Monday, June 14, 2021

Letting Go of Our Anxieties

Below, you'll find both a video from yesterday's 11:00 AM worship service at Living Water Lutheran Church and a text of the message presented during the service. Have a great and blessed week!

Mark 4:26-34

They never have been. 

In the mid-and late-first-century Church, we know, Christians were anxious because the world was getting so bad. All the signs of Jesus’ return had already happened. Yet Jesus hadn’t returned. What was the hold-up? How much worse did things have to get before the risen and ascended Jesus came back to the earth and welcomed His people into the Kingdom of God? Some believers were beginning to doubt that Jesus would ever return or that Jesus really was the Savior or that He could give anybody eternal life. These anxieties became such an issue that sometime before 67 AD, about three to four decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle Peter felt compelled to write to the Christians of Asia Minor: “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)

It may have been because He anticipated the onset of anxieties among Christians that Jesus told the two parables we find in today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 4:26-34. 

Parables, of course, are stories or illustrations that have a deeper meaning wrapped into the narrative. When Jesus told parables to unbelievers, they either whetted or lost the unbelievers’ interest. When believers hear them, they challenge us to consider their meaning for our daily lives, our faith, and our salvation. Generally speaking, in His parables, Jesus describes the Kingdom or the reign of God that He initiated through His earthly ministry.

The first parable Jesus tells in today’s lesson is the parable of the growing seed. 

In it, Jesus says that the kingdom is like small seeds scattered in a lot of soil. The man in Jesus’ parable has just one job: to scatter the seed. Everything else is done by the seed itself. The man sleeps, but without any effort on his part, the seed grows, first sprouting and then enlarging into a huge harvest.

In this parable, the seeds are the Word of God. When the Word of God--the Gospel Word about new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus--when that Word is scattered in the soil of human hearts, minds, and wills through the Word shared, taught, preached, and given in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, there is a harvest. The seed won't grow in every person who receives it. But there will be a harvest. The harvest is disciples, people who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, receive the gift of faith in Jesus and have life with God. Faith in Jesus makes people part of the harvest, part of the Kingdom of God.

This first parable addresses one enormous source of anxiety among some Christians. 

In it, Jesus says that our job as the Church and as disciples isn’t to produce crowds. 

Nor is it to congratulate ourselves when our churches grow numerically or to wring our hands and ask what’s wrong when our churches remain the same or decline in numbers. 

Our job is to keep sharing the Gospel, to keep scattering the seed. 

That seed doesn’t come from us; it comes from God. 

The seed won’t grow into a large crop by our efforts; the growth comes from God alone. 

As Jesus says elsewhere, “I will build My Church” (Matthew 6:18).

Last month, I was talking with a pastoral colleague who serves a congregation in a small town in another state. His church’s facilities were ample enough to provide for social distancing midway through the worst of the pandemic and reopened in January. “We lost three or four families,” he told me. “Why?” I asked. “They were upset that we were reopening.” The loss of those families triggered the anxiety of some of his church’s members. “What are we going to do, pastor?” they asked him. His answer was very wise: “Keep spreading the Gospel!”

That’s our job as Christ’s Church. We scatter the seed and trust God to do the rest, no matter what the apparent results

The task of every Christian is the same as that given by the apostle Paul to the young pastor Timothy back in the first century: “Preach the word [meaning, of course, spread the Gospel]; be prepared in season and out of season...” (2 Timothy 4:2) 

I have known megachurches that had a handful of disciples of Jesus on their membership rolls. 

And I have known tiny country congregations that gathered twenty people for worship on Sunday mornings and every one of those twenty people was faithful disciples of Jesus. 

Jesus wants to banish our anxiety in this parable by telling us, “I died and rose for you. That's an accomplished fact. I sit at the right hand of the Father to hear your prayers and be your Advocate. That's an accomplished fact. I sent the Holy Spirit to empower you in spreading the Word. The Holy Spirit created that Word and the Holy Spirit will work in people’s lives through that Word to create faith. All you have to do is share it. Don’t wring your hands or feel anxious. Share the Word. Period.”

