Friday, October 20, 2017

Staying Focused

[Most days, I try to spend quiet time with God. Below is my journal entry for this morning. I hope that you find it helpful. To see how I approach my quiet time with God, see here. It's all about seeking to listen to what God is telling us through His Word as we meet Him each day.]
Look: [Jesus asked] “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44)

Jesus is speaking to those scandalized by His Sabbath day restoration of the once-paralyzed limbs of a man unable to walk.

All of Jesus’ words in this chapter are interesting. But today, I’m especially taken with these in verse 44. A paraphrase might be: “Since being acceptable to the crowd is so important to you, how could you possibly care about the glorious acceptance that only the one true God can give to you through faith in Me?”

Jesus underscores His own indifference to the accolades (or glories) that human beings may give to Him in verse 41: “I do not accept glory from human beings...” By this, Jesus means that He refuses to allow the opinions of Him--good or bad--to turn His head. He will do what He must do and what He has been called to do, popular or not, easy or not. In Luke 12:50, referencing the suffering He will undergo, calling His crucifixion and death His “baptism,” Jesus says: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”

In the wilderness, of course, Satan had tempted Jesus to grab for the glories offered Him by Satan and the world. Luke’s account of the wilderness temptations of Jesus says:

“The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.’” But Luke says that Jesus responded: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” (Luke 4:5-8)

Listen: If I’m to walk with God, if I’m to have life with God through Jesus, I can’t worry about having the accolades of the crowd. Nor can I concern myself with what’s easy, safe, or comfortable. Nor can I worry about the possibility of being deemed “weird” or “different” from everybody else.*

Some people, of course, wear their “distinctiveness” as Christians like badges of honor and pride. This is not what Jesus is commending when He says that we should focus on being considered “glorious” by God instead of the crowd. There is no place for being puffed up for the person who genuinely seeks to follow Jesus. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds Christians: “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.” And 1 Corinthians 13:4 says: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

To be set apart or holy for God is to be so focused on following Jesus that I am willing to ignore what the crowd or what my own internal preference for comfort say I should do.

In this, Jesus isn’t just the One Who saves us for life set apart for God, He’s also, as we say in the liturgy, “a model of the godly life.” Luke 9:51, a turning point in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, says: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”

Jesus was so sold-out to glorifying God the Father that He “resolutely” went to Jerusalem, knowing what awaited Him there. He didn’t flinch.

He calls us to similar resolve. In Luke 14:27, Jesus says: “...whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus isn’t here saying that Christians should look for trouble.

And “their cross” here doesn’t refer to the troubles, adversity, and pain to which every human being is subject because we live in this fallen, imperfect world.

Taking up our crosses involves acknowledging the sin in us--both our sinful natures and the sins we commit because of those natures--and following Jesus as the only One Who can set us free from their power over us.

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)

Those who follow Jesus daily submit to the crucifixion of our old sinful selves so that the new creation Jesus died and rose to make us become can rise.

We daily remember our baptisms as the time of our crucifixion and death so that can Christ can daily raise us up: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).

The only way I can follow through on a life marked by humble acknowledgement of my need of Christ is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to forget about the affirmations offered by the crowds or the comforts offered by the world so that I can follow Jesus Christ alone.

This isn’t easy. I like to be liked. I don’t like disappointing or offending people. I want to fit in.

On top of that, I’d like to be comfortable.

But while some Christians may be comfortable, materially or socially, none of that is promised by Jesus.

He promises us eternal life. He promises His constant presence with us. But, as I often remind others, so I now remind myself, Jesus also promises: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

So often, the discouragement I feel over the lack of discernible “progress” in my spiritual life can be attributed to one simple thing: I’ve taken my eye off of Jesus.

Real spiritual progress comes, I suspect, when I’m not even conscious of questions about my “spiritual progress” and I set my face toward Jesus. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.”

Respond: Father, today, by the Holy Spirit’s power, free me of concerns about the estimation of others or the standards of this world or my own sin-warped personal standards. Grant that the only accolade I care about is Your Words at the Judgment, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Help me to focus on Jesus alone. May I revere Your name today. May Your kingdom come to me today. May Your will be done in my life today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen
*Weird or different are two words that could readily translate the Bible’s term, holy. The best translation is probably set apart for God.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You're invited to be with the congregation for worship on Sundays, either at 8:45 or 11:00 AM.]

Monday, October 16, 2017


[These are reflections from my morning quiet time. To see how I approach quiet time, read here.]
Look: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” (John 2:23-25)

This takes place early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, according to John. At the start of chapter 2, Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Then, He cleanses the temple of moneychangers. After that comes these verses.

In verse 23, where we’re told that after Jesus performed signs, people believed in Him, just as earlier, the disciples believed in Him in light of the miracle at Cana.

“But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people,” verse 24 says.

The verb is a form of pisteuo, the same term routinely used in John’s gospel for believing faith. It’s the verb used by Jesus in John 3:16.

The message is clear: Jesus doesn’t put His faith in human beings, because He knows all about we human beings. He knows that we’re fickle, unreliable, unworthy of trust. And even when human beings claim to trust in someone, that belief is subject to change, even when the One trusted is the foundational truth of the universe, Jesus (John 14:6).

The human condition is such that we tend to break trusts, turn on others, change our minds. We’re not reliable in any ultimate sense. I know that I'm not. No human being, no thing, no idea, can be believed in to make us whole, happy, sane, forgiven, purposeful. At least not over the long haul. Certainly not for eternity.

Only God can be trusted. This is what I think Paul is saying in Romans 3:14: “Let God be true, and every human being a liar.”

Listen: If I believe in anyone but the God revealed in Jesus, my belief--my faith--will be disappointed.

I have put too much pressure on trembling human shoulders when I’ve placed my faith in them. And people have made the same mistake when reposing similar faith in me. We just can’t bear the weight of the need of every human being has for the one true God. Imperfect, sinful human beings can’t be God. As Paul also writes: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This doesn’t mean that we should have nothing to do with others, I don’t believe. Quite the opposite.

What it does mean is that we need to enlist the help of God in all of our relationships: marriages, friendships, churches, small groups so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more trustworthy. We believe in God to help us be trustworthy.

When we fail to be trustworthy, we must repent, seeking God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those we let down.

When others fail to be trustworthy with us, we must forgive as we’ve been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32).

This doesn’t mean that we should continue regular relationships with those who continually betray us. We can forgive others even when we realize that they’re chronically and unrepentantly--with repentance affirmed by a real life commitment to living differently--untrustworthy.

To understand that no one is ultimately trustworthy isn’t to be cynical or resigned to a life of loneliness.

