Saturday, December 31, 2011

Friday, December 30, 2011

We Have Seen the Enemy and He is Us

From an inspiring daily reader by Joseph C. Piscatella, a three-and-a-half decade survivor of heart bypass surgery:
Remember, for every one person whose heart disease originates with bad genes, there are 449 who have created their problems with a knife, a fork, and an unhealthy love affair with their couch.

Guess the Year To Which This Refers

"The [economic downturn] hit that year with whirlwind suddenness and created widespread economic devastation...The boom economy, fed by easy credit, abruptly ended."

Guess the year. I'll give the answer, as well as the source of the quote in the Comments section.

God with Us

"...if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the Cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth. We can know that God is truly Immanuel--God with us--even in our worst sufferings." (Tim Keller, The Reason for God)

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Reds Will Win 2012 World Series

Forget about the upcoming presidential election, the biggest story of 2012 will be the Cincinnati Reds winning the World Series. So says a Sports Illustrated writer. And there's more good news for Reds fans in his predictions. See here.

Now, if we could just get the Veterans Committee to vote David Concepcion into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, that would be great!

The Connection Between Faith and a Sense of Purpose

Interesting research. Here.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Drama of Salvation: God Saves the Best for Last (Christmas Morning)

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

Hebrews 1:1-4
When I was in the ninth grade at Westmoor Junior High School in Columbus, I took Drama class. We read and analyzed plays, designed sets, learned the nomenclature of theater, and created skits and monologues.

I wasn’t a very good drama student. But I do remember one point that Miss Snead drummed into our heads about a good dramatic presentation: The final act of a good play is the part where all the threads of the story get pulled together. The resolution toward which the plot of the play has been leading becomes clear. Everything that precedes it readies an audience for the last act. The best is saved for last.

The New Testament book of Hebrews, from which our second lesson is taken, is a sermon delivered by an unknown preacher to a group of Jewish believers in Jesus, who were being tempted to turn their backs on Jesus and Christ’s Church by authorities of the Roman Empire under which they lived.

The Roman government had never been kind to Jews, often subjecting them to persecution. But the Jews never threatened the very foundations of worldly power the way believers in Jesus did. When men or women realized that they had an everlasting relationship with the one God of the universe simply by turning from sin and believing in God the Son Jesus, they were freed from the pressures to conform exerted by all the cults of the Roman gods and by the government.

When the first Christians came to believe that Jesus had destroyed the power of death over their lives, threats from Roman emperors, governors, and centurions lost their power. Like the apostle Paul, they lived in the assurance that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and that nothing “in all creation [is] able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” They realized that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.

When, through Jesus Christ, a person is free from the fear of dying, dictatorships, political correctness, and other earthly powers cannot control them.

Confounded by the first Christians’ stubborn allegiance to Jesus, the leaders of the Roman Empire panicked as despots and dictators always do.

They decided on a strategy that they thought would divide and destroy the Christian movement. They promised to let Jewish believers in Jesus live in peace, without harassment, without the threat of death, and with no requirement that they acknowledge Roman gods, if they would only renounce their faith in Jesus.

All the Christians had to do was pledge their ultimate allegiance to the emperor and disavow belief in Jesus as the Son of God Who gives eternal life to all who repent for sin and believe in Him, and go back to the rites and customs of Judaism they and their families had known for centuries.

It’s into this situation that the preacher of Hebrews, himself clearly a Jewish Christian, steps, urging his fellow Jewish Christians not to cave into the tempting offer of acceptance and freedom from persecution offered by the Roman authorities.

He does so by reminding them that as Jews, members of God’s chosen people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, they knew about the opening act of the salvation drama that has been playing out in human history ever since the first human beings, Adam and Eve, bit into fruit pulled from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden.

But he also reminded them that, through Jesus, the final act of that drama was (and is) being played out.

Pull out the Celebrate inserts and turn to the second lesson and read the first two verses aloud with me: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”

The first act of the salvation drama is recorded in the Old Testament. God is both the playwright and the leading actor.

The last scenes—the last books—of the Old Testament find God using prophets to drop hints of what’s to come in the second and final act.

Through Isaiah, for example, God said that in “the latter time” He would make His glory fully known in “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” And then speaking of the future in the past tense, we’re told in Isaiah, chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who have lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on His shoulders; and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”

Through Jeremiah, God said, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign…”

And, as we remembered last evening, through Micah, God promised, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephratah…from you shall come forth for Me, One Who is to rule in Israel, Whose origin is…from ancient days.”

In the opening verses of his sermon, the preacher in Hebrews reminds his fellow Jewish Christians of how God spoke through many prophets to point them to the coming of the one anointed King of kings, the Savior of the world, God in the flesh: Jesus. Now, he says, in the last days—in the second and final act—that started when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God speaks to us directly, intimately, personally through His Son, Jesus, through Whom God created all the worlds.

And just so we understand that Jesus isn’t second-fiddle to God the Father, but is God Himself in the flesh, look at what the preacher says of Jesus in verse 3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and He sustains all things by His powerful word.”

As the second act of God’s salvation drama began two thousand years ago, the Author Himself came onto the stage, taking on the role of a human being Who would speak God’s call to repentance and belief to us directly and repeatedly and then, go to a cross in order to set the stage for the final scene of His great drama.

That’s what the preacher addresses next in the rest of verse 3. Look at what he says: “When He had made purification for sins [that is, when the Savior Jesus offered up His sinless body on the cross as the perfect sacrifice not for any sins He committed, because He committed none, but for our sins], He sat down at the right hand [that is, the power hand] of Majesty [God the Father] on high, having become as much superior to angels as the Name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

Through Jesus Christ, we know now how the play is going to end.

Sin and death will end!

Tears and suffering will be no more!

But there is one last scene to be played out.

It’s the scene of the drama in which the Jewish Christians to whom the book of Hebrews was addressed were then participants.

It’s the scene in which you and I find ourselves today.

It’s the scene in which followers of Jesus, filled with His desperate love for all people, share His call to repent and believe in Him and so, live with God forever.

It’s also the scene in which you and I are tempted, as were the first century Jewish Christians, to choose between the Jesus road and the easy road.

The easy road is the one we taken when honor God with our lips, but keep our hearts far from Him.

The easy road is the one we take when see trouble, pain, sorrow, or grief as a reason or an excuse to give up on God.

Jesus says that “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus and trust in Jesus, no matter what life may bring us, is the only way to God, the only way to life.

The path of faith in Christ will sometimes lead us through adversity and pain. As surely as sin, death, and the devil ran Jesus through their gauntlets, as we follow Jesus, we too, will go through the same gauntlets.

But if we will seek God’s strength, the power of His Holy Spirit, to keep following Jesus—to keep on keeping on in faith—we will have God’s peace and help and the presence of the risen Jesus, in our lives right now.

And when the last scene of the last act plays out, we will be with Jesus in eternity, along with all those who have believed in Him. Jesus promises us that “the one who endures [in faith] to the end will be saved.”

Pastor Joe Stowell wrote in Our Daily Bread this past week that “Christianity is unique among all religions for it is about God’s pursuit of us to draw us to Himself” and not, like other religions, about the human pursuit of deities or harmony with the universe.

In the drama of salvation, God is both author and star. But God is no egotistical actor looking for close-ups and glory for His own selfish ends.

On the first Christmas, God became a helpless baby.

When He grew into manhood, He took on the role of slave, servant, and condemned criminal just so He could die and rise and welcome all who believe in Him into a new life now and into life as it was meant to be for us—a life without disease, suffering, death, oppression, or hardships—in eternity.

