Thursday, January 26, 2012

It's a Frightened Clown!

So, we were stopped at a red light in Lancaster, Ohio. Ahead of us was an SUV without a spare tire where it should have been. In its place, we saw the face of this frightened clown.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Audio of This Morning's 'Read the Bible in a Year' Discussion Group

We're reading the Bible together in a year at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio. Each Wednesday, we have two discussion groups, one in the morning and one in the evening, of the week's readings. This week's readings were Acts 16 through Roman 9.

A few points:

1. Von Staupitz told Luther to not come back to him with "puppy sins," not "baby sins," as I erroneously said here.

2. The question was raised as to whether Martin Luther suffered from epilepsy. No, he didn't. But he may have had Meniere's Disease, "an inner ear disorder that affects balance and hearing."

For your information: My favorite biography of Martin Luther originally written in English is Here I Stand by Roland Bainton.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

"I Want to Believe in God, But Find It Hard"

"I want to believe in God, but find it hard. What can I do to believe?"

I got this question this past Sunday after we'd invited listeners to our church radio broadcast to text us. 

I understand how hard it can be to believe. For a decade, I considered myself an atheist. I scoffed at the notion of God. A superficial understanding of science and its discoveries of the mechanics of life had led me to conclude that God was a fiction. After all, nobody had seen God while peering into the depths of space, the oceans, or subatomic particles.

This was silly on my part, of course. because there isn't a conflict between believing in God and being engaged in--or appreciating--science. As someone has said, "Science is largely, thinking God's thoughts after God."

The Bible and Science each ask different questions about the universe in which we live.

Science asks: What? When? How? These questions are important in helping us to understand the mechanics of the universe and how we can harness or "co-conspire" with them to do useful things.

But the Bible asks other questions, ones that science is incompetent to answer: Why? Who? The religions of the world show that human beings have considered these two questions and come up with all sorts of creative answers to them. But the Bible is the testimony of thousands of people over thousands of years who weren't speculating about why life exists or who made it, but reporting their encounters with the One Who created the universe and revealed His will for humanity and creation.

The Bible claims that over time, God has revealed Himself to the human race and ultimately, in the person we Christians call God the Son, Jesus. In Jesus, a man in Whom the full deity of God lived, we see a God of infinite love and rectitude.

According to the Bible, faith in God isn't something we claw to attain. It's God's gift to those who are willing to believe. The Bible also says that it's God's Holy Spirit, the third Person of the one God, Who persuades us to trust in God as revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus.

"God," we might tell the Lord, "there are lots of things I don't understand. I have many questions. And so much in the world is untrustworthy. But I want to trust in You. If Jesus displays Who You are, then I want to believe in You."

If you want to believe, God will build up faith in Him within You. You may feel that your faith is only, as Jesus once put it, the size of a small mustard seed. But that's OK. God doesn't judge us on the size of our faith, only on the One in Whom we place our faith.

As Jesus told Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life."

A little faith in the big God we meet in Jesus, Who gave His life for us and then rose to open up eternity to those who trust in Him, is all you need. And if you want to believe, then I would say, you already do believe.

But your question indicates that you want your faith to grow. God wants the same thing.

That's part of why God has given you the Church.

Find a congregation where the Bible is preached and Jesus is exalted as the only pathway to knowing God.

Then get involved in that church's Sunday School and Bible studies and service projects.

You will learn more of God and you will see up close and personal, ordinary people like you and me, who wrestle with life's troubles and tragedies, yet trust in God. Your faith will grow in the process.

God bless you as you grow!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

It Starts With Us

[This sermon was prepared to be shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on January 22. We had to cancel worship because of icy conditions. But the sermon was shared via the local radio station that carries our Sunday worship services and has done so since 1962.]

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
This morning, I want to walk through the six verses that make up our first lesson, taken from the Old Testament, Jonah 3, verses 1 to 5 and verse 10, and see what God wants to reveal to us this morning.

Jonah 3, verse 1, says: “The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” 

I love the understatement of this passage! You may remember the first time that God’s word came to Jonah, a prophet who lived in the Judean coastal city of Joppa eight centuries before Jesus was born. The first time God called Jonah is recounted in Jonah, chapter 1, verse 2. It says: “Go at once to Ninveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.”

God gave Jonah simple instructions. He was to go to Nineveh, the most important metropolis of the Assyrian nation and decry their sin.

In those days, all of God’s people, the Judeans, probably feared Assyria, a rising world power. But Jonah clearly hated the people of Assyria and its major city, Nineveh.

