Monday, December 10, 2018

The Love That Prepares Us...for Anything

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

Malachi 3:1-7b
Our theme word for this Second Sunday of Advent is love, as in God’s love for us. Whatever capacity for loving God or loving others we possess as sinful and imperfect human beings does not come from us. It comes from God. In the New Testament, John reminds us, “We love because [the God revealed in Jesus Christ] first loved us.” Self-giving love, the kind of love God bears for us and that He wills for us, is foreign to us human beings. We’re born selfish down to the bone.

That’s why love, as popularly defined by the world, from God’s perspective, isn’t love at all. 

Love, in God’s eyes, is more than affectionate feelings for us. 

God’s love for us entails

  • commitment to us (even when we doubt Him), 
  • confronting us for our wrongs (even when we hate ourselves for them), and 
  • refusing to enable us in our common human addiction to sin. 

God’s love confronts the sinner, cleanses the repentant, and redeems the surrendered

As someone has said, “God loves us just as we are. But He loves us too much to leave us there.” 

God’s love calls the Christian to a life of constant Holy Spirit-powered change. 

This is what we Lutherans mean when we speak of living in daily repentance and renewal. 

God doesn’t force this way of life upon us. 

It comes to us as we live in fellowship with Him and with His Church: as we gather in worship, as we read His Word privately and with others, as we receive God’s Word in Scripture, in the Sacraments, and in other ways, like the liturgy, preaching, and conversation with Christian friends who give witness to us about Jesus. 

These are the means by which God loves us: confronting us, cleansing us, redeeming us. 

As we trustingly receive God’s Word and receive the power to believe and obey, we are changed by God’s love

It’s precisely this process of change that the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “...we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”   

This morning, as we look at Malachi 3:1-7, I ask two big questions (of you and me): 

First: Are we regularly spending time with God in His Word, contemplating His glory and allowing His transforming love to penetrate to every part of our lives? 

Second: If we are spending regular times with God in this way, are we really listening for His confrontational, cleansing, redeeming Word (as opposed to looking for proof texts, merit badges, head knowledge, or some justification for self-righteousness)? 

God seeks access to the cores of our beings so that He can make us over in the image of Christ from the inside out. 

If our answer to either of those two questions is, “No,” as it can so often be for many of us, I suspect, including me, then we block Christ from having access to do His work of changing us.

Malachi, whose name literally means, my messenger, was sent by God to the people of Judah who were, sometimes without even knowing it, blocking God from their lives. 

Malachi wrote sometime between 490 and 430 BC, about one-hundred years after Jeremiah, whose prophetic words we considered last Sunday. Jeremiah, you’ll remember, sat in a prison cell as the Babylonians prepared to conquer and sack Jerusalem, the place where the temple and the presence of God existed in Judah. The Babylonians exiled much of Judah’s population and destroyed the temple. But by the time Malachi became a prophet, Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persians, in turn, had allowed God’s people, the people who had once inhabited Judah, to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. 

While many were disappointed that the second temple they built wasn’t as beautiful as the one built by Solomon, there was a deeper crisis among the Jews who had returned to the homeland, a crisis of faith. Scarred by their experience of being conquered and exiled, the returnees felt that God had let them down.

Have you ever felt that way? That God let you down? 

You tried to be faithful but God didn’t seem to hear your prayers? 

You jumped through all the hoops, but God didn’t seem to come through? 

You worshiped God and trusted in Christ with all your heart, yet bad things have happened in your life, in the life of your family, the life of the world? 

Likely, we all have felt at one time or another that God and His love have let us down. 

When that feeling takes hold in us, we might go to worship more out of habit than conviction. 

We might also spend less time with God. 

We might let other habits, some of them perfectly innocent, others of them contrary to the will of God, take root in our lives, crowd God out of our lives, and then, wander further and further from God

Malachi wrote our lesson for this morning to lovingly call God’s people back to an authentic walk with God and to hearten them with the vision of what God intended to do for them--and us--through His Messiah, His Christ, Jesus.

So, please look at our lesson, Malachi 3:1-7b. It begins: “‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” 

God was going to send a messenger, in the Hebrew, a malachi, to prepare the way for God to process into our world. 

The language is that of road building and repair, the kind that communities undertake when they know a king is going to process into their community. Even today, when celebrated people are scheduled to visit somewhere, the towns and cites spruce up in preparation. (It's been said that Queen Elizabeth smells fresh paint wherever she goes.) 

