Tuesday, December 31, 2013

AUDIO: The Genesis of Hope

Here. Don't be daunted by how long the site says the sermon goes. It's actually less than half as long as that. It was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio on December 22. Hope you find it helpful.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Threatening Baby

[This was the message prepared for worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning. It's a revised version of a sermon I preached several years ago. Turns out, I didn't preach this sermon at all, but, with a lot of prayer, did something completely different. I'll post a link to the audio of the actual sermon soon.]

Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas was just four days ago. Yet our Gospel lesson for this morning fast forwards us to events that happened two years and more after the birth of Jesus, skipping over the events that will be recounted in next Sunday’s Gospel lesson. In spite of the confusion that it might cause us though, I think it’s good for us to come to this lesson immediately following Christmas day. Through the centuries, our Christmas celebrations have been loaded down with what can be described as sentimental lies. Jesus, when acknowledged at all in most contemporary celebrations, is turned into a harmless little baby.

But Jesus was not and is not harmless. Herod knew that. The wise men did too. They knew what we must know: Christmas is God storming the beaches of our resistant lives and wills in order to liberate for all eternity those who believe in Him.

In the name of the same freedom the serpent told Eve she would have if she disobeyed God, a freedom that ends in slavery to sin and death and futility, we willingly buckle under the authority of an evil, morally compromising world. At Christmas, God entered our world to destroy the power of sin and death over us. Christmas is God coming to overthrow the illegitimate occupier of power in our world, the devil himself. Christmas is a just God come to overturn the tables of extortionists, to strip the selfish of their power, to put the violent and unjust in their places, and to bring life to those who, contrary to what the world tells us to do, repent for our sin and surrender our whole lives only to Him.

The bottom line is that the sweet baby Jesus is a threat to the standard operating procedures of the world, even of our own standard operating procedures. In the New Testament book of Acts, it was said of the first Christians that they had turned the world upside down. Filled with faith in Christ and with God's Holy Spirit, they were empowered by God to continue the mission of Jesus, each believer in Jesus a representative of the kingdom that destroys all the powers of this world. Jesus Himself was such a threat to the king of Judea, that, to protect Jesus, God sent Him and His earthly parents to Egypt for safe-keeping.

Keep in mind the threat that Jesus represents to all the selfishness and injustice that exists in our world as we delve into today’s Gospel lesson. Please look at Matthew 2:13-14, at the beginning of the lesson (page 676 in the pew Bibles):
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod...
There are several things worth noticing in these verses. First: Herod, in the Greek in which Matthew wrote his gospel, we’re told that Herod wanted to “destroy” the child. The verb in the original Greek, apollumi, is part of the same verb family used much later in Matthew’s gospel to describe what the religious leaders in Jerusalem conspired to do to Jesus. They wanted to destroy Jesus, just as Herod does in today’s lesson. Our text shows us that Herod’s attempt to destroy Jesus was unsuccessful: Jesus disappeared from Judea for a time and reappeared later. The same thing really would happen with His crucifixion. The Jewish and Roman leaders thought that they got rid of Jesus when they killed Him on the cross. But He reappeared on the first Easter Sunday. Listen: When all hope seems lost, even when death claims the follower of Christ, that isn’t the end of the story. We belong to a God Who brings the exiles and the victims of sin and death back to life!

Herod and the leaders of Judaism and the emissaries of the Roman Empire a generation later acted out of fear. Jesus threatened them. Even today, people who resist Christ’s lordship are afraid of Him, afraid to admit their need of Him. Jesus is a threat to all who delude themselves with the idea that we human beings are self-sufficient and don’t need a Savior. A woman in one of my former parishes told me that she got angry with people who dismissed her faith in Christ as “a crutch.” Her anger wasn’t born of a belief in her ability to conquer any mountain in life. “Of course Christ is a crutch,” she said, “I need a crutch. That’s why I’m a Christian!” Jesus Christ, Who bore the weight of all our sin on the cross and then rose again to life, is the only crutch we can find that won’t buckle under the pressure of all our personal sins, our stresses, our difficulties, our daily challenges. Salvation belongs to those willing to admit their helpless need of the Savior Who died and rose for helpless people just like you and me!

Notice a second thing in these first verses of our lesson, something we see throughout the passage: Joseph did not hesitate. As soon as he was told to take the child and his mother to Egypt, he did so. He apparently took action on the very night he had his dream. If I had been Joseph, I might have hesitated. I might even have simply ditched Jesus and Mary. After all, Joseph had no genetic connection to Jesus. Joseph could have turned Jesus and Mary over to the authorities and maybe lived a comfortable life in the employ of Herod and his descendants. He certainly could have spared himself the grief of being connected with a baby who was already a fugitive.

But Joseph opted to share the danger that the toddler Jesus faced. Joseph chose to obey God…immediately! Faith that doesn’t result in a genuine desire for obedience to God, to the extent that you and I are able to understand God’s will and obey, isn’t faith; it’s just an idea. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. And, it’s been my experience that nobody wrestles more with God over what’s right and wrong for them in their lives than the person who truly seeks to follow Jesus Christ. But wherever the call of the God we know in Jesus, sends us, that’s where believers in Jesus seek to go. That’s what faith does.

Fast-forward to the last verses of our lesson, verses 19 to 23. Herod has died and Joseph, once again, is told in a dream to head out, this time away from Egypt and now, to Nazareth. Like ancient Israel, called out of Egypt, to the promised land, the young Jesus travels to the promised land. This may have been the hardest of all the orders Joseph received from God. By the time Joseph received it, he and his fledgling family had put roots down in Egypt. Anyone who has ever worked for a large corporation, been in the military, been in ministry, or grabbed a new opportunity in a different community, will know how hard it is for a young family to move to new places. The reasons for staying always seem to outweigh the reasons for leaving.

But Joseph took his family to Galilee immediately. The thought of keeping the life to which he’d grown accustomed seems never to have crossed his mind. Joseph is an example of faith for us. To follow Christ means, ultimately, to heed God’s call, even when we don’t understand it.

And that brings us back to this: Christmas reminds us that Jesus and those who dare to follow Him are threats to this world. When you understand that Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life, the only means of being reconciled to the only One Who can give us life, all other ways, all other supposed truths, and every other way of life must be abandoned. This is hard; but, God has revealed, following Jesus is the only way to truly live.

When I was a senior in high school, I asked a girl out on a date. She said, “Yes,” but later backed out. I was baffled. (I mean, I was real charmer back then.) During the rest of the school year, she would speak to me, but in little more than grunts. When our yearbooks were delivered, I boldly asked her to sign mine. “You really are a nice guy,” she wrote. “But you have to quit worrying about what other people think of you.”  It took me years to figure out what she meant. And it took Jesus to begin to liberate me from the tyranny of other people’s opinions.

If Joseph had worried about the opinions of others--even when the opinions were held by a ruthless king, he wouldn’t have played the part God had in mind for his life. He wouldn’t have fulfilled his God-given destiny. And later, had Jesus worried about what others were going to do with them to the point of avoiding the cross, we would have no hope for God’s presence and help in this life or for His promise of life with God and His saints in eternity.

There is only one person Whose opinion of you and me matters, and that’s the God we know in Jesus Christ. He has expressed His opinion of us in the suffering, blood, and cross of Jesus. In the cross, God says that He will take the rap for our sins if we will confess them and repudiate them. He will subsume death into His being so that He can cover us with the power of His resurrection, life anew here and now, life eternal and perfect in the world to come!

This Christmas, let Jesus storm the beaches of your will and heart. Let Him assault and destroy the sin in you through a life style of daily repentance and renewal in His Name. Let Jesus be your highest priority, your deepest desire. None of that is likely to win you a popularity contest. And letting Jesus be first in our lives won’t earn us places of comfort and ease. But surrendering all to Jesus will allow us to be ushered into the presence of the One Who tells all who grow weary of the rat mazes of a sinful world, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

May we hear that call from Christ above all the sinful din of the world and of our own souls, and living in faithful obedience to Him, know life, abundant, brimming over with grace and the joy of fellowship with God. Amen

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Reason for Christmas

[This was shared during the second Christmas Eve worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio earlier this evening.]

Luke 2:1-7
It’s striking that in his Gospel, Luke takes just seven verses to describe the birth of Jesus! It's so spare that, if we’re not attentive, we may miss the powerful message his narrative conveys.

“In those days,” Luke writes, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)”

Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor. The adopted son of Julius Caesar, in 31 AD, about three decades before Jesus’ birth, he became the uncontested ruler of Rome after a long civil war. After taking power, he named himself emperor. He labeled his adopted father and himself the “son of god.”