So, instead of doing as God directed, Jonah booked a berth on a ship headed for Spain.

Things didn’t go well for him after that! God stirred up a storm on the Mediterranean. Jonah knew that the lives of all on the ship were threatened by his faithlessness toward God.

So, he told them to throw him overboard. As soon as they did so, the storm ended. They were spared.

But what about Jonah?

As you know, God caused him to spend time in the belly of a great fish. Jonah was there for three days, praying. Finally, the fish vomited him onto dry land.

After trying to thwart the will of God, Jonah was exhausted, filthy, and smelly.

You know what I’ve learned over the years, folks? This world can be a hard place. We have no control over the evil that the devil and this world sometimes bring against the most faithful people we know. That’s hard and horrible.

But there are others kinds of suffering we may undergo over which we do have control. It’s the suffering that comes to us when we who claim to believe in the God ultimately revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, but deliberately contradict the Word and the will of God. It's the kind of suffering Jonah caused himself when he refused to do what God told him to do.

I once counseled with a man, a pillar of his church, who gave generously to Christ’s causes in the world, but who was deeply unhappy. As I scratched below his surface talk, I leaned that he was having an affair. He was alienated from the kids he constantly discouraged. He was drinking to excess, which, in turn, was a major cause for multiple hospitalizations and ever-worsening health. 

It was clear why he was so unhappy: As was true of Jonah when God sent the storm to disrupt his Mediterranean escape, God hadn’t given up on this man. So God was making this man miserable, waging war for his soul. He was still close enough to God to feel badly when he continued to do what he knew in his soul and from the Word of God was wrong!

When we who claim to be believers in the God revealed in Jesus turn our backs on the will of God, God will put us in the vise of what the psychologists call cognitive dissonance: the miserable condition that comes to those who claim to see reality in one way, yet live in a different way.

If people who confess Christ brazenly violate the will of God—using God’s Name for anything other than prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, for example; or, cheating others in business dealings; or, spreading unconfirmed rumors without knowing the facts; or, having a sexual relationship outside of the marriage of a man and a woman; or whatever the sin may be—God will hound them until they have either repented and returned to Christ or until they have totally stopped their ears and hearts to God.

After he headed for Spain, God didn’t given up on Jonah.

God had apparently not given up on Nineveh, either. If God hadn’t wanted the people of Nineveh to repent for their sins and believe in Him, He wouldn’t have called Jonah to go to them, either the first or the second times.

If you're listening to me today, having taken the time to go to worship or listen to the Saint Matthew radio broadcast, it shows that God hasn't given up on you...and, whether you're willing to admit it or not, God hasn't given up you either!

Listen, folks: Pray that God will always make you miserable when you ignore His will.

If your conscience bothers you when you realize you’re guilty of sin, that is a very good sign. Only those who have left themselves within range of God's loving arms feel guilt for their wrongs. And it's only when we're touched by guilt that we go to God for the forgiveness and the power for living eternally with God that only Jesus Christ can give.

The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?”

Followers of Jesus Christ will rise again to live in God’s new heaven and new earth and God disciplines us to prepare us to be the useful, joyful people you and I are going to be in eternity. Earthly pains can yield heavenly gains!

Verses three and four tell us that Jonah, battered from his battle with the God he claimed to serve, “…set out and went to Nineveh, according to the Word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, 'Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.'” 

Jonah may have said those words with relish. He hated the Ninevites, after all.

But even if Jonah meant his message for evil, God meant it for good!

Jonah hoped that the words he spoke from God would fall on deaf ears and that God would destroy the Ninevites.

He underestimated the power of the Word of God, though. Through the prophet Isaiah, God says, “My Word…shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” God's Word has the power to melt the hardest of hearts and turn them to God! If we let it, God's Word can penetrate our darkest times with the comfort of His presence and the promise of eternity.

When I get up to preach on Sunday mornings, I believe that, even if it happens in the life of just one person, the sermon will accomplish something.
  • It may cause one unrepentant sinner to ask for God’s forgiveness. 
  • Or lead one atheist or doubter to turn in faith to Christ. 
  • It may bring comfort to one grieving person, hope to one despairing person. 
I believe all of this because I’m confident that when we lift up the Word of God in all its fullness, God’s Word will accomplish great things.

Jonah was a less than enthusiastic preacher. It didn’t matter. He was speaking the Word of God and the Word of God has power!

Look at verse 5 to see how much power: “And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.” 

I almost have to laugh every time I read this verse. Jonah never mentioned God! But the power of God’s Word is such that those who are open to it know it when they’ve heard it.

