Friday, April 03, 2020

God Can Use You Now in the Face of Coronavirus

During my quiet time with God this morning, I read the Old Testament book of Judges 5:1-7:25.

The book of Judges tells the story of God's people, ancient Israel before that people had kings. From time to time in this era, God would raise judges, people who would provide the leadership needed at the moment. They often were military figures like Deborah.

Among the most reluctant to heed God's call to be a judge was a man named Gideon.

Israel had fallen into idolatry and was tormented by the unjust Midianites, a neighboring people.

Gideon was a nobody. When God called him to lead Israel into battle against the Midianites, Gideon, like Moses centuries earlier, was resistant. "And he [Gideon] said to him [God], 'Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house.'” (Judges 6:15)

After that, God patiently shows Gideon that He really is appointing Gideon, this unimportant person in Israel's weakest, least influential tribe, to lead God's efforts to free Israel of Midian. 

Later, when multiple tribes of God's people respond to Gideon's call to do battle with the Midianites and they're encamped in the valley near the hill of Moreh, God tells Gideon:
The Lord said to Gideon, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying, ‘My own hand has saved me.’ (Judges 7:2)
This begins a whittling process by which God reduces Gideon's forces from 32,000 soldiers to 300. It's at this point that God says Gideon has enough to do the job. And of course, the reason that God does this is to show Israel that God alone is all they need.

This same God, now revealed to all the world in Jesus, is all we need. Whether it's the temptations or false gods that seek to draw us away from God, the self-consciousness that tells us we're not good enough or able enough to be the person God calls us to be or a pandemic that brings the world to its knees, we're likely to feel, like Gideon did, utterly inadequate.

And Gideon was inadequate. 

So are we.

But remember that this God Who, through Jesus, is available to everyone, is the One to Whom we can go for peace, hope, strength, wisdom, and life. 

He is the only One Who can give us these things.

In fact, it's when we're at our weakest and most helpless that God can start to use us. When we lay aside all illusions of self-sufficiency or our need to be self-sufficient that God can do things in us and through us. That's why the apostle Paul says, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2 Corinthians 12:10)

So, whatever battle you find yourself in today, let God fight your battle. One person who falls at the feet of the crucified and resurrected Jesus and believes in Him can be used by God to accomplish God's good purposes

Maybe your call today is simply and persistently, with helplessness and faith, to ask God to guide medical researchers, public health officials, and elected leaders, to bring comfort to the families of the victims of the coronavirus, to heal those who have the virus, to protect medical personnel and their families from the disease, to help manufacturers to supply us with enough sanitizer, masks, and ventilators.

Maybe your call today is to find a means, any means--telephone calls, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter posts, email, texts--to share the good news of new and everlasting life that we have through Jesus. You can share in your own words, with gentleness, compassion, and love the truth that Jesus revealed to a man named Nicodemus:
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son [Jesus], that whoever believes in him [Jesus] should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3:16-18)
Whatever you may be battling today--fear, dread, grief, sorrow, boredom, let God win the battles for you.

Whoever you may know or whatever group of people you know of who are on the frontlines of the battle against coronavirus, you can call on God the Father in the name of Jesus, to hold them up and protect them. Yes, even you and I can do this, small and weak though we may think of ourselves as being.

What is God calling you to do today, even as you practice sheltering-in-place and social distancing? 

Ask God. If God could use Gideon, God can use you! 

[Below is an early, early generation praise song that we used to sing at a church I served in the Cincinnati area. The phrase, "the battle belongs to the Lord" comes from several passages in the Old Testament. It's kind of hokey, but I don't care.]

Thursday, April 02, 2020

A Powerful Fortress in a Time of Evil!

As we face this great evil, coronavirus, sent from hell itself, we need not be alone. And we needn’t despair.

As Martin Luther, inspired by Psalm 46, reminds us in his finest hymn, God is our fortress.

And God has sent us a Champion, Jesus Christ, Who has defeated sin, death, and the devil through His death and resurrection. Even today, Jesus fights for us and stands with us today, sending His Word and the Holy Spirit to empower us to trust, to believe, in Him in all circumstances, enabled to stand against evil by loving God and loving neighbor.

All who have been saved by God’s reckless love through faith in Jesus know that nothing can separate them from God.

I pray that all my Facebook friends will take heart from knowing that through faith in Jesus Christ, God is your mighty fortress!



Here is the entire psalm which inspired Luther's hymn (it's copied from biblegateway.com and presents the rendering of the psalm in the New International Version).

Psalm 46[a]

For the director of music. Of the Sons of Korah. According to alamoth.[b] A song.