On this Christmas Morning, 2011, ask God to help you make and keep a vow to never more be part of the audience observing God’s salvation drama, a pew sitter who leaves Jesus at the church door, but a participant, taking any role God and His Church may give you that will let you join the saints and angels in proclaiming, “To the One seated on the throne and the Lamb [Jesus] be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Dearly loved people of God, merry Christmas and God’s blessings to you now and through the coming year! Amen!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas: The Punchline God Wants You to Get

[This message was prepared for the Christmas Eve Candlelight Worship Service of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Luke 2:1-7
In the first parish I served as a pastor was a couple who had been married many years and were deeply devoted to each other. Several years before I arrived, the woman, Laura, had been struck with Alzheimer’s Disease. By the time I became Laura’s and Vern’s pastor, she was confined to a bed in a nursing home, incapable of recognizing anyone or carrying on a conversation, not even Vern. But every day, Vern would visit and spend hours with Laura. He fed her with a baster, read the Bible and the newspaper to her, told her all the latest family news, and prayed with her. Often, when I visited Laura to pray aloud for her, I would find Vern there by her bedside. And often, when we spoke in private, Vern would tell me all about Laura, his love for her, and their life together. “She was always the first to send a note of encouragement to people who had bad things happen in their lives,” he told me. “And always called them to congratulate them or just be happy with them when good things happened. And she loved going to church, especially at Advent, just before Christmas, because she loved remembering that one day, Jesus was coming back again.”  I remember commenting to Vern how rare it was for someone to love Advent. They might love Christmas or Easter, but few people loved Advent. But Laura did.

Some five years after Vern first told me of Laura’s love for Advent, she died. It was just a few days before Christmas, in the waning days of Advent. We’re never ready for the loss of loved ones, even when we know that their deaths are inevitable. I was with Vern when Laura passed. Tears filled his eyes and his throat was choked with emotion. But he turned to me with a smile on his face and chuckle in his voice when he said, “It was her Advent, pastor. Laura is with Jesus now.” In the midst of tragedy, because of Jesus Christ, Vern knew he (and Laura) had something to smile about! They were in on God’s punchline!

One way to read the events of the first Christmas that we celebrate tonight is to see them as one wonderful punchline that God wants all the world to get.

In our Gospel lesson from Luke, we’re told that the emperor in Rome decided that everyone under the domain of the Roman Empire needed to be counted in a census. Judea, composed of God’s people, the Jews, had been conquered by Rome decades earlier. So, the people of Judea, including the couple God had chosen to act as foster parents to Jesus, had to submit to the census. In ancient times, a census, especially when those being counted were a conquered people, was designed to find who could be conscripted into the military and forced labor and to let the extortionist tax collectors know where they could find all their victims. A census was a way for corrupt dictators to flex their power.

That’s what Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, thought he was doing in ordering this particular census. He surely had no knowledge of the words of God spoken through the prophet Micah 740 years earlier: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are one the littlest clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me One Who is to rule Israel, Whose origin is from old, from ancient days…” The Messiah, the Anointed King, the Christ, repeatedly promised by God through the prophets, was to be born in Bethlehem, a tiny town about five miles from Jerusalem.

The promises of a Messiah had been forgotten or dismissed as myth by many Jews by the time the Roman emperor issued orders for a census. But not by God! God never forgets His promises!

Now, the Jews had a custom: Whenever they had a census, they were counted not in the places where they resided, but in their ancestral homes. So, though Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth, they went to be counted—registered—in the ancestral home of both their families, Bethlehem, about sixty miles away.

The trip, in first-century Judea, would have been routine. People from all over the country ordinarily traveled to nearby Jerusalem several times a year for the great festivals of their faith, like Passover.

But there’s nothing routine about a woman nine months pregnant making such a trip over such hard terrain!

And yet, as Mary and Joseph left Nazareth and headed for Bethlehem, they may have smiled. An emperor in faraway Rome who would never know their names thought that he was exercising power, moving millions of people around like so many checkers on a game board. He had no idea that, unwittingly, by his orders, he was placing Mary exactly where God wanted her to be to fulfill the ancient promise of a Savior.

Luke tells what happened next simply: “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger…”

When, some time after Jesus’ birth, shepherds arrived with the story of how an angel had told them that the Messiah had been born, Mary and Joseph may have smiled again, knowing that, whatever the obstacles, however much heartache or time may pass between the delivery of God’s promises and their fulfillment, and no matter how people may fool themselves with ideas that they’re in control or that their sins don’t matter or that they don’t need God’s help, there are really only two ways that the affairs of the world can go (you've heard me say it before): Either God gets His way or God gets His way!

Be still. God is in control!

The truth that God is in ultimate control of the universe is sometimes hard for us to believe or to see.

It may be hard for you to see it tonight.

You may be facing financial hard times and wonder what use God is in dealing with them.

You may be dealing with health issues, grieving the loss of a loved one, experiencing discord in your family, or battling an addiction and feel that God is far away or even useless.

You may look at the world, with its injustices, natural disasters, and selfishness and even think that God is out of the picture, that we’re all on our own. But don’t you believe any of those lies!

On the first Christmas, God let a simple couple from Nazareth in on the most wonderful joke of all. No matter how far sin seems to have spun the world out of God’s hands, no matter what tragedies may befall us, no matter how arrogantly those who think they have power may act, God is still in charge.

God can put a baby into the womb of a virgin.

God can let emperors think they’re in control while working His good and gracious will through their orders.

And, in Jesus Christ, you can know that God still cares about you.

God still holds those who believe in Him in the palm of His hands.

And God can sustain you through the tough times of this life when nothing makes sense by giving You the certainty that His grace and mercy for You will always prevail!

We can rest assured in God, or as the New Testament book of James calls Him, “the Father of lights, with Whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

The God we know in Jesus Christ “is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

And this is the God Who tells us that He so loved the world—that He so loved you—that “He gave His only Son [Jesus], so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish [may not go to hell, the place of no life] but may have eternal life.”

God is still in control. This fact was underscored again when, hree decades after the first Christmas. Pilate, an emissary from the Roman Emperor, in Judea, the preachers and teachers of Judea, and people gathered in Jerusalem from the far corners of the known world, all agreed that Jesus, the One Whose birth the angels sang at Christmas, had to die. In nailing Jesus to a cross, they tried to declare their independence from God. They sought to assert human control over life and death, the present and the future. On that Good Friday when Jesus was executed, those who had believed in Him were sure that the promises of God had only been a dream. They thought that they could never be happy again, that life was, in the words of an English writer, “nasty, brutish, and short.” And then Jesus’ dead body was placed in a tomb.

But on Easter, God once more showed that He was in control. Jesus rose from the dead to claim forgiveness and new life for all who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Him.

Tonight, you may feel alone. To you, the Jesus Who was born on Christmas, died on Good Friday, and rose from the dead, says, “Remember, I am with you always.”

You may feel that your sins are too great for God to forgive. God’s Word says that in Jesus, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have One Who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” In Jesus, we see that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” We see that though we are, “are stained red with sin, [God] will wash [us] as clean as snow.”

Tonight, you may feel that the pain of grief or relational discord you feel is unbearable. But God’s Word says that when we suffer, emptied of arrogance or self-sufficiency, Christ’s power is perfected in us. God replaces our weakness with His strength and we can face anything.

And tonight, you may think that your eternal future is bleak and that death is the end of things. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” And God’s Word promises that in eternity, God “will wipe every tear from [believers'] eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…”

No matter how far from God you may have felt when you walked in here tonight, you can walk away from here knowing that the God Who came into our world at Christmas and Who will return one day to fully establish His eternal kingdom, will never leave your nor forsake you.

Christmas, the feast of Jesus’ birth, can be a moment of rebirth and renewal for you, whether you’ve followed Christ your whole life, had a distant, Christmas-and-Easter relationship with Christ, or never in your life bowed down and confessed that Jesus the Messiah is your Lord and your God and your King.

You see, God wants you to be “in on the joke.” He wants you to let Him love you and make you new, now, and He wants you to be with Him for all eternity. He wants all of us to experience intimacy with Him and the incredible comfort and power that belongs to all who surrender and dare to believe in Him.

If you want any of those things tonight, please bow your heads now and silently affirm that the prayer I’m about to offer is your prayer, too:
Gracious Father God, we thank You that You have never given up on us or on Your promises to us. We thank You that on the first Christmas You sent Jesus, God the Son, to live life as we do, to experience all that we experience, to die on our behalf, and to rise from death, so that You can give forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Jesus. We thank You that Your Holy Spirit is here with us right now, in good and bad times, in moments of clarity and in times of confounding mystery, convincing us that Your promises are true, that You want to be with us always, that You want to reshape our characters and make us more like Jesus, and that, at the ends of our days, whenever they come, You will be waiting for us with open arms and infinite love. We ask You to fill us with joy, peace, and hope, no matter the condition of our health, our emotions, or our pocketbooks. As Jesus lived for us, help us to live for You only, tonight and always. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen
Merry Christmas, everybody!

