Friday, August 03, 2012

Speaking of 'Matchbox'

Peaches: Yummy!

Took a break from sermon preparation today to enjoy some of these fresh-from-the-farm peaches that my wife had peeled and sliced. They were wonderful! She bought them from an orchard store (where they also have delicious apples!) in Laurelville, Ohio.

Every time I have peaches, I can't keep from doing my best Ringo impression: "Well, if you don't want my peaches, honey, please don't shake my tree." (The song is Matchbox. Of course, it was originally written and recorded by Carl Perkins, but I love the Beatles' version.)

Faith and Works?

This is an awesome, thought-provoking, and helpful piece based on James 2:14-26 in the New Testament.

You can see why the young Martin Luther, excited with the insight that we are only saved from sin and death by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus Christ, was driven a bit crazy by some of the things that James writes in those verses. (Faith, by the way, includes repentance for sin and trust in Christ to erase the power of sin and its result, death, over our lives.)

But, of course, James is not, in these verses, disputing the power of faith--simple trust--in Christ to save.

He is saying that faith is more than simple intellectual assent to the truths taught in the New Testament, such as that Jesus is the fulfillment of God's law and the Old Testament, that He is the "Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world," and that all who follow Jesus alone have life with God forever (John 3:16-18; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). 

True faith, James is pointing out, infects the life of those who believe and, as a result, they live differently.

Among other things, they are more loving toward God and neighbor, they seek to undertake acts of mercy and kindness and justice, and, speaking the truth in love, they share with their neighbors Jesus' call repent (turn from sin) and believe in Him in order to have new and everlasting life with God. Jesus calls all of this "bearing good fruit."

As we trust in Christ, daily turning to God for forgiveness of sins in Jesus' Name and daily being renewed by the grace and goodness of God, two important things will happen in the lives of believers:

(1) We'll be motivated to do the will of God;

(2) Often without our even knowing it, God will supernaturally empower us to do His will. (Check out, for example, the reactions of "the blessed" in Jesus' parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46. They were so operating in utter dependence on Christ in their daily lives on earth that when Jesus lauds them for their good works, they express unawareness of those works.)

This isn't to say that there aren't times when Christians don't have to say, "OK, Lord, this isn't something I want to do. But it's your will. So, I'll do it." (Even Jesus prayed that way in the garden of Gethsemane asking the Father to create some other means by which human beings could be reconciled to God. It turns out that there was no other way. So, Jesus accepted the cross and died for our sins.)

The thing God wills us to do may be to give money to provide housing for the homeless, speak out against prejudice, help a neighbor who gets on our nerves, forgive a family member who has hurt us, refrain from a sin that excites us, or tell a friend a hard truth about their sin and its consequences.

But as we consciously accept God's will for us in particular situations, God will build our faith, lift us by His grace, and fill us with His supernatural power to do the good of which we are, by nature, incapable on our own. God will help us to do good and righteous deeds that are otherwise foreign to those of us who are "born in sin" (Psalm 51:5).

Keep drawing closer to Christ and, however imperfectly or haltingly or infected with the inevitable mixed motives of human beings who haven't gotten to heaven yet you may act or feel or think, you will bear good fruit.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Acts 1-3: Christ's Church Begins (Read the New Testament in a Year Discussion, August 1, 2012)

As you may know by now, the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, are in the midst of reading the New Testament together in a year's time. Each week, we have discussion groups that look at the week's readings.

Last night, we looked at Acts 1 to 3. One inaccuracy on my part from the discussion: I was asked if Sadducees still existed. I said yes and cited a picture I had seen recently of a Sadducee priest. That was incorrect. The picture I saw in Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible was of a Samaritan high priest. The Sadducees passed out of existence after the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Jewish Virtual Library contains interesting and useful information on the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes here.

Among the primary sources of the information I present here are:

"God works through us to meet the needs of those around us."

See here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Recall Notice"

If you don't click on another link today, please click on this one.

It may mean the difference between life and death.

