Thursday, December 03, 2020

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Father to the Fallen

Here, friends, is online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, for November 29, 2020. Below the video, you can find the written text for this Sunday's sermon. Have a good week: Stay safe and know that God loves you!

Isaiah 64:1-9
A seminary professor tells the story of the day he went to Toys R Us with his young son, Christopher, and becoming separated from the boy. When the prof finally realized that the boy wasn’t with him, he panicked. He ran up and down aisle after aisle, but couldn’t find Christopher. Finally, he found a guard, explained his situation, and asked if the store had surveillance cameras. If they did, could they scan each aisle? “Yes,” the guard answered.

Soon, the guard took the father to a bank of video monitors. The guard panned over every aisle of the store. Eventually, they spotted Christopher, on the floor, surrounded by new toys but crying his lungs out, certain that he would never see his father or his family again. The guard let Christopher’s dad get on the intercom while keeping the camera trained on the boy. “Christopher. Stay where you are. It’s Daddy. Don’t move...I’m coming.”

Considering young Christopher’s experience at the Toys R Us is a good way for you and me to think about the season of Advent that begins today and specifically, about our first lesson for this morning, Isaiah 64:1-9.

Advent, like Lent, is a time for repentance and self-examination, a time not just to prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, but also to remind us to daily prepare for His return at the end of this world.

When Jesus returns, He will judge all people.

Those who have, with repentance and faith, turned to Him for forgiveness and life, will be raised to live with Him for eternity.

Those who have gone their own ways will go to an eternity of wrath and separation from God.

Advent, like Lent, begins with despair over our human condition, over how we wander from God, how we need to return to the God revealed in Jesus so that, through faith in Jesus, we can be covered in God’s forgiveness and Jesus’ righteousness.

Young Christopher was lost to his father when he became more taken with the colors, movements, noise, and excitement of the toys around him than he was with following his dad. Fortunately, he had a father who wasn’t willing to give up on looking for his lost child.

You and I all have a Father like that--only infinitely and eternally better--ourselves.

Isaiah, from whose book our first lesson for today comes, was one of God’s greatest Old Testament prophets. He lived from about 741 to 680 BC, in Judah, the southern kingdom, that had been parceled from ancient Israel soon after the death of Israel’s third king, Solomon.

Judah’s religious and civic life was centered on Jerusalem, where God dwelt in the temple. Because of this, it seemed, the people of Judah lived with a sense of superiority and entitlement.

But, like Christopher, they also wandered from their Father, God: going through the motions in their worship life, sinning unrepentantly, worshiping false gods, engaging in injustice or indifference to orphans, widows, and immigrants and strangers who sought refuge among them, embracing sexual immorality and economic exploitation.

Isaiah, like the other prophets God sent to His people, tried to tell Judah that God was not pleased with their unfaithfulness and that they needed to repent and return to God. If they didn’t, God would take their land from them and God would send them into exile to become servants in foreign lands.

But the people didn’t listen.

Today’s first lesson comes at a point in Judah’s history when the prophecies of Isaiah and other prophets had come to pass. The people of Judah had lost their land and were in exile, in despair. They hoped that God would find, forgive them, and restore them.

The words God gives to Isaiah show us that God is out to save and reverse the fortunes of much more than a single ancient nation. To Judah in its despair (and to us, in ours), God gives a message that is for all who have wandered from God.

Look at Isaiah’s words for today. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies, and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” (Isaiah 64:1-5a)

Here, through Isaiah, a people repentant for their sin, aware of their need of God for forgiveness and life, ask God to come to them, the way He had to their ancestors at Mount Sinai.

There, you’ll remember, as the mountain and the people trembled in fear, God made His covenant with them to be their God, though they didn’t deserve His love or favor--any more than we do--and also gave them His Law.

“Tear open the heavens again, Lord,” the people of Isaiah’s day pray, “and come to us.” “Find us, Lord!” they beg. “Come to help us!”

It’s as if the people are waking up from a long bewitchment of earth-bound, sin-imprisoned thinking and living.

They now understand how they had, by their sin, built up a wall between God and themselves. They remember that God loves them and that they need His love. And so, they pray for forgiveness.

