Friday, November 19, 2010

Tough Faith in a Tough God

[This was shared during the funeral service for Irene, a member of our congregation.]

John 11:17-27
For me, there are two words that will always immediately spring to mind when I think of Irene. Those two words are humor and toughness.

There are other words that come to mind, too; words like cheerful, loving, strong-willed, and faithful. All of them are descriptive of Irene. But her humor and toughness, as a Christian, as a mother and a grandmother, and as a person, are what stand out to me.

She wore her good humor everywhere she went: in the greeting line after worship, in visits friends and family members had at her home, and even during her stays in the hospital. Irene could laugh even when things weren’t going well.

And she was tough! There were many weeks when I would call her, sometimes after she had gotten difficult news about her health or when she wasn't feeling particularly well, and she would tell me, “I’m planning on being in church on Sunday.” "OK, Irene," I would tell her, knowing that she would be as true as her word.

Irene wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of her being in worship on a Sunday morning! She knew that, as we gather to praise God and hear God’s Word in the company of other believers, God gives us the strength—you might even say, the toughness—to face all the good and the bad that life in this world brings.

She knew too that worship with our church family also recharges us with the hope that belongs to all with faith in Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons God calls us to regular weekly worship and it’s why the Bible tells believers “not to [neglect meeting] together,” because in this habit we encourage one another.

Irene’s faith in Christ was evidenced in her humor and in her toughness and I, for one, was encouraged by her faith!

We meet another tough woman of faith in the Gospel lesson from John, chapter 11, which we read a few moments ago. Martha, along with her sister Mary and brother Lazarus, were friends of Jesus. As our lesson opens, Jesus arrives in His friends’ hometown of Bethany. Lazarus has died four days earlier. Many of the siblings’ other friends had come to comfort Martha and Mary, just as people have done for Irene’s family this morning.

Martha sees Jesus and calls out to Him. Martha’s words indicate anger and disappointment with Jesus. “Lord,” she says, “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.”

There is an impulse when we grieve to feel that God has abandoned us, to question God and His promises. Some time after the events recorded in John 11, even Jesus, God in the flesh, would feel that God the Father had abandoned Him. From the cross, as He neared His own death, Jesus cried out, “Father, why have You forsaken Me?”

Such feelings are normal. Deep in our bones, we know that what the Bible teaches is true; we weren’t made for death, we were made to live! Several translations of an Old Testament passage, Ecclesiastes 3:11, tell us that God has set eternity in human hearts. We know that death is a foreign intruder that exists in this imperfect world, but should not exist in the Kingdom of God that Jesus died and rose to bring to all who believe in Him. Martha experienced the same feelings all people experience when a loved one dies.

Her feelings are made more poignant by the fact that she, her sister, and her brother all believe in Jesus. Even in her anger and disappointment, Martha calls Jesus, “Lord,” a title the use of which indicates that Martha believes that Jesus is more than a carpenter who does some teaching. She sees Jesus as the Master of the universe, as the One Who brings sight to the blind, healing to the paralytic, and new life to the dying.

In our lesson, Martha underscores that, even in the midst of a situation she can’t understand or explain—the death of her brother—she still believes in Jesus. “Even now,” she tells Jesus, “I know that God will give You whatever You ask of Him.”

Later, Jesus tells Martha that He is the resurrection and the life and that all who believe in Him, even if they die in this world, will rise to newness of life. Jesus asks Martha if she believes Him and, in the midst of her grief, with no idea that a few short moments later Jesus will raise Lazarus from the grave, Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the One coming into the world.”

Folks, this is resilient faith. This is tough faith. It’s the kind of faith that I saw in Irene. It’s the kind of faith I am sure that she wants you to take hold of today.

It’s a faith that acknowledges the realities of this present, imperfect, sinful world in which we live. But it's a faith that trusts that Jesus, the resurrected Lord, is bigger than all our sorrows and that He gives eternity to all who turn from sin and believe in Him.

Today, in spite of sorrow, there is reason for us to be glad.

You see, God is tough too! He went all the way to a cross to bring you forgiveness of sin and everlasting life. It’s to you and me, as much as it was to the people who first heard Him in first-century Judea, that Jesus says, “Repent and believe in the good news.”

That good news is what, even in her sorrow, Martha believed and what, even in her trials and suffering, Irene believed: “God so loved the world that he gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Trust that God’s love is tough enough to love you wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, however weak and unworthy you may sometimes feel.

