Monday, March 27, 2017

Apostles' Creed, Part 1

I like this two-and-a-half minute explanation of what we Lutheran Christians mean when we say that we believe in "God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth."



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


Good Monday News

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us..." (Galatians 3:13). (Christ did this when, despite His complete innocence, He bore the weight of our sin on the cross, where He was executed.)

We can never keep God's moral law to perfection. If we make our personal conformity to God' moral law the standard on which we ask God to judge our lives, we will be found wanting and never enter God's kingdom.

But if we believe in Christ and His gospel of new life for all who turn from sin and follow Him, we enter God's kingdom on Christ's merits, not our own.

We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone.

(Check out Ephesians 2:8-10; Romans 3:28; John 3:16-18; Acts 4:12; Romans 3:21-22).

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


Sunday, March 26, 2017

Knowing Jesus

John 9:1-41
In last Sunday’s gospel lesson, a Samaritan came to have life with God when, to her surprise, Jesus told her every sin she’d ever done while still reaching out to her with love and respect. In today’s lesson, a blind man comes to see that Jesus was “the Son of Man,” a phrase from the Old Testament book of Daniel for God Himself on the earth that He created.

Jesus promises that all who see Him for Who He is in this way and trust Him as their God and Savior will have life with God for eternity.

But as our gospel lesson shows us today, seeing Who Jesus is and trusting faith in Him are two different things. The gap between knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus can only be measured in eternity.

It isn’t easy to believe. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian, says: “Salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you your life.”

The blind man in today’s lesson learned this truth the hard way, deserted and rejected by his family, his neighbors, and religious leaders. But at the end of the lesson, you realize that he became a true disciple, willing to give up on everything the world in which he lived held dear for the privilege of being Jesus’ disciple today and in eternity.

Let’s take a look at John 9:1-41.

In verses 1-7, at the beginning, Jesus and His disciples encounter a blind man. The disciples want to know whose sin was at fault for his blindness.

We human beings love to believe in neat explanations for the messiness that exists in our world. It helps us feel that we’ve got a handle on things we can’t explain. But this world is messy because the condition of sin has imprisoned the entire universe.

This means that bad things, hard things, and sad things happen even to faithful people.

So, Jesus says that it was neither the man’s parents or the man himself who caused the his blindness. But there was a purpose for Jesus encountering the man that day, Jesus says: “...this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).

Jesus then creates a bit of mud, smears it on the man’s eyes, and tells the man to wash himself in a nearby pool. He does so and, as John puts it understatedly, “[he]...came home seeing” (John 9:7).


When the once-blind man’s neighbors find out, they want to learn how it happened. They smell a conspiracy. “This isn’t really the blind man who used to beg,” some of them say. “Yeah,” others say, “he’s an impostor who just looks like the guy.”

The neighbors don’t like that this guy is healed. It upsets the status quo. It makes them envious that a miracle has happened to him. It introduces mystery into a world they thought they’d figured out. They don’t like it that something so good happened to a man who they, like the disciples, thought deserved his blindness. Most conspiracy theories start in this way, folks. But, in verse 9, the formerly blind man tells them: “I am the man.”

The neighbors still aren’t sold on the truth. Or, at least, they don’t want to see the truth that stands before them. So, in verses 10-12, they start to grill the healed man. “How did this happen?” they ask skeptically. The man replies: “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see” (John 9:11).

I love his simple testimony: He met Jesus. Jesus told him what to do. He did it. Now, he could see.

Such simplicity in this circumstance is noteworthy. This man isn’t stupid. He can tell, as surely as you and I can tell when we read John’s account of this “conversation,” that the neighbors are getting hostile. Who is this uppity man to claim that a miracle was done for him?

Instead of talking about some miracle wrought by the preacher they’d been hearing about, it would have been more acceptable to them for him to say, “I was never really blind. I only pretended to be blind so that I could spend my days begging.”

Or, he could have left Jesus out of it altogether: “I washed in the pool of Siloam and it cured me.”

But, instead, he attributes the miracle to Jesus.

