, all that divides us from God was torn down.

Jesus tore an opening to eternity with God for all who repent and believe in Him.

It’s through Jesus that we are privileged to address God as “our Father.”

It’s because of Jesus that we can trust that nothing, not even the wilderness, can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31).

And it’s because of Jesus that we can affirm, as we often do after we’ve received Holy Communion, that in the sacrament in which Jesus comes to us, heaven touches earth. Eternity reaches us here in the wilderness, promising God’s forgiveness and presence here and an eternity with God forever!

All of this was foreshadowed when, after Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were torn open in celebration!

And the same thing happens when we are baptized in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Heaven is opened to us as God claims us as His own, which is what happens next at Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, whom I love,” the Father says, “with you I am well pleased.”

But even after our baptisms, there is wilderness to go through. And Jesus could only tear open the heavens for us after He had gone through the wilderness too, only after He did successfully for us what God knows we can not do ourselves: Jesus lived in the wilderness without caving into sin or despair. Verse 12: “At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

There’s no way to overestimate the importance of the fact that when God took on human flesh, as He did in Jesus, He faced the same challenges, dangers, everyday joys, and temptations you and I face.

Unless Jesus had been susceptible to the temptations of our wilderness, it would mean nothing to say Jesus is sinless.

If Jesus had been hotwired to resist temptation, it would have taken no dependence on God the Father for Him to say no when the devil and the world tried to lure Him into sin.

Because Jesus could be tempted, He was able to save those who believe in Him when He offered His sinless life on the cross.

It also means that when we face temptations and we cry out to Him, He understands.

And when we have given into temptations and sinned and cry out in His name for forgiveness, He understands and brings God’s forgiveness.

Hebrews 4:15 says: “[in Jesus] we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.” Because Jesus was tempted in the wilderness of this world, He empathizes with us and gives us strength to face evil, whether that evil comes from the world around us or from the fallen hearts inside of us.

Many of you have heard me tell the story of the woman in my first parish who was dying of cancer. It had been a tough slog for her, with rallies and setbacks and finally the word from her doctors, “There’s nothing more we can do.” I asked her as she neared her death if she’d ever gotten angry with God. “At first, yes,” she told me. “But then I remembered, He’s right here with me.” And this same Jesus Who endured the worst this world can do to a human being, also is with all who trust in Him when they pass from this life to the next, leading us to those rooms He has prepared for all who trust in Him (John 14:2).

After Jesus had faced down Satan in the strength God provided to Him, the same strength God can send to us in our wilderness experiences, Jesus still had a mission to fulfill. He still needed to call people to follow Him and to believe in what He was doing for them...and us. Verse 14: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

When Jesus arrived on this earth, the days of this wilderness were numbered. The jig was up for the power of sin, death, the devil, despair, and darkness. Jesus has eternally and definitively conquered their power for all who believe in Him. We don’t know when Jesus will return to this earth. But we do know that we can trust the promised return of a Savior Who guaranteed His promise with His shed blood and His resurrection from the dead.

In the meantime, He stands living and ready to comfort and encourage the grieving and the dying, to give new life and new purpose to the uncertain and the doubting, to fill with strength those who have been knocked down low by life.

The psalmist says of the God we know in Jesus: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).

Through Isaiah, God promises those who follow Him: “...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).

And Jesus tells us: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

If the wilderness seems to have been winning in your life lately, you’ve come to the right place, to worship God in this fellowship of believers. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).

The One Who conquered the wilderness is here today among us and He says, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent [turn away from the wilderness, its blind alleys, and sin that leads to death] and believe the good news.”

The good news, the gospel, for us today is this: Every person lost in the wilderness who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13) and this Jesus can be with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

Count on Jesus to take you through your wilderness and beyond, to life with God that never ends. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Hello, Russia

Once again, Google reports on recent visits to this blog show quite a few readers looking in from Russia.

