Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Purpose of Your Life

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

Matthew 25:14-30
Someone once said to me: “I know that Jesus loves me and that I’m saved by grace through my faith in Christ, but what exactly is the purpose of my life?”

The short answer is that you and I are alive for only one purpose: To glorify God. In Isaiah 43:7, God says, “...everyone who is called by my name...whom I created for my glory.”

God commands this not because God is an egomaniac.To glorify God entails using our lives in the ways intended to be used by the One Who created us out of an overabundance of gracious love. When we glorify God, acknowledge the relationship of love initiated by the God Who made us and Who has redeemed us through Christ, setting us free to be all that those created in God's image are meant to be.

We most glorify God not when we consider at the Bible’s portrayal of holy living, like we see in the Ten Commandments or in Jesus’ Beatitudes, then grit our teeth and strive to be good and holy people, whether it makes us or others miserable or not. We most glorify God when we enjoy God and use His gifts to us in ways that honor Him.

None of this is to say that following Jesus is easy. It's not.

But there will be no joy in living with Christ if we think we must be holy people who glorify God in the strength of our own power. We must learn the joy of letting go and letting God, of acknowledging our sin and weakness, so that we can be covered in the grace and filled with the power of God. This is what Paul was talking about in the New Testament when he wrote: "...when I am weak, then I am strong." God's power is perfected in us when we admit our weakness. (1 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The Lord Who saved us by going to the cross for us will be glorified within us if we will allow the Holy Spirit empower us to live according to God’s call in Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

Our prayer each day should be that God would help us to glorify Him by helping us to remember His goodness to us and leaning on Him.

The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson is the story of two men who didn’t grit their teeth to do the right thing, but who remembered the goodness of their master and so, enjoyed and used the blessings of the master to bring pleasure both to them and to the master.

It’s also the story of a third man who ignored the blessings given to him by his master, relying on his own personal sense of what was right and wrong, and so, denied himself a continuing relationship with him.

You know the story. A master, clearly a stand-in for God the Son, Jesus, is about to go on a journey. As we read Jesus’ story, we understand the “journey” Jesus is talking about. Since the crucified and risen Jesus ascended into heaven, we know that He has been enthroned in heaven, giving His followers millennia to share the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in the crucified and risen God of all creation, will not perish in eternal separation from God, but will have eternal life with God! Jesus has been away from the earth on a long journey. As we talked about last week, there will be a day when the millennia cease and Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to establish His eternal kingdom, finally and fully making all things new.

Anticipating his journey, the master in Jesus’ parable entrusts some of his money to three different servants, just as Christ has entrusted the riches of the gospel to those of who follow Him (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).

Even the single talent (which is the word used by Jesus in this passage, not bags of gold, as the New International Version translates it, the master gave the third servant could be worth between 20 and 600 years of a day laborer’s wages!

In the same way, God entrusts a fortune of blessings to every human being. It’s called being alive. 

And that’s just the start for followers of Jesus Christ! Jesus expended His life on the cross so that all we fallen, sinful, imperfect human beings can, like the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross, acknowledge our sin, turn from that sin, and turn to Him Jesus in faith to live with God for eternity. What a gift! 

Living lives that joyfully express gratitude for these two gifts--the gift of life and the gift of life made new that comes to us by grace through faith in Christ--is not a burden. It’s joy!

That isn’t to say that it’s easy. Throw yourself with abandon into the life of following Jesus--the life of Christian discipleship--and you’ll get bruised too. Maybe more than bruised. You may face rejection, ridicule. In some places today, following Jesus will put a disciple's life at risk. But even here, people may question your sanity or your judgment if you follow Jesus.

A woman told me once that she couldn’t speak with her father about her relationship with Christ. “He thinks I’m crazy,” she told me.

And the possibility of rejection is made greater these days by the public figures and “Christian” groups who claim to be Christians who live unrepentantly un-Christian lives or who turn Christian faith into a religion of good works and looking innocent while decaying inside from spiritual pride, what Jesus called "whitewashed tombs"! (Matthew 23:27-28)

But all of us who are bruised for believing in Jesus need to remember the words of Jesus’ earthly brother “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

In Jesus’ parable, the master came back, as Jesus one day will return to the earth, and, like Jesus on judgment day, the master demanded an accounting for how the servants had used all he had given to them.

The master was glad to see that the first two men had enjoyed and used their gifts and so brought glory to his name.

The last man, not so much. His failure to honor and enjoy either his gifts or the giver brought him total separation from the master, just as happens to those who refuse to honor or enjoy Jesus, the Giver of the best gifts of all.

In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, which Lutherans can heartily endorse though not agreeing with everything in it, Pastor Rick Warren gives five portraits of what people who glorify God look like.

First, they worship God all the time. As Warren puts it, “Worship is a lifestyle of enjoying God, loving Him, and giving ourselves to be used for His purposes.”

Second, they love other believers. Long before Jesus walked the earth, God had already commanded all people to love God and to love neighbors. But just before His crucifixion, Jesus told believers, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) Jesus’ sacrificial love for us brought us eternity with God and He commands us to love our fellow believers in exactly the same way.

