Monday, December 28, 2015

U2 song

"In a little while
"Surely you'll be mine
"In a little while I'll be there

"In a little while
"This hurt will hurt no more
"I'll be home, love"
[In a Little While by U2]
I love the hope in those words. And they're perfectly matched with the melody. It's set within a song expressive of devotion and longing, pain and the certainty of redemption and belief in the power of love. Beautiful. 

Sunday, December 27, 2015

God's Plans for Us: Worth the Wait

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 27, the First Sunday of Christmas.]

Luke 2:22-40
In today’s Gospel lesson, we learn about the actions and words of four people--Joseph, Mary, Simeon, and Anna. And yet, the four of them are not at the center of things.

At the center of the incidents our lesson recounts is a baby, which seems appropriate on this Sunday when we will see the Baptism of Caroline.

Babies are often at the center of things, controlling the lives and daily schedules of their elders.

This year, my niece and her husband had their first child, a beautiful little boy named Marshall. He is my parents’ fifth great-grandchild, but as we all remind each other, he’s the first baby we’ve had in our family for some time. And so, we all act appropriately loopy over the little guy. Babies don’t really have to do anything to gain our attention or our love.

Luke records different reactions to another baby, the baby Jesus, from the normal ones though.

Among the milling throngs at the temple, few people seemingly notice or care about the child in Mary’s arms.

But two people know that this child deserves and will continue to deserve for all eternity, all our attention, allegiance, service, and worship.

As the text begins, Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple. There, Mary’s purification following childbirth will be certified and Jesus will be circumcised and named. The couple will also bring an offering--a dove or pigeons--to be sacrificed by a priest, these being the sacrifices God had told Moses that Israelites who couldn’t afford a lamb could bring to the temple. Joseph and Mary are doing for this child everything that accorded with Old Testament ritual and sacrificial law.

But soon this young couple will meet two people who will remind them that the baby in their arms spells the end for the need of those laws.

Jesus will become the sacrifice that once and for all, will erase the power of sin and death over anyone who believes in Him.

Several decades later, Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, will point to Jesus and declare: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” [John 1:29]

At the temple, the couple, holding Jesus, encounter Simeon, a man filled with God’s Holy Spirit, the power of God’s life filling his elderly frame, empowering him to tell God’s truth.

Verse 25 in our lesson tells us that Simeon “...was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms…”

Simeon knew about waiting for the unfolding of God’s plans. Most of his fellow Judeans had long ago stopped waiting for the Old Testament prophecies of a Savior-Messiah, so much so that Matthew tells us when wise men came from the East looking for the newborn King, all of Jerusalem was in an uproar at the thought that the baby would upset the lives to which they were accustomed.

But not Simeon! He had believed the prophecies and yearned for their fulfillment, had waited and prayed and worshiped and trusted in God.

Now, in his old age, he sees what long generations of faithful members of God’s people had, according to Hebrews 11:13, only seen and welcomed “from a distance.” He sees the one who, Isaiah had said some seven-hundred years earlier, would “be a light to guide the nations” [Isaiah 42:6] and would bring comfort to His own people [Isaiah 49:13].

He even takes the baby in his arms to offer worship and praise!

All that Simeon had been waiting for was in his arms!

Now, the old man tells God, he can die in peace. “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” [Luke 2:30-32]

Joseph and Mary “marveled” at Simeon’s words.

But that isn’t all that Simeon has to say. He turns to the young mother who had been forced to deliver this child in an animal stall and tells her to steel herself for the cross the baby would one day bear for us all. Verse 34: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel,” Simeon says, “and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

The baby Jesus, God on earth, the foundational truth of the universe, will be (and still is) an uncomfortable presence in a world given over to sin, where human beings want, more than anything else, to be gods unto themselves.

Hebrews 4:12 tells us: “...
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.”

Jesus, the Word made flesh [John 1:14], exposes the human race as people walking in darkness needing a great light [Isaiah 9:2], but wanting to run from the light or destroy it, wanting to avoid admitting its need for a Savior, wanting to deny that the wages of its sin is death [Romans 6:13], wanting to rid itself of God altogether [Luke 20:14].

Simeon is telling us that Jesus’ rejection and death on the cross are inevitable. But the God of the universe now in Simeon’s arms is also Mary’s baby, which is why Simeon warns her, “
And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”    

Mary had told Elizabeth that “all generations will call me blessed” [Luke 1:48]. And so she was. She bore God in her womb and raised Him. To play such a part in God’s plans for saving the world was a blessing! But in this blessing, there would also be grief.