Of course, this data gives no indication of who the visitors are. For those reading from Russia, I share this message:
веруй в Господа Иисуса Христа, и спасешься ты и весь дом твой. (Acts 16:31)

Friday, February 16, 2018

"Thoughts and Prayers": The Relationship of Prayer and Action

A Facebook friend posted this picture earlier today. It's a "campaign contribution" from a frustrated constituent to a member of Congress whose only response to yet another school shooting in the United States is "thoughts and prayers."

I too grow frustrated with the seeming unwillingness of Congress to act on a host of important matters.

Inertia born of a corrupted congressional apportionment process, the influence of interest group money, and spinelessness of legislators fearful they won't be re-elected is an ongoing reality in America.

And it's true that public figures send out hollow assurances of "thoughts and prayers" after mass shootings, terrorist acts, and other tragedies.

But I confess to wincing every time I read or hear someone say, "Prayer doesn't solve anything. It's time for action."

Actually, a slew of research done at top universities, including Harvard, shows that prayer, in fact, can solve lots of things. Two books I recommend to skeptics, both written by medical doctors and incorporating findings from rigorous scientific studies, are Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine by Larry Dossey and The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer by Dale Matthews and Connie Clark.

These books affirm what has been my experience after forty-two years as a Christian and thirty-three years as a pastor: Prayer can make a difference, both in the lives of those for whom prayer is offered and, importantly, in the lives of those who pray.

But prayer only makes a difference if those who pray do so with an openness to acting on what they pray about, an openness to God inciting them to action.

As a Christian, I'm taught to pray in Jesus' name. For example, Jesus says in John 16:24: "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete."

But praying in Jesus' name isn't a secret formula. To pray in Jesus' name must mean several things:
  • It means that I acknowledge that I can only approach God the Father through Jesus. God's holiness and perfection are such that I have no right to speak with God except through God the Son, Jesus, Whose death and resurrection for sinners like me tear down the wall between God and all who repent and believe in Christ. Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6)
  • It means that I'm asking God to answer my prayer petitions in ways that are consistent with the character of Jesus and will of God. Jesus teaches His disciples, including those living in 2018, to pray, "Your will be done." And in the garden of Gethsemane where He would be arrested and taken to be condemned and crucified, Jesus, knowing all that awaited Him, prayed, "Father, if you are willing, take this cup [of suffering and death] from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." (Luke 22:42)
Intrinsic to this second element of prayer is the willingness to be called by God to have our own agendas changed, to be called by God to act.

True prayer is surrender. It's something you actually do and something God may use to tell you what to do.

But that happens only if you're really praying. Only if your prayer is an actual conversation with God in which you take the time to listen to what God tells you in His Word, the Bible, and in your spirit as you listen for His still small voice as you pray.

In fact, it's difficult not to suspect that all the sweet-sounding assurances of "thoughts and prayers" are nothing more than idle words, like saying, "I'll be there in spirit." As Pastor Rick Warren points out, people who say that they'll be somewhere in spirit are really saying, "I won't be there," no matter how high-minded they may want to sound.

The capacity of prayer in Jesus' name to result in action struck me again today during my quiet time with God. The list of daily Bible readings I use appointed Acts 16-18. As always, I asked God to show me the truth He wanted me to see as I read the Bible. I was struck by these verses from Acts 16:
Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Acts 16:6-10)
The apostle Paul and his ministry team were dialed into God through their reading of God's Word in the Old Testament (the New Testament didn't yet exist), their relationship with God through the risen Jesus, and their times in prayer in Jesus' name.

These verses tell us that at first, they felt prevented from taking the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus into Asia (by which the New Testament writers meant Asia Minor, which is now largely composed of Turkey). They were prevented not by soldiers, but by God. It wasn't time for them to go into Asia yet. How did they know not to act? Because God impressed that view on them as they read God's Word and prayed.

Once again, the "Spirit of Jesus" prevented them going into Bithynia.

But that night, in a dream, God seemed to tell Paul that he and his team were to go to Macedonia.