"Calculating Christmas"

I thought I knew how the date for Christmas was set. But I may have been wrong. Read this interesting article.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are Bishops Necessary?

From today's devotional in Our Daily Bread: "Caring for God’s people includes feeding them spiritually, leading them gently, and warning them firmly. Leaders in the church are to be motivated by the incalculable price Christ paid on the cross."

These are important words.

But here are a few additional thoughts triggered by the Bible passage on which the devotion is based, Acts 2:22-32. (You might want to go read it now. Go ahead! I'll wait here for you to do it.)

The word translated in the New Revised Standard Version rendering of the passage, as "overseers," is, in the original Greek, "episcopos." Episcopos is a compound word composed of the prefix, "epi," meaning "over," and "skopos" (from which we get words like telescope and microscope) and means "see."

So, an episcopos, is an overseer, someone who, in the church, sees over the spiritual needs of a congregation or a group of individual Christians.

The word "episcopos" came to be rendered in English as "bishop" and has come to be applied to clergy persons who oversee the work of groups of congregations and pastors, whether those groups are referred to as synods, conferences, districts, or dioceses.

However, the New Testament has no reference to persons bearing the title "bishop" or "episcopos" functioning in this way.*

When the New Testament refers to "overseers" or "bishops," it has in mind what we would today call "pastors." Pastors, in the New Testament context, could be the shepherds of congregations or serve the shepherding role among groups of believers within a larger body.

The New Testament doesn't lay out any particular system for individual congregations or groups of congregations to organize themselves. Biblically, we are free in Christ to be organized in any way that seems practical, helping us to pursue our common mission as believers in Christ.

The Lutheran Confessions are similarly indifferent to how congregations or groups of congregations are organized. Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, an expression of how Lutheran Christians understand God, the Bible, and Christian faith, says, "It is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word."

Lutherans have always believed that authority over the actions of the Church aren't governed by human beings, but by God, as mediated to us through God's Word, the Bible. Part 1 of the Formula of Concord, another basic Lutheran confessional statement, says, "We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged...Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures..." [italics are mine]

It's fine for denominational groups, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) of which I am a part, to have bishops, so long as that's agreeable to those within the ELCA. But the Bible only knows "bishops" (overseers) as pastors. Bishops over a synod or a diocese are in a category Martin Luther called "adiaphora," an element of church life that has nothing to do with and is unnecessary for, our salvation.

*You will notice that the word episcopos is very much like the term Episcopalian. That's because the Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, traces its organizational structure back to that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists, and other Christian traditions, operate with an episcopal system. This means that they are governed largely by bishops. Most notably, bishops in all of these traditions assign pastors to congregations, rather than congregations prayerfully deciding who to call to be their pastors. 

Under episcopal structures, to varying degrees, bishops also are deemed to be the ultimate authorities within the regions, dioceses, synods, or districts in which they serve, over the faith and practice of the Church. So, for example, when some bishops in the the Episcopal Church-USA, authorized the ordination of practicing homosexuals, some Episcopal parishes chose to place themselves under the authority of bishops of other dioceses, ones in which the bishops adhered to differing understandings of the underlying Biblical issues.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Can We Do About Sexual Violence in the United States?

"On average, 24 people per minute are victims of rape, physical violence, or stalking by an intimate partner in the United States..." That's the chilling opening introduction to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS). When I heard this information last night on the news, I was shocked! I turned to my wife and said, "That is appalling!" See here.
This is a tragic element of life in our country. Is the phenomenon of sexual violence perpetrated by people with intimate access to others worse than in the past? Or are these incidents being more commonly reported?
I don't know the answers to those two questions. But I am certain that without the respect for each other as children of God fostered by a relationship with Christ, all legal and social remedies to sexual violence will be mere bandaids. (Even though, clearly, legal and social remedies must be applied!)
Please pray for people willing to share Jesus with those around them.
And don't be surprised that as you pray, God may incite you to action steps He may want you to take to help change the climate in our culture. 
In the meantime, if you know of any people victimized in ways shown in this new study, urge them to get help and to call the appropriate authorities.

By the way, this seems like a good point to mention that God created sexual intimacy to be a means by which a husband and wife may be bonded to each other, to enjoy one another's company, and, at times, to become parents. 
The misuse of our sexuality is a sin. 
Like all sin, it can be forgiven by the gracious God we know in Christ when in repentance and in faith in Christ, we seek forgiveness. 
But the misuse of human sexuality has reached epidemic proportions in our society. 
May God teach us to use all of His gifts as He intends them to be used.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Great Passage from Malachi for Those of Us in ELCA To Consider

From the prophet Malachi:
You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” (Malachi 2:17)
Nobody is sinless, least of all me. But we have an obligation as the Church, ambassadors for Christ, to present God's whole truth to the world. When we "unsin" what God calls sin, as we have and do in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), we fail our responsibilities to God, we become faithless, and we wander into error. May God set us right!

A Few Christmas Thoughts

When I was a young man, I hated Christmas. I really did.

But after I fell in love with Jesus, all that changed.

I love Christmas and the opportunity it presents for us all to once again praise and thank God for the new life He gives to all who turn from sin and believe in the Savior born on Christmas, crucified on Good Friday, raised from the dead on Easter Sunday, and ascended to heaven where He now is an advocate for all believers in Him.

Each Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of Jesus into world on a "silent night," I remember that one day, He is returning, the dead in Jesus will rise, and all who have welcomed Jesus into their lives will see Him face to face and we will be with Him for all eternity.

Today, an older man, I love Christmas and am so excited to celebrate the day with my fellow believers on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day!

I love Christmas not because of any "feelings" I have about it.

I love Christmas because of what God did on that day and in on all the succeeding "days" after He came to the earth and because of what He has promised us, promises sealed by His shed blood and His resurrection triumph over death.

We don't need to feel Christmas, just trust Christ, "the way, and the truth, and the life," the One of Whom the Bible says, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved" (John 14:6, Acts 4:12).

God bless you as you continue to keep Advent and, on Christmas Eve, when we remember the best Christmas gift of all!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Relax and Let God's Hand Guide You

[This sermon was prepared for delivery during worship this morning with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. While I ended up preaching on the same text and making many of the same points made here, I delivered a different sermon in the pulpit. There's no written version of it, though.]

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
If you made a list of Bible words that Lutherans like, “justified” would be one of them. It’s a great word!

Paul uses it in Romans when he writes that “we hold that a person is justified by faith [he means faith in Christ] apart from works prescribed by the law.”

Someone has said that when I come to Christ in repentance and faith, God now looks at me “just if I’d” never sinned.

The person who is justified is declared by God to be just or right with God. This is the most precious gift God can give because it cost Him the life of Jesus on a cross.

No wonder that Martin Luther called justification the central teaching “by which the church stands or falls.”

All other religious systems teach that people can, in some way, save themselves or propel themselves to higher places in the cosmos by adhering to certain rules, regulations, or practices.

But the God of the Bible, while using rules to show us our need of Him and the hopelessness of proving ourselves worthy through our own works and to give us a guideline for responding to His love, this God, justifies us as a gift of grace to all with faith in Christ!

But there’s a problem with our justification obsession, too.

Have you ever noticed that most love stories end at the beginning? I mean, they tell the stories of how two people meet, fall in love, get married, and start their families. But, really, after the storytellers narrate all those things, they’ve only told us the beginnings of their stories. We’re left wondering: How did they live happily ever after? What did they do in life? An elderly man once told a friend of mine, “These newlyweds talk about how much they love each other. But don’t even talk to me about loving your husband or wife until you’ve been married a few decades. You don’t know what love is before then.”

Justification is like falling in love. God is a desperate suitor Who, in Christ, incites us to fall in love with Him. By His self-sacrificing love, He makes us worthy to be live eternally—and happily—ever after with God.

Then what?

