Sunday, September 19, 2021

The Best There Ever Was

[Here's the video of today's modern worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below the video, you can find the text of the morning message.]

Mark 9:30-37
The movie, The Natural, based on a novel by Bernard Malamud, is one of my favorites. In one scene, its main character, Roy Hobbes, a baseball player once thought destined for greatness whose ascendancy to the majors was delayed by sixteen years, says, “Things sure turned out different.” When asked what he meant, Hobbes says, “I could’ve broken every record.” “And then what?” he’s asked. “Then, people would have said, ‘There goes Roy Hobbes, the best there ever was…’” That was what the character Roy Hobbes lived for and because he knew he wasn’t going to break every record or hear people hail him as the best there ever was, he was deeply disappointed.

We human beings, with our sin-tinged and fragile egos, carom between thinking we’re the best there ever was, on the one hand, and wanting to be the best there ever was, all the while suspecting we may be the worst there ever was. At birth, we’re equipped with this desire to be better than others in order to prove our worthiness. It’s what caused Cain to kill Abel. This need to “be like God” or, at least, how we think that God ought to be, is at the bottom of all our heartache, discord, and despondency. We want our ways. We want to prevail. And when we don’t do those things, we can be deeply disappointed, even bitter.

As our Gospel lesson for this morning begins, Jesus is leading the disciples through Galilee to Capernaum, to Peter’s house. Mark says that “​​Jesus did not want anyone to know where they were…” (Mark 9:30) The reason for that is simple. The lesson for today follows the incident recounted in last week’s Gospel lesson in which Jesus had publicly upbraided the disciples for not knowing they needed to pray over the demon-possessed son of a man who had come looking for their help when Jesus and three of the apostles had been on the Mount of Transfiguration. Now, Jesus wants to teach the disciples privately so as not to bring them any further public embarrassment. So, Jesus lovingly takes the disciples aside and then delivers the Gospel, the good news, to them. He says, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:32)

For most of the disciples, this is the second time they’ve heard Jesus say that He was going to Jerusalem to die and rise for the human race. For Peter, James, and John, who also heard Jesus predict His crucifixion and resurrection as they descended from the Mount of Transfiguration, it’s the third time they’ve heard this from Jesus. Obviously, because He repeats this message so frequently, Jesus is signaling how important it is. These are words of promise, of good news, of Gospel: God the Son, Jesus, the disciples hear, is taking the condemnation for sin that we deserve into His own sinless body and after He has died, He will be raised again by God the Father so that all who repent and believe in Jesus will one day be also be raised to live with God eternally.

This should be good news for the disciples. And for you and me. For the whole world. But for people bent on being, like Roy Hobbes, “the best there ever was,” intent on conquering the world with our own goodness, virtue, power, intelligence, cunning, strength, or will power, this may not seem like very good news at all. The Gospel is only good news if you’re willing to admit that sin, death, and darkness--your sin, death, and darkness and mine--are issues we can not conquer. The Gospel is only good news if you believe that, because death is offensive to those born with an intrinsic sense of God’s eternal intentions for us, there must be an eternity beyond a world that lives by the ethic of “those with the most toys when they die win.” And the Gospel is only good news if you understand that you and I and every human being are by nature sinful and unclean, deserving of death and in desperate need of a perfect, sinless Savior to save us from ourselves.

This is not what the disciples signed up for. They had thought they were going to be the right hand men of a King who would set up an earthly kingdom and make God’s people prosperous, secure and safe. Here’s Jesus talking about things like crucifixion, resurrection, and eternity! That may explain their reaction to Jesus’ Gospel words as described by Mark: “...they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it.” (Mark 9:32) Like the crowds on Palm Sunday, the disciples wanted to be their own saviors, using Jesus as a tool to get the earthly comforts they craved and, as God’s people, to which they felt entitled. They had no interest in dealing with their sin or thinking about eternity. Jesus was holding out a different vision for His Kingdom and the disciples didn’t want to hear the details.