It was claimed that through Augustus’ kingship, he had brought God’s justice and peace to the world. The many poems and songs written in honor of Augustus claimed that he was the savior and lord of the world. And in much of his empire, during and after a long reign, Augustus came to be worshiped as a god. Augustus, a ruthless and bloodthirsty man, did nothing to dissuade people from worshiping him or from making all these claims about him.

Employing the coercive powers by which all governments--whether good or bad--must operate, Caesar Augustus ordered a census of his empire, which included most of the lands around the Mediterranean Basin, north into Europe, and even what we today know as the United Kingdom.

Augustus was a powerful man and when he issued an edict, an entire empire hopped-to. The purpose of the census Augustus ordered was to generate tax money. It takes a lot of money to run an earthly empire.

Affected by this decree were two impoverished young people, betrothed to be married, who lived in the often forgotten Galileean countryside of Palestine.

“And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Today, many scholars believe what Martin Luther preached in his Christmas sermons: That Joseph of Nazareth actually grew up in Bethlehem and moved to Nazareth in Galilee as a young man. Recent archeological finds indicate that there was a large migration of people from the Bethlehem countryside to the Galileean region. It’s possible that both Mary’s and Joseph’s families had migrated from Bethlehem to Nazareth, because both were descendants of David. Going to Bethlehem would have been required of Joseph because he still owned property there.

Augustus’ decree forced Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem. But, in fact, neither Augustus nor his empire were in control of events.

Nor were Mary or Joseph.

Decades later, as He stood trial before Pilate, the governor who oversaw Roman interests in Jesus’ homeland, Pilate asked Jesus why Jesus refused to answer Pilate’s questions. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Pilate asked Jesus. But Jesus answered: “You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above...

Despite outward appearances, Joseph and Mary and the Child in Mary's womb went to Bethlehem not because that’s where Caesar Augustus, who had never heard and never would hear of Joseph or Mary or Jesus, wanted them to go, but because that’s where God wanted them to go.

Those with earthly power may misuse or abuse their power. They may be selfish. They may act unjustly. They may treat other human beings like chess pieces to be manipulated at will. But the Biblical witness is clear that over the long haul, God is in charge. As I've been telling Catechism students for years, "Either God gets His way or God gets His way." There are no other options.

Old Testament prophecies had made it clear that when God’s Anointed King--the Messiah, the Christ-- came into the world, His birth would take place in Bethlehem.

He would be born into a family descended from David. God intended to enter our world and be our Lord at precisely the moment and in precisely the place He chose.

He would do it in order to live the perfect life, become the perfect human sacrifice for sin, then rise from the death promising that all who repent and believe in Him will share His victory over sin and death and meaningless living.

A Caesar might be willing to die to take or keep earthly power. Augustus had killed a thousand times over.

But he never would have died to give forgiveness and eternal life to people who, like us, only deserve condemnation and death for our sin. Jesus is a different King and Lord.

Please pull out a pew Bible and look at Romans 5:6-8 (page 785). It says: “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

At the right time, the Savior Who was to die on a cross was born in a barn. 

There’s a simple reason why God doesn’t bludgeon us into submission with showy displays that evoke “shock and awe” the way the Caesars of this world do.

A reason why God the Father sends God the Son, Who totally takes on human flesh, a baby who cries and needs His mother, Who suffers and bleeds and dies.

There’s a reason God claims subjects for His kingdom not by brute force, but by love, by the gentle wooing of the Holy Spirit Who empowers ordinary people like you and me to keep telling the story of our crucified and risen Savior.

There’s a reason why by God’s plan, we become His subjects not by establishing residence in a religious institution, not by performing a set of tasks that lead to earning citizenship in the kingdom of God, but solely and simply by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

And the reason is simple: “God is love,” the New Testament teaches.

The Old Testament book of Genesis says that God made we human beings in His image.

God made us to love and to be loved by Him.

God made us for relationship with Him.

Sin has marred that relationship, separating us from God.

Jesus is the bridge back to God.

He is the manifestation of God’s love given on the cross.

The ultimate goal of a Caesar is to elicit obedience so that he can lord it over you.

The ultimate goal of Christ is to elicit faith and obedience so that He can set you free to live in a relationship of self-giving, fulfilling love with God and with others.

Jesus doesn’t want to judge you, though one day He will one day judge the living and the dead.

He wants to save you from your sin.

He wants to make us children of God.

There are lots of things that we do in the name of Christmas. But all that the God we meet in Jesus really wants us to do is repent and believe, turn from sin and trust in Him to guide us into life with God.

It's a life characterized by love, service, and selflessness.

It's a life of confidence that we are loved and approved by the only One Whose love and approval matters.
This is the God Who came at Christmas.

The God Who demonstrates His power not by ordering people around as though they were worthless robots, but by becoming One of us so that, by His grace, we might be restored to Him again and forever.

Thank God He loves us and gives us Jesus.

May we take Him as God's great gift to us every day and learn to joyfully, voluntarily, without coercion, be loved by God and to love Him in return.

Merry Christmas! Amen

Monday, December 23, 2013

Still in Love with the Savior Who Isn't Always Easy to Get

During worship yesterday, I told the story of how, after a decade of being an atheist, my new faith in Jesus Christ made itself plain to me.

It happened while taking a class at my wife's home church. I was trying to understand this faith she and the people of the congregation of which she was a part, professed.

Uncharacteristically for someone who was a "just do enough" student, the God I was learning about in the course, Life with God, incited me to seek to learn more on my own. Because I wanted to try to understand more about how a person lived faith in the God revealed in Christ, the first book of the Bible I read was Acts, in the New Testament.

I read it in 1976, around the time I came to faith in Christ. The other day, I looked inside the resource book for Life with God and found these brief notes I made after reading Acts. (You can click on the image above is if you want to enlarge it.)

Thirty-seven years later, I still love Jesus. He sometimes baffles and confounds me. Often, I simply don't understand Him or His ways.

But I know that He loves me and blesses me with a passionate love I don't deserve and could never earn. He's my lifeline and my hope.

And more than ever, I want to have the courage to share Him and His gracious love with the world.

Here's a demo Rich Mullins recorded shortly before his death. The song is called Hard to Get and it's about Jesus.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Genesis of Hope

[This message was prepared to share during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 1:18-25
It’s not a new observation to say that the beginnings of things often explain a lot about their later development.

The fact that of the two Steves who started Apple, Steve Jobs, the marketer, was the dominant partner, explains you how a passion for creating new and expanding old markets nurtured a corporate culture in which technical people are still expected routinely to do things that can’t be done.

The fact that Living Water began with a commitment to reaching out in word and deed with the Good News of new life for all who believe in Jesus Christ, explains this congregation’s outreach culture.

Beginnings are important.

The ancient rabbis said that if you wanted to understand Biblical faith, you should master the book of Genesis, the book of beginnings.

In Jesus Christ, God has made a new beginning and God gives new beginnings to us every time we trust Christ with our sinful pasts, our each today, and our unknown futures!

That’s what Matthew conveys in chapter one of his Gospel, including the verses that make up today’s Gospel lesson.

Please turn to our Gospel lesson, Matthew 1:18-25 (page 675 in the pew Bibles). Verse 18 says: “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about...” A more literal translation from the Greek in which Matthew wrote would be, “This is how the genesis of Jesus Christ happened...”

Matthew is signaling a fresh start for the human race. In Jesus, a new Genesis is possible for us all!

The verse goes on: “His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”

The phrase “pledged to be married” hardly does justice to the state of Mary’s relationship with Joseph. They were betrothed. Betrothal was more than an engagement. During betrothal, the couple were considered married, although they were strictly forbidden from consummating their relationship until they publicly affirmed their commitment to one another before God and witnesses. If one of them had intimacy with someone else during betrothal, the act was considered adultery. The Old Testament book of Deuteronomy said that if a woman was guilty of adultery during this period, she should be stoned to death. By the first century AD, this law was rarely enforced.

But even then, the woman cut loose by her betrothed quietly didn’t have an easy lot in life, forever branded by her adultery.

Our lesson conveys an unambiguous message: Mary was a virgin.

She and Joseph had not come together, we're told.

And, the child conceived within her was from the Holy Spirit.

Later in the passage, we’re told that Mary and Joseph didn’t have marital relations until after Jesus was born.

Today, as has been the case since the first century, there are people who deny that Jesus could possibly have been born of a virgin.