The crowd doesn’t like this. Some of you know that an atheist once told me after I’d shared some of my story of coming to faith in Christ after years of atheism that I never could have been an atheist. “If you were an atheist,” he told me, “you still would be.” But God can break through the sin, pride, and pain of this fallen world and bring good.

That’s what Jesus did for the blind man.

It’s what He did when He died on the cross and rose from the dead, offering new, eternal life to all who trust in Him.

It’s what He did when He gave me faith in Him to replace my atheism.

In verses 13-16, the neighbors take the man to the Pharisees, the experts in God’s Law. When the situation is laid before them, they’re scandalized to learn that Jesus performed this miracle on the sabbath.

This proved, some of them say, that Jesus couldn’t be from God. Others disagree. The Pharisees are in gridlock.

They turn to the blind man and ask who he thinks Jesus is. The Pharisees don’t want the man’s real opinion. They’re pressuring him to turn on Jesus, to renounce the whole thing, to say that his blindness AND Jesus are frauds.

Once more, the man doesn’t buckle under pressure. Jesus, he says in verse 17, “is a prophet.” A prophet, of course, is a person called by God to speak God’s Word to the world. Now, you and I know that Jesus actually is the Word of God. Jesus is way more than just a prophet; but He is that too. The man says of Jesus what he so far knows of Him. He tells the simple truth. His honesty is moving.

After their pressure fails to cause the man to renounce Jesus, they enlist his parents’ help. “Yes,” they say in verses 18-19, showing the spines of jellyfish, “that’s our son. But we don’t know anything about his story. He’s old enough to fend for himself. Bye!”

In Matthew 10:36, Jesus warns those who would follow Him that “a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.” When we follow Jesus, we can’t expect that all of our family and friends will be happy about it. Being a Christian who seeks to humbly follow Jesus is not making a popular choice.

The formerly blind man is so innocent about the ways of power and going-along-to-get-along, that when the Pharisees ask him to tell them again how he’d come to be sighted, he doesn’t take the hint. He was supposed to admit that he was part of a hoax. Instead, he asks: “Do you want to become his disciples too?” (John 9:27).

At this, the Pharisees tell the man that he must be Jesus’ disciple and that there’s no way of knowing whether Jesus is from God or not.

Now the once blind man says what was becoming obvious to him: “If this man [Jesus] were not from God, he could do nothing” [John 9:33].

At this, the once-blind man, alone among his neighbors and people, abandoned by his parents, condemned by the religious leaders of his country, was thrown out...excommunicated (John 9:34). The good religious leaders rejected him as one unworthy of God.

In the very next verse, we read about this exchange between Jesus and the formerly blind man: “Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ ‘Who is he, sir?’ the man asked. ‘Tell me so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said, ‘You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.’ Then the man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.’”

The blind man saw Who Jesus was--God in the flesh--and so believed in Him and worshiped Him. This is the second miracle in our lesson.

The first was the miracle of restored sight.

The second was the gift of everlasting life when the man who had received his sight believed in Jesus.

This is the miracle that belongs to all who believe in Jesus. May we never lose our sense of awe and wonder at this miracle. The God Who made everything, Whose holiness we have repeatedly violated, became one of us, led a life free of sin despite temptation, and gave Himself on a cross we earned. Now He offers us life with God for eternity when we turn for sin and, like the once-blind man, believe in Him.

Jesus wasn’t done teaching others the way to life through this blind man, though.

In verse 39, Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”

The Pharisees were offended. “Are we blind too?” they ask Jesus (John 9:40).

Jesus’ response: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41).

In other words, the Pharisees could see that Jesus was the Son of Man, the Messiah, the Christ, the King of kings, the Lord, God.

But if they admitted to knowing all of that, they would be compelled by faith to let go of the stranglehold they had on power, position, and the lives and consciences of the people they bullied.

The Pharisees who rejected Jesus knew about God, but they refused to know God when He stood in front of them.

They recognized that Jesus is God’s Son. But they were comfortable in living apart from the living God. (And do you know what you call living apart from God? Death.)