It means that we love and accept others just as Christ loves and accepts us.

We confront. We talk things through. We pray. But we place our ultimate trust in Jesus Christ alone.

Respond: God, forgive me for so often believing in people, human leaders, or human ideas more than I believe in You. You alone can make me whole, purposeful, joyful, alive. Help me today to trust You more so that I can love both You and others better. In Jesus’ name. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Right Clothes?

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

Matthew 22:1-14
This is going to be tough today because Jesus presents us with tough words in our gospel lesson. But I promise if you will be patient and receptive to what Jesus has to say, discomfort will give way to joy.

Let's begin with the basics.

The God you and I know in Jesus Christ is, to use a term popular these days, inclusive in His love. By that, I mean, God loves all people.

But the God we meet in Jesus is also exclusive in His standards. As Jesus Himself puts it, “not everyone who calls [Him], ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

God loves us just as we are; but He loves us too much to leave us the way He finds us.

God will welcome us, but He will not welcome our sins into His kingdom. He insists that we set them in His hands and leave them behind.

And if you and I think that we are going to be part of God’s eternal kingdom while still clinging to our favorite sins, we are setting ourselves up for eternal regret.

If following Jesus doesn’t make us fundamentally different people than we would be if we’d never heard of Jesus, we may not be following Jesus.

For you and me, this is the message of the parable that Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel lesson, Matthew 22:1-14. It’s an important message.

As has been true in our gospel lessons over the past several weeks, Jesus is still in the temple on the Monday after the first Palm Sunday, days before He would be arrested and murdered.

As has also been true over these same weeks, Jesus once more tells a parable to the chief priests and elders who hate Him.

Jesus has already made it plain that the chief priests’ and elders’ reliance on their goodness will mean nothing on the day when God judges every human being. All that will matter then, for them and for us, is whether we believe in the Messiah, Jesus, as our King, turning from sin and trusting in Him to give us life and make us fit for eternity.

If we follow Jesus, we live; if we refuse to follow Jesus, we won't live.

But Jesus isn’t finished making His point. So, He says, starting in verse 2: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

You all know enough about the wedding practices of first-century Judea to know that friends and family were informed that marriages had been arranged, but the invitations came later, on the spur of the moment. The groom and his party would arrive at the house of the bride and messengers were sent out to say, “The wedding will be in a few minutes. Come on.” You’d have to be ready with your wedding clothes at a moment’s notice.

Here in the parable, the groom’s father, a king, representing God the Father, invites people to join in the wedding celebration and feast for his son, representing God the Son Jesus. But in the parable, people refuse to come to the banquet.

These are like the folks who view church membership as a "get out of hell free" card, but remain indifferent to the will of the Father or the Lordship of the Son. They’re too busy with their own agendas to be caught up in God’s agenda.

And God’s agenda is clear: It’s to repent and believe in Jesus, not just as a ritual we go through on Sunday mornings. We are to turn from sin and trust in Jesus as God’s truth and the only way to live every single day.

We must daily heed the invitation to the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ as articulated by Paul in Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Are you and I listening to the Father’s invitation to the banquet everyday?

Or are we doing our own things?

Jesus’ parable continues at verse 4: “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’”

God is patient. He spent centuries preparing His chosen people for the arrival of the Groom, Jesus. And He’s patient with Gentiles, the non-Jews: He’s given His Church centuries to share Jesus with others, to invite them to life with the Messiah Christ.

God has prepared everything for those who turn from sin and follow Jesus. The invitation is inclusive. God wants everyone to say, "Yes!" to His invitation to eternal life.

Jesus goes on at verse 5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.”

This, Jesus says, is how God’s prophets and preachers, including John the Baptist, were treated: with indifference, or roughed up, or killed off.

Even the pious don’t like to have God telling them what to do. I know that I don't.

The fact is that God’s truth, and His call and commands on our lives, can sometimes be tough for us to take.

How do we react, for example, to God’s call and command that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves? As any parent knows, love isn't the same thing as approval. You still love your child even when you don't approve of the choices they sometimes make. So, how good are we at heeding God's command that we love the neighbors of whom we may or may not improve?

Including our Muslim neighbor.

Our gay neighbor.

Our Latino neighbor.

Our Democratic or Republican neighbor.

Not just in real life, but on Facebook and Twitter, when we’re watching TV.

Every time we fail to love others as we love ourselves, effectively speaking or acting on the devil’s lie that we're God, judge, and jury over others, we walk away from God's love and from Christ and we drive another nail into His innocent flesh.

Verse 7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Jesus’ first hearers included fellow Jews who wanted nothing to do with Him. They refused to welcome Him or acknowledge Him as God in the flesh, but were intent on killing Him. As soon as Jesus finished telling this parable, in fact, the chief priests and the elders of the temple began plotting how to get Him crucified.

That's because Jesus is here signaling that even if His fellow Jews aren’t going to receive Him, the invitation to follow and belong to God for eternity is going out to everybody, including Gentile outsiders (the riff-raff) like you and me!

Invite everyone, God is saying through Jesus. It’s why Jesus tells His Church: “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Who are you and I inviting to Jesus’ kingdom these days?

I’m not talking about who you’re inviting to worship or the programs of our church. I mean, who are you and I inviting among your neighbors and friends without a connection to Jesus to know Jesus, to follow Jesus?

And are we intentionally seeking to strike up friendships with people who don’t follow Jesus so that you can have the privilege of inviting them to know Jesus?

Are we cultivating your own relationship with Jesus so that, in Peter’s words, we’ll “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” through our relationship with Jesus, an answer to be offered “with gentleness and respect”?

If we’re not doing these things--and I'm asking them of myself as much as I'm asking them of you--why not?

God has prepared the banquet for everyone.

Now comes the most disturbing and, maybe, important part of an already-disturbing parable. Verses 11-14: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Look, folks: This is not about wearing the right thing in the presence of God. As long as your attire is modest, God doesn’t care about the clothes you church or anywhere else.

In our church in Cincinnati, a man and his wife in their sixties always sat with a young man in his thirties during worship. The two man always sat next to each other. Having met at church, they became good friends. The older man showed up every week in a three-piece suit, dressed to the nines. The young man often arrived on his motorcycle, sporting a do-rag, earrings, a three-day beard, a T-shirt, and torn jeans. They were as different as two people could possibly be. But they enjoyed worshiping together. They both realized that what's on the inside is vastly more important than what's on the outside!

Personally, I’m happy to see people worship God whether they’re wearing jeans and flip-flops or three-piece suits. 

I'm sure that God is too! 

