Friday, December 15, 2017

On finding two old family photos

My sisters are helping my dad clean out his attic right now. The house was built by my mom’s parents in 1950.

The other day, the girls (despite our respective ages, they are always the girls and my brother and I are always the boys) found a box filled with photos of people none of us could identify. They were almost all taken at photography studios along North and South High Street in Columbus.

My guess is that they were probably acquired by some family member in hopes of using them in a craft project or, likelier, they may have been among the refuse found by my grandfather in his many search-among-the-trash missions.

But in the box of those studio photos were two family snapshots, seen here.

The first is of my grandmother, no doubt taken in her teens while she still lived in Columbus’ Linden area. (My great-great-grandfather, Martin Ranck, a carpenter and former schoolteacher, built a number of homes in Linden.) This would have been in the 1920s, shortly before my great-grandparents moved the family to the Bottoms, Columbus’ near-west side. My grandmother was a member of Central High School’s first graduating class in 1925.

In the picture, my grandmother looks as though she could easily be transported to today. Though in later years, she became a whining passive-aggressive, in those days, I think she was a handful, who liked and was liked by the boys.

When I saw the second photo, I immediately spotted my mom. She’s in the center, unmistakable. The back of the photo has a caption that says it was taken on February 28, 1941, making mom exactly nine years and four months old.

The caption also says that the other two in the picture are “Uncle Burt” and “the little girl next door.” Because my mom’s middle name is misspelled (Jean instead of Jeanne), I imagine the picture was taken by someone other than her parents, probably one of my great-uncles. None of us knows of an Uncle Burt. But I’m guessing it’s one of my great-grandfather’s brothers or brothers-in-law.

My mom died earlier this year. My grandmother passed in 1991.

There’s a treasure trove of history in every family tree. These pics were interesting for me to see.

By the way, my sisters also uncovered three songs in sheet music. One was copyrighted 1910; the other two were from 1917. The latter were both songs about young men leaving their families, their mules, and their sweethearts, in that order, to fight in the First World War. One song also extolled the leadership of President Wilson.

The last point is unsurprising because my great-grandparents were staunch Democrats. My grandmother often told me how the Republican kids would taunt her and other kids from Democratic families for their political allegiance, telling them, "Beans is good enough for Democrats."

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Two 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Acts

The 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class was announced yesterday. It includes the Moody Blues and Nina Simone.

Back in the day, I was into the Moodies. But in listening to them more recently, I find their lyrics, which play for profundity, embarrassingly pretentious. They belong in the Hall, I believe, because, through their use of symphonic flavorings, they helped show how rock and roll's pallet could be expanded.

Two other bands in the class, I think, have produced enduring work without any pretense. They just created good songs: Dire Straits and the Cars. Very different bands, they managed great sounds without seeming to take themselves too seriously.

Here's the Cars' Drive, a pop-rock ballad. The lead singer is the late Benjamin Orr, the bassist. Lead singing was usually handled by Ric Ocasek.

I suppose that most people would say that Dire Straits' best LP was Brothers in Arms. I agree. Guitarist and songwriter Mark Knopfler created a varied collection of tunes on this one. This one, Ride Across the River, is one of my favorites. It's kind of an ambient piece without being, you know, boring.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

For Christ and the Gospel, the Church and Clergy need to stay out of politics

I tweeted this about an hour ago:

“Now, at long last, will my fellow Christian clergy get out of politics? Instead of playing for worldly power and dirtying the Church’s reputation, let’s do our job: proclaim Christ and make disciples!”

I speak as one who, thirteen years ago, made the mistake of running for public office while serving as a pastor. While I was always quick to say that I was not a “Christian candidate” or that I knew what God’s politics (I don’t believe there is such a thing) was, running was a terrible risk.

Why was it a risk?

Because it risked alienating people from Christ, the Gospel, and the Church when people heard a pastor advocating particular political ideas.

No political idea is worth losing the chance to commend Christ’s saving gospel, which is the only way to forgiveness of sins and life with God. Nothing is important as that.

If I’m going to offend people, I want to do it by lovingly lifting up Christ, “the way, and the life, and the truth” (John 14:6).

I've written before that there are exceptional circumstances when the Church and its clergy will feel called to speak up about political issues. This applies especially when one feels that injustices are being committed. But such speaking should never be done in the service a political party or candidate, so as to avoid subordinating the gospel message to a human message or a human being.

To subordinate anyone or anything to Christ and His gospel is to engage in idolatry, a violation of God's First Commandment: "You shall have no other gods before Me."

I pray fellow clergy and church bodies, both politically right and left, will stop playing politics and instead proclaim Jesus Christ!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Just because I'm OK, it doesn't mean I'm OK

I try to start most days in quiet time with God. Here you'll find how I approach this time each day. Below is today's journal entry from my quiet time.
Look: “The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (Revelation 9:20-21) 
As the end times unfold, God allows Satan and his demons to do their worst to the whole human race not yet marked for salvation. By three different plagues, a third of the human race is destroyed. 
Yet we see here that the survivors don’t repent and, in fact, continue their unrepentant living: worshiping idols, murdering, relying on dark arts, committing sexually immoral acts, stealing. 
For them, eluding the torments of the devil and the wrath of God endows them with a feeling of invincibility, I think. Since they haven’t yet experienced the consequences of their selfishness and idolatry, they seem to think that no consequences will ever occur. 
They refuse to repent. They are apparently unmoved either by Law or Gospel. They put their trust in themselves and in their “idols that cannot see or hear or walk.” They think everything is OK. But just because I'm OK, it doesn't mean I'm OK.
Listen: In some ways, these untouched survivors are like the idols they worship. Like the idols, they seem incapable of seeing or hearing. They are insensitive to what God and life and the demons are all telling them: Their numbers are up. They are vulnerable. They are mortal. And nothing in this world will save them as this world hurtles toward death. Only Christ can save them. Jesus says in Luke 12:56: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?” 
When we’re chasing after the things we want, even if they’re contrary to the will of God, we can be facile in shielding ourselves from all that God tells us through His Word, experience, the input of friends, and the pangs of our conscience. We ignore those signs. We easily become dumb (like our idols) to the signs of God’s displeasure with our sin We hypocritically pursue our own selfish ends, ignoring the clearly-revealed word of God. We follow the ways of death instead of the one way of life (John 14:6; Matthew 17:13-14). 
The people in Revelation 9 are completely deluded. They are oblivious to their own vulnerability and need of God because nothing bad has happened to them yet. They see themselves as being in a different class from those who have been tortured by the plagues discussed in the chapter. They don’t think, “If something like that were to happen to me, I would need God.” Instead, they seem to think, “I am protected from such evil because I and the things I rely on are stronger than anything. I’ll just keep living the way I have been. God is irrelevant. God is a fantasy. I need to look out for myself.” 
I used to think like these people and am sometimes tempted to do so even now. I even sometimes allow myself to be deluded by my sinful nature into thinking that if I do a sin it must not really be a sin because I’m a good person. 
But I’m not a good person. I’m a saved person, saved by the grace God gives to sinners who daily turn from sin and daily trust in Christ above all. 
When God’s Spirit incites me to confess again that Jesus is my Lord, God come to earth, I’m set free again from these delusions. In this confession, I am confessing Him as the only One Who can save me from my sins and the only One Who can give me life with God. Jesus is the name above all names (Philippians 2:9). 
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:14-17) 
“ one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) 
Respond: Lord, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, help me to remember how much I need You and the life that only comes through Jesus. I know that more today than I did yesterday. Events of the past twenty-four hours have shown me that again. If I yield to any thought or action of utter self-sufficiency today, Lord, rein me in. It is in You that I live and move and have my being. Forgive me my sins. Guide me. Show me the way. Give me Your wisdom. You alone are God. You are my God, no matter what the devil or the world may do to me or tempt me with. In Jesus’ name. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Message We Need to Hear

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship yesterday.]