And the same is true for us.

When we dare to take Jesus as our Lord, to live in our Baptismal covenant, along with the new life that He offers, it spells the death of our old selves. As, day by day, we continue to surrender to Jesus, we will grieve over self-centered ambitions and self-driven ways, even as we thank God for the blessing of eternally belonging to Him. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."

Mary has probably barely absorbed Simeon’s words when Anna appears. She is a prophet. She’s a member of the Israelite tribe of Asher, one of the tribes taken into exile by the ancient Assyrian Empire.

But, despite everything, a few of their number had continued faithfully to follow God, had returned to the promised land, and had waited for the coming of the Messiah.

Anna, like Simeon, continued to trust in God even when those around her had given up on faith.

Like Simeon, she knew the importance of waiting for God to fulfill His plans in history. The believer knows that every passing year when Jesus hasn't returned to finally establish His kingdom, is an opportunity for more to come to repentance and new life from the God revealed in Jesus.

When Anna sees Jesus, “she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” [Luke 1:38].

At the end of these remarkable events, we’re told that Mary and Joseph took their child back to Nazareth, where He would grow strong, be filled with God’s wisdom, and have God’s grace upon Him.

The waiting then, wasn’t over.

It would be decades before Jesus’ death and resurrection.

But those events--Good Friday and Easter Sunday--were worth the wait.

Even today, on the other side of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension, we are called, like Simeon and Anna, to wait with trust and hope in the midst of days we can't understand or explain, believing that God has what is best for us in mind.

And, like Mary and Joseph, we are called to do the everyday tasks of life that God calls each of us to do, all to God’s glory.

To me, this, in fact, surfaces one of the primary takeaways from today’s Gospel lesson: Following Christ isn’t, in this life, the glorious, flawless, brimming with success and easy procession that the false teachers on TV make it out to be. Waiting trustingly for the unfolding of God’s plans for our lives--as individuals and as believers in Jesus--is something we go at each day as we follow Christ above all else: as we do our duty to God, our families, and our communities; as we worship and pray and learn to know God better through His Word.

Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and Anna all
must have had times when their faith was tested, when prayers seemed futile, when grief worked at driving a wedge between God and them. But our text tells us that they remained steadfast in focusing on the Lord they actually held in their arms and attended to that day in the temple.

Many years after the events in today’s Gospel lesson, the apostle Paul would tell a young pastor, Timothy: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” [2 Timothy 4:8]

Everyone loves babies, I think. (Except, maybe when they cry?) But the baby Jesus is the only Child Who can change our eternities, giving us life with God. For a needy world, He was worth the faithful waiting exhibited by Simeon and Anna.

And for all He has in mind for us, He is worthy of waiting for all that He has in mind for us in ways no less faithful...and no less certain of His good plans for us. Amen

Receiving the Greatest Gift of All

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Christmas Eve.]

Luke 2:1-20
“And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” (Luke 2:7)

That’s the stark way that Luke the evangelist chooses to tell us about the birth of Jesus, the Savior of the world, God-in-the-flesh. Just one single verse. 

The simplicity of Luke’s description contrasts with that other Christmas, the Christmas celebrated by the wider world, the loud Christmas that blares, “Buy this,” “Borrow that,” and “Grandma got run over by a reindeer.” 

That other Christmas has launched thousands of different product lines, generating millions for entrepreneurs, songwriters, and retailers. It’s rife with glitzy extravaganzas, dazzling displays, movies with awesome special effects, and loud parties. 

And you know what? There’s nothing inherently wrong with that other Christmas. 

"In the bleak midwinter,” as an old song puts it, a time of grey skies and (usually) cold temperatures, the lights and the color of that other Christmas are probably something we can all use. So, I’m not knocking it.

But the Christmas of absorbing electronic games and of kisses that begin at Kay’s—that other Christmas is only you and I howling at the moon. 

No matter how many times we sing Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, no matter how much we buy, give, or get, no matter how much we laugh or how much egg nog we knock back, that other Christmas is just a season on the calendar, a diversion in December.

That other Christmas cannot change the fact that we are sinners alienated from God, in need of a Savior. 