But nobody can enter the kingdom of heaven and be with God if they aren’t clothed in God’s righteousness, if their sins aren’t covered by the forgiveness and grace God gives to those who dare to turn from their own desires and submit entirely to the Lordship of Jesus and the will of God over their lives. 

Romans 13:14 tells us, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” The proper attire for entrance into the kingdom of heaven is the righteousness that comes from faith in Jesus Christ! 

If we’re clothed in anything but the righteousness of God that comes to those who make repenting and believing in Jesus their daily lifestyle, we will be, in Jesus’ words, thrown outside in the darkness, weeping, gnashing our teeth, snarling eternal regret. 

That’s a daunting thought and it should remind us that faith in Christ isn’t like belonging to the Kiwanis or the Pinochle Club; it’s life and death business. Eternal life and death business.

God’s love is inclusive. He loves the whole world. Everyone’s invited.

But entrance into His kingdom is exclusive. It’s open to only those willing to be retrofitted for eternity by the grace He bears for all people through Jesus Christ.

It’s open only to those willing to die to getting our own way and to live the life of God’s will be done.

Clothe yourself in Jesus.

And when He calls you to lay aside a sin, jettison a sinful attitude, or befriend a fellow sinner, do it.

Let Jesus lead your life and all of its decisions.

Trust in Him.

Then you’ll be clothed in His righteousness and ready for anything, even the eternal banquet that awaits all who trust in Christ. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, October 09, 2017

The Third Partner

[This was shared this past Friday evening during the wedding of Chase and Emily.]

John 15:9-12
Emily and Chase, as we've discussed together, the words from John’s gospel that you chose for today are part of those spoken by Jesus on the night of His betrayal and arrest to His disciples. They’re instructions to His Church and how we who confess Christ as Lord are to treat one another with the same self-sacrificing love with which Christ has loved us. But these words have true implications for marriage and for the two of you today as well.

That shouldn’t be surprising. Elsewhere in the New Testament, marriage is compared to the Church and the Church is called “the bride of Christ.” And in my own tradition, Martin Luther said that marriages and families are to be “little churches.”

The point is that the two of you are about to enter into a covenant, a sacred compact involving not just the two of you, but also God, the One Who gave you life; the One Who offers all who turn from sin and trust in Christ new, eternal life; and the One Who promises to never leave you nor forsake you, a promise guaranteed by Christ’s death and resurrection.

I was telling Vern and Kris last night just how much I’ve enjoyed getting to know the two of you. I so appreciate the relationship you have with each other, your openness, your maturity. You are both bright, accomplished. And you obviously love each other very much. It’s a privilege being here with you now.

But, if I may, I’d like to throw the cat among the pigeons for just a moment to say this: The two of you have so much going for you that it might be tempting to think that all of you’ve got going is all that you need.

That would be a mistake, which is why I was so happy when you were drawn to the words of Jesus from John’s gospel for today.

Jesus is telling His bride, the Church, the people with whom He has made an eternal covenant: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (Italics are mine, for emphasis.)

After being married forty-three years myself, I can tell you that marriage requires, it needs, the kind of love that Jesus has given. We must be willing to die for one another if our marriages are to work.

And that willingness must extend not just to the times when the health or well-being of our spouses are in the balance, but also to the mundane, everyday, humdrum places of life, the places in which the other’s habits get on our nerves, when life seems like nothing more than a grinding routine.

Even people who love each other can sometimes drive each other nuts.

Even people who love each other can find that our common enemies, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves, drive wedges between them.

It’s under these circumstances that giving each other the self-sacrificing love that our marriages require can become difficult, even impossible.

And necessary!

This is exactly where the third partner in the marriage covenant you’re about to enter into comes in.

A few blocks from here is Ohio’s capitol building. On the grounds of the building, in a prominent place, are these words of Jesus, from the Gospel of Matthew: “With God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

Marriage, this covenant of lifelong commitment lived as God intended for it to be lived, would be impossible if we tried to undertake it our own, no matter how much men and women may love one another, no matter how many things they may have going for them.

But when a marriage is built on the God we know in Christ, all things are possible!

When two people together build their marriage and lives on Christ, they can face all that this life brings with joy, hope, and confidence.

So, Chase and Emily, as you begin your married life today, I offer one piece of advice: Build your marriage on Christ.

Find a church home in which you can be strengthened, assured, and challenged by the Word of God, where you can receive Christ’s body, blood, and forgiveness, and learn to serve each other and the world with a confidence that comes from the grace God bears for you through Christ.

Let God be your marriage partner and you will have the love, the strength, and the courage to be, together, all that you can be.

God bless you both!

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Choosing the Right Kingdom

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, 667 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, Centerville, Ohio, yesterday. We have worship on Sundays at 8:45 and 11:00 am.]

[Here's the audio of the message.]

Matthew 21:33-46
In last Sunday’s gospel lesson, you’ll remember, Jesus told a parable about a father and his two sons. The father asked each to work in the vineyard. One son said he wouldn’t and did. The other son said that he would work in the vineyard and didn’t. Jesus asked His original hearers which of the two sons had obeyed their father. The answer, of course, was the one who obeyed despite his earlier refusal.

As mentioned last week, that parable works for us as a reminder to live out the faith we confess on Sunday mornings. But it also would have had a far more pointed meaning to Jesus’ first hearers. In case they missed it though, Jesus tells another parable on this Monday of Holy Week, which comprises the bulk of today’s gospel lesson. It has a similar pointed meaning for us.

So, let’s look at our lesson, Matthew 21:33-36: “[Jesus says] Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and moved to another place.”

Every one of Jesus’ fellow Jews would have been familiar with the Old Testament scripture to which Jesus refers here. He borrows from Isaiah 5, which is where our first lesson for this morning comes from.

It starts: “I will sing for the one I love a song about his vineyard: My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines. He built a watchtower in it and cut out a winepress as well. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but it yielded only bad fruit.” (Isaiah 5:1-2)

In Isaiah’s song, the “loved one” is God, Who had called His ancient people Israel into being and showered them with grace, provision, and love, only to find that the people sinned, rebelled against God, and treated their neighbors unjustly, failing to love God or neighbor. In other words, they produced bad fruit. This all lay in the background of what Jesus is about to say.

He continues the parable at verse 34: “When the harvest time approached, [the landowner] sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit. The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third. Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way. Last of all, he sent his son to them. ‘They will respect my son,’ he said. But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, ‘This is the heir. Come, let’s kill him and take his inheritance.’ So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.”

Just as God had sent prophets to the people of Israel to tell them to turn from their sin and turn in faith to God so that they could live, the owner of the vineyard in Jesus’ story keeps sending representatives to collect the good fruit that they should be willing to give to the owner, in simple gratitude for all that the owner provided for them.

