Sunday, January 22, 2017

Jesus Means Freedom

Matthew 4:12-25
Last week, I mentioned a dialog I had with a group of atheists on Twitter. I didn't mention the comment of one tweeter that particularly caught my attention. The person said: “Christianity requires faith in an absurd dictatorial system that defies all sense.”

What interests me about that comment is that it has nothing to do with whether God exists or not. The person who wrote it was saying, “I’m not interested in Christianity because to be a Christian means submitting to the lordship of Jesus Christ.” In essence, the person was writing, “I don’t want anyone bigger than me telling me what to do.”

Well, neither do I!

The fact is that you don’t have to be an atheist to feel that way.

It’s what the devil felt and why he’s been in rebellion against God all these millennia.

It’s what Adam and Eve felt, wanting to “be like God.”

It’s what we all feel, believers and unbelievers alike, when we’re tempted by sin or rationalize our ways to committing sin despite the witness of God’s law written on our hearts [Romans 2:15].

The truth is that none of us wants anyone bigger than us telling us what to do. We want freedom. (Or at least what we call freedom.) We want to be our own bosses.

So, why would anyone follow Jesus?

The answer to this question is as mysterious and wonderful and, ultimately, as plain and compelling as Jesus Himself, I think.

We see some of that answer in today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 4:12-25. The events it recounts occurred immediately after Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness. At the outset of our lesson, we’re told that after John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus went to the region of Galilee, then left Nazareth, the town in which He was raised, and settled in another Galilean town, Capernaum. Capernaum was a seaside place, now known as Tel Hum. The entire region is part of the inheritance of two of ancient Israel’s tribes, Zebulun and Naphtali, from which the Old Testament prophet Isaiah said “the light of the world” would dawn on the world.

It’s interesting that God decided that the light of the Messiah should initially be revealed there. It was looked down upon by the good religious folks of Judea because its residents came in frequent contact with Gentiles, non-Jews. But by beginning here, God was signaling that the Son of God, Jesus, hadn’t come just for Jews. He came for all people, including you and me.

In verse 17 of our lesson, Matthew gives a summary of what Jesus was about: “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

That was the message. It still is.

It’s a message that Jesus delivered in more than just words. It still must be.

Jesus came to call the world to turn from sin so that they could be part of the kingdom of heaven He brings to those who trust in Him...
  • Trust in Him more than they trust in their own judgment.
  • Trust in Him more than they trust in their own feelings.
  • Trust in Him more than they trust in anyone or anything else.
So, my atheist correspondent was right in one sense: To trust in Jesus is to submit to a King Who is bigger than us.

This may not seem like such a compelling offer. Yet, as we’ll see, there were people--seemingly self-sufficient, enterprising, successful people--willing to turn from their sins and turn away from whatever else they were doing in life in order to follow Jesus.

Verse 18: “As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. Going on from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John. They were in a boat with their father Zebedee, preparing their nets. Jesus called them, and immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”

Please, just because you’ve read or heard these verses a million times, don’t overlook the enormity of what’s recounted. Here are Simon and Andrew, working at the family fishing business. Fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were guaranteed a steady income. The constant stream of Gentiles traveling along the international trade route that passed through their territory would always be looking for fish to cook, as would the natives of Galilee, for whom fish was a diet staple. Why on earth would Simon and Andrew leave such a sure thing to follow Jesus to God-knows-where? And then there are James and John, two fishermen so well off that the Gospel of John tells us that they had servants. But when Jesus called them, “immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.”

There is no way that Simon, Andrew, James, or John could know what awaited them.

They didn’t know that this Man Who called them was God-in-the-flesh.

They didn’t know that He would be crucified.

They didn’t know that they would be crucified or executed for their faith in Jesus.

Nor could they see the glory and eternal life that awaits all who trust Jesus with their sins and their lives.

And they couldn’t see all that they would end up doing to tell others that, in Jesus Christ, “the kingdom of heaven” had drawn near to all people and that all they needed to do to become part of it was repent and believe in Christ.