It can’t show us that that Savior has come with, as another of our Christmas songs puts it, “healing in His wings.” 

The other Christmas has little to do with Jesus, the miracle child who would go to cross and tomb to share our deaths so that when He rose, all who follow Him, can look forward to sharing in His resurrection. 

Luke says that Jesus had to be delivered in a stall, probably a cave like the one in which He would be buried on a Good Friday about thirty years later. The reason for that sad fact was simple: There was no room for Mary, Joseph, or Jesus in the inn. No room.

But how much room do we give to Jesus even when we aren’t feeling overwhelmed by that other Christmas? 

Do we give room to Jesus when He tries to confront us for the sins that would separate us from Him? 

How about when He tries to assure us of the forgiveness we feel we don’t deserve? 

Do we give Him room when He tries to guide us in the ways of justice and compassion for our neighbors, of sacrificial giving, of marriages according to God’s plan? 

Do we give Him room enough to let Him speak to us in times of prayer, as we read the Scripture, when we worship God together, or when we receive Holy Communion?

Many Christians spend lots of time and energy lamenting how the world seems bent on “taking Christ out of Christmas.” Often though, these same people are little more than Sunday morning Christians, who give Christ no room or time in their lives. Christ is not evidenced in their Christmases or their lives.

Jesus and the life that He gives to all who turn from sin and turn to Him eternally outlasts all the things extolled by that other Christmas: big money, houses, mortgages, the comforts this world can momentarily provide. 

But those who throw in their lots with Jesus outlast the seemingly important stuff of this world. 

Life that never ends, true joy, and the power and blessings of God in us and for us are among the gifts that Jesus brings to those who make room for Jesus to be the Lord, the ultimate authority, over their lives. 

This Jesus, the real Jesus, who is marginalized, sentimentalized, and forgotten by the other Christmas, is emphatic in saying that only He can offer these things. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” He tells us. “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In this year in which bad news seems to come to us every day, we have good news this Christmas!

It’s put well in a favorite Christmas hymn: “where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.” The meek soul is the one who realistically understands that its need of Christ.

May we always be meek enough to recognize our need of Christ and to make room for Him. When we make room for Jesus Christ, He enters into the places and circumstances and lives that we surrender to Him. 

If we let Christ into our lives, Christmas--the real Christmas--will happen in our lives not only on December 25, but every day we live this life...and beyond. 

Merry Christmas, everybody!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christ still comes to us

At Christmas, God came into our lives, sharing our vulnerabilities and death and sin so that, after offering Himself on the cross and rising from the dead, He could give new and everlasting life to all who repent and trust in Him as their only king.

He still comes to us today through His Church, His Word, the waters of Baptism, and His body and blood, given in, with, and under the bread and the wine. The world needs Him desperately these days.

And we are assured, as the hymn puts it, "Where meek souls will receive Him still / The dear Christ enters in."

To my friends who don't follow Jesus Christ: Please prayerfully "come and see" Who Jesus is at a church close to you.

To my believing friends: Let us lovingly, humbly, boldly, and without obnoxiousness or judgment, share Jesus Christ with others in the midst of this messy world.

Merry Christmas to all.

[Thanks to Pastor Tim Glendening for sharing this amazing picture over on Facebook.]

Sunday, December 20, 2015

'Star Wars' at the call center

This USA Today article tells about a guy, Jeremy Brummage, who had a lot of spare time while working at a call center and so has created amazing models of Star Wars vehicles.

Brummage has a blog about his obsession.

An interview with Stan Laurel from 1957

Conducted shortly after Oliver Hardy died, in this interview, Stan Laurel looks back on his career, with and without Hardy.

When I was in junior high school, I absolutely loved the dual biography, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Comedic actor Dick Van Dyke, who just turned ninety, wrote a beautiful introduction and remembrance for the book. I'd recommend it.

Laurel and Hardy are still my all-time favorite comedians. They always crack me up.

What an amazing memory the elderly Laurel had.

A random this and that

For a time, I presented Saturday This and That, links to and thoughts spun from articles that had caught my attention the week before. I haven't done one for awhile. So, here's a This and That composed of articles from the past few weeks.


Has science really found a way for people to keep from looking stupid? A Hungarian research project mentioned at The Huffington Post, claims that three things can make people look stupid: overconfidence, a lack of control, and absent-mindedness. Come to think of it, a good chunk of comedy is comprised of one, two, or all three of these traits. 