The Pharisees chose blindness and so, Jesus says, they were condemned.

But the blind man focused on Jesus.

In ancient days, the rabbis said that Adam and Eve were created blind. They said that the two were totally dependent on God to lead them and that He only led them to places of freedom and peace, places where they were set free to be all that God had made them to be.

But, when they caved into the temptations of the serpent, eating the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “...the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked...” (Genesis 3:7).

Now, the rabbis said, having fallen into sin, the two were cursed with sightedness. They experienced more than just the good in which God had led them; they now could also see the evil ways they could use their lives.

Sin ensnared them.

Sin fooled them (and has fooled every generation of human beings since) into thinking that it’s possible to live apart from God.

The vision of the entire human race has been clouded by a universe full of idols vying for our trust and our worship, leading us to selfishness, self-promotion, self-loathing, darkness, and death. Now, of course, the rabbis' teaching about this is a bit fanciful. But it does make an important point: When we take our eyes off of the God we know in Jesus Christ, making Him our True North, we lose sight of the only One Who can give us life. We go off course.

When the once blind man came to believe in Jesus, he was set free from his sin and from death. He didn’t just know about God; through Jesus, He came to know God Himself. He saw Jesus as His God and King.

That’s what Jesus makes possible for us see and experience too. May we follow Jesus and never lose sight of Him as “the [only] way, and the [only] truth, and the [only] life” (John 14:6). Amen

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


Saturday, March 25, 2017

Living in freedom, facing the lure of slavery (Quiet Time Reflections)

These are my reflections on my time with God today. (To explain the format that follows, see here.)
Look: “I identified myself completely with him [Christ]. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.” (Galatians 2:19-21, The Message)

“But when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong.” (Galatians 2:11, Good News Translation)

“When I saw that they were not walking a straight path in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you have been living like a Gentile, not like a Jew. How, then, can you try to force Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:14, Good News Translation)

When you recognize that the Law can’t save you from sin and death and that salvation can only come by the grace of God given to those who believe in Jesus, you’re set free to live like Paul reports living in these verses from Galatians 2.

It’s not that God’s Law is irrelevant, of course. Jesus said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). The Law, enumerated in the Ten Commandments, isn’t bad. It’s from God. It’s good. As I often tell people, God’s Law identifies the markers of the blessed life, the shalom life.

But we can’t keep it. Christ could and did. And because of that, He was able to be the perfect sacrifice for my sin.

Christ’s call is for me to trust in His righteousness, to believe in Him and the power of what He accomplished on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday for me. Jesus obediently bore my sin on the cross, destroying the power of sin and death over me. He frees me from their power to destroy me eternally.

So, I’m free.

Listen: So, why then do I so easily slide back into slave thinking?

I’m like the ancient Hebrews set free by God from their slavery in Egypt, who look back longingly on the familiar certainties of the enslaved state. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost--also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic,” they said [Numbers 11:15]. “If only we had died by the LORD's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted…” [Exodus 16:3].

Today, there are people in Russia who willingly submit to the reinstitution of Tsarist, Stalinist, oligarchic ways because, despite the oppressions, the Gulags, the imprisonment, impoverishment, and murders of those who oppose the regime, the food shortages, the limited opportunities, and the culture of lies, all of that legalism was what they knew. They look back nostalgically and acquiesce like sheep to the reinstitution of their slavery.

In me, legalism is (supposed) certainty. Though I am often blind to my sin, sometimes I can see my covetousness, idolatry, and subtle thievery. I can count--like widgets in a factory--when I take God’s name in vain, when I indulge lustful thoughts, when I fail to love.

Legalism deals with the quantifiable outgrowth of my sinful nature. But it doesn’t challenge and can’t change that sinful nature itself.

“Ah,” I can say, “I just committed such and such sin. ‘God, forgive me for Jesus’ sake.’” Under legalistic thinking, repentance becomes then, less than what it’s meant to be, both heartfelt sorrow for violating the holiness of God and a joyous restoration to God through the grace of God given in Christ...and more of a business transaction, the muttering of a formula that we suppose will please God and do us good until the next time we willfully ignore His will.

