Saturday, September 04, 2010

"Are we willing to keep coming back to God for help in getting the spiritual character enhancement we need?"

This should be a question that every Christian faces every single day, hard as it is. It appears in today's installment of Our Daily Bread.

Martin Luther said that the life style of a Christian grateful for the free gift of salvation in Christ, is "daily repentance and renewal." Pursuing this life style--a life of pursuing Jesus, really--requires a courage and an honesty that only God can provide to us. But each day, we need to be willing to pray with the psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:23-24).

But be warned that if you pray that prayer and mean it, and aren't just mouthing pious words you've been taught, God will show you your sins. God will show you your character deficiencies. God will show you the ways in which you need to align your heart, your will, and your actions with God. The simple fact of the matter is that if God and you disagree about whether you've sinned or even about what constitutes a sin, God is not the One Who needs to have a change of mind. God has made clear what is right and what is wrong, putting it all in black and white on the pages of Scripture, no matter how many fancy theological end runs we might try to pull to elude the truth.

But God will never show us our sins and deficiencies--as I experience God doing with me every day--out of malice or spite. God doesn't want you to feel like a worm.

When we ask God to tell us about the wicked ways that are in us, we really ask God to let us see our actual selves, stripped of the masks that we put on to fool other people, to fool God, and to fool even ourselves. It's only when God helps us get real with Him in this way that we understand how desperately we need Jesus Christ.

Vulnerability before God and confession of the sins of which God makes us aware when we are honest before God, will allow us not just to ask God for forgiveness, but also open the way for God to give us the power to combat our faults, to live in different ways, to be reconciled with those we may be hurting, to walk away from the sins that we, in our own power and under our own self-driven reasoning, find irresistible.

"Are we willing to keep coming back to God for help in getting the spiritual character enhancement we need?" If we can answer, "Yes," to that question, even if the size of our affirmation is that of a small mustard seed and no matter how incapable we are of resisting the sins to which we are oriented, we will be well on the road to wholeness, to life with God, to becoming the people God originally intended for us to be.

Jesus Christ, the only one given under heaven through which we can be saved from sin and death and ourselves, makes this possible for all who are willing to turn from the world's futile ways and trust in Him alone.


Here's the New Testament verses on which today's Our Daily Bread devotional is based:
Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ! For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)


Great takes on the crisis in the ELCA and the hope afforded for faithful witness to the Gospel that exists in Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) and the new North American Lutheran Church (NALC) here.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin

Great words from my one-time seminary adviser, Hans Schwarz, Professor Emeritus of Protestant Theology and Contemporary Theological Issues at University of Regensburg in Germany:
Christ-like conduct requires us to have compassion for both faithful and sinners, but it requires us to discern between faithful living and sin, to espouse the former and to reject the latter. While we welcome everybody into our midst, especially those for whom Jesus cared, namely the poor, the despised, and the outcast of society, we dare not bless or condone that which the Bible in all its witness to God's saving action disapproves.
[From By What Authority?: Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message]

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Beyond the Emptiness

[This was shared during a memorial worship service for the family and friends of a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran in Logan, Ohio. The service occurred in the Saint Matthew sanctuary.]

Romans 8:31-39
John 14:1-6
Several weeks have passed now since Elly’s death. While I know that George, Elly’s extended family, and all her many friends saw Elly’s passing as a release from her suffering, the grief—the sense of an empty place at your table, of an empty place in the studio where bowls were spun, glazed, and fired for Empty Bowls, and of an empty spot at the meetings where hospital auctions were planned—that sense of emptiness is great for all of you today. I too will miss my monthly visits with Elly, where I shared Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion and God’s Word with her and where, as we got to know one another better and better and we laughed over these past thirty-four months.

When the emptiness of grief comes to us, there are several ways we can react. One way is to take death, futility, and grief as the final words over our lives.

But there is another way. It’s the way commended by Jesus in the lesson from the Gospel of John in the New Testament that we just read. Jesus has been comforting His disciples in anticipation of His cross. All the disciples know with certainty is that in Jerusalem, with the Jewish religious leaders and the Roman government fearful of Jesus, bad things might happen. What good, they might wonder, will Jesus' death bring?