Some people cynically say that, after the wedding day, marriage is a hard slog to retirement and death, filled with tragedies, mortgage payments, pinching pennies, squabbles, hard times. But thirty-seven years into my marriage to Ann, I can tell you that while we have had our tough times, I love her more today than I did when we were first married, more than I did yesterday. I find that I am just beginning to learn how to respond to the gift of her love and her presence in my life. And all this learning and growing is the product of one simple fact: The certainty that when I wake up tomorrow, no matter what stupid or selfish things I may have said or done the day before, Ann will still love me.

And it’s this process of being loved and growing in love that makes our marriage stronger and better today than I could ever have imagined when, with my heart pounding out of my chest, my face beaming, I walked down the aisle with Ann as my new bride.

There is a similar deepening in love, relationship, reliability, and mutual affection that develops in the Christian life after we’ve been justified. It’s called sanctification or being sanctified.

And it really is the theme of the whole section of the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians from which today’s second Bible lesson comes.

Scholars teach us that in the Bible, a theme or idea is highlighted when it appears at the start of a section of Scripture and then again at the end of the section. These bookends form what they call “inclusions.”

Pull out a pew Bible, please, and turn to page 684 and then look at 1 Thessalonians 4:3. We’re not going to look at the whole verse right now, just the pertinent start of it. It says, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification…” Now, go over to the next column, almost to the end of the book and of our second lesson for this morning, to chapter 5, verses 23. It says, “Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely…”

The root of the word sanctification is sanctus, which means holy or set apart.

After Ann and I were married, I was set apart for her alone and she was set apart for me alone. Similarly, after we have been justified, God is set apart to be our only God, the highest allegiance in our lives.

The Church is set apart to be God’s people, justified and empowered to bring His love to others.

But sanctification, this business of having one’s whole life set aside for God alone, is a process and it’s sometimes difficult. And just as the only way to learn to be married is to be married, the only way to learn what it means to be God’s holy people is to live as God’s holy people every day.

So, what does that mean?

Well, pull out the Celebrate inserts and go to the second lesson. Scan it. Paul tells us to always rejoice, pray without ceasing, give thanks to God in all circumstances, don’t try to hide yourself from what God’s Word and the Holy Spirit may be prompting you to do, but don’t be a chump who falls for every supposed holy man or woman who comes down the pike, hold tightly to what is good, refuse to do what is bad.

Most of us would agree that Paul’s list well describes the to do list of holy people. But who has time for such a list? How could we possibly be good enough to make that a to do list for my life? If God expects all these things of us, we may think, we’re going to have to wait to get serious about this Christian business until after we’re retired and just take our chances with God until then.

If that list raises your anxiety level, I have a word from God for you this morning: Chill!

Do you think that the God Who did everything necessary for you to be justified, including sending God the Son to die and rise for you, would leave you standing at the altar trying to figure out how to live as a Christian after that?

To be sure, God will discipline His children when we go in the wrong direction in our lives. The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “The Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

But the Bible also tells us that when we do go wrong, our Father is quick to help us. As the apostle John puts it, “My little children, I am writing these things so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous…He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins…”

Maybe you can think of sanctification like this. When I was a boy, I became fascinated by the fact that people wrote things. I wanted to be able to write. But I wasn’t left to figure out how to write on my own. I remember my parents sitting with me at the dining room table. First, they would take one of those fat black pencils and write a letter, maybe an A. Then, they would put the pencil in my hand, put a hand on top of mine, and move my hand in the right ways until, gradually, they could let go and watch me as I imperfectly formed the letter A on my own. We moved onto B and C and the rest of the alphabet in the same way.

This is what sanctification is like. Not another grim to-do list, but God working in us, through us, and on us to help us become all that we were meant to be.

Place yourself each day in the hands of God. If you let Him, His hand will move over your hand to write the story of your life—in good and bad times, in happiness and sorrow, even in the wake of sin for which you have repented and sin He forces you to see because He loves you and doesn’t want to lose you.

If you will be open to God, God’s hand will keep moving in your life until that day when you see Him face to face and all the mysteries will be solved, all the tears will be dried, and all believers in Christ become truly, eternally holy.

Even after he gives what seems like a to-do list to the Christians at first century Thessalonica, Paul also says to be at peace in the arms of the Savior Jesus. Pull out the Celebrate insert and look again at the final two verses of our lesson. Read verses 23 and 24 silently with me now. Paul says: “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely [you see, it’s God and not you by your works who will make you holy or set apart as God’s beloved]; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.”

Each day, the faithful God made known in Jesus is willing to take those who entrust themselves to Him and by the power of His presence working in our lives, transform us from harried, frightened people who look at lists like the one we see in our lesson today, into people so infused by Christ’s love, forgiveness, power, and indestructible hope that, from grateful hearts, barely aware of it, that we “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks at all times, pay heed to God’s Word, hold fast to what is good, and abstain from evil.”

We will never be entirely holy this side of our own resurrections. Nor will we ever begin to understand mysteries like why bad things happen to faithful people while the faithless seem to skate through life without a care.

But from Jesus, we have an eternal “I do,” a promise to never leave us nor forsake us, a promise to make us new for all eternity.

Count on that promise.

Give yourself to Jesus today and every day.

Then, relax, breathe, live, certain that His grace that justified you will, as you submit to Him, sanctify you—make you holy, fit you for heaven—too.

God has an eternity of patience and love for each of us. Give Him your days and He will make you, over time and eternity, into everything He meant for you to be when He formed you in your mother’s womb. Amen.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What's the Difference Between Helping and Enabling?

During adult Sunday School class this past week, someone asked, "What's the difference between helping people and enabling them?"

Christians aren't the only ones for whom this question is important, of course. But it's especially critical for us.

Why? Because Jesus' great commandment, a summation of the two sections of the Ten Commandments in which Jesus cited passages from the Old Testament books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, says that we are to love God completely and love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

The love Jesus commands is not about sentiment. It's a command to actively and practically help others. In His parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus says that a man who provided assistance to a stranger, was the truest neighbor, the one fulfilling the great commandment.

But there are some people who count on Christian compassion to incite Christians to provide assistance that doesn't really help, instead enabling their destructive habits and behaviors. Help is something we're called to provide others; enabling isn't. Compassion may be the primary motive for both helper and enabler, but helping is constructive and enabling is destructive.

How can we tell the difference? Here are a few observations based on my reading of Scripture and my twenty-seven years as a pastor:
  • Helping meets a need. Enabling addresses wants.
  • Helping lifts people toward maturity. Enabling encourages ongoing immaturity.
  • Helping is a bridge to the other person's self-sufficiency. Enabling is an open-ended commitment to co-dependence.
  • Helping eliminates the other's distress. Enabling can be as much about eliminating our own distress as that of the other person. Enabling can be a selfish, rather than a selfless, act.
  • Helping is always about the other person. Enabling can be about massaging one's own ego or self-righteousness.
To love others means helping them, not enabling them. I've found that examining one's motives based on any of these five points can help us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Happy Saint Nicholas Day


How to Make Your Life a No Bellyaching Zone

I love this piece based on Psalm 37 by David Branon.

The psalm gives an alternative to the favorite indoor sport for Christians in their church fellowship halls: bellyaching about how bad things are in the world.

Sin has been standard operating procedure on Planet Earth since Adam and Eve bit into the fruit of the knowledge of and good and evil. It was that evil that thought to rid humanity of all accountability to God and all notions of love for God or neighbor by killing off Jesus, though He was truly God and a truly sinless human being. So, the fact that there are bad things--often horrific things--in the world may arouse our compassion and our horror, but never our surprise.

Bellyaching and whining about how great things were in the supposed "good old days" only guts us of joy and robs the world of our witness for the truly better life that can belong to all who trust in Jesus Christ, here and in eternity.

In his beautiful post on Psalm 37, Branon surfaces five things the Psalm says that we can do as believers in Christ to stand subversively against all the hatred, cynicism, selfishness, and adulation of self over others that exists in our world. The list:
  • Trust in the Lord and do good.
  • Feed on God's faithfulness.
  • Delight yourself in God. (I would say, "Enjoy God and His goodness!)
  • Commit your way to God. (Turn the keys of your life over to God. Learn to pray, "Thy will be done.")
  • Rest in the Lord. (Be confident that God, Who brought everything into being, will have the last say, and it will be good!)
I suggest reading the Psalm and Branon's piece on it often, then jotting down these five points on a card that you can keep with you at all times. When the impulse to bellyache about how horrible things are, pull out the card and let it be a reminder.