But Jesus knows their secret hearts as surely as He knows yours and mine. When they all get to Capernaum, Jesus asks the disciples what they’d been arguing about among themselves on the way there. Again, Jesus’ words are met with silence. The disciples had been arguing among themselves about who was the greatest. This is, quite honestly, nuts considering that nine of them had just struck out when the man came for help with his demon-possessed son and three of them had just heard God the Father affirm that Jesus is God the Son. How could any of them argue that they were the greatest? How can anyone? Now, Jesus speaks the Law to show the disciples--and you and me--why we need the Gospel of His cross and empty tomb, why we need to receive the message that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that all who believe in Him will never die but have eternal life. Jesus says, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

The Law, of course, is that Word of God that shows us both what we must do to be righteous and that we, as human beings are completely incapable of doing or being to be counted righteous, right with God, deserving of eternity with God. The Law tells us, “These are the standards to which you must measure up to be part of God’s Kingdom” and then, holding up a mirror to us, tells us, “And, in your own power, you never will measure up.” But the Gospel tells us, "Don’t despair!" There is One Who has kept this and every other holy Law from God perfectly for you. On His cross, He paid the penalty you owe God for your sin. With His blood, He has washed you clean. In the waters of Holy Baptism, this Savior has made you a participant in His death and His resurrection. Through the Word about Him, preached and taught by the Holy Spirit, He has given you saving faith in all that He has done for you. Through Holy Communion, He feeds you again and again on His body and blood and gives you the forgiveness and new life He gives as pure, free gift.

Jesus is God Who left the comforts of heaven and became the last of all, the servant of all, on the cross, so that in His rising, not only would the Father give Him the name above all names, but also give those who trust in Him and His Gospel, life with God now and forever. The gospel sets us free from trying to measure up. Whether we come in first or come in last is unimportant to the follower of Jesus, so long as we each run our races with Jesus as our King and Savior. Jesus, “the best there ever was” more than measures up for us. When we trust in Him, our race is already won and we can confidently follow wherever He leads. “But I am baptized!” Martin Luther would shout when accosted by doubts about his salvation. “I belong to Jesus Christ.” Luther knew Jesus was all he needed. Jesus is all we need, too. Amen

Monday, September 13, 2021


Earlier today on Twitter, Lutheran layperson Steve Martin (not the comedian) quoted Paul's words in Romans 5:6: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly."

Then, Steve writes, "If you happen to be ungodly then He died for you."

I had to respond, "That would be me: ungodly by nature, saved by grace through Spirit-given faith in Christ."

When, as an atheist, I observed the way the God we meet in Jesus was not just real, but also living and active in the lives of ordinary people in what was then my wife's home church, I was moved.

When I realized that He died and rose and was still calling and reaching out in love to someone like me who was so ungodly as to reject His very existence, I was overwhelmed.

I thank God that Christ died for the ungodly. That's the only reason I have hope in the midst of this world and hope for the world to come.


Below you'll find two things. First, video of yesterday's modern worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Then, below that, the text of yesterday's message. Have a good week. God bless you!

Mark 9:14-29
From time to time, news outlets report the stories of pastors or church members who die from snake bites incurred during their congregations’  worship services. Typical is an incident reported seven-and-a-half years ago from Middlesboro, Kentucky and the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name. Pastor Jamie Coots handled a rattlesnake during worship when he was bitten by the snake. He refused treatment at the church and went home. By the time he and his wife got to their house, he was unconscious. But when an EMS arrived, the pastor’s wife signed a form refusing medical treatment for her husband. Within an hour, Pastor Coots was dead.

Why would anyone go out of their way to handle a rattlesnake? People like Pastor Coots would point to Mark 16:17-18, where Jesus says of His followers: “In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18) Of course, the takeaway from these promises by Jesus is not that we're to go our of our way to prove we have faith and or that we must do them in order to have faith, but that God will provide signs of His power over sin, death, and darkness in those with faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t say that your need to handle snakes, drink poison, stand in the middle of traffic, leave your seat belt unfastened and text while you drive, climb onto a motorcycle without a helmet, or adhere the religious laws that the Pharisees were always chastising Jesus for ignoring to prove you have faith. People may fool themselves or fool others into thinking that such behaviors prove that they have faith; but God is never fooled! 

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the devil took Him to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, about 150 feet above the ground below. Remember how the devil tried to use Old Testament Scripture to try to convince Jesus to prove His faith in God the Father? “‘If you are the Son of God, [the devil] said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written [and it is, in Psalm 91:11-12]: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands,  so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6) The devil’s message to Jesus was that if Jesus really believed in the Father and if Jesus really was God the Son, He would throw Himself to the ground, sure that the Father would suspend the law of gravity and spare Him death on impact. Jesus’ response reminds us that no matter how large or small our faith in God, stupid is still stupid and faith is not deliberately enlisting in games of chicken with reality. Jesus replied, ““It is also written [and it is, in Deuteronomy 6:16]: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7)

As our Gospel lesson for today, Mark 9:14-29, begins, Jesus is returning with Peter, James, and John, from the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured while Moses and Elijah appeared to talk with Jesus and God the Father told the three disciples, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.” (Mark 9:7) At the base of the mountain, the disciples are squabbling with teachers of the Law. The squabbling is presumably over the fact that when a man brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and meets only Jesus’ other nine apostles, the apostles say they can’t help the boy. Undoubtedly, the teachers of the Law, always looking for a way to make Jesus out to be a false teacher, jump on this and an argument ensues.