But the people also wonder if God can ever love or forgive them again:  “But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins.” (Isaiah 64:5b-7)

Here is an honest statement of fact for both the people of captive Judah and for you and me: Despite our pride and self-righteousness, our certainty of our goodness, our inborn desire to be our own gods, our indifference to God, and our indifference to the needs of the spiritually-disconnected, the hungry, the poor, the victims of injustice, we know that we are sinners in need of the forgiveness God offers to those who repent and trust in the One Who had torn open the heavens and come to us, died for us and risen for us: Jesus.

It was to this honesty, that God responded and came to His people to forgive and restore them.

And it is this kind of honest confession of our sin and our need of the God we know in Jesus that God will respond today.

Knowing how God forgives and restores those who respond to His call for them is what lay behind the words at the end of our lesson from Isaiah today: “Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be angry beyond measure, Lord; do not remember our sins forever. Oh, look on us, we pray, for we are all your people.” (Isaiah 64:8-9)

We will best keep Advent, best keep our lives on Earth, and best prepare for Christmas if we too, recognize God as our loving Father, who wants, by His grace, to restore to us what it means to be a human being: a child of God set free by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus to live in love for God and love for others.

When, after waiting for his father to find him, you can bet that young Christopher ran into his father’s arms.

This Advent season, may we run to God the Father, Who we know well in Jesus, again and again, and experience the joy of being in His strong, gracious arms.

Then, focused on our Lord, unlike children chasing after the temporary pleasures of this world, we can live in the freedom to be about living as human beings made in God’s image live: honoring God, loving our neighbor, making disciples, and seeking justice and the good of others more than for ourselves. Amen

Friday, November 27, 2020

The Biblical Background of 'The Augsburg Confession,' Part 9

Faith and Good Works

 The Bible teaches that we are justified, counted guiltless of both of our inborn sin and the sins we commit because of that inborn condition, by God's charity (His grace) through our faith in Jesus Christ alone. So what do our good works--things like active love of God and active love of neighbor--have to do with our justification?
Nothing and everything.

They have nothing to do with our justification because, first of all, no good work we might do can warrant God's "not guilty" verdict over our sinful lives. Even the good we do in this life will be tinged by sinful self-interest. Good works containing any sin couldn't possibly save us.

They also have nothing to do with our justification because, until we physically die to this world and are raised eternally, our inborn sin nature will continue, despite our true repentance, to impel us, against our wills, to sin.

But good works that live out love of God and love of neighbor, works that we would not even consider doing apart from the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ to those who believe, living in us, also have everything to do with God graciously justifying those who believe in Jesus Christ.

Good works done by the believer in Christ are sure evidence of a person who hs been justified before God through their faith in Christ. "If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17)

Christians are made new through the justifying grace of God covering them with the righteousness of Jesus through the means of grace: The Word and the Sacraments, through which the Holy Spirit creates and sustains saving faith within us.

The one who has faith in Jesus Christ is set free to do truly good works, that is, good works that live out love of God and love of neighbor. The justified person will, without second-thought (Matthew 25:31-46), be impelled by the Holy Spirit to do those things that sinful humanity, left to our own devices, would never do.
Paul writes: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." (Galatians 5:22-24) Our good works cannot justify us. But all who believe in Christ are saved and through that justifying faith, the Holy Spirit does good works through us.

This is why Paul goes on to say in Galatians 5:24: "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." In other words, whatever good the Holy Spirit is calling us to do, however contrary to our inborn desires or impulses, let us heed that call.

The connection between faith and good works and the fact that faith precedes good works, that faith justifies and not our works is underscored in Ephesians 2:8-10: "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."

John puts it even more succinctly: "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

Our good works, love in action, cannot justify us. Only Christ does that. To say otherwise, pours contempt on Christ and His cross. But our good works, love of God and love of neighbor acted out in even the smallest of ways, demonstrates that we are justified, declared and actually made innocent of our sin by God's grace given to all who have faith in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

The Biblical Background of 'The Augsburg Confession,' Part 8

Willing to be "scum of the earth, the refuse of the world"?

[This is the logo of a congregation in Denver, Scum of the Earth Church. The inspiration for its name comes from the New Testament.]
During my morning quiet time with God today, I was struck by these words: "...we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world." (1 Corinthians 4:13)

Paul writes these words to the churches in Corinth in first-century Greece. Many Christians there had become "partisans" of their favorite preacher, some of Paul, who had been with them earlier, and others of Apollos, who had come along later. They would say things like, "I follow Paul" and "I follow Apollos."