This is not a parable about giving offerings, by the way. While it's the aim of every Christian disciples to give a percentage of their income--a tithe of 10% is the Biblical model--to God's work in the world, that's not what this parable is about. The God we know in Jesus Christ isn't interested in just 10% of any part of our lives.

And the aim of every Christian disciple is to give 100% of their lives--100% of their time at work, 100% of their time at home, 100% of their whole selves--to God.

As God the Son gave Himself unstintingly for us on the cross, the response of faith in Christ is to give ourselves back to God. God's grace in Christ, saving us from sin and death for all eternity, deserves our total surrender to God in return!

You’ve heard me tell about the couple we knew in Cincinnati who, when asked why they joined a congregation that seemed to have little to offer them, said, “We were looking for a place to serve.”

The tenants in Jesus’ parable were looking to take the whole vineyard for themselves and get the owner completely out of their lives. Like Adam and Eve, they wanted to be their own gods. That’s why they decided to kill the landowner’s son, just as the whole world, Jews and Gentiles alike, decided to kill the Son of God on the first Good Friday, just four days after Jesus told this parable.

Jesus continues in verse 40: “Therefore, when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

Jesus, at this point, has the chief priests and the elders right where He wants them. He wants them to make a judgment about the proper punishment for the tenants in His parable, people who represent the priests, the elders, and all of Jesus' fellow Jews in their rejection of God's authority over their their repudiation and murder of the landowner's son, who clearly represents Jesus.

The chief priests and elders respond: “He will bring those wretches [In the Greek in which Matthew writes, the word translated as “wretches” carries the meaning of “people as totally evil as is possible.Think, Adolf Hitler, Idi Amin, Mao Zedong, Stalin, Putin, that evil, that wretched.] to a wretched end,” they replied, “and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants, who will give him his share of the crop at harvest time.”

To understand what comes next, we have to delve into another passage from the Old Testament, Daniel, chapter 2.

Here's the situation: It’s seven centuries before the birth of Jesus. Daniel, a Jew, is held in captivity in Babylon. Babylon had conquered God’s people, Israel, and taken some of Israel's best and brightest in chains back to Babylon. The king of Babylon has a dream. Relying not on his own cleverness, but on God, the imprisoned Daniel tells the king, Nebuchadnezzar, both the content of his dream and its meaning.

The dream, in a nutshell, was this: At the dream's outset, there was an enormous statue made of iron, silver, clay, and gold. It was spectacular. Nearby, a rock is quarried from the ground close to the statue. The rock is small at first.

Then this small rock strikes the statue and the statue crumbles into tiny particles that blow away.

The rock meanwhile, becomes a huge mountain and fills the entire earth.

The meaning, Daniel said, was simple: The great kingdom of Babylon was doomed to fail, as were later kingdoms built by human beings. Superpowers come and superpowers go.

But the kingdom of God, represented by the rock in the king’s dream, endures forever!

God will have the last say over the life of this world: not kings, not presidents, not corporations, nor the arrogant, or not even you and me.

If we set out to oppose God or His kingdom of love, we will be on the wrong side of history for all eternity! We will be fools!

All of this lay behind what Jesus says next, starting at verse 42, quoting Psalm 118:22-23: “Have you never read in the Scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”

The prophets of ancient Israel came to understand the stone in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream not just as the kingdom of God, underestimated in this world, but also the One Who would bring the kingdom of God into this world, the Messiah.

Like the son in Jesus’ parable of the landowner and the tenants, the Messiah would be “the stone the builders rejected,” Whose power and importance would be disdained and underestimated, but who was and is the King of all kings.

And, by the way, this is exactly how Jesus understood Himself. We try to turn Jesus into a wimp we can control, a kewpie doll we can pull out of our lives' back pockets when we need Him to do our bidding, but stash away when we think that we've got things under control. But the Savior Who overcame death can't be so easily manipulated or taken for granted!

You’ll remember that, after telling the teacher Nicodemus that because God so loved the world that He sent His Son so that all who believe in Him will not perish--will not be crushed by their rebellion against God--but have everlasting life, Jesus also said: “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 3:18)

According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus brought a simple message, that with Him, the Kingdom of God, had arrived: ““The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus is the Rock on which eternity is to be built

We must either embrace Him as our God or be crushed by our own arrogance. There are no other choices.

At the end of our lesson for today, we’re told that the chief priests and the elders knew that Jesus was talking about them. (Duh!)

That’s because they had built their own kingdoms in which they reigned over the spiritual and civic life of Judea, apart from God. They worked hand-in-glove with the Romans and had cushy lives at the spiritual and economic disadvantage of the people. Jesus was warning them that their days were numbered.

They needed to receive God when He came in their midst--Jesus--or be crushed by their own insolence.

It’s at this moment that the chief priests and elders decide, not to follow Jesus, but that they have to kill Jesus.

So, what does this all have to do with you and me?

Just this. We all have a tendency to work at building our own kingdoms.

We build our careers.

We get the nice house.

We work to get stuff for our kids that they may or may not need.

We pile our 401k’s and 403b’s with reserves.

We guys build our man caves.

Intentionally or not, we find ourselves working to live in and protect our own personal “kingdoms of me.”

But, in truth, the kingdom of me, no matter how big it gets, is destined to crumble. 

Our caskets may be lined with silk and gold. Yet we'll still be just as dead when our bodies are set inside of them.

But there’s another kingdom, the kingdom into which Jesus invites us.

These days, it may seem to have been supplanted by the kingdoms of this world: nations, ideologies, religions, sports, politics, leisure activities.

We may see all of these things and think that Christianity is on its way out and that no one will ever revere Jesus again.

That would be a mistake.

None of the kings or kingdoms of this world has ever done or will ever do what Jesus has done for us.

None can do for us and in us what Jesus can.

Jesus, God and sinless, became human so that He could bear the weight of our sin and death on His humble shoulders. When He died, He took the punishment we deserve for sin. When He rose, He made it possible for us to live with God forever. All who turn from sin and trust in Him with their whole selves have life with God, now and always.

Jesus makes all who trust in Him new!

This world may grind us down. The kingdoms of this world in which we may be inclined to trust will be reduced to powder.

But Jesus, the stone which the builders rejected, is the cornerstone on which our eternal lives can be built.

Only He can make us whole.

Only He can give us life.

Only He can give us purpose.