Malachi says that a messenger--we believe that messenger was John the Baptizer--would prepare the world for the Lord Almighty, God enfleshed, Jesus, to arrive. 

Today, as baptized believers in Jesus, our call is to prepare a way, in our lives and in the disciples we make, for the return of Jesus. How do we do that? Stick with me.

The lesson continues: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.”

Like other prophets, Malachi is saying that we may want to rethink our desire for Jesus to return quickly. We may not be as prepared as we think we are. We need to be refined and cleaned

That means allowing the God we know in Jesus to clear out all of those things that keep us from being the saved, transformed people of God we were meant to be

  • All the sins, however secret we may try to keep them from the world
  • All the fears we have of this world, however much we try appearing we have it all together.
  • All the suspicions that we may have that God isn’t real or that God doesn’t care about us

The old must be discarded; the new life given to us through Christ must become embraced

This is how we prepare for the coming of Jesus!

When we let the God we know in Jesus have access to us and go to work to cleanse us, we won’t be perfect. That will have to wait until after our resurrections. As long as we draw breath in this world, we will remain, by grace, saints AND sinners. 

But Christ’s death on the cross will cover our sins and His resurrection will give us peace and hope in all circumstances and we will be prepared to meet the Lord our God! 

The cleansing and renewal only God’s love can give us is ours when we can let the God we know in Jesus Christ into our lives the way David did when he prayed, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

Malachi continues, quoting God: “‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.” God still hates sins, including sorcery, adultery, perjury, bosses who defraud workers, and anyone who oppresses widows, orphans, or foreign strangers

But God also loves the sinners who commit sin

That’s why God became human at Christmas and then went to the cross on Good Friday to take our punishment for sin. 

Listen: God can forgive any sin and He can give new life anyone who turns to Jesus, God the Son. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 11:28). That really is the final message God gives to us through Malachi today.

God says in our lesson: “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

In this imperfect world, things happen that we cannot explain, things that hurt. 

Some of them will happen because of our own sin and rebellion, our failure to turn to God in faith. 

Others will happen because bad things happen in a fallen world. 

These things will keep happening until the day Jesus returns, when our unchanging God, will make all things right in His new creation

Until then, our call is to daily return to Jesus

When we return to the God we know in Jesus, day in and day out, submitting to Him as He confronts, cleanses, and redeems us, as we lay our lives before Jesus in trust, we will be prepared to meet Jesus without fear, certain of His love, whether it happens today, tonight, tomorrow, at Christmas, at the ends of our lives, or at the end of this world. 

As we turn to Jesus and let Him love us, we are prepared, ready, for anything


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

When I doubt that I'm forgiven

[These joyous journal reflections are from my quiet time with God this morning. I hope that you find them helpful in your walk with God...and, more importantly, that they'll incite you, if you don't yet do it, to keep a daily quiet time with God yourself.]

Look: “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you...I will remove the sin of this land in a single day. In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 3:3-4, 9-10)

Zechariah was a prophet in late 6th.-century BC Judah. The Persians were allowing God’s people who had formerly been taken into exile by the Babylonians, now vassals of the Persians, to return to their homelands. Zechariah hears from God that the promised land had been wrested from God’s people because of their idolatry and other sins. Now the people were going back and Zechariah encounters the high priest Joshua. (This is not the Joshua who succeeded Moses as the leader of God’s people in the wilderness. This Joshua lived many centuries later.)

Here’s the high priest: In filthy rags, representing the sins of Judah (and presumably his own). But God removes Joshua’s filthy clothes, replacing them with “fine garments.” God’s gracious forgiveness is swift in its impact: He removes the sins of the nation in a single day. And its impact goes beyond those He forgives: Infected by His grace, the forgiven invite their neighbors to sit with them in the shade of their vines and fig trees. God’s forgiveness for us creates within us a humility and a love for others that cannot be contained. I think of the early Christians, the forgiveness of God in Christ, when embraced transforms our lives and our relationships with others, including our unbelieving neighbors.

