Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Church: A Fellowship of Recovering Sinners

Church isn't a place for the perfect, but a fellowship for recovering sinners.

After I posted that on Facebook earlier today, a high school classmate wrote to ask, "Mark do we ever really 'recover' from sinfulness?"

If by "recover," it was meant to "get over," the answer is no. Just as with any addiction, we never fully get over the common human condition of sin this side of the grave. We depend on God's grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to help us resist temptation and to enable us do better when we "fall off the... wagon" and any sin, from taking God's Name in vain to engaging in sexual intimacy outside of marriage, from gossip to thievery. 

Just as an alcoholic who has given up drink is still only a recovering alcoholic no matter how many years it's been since their last drink, Christians are nothing more than recovering sinners. 

But, thank God for the process of recovery--what the Biblical theology calls "sanctification"--that happens for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

That's why Christians, mindful that we are sinners saved only by the grace of God given through Jesus Christ, should never look down their noses on unrepentant sinners. Instead, we should befriend them, tell them God's truth in love, pray for them, and ask them, one sinner to another, to "come and see" what it's like to be set free from sin's power, to live today as recovering sinners, and to look to an eternal future when we will live the sinless lives for which God first made us. 

The Church exists as the fellowship within which we hear God's Word and receive the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, confess our sins, receive forgiveness through Christ, and learn together to follow Jesus in our everyday lives. While Christians boldly confess, as Jesus Himself has taught, that Jesus is the only way to a relationship with God, arrogance is inconsistent with being a Christian. As Paul puts it in the New Testament: "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness...", that is, my complete dependence on Jesus Christ.

So, if you're looking for a church home, find one where neither pastor nor people think they're "all that," but who freely acknowledge their imperfections. It's in the fellowship of other "recovering sinners" that you can really experience what it is to be set free from the power of sin.

Church isn't a place for the perfect, but a fellowship for recovering sinners. Want to be a part of that?

[If you live in or near Logan or Hocking County, Ohio, you're invited to "come and see" how Jesus is living in our congregation, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church. Sunday School for all ages--and we have a great adult Sunday School class--meets at 9:15AM each Sunday. Worship happens at 10:15AM. If you currently have no church home, we would love to welcome you!]

Audio of Wednesday Morning's 'Read the Bible in a Year' Discussion

At Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, we're reading the Bible together in a year. This is the Wednesday discussion of this week's readings, Luke 19 through John 15.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How Can I Pray When I Don't Feel Like Praying?

"How can I discipline myself to pray even when I don't 'feel' like praying?"

This is what a man asked me recently.

It's a good question. Here's something that works for me, which, like all my good ideas, I stole from someone much wiser than myself. This idea comes from Bill Hybels, senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. He writes about it in his book, Too Busy Not to Pray.

Hybels' approach is built off of the ACTS pattern for prayer. ACTS is an acronym, the letters of which stand for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.

But Hybels takes ACTS-praying one step further. He suggests that, at least for a period of time, we write out our prayers (whether on the computer or in long hand is up to you, I suppose), in the ACTS format.

So, instead of jumping into your prayer requests (supplications), you first write out words praising God for His greatness, grace, rectitude, and power.

Second, you humbly confess our sins to God. This is a good time to put your life under the microscope of the Ten Commandments, which aren't an archaic list of "thou shalt nots," but expressive of God's plan for the optimal human life. (If you're not sure about the contents of the Ten Commandments, here is a good place to go for them. This list is taken from Martin Luther's Small Catechism, which also gives brief explanations of each commandment.)

 The Bible says this about confession:
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-10)
Third, you write out our words of thanksgiving for all of God's blessings to you, from the death and resurrection of God's only Son, Jesus, to the everyday blessings all of us can take for granted.

Fourth, Hybels says, write out your prayer requests (supplications).

Offer all these requests in Jesus' Name. To ask for anything in Jesus' Name means that you:
Next, Hybels suggests that you read aloud the prayers you've written, offering them to God.

I use this method several days a week and find it beneficial, especially when, periodically, as Hybels suggests, I go back to read the previous prayers and see how God is working in my life.

You can take this approach to your prayers at any time of day that works best for you. But if you really want to pray, I think that what I call ACTS journaling is one good tool to help you stick to regular prayer.