So, today and every day, ask the Holy Spirit to help you build your life on Jesus Christ alone.
  • Every single day. 
  • Every time you read God’s Word. 
  • Every time you receive the sacrament. 
  • Every time you pray. 
  • Every time you go to work.
  • Every time you make a decision.
  • Every time you're with your spouse or child or friends.
  • Every time you go to a ballgame, a party, or a concert.
Every time you and I dare to veer away from the dead paths of the devil, the world, and our sinful selves, may we follow Jesus.

Always follow Jesus. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

The Antichrist (No, Really)

[I try to spend part of most days in quiet time with God. Below, I've journaled my quiet time for today. To see how I approach this time with God, see here.]
Look: “I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.” (2 John 7)

According to the New Testament, there will be all sorts of antichrists roaming the world and in the Church in “the last days.” And the last days are those that fall between Jesus’ first appearance on the earth (at the first Christmas) until He returns to “judge the living and the dead.” The New Testament also teaches that just before Christ returns, there will be one last antichrist, who may even be the devil himself.

The time was ripe for Christ’s return for judgment the second He ascended to heaven (Acts 1:9). That’s why the first Christians were disappointed that Jesus hadn’t yet returned. Because of their disappointment, they had to be encouraged by the apostles to keep trusting in Christ.

But I find John’s words here interesting: any person who seeks to move people away from the Gospel and Christ is “the deceiver and the antichrist.”

He doesn’t say that such persons should be harmed. He says that they shouldn’t be heeded. And he says that the Church shouldn't harbor them or encourage them.

Listen: It can be dangerous to label a person as another antichrist. The label has been applied to people over the centuries, resulting often in murders of innocent people, acts were themselves examples of antichrist behavior.

The danger also attaches to people who self-righteously dismiss others as antichrists.

It may be better to think in terms of antichrist ideas spawned by the era of the antichrist which prevails on the earth from Jesus’ ascension until His return.

The antichrist is expressed in many -isms and ways of living and thinking that reflect the human desire to “be like God.” To name a few: materialism, racism, sexism, xenophobia, prejudices of any kind, slavery, child abuse, sexual abuse, gossip, thievery, covetousness, adultery and fornication, and so on.

All of these things fall under the general heading of sin and each has a single starting point, a single sin: The failure to acknowledge God as God, accompanied by the desire to be our own God. The antichrist and all sin begins with idolatry, from the idolatry of the self, to the idolatries of things, people, lifetsyles, etc.

The spirit of the antichrist is the spirit of narcissism, self-interest, and disregard for God, even when God is supposedly being extolled.

In today’s world there are some preachers and politicians and performers who invoke God’s name for their philosophies and actions but are clearly not of God. 
No human being is perfect of course, we all fall short of God’s intentions for us (Romans 3:23). But these modern day antichrists commend doctrines and policies and lifestyles that brazenly defy the revealed Word of God in Scripture while claiming all along to be righteous, good, and wholesome. 
These preachers and politicians and performers must answer to God and I pray that they will encounter authentic Christians who won’t suck up to them and to whom they will listen, for the sake of their salvation and for the sake of the world they affect each day.

But I must answer to God, too! What is it in my own life that doesn’t reflect the truth about Christ or the truth in His Word?

Before I go removing the speck in someone else’s eye, I had best get the plank out of my own (Matthew 7:5).

It’s good to be forewarned about the false preachers, the antichrists that roam freely in this age before Jesus’ return, especially so that each day I may return to the Lord in repentance and faith, lest I drift away from God and express the spirit of the antichrist in my own life.

The best antidotes to the spirit of the antichrist in me and in the Church are to remain focused on Christ and His Word, to share and consider His gospel, to daily repent, and to be daily renewed in faith and life by the Lord.

The best antidotes to the spirit of the antichrist in the world are to pray (Matthew 6:5-15), to spend time each day with God, praying over His Word, the way God the Son spent time with God the Father each day in (Luke 5:16), to ask God to send workers into the harvest so that more disciples are made and people live in the truth that sets them free (Matthew 9:38; Matthew 28:19-20; John 14:6; John 8:32), and to share the Gospel (Acts 1:8; John 3:16-18).

Respond: Today, Lord, help me to keep You consciously first as I live, speak, decide, and act. In Jesus’ name. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Monday, October 02, 2017

A Prayer for the United States after the Las Vegas Massacre

Lord, have mercy. Comfort the families and friends of the dead. Heal the wounded. Free us from the scourge of violence and our national addiction to it. In Jesus' name.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

A Bumper Sticker That Made Me Sick

At a red light earlier this evening, I stopped behind a car with a bumper sticker that said, "Make hockey violent again." The sentiment expressed on another bumper sticker on that car indicated to me that the first one was not ironic, not meant as a joke.

And it made me a little sick at heart.

Today of all days, with 58 people dead and 527 more injured after a mass shooting in Las Vegas, the last thing I want to see in America is a bumper sticker calling for more violence, especially in a sport already marked by gratuitous violence.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Tom Petty

Several reliable news outlets said that Tom Petty had been taken off of life support after being found in cardiac arrest. Other outlets are now walking that report back, saying that the singer is clinging to life. If the latter reports are true, I pray for his survival.

On Wednesday, a friend and I were talking about Petty, agreeing that his was the best Super Bowl show ever. Just last week, an LP he produced for Chris Hilman was released.

Petty took the music of my generation and reinvented it, creating music that was both new and familiar at the same time. He is one of the greats.

[The picture is from Getty Images and appears in an article in Rolling Stone.]

Sunday, October 01, 2017

Don't Miss the Obvious!

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

Matthew 21:23-32
When I was a kid, I heard a recurring phrase from my dad.

Dad would be working around the house, as he always did--fixing a car, remodeling a room, painting the house, doing a home repair--and I would be doing what I always did, nothing. Dad would tell me to look for something--say, a “⅜ widget-whats-it-majiggie”--and I would be unable to find it. Then, Dad would get out from under the car or climb off the ladder or whatever, then go right to the thing he wanted, then tell me, “Mark, if it was a snake, it would have bitten you.” Dad was right because I seemed to have a knack for not seeing the obvious. (I often still do.)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus encounters people who either don’t see or refuse to see the obvious.

Let’s take a look at the lesson, Matthew 21:23-32. As we prepare to do so, let’s set the scene. The day before this encounter, Jesus had entered Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. People hailed Jesus as the Messiah or the Christ, the Hebrew and Greek versions, respectively, for God’s Anointed King, the Savior that Jews had been awaiting for centuries.

On entering Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious and civic life, Jesus had gone to the temple. There, He overturned the tables of the money-changers who took advantage of the piety of simple Jewish folk, charging them exorbitantly for temple currency and for sheep and doves for temple sacrifices. As one scholar has written, Jesus acted like He owned the place. (Which, of course, as God in the flesh, He did.)