Third, they glorify God by allowing Him to shape them into the likeness of Jesus. Paul writes of Christian disciples in 1 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

We need to stand aside, lay down our will and submit to God’s will, which is to refashion us to be just like Jesus: loving, bold, fearless, forgiving, purposeful. If the third man in Jesus’ parable had simply used the gracious gift the master had given him, he would have had a productive, joyful life. But he didn’t. Christians who keep Christ buried, out of sight and out of mind, during the week, then try to resurrect Him on Sunday morning, are missing out on all that God has in mind for them.

Fourth, we glorify God by serving others with our gifts. No matter what our gifts or our limitations, God has gifted every Christian to glorify God by serving others in some way or another.

Finally, we glorify God by telling others about Jesus. Sharing our faith in Christ with others is the only way we will keep or grow in our faith. Use your faith and it grows. Hoard your faith and it dies out. Truly, faith in Christ is a “use it or lose it” proposition.

We can be like the first two men in Jesus’ parable. We can use the gifts our Master has given to us to glorify God. We do this when we worship God in our daily lives, love our fellow believers, ask God’s help to become more like Jesus, use our gifts to serve others, and tell others about Jesus and the new and everlasting life only He can give to those who turn from sin and believe in Him.

What is the purpose of our lives?

To put it another way, it's to take all the grace and blessings and forgiveness God has given to us through Jesus and our faith in Jesus and, in the certainty that we belong to God forever, give the grace and blessings and forgiveness to everyone we encounter.

First John 5:11, another one of our discipleship group memory verses, reminds us: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son, has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.”

You can never give away so much of your life for the glory of God that God can’t replace over and over for all eternity, if we will just trust in Jesus Christ alone. 

The purpose of our lives, yours and mine, then, is to spend our lives completely on glorifying God--Methodist theologian Leonard Sweet calls it "spending our last check," knowing that God has an eternity of life to give to all who live completely for Him.

God will never run out of life to give to those who daily surrender Jesus Christ!

So, Jesus calls us to a simple decision that can be framed like this:

Are we willing to give away the life that God gives to us in Christ for God’s purposes and so, allow God to grow our faith, our joy, our purpose for living? 

Or, will we hoard all of God’s grace and blessings given through Christ and die, whimpering about how hard this life is, and so, separate ourselves from God?

 Will we let God's grace in or lock it out? 

The choice is ours.

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

Ready to Meet Christ

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

Matthew 25:1-13
This past Thursday, I met my dad, three sisters, two of my aunts, and two of my cousins for a late lunch at the Route 68 Grill in Bellefontaine. (Yum!) Later, we went to my aunt’s house, where she treated us to desserts, including gluten-free fare for me. (Let me just say parenthetically, that I am now a fan of Amish Pink Salad!)

The lunch conversation got interesting when someone said, “I’ve been praying lately for Jesus to come back.” And someone else said, “Doesn’t it seem like the world is getting worse and worse all the time?”

I agreed, of course, that the day of Jesus’ return--His second coming--will be wonderful.

But, I said, that I actually am happy for Jesus to wait as long as God the Father wants Him to wait. Second Peter 3:9 says: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise [of His second coming, when He will put things right and unveil His new creation], as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

In other words, God has delayed Jesus’ certain return in order to give us time to turn from our sin and trust in Jesus and to give Christ’s disciples--you and me--the greater opportunity to make more disciples.

Which, of course, begs the question: How well and faithfully are we disciples using this time before Jesus’ return? Or this time before you and I will meet Jesus face to face?

We all agreed on that point and after a time, we also agreed that the world isn’t any more evil than it was the day Adam and Eve fell from grace. The world has been in bondage to sin, incapable of saving itself, and in need of a Savior ever since.

Different sins go in and out of style. But we can say as surely of the human race in 2017 what the apostle Paul wrote of it in 55AD, quoting the Old Testament: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” [Romans 3:10-12]

Given that reality about each of us, the second question that comes to the fore is this: Are we ready for Christ’s return? Are we ready for the judgment? Will we stand before Christ at the judgment in our sin and therefore, unworthy of His new creation, or will we be covered by Christ’s righteousness and enter His kingdom?

Frankly, I hadn’t given today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:1-13, more than a once-over when we had that conversation. But as I studied it on Friday and early yesterday, I realized that it points to the answers to the questions our table talk raised.

Through the centuries, people have tried to turn Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, told in today's lesson, into an elaborate allegory. They’ve said that the oil stands for this, the torches stand for that, and so on. The parable though is, as we’ll see, simpler and more direct than that. It has a simple and important message. So, let’s look at the parable now.

In the lesson, we catch Jesus in the middle of talking about the end of this world, when He will return and judge the living and the dead, an event that will happen in one fell swoop. Verse 1: “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.”