If you have a bad attitude about aging, it may impact how you age
People who held more negative thoughts about aging earlier in life had greater loss of hippocampus volume when they aged. In other words, the researchers say, people who held negative age stereotypes had the same amount of decline in three years as the more positive group had nine in nine years.

...People who had more negative age stereotypes had significantly higher scores of plaques and tangles than people with more positive feelings about growing old.

10 Historical Myths About World Christianity
purports to set the record straight on a lot of common negative stereotypes of world Christianity.


Why Lutherans and others use liturgy in worship. A current trend among millennials is an attraction to what's come to be called "traditional" worship, using liturgy.

Liturgy means work of the people and in the Christian tradition, it's a structure by which people collectively come together in the presence of God to worship, praise, hear God's Word, offer ourselves to God, and receive the sacraments.

I didn't grow up in the liturgical tradition, but as the years go by, it means more and more to me, for many of the reasons cited in this article. We even use liturgical structure in our "contemporary" worship at Living Water. 

Mary Visits Elizabeth in the Judean Hill Country

The scene depicted here was the subject of today's Gospel lesson. Today is the Fourth Sunday in Advent. You can read Luke's moving account of the event here.

The clip is from Jesus of Nazareth.

How Christ Comes to the Open

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church this morning.]

Luke 1:39-45
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” 

With these words, Elizabeth, six months pregnant with John the Baptist, extols the faith of Mary, the bearer of Jesus, God enfleshed.

And Mary
is a person of great faith.

After all, when the angel told her that she was to give birth to the Messiah, Mary could have initially written the visitation off as a figment of her imagination.

Or, she could have complained to the angel--and to God--and ended by saying, “No, thanks!”

But Mary instead had said, “Let it be to me as you have said,” then went off to the Judean hill country to be with her relative Elizabeth as
she gave birth to John the Baptist.

Elizabeth’s pregnancy is almost as implausible as Mary’s. Mary’s pregnancy was the most implausible, of course. This virgin was bearing a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.

But, like Sarah and Hannah from Old Testament times, Elizabeth learned that she and her husband Zechariah were to become parents long after she’d passed child-bearing years.

And it’s to the lessons that Elizabeth can teach us today that I want to turn our attention, because while Elizabeth was right in saying that Mary had strong faith, Elizabeth’s faith was extraordinary too.

Our Gospel lesson is Luke 1:39-45, and it begins: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”

Mary seeks out Elizabeth, her relative, who is undergoing a somewhat similar experience to her own. Each of them, in their own way, will probably be victims of gossip for their pregnancies.

We can maybe understand this more readily with Mary: God has established marriage between man and woman as the place in which intimacy is to happen. Anything outside of that is sin. Few would believe Mary’s story of the angel telling her that her child was conceived by God. And while it had been some time since anyone had exacted the punishment of death by stoning, Mary could likely look ahead to years of being ostracized.

But Elizabeth would also face condemnation. Year ago, when I was about thirty, I knew an elderly woman who had a daughter a few years younger than me. Her other children were significantly older than this last child. I later learned that when she was expecting this child, she tried hiding her pregnancy for as long as she could, feeling that some people might think that older couples should “act their ages” and not be doing anything to have more children. Some no doubt gossiped about Elizabeth and Zechariah similarly.

In our lesson, other people's possible reactions to their pregnancies is on the minds of either Mary or Elizabeth, though.

They trust in God and are excited and humbled to be instruments in the plans of God for the salvation of the world.

When I set my own bellyaching about what God expects of me next to the faithful acceptance of Mary and Elizabeth of far more demanding expectations from God, I’m put to shame and have no choice but to repent for my deficient faith.

Verse 41: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” There are two things to note here. One is that John the Baptist, the child in Mary’s womb, evidently recognized the presence of the Savior Jesus through the call of Mary. There’s a mystery in this and I can’t begin to plumb its depths. It’s just worth noting.

The other thing to see is that God fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit. This is important for what happens next. Verse 42: “In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’”

I love this verse!

In those days and in that place, women were more or less to be “sometimes seen and certainly not heard.” But Elizabeth speaks up “in a loud voice”!

Her doing so evidences two things that happen with Elizabeth. First, she recognizes Who Jesus is. In the next verse, she’s going to call Jesus, “my Lord.” Second, she loudly and forcefully proclaims Jesus to be God on earth, the Lord of all so that others can hear; Elizabeth witnesses.