Listen: This is an awesome passage! Despite being a preacher of the gospel--the good news of forgiveness and new life for all who repent and trust in the God Who comes to us in Jesus Christ, I sometimes cling to my filthy rags. I do this not only in the sense of committing again sins for which I have authentically repented, but also when I allow myself to doubt that God can forgive or has forgiven the sins that I lay at his feet. I give God my filthy sins, lay my sins bare before God, accept the clean garment of forgiven sin, and then cling to the old sins, struggling to believe that God could actually forgive me.

The Gospel of Jesus says that God can forgive all of my sins! So does this passage!

It’s akin to the words of Psalm 103:12: “ far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.”

God calls me to trust that in Jesus Christ, I am forgiven and I am made new. “... if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

No matter how hard it may be for us to accept that God could possibly forgive us, our call is to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh…” (Romans 13:14). In other words, our repentance is only complete after we accept the forgiveness God freely offers through Jesus to all who repent.

Repentance that stops at regret for sin is no repentance.

Repentance that ends in self-recrimination and doubts that God could possibly forgive me is not repentance.

Repentance is composed of a sorrow for sin, a trusting turn to God through Jesus to confess, and grateful acceptance of the forgiveness of God given, not because I deserve it, but because Jesus has earned it for all who trust in Him, including me.

When the power and truth of God’s forgiveness clothe us in Christ’s righteousness, a humble gratitude takes hold, making it possible for we forgiven to love others as we’ve been loved by God.

Respond: Thank You, Lord, for this reminder of Your forgiving grace. Help me to discard the filthy rags to which I so readily cling. Today, help me to cling to Christ alone. Throughout this day, on the half hour, remind me to thank You for Your forgiveness. In Jesus’ name. Amen

[I think Martin Luther had the right attitude as to how Christians should respond to the temptation, whether from the devil, the world, or our sinful selves, to doubt that God forgives repented sin. He wrote, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’” AMEN!]

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

Sunday, December 02, 2018

THE Hope for Peace

[This message, for the First Sunday of Advent, was shared today with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Jeremiah 33:14-16
Recently, a committed Christian, considering the tragedy, violence, and nastiness in the world and the upheaval in his own life, asked me, “Are there times when you wish Jesus would hurry and come back?” 

Yes, there are. 

I want Jesus to return and the dead to be raised. 

I want Jesus to bring an end to this sorry old, death-dealing planet.

I want Him to usher in the new heaven and the new earth in which the eyes of all will be fixed on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and the tears of everyone who has dared to believe in Jesus will be dried and we will live in peace with God, each other, ourselves, for all eternity. 

I want all of that very much!

Even secular, unbelieving people seem to yearn for some version of this new world that we know only Jesus can bring. On his LP released three months ago, Paul McCartney, sings this refrain, “People want peace / A simple release from their suffering / People want peace.”

This yearning isn’t new. 

In 587 BC, the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah sat in a prison in Jerusalem. His crime had been to tell the people of his homeland, the southern remnant of God’s people Israel, that they needed to repent for their sin and trust in God. (The God that all the world can now know in Jesus Christ.) 

The northern kingdom of God’s people, Israel (or Samaria) was already gone, eliminated by a hostile foreign power. 

And, now Judah, which itself had endured decades of domination by foreign powers, faced the same fate. 

Not because Judah hadn’t had a strong army. 

Not because Judah didn’t possess economic power. 

Judah had enjoyed these things. 

But, Jeremiah and other prophets told the people, their land would be taken from them because of their three abiding sins: idolatry, injustice, and materialism. (Does this sound familiar?) 

No people, no nation, no church, can long endure if it spits in the face of God through idolatry and the injustice, and materialism that results

Just a short time before Jeremiah committed the verses in our first lesson for today to paper, Judah had been under the dominion of the Assyrian Empire. Then the Egyptians chased the Assyrians out. Then the Egyptian Empire crumbled and for a brief period, Judah had enjoyed independence and freedom. But even then, God’s people refused to turn from their sins and trust in God alone. While Jeremiah wrote down the new word God gave to him in prison, the renewed Babylonian Empire was near Jerusalem’s city gates. Jeremiah could probably hear the din of battle as he received the word of God. 
  • Judah was going to be conquered. 
  • God’s people would face the consequences of their rebellion against God. 
  • Their land would be taken from them. 
  • Their nation would die. 

Jeremiah had already warned the people of his homeland that it was naive for them to superstitiously cling to the bricks and mortar of the temple or the worthless words they offered up as "worship" to save them from destruction while refusing to let go of their sins and injustices to take hold of God as their only hope.