Legalism also gives me the fatal luxury of thinking: “Now that I’ve paid my dues and given the Old Man in Heaven the outward obeisance He seems to want so badly, now I can judge other people from my perch of moral superiority.”

I would never express myself as baldly as I have in the previous two paragraphs. But this is what I effectively think when I approach God and my sin with a business mentality.

Legalism also can assure me that because I look good to other people, I must look good to God too.

But the Law can’t save. The Law can only show us our distance from God and our need to be saved.

There’s nothing any of us can do to be acquitted of the law’s correct condemnation of us.
And no one can keep the Law so perfectly as to warrant being right with God, forgiveness, or new life. The Law, in itself, leads only to condemnation and death.

Only the Gospel--the good news--of new life for all who believe in, trust in, follow Jesus can give us forgiveness, rightness with God, life can save or set us free.

Jesus says: “...“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24b-25).

Jesus puts those who believe in Him in an entirely different relationship with God and the Law. Jesus sets us free, as we see Paul in these verses from Galatians was free, to live out of and speak the truth.

Jesus sets us free to be who we were made to be.

He sets us free to not worry how the world may marginalize us, pigeonhole us, or hate us.

There’s nothing that the world can do to us that will take away our freedom as people made new by the grace God gives to all who believe in Jesus.

Why then do I so often fail to live in the freedom that is my baptismal birthright as a Christian?

A short list:

(1) Fear. I often tell people that I’m not afraid of being dead; I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of all the ways we can “die” in this world: losing my job, losing my reputation. I love to quote Romans 8:31-39 and believe what it teaches--that nothing can separate believers from the God we know in Christ Jesus. But I still fear what this world can do to me. It can be more scary to live in the freedom that Christ offers than in the slavery of what the world will offer when I’m willing to “play ball.”

(2) Because I live here, I know this world; I only know the place Christ has prepared for me (John 14:3) by faith (Hebrews 11:1; Romans 8:24).

I can get afraid over losing out on what this world offers by betting my whole life on life in the nest world. There’s a bit of Lot’s wife in me (Genesis 19:26). I get so used to life in this world that I forget that, as a believer in Christ, I’m a refugee and stranger here (1 Peter 2:11-12; Hebrews 11:13).

(3) I forget that God has a perfect plan for me. It’s a plan that may entail long stretches of unhappiness in this world, because Christ never promised that He would make us happy in this life. This world, ticketed for destruction, will never be able to give me the joy for which I long or for which I was made. For now, I can only see “through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

But when we believe in Christ, we live in the certainty of God’s presence and favor in this world, so long as we continue to trust in Him.

We also live in the certainty that a new heaven and a new earth that will fulfill our deepest longings, undistorted by our sin. “‘What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived’ -- the things God has prepared for those who love him” (Isaiah 64:4; 1 Corinthians 2:9).

(4) I want the credit. In my sinful heart, I want others to think what a terrific person I am: how together, how kind, how good. My legalistic mind figures if people say all of these good things about me, and if I’m regarded as such a great guy, it will mean that I am good and great. Like Adam and Eve, I want to “be like God.”

If I accept the truth that without You, Lord, I can do nothing good (John 15:5), that my supposed adherence to Your law, affirmed by the accolades of others who only see me on the outside, won’t make me good (in fact, only You are good, according to Mark 10:18), then receiving Your gracious gift of righteousness despite my unrighteousness is the only thing that makes sense.

But when I do that, I admit that I deserve no credit.

And that, whatever good I do is really from You, an instance of You empowering me to do what I could never do on my own: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James 1:17).

The Law allows me to live with the fatal fiction that I am my own god and that I am capable of doing things that matter for eternity on my own steam.

Grace allows me to walk in the good works You have prepared for me beforehand (Ephesians 2:8-10), works powered by, filled by, and made eternity-changing by You and my reliance on You alone.


