Friday, May 25, 2012

Buck the Waves

Ever notice how so many people described as being "cutting edge," "prophetic," or even "courageous" are just jumping on board the latest flavor-of-the-week bandwagon?

 This is the kind of thing Paul warned the young pastor Timothy would happen, as it does in some form in every generation: "...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" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).

Buck the waves: Stick with Christ and the Word of God. "All other ground is sinking sand..."

This is One of Those Items That Makes Me Say, "Oy!"

Two characteristics of post-modern culture are:
  • Our elevation of sex as an end in itself, rather than the creation of a good God to be used by husbands and wives to express their love and bonding to one another and, when God and they choose, a means of sharing their love with children.
  • Our elevation of the value of other creatures, even as we denigrate the value of human beings.
These two characteristics are seen very much in the contemporary Church, as it plays to and reflects the surrounding culture, rather than raising a voice that shows people the more excellent ways of God.

Now, apparently, in one segment of the post-modern church, new prayers for animals that go way beyond blessing them are being considered. Check out Pastor Peters' summary. Make sure you read his comments at the end; I laughed out loud!

Five Great Insights on Growing Churches

Great food and prayer for thought here from the latest issue of Thrivent Magazine:

Thrivent magazine
Spring 2012 | Volume 110 | Number 663

Live, Give, Grow: Faith

Growing Congregations

Interested in growing your church? You may find some ideas in a recent study of American congregations done by Faith Communities Today, an ongoing multi-faith research effort based at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut. Here's what growing congregations are doing:
  1. Using four or five technologies (Twitter, Facebook, blogs, email and more) to serve existing members and connect with new ones (57%).
  2. Offering parenting events, which they consider a "specialty" of the congregation (64%).
  3. Holding special events once a month or more to attract people from outside the congregation (44%).
  4. Always having children or youth read, speak or perform during worship (45%).
  5. Emphasizing prayer groups, which they consider a "specialty" of the congregation (47%).
Source: FACTs on Growth (

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

This Morning's Discussion of Luke, chapters 7 to 11 (Read the New Testament in a Year)

The people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, are currently taking a year to read the New Testament. We read five chapters each week. On Wednesdays, we get together for discussions of the week's readings. People can choose to come either in the mornings or the evenings.

Here is this morning's discussion of Luke, chapters 7 through 11.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

"Bold Lutheran" Need Not Be an Oxymoron!

[This is from my devotions for the Saint Matthew Church Council this evening.]

Tonight, I'd like to look at three passages of Scripture. The first is John 14:1. It comes from the same section of John as our gospel lessons for the past few Sundays have come. It's what scholars call the Farewell Discourse, words spoken by Jesus in the presence of the twelve apostles on the night of His arrest. In John 14:1, Jesus says:
"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me."
Martin Luther had some especially important things for Lutherans to hear about these words of Jesus.

First, Luther said:
...if we Christians stay close to [Christ], we know that He speaks to us.
Those who trust that Jesus is God and Savior and is risen and is living, seated at the right hand of God the Father, know that, to this day, Jesus speaks to us.
  • Jesus, first of all and most assuredly speaks to us in the only book in the world the contents of which were breathed into its writers by the Holy Spirit: the Bible. 
  • And, Jesus speaks to us in what one pastor calls "whispers," bits of guidance, messages to the heart, that the Holy Spirit speaks to the minds of those who follow Jesus. (Those "whispers" will always be consistent with what we know of Jesus from the Bible, by the way. Whispers that urge us to sin aren't from God!)
  • Jesus also speaks to us through the Sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, the "visible words" that have been instituted by Christ, involve physical elements (bread and wine or water), and bring the forgiveness of sins. 
Luther then says this of Jesus' words in John 14:1:
We can be sure of this: a sorrowful, timid, and frightened heart doesn't come from Christ.
Wow! We Lutherans need to especially latch onto the truth in those words. That's because when it comes to living our faith out loud or sharing the Good News of new life that can belong to anyone who turns from sin and believes in Jesus, we Lutherans tend to be timid.