The word translated as lamps here is more appropriately rendered torches. It refers to a simple torch made of rags twisted on top of a stick after the rag has been soaked in oil. A soaked rag would burn for fifteen minutes. But one not prepared in that way would burn out in a matter of moments. That’s why some of the bridesmaids brought extra oil with them.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago when talking about first-century Judean weddings, the groom’s party might show up for the wedding and the subsequent week-long reception (!) at any time after the marriage agreement has been reached. Even in the dead of the night. The bride’s attendants would have had to be ready to escort the groom and his party to the site where the wedding will happen at any moment.

Here’s the thing: All ten of the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are looking forward to the wedding. All ten of them fall asleep filled with eager anticipation of the celebrating and the partying. They’re all picturing a happy time of dancing, feasting, and flirting. But they’re not all ready.

Now, I’m no judge of the human race. That job is God’s alone and I have no intention of applying to replace Him in that job. I’m too busy attending my own knitting to judge someone else for dropping a stitch.

But I have to say that sometimes, when I attend the funerals of people who never seemed to give God a thought and hear their loved ones talk about how the deceased is now with God, I can’t help wondering. Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33, “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.”

None of us knows everything that transpires in a person’s life. None of us knows what encounters that even the most violent of atheists may have with God and His Word, as planted by some compassionate Christian disciple earlier in their lives, as they approach the gates of death.

But Jesus does say that His people will be recognizable to others “by their fruits” (Matthew 7:20). In other words, faith in Christ is demonstrated in our priorities, our decisions, the ways we treat others, the way we repent when we know we’ve done wrong, the way we own Christ as our Savior.

It’s in a faith in Christ active in love that we prepare ourselves for Jesus’ return, that we ready ourselves for judgment, confident that, though we are sinners, Christ has covered our repentant lives with His amazing grace!

It’s one thing to know about Christ’s return. It’s another thing to be ready for Christ’s return. 

The bridesmaids knew that a wedding could take place at any time. But they weren’t ready for it.

Are you and I ready to meet Christ, now, today, tomorrow? That’s an enormously important question.

Verse 6: “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. [That literally means, they lit their torches.] The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’”

Don’t misunderstand. Jesus is not here commending selfishness.

As Lutheran Christians, we believe in letting the whole of Scripture interpret Scripture. This principle of Lutheran Biblical interpretation prevents us from isolating a piece of Scripture and riding it like a hobby horse, making it say what we want it to say. When you let Scripture interpret Scripture you look for the meaning of individual passages in light of the witness of the whole Bible.

And in this case, Scripture tells us that the God we meet in Jesus never has been selfish and has never commended selfishness. The Lord Who underscores the Old Testament command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Matthew 27:39) and gave His Church a new command that we as disciples “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34)...This Lord is not going to tell you to be selfish or refuse to share with others the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus.

What Jesus is saying here though, is that no one can make your preparations for meeting Jesus for you. Christian faith is lived out with support and encouragement from and accountability to Christ’s church. The Church is indispensable. But each of us is either saved or damned individually, one by one. On the day of Christ’s return, He will judge us on our individual faith in Him. Not our parents or grandparents’ faith. Not our spouses’ faith. But on our faith in Christ alone.

About a week after Jesus had risen from the dead, the apostles encountered Him on the lakeshore. Jesus feeds them fish He’s prepared. The dinner done, Jesus asks Peter three times and in different ways, “Simon, do you love me more than these?” Whether we’re seeking to answer that question with a, “Yes!” through lives of daily repentance and renewal, will tell us whether we’re ready for Christ’s return or not.

Do we love Christ more than we love our sins?

Do we love Christ more than we love things we covet or lust for?

Do we love Christ more than the fears that keep us from doing God’s will?

Do we love Christ more than our desire to be in control?

More than our desire to give our kids way more than they need?

More than anything?

If we are seeking day by day to say, “Yes,” to Christ and no to the finite, dying stuff of this world--no matter how imperfectly we may seek them, we will be ready. Our lamps will be trimmed. We will be ready to meet the Lord face to face.

In verse 12 of our lesson, Jesus says that after the foolish bridesmaids had finally gotten oil for their torches, they showed up late for the wedding feast. They bang on the door, trying to get inside.

But the bridegroom, standing in for Jesus, says from inside, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.”

You’ve probably heard me say it before: The Christian faith isn’t about what you know or what you do. The Christian faith is about Who you know and what He has done for you on a cross and from an empty tomb. 

If we expect Jesus to know us at the judgment, He must know us now, in this life. He must know that we trust in Him, follow Him, and draw life from Him and not from the world. The door will be shut to us if we wait until the party has started.

So, Jesus says in verse 13: “...keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” We don’t know the day or hour we’ll meet Jesus at the end of this life or the end of this world. But we get ready to meet Him and for ready for everything in this life by knowing Him and following Him now, trusting in Him now. Be ready for anything; surrender your life and your priorities to Jesus every day. Amen

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Some People Never Know by Paul McCartney and Wings

This song has been running around in my head all day long.

It's an obscure track from a largely forgotten and mostly forgettable debut collection from McCartney and his original Wings band.

The song goes on way too long. (When you're a superstar, your label allows you to be self-indulgent.)