The second parable Jesus tells today, the parable of the mustard seed, assures us that just as a mustard seed is tiny and becomes a great bush that accommodates birds looking for places to nest and sing, the Kingdom of God may look tiny, vulnerable, and overmatched by the sin, death, and darkness of this world and our common enemy, the devil. 

But as the Gospel is shared with the world and people hear the good news of a God Who is for them, died and rose for them, and is with them always in this world and, in ultimate perfection, in eternity, many people will take refuge in Jesus. They’ll hear Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…” (Matthew 11:28) and they’ll find rest, peace, hope, and joy in Him.

One of the biggest anxieties you hear among Christians these days is, “The world is going so badly and nobody wants to be in Church. What’s going to happen?” 

These laments ignore the fact that, when counting the numbers of conversions, Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world. 

But they also miss the point. Our call, as Mother Theresa used to say, isn’t to be successful--as the world counts success, but to be faithful. 

Do I want the Church to grow by leaps and bounds? If the “leaps and bounds” is composed of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, yes. Absolutely yes! But if people want the church to be a business enterprise and the biggest show in town, I am definitely not interested. 

I’m certain that Jesus isn’t either. 

In His time on earth, through a traveling ministry that included miracles and raising people from the dead, Jesus had, at most, five hundred followers. 

What were 500 people compared to the world Jesus was sent to save? 

Some people would say it’s a drop in the bucket. Jesus didn’t see things that way. 

Instead, He pursued His mission and trusted God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to take it from there. 

Our call is to let go of our anxieties, all of which are ultimately expressions of our desires to be in control and to be like God, and instead, trust in Jesus, to follow Him and spread His Word, trusting Him to expand His kingdom. 

Even here. 

Even now. 


Friday, June 11, 2021

The New Testament Book of Galatians, Part 4

Seven Truths to Bring You Peace Today

Truth #1: I'm a sinner born into a dying human race oriented to getting its own way, no matter what the will of God.  
Truth #2: My sinful nature and the sins I commit because of it mean that I'm incapable of doing anything to save myself from death, the result of my sin.

Truth #3: God the Son, Jesus, has done everything needed to save me from myself. He offered His sinless life on a cross, in His death, taking the punishment for sin and I deserve.

Truth #4: Jesus rose from the dead, opening up eternity to all who have faith in Him.

Truth #5: Because having faith in Jesus is so foreign to my sinful nature, God the Holy Spirit works faith in me--gives me the gift of faith in Jesus--through means: the Word of God shared, taught, preached and the Word of God given in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

Truth #6: It's through these Holy Spirit-created, generated, executed means and not by anything I do, that God gives me saving faith in Jesus, faith that brings the forgiveness of my sins, a relationship with God today, and the promise of everlasting life with God ...and all His God-sainted sinners. (Note: "sainted sinners" aren't sinners who have physically died; they're sinners who have been made saints by God's grace in Christ.)

God's Word says that Baptism brings saving grace to the baptized (1 Peter 3:21), faith comes through hearing the Word about Jesus (Romans 10:17,) and that this faith isn't something we manufacture, but a gift from God (Philippians 1:29) 

Truth #7: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) If you believe that Jesus, the Lord, has covered your sin with His righteousness, the Holy Spirit has gifted you with faith.

" one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:3) If you trust in Jesus as your Lord, however imperfectly, live at ease in knowing that you belong to God forever. He has given you the gift of faith and you are His.

"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ..." (Romans 5:1)

God's peace to you.

Tuesday, June 08, 2021

The New Testament Book of Galatians, Part 3

To those without sin (or who suspect they're without sin)

“When they kept on questioning him, [Jesus] straightened up and said to them, ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’” (John 8:7)

Jesus never denies that sin is real and damnable. But He has brought forgiveness and new life with God for we sinners. Live in and trust in Him and what He’s already accomplished for you through His cross and resurrection.