Paul upbraids the Christians there for this. "What, after all, is Apollos," he asks. "And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe..." in Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:5)

If we make ourselves partisans of this person or that person, this party or that one, this philosophy or that one, we're following the same foolish pathway that causes problems in the world: The tendency to make mortal, dying, impermanent, and sin-filled people or philosophies our gods, the grounds of our being. Human beings, human aspirations, human values, human philosophies: None of them can save us from ourselves, our sin, our death, no matter how much wisdom the world may attach to some people, philosophies, or ways of life.

The world may consider it foolish to follow Jesus. But what we see in the crucified and risen Jesus is that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) Jesus, true God and true, sinless human being, rescues us from sin and death. He shares our condemnation, though He doesn't deserve it, so that, through faith in Him, we can share in His vindication--His resurrection life with God the Father--though we don't deserve that.

And what does He save us from?

Jesus saves us from the foolishness that says we can overcome our sin and all the death and destruction it brings to the world by following mere human beings, human thoughts, human emotions, human philosophies, however exemplary they may seem to be.

Paul said that he and all his Christian sisters and brothers who shared Jesus with the world understood the score. They would never be popular. They would never be seen as wise or with it to a world on the make. It's not always a popular message to be told that we can't make it on our own, that we need a Savior. Millions have been killed for believing in and sharing that message. There are tens of thousands of Christians in places outside of America that are being persecuted, jailed, tortured, and bombed for believing in and sharing that message.

But Paul said that he and his apostolic companions were willing to be "the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world" for the surpassing, eternal privilege of being part of God's eternal kingdom solely through God's grace granted to all who believe in Jesus.

He said they were willing to accept the world's estimation of them as scum and refuse for an additional privilege: being able to share with others the good news--the gospel--of new and everlasting life for all who turn from sin and the worship of the world's dead and dying things and turn instead to Jesus for forgiveness, peace with God, and everlasting life with God.

Father, grant that today, I won't give a fig about the world's estimation of me. Make me willing to be regarded as scum and refuse by the world because I know that in Jesus Christ, by Your charitable grace, I belong to You now and always. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Biblical Background of 'The Augsburg Confession,' Part 5

Update on construction of our congregation's Mission Outreach Center

Late this afternoon, I was able to go to the construction site of our congregation's building addition, the new Mission Outreach Center. The congregation is committed to the mission statement Jesus gives us in Matthew 28:19-20, being and making disciples. 

Please keep Living Water Lutheran Church in your prayers, asking God to give us continued commitment to and passion for our mission, that the construction workers will be safe throughout the project, that God will prevent any unexpected added expenses, and that the project will be finished on time. Thanks! 

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Biblical Background of 'The Augsburg Confession,' Part 2

This study deals with the first article of The Augsburg Confession, which is about God and His nature.

Introduction to Our Study of the Augsburg Confession

Things were a bit crazy last night as we began our Facebook Live study of the Biblical background of the Augsburg Confession: funky video, only "broadcasting" to myself (something discovered later), and so on. But, here it is, warts and all.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Update on Mission Outreach Center Construction

Here's today's windy update on construction of Living Water Lutheran Church's mission outreach center.

Today's Baptism

We're unable to do in-person worship at Living Water Lutheran Church right now. But today, eight people gathered for the Baptism of one of our young ones. It was a joy!

Children of the Day: Jesus is Coming!

Below is the video of today's online worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Then, there's the complete text of today's message, taken from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11. Have a good week. God bless you!

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
The wonderful Australian children’s book,
Big Rain Coming by Katrina Germein, is set somewhere in the Outback where there’s been day after day of dry, dusty weather. One Sunday, Old Stephen, a wise Aborigine in a work shirt, jeans, and a broad-brimmed hat, points to distant clouds and says, “Big rain coming.”

But over the succeeding days, no rain comes. On Tuesday, it's so hot and dry that dogs dig holes in which they keep themselves cool. By Thursday, the frogs are so desperate for water they wait for some to drop onto their tongues beneath the rainwater tank. By Friday, clouds, black and thick are pressing in from the South. The skies echo with the sounds of thunder. But, there was no rain. Yet Old Stephen once more confidently says, “Big rain coming.” Finally, on Saturday, Germain tells us, rain comes: “Wonderful, cool, wet rain.”