When Paul shared his vision with the others, they all appear to agree that this was what God wanted them to do.

In other words, when Paul and the others prayerfully lived in community with God through Christ, they were given their marching orders. Action was born in humble prayer.

Prayer is not the opposite of action. Prayer is useful action's motive force.

When we act without a vibrant prayer relationship with God through Christ, our action is futile.

When we fail to act after we've prayed and God has impressed us with the action we need to take, the fault is not with God or prayer, but with us.

So, of course, we should be praying for the victims of gun violence.

But we should also pray asking God what it is He would have us to do in the face of this scourge on our country. And then, for the sake of Christ and all for whom He died and rose, we should act.

[This photograph was taken by Joel Auerbach of the Associated Press. If it's a copyright infringement for me to use it here, I ask to be notified and I will take it down. It is a powerful symbol of the ongoing tragedy of school shootings in America.]

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, February 15, 2018

It's All About the Truth

[This message was shared during Ash Wednesday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, last night.]

Ecclesiastes 3:20
As we all know, before the risen Jesus ascended into heaven, He told the Church to tell the world about Him and to make disciples. But, from a marketing standpoint, Jesus has made that a difficult task.

For example, the passage of Scripture that informs the designation of this as Ash Wednesday is Ecclesiastes 3:20, where we’re told: “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” The Message translation/paraphrase of the Bible renders that verse this way: “We all end up in the same place—we all came from dust, we all end up as dust.”

Happy talk, huh?

Want some more happy talk? Here’s a terrible Valentine’s Day confession on my part: I’m not keen on having floral arrangements in my house. Flowers are pretty outside. But when they come into a house and fill the place with their fragrance, all I can think of is funerals.

Most of us don’t really like funerals. Funerals may give us strength, encouragement, peace, and hope from God’s Word and the fellowship of the Church. But they wouldn’t happen if people we cared about didn’t die.

I'm willing to be that if you and I had the choice between going to a movie, a game, a restaurant, or a funeral, I doubt that the funeral would be anyone’s first choice. Death isn’t a topic we like to consider, whether it’s the death of someone else or our own deaths. (As someone has said, "I don't mind dying as long as I don't have to be there when it happens.")

And yet, we set aside a day on the Church calendar every year dedicated to reminding us that you and I are dust and to dust and you and I shall return, that we’re going to die.

That’s a marketing problem for Christians.

When I look at how other things are marketed on TV, radio, and the Internet, I don’t see the promise of death.

The commercials for resorts market fun in the sun, an endless party.

The weight loss people market a new you who will attract the opposite sex.

The beer people do much the same.

The insurance companies, furniture stores, car dealers, diamond merchants, online retailers: Not one of them feature death in their marketing.

If anything, they tend to pitch their products as being able to help us fend off death, overcome our human limitations, even make us godlike in our control of aging, illness, money.

This applies even to the funeral home people whose commercials make only oblique reference to how hard, relentless, and unforgiving death is.

But we Christians gather each year at the beginning of Lent to put ashes on our foreheads.

So, why the difference between the Church and the world?

Here it is: The world wants to believe a lie; the Church seeks to live the truth.

There are actually two lies that the world, along with the devil and our sinful selves, wants to believe.

The first lie is that everything is vain and futile, that we’re going to die, so just “eat and drink and be glad.” This was the futile conclusion reached by King Solomon, a man who used the wisdom given to him by God to make himself wealthy and powerful at the expense of his own integrity, faith, and salvation.

This lie is rooted in the notion that there is no way out, that all are going to die, and that the grave or the crematorium will be the inevitable end of us. So, this way of thinking goes, you should do anything and everything you want. Nothing matters. Just grab whatever your version of the good life is and enjoy it till you die.

The fact is that for the person who trusts in the God you and I meet through Jesus Christ, this life isn’t the whole story.