God endured the cross just because His love for you is resilient, tough, and uncompromising.

Let Him be your Lord today and in all the days of your life. He will give you the faith—and the humor and the toughness—you need to live each day.

And if you let Him, He will give you exactly what Irene is enjoying at this very moment: new life, life as it was meant to be, life forever in the presence of God! Amen

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Keep Holding On!

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

Luke 21:5-19
As followers of Jesus Christ, we know and cherish the promise that all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ receive the forgiveness and grace that God freely offers the whole world. Believers in Jesus are the only people in the world who have an authentic and eternal hope for life with God. This hope should mean everything to us!

In twenty-six years as a pastor, I have seen that there is a qualitative difference between how those who trust in Jesus Christ face eternity and how those who are without faith in Christ face eternity.

Christians grieve the loss of other Christians, of course. It would be strange and unnatural not to grieve the loss of loved ones and friends. But, as Paul writes in First Thessalonians in the New Testament, believers in Jesus do “not grieve as others without hope” do.

To the grieving sister of His friend, Lazarus, Jesus says in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me, will never die.”

Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus says: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.”

We can live each day in hope and confidence because we have good news, bought and paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross. This is the good news to which Jesus points all people in the Gospel of Mark when He says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

Jesus has secured an eternity of hope for us!

So, how do we live now? How do we live in this messy, sin-infested, dying world? How do we live today, in all of the moments of our lives?

It’s ironic that today’s Gospel lesson is really all about how to live in the day-to-day world in which you and I live. It's ironic because our lesson, Luke 21:5-19, is the first segment of a section of Luke’s Gospel that is described by the scholars as “apocalyptic.” From our look at Revelation earlier this year, you’ll remember that the word apacalupto, from the Greek language in which the New Testament was written, literally means, “I reveal.”

Apocalyptic literature in the Bible, which includes most of Revelation in the New Testament and Daniel in the Old Testament, basically contains God’s revelation of how this world will end and what lies beyond that end for you and me.

In the apocalyptic words of Jesus quoted in Luke 21:5-38, Jesus does reveal much about the end of the world. But in the verses that make up our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells us how to live today.

So, please pull out the Celebrate inserts and turn to our Gospel lesson. Verses 5 and 6 set the stage:
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Imagine Jesus being here with us this morning and someone asking Him if He didn’t agree that Saint Matthew’s sanctuary was beautiful and Jesus saying, “It won’t last. Some day, it's going to be destroyed.” Or, imagine Him being shown, in a single moment, Saint Patrick's Cathedral and the Statue of Liberty in New York City and hearing Him say that every fragment of those places would one day crumble to pieces.

Scenarios like these can only approximate how Jesus’ words about the Temple must have seemed to His first hearers. The Temple in Jerusalem was the living symbol of Judea’s religion and nationhood. It was the place where the presence of the God of the universe came to be among His people.

Yet Jesus says the Temple would be destroyed. Little more than forty years later, it was destroyed, undoubtedly caused by the God Who, in Jesus, said that worshiping Him “in spirit and truth” was more important than having the "right places" for worship. Jesus' words show us that often, places of worship like the Temple devolve into monuments to human egos rather than the places of humility and submission to God they were meant to be. Jesus’ words suggest that some of our most cherished religious traditions may be worthless, especially if in keeping them, we forget about truly worshiping Him as God and King over our lives!

In verse 7 of our lesson, no doubt frightened by Jesus’ words, His listeners ask what sign will be given that the Temple would be destroyed. Read along silently with me at verse 8 for Jesus’ response:
 “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them.’” 
Jesus warns us to not fall for false messiahs. Years later, in letters like First and Second Timothy, which we looked at a few weeks ago, the apostle Paul warned Christians not to fall for false teachers. Such people still pop up today. They’re on religious TV stations, on the New York Times lists of best selling books, and even in the assemblies of the very Lutheran body to which we belong and that we cherish.

The moments when these false teachers make their plays to lead us away from God can come at any moment, which is why it’s important for us to use as many moments as we can steeping ourselves in God’s Word, getting to know the God of the Bible, not the false versions of God pushed by false teachers. That’s why Sunday School and other opportunities to study the Bible with others are important, even for we adults.

In verses 9 to 11 of the Gospel lesson, Jesus says not to be surprised or frightened by all of the disasters, natural and human-made, that happen in this fallen world.