The fact that this situation has arisen at all is a bit surprising. Just a few chapters earlier in Mark’s gospel, we read that the Twelve were sent by Jesus two-by-two on mission journeys in which they “drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (Mark 6:13) Yet, in our gospel lesson today, the nine apostles who had been on the flatlands while Jesus and the other three were in the heights, told the desperate father of a demon-possessed boy, “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do for you.”

What gives? Just this, I think. The disciples had been sent on their earlier mission by Jesus, empowered by Jesus to bring the good news and signs of His dominion over sin and death. But they’d derived the wrong message from their experiences. They developed not faith in Jesus, but faith in themselves. They’d come to assume that if they were good people or knew about Jesus or said the right words and went through the right motions--in other words, if they complied with certain religious rules--they could handle anything life brought their way. In other words, their faith was in their faith and not in Jesus. No wonder Jesus says, “You unbelieving generation, long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19)

Jesus then calms the chaos and turns His attention to the boy and his father. “If you can do anything,” the father says to Jesus, “take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Jesus sees his tentative faith. “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” These words of Jesus are often misconstrued. Jesus isn’t telling us we need to have a positive attitude. Or that we must have a monster, never-a-doubt faith. Nor does Jesus mean that we will necessarily get everything we want when we pray. Jesus Himself would later pray in the Garden of Gethsemane that somehow His work of saving us could be accomplished without His having to go to the cross and die. But He also tells the Father, “Not my will, but Your will be done.” Listen, friends: God hears our prayers offered in Jesus’ name when our faith is weak and when it’s strong. When we’re helpless enough to own our need of God, casting aside all thoughts of of placing faith in our faith or our virtues or our goodness, turning in desperation to Christ alone, our prayers have power. Self-confidence in faith or prayer is an oxymoron. Only prayer and faith that put their trust in Jesus, however weak our trust may be, is worthy of even being called “faith” or “prayer.” That’s why what the father says to Jesus next in our lesson is so powerful: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24) Now, that translation isn’t the best. More literally, he prays to Jesus: “I believe; rescue me despite my unbelief.” “I believe; rescue me despite my unbelief.”

Folks, let me tell you something you may have heard before: We are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! Don’t let anyone tell you what you have to do to gain salvation or make sure God hears your prayers. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, has already done everything necessary for you to be saved from sin and death and to be a child whose prayers are offered to heaven in Jesus’ name. Baptized believers know that’s true! Faith is not a human decision, but a gift from God given to us through the Word and the Sacraments. We are not rescued from sin and death, nor are our prayers heard by God, because of our religious works or by our playing chicken with death like the snake-handler churches or doing some other religious ritual. Our prayers are not heard by God because we have a self-confident faith in our faith. We are daily called to be like the desperate man in today’s Gospel lesson, turning to Jesus in trust, whatever the deficiencies of our faith, and knowing that, since we cannot save ourselves, we need Jesus to save us: from sin, death, darkness, and ourselves. In these days, I can’t think of a more apt or necessary or truthful prayer that we could offer than the one one offered by the father today, the prayer Jesus heard and answered, “I believe; rescue me despite my unbelief.” You can be sure that the Savior Jesus Who has already died and risen for you, will hear such prayers and answer them. Amen

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Remembering September 11

September 11 reminds us of how temporary life is. The 3000-plus who lost their lives that day had no idea when they woke in the morning that it would be their last. The next moment and the next breath aren’t slam-dunks for any of us. The same is true for our neighbor. God’s call to each of us is to trust the Savior Jesus Who brings and Who IS good news: the forgiveness of sin and new, everlasting life for all who daily turn away from sin (repent) and believe in Jesus.
That good news consoles believers and gives them hope beyond the next moment or next breath.
It gives us the certainty too that the crucified and risen Savior is with us always, has the fate of all creation in His hands, and no matter what evil days befall us, those who trust in Him will never be separated from Him, not even in death.
Christians aren’t to seek out danger, death, or grief, of course. Jesus refused the devil’s temptation to jump from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem.
But even in evil days and circumstances, God’s promise is true: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved...” (Acts 16:31)
[The image above is from Reuters News Service:]