And be sure to pass it on to someone else.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Listening in on an Apostle's Prayers

This is a rather faint and scratchy recording of this Saint Matthew's Chapel Holy Communion worship service, held at 8:30 this morning. The Bible lesson was Ephesians 3:14-21.

We Need Never Be Afraid

[This was prepared to be shared during the 10:15 worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

John 6:1-21
Did you notice anything strange in the gospel lesson from John?

The first fifteen verses of the passage deal with Jesus feeding a group of 5000, using just five loaves of barley and two fish to pull it off. In fact, there was a lot of untouched food left over! It’s an incredible miracle, a sign of His authority over the elements of the world, of His compassion for people, of Jesus being more than just a good man.

The last six verses recount a stormy ride on the Sea of Galilee taken by Jesus' disciples. And it’s here that something that may seem strange to us happens. Or, more accurately, something that, after reading the gospels of Matthew and Mark, we might expect to happen, but isn’t mentioned.

Turn please to John 6:16-21. We’re told: “...when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea, got into the boat, and went over the sea toward was already dark, and Jesus had not come to them. Then the sea arose because a great wind was blowing.” (Just imagine being in a boat out on Lake Erie facing a wind like some of those we’ve been experiencing around here lately.) “So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat and they were afraid. But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they willingly received Him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.”

Neither John nor Mark, in their gospels, mention that after Jesus identified Himself, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s really You, call to me and let me walk on the water to you.” Matthew tells us about this and about how, having taken a few steps, Peter looked at the wind and the waves and lost his faith in Jesus to do the impossible and began to sink into the waters.

Now, these differences in detail shouldn’t rock our worlds! Each of the gospel writers tells us about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in his own way, touching on particular themes. John even tells us that he leaves out some details. Turn to John 20:30-31. These words come toward the end of the gospel and they constitute John’s “mission statement,” his reason for writing his gospel. He says: “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples; but these [that is, the one John recounts in his gospel] are written than you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

Keep those two verses tucked in your mind as we look at another detail surrounding Jesus walking on the water that John doesn’t include, but which both Matthew and Mark mention.

Look first at Matthew 14:32. It says: “And when they [Jesus and Peter] got into the boat, the wind ceased.”

Now, please go to Mark 6:51: “Then He [Jesus] went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased.”

Matthew and Mark both say that the moment Jesus got into the boat, the wind stopped. That’s a pretty amazing occurrence, isn’t it, another sign that Jesus is Lord and God of the universe? Wouldn’t you think that John, who shows us signs of Jesus’ identity so that we can believe in Him and have the forgiveness of sins and new life only Jesus can give, would mention it?

But John doesn’t mention it. All He says is that the disciples rode the waves through the storm, saw Jesus walking on the water, and that their boat landed safely on the other side after Jesus climbed into the boat.

So, why doesn’t John tell us about the calm that came to the Sea of Galilee?

Maybe because it isn’t really important. In fact, my guess is that John deliberately left out the detail about the becalmed wind to make a point. What do I mean?

You know, if I dared to let you listen in when I have my time of personal prayer each day, one minute would not have passed before I would begin to blush in embarrassment. That’s because, on reflection I realize that, more often than I like, my prayers can be so childish, immature. I run into a problem here, a challenge there, and instead of asking God for guidance, or courage, or wisdom, or faith, I ask God to just take away the problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong: God is so compassionate, He’s even willing to hear us when we pray the most childish, even selfish, things. For God, the fact that we pray to Him is a lot more important than what we pray. The God we know in Jesus Christ is a great artist: Our imperfect prayer petitions are like ill-formed messes of clay offered up to God, which God can turn into masterpieces of His design. But when we’re going through storms in our lives, as unpleasant and hard and sad as the storms that may afflict us can be, our ultimate concern shouldn’t be whether Jesus takes the storms away or not, but whether we’re riding the storm out while following Jesus.