Even Job, the man in Old Testament times who endured so much sorrow, could say centuries before Jesus died and rose, as a person of faith: “I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

Job trusted that despite his own sins and mortality, the God Who made the heavens and the earth, could also give life again to those who repented and trusted in God.

What Job believed by faith is now available to all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, God in the flesh, Who offers us beyond the grave or the crematorium.

The New Testament tells us: “...if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

We are ashes and dust. We must understand that. It shows us how finite and dependent on God we are, how much we need Jesus to save us from ourselves.

But as surely as God scooped up dust from the earth and animated it to give life to the first human being, He gives new, eternal lives to those who turn to Christ for life. This life isn’t pointless or futile when we seek, by the help of the Holy Spirit, to live it for Jesus Christ!

The other lie the world tries to sell is the idea that death isn’t that big a deal. It’s just a speedbump to eternity. In this view, everyone’s going to have life with God, whether or not they’ve paid any attention to Jesus, the only One Who can give us life with God, in their whole lives on earth. These people see death as a hiccup.

This lie is the very one that the serpent told Adam and Eve in the garden. When the serpent learned that God had told the couple that if they partook of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would die, the serpent said: “You will not certainly die” (Genesis 3:4). He chose not to add the fine-print caveat, right away. “You will not die right away…” Instead, he portrayed God as being stingy with His blessings because he didn’t want Adam and Eve to know about or experience the consequences of evil.

The serpent then said: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Again, the fine print was missing. The serpent should have said, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil. But because you’re creatures, not the Creator, you won’t be able to handle the knowledge of evil like God, Who is perfect and holy, can. It will be like kryptonite in your hands. It will be like a flame to a moth. It will kill you.”

This neglected fine print reminds me of the ten to fifteen seconds in the middle of every prescription drug commercial. After telling you how wonderful their product is, the advertisers add a bunch of disclaimers including one that can be summarized: It could kill you.

In the garden of Eden, the FDA hadn’t been invented yet. So, naively cynical, Adam and Eve bought the lie of endless life apart from God hook, line, and sinker.

Christians know that death is a big deal.

Death is real.

We must reckon with the reality of it.

We are born sinners and sinners die.

Medicine may extend our lives for a time. It may enhance our lives for a time. And that’s wonderful.

But in the words of that twentieth-century poet, the late Robert Palmer, we know that “no pill’s gonna cure my ill.”

The gospel tells us that we must turn away from our sin (we must repent) and trust that Jesus will give us life even after we die.

Jesus, the One Who rose from the dead, promises: “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.” (John 11:25-26)

So, why ashes? Three reasons.

First, ashes remind us of our dust-iness, our mortality, of our utter dependence on God. Dust could never turn itself into a human being made an image of God. Only God could make something as magnificent as human beings from a clump of dust. Every human being can say with King David, "I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Psalm 139:14).

Second, ashes remind us of the judgment which this old creation will undergo. The apostle Peter tells us that when Christ brings down the curtain on this creation: “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” (2 Peter 3:10) We must not grow too attached to this creation as it is.

Third, ashes represent repentance and renewal. Sometimes, our forestry service conducts controlled burns. Forests often erupt in natural fires. They’re God’s way of bringing renewal. Foresters cooperate with natural fires by confining them to certain areas, allowing old brush and threatening plant life to be burned away and for new life to emerge. From the ashes emerge the sprigs of new trees. Jesus once spoke of the resurrection life that would emerge from His death: “...unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) Just so, when we repent, dying to our sins and our sinful desires and, instead seek to live in utter dependence on Christ, we are given new life from God. As often as we repent and trust in Christ, God will keep renewing us all through eternity. (Martin Luther said that the Christian is to live in daily repentance and renewal.)

We commemorate Ash Wednesday each year because we believe in telling ourselves, each other, and the world the truth: Death is real, but death is not the end for those who trust in Christ.

These ashes--you and I--have new life through faith in Jesus.