And remember Jesus' words:
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
When we trust in Jesus as the final Authority over our lives, we have a lot to be thankful for. I know that I need to be reminded of that. I need to remember that all bellyaching is unnecessary! 

(By the way, here is a link to Psalm 37.) 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Preparing for the Fire

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

2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8
Every few years, there are forest fires out west not caused by the carelessness of campers or the crimes of arsonists. They happen as a result of spontaneous combustion. The fires simply erupt when the trees in forest have become brittle and lifeless.

Foresters tell us this is a good thing. The canopies of dead and dying trees prevent sunlight and rain from reaching any plants or trees trying to take root and grow beneath. Fires take those canopies away.

But often, within days of such massive natural conflagrations end, a TV camera crew will be allowed to go into forests seemingly devastated and dead and find, amid the charred remains of once enormous trees and the still-swirling smoke of the fire, signs of new life: sprigs of mighty oaks or sequoias starting to sprout all around.

Any of you who has ever endured a fire in your home know how destructive fires can be. But, it seems, fires can also be the engines by which new life supplants the dead.

Fire can bring life.

The Bible knows this truth. In fact, the Bible associates fire with God, the giver of all life.

Hebrews 12: 29, for example, finds the Christian preacher who is its author say, “Our God is a consuming fire.”

That phrase “consuming fire” carries with it the notion that our God, like forest fires, consumes or destroys that which is dead or not filled with the life that only He can give.

No wonder then, that the ancient Israelites were afraid of God. Remember when Moses returned from spending time with God on a mountaintop while he and Israelites were in wilderness? Go to Exodus 34, starting on v. 29 pew Bibles and read what it says:
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 
Moses had been in the presence of God, the consuming fire.

This is why the Old Testament prophets warned the people about what the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, calls the "day of Lord." The day of the Lord is when God will set all things right. Jesus will return. The dead in Jesus will rise. And Jesus will judge all. All that is not of God will be burned in the fires of hell for eternity. Those who have turned from sin and believed in Jesus will live with God for eternity. And Jesus will destroy the old to give rise to new heavens and a new earth in which His kingdom will be fully established for all eternity.

The day of the Lord isn't an occasion to be anticipated casually. It will be wonderful. But it won't be peaches and cream for everyone. Turn to Amos 5:18-20 in the pew Bibles to see what the Old Testament prophet Amos said about the day of the Lord back in the 8th century BC:

Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?
The Season of Advent is a time when we remember that just as Jesus once came into our world to reveal the glory of God, to die for our sins,and to rise again in order to give life to all Who believe in Him, He is returning when God brings an end to this world and supplants all that is evil and dead with the kingdom of God.

Look at how Peter explains the day of the Lord, the second Advent (or coming) of Jesus, in our second lesson:
...the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.  [After all, things can be seen clearly with fire.]

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Our Gospel lesson from Mark, written of events that occurred two-thousand years ago, just before Jesus began His ministry, John the Baptizer points both to Jesus’ first advent (remember advent means coming) and to His advent at the end of this world’s history, when He will judge the living and the dead.

Look at last thing John says in verse 8 of Gospel lesson: “I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Matthew indicates that John said not only that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit, but "with the Holy Spirit and fire."

We believe that when we are baptized, the Holy Spirit comes to burn or purge us of all sin and fill us with the life of God. That's exactly what happened on the first Pentecost, you'll remember. Jesus' first followers gathered in prayer, awaiting the risen and ascended Jesus' direction for their lives. As they prayed, the Holy Spirit came on each of them with tongues of fire!

At Christmas, we celebrate and remember the act of deep selflessness and love that caused the mighty God of the universe to lay His glory by in order to live as servant for our salvation. But when Jesus returns, He will come in His full blazing glory.

This is why the prophet Malachi, writing about 430 years before Jesus, considered the day of the Lord and asked, “Who can endure the day of his coming…?...For He is like a refiner's fire...

The bottom line of all this fire talk is simple. God is not our buddy. God is our Friend, for sure. But God is also our Master, our Lord, our Creator, our King, our Savior. And at the end of history, God intends to destroy all that is not of God, whether it resides within us as believers or in the unbelieving universe around us.

God has already come into the lives of Christians with the fire of His Holy Spirit, of course. But, the fact is that most Christians only toy with God. They like to bank the fire of God, turning Him into a pilot light they can turn up when things are going badly and they need help and then turn down whenever having God in their lives is inconvenient.

A pastor friend of mine once said that "The problem with Church is that we're afraid of the Holy Spirit." The fear he was talking about isn't the holy awe we all should have before almighty God.  Rather, the fear we have of God most of the time is the fear of turning over the keys of our lives to the God we know in Jesus. We want to be in control. Our inborn human arrogance, our sin, makes us want to leave God out of our lives, to leave God standing in a corner until we're ready to call Him.

But this approach to God will never do on the day of the Lord, when all that is within us and all around us not of God will be dissolved in the fire of His holiness.

Years ago, I heard the true story of a group of engineers and their wives having dinner together. The talk turned to all the projects the engineers had been working on: bridges, buildings, towers, water treatment facilities. The whole talk seemed to be turning into an ode to their accomplishments. But then, one of the engineers, thinking of the day of the Lord, put things in perspective. "Some day," he said, "all of this will burn."

So, how can we be ready for Jesus’ second great advent? Three ways, I think.

First: We repent for sin. We let God’s holy fire burn away all that is not pleasing to Him, all our sin.

As we've said before, repentance is not a "one and done" proposition. Just as was true of the crowds who came to be baptized by John, we prepare the way of the Lord into our lives and into the lives of those we touch by engaging daily in repentance.

In repentance, we submit to God’s holy fire putting torch to all our sin, egotism, selfishness. We say, "Thy will be done."

It's in repentant believers, long before the return of Jesus, that God begins the process of replacing the dead and sinful in us with His life. One of my favorite passages of Scripture, 2 Corinthians 5:17, says, "If anyone is in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new." We make way for the new life Christ wants to give us each day through repentance.

Second: We trust in the Lord. That is, we believe in Jesus Christ. We trust that Christ, the fiery light of the world, will guide us from here to eternity. This is essential. The Bible teaches that we are saved not by our works, but by our faith--our belief, our trust--in, our surrender to Jesus Christ.

Our eternal destinies, whether we will be with God or the devil, depend on whether we entrust our lives to Christ. In Luke 18:7, after saying that He would make things right—bring God’s justice to those who call on Him, Jesus asks chilling question: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith?”

When we believe in Jesus Christ, our priorities are no longer the most important thing to us. God’s priorities are. I’ve told the true story before of the experience of a woman Ann and I came to know years ago through her daughter, Valerie. When Valerie was two years old, she got away from the watchful eye of her mother, as two year olds can do, and made her way to the family pool and, without a soul in sight, then fell to the very bottom.

Now, you should know by way of background that just two years before, another daughter, just one year older than Valerie, had died from leukemia. From that moment, this woman made Valerie the center of her universe. She did everything for Valerie, at the expense of her husband and their marriage, all her friendships, her work, everything.

When Valerie was found in the pool, some time had passed and her life hung in the balance. She was taken to a hospital ER. Valerie's mother was understandably hysterical. She went to a room in the hospital and began screaming at God: "Not again! Not again! You can't do this to me again!"

Finally, she had no more words and, sobbing in silence, she heard within herself the voice of God: "You shall have no gods before me."

She realized at that moment that she had made Valerie her god. All was done for Valerie. You see, if we make the things we see--whether it's a loved one, our families, our jobs, our finances, our possessions, our status--the most important things in our lives, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we have control.

What God was telling that woman was simple, "Stand aside. Let me be your God. I can take care of Valerie. I can take care you. I can take care of everything, now and for eternity."

When Jesus returns, all the worldly things we have thought so important, including our pretense of control, will die. Only that which is under the Lordship of Jesus will stand. Jesus tells us, "Even in the face of things you will not understand until you see me face to face, believe in Me."

Third: We share Good News with others. We pass on the life-giving fire of our crucified and risen Jesus to others.