Mark 1:1-8
On Thursday, Bloomberg Businessweek reported the latest trend in Silicon Valley. The tech businesses there are bringing in models and actors, male and female, who are given fake biographies and sign non-disclosure agreements, to show up for companies’ Christmas parties. They’re supposed to bring some life to the otherwise dreary gatherings of tech geeks.

Believe it or not, as a different kind of geek myself, this story made me think of John the Baptist.

John, the Baptizer, first-century outspoken and ill-clad man of God, would never be hired by the mavens of Silicon Valley to spread Christmas cheer among their twenty-first century employees. And yet, during Advent every year, as we Christians gather to worship God and prepare for Christmas and for eternity, we invite John to speak to us and, in a different way, liven things up. That’s true again on this Second Sunday of Advent.

Is that a good idea?

I think so, because, unlike the models recruited for high tech Christmas parties, telling people the things they want to hear, John came into the world to tell people, including you and me, what we need to hear.

John and his message are front and center in the gospel lesson, Mark 1:1-8, for today, the Second Sunday of Advent. Take a look at it, please. (And if you have your Bibles with you, be sure to underline passages and make notes in the margins.)

The lesson starts with a simple and significant sentence fragment. Verse 1: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…”

Mark is here signaling that the entire succeeding sixteen chapters are just the beginning of the gospel, the good news of new and everlasting life with God for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are just the beginning of what this gospel--this good news--is doing.

The fact that you and I are here this morning testifies that the gospel is still at work giving life to all who believe.

And it will keep on giving those who trust in Christ life for all eternity!

This good news, as Mark says, is “about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God…” The phrase, Son of God, doesn’t mean that Jesus descended from the Father. It means that He is one with the Father. He is the Messiah, God’s anointed King, to be sure. But He is also God Himself.

By the way, this is a good time to mention someone is invited to all Christmas season gatherings, sacred and secular every year: Saint Nicholas. Nicholas, celebrated every year as a gift-giver, was a bishop and theologian. History tells us that he was so committed to biblical truth, that no heresy ever arose in the diocese of Bishop Nicholas.

He also reportedly smacked or punched a guy named Arius in the nose for saying that Jesus was only "like the son of God" and not actually the "Son of God," as Mark says in today's gospel lesson.

Arius and the adherents to his ideas claimed that God had created Jesus before Jesus came to earth. They repudiated the idea that Jesus had been God the Son before He was born in Bethlehem.

The Arians, as they were called, missed the point of the prologue to John's gospel, which tells us: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made...The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us." (John 1:1-3, 14)

Nicholas threw the punch at Arius during the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. At the end of the council, the gathered bishops and theologians issued a statement of faith--the Nicene Creed, which we don’t recite nearly often enough--that includes the confession that Jesus is “the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”

Mark tells the good news about Jesus, the Messiah and the Son of God.

In verses 2 and 3, Mark cites two passages from Old Testament prophecy, Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. Hundreds of years before the births of either John the Baptist or Jesus, these words point to a messenger, a voice, who would prepare the world for meeting the Son of God. Mark says that that messenger/voice was John the Baptist.

Verse 4: “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

As I’ve pointed out before, Jews were not unfamiliar with baptism. Gentiles who became Jews were required to be baptized because Gentiles were seen as dirtied by sin and Jews were seen as clean, simply because they were the genetic descendants of Abraham. (No condescension there, right?)

But, John is preaching that if his fellow Jews want to be ready for the Son of God to enter their lives, or to become part of the Messiah’s eternal kingdom, they needed to repent for their sin. They too were unclean. They too needed to own their sinfulness. They too needed to receive God’s forgiveness.

Now, in other times, Jews would have completely repudiated John’s message. And some, most notably King Herod, would repudiate John. Ultimately, Herod would have John killed.

And, let’s be honest, most of the time, you and I don’t like to hear the truth about our sinful natures or our sinful actions. When I get called to the carpet for my sins, whether by other Christians or by God and His Word, I don’t like it. When this happens to us, we want to dismiss both the message and the messenger.

But, at least for a season, John the Baptist wasn’t an unwanted guest. Verse 5: “The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.”

There are probably two reasons for this astounding response to John’s preaching.

One, of course, is that John was moving on God’s timetable and in response to God’s call.

The other is that the people of the Judean countryside and those in Jerusalem--the hayseeds and the sophisticates, notice--were living in desperate times. They were under the boot of Roman occupation. They were largely poor and destitute.

When we are vulnerable, we see reality more clearly.

When things are going well--when we’re doing OK financially, we’re healthy, or our families are seemingly functioning well, it’s easy to delude ourselves with the idea that our good fortune stems from our virtue and goodness.

It’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve got everything under control and don’t need God. Or at least that we only need Him on the edges of our lives, when we can fit Him in.

But when life makes us vulnerable, we see how much we need God.

Vulnerability also causes us to look at our own characters, our faults, our sins.

Until we’re aware of our own vulnerability, we won’t be open to God. 

Nor will we be open to our need for repentance and forgiveness.

The people who thronged to meet John in the wilderness were vulnerable enough--honest enough--to confess their sins and trust in God so that they could be ready to meet Jesus.

Are we living our lives with the same kind of vulnerability so that we’re ready to meet Jesus whenever it happens?

Now, John’s baptism was only a symbolic action. It was a way for repentant people to outwardly demonstrate to God, themselves, and others that they wanted to turn from sin and live under the gracious reign of the Son of God.

But, at the end of our lesson, John points to another baptism, a baptism instituted by One greater than John.

Verses 7 and 8: “[John said] After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

“I’m just a voice. I’m just a messenger. This baptism is only a symbol,” John is saying. “But soon the Son of God will be here and when His Word connects with water in Holy Baptism, much more than a symbol will be seen. The fire of His Holy Spirit will meet you in the water and you’ll be set ablaze with the very life of God.”

There in the Judean wilderness, John was pointing away from himself and from his symbolic baptism.

Instead, he pointed to Jesus and to the sacrament of Holy Baptism in which God, without our help, gives us life and makes us His own, gives us a share in His crucifixion, where our death is atoned for, and a share in His resurrection.