I’ve known some people whose lives were mostly spent in pleasant circumstances whose faith in Christ was destroyed by the smallest hint of adversity. But I’ve also known people who have endured more tragedy than most of us can imagine. The storms were fierce in their lives. Yet their faith in Jesus, their belief in His presence with them now and in His promise of eternity to all who repent for sin and believe in Him, actually was strengthened during their storms.

Nobody wants to experience adversity or pain in their lives. But God can use life’s storms to strengthen our faith in Christ.

In fact, if we pay attention to the experiences of believers like Job in the Old Testament or Paul in the New Testament, we see that, while Satan is the ultimate author of all evil in the world, sometimes God allows adverse experiences to befall us in order to teach us to rely more deeply on Him and less so on ourselves.

There’s a story told a goldsmith. He was explaining what it takes to refine a piece of gold to turn it into something beautiful and useful. It all has to be done at a precise temperature, he explained. And the timing has to be just so. “How,” someone asked, “do you know when the gold has reached perfection?” “That’s easy,” he said, “when I can see my reflection in it.”

In Jesus Christ, we know that God is a compassionate miracle worker. Each of us can name experiences either in our own lives or in the lives of others where we know that Christ has intervened  to give healing, strength, encouragement, or new starts in our personal lives, our jobs, our relationships.

But sometimes the winds still blow against us.

Sometimes things happen that we will not be able to understand or explain until, after our own deaths and resurrections, we see Jesus face to face.

In the meantime, God allows the circumstances of our lives to re-form our characters so that, one day, in eternity, when He looks at us, He will see Himself--His love, His perfection--reflected in us.

This is what John, the author of our gospel lesson, means when he writes to believers in Christ in another book of the New Testament: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when He [Jesus] is revealed [when we see Jesus on the Day of the Lord], we will be like Him...” 

One of the biggest misconceptions into which Christians can fall is the notion that being part of the Church is like being a member of a civic club. You know: You join, throw some money into the till, and get goods and services for which you pay. “Membership has its privileges.”

That’s not what being a member of Christ’s eternal fellowship, the Church, is about!

You see, Jesus Christ has already paid our membership dues for the Kingdom of God. He did that when He died on a cross, taking our punishment for sins, and rising from the dead to give life to those who turn from sin as the ultimate authority over their lives and instead, entrust their lives to Jesus as their only God, King, and Savior.

The privilege of being part of Christ’s Church is the privilege of being remade in the image of Christ as we daily surrender our lives and wills to Him.

The privilege of being a Christian is knowing that the God Who, out of His amazing grace, saves from sin and death those who believe in Jesus, isn’t in the business of just getting us out of the pain we encounter in this life. He's playing for much higher stakes! He’s reshaping our characters for eternity!

We still have storms in this life. The adverse, painful winds still rage in this fallen world. People die young, lose their jobs, know the heartache of divorce, go bankrupt, die of starvation, face persecution for their loyalty to Jesus and the Word of God.

But there are two other things that the last six verses of our gospel lesson should teach us.

The first is this: When they received Jesus into the boat, they landed safely on the shore. When we take Jesus into every experience of our lives, whatever adversities we face, we can know that He is with us. Nothing can separate us from Him.

And finally this: The translations of John 6:20 in most English versions of the Bible aren’t good. Our translation says that Jesus told the frightened disciples: “It is I; do not be afraid.” That rendering really misses the point of Jesus’ words. In the Greek in which John wrote, he quotes Jesus as saying, "Ego eimi," meaning literally, "I am." It's a strange thing to say--"I am; do not be afraid." Strange, until you remember the name that God gave Moses to refer to Himself when Moses encountered Him in the burning bush thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The name was "Yahweh," the Hebrew for I AM.

When storms hit in life, as they inevitably do, those who follow Jesus Christ can remember that we belong not just to the One Who calms storms, as the other gospel writers affirm, but the only One Who can give us strength during the storm and life beyond the storm: God, the great I AM, Who took on flesh and died and rose to give new life to all who believe in Him, Jesus Christ!

We need never be afraid.