Saturday, May 14, 2011

"If people really knew this about me..."

God is anxious to forgive our sins and help us to move on with our lives unencumbered by the weight of sin.

All sin, of course, is equally worthy of death.

But all sin is also equally forgivable for the one who humbly turns to Jesus Christ in repentance and belief (trust) in Him.

Whatever your sin, whether...
  • sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage (what the Bible calls adultery and fornication);
  • gambling; 
  • taking God's Name in vain; 
  • murder; 
  • gossip; 
  • greedily aching for what others have (coveting); 
  • thievery; 
  • or any other thought or action that violates God's command that we love Him above all and love others as we love ourselves...
these two truths--the gravity of all sin and God's willingness to forgive all sin--apply.

God knows all about you and loves you anyway...and through Christ, has done everything needed for you to be with Him now and in eternity.

God is out to get you. But not to punish, but to reclaim, renew, and revive you. Repent and trust in Christ each day...and you are good to go without guilt or shame.

Here are some really great thoughts under the title, "If people really knew this about me..."

Too Many Keys

Friday, May 13, 2011

Three Great Gifts from God

[This was shared during the funeral for a friend of ours earlier this week.]

Ecclesiastes 1:1-15
1 Corinthians 15:51-58
John 14:1-4

All of you who mourn Betty’s passing this morning: Today we know for a certainty that Betty wants you—and all of us—to hear the words of Jesus that begin our Gospel lesson. “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me.”

We know that Betty wanted you to hear these words because back in 1988, she took the time to do what, in my experience, few people ever do, when she selected the passages of Scripture for possible use at her funeral. So, let Jesus’ words be our theme as we worship God and commit Betty to Him today: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in Me.”

Betty’s love for family—evident in how she and Virgil always made their kids’ and grandkids’ events, among many other ways—shines through in all of the Bible lessons she chose for us today. It was important for her to give a testimony for the Savior in Whom she believed, of course. And you can hear that in these passages. But it was also important to her that she comfort all of you and everyone who loved her with three great gifts from God: realism, joy, and hope!

The realism is supplied by King Solomon in the passage from Ecclesiastes that Betty selected. It begins with the famous words: “For everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven…” And that includes “a time to be born, and a time to die.”

This family knows too well that the time to die Solomon mentions can come tragically soon, as it did for Chad. But you also know that the death of someone you love can come, as it finally did for Betty, as a blessed release. She and Chad and all the saints—all who have trusted in Jesus in this life, are safe in the hands of their Lord…our Lord!

Betty once asked me, “How do people who don’t believe in Jesus face hard things?”

Betty, like many of us, could be a worrier. But she could face all the times mentioned by Solomon—the times to be born and to die, the times to plant and the times to pluck up what is planted—because of Jesus. And the fact is that it is only those with faith in Jesus who can face life and death with realism. We know, as we celebrated just a few weeks ago, that Jesus has conquered sin and death and futility. We can, even in the midst of tears, be filled with joy because we know that while the times of this life will one day come to an end for us, all of our times and all of our eternity are in hands of our risen Lord!

We see joy in all the passages Betty picked, but maybe especially in the reading from 1 Corinthians. There, the apostle Paul assures us that those who have died in the Lord share a great joy: “Listen!” he says, getting our attention, “We will not all die [death is not the end of the road], but we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet…the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable…then the saying…will be fulfilled, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is a victory? Where, O death, is your sting. The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, Who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

There’s joy in this passage, laughter in the knowledge that those who die in Christ rise again. And that seems appropriate because, not only did Betty believe in Christ, she also loved to laugh.

Ann and I have had so many fun times with Betty and Virgil! In the wee hours one Sunday morning, Ann woke me up while I was sleeping over in the parsonage. “Mark,” she said, “there’s a racket going on outside.” I reluctantly decided that I had to do my duty to protect my wife and kids. So, I quickly pulled on some trousers and went downstairs to the front door. There were Betty and Virgil, along with Kae and Kenny, and Larry and Cheryl, singing “Happy Birthday”…almost on key.