John is pointing to the time when all believers baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, will be able to live with the Son of God Who the crowds who thronged to John in the wilderness waited for.

As twenty-first believers in Jesus, we also wait, of course.

But we don't wait for Jesus to show up and do something.

We know that Christ has already done something.

He already has appeared and already died and risen for us.

He already has conquered our sin and our death for us.

He already has set apart baptized believers to be His for eternity.

Hebrews 10:10 says that: “...we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

What we wait for is Jesus to return. We wait to meet Jesus.

We need not fear facing Jesus or facing the death that will likely precede that moment.

If, like those vulnerable and open people in the Judean wilderness, we will daily turn from our sin and trust in Christ, the God Who has set the fire of the Holy Spirit ablaze within us in our Baptisms, empowering us to believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, we can rest assured that the moment we meet Jesus face to face will be infinitely and eternally more joyful and wonderful than we can imagine.

And that joy and wonder will never go away. Nor will it ever be taken from us!

This is the truth, the message, to which John, voice and messenger for Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, was pointing. With a message like that, I move that we keep inviting John the Baptist to spend time with us during Advent. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jerusalem Decision: One Christian's Perspective

Donald Trump has decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Whether that is the right or wrong decision is a political question and I don't do politics. (I have my own opinions about political issues. But, as a pastor, I have come to believe that it is contrary to my call and contrary to the great commission under which the Church operates, to give political opinions, except in the gravest of circumstances.)

[Photo from the Brookings Institution. No copyright infringement intended and the owner of the image is free to take it down if they wish to do so.]

But I do want to comment on the ideas of one group that this decision seems designed to placate. This group, a segment of the evangelical Christian community, has a particular view of eschatology (end times) that differs from how most Christians through the centuries and today, view it.

This subgroup believes that human beings can, in essence, force God's hand in bringing about the day of the ascended Jesus' return. They think that human beings can do this by triggering a war that starts in Jerusalem.

This is why one of the speakers at the Roy Moore-Donald Trump rally in Pensacola last night hailed the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The main problem with this idea is that it is unchristian and unbiblical.

I say this for several reasons.

First, the idea held by this group is that we can somehow force the hand of the sovereign God of the universe to bring the end times closer is wrong. The notion reflects the very idolatry of self that caused humanity to fall into sin in the first place, the desire to "be like God" (Genesis 3:5).

Jesus has made it clear that the decision about when He returns is totally in the hands and the mind of the Father. "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," Jesus says in Matthew 24:36. We can neither know God's timetable nor influence it.

Jesus also renders the convoluted eschatology of this splinter group ridiculous when in Mark 13, He describes the conditions for His return and describes the world as it was and remains to this day: fallen, subject to all manner of disasters and evils. Those conditions prevailed in the first-century AD; they prevail today. Nothing has changed.

The reason that the apostles had to encourage first-century Christians that Jesus being good for His promise to return and finally and fully establish His kingdom, is that they could see that all of the conditions Jesus had spoken about as signs of His return were already fulfilled. The New Testament has many instances of the apostles counseling believers to be patient and to keep trusting in Christ.

Human beings cannot and will not force God's hand on this or any other issue. He is sovereign. He is God and we aren't.

My second point: One cannot equate the modern secular state of Israel with ancient Israel, whether, as the result of Jerusalem being recognized by the US and other countries as modern Israel's capital or not.

On Jesus' death, the curtain of the temple was torn (Matthew 27:51). The curtain concealed the holy of holies, where God lived in the temple to be approached by God's people. When the temple tore, it signified that God had been made accessible to all people. There was no need for a temple. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: "... a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)

There is no need for a new temple. The mission of ancient Israel was fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ.

And, in my estimation, it is a sick distortion of Christian faith for some Christian groups to hail anything that they believe will promote war.

Again, I am not making a political point. I am pointing out that the misuse of Scripture, for political or other purposes, is regrettable and unwarranted.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Friday, December 08, 2017

Grace and Wrath

Here's the journal entry from my quiet time with God today. This contains an explanation of how I approach this time with God.
Look: “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’” (Revelation 6:15-17) 
The day of Jesus’ return, when He will judge the living and the dead and usher in the new heavens and the new earth, will not be a happy time for those who have relied on their own wisdom, who have wielded power without the call or guidance of God.
It won’t be a happy day for anyone, “slave and free,” if they haven’t trusted in Christ to spare them from the wrath that we reap when we set out to be our own gods (Genesis 3:5). 
In fact, absent repentance and faith in Christ, we cannot be saved from the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7). 
Wrath, as I understand it, is less an action of God, than it is the inevitable result of living life contrary to the will of God. We choose wrath when we choose not to follow Christ. Wrath (and death) belong to us when we fail to turn from sin and fail to trust in Christ, Who alone can give us new life and grace. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). 
According to John’s vision, those who have gone their own ways (Isaiah 53:6; Proverbs 16:25), will beg God to destroy them rather than to be forced to come into the presence the blinding holiness of the Lamb or deal with His wrath. 
Listen: As uncomfortable as it is, I need to share this truth with others
God says, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) 
People need to hear about the wrath to come in order to know God’s desire for them to avoid it. 
Also, I must be careful that in “handling the holy,” I don’t take God and His grace for grantedH, that I not become immune to His call for continuing repentance and belief in Christ
This must be part of what the preacher in Hebrews 6:4-6, is getting at when he says: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (I readily confess not to fully understanding all of the implications of these words.) 
Finally, I need to call out self-righteousness, in myself and others. There are broods of hypocritical vipers in Christ’s Church today (Matthew 3:7). They’re weeds among the wheat and Christ will deal with them at the judgment (Matthew 13:24-30). They’re wolves in lamb’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). They’re “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27-28). They turn Christian faith into a series of dos and don’ts. (Although they themselves fail to keep their preferred versions of “Biblical morality.”) People must be warned about them and their capacity to tempt us away from humble faith (Galatians 6:1). 
Respond: Daily, it seems, in ways I haven’t experienced before, I am being called upon to speak the hard truth about:
  • How the God of the universe views sin and self-righteousness. 
  • How God wants desperately to save us and how Christ’s death and resurrection brings that salvation to those who repent and believe. 
  • How we must not see the gift of salvation as our achievement or reflective of our virtue. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9) 
Wrath is real. People who have run from God throughout their lives or made God into a pliant caricature who approves of our sins, will run from wrath on the day of Jesus' return. But God’s grace overcomes wrath for those who repent and believe, not just as a rote affirmation or in a single thrilling moment, but all through our lives--in this ups, the downs, and everywhere in between--as we live in humble communion with Christ and His Church
Today, help me to heed this call, the call You give to every Christian, Lord. In Jesus’ name.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Only Worthy One