It’s always seemed a bit presumptuous to me for human beings to claim that the God Who created every particle of this universe is incapable of doing something that doesn’t comport our usual experience. Jesus teaches that, “With God all things are possible.”

Still, some virgin birth deniers point out that other ancient religions told stories of their idol gods roaming the earth and having intimate relations with women, often resulting in the birth of a notable person. They say that the claim that Jesus was born of a virgin is similar.

But the witness of the New Testament about God the Father and about Jesus’ birth is very different from those mythical gods.

During His ministry, Jesus said that “God is spirit.” The God of the universe isn’t like the bawdy deities of mythology. He is Spirit, Who by His Word created matter, created human beings.

Just as the book of Genesis says that God’s Spirit moved over chaos and brought life into being, so now, as God prepares to gives us the chance for new life through Jesus Christ, His Spirit passes over a virgin’s womb and the Person the apostle Paul calls, “the second Adam,” is conceived.

If this is hard for us to accept--because it doesn’t fit with our everyday experiences, imagine the effect it had on Joseph!

Verse 19: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

Hurt, Joseph decides he won’t lash out. But he won’t have a life with a woman he believes has been unfaithful to him. The verb translated as divorce here in the original Greek is apoluo, meaning basically, that Joseph would cut Mary loose. 

Verse 20: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit...’”

The Bible and centuries of believers affirm that God speaks to people in many ways. The God Who created the universe can use the universe in whatever way He wants to get our attention.

He spoke to Moses through a burning bush.

He spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice.

You know how God spoke to Balaam.

And sometimes, God gets the attention of His saints in dreams.

However we may sense God is speaking to us, the message and the messenger must conform to what God has revealed to us about Himself through His inspired Word, the Bible.

The Bible’s last book very sternly warns against adding or subtracting anything from the truths taught there, a statement that we can make about the whole of Scripture, because it’s God-breathed, a living Word.

The book of Hebrews says that, “The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

In this light, one of the basic confessional statements of Lutherans, the Formula of Concord says that God’s Word in the Bible, “is and should remain the sole rule and norm of all doctrine, and...no human being’s [teachings] dare be put on a par with that...everything must be subjected to it.”

Joseph understood that the witness of the angel in his dream was true because the angel’s words conformed to the promises of Scripture!

Verses 21 to 23 continue the angel’s message to Joseph: “She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus , because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet [in Isaiah 7:14]: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’--which means, ‘God with us.’"

Joseph, a man who walked with God, knew God well enough and knew God’s Word well enough to know that the angel was telling the truth.

In a fallen world, it’s imperative that those who believe in Jesus know God’s Word! I hope that every member of Living Water will make it their business to know God through regular Bible reading and study!

Now, in Matthew’s explanations of the origins of our hope as believers in Christ, He mentions two names associated with the child in Mary’s womb.

First: Jesus, the Savior’s given name. It means Yahweh, [God], is our salvation. Jesus’ name says that God sent Jesus to save His people from sin.

“The wages of sin is death,” as we know. But Jesus came to take the wages we deserve, death, separation from the God Who gives life. Then He rose from the dead so that all who believe in Him have the gift we don’t deserve: Never-ending life with God.

And Jesus came to save more than just God’s first people, the Jews. In the great commission, Jesus sends us to share the Good News of new life for all who repent and believe in Him with people of every nation. Jesus came to give all people the chance to believe in Him and be saved for eternity.

Second: Matthew tells us about the name Immanuel. It’s a nickname, really. Like many nicknames, it’s descriptive. As the text says, Immanuel means God with us. Jesus is God in the flesh Who came into our world to save us from sin and death, to give us life in the world to come. Jesus is also God with us, in this world. 

To truly celebrate Christmas this year, may I suggest you remind yourself of those two names of our Lord?

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ origins and of the Names of Jesus, we find the origins of all the hope a person can ever want or have!

Immanuel, God with us, assures us that no matter what happens to us in this life, God stands by us, strengthening us, encouraging us.

And Jesus is not only with us, He lives in those who receive and believe in Him. 1 John 4:4 tells believers in Christ: “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.”

Satan, temptations, fears, apprehensions, worries, sins, stress: God with us can give us the strength of character and the thrill of hope that will help us face every obstacle!

God is with us when the kids make us crazy, the in-laws are a pain, the marriage is troubled, we’re sick or depressed, the bills pile up, or the pressures mount.

If you want Him, Immanuel will never let you go!

And, I have found, He will even send His ambassadors--other believers in Christ--to extend His love, grace, mercy, and help when you need it! You just have to lay down any pretense of self-sufficiency and let Him carry you when you’re to weary to take the next step!

And by His Name, Jesus, God is our salvation, assures us that no matter how lost we may feel, no matter how guilty, when we trust in Him, we are saved from sin and death and separation from God.

The hope of heaven imbues this life with joy even when we’re unhappy or guilty, assures us of peace even when things are crazy.

Please turn to Romans 8:1-2 (page 787 in the pew Bibles). It says: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

That, friends is the good news that came when God was virgin born of Mary and Joseph accepted the responsibility of acting as His father on earth.

If we want Him, we are saved and accompanied always by Christ!

Welcome Him as Mary and Joseph did, ignoring the wagging tongues and the warped reason of a world that wants to sell God short and feed human ego.

Welcome Jesus.

Let Him save you.

Let Him live with you every day.

Because of all the things the God of this universe wants, nobody and nothing is more important to Him than you!
Let that truth soak into your heart and mind this Christmas and every day!


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Humbled and Inspired

A few weeks ago, I was in a surgery prep room at a local hospital. One of our congregation's members was undergoing surgery and I was there to pray and spend time with him and his wife before he was wheeled in for his procedure.

Our visit had just begun when the surgeon walked in to go over information with the couple. After doing that, the surgeon turned to me and asked, "Did you pray?" "Not yet," we said.

"Well, could I pray with you?"

So, we all held out our hands to each other and prayed.

After asking for God's healing for the patient, encouragement for him and his wife, and help and guidance for the surgeon and all the hospital personnel who would be involved, the doctor talked about a prayer offered by another pastor in similar circumstances. "Lord," the surgeon reported that pastor praying, "let this doctor operate with the hands of Jesus today."

"When he said that," the surgeon told us, "I had tears in my eyes."

I later learned that the doctor spends time in the mornings praying for every patient he's scheduled to operate on that day.

Over the years, I've known of some doctors who have prayed with patients, families, and me prior to medical procedures. But it hasn't been that common. And I was struck by how meaningful prayer was for this particular doctor that we pray together.

But the surprises weren't over.

A short while later, the anesthesiologist entered the prep area to go over things with patient and wife. His business done, he turned to me and asked, "Are you going to offer a prayer?"

"We did pray earlier," I told him, thinking he wanted me to hurry along so that things could get under way.

"Do you think we could pray again now?" he asked.


And once again, patient, wife, a doctor, and I grasped hands in a circle around the patient's bed and prayed.

Two doctors seeking to pray with others for a patient and his healing before a surgery is unprecedented in my twenty-nine years.

I think it inspired confidence in the patient and his wife to know that those doctors were not only medically competent but dependent on the God we know in Jesus Christ.

The patient is doing well.

I can't prove, of course, that this positive result is attributable to prayer, although many objective studies indicate that prayer does positively augment healing and recovery for hospital patients. I can only say that I was moved by the fact that I was joined in prayer that day by two doctors humble enough to admit their need of God.

It humbled and inspired me.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The King Who Ignores Our Expectations

[This was prepared to share during the morning worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio.]

Matthew 11:2-15
Life sometimes throws us curveballs.

The curveballs can be good or bad.

But whether good or bad, they break from our expectations.

They can leave us breathless with horror.

Or dazzled with wonder.

Grateful beyond expression.

Saddened beyond telling.

A man looks forward to retirement, expecting long years of enjoyment with his wife, but learns he has Stage 4 cancer weeks before his retirement date.

A woman, long hurt by life, assuming that she will always be alone, suddenly and amazingly falls in love with a wonderful man she hadn’t dared to hope existed for her.

Expectations dashed.

Expectations exceeded.

The curveballs of life are enough to counsel us, I think, to check our expectations.

For believers in the God Who has revealed Himself to the world in Jesus Christ, it means, above all I think, learning to pray the hardest prayer of all: “Thy will be done.”

I can tell you that much of my life as a Christian, even to this day, has been spent learning to conform my expectations to the will of God, to truly learn to pray with my Savior, “Not as I will, but as you will."

I have not yet learned how to fully yield to God’s will for my life over against my expectations of what my life should be.