As today’s lesson begins, Jesus is approached by the men who think of themselves as the ones in charge of the temple, as well as of Jewish religious life, and the final judges of what was right or wrong, godly or ungodly. Take a look at the lesson, please.

“Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. ‘By what authority are you doing these things?’ they asked. ‘And who gave you this authority?’” Their question basically, is this: “Who said that You could and say the things You’ve been doing and saying, Jesus?”

In English, the word authority is related to the word author. Authors, of course, are people who, with their words, create worlds, characters, and events. We believe that the God revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the, as Peter says in Acts 3:15, “the Author of life.”

It’s this God Who, with the mere power of His Word, made everything that exists. “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” and “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” and humanity came into being (Genesis 1:3, 26).

We believe, by the power of the Holy Spirit Who makes faith possible, that Jesus was and is the very Word of God, Who took on our human flesh so that He could die for our sin and rise to give eternal life with God to all who see Jesus for Who follow Him.

But the chief priests and the elders of the people, who were experts in God’s Old Testament Word didn’t see Jesus in this way at all. And it’s not as though others weren’t seeing that Jesus was the Author of life. They were!

Remember the Canaanite woman, a foreigner to the Jews, who had called Jesus, “Lord, Son of David” (Matthew 15:22)? She had seen who Jesus was.

And remember how Peter told Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

And just the day before these “leaders” came to see Jesus, the Palm Sunday crowds had welcomed Him as Messiah.

Jesus once scored the temple authorities, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees as “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14). In their blindness, they challenge Jesus.

Verse 24: “Jesus replied, ‘I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?’” (Matthew 21:24-25).

Jesus is not engaging in any trickery here. He is trying to help these blind guides who, from their study of Scripture, should know where His authority came from because of Who He is, to see.

The question that Jesus asks them is also about authority. Who had given John the authority to call people to repentance and to point others to Jesus, the Messiah of Whom God the Father said in John’s presence, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17)?

Look at what happens next, starting with the second part of verse 25: “[The chief priests and the elders] discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” So they answered Jesus, ‘We don’t know.’ Then he said, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’” (Matthew 21:25-27)

I suspect that the calculated response of the temple leaders betrays an important fact: They weren’t as blind to the obvious as they claimed to be. They knew that John the Baptist’s authority came from heaven, that is, from God. And they knew that Jesus’ authority came from the same place; they even knew, I think, Who Jesus was.

They had heard or seen that Jesus was raising dead people, curing diseases, casting out demons, calming storms, feeding masses of people, speaking God’s truth.

They saw, but refused to publicly acknowledge that Jesus’ authority came from His being the Author of life.

Their aim in asking the question about authority was to discredit Jesus so that they could get Jesus crucified and be rid of Him. They want Jesus dead and gone to protect their own supposed authority. They’re like the tenants in a parable would tell shortly after this encounter who said to each other, “This is the heir. Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance'” (Matthew 21:38).

It’s after the temple leaders’ refusal to answer Jesus’ question that Jesus tells a parable. A man has two sons. He asked them, not to find a “⅜ widget-whats-it-majiggie,” but to work in his vineyard. The first son refused, but then “changed his mind” and got to work. (The word translated as "changed his mind" in Matthew's original text, written in Greek, is one of the common New Testament words for repented. To repent is to change one's mind about walking away from God and His will and to instead, seek to walk with God and in God's will.) The second son told his father that he would work in the vineyard, but then skipped out. “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Jesus asked those crowded around Him. Obviously, it was the son who changed his mind and did what his father asked of him.

The chief priests and the elders couldn’t have escaped understanding what Jesus was saying. They loved being seen as men of God, people who knew God and followed God. When they saw God face to face in Jesus though, they refused to follow Him. They refused to repent for sin. They refused to put their faith in Jesus and so have the life with God that only Jesus can give.

But when notorious sinners like tax collectors and prostitutes, people who had been saying no to God all their lives, heard John the Baptist’s call to repentance, did repent, heard Jesus’ call to surrendering faith and believed in Him.

Which of these two groups of people did the will of God?

Which of them saw that Jesus was and is “the way, and the truth, and the life”: those who honored Jesus with their mouths or those who gave Jesus their lives?

The answers to those questions are obvious.

But let me tell you the questions this gospel lesson forces me to ask myself.

First: Is there a disconnect between the faith I profess on Sunday mornings and the life I lead the rest of the week?

Second: If I really see Jesus as the Author of my life and the only One Who can give me life with God, life as it was meant to be lived, why do I so often live as though I didn’t see?

Here are some of the reasons I ask these questions:

I worry when I should pray.

I keep sinning when I should repent.

I observe when I should serve.

I lament over others’ sorry spiritual estate when I should be telling them about Jesus.

I watch TV when I should be reading God’s Word.

The chief priests and the elders talked a good game, but in truth, they preferred having authority over their own lives, rather than yielding authority to God. The second son in Jesus’ parable talked obedience, but he lived differently. Sometimes anyway, I can be just like them!

Our commitment to obedience to God is the measure not only of whether we see Jesus rightly, but also whether we will live in God’s kingdom.

If we see and follow Jesus as our Messiah King, we will seek to obey God. 

If we don’t see nor follow Jesus as our Messiah King, we will refuse to obey God, no matter what creeds, prayers, and songs we mouth on Sunday mornings.

A man once told me, “I believe in Jesus. But I have things I want to do that God doesn’t approve of. I’ll get right with God when I’m older.” Really?

When our congregation's friend, Carl, went to bed this past Monday night, he had no idea that he was close to drawing his last breaths on this earth. But, thank God, he went to bed that night believing in Jesus, seeking to follow Him faithfully, seeking to serve faithfully in His name. And the grief of his family is lightened in the knowledge that Carl is with the Lord in Whom he trusted.

Tomorrow on this earth is promised to nobody. The time to follow Jesus is now!

Jesus is calling us to hold nothing back from His lordship.

If we think that God’s rules for our marriage and sexual lives, our finances, our attitudes toward those who are different from us, or the ways we use God’s name apply to others, but not to us, we walk away from God. 

If we think that Jesus has only set super-saints free to believe in Him, love their neighbors, move mountains with mustard seed prayers, or fight for justice, then we really don’t see Jesus as our God and Messiah.

Faith is seen in our willingness to obey when Jesus says to repent and to obey too, when Jesus says to believe in Him and trust in His grace.

In this life, our obedience will never be perfect. That's why it's so important to live in a relationship of daily repentance and renewal with the God revealed in Jesus. We don't want to wander from Him, allowing sin to capture us and drive a wedge between our saving God and us. We want to have His forgiveness, grace, and power working in our lives today. We want to be ready to face eternity and live in His kingdom always.