They just followed. But why?

Verse 23: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed; and he healed them. Large crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea and the region across the Jordan followed him.”

Matthew records that as time went on, Jesus performed fewer miracles and focused more on speaking His message. But at the beginning of His ministry He performed many miracles. And all of them--the healings, driving out demons, relieving people of pain, removing paralysis from dead limbs--were also part of His message.

And the message was simple: This Jesus had absolute control over life, death, and the elements of the universe; this Jesus was and is God and because He is God, He can give what only God can give, new life.

Undoubtedly, as they saw these miracles, many people asked each other questions similar to the one that the disciples would later ask after they’d watched Jesus calm a storm that threatened to kill them: “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!" (Matthew 8:27)

What kind of man is this who can send demons packing?

What sort of person is this who can erase pain, remove death, destroy leprosy?

Those who came to follow Jesus did so because, by His words, His actions, His life, and ultimately, His death and resurrection, came to know that He was more than a man. As Simon Peter would later say to Jesus: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." (Matthew 16:16)

When Simon, Andrew, James, and John first followed, they didn’t know what that might entail for their lives, but they did know that they wanted Jesus, they wanted life with Him.

Most people in first century Judea didn’t want Jesus as their Lord, of course. That’s why they crucified Him.

But even then, the power of God over life and death and the universe are such that Jesus could not be kept dead. As Peter would later say: “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:24) He rose on Easter, demonstrating that faith in Him is not in vain, that God will have the last word, and that all who repent and trust in Christ will live with Him forever.

But what about our freedom? When Simon, Andrew, James, and John followed Jesus, did they give up their freedom forever? Yes. And no.

They gave up the freedom to do whatever their sinful natures dictated to them, to shaft whoever they wanted to shaft, to desecrate themselves and their worlds in the selfish pursuit of worldly happiness...and all worldly happiness has an expiration date on it that will come at the grave, usually before.

But they also gained a greater freedom. In following Jesus, we are set free from sin, death, and pointless lives.

We are set free to live life with the love, abandon, fearlessness, hope, and purpose, now and in eternity, for which we were made.

In Jesus, the God Who made us in His image, frees us to move toward lives that reflect the specifications and purposes for which He made us.

He sets us free to be human: to live, to think, to love, and to be all that God created us to be.

Martin Luther put it like this in his famous essay on Christian freedom: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all.”

When, some time ago, our own Georgeann sensed God telling her that she needed to begin planning a weekend retreat for the women of Living Water and their friends, she thought of all sorts of reasons for not doing it. But God kept insisting.

Was Georgeann exercising freedom when she said yes to God’s call? Absolutely!

You see, when God gets His way with us, it isn’t to enslave us, it’s to set us free to do and be exactly what, deep in our hearts and souls, we know we are meant to do and be and long to do and be. The German Lutheran theologian, Ernst Kasemann, summed up the truth simply. “Jesus," he said, "means freedom.”

This is why people followed Jesus in Galilee.

It’s why we follow Him still.

It’s why we are Christ’s disciples today.

In following Jesus, disciples do give up control of their lives.

But unlike the other things to which we might give our lives in this world, Jesus gives us life back: a life filled with God’s love, God’s power, God’s promise, and the freedom to become exactly what God intended for us to be when He formed us in our mothers’ wombs.

May we grow in our discipleship as we live in the freedom of Christ’s lordship over our lives. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This message was shared during worship this morning.]

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

What exactly does a "people leader" do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Franklin Roosevelt]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 16, 2017

A Prayer for America

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

Inviting All to 'Come and See'

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

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

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

[Click to enlarge.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discipleship is born in relationship, not salesmanship.

Discipleship is born in relationship, not programs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcoming churches are passive; inviting churches are active.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s make disciples! Amen

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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Stick to the job at hand, Franklin!

I have long been an admirer of evangelist Billy Graham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Billy Graham and Lyndon Johnson]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just my two cents' worth.

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

The Trumpster Tweets

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

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

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Contentment and Going for Broke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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