I have not yet fully learned what Paul teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19, that my life is not really my own. And that is doubly true. It's true first, because I didn't bring my life into being. And it's true second, because Jesus Christ died and rose to give me new and everlasting life. Still I struggle over proprietary rights with God. I struggle to accept that my life does not belong to me and God doesn't dance to the tune I punch in on life's juke box.

Maybe you struggle with this just like I do.

If that is our common struggle here this morning (or one of them), our Gospel lesson for today tells us that we are not alone.

John the Baptist had certain expectations of the Messiah or the Christ. Messiah (Meshiah) is the Hebrew word for Anointed One; Christ, Christos in the original Greek of the New Testament, carries the same meaning.

John rightly understood that the Messiah, Who He correctly identified as Jesus, was going to bring judgment on this old world of sin.

John also understood that Jesus was to be the legitimate King of the Jews Who would bring the Kingdom of heaven to this earth.

But John’s expectations of what that meant, of what kind of King Jesus would be, of what the kingdom looked like, were very different from what Jesus seemed to be as Jesus traveled from place to place, preaching, teaching, and performing miraculous signs.

John was looking for a king who, acting in God’s righteousness, would supplant the corrupt and violent Herod, the king who had slapped John into jail in his own house because John’s proclamation of a new king threatened him.

John wondered what was going on.

Jesus wasn’t what he had expected.

That’s where our Gospel lesson starts and this morning, I hope you don’t mind, I want to focus on just the first few verses of the lesson today. Please go to it, Matthew 11:2-6 (page 682 in the pew Bibles). It begins: “When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, ‘Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?’ Jesus replied, ‘Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor...’”

John was all-in for Jesus. Yet Jesus wasn’t doing any of the things John had expected of God's Anointed One!

Jesus hadn’t taken the reins of political power, hadn’t purified the temple and the priesthood, hadn’t put the righteous into power, hadn’t established the kingdom of heaven.

In His response, Jesus’ told John He needed to change his expectations. There was to be more to the kingdom of heaven than judgment!

Do you remember what happened when, near the beginning of His ministry, Jesus went to His hometown of Nazareth? To define His mission as the Messiah and the Kingdom He had come to earth to bring, Jesus chose to read from Isaiah 61:1-2. Please turn to it on page 517. It says: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn...”

Jesus does bring judgment, of course. It’s the judgment we pass on ourselves when deciding whether or not to receive the offer of life and forgiveness and joy that comes from God through Jesus alone. As Jesus told Nicodemus: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” And the aged Simeon said of Jesus when the Lord was only eight days old, brought to the temple by Mary and Joseph to be circumcised: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed."

People cast judgment on themselves--we cast judgment on ourselves--whenever we choose the darkness of life without God and when we choose sin over the brightness of forgiveness and fresh life that comes from Jesus, the Light of the world.

But judgment is not ultimately why Jesus came into the world.

And it isn’t why He will one day return to the world.

Jesus also told Nicodemus: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

All who believe in the Name of Jesus are saved to live in the kingdom of heaven where, Revelation 21:4 says that Jesus “will wipe away every tear from [believers’] eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

This is why Jesus presents the evidence for His being Messiah to the emissaries of John the Baptist that He does. The words Jesus cites come from Isaiah 35:5-6. Please go there, page 497. Here, God’s ultimate intentions--beyond sin and death and judgment--and the content of life in His kingdom are described: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water [living water?] will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.”

Jesus didn't come into the world to force God’s kingdom on us.

He came so that all who trust in Him will receive a new Eden, an eternal city where there is no darkness, only light; no death, only life; no despair, only hope!

Jesus performed the signs of the coming Kingdom so that people would not feel forced or coerced into following Him but so that, in seeing, they would be open to believing in--to betting their lives on--Jesus and Jesus only! And so that by believing in Jesus, that kingdom would invade their (our) daily lives in this world and, one day, at what one of the old hymns called “the consummation,” believers in Christ will live in that new Eden, the new heavens and the new earth, the new creation.

In essence, Jesus tells John's disciples, “Tell John about the signs."

Then, Jesus says: “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me."

In verse 11 of our lesson, Jesus says: “among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist.” Yet John, like you and me and every other human being on the planet this morning, was left with a critical decision when considering the life, deeds, signs, death, and resurrection of Jesus:
  • Would he yield to the testimony of Christ’s activities on earth and the promptings of the Holy Spirit to leave himself open to accepting that Jesus is the One Who came into the world to destroy the fallen kingdoms of this world and to bring God’s kingdom into being?
  • Or would John turn his back on Jesus because Jesus didn’t match the limited expectations he had of the Savior?
I have known people who have rejected Jesus because Jesus didn’t turn out to be what they wanted Him to be.

He didn’t do what they wanted Him to do when they wanted Him to do it.

He didn’t thwart the unfair boss.

He didn’t save the marriage.

He didn’t help them get into the National Honor Society.

He didn’t cure a loved one’s cancer.

I don’t say any of this to condemn those who reject Jesus because they have been hurt! Through the years, it’s been my experience that atheists are generally more sensitive about the hurts of the world than are we Christians. (To the shame of we Christians.)

It’s that very sensitivity and the belief that life in this world should be better than it is that leads many atheists to spurn God.

But, when I was an atheist, I had to ask myself, “Where does my sense that things ought to be better come from if not from the God Who made us for something better?”

The truth is that a godless universe would give us no reason to hold up things like love, justice, or grace as ways of life to which human beings should aspire.

If we are all the result of some random collision of elements derived from some unknown force and if all of life is a contest for the survival of the fittest, our stubborn human ideas about right and wrong would be inexplicable.

For me then, atheism, though perhaps understandable as a reaction to life, simply doesn't account for all of life's realities.

Others become atheists because, like John the Baptist who wrestled with doubts in a cell in Herod’s prison, the God they tried to believe in didn’t meet their expectations. Their picture of what God should be like was based on their preferences, not on Who God has revealed Himself to be. They tried to domesticate God.

In the first volume of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, in which four children from our world visit an alternative universe and are told about Aslan. Aslan is a figure of Christ in Lewis' books, "the great King, Son of the Emperor-beyond-the-sea." When informed that Aslan was a lion, one of the children asks, "Is he safe?" The reply: "Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the king..."

Jesus is like that. He is the King. He is good. But if we're looking for safety, we should look elsewhere for our Savior. Jesus calls us to turn away from the safety of our favorite sins, the safety of lives turned inward for our own ends to a life lived for Him and for our neighbor.

It’s at those moments when God fails to meet our expectations that we need to consider Jesus. We need to look at Him closely.

The gospels’ accounts about Jesus’ time on earth tell us all we need to know to have saving faith and to expand our faith in Jesus, despite the hard realities of life.

The four Gospels in the New Testament--Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John--make it possible for us to do exactly what Jesus said that John the Baptist should do: Look at what He did and why. See how He had control of life and death, yet never used that control for selfish purposes, not even self-preservation when they nailed His hands and feet to a cross. See the compassion of God evident in Jesus.

In effect, Jesus says, “Decide for yourself from the evidence Who I am!” Look at Jesus closely and we see the God of the universe Who may be different from our expectations, but Who is exactly the King we need!

Toward the end of his Gospel, another John writes: “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples [including, most miraculous of all, His death and resurrection], which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” If you would know God, look to Jesus!

Someone once wrote that life in this world is “nasty, brutish, and short.”* There is truth in that, although there is also much beauty, love, and wonder in this world.

I got another precious glimpse of that yesterday. One of the littlest of our Christmas carolers approached us in the kitchen after we'd been singing in the neighborhood, her nose running. She asked for a tissue. There were no tissues there, so I handed her a few napkins from the dispenser. She took the napkins and blew her nose as well as she could, then handed the napkins back to me. If that isn't precious and beautiful, I don't know what is!

Beauty and wonder still rise stubbornly "like grass through cement" in this fallen world. Despite our sin and the calamities it has brought to our life on this planet, we see glimpses of how perfect this world was meant to be, how dependent and trusting we were made to be toward God and one another, every day.

But if we expect that Jesus is going to make this world--unrepentant and self-driven--into Eden, we misunderstand Him.

If we think that Jesus has laid down a political program by which people of can live out certain principles and give the world a makeover.

One of the worst sins we commit in post-modern Christianity, whether conservative or liberal, is the sin of idolatry, turning Jesus into the God we prefer, replacing His deity and Lordship with our particular political preferences and programs so that we can get what we want in this world. That, friends, is a scandal!

And it's stupid because this world is under a death sentence!