Paul puts it better in Romans 8:1: “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

If the ashes on our foreheads remind you of that tonight, then this symbolic beginning of the Lenten season will have done its work. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

To Be and To Make Disciples

This is a devotional shared at the Southwest Ohio Mission District Discipleship Conference this past Saturday. Pastor Dan Powell gave a great keynote message. Pastor Tom Brodbeck gave an informative presentation on the work of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) Life to Life Discipleship team. Four lay members of district congregations gave inspiring testimonies about their experiences with an intentional focus on growth as Christ's disciples over the past few years. And a mix of laity and clergy led breakout sessions. The feedback from the day was positive. I came away inspired!

As we begin, we’ll focus on two passages from the gospels.

First, Matthew 28:19-20, a passage so often cited that we risk not allowing it to wield its influence over us. The risen Jesus tells His Church: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

To be and to make disciples. This is the mission of Christ’s Church.

Not to pack our sanctuaries with a Sunday audience of dues-paying church members.

Not to be a fellowship that parties hardy while having no heart for the Lord or the lost.

Not to pay off the mortgage, though paying off mortgages is good.

Our call is to be and to make disciples.

Our congregations may not experience phenomenal numerical growth when we take this great commission from Jesus seriously. But we Lutherans in North America know full well these days that if we don’t take the great commission seriously we have no chance of growing, either spiritually or numerically.

Without that commitment, we have no chance of being who Jesus has called and set us free to be, people:

  • who joyously live in relationship with Him, 
  • who joyously live out that relationship in fellowship with the Church, 
  • who joyously share Christ and the gospel with the world.

We need to be more like the woman Jesus met by the well at Sychar in John 4. She’d had five husbands and was now shacking up with another man. She went to the well outside the village braving the blistering sun of midday in order to avoid the shunning and the hostility of the women who ordinarily went to fetch water in the mornings or at dusk when it was cooler.

Jesus was at the well when she arrived.

Jews like Jesus didn’t speak to Samaritans like this woman was.

Men didn’t speak in public with women to whom they weren’t related in either culture.

Yet Jesus initiated a conversation with the woman.

He took the time, not to know her because as God, Jesus already knew everything about her, but to let her know that He knew all about her, yet still deemed her worthy of His grace.

And then this, John 4:28-29, our second passage: “...leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?’”

However tentatively she expressed it, this woman had become Jesus’ disciple.

And then she went back into the very village full of people she had just tried to avoid, in order to make disciples.

That may seem crazy.

But when you’ve come into the grip of the Savior Who knows all about you and still offers you eternal life with God, you do crazy things.

Freed from every lord but Jesus, your heart fills with compassion for those who need the encouragement of His gospel.

Today, you and I may talk about things like steps toward establishing a discipleship culture in our congregations. Or steps in our own discipleship. (At Living Water, we speak of reaching up to love God, reaching in to love others in the Church, and reaching out to love the world through service and proclamation.) It’s useful to speak of these steps.

But the fact of the matter is that you can’t really separate discipleship into steps. The moment the woman at Sychar became a disciple, she was making disciples! Being and making disciples are two elements of single, indivisible lifestyle of faithful dependence on Jesus Christ alone.

Had the Samaritan woman not set out immediately to make disciples, I wonder how long she would have remained a disciple?

You see, discipleship can only grow when it’s lived out and shared, within the Church, which the New Testament calls "the body of Christ," and beyond the body of Christ, in the everyday places in which you and I live.

Today, we will talk about being disciples of Jesus.

And we will talk about making disciples for Jesus.

To be and to make disciples.

May this day help in making the pursuit of Christ’s great commission with joy and commitment the absorbing passion of every one of us and of all the congregations of which we are each a part. Amen

Listen! (AUDIO)

Here is the audio for this past Sunday's message for the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

Monday, February 12, 2018


[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday.]

Mark 9:2-9
Throughout this Epiphany season, which ends today, our gospel lessons have been about epiphanies, moments when Who Jesus really is took on clarity.