But it's a lovely melody and has beautifully simple lyrics. I love the words of the second verse:
Like a fool I'm faraway,
Ev'ry night I hope and pray
I'll be coming home to stay,
And it's so, some people never know.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thanks to our veterans, including my Dad!

Thanks to our veterans for your military service.

That includes my father.

Below, first, a picture of my dad from his days serving in the Air Force. In the other picture, Dad is seen with his Honor Flight sponsor this September.

Washington, by the way, is Dad’s favorite place. As he told me before the flight, “Any time you can go to Washington, you should do it.”

It was to stoke my patriotism and love for our country’s system of government that he and Mom took me to DC for the first time when I was five. They took us all to many places to foster our love for America: Gettysburg, Philadelphia, Lincoln’s home and burial place in Springfield, Illinois, FDR’s home at Hyde Park, Mount Vernon, Monticello, and many spots here in Ohio.

Referring to my first trip to Washington, I wrote this to Dad before his Honor Flight:
“I know that you also took me because you love our country...not in that jingoistic, nationalistic, we’re-always-right-and-everyone-else-is-always-wrong way that is so sickeningly popular these days. You taught me to revere what this country is really about, a place where our freedoms are guaranteed as much by our mutual accountability under the Constitution and our laws as they are by the military in which you once pledged your allegiance to our country and its laws, even the ones we don’t like. (I remember you pointing out to me when I was little that the oath you took is the same one always taken by our Vice Presidents.) 
“When it became clear to me that you loved Eisenhower--and spoke to me of shaking his hand as he left Europe, where he served as NATO commander, to come back home to run for president in 1952, I came to like Ike too. After lots of study, he’s still one of my own personal Mount Rushmore presidents, along with Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt. But that started with you! 
“One of the lessons I also learned from you about patriotism is the necessity of civilian commanders-in-chief in our presidents. Even Eisenhower resigned his commission before running, since our military officers should always be apolitical...And you also taught me--and Ann’s dad, a navigator for B-24s in the South Pacific during World War 2, agreed with this--that generals like MacArthur, glory-hounds who don’t care about the non-comms he sent into battle, need to be reined in or drummed out! 
“Anyway, Dad, thank you not only for serving in the Air Force, but also for being such a great citizen, a great American, a great dad, a great husband, and a great guy. As you go to Washington this time, it’s exciting to me that you’ll get to see the Korean and World War 2 memorials. I find both to be deeply moving and I think that you will too. “My only regret is that I won’t be able to make this trip to Washington with you.”
Thanks to all the veterans who served our country in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, or Coast Guard. And thanks to the vets who, like Dad, came home and taught their kids about our country and its history.

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

What Skipping Worship Does to Your Kids

A really good piece triggered by the comments of a well-known church researcher. The money quote:
Maybe the reason why our children have no love for Christ is due to the fact that we as parents do not show any love or passion for Christ, evidenced by how we prioritize our time both on Sundays and during the week. When television, sports, school, hobbies even family itself are elevated to a place of idolatry and replace the vital Christian responsibilities, then we tell our children that Christ is secondary to all these things. 
 [I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Happy Birthday, Martin

It was on this date in 1483 that Martin Luther was born. Luther was far from perfect. His antisemitism, though reflective of the mores of his time, were unaccountable from a man who, in so many ways, was more of God than of his time. But his reforming work, pointing the Church and all to Christ alone, Word alone, grace alone, faith alone makes him an important figure.

I am sure that I had heard the Word about Christ many times in my life; but it wasn't until I'd heard it expressed and explained in a Lutheran key that Christ got hold of me and I was made new in Christ. Every day, I thank God for that.

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

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Remembering Kristallnacht: No More Scapegoats or Easy Answers!

Today, November 9, is Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass. The day remembers that on November 9 and 10, a series of violent acts, pogroms, were unleashed against Jews throughout Nazi-ruled Germany and the territories it controlled.

We commemorate this awful event not only to memorialize the innocent victims of antisemitism, but also to act as a solemn reminder.

Kristallnacht and the Holocaust happened when people looked for handy scapegoats to blame for their own misery and grievances.

Post-World War One Germany suffered under the weight of vengeful indemnities charged against it by those who won the war. Then, the Great Depression hit, making things even worse for the Germans.

Along came Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, with their militant nationalism, promises of future greatness, and simple prescriptions for what ailed Germany. Life would be better for Germany, the Nazis claimed, if they could get rid of the Jews. The Jews, Hitler said, didn't belong in Germany. The Jews, Hitler said, took money that belonged in the hands of Germans.

Kristallnacht reminds us to be wary of the easy answers, of blaming others for our problems, of viewing people different from ourselves as inherently threatening. The easy answers of Nazism unleashed the most destructive war in human history.

What happened in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s is all the more tragic because Germany, of all places, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, should have known better.

The Church of the Reformation, Lutheranism, taught, as Scripture teaches, that all human beings are sinful and that all human beings are redeemable.

It taught that the God of love cared enough about every human being that He took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, Who paid the price for our sin, and Who gives everlasting life with God to all who turn from sin and follow Christ. Christians are called to lives of humility, love of God, love of neighbor.

