Sunday, August 07, 2022

Faith Beyond Our Fears

[Below, you'll find the message prepared for today's worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You can also view the live stream video of both the services. Have a good week and God bless you!]

Often in both the Old and New Testaments, when God or an angel sent by God encountered human beings, the first thing God or His messengers told people was, “Don’t be afraid.”

One reason for saying this is that it’s intimidating to be in the presence of God or of angels who directly reflect the glory of God.

But there are other reasons for these admonitions. In one of his Christmas sermons, Martin Luther recounts how, on Christmas night, an angel visited shepherds.”Fear not,’ said the angel,” Luther noted. Luther then confessed: “I fear death, the judgment of God, the world, hunger, and the like.”

Luther is right, isn’t he? We fear many things.

Parents fear for the safety of their kids when they send them off to school and when they see their teens get behind the wheel of a car.

Grandparents fear that their children and grandchildren will turn from Christ and the Church.

Employees fear being laid off. Consumers fear that inflation will eat up their savings and retirement accounts.

And with things like COVID, monkeypox, and the re-emergence of polio among the non-immunized over the past few years, people have feared for their health, the health of their loved ones, and for their lives.

Fear is the opposite of faith.

Faith trusts in God, in the promises of God, in the finished work of the crucified and risen Jesus assuring us that God will never leave us nor forsake us and that all who trust–who believe, who have faith–in Jesus will be raised from the dead even as Jesus was raised.

To Christians who receive the Holy Spirit at their baptism, God’s Word says: “The Holy Spirit raised Jesus from the dead. If the same Holy Spirit [The Holy Spirit Who enables you to believe in Jesus. If the same Holy Spirit…] lives in you, He will give life to your bodies in the same way.” (Romans 8:11)

Because faith is foreign to our natures, God even gives us faith in Jesus. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” we’re told in Ephesians 2:8.

Faith overcomes fear when, by the power of the Holy Spirit working in God’s Word, we trust that “the one who believes in [Jesus] will live, even though they die…” (John 11:25)

In saying that fear is the opposite of faith, we’re not saying that we should throw caution to the wind! When the devil tempted Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus didn’t do it. Stupid is still stupid, even when you have faith!

God’s Word tells us that our “bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit…You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

Jesus, by His death on the cross, has bought us out of our slavery to sin and death. We believe that these bodies, even after they’ve aged and deteriorated, even after death when we’ve been reduced to dust, will rise to live eternally with God. Since God values our physical bodies so much, we also are called to treat them with reverence. 

But, friends, we need never fear that God has forgotten us.

Or that we are alone.

Or that our sins are too great for Him to forgive.

Or that our prayers are too insignificant for Him to hear.

Or that Jesus’ resurrection promises are for everyone but us.

Because God acted on Good Friday and Easter Sunday to save us from sin, death, and condemnation, we need not fear anything!

But as long as we live on this earth, the battle between faith and fear will rage within us.

We see this battle in Abram, later renamed by God, Abraham, the ancestral father of God’s people, ancient Israel, in our first lesson for this morning, Genesis 15:1-6.

The book of Hebrews tells us: “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8)

Abraham had faith in God. He also often caved into fear, afraid that God couldn’t be trusted to keep His promises. Twice to save his own neck, he lied to kings through whose territory he traveled, claiming that his wife was actually his sister, nearly tripping the kings into adultery with Sarah. Afraid that God had forgotten His promise to provide Sarah and him with a son and many descendants, he went along with Sarah’s plan of impregnating Sarah’s slave Hagar.

Fear causes us to underestimate God and to take sinful shortcuts because we don’t trust God to fulfill His promises.

When we join Abram today, God has just done two amazing things for him. First, he helped Abram, in concert with some local potentates, to save the family of his relative Lot after they were kidnapped by several strong armies. God had accomplished this impossible thing, giving Abram a front-row seat on God’s grace. Then, God sent Melchizedek, the king of a place called Salem, now Jerusalem, and also a priest of God, to Abram with bread and wine as signs that He hasn’t forgotten His promises.

After these things, Abram should be fortified in faith.

Instead, God finds Abram wallowing in fear.