Today, for my quiet time with God, I read Revelation 5. To see how I approach quiet time, see here. Below is my journal entry for this morning.
Look: “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’” (Revelation 5:5) 
The scroll, containing God’s plan for saving human beings from sin and death, is in God’s right hand. Its perfection is signified by its being sealed seven times. 
As John sees and experiences this vision, he’s driven to despair. Because no one is found who is worthy, that is, no one is without sin, to open the scroll, humanity is doomed.
But then one of the elders reassures him. The Lion, Who also has the appearance of a Lamb who has been murdered (Revelation 5:6), is worthy, the elder says. This is "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
I'm unworthy of opening the scroll. 
The human race is unworthy of opening the scroll. 
But the Lion Who is the Lamb, Jesus, true God and true man, can and does open the scroll because with His blood, He “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). 
Listen: Jesus is able to save me from sin and death, to save me from myself. And Jesus alone is able to do this. 
Only He is able to break open the scroll and unleash life on and bring into the kingdom those who believe in Him. 
I can’t break open the seal myself. I’m incapable of offering myself and making a perfect atoning sacrifice for my sin (or anybody else’s). I can’t perform my way into God’s kingdom. Intellectually, I know this is true. But I am sure that at some level, I still harbor the legalistic notion that I can be good enough to deserve the kingdom of God. I can’t be. My good works can’t break the seal. 
Nor can the seal be broken by anyone or anything else. Revelation 5:3: “ one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” That means that it can’t be broken by religions. Buddha, Allah, Mohammad...none of them are true God and true human, none of them died for my sins, none of them were raised from the dead by God the Father. 
Only One has conquered sin and death. Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 
Jesus says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-18) 
Jesus is the One Who has earned the right to break the seals on our behalf by dying for us, although we weren’t worthy of the sacrifice of the sinless Lamb of God. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) 
Jesus is God. Jesus a sinless Man Who bore all of our sins and took our punishment for them. Jesus is the only way to life with God. 
It’s telling that, in Revelation 5, after Jesus steps forward to break the seals of the scroll, not only do the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders who have been worshiping the Father, now worship Jesus as well, but they each hold “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 5:8). 
Before His crucifixion, during His time on earth, Jesus had said: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24). The One Who breaks the seals is the one to Whom and through Whom the prayers of God’s people must go. To speak to God in any name other than that of Jesus, is to send letters to the wrong address. 
(This doesn’t mean that parroting the words, “in the name of Jesus,” acts like a good luck charm for our prayers. To pray in Jesus’ name means also that one understands that we only dare approach God’s throne in the name, in the power, and in light of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, we pray in Jesus’ name when we have faith in Jesus as our Lord, God, and King.) 
The bowls of incense containing the prayers of God’s people are brought to Jesus. He is the only way to God. 
Respond: In many ways, this is a despairing day. So much bad news from Washington and other parts of the country and the world. And there is bad news from among our friends. I want God’s kingdom to break into this world in its fullness, banishing the bad, the sad, the sinful, toppling the arrogant and the foolish. 
But I must not regard Jesus’ seeming delay in making all things right as a bad thing. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) I have repenting to do. I have witnessing to do. 
Since I’m not the one who can break open the scroll and its delay might actually be to my advantage, giving God more time to break me of my sin and fashion Christ in me (2 Corinthians 3:18), I should not weep (or sigh, or complain, or bemoan, or rail against rotten people, or murmur, or give into misplaced spiritual pride, or despair over my own sin). 
I should worship the God revealed by God the Holy Spirit in God the Father and God the Son, Who has saved me by grace through faith in Him, and be about my business. My business is Matthew 28:19: “...go and make disciples of all nations...”
God, help me to be focused on worshiping You and making disciples today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

"If you're alive, you're winning...

"if you haven't lost a loved one, you're winning."

Those words are spoken in the interview with Puerto Rican blogger Edmaris Carazo embedded below.

Eleven weeks after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, about half the island still has no electricity and much of it still only has the power some of the time.

What I was struck by in listening to Carazo on The World today was how she has retained her good humor and how amazing the people of Puerto Rico are.

I have sent dollars for relief. And just yesterday, the 420-member denomination of which I am a part, sent a container loaded with items for Puerto Rican relief.

But there is so much more our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico need.

Not the least of their needs are our prayers.

But if you also feel moved to make a donation for Puerto Rican relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts, see here. Please prayerfully consider a gift to the linked agency or some other agency with which you're familiar.

By the way, as this additional report from today's edition of The World, Puerto Rico's continued desperate situation is having an impact on the rest of the United States. Puerto Rico is a major manufacturer of medicines and medical supplies. Most notable among these, maybe, are IV fluids used in hospitals.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, December 03, 2017

How to Wait for Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today. This the First Sunday of Advent, which begins the new Church Year.]

Mark 13:24-37
Advent is a season for waiting. As we get ready for Christmas during Advent, we remind ourselves that as surely as God once came into the world as the baby Jesus, that same Jesus will one day, on what the Bible calls the Day of the Lord, return to this world.

Advent, of course, nothing but a human invention, a tradition that Christians are free to keep or ignore. There’s nothing sacred about Advent in itself.

But as a reminder to you and me to wait (and how to wait) for Jesus’ return, Advent is useful.

It reminds us that when Jesus returns, He will put everything finally and fully right, and usher all who have trusted Him into life in His new creation.

It’s when that happens that we will fully appreciate the meaning of God’s promise given through the prophet Isaiah centuries before Jesus’ birth: “They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, English Standard Version).

Until that day, we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We trust that the God Who once took on human flesh (John 1:14), then died, rose, and ascended to heaven, will return.

All who confess Jesus as their God and Lord are waiting for that day of the Lord.

But, as Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel lesson, for the disciple of Jesus Christ, waiting is not a passive thing. Take a look at the lesson, please, Mark 13:24-37. Jesus has been talking about two events at the same time. One is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The other is the Day of His return. He’s shifted mostly to talking about His return and the deterioration of life in this world that will precede it when He says in verse 26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

Both the living and the dead will then be brought together to meet their King and receive His welcome into His kingdom.

Because of this promise from the crucified and risen Jesus, we confess: “...if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8).

Next in our gospel lesson, Jesus talks to us specifically about waiting. Verse 28: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.”

The fig is one of the few trees in the Middle East, where Jesus lived in the first century, that loses its leaves in the fall. When its leaves begin to reappear in late spring, people know that warm weather is on its way. It’s a sign of things to come.

Verse 29: “Even so [Jesus goes on], when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

The these things that Jesus speaks of here are all the calamities that will happen in the world before His return, things like wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. In other words, life will continue to go pretty much as it has in this world from the moment that Adam and Eve fell into sin.

And Jesus tells us that these things--all the sin and sadness that permeates our fallen universe--will not be the last words over the lives of those who trust in Christ. 

His Word--the Word of and about the Word made flesh, Jesus--will never pass away, will give all who have persevered in trusting in Him, a new and everlasting beginning.

So, we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by these things--whether they’re injustice or corruption, disasters or holocausts, personal tragedies or illness, gun violence or racism, sexual harassment or selfishness.