Then, starting at verse 12, He warns that persecution will naturally befall believers in Him. We’ve seen exactly what Jesus was talking about in recent international events.
Now, there’s all sorts of persecution in the world, of course. Some of it is even perpetrated by those claiming to be Christians. Whenever persecution happens, it is always wrong.

It’s also true that if you proclaim a Lord and Savior Who is more important than you, your family, your country, your neighborhood church, the denomination with which you’re affiliated, or anything else, you will incur opposition, snubbing, and persecution. Bank on it, Jesus says.

All forms of persecution toward those who confess Jesus as Lord and Savior of the world are the death throes of a sinful world Jesus is going to destroy, the early warning signs of the new creation that is already being born in all who repent and believe in Jesus.

In verse 13, Jesus says something peculiar about being persecuted for faith in Him: “This will give you an opportunity to testify.”

If you have a pencil or pen, you might want to circle that word, “opportunity.” In Jesus’ mathematics, Persecution=Opportunity.

Jesus is telling us that when Christians are persecuted, that’s when the depth and reality of our faith shows. It’s easy to confess faith in Jesus on Sunday mornings in a free country. But the authenticity of our confession is seen when being a Christian is marginalized, dismissed, or distorted, as happens today to Christians in America, to Christians in Logan, Ohio.

Listen carefully: God’s primary project in you and me is not to give us easy lives, but to build our characters, to retrofit our sinful natures, and through the work of the Holy Spirit, to recreate us in the very image of Jesus.

The character that people see in us when adversity strikes is our “testimony,” for good or ill. There is really only one way to ensure that our testimony for God is positively Christian and that’s to humbly own up to our imperfections, turn ourselves over to Christ, repent for our sins, and allow the Holy Spirit access to our lives every moment of every day.

And, we need to do those things every single day if we are to become, in Martin Luther’s wonderful phrase, which I’ve mentioned before, “the Holy Spirit’s workshop.”

Acts, chapter 4, in the New Testament, is a very important place in Scripture for me. After a decade of atheism, I came to faith in Christ through the witness and confessions of the Lutheran Church. The first book of the Bible I read as a new Christian was Acts. I chose it because, in recounting the history of the Church in the first three to four decades after the risen Jesus' ascension, it would show me how Jesus' imperfect followers lived from day to day without Jesus being physically present to them. 

I'll never forget coming to Acts, chapter 4. It tells about how the apostles Peter and John, after healing a man in Jesus' Name, were dragged before the religious authorities, beaten, and told never to again speak in Jesus’ Name. "Whether it's right for you to forbid us to speak in Jesus' Name," they said, "we can't say. But we can't help but speak His Name because there isn't another name God has given by which we must be saved." Despite their defiance, the religious authorities released them.

Peter and John, the wounds from the whips still fresh on their backs, sought out the company of the other disciples. They all prayed together. When I first read their prayer nearly thirty-four years ago, I was thunderstruck. It begins: “And now, Lord, take notice of the threats they have made, and allow us, your servants…” And there, I expected them to ask God to help them to exact revenge against the men who had harmed Peter and John, the same authorities who had conspired with the Romans to crucify Jesus and who were then trying to stop the spread of the Gospel. But they didn't pray for vengeance. Instead, they asked God to help them “to speak your message with all boldness.” 

I remember that tears filled my eyes when I read those words and I stopped to pray, “Oh, God, please give me a faith like that!”

You see, God had forged new characters in these first Christians. They weren't interested in obtaining revenge on their persecutors. They only wanted the boldness to share Christ with others, in spite of persecutions.

I don’t know about you, but in my daily life, that’s what I want more than anything! I want to be faithful no matter what!

Persecution and all adversity are, as Jesus tells us, opportunities to live our faith and to share our testimony about Jesus, not just with our words, but with our lives. Jesus promises, you see in verse 18 of our Gospel lesson, that if we will be steadfast in following Him, seeking His help in all the moments of our lives, “not a hair on your head will perish.”

Jesus isn’t offering a cure for baldness here! Nor is He saying that all will go well in this life if we follow Him. He’s saying that, no matter the adversities we experience in this life, we can live each day in the certainty that we will be with Him for all eternity!

“By your endurance,” He says in verse 19, “you will gain your souls.”

Eternity, you see, belongs to those who hold onto Jesus even when the chips are down.

Today, Jesus’ message for us is simple: “Keep holding onto Me! Keep holding onto Me!"