Knowing that I belong to Christ forever can set me free to love God, love neighbor, fight for justice, share Christ, make disciples. I don’t worry about what the neighbors say. I don’t worry about whether I live or die. I don’t worry about getting the credit. I just live. The Gospel of Christ imparts such freedom.

No government, philosophy, economy, job, nor any other thing on earth can give that freedom. Only You can, Jesus!

Respond: Father, I repent, for failing to live in the freedom of the Gospel...for turning You into less than God, into a vendor with whom I can make deals...for ignoring how, by reverting to legalism, I pour contempt on Jesus’ cross and what He did for me there...for being afraid of a world You have already conquered (John 16:33)...for treating this world as my ultimate destination...for exchanging the freedom of being Your child for the certain slaveries of the finite things this world has to offer.

Today, help me to live in the freedom and boldness I see in Paul in these verses in Galatians.

Today, help me to speak Your truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Today, help me to keep my eyes on eternity, knowing, for one thing, that’s the only way that I can do anything worthwhile in this world. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]




Friday, March 24, 2017

Called, even when I don't feel qualified (Quiet Time Reflections)

I'm a few days behind on my daily schedule for quiet time with God. So, it was especially good, in the midst of what's been a busy period, to have that time with Him this morning. You'll find an explanation of my quiet time with God includes here.

Suffice it to say that with quiet time, I stop to confess my sins and pray; look at a chapter of Scripture; listen for what God is telling me in the passage (God generally seems to draw my attention to one or two verses), some new truth, some old truth underscored, some new insight about God or my faith; and respond to what God has told me. Again, the explanation linked above will tell you a bit more.

This morning, I read Galatians 1. Here's where God led me:
Look: “I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 1:12)

In this passage, which comes early in his letter to the Galatian Christians, Paul is establishing his status as an apostle of Christ’s Church. Apostles were part of a unique and time-bound group disciples. An apostle is, considering the Greek New Testament from which the word comes to us, literally, a called out one, a disciple from among the disciples as leaders within the Church and evangelists to the world. To be an apostle, a disciple had to have experienced personal contact with Jesus (Acts 1:21-22) and to have personally seen the resurrected Jesus. Paul, earlier called Saul, came to fit this bill belatedly on the road to Damascus, where as a zealous Pharisee looking for the excommunication or death of believers in Jesus, He was encountered and called by the risen and ascended Jesus to apostleship (1 Corinthians 15:8; Acts 9:1-19).

Because of the apostles’ personal knowledge of Jesus and their call to apostleship by Jesus, buttressed by the understanding of Him they gained through their knowledge of God’s Old Testament Word, the teaching of the apostles about the life, office, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus has always been considered normative by the Church. The Holy Spirit has used the apostles to assure us of the truth of God’s Word in Christ and the truthful witness of both the Old Testament and New Testament.

So, in this verse, Paul is making an important assertion to the first century church at Galatia: Their drift toward “another gospel,” one that doesn’t conform to the revealed truth about God personally witnessed by the apostles, including Paul, and affirmed by the Old Testament (and today by the New Testament that measures up to the apostles’ teaching) puts the Galatian Christians’ salvation at risk.

To take hope in any false gospel is to follow a false god, even if those who have wandered from Jesus carelessly refer to their false deity as Jesus.

Paul is trying to get their attention: I didn’t make up the gospel you once confessed believing; it’s from Jesus, God enfleshed, Himself.

Listen: The era of the apostles is ended, of course. But the Church (and that includes me) is still called to teach the truth about Jesus.

We’re to share the gospel, the good news, that out of love for our fallen, sinful human race, God entered our world as a perfect human being, true God and true man, then, although sinless, made Himself the perfect sacrifice for our sin (Acts 1:8).

To confirm Jesus’ power over sin and death and to show that His promise of new and everlasting life for those who repent and believe in Him can be counted on, Jesus was raised by God the Father.

Jesus then spent forty days on the earth giving further instruction to the disciples, His Church.