Big Rain Coming is all about waiting for something that you know is going to happen, though you don’t know exactly when, and about the euphoria you inevitably feel when it happens just as you knew it would. Though there were hot and dusty days and nights to be endured, the people in Germein’s fictional Outback village knew that as soon as Old Stephen pronounced, “Big rain coming,” a refreshing deluge was on its way. They simply had to wait and trust.

Our second Bible lesson for today, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11, comes from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Christian churches gathered in people’s homes in and around the Greek port city of Thessalonica. It follows right after the second lesson from last Sunday. Both of the passages deal with the Day of the Lord, the day that God’s people had known about since Old Testament times, when the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed King, Who we now know is Jesus, will return to the earth, judge the living and the dead, and fully establish His eternal kingdom for all who repent and believe in Him. In last week’s lesson, Paul reassured the Thessalonian Christians that family and friends who died believing in Christ would, along with those believers still living, be brought into eternity with Jesus. In today’s lesson, Paul’s focus shifts.

Let’s look at what Paul says. “Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:1-3)

Paul, using words and imagery used by Jesus Himself to describe the day when Jesus will return, tells the Thessalonians, “Look, you know that the Lord said that none of us need to know exactly when He will be returning.” For Christians, it’s enough to know that Jesus is coming. For a world going on about its business, heedless or unaware of Jesus, God in the flesh, Who offered His sinless life in sacrifice for all human sin and was  raised by God the Father to open eternity to all who repent and believe in Jesus, His return will come “like a thief in the night.” Paul says that people in the unbelieving world will be telling each other, “Peace and safety,” a favorite Roman political slogan like Joe Biden’s Build Back Better or Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again. The unbelieving world, in other words, will be so focused on getting along and getting ahead in this world, that their destruction, God’s judgment for failing to take refuge in Him through faith in Jesus Christ, will come on them suddenly. 

But for the believer in Christ, the prospect of Jesus returning holds out only joy, eternal joy. Paul writes: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness [today, Paul might say that disciples of Jesus aren’t ‘in the dark’] so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night.” (1 Thessalonians 5:4-7)

According to the imagery Paul uses here, unbelievers are children of the dark. In the dark, guards who should be on the lookout, nod off. In the night, some get drunk, as was true of the followers of the favorite idol of the surrounding Thessalonian culture, Dionysius, the deity of wine and loose living.

But Christians, Paul says, are people of the light, people who see God and life and the world clearly. As surely as Old Stephen saw that a big rain was coming, bringing refreshment and renewal, disciples of Jesus see that Jesus is coming back to this world to bring His perfect, everlasting Kingdom to all who have waited with hope and faith in Him alone.

As people who live in the light of Jesus then, how are we to live? Does God give us a bunch of do’s and don’t’s? No. Waiting for Jesus, Christian faith, isn’t about putting ourselves on a program of moral improvement, as though we could will ourselves to be better people worthy of Jesus and His kingdom. As Paul reminds us elsewhere: “... it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) And Jesus tells us more simply, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29)

So, Paul explains how we’re to prepare for Jesus’ return and the final judgment of the world: “...since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” (1 Thessalonians 5:8-10)

We’re to “put on,” that is, receive and live in the faith with which only God can cover us. We’re to put on the self-giving, self-emptying love with which only the God we know in the crucified Jesus can supply us. We’re to receive and wear day to day, the salvation from sin and death that only Jesus can give us. Faith, hope, and love aren’t things we can manufacture. We receive them from Jesus Christ alone through simple means. First, through God’s Word, as we read it or hear it. And second, through the Sacraments, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, through which Jesus comes to us to, in the first instance, claim us for God, and in the second, to sustain us in our faith, and in both, to cover us in the forgiveness for sin and new life Jesus died and rose to bring to all who believe in Him. We receive them and, like those who heard Old Stephen’s prophecy of a big rain coming, we wait and trust.

Friends, Jesus is coming! That is good news. Keep living in His light. Turn from sin and turn to Him. He will cover you with faith, hope, and love and you, children of the light, will be ready for that day when He returns and you see your Lord face to face. Amen

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Biggest Dare

When I have my morning quiet time with God, after I've confessed my sins and lifted up my prayer requests in Jesus' name, I add a prayer petition along the lines of, "Father, as I read Your Word today, show me the truth You want me to see and live out of today."