Jesus has conquered them all and even in the midst of the things of this world, we can know God’s peace.

We can hope.

Life in this world is short; eternity lasts forever.

If we focus our hope on this world, we will, at most, gain only what will fall from our grasp when we draw our last earthly breaths. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world,” Jesus once asked, “yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) But when we trust in Christ above all, our grasp is on eternity with God, which can never be taken from anyone who believes!

As we trust in Christ, persevering in living life for Him and to His glory, the hope of eternity will splash into our daily lives here, empowering us to keep on following Jesus and living useful lives when the world loses its way.

We will live more fearlessly, with greater willingness to fail, free to love and care for others, knowing that whatever we may lose in this life, is nothing compared with all that God has in store for us in eternity.

“If only for this life we have hope in Christ,” the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:9, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Our faith in Christ empowers us, obliges us even, to always hope, to live in hope! Not to hope in this world or in the things or the people of this world, but hope in Jesus Christ. 

When we hope in Christ and live in that hope, we know the truth to which 2 Timothy 1:7, points us: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” We can live our lives at home, with our church family, and in the world at large with God’s “power love, and discipline.” We can live in the power of knowing thta if God has called us to do something, the Holy Spirit will empower us to do it. Period. End of subject.

And in telling us to see the signs of the inevitability of His return when He will bring our hope in Him to its fullness, Jesus is not telling us to waste our time in trying to game out the exact moment of His return.

Nor is He telling us to go along with our lives as though we’d never encountered Jesus, people indistinguishable from the unbelievers, agnostics, or atheists who surround us.

Verse 32: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”

Listen: This is how a Christian disciple waits for the return of Jesus. They fulfill their calling as disciples first, as members of Christ’s Body, the Church and second, as people who live in the world with families, spouses, friends; as people who are students or workers or retirees. 

Every follower of Jesus Christ, every disciple, has a vocation, no matter what their work or daily activities.

We’re to be and make disciples.

We’re to repent and believe in Jesus, to hear His Word and take it to heart, to love God and love neighbor, to love our fellow disciples with the same passion Christ has for us, to pray, and to make other disciples.

Each of us will have our own “assigned tasks” within that vocation. I can’t be as effective a witness for Christ among your friends, co-workers, neighbors, or classmates as you can be, because I’m not you and I'm not there with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, or classmates like you are. You may not be called to be Christ’s witness at the grocery deli counter in the same way I seem to be. But each of us who bear the name of Christ is called by Christ to wait and watch for Him. 

We faithfully wait and watch for Jesus’ return when we go about what it is God has called us to be and do, with faith in Christ. 

The chorus of one of my favorite songs by the late John Ylvisaker, Jesus Was Sent, says,
Jesus was sent that our eyes may be open,
So we might witness the day of the Lord.
He will make sense of our loving and hoping;
He will break fences and open the door. 
We faithfully wait and watch for Jesus’ return when we let Him break all the fences and doors we hide behind to hoard our lives and to feed the delusion we all have that our lives are our own and don’t actually belong to the God Who made us and died for us and rose for us.

We wait for Jesus rightly when we trust in Jesus and keep on trusting in Jesus all the time.

God help us to do just that. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Friday, December 01, 2017

A Book Review: 'Connected to Christ'

Connected to Christ: Why Membership Matters. Peter Speckhard. ISBN: 978-0-7586-5725-1

I mostly like this book. But I have significant qualms about it too.

Here are the qualms.

First, it reflects the unbiblical notion that only men can be called as pastors. This is clearly not the case.

Second, I feel the book is ungracious toward alcoholics and others who are given the option of grape juice instead of wine at Holy Communion. While I believe that when the Bible says "wine," it means "wine," I think that the grace of God compels us to share grape juice with people who, whether they are alcoholics or have other health issues, cannot drink wine. I have the feeling that Jesus surely commends graciousness toward those who are genuinely present and believe in His real presence in, with, and under the elements.

Third, I think the argument that the wine of Holy Communion is always best shared from a single cup is dubious, at the least The author seems to believe that a common cup made of heavy metal will prevent all who partake from transmitting or receiving germs. No medical professional with whom I have spoken through the years would agree with this. (Besides, who wants to swallow the mustache hair of the communicant ahead of us?)

Qualms aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Except when it wanders off into these legalisms and culture-think, it presents sound Biblical counsel on the necessity of church membership to the Christian life.

The understanding of membership here is, healthily, not about occupying a spot on a roster, but about being an indispensable member of the body of Christ, as taught in the Bible and in the Lutheran Confessions.

The author understands the pitfalls and the challenges of living in a church community. In the last chapter, especially, he underscores the fact that these pitfalls and challenges have always been part of the life of the Church and always will be as long as congregations are composed of sinners saved by God's grace through their faith in Christ.

With lots of accessible metaphors and analogies, Speckhard honestly (and sympathetically) grapples with the reasons non-churchgoing people give for staying away from the church.

This is a short read and worth your time, though it would not be a good resource for congregational study and reflection; its biases get in the way too often for that.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

How to really build yourself up

Here are thoughts from my time with God today. To see how I approach this "quiet time," see here.
Look: “But you, my friends, keep on building yourselves up on your most sacred faith. Pray in the power of the Holy Spirit, and keep yourselves in the love of God, as you wait for our Lord Jesus Christ in his mercy to give you eternal life.” (Jude 20-21, Good News Translation)

It seems that Jude, the brother of James, had wanted to talk about the Gospel alone as he wrote to his correspondents. But false teachers had arisen among the Christians in the community where the recipients of this letter lived. Jude felt the need to warn them to stay away from their false and sinful teaching (v.3).

Here, Jude talks about what needs to happen as we wait to see Jesus. Jude had in mind the return of Jesus, seeming to assume that it would happen in his and his first readers’ lifetimes. But, of course, we all are going to meet Jesus when He returns to the world, whether we’ve been long dead or are still living on earth when it happens..

So, the question Jude answers is how are we supposed to live our lives until we meet Jesus?

Listen: First, Jude says, we need to build ourselves up in the faith.

This has several elements, I think. One is that we need to read and become conversant in God’s Word. From experience I know that there have been many times when I would have best avoided sin and saved myself a lot of heartaches if I had kept reading God’s Word, instead of following my own evil desires (v.16). A lot of times, we don’t even recognize our desires as evil; they seem so beautiful and unobjectionable. That makes us just like Eve when she wrestled with the serpent’s sales job (temptations) regarding the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom…” (Genesis 3:6)

Our brains get muddled by our evil desires, which is why we need to steep ourselves in God’s Word. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

Another way we build up our faith is by living in vital, accountable connection with the Church. Our faith will die without a connection to the Church, Christ’s body. This is why the preacher in Hebrews says. “...let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Our faith is also built up when we regularly receive the body and blood of Jesus, the Word imparted in, with, and under the bread and wine of Holy Communion. In this sacrament, Jesus promises to meet us, to forgive us our sins, and to to give us His very good and perfect life. In it, we are “remembered” to Jesus in the company of the congregation in which we receive it and in company with all the saints of every time and every place, in eternity and on earth.

