Sunday, August 18, 2019

Where to Turn in the Crisis

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

Luke 12:49-56
During the recent Lutheran Week in Indianapolis, I tried to eat a sandwich made with the kind of crumbly, disintegrating bread that used to give gluten-free a bad name. After lunch, Wayne asked me about the diet I had to keep in light of Celiac Disease and a heart attack I had nine years ago. As we rode down an escalator, I told him, “You know, some days I can’t wait to be with Jesus in eternity, partly because I’ll be able to eat whole wheat bread and run and play baseball again.” 

Some people near us on the escalator giggled when they heard me say that. And it is funny. I chuckled too. But don’t all Christians sometimes fantasize about the things we’ll do in eternity with Jesus once we’re free of the constraints of sin, death, and darkness that pervade this life?

But there’s a danger to our lives as Christians in focusing too much on eternity: It may cause us to ignore what Jesus calls the crisis of living each day in this world, in this life, as followers of Jesus Christ

We can get so accustomed to thinking that Jesus is on our sides, taking Him and the free gift of eternal life with God He gives to all who believe in Him, for granted, and thus, feeling free to do, say, and live any way we decide to. 

Listen: Jesus has not set us free from sin and death so that we can ignore His will

He has not set us free from sin and death so that we can ignore the needs of our neighbors or the injustice, bigotry, or hatred with which the world treats them

Jesus has not set us free from sin and death so that we can view our church membership as a get-out-of-hell pass while ignoring the need our neighbors have for Jesus’ salvation, ignoring that about a quarter or more of our neighbors have zero religious belief.

This means that every day a Christian lives on this earth faces a crisis. I’m using that word as Jesus does in John 12:31, where He says, “Now is the time for judgment on this world,” which is more literally translated from the Greek in which all the New Testament writers originally composed their books: “Now is the crisis [
κρίσις] of this world.” 

Here, Jesus is saying that, in this life, in each moment of this life, you and I deal with a decision point, a moment when we must make a judgment. And the judgment we must make is this: 
Will we turn to Jesus or will we turn away from Him?  
Will we turn to the world, to what’s easy, to what’s socially acceptable, to what’s safe, to what’s advantageous to us if heedless of the needs of my neighbor, to go along to get along or will we turn in repentance and faith to Jesus?
Our gospel lesson for this morning, Luke 12:49-56, finds Jesus turning abruptly from answering questions about the end of earth’s days after which all who have trusted in Him will live in His fully perfected kingdom, to the crisis the confronts us each day: the judgment you and I must make as to whether in this moment--at work, in our relationships, at home, in the world--we will turn to Jesus and live or walk away from Jesus and experience death.

Take a look at our lesson, please. Jesus begins: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” 

These words don’t fit with the world’s usual image of Jesus, the Jesus of the sentimentalists who think Jesus was a wonderful guy, but not someone they have to answer to. 

Fire, an image that Jesus and the early Church used in talking about the Holy Spirit, is a symbol of judgment and of cleansing

Jesus, to be sure, has come into the world to bring salvation and peace with God to all who believe in Him. 

But He has also come to singe us in the purifying flames of God’s judgment, to burn away all that’s evil, unwholesome, and unloving, in order to refine us like precious metals, separating us from sin and death

To truly trust in Jesus begins with truly understanding, daily, that we are sinners who need to confess our sin, divesting ourselves of our addiction to sin. Then, purged of death and darkness, we can rise to newness of life. 

This is what happens to us in Holy Baptism: first, our old selves are drowned, then our new selves, God’s brand new creatures, rise

Because the old self still lurks until the days of our physical deaths and resurrections, the Christian life is composed of returning each day to the Lord of the baptismal font for this same death and resurrection to happen again and again

Romans 6:4 reminds us, “We were therefore buried with [Jesus Christ] 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.” This new life is what God wants to give to all people through faith in Jesus every single day!

Then Jesus says: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” 

Jesus wants to bring each person who hears His name to the crisis point to which we all need to come in order to receive Him and the life that only He can give to us. 

But before that could happen, Jesus had to undergo the baptism of death on a cross. 

His mission on earth would only be fulfilled when He did this and could say, “It is finished.” 