The Reformation was the seedbed from which the entire notion of personal worth, and with it democracy, grew.

The authenticity of people's Christian faith is tested when adversity strikes. It's then that easy answers and scapegoating, instruments of Satan himself, tempt us away from humility, repentance, faith, and love. It's then that we're tempted to think that we are the righteous ones and that "the others" fall short and need to be conquered or destroyed.

When Hitler and the Nazis spoke the devil's words, Germany's faith in Christ was largely found wanting. Today, we celebrate the Lutheran Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, in the name of Christ, resisted easy answers and scapegoating and instead, stood with Jesus Christ. But when the pressure was on, they were the exceptions and not the rule.

Today, many Americans feel aggrieved. The world economy has changed. We are learning that as a mere 6% of the world's population, we can't always get our way. We see our nation becoming more diverse, more like the melting pot we were always taught that it was and that frightens some. And we see a few "other" people who cause great heartache in our country through acts of violence.

Nazis, Klansmen, and nationalists, parading as patriots and even as Christians, "wolves in sheep's clothing," to quote Jesus, offer up easy answers and scapegoating. Our country's problems, they say, have been caused by "the others." They use Nazi slogans like "blood and soil." They say nice things about thugs and bullies, who they mistakenly think are strong, people like Vladimir Putin, Recep Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte. They think that at least dictators maintain order, just like Germans once said that Hitler was sort of bad, but he kept the trains running on time. They said that as though the benefit of on-time trains outweighed the slaughter, the injustice, and the tragic, useless war that he, with his easy answers and scapegoating, unleashed on the world.

What ails America and the world today and what is needed to resolve our ills can only be seen when we accept the hard answer, when we quit blaming others, when we accept that we are not entitled.

What ails America is us. 

As Romans 3:10-12 tells us, echoing passages from the Psalms and Ecclesiastes: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

This is the verdict of God over every human being who refuses to acknowledge their sin and that because of it, we deserve the eternal condemnation of God. Accepting this hard answer about ourselves as individuals, as families, and as nations is the fundamental first step to healing what ails us.

The second is found is Acts 16:31. There, the jailer of the apostle Paul and his associate Silas asks what he must do to be saved from sin and death. Their answer: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”

That is not an easy answer. It entails taking responsibility for our failings, a willingness to be corrected by God, the courage to trust in God and not our own thoughts or feelings. It entails daily surrender to our loving God and daily seeking His help to love our neighbor not only as we love ourselves, but also as Christ has loved us: sacrificially, compassionately.

Life without God is filled with easy answers, scapegoating, broken promises, dog-eat-dog days, constant fear, imprisonment to sin and death.

Life with God is filled with worthy challenges, personal responsibility, working together as community, courage, liberation from sin and even from death, facing persecution and the accusation of naivete. So be it!

"For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23)

We must remember the lessons of Kristallnacht and its intrinsic call to repent and believe, to trust in the God Who first revealed Himself to Israel and has now revealed Himself to all the world in Jesus Christ. No more easy answers! No more scapegoats! No more hate! Only the God of love we meet in Jesus. That's Who we more than ever.

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

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

If it helps, this is how I pray

People sometimes ask me how I pray. So, below, I've quickly typed out much of what I prayed this morning.

Each day, I have a basic list of prayer concerns, specific people for whom I pray, who, in the interests of confidentiality and privacy, aren't included in what you see below. But this will give a rough idea of the conversational approach I take to prayer, whether the longer prayers I offer at the beginning of the day or the shorter ones I offer throughout the day. This is the gist of what I prayed about this morning.

The shorter prayers I offer throughout the day are always prompted by circumstances or just as a person comes to mind. For example:
  • I'm about to visit someone who's ill or dying, for example, and I ask God to give me the right words and the right silences with which to help those people and their families. 
  • I have to make a decision and I ask for wisdom. 
  • I'm going to have an important conversation and I ask that God will leave me open to His guidance. 
  • I go to the store and I ask to be a positive witness for Jesus, overtly or not, in my interactions with other customers and the employees. 
  • As I preach, I ask God to help me get across His Word.
Another thing: Intimacy with God doesn't mean that God is my buddy. God is not my buddy. Or more to the point, I'm not God's buddy.

God is eternal, almighty, utterly holy, other.

God is, as Jesus says, my friend, but He isn't my buddy. I'm not God's equal and being conversational, open, intimate, and real with God does not connote that He's my pal or an indulgent co-conspirator in my sin.

Just because God loves and understands that I am dust doesn't mean He approves of everything I think, do, and feel.

God's intention is to change me for the better and I come to Him to submit to the frequently painful process of being transformed, to willingly lay aside anything that keeps me from following Him, no matter how painful that can be, so that I can embrace the free offer of eternal life with God and wholeness through repentance and belief in Jesus.

A relationship with and belief in Jesus is the essential component of prayer. It's Jesus, God the Son, Who empowers us to approach God as our Father. And it's only by virtue of His righteousness that we dare to even speak with God. "Until now," Jesus told His first disciples and all subsequent Christians in John 16:24, "you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."