Second, Jude says, we need to “pray in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

I’m convinced that most of the “praying” I’ve done and, sadly, still do, is offered in the power of my spirit instead of the power of the Holy Spirit. By that I mean that I try to tell God exactly how He should answer my prayers. Or, I pray, all the while scheming out how I would or will answer the prayer. When I’ve done these things, I likely haven’t been praying at all.

To pray by the power of the Holy Spirit is to pray with complete submission, an acknowledgement my powerlessness and that God knows best how to address whatever it is that I bring to Him. You say, “Your will be done” and mean it.

Ole Hallesby teaches about prayer in his book, Prayer. Authentic prayer is composed of two elements: faith and helplessness.

If I’m not helpless when I pray, then I’m getting in the way of God working. I harbor the secret belief that I know what’s best and God is only a backup insurance policy.

But I must own my weakness and let God’s strength take over: “...when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

Paul describes praying in the power of the Holy Spirit: “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:26-27)

These are the two ways we can prepare to meet Jesus identified by Jude: (1) Growing in our faith; (2) Praying in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Respond: Lord, I try to do too much, think too much, be too much in my own power. I try to think my way through, feel my way through. All of this is the wrong path to my meeting with Jesus. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Proverbs 14:12, English Standard Version). “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure...” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Help me to be ready to meet you each day (Matthew 25:31-36) and at the judgment by growing in faith and praying--humbly, openly, submissively--in the power of Your Holy Spirit and not in my own mortal, sinful power.

Today, help me to accept Your will.

In Jesus’ name. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

This will appeal to the MacGyver on every Christmas gift list

I'm no MacGyver, but it even appeals to me.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Just Follow Jesus (AUDIO)

Here's the audio from this past Sunday's message for Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church Year. The text is Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus describes the judgment over which He will preside as King of kings on the day of His return to the earth.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Just Follow Jesus

[This message was shared during worship services with the people and the friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Matthew 25:31-46
The gospel lesson for this Christ the King Sunday is a passage that can be and often is misunderstood. In it, Jesus talks about the great judgment that He, the King, will bring to all the people on the Day of His return.

Many think that Jesus calls people righteous and worthy of HIs kingdom in this parable because they saw Jesus in people in need and did good things for them.

But that’s not what Jesus is saying.

He’s not saying that you and I have to prove to Him what wonderful Christians to get into heaven.

Jesus is not saying that your good deeds will make you righteous.

The Bible tells us that we are all unrighteous (Romans 3:10). God’s Word also tells us that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). If we’re going to enter God’s eternal kingdom, it won’t because our good deeds outweigh our sin.

So what is Jesus telling us this morning?

A very telling passage starts at verse 37. It recounts that words of those King Jesus has accounted righteous. Now, if they were acceptable to God because of the good they’d done, you might expect them to say, “Thank You, Lord, for recognizing all the good things we’ve done.”

But it’s evidently a characteristic of people who follow Jesus that they’re not aware of the good they do. They don't even recognize the good things they had done.

They don’t see themselves as better than others.

They’re too busy seeing Jesus in other people to think about how God sees them.

The righteous in Jesus’ parable say: “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

Jesus tells them: “Truly, whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me.”

The people fit for Jesus’ Kingdom aren’t those who set out to become righteous by what they do; they do what they do because they have already been made righteous by God.

They simply and trustingly believe in Jesus.

They're the people who know that Jesus bore all of our sins, making it possible for all who trust in His righteousness and not their own to enter eternity with God.

Of course, there’s another group of people in our parable. They’re the people who think of themselves as good people. Jesus says that they’re goats, not lambs.

The “goats” are surprised when the King Jesus tells them that they are “cursed,” unworthy of His Kingdom and then sends them to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41). He says that, unlike the “lambs,” they had neglected to serve Him when He was hungry, when He was thirsty, when He was in jail, when He was sick.

In verse 44, the goats ask when they ever saw the King in these conditions.

The King answers, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

These people apparently knew about Jesus but failed to trust in Jesus and so, were spiritually dead.

Their spiritual deadness led them in turn to be blind to the Jesus that we can see every day if we will just look.

In the tired department store clerk or restaurant server, if we look, we will see a weary Jesus in need of our service.

In the co-worker weighed down by personal problems, the classmate being bullied, the homeless man at Saint Vincent’s, the friend grieving a recent loss, a family member with whom we have disagreements: In them all, if will look, we can see Jesus. In every person.

We will see that they all bear God’s image.

We will see that they all bear the weight of human sin, including the sin that has been committed against them.

When we believe in Jesus, when we lay our sins at the cross and receive the forgiveness that God confers on those who humbly trust in Christ, God will help us to see Jesus everywhere we go.

And, grateful for His grace, we will, without self-consciousness or conceit, self-promotion or human prompting, be the faithful subjects of Christ our King.

We do the work of God when we let God work in us and on us and through us. It isn’t our work that saves us or makes us right with God; it's the One at work in us, remaking those who trust in Jesus over in Jesus’ image, Who saves us.

The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 3:8-9: “I consider everything a loss [everything that this world has to offer] because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ--the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

The righteousness that comes from faith! That's what the people welcomed by Jesus into His Kingdom possessed.

So, by faith, take Jesus again today in His Word and in the Sacrament.

Trust His promise to meet You in these things.

Trust that He is with you always, just as He has promised.

Let Him live in you. Don’t try to prove what a wonderful Christian you are!

Just follow Jesus. He will take care of the rest. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Brace Yourself: I'm Thankful for People Who Make Government Work

On an elevator at our hotel today, I asked the other passenger, "Are you visiting family for Thanksgiving?"

"Actually," he told me, "I work for FEMA and I'm doing reports, so that we can get people the money they need to rebuild after the hurricane."

We talked until we both got off the elevator. Afterward, I could have kicked myself for not thanking him for his service to our country.

Everyday, there are unsung cogs in the machinery of our government who help us rebuild after disasters, ensure that we have clean water and good food and drugs, get our mail to us, help us with our Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid needs, catch bad guys, and protect our borders and our national security. From the people at the FDA, to the national park service...from the State Department and the Commerce Department to those who put their lives on the line for us in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, FBI, and CIA, our nation is made stronger by public servants committed to the goals of American government as enunciated in the preamble of the US Constitution. There, the Framers explained what this American federal government is for:
"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
There are rotten people in government. There are people who strive to do good, but who nonetheless do rotten things in government.

The same things can be said of any church, synagogue, mosque, company, school, or family, meaning that we still have every reason to thank those who work hard each day to ensure that we have justice, tranquility, defense, a society that provides opportunity for all of its citizens, and the blessings of liberty.

Political figures come and go.

Injustice remains an intractable element of life demanding the attention of every citizen of our country.

And sin still adheres to human character, preventing us and the nations of which we are citizens from being all that we would like them to be.