God tells Abram: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” (Genesis 15:1)

Listen, friends, the Law is of God. It’s His perfect will for human beings. Among those laws is that we trust in God. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding…” God’s Word tells us. Proverbs 3:5)

But, have you noticed that being told things like, “Trust in God” or “You shall have no other gods before Me” doesn’t make us less prone to putting other things ahead of God? At most, hearing God’s Law, even from the mouth of God Himself, makes us conscious of our need for repentance.

But God’s Law, perfect though it is, cannot save us. It can’t make us righteous, acceptable to God, or prop up any self-driven self-improvement program.

So, after God tells Abram to not be afraid, Abram vents his fears: “‘Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?’ And Abram said, ‘You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.’” (Genesis 15:2-3)

Think about Abram’s words. “Elohim Yahweh,” he’s saying, “you’ve done some interesting things in my life. But when are you going to come through for me? When will you start paying off on that promise of nations of faithful people descending from my wife and me then?”

Now, God would have been justified in giving Abram a big smackdown at this point.

But it’s now that God speaks not the Law to Abram, but words of promise, what we could call Gospel, good news. “This man [Eliezer] will not be your heir,” God tells Abram, “but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” Then God takes Abram outside and God tells Abram, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them….So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5)

Nothing about Abram’s objective situation has changed as of this moment.

He and his wife are still childless.

They still aren’t sure where they’re going to live permanently.

They can’t see the multitudes of nations that were to issue from them.

But, by the power of the Word of God, by the power of God’s good will for fallen, imperfect human beings like Abram, like you and me, faith supplanted fear.

God, you remember, once brought the universe into existence by speaking His Word into lifeless, disordered chaos. God brings faith into the lives of sometimes fearful people as He speaks His Word of promise and love into our chaos.

And so, the last verse of our lesson tells us that after God had preached His Word of promise to Abram: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)

Abram’s faith wasn’t Abram’s accomplishment. Faith, faith that saves us from sin and death, that takes hold of the promises of God, comes to us through God’s Word as a free gift.

Standing under God’s Word of promise, hearing it, receiving it, is what gives us a faith that, in spite of our sins, including the sins of fear, dread, and despair, God reckons to us as righteousness.

It’s the kind of faith that Abraham had when He heard God’s Word.

It’s the kind of faith that turned back to God again and again, even after sin and failure.

It’s the kind of faith that today, the Word of God about Jesus Who died and rose for you, gives to you as you receive it.

In the Law, God tells us, “Do not fear.”

In the Gospel, God says, “I have already overcome all that causes you to fear.”

Today, friends, God tells us we need not be afraid. Nothing this world or our sins can do to us can separate those who take refuge in Jesus, God the Son, Who enables us to trust in the Gospel from the God Who loves us.

Just like Abraham, we may not be able to see how God will fulfill His promises to us. Nonetheless, His Word comes to all who confess in Christ again this morning and tells us, “You belong to God, now and forever.” Amen!

Friday, August 05, 2022

The One Who Does All Our Works for Us

In my quiet time today, I considered Isaiah 26. Verse 12 hit me:

"O Lord, you will ordain peace for us,
for you have indeed done for us all our works."

It's the second part of the verse that struck me. Nothing good that we do comes from us. That's because in our own power or moral strength, as Isaiah writes elsewhere, "all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment." (Isaiah 64:6) The moment we set out to consciously do a good or righteous thing, our sinful natures stand up to applaud and tell us what wonderful, good people we are, giving the lie to our pretended intrinsic goodness or righteousness.

In Jesus' portrayal of the day when He returns to bring the Kingdom of God in its fullness, He tells His sheep to enter into the joy He's prepared for them because they had visited imprisoned disciples, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and given drink to the thirsty. In giving these gifts to "the least of these," Jesus says, the sheep really cared for Him. But the sheep have no memory of these good deeds. 

This underscores the transformation that happens in the baptized as they turn to Christ in trust. The God revealed to us in Christ invades their lives and God does HIS good work through them. They're just living their lives in the freedom of forgiven sin, the freedom of knowing that as God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, He will do the same for those who trust in Jesus.

This is exactly what the apostle Paul talks about in his famous verse about those who are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not by any good thing they do. He says: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Notice that good works, being a good person, cannot make us acceptable to God, bring us forgiveness for our sin, or give us eternal life with God. That's because in ourselves, we could never be good enough.