This world must die so that the new world, the new Eden can come into being.

We must die--in the waters of Baptism and in daily repentance and renewal--so that the Kingdom can enter us and so that we can be part of the Kingdom.

The God we know in Jesus, “able to do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine” has bigger plans for us than remodeling this dying creation.

Eternal plans.

Plans not to harm us, but to give us a future no longer darkened by sin or death or futility.

He has come and will come again to establish a kingdom in which tears are dried, the lame walk, even run, and the aggrieved know joy.

Jesus is the sign and the seal of God’s good intentions for the human race.

His death and resurrection are God’s guarantee of life free from sin and death for all who dare to surrender to Jesus Christ.

The kingdom Jesus died and rose to bring into being is living in and among those who believe in Him, the Church, despite the imperfections of we individual Christians.

We are even today empowered by His Spirit to give sight to the blind, cleansing to the leprous, life to the dead, food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, and good news that brings everlasting life.

We see that in the many ministries pursued by the people of Living Water.

May we remain open to being conduits of Jesus’ kingdom each day.

May we become ever more receptive to going wherever our King calls us to be.

And may others see the signs of Jesus in our life and so, with us, come to everlasting life in His Name.


*The writer was Thomas Hobbes. He was actually specifically referencing war. But in my lifetime, war has been a sufficiently central feature of human existence that I feel no hesitation in saying that it reflects life in this world.

The Unwanted Guest?

Audio version.

Ready to See Jesus

Audio version.

Who's Your King?

Live version.

Stand Firm!

Live version.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thoughts on Advent Preparations

Pastor David Wendel writes in today's installment of Amen, Come Lord Jesus!, a devotional for the members and friends of the North American Lutheran Church:
As a parish pastor, I was often asked, “If Advent is a time of preparation, what should I be doing to prepare?” My answer was often, “Love the Lord your God...and your neighbor as yourself!”
Good thoughts!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Unwanted Guest?

[This was prepared for sharing with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, for this morning's worship services.]

Matthew 3:1-12
If you were to make a list of all the Biblical people of faith you wouldn’t want to invite over to the house for an evening of holiday revelry, John the Baptist might be at the top. On the face of it, John seems like such a downer! 

But I think, we need to revise our estimation of John the Baptist a bit.

Like you and me, John was a believer in Jesus. Even in his mother’s womb, Luke’s Gospel tells us, the Holy Spirit prompted John to recognize Mary, who had come to visit John’s parents in the Judean hill country, as the mother of the Lord Jesus. And when, after Jesus had spent many years in Nazareth then presented Himself for John’s baptism, John demurred. “I need to be baptized by You, and do you come to me?” In the fourth gospel, we're told that John the Baptist, pointed Jesus out and said, "Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world."

But sometimes, John's faith vied with his doubts. As we’ll  be reminded in next Sunday’s Gospel lesson, John was far from perfect. There, we'll be reminded that though he believed in Jesus, Jesus didn't seem to be quite the King that John had expected. He would send people to ask Jesus, "Are You the One. Or is there going to be someone else?" Like you and me sometimes maybe, he doubted the Savior in Whom he believed.

But John kept believing in Jesus, however imperfectly.

There's a comfort to be derived in that. God only uses imperfect people to be His hands and feet in the world.

Despite his imperfections though, John was God’s choice for a ministry that had two basic elements:
  • to call people to repentance;
  • to announce the coming of the kingdom of heaven through the Christ, the Messiah, God’s anointed King.
John’s message is only a downer to those who have no desire to repent or be part of God’s Kingdom. For others, those willing to follow Jesus and to give up on calling the shots in the universe, John’s message brings, “comfort and joy”! (Even when that message makes us squirm.)

Please turn to the Gospel lesson for today, Matthew 3:1-12 (page 676 in the pew Bibles). Matthew begins our lesson with words like those often used by Old Testament prophets to describe moments of decisive action by God: “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea...”

The prophets often used phrases like "in those days." They signaled a moment when God had or, the prophets said, He would act.

The New Testament has two main words it uses for time. There's chronos, chronological time. Then there's kairos, God's time.

God acts on His own timetable. It's because we want God to bow to our chronological timetables that we're inclined to cry to heaven, "How long, Lord? How long do I have to wait?"

God acts at precisely the right moments for His purposes and for our good. At the kairos moment, God prompted John, "Now John. Now is the time for you to start preaching the message I give to you."

And God tells John to do this important ministry in the strangest of venues. In the wilderness by the banks of the Lower Jordan River. If John had gone to a business or church growth consultant, the wilderness is not the place they would have told him to set up shop. That wilderness area is composed partly of desert, but mostly of rocky terrain that contains sparse pastureland that can't stand much grazing. It's a good for nothing place where nobody lives unless they have to. Few would have lived there. Few would have gone there.

Yet, as we'll see, many flocked to hear John preach. The takeaway is simple: If God's hand is in a ministry, God will connect people to it. If God's hand isn't in a ministry, a crowd might be attracted, but it's doubtful that anyone will get connected to God.

Verse two: [John said:] “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." John is bleak, isn’t he? Or is he?

Turn, please to Matthew 4:17 (page 677). “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’"

John the Baptist was the last of the prophets who pointed, as a future event, to the kingdom of heaven that Jesus died and rose to bring to those who follow Him. We have a stereotype of prophets and of the Old Testament as being surly, demanding, vindictive, while we see Jesus and the New Testament as jolly, passive pushovers.

Yet, here we see that John preached the precise message as Jesus.

That message has two parts. It’s really the message of Advent, the message of Christian faith.

First, repent. We mentioned last Sunday that the word usually translated as repent in our English translations is metanoia, literally meaning I change my mind.

But to repent means a lot more than changing one’s mind. It's not like saying, "Blue used to be my favorite color. Now it's red."

In fact, in repentance, we own the fact that we are incapable of changing our own minds.

We may want to see things God’s way, but we can’t.

We may want to stop sinning, but we’re too into it to conquer it in our own power.

In repentance, we ask God to give us a new mind, new eyes, and a new way of living.

We ask that God will impose a new direction on our lives, His direction.

To shift us from following what our sinful impulses tell us to do--to do what I want to do whoever might get hurt; to follow my thoughts, emotions, or wills irrespective of what God says a “still more excellent way.” And, instead, we ask God to help us follow where He leads.

The Bible teaches us that it isn’t even we who author our desire to be in sync with God. That too, is a gift, tendered to us through the Holy Spirit.

In repentance, we yield to the desire for forgiveness and to the One Who gave that desire to us!

But what’s clear from John’s words--and from Jesus’ words--is that repentance is not a one-time proposition. The word for repent here is uttered in the present tense: Metanoieite. And in Greek that means John was saying: “Keep repenting!” “Keep turning back to God!”

You see, God understands us. He really does, better than we understand ourselves!

Repentance is more than sorrow for sin.

It’s also the willingness to keep coming back to God for guidance and forgiveness and grace.

Some people offer what they call repentance and say, “From here on in, I will be a good person. I will do good deeds. I will avoid sin.”

But true repentance says, “I can’t be a good person or do good deeds or avoid sin on my own, Lord. Kill my sinful self again today and help me to walk with you.” 

That is not a downer message from John the Baptist.

It’s a message that urges us to keep following the God we know in Jesus Christ, even when we mess up.

Repent every day, live a life of repentance, of turning back to God, because God wants to live beside us now and in perfection in eternity. That should be an uplifting message!

The second part of John’s message was, “the kingdom of heaven is near.”

However crazy or indecipherable our lives can be, we can be sure that God is never far from from us.

That was true even before God took on human flesh in Jesus Christ and died and rose to set all who believe in Him free from sin and death.

It’s even more true now.

The risen Jesus promises to always be with us!

Verse 3: “This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’"

The words are from Isaiah 40:3. These were originally words to God’s people Israel when they were exiled. A voice would proclaim that the time was near when God would come and lead His people back home.

Matthew sees that John is like Isaiah’s voice. He came to prepare for God Himself--Jesus--to come into this world and lead us from the wilderness of sin and death into the kingdom of heaven.

In his proclamation that people repent and believe that God’s kingdom was close, John was preparing people to meet Jesus.

It’s how we prepare to meet Jesus too.

We turn from sin, asking God’s help to live as He wills, and we trust that in Jesus, God is with us always!

Verse 4: “John's clothes were made of camel's hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” They wouldn’t like John’s attire on those TV fashion shows.