[Skip past the ad, if one shows up.]

Keeping the Law?

I read 2 Kings, chapter 2, as part of my quiet time with God this morning. It includes an account of Israel's King David on his deathbed, speaking with his son Solomon, who will succeed him.

David says, “I am about to go the way of all the earth,” he said. “So be strong, act like a man, and observe what the Lord your God requires: Walk in obedience to him, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and regulations, as written in the Law of Moses. Do this so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’" (1 Kings 2:2-4)

Now, if read in one way, this passage is almost laughable. If walking in obedience to God's Laws and commands means conformity to them, David himself failed. He notoriously committed adultery and murder.

But if obedience to God's Law means to turn back to God in repentance when that Law shows us to be the sinners we are, then David's words to Solomon are sensible and good.

We are all sinners. The Bible teaches that we all sin and fall short of God's glory. David himself admitted to having been born a sinner before having perpetrated his first sin (Psalm 51:5). Our entire inborn orientation is to ourselves and our own agendas. Recognizing that truth is important. It drives us to the God we meet in Jesus. Jesus, God AND human, was what C.S. Lewis called, "the perfect penitent." By His death on our behalf, He makes it possible for sinners like me to turn to Him in repentance and faith and be set free of the death I deserve so that I can receive the life only Jesus can give to me.

The only way we can keep God's Law is to recognize that it's right to condemn us and then hide ourselves in the gracious forgiveness of God.

That was true for David and the people of ancient Israel in Old Testament times.

And it's now true for all people today as we call on the God Who throws open His grace and forgiveness to all people in the crucified and risen Jesus.

You and I deserve death and condemnation. But Jesus has borne that for us. He has obeyed God's Law perfectly and covers the human race with the favor of God the Father earned by His perfect obedience.

Trust in that and live in freedom.

Monday, June 07, 2021

Sunday, June 06, 2021

The Two Ways to Live

Below you'll find video of today's 11:00 AM worship service from Living Water Lutheran Church. It includes both the message, the text for which is below the video, and the children's message. Have a blessed week!

Mark 3:20-35
There are two ways we can live. We can live for the world. Or, we can live for Jesus.

The world, this fallen universe in which we all currently reside, has its benefits, of course. Go along with the world and we might experience things like acceptance, ease, money, comforts. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things intrinsically, of course. But they’re all the world can offer; they end at the grave. This world can do nothing for us when we die.

Jesus, on the other hand, can bless us is in this world and the next. All who have been saved by God’s grace given through faith in Jesus, live each day knowing that they walk with the Creator of the universe who loves and accepts them, sends them the Holy Spirit to guide them, and gives them life with God in an eternal existence in which things like death, terror, sorrow, pain, and need are no more.

When put like this maybe, the choice between living for the world and living for Jesus seems obvious. The problem, of course, is that life with Jesus tells us to trust that the God revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus we cannot see will give us the blessings God has in mind for us, here and, perfectly, beyond death. But life lived for this world gives us the license to grab and grasp all that we can see and take from it, no matter how it destroys our character or alienates us from God and from the life only God can give. It’s easier for us to grasp and grab than it is for us to trust. The former aligns with our sinful human nature, our inborn desire to be like God. The latter--trust, faith in the God we meet in Jesus--is unnatural. Faith only comes to us through the supernatural means by which God creates it in us: the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and God’s Word.

And it is so easy for Christians to fall for the traps of the world, to be ensnared by Satan and his lies, confusing their moral codes and their “family values” with discipleship. This is why you find so many Christians today identifying their political preferences with their faith. They’ve forgotten that Jesus isn’t a Democrat or a Republican or an American or an Israeli. People who once walked with the God made known in Jesus can, like lost sheep looking for the next reassuring patch of fresh grass to feed on, wander into living for the world, its agendas, its comforts, and its obsessions rather than living for Jesus.