And in this simple verse, we see two things that the Holy Spirit can do in the lives of those who are open to God. The first is that the Holy Spirit makes it possible for anyone who is open to Christ to trust in Him, to believe in Him, and so, to have everlasting life with God.

Without the Holy Spirit working on us, faith in Christ would be impossible.

As Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.”

The Holy Spirit enables us to tell God, “There are so many things about You, Lord, that I don’t understand. But I trust in You because of what I do understand: That You have come into my world. And that You bore my sins and the sins of the world on the cross. Through Your cross and Your empty tomb, I do understand that You are the God of love Who wants all people to come to Jesus and live. So, rather than worrying about what I don’t understand, I trust You on the basis of what I can understand.”

God isn’t looking for perfect people to save. He’s looking for imperfect people who are willing to be saved, not by their own power or goodness, but by Christ alone. And not by their power to comprehend the mysteries of God, but by the power of the Holy Spirit Who helps us to trust in what is humanly incomprehensible. 

As the Christmas hymn says: “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin / Where meek souls [humble souls, receptive souls] will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Elizabeth was willing to believe the unbelievable, that God was in the womb of a virgin, that a world entrapped by sin and death could be set free by the Baby Jesus.

And because she was
willing to believe, the Holy Spirit empowered her to believe.

And once Elizabeth believed, she was able to proclaim her faith in Christ to others.

The Holy Spirit wants to do these same two things in every believer:
  • He wants us to have faith in Christ, so that we can have eternal life with God.
  • He wants us to tell others about Christ so that they can know life with God, too.
The question for us each day is: Are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit?

And in this time of transition, having experienced recently so many miraculous acts by God in the life of Living Water--from the rapid provision of a building, to the orchestration of an internship for Dan Mershon, providing for Dan and his family as he grows toward one day becoming a pastor, to the leadership of a youth ministry team who, with your help, will ensure the growth of Living Water’s youth ministry--
are we of Living Water willing to let the Holy Spirit build within us an even more dependent faith in Christ and to let Him use us daily to tell the world about Jesus?

In verse 44, Elizabeth asks Mary: “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

On the face of it, Elizabeth’s humility seems strange.

Why would she be humbled by a young girl, pregnant under what seems like bad circumstances, coming into her house?

Why would she be humbled by the presence of an unborn child?

The explanation is simple:
By faith, Elizabeth understands Who the unborn child Mary carries is. He is, as she says, “my Lord.”

Her humility reminds me of the Roman centurion, a powerful commander of an occupying army, who tells Jesus, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” [Matthew 8:8]

These are the words of people who are grateful for the grace of God given in Christ and who realize that they don’t deserve grace, don’t deserve a relationship with the Almighty. They’re amazed that the Savior of the world would come to them, would save them, would forgive them, would care about them.

Do you have this same humble gratitude and awe before God?

Do you welcome Christ with humility into every part of your life?

My mentor in the faith, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to warn us against becoming accustomed to handling the holy, taking God for granted or feeling entitled to salvation

Yesterday morning, during my quiet time with God, after reading Revelation 15:8, I had to confess to God that I sometimes can be very unlike Elizabeth. In my journal, I wrote:
I feel that I take my sin entirely too lightly, that I buy into a cheap grace that is convenient to me, but doesn’t share fully in Christ’s sufferings...Forgive my flippancy, Lord. Help me to fully embrace Your grace by understanding how much sin, how much deserved wrath, that [grace] covers.
I never want to take Christ for granted.

I never want to fall into the trap of thinking, falsely, that God owes me salvation. God owes me nothing!
But God does give salvation freely to all who believe in Christ. And the only appropriate response to a King of such grace and love is humble acceptance of His Lordship. This is the response Elizabeth displays consistently.

At the end of our lesson, as we noted, Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” But we could as easily say it of Elizabeth!
She was open to believing in Jesus as Lord and so, the Holy Spirit empowered her to

(1) believe in Christ;
(2) proclaim Christ to others; and
(3) welcome him humbly into her life and her world.
As we prepare for Christmas and a new year with new challenges and opportunities for us as individuals and as a church family, we would do well to have this same openness to God, so that we will
  • more deeply trust in Christ;
  • more consistently tell others about Him; and
  • humbly welcome Christ into every part of our lives.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

I don't follow Jesus because I'm a good person

I'm not a follower of Jesus Christ because I'm a good person.