Several years later, when we were living in Cincinnati, we were bowling with friends, when we suddenly became aware of two people who were rooting for us. We’d never had fans before. We turned around and there, laughing, were Betty and Virgil.

I will always remember Betty’s laugh. So far as I can remember, she never laughed at anyone. She just enjoyed herself, whether she was rooting on her kids and grandkids or spending time with Virgil and friends at events like wedding receptions. And I know she enjoyed that hole-in-one.

Today, we can be certain that Betty is enjoying herself in the presence of God!

In another place, Paul writes that we who believe in Jesus Christ grieve, but we do not grieve as those without hope. God lets all who follow Christ in on the most wonderful punch line in history. For Betty and for all who believe, death has lost its sting. You can derive joy from that even today…and I know that you do!

Finally, in her selection of Bible lessons for today, Betty also showed that she clearly wanted to share the hope that comes to us from Christ. Our Gospel lesson is part of a long stretch of teaching Jesus shared before His arrest and crucifixion. The disciples sense that things aren’t going to go as they’d previously hoped. Jesus wouldn’t supplant the Romans and establish a government in Jerusalem. He was intent on being exactly what John the Baptist had described Him as being one day at the Jordan River: “the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus addresses their fears and apprehensions. “I’m going to prepare a place for you,” He tells them, “so that where I am, there you may also be.” Just a few verses beyond our lesson, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”

The condition of sin and the reality of death represent threats to every human being. But all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus Christ are reconciled to God for all eternity. Jesus is readying places for us now, even as He readied a place for Betty. In Christ, there is infinite hope and that is cause for celebration!

Another Paul (McCartney) sings words that could well speak to all of us about the comfort and the promise of a place in eternity that Jesus Christ gives to those who follow Him:
You lead me to places, that I've never been
Uncovering secrets, that I've never seen
I can rely on you, to guide me through, any situation.
You hold up a sign that reads, follow me… 
Today, in the words Betty has chosen for us, Jesus Christ is saying...
"Do not be troubled.

"Believe in Me.

"Follow Me.

"Be comforted.

"Be filled with joy and hope, even as you face the realities of life.

"And know that, one day, all who have trusted in Me will be together again for eternity. And we will laugh.” 
And to that, all of God’s people can say, “Amen!”

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Changing Relationships for the Better

So practical...and, from my experience, so true.

Look to Jesus!

[These are thoughts shared with residents of the Carlin House assisted living facility in Logan, Ohio, earlier today. I didn't write this message in advance, but this is, basically, what I hoped I said.]

The main reason that the first Christians, who were all Jews, began worshiping together on Sundays rather than on the Jewish Sabbath, was because the first Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, happened on a Sunday.

And truly, no matter what the season of the Church Year, every Sunday is a little Easter for Christians. Jesus can never be stuffed back into His tomb. He is risen!

But one of the things I particularly love about being a Lutheran--and this is something we share with many other Christian traditions--is that we don't just especially celebrate Easter on one Sunday a year. On our church calendar, Easter Sunday is just the first Sunday of Easter. Yesterday, for example, was the third Sunday of Easter for us. We just keep celebrating Easter for six weeks. It's great!

So, I'm still celebrating Easter and because of that, I want to share two passages of Scripture with you this morning.

The first is Philippians 4:4-9. A preacher named Paul wrote a letter to the first century church in Philippi and these verses are taken from that letter. The thing to keep in mind is that when he composed this letter, Paul was imprisoned. Yet the entire letter is shot through with joy. Here's what Paul wrote:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. 
Then, I want to share part of the Gospel of John's narrative of what happened the day that Jesus went to Bethany to see his friends, Martha and Mary, after the death of their brother, Lazarus. The scene, by the way, would have been bedlam. Family and friends would have been there crying, of course. But in those days, there were also "professional mourners," people who would led the wailing. It must have been a scene of craziness! John writes:
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 
There's a story told of a mother and a father who were deeply concerned about their eight year old twin boys. One was an optimist, the other a pessimist. The parents knew that neither condition was healthy or realistic. So, they asked a psychiatrist to help each boy to move toward greater realism.