Then I read the appointed Bible verses, usually about four chapters each day, from whatever annual program for Bible-reading I happen to be using that year.

I've read the New Testament book of Acts many times since coming to faith in Christ forty-plus years ago. I've also taught and preached on it.

But I noticed a passage in Acts today that I can honestly say I don't remember ever noticing before. It so struck me that, as I sat reading it today, I said out loud, "How have I never seen that verse?"

The verse is Acts 5:13: "No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people."

Context is everything when considering passages of Scripture, of course. The context here is Luke's account of the early growth of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension back to heaven and after God's Holy Spirit was given to the Church at Pentecost. (Acts was written by a man named Luke, who also wrote one of the four gospels in the New Testament.)

In Acts 4, we read how the Church encountered opposition from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, but kept growing anyway, how, to give people a sign of Jesus' identity as God and Messiah, the Church was enabled to perform miracles in Jesus' name, and how, though not coerced to do so, some of its wealthy members sold property to see that the poorer of their fellowship had all that they needed.

At the beginning of chapter 5, Luke tells about a couple, members of the early Church--Ananias and Sapphira--who had sold a piece of their property. They told the rest of the Church they were giving ALL the proceeds from the sale to care for poorer Church members. But it's learned that in fact, they'd withheld some of the proceeds from the sale for themselves.

Now, Luke makes clear that (1) Ananias and Sapphira had been under no obligation to give anything to the Church and that (2) even after they sold the property, they were free to give just a portion of the proceeds to the Church.

But the couple wanted to be celebrated for their generosity. So, they lied. In very public ways, they stuck to their lie, died, and were unceremoniously buried. Acts 5:11 says: "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." I bet! The message was clear: Do what you want to do with your property and money but don't try lying to God about it.

The signs and wonders God performed through His Church continued and the first Christians, at least 5000 of them, all Jews at this point, met regularly at a place called Solomon's Colonnade (or Solomon's Porch), part of the temple complex.

Then, verse 13, that verse I never noticed before, crops up: "No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people."

It's a strange verse. Jesus, after all, gave (and still gives) God the Holy Spirit to baptized believers in Him. He does this to help Christians trust in Him and to help them as they share the good news of new and everlasting life through repentance and faith in Jesus with others. The early Christians were, we're told "highly regarded by the people."

But here we see the Church, reaching out to others, telling others about Jesus, and performing signs in Jesus' name. Yet, at this point, "no one else dared join them."

What is up with that?

I think there are several reasons.

First, back in Acts 4, Peter and John, two of Jesus' earliest followers, were pulled in for questioning by the religious authorities, then jailed overnight, threatened, and told never again to speak in Jesus' name again. Up to that point, the early Church had enjoyed official tolerance and public favor. After that though, it became more dangerous to confess faith in Jesus. It would be daunting, unless you had a loved one or friend in dire need of the healing Christians were performing in Jesus' name, when desperation, the sense that you had nothing to lose, would trump fear, to "join" the believers in worshiping Jesus.

A second reason is likely the report about Ananias and Sapphira. Their death for lying to God (Peter says they lied to God in Acts 5:4 and more specifically, to God the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:9), was as sure a sign of the Lordship of Jesus (God the Son) as the healings being done in His name. Through Jesus, people were hearing that God shared His righteousness with all who dare to turn from sin and trust their lives to Christ, saving believers in Christ from death and condemnation. But now they saw affirmed a truth that Randy Stonehill wrote about God three decades ago: "He understands the human heart / His mercy is complete / But His grace was not intended as a place to wipe your feet."

The God we know in Jesus Christ saves us by grace through faith in Jesus. When we come to Him through Jesus, He sets us free to do and be all that we can do and be. He stamps us with His gracious approval as His child.

But He is God, sovereign. He's not to be toyed with or taken for granted.

I think that people were wary of worshiping with the first Christians at Solomon's Colonnade at that moment in the narrative of Acts because they realized that the God the Christians were worshiping was more than a distant deity, more than a religious icon, or a cosmic rabbit's foot, or a genie delivering up their heart's desire. He is God: holy, absolute, righteous. 

They wanted blessings that, at best, would end at the grave; He was offering eternity. 

They wanted a God they could keep at arm's length; He insisted on getting in their grills and living inside them.

Acts 5:13 reminded me today, God isn't playing. If we want the life He's offering, He will give us Himself without stinting. He will be with us always and He will give us eternity.