In Malachi 4, in the Old Testament, God promised that before the day of judgment, He would send the prophet Elijah and he would turn people’s hearts back toward the ways of God. Later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus makes clear that, at the least, John the Baptist played that prophetic role because Jesus’ ministry, as we saw last week, is the prerequisite for the judgment and the final fulfillment of His kingdom.

In 2 Kings 1:8, we’re told that Elijah was as much of a fashionista as John: “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”

When John started preaching in his attire, when he only ate food that could be gathered, just as had been true of the ancient Israelites during their wilderness journey before crossing the Jordan into God’s promised land, people gave John their attention.

Verses 5 and 6: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” We prepare the way for Christ to enter our lives with power and grace when we clear away the obstructions. When we clear away our sin by confessing them to God.

Verses 7-10: “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: 'You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father." I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire."”

We know the Pharisees and Saducees. Good religious folks. Pillars of the faith community. But also smug. Certain that because they were genetic descendants of Abraham, they were on solid ground. There’s no indication that they came to be baptized. Only to check things out. John calls them for being just good church members.

But God doesn’t want church members; God wants disciples!

God wants disciples who make other disciples.

He wants people who, like John the Baptist, follow the Lord, however imperfectly; not people who think that once they’re in the club, they might volunteer for this or that, but never attempt aligning themselves with Christ’s call to follow Him!

In Verses 11 and 12, John says: “‘I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’"

Before John, there were baptisms in Judea. They were self-administered. New converts to Judaism washed the sin of being Gentiles away before embracing the purity of the Jewish people. Some Jewish sects asked people to baptize themselves as a sign of renewed commitment to God. John was the first person ever to administer a baptism to other people.

But as John makes clear, his baptism was very different from the one that Jesus would administer, the one that Christians undergo at baptismal fonts like ours.

John’s baptism was only symbolic, the washing of water symbolizing the washing that true repentance brings to our lives.

But the Baptism that Jesus commands, the Sacrament, brings life from the Holy Spirit and the fire of God, burning away impurity and lighting our way through this life to eternity. That is good news. “All who believe and are baptized shall be saved,” Jesus says. John points us to eternal salvation in Christ!

Finally, John, talks about Jesus as judge of all humanity.

But in truth, what we learn from John the Baptist is that, in an ultimate sense, Jesus judges no human being. We are the ones who decide the judgment of eternity over our lives.

We pass sentence on ourselves by the choices we make each day.

The choice we are called to make is not to be perfect or good or religious.

The choice we’re called to make is to live each day in repentance, acknowledging our sins and imperfections, our need of daily reconstruction by Christ, our need of the crucified and risen Christ Himself.

When, by faith, we let Christ and His forgiveness into our lives, we’re walking toward God and His promises for time and eternity and we experience the truth that the Kingdom of heaven is truly near!

We might think that John would be an uncomfortable Christmastime guest in our homes.

But for all his rough edges, all of his incomplete knowledge, and the difficulty of his message, if we truly listen to him, we can hear a man who pointed us to trust in Jesus.

We can hear the Gospel about Jesus, which is good news of great joy for all people. I like to think that a guy like John would have a place at my table any time. Amen!

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Ready to See Jesus

[This is the sermon prepared for worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church this morning. It turned out a little differently in the delivery at both services though. Living Water is in Springboro, Ohio. Worship is at 9:01 and 10:32 each Sunday morning. On Christmas Eve, we'll be having Family Christmas Eve worship at 4:00 PM and Traditional Candlelight worship at 7:00 PM.]

Matthew 24:36-44
In our encounter with Jesus today, we're reminded of an important truth: God makes promises. But God doesn't make appointments.

The greatest promise God ever kept and made is that He sent His only Son Jesus to die and to rise for us, so that all who believe in Him have their sins covered by God's grace and they have everlasting life with God.

That fulfilled promise ought to cause us to ascribe complete credibility to God's promises. But it is as yet by faith that God calls us to believe another promise. Jesus talks about it today.

Today is the First Sunday of Advent. Advent is a word that means coming. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says that He will come to us, either at the ends of our own lives or at the end of life in this world, like a thief, at an unexpected moment.

Jesus won't have an appointment. We don’t know when any of us may die. We don’t know when this world will end and God’s eternal Kingdom will be ushered into being in its fullness.

But that shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, the prospect of meeting our Lord face to face should bring us joy and anticipation.

And it should remind us to get ready.

Let’s look at the Gospel lesson, Matthew 24:36-44 (page 695). 

Chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel comprise the fifth of five discourses by Jesus that Matthew records. This one deals with the end times of this world.

Much of the discussion is triggered by a question posed by the disciples in Matthew 24:3: “Tell us, what will happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

The disciples want to know when Jesus will come back and how they will know His arrival is impending.

Jesus answers them, really, by ignoring their question. Look at verse 36, where He tackles the question of when: “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Only the sovereign God of the universe knows the day of Jesus’ coming to this world. This may ruffle our egos. But it’s not a bad thing for us that God isn’t subject to our timelines or expectations. God operates on His own timetable and He doesn’t consult any human being.

In fact, Jesus says that not even He knows when the Father will send Him back to the earth. If you want to blow your mind sometime, try to figure out how one of the three Persons of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--can somehow keep a secret from one of the other Persons of the Trinity. I can’t explain it. But then, I’m still working on understanding the Trinity.

I’ve concluded that the God we can completely figure out isn’t God! I’m content with that!

“So,” we, like the first disciples, wonder, “how will we know when Jesus is coming?” Look at verses 37 to 39, please. Jesus says: “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”

Now, you and I know from reading Genesis 6-9, where the experiences of Noah are narrated, that God had instructed Noah to build the ark as a place of sanctuary for those God was saving--just as Jesus has established the fellowship of the Church as sanctuary so that all who live by faith in Christ will be saved from sin and death.

We know that God did that because of His plan to destroy a human race given over to sin and start over again with Noah and his family, the only ones left on the planet who trusted in God.

But Jesus isn’t talking about the moral lives of the people in Noah’s world here. He’s talking about innocent human activities. Eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage. This is normal stuff. And there's nothing wrong with them.

Jesus is saying that everything was normal in the days before the flood. There were no signs to show people that cataclysm was about to befall them, that they were soon to be swept away by a flood. Only those who were ready, who were dialed into God and the will of God--Noah and his family--knew that anything was up, that there was anything for which the world needed to prepare.

The people of Noah's time were going about the business of their lives, not knowing that the God Who doesn’t make appointments was about to act decisively to change the course of history, to change their lives for eternity.

Jesus says we all need to be similarly prepared for His coming to us.

In verses 40 and 41, Jesus goes on to say: “Two men will be in the field; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding with a hand mill; one will be taken and the other left.”

The word translated as taken here can more literally rendered, taken to one’s self. At the moment when Jesus comes back to our world, He will take some people to Himself, while others will be left. “He will judge the living and the dead,” is how we confess it in the Apostles' Creed.

It’s not politically correct to say, but Jesus and the Bible make clear that while God loves everybody with equal passion and commitment, only some will be saved. Jesus will only take some to Himself.

From everything that Jesus has said so far, we know that the ones who will be taken to Himself are those who are ready for His return.

All of which is why Jesus says what He does next, in verses 42-44: "Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.”

Let’s review what Jesus has told us so far about the day of His coming.

First, He hasn’t told us when it will happen.

Second, He hasn’t told us about any clues by which we might anticipate it.

Searching for signs will be an exercise in futility. In fact, the condition of the world just before Jesus’ coming might be the opposite of what we would expect.

From what Jesus says, everyone in the world will be going about their daily business, in seeming peace, without anxieties or worries on the day before He comes to us.

There could be universal prosperity, ceasefires, no violence on our streets or in our homes, and full employment on that day.

It’s possible that everyone’s teeth will be pearly white without a single cavity.

On that day before Jesus’ return, there might be no volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, recessions, depressions, or traffic jams to tip us off to how close the world is to final judgment or the new heaven and the new earth Jesus will return to this world to bring.

The lion could, for the moment, be ignoring the lamb and Republicans and Democrats might actually be working together.

But when Jesus comes to the earth, for some still living in this world, it will be a cataclysmic event, judgment, separation from God and from others, an eternity of bitter, regretful aloneness.

For others still living in the world, it will bring unspeakable joy, an eternity of fellowship with God and with others also saved by grace through faith.

Similarly, for some, death will bring cataclysm.

For others, it will bring joy.

How we meet Jesus is simply a question of our readiness.

And our readiness is, I believe, composed of two elements.