To pray in Jesus' name doesn't mean appealing to a good luck charm.

It means to submit to the will of God the Father as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane before His arrest and crucifixion.

It means surrendering to the wisdom and goodness of God.

It means asking God to do what is best, even if it's not the solution I would choose.

It means inviting God into the middle of the circumstances and situations for which we pray.

It means acknowledging the truth that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, the only path to God (John 14:6).

In prayer, I submit to the God I have only come to know through Jesus and the Bible's faithful witness about Him.

Below, is some of what I prayed this morning. If it helps you to pray, that's great. If it doesn't, just forget you read it.
Dear Lord, I ask You to forgive me my sins for the sake of Jesus. [I listed the sins of which I am aware.] And God, bring to my mind as I spend time with you today those sins of which I'm unaware so that I can repent for them. And forgive me and guide me in all parts of my life.

Grant that today my life will give you praise and glory and that I will in no way bring dishonor You.

Protect my family and me from all danger and harm. Protect us from temptation and sin. Protect our characters and our reputations. Extend these protections to the churches we’ve served, to our friends, and our extended family.

God, get our country through its muddle over guns and violence. End the romance with violence that exists in our country. Guide lawmakers everywhere with Your wisdom.

Send workers into the harvest: Disciples who will carry the good news of new life from Jesus for all who repent and believe in Him. Grant this to happen in every nation of the world. And protect your disciples who carry the gospel with all of the protections I ask for my own family, our friends, our church, and me. Use every means You deem right to connect Jesus and people.

Heal those wounded in the shooting in Sutherland Springs. Give comfort to those who mourn.

Help the people affected by hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Texas, and Florida. In the midst of recovery and relief, grant that those who don’t know You will be met by compassionate witnesses for Jesus who can help them follow Jesus to life. Forgive us in the states of the US, and I include myself, for treating the conquered Puerto Rico like a stepchild.

Help the people impacted by the wildfires with the same help and protections, Lord.

Give the Holy Spirit’s guidance, confirmed by Your Word, to our congregation on how to proceed with the building project. After a season of prayer, I’ve reached my conclusions, Lord. But guide us all, I pray.

Guide all political leaders and decision-makers with Your wisdom, whether they follow Jesus or not. You’ve done just that in the past, guiding Cyrus of Persia, who didn’t believe. Bring these people into contact with You, Your Word, and Your wisdom and make them open to where You lead.

Father, give peace.

Lord, peacefully bring down the thugs of this world, the dictators and autocrats: Putin, Kim Jong-un, Duterte in the Philippines, and would-be thugs and dictators around the world. Remove the curse of their reigns, as You have done before in history.

Guide me in all of my decision making today. Grant that my words, thoughts, and actions will glorify You. Give me opportunities to share Jesus with others and to make disciples.

As I dig into Your Word this morning, show me what truth You want me to see and what You want me to do in response to that truth.

In Jesus’ name.

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

Monday, November 06, 2017

You Might Be a Saint...Really

[This is the message that was shared during both worship services yesterday, All Saints' Sunday, at Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Revelation 7:9-17
On this All Saints’ Sunday, a modified rerun, from three years ago. But, since God inspired the message in the first place, I’m hopeful that it will still speak to the primary question of this day: What is a saint?

To find out, we’ll turn to today’s first lesson, Revelation 7:9-17. Revelation is based on a series of visions given to the apostle John about sixty years after Jesus’ resurrection.

Beginning at chapter 6, John sees Jesus, the second Person of the one God, open the first six of seven seals.

With the opening of each seal, John sees this old creation moving closer to its inevitable end. He also sees glimmers of the new creation that the risen and ascended Jesus will fully usher in at His second coming, when He returns to this world to claim His kingdom from our enemies: sin, death, and the devil.

Jesus’ return will bring celebration and relief to all who have turned from sin and who have believed in Christ. But, as the last verse of Revelation 6 points out, the return of Jesus won’t be universally welcomed, any more than He or His people are universally welcomed today.

Those who have rejected Christ, will ask the caves, mountains, and rocks for help. “‘Fall on us,’ they will beg, ‘and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb [the Lamb being Jesus]!’ For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (Revelation 6:16)

Then, just before the opening of the seventh and final seal, John is allowed to see two scenes which he records in Revelation, chapter 7.

The first scene comes in Revelation 7:1-8, right before today’s lesson. The location of this scene is this world. God assigns four angels to hold back the final destruction of the old creation. “Don’t damage the earth,” God tells the angels, “until we’ve marked all of the servants of God with a seal on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3) (This is the seal of the Holy Spirit which every baptized person receives on the day they’re made new by water and the Spirit.)

Then the numbers of those sealed for salvation are counted out. The total comes to 144,000. Now, the Bible is not saying that just 144,000 people out of all human history will be part of God’s eternal kingdom! The number 144 is derived from multiplying the 12 tribes of Israel times the 12 apostles Jesus chose to lead the post-resurrection church. For John, it would have been a number implying perfection and completeness. And, tacking three zeroes onto the back of 144, making it 144,000, would be a bit like one of us talking about “a gazillion” people showing up at yesterday's women's retreat or for the Black Friday sales at Macy’s or Target.