Instead, God gives us faith in Christ, then, as we turn daily turn to Christ (Luke 9:23), Christ does His good works through us and in us. If Christians do anything good, righteous, or loving, they'll know not to take credit for it. In fact, they'll be completely unaware of having done anything good at all. 

But Isaiah's words apply to more than just good works. He says to God, " have indeed done for us all our works..." 

ALL is an ALL-ENCOMPASSING WORD. Without God, we can do nothing. 

In Athens in the first century, Paul quoted one of the Greek poets and said of the God we all now can know in Jesus Christ, " him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28) 

If you're living, breathing, and reading these words, it's the work of God. 

If you're able or have been able to make a living by your brain and brawn, your brain and brawn comes from God, along with your capacity to work or think. 

God didn't have to give us life. And once the whole human race fell into sin, God didn't have to give new life through the crucified and risen Christ. But He does. And He works in our lives.

Today, like every day, is a good one to repent--turn away from our sin, including our sins of pride and pretended self-sufficiency--and trust in Jesus. 

Sunday, July 31, 2022

More Than Enough!

[Below is the message from today's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You'll also find live stream video from both of our worship services. Have a blessed week!]

Luke 12:13-21

The first thing to be said about today’s Gospel lesson and the parable of the rich fool that Jesus tells us is that there is nothing intrinsically wrong or sinful about having possessions.

Jesus doesn’t want to take anything from you. Not your house or cars or boats or 401k’s or stock portfolios.

But there is a warning in what Jesus tells us today…and a holy, life-giving reminder. There is, in other words, Law and Gospel.

First, the Law. It’s interesting to notice how much of God’s moral law is about protecting what is ours from others who would take it from us and protecting what belongs to others from us should we take it into our heads to grab their possessions.

In the Seventh Commandment, God says, “You shall not steal.”

And, as if that weren’t clear enough, God has two more commandments among the ten that prohibit us not just from taking what belongs to others, but even from wanting to take what belongs to others.

The sin these two commandments address is covetousness. In the Ninth Commandment, God says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”

And in the Tenth Commandment, He says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his workers, or his livestock, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

God doesn’t want to take the money, possessions, or earthly life He has entrusted to your care, your stewardship. He wants to protect them for you. That’s part of what these commandments are about.

But, here’s the other thing these commandments are about: God wants to protect you from the fatal sin of overvaluing your possessions, of overvaluing what they can do for you.

Money, home, possessions: These can be very good things. But their value ends at the grave. Each can give us a measure of life in this world and are to be treated as trusts from God. But none of them are God.

Covetousness, ultimately, is idolatry, idol worship.

This is why in The Large Catechism, Martin Luther gives over a big chunk of his discussion of the First Commandment–”You shall have no other gods before Me”--to a discussion of covetousness. Even though he’s going to later spend time discussing it in relation to the Ninth and Tenth Commandments.

“Many a person thinks that he has God and everything in abundance when he has money and possessions,” Luther says. “He trusts in them and boasts about them with such firmness and assurance as to care for no one. Such a person has a god by the name of ‘Mammon’ on which he sets all his heart. This is the most common idol on earth. He who has money…feels secure…and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise…he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God…This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave.”

We worship money and possessions when we adopt the deceptive belief that they can give us what only the God Who has conquered sin and death for us in Jesus Christ can give us: life, eternal life with our every need–our daily bread–provided for us as free gifts from the hand of a gracious, loving God.

In today’s Gospel lesson, a man approaches Jesus and says, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” (Luke 12:13)

We have no idea whether this man has a legitimate beef with his brother or not. But we do know that Jesus refuses to get involved with the dispute. “Man,” Jesus answers, “who appointed me a judge or an arbiter [literally, a partitioner or divider]  between you?” (Luke 12:14)  “Look,” Jesus is saying, “God has established governments to arbitrate disputes like that. That’s not what I’m here for.”

After that, Jesus tells the disciples who are with Him as He journeys to Jerusalem: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” (Luke 12:15)

Then, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ (Luke 12:16-19)

Jesus’ parable was vividly illustrated by the Swiss artist Eugène Burnand in a kind of diptych.