But if we're not interested in daily surrendering to Him, having our priorities scrambled, submitting to daily change, being exposed to the constant possibility of rejection by a sin-driven world, or giving up on our favorite sins, we too might choose not to come too close to Jesus.

Drawing close to the God revealed in Jesus Christ can be very dangerous to our egos and our desire to control our own lives. I pray to God that I'll draw close to Him today and every day nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Weeknight Bible Study of Hebrews, Chapter 12:18-29

Luther Born This Day in 1483...and what it means to me

Martin Luther was born on this date in 1483.

Two years ago, I sat in the the monastery chapel at Erfurt where Luther, already a monk, and a person racked by insecurities about God and his salvation, was ordained as a priest. The incident is well-known. Luther was so overpowered by the sense of God's holiness and perfection in contrast to his own sin and imperfection that he nearly spilled Christ's blood at the altar.

Sitting there in the gathering darkness of the setting sun, as I remembered the journey to a true faith in Christ and His grace for sinners like Luther (and me and you) that began shortly after Luther's ordination. Luther was directed to become a theologian, a scholar of Scripture. It was while studying God's Word that he came to realize that God is gracious and merciful. God remembers that we are dust, as the Scriptures say, that we can never make ourselves good enough or righteous enough to warrant a place in God's everlasting kingdom. And so, because of His love for all of us, God the Father sent God the Son, Jesus, to offer His sinless life on a cross, taking the punishment for sin that we deserve. Then, the Father raised Jesus to life again.

In Jesus Christ, God has done everything necessary for sinners like me to be forgiven, reconciled to God, and, when the gift of faith in Christ takes root in me, able to believe in Jesus as "the way, the truth, and the life," the One through Whom even I can be covered with Jesus' righteousness. We are only saved from sin, death, and condemnation by the grace of God given to those who believe in Jesus Christ. And even faith in Christ itself is God's gift to us.

As I sat in that monastery two years ago. Luther's journey of faith in Christ had, in a very real sense, made my journey of faith possible. As a young man, I had been an atheist. I had no use for Christians or Church.

But in a Lutheran Christian congregation in Columbus, the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus truly reached me for the first time. Through the Word and the Sacraments I experienced there, the Holy Spirit wooed me to faith in Jesus.

Luther, the once-insecure monk and priest, had by the insight into God's Word gave to Him, unleashed Christ's good news (his Gospel) onto the world and, more than four-hundred years later, that Good News reached me.

And so today, I do more than bless the memory of Martin Luther. I thank God for him.

Without his faithful witness for Christ and the Reformation it unleashed, I might not today be reconciled to God, certain of my place in His kingdom, and wanting nothing more than for all my family and friends to know and trust in God the Son, Jesus, too.

[The sanctuary of the Erfurt monastery where Martin Luther was ordained.]

Monday, November 09, 2020

Weeknight Bible Study of Hebrews, Chapter 12:1-17

The Only Hope

Here's both the video of yesterday's online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church and the full transcript of the message, The Only Hope. God bless you this week with faith in Jesus.

A Christian acquaintance recounted a conversation he had online with an African friend this past week. The African friend, a devoted follower of Jesus, said, “I feel so sorry for the Church in America. I’m praying for your country.” To be clear, the African Christian was not going to pray because of some imagined persecution against American Christians. Instead, I think, she feels sorrow for the Church in North America for two reasons.

First, Christians in North America have largely forgotten how to hope.

It seems that many of our fellow Christians have fallen into a kind of despondency, something that Martin Luther scorns when he talks about Christians descending into “despair and other great and shameful sins.”

“The world is such a terrible place,” these hopeless Christians tell each other over private conversations and on social media. They then catalog all the ways in which “the world,” (not them, by the way) has gone wrong.

Folks, the world went wrong a long time ago, back in a garden where  Adam and Eve, fell into sin.

Moral decay and death have been the way of the world ever since.

It existed when, disgusted with the human race, God told Noah to build an ark in which He would save Noah’s family and the animal species of the world but destroy everyone else.

It existed when Jesus, God the Son, perfect and sinless, was rejected by the world for which He came to die and rise.

But the reality of sin, death, and evil, in us and around us, should never cause Christians to forget to hope.

