Friday, October 22, 2010

Martin Luther on 'Loving Our Neighbors'

Yesterday's installment of Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional, extracted from many of Martin Luther's sermons, essays, and table talks, struck me both personally and as a commentary on trends in both the Church and in society:
"The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'"
Galatians 5:14

After having heard and accepted the true teaching about faith, the apostle Paul seriously admonishes Christians to practice genuine good works. This is because remnants of sin remain in those who are justified. These remnants resist faith and divert us from doing true good works. Human reason and the sinful nature resist the Spirit in believers and control unbelievers. Reason is naturally inclined toward hypocritical superstition. It wants to measure God according to its own thoughts rather than according to his Word. It does works of its own choosing more enthusiastically than the ones God commanded. That's why faithful teachers must teach and impress on people true love and true good works just as much as they teach faith.

No one should think they fully understand this command: "Love your neighbor." Certainly this command is very short and very easy as far as the words are concerned. But where are the teachers and learners who actually practice this in life? These words, "Serve one another humbly in love," and "Love your neighbor as yourself," are eternal words. No one can think about, urge, and practice them enough.

It's remarkable that believers will immediately have troubled consciences if they fail to do something trivial. But these same people feel nothing at all when they neglect love and when their hearts aren't sincere and affectionate toward their neighbor. Unfortunately, this happens every day. For they don't regard God's command to love as highly as their own superstitions.*
*Clearly, Luther, in agreement with the Scriptures sees that anything that we put our trust in more than we do in the God revealed in the Bible, is a superstition. This includes our own tainted reason.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"God can use you if you're willing"

Here. Every Christian has at least one ministry.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.” (When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7-13)

Let God Decide Whether Your Worries Are Big Enough to Bother Him About

Who are we to decide if our worries are big enough or too small to tell God about? Just give your worries to God and let God decide.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Living in the Power of the Word of God

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier today.]

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
One thing I’ve observed through the years is that while the New Testament may sometimes confuse us, the Old Testament often frightens us.

The apostle Paul was neither confused nor frightened by the Old Testament, though. In fact, in 64AD, when the New Testament didn’t yet exist, he reminded the young pastor Timothy that from Timothy’s childhood (in fact, the original text says literally from Timothy's infancy), through his grandmother and mother, “you have known the sacred writings [that’s the books of the Old Testament] that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”

Those are curious words to us who are prone to see big differences between the two testaments of the Bible. But Paul understood that while Jesus’ Name is never used in the Old Testament, Jesus bore the very “image of the invisible God” revealed in the Old Testament.

The God Who, through no merit on Abraham's or Sarah's parts, made them the parents of God’s people, is the same God Who, through no merit of on our parts, sent Jesus so that all who believe in Him will not perish, but live with God forever.

The God Whose anger burned fiercely against the people who betrayed Him and turned to other gods is the same God Who, in Jesus, issued warnings to cities that refused to acknowledge Him as Lord and Messiah.

I believe that the reason Jesus’ Name is never used in the Old Testament is that once God entered the world in Jesus, He wanted people to come to faith in Him by the witness of actions consistent with the character, will, and personality of God revealed in Old Testament times, and not by the force of His Name.

Paul tells Timothy in our second lesson today that if Timothy would take the time to study the Old Testament, he would see the God of the Old Testament in the Word made flesh, in Jesus.

This is a good launching point for looking at our second lesson in more detail. If you would, please pull out the Celebrate inserts, look at the second lesson, and read along silently with me starting at chapter 3, verse 16: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”

When Paul speaks of “all scripture” here, he’s talking about the Old Testament, of course. But through the centuries, the Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, has come to add the 27 books of the New Testament to the 39 books of the Old Testament, to complete scripture in what we know as the Bible.

Paul says that all scripture “is inspired by God.” In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word translated as inspired in our lesson is theopneustos, literally God-breathed. That means that the Bible is filled with the breath or Spirit or life of God, something we may not notice if the Bible is just a book collecting dust on our shelves or is an unused app on our iPods.

If you’ve been tempted to think of the Bible as the remnant of ancient civilizations, think again. God inhabits the Bible and if you will take its truths, especially the truth about Jesus, the Savior of the world, as the foundation of your life, God’s Word will inhabit your life.

Now, in verse 17 of our lesson, we come to two important words: “So that.” Circle those words on your Celebrate inserts, if you would. Those two words indicate purpose, God's purpose.

Paul is saying that God gives us the Word not to entertain us and not just to comfort us, but for a reason: to be a tool for living.

Read the whole verse: “So that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” God gives His Word so that those who believe in Jesus will be ready to do all the good that God calls us to do. God’s Word makes us proficient for a new way of life. To be proficient is to be competent, capable, qualified. Through God’s Word, we can become qualified to do every good work God has in mind for us—from witnessing to others about Jesus to serving our neighbors in Jesus’ Name or teaching Sunday School.

Starting at chapter 4, verse 1, Paul turns very serious. He underscores his seriousness by calling on God the Father and Jesus Christ, the same Jesus Christ Who will judge every human being when He reappears at the end of history, to witness to five responsibilities Paul entrusts to this young pastor Timothy. These five responsibilities belong, in fact, to all who confess Jesus as their Savior, something we’ll do again in a few moments through the words of the Nicene Creed. They’re our five responsibilities, too.

Paul says:
(1) “Proclaim the message.” We’re to tell the people we live with, work with, and go to school with, that they can have new life when they repent of sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ.

(2) “Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable.” In loving, considerate ways, tell the truth about what God’s Word says whether the world likes it or not. Tell people that their sins killed Jesus, but that Jesus’ death and resurrection can bring them forgiveness and eternity with God.

There are lots of false teachers these days, as there were in Paul’s day, who try to make God more acceptable to people by leaving out chunks of the Bible’s truth about God.