Jesus tells them—and us—not to be troubled. “I go to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

For the follower of Jesus, that person who repents for sin and bets their whole lives on Jesus Christ, which is what faith is—betting our all on Jesus, futility and emptiness, grief and death do not have control of us. The follower of Jesus lives each day in the certainty that the Savior Who died to erase sin’s power over us and rose from death to give us new life, has prepared places for us in the house of God the Father. We know that, as the other lesson we read, from the New Testament book of Romans, reminds us, “nothing…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Not death.

Not grief.

Not emptiness.

None of this is to say that trusting in what God has done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus will make our grief go away. Knowing how the stories of all believers in Jesus end—that places are prepared for them with God--doesn’t mean that we don’t grieve the loss of those we love and care about. Jesus knew that His friend, Lazarus, believed in Him. Jesus knew that as a believer in Him, Lazarus would spend eternity with God. But when Jesus considered Lazarus’ death and how Lazarus was no longer there among his family and friends in the village of Bethany, Jesus still wept.

Grief is real and don’t let anyone ever tell you that Christians shouldn’t grieve.

But for the believer in Jesus, there is more than grief and loss. It’s to underscore this truth that, in the latter part of our lesson from John’s gospel, Jesus says to the disciples, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas though, speaking for people like me—thick of head and slow in the pick-up--asks Jesus honestly, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas is so overwhelmed by grief, loss, and fear, that he can’t see what he has already seen and experienced.

Thomas already knew that Jesus was God in the flesh. He already knew from the many signs Jesus had performed, that Jesus had power over death and life. But Thomas was afraid that, without Jesus right there physically present to him, he would lose his way, that all the sorrows and sins of life would overwhelm Him.

It’s then that Jesus tells Thomas words that I hope all of you can claim for yourselves this morning. When you’ve lost your way. When all of life seems vain and pointless. When grief grips you and sadness threatens to morph into despair, recall Jesus’ words: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus, the crucified Lord, reclaimed life…not just for Himself, but for all who believe in Him.

Jesus is the only way to the Father and those who follow Him, even when they grieve, are never without hope!

In a way, the empty bowls that Elly made and helped others to make each year stand as a fitting symbol for us today. For the person who is hungry, there is nothing more daunting or frightening than an empty bowl they can’t fill on their own. But Hocking County’s Empty Bowls events take that symbol of defeat, emptiness, and death and turns it on its head.

The empty bowls that Elly and so many of you here this morning have made, sold, and bought through the years have helped to fill the bowls and the bellies of many people, giving them the power to go another day and the hope to keep waking up the next day. Those empty bowls thus became a symbol of hope, love, and community for the hungry.

Today, you and I gather in the bright, illuminating shadow of another symbol turned on its head. In the ancient Roman Empire, crosses were reserved for the worst enemies of the state. Execution on the cross was a horrible way to die and there was no possible reprieve from death for the criminals nailed to them. But Jesus’ mission of love and mercy could not be stopped even by death on a cross. After the seeming defeat of the cross, Jesus, as I've said many times before, would not stay dead. His resurrection turned an instrument of death and a sign of hopelessness, the cross, into a symbol of God’s deathless love.

This morning, we grieve. But we also have hope. The Savior sought by Elly every time she reached out her hands to take the bread and the wine of Holy Communion, has prepared a place for you.

All who believe in Jesus will be united with God and with all who have trusted in Christ in eternity. Our tears will be wiped away. Our griefs erased. And our emptiness filled with an eternity of joy and laughter. Even today, we have so much to look forward to.

God bless you!

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

'THE Person of the Bible'

Jesus is the One to Whom the Bible--Old and New Testaments--points.

Reading the Bible leads us, ultimately, to Jesus. I'm finding that to be true for me again these days as I read the Old Testament book of Leviticus for my personal devotions at night.

Leviticus, which established the system of sacrifice which was, as pointed out by the Jewish-Christian preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews, a "shadow" of Jesus, "the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world."