The psychiatrist hit on a strategy for each boy. As part of his treatment, he promised a gift for each one of them.

Then, he led the pessimist into a room filled with toys, games, sports equipment, and classic books--things bound to make any eight year old boy happy beyond measure. But this kid didn't do any thing. The psychiatrist asked, "What's the matter? Don't you like all this stuff?" "Yeah," the kid replied evenly. But then, hanging his head in sorrow, he said, "But eventually, they'll all wear out or break."

Shaken, but still intent on seeing his treatment regimen through, the psychiatrist took the optimistic kid to another room, this one piled high with horse manure. The kid's face grew bright with excitement and he flung himself into the middle of the pile. The psychiatrist, once more, was baffled. "How can you be so excited?" he asked. The kid laughed. "Because," he said, "with all this manure, there's bound to be a pony for me somewhere!"

I think that you'd have to say that neither boys' attitudes were realistic. Pessimism and optimism without some real foundations, always spawn despair.

Arthur Miller's play, Death of a Salesman, tells the fictional but true to life story of Willy Loman. Willy was an optimist. He always thought he was going to make that next big sale, experience that next big triumph. But he never did. And that led to his tragic death. Hope, optimism, without a certain object on which to base it will only end in disappointment and death.

But pessimism doesn't work well either. Back in my factory-working days, there was a guy with whom I worked who always spouted this little ray of sunshine: "Live in hope; die in despair." He said it all the time. "Live in hope; die in despair." I don't know if that man ever had hope. But I know that he lived and died in despair. And there is no more reason for living life pessimistically than there is for living it with unfounded optimism!

What we need is a real and certain hope, a hope that defeats pessimism, a hope beyond puny human optimism.

Jesus is that hope!

That day in Bethany, when He called Lazarus back to life, Jesus demonstrated His capacity to shatter the powers of sin and death and futile living.

Jesus showed that we need not, as my old coworker always insisted, live in hope but die in despair.

He showed that we waste our time looking for the next big personal triumph.

Triumph and and hope...forgiveness and reconciliation with God...purpose, even when we find ourselves needing assistance with the living of our daily lives...eternity which cannot be taken from us...all these blessings and more belong this very moment to all who dare to believe in Jesus Christ.

And when we face challenges and adversities, we would do well to look at the words of that prisoner for Christian faith, Paul. Even when facing the worst that life can bring, we can see something more honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and excellent than anything that has ever happened in this dying world. We see unsurpassed passionate love and an infinite will to give life to us when we look to Jesus Christ crucified and Jesus Christ risen.

Don't settle for the trophies of this world that wear out and break.

Don't settle for the ponies that might be lurking in the world's piles.

You want a sure and certain hope, a strong foundation.

Look to Jesus! Look to Jesus alone!

Jesus alone is can bear the full weight of all our hopes and dreams. He alone can raise us up to new life.

Look to Jesus!

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Write a Caption

My nephew Jameson and I were asked to pose today as the family Mother's Day festivities were winding down. I'm not certain why, although it's said that Jameson resembles me (poor kid). He's better looking.

Jameson suggested that, rather than stand there smiling, we stare in terror at something in the distance. (The distance was actually my sister and brother-in-law's family room.) Jameson affected terror. I, on the other hand, affected comic stupidity, my usual expression.

Do you have an apt caption?

How Big is Your God?

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

Luke 24:13-35
On this third Sunday of Easter, our Gospel lesson from Luke confronts us with a mystery about two of Jesus’ disciples. And that mystery, ultimately, leads us to an important question about ourselves.