Folks, there are people you know who are steeped in sin who are just waiting to hear your invitation to turn from sin and believe in Jesus. You won’t be judgmental if you deliver this message to them. You’ll be sharing the greatest love the world has ever known: the love of God that saves sinners from death and futility to live with God, imperfectly today and one day in eternity, in complete perfection.

Don’t be discouraged when people aren’t receptive to your word about Jesus. I turned down people's invitations to follow Jesus for years before God used my wife, Ann, to introduce me to a group of joyful Lutheran Christians whose faith was so infectious, I wanted follow Jesus. During my atheist decade, I was once invited to a Christian movie at the Ohio Theater in Columbus by a friend. As we sat in the theater afterward, I told him, "No, I don't want Jesus in my life." Little did I know that thirty-plus years later, I would be captain of the team that counseled thousands of people who said, "Yes" to Billy Graham's invitation to follow Jesus during Dr. Graham's 2002 Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Mission at Paul Brown Stadium. Just because people say no to your invitations to experience or follow Jesus the first time doesn't mean that's their final answer. As a disciple-maker for Jesus, you aren't responsible for other people's answers, only for praying for them and sharing Christ's invitation.

And don’t be surprised when people take you up on your invitations to join you for church or Sunday School or Bible study or prayer. “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold,” Jesus once said. “I must bring them also, and they will listen to My voice.” You and I are called to be the voice of Christ in this world! If we’ll just be open about our faith in Christ, we’ll be amazed at how many people are receptive.

In Jonah, chapter 3, verse 10 we're told: “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed His mind about the calamity that He had said He would bring upon them; and He did not do it.” 

God’s character is never changing and constant:
  • God will always love you passionately. (Sadly, hell will be filled with people God loves. But God will not force His love and forgiveness on anyone.) 
  • God will always hate sin and not allow it in His presence. 
  • God will always command that you repent for sin and trust in His Son. 
  • God will always welcome those who repent and believe, like the father who welcomed the prodigal son.
  • God will always have a place ready and waiting for you in His heart and in His kingdom if you're willing to turn from sin and give your life to Christ. 
Even though God is unchanging, God can change His mind. He did so when it came to His planned destruction of Nineveh. God used Jonah's half-hearted preaching to turn people from enemies of God into children of God. God wanted to save the people of Nineveh from condemnation and hell. He wants to do the same thing for every person in Logan and Hocking County today.

So, I challenge you (and me) to do two things with our lives. First, to take stock of our own lives, asking God to show us what we may need to repent for. Make this a daily practice. In Psalm 51, King David prays to God, “You desire truth in the inward being.”

When we get honest with God about our sins, He gives us forgiveness and helps us to live our lives differently. God’s Holy Spirit will help us to be sensitive to how we can keep walking in the will of God and to remain sensitive to the call to repentance that will put us back on the right track. When we daily repent and renew our trust in Jesus, God will help us to live the faith we profess.

Second, don’t be reluctant about going to your friends with the truth about their sin and their need of Jesus’ forgiveness. This is not being judgmental. When Jesus says, "Judge not, lest you be judged," he is warning us against making judgments that are unfair. But if a friend of yours was stepping out into traffic, you wouldn't decide to say nothing because of some fear that you would be casting judgment on your friend's bad decision, would you? No way. You'd yell loudly and clearly, "Stop!" Loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, which Jesus commands of every Christian, must entail caring enough about others to tell them that their favorite sins are hurting them, hurting God, and putting their eternities at risk.

I'm convinced many people want to hear the simple message Jesus delivers in today’s Gospel lesson: “Repent, and believe in the good news.” They're just waiting for the Christian who is bold enough and loving enough to share it with them. It's a message I want to share with you today. If you have wandered far from God, then I invite you to turn from sin and death and turn instead to Jesus and the life that only He can give. Life on this earth isn't perfect. But you don't want to draw another breath or take another step without Jesus Christ as your God and companion. And you surely don't want to step into eternity, whenever that might happen, without Jesus as your Savior and king. Turn to Him now and live!

God has a simple plan for renewing the people of the world. It begins with us.

First, we daily and consistently repent and trust in the God we know in Jesus.

Second, we invite others to repent and trust in this same God.

If the Ninevites proved open to this message, maybe the Loganites will too. Maybe the people of the world will be open to it.

Are you ready for that?

Then, start with repentance for your own sins and trusting Jesus to forgive you and make you new each day.

Then, start telling others what an amazing God He is. Amen