In our second lesson, Peter says that God is not slow about day of Jesus’ return, but is patient. God is waiting for not only the Church to repent and believe in Christ, but for world to repent and believe in Christ. God is giving all of us the chance to get our lives in order and get in sync with Him.

Our job—the job of every Christian—is to share that Good News with others. Jesus has given each of us the Great Commission to go and make disciples.

Paul writes about that commission when he asks about those who need to know and believe in Jesus: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent?”

Jesus sends us to be His witnesses to everyone we know, because everyone we know is someone Jesus wants with Him for eternity.

Repentance, belief, and witnessing for Christ. This is the lifestyle of "holiness and godliness" that Peter describes in our second lesson. These are the things we need to be about as prepare the way for Jesus' second advent.  

One day, Peter says at the very end of our lesson for today, God's righteousness will be at home in all of God’s universe.

Until that day, may God’s righteousness be at home in us.

And until that day, may we live in God’s grace through lifestyles of repentance, belief, and witness. Amen

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A Great Organization

Earlier today, my son Philip and I attended a presentation in Farmersville, Ohio today about the World Mission Prayer League (WMPL).

This is a Lutheran organization committed to both praying for and sending missionaries to share the Good News of Jesus Christ in "underreached" parts of the world.* Underreached areas are those where people have had no chance to learn about Jesus Christ.

At present, roughly one-third of all the people on earth have never heard the Name of Jesus Christ or the Good News about new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Him.

And approximately 66,000 people die EACH DAY who have never been told about Jesus!

This simply cannot be allowed to continue!

Too many are dying without knowing that "everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21). 

WMPL helps Lutheran Christians pray together and joins in prayer with other Christians committed to Christ's Great Commission to "make disciples of all nations."

It also sends missionaries to 20 countries at present, each country in parts of the world that have been largely unreached by the Gospel heretofore. (Most in the so-called 10/40 Window.)

WMPL never asks for money. With allowances for numbers of children, its entire staff, including its director as well as missionaries, is provided with the same salary and benefits. People who give the organization money do so from a commitment to reaching the unsaved for Jesus Christ.

Go to the WMPL web site, here, and see how you can become a prayer partner with this worthy organization.

Thanks to my colleague and friend, Pastor Larry Lindstrom and the people of Saint Andrew Lutheran Church for hosting this get-together with WMPL director Chuck Lindquist!

*WMPL has respectful ties with other evangelical Christian groups, by the way.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Miracle of Christmas


'The Widow Maker' and Me

Earlier today, I went to the James Cancer Center at Ohio State for an evaluative appointment.

In October, a small melanoma was removed from my left leg. In about a week, I'll have an outpatient procedure to remove surrounding tissue.

I was impressed by the staff at the James and the ease with which I was registered.

In addition to the doctor, I also met with a nurse practitioner. She looked at the wallet cards I carry identifying me as someone with both a stent and a defibrillator and said, "Do you know that the heart attack you had is what we call 'the widow maker'? It's a miracle you're alive. God must have plans for you."

Miracles still happen. Why God chose to work this miracle on me, I don't know and no doubt won't know until I see Him face to face.

But I pray that I will make the most of this life God has given to me.

In any case, to God be all the glory!

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Confidence in the Midst of the Questions

[This was shared during the funeral for Dorothy, a member of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. Dorothy was 98 years old at the time of her passing.]

John 14:1-7
In the past four years, I’ve gotten to know Dorothy fairly well. Not as well as you who are her family and friends who loved her and knew her best, of course. But I came to know something of her personality and of her character.

I can tell you that Dorothy loved her family. In the nearly monthly visits we shared, no visit went by without Dorothy telling me about how her parents taught her to believe in Christ and how that belief sustained her even when she went through bleak times.

She always loved telling me about her husband Alec, his kindness, his sense of humor, and the life they shared. (She also told me that Alec, eleven years her senior, used to say that he raised her.)*

She loved to talk about her boys, Greg and Kirk. “I was so grateful to have them,” she would say, “that I spoiled them and I don’t think that it hurt them at all.” Then, she would always tell me how wonderful they were.

I came to know that she appreciated her family and her friends--like Bessie, with whom she had a more than eighty year friendship, loved Logan, and enjoyed baseball, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates.

And, almost from our first visit, Dorothy also conveyed the strong message that she was a red-hot Democrat. She still thought that Franklin Roosevelt was the greatest and, though John Edwards had been her first choice in the most recent election, came also to be a fan of Barack Obama. She was ready always to discuss current events with me when I arrived. 

Above all, I learned that Dorothy was a person of deep faith in Jesus Christ.

But during almost every one of our visits, Dorothy seemed to return to the same question again and again. “Why am I still here?” she would ask.

Sometimes, I would honestly say that while only God could answer that question, I could say that I was personally glad that she was around. Dorothy and her faith inspired me and I told her so. She was surprised to know that I found her inspiring, but my answer never pleased her. She was ready to leave this life and though she respected and accepted that her life was in God’s hands, she found God’s logic hard to comprehend.

Dorothy had these thoughts not because she was morbid, but because she had a deep and confident faith. She knew well the words Jesus spoke to His disciples that we read a short while ago. He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places...I go to prepare a place for you...And...I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

Dorothy knew this promise.

She knew that Jesus had prepared a place for her, just as He had for every believer she’d known and cherished most—Alec, her parents, and others.

She knew that Jesus’ death on the cross, where He took the punishment for sin we all deserve, was not the end of His story.

On the Sunday following His Good Friday death, Jesus rose from the dead and even today offers to all of us what we cannot and could never find on our own—not through religion, not through worldly achievement, not through satisfying personal relationships, not through our own efforts to combine what we think is best in all the world’s religions and philosophies.

Jesus offers us the only way for any of us to connect with God, the source of life.

Here’s how Jesus puts it in our reading from John's gospel in the New Testament: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus made the same point in His conversation with a man named Nicodemus. “For God so loved the world,” Jesus said, “that he gave his only Son [Jesus Himself], so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Several months after Jesus was killed on a cross and then raised again to life by God the Father, two of Jesus’ disciples could confidently say of Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Jesus saves us from the ravages of sin, death, aging and all that bedevils us here. This world, as wonderful and as blessed as it can be, is not all that God has in mind for us!

He wants to give us new and everlasting life in direct fellowship with Him, a life so abundant, so full, so rich and real that we can hardly imagine it now.

In the midst of her battles with depression, in the midst of her frustration with the way advancing years had robbed her of feeling productive, and even in the midst of her questions about why God was keeping her on this earth, always, always, Dorothy believed in Christ. She had confidence in the midst of her questions.

She knew that Christ has prepared a place for all who believe in Him to be with Him and all the saints for all eternity. All tears will be dried and there will be joy and purpose and productivity and peace.

I never knew a person with a clearer focus on heaven than Dorothy had and today, God be praised, she is with the Lord and all His saints, including Alec and her parents.

I loved getting to know Dorothy. I’m excited that one day, because of the grace God gives to all who repent of sin and trust in Christ alone, I will get to see her once again.

To all of you who knew and loved Dorothy best, I can say with confidence that, just as He did for Dorothy, Christ has prepared a place for you and I’m sure that Dorothy is waiting for you, too.

Trust in Christ as Dorothy did and you will live each day on this earth in the certainty of an eternity of happy reunions and of endless joy. Knowing that, through Christ, you have life with God in eternity, can imbue each day you live here with a purpose and hope and joy you can find nowhere else!

May God’s purpose, hope, and joy be yours today and always. Amen

*Most people knew Dorothy's husband as Alex. But she always referred to him as Alec.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Three Gifts for Those Who Wait

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

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
How would you react if someone you trusted told you that by this time tomorrow, your life on this earth would be over? How would knowing the exact time of your death affect the way you lived? What would it do to your relationship with God?

Chances are, if you're as wise as I think you are, you’d spend some of the next twenty-four hours repenting for sin, affirming your faith in Christ, and, to the extent you could, living a life of love for God and love for others.

But, how would you react if at the twenty-third hour, the same trusted person who had told you that you had one day to live said, “Actually, you may have more than one hour left. You will die, but the time left is indefinite”? Would that seem like a reprieve from a death sentence or permission to ease up on the faith you so fervently confessed just the day before?