I was struck this past week during my quiet time by 1 John 2:3-5: “We know that we have come to know [God] if we keep his commands. Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in that person. But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them…”

Let’s not lose sight of the obvious: That the Lord Who died and rose from the grave can give us new and everlasting lives and He alone deserves to have full authority over our lives.

May our lives be marked by faith in and obedience to the God we know in Jesus. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands

The situations in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are becoming more dire.

Donate, please, to relief efforts. I've donated to the efforts of Lutheran World Relief in those places. Our church is helping with relief efforts in Texas and Florida through our denomination's disaster response team.

Pray for the people there.

And ask our government to quicken the pace and increase the amount of help going to our fellow Americans.

It has been nine days since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There's virtually no electricity or clean drinking water. The food supply is dwindling. There are shortages of fuel. A small percentage of hospitals are open. People in need of medical treatments can't get them. As one doctor said this evening on one of the news networks, children may die because there's no way of getting 25-cent antibiotic tablets to them. The death toll resulting from the storm and nine days that have passed since is probably incalculable.

What's going on in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands isn't something you expect to see in advanced, can-do America. Even as we pray and rely on God, we must do better. Our sisters and brothers, our fellow Americans, are suffering and dying because of a preventable post-hurricane disaster. We, and the government that represents us, need to be Good Samaritans. Our Lord commands us to do so. And our Constitution commits us to mutually provide for our general welfare. Time is of the essence!

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Death of Hugh Hefner

I shared this last night on Facebook:
‪Hugh Hefner was a materialistic misogynist.  
Money and stuff were markers of success in his mind.  
And women were the objects of male-domination fantasies in the playboy world he created. 
Hopefully, Hefner came to follow Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life before he left this earth. Those are gifts that Christ, God-enfleshed, offers to all who repent and believe in Him. 
But Hefner's "philosophy," for those who follow it, is a spiritual train wreck to hell.‬ It leads away from God, away from authentic relationships with others, away from the new and everlasting life that only the God definitively revealed in Christ can give.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Thursday, September 28, 2017

This made me laugh...

...although the circumstances giving rise to it aren't really funny.

Monday, September 25, 2017

God Loves the Leftovers!

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on Sunday, September 24.]

Matthew 20:1-16
The title for this morning’s message is God Loves the Leftovers!

From today’s Gospel lesson, we can see that God loves the also-rans, the forgottens, the nobodies, the johnny-come-latelies-to-faith.

And He loves them with the exact same passion and provides them with the exact same eternal salvation with which He loves and provides to those who have believed in Him for as long as they can remember.

This morning, as we consider Jesus’ words, we should be grateful that God loves the leftovers. Because He does, you and I have a place in Jesus’ eternal kingdom.

So do all who turn from their sin and trust in Christ as their God and Savior. That’s good news, gospel!

So, let’s take a look at what Jesus says to us today.

A few verses before the beginning of our gospel lesson, Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for the wealthy to get into His kingdom than for a camel to get through the eye of a needle. Peter, anxious to show that he and the other eleven apostles are worthy of being in the kingdom, reminds Jesus that they’ve given up incomes to follow Him. (As thought Jesus had forgotten that!) Jesus tells Peter and the others: “...everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29)

In other words, anyone who has sought the kingdom above everything in life, will gain much more than the wealth that this dying world can offer. As Jesus puts it elsewhere: “ first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)

Jesus caps His response off with these words: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.” (Matthew 19:30)

You may have noticed that Jesus says similar words to these at the end of today’s Gospel lesson. That means that everything from Matthew 19:30 to the end of today’s lesson, Matthew 20:16, is about just this: In the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ kingdom, God the Father’s kingdom, the first will be last, the last will be first.

The leftovers will go to the front of the line and the people who showed up first, who followed Jesus faithfully for years and years, won’t mind sitting in the back; they’ll just be grateful to be in the eternal kingdom God gives to all who trust in Jesus! 

To say that this is foreign to our way of thinking is an understatement. It’s revolutionary, it’s counter-cultural. Some might even call it un-American.

But let’s listen to what Jesus tells us this morning, starting at Matthew 20:1: “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.”

In those days, landowners and employers had total power, the way that God has total power over His kingdom. When it says that the landowner, standing in for God in this parable, “agreed” to pay the workers a denarius, the common wage for a day of labor in those days, it doesn’t mean that there was any negotiation. This was the rate that the landowner decided on: The workers in his vineyard were going to be paid this amount.

Read on, please: “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went.” (Matthew 20:3-5)

It’s been several hours since the landowner first went to the marketplace to find people to go into his vineyard. He mentions nothing about the rate of pay to this second group. He just invites anyone who wants to go to his vineyard to do so. They aren't sent to Human Resources. No interviews. No screening. No attempts to learn the qualifications of the workers. If the men milling in the marketplace are willing to trust the landowner and his offer, they go to the vineyard.

How often do church members want to screen out people they don’t think will “fit in”? How often do we keep people from becoming part of Jesus' kingdom because we thoughtlessly neglect to invite them?

True story: A man who had just moved into a community told me about attending a Lutheran church shortly after his move and having a pleasant conversation with one of its members turn unpleasant when the member told him, “You seem like a nice person. But we already have enough members here. Things are just the way we want them to be here. Maybe you should go look for another church.” He did.

That’s not the way it is with the God we meet in Jesus, the God portrayed by Jesus as the landowner in today’s parable. God invites everyone into His kingdom. Anyone willing to leave the square, with its sins and warped values, and instead, enter His vineyard will be richly rewarded in forgiveness of sins, the power to resist evil, the presence of Christ in their lives on earth, and eternity with God and His people.

Read what Jesus says next, please. “[The landowner] went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’” (Matthew 20:5b-7)

“Why aren’t you in my kingdom?” the landowner-stand-in-for-God asks. “Because no one has invited us in.” These are the leftovers, the people nobody else wants. But God does!

The leftovers called by the landowner are like David, at whom the prophet and judge Samuel looked, and saw, not a king, just a scrawny afterthought. But God told Samuel: “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7) Samuel anointed David king.

The leftovers are like ancient Israel to whom Moses said: “The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you…” (Deuteronomy 7:7-8)

The leftovers are like the thief on the cross, a criminal who had wandered in the marketplace, stealing and killing all of his life, but on the brink of death, encountered Jesus, acknowledged His sins, and asked for a place in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus told him as they both died on their crosses: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

The leftovers are like the apostle Paul, who had rejected Christ and yet came to believe and would speak of himself as “the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” yet…”by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).