The benefit of committing to this approach is that it disciplines us to STOP. AND. TAKE. THE. TIME. for the most important relationship in our lives and the most important conversation we can have any day.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Can Revival Happen Here and Now? Yes!

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

Mark 1:4-11
In his best-selling book, Whatever Became of Sin?, psychiatrist Karl Menninger tells the true story of a man, stern-faced and unremarkably dressed, who stood on a busy sidewalk in Chicago.

As people hurried along, he pointed to a person he singled out, and shout, "Guilty!" Then without changing expression, he resumed his stance for a few more moments until he directed the same gesture and word at someone else: "Guilty!"

You can almost imagine the effect this strange display had on the passersby. They stared at him, hesitated, looked away, looked at each other, and then hurried on their ways. One man who had received this stranger’s verdict turned to another and asked, "But how did he know?"

Was the stern man who indicted passersby crazy or was he on a mission from God?

Whether he was nuts or not, one thing is true: His verdict was correct. The Bible says that, “there is no one who is righteous, not even one.” We are all guilty of sin. And the Bible teaches that the proper wages for sin is death, separation from God. Crazy or not, the streetside prophet was onto something.

We live in a time, though, when the notion of sin or judgment by God is out of fashion. Actually, this attitude is nothing new. Four hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Malachi said that God’s own people were wearying God by telling each other, "’God loves sinners and sin alike. God loves all.’ And also by saying, ‘Judgment? God's too nice to judge.’"  I hear people say stuff like that all the time.

Look, folks, God makes it clear in His Word: Just because God loves us does not mean that He winks indulgently at our sins. God will not force us into His eternal kingdom if we choose to spend our time in this life walking away from God’s will. In the suffering and cross of Jesus, God has spared no effort to reach out to us, to save us from our sins, and, as Jesus Himself puts it, “to seek and save” those who are lost in their sin. But God will not veto the choices that human beings make when they walk their own way and not God’s way.

We don’t like to be told that we’re guilty of sin. That’s what made the ministry of John the Baptist so remarkable. John told people that they were guilty. Yet despite his unpalatable message, thousands of people apparently thronged to him and confessed that they were sinners in need of the grace of God. Verse 5 of our Gospel lesson from Mark says, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him, confessing their sins.”

Why did that happen? Why did thousands go to repent and be washed in the Jordan River?

Because the power of God was at work in a person who himself was cleansed through repentance and faith in God. People went to hear John the Baptist's call to repentance and faith not because of John the Baptist, but because they saw God working within this strange man. 

Is it possible in the sin-hardened times in which you and I live where sin is so accepted that people might, like they did when John preached on the Jordan, turn to repent for sin and humbly trust in God?

Will people admit their greed and materialism, sexual immorality and selfishness, racism and sexism, gossiping and other forms of violence that characterize these times, then give them up, and seek God’s power to help them walk with God?

I believe that the answer is, “Yes!”

In 1989, Pastor Tim Keller, went to midtown Manhattan in New York City to start a new church. Midtown Manhattan is one of the most interesting and exciting places in the world. I love it! But it’s also a place where the most flagrant disregard for God’s will is on open display, where sin is commended and sinners are seen as heroes. Manhattan is home to some of the most important churches in American history and many of them are dead or dying.

But Redeemer Presbyterian Church, the congregation Keller founded, has grown and is thriving. People who visit there are surprised, Keller says, that the church doesn’t have contemporary praise bands or glitzy video presentations.

Nor is the congregation’s theology tilted toward winning over the multicultural free-spirits of New York City: Keller and the Church teach that all human beings are sinners who need the forgiveness and new life that come to those who repent for sin and believe in Jesus Christ. They teach that Jesus is the one and only way to a relationship with God, that sinners who refuse to repent or believe in Christ will go to hell, that sexual intimacy is meant only for a man and a woman in the covenant of marriage.

Despite holding up the teachings of Jesus and the Bible and running directly against all the politically correct preferences of American culture—in Logan as much as in New York City, Redeemer has grown and welcomes thousands of people to worship each week. Why?

Quite simply, Keller and the people of Redeemer, with humility about their own failings, tell the truth about sin, repentance, and the grace of Christ.

People went to see John the Baptist back in first century Judea because he told the truth about the human condition and their need of God. Through this same truth-telling, Redeemer Presbyterian Church is making disciples for Jesus Christ in what some would consider an inhospitable place.