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.[c]
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy place where the Most High dwells.
God is within her, she will not fall;
    God will help her at break of day.
Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
    he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Come and see what the Lord has done,
    the desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease
    to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the shields[d] with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

Footnotes:

  1. Psalm 46:1 In Hebrew texts 46:1-11 is numbered 46:2-12.
  2. Psalm 46:1 Title: Probably a musical term
  3. Psalm 46:3 The Hebrew has Selah (a word of uncertain meaning) here and at the end of verses 7 and 11.
  4. Psalm 46:9 Or chariots
New International Version (NIV)
Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Holy Communion (Back to Basics: Revisiting the Catechism, Part 5)

Here's the video of tonight's midweek Lenten worship and the full prepared text of the message.

Matthew 26:26-29



Tonight, we come to the final installment of our Lenten series, Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism

With it, we consider The Small Catechism’s discussion of the second of the two Sacraments, Holy Communion. 

A Sacrament is usually defined by Lutherans according to three criteria: 
  • (1) It was instituted by Christ; 
  • (2) It involves a physical element;
  • (3) It brings the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to those who receive it. 
Holy Baptism and Holy Communion meet these criteria. 

But what exactly is Holy Communion? 

What promises does Jesus make to those who receive it? 

How does Holy Communion work? 

And who is worthy of this Sacrament? 

Martin Luther set out to answer these four basic questions simply in The Small Catechism.

Holy Communion is not the invention of the Church. Jesus Himself presided over the Sacrament for the first time at what we call the Last Supper. 

Three gospel writers as well as the apostle Paul in one of his New Testament letters, tell us how Jesus, on the night of His betrayal and arrest, shared Holy Communion with the twelve. 

Matthew says: “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” (Matthew 26:26-28)

Notice, Jesus did not say, “This represents My body.” 

Nor did He say, “This represents or symbolizes my blood of the covenant.” 

Had Jesus wanted to say those things, He could have done so. 

But He said, “This bread IS My body...This wine IS My blood of the covenant.” 

As I’ve said before, Jesus knows what the meaning of IS is. 

And this has tremendous significance

I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in John 6:35. 

He also says, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” (John 6:54-56) 

A chemical analysis of the elements used by Jesus in Holy Communion will show that they are bread and wine. But Jesus says that they are also His life-giving body and blood. 

This is why, in The Small Catechism, Luther says that “Communion is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and the wine, given to us Christians to eat and drink, as it was instituted by Christ Himself.”

Luther then asks what benefit eating and drinking the Sacrament can bring. To answer, he points back to Jesus’ words. The Sacrament brings us “the forgiveness of sins.” 

You see, Jesus, like the spotless lambs once offered on the annual Jewish “Day of Atonement,” Yom Kippur, has offered Himself as the perfect, sinless, once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins. Unlike Yom Kippur, which only brought Jews forgiveness of the previous year’s sins, Jesus has offered Himself as the definitive sacrifice for all our sin. 

“Look,” John the Baptist told others when he saw Jesus approaching him at the Jordan River, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) 

When we receive Christ’s body and blood, He is physically filling us and covering us once more with the benefits of what He has accomplished for us on the cross

This is why the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?” 

We need to regularly participate in this Sacrament--Luther assumed the Church would offer it to believers daily--because, as long as we remain in this world, our old selves remain, and we are prone to sin, in need of forgiveness

Holy Baptism, of course, is the means by which God gives us rebirth. Holy Communion though is bread for our journey, sustaining us in the grace of God given in Jesus, along life’s way, a holy hedge against the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.

But how, unbelievers and even Christians who don’t take Jesus’ Sacrament seriously ask, “can bodily eating and drinking bring such great benefits?” 

We ask questions like these because we think that forgiveness of sin depends on us, on our right attitudes or thoughts. 

Thoughts like these spring from our human ego. Which is why Luther points us back to Who it is that acts when we receive Holy Communion. “It is not the eating and drinking alone,” Luther writes, “but also the words that accompany it, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ These words, together with the eating and drinking, are the chief thing in the Sacrament, and those who believe them have what they say and declare, namely, the forgiveness of sin.”

If a friend works all day long to prepare a four-course dinner, invites you to their house, then spreads it on the table and serves you, unless you’re stupid or an ingrate, you won’t later say, “I got some dinner tonight.” Your host is the one who did everything necessary for you to have that dinner. All you had to do was, like a pig at the trough, show up where your host directed you to go. 

Just so, with Holy Communion, everything depends on Jesus. It’s He Who died and rose, He Who offers up His body and blood, He Who gives you the forgiveness of sin as you eat and drink, He Who invites you to the table. 

And how does He do this? Through the power of His Word, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” 

All that’s left to you is to receive it with helplessness, gratitude, and faith. “I can’t see how this works, Lord, but You say that this IS Your body and this IS Your blood and I trust Your words.” 

It is Christ’s Word that makes Holy Communion Holy Communion. 