First: Do we believe in Jesus Christ? Meaning, do we trust Him enough to repent for our sins, receive His forgiveness and the power of the Holy Spirit for living, and trust Jesus with our whole lives, from our past to our eternal future?

Faith in Jesus is really about turning to Him and saying each day, “Thy will be done. Be my God. By your grace, ‘I am Yours and none other’s. I am Yours alone!’”

Jesus says in Matthew 24:13: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

In his book, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis writes: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”

Those who submit themselves to God’s will to save from sin and death all who entrust themselves to His Son are prepared for the day of Jesus’ return, whenever He comes.

Let me refine this discussion of faith in Christ a bit. Believing in Jesus also entails what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls “keeping short accounts with God.”

Our sins, as Jesus teaches us, are trespasses on God’s holiness, debts to God. People of faith live in what Martin Luther called “daily repentance and renewal,” trusting Christ so much that we daily and courageously lay ourselves before God and ask Him, “Show me my secret sin. Show the sin I am regularly committing that I don’t even see.” A pastor wrote to me just this past week about praying in this way. “I prayed,” she wrote, “that God would reveal my unknown sins to me one Lent--no question that the prayer was answered. It took a little time, but WOW!”

That pastor showed courage...and faith. She trusted her Savior with her whole life. It led to a wow moment in which she was able to place another set of sins in Jesus’ feet, receive His cleansing forgiveness, and experience the renewing power of the Holy Spirit in her life. Her faith was deepened.

We will never be able to name all our sins. (At least I know that I can't!) Sin is too intrinsic to our natures for that. And, this side of our resurrection, you and I will not be perfect. We will always have reason to rely on God’s compassionate forgiveness and love!

A passage of Scripture that gives me incredible comfort when I consider my own sinfulness is Psalm 103:11-14 (page 418 in the pew Bibles): “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”

Isn’t that rich and wonderful? We are ready to meet Jesus, first and foremost, when we believe in Jesus and trust in Him enough to seek to keep our relationship through daily honest, patient prayers of repentance in which our God renews us daily in His grace.

There is a second aspect of being ready to meet Jesus. Jesus talks about it elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. We’ll talk more about them all when we have those texts for our lessons later in the Church Year. But it boils down to this: We are ready when we are engaged in service to God and others in the Name of Jesus. As one commentator has pointed out: “It is in service to others that we prepare for [Jesus’ appearance in our lives]...”

That doesn’t mean that we earn our way into the grace of God. What it does mean is this: The more we trust--the more we believe--in Jesus, the more God will set us free from the paralysis of self-concern, self-analysis, self-absorption.

The central questions of our lives will increasingly cease to be, “Am I happy?” “How can I get ahead?” or “What’s in it for me?”

Instead, confident in the grace and love and power and hope and peace God gives to those who make themselves clay in the nail-scarred hands of Jesus, the more God will set us free to be our true selves.

We were made to love God and love our neighbors, to serve God and serve our neighbors. Sin prevents us from living in this way. The forgiveness of sin sets us free to do so.

A Methodist theologian, Albert Outler, now gone but then in his sixties, once confessed in a sermon, “For forty years, I’ve gotten it wrong. I told people, ‘You’ve got to love!’ Now, I realize the true message is, ‘You get to love.’”

When we believe in Jesus and stand fast in that faith, the Holy Spirit turns us into servants who serve not from obligation, but from the joy of knowing that we belong to the God Who sent His Son to serve, die, and rise for us!

So many of you in this congregation serve without fanfare or desire for recognition in so many ways. I truly am amazed by this church! You know the joy of service in Jesus’ Name.

You, my friends, are, I think, ready to meet Jesus, whenever you meet Him face to face.

By grace through faith in Christ, you have been freed from the tyranny of death, the devil, and of the self. You have been set free to live for God and for your neighbor through Jesus’ cross and resurrection and your faith in Him and in the power of what He has done for you.

By faith in Jesus and by the life of service Jesus has unleashed in you, you are ready for Jesus’ coming. Keep believing. Keep serving in Christ’s Name. You will be ready, whenever you meet Jesus. Amen!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Helplessness Can Lead Us to God

"No man can meet God without discovering that he can not fully understand God...

"We can endure a great many things with a calm mind if we can see the reason for, or the purpose of, our suffering. It is that which we cannot understand and which therefore seems meaningless that irritates us and makes us rebellious more than anything else. For that reason no aspect of God becomes a stumblingblock to us more easily than His inscrutability. It reminds us of the poignant words of Jesus, 'Blessed is he, whosoever shall find no occasion of stumbling in me' (Matthew 11:6).

"For this reason no aspect of God breaks down our self-conceit and our self-sufficiency more quickly than this. For the first time we come to a point where we do not know what to do. We are unable to go back to our former life, and we cannot find the way to God. We have not learned as yet to surrender to a God whose ways are past finding out. As a result our whole being is in a state of rebelliousness. That which is incomprehensible always fills us with paralyzing fear.

"Every one who continues in this fear and does not flee from God or his own conscience, and who tarries in the presence of the inscrutable God, experiences a miracle, God breaks down his self-conceit and self-sufficiency. Without knowing how, the helpless soul is drawn into the fellowship of our incomprehensible God..." (Ole Hallesby in Prayer)

Two Kinds of People

"There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened." (C.S. Lewis)

If we truly want the God made known to all the world in Jesus Christ, He will have us and we will have Him. And whether we truly want Him, as is true of anything or anyone we truly desire, it will be manifest in the choices we make each day.

Jesus says, "But seek first [the Kingdom of God] and His righteousness..." (Matthew 6:33)

Prayer: God, help me to be the kind of person who chooses Christ and who so chooses life. I know this is only possible by the power of Your Holy Spirit, Whose help I ask for now. I pray it in the Name of Jesus. Amen

[See here.]

If You're Going to Get Hated, Make Sure It's for the Right Reason

"Just as Jesus could not help but produce enemies, so [His] disciples will have enemies who hate them. That they will be hated, that Christians have been and will continue to be hated, is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness; but if Christians are faithful, they will be hated. They will be hated because those who have gone to the nations in Jesus' name cannot help but produce enemies who refuse to acknowledge the challenge that Jesus's people present to any loyalty not determined by discipleship to Jesus." [from Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2006), p.202. Part of his chapter on Matthew 24 and 25.]

It's no surprise that Christians incur hatred for their faith in Christ.

The problem with the Church today is that many Christians seem to almost want to be hated for the wrong reasons. That happens when they confuse faithfulness to Jesus Christ for being apologists for their political philosophy, their class, their social views.

God is not a Republican. God is not a Democrat.

God is not wealthy, middle class, or white.

God is God.

He has been revealed definitively in Jesus Christ.

Christians, if we're going to get people to hate us, let's make sure it's for being faithful to Christ and not for any other reason!

Thursday, November 28, 2013


There are many things for which I'm thankful this Thanksgiving Day. But one stands out above all others.

Most of all, I'm thankful that by God's grace--His charitable love, I have been saved from my sin, eternal separation from God (death), and eternal and daily futility through faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus died and rose for rebel sinners like me.

And when I turn from sin and trust in Him, I have life with God.

More than that, despite my sins and resistance to Jesus' Lordship, for which I daily repent, I am able to live with God and, contemplating the wonder, power, and love of God, I am "being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory."

Love like that is beyond comprehension.

But it can be experienced!

"Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38-39)

And the Holy Spirit will help you know and walk with Christ each day.

And that's one more thing for which to be thankful!

Throw in with Christ and each day on earth and eternity itself will be thanksgiving...without the family arguments, plumbing problems (the 2013 challenge du jour at my house, by the way), turkey fires, traffic jams, and indigestion.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

What is the Church Year?

[Eight years ago, while serving in a parish in the Cincinnati area, as we were beginning a new season of Advent, I presented this explanation of the Church Year. I've renewed it several times in the intervening time, including during my six years at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan. The article, in all its incarnations, remains one of the most popular pieces to appear on the blog. Now with a new Church Year upon us, starting this Sunday, December 1, my first Advent season with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, I thought people might find this overview helpful.]

The Church Year is a human invention. Observing it won't make us better than anyone, although it's designed to give worshipers who attend Sunday to Sunday, a full exposure to the most important elements of life with Jesus Christ.

Nor does keeping the Church Year "save" a person from sin and death, though the readings from God's Word appointed throughout the year can, in the person willing to let that Word do its work, will be saved.

The Church Year is one of those Church customs or traditions designed to help people know the God we meet in Jesus and also to help believers to grow in their faith. Knowing Jesus as Savior and holding onto Him with sustained belief is how we are saved from sin and death and give us eternal life in Jesus' Name. When the Church Year does that, it's a tool in the hands of God, human invention or not!