Allow yourself to be enlightened by the blazing, brilliant light of the Bible and soon you will fall in love with the Light of the world, the One Who fulfilled and embodied God's long-ago call to Israel to be the light to the nations: Jesus, God-enfleshed, the Messiah, the Lord of heaven and earth!

Check out today's Our Daily Bread devotion, The Person of the Bible, based on John 5:31-40. [Note: Jesus is the speaker in that passage of Scripture.]

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Why I Care So Much About Sharing Christ with Others

Ephesians 2:8 reminds us that we are saved from sin and death by God's grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. That's why I am so passionate about sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. I want all people to experience the forgiveness, joy, and everlasting hope that comes to those who end their inborn rebellion to God and surrender to the Savior.

Sharing Christ with others is the only activity to which we can commit themselves that will make any real difference, whether in our own lives or in the lives of others. It also happens to be the mission every Christian is charged with fulfilling.

Please click on the links above and please also read the following passages of Scripture:
 "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." (Romans 10:9)

[Jesus told Nicodemus:] “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God" (John 3:16-18)

 [Peter and John said:] "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). 
Check out today's devotion from Our Daily Bread.

Words That Have Gained Importance for Me

In the past forty-eight hours, these words have only gained in their importance for me. (They're some of what the apostle Paul wrote back in the first century to a young pastor named Timothy.)
"Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully" (2 Timothy 4:2-5)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Welcome to God's Upside Down Kingdom

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

Luke 14:1, 7-14
It would be easy to think that the two stories Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson are just about good manners, fables complete with  morals. But if we thought that, we would be missing important lessons Jesus wants to teach us.

Once more today, please pull out the Celebrate inserts and go to the Gospel lesson from Luke 14. Look at verse seven with me: “When [Jesus] noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable.”

A parable, of course, is a story. But a parable is a special sort of story. In the Greek in which the New Testament was written, the word that we transliterate into English as parable is parabole. It’s a compound word that literally means to throw or roll alongside. A parable is a story woven from people's everyday experiences, with another story of deep significance rolled alongside of it. Jesus’ parables were always meant to tell us something about the kingdom of God that Jesus brought into the world.

Jesus told the two parables in today’s Gospel lesson during a banquet at the home of a Pharisee. Pharisees, you’ll remember, were Jews who, like Jesus, believed in the physical resurrection of the dead. But they also believed that if they adhered to certain rules, most of which were made up by human beings and did not come from God, then their behavior would force God to give them places in the heavenly banquet hall.

In the end, of course, the Pharisees did not believe that rightness with God—what the Bible calls righteousness—is a gift from God conferred on those who repent for sin and trust in God. Instead, they believed that, by their actions, they would earn a place in heaven that not God, the devil, or the world could deny to them. Despite their seeming faithfulness, the Pharisees really tried to whittle God down to human size, to turn God into a tiny deity they could force to make concessions to them simply because they were such good people.

Today, people don’t worry so much about God’s favor. We often seem to have whittled God right out of our lives. Or we’ve twisted the Bible’s teaching that God is love and turned the mighty God of the universe into an indulgent sugar daddy. Many people, even those identifying themselves as Christians, seem to think that all roads lead to heaven. Polling, in fact, repeatedly shows that Christians in the United States accept Jesus’ teaching that there is a heaven. But much smaller numbers of Christians accept the word of Jesus that there is a hell.

Let’s face it: The Bible is filled with inconvenient truths we would rather not hear about. We’re like the rebel people of God the prophet Isaiah addressed some seven hundred years before Jesus. “Do not prophesy what is right,” Isaiah heard them saying, “speak to us smooth things…” 

By contrast, for all their many faults, most of the Pharisees would never have knowingly taught things contrary to the will of God. In fact, they unknowingly and thoughtlessly drifted into their false beliefs.

And Christ’s Church always struggles to resist such unintentional drifting from God. That’s why the Reformation begun by Martin Luther and others back in the sixteenth century must be a continuing part of our lives today. We need to constantly return to God, to God’s Word, to God’s will.

