Saturday, February 04, 2017

The Blessed Life (AUDIO)


More Power to Share

Five mornings a week, I try to begin my days with a Quiet Time in which God speaks to me through His Word and I ask Him to help me to respond. Here are what God seemed to be telling me today.
Look: “Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.” (Acts 9:22, NIV)
Saul, once the persecutor of the Church, encountered the risen and ascended Jesus on the road to Damascus. He was heading to that city with papers from the temple authorities in Jerusalem authorizing him to move toward the excommunication of any his fellow Jews who confessed faith in Jesus as the Messiah/Christ. But rendered blind and helpless by his meeting with Jesus, Saul came to be a believer in Christ. Under the nurturing hand of Ananias and other church leaders in Damascus, Saul began receiving what amounted to catechetical training and, in no time, was preaching of the Gospel of new life through faith in Jesus Christ.

He meets with skepticism at the synagogue. “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” people ask (Acts 9:21). This reminds me of the skepticism Jesus was met with at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth in Luke 4:22: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” Skeptics always want to cut the things of God--whether it’s God enfleshed like Jesus or Saul, a former enemy of Christ who proclaims Christ, like Saul. People do this in order to elude the lordship of Jesus.

But in verse 22, we’re told that in the face of skepticism, “Saul grew more and more powerful.” This rendering is OK, but it hardly does justice to how Luke, in the Greek in which he wrote Acts, expresses things. A more literal rendering is: “Saul however, was all the more empowered.” Σαῦλος δὲ μᾶλλον ἐνεδυναμοῦτο. That last word, transliterated into English as enedunamouto, carries the meaning of was empowered. The danger of the NIV translation is that it makes it seem that as Paul spoke, he gained greater confidence in himself and became more powerful.

But that’s not what that verb implies at all! What Luke is saying is that Saul was being filled with power from an outside source. Saul had nothing to do with the power that was enabling him to prove that Jesus is the Messiah. That was and to this day, is the work of the Holy Spirit in believers willing to share Christ and His Gospel with others.

We see how the power of a Christian’s witness grows as they make themselves available to share Christ in two separate incidents recounted in the Gospel of John.

In John 4, Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman by a well outside the village of Sychar. After Jesus tells her everything about herself, she runs into the village and speaks to people she had earlier been avoiding. She starts simply by inviting these people who had been gossiping and ignoring her to come and see a man who told her everything about herself. She ends by broaching the possibility that Jesus may be Messiah.

In John 9, Jesus heals a man born blind. The religious authorities are in an uproar and ask the now-healed man to tell them what happened. As the veracity of his story is challenged and as his own fearful parents leave him to fend for himself, the blind man becomes increasingly bold in proclaiming Who the Man Who healed him must be.

In each instance, the two who dared to say a good word about Jesus in the face of skepticism and opposition, even threats in the case of the once-blind man, grew bolder in their proclamation. They became more powerful.

I think more is going on here than the growing certainty that comes to us when we repeatedly rehearse something. That verb, enedunamouto, tells me that the more we lean on the truth of God’s Word about Christ, the more we share it, the more the Holy Spirit empowers us to share that Gospel word.

In Acts 1, the risen Jesus, just before He ascends to heaven, tells the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit to to come to them before sharing the Gospel. They do, the Spirit descends at Pentecost, and they proclaim the Gospel. And the more they proclaim it, the more power--power to convince others, power to sustain the proclaimer, power to confound skeptics (Acts 9:23)--comes to those who proclaim or share the Gospel.

Listen: Here, Lord, I feel that You’re telling me not to give up on proclaiming the Gospel. I need to proclaim the Gospel, not myself. I need to do so boldly and lovingly and not give up on doing so. I need to encourage the Church to do the same thing. As we do, You will give our witness more power: more power to convict and convince (John 16:7-11), more clarity, more ability to confound those who are skeptical, critical, or even enemies of Your Gospel.

Respond: Today, I make myself available to share Your Gospel with others. Help me to do it with boldness and humility (Acts 4:29). In Jesus’ name.
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Power of the Cross: A Word to Al Qaeda and ISIS

We're now seeing reports of online training videos from Al Qaeda's Arabian Peninisula terrorist group, one of which is called, "Courses for Destroying the Cross."

There are all sorts of thoughts this provokes in me. But two in particular stand out.