Then, ascending to heaven, He went to the throne room of the Father, sitting at His right hand in order to intercede for those who believe in Him and offer prayers in His name and to be at the ready for the moment when the Father will say that it’s time for Jesus to return to the earth in order to consummate history.

We know all of these things, not just because we’ve heard them from preachers, theologians, Sunday School teachers, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, or friends. We know them because because of the revelation from Jesus Christ we receive when we hear and read God’s definitive Word, certified by the apostles like Paul, that we encounter in the Bible.

AND, we can point others to knowing these truths, receive salvation, and be disciples when we, like the apostle Paul, live like disciples of Jesus with a message and a way of life others need. This is urgent business because, it’s as true today as it was the day this statement was first made by the apostle Peter when speaking of Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Respond: Help me and all the disciples of Your church who seek to build our lives on the true gospel of Jesus to be bold in sharing Christ, Your Word, and making disciples (Acts 4:29).

Help me to say, believe, and live out of the truth that Paul talks about in Romans: “...I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Romans 1:16).

Today, Lord, help me not to hide the light of life with You that I’m privileged to have with Jesus. Help me to shine it everywhere I go and give Your light away to everyone I can. (Luke 11:33)

Forgive me for too often slinking by in the world. Today, help me to share Your message or to position myself relationally to earn the right to share Your gospel with others. In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. ]


Thursday, March 23, 2017

How can a loving God send people to hell? (AUDIO)

Here.

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


Prayer

This was the invocation prayer for the City of Centerville Mayor's Faith Leaders Appreciation Breakfast on March 22:
Gracious God, we thank you for the gift of relationship with you. We thank you for the privilege of living in this community and working, together and individually, for the good of the people who live here. Thank you for the leaders of our city government, who respect the role of the faith community in the life of Centerville Ohio. We thank you for all city employees who keep our streets safe, respond in times of need, and ensure out safety, freedom, and opportunities for healthy living, We thank you too, for all who have prepared this meal. We thank you that you have given us the food that has been prepared. Above all we thank you, in this season of Lent, for the gift of Christ who gives us an eternity of hope for life with you and eternal freedom. In Jesus name. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

How can a loving God send people to hell? (Tough Questions, Part 3)

Ezekiel 18:23-32
John 3:16-18


The latest Pew Research polling I’ve seen says that 72% of the American people believe that there is a heaven and 58% say that there is a hell.

Of course, it doesn’t really matter what we think. There are simply some things in life that are facts, whether we like them or not.

The Bible and Jesus Himself affirm that heaven and hell are real...and it doesn’t matter if 3 in 10 don’t believe in one or that 4 in 10 don’t believe in the other. To not believe those two things is to call Jesus a liar and a liar could hardly be a trustworthy Savior.

Nonetheless, Christians and non-Christians alike wrestle with our tough question for tonight: How can a loving God send people to hell?

As Christians, we wrestle with it, of course, because the entire record of God’s self-disclosure as found in Scripture and as seen in Jesus, supports the assertion of 1 John 4:8: “God is love.”

The creation of which you and I are a part argues that God is loving. This universe is, when you think about it, completely unnecessary. God is totally self-sufficient. He didn’t need to give life to the universe. Yet He created we human beings in His image and placed us in a creation which, though marred by our sin, still retains the marks of a Creator intent on providing us with everything we could ever need or want.

Just as husbands and wives who care for each other don’t really need children, yet choose to have children anyway in order to give fulfillment and greater expression to their love, God, Who doesn’t need us, created us to give fulfillment and expression to His love.

But we see the ultimate expression of God’s loving nature in the Person and work of God the Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus told Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” [John 3:16-17]

You and I deserve death and condemnation for our sin. But Jesus took the punishment we deserve so that all who turn from sin and surrender to Him will have eternal life with God. Only love can explain why an innocent Savior voluntarily bore death in order to save people who don’t deserve saving, in order to give life to those who, without Him, would be separated from God, the Source of life, for all eternity.

“Yes,” we may say, “I believe that God is loving. But what about hell? Would a loving God send anyone to hell?” This appears to be the attitude of many interviewed by Pew Research; more people are willing to believe in heaven than they are to believe in hell.