Some of these false teachers are perfectly coiffed TV preachers who never mention sin, repentance, or the cross. They only tell people to believe that God is going to give them bigger incomes and to believe in themselves.

Other false teachers uphold political correctness by insisting, despite what God’s Word tells us, that people can be right with God whether they repent for sin or not, choose to acknowledge some sin as sin or not, or whether they believe that Jesus is humanity’s one and only Savior or not.

Folks, when we Jesus confronts us at the ends of our lives, He will not be interested in how popular or successful we were, but only in how faithful we were, whether we persisted in following Jesus, and whether, as repentant sinners communicating with our fellow sinners, we told the truth about God’s Word. As Mother Teresa once said, "God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful."

(3) “Convince.” Use every means God makes available to you to lovingly persuade others to follow Jesus and so gain the life that only Jesus gives.

(4) “Rebuke.” Don’t be afraid to set those you love straight. A friend of mine, a Christian, was in the constant habit of using God’s Name as a punctuation mark in his sentences. He wasn't cursing, just inserting God's Name as an exclamation. He meant nothing by it, which is exactly what God is talking about when He tells us not to use His Name in vain. I didn’t have the gumption to do it, but another friend approached this fellow and asked, “Why do you do that? That’s not what God gave you His Name for.” To his credit, my first friend stopped using God’s Name vainly. He actually thanked my other friend for helping him to clean up his act.

(5) “And encourage, with the utmost patience…” Sometimes, when I grow frustrated with other Christians, I take a look in the mirror and think, “Exactly how patient is God with all your sins and childishness, Mark? Maybe you should extend that same patience to others as you share God’s Word with them.”

Now, please look at verses 3 and 4: “For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.”

The phrase translated in our lesson as sound doctrine, in the original Greek is literally healthy teaching. Some don’t want to hear “healthy teaching,” teaching that accords with the revealed Word and will of God. They don’t want to hear that they need to repent for their sins and trust in Jesus alone. They want to follow gurus and quacks. They want to call themselves gods or say there is no god. They want to claim that science or experience has taught them that what the Bible says is right or wrong really isn’t valid. They get itching ears, wanting to hear an easier message.

All of these inclinations are unhealthy because false teaching takes us away from the life-giving Word of God.

Recently, I spoke with a man who, like me, is a heart patient. He refuses to eat what the doctors tell him to eat. And he claims that he gets enough exercise at work not to need any additional walking or time in the gym. He just wants the doctor to give him medicine so that he can go on living the way he wants to live. That man may survive me. But his desire to do what he wants to do rather than following his doctors’ strong advice puts his health at jeopardy.

Paul says that we put our spiritual health and our eternal lives at jeopardy when we refuse to stand under the authority of God’s Word and, instead, wander into humanly-created myths. Life comes from the Bible’s Word about Jesus and nowhere else.

Finally, Paul says in verse 5: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”

Merlin Hoops was one of my professors in seminary. One class I took from him dealt with 1 Peter, the New Testament letter to churches in Asia Minor whose members faced persecution and shunning for their faith in Christ. One day, Dr. Hoops looked at us all and said, “I shudder when I think of the adversity and pain some of you will endure because of your faith in Christ.”

Every Christian has a ministry, an area of service in which Christ calls us to share the Word of God with others. And every Christian is to be an evangelist, which means a person who shares the good news about Jesus.

If we strive to be faithful to Christ by doing our individual ministries, by sharing the good news, we will experience great highs:
  • We’ll see friends and family enter eternity by faith in Christ. 
  • We’ll see impoverished families helped. 
  • We’ll see people’s burdens lightened by the help Christ enables us to give to them. 
We will also know great pain:
  • Trusted Christian friends will turn on us. 
  • Others will take advantage of us. 
  • Most will remain untouched by our enthusiasm for Jesus. 
Every person who strives to faithfully follow Jesus knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Keep on doing your ministry, anyway! Keep on being faithful to Christ anyway!

You see, in the end, we don’t follow Jesus to get others to like us, or have others be dependent on us, or to win awards and accolades.

We follow Jesus simply to thank God for Jesus and for the new life He has given to us and, out of simple Christian love for our neighbor, to give others what we already enjoy through Christ: a life with God that has already started and will stretch for an eternity when this world and all of its troubles are but a faint memory, an eternity when God’s Word in all its power will fill us with a life that never ends.

Ah, Nuts!

My Buckeyes lost to the Badgers on Saturday night.

It's tough to spot a team as good as Wisconsin 21 points at their home field and have any chance of coming back. That was what the Buckeyes faced in trying to salvage this game last evening.

While the Buckeyes' play in the third and the start of the fourth quarters revived hopes for getting the win and retaining the Number 1 ranking conferred on the team after Alabama's loss just last Saturday, Ohio State's defense broke down on a key Wisconsin offensive drive in the fourth.

Some of the Buckeyes' flaws visible throughout the year showed themselves and proved costly. OSU's special teams gave up a touchdown on the first kickoff return twelve seconds into the game. The defensive line was repeatedly blown off the line of scrimmage throughout much of the game.

But there were bright spots. Terrelle Pryor showed his maturity as a quarterback by repeatedly making good decisions with his reads. Dan Herron showed real toughness and, I think, played a very good game. He is now indisputably the Buckeyes' #1 running back. The comeback bid made by Ohio State in the third quarter is a tribute to the ability of Coach Jim Tressel and his staff to calm and refocus the team.

At this point, it's tough to even see how this season can end with a Big Ten title for the Buckeyes. Michigan State appears to be poised to run the table and the Buckeyes and Spartans don't meet this season.

But we will see. There's still a lot of season to be played. Go, Buckeyes!