When people in the first century AD came to faith in Christ, many assumed that Christ would be returning soon to judge the living and the dead and to fully establish His kingdom.

They even had a term for the day when Jesus would do all this. They called it the parousia, a Greek word meaning presence, arrival, or even official visit.

But as the early Church grew, the years went by, Christians were persecuted, and the first believers died, Christians grew restless. They felt like the parousia had been delayed and they wondered what the hang-up was.

Why, they wondered, was Jesus waiting so long?

And how could they keep on in faith with the return of Jesus now off in some indeterminate future?

We Christians in 2011 may not spend much time considering when Jesus will be coming back. But we do know all about the frustration of not seeing the things for which we’ve hoped and prayed when we want to see them. Delayed gratification is as hard for us as it was for the first Christians.

The Advent season we begin today is one in which we wait for the arrival of Christmas.

It's also a time when we remember that, like those first Christians, we await the moment when we will see Jesus face to face. It may be long years from now. It may be in a few moments. It may be when Jesus returns to the earth. It may be when we leave the earth.

But whenever it may be, we face the same question: How do we live until we meet the crucified and risen Jesus face to face? All of the second lessons of this Advent season focus on this question.

Today’s lesson, from 1 Corinthians, reminds us that until we see Jesus, God gives us three special gifts.

First, verse 4 says that “the grace of God has been given [to us[ in Christ Jesus.” In Christ, God gives the gift of grace.

Grace is the charitable attitude that God has for every human being. But it’s more than mere sentiment. The most famous passage of Scripture, John 3:16, shows us that God acts on His attitude of grace. God the Father sent God the Son Jesus to live a simple life in the Judean hills, then to die as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, then to rise so that all who trust in Him will have what none of us deserve: new and everlasting life with God.

The word we translate as grace is, in the original Greek of the New Testament, charitas, from which we get our English word, charity. While we wait to see Jesus face to face, we can live each day in the charitable grace of God.

God will forgive the genuinely repentant.

He will help those who humbly admit their need of Him.

He will empower us to love Him and to love others with acts of service and kindness.

While we await Jesus' return, God gives us grace.

In verse 7, Paul says of believers in Jesus Christ that none are “lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God gives believers in Jesus Christ spiritual gifts.

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not a solo proposition. Some people say that they can worship God just as well on the golf course as they do in worship on a Sunday morning. While I know that God's Name probably gets used more on a golf course than it does in a church building, I don't agree.

Just as we’re going to be part of a great company of believers in eternity, God means for us to be part of a great company of believers—the Church—here and now.

And to each and every one us of God parcels out spiritual gifts with which He expects us to make ourselves useful to His purposes and to His Church as long as we draw breath.

A few months ago, I was waiting for a prescription to be filled at Riverside Hospital in Columbus. I was in my collar, having gone there after visiting Janice and my own doctor. I was reading a magazine at a table, waiting. A janitor came in and went about his business quietly. I wasn’t going to say anything. I’d decided that, to the extent it was possible for anyone in a collar, I wanted to be anonymous.

But then, God gave me a nudge. “Talk to that person,” God seemed to tell me. I don’t always like it when God does that! I put my magazine down and decided to do the bare minimum in obeying God's nudge. I looked at the guy and said: “Hi.”

The janitor stood up and, with a beaming smile, returned my greeting. “Are you a priest or a pastor?” he asked. I explained that I was a Lutheran pastor.

That began a conversation in which he told me some of his life story. Two years ago, this man, Daniel, and his wife fled Ethiopia, where they had faced persecution for their faith in Christ. Today, Daniel and his wife work different shifts at the hospital, both as janitors, so that one of them can be at home for their son at all times.

Now, most people in Daniel’s position, having escaped a life of deprivation and fear, would content themselves with trying to work up to a better position and scratch together the money to buy a house and secure educations for their children. That, after all, is what we call the American Dream and there’s nothing wrong with it. And maybe that figures in the thinking of Daniel and his wife.

But what he spent time telling me about was the growing church of which he’s a part, where 300 Ethiopian Christians and more gather to worship God each Sunday, and all the service and evangelism they’re doing together in the northern tier of Columbus.

He also told me about the ministry he’s taken on at Riverside, a ministry he's so excited about that he's recruited his supervisor to help with it. Every day during his breaks, he and his supervisor go to the hospital chapel and pray for the intensive care patients and for anyone else aware of their ministry who asks for prayer.

All Christians are called to “pray without ceasing,” of course. But my guess is that Daniel has the spiritual gift of intercession, the special passion God gives to some Christians to not only pray extensively for others, but also to persuade others in doing the same thing.

Spiritual gifts aren’t what God gives you to make a living, they’re what God gives you to be fully alive in Christ.

What spiritual gift has God given to you to honor God, to tell others about Jesus, and to encourage and build up Christ’s Church?

God’s Word says that you’ve got at least spiritual gift, maybe more, and using your gift is one way God wants you to spend the time between now and when you see Jesus face to face.

Verse 8 of our lesson says that the risen and ascended Jesus will “strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As we wait to see Jesus face to face, God gives us the power for holy living.

This doesn’t mean that you and I will be perfect. Only God is perfect.

But, as we live in relationship with Jesus, daily owning our sins, putting our lives before Him for examination, and seeking His help for living more like Him today than we did yesterday, His power for holy living will invade our lives.

One method I use to stay close to Christ and His power in my life is the ACTS method for daily prayer.

ACTS is an acronym for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. (A supplication is a request. But if we used request in the acronym, it wouldn't spell out ACTS.)

By praying each day in this way, I try to keep my priorities straight.

With adoration, I begin my prayers by praising God for Who He is.

In confession, I admit my sins and ask God to show me others of which I’m unaware. I seek forgiveness in Christ’s Name and receive the power of the Holy Spirit to live differently.

In thanksgiving, I name and thank God for my blessings. My wife. My kids. My life and the new life I have through Jesus. My work. My extended family. This church. And, most of all, for Jesus Christ. 

Finally, after I’ve transacted this business, I feel free to offer supplications, my requests. I invite God into all the people’s lives and circumstances for which I pray.

I pray for our sick.

I pray for those who mourn.

I pray that God would help every member of Saint Matthew to experience and enjoy God’s presence with them that day; that God would cause our congregation to grow in faith, in numbers, in generosity, and in joy.

I pray for my family and friends.

I pray for myself.

Like your days, folks, mine can get busy. But what I have learned is that the busier I get, the more I need to pray and that the more I pray, the more actual good I get done each day.

When we make requests in Jesus’ Name, it’s like turning the tap of heaven onto every person and circumstance for which we pray. As someone has said, "When we work, we work; when we pray, God works."

We don’t know when we will see Jesus face to face. But until we do, our second lesson for the day reminds us that among all the many gifts God gives us to use until we see Him are:
  • His grace,
  • Spiritual gifts, and 
  • the power for holy living. 
If you feel that any of these things are missing in your life right now, I can assure you that it isn’t because God hasn’t given them to you. If the problem isn’t with the Sender, it must be with the Receiver. (Speaking for myself, when I get honest with God, I see just how often I get in the way of God giving me gifts He wants me to have. Don't let that happen to you!)

Psalm 46:10 tells us to “be still and know” that God is our God. So, sometime this week, hop off the merry-go-round and take a little quiet time with just God and you.

You might pray, “God, I find it hard to believe, but I know that Your Word teaches that You want me to live in the certainty of Your grace; that You have given me spiritual gifts by which I can honor You, encourage Your Church, and tell others about Jesus; and that You give me the power to lead a life marked by Your forgiveness and presence in all I do. Help me to experience this kind of living, Lord, until I see you face to face. Get me off the rat race and help me live in Your power each day.”

Keep praying that prayer and I promise, God will surprise you with the answers He brings into your life. Amen

Friday, November 25, 2011

"It's Not Your Birthday"

That's the title of this post from Allen White. He considers the hypermaterialism with which we usually celebrate Christmas and makes four good suggestions for changing things:
  • 1. Set a budget for your Christmas spending.
  • 2. Buy presents for your loved ones.
  • 3. Buy a present for Jesus.
  • 4. Take time to reflect on the meaning of Christmas on December 25.
Specific to suggestion #3 above, it's worth remembering this past Sunday's Gospel lesson. In it, Jesus portrays the day when, having returned to earth, He will judge all people.