We have hope: Jesus, Who tore open the wall between God and the human race with His sacrificial death, then blazed the trail into eternal life with God for all who both acknowledge that they are “in bondage to sin” and incapable of freeing ourselves, and live and die in the faith in Jesus that God the Holy Spirit builds in those who stand under God’s promises made and kept in Christ.

But the sorrow of that African Christian for we believers in North America probably has a second reason: We too often put our hope in the wrong things.

Those of our congregation who go to Haiti to serve alongside the Church there always return with tales of the joy in Christ and the joy in worship that they see in our Haitian sisters and brothers in Christ. They live in Christian hope despite living in the most poverty-stricken country in the Western Hemisphere. At a rational level, the prospects of their ever living in a country with the kinds of freedoms or opportunities most of us enjoy here are nonexistent to minimal. And from the perspective of this same rationality, the likelihood that they will ever have the kinds of health or life expectancies that we take for granted in North America and Europe is minuscule.

But the Haitian Christians have hope.

And it isn’t rooted in things, or stuff, or presidents, or politics.

In today’s second Bible lesson, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the apostle Paul writes to the Christian churces in Thessalonica.

Thessalonica, to this day, is a port city of Greece that sets on the Aegean Sea.

Paul had once preached to the Christians there. But, by the time he writes this letter in about 55 AD, some time has passed.

Paul has received word through the young pastor Timothy, who is visiting him, how things are going with the Thessalonian Christians. He’s overjoyed with their faithfulness to Christ.

But Timothy also apparently brought Paul some disturbing news. Some of their number had died and the surviving members were overtaken with despondent grief.

Some scholars believe that this hopelessness was born of their belief that, since the world was so rotten with sin, Jesus’ return was imminent. But, they were sure that since Jesus hadn’t returned before their Christian friends and loved ones died, those friends and loved ones were lost for all eternity.

They’d been putting their hope in how they thought Jesus would do things, replacing the real hope that Jesus gives to those who believe in Him--life with Him by our sides in this world and perfect life with Him beyond the grave--with a false hope: the fantasy that Jesus would come back before being His disciple got harder, the fake hope that Jesus would make the world go the way they wanted it to go right now.

This is why--both compassionately and forcefully--Paul addresses the Thessalonians (and you and me) as he does in our lesson. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul says, “we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

Like others, Christians mourn the loss of friends and loved ones. Death is an offense to every human being. We know that God made us to live, not to die.

Yet the wages of sin is still death and all human beings born into the condition of sin remain susceptible to death and all the suffering that goes with it.

But, Paul says, we need not grieve the way those who have no hope grieve.

He then says why: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16)

When Jesus Christ returns to this world, on a timetable established by God the Father, it won’t be a secret. Heaven is going to throw a party on the earth the likes of which we can’t even imagine.

Then, Christ will raise from their graves all who have died believing in Him.

Jesus’ victory over death will belong to all who, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, have confessed their faith in Jesus Christ: both the living and the formerly dead.

That’s a hope that is ours no matter what!

Then Paul says, “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17)

Some people read these words too metaphorically, others too literally.

This verse doesn’t mean that Christians are going to fly off to heaven when Jesus comes back. That’s a false teaching that nobody in the history of Christianity ever thought or believed until the nineteenth century when a misinformed Bible teacher named C.I. Scofield propounded the theory.

Here’s what Paul means.

When God met Moses on Mount Sinai, God descended in a bright cloud that surrounded Moses in God’s glory.

When the people of Israel went through the wilderness, they were led by God Who came to them in the pillar of a cloud.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, He, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John were enveloped in a cloud of God’s glory as God told the three disciples, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”

And so, when Jesus returns, He will envelop His people in His glorious kingdom and they will live in the sinless atmosphere--the air--of His presence.

Our hope as disciples of Jesus Christ is that we who already belong to Him, will one day be enveloped by His perfect, glorious embrace.

Jesus will descend as He once ascended and finally and fully establish His kingdom of which all who confess His name are citizens.

We belong to Jesus forever, whether we live or die, and whatever is happening in this world.

So, when you hear your sisters and brothers in Christ caving into despair or putting their hope in the wrong gods--from politics to possessions, from being healthy to being wealthy, Saint Paul exhorts us, in verse 18, “encourage one another with these words.”

Friends, if you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and God, you have hope, whether you’re rejoicing or you’re grieving.

In Jesus, you have hope.

The only hope.