But the people who work in agencies like FEMA do the tough work that keeps our nation moving forward. And for him and countless others like him, I am thankful!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Can you be a Christian without being part of Christ's Church?

Something to think about:
The Church isn't just a group of like-minded individuals; it is individual members who form a body. So, saying you are a Christian but not an official member of a Christian church is really like saying you are a dedicated baseball player but don't believe in organized team sports. You might be a great baseball player in terms of your skills and knowledge of the game, but if you aren't actually on a team, then in at least one very important sense, you aren't a baseball team at all. (Peter Speckhard, Connected to Christ: Why Membership Matters)
The Bible teaches that Christians are members of Christ's body in the same way that a thumb, an eyeball, or a heart are parts of our bodies. If those individual parts are severed from our bodies, either those individual parts or our whole bodies die.

Without participation in a local church, faith in Christ cannot and will not be sustained. Without being part of a local congregation, there will be no one to minister to us or to tell us that we've gone wrong or regularly pray with us or among whom we can be baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, or from whom we can receive the life and forgiveness Christ gives to believers in Holy Communion.

We all know that sometimes work, health issues, or being a caregiver can prevent people from fully participating in the life of a congregation. But these are exceptional situations.

Even under such situations, if we or someone who loves us will contact a local church and ask for visits or for the chance to participate in small groups or to receive the Sacraments, most churches will be willing to provide for our spiritual health in these ways.

One of the most interesting baptisms I ever shared was with a man who had been raised in the Church, but had allowed his connection with Christ to lapse. His wife called me and asked if I would visit him. I did so over a period of some months, sharing Christ and the Gospel with him as he endured the final stages of terminal cancer.

One day he asked me if he could be baptized and then receive Holy Communion. That happened. The day he was baptized in his home brought a moment of peace to that man and his family. So did his funeral, when we were able to celebrate his eternal connection with Christ, given to him through the ministry of Christ's Church.

Can people in local congregations be annoying? Are some congregations so infected by egotism or sin that they cease to function as churches? Yes, of course.

But, I'll bet that there's at least one annoying thing about you or that you too sometimes act from egotism, selfishness, or sinfulness. I know that I do.

The Church is God's hospital for recovering hypocrites and other sinners. And here's the good news: There's always room for one more hypocrite and sinner to join us, including you.

If you would claim eternal life with God, Christ's body, the Church, is indispensable.

Think about this. Pray about it. If you don't have a church home, commit yourself to finding one. It may take a few tries, but don't be discouraged and don't look for the "perfect congregation." The Church is comprised of recovering sinners, remember. So, every congregation to which you could be attached will be made up of imperfect people who, at the most, are only on the way to being all that God desires us to be.

In the end, I think, Article 7 of The Augsburg Confession, a statement of Lutheran Christians' understanding of the Christian faith, expresses better than I can what to look for in a congregation of which you can be a part and in which you can be challenged to grow into the maturity of faith and life that God has in mind for us. It says: "The Church is the congregation of saints [saints are forgiven sinners], in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments [Holy Baptism and Holy Communion] are rightly administered."

Notice this definition says nothing about the members of an individual congregation being morally perfect or flawless.

Nor does it say that churches are composed of people who rationalize their imperfection or sin away.

What it does say is that Christ's Church exists wherever the Gospel--the good news of new life for all who daily repent and surrender to the crucified and risen Jesus--and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are shared in accordance with Christ's Word and will.

Find a congregation of imperfect people whose communal life is built around proclaiming the Gospel  and administering the Sacraments rightly, and you will have found a church home.

Just a few thoughts. God bless you.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"I'm Not Called to Keep My Kids from Danger"

That's the title of a provocative and interesting article written by missionary Rachel Pieh Jones.

The job of Christian parents, she says, isn't to protect their kids from risk; life itself, wherever one feels God has called us to be and whatever God calls us to do, is risky.

The job of Christian parents is to give witness through living that no risk nor danger can rob us of the life with God that only Jesus Christ can give. "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me," Jesus says in John 14:6.

Better to risk condemnation, heartbreak, even death, from the world, than to avoid risk by living faithlessly, going along to get along with a world that will one day be destroyed, and so losing the eternal life that only God can give. "Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven," Jesus says in Matthew 10:32-33. "But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven."

To follow Jesus is risky business. And, in the interest of truth, Christian parents must let their kids know how risky it is.

Risk avoidance, the path of looking out for ourselves or our own without regard for the needs of others, even of strangers we'll never meet in this world, is not a commendable Christian character trait.

As Christians, we live under the charge of Jesus to daily wrestle with the challenge He lays down for us in Matthew 16:24-26: "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?"

Whether it's right for Christian parents to ask their kids to have the courage of their parents' convictions may be an open question.

But there is no doubt that Christ and the apostles commend lives of faithful risk. (Though not risk for its own sake nor to test God.)

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus says: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell."

The apostle Peter, writing to Christians in Asia Minor (a region today that largely comprises Turkey), who faced the commonplace shunning and disdainful dismissal that Christians in the US often face these days, said that followers of Christ should regard themselves as foreigners in the world, migrants passing through who ought not become so comfortable that we avoid risk.

"Dear friends," Peter says in 1 Peter 2:11-12. "I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."

And the apostle Paul is clear that the gravest risk anyone can take is to bet on this world to feed the hunger gnawing every human soul for a transcendent, joyful life that can only be filled by God, the One Who loves us infinitely and died and rose to give us eternity. He writes in Romans 8:31-39:
If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  
As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”  
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It's imperative for Christian parents to convey a truth to their children, both through our speaking and through our attempts to live it: To risk following Christ is ultimately less risky than any other way of living.

And so, Jones may be onto something when she writes:
Ever since my husband and I became parents, we have risked losing our children—whether to physical death or to spiritual death, either of which can happen on any side of the ocean. Our kids are inevitably going to get hurt. Although we can’t protect them, we can prepare them, and one of the ways we do that is by modeling a life of joyful, worshipful service...
Christ calls all of us outside the camp [outside of what is comfortable for us, that risks the comfort the world offers in order to embrace the comfort that belongs to those who trust in Jesus Christ] to serve and love others, and we often do that alongside our children. Why risk it? Because we are citizens of another far-off country. As it says in Hebrews 13, “here we do not have a lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.”
Read the whole thing.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Purpose of Your Life

[This message was shared during worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 25:14-30
Someone once said to me: “I know that Jesus loves me and that I’m saved by grace through my faith in Christ, but what exactly is the purpose of my life?”

The short answer is that you and I are alive for only one purpose: To glorify God. In Isaiah 43:7, God says, “...everyone who is called by my name...whom I created for my glory.”

God commands this not because God is an egomaniac.To glorify God entails using our lives in the ways intended to be used by the One Who created us out of an overabundance of gracious love. When we glorify God, acknowledge the relationship of love initiated by the God Who made us and Who has redeemed us through Christ, setting us free to be all that those created in God's image are meant to be.