I'm a follower of Christ because I'm not a good person.

And because Christ, truly God and truly human, is so good--perfect, in fact--that through His death and resurrection and the faith in Him that His Spirit creates in me, He covers me with His goodness.

In doing this, He makes me acceptable to heaven despite my lack of goodness.

And the Holy Spirit then daily undertakes to reconstruct me--in ways often painful to my ego and to my sense of entitlement--in the image of Jesus.

Though I need Him, I often fight the very Christ I daily invite to control my life.

But Christ is a relentless combatant for un-good people like me.

While we draw breath on this earth, He never gives up the fight to save us from sin--our intrinsic ungoodness, our inborn alienation from God--and the fight to help us to be more like God's prototype for the new human, Jesus Christ, we are all meant to be.

If you'd like to follow Jesus, along with all the other not-good people of the world who are being saved and who bear His name, let me know. I'll try to help you. Or point you in the right direction for moving forward.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

How to Live in Tough Times

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church at both worship services today.]

Philippians 4:4-7
Chances are when you read and heard the words of today’s second Bible lesson, you gave it little thought. The familiarity of the words threatens to bleach them of their meaning. 

And because they don’t narrate a story or paint a picture or give some lofty teaching, they wash over us like a TV commercial we've seen a hundred times.

This morning though, consider that these words may deserve more of our attention than we usually give to them. 

In fact, Philippians 4:4-7, four short verses dictated by the apostle Paul to be sent to the church in the Greek city of Philippi back in the first century, give us a roadmap for how to live in tough times

“In tough times,” really means “in this lifetime,” because every season of life on earth brings its own tough times

It has been that way since Adam and Eve rebelled against God and it will remain that way until the return of Jesus at the end of this old creation’s history. 

In this life, there’s no way around tough times. But there is always a way to live in tough times.

Paul tells us about that way in this morning’s second lesson with three simple admonitions. You might want to write them down, because following them will help you avoid becoming riddled with fear or resentment; they will help you to keep on living, no matter how tough the times get.

Paul says in verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Do we want to learn to live in tough times? First, we need to know how to rejoice in the Lord

Years ago, a band had a song called Rejoice. For the music video, they interviewed people on the streets of New York City to ask them what made them rejoice. A good percentage of those interviewed looked at the person asking that question like they were crazy. We live in a tough world, these folks seemed to be saying, who rejoices?

Maybe part of the problem is that we don’t know what it means to rejoice in the Lord. Pastor Steven J. Cole points out that to understand what it means to rejoice in the Lord, we need first to understand what it does not mean. 

For one thing, rejoicing in the Lord doesn’t mean that we’ll never be depressed or unhappy. Jesus, you know, wept. So, what makes us think that those who bear Jesus’ name will always be happy? There’s a difference between being happy and rejoicing. 

Cole points out that the Bible paints Christians as people characterized by “sorrow for sin,” yet filled with an “irrepressible joy” that comes from knowing that, by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we belong to God

Romans 8, reminds us, that nothing can separate those who trust in Christ from the love of God. So, the Christian has reason to rejoice--to be deeply assured by the love, presence, and promises God given through Christ--even when we go through difficult times.

Another thing we may not understand is that rejoicing in the Lord isn’t mainly about feelings. Rejoicing is an attitude of contentment and certainty about God’s presence and power.  

The person who rejoices says, “I’m going through tough times: It seems that there are more days than money to pay for them each month. I worry about the violence and nastiness in our world today. My child gets bullied. My spouse and I argue. Health care costs are astronomical. College is expensive. I hate seeing my kids exposed to movies and music that depict sexual intimacy as something other than a gift to men and women in the covenant of marriage. But still I know that God is faithful and I have hope and all who trust in Christ belong to God forever. So, I can rejoice!”

So, to get through tough times, we must first learn to rejoice always in the God Who loves us always and, through Christ, has saved us from sin and death and darkness.

Paul then says in verse 5: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” The second thing we need to get through tough times then, is gentleness. 

Gentleness is not a strong suit of our contemporary world. 

We tell little kids that they need to get straight-A’s in finger painting because otherwise they might not make it into Harvard. 

We savor the nastiness of reality TV cage matches. 