Words on a T-shirt I saw not long ago give a good characterization of we Lutherans:
I'm proud to be a Lutheran...but not too proud.
I want to tell you that our hesitation about letting the light of Jesus shine from us and about telling others the Good News about Jesus does not come from Jesus or from the Holy Spirit.

Our hesitation is learned and cultural, not spiritual. It's not of God!

A second passage of Scripture I want to look at underscores this fact. It's 2 Timothy 1:6-7. These verses come from the second letter we have in the New Testament that was written by the apostle Paul to a young pastor named Timothy. Paul writes:
For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. 
All Christians have the Holy Spirit living within them. The Spirit is sometimes portrayed in Scripture as a burning flame. Paul says that we need to rekindle this flame, stoke the fire of passion and belief in Christ within us.

We do this by daily contact with God, especially by praying throughout our days about anything and everything, seeking God's help and guidance and praising Him, along with regularly reading and studying God's Word.

The Holy Spirit is not "a spirit of cowardice." The more we Christians rely on God, the more the Holy Spirit ignites and sustains our passion and makes us bold in sharing our faith with others.

We need to seek the help of God's Holy Spirit so that we can live with the same boldness and conviction shown by Paul in the book of Romans:
...I am not ashamed of the gospel [Paul writes]; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek [or Gentile, the non-Jew]. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, "The one who is righteous will live by faith."
May God's Holy Spirit fill us with boldness as we spread the good news of new life that belongs to those (and only to those) with faith in Jesus Christ!

Wants, Needs, and Daily Bread

MAY 21, 2012
Couples Argue 3 Times per Month Over Finances

Financial matters trigger an average of 3 arguments per month for married couples, an incidence that rises to 4 per month for those aged 45 to 54, according to a U.S. survey conducted for the American Institute of CPAs by Harris Interactive. The most common source of contention is disagreement over what's a "want" and what's a "need." The next most common issues are unexpected expenses and insufficient savings.

Source: AICPA Survey: Finances Causing Rifts for American Couples

This bit of information was the daily stat from the Harvard Business Review yesterday.

After I shared it with my wife, we both agreed that, happily, money or how to spend and save it, isn't a bone of contention between us.

You know, Jesus teaches Christians to pray, "Give us this day our daily bread."

Martin Luther explains this petition in The Small Catechism: "God indeed gives daily bread to all, even unbelievers, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that He would help us recognize this so that we could receive our daily bread with thanksgiving."

Of course, there are many millions of people in this world who lack "daily bread."

But this is not a provision problem. God provides all that we need, including all the technology we need to cause even the most challenging of environments provide people with sustainability.

The widespread existence of hunger in our world today--every twelve seconds, a child dies of hunger somewhere on the planet--is a sharing problem: We who have aren't sharing with those who have, often not sharing even the know-how by which people who live in parts of the world that suffer drought or, as the result of human power games, famine.

This is why the people of our congregation, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, are involved with World Vision.

Through World Vision, we sponsor a child in Ethiopia. The money doesn't go directly to the child or to her family, but to efforts toward creating a sustainable future in the village in which she lives. (As well as sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with her.)

The youth of our church also have, for the past two years, participated in the 30 Hour Famine. During their famine, the teens go without food for thirty hours and receive pledges from those supporting their efforts, with the monies also going to World Vision's efforts to erase the global food shortage. (Over the course of the thirty hours, the young people also learn about the world hunger challenge and what can be done to address it.)

It's gratifying being able to give up some of our own comfort and resources in order to be the conduits through whom God provides our global neighbors with their daily and in a sustained future.

I also believe that if couples will daily seek to align their lives with the will of God as revealed in the Bible, their arguments over money will begin to diminish. Grateful for the undeserved gifts of forgiveness for sin and everlasting life with God that comes to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ, they'll want to spend less superfluously and give more generously. (Learning this is a process, by the way, and it's a lesson we never fully learn this side of the grave.)

It isn't that God doesn't want us to have fun, of course. But when "fun" is the aim of our lives, we separate ourselves from God and others, we can become selfish, and we lose ourselves.