Then comes Revelation 7:9, where John writes, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count…” This is no little crowd of 144,000! It’s a multitude! It’s a crowds so big that “no one could count” it!

I find this incredibly moving because on a starlit night 4000 years ago, an elderly man to whom God had promised the impossible struggled to believe that God could overcome decay and death to give him a son and a future to his descendants. The man’s name at the time was Abram. (Later to be changed by God to Abraham, a name that means “father of nations.”) To Abram, the promise seemed too good to be true. So, God reassured Abram in Genesis 15:5: “[God took Abram] outside and said, ‘Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” “I will give you a son, Abram,” God was saying. “And not only that, your descendants will dwarf the numbers of stars in the sky."

The multitude from every nation that John is shown in His vision of heaven after the life of this old world has come to an end are the descendants of Abram, the very descendants God had promised on that starry night so long ago.

They were, in the words of John in his gospel: “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God” (John 1:13).

This multitude comes to be numbered among Abraham’s descendants not by genetics, but by faith in the God Who ultimately revealed Himself to Jews and Gentiles in the person of Jesus Christ.

Jesus says in John 14:9: “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” The Father, God the Father, the same one Who made Abraham and Sarah the ancestors of nations, not because their bodies were capable of making children, but because God’s Holy Spirit, by the grace of God, can make new life in all who turn from sin and entrust themselves to Jesus.

Jesus, God the Son, is the God Who gave Abraham that promise four millennia ago.

And He is the God Who promises that all who turn from sin and believes in Him become descendants of Abraham. They are saints. We are the saints!

Reading about the vision that the risen Jesus gave to John shows us that God has never changed. In God, there is, James 1:17 tells us, “no variation or shadow due to change.”

God has always wanted to rescue His fallen, dead children from sin and death and to give them life.

And His plan has always been the same: to give eternal life in His new creation to all who will trust, not in their own achievements, smarts, money, shrewdness, health, or anything else, but who trust only in Him.

Saints are those who trust God to give them the free gifts that come to all who follow Jesus: gifts like forgiveness of sin, eternal life, and the power to live each day for His purposes.

But if sainthood is a free gift from God, we must not think for a moment that sainthood is easy.

We see this from just four words in our lesson from Revelation today. The first two of those words appear at the beginning of verse 9: “After this.” After what, exactly? John saw the multitude of saints after an event that’s mentioned in verse 14. That’s where you can read two more important words: “great tribulation.”

Now, despite the propaganda the comes from those who misconstrue Revelation, "the great tribulation" does not refer to some endtime cataclysm. The great tribulation s the common experience through which every believer in Jesus goes in this life.

Life in this world is the great tribulation. We live in a world filled with beauty and wonder. But with its beauty and wonder marred by human sin, death, and even the suffering of the saints, this world, at its best, can still only give us nothing more than a glimmer of the beauty and wonder—the perfection—that await all who persevere in following Jesus as their only God and King to the end.

After completing life in this world, the saints who have kept on trusting Jesus, will be met by the Savior, Who will make them clean forever, Who will dry their tears, Who will feed their hunger and quench their thirst for the righteous life that only He can give, and He will welcome them into the new creation for which each of us were made.

For now, we live in an in-between time in which, as Paul writes Romans 8, both we and the whole of creation wait with eager longing for Christ to reveal Himself and His children. But the truth is that life in this world is hard. Even in the best of times, life can be a struggle.

And sometimes, our struggles are made even harder because we believe in Jesus Christ. How much easier the lives of Christians would be if we just went along with the world instead of rooting ourselves in the truth and grace of God revealed in His Word. Of course, along with that ease would come death, because life is only found in Christ!

The devil tests, tempts, and tries the saints. And every believer in Christ will, eventually, bear the scars—physical, emotional, or relational—that come to those who put following Jesus first in their lives. Mark it well: Follow Christ and He will most certainly thwart you in some of your most heartfelt desires because He’s less interested in giving you momentary happiness than He is in fitting and forging you and your character for eternal life with Him.

The ancient saints living in exile, the victims of injustice, would cry out to God, “How long, O Lord?”

Their pain was echoed for me in the words of a saint and friend battling cancer who told me, “I just can’t seem to catch a break.”

In this life, we’ve all been there...or will be. Our own personal “great ordeals” may include persecution, chronic or fatal illness, disagreements over priorities with those we love or with whom we work, or the conflicts that happen within us when a sin tantalizes us and we know that we must choose God’s way and not our own.

What is a saint?

Saints are people who trust their whole lives to Jesus. Sometimes haltingly. Always imperfectly. At times, speaking for myself anyway, resentfully. Always buttressed by daily repentance and renewal.

But no matter how saints’ hearts may wander, they always know to come back to Christ.

They know to Whom they belong and they know where they’re headed.

They know that this life is not perfect.