On the cross, Jesus shares the death that belongs to every human being from the moment we are born: the death of separation from the One Who gives life. It was from this place of separation that Jesus cried from the cross, “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken me.” 

But because God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, in the waters of Baptism, we share in Jesus’ death so that the Father too, can raise those who trust themselves and their whole lives to Jesus. It was to accomplish this for you and me that Jesus couldn’t wait--He felt constrained to go to the cross, set His face for Jerusalem--that Jesus went to the cross.

Jesus then says: “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

In this life, anyone who dares to follow Jesus, who daily turns to Jesus to seek the death of their old selves and the creation of their new selves, who live in what we Lutherans call “daily repentance and renewal” can expect that even members of our own families will turn against us

Or that, at any rate, they won’t understand us

Likely, everyone here has taken shots for following Jesus from someone in their family: siblings, cousins, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren. Or, they have experienced not being understood. I know that I have. It’s just part of following Jesus.

At this point in our lesson, Jesus addresses the end of this world when He will return to judge the living and the dead in light of how we address the crisis--the judgment points--we face every day. “He said to the crowd: ‘When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, “It’s going to rain,” and it does. And when the south wind blows, you say, “It’s going to be hot,” and it is. Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?'”

Where Jesus lived in the first century AD, if people saw clouds in the west, they knew that rain was coming in from the Mediterranean and if they felt hot winds coming from the Negev to the south, they knew were in for a heatwave. People knew how to read those meteorological signs. 

But here is Jesus, God the Son, standing right in front of these people, His identity as God and Savior repeatedly confirmed by miracles, signs, and wonders, by His words, by His compassion, by His sinlessness, yet they ignore all these signs

They don’t see that they need to turn to Jesus now and believe in Him. 

It’s as though they’re holding out for more proof, which will soon come in His death and resurrection, though most of the crowds who thronged to Jesus during His life on earth would never believe in Him even after He rose from the dead. 

It’s as though too, the crowd is waiting for a better offer. “Maybe,” they seem to think, “we can follow Jesus, but from a distance, getting just enough of Him to get the blessings He offers, but not close enough to actually have to give up the old sins we love so much, not close enough to actually hear Him call us to a life of love of God and love of neighbor, of worship and prayer, of witness to others for Jesus. Maybe we can have Jesus without being changed by Him, without being His disciple.” 

Folks, it doesn’t work like that. As you’ve heard me say before (and as I need to be constantly reminded myself): We will either have all of Jesus or we will have none of Jesus at all.

I’m guessing that the hesitation of the crowd surrounding Jesus that day is no different from the hesitation felt by most people in most churches in North America. They don’t perceive the crisis of each moment, the need to turn to Jesus for life and forgiveness right now in every right now of life because life in this world can end in the blink of an eye and then there will be no more opportunity to turn to Jesus and live. 

It’s because of this hesitation in the churches of the US, Canada, and Europe that, 
Today, there are nearly as many Lutherans in Ethiopia as there are in the U.S. There are now more Baptists in Nagaland (an eastern state in India) than there are in [all of] the southern states of the U.S. There [are] more Christians worshipping in China [on this] Sunday than there [are doing so] here in the U.S. or in all of Europe! 
Christians in America have largely lost their sense of urgency about being and making disciples--about turning to Jesus and inviting others, despite the possibility of rejection, to turn to Jesus too

We have forgotten the moment to moment crisis that is the permanent state of being in this fallen world.

But Jesus’ call is still urgent, folks. He says: “The time has come...The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” 

There isn’t a better moment to follow Jesus than right now, in this moment in which God allows you to live on this earth

There isn’t a better moment to share Jesus with others than right now on this earth

Because Jesus saves us by grace through faith in Christ alone, may this always be our prayer: 
Jesus, what do you want me to do or say, who do you want me to listen to, pray for, or serve right now?
And then may we do what He calls us to. 

We don’t have to wait for a perfect time to live in the freedom Jesus gives to His disciples.

In the crisis moments--the decision points--of each day, may we always turn to Jesus. Amen

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

Sunday, August 11, 2019

How Worry is Overcome

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

Luke 12:22-34
Everyone knows what it is to worry. 

Some of our worries are entirely understandable. 