Jesus once asked: "What does it gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit [yourself]? (Luke 9:25). Good question!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Jesus' Goodbye Prayer

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

John 17:6-19
Imagine, for a moment, that you’re the parent of younger children (if you're the parent of younger children, no imagining necessary) and you’re about to go away on a long trip.

As a responsible parent, before going, there are at least three major things you would be sure to do.

First, you would arrange for someone to take care of your kids in your absence.

Second, you would review for your children any essential instructions, including remembering that you always love them.

And third, you would pray, asking that God would see that your children were looked after and that you would all be safely, happily reunited.

Jesus does all three of these things in chapters 13 through 17 of John’s gospel, a section of the New Testament scholars call Jesus’ Farewell Discourse. They’re words Jesus speaks at the Last Supper in the presence of the apostles on the night before His crucifixion.

After being crucified, of course, Jesus would rise from the dead and, forty days later, ascend to heaven. From that moment, Jesus knew that no one on earth would see Him face to face for a period of time known only to God the Father.

So, in John 13:36, Jesus says: “Where I am going, you cannot follow Me now, but you will follow Me afterward.” Like a responsible parent, Jesus is preparing His followers for His impending departure.

Later, in John 14:18, Jesus assures the disciples that, even with Him being physically absent, they wouldn’t be alone: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” Jesus will come back some day, the dead who have believed in Him will rise again, and Jesus will welcome His children into the new heaven and the new earth He has prepared for believers in Christ. But until that moment, He would not (and He does not) leave those who believe in Him by themselves. He sends the Holy Spirit to be with us!

Then in John, chapter 17, having arranged for the care of those who believe in Him and having instructed believers in how to live until He comes back, Jesus does what any responsible parent does before a time of separation from his or her children: He prays.

Turn to John, chapter 17, please. There, you’ll see that Jesus’ chapter-long prayer, called by some the high priestly prayer, has been divided by translators into three sections.
  • In verses 1 through 5, Jesus prays for Himself, not selfishly, but to ask that, as He had glorified God the Father during His time on earth, the Father would now glorify Him through His suffering, death, and resurrection, all so people will believe in Him and have life. 
  • In verses 20 through 26, Jesus prays for people who will come to believe in Him through the witness of those who first followed and believed in Him. (That includes you and me.)
  • Our lesson is John 17:6-19. Here, Jesus prays for His first disciples. 
Let’s look at what Jesus prays. In verses 6 to 8, He says that He has “manifested” the Father’s Name. To manifest is to show or to make clear. John 1:18 says: “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” The New Revised Standard Version translates that last phrase: “It is God the only Son, Who is close to the Father’s heart, Who has made Him [made God] known.” By taking on human flesh, Jesus has manifested God. When we look to Jesus, we see what God is like. In fact, we see God.

Of course, not everyone looks at Jesus and sees that He is God in the flesh. Some refuse to see God in Jesus. The fact is that only those who are willing to see Jesus in this way are granted the gift of faith. These are the people who become disciples.

Disciples --followers of Jesus--aren’t perfect people. Nor are they people who don’t sometimes have doubts. They’re people who come from an imperfect world and are themselves imperfect. But by God’s amazing grace, God gives forgiveness to those who repent for sin and grants brand new, everlasting lives to those who surrender control over their lives to Jesus. Disciples are forgiven sinners in whom, day in and day out, the Holy Spirit is constructing faith in Jesus as Lord, God, Savior, and King of their lives.

In verse 9, Jesus prays something curious. We know from John 3:16 and other passages that God the Father sent Jesus because God so loved the world, in spite of our sin, that He sent God the Son--Jesus--so that all who believe in may not perish, lost to God forever, but have everlasting life. God loves the world and the human beings who populate it!

Yet look at how Jesus prays in verse 9: “I pray for them [meaning the disciples] . I do not pray for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours.”

You see, more important to Jesus than this world are the people God has given to Him, the people who entrust their lives to Him, the people who make up His Church.

Long after this universe has been destroyed and Jesus establishes His new heaven, new earth, and the new Jerusalem, believers in Jesus--the Church--will still exist. (Revelation 21:1-4)

The Church, the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples, is eternal.

The Church isn’t buildings, gardens, classrooms, sanctuaries, pipe organs, albs and stoles, hymn books, or offering plates.