The first is this. Islamist terrorist groups operate under the misconception that the pluralistic West, including the United States, is entirely Christian. And like many non-Christians in this country, they also are under the misconception that some boisterous, political Christians speak on behalf of all Christians. Just as I do not assume that Isis or Al Qadea speak for all Muslims, people shouldn't assume that terrorists speak for all Muslims. It's dangerous and inappropriate to dump all Westerners or Christians in the same category. Shorthand stereotypes like this are almost always false.

The second thought is this. Whether it's to Islamist terrorists or most people in the post-modern West, the cross is always an object of derision.

The cross is seen by most as a place of defeat and many self-identified Christians shroud it in sentimentality or ignore it altogether.

Christians believe (and by faith, have experienced) that the cross on which Jesus Christ died is also the place where He achieved victory over sin, death, and darkness for all who turn from sin and trust in Christ. That's why we call the commemoration of Jesus' death on the cross "Good" Friday.

Jesus, revealed to be both God and human, led a perfect, sinless life, then offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. By that sacrifice, He won life for those who believe. Romans 6:23, in the New Testament, says: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Jesus says that we become heirs of His victory when we pick up our crosses--in other words, admit our own need of forgiveness and new life, submitting to the crucifixion of our old sinful selves--and follow Him--that is, trust our whole lives to Him and seek to live in faithful dependence on Him.

The good news or gospel is that, by faith, we can apprehend a share in Christ's destruction of our sin, by belief in Him. Jesus' resurrection affirmed Christ's victory on the cross. Death couldn't contain Him...and it can't contain those who trust in Him. This, in turn, frees us to love God, love our neighbor, seek justice, and boldly share Christ with others.

For many, the cross of Christ and the gospel of freedom from sin, death, and darkness that was unleashed from the cross seems foolish and implausible. But with the apostle Paul, Christians can say: "I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile." (Romans 1:16)

This past Sunday, in many Christians congregations around the world, 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, was the appointed second lesson. We read and heard these verses at Living Water Lutheran Church as well. Paul addresses those who think that the power of the cross can be destroyed in the ways buildings can be or that it can be killed the way mortal human beings can be. This is what he writes:

"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

'I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.'

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: 'Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.'”

So, a word to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a word also to ISIS: You will never destroy the cross or its power to change lives for good.

You will never conquer its life-giving power.

You will never erase the witness for Christ.

You will never stop the Church's Christ-mandated mission of making disciples.

The Word of God will have the last word.

And all who trust in the Lord Who gave Himself on the cross will keep on loving God and loving you, and living beyond the bounds of death, irrespective of your nihilism, your violence, your hatred, and your bombs.

From the cross, Christ said, "It is finished," or more literally, "It is completion." On the cross, Jesus has already defeated the sin, death, and darkness in which you truck. And you can do nothing to undo His victory or the victory He gives to all who believe in Him.

And one more word: Christ died on the cross for you too. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8) Join the people of the cross in daily turning from sin and daily trusting in Christ. You too can live in the power of God's amazing grace given in Christ. You too can know the victory of the cross!

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

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Confessions of the Aspiring Songwriter (and Collaborator)

A few days ago on Facebook, I mentioned a song that my cousin Jack and I wrote when we were twelve years old. He's one of four people with whom I've collaborated in creating songs, a grand total of one of which is copyrighted. (That's Gift in Our Arms, a baptismal hymn for which I wrote the words. The entry for it on the Copyright Encyclopedia web site is shown above. I looked it up for the nuts of it.)

I've always made up songs and constantly keep a fresh batch of new ideas on my smart phone. Some day, I may even get around to learning how to play them and record them.

One of the collaborations, only partially completed, was a song my brother and I wrote together on a cold night, walking on a blanket of snow in northern Ichigan (Ohio State fans will understand the spelling) a little over thirty-six years ago.

Unlike other songs I've written with others, both of us contributed to the whole melody and both of us contributed to all of the lyrics, to the point where I'm not sure what came from who. I'm sure that it was influenced by the Eagles, as it's kind of a country rock tune. Lyrically, it's a lament for a relationship gone bad. (I once heard that the more men involved in writing together, the more syrupy, sad songs you'll get out of the deal.)

Anyway, just for fun, here are the lyrics as best I remember them.
Times used to be we were all that we had
And what we had was enough
But now I don't know, 'cause it's starting to show
That maybe our love isn't tough
Tough enough to take the bad times
Tough enough to hang on
Tough enough to take the sad times
Tough to admit we're wrong

I'm wondering
I'm wondering
On this cold, dark night
If the sky should fall
And we call it off
Would it make our two lives right?
Pull out the handkerchiefs!