But as Jeremiah sat in the darkness of prison, he perceived the light of God bringing hope, not just to Judah, but to all the world. Beyond wars, sin, death, and heartache, God was going to bring something new and never-ending. God would (and will) bring everlasting peace to those who trust in Him

The Word given to Jeremiah in that prison cell includes our first lesson for this first Sunday in Advent, a Sunday on which we at Living Water have chosen to remember that even as we await the advent, the coming return, of Jesus to our world, we wait in HOPE

So, take a look at our first lesson, Jeremiah 33:14-16. We’re going to read it from the English Standard Version, which gives a better and more literal translation than the New International Version here.

It begins: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” 

All of us know what it’s like to have someone break their promises to us. All of us know, if we’re honest, what it’s like to be the person who breaks promises to others. Promises broken, intentionally or unintentionally, make our relationships with each other painful and difficult. 

But God never forgets a promise. God always does what He sets out to do

Sometimes though, as is true of God's promise of sending His Son back into this world to usher in the Kingdom of God in its fullness, we have to wait. 

We can get impatient. 

We can begin to think that God doesn’t care or that maybe God isn’t even there. 

The coming of God on the first Christmas, born to a virgin in Bethlehem, should tell us that we can depend on God keeping His promises

His death for our sin and His resurrection to give us life should tell us that we can depend on God keeping His promises

But, in the world in which we live, it can be hard to wait for God to act--hard to wait for answers to our prayers, hard to wait for God to bring loved ones lost to Him back to faith, hard to wait for God to help those who are hurting, hard to wait for God to reconcile our relationships. 

But God has promised us in Jesus, “I am with you always to the close of the age." 

He has promised those who trust in Him, “Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.” 

All of this is true even when God seems to be taking his good, sweet time. 

The apostle Peter says, “ not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 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 3:8-9) 

God never fails to keep a promise. 

And, God told Jeremiah--and through Jeremiah, us--that the promise of a peaceable eternal kingdom would come to pass. 

In the meantime, we’re to live in daily repentance and trust that the God we know in Jesus is giving us the time the world needs to come to know and believe in Jesus, the time we disciples need to tell the world about our Savior.

Our lesson continues: “In those days and at that time [we don’t know the days or the time, because as Jesus reminded us last Sunday, “about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)], I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” 

Shortly after Jeremiah received these words from God, the descendants of David were stripped ot their throne and would never again sit on an earthly throne. But God had long before promised that a “son of David” would be the Messiah--God’s anointed, Savior King. God would make the impossible possible: A Savior born into the Davidic line, as Jesus was, when God the Father placed God the Son in the arms of his adoptive parents--Mary and Joseph, descended from David, would come into our world to make things right between God and sinners

When the Word became flesh, that is, when sinless God the Son, Jesus, came into this world, He did so with one purpose: To become the perfect offering for sin that no sinful human being--no ancient Israelite, not you, not me--could be and to win a not guilty verdict for those of us who are mired in sin from death. God makes us right through Jesus and our faith in Him. (Romans 3:23-24)

Back to our lesson, verse 16: “...In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” 

C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” 

Jeremiah and the other prophets didn’t go to God’s ancient people and say, “You’re bad; try to be good.” 

They said, “Your bad is growing worse because you’ve walked away from God. It's time for you to make it a habit to keep turning back to God so that He can displace your bad with His good! Only God can make you righteous." 

It’s the Lord alone who is righteous and He alone makes righteous those who are bad. It's the God we know in Jesus Who is our righteousness! 

This God revealed in Jesus has even been known to turn renegade atheists into grateful believers...and then make them into reluctant preachers.

We long for the peace that will only come to God’s creation when Jesus returns to this world. But if we rely on our own goodness to prepare for that day, we will regret it eternally. The peace that passes all understanding belongs only to those who trust in the God we meet in Jesus, who have given up on trying to prove themselves, given up on being models of religiosity, because those are sinful, self-worshiping enterprises. 

The peace that passes all understanding belongs, even now in the midst of this fallen, confounding world, only to those who, day by day, let Jesus be their Savior. These are the people who can face the stuff of this world and look for the day of Jesus’ return with hope. 

They hope--we hope--because believers know that it’s Jesus, the Messiah born of the Branch of David, Who IS our peace (Ephesians 2:13-14)


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