We most glorify God not when we consider at the Bible’s portrayal of holy living, like we see in the Ten Commandments or in Jesus’ Beatitudes, then grit our teeth and strive to be good and holy people, whether it makes us or others miserable or not. We most glorify God when we enjoy God and use His gifts to us in ways that honor Him.

None of this is to say that following Jesus is easy. It's not.

But there will be no joy in living with Christ if we think we must be holy people who glorify God in the strength of our own power. We must learn the joy of letting go and letting God, of acknowledging our sin and weakness, so that we can be covered in the grace and filled with the power of God. This is what Paul was talking about in the New Testament when he wrote: "...when I am weak, then I am strong." God's power is perfected in us when we admit our weakness. (1 Corinthians 12:9-10)

The Lord Who saved us by going to the cross for us will be glorified within us if we will allow the Holy Spirit empower us to live according to God’s call in Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

Our prayer each day should be that God would help us to glorify Him by helping us to remember His goodness to us and leaning on Him.

The parable Jesus tells in today’s Gospel lesson is the story of two men who didn’t grit their teeth to do the right thing, but who remembered the goodness of their master and so, enjoyed and used the blessings of the master to bring pleasure both to them and to the master.

It’s also the story of a third man who ignored the blessings given to him by his master, relying on his own personal sense of what was right and wrong, and so, denied himself a continuing relationship with him.

You know the story. A master, clearly a stand-in for God the Son, Jesus, is about to go on a journey. As we read Jesus’ story, we understand the “journey” Jesus is talking about. Since the crucified and risen Jesus ascended into heaven, we know that He has been enthroned in heaven, giving His followers millennia to share the Good News that all who turn from sin and believe in the crucified and risen God of all creation, will not perish in eternal separation from God, but will have eternal life with God! Jesus has been away from the earth on a long journey. As we talked about last week, there will be a day when the millennia cease and Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead and to establish His eternal kingdom, finally and fully making all things new.

Anticipating his journey, the master in Jesus’ parable entrusts some of his money to three different servants, just as Christ has entrusted the riches of the gospel to those of who follow Him (1 Corinthians 4:1-2).

Even the single talent (which is the word used by Jesus in this passage, not bags of gold, as the New International Version translates it, the master gave the third servant could be worth between 20 and 600 years of a day laborer’s wages!

In the same way, God entrusts a fortune of blessings to every human being. It’s called being alive. 

And that’s just the start for followers of Jesus Christ! Jesus expended His life on the cross so that all we fallen, sinful, imperfect human beings can, like the thief who was crucified next to Jesus on the cross, acknowledge our sin, turn from that sin, and turn to Him Jesus in faith to live with God for eternity. What a gift! 

Living lives that joyfully express gratitude for these two gifts--the gift of life and the gift of life made new that comes to us by grace through faith in Christ--is not a burden. It’s joy!

That isn’t to say that it’s easy. Throw yourself with abandon into the life of following Jesus--the life of Christian discipleship--and you’ll get bruised too. Maybe more than bruised. You may face rejection, ridicule. In some places today, following Jesus will put a disciple's life at risk. But even here, people may question your sanity or your judgment if you follow Jesus.

A woman told me once that she couldn’t speak with her father about her relationship with Christ. “He thinks I’m crazy,” she told me.

And the possibility of rejection is made greater these days by the public figures and “Christian” groups who claim to be Christians who live unrepentantly un-Christian lives or who turn Christian faith into a religion of good works and looking innocent while decaying inside from spiritual pride, what Jesus called "whitewashed tombs"! (Matthew 23:27-28)

But all of us who are bruised for believing in Jesus need to remember the words of Jesus’ earthly brother “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)

In Jesus’ parable, the master came back, as Jesus one day will return to the earth, and, like Jesus on judgment day, the master demanded an accounting for how the servants had used all he had given to them.

The master was glad to see that the first two men had enjoyed and used their gifts and so brought glory to his name.

The last man, not so much. His failure to honor and enjoy either his gifts or the giver brought him total separation from the master, just as happens to those who refuse to honor or enjoy Jesus, the Giver of the best gifts of all.

In his book, The Purpose Driven Life, which Lutherans can heartily endorse though not agreeing with everything in it, Pastor Rick Warren gives five portraits of what people who glorify God look like.

First, they worship God all the time. As Warren puts it, “Worship is a lifestyle of enjoying God, loving Him, and giving ourselves to be used for His purposes.”

Second, they love other believers. Long before Jesus walked the earth, God had already commanded all people to love God and to love neighbors. But just before His crucifixion, Jesus told believers, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) Jesus’ sacrificial love for us brought us eternity with God and He commands us to love our fellow believers in exactly the same way.

Third, they glorify God by allowing Him to shape them into the likeness of Jesus. Paul writes of Christian disciples in 1 Corinthians 3:18: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

We need to stand aside, lay down our will and submit to God’s will, which is to refashion us to be just like Jesus: loving, bold, fearless, forgiving, purposeful. If the third man in Jesus’ parable had simply used the gracious gift the master had given him, he would have had a productive, joyful life. But he didn’t. Christians who keep Christ buried, out of sight and out of mind, during the week, then try to resurrect Him on Sunday morning, are missing out on all that God has in mind for them.

Fourth, we glorify God by serving others with our gifts. No matter what our gifts or our limitations, God has gifted every Christian to glorify God by serving others in some way or another.

Finally, we glorify God by telling others about Jesus. Sharing our faith in Christ with others is the only way we will keep or grow in our faith. Use your faith and it grows. Hoard your faith and it dies out. Truly, faith in Christ is a “use it or lose it” proposition.

We can be like the first two men in Jesus’ parable. We can use the gifts our Master has given to us to glorify God. We do this when we worship God in our daily lives, love our fellow believers, ask God’s help to become more like Jesus, use our gifts to serve others, and tell others about Jesus and the new and everlasting life only He can give to those who turn from sin and believe in Him.

What is the purpose of our lives?

To put it another way, it's to take all the grace and blessings and forgiveness God has given to us through Jesus and our faith in Jesus and, in the certainty that we belong to God forever, give the grace and blessings and forgiveness to everyone we encounter.

First John 5:11, another one of our discipleship group memory verses, reminds us: “And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son, has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.”

You can never give away so much of your life for the glory of God that God can’t replace over and over for all eternity, if we will just trust in Jesus Christ alone. 

The purpose of our lives, yours and mine, then, is to spend our lives completely on glorifying God--Methodist theologian Leonard Sweet calls it "spending our last check," knowing that God has an eternity of life to give to all who live completely for Him.

God will never run out of life to give to those who daily surrender Jesus Christ!

So, Jesus calls us to a simple decision that can be framed like this:

Are we willing to give away the life that God gives to us in Christ for God’s purposes and so, allow God to grow our faith, our joy, our purpose for living? 

Or, will we hoard all of God’s grace and blessings given through Christ and die, whimpering about how hard this life is, and so, separate ourselves from God?

 Will we let God's grace in or lock it out? 

The choice is ours.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]