For example, there likely isn’t a parent or grandparent here or anywhere else in America who don’t worry as they consider their children or grandchildren heading off for another school year. 

There isn’t a parent, spouse, or child of an addicted loved one who doesn’t worry over whether the loved one will ever go into recovery or if this is the day they’ll get the dreaded telephone call telling them that the loved one has died. 

Some of our worries are understandable then. They are what I would call legitimate worries, worries that can be productive if they lead to prayer or to actions rooted in the wisdom and compassion God will give to people who stop whining, refrain from bellowing about their ideas, and instead listen to God’s “still, small voice” and the counsel of others who strive to walk with Jesus.

We see that God’s New Testament saints worried about some things. 

The apostle Paul spoke of the daily “pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28). 

The New Testament book of Philippians tells us that Paul’s protege, Timothy, concerned for the welfare of the Christians in first-century Phillippi. 

These are legitimate worries, both addressed to God in prayer in Jesus’ name and both followed by Holy Spirit-led action.

But most worry isn’t legitimate. It’s just faithless. 

There are some people though, who keep worry as a hobby. I knew a farmer. Despite being in worship every single week, where he confessed his faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ, he kept worrying. His wife told me that he often stayed up all night, not to pray over his concerns, giving them to God, seeking God’s help, but just to sit and worry. Once, at about two in the morning, she heard him rustling around in the living room and went to see what was wrong. “I just can’t stop worrying about the federal budget deficit,” he said. “Henry,” she told him, “come to bed.” But Henry stayed in his living room, fellowshipping not with God, but with his worries.

Now, to most of us, it’s probably obvious how illegitimate a topic for worry something like the federal budget deficit is. It is a problem, a much bigger one today than it was when Henry was padding around his house anxiously thirty-some years ago. 

But worrying won’t change it. 

Nor will worry change much of anything we face in life, individually or collectively. 

Unless we pray and act in the powerful name of Jesus, God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, nothing good will ever overcome the things that worry us

“You do not have because you do not ask God,” James 4:2 tells us. If we asked God for help with our concerns rather than worrying about them, we'd be a lot better off.

And Jesus tells we who believe in Him: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Worry is all about trying to do or solve things ourselves rather than seeking help from the One without Whom we can do nothing.

In today’s gospel lesson, Luke 12:22-34, Jesus addresses a specific kind of illegitimate worry, worrying that is unjustified, worrying rooted in our sinfulness, worrying that never thinks to pray or act on God’s guidance. Let’s take a look at the lesson now.

“Then Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!’”

There’s something I want you to notice right away in these words: In them, we encounter both God’s Law and God’s grace or word of promise.

The law from God is this: Don’t worry about whether you’re going to have enough money, food, or clothing

There are people who lack these fundamentals, of course, mostly because of the selfishness of others who have them. And that sorry reality is an issue of justice and compassion, something God also addresses when He tells us that we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. And in another place, God’s Word tells us, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) 

But worry won’t bring in more money (which we may or may not need), more food (which we may or may not need), or clothing ( get the idea)

God knows just what we need of these things. That’s why He teaches us to pray for “our daily bread.” 

To worry that God won’t come through is faithless, sinful. Worry unrepented and worry not given up to God is a sin. Worry is the opposite of faith. Worry says God isn’t God.

The gospel or the promise in Jesus’ words at the beginning of our lesson is this: God is intent on taking care of us as long as we draw breath in this world. “And how much more valuable you are than birds” of whom God takes care, Jesus says. 

This is why in his explanation of the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer--”give us this day our daily bread”--Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism: “God indeed gives daily bread to all, even unbelievers, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that he would help us recognize this so that we would receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.” 

And if you’re ever tempted, as we all are sometimes, to doubt God’s promise to always be with us and always take care of us, just consider Jesus on the cross, where God bore the weight of our sin and died to bring life to all who believe in Jesus and to open up eternity with God to us. 

As Paul reminds us in Romans, no matter what it is in this world that causes us to worry or tries to rob us of our hope in life with God, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39). Nothing!

Jesus goes on pointedly: “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?” 

Worry that doesn’t prompt prayer and/or holy action is worthless. It solves nothing. 