I am a leftover, someone who had once rejected the crucified and risen Jesus and His grace. Yet God still kept calling me. Why? Because God loves the leftover people of the world. He wants everyone of them in His kingdom. And He wants His Church to keep calling all people to repentance and new life as long as this brittle, dying world still turns on its axis.

Look at what Jesus says next. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’”

"The Workers in the Vineyard" by Kazakhstan Artist Nelly Bube. 

 We know, good Lutherans that we are, you and I, that we are sinners only saved by the generous grace of God, brought to us through our faith in Jesus Christ. Through Jesus, God has ushered us into His vineyard, His kingdom, and it’s a privilege. We know that we don’t deserve life with God. It’s a free gift which He created for us. The apostle Paul reminds us: “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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

But sometimes we forget about grace. Sometimes, we may want to pray like the self-righteous Pharisee in another of Jesus’ parables: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18:11) Life in God’s kingdom belongs to all who hear Jesus’ call to follow and like the tax collector in that parable in Luke’s gospel say to God: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13)

No matter our sins or failures, God wants us in His kingdom.

Whenever we have the guts to acknowledge our sins, turn away from them, and follow Jesus, we are in His eternal kingdom.

It’s true that God loves leftovers. But the deeper truth is that in His kingdom, there are no leftovers.

As Jesus says at the end of today’s Gospel lesson: “...the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16)

Speaking for myself, as long as I can be in Jesus’ kingdom forever, I’m not particular about the seating arrangements. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Friday, September 22, 2017

Dance (You See It) by Andy Mineo and Wordsplayed

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

I'm a Loser by the Beatles

"Although I laugh and I act like a clown
"Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
"My tears are falling like rain from the sky
"Is it for her or myself that I cry"

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Protect me, God, from the lies I tell myself

This journals my encounter with God and His Word today during my quiet time. See here to see how I spend my time with God; it may help you to keep your own quiet time.
Look: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3)

Paul addressed these words to Timothy to explain why he had given the instructions that immediately precede them: “I give you this charge: Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:1-2)

The times that Paul describes--”when people will not put up with sound doctrine”--have arisen often in the history of Christ’s Church.

Today is no different.

For example, Joel Osteen promotes a “prosperity gospel,” teaching that if people have enough faith, they will become rich. It’s possible for faithful people to be wealthy, of course. Abraham, the earthly father of Biblical faith, had wealth. But the notion that a lack of wealth is a sign of little faith is a lie, a lie which Osteen is willing to sell you with the tickets he sells to attend his events around the country.

And then, there’s the bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the body I left several years ago, who recently told an interviewer from the Chicago Sun-Times that if there is a hell, it's empty. No Christian should be anxious for a person to go to hell. In fact, our mission is to make disciples so that people can have God’s presence, salvation, and blessings now and for eternity. But Jesus is very clear throughout the gospels, as are the apostles: There is a hell and it is populated not only by Satan and his demons, but also by those who refuse to trust the God revealed in Christ with their sins and their lives.

Pernicious lies like these never lose their appeal to people. I think that’s so for several reasons:

1. Lies like those told by Osteen make people feel more in control and more self-righteous. If people have wealth, they can tell themselves that this is a sign of their righteousness. Such beliefs existed in Biblical times and Jesus condemned them. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God,” Jesus says in Mark 10:25. Jesus understands that wealth can delude us with the idea that we are self-sufficient and wealth can become our god. The advocates of the prosperity gospel find passages like this inconvenient. I’ve been told about Christians who truly think that if people in poverty had more faith, they wouldn’t be poor. That is a self-aggrandizing lie.

2. Lies like those told by the ELCA bishop make God seem like a liar when He tells us in His word, repeatedly, that there is condemnation for those who refuse to trust in Christ. In John 3:16-18, for example, 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.” And Jesus isn’t shy about speaking of hell as the place of condemnation filled with unbelieving people (Luke 16:19-31). Nor is Jesus shy in speaking of eternity with God as the reward for simple repentance and faith in Him. To the thief on the cross, dying alongside Him, Jesus said, “, you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Listen: It’s easy to see the lies that other people readily accept.

But, Lord, are there lies to which I am susceptible? As I reflect, there is one big lie that I find myself needing to guard against.

It’s this: The idea that since I’m a Christian, anything I take into my head to do must be OK. That is a big lie!

Although I would never consciously frame things in this way, the thinking here is: “I’m saved by Jesus from sin and death. So, if I decide to do so-and-so, it must be all right. After all, Jesus knows how much I love him. He’ll give me a break.”

This lie exemplifies what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” It’s an expression of that “buddy God” lie. Cheap grace is what we tell ourselves God gives to us in order to wrestle with the reality and consequences of our sinfulness and our sinful actions.

This is why the Lutheran practice of “daily repentance and renewal” is so important. Otherwise, like a “lost sheep,” we rationalize our ways farther and farther away from Christ and the life only He can give.

The reality of my sin is something with which I must daily wrestle. And I need to be open to remain silent before God and His Word to show me where I have gone wrong.

Psalm 139:23-24 teaches believers to pray: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”

Paul engages in daily repentance and renewal when he talks about his daily struggle with the reality of his own sin and his utter dependence on God’s grace, given in Christ, to save him from himself (Romans 7:21-25).

Another subtle lie against which I want to remain vigilant is, I imagine, quite alluring for many Christians when they see things like earthquakes in Mexico or hurricanes in Florida, Texas, Cuba, Puerto Rico, St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and elsewhere. The lie people not in affected areas might be open to accepting is, “This hasn’t happened to me. Therefore, I must be blessed and favored by God, while those facing these catastrophes are not.”

Jesus specifically called out people prone to accept such lies when, referencing disastrous events that must have happened shortly before He spoke to a crowd. Luke 13:1-5 says: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”
Unforeseen disasters happen in this world. They happen to the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45).

And, as Dave, a disciple who is part of the congregation I serve as pastor, mentioned to me the other day: “Disasters come all the time to people.” He went on to mention things like heart attacks. We could also name traffic accidents, cancer diagnoses, deaths.

To believe that because particular disasters haven’t struck us yet, we’re exempt by reason of righteousness, isn’t just a delusion, it’s a lie.

Respond: Protect me today, God, from my impulse to believe my lies, the world lies, or Satan’s lies rather than Your truth, revealed definitively in Christ and in Your Word. Help me to hear You clearly throughout my day and help me to call on You constantly so that when I start to wander, I return to You. Help me to remember always the truth:

“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. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

I place my life is in Your hands, and not mine.

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Living Water is a congregation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).