The same thing needs to happen here in Logan!

But if we want people in Logan to experience the miracle of a life made new by Christ, it must start with Christ’s Church, with you and me.*

In 1947, a group of five men in the Hebrides Islands off the coast of Scotland began to pray together in a barn. They were heartsick over the spiritual state of their community and country. People were far from God, lost in sin. “God,” they cried out, “do something for our islands.” They prayed together nightly.

Every time they prayed, they also read a passage of Scripture. After two years of prayer, nothing had changed in their village, let alone their country. But one night in 1949, they gathered once more to pray, beginning by opening their Bibles, this time reading these words from Psalm 24: “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts…”

Suddenly, God hit these men with a hard, heavenly truth: They had been praying for two years that their islands would turn from sin and turn to Christ, but their own hands were unclean, their own hearts were impure!

They needed to clear away the mark of sin on their own lives and put their sins and their lives under the blood of Jesus Christ! Then, with lives made clean by the grace of Jesus, their prayers for revival--new life--might be heard.

They began to confess their sins to one another. Then they prayed. When they finished, it was 1:30 in the morning. They headed for their homes.

As they walked together, they topped a hill and saw two town drunks, stumbling and mumbling on their knees in a ditch. But as they got closer, they saw that the two men were sober, praying, and asking God to forgive them for their sins.

Then they looked up to see that all over the village, lights had come on in the middle of the night. Dozens of families, aware suddenly of how far they were from God, had gotten out of their beds to pray for forgiveness.

The next morning, people throughout the village met one another and they knew that something had changed. The pall of unrepented sin and selfish living had been lifted. They were walking in the lightness and freedom that belongs to all repentant believers in Jesus.

After that, the people of the village invited Duncan Campbell, an English evangelist, to preach in their homeland. He came and preached and on the strength of the repentant prayers of hundreds, then thousands, of Scots, a great revival of faith happened. The Hebrides Revival, as history now calls it, lasted for three years. Thousands came to faith in Christ.

The same kind of thing can happen here in Logan! God is just as anxious to call people to repentance and faith and new life in Jesus today in Hocking County as He was when He called John the Baptist to preach by the Jordan River, just as anxious as He was when He died on a cross and rose from the dead for us.

But our neighbors and friends not presently walking with Jesus will never know that they need to repent for sin and they’ll never know that their sins can be forgiven through Jesus Christ if all we Christians ever do is engage in our favorite indoor sport. Do you know what that is? It's bellyaching about the awful mess the world is in.

The world is in an awful mess and it has been since Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit.

It was to eternally free us from the mess we’re in that Jesus came into our mess in order to die and rise for us.

So, get over the world being a mess and instead, resolve today not to be a bellyacher, but a knee-bender, a prayer warrior!

Be someone who prays, “God, clean my hands and my heart so that my prayers will be acceptable to you, so that, covered by the grace and forgiveness of Jesus, I can pray for those whose lives are in messes because they don’t have you to guide them through the good and the bad times. Make me clean so that my personal witness for Christ has credibility and the power to convince others to follow Jesus, too!”

This year, I believe that we at Saint Matthew need to commit ourselves to prayer in Jesus’ Name as we never have before. God is doing so much among us and through us and there is still so much more that God wants to do.

We must not be complacent, either about our own need for Christ or the needs of others for Christ. We must pray!

Are you ready for the kingdom of God to break out in the Hocking Hills and see the devil hamstrung?
Are you ready to see hundreds repent and trust in Jesus Christ?

The path to that vision is clear, though it will demand much of us. We must
  • daily confess our sins; 
  • ask for the power of the Holy Spirit to live as faithful witnesses for Christ; 
  • pray that Jesus will be the undisputed Lord of Saint Matthew and of our community; 
  • and when we pray that God’s will be done in our lives, we must also volunteer to do whatever God wants to do through us. 
Then, beloved people of Saint Matthew, watch what the God we know in Jesus Christ does.

God has plans for us! But they will not come to pass unless you and I live completely and totally for the One Who died and rose for us. If you’re ready for this, you may be in for the best time of your whole life. Jesus, please make it so. Amen!

*Of course, it starts with God, Who claims us in Baptism and incites us to repentance and prayer. But, as Jesus shows in the Great Commission, God brings spiritual renewal and revival through the people of His Church (Matthew 28:19-20).