But Jesus says that it’s worthless also in that it won’t add a single hour to our lives

Just Google “medical research on worry and mortality” as I did the other day and you’ll see that medical science agrees that worry cannot add a moment to our lives.  

But as we submit our worries to Jesus, He gives us His life and His wisdom. Medical research at a host of institutions confirms that people of faith who pray generally live longer and stay healthier than others. They also have an eternity with Jesus to look forward to as well.

On Friday, Bishop John gathered the thirty-two district deans of the NALC for one last meeting with him. Pastor Dan Powell, who has been the convener of the deans, asked us to talk about our joys. 

One colleague, Pastor David McGettigan, who is being treated for cancer, reported that he had good news and bad news about his health. The bad news is that he’s evidencing side effects that are usually associated with cancer patients much further along in their treatment regimen. The good news is that his body has shown far more improvement in overcoming his cancer than would normally be expected at this point in the treatment process. In other words, he told us, “I’m feeling worse and doing better.” His prognosis is much better than his oncologist thought it could be. 

The oncologist said, “I can’t explain it.” David told the doctor, “I can.” Pastor McGettigan knows that prayer and action in Jesus’ name always trump worry. And while we all will die, the promise of eternal life with God given to us by Jesus will add life to our years, while worry takes life away.

Toward the end of our lesson, Jesus says to His Church: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

All of us were moved, I think, by the witness of Tim and Rita Schubach in the video we saw during worship on the Commitment Sunday for our Reach Forward ministry expansion initiative. 

Until the day we saw Tim’s and Rita’s remarks, Ann and I were sure that we would be unable to give anything more to the church than our offerings for the general fund. I had explained to our Reach Forward Team why that was so. 

Then we saw Tim and Rita make the point that whatever we have isn’t ours anyway; it comes from God and it belongs to God. In the middle of the service, Ann and I conferred and God has made it possible for us to participate in Reach Forward on top of our general fund offerings. 

I don’t tell that story to make it seem like Ann and I are wonderful. We’re saints and sinners just like everyone else who is being saved by grace through faith in Jesus the Christ. But Tim and Rita  reminded us of the truth of Jesus’ words to us today: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When you know that you belong to Jesus, you need not worry about the material things of this world. Many people do worry about them, especially, it seems, those who have lots of material things and stew about keeping them. But you and I are called to trust that the One Who makes every material blessing will supply us with what we need and will empower us, as His people, to pray and act in Jesus’ name

You and I are surrounded by people who crave more of this dead world’s stuff without knowing that the only thing they really need is Jesus. 

Let’s be subversives for Jesus. Let’s show them by our praying, acting, living, speaking, and even our dying that, when they have Jesus as their Lord and King, there’s no need to worry about whether they’ll have enough

Jesus is enough

Jesus is all we need

Now may God help all of us, including me, to trust that truth with our whole lives. Amen

Monday, August 05, 2019

Trusting God in the In-Between Times

[This was shared yesterday afternoon as Pastor Tom Brodbeck was installed as senior pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield, Ohio.]

Hebrews 11:32-12:2a
We live in an in-between time. For Christians, this is the time between Jesus’ ascension in the past and His return at an unknown point in the future. Life for disciples of Jesus is always a time of waiting and watching...and sometimes, of impatience.

The preacher of Hebrews, from which our second Bible lesson comes this afternoon, was addressing a group of people who felt the burden of life in that in-between time. 

They were Jews--Hebrews--who had come to faith in Jesus. 

By faith, they trusted that Jesus is the Savior Who frees from sin, death, and futility all who trust in Him. 

By faith, they were certain too, that one day, Jesus would return and make all things in this fallen world right, judging the living and the dead and raising up all who persevere in turning away from sin and death and turning to Him for life.

These Jewish Christians also likely knew about the things that Jesus said would precede His return and likely thought something like, “Earthquakes. Check. Famines. Check. Wars and rumors of wars. Check” and asked, “What’s taking Jesus so long? Why is He making us live in this in-between time?” After the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton in the past twenty-four hours, we may be wondering the same thing: “What’s taking Jesus so long?”

It was to Christians with questions like these that the apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Disciples of Jesus living in the time before Jesus’ return aren’t meant to obsess over God’s timeline. We’re meant to fulfill Christ’s calling on our lives, on the life of the Church. We’re to be and to make disciples. God means for that to be our singular obsession!