I love how Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, one of the basic confessional documents of the Lutheran movement, based on the Bible, describes the Church. It says that the “ holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.”

None of this is to say that the Church on earth is perfect. Personally, I know that I drag my old sinful self, sometimes kicking and screaming, whenever I come into the presence of Christ or gather with the fellowship of believers in Christ! This side of our own resurrections, every saint is still a sinner: a forgiven sinner, a recovering sinner, a sinner who lives in daily repentance and renewal, but still a sinner, saved only by the grace God gives to all who believe in Jesus Christ.

Article VIII of the Augsburg Confession notes that even in the church there are “many false Christians, hypocrites, and even open sinners [who] remain among the godly...”

But that doesn’t make the Church any less essential for anyone to have a life with God.

Life with God only happens in the lives of those who hear, receive, and believe in the gospel--the good news about Jesus--and who receive the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

And these things--gospel and sacrament--are only offered by the Church.

This is why Jesus goes on to pray in John 17:11: “Holy Father, keep through Your Name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as We are.”

Let’s be clear about what Jesus is praying here.

Jesus is not praying that everybody will all just get along.

There’s nothing wrong with people getting along, of course, and one day, after Jesus has returned to the earth, the dead who believed in Him arise, and He establishes the new heaven and the new earth, the harmony God intended for this fallen world will come into being.

But Jesus is not praying for unity in His Church in these days before His return at the expense of the truth.

He’s praying that our oneness, our unity, as Christians will be rooted in the truth that can only be found in Him and in the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and revealed in the pages of Scripture.

That’s why Jesus prays as He does in John 17:17 (look at the verse, please): “Sanctify [that is, set them apart from the rest of the world, make them holy] Your truth. Your word is truth.”

A group of people united by anything other than the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the revealed Word of God is not a church.

When Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany and unintentionally began the Reformation, he didn’t mean to divide the Church. He did it in hopes of uniting the Church behind the truth as revealed in Jesus and in the Bible, the living Word of God.

Luther was condemned by bullies of Church and State who told him that the Bible and Christian faith were what they said they were, no matter what Christ and the Holy Spirit-inspired Scriptures themselves may have said to the contrary.

To the bullies, rituals, edicts, traditions, and “church unity” were more important than the truth God has revealed in Christ and reiterated in the Bible.

They wanted to force unity at all costs.

Martin Luther and the other leaders of the Reformation said, “No. We won’t play God for a chump. We won’t turn our backs on the truth.”

Folks, unless a church teaches and believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and that people can only come to life with God the Father through faith in Christ, it’s not really part of Christ’s church.

Unless a church believes that Jesus was born of a virgin and was physically raised from the dead, it’s not a church.

Unless a church believes that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and is useful for teaching, reprimand, correction, and for training in righteousness, it’s not really a church.

Unless a church draws its being, life, and joy from Christ alone, Word alone, faith alone, it’s not really a church.

The church is that fellowship of believers among whom the gospel of new life for all who believe in Jesus is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments are administered according to the gospel.

It’s the fellowship being taken care of by God’s Holy Spirit, in which we hear and heed the Word of God, and is bathed in prayers: the prayers of Jesus for us and the prayers we offer for one another and for our witness about Jesus in the world.

If all these things aren't true of a group of people who call themselves church, they are not part of Christ’s Church. They may be a social club. Or a service club. Or a keep-up-the-building club. But they’re not part of the Church. Salvation isn’t happening among them. Its life isn’t being built on the truth of Christ.

If the church as you experience it is anything less than what Christ intends for you to have, why not join in praying to God today:
I want to build my life on the truth of Christ. I want to be part of a fellowship that scares the devil and shares life in Christ with a world that is dying in its sin by the second. I want to see Jesus’ prayer for His Church answered in my own life, along with the lives of all who are part of Saint Matthew. Grant this, O Lord! Amen 
If that prayer expresses the desire of your heart today, I invite you to keep offering prayers like that every day you live and to allow the Holy Spirit to make you part of God the Father’s answer to Jesus’ John 17 prayer! Amen