But they have a purpose in this life: To live for and to let the whole world know about the Lamb Jesus, Who will, after the last page has been closed in the last chapter of this world's story, welcome all who have trusted in Him to His new creation.

In the meantime, dear saints of God, trust in Jesus. Know His love for you even in the midst of life’s greatest tribulations and know for a fact that, if you remain steadfast in following Jesus, like saints before us, you will be in Jesus' everlasting kingdom.

If we remain faithful to Christ, you and I will one day join our fellow saints, along with God’s messengers, the angels, in singing and savoring the glories of our loving God and all who have persistently, perseveringly, enduringly followed their Savior in this world will hear the Lord say to us in the next world, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:34) Amen!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church.]

Friday, November 03, 2017

Learning to Love Christ More Than I Love Myself and My Favorite Sins

This is the journal entry for my quiet time with God this morning. See here on how I approach my daily quiet time.
Look: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13)

These words are part of Jesus’ farewell discourse in John’s gospel.

They encompass the new and higher command that Jesus gives to His disciples. Jesus’ new command sets a higher standard than does the great commandment, Jesus’ summary of the two tables of the ten commandments. That commandment, given in Matthew 22:37-39, is: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Jesus tells His Church that our command is to love each other as Christ has loved us.

And how did and does Jesus Christ love us?

He died on the cross for us.

He gave up on the easy path in order to follow the hard path for our sakes.

He died to Himself in order to liberate us and claim new, everlasting lives for all who believe in Him.

This is how Christians are called to love each other: to willingly give up our lives for the sake of others’ eternal salvation.

This isn’t to say that our lives can redeem sinners; Christ’s death alone accomplishes this.

But Christians are called to so die to self--our desires, our preferences, our orientations to our own individual inborn preferred sins, our own advantages or comforts--for the sake of others’ salvation.

A neighbor of my brother lived this call out in a truly heroic way. The neighbor was gay and he worked daily on an AIDs hotline. He also was celibate, explaining to my brother, that he knew it was God’s will that sexual intimacy be confined to marriages between women and men. That man died to himself in order to follow Christ and to help others know life with Christ.

This loving others as Christ has loved us, of course, is impossible for us to do in our own power. In the command to love each other with such self-denial and self-sacrifice is another one of those acts of righteousness Paul was referring to when he wrote: “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) After this, Paul throws up his hands and asks: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24)

And this is exactly where the commands and laws of God leave us: They point us to the right and show us that we are incapable of doing it.

And this is where Jesus comes in. Paul answers his own question: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

Jesus delivers the same answer in John 15, when He says: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. 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 15:4-5)

Through faith, inspired and maintained by God through our daily repentance and renewal, Christ’s obedience works righteousness in us, declaring us righteous for the sake of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and making us righteous--sanctifying us--by the power of the Holy Spirit working in those whose belief causes them to daily surrender self again and again. God truly treats repentant believers with amazing grace! And I am thankful!

Listen: But I must not fail to hear God’s law. I must hear it, not because it can save me, but because it’s God’s declaration of His will and because it’s so easy, in the rush of everyday events, for me to wander away from Christ (like a lost sheep) and try to live life in my own power.

I need to know how God’s law judges me so that God can lead me back to Jesus, God in the flesh. That’s why I always think of the prayer in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Jesus’ command that I love others in the same self-sacrificing and self-denying way raises the question in me: Do I love others in the way Christ loves me? The answer, of course, is no...and not just because I haven’t given up my physical life for another’s salvation.

This leads to another question: In practical terms, how can I die to self in order to help others to know Jesus and have life in His name? What am I willing to sacrifice in order to help others have salvation in Christ?

And there’s another question: What sins have I indulged in my own life that have led others not to Christ, but to sin, because I was looking out for my desires rather than dying to myself? 
All of this can be distilled to a single question, really: What do I love more: The God known in Christ, my fellow disciples, and other people or my sins?
Because Christ loves me, died for me, rose for me, and saved a place for me in eternity (John 14:2-3), I am set free to live with the same selflessness with which Christ lived and still lives.

Respond: Father, help me to discern practical ways in which I can love others as Christ loves me, including ways to avoid leading people away from you.

1. Let my ears, in Luther’s phrase, be a tomb to gossip.

2. Help me to live modestly, including refraining from the overconsumption of food and of food not good for me, a sin to which I am prone. Overindulgence in food is a sure sign of being tied more to the world and the gratification of desires more than I am to Christ.  (Philippians 3:19) I really need to attend to this, Lord. I pray Your Holy Spirit's help in doing so.

3. Grant that my conversations will only honor You. I don’t mean that I should spout religious cliches in my interactions with others; that wouldn’t honor You. Help me to remember what Paul says in Ephesians 4:29 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

4. Help me to look for ways to be helpful to others, to not be so caught up in my “to do list” that I don’t have time for others.

5. Help me not to brag. Jeremiah 9:24 and 1 Corinthians 1:31 say: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

Show me other ways today, Lord, and root loving others as Christ has loved me, along with repentance and renewal, into my daily habits. In Jesus’ name. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]