Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Joy in the Midst of Sadness

[This was shared during recent funeral services for Helen at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.]

Psalm 121
Romans 3:21-27
Psalm 23
John 11:21-26

There is inevitable sadness today. The last thing any of us thought we would be doing  this morning is grieving the loss of Helen. While she and her family knew that she had some health issues with which she was dealing and that her week was to bring medical testing, there was no thought that last week would bring her passing. Nor that it would happen so quickly.

But, for all its sadness, this day isn’t untouched by joy either. Helen has been spared a set of treatments that might have been long and hard. It’s easy to believe that God has intervened and taken her to be with Himself.

The last memory I have of Helen before this past Wednesday night, when she was taken to the hospital ER, was of her standing in the church fellowship hall, talking and sharing a quiet laugh with Margaret, probably as they discussed some detail of the Lutheran World Relief soap drive.

In some ways, that moment, observed from a short distance, encapsulates my experience of Helen: a woman with a servant’s heart who served God and others without calling attention to herself, who enjoyed laughing in the fellowship of friends and family, who lived for God’s purposes, and who, as in the job she held for twenty-five years with Halls, undertook her tasks with intelligence and diligence.

Helen was also a person who loved her family dearly, baking cookies for David and the boys to enjoy during their work days even recently. Matthew once told me that in her later years, she took to giving family members hugs and dispensing laughter more liberally, conveying how much she cared for each one of them.

Helen was just a wonderful person, the epitome of the word, lady.

And anybody who knew her for just a short time also knew that Helen trusted in Jesus Christ.

Because of her faith, I am sure that she’s in the company of the Lord and His people right now. I know that comforts you, Linda and David, and your families, this morning.

Today, I’m also sure that there is one message that Helen would want to share with her family and friends above all others.

We see that message reflected in various ways in all of the Bible lessons we just read. But none better distills them than the words of Jesus, spoken to His friend Martha, who was grieving the loss of her brother, Lazarus. Jesus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?"

We human beings, you know, have two great enemies from the moment of birth. One is sin, that inborn condition of separation from God and the life that only God can give from which we all suffer. King David spoke for us all when he said in Psalm 51, “...I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.”

Because sin separates us from the perfect life God has in mind for us, it introduces our second enemy, death and all the things that go with death--relational discord, physical deterioration. “The wages of sin is death,” the New Testament reminds us. And, in another place (Romans 8), God's Word tells us that the whole creation--including you and me--groans under the burden of our separation from God...and, like a woman in childbirth, in anticipation of the new creation God is bringing into being through Christ.

Helen knew and believed that, despite these enemies, though she might die, yet she would still live. Second Corinthians 5:17 contains a promise which can sustain us even in times like these: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! [And all] this is from God Who reconciled Himself [that is, torn down the wall of separation from Him and the life that He gives] through Christ...”

You who grieve Helen’s loss this morning can know that, because she was “in Christ,” because she trusted in Christ, she is with Him, is part of His new creation.

It’s a creation no longer groaning under the burden of sin and death, no longer groaning in anticipation of what God will do in the future.

Helen is living in that future.

There is no cancer.

No Zenker Diverticulum.

No cardiac issues.

No aging or the deterioration that goes with it.

Today, Helen stands in the presence of the living God, whole and healthy and holy, stronger and more filled with life than you and I can imagine.

These great blessings are nothing that Helen or any other of God’s saints--God’s set apart people--could earn. These blessings are gifts God grants to those who trust in Jesus as their only God and their only hope.

Jesus once told an old man named Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world [including everyone in this sanctuary this morning] that He gave His only Son [Jesus Himself], so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

Helen, you can be sure, is with the Lord right now because she believed in Jesus.

But, Jesus is more than an insurance policy for us once we have died.

The Bible teaches that, in Jesus Christ, eternity, God’s grace, and the privilege of being God’s children has invaded this world. Even in the midst of grief, suffering, confusion, and tough decisions, the person made new by the love of Christ, can stand strong in knowing that God stands by them always.

Psalm 121, which we read a moment ago, is from the Old Testament’s book of worship, the Psalms. This particular psalm is part of a group of them known as the song of ascents. They were meant to be sung by God’s people as they traveled by foot, on animals, or in wagons on their way up the mount on which God’s temple stood. It begins:

“I will lift up my eyes to the hills-- From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, He who keeps Israel Shall neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; The Lord is your shade at your right hand.”

You see, the God we know in Jesus Christ isn’t just sitting back in heaven waiting to bless those who trust in Him after they die.

God never sleeps! He never slumbers!

If we dare to stand with Him, He will always stand with us.

And He is standing with you today, comforting you in your grief, offering to you the same hope in Him with which Helen, in her quiet faith, lived each day.

Jesus has promised those who trust in Him, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

God’s Word assures us that nothing can separate us from the love of God given in Jesus Christ, the Savior Who died, taking the condemnation for sin we deserve, and then rose from the dead to push open the gates of eternity for all who dare to believe in Him.

Helen believed in--she trusted--the God made known in Jesus, “the resurrection and the life.”

It’s that faith that can allow you, even in your grief, to rejoice! Helen is with the Lord in Whom she placed her hope.

And it’s also faith in that same God, a God Who took on our humanity and suffered the worst this world can being, so that He can give you His best--God’s love, God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, an eternity of hope, and the promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you if you will trust in Him as your only God--that can sustain you in the days to come.

Cling to Christ today and always.

You will know, as Helen did, that Christ can always be counted on to strengthen you, give you help, and one day, raise you up to live with Him and the company of saints for all eternity.

God bless you.


Who Came First?