There is no mystery about what the two disciples we meet in the lesson are doing as our passage starts. We can  understand their sense of sorrow and why, because, just like you and me, they had never seen a dead and buried person rise to life again, they left Jerusalem, certain that the report of Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t be true. But there is something about the entire incident recount in our lesson that baffles us.

As Luke tells it, the two disciples walked with a stranger they’d met on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus for some distance as He explained to them that the events of the previous Thursday and Friday, when Jesus had been arrested, tried, condemned, and killed, didn’t add up to the tragedy or dead end they surmised them to be. Everything had happened precisely as that part of the Bible we call the Old Testament had said it would. “Was it not necessary,” the stranger asked them as their hearts pounded within them, “that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into His glory?”

Encouraged by the stranger’s words of clarity and hope, they begged him to eat and converse with them once they reached the village. But through all this, they had no idea who this stranger was.

It was only when the stranger “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” that they finally recognized Him to be Jesus. Then, Jesus disappeared.

In spite of their earlier fears of traveling at night in open country where thugs and wild animals might lurk, the two disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to tell the others that they too had seen the risen Jesus.

Still, we wonder: Why hadn’t they immediately recognized Jesus?

Our lesson says that “their eyes were kept from recognizing” Jesus. Had Jesus, God-incarnate, been playing hide and seek with these grieving disciples only to finally play “gotcha” by revealing Himself in a way they readily recognized?

No, God doesn’t play games.

But He does allow people to live with the hardened hearts and thickened skulls with which they choose to live their lives.

Those of you who have read the book of Exodus know exactly why the disciples’ eyes couldn’t recognize the risen Jesus. Exodus tells us that about 1500 years before Jesus was born, God’s chosen people, the Israelites (or Hebrews), were enslaved in Egypt.

God told Moses that He was going to send Moses, along with Moses’ brother Aaron, to demand that Pharaoh, king and deity of Egypt, let God’s people go.

But Pharaoh wasn’t about to let Hebrew slaves tell him what to do.

Nor was he going to let Yahweh, the God of these slaves who they claimed as the one and only God of the universe, call the shots.

As you remember, God performed a total of ten plagues through Moses, all of them designed to convince Pharaoh to relent, repent, and let God’s people go. But Pharaoh dug in.

After the first five plagues, Exodus tells us things like: “…Pharaoh…hardened his heart”; and “the heart of Pharaoh was hardened.” Then, after the sixth plague, the plague of boils, a shift comes in the Bible’s narrative of these events.

Take a look at Exodus, chapter 9, verse 12, on page 36 of our pew Bibles. No longer is Pharaoh hardening his own heart to God’s call to repentance. God is doing it for him. There we’re told:
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharoah; and he [that is, Pharaoh] did not heed them [that is, Moses and Aaron], just as the Lord had spoken to Moses. (NKJV)
God had given Pharaoh repeated opportunities to conform to the will of God. Pharaoh had dug in his heels. Finally, God said, “Have it your way, Pharaoh. I will now escalate the level of the plagues and prevent you from changing your mind. I will let you live with the consequence of the path you have already chosen. We have hit a point of no return.”

The disciples on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus had chosen the path of disbelief when they set out on that first Easter Sunday.

In spite of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, they were convinced that Jesus was as dead that day as He had been on Friday and Saturday.

But thank God—for them and for we who gain strength of faith from their story, they hadn’t yet reached “the point of no return.” They remained open enough to God to be able to see the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

The question remains, though: What took them so long to recognize Jesus? 

The answer is simple: Their God wasn’t big enough.

In spite of all the signs and promises made about the Messiah in the Old Testament and the promises and signs which Jesus Himself gave during His earthly ministry, it was still beyond the scope of their imaginations to conceive...
  • that Jesus could rise from the dead, 
  • that God could wring life from death, 
  • that the perennial enemies of humankind—our own sin, death, and pointless living—could possibly have been defeated by a Savior Who had, just days before, been crucified at the garbage dump just beyond Jerusalem’s walls. 
They couldn’t believe that God was that good, that gracious, that loving, that powerful, that big.