All of these narratives of Jesus’ earthly life have shown us the truth that Jesus was not just a man and was more than just a great teacher, but also was and is God in the flesh, our King, Whose mission still is to bring God’s kingdom to all who trust in Him.

None of the epiphanies we’ve looked at have allowed us to see this more clearly than what happens in today’s gospel lesson, Mark 9:2-9. Let’s take a look at it together and then consider what it might mean for us today.

It starts: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves….” (Mark 9:2).

Six days after what? Well, just a few verses before, Mark tells us that Peter confessed his belief that Jesus was God’s long-awaited Anointed One (Messiah in the Hebrew, Christ in the Greek) and that Jesus told Peter that he was right.

The apostles’ euphoria over being alive when the Messiah was revealed was instantly smothered when Jesus explained the method by which their Messiah brings His kingdom. Mark says that Jesus told them, “...the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31).

And if that weren’t enough of a downer, He says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’ (Mark 8:34).

Imagine how disappointed the apostles must have felt at this moment. They had been following Jesus and seen amazing things. They knew His power: They’d seen Him cast out demons, feed thousands of people with just a few scraps of food, heal lepers, and even raise the dead.

They must have thought that with all of that power, their Messiah could undertake a simple procession into Jerusalem, vanquish the Romans, establish God’s reign over Israel, and, in the bargain, give them cushy positions in His government. Easy-peasy.

But Jesus tells them that sin is Israel’s (and humanity’s) greatest enemy, that the only way the kingdom of God could be brought to Israel (and to you and me, though the apostles at the time would have had no thought that Yahweh, Israel’s God, cared much for us) was for the Messiah Himself, perfect and sinless, to offer Himself on a cross, taking the condemnation of death we deserve so that He then could share with us the eternal life He of which He took hold on Easter Sunday.

Not only that, Jesus said if we are to have any part of His kingdom or of eternity with God, we must take up our crosses--we must own the reality of our sins, our mortality, and our need of a Savior--and humbly follow Jesus.

The way into God’s kingdom for you and me begins with death to ourselves, to our priorities, to our desires, and to our pretensions of being in control.

The apostles must have felt confused and disappointed. They were experiencing something C.S. Lewis talked about. “The truth [God’s truth] will set you free,” Lewis wrote, “but first it will make you miserable.”

We cannot have Jesus as our Savior and King if we persist in thinking that there’s nothing so bad about us that needs saving, nothing from which we can’t save ourselves, or no situation so desperate that we can’t conquer.

If we persist in believing these lies, we will be miserable, either in the present or in eternity or in both.

If we let go of them, we will see the kingdom of God, in this imperfect world and in the perfect world to come.

While the apostles were feeling miserable, Mark tells us that Jesus took Peter, James, and John with Him up to a mountaintop and “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.” (Mark 9:2-4)

This was glory.

This was power.

Here was Jesus with Israel’s great law-giver Moses and Israel’s greatest prophet Elijah. The law and the prophets had pointed Israel to the coming of the Messiah and now the law and the prophets were confirming that Jesus is that Messiah, that King!

This was a great epiphany revealing Jesus as both God and human.

Imagine now the elation felt by the three apostles there on that mountain!

Two of them were tongue-tied. One of them, Peter, should have been. But he couldn’t help himself.

Verse 5: “And Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi [Teacher], it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.”

Peter could think of nothing but bottling up the moment in tents or booths so that he could keep hold of it.

But Jesus hadn’t brought the three apostles to that mountaintop to give them goosebumps. He brought them to that mountaintop to give them the truth: The truth from God that we are sinners, and that though “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), the power of sin and death over us can be erased by the infinitely greater Power, Jesus “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). All who believe in Him “will not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) in the Kingdom of God. In the face of sin, death, and darkness, no holy booths or goosebump-inducing feeling or place can save us. Jesus is our only sanctuary!

That seems to be the message from the Voice in heaven, the voice of God the Father, to Peter in response to his impulsive proposal. Verse 7: “And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to him.’”