The rich man in Jesus’ parable has a problem. He doesn’t know what to do with all of his stuff. He seems to give no thought to giving some of it away, to help those in physical or spiritual need.

Nor does he ask for the advice of God or anyone else.

He doesn’t see God as the One Who blessed him with the brain and the brawn that made his wealth possible.

Have you noticed that money has a way of turning us in on ourselves and away from the world?

That’s probably why, in the original Greek in which Luke’s gospel is written, the man in Jesus’ parable uses the words “I” and “my” twelve times. That’s a lot of I, Me, Mine, to quote the Beatles.

In this print by Burnand, we see the rich man at the moment of his decision. His face is still creased with worry despite a self-satisfied look that shows him dreaming of days of ease, just him and his money.

Jesus tells the rest of His parable: ““But God said to [the rich man], ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 14:20-21)

This is the second part of Burnand’s portrayal of Jesus’ parable.

To be rich toward God, friends, isn’t Jesus putting out a plea for a bigger offering at church, although that may be part of it.

To be rich toward God is to be open to God.

It means to refuse to sell our souls for less than the value God placed on them when He died on the cross for us!

And this is the Gospel!

We’re told in 2 Corinthians 8:9: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

Friends, yesterday, our community of faith witnessed two baptisms.

In the morning, Aliyah Jean was baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the hospital.

In the afternoon, her brother Damian Westley, as had long been planned, underwent the same sacrament.

They were immersed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and so became beneficiaries of His rich grace: the forgiveness of sin, the deliverance from death and the devil, and everlasting salvation for those who believe the promise of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die;  and whoever lives by believing in me will never die…” (John 11:25-26)

This is the treasure of the Gospel that Jesus purchased for us through the lavish expenditure of His innocent body and blood, of more value than all the money and possessions, good though they may be, that this fallen, dying world can offer us!

Behind the fever of human covetousness is the suspicion that the everyday blessings God gives to us in our daily lives and all that He offers us in Jesus Christ–the forgiveness of sin, life everlasting with God, freedom from the condemnation of the devil, the world, and our sinful selves–is not enough.

But, friends, the very best this world has to offer is only the faintest hint of all that God has already given to us in Jesus at His cross and from His empty tomb. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23: “All things are yours, whether…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”

Friends, the Law says, “Don’t covet.”

The Gospel tells us, “In Jesus, you don’t need to want for anything more than God already daily gives to you. In Jesus, all is yours! In Jesus, you have all you will ever need in this life and the next!”

He offers Himself and an eternity of blessings to you again today: in His Word, in His body, in His blood.

Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

He says, “Take My body, given for you.”

He says, “Take My blood, shed for you.”

Dear friends, take Jesus Christ and live! He is more than enough! Amen

Monday, July 25, 2022

Praying to Our Father

Below you'll find live stream video of yesterday's 8:45 and 11:00 AM worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You can also read the text of the message. Because I presently have a light case of COVID-19, thanks go to Mark and Trish for handling the services. Thanks to Mark for sharing my message. Thanks to Trish for bringing the elements of Holy Communion to our driveway, allowing me to consecrate the elements from a safe distance in our garage.]

Luke 11:1-13

In Romans 8, the apostle Paul says: “...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” (Romans 8:26)

We do not know what we ought to pray for. As I grow in my faith, I increasingly understand how true this statement is. I often don’t know how I should pray! What is the right thing to pray for?

Some well-meaning people will say, “Pray from the heart.” The Bible teaches us that “​​The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” (Jeremiah 17:9) Following our hearts, in prayer as well as in anything else, can lead us away from the One we are to follow, Jesus Christ. Others will say, “Just pray what makes sense.” God’s Word also tells us that “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12) Following our thoughts can also lead us far from God.

We don’t know how to pray, but Paul’s words assure us that as we come to God the Father in Jesus’ name, the Holy Spirit turns our vague yearnings into prayer. Any Christian who has come to the end of their rope and been able to only pray, “Help, Lord!” knows that Paul’s right!

But the Holy Spirit can help us pray in another way. It’s the Holy Spirit Who inspired the Gospel writers, including Luke the evangelist, to record a pattern for praying from Jesus Himself, a prayer we can pray when we have no idea how to pray!