But Saint Paul tells us that unless we learn gentleness, none of us will be able to weather life’s tough times. Gentleness is how people toughened by the hope, grace, and honesty that comes from Jesus get through tough times. 

They can be gentle because they know, in a phrase used by Paul also in Romans 8, we are “more than conquerors through Him Who loved us.” More than conquerors!

The word translated as gentleness in our lesson is epieikes. It’s an adjective that can also mean being patient, forbearing, or reasonable. In fact, my favorite translation of the Bible, the English Standard Version, renders Paul’s words in this verse as, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” Despite the turmoil of the world, we can be reasonable in our dealings with life, the world, and the people in our lives. Christians can live, if I can make up a word, unbefuddled.

Since we belong to God for eternity, we can be free of the impatience or the sense of entitlement, or the unreasonableness that so often characterizes this world. 

As a young pastor, I learned what this means when visiting people from my first parish, people who were in the hospital and had just learned that they were fatally ill or who were in great pain. I was struck by how patient and forbearing they were in their suffering...not passive, but patient. 

One man, Arnold, who had a long history of heart trouble, was in the ER, having suffered another heart attack. “How are you, Arnold?” I asked. He chuckled and struggled to say, “I’ve been better, Pastor.” We prayed together and he told me he knew he was in God’s hands. No tears. No railing against the unfairness of it all. Just a smile and a squeeze of the hand. He trusted in God. Moments later, he was gone and I asked God to help me to be more like him.

To be gentle is not to be passive. 

A Christian shouldn’t be passive in the face of injustices perpetrated against the innocent. We should fight on behalf of others: the powerless, the hurting, the despised. That’s our call as people of God. 

And we shouldn’t be passive when we confront unbelief, either. There are people who will be separated from eternity unless they repent for sin and come to know Jesus as their God and Savior. And Jesus has left it to us as His people to share Jesus with others. We should fight to give them life with Christ. But, if it’s to have any impact, this too, must be done gently. First Peter 3:15-16 tells us: “ prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have [from Christ]. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

So, to live in tough times, we need to rejoice and we need to be gentle and reasonable. 

Paul gives one more admonition here. Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” 

In other words, the third strategy for living in tough times is to stop worrying and start praying. And we can do that with thankfulness to God for the fact that whenever life seems too big or overwhelming, we have a God Who loves us and has conquered everything that could separate us from life with Him

He has even conquered the sin that the devil likes to remind us of, but which in Christ, is forgiven when we repent.

I’m a slow learner. It’s bizarre how many times in my years as a Christian I’ve allowed myself to stew over a problem before I finally ask myself, “Why haven’t I prayed about this?” 

And when I do pray about things, the answers don’t usually come right away--though, as we have seen in recent events here at Living Water, answers do sometimes come that quickly. 

But the main thing that happens when I pray about things and I look to God’s Word for guidance through my life is that I’m filled with the assurance that God has got me

He’s got my problem. 

He’s got my family. 

He’s got my temptation. 

He’s covered my sin. 

He’s got things under control. 

These are exactly the assurances I need to live in tough times! 

In his explanation of the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…,” Martin Luther celebrates the fact that we can “call upon [God] in every time of need.”

Worrying, you know, can be a subtle form of idolatry. We live with the delusion that we can “be like God” and in control. 

When we stop worrying and start praying, we cede control to the only One Who “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” [Romans 8:28] 

This doesn’t mean that every bad thing that happens in this fallen world is good. Terror killings aren’t good. The death of the young isn’t good. 

But the God Who has conquered sin and death through Christ can bring good out of the most horrific situations. He can even raise the dead who have trusted in Christ to an eternity filled with life and joy, where death has died and suffering is a distant memory.

How do we live in troubled times? 
  • We rejoice always in the Lord Who sent His Son at Christmas to be our Savior. 
  • Knowing that the Lord is always near us, we live with gentleness toward others. 
  • And when tempted to worry, we pray with thankfulness to the God Who cares about and hears our prayers. 

These three strategies are central to the lifestyles of people who actively surrender their lives to Jesus Christ each day.

The result of living like this, Paul tells us is this (verse 7): “...the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

Even in a fearful world, we can know God’s peace. 

We trust that the Baby born at Bethlehem Who died and rose, is our Lord and our Savior and that nothing can change that. 

And it's in Him that is where peace is found. Amen