“Hush, Peter,” the Voice seems to say. “Now is not the time for speaking. Now is the time for listening. When the Word made flesh, My beloved Son, is speaking to you, whether in words or deeds, you can’t hear Him if you’re yammering. Listen to Him!”

One of the great problems in the contemporary Church is that we do a lot more talking than listening. We impulsively offer up our feelings, our opinions, our preferences for how the Church and the world should operate. We even make decisions, when what we should be doing is listening for what the God in Jesus Christ is telling us.

And to be able to speak the authentic Word of God, we need to spend time, like Jesus did, in quiet places reflecting on Scripture and praying with the expectation that Christ will speak to us.

We need to spend time with Jesus and other believers, reading and reflecting on God’s Word like Peter, James, and John did on the mount of transfiguration.

We cannot speak God’s truth to each other or to the world, we can’t authentically tell others the saving good news that all who repent and surrender to Jesus Christ are given new, eternal lives in God’s kingdom, unless we take the time each day to listen to God.

Verse 8 says that after the Father had given this message to Peter, James, and John, “they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only.” Peter, James, and John must have kneeled before Jesus in stunned silence. Moses and Elijah had pointed to Jesus, but they weren’t equal to Jesus. Neither is any preacher, guru, president, parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, boyfriend, girlfriend, spouse, or friend. Jesus alone is King. And if we have any desire to experience the kind of life for which God made us, a life of love and fulfillment even in the midst of this uncertain, fallen world, we will only find it in Jesus. Only Jesus!

Then comes the final and maybe, strangest, verse in Mark’s narration for today, verse 9: “And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.”

In the midst of the apostles' misery over Jesus’ talk about His own cross and about the cross all who would be His disciple must bear, Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John to the top of a mountain. He had shown them the glory of His kingdom, a glory that is only experienced by those who take up their crosses and surrender to Him. The world wouldn’t be ready to hear about this glory until they had seen that the way to God goes through the crucifixion and humbling of the self before Jesus our King. Until then, the disciples were to keep following and to keep listening to Jesus.

On this side of Jesus' death and resurrection, we're free and commissioned by Jesus to tell the world about Him. But we have the same call as the apostles, to keep following and listening to Jesus.

In a little book called Why I Am a Christian, Lutheran theologian Ole Hallesby talked about five ways that you and I can know Jesus, keep following Him, and listen to Him.

First, we can daily read the New Testament. We will meet Jesus there.

Second, we can pray in Jesus’ name. Jesus promises that when we pray in His name, God hears our prayers.

Third, we can ask God to show us how we may have displeased Him. Because Jesus is our Savior and Advocate, He will show us our sins so that we can repent and have our relationship with Him restored.

Fourth, we can receive Holy Communion every time it’s offered. Jesus gives Himself to us in this sacrament. We feed on His life, are drawn closer to Him, and receive forgiveness.

Fifth, we can spend time in fellowship with Jesus’ people, gathered around His Word.

If we will follow Jesus and listen to Jesus, we will see the glory of God even in the most mundane moments of our lives.

And we will realize that the moments we spend with Jesus are never mundane. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Piano Moving

A friend wrote today about helping with a move, but deciding with others involved to call in professionals to move a piano. It reminded me of this short by my favorite film comedians, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The Music Box won an Oscar and still makes me laugh out loud.

My friend also reminded me of my own piano-moving story.

Back when I was young and stupid (as opposed to older and stupider), we had a cleaning day at our church on Harris Avenue in Columbus. Someone told a group of us that the pastor wanted a piano moved from the balcony down to the front of the sanctuary. The stairwell had a landing and a turn. But we did as we'd been asked.

A little while later, the pastor was in the sanctuary and asked, "Why is this piano here?" It turned out his words had been misinterpreted.

So, we moved the piano back up the stairs to the balcony.

This turned out not to be my favorite day.

I think my friend and his fellow movers made the right call in bringing in professionals.