Today’s gospel lesson, Mark 3:20-35, contains two interwoven episodes, in which two groups of people are confronted by Jesus for walking with the world rather than with Him. For them, Jesus’ ministry didn’t come as good news--that is, it didn’t come to them as gospel. Instead, for them, what Jesus came into the world to do was bad news, disturbing news. When people walk with the world, even Jesus’ grace is bad news because it undermines their pretended goodness and self-sufficiency or their “way of life.” We see this in the two groups Jesus encounters today.

The first group is Jesus’ own earthly family, His mother, Mary, and the brothers born to Mary and Joseph. The gospels of Matthew and Luke report that Mary knew well Who Jesus was--God in human flesh. She knew better than anyone that Jesus was born from her virgin womb. She had been there when the angels and wise men, Simeon and Anna, had all confirmed Jesus’ identity as Messiah, Lord, and Savior. She had experienced Jesus as a Son Who had been utterly obedient and sinless. And yet, Mark tells us that after Jesus has gone into a house with His disciples, the house being symbolic of those walking with Jesus, Mary and the family from Nazareth show up in Capernaum to condemn Jesus. Verse 21: “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Jesus’ family is intent on taking Jesus by force back to Nazareth and putting an end to this whole Messiah business!

Why? Two answers immediately suggest themselves. One is that Jesus is seen not fulfilling His family obligations. The oldest son was supposed to take over the family business and estate. Yet, here’s Jesus out in the world to save everyone from sin, death, and darkness. Another possible reason is that the family is embarrassed by Jesus. It would be OK for Mary and the family to think of Jesus as Messiah within the confines of their four walls. But there could be pushback for the family to face if He pushed His Messiahship in public. “He’s crazy!” they say, effectively abandoning Jesus and walking with the world. Friends, it will often be your families who give you the most grief for your faith in Jesus Christ.

The second group in today’s lesson to reveal themselves as walking with the world rather than with Jesus is the scribes. Jesus is giving signs of the Good News from heaven He came into the world to bring: He is casting demons out of people plagued by evil and the devil. These exorcisms are signs that Jesus is God, the One Who can deliver us from evil, sin, and death. In them, as Jesus says later in the lesson, Jesus is plundering the house of Satan, setting free human beings born in bondage to sin and incapable of freeing themselves. Every exorcism, healing, and raising of the dead Jesus performs in His earthly ministry is a preview of the freedom for life with God He can give all people because He died on the cross, accepting the death punishment for sin we deserve and because He rose from the dead, affirming His power to give life to all! But the scribes say that Jesus is driving demons out in the power of Satan. Jesus says, “if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come.” (Mark 3:26)

As a pastor, I’ve always tried to be flexible with families whenever sessions of Catechism, which our young people are required to be part of before making public affirmation of their Baptism, sometimes interfere with young people’s schedules. But I’ll never forget the chill I got when a woman told me that the time for one Catechism class conflicted with her son’s basketball game could only mean one thing. “Catechism,” she told me, “is demonic.” When people are walking with the world rather than Jesus, up becomes down. They’d rather grab hold of the world’s passing rewards than the gracious hand of Jesus. 

In today’s lesson, after fending off the scribes’ accusation, Jesus turns again to His family’s accusation that He’s crazy. Still standing outside the house, rather than going in to be with Jesus, His family sends someone in to say, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” (Mark 3:32) Unmoved, Jesus asks, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:34) In other words, Jesus is asking, “Who really is related to Me? Who is connected with Me?”

He answers His own question. Pointing to those who surround Him in the house, He says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:34-35) Jesus’ family is composed of people who are male and female, Jew and Gentile, of every nation, tongue, race, and tribe. It’s made of those who do the will of God. And what is that exactly? “The work of God is this,” Jesus says in John 6:29, “to believe in the One he has sent.” When we respond to Jesus’ call to daily repentance, renewal, and faith in Him, when we turn to Him,  we are living with Him. May you walk with Jesus always. Amen