It is Christ’s Word that imparts Christ’s forgiveness of your sin physically to you in this sacrament.

Well, who, Luther asks in the fourth section of The Small Catechism’s explanation of Holy Communion, is worthy of such a great gift? Luther says that some may fast or do other outward things to prepare for receiving the Sacrament, but “people are truly worthy and well prepared who believe these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” “But,” Luther writes, “those who do not believe these words or who doubt them are unworthy and unprepared, for the words ‘for you’ require truly believing hearts.”

We may wonder sometimes when we receive Christ’s body and blood whether we really do believe those words, whether Christ really forgives us. 

Doubts like these are normal and assail even the greatest saints who love Jesus. Until we see Jesus face to face, we will always have doubts. 

When doubts about Christ and His Word come to me, I’m inspired by the example of the man who approached Jesus for healing for his son. Jesus told the man to believe in Him, to trust in Him, that He would heal the boy. “I do believe,” the man replied, “help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) 

Jesus honored that man’s small faith, a faith that, despite its smallness, knew enough to turn to Jesus

Baptized believers in Jesus, if you know enough to respond to Jesus’ call to, “Come, drink my blood and eat my body for the forgiveness of your sins,” it’s enough. 

He will supply not only the forgiveness; He will also help you to believe that you share both His death to sin and resurrection to life with you again as you receive the bread and the wine and hear the words, “The body of Christ, given for you,” “The blood of Christ, shed for you.” 

For you. 

God bless you, friends. 

Amen



Monday, March 30, 2020

Friday, March 27, 2020

Malcolm Guite Reflects on Lucy's Time in the Library...

...in Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I Am the Resurrection

This one is from 1988. It's based on Jesus' words to Martha in this coming Sunday's Gospel lesson from John. It's a great promise for all who trust in Christ as their God and Savior.

Herbstreit is Right: Normal Won't Likely Be Here for A While

Centerville, Ohio product Kirk Herbstreit is obviously listening to the medical experts. Herbstreit, one-time Ohio State quarterback and a long-time college football analyst for ESPN, says he doesn't think that either college or pro football will be played this year.

I agree.

Barring a miracle, it will be many months before we can resume anything like a "normal" life. A vaccine likely won't be perfected until June of next year and vaccinations won't probably be widespread until late 2021.

The experts say that different regions of the country may be able to come out from under shelter-in-place and social distancing orders and advisories as 2020 unfolds.

But national policy will have to stipulate that if new outbreaks arise in those opened-up areas, new shutdowns will happen.

Again, barring a miracle for which I daily (hourly) pray, the shutdown is likely our way of life for a while.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, which infected 500-million people (about a quarter of the earth's population then) and killed millions, is instructive for us, I think. In the early part of the year, the illnesses and fatalities began. When the summer arrived, the numbers of new cases went down and people more confidently interacted with others. But in the fall, the illnesses and deaths came roaring back with terrible ferocity.

Absent a vaccine, this could be our experience as well. But, as we're already seeing here in Ohio, we can "flatten the curve," that is, diminish the rapidity with which the flu is being passed from person to person and save many lives, with shutdowns, hand-washing, and social distancing.

I salute all on the front-lines of battling our common enemy, the coronavirus: doctors, nurses, other health care workers, first responders, epidemiologists, public health officials, and elected leaders.

Thanks also go to those who work in hospitals, drug stores, and grocery stores, truckers and others in the transportation industry, and everyone else who keep the essential goods and services in our country going right now.

Pray for a miracle. Prepare for the worst.

[See 'This is How We Can Beat the Coronavirus Epidemic' from The Atlantic and here.]


Reminders of God's Faithfulness and Power

Two Christian musical expressions, one a classic hymn, the other a contemporary worship song, both reminding us of God's faithfulness and power! We need these reminders now. More than that, we need the God revealed to all in the crucified and risen Jesus. Jesus gives life with God now and for eternity to all who turn from sin and trust in Him.



Holy Baptism (Back to Basics: Revisiting the Catechism, Part 4)

[This week's online Midweek Lenten worship from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, focuses was on Holy Baptism, part of our series, Back to the Basics: Revisiting the Catechism. Below is the video and the text of the message.]



In Holy Baptism, God saves us from sin, death, and separation from God

This is what God’s Word teaches us in 1 Peter. Recalling the global flood of Noah’s day, Peter says, “only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water [the water of the flood] symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:20-21)

Some Christians, confronted by the words of Jesus’ apostle, shake their heads in disbelief. “Wait a minute,” they say. “Baptism saves us? Don’t I have to do something? Don’t I have to decide to follow Jesus? ” 


Listen: Scripture teaches that all human beings are born with sinful natures (Psalm 51:5). 

Ephesians 2:3 tells us that, “we were by nature deserving of wrath.” 