So, having solved the mystery of the disciples’ failure to recognize Jesus for so long, here’s the uncomfortable question all of us must answer: How big is the God we meet in Jesus Christ for each of us?

Is the God Who bore all your sins and all the death and futility we confront on this side of the grave big enough to be entrusted with your biggest problems, your sternest challenges, your most vexing worries?

Or do you want to keep dealing with these issues on your own?

Is the God Who defeated your sin on the cross to be trusted when He promises you victory over the temptations and sins you can’t beat on your own?

Or will you insist on trying to go it alone in facing sin?

Or will you try to fake yourself out, telling yourself...
  • that it’s not too bad to put your family or your work above God; 
  • that using God’s Name for purposes other than prayer, praise, or thanksgiving is a minor matter; 
  • that ignoring God’s Word in Scripture or the fellowship of the Church is OK because you’re so busy; that dehumanizing and demonizing others through mistreatment or unkindness isn’t really, as Jesus teaches, really murder; 
  • that stealing the gift of sexual intimacy God meant to be opened only by husbands and wives in marriage is acceptable today; 
  • that little thieveries from others are justified because “everybody does it’; 
  • that gossiping about others who strike you as too weird for words is entirely understandable; 
  • that being obsessed with having what others have is no big deal?
In short, will you lie to yourself in saying that the Ten Commandments, the moral law of God for all time, have been rescinded by advanced human enlightenment? Or will you accept the commandments as God's clear statement of His will for your life, allow them to show you your need of a Savior, and trust in Christ to send the Holy Spirit to point your life in God's direction even as you live in the certainty of the grace and favor God bears for those who repent of sin and believe in Him?

Is the God we meet in Jesus Christ a first-century version of Pee Wee Herman, weak and compliant to our wills and whims?

Or is He the God and King of the universe...
How big is your God?

He gave His life for you. Is He big enough for you to give your life to Him in return?

Dare to surrender this moment to God.

Tell God, “My faith in You is puny. But right now, at this moment, I ask You to...
  • handle my problems at work or at home; 
  • conquer my sins and strengthen me to beat temptation; 
  • overcome my worries and my grief. 
Conquer this moment for me, please, Lord. Help me to entrust this moment to You, God.”

If you will give your life, moment by moment, to the big God made known to all the world in Jesus Christ, it will, by His grace and power, add up to an eternity with God!

A man in northwest Ohio told me that shortly after his wife died, “I fell on the floor and wept and asked the Lord just to get me through that night.” God did that. That man said he kept praying that prayer each night. He learned over time that the God we meet in Jesus is big enough to comfort us, to give us hope, until our hope encompasses the certainty that, like the Savior in Whom we believe, we will one day rise again.

Let the God of Easter reach out and transform your life, moment by moment.

Leo was a member of the congregation in Michigan where I did my internship. Leo never knew anything about the Lord before he met his wife, Betty. She was a Lutheran. He started attending worship with Betty and, as happened to me years later when I went to worship with Ann, he got hooked. Jesus Christ grabbed hold of Leo and Leo didn't want Christ to ever let go!

Leo came to believe in Jesus and his life was transformed.

He had purpose and hope.

He became a better man.

Though he never went to college, he became the head of a company’s engineering department.

Because of Christ, it seemed to me that Leo’s life was always firing on all cylinders.

He was a terrific husband and father; a talented carpenter and quilter; a great photographer and cook.

And Leo understood the power of surrendering to the big God we know in Christ through incremental, baby steps.

He used to tell skeptics: “Promise me that you’ll go to worship six Sundays in a row. And then try to miss the seventh Sunday. You won’t miss, because by then, you’ll want to be in worship. You’ll want to get closer to God.”

I promise that if you will dare to give the moments of your life to the control of the big God of the universe, you will, just like the disciples who recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, see the risen Jesus working in your life.

You will see just how big and wonderful God is!

But watch out: If you give God an inch of your life, He will soon take the whole thing. Let Him take it!