In answer to our question for tonight, I point to a few facts.

First, Jesus talked three times as much about hell as He did about heaven.

If you don’t believe me, print, say, the Gospel of Matthew, from biblegateway.com. Then, go read the gospel, with two different highlighters in hand, one yellow and the other green. Highlight every time Jesus talks about hell with one color and highlight heaven every time He talks about heaven with the other. This exercise won’t demonstrate that hell is more important than heaven. But it will show that Jesus wanted us to have a clear understanding about the eternal stakes involved in our lives and the lives of those we love when it comes to following Him or not.

Clearly, Jesus believed in the reality of a state of total, eternal separation from God, the Giver of Life.

Second, God doesn’t want anyone to be condemned or separated from Him.

In the Old Testament, God says through His prophet Ezekiel: “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23)

The whole point of God calling Israel into being was that it would be a light to the nations, pointing the whole world to a saving relationship that only the God we meet in Jesus Christ can give.

The whole point of Jesus coming to earth and dying on the cross, was to save us from separation from God, to save us for life with God.

Third, the Bible shows us that there are many nice people in this world who will choose hell over life with God, heaven.

Do you remember Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Matthew 19:16-22? By all appearances, this young man was a nice person. He evidently believed that God is real and kept the commandments that have to do with caring for one’s neighbor.

But Jesus said that the young man lacked something. Jesus could see that the young man’s idol, taking the place of God in his life, was money and possessions. Elsewhere, you know, Jesus says that if anything in our lives causes us to sin, we need to remove it from our lives. So, Jesus tells the man to sell everything he has, give it to the poor, and then, follow Him.

Matthew tells us that: “When the young man [that nice young man] heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” We don’t know what happened later in that young man’s life. But we do know that as of Matthew 19:22, he had chosen hell over heaven. And Jesus didn’t stop him.

Jesus won’t stop anyone from choosing hell. Truth be known, hell is our default choice as human beings anyway. Unless the saving Word of Jesus Christ is shared with us and the Holy Spirit is unleashed in us through Baptism or the prayers of caring Christians, you and I wouldn’t even be able  to believe in the God revealed in Jesus. [1 Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:17]

As a result, many people think that their own goodness will be “good enough.” But at the judgment, there will be no such thing as “good enough”: We will either be covered in the forgiveness of Jesus, washed clean by the blood He shed on the cross; or, we will stand naked in our sins before God. And facing God naked in our sins at the judgment, friends, won’t be good enough.

So, does a loving God send people who don’t believe in him to hell?

The answer, I think, is “Yes and no.”

God loves us and wants us to be with Him forever. But He doesn’t force heaven on us.

Just as good parents let go of their adult children, God lets us go.

As Jesus puts it in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in [God’s only Son] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”

Effectively paraphrasing Jesus, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell choose it.”

Like Lewis, I would love to be able to tell people that no one will go to hell. It would make me more popular. Sadly though, it wouldn’t be the truth.

But it's not because the loving God we know in Jesus Christ sends people to hell. God lets those go to hell who refuse to believe that they need saving or that they need Christ to save them.

If that seems as tragic to you as it does to me--more importantly, if it seems as tragic to you as it does to God--then it ought to give greater urgency to all of us doing the one and only job Christ has given His Church: sharing the good news of forgiven sin and everlasting life through faith in Jesus Christ alone with everyone we know, making disciples.

Let’s pray and work on that one mission together and individually, every day. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message for this evening's midweek Lenten service. It's the third installment of a Lenten series, Tough Questions.]


Monday, March 20, 2017

All I Know by Art Garfunkel

It was the prolific Jimmy Webb who wrote this beautiful song recorded by Art Garfunkel.

Released on the LP, Angel Clare, co-produced by Garfunkel and Roy Halee in 1973, the song was backed by the now-famous coterie of studio musicians, The Wrecking Crew.

I guess that this song is written from the perspective that the love between a woman and a man can be complicated.