Our Gospel lesson for today, Luke 11:1-13, says that after observing Jesus praying, one of the hundred or so disciples with Jesus at the time, asked the Lord to teach them how to pray. According to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had already taught the form of the Lord’s Prayer that we use on Sunday mornings. But this is a different group and a different occasion. What Jesus gives us is a slightly different version of the prayer. Although it’s brief, it contains every element needed in our praying.

Let’s look at the prayer briefly this morning, with particular emphasis on just one word, the key to understanding the whole thing. The prayer starts with the address, Father. Jesus often spoke of God the Father as, “My Father.” And now, in the Lord’s Prayer, He wants to share His Father with us.

This is a remarkable gift of love! You remember that Jesus once confronted a group of His fellow Jews Who refused to accept Him as God. They tried to be “holier than thou” with Jesus by claiming Abraham, the ancient patriarch of God’s people, as their father. But Jesus told them, “You belong to your father, the devil and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Jesus is describing us at the moments we are born into this world, born in sin. At birth, God is our creator, but not our Father. We are instead, effectively fatherless, since the devil who lured and lures humanity into sin, death, and destruction, bears no concern or compassion for us.

Jesus came into the world to change that! “[T]he Son of Man,” Jesus says of Himself, “came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) Jesus has died for your sins and for mine already at the cross. He has risen from the dead to open up eternity to you and me. He calls us now to daily bring our sins to the foot of the cross and follow Him to become heirs of God’s grace. (Luke 9:23) Today, Jesus comes to us in the Gospel Word and in the sacraments to bring us the forgiveness of our sins and the assurance that we are God’s children. As we receive these gifts by faith, we know that God truly is our Father.

Jesus, of course, presents us with an unforgettable picture of what God the Father is like in the parable of the prodigal son. The Father in Jesus’ story gives both of his sons, not just the oldest, as was common in those days, an equal share in the inheritance. And though the youngest son squanders all, the Father welcomes the son home with open arms. Jesus wants us to know that, for those who trust in Him as Lord and God, that is God’s attitude toward us and our prayers.

The petitions of the prayer are simple and flow from knowing God as our Father. We ask first, that God’s name’s–whether Father, Jesus, God, or Lord–will be hallowed or regarded as holy, set apart, special. Martin Luther says in The Small Catechism: “God’s name is indeed holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy also among us.” “God,” we’re saying in this petition, “You’ve given us the privilege of calling You our Father for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. Help us to use Your holy name for its intended purposes.”

Jesus says, then pray, “your kingdom come.” Jesus, of course, has come into our world to bring the kingdom of God, the reign of God, into this fallen world. Whenever God’s Word is shared and whenever it comes to us in water or bread and wine, the kingdom has come near to us. Here, we pray that this kingdom will continually come to us and that we will never grow indifferent to God’s Word or its call to trust in Jesus.

Jesus tells us to pray, “Give us each day our daily bread.” Even earthly fathers have compassion on their children. Jesus here urges us to recognize that every need we have–physical as well as spiritual–comes from our Father. The Bible reminds us that, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17)

Jesus tells us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” We don’t deserve to be children of God. But because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection and our baptism into Jesus, we are forgiven and made new. Jesus frees us then to pray that we will forgive others as we have already been forgiven–and are daily being forgiven–by God.

Jesus tells us then to pray, “And lead us not into temptation.” Luther points out in The Small Catechism that God, of course, tempts no one into sin. But here, we pray that we would avoid the deceptions of the devil, the world, and our sinful selves, avoiding harm to ourselves or others, avoiding hurting the Father Who sent His Son to save us from sin and death.

Life can throw all sorts of circumstances our way. Grief or the prospect of death may come at any time. Recent years with the pandemic, political turmoil, supply chain issues, severe weather, and others things have shown us how vulnerable we all truly are. It can be hard to know what to pray at times. This simple prayer of Jesus encompasses everything we need and everything we could pray for–reverence for God, citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom, daily and ongoing provision for our needs, the forgiveness of our sins, and protection from temptation. Jesus Christ has made all baptized believers children of God and conferred upon us the right to approach God as our Father and to ask for all these things. So ask. Amen