The Church Year is built around three great festivals: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.

Christmas, of course, is the celebration of Jesus' birth.

Easter is the day remembering Jesus' resurrection from the dead.

Pentecost remembers the occasion fifty days after Jesus' resurrection and ten days after His ascension into heaven when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' praying disciples and gave birth to the Church.

Historically, Easter was the first holiday (that word contracts two words: holy day) that Christians began to celebrate. This only makes sense, as it's Jesus' resurrection that gives Christians hope for this life and the one to come. While early Christians did seem to remember Easter on a Sunday falling at the beginning of the Jewish Passover, the practice of the first Christians, all of whom were Jews like Jesus, was to worship on the traditional Jewish Sabbath--from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday--and to celebrate every Sunday as a little Easter. (Some echo of this can be found in the Gospel of John's occasional references to an "eighth day," a new beginning in a new week of the new creation!)

Over time, a Church Year developed which allowed for the retelling of Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension, followed by Pentecost. The Church Year, in order, moves through these seasons:
  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Epiphany
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost
Advent, with which the color blue is most often associated today, is celebrated on the four Sundays preceding Christmas, which always occurs on the fixed date of December 25. The word advent, means coming or presence. The theme of Advent is waiting. This season remembers more than just the centuries when the world anticipated or waited for the coming of the Savior, Jesus, on the first Christmas. (And it's even less a remembrance of our own waiting for Christmas to roll around.) Advent also calls us to patiently await both God's activity in every part of lives and the return of Jesus at the end of earthly time. Advent's blue, the color of the sky, reminds us of the endless hope all believers in Jesus Christ have.

Christmas begins on December 25 and ends on January 6, with Epiphany Day. (That's why people sing about The Twelve Days of Christmas.) We don't know the exact date of Jesus' birth. Our current date was long ago selected to be a Christian alternative to a pagan Roman festival, Saturnalia. As such, the setting of the Christmas date was meant to be an act of subversion, allowing Christians to proclaim, We know the true Light of the world! Christmas has a short season of two Sundays associated with it, running right up to the season of Epiphany. The color of the Christmas season and of Easter, because they are both festivals of Jesus, the sinless Savior, is white.

The word epiphany comes from a Greek compound word meaning to shine upon. The Epiphany Season begins with January 6, the day we commemorate the arrival of wise men from foreign lands who followed a star to the baby Jesus, to Bethlehem. It was there that Mary and Joseph lived with their Child for several years after the Savior's birth. January 6, in fact, is called Epiphany Day. (Because the wise men brought gifts, Epiphany was historically the day on which Christians gave gifts to one another.) The Epiphany Season is composed of between four and nine Sundays after January 6. The season is bracketed by a first Sunday, which always remembers Jesus' Baptism, and a Sunday at the end that remembers Jesus' Transfiguration. At the Transfiguration, on top of a mountain, accompanied by three of His disciples, Jesus' image was transfigured by the luminescence of heaven and God spoke, confirming Jesus' identity and mission. On the two bracketing Sundays of the Epiphany Season, the color is white. During the season in between, the color is green.

During the Epiphany season, Christians look at the early signs that pointed to Jesus being more than just a human being, but also God in the flesh, the Light of the world. The emphasis of the Epiphany season is usually on sharing the good news of Christ with others, shining the light of Christ on those around us.

After Epiphany comes Lent, a word which in the Old English, meant spring. Lent is a time for spiritual renewal and precedes the holiest days of the Church Year, including Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Lent is referred to as a season of forty days, which it is if you know how to count the days. Because Sundays are always "little Easters," the Sundays in Lent (not of Lent), are not counted as part of those forty days.

The color associated with Lent is purple, the color of royalty because in ancient times, purple dyes were so rare and expensive that only royalty could afford cloth of that color. Historically, the season of Lent was a time of preparation for adult converts to the faith to prepare for their initiation into Christianity at Easter.

There are several key days on the Lenten calendar. The season begins with Ash Wednesday. This is a day of repentance, that is, of turning away from sin and turning to Christ for forgiveness. Of course, as Martin Luther phrased it, "daily repentance and renewal" are meant to be an ongoing element of the Christian's life as we routinely strive to orient ourselves to God and His will for us. But Ash Wednesday is a time when all are especially reminded of it.

Near the end of the season comes Passion Sunday (also known as Palm Sunday). On this day, we're called to remember both Jesus' seemingly triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the Sunday before His execution and Christ's passion, as well as its foreshadowing of Easter. Passion, a word that is used in entirely different ways today, really means to be so committed to the well-being of another that we're willing to die for them. Christ had that kind of commitment to us and so, went to a cross. Passion Sunday begins that portion of Lent called Holy Week.

The next major day on the Holy Week calendar is Maundy Thursday. Maundy is rooted in the Latin word mandatum, from which we get our word mandate and is related to the word commandment. That's because on the Thursday night before He was executed, during the Passover celebration at which He instituted Holy Communion, Jesus also gave His disciples "a new commandment": that they love one another.

Many churches have foot-washing rites during their special gatherings on this day. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples before they ate together on that first Maundy Thursday and also commanded all of His followers to be servants like Him.

Good Friday, which comes on the next night, is a solemn remembrance of Jesus' death on the cross. For me, this is one of the most moving worship services of the year. At many congregations, there is a service called Tenebrae commemorated on this night. Tenebrae comes from the Latin and means darkness. The service remembers the darkness that engulfed the world at Jesus' execution as well as our need of Him as the light in our darkness. The service ends in silence as all contemplate Jesus' sacrifice of Himself for us, the Light of the world and all humanity snuffed out as a consequence of our sin.

Easter Sunday brings the celebration of Jesus' resurrection in a special way and continues throughout the Easter season. This is usually the high point of the year, even in churches that don't use the Church Year. The Easter Season lasts about seven weeks. The Gospel lessons incorporate accounts of the resurrected Jesus' appearances. Tucked in the midst of the season, on a Thursday, is Ascension Day. This comes forty days after Easter. More on that below.

Pentecost Day, as I mentioned, is the celebration of the Church's birthday, when the Holy Spirit, Who hovered over the waters of primordial chaos to bring life into being back in the Old Testament book of Genesis, once again creates. This time, He creates new life by bringing Christ's Church, His body in the world, into being. The color of this day is red.

There follows after that a season that lasts from twenty-three to twenty-eight weeks. It's referred to simply as the Pentecost Season. The color is green because the emphasis here is on growing in our faith, learning to be Jesus' disciples or followers at ever-deepening levels of maturity. In this season, Christian churches submit to the power and authority and guidance of God's Holy Spirit. The historic creeds of the Church proclaim that the Holy Spirit brings us to faith, establishes Christ's Church, and brings the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

The very first Sunday after Pentecost is Holy Trinity Sunday. This focuses on the great mystery of the God we meet in the Bible: One God in three Persons, revealed in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

The whole Church Year comes to a close, on the Sunday closest to November 30, with Christ the King Sunday.

Associated with each of the Sundays and many of the festivals of the Church Year are three cycles of appointed Biblical lessons. These cycles, referred to as Years A, B, and C, are called lectionaries. There are several sets of lectionaries, the the most well-known being those associated with the Roman Catholics, another with Lutherans, and another with a consortium of several Protestant denominations. The lectionaries are fairly similar, but do diverge occasionally.

Each Sunday and special festival day of the Church Year has appointed lessons from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament (either Acts, Revelation, or the letters), and a Gospel lesson. Generally speaking, the Old Testament, Psalm, and Gospel readings are thematically linked. The New Testament lessons are designed to make it possible over a three year period, to have almost all the letters, Revelation, and Acts read in public worship.

The three different cycles are built on the three synoptic Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Synoptic is a word that means to see together. These three Gospels are quite similar to one another--they see things similarly, while the Gospel of John has the most unique material.) Because Mark, with only sixteen chapters, is so short, the appointed Gospel lessons during its year are often taken from John.

Through my years as a pastor, I've felt free to spring loose from what one of our former Lutheran bishops, David Preus, called "the tyranny of the lectionary," looking at Biblical texts not appointed in the lectionary, in order to address issues that seem to be important in our community or world. But the lectionary does provide a well-rounded diet of Biblical material which, when looked at in a disciplined and devoted way, can help Christians develop a deeper faith.

[The image above, showing the cycle of the Church Year, comes from Augsburg Fortress, the publishing house of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.]