I would have an infinitely greater chance of deciding to look like Matthew McConnaughey than I have of deciding to be saved or deciding to follow Jesus

If you were suddenly dumped into the Pacific Ocean, your capacity to yell for help, swim, or even cling to a piece of sinking flotsam could only take you so far. You could not save yourself! 

In Baptism, it’s God Who does the deciding and God has decided through Christ to save the baptized. 

At least that’s what God’s Word teaches.

So, Baptism is life-saving, life-changing stuff! Jesus tells Nicodemus in John, chapter 3: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again…[and] Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3, 5)

In Holy Baptism, God remakes us as human beings. As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “... if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 


When God’s Word and His Holy Spirit assault chaos, including those born into the chaos of sin, new life happens

This has always been so! 

In Genesis 1, the Spirit moved over the waters of chaos and brought the universe into being. 

At the beginning of His earthly ministry, Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by John the Baptizer. “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. [the Bible tells us] And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” (Luke 3:21-22) 

This is what happens when we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God opens His kingdom to us and He sends us the Holy Spirit, the One Whose word brings the benefits of Jesus’ death and resurrection to us and we become children of God.

But how, Luther asks in the Catechism, can water do such great things? “It is not the water [the Catechism says] that does these things, but the Word connected with the water and our faith which relies on that Word. For without the Word of God it is simply water and not Baptism. But when connected with the Word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and a washing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit.” 


Luther then quotes Paul’s New Testament letter to Titus: “[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.” (Titus 3:5-8a)

In Holy Baptism, God’s saving Word about Jesus comes to us and remains with us, tenaciously refusing to leave us or give up on us even when we turn away from Him, when we stop worshiping God with His people, even when we cease to believe in Him


God will not force the baptized to believe in Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life

But, through the indelible commitment that God makes to us when we are baptized, He will keep bringing His saving Word to us so that we might believe in Jesus and be saved. 

This is what happened to me. I spurned God and claimed atheism as my religion for ten years. But God kept pointing me back to Jesus. God refused to give up on the commitment to be my Father and Lord and Savior that He made when I was born from above at the Baptismal font!  

Holy Baptism is the saving Word of God, embodied in the element of water. Just as I had no control over when I was born, I really have no control over when I am born anew in Holy Baptism. If we are baptized as infants, we cannot be unborn even if I walk away from God. And if a person is baptized as an adult, it will still be God Who calls them out of the darkness of sin and death into the light of His loving grace and will cause them to crave Holy Baptism. (In The Large Caetchism, Luther says that if a person comes to faith without having been yet baptized, they will "not despise" the sacrament!)

In the New Testament book of Acts, we read accounts both of individual adults being baptized after coming to faith in Jesus and of whole households, including the children, being baptized. 


In the entire New Testament, nobody says, “Before you can be baptized, you have to understand things.” 

And it doesn't say, “Before you are baptized, you have to reach a certain age.” 

Instead, the apostle Paul compares Holy Baptism to circumcision, the Jewish rite by which boys eight days old, were initiated into the faith. This happened long before they could know Who God is, long before they could understand the faith.

The evidence suggests that because God wants to give us new life and unleash His saving Word in people as soon as possible that the early Church baptized infants and children. They took Jesus’ words seriously, as we do, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:24)

In Holy Baptism, God gives all the baptized a share in Jesus’ victory over sin and death. On this point, Luther quotes Romans 6:4: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

As good Lutherans, we know that we can only be saved by grace through faith in Christ. 


That leaves the question of whether, like the man thrown overboard in the Pacific Ocean, we will stop striving and struggling and trust in Christ. 

And how do we do that? 

We don’tWe don't do anything!

The God Who comes to us in Holy Baptism sends us His Spirit to empower us to believe. “...no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 12:3 reminds us. 

And the God Who comes to us in Holy Baptism keeps sending the baptized His saving Word: “...faith comes from hearing the message [that is, the Good News of Jesus], and the message is heard through the word about Christ,” Romans 10:17 teaches.

The Small Catechism reminds us that Christ has commissioned His Church to baptize. “...go and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus commands us, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19) 


It also reminds us that Jesus tells us why we need to baptize. In Mark 16:16, Jesus says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” 

However God creates faith in Christ within us, we are saved. If you've already been baptized, it is Holy Baptism that is the primary engine by which God moves us toward faith. And if you've come to faith without baptism, you will surely want to be baptized, a holy desire God will create within you. (As He did in the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts.)

Jesus commands us to baptize so that people who cannot decide to follow Him by the power of their own wills may be reborn and so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit unleashed in our lives each day, we will come to saving belief in Jesus and we will be sustained in that belief. 

That’s why Holy Baptism is so important. 

Our series ends next week with a look at Holy Communion.