Jesus is served, we see, when we give food to the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, provide clothing for the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned.

When we provide for those who can't possibly return the favor, we "buy a present for Jesus." So, donate or volunteer at a local food bank. Or, give to Lutheran World Relief or World Vision. Honor Jesus, Who gave His life for You on a cross. Buy a present for Jesus this Christmas.

The world and we ourselves are better when we do that.

"Finding Hope"

That's the name of this inspiring piece, which contains this important reminder:
No follower of Christ should feel reluctant to seek counsel for depression. Nor should we feel that faith and prayer are too simplistic to help. There is always hope in God!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Relentless Shepherd (Christ the King Sunday)

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

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
In his book, Too Busy Not to Pray, Bill Hybels tells about a day at his church in the Chicago area when lots of people were baptized. All were adult converts, many of them people who had spent years walking without God or away from God. But on this day they found themselves welcomed into the Lord’s family, the way little McKenzie was at our baptismal font a few Sundays ago.

Hybels was understandably excited. But after the service, he found a woman crying in a church stairwell.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “No,” she answered. “I’m struggling. My mother was baptized today.”

Hybels wondered what the problem was. The woman went on, “I prayed for her every day for twenty years.”

Hybels still couldn’t understand the woman’s tears.

“I’m crying,” she said, “because I came so close—so close—to giving up on her…at five years, I said, Who needs this? God isn’t listening. After ten years I said, Why am I wasting my breath? After nineteen years, I said, I’m just a fool. But I…just kept praying, even though my faith was weak. I kept praying…and she was baptized today. I will never doubt the power of prayer again.”

We can rightly be impressed by that woman’s perseverance in prayer.

But, even more impressive to me is the perseverance of the God to Whom she prayed.

The Bible teaches us that it’s God Who gives us the capacity to believe despite our doubts. It was God who incited that woman to keep praying for her mom when she felt like giving up. It was God Who never gave up on her mother as a hopelessly lost sinner.

The God ultimately revealed to the world in Jesus Christ is absolutely relentless in reaching out to us, in caring about us, in desiring a relationship with us. He will go to any lengths to make those things happen.

Just how far God goes can be seen in our first lesson for this morning, Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24.

Ezekiel lived six centuries before the birth of Jesus. He was part of a group of Jews, the elite of their country, captured and sent to Babylon to serve the king there as bureaucrats and courtiers in 597 BC.

When he was thirty, while living in Babylon, God called Ezekiel to be a prophet.

The work God gives to prophets is thankless. That was especially true for Ezekiel. God gave him a succession of messages, mostly for his fellow Jewish exiles in Babylon, that they didn’t want to hear at all.

That’s because, in Babylon, the exiles led fairly cushy lives. Sure, they no longer lived in the land God had given their ancestors, but their bellies were full, they had roofs over their heads, and they enjoyed luxuries. (It's amazing how cheaply we'll sell out what's important, even God, for our creature comforts!)

So, when God sent Ezekiel to tell his fellow exiles that their homeland would soon be crushed and that all of God’s people would be scattered and hounded by enemies unless they and all the people back home turned from sin and trusted in God once more, Ezekiel’s fellow exiles laughed it off. Many went to hear him just to be entertained.

The exiles were like many churchgoers who like the sound of the pastor’s voice or the playing or singing of musicians, but have no intention of surrendering their lives and wills to Christ.

So, the exiles, like their countrymen back home, kept worshiping other gods, acceding to the sacrifice of children to those gods (a horrific form of child abuse), mistreating the foreigners in their midst, ignoring the needs of widows, stealing from one another, violating each others’ wives, and depending on the military power of foreign allies rather than on God alone.

God’s people had moved so far away from a relationship with God that, through Ezekiel, God said unless they repented and trusted in Him alone, He would soon wipe Israel, Jerusalem, and the temple off the map. God would execute judgment on His people and do it through a conquering foreign power whose kings and people didn’t even believe in Him.

God incited Ezekiel to persevere in sharing this message because God was so relentless in His love for His people: Though His people jilted Him over and over, God still wanted them back.

Ezekiel’s exile audience laughed off these prophecies until 586 BC, when Babylon overran God’s people, destroyed the temple, and sent the Jews running in terror. The laughing stopped.

Long before this point, a reasonable person would say that God would have been justified in giving up on Israel…and on the whole sorry human race, for that matter.

But as long as we have breath, God will never give up on us.

God won’t give up on you.

After Israel was destroyed, God gave Ezekiel prophecies of hope. Punishment for past sin doesn’t have to be the end of the human story. Weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell doesn’t have to be the final, eternal destiny of human beings.

“As I live,” God instructed Ezekiel to prophesy, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”

Even in prophecies God ordered Ezekiel to share with foreign nations, God showed Himself to be relentless in His desire that all people—Jews and Gentiles—to turn to Him and live.

It’s because of this very desire on God’s part that Jesus has commissioned we Christians to make disciples of all nations.

In our lesson, we see that God presents Ezekiel with a vision of a new future God wants to give Israel and all people. To people all over the world, scattered by their sins and the sins committed against them in this fallen world, in verse 11 of our lesson God says: "I Myself will search for My sheep and will seek them out.”

And in verse 23, God says that the shepherd will also be a descendant of David.

Six hundred years before Jesus’ birth, God said that He would be the Shepherd King Who would come to His own people as a humble human servant in order to take us to Himself once again.

Jesus, of course, God in human flesh, is the same Shepherd King Who spoke through Ezekiel and six hundred years later would Himself say, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.”

In my work as a pastor, I find there are two major ways people look at God that keep them from trusting their lives and concerns to God.

The first way was expressed by a woman in a former congregation when she told me that she never prayed. “I don’t think that I could ever ask God for anything," she said. "I wouldn’t want to bother him.” She thought that God was too big, too busy, and too important to care about her.

Another wrong way that people look at God is to see God as powerless. A member of my extended family once told me, “Look, Mark, God may have started this world up. But He’s done all that He can. It’s up to us to keep it going.”

But on this Christ the King Sunday, we affirm that God is neither too busy for us nor too powerless to help us!

For sure, there are things that happen to us in this fallen and imperfect world that we can’t explain. But we still affirm that God cares about us and has the power to give us life with God that never ends.

God is our Shepherd King, so relentless in His love for us that He searches us out no matter how lost we may be, so persevering in His love that He takes on our humanity and though sinless Himself, willingly receives the punishment for sin we deserve, then rises from death to give new and everlasting life to all who believe in Him.

Maybe today you feel that, like the Israel of Ezekiel’s day, you’ve wandered too far from God.

Maybe your life feels rudderless or you realize that you’ve fallen into patterns of sin that are walling you off from God. God wants to be your Shepherd King.

No matter where we are spiritually, whether we are mature believers, as I hope one day to become, or people far away from God, we can always use more of Jesus.

All of us would do well to take as our own a simple prayer that Johann von Staupitz taught a young monk named Martin Luther when Luther felt far from God. The prayer goes like this: “Lord Jesus, I am Yours; save me.” “Lord Jesus, I am Yours; save me.”

Say that prayer with me right now, so that you’ll remember it later: “Lord Jesus, I am Yours; save me.”

God, the Shepherd King Who we know through Jesus, will take to Himself anyone who so surrenders to Him!

He can forgive our sins.

He can give us the power to resist the temptations that threaten to take over our lives.

He can heal our hurts and lighten our burdens.

He can set us free to be more than the mere products of our environments, our genetics, or our sinful impulses.

He can move all who surrender to Him toward becoming the people God means for us to be: free and hopeful, faithful and in sync with our Maker, no longer imprisoned by our past and confident that our future is in the hands of Christ!

As long as we are still on this earth, God will never give up on finding us, saving us, and making us His own.

And He will never tire of keeping us as His own for all eternity! Jesus Christ, God enfleshed, is our Shepherd King!

In Jesus Christ our King, fully God and fully human, we meet a God Who understands us and all that we go through. He is never too busy to hear from us. And He is big enough and great enough to give us new life now and in eternity.

That’s worth remembering not just on this last day of the Church Year, but every day of our lives. Amen