But, we can get impatient watching and waiting for Jesus to return. And our impatience will likely grow if we get pressured by others to turn from Christ. Many scholars believe that the Jewish Christians to whom the book of Hebrews is addressed were facing pressure from the Roman Empire to renounce Christ and return to Judaism. The Romans viewed the Christian proclamation of Jesus as the Lord and the Son of God as a threat to the emperor who they also called “Lord” and the “Son of God.” 

The preacher in Hebrews encourages the Jewish Christians to stand fast, to cling to Christ and not be intimidated by the Romans. The Romans could take away their lives on earth; but only Christ could give them life with God that never ends, making Roman threats irrelevant. “So do not throw away your confidence,” the preacher says in Hebrews 10:35, referring to faith in Christ. “it will be richly rewarded.” These words echo those of Jesus Himself, in Matthew 24:13: “...the one who endures [in faith] to the end will be saved.”

To encourage the Jewish Christians he was addressing, the preacher asks them to remember all those who, starting in Old Testament times, had persevered in trusting in the God Who promised the world a Savior centuries before that Savior appeared in Bethlehem. 

He mentions leaders like David and Samuel who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised [by God]; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” 

He mentions a long train of nameless Old Testament and intertestmental saints who experienced persecution, flogging, stoning, chains and imprisonment, and death, who endured poverty, disdain, and hardship. 

He mentions those who, for their faith in the God Who would later send Jesus, were forced into hiding, forced to scavenge and live off the land. 

The preacher says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised [they didn’t receive what you and I too often take for granted: Jesus and life in His name], since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” 

Think of it: Only together with us, believers in Jesus who live in this time between Jesus’ ascension and return to the world, would those old believers be made whole, complete, through what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, enduring the tests and temptations of this life sinlessly, so that He can give all who believe in Him everlasting life with God

Those of us who live in this in-between time should never be discouraged: Can there be any doubt after Jesus’ death and resurrection that following Him is the way to life, even life beyond the grave?

After recounting all those believers who endured in faith in anticipation of the Savior Jesus, the preacher says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [all those believers before Christ, watching us today in the arena of this in-between world], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

People of Grace Lutheran Church, you have called Pastor Tom Brodbeck to be your senior pastor. In that role, God will daily call him to remind you, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to throw off every distraction and sin that might keep you from following Jesus, to persevere in running the race of faith in Jesus Christ in this time, and to fix your eyes on Jesus without impatience or fear. You could not have chosen a better senior pastor to serve and lead you. In fact, God chose him and, through prayer, you discerned and issued God’s call to Pastor Brodbeck. Kudos to you for listening to God!

Knowing him as I do, I know that Pastor Brodbeck will, like the preacher in Hebrews, encourage you to keep trusting in Jesus, because it’s not only through faith in Jesus Christ alone that we are saved, it’s also through faith in Jesus Christ alone that we persevere or even want to persevere as His people called to be obsessed with being and making disciples in this in-between time.

Just as today I charge my cherished colleagye Tom to take up the baton passed onto him by my equally cherished colleague Dan Powell and run the race Christ sets before him with perseverance, I also charge you, people of Grace Lutheran Church, to run that same race of faith and to encourage your leader along the way. 

This is a congregation with a rich heritage. A cloud of witnesses who have been part of this church’s life and history are, along with the God we know in Jesus Christ, looking on today as you begin another leg of your race of faith. Know that there is nowhere you may go as a congregation, that, if you live in fellowship with Christ and with each other as people and pastor, Christ hasn’t already been. The “pioneer and perfecter of [our] faith,” as the preacher calls Jesus, is already blazing the trail for those who faithfully follow Him here at Grace Lutheran Church!

None of us knows when Jesus will return to close the curtain on this in-between time and bring His kingdom to final, eternal perfection. But I am sure of this:
If together, people of Grace Lutheran Church and Pastor Tom Brodbeck, you keep following Jesus in this point in history, Jesus will take you exactly where He wants you to be. You can believe that! Amen! 

[Pictured above are Pastor Bruce Kramer, Pastor Tom Brodbeck, and me, after yesterday's Service of Installation. It was a celebratory event.]

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