But many Christians seem to have settled into a new kind of Pharisaism in which we are expected to passively go along with what I call Christianity Lite, the religion of anything goes so long as it conforms to the shifting standards of society regarding what is politically correct.

Someone has said that if Jesus were to come to a typical Lutheran congregation in North America and teach, as He did to the Pharisees in first-century Judea, “Stop trying to earn righteousness and salvation,” the response would be, “Who’s trying?”

That’s how far we Lutherans have wandered from Martin Luther’s belief that whenever God’s Word is proclaimed—whether from a pulpit or in all Christians’ everyday interactions with others, we must include the Law (the revelation of God’s will for human beings) and the Gospel (the Good News that in Christ, we who don’t measure up to God’s will for us, can be forgiven and made new and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit to turn from our sins and sinful impulses and receive eternal life from God).

We’ve wandered, too, from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis at the end of World War II, who, in The Cost of Discipleship, warned Lutherans and all Christians against what he called “cheap grace,” which he described as “the grace we bestow on ourselves…the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession.”

Still and all, in this time with so little consciousness of God or concern about the will of God, people are, as in first-century Judea, still in a frenzy to push themselves to the top, to be noticed, to win, to die with the most toys in their possession. These impulses are bred in our sinful bones. And Jesus’ two parables are aimed as much at us as they were His original hearers, the Pharisee host and all his guests.

The first one was told specifically to the guests who were jockeying for places of honor at the banquet. Read along with me, starting at verse 8. “’When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you,”Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus came into our world to flip humanity’s standard operating procedures on their head. A few weeks ago, we looked at the words of Jesus’ earthly mother, Mary, who said of God: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; He has brought down the powerful from their thrones; and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things; and he has sent the rich away empty.” 

Mary knew the truth that Jesus affirms in today’s first parable, that those who humble themselves before God, even if despised by the world, are exalted in God’s kingdom. Jesus calls us to live in confidence not in ourselves or our achievements or our shrewd exploitation of people and circumstances, but in the God Who loves us just as we are and Who is committed to helping those humble enough to confess their sins and their need of Him to enter the process of becoming more Christ-like in this life.

As believers in Jesus, we can live each day knowing that, whatever the world may think or say, we are God’s children forever. When you have Jesus living within you, you most certainly will try to be and do your best every day. But you also will know that the God Who sent His Son to die and rise for you will honor your repentance and shower you with a sense of your infinite value in the eyes of heaven, whatever your job, irrespective of how many degrees you have acquired, however large your income, no matter how good your health, however popular you may be, or even if you get the best spot at the banquet or the football game.

In Christ, I hope and pray that you know that no matter what you’ve done, or how guilty you may be, or how inadequate you may feel, you could not possibly be more loved by God than you are at this very moment.

And if we are willing to let God tear down all the walls that can block out His grace and love, if we are willing to repent for our sins and receive forgiveness, we become God’s personal reclamation projects. Not only can God erase the power of sin and death over you, He can, for those who surrender each day, decrease your taste for the sins that may keep you from knowing peace with God and peace with yourself.

The Lord wants you to take a place of honor at His table even if you think that you’re too lowly or too unworthy to take it. God loves you and all people are welcome to, in the words of Scripture, “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Jesus tells a second parable to His host. You can read it, starting at verse 12. “He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Jesus isn’t making deals here. He’s saying that we who have been welcomed by God our host into the kingdom of God are called to also welcome others. All others. Jesus puts it this way in the Great Commission, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” 

Filled with God’s Spirit, you and I are to be the instruments God uses to invite others to hear God’s Word, Law and Gospel, to hear God’s call and command to repentance, to hear God’s call and command to believe in Jesus and know life everlasting.

We have no control over whether those we invite or welcome will let go of their sins to grasp hold of the grace offered in Jesus. But we must never stop telling them, by our words and our lives, either the inconvenient truth about human sin and our need of God or the incredible, life-changing, good news of the God Who, in Christ, can turn our lives upside down and in doing so, turn our souls right-side up, facing God for life, following Christ for hope, being filled with the Holy Spirit to give us a joy that will never end. Amen!