I haven't seen or talked with my brother for more than six years and I miss him. If I ever get to see him again, maybe we can finish this song together.

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

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Blessed Life

Matthew 5:1-12
The beatitudes found in Matthew 5:1-12, our gospel lesson for today, are often misunderstood. They're often seen as a list of virtues we need to pursue. But that isn't really what they're about at all.

In them, Jesus isn’t saying, “Act this way and you’ll be saved.” Instead, He’s saying, “Because You have been saved by God’s grace through faith in Me, this is how You’ll be set free to live.”

The beatitudes show us what disciples set free from sin, death, and the darkness of this world, look like.

Disciples, Jesus will say repeatedly to us today, lead blessed lives. Scholars tell us that the word we translate as blessed, makarios, means to be favored by God. This blessed life is connected to having faith in the God we meet in Christ. To live in a faith relationship with Christ is to be blessed, now and in eternity. That doesn't mean that everything in this life will go well. Remember that Jesus has told us: "In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).

But in Revelation 14:13, part of John’s vision of heaven, we’re also told: “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.’”

According to Jesus, the blessed life depends entirely on faith in Him. So, let’s look at Jesus’ portrait of how He blesses the lives of disciples.

Matthew writes: “Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him and he began to teach them. He said: ’Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’”

When people spoke of being poor in first century Judea, just like today, it meant to be without, to be impoverished or beggarly. But Jesus here (unlike in Luke’s gospel, where Jesus' sermon on the plain is recorded) says that those who are "poor in spirit” are the blessed ones. What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”?

It means to be utterly dependent on God’s grace. It means to have no pretense of personal perfection.

In a parable in Luke 18, Jesus shows what unpretentious dependence on God's grace this looks like. Two men go to the temple. One is a Pharisee, who tells God: “I thank You I’m not like other people,” then goes on to catalog all the rotten things other people do and lists the good things he does. But Jesus says that in the temple is a tax collector, a member of a class of people known for their shifty ways and their vast wealth. The tax collector, Jesus says, is so humble before God that he can’t lift his eyes toward heaven and prays simply, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus says in Luke 18:14: “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Despite his wealth, the tax collector was “poor in spirit.” We are poor in spirit when we recognize that we’re nothing without God, that we desperately need the crucified and risen Jesus to justify our existences.

Arrogance leads to hell; humble faith in Christ yields everlasting life with God.

Verse 4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

The word translated as comforted is, in the original Greek in which Matthew wrote, paraklethesontai. It means to come close beside or to call, encourage, or exhort from nearby. To me, it brings to mind the image of a coach like John Wooden, his hand on the shoulder of a player, either exhorting him to do better or encouraging him to buck up under the weight of it all.

This word translated as comforted is related to one of the words that Jesus uses for the Holy Spirit, Paraclesis, the Comforter.

When disciples grieve over loved ones lost (or over any loss), the Holy Spirit comforts them with the promises of God, promises authenticated by Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Promises like: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you." [Deuteronomy 31:6]

Or, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” [John 11:25-26]

Christians grieve their losses, of course. But we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” [1 Thessalonians 4:13] Even in our mourning, we are blessed, favored, by the reality that the Savior in Whom we trust has secured everlasting life for all who turn from sin and follow Him. That’s true comfort!

Verse 5: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

The word translated as meek doesn’t mean weak. To be meek is to be gentle, reserved, to exhibit God’s strength under God's control. Picture a jet engine that possesses enormous power. But that power is harnessed for the the purpose of carrying people or goods from one place to another. Jet engines are, except in tragic situations, subject to the will and the dictates of the pilots who fly them and the engineers who design them.

Meekness is like that. Jesus' disciples--you and I who believe in Jesus Christ--are filled with the power of God. But God calls us to only use that power for His purposes, according to God's will.

When the meek brag, it's only to brag about how good God is. Paul exhibits meekness in 2 Corinthians 11:30 when he writes: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” Paul knew that God shines through, not our arrogance, but our weaknesses.

The meek don’t bully or gossip. They don’t need to play those games: The meek are confident of their place in God’s kingdom because they know what Christ has done for them and they place their total trust in Christ.

The meek look out for others because they know that God is already looking out for them.

Our world, our country, and our churches would be better off if there were more people who lived out the meekness of Christian discipleship.

Verse 6: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”

There is nothing a disciple of Jesus Christ more craves than being in a right relationship with the God revealed in Jesus. It's to give us and to keep giving to us that relationship that Jesus tells us to “repent and believe in the good news” of new life through Him. [Mark 1:15]

It’s why daily repentance and renewal--daily midcourse correction--is to be part of the Christian’s life.

Those who hunger and thirst for rightness with God pray with the psalmist: “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long.” [Psalm 25:4-5]

This is the disciple's prayer because disciples want nothing to stand between them and God. In Psalm 73:25, Asaph confesses to God: “earth has nothing I desire besides you.”

This is why a daily quiet time with God, in which we repent for our sins, read and reflect on God’s Word as it applies to us each day, and ask for God’s help has become like breathing for many Christians. It helps to satisfy the disciple’s longing for God!

Verse 7: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”

To be merciful is to be compassionate, living in the light of what God has done for us in Christ. The disciple says, “Because God is eternally merciful to me through Jesus Christ, I will be merciful to my neighbor.”

Verse 8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

Disciples pray with King David: “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” [Psalm 51:10] To be pure in heart is to be a sinner covered in the forgiveness God makes available to us only through Jesus.

Disciples know the truth of Acts 4:12, which says of Jesus: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.”

Verse 9: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”

From the perspective of heaven, a peacemaker isn’t someone who negotiates the ends of wars, important though that is. A peacemaker isn't someone who refuses to argue because, truly, there are some things worth arguing about.

To understand what Jesus means when He talks about being a peacemaker, we have to understand the Bible's understanding of peace.

Peace, or shalom in the Hebrew of the Old Testament, eirene in the Greek of the New Testament, is peace with God.

To have peace is to be in sync with God and His will.

We lay down our rebellion against God’s will.

We accept the Lordship of Jesus over our lives.

We accept that, as our Maker and Redeemer, the God we know in Jesus has every right to tell us what do in our relationships, our work, our leisure, our money, even our sex lives.

Peacemakers are ambassadors for Christ. One scholar says that a peacemaker “bravely declares God’s terms [for peace] which makes a person whole.”

Those terms are simple: Repent and believe in Christ.

Paul says that God “has committed to us the message of reconciliation [or peace with God]. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God.” [2 Corinthians 5:19-20] Peacemakers are evangelists, witnesses for Christ. That’s what peacemakers do.

Verses 10 to 12 tell us: “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

It seems a strange thing for Jesus to say that we are blessed or enjoy God’s favor when we’re persecuted. We think that we’re blessed when everything goes our ways. But sometimes the things we want, the things that we’re sure are what’s best for us, aren’t the things that God says are best for us. “‘...My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD” in Isaiah 55:8.

Our ways are often easy, selfish, self-destructive.

But God’s ways always lead us life, to becoming our better selves. Jesus calls disciples to take an eternal view of things.

“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Jesus asks [Matthew 16:26]

The world may applaud or even reward people for being self-promoting egotists. But all the money and security this world may give to those looking out for number one will vanish the moment we draw our last breaths.

And eternity is a terrible place to go without God!

Sometimes, those who follow Jesus are persecuted or put down for their faith. They may lose their lives. They may have to make sacrifices of their time, money, or status with others. They may run into opposition when they tell others about Christ, read God’s Word, pray in public places, stand against injustice, fight on behalf of those who can’t fight for themselves, feed or house the homeless, or welcome those hated by others. But Peter, one of the first to hear Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, writes: “...if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” [1 Peter 2:20]

Disciples know that the God Who has saved us from sin and death through Jesus Christ will have the final say in our lives. We are blessed!

Let’s pray each day that God will help us to display God’s grace and goodness through lives devoted to loving God, loving neighbor, sharing Christ, and making disciples. Around here, we call all of that reaching up, reaching in, and reaching out. That’s the blessed life for which Christ has saved us.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message during worship this morning.]

Three from Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors...

...who I hadn't heard of until Saturday night, when one of his songs came up on Apple Play.

It's hard to describe Holcomb's style. There's blues, country, rock, and pop in the mix. But he sounds fresh, like he's blended all of this stuff in a unique way. He's a little bit of Jakob Dylan and the Wallflowers, some Andrew Gold, but totally himself.

I love his lyrics, brimming with immediacy and unaffected passion. A sampling:

"Someday, I will hold you in my arms
"Someday, you will know that I am the only one for you..."

"Oh, you fascinate me!
"Oh, I want you to confiscate me
"I can't get enough of you..."

"Love me like a heartbreak
"Love me like a thief
"Love me like you want to
"Come steal my history"


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