He is not "my Christ" because I have decided to follow Jesus. He is "my Christ" because He saved me, wretched sinner though I am, purely out of divine mercy and grace and, overwhelmed by the ministry of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of the Good News, faith took root in me. He is "my Christ" solely because, though I have no idea why He would want me, first I became His child. All praise and honor and glory go to God alone.

The Faith That Makes Us Well

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

Luke 17:11-19
Our Gospel lesson for this morning ends with Jesus telling a man Jesus has cured of leprosy, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Passages of Scripture like this one have often been misconstrued by people. What does Jesus mean by these words? Is He saying that if you and I have enough faith, bad things won’t happen to us?

I hope that the answer to that question is obvious. After all, Jesus Himself, sinless, completely trusting in the other two persons of the Holy Trinity--God the Father and God the Son--nonetheless suffered more than any of us ever has or ever will. Completely innocent of sin, He suffered and died for the sins of the world.

In Matthew 5:45, Jesus says: “[God] makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust...” You and I have all known faithful people--people who trusted their whole lives to Jesus Christ as their God and Lord--who suffered, some dying at young ages despite their uncompromising belief in Jesus.

And often people encounter suffering--persecution, shunning, and death--because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Faith in Christ is no insurance policy against suffering in this imperfect world.

To understand what Jesus means in the final verse of our lesson--”Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well.”--we need to look at the entire incident recounted in the lesson. As Lutheran Christians, we believe that we can't understand a single passage of Scripture by looking at it in isolation. Martin Luther talked about letting Scripture interpret Scripture, understanding an individual passage in light of what all of Scripture teaches and looking at passages within the contexts in which they appear.

So, please go to our Gospel lesson, Luke 17:11-19. We’re told: “Now it happened as He went to Jerusalem that He passed through the midst of Samaria and Galilee. Then as He entered a certain village, there met Him ten men who were lepers, who stood afar off.”

Jesus is heading for Jerusalem. Today's lesson is part of a section of Luke's gospel that scholars call "the great interpolation." It begins at Luke 9:51 and ends at Luke 18:18, opening with Jesus setting His face toward Jerusalem, intent on His mission of dying on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and rising from the dead to open the gates of eternity to all who turn from sin and trust Him as their only God and Savior. In the midst of rising opposition, Jesus continued in His mission on earth. As His people, we are called to be similarly steadfast, counting on the Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen us.

In the midst of this journey, Jesus passes between His native Galilee and the country of Samaria. The Samaritans were a half-breed people hated by the Jews. They had once been a full part of God’s people. But after the split of ancient Israel into two separate nations, the Samaritans mingled with other peoples, worshiping false gods, adulterating their faith in the one true God of creation.

Galilee, the region in which Jesus was raised, was next to Samaria and was regarded by the others in His homeland as "the wrong side of the tracks."

Jesus approaches a Samaritan village. On the outskirts of town, He is encountered by ten lepers. In those days, when people had leprosy, they were forced to live in isolation from family, friends, and neighbors in colonies on the edge of town. No one touched them. They were forbidden to touch anyone else. That’s why the lepers had to call Jesus from afar.

Go to verse 13, please: “And they lifted up their voices and said, 'Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!'"

In desperation, the lepers called out to Jesus. They seek something no one else is giving to them: mercy.

You know, we who have received the undeserved mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God, given only in Jesus Christ, need to be willing to hear the cries of those around us for mercy. That's why things like our involvement with the Inspire Shelter, the CHAP emergency food bank, and Lutheran World Relief is so important. One reason that so many people are turned off to the Christian faith these days is that, unlike Jesus, Christians often fail to give the mercy and compassion that they themselves have received from Christ.

Verse 14: “So when [Jesus] saw them, He said to them, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And so it was that as they went, they were cleansed.” Old Testament law said that once a priest certified that a person had been cleansed of their leprosy, they could return to their homes. Jesus instructs the ten lepers to see priests. Even as they went, their leprosy disappeared. It’s hard to imagine how the ten of them felt at that moment. Their earthly lives had been changed by the compassion of God, given in Jesus Christ.

But look at what happens next. Verses 15 and 16: “And one of them [the cleansed lepers], when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at [Jesus’] feet, giving Him thanks. And he was a Samaritan.”

Not every beneficiary of God’s mercy acknowledges all that God has done for them. They just go on with their lives as though goodness and blessings from God are things to which they’re entitled.  Listen: None of us is entitled to anything from God. Life itself is an undeserved gift! Every good thing added to it is gravy. God’s Word says that “every good and perfect gift” you and I have comes from God.

Often though, I’ve seen that people who have been helped by God through extraordinary circumstances, evidence no gratitude to God. It’s as though they can’t admit their vulnerability or their need of God’s help. Maybe this is why only one of the ten cleansed lepers returned to give Jesus thanks. The other nine didn’t want to even think about how weak and helpless they had been.

But the fact is, we are all weak and helpless. We all need God’s help. We all need to acknowledge that. It’s only when we own our helplessness and our weakness that the strength and power of God can flood our lives and help us to live with the confidence and hope God has in mind for us.

To paraphrase what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians, when we are weak, then we are strong; God’s power is made perfect, complete, in our lives when we let God take control of our lives...and not a moment before. It’s only when we’re weak enough to lean on Christ that God gives us the strength to face and conquer all that keeps us from being the people God made us to be!

Verses 17 and 18: “So Jesus answered and said, 'Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were there not any found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner?'"

You never can tell who is going to respond to Jesus Christ. Nor can you know when or how they will respond.

That’s why the Church--it’s why Saint Matthew Lutheran Church--must remain resolute in sharing the good news of new, everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ.

The one and only mission of the Church is the Great Commission. Jesus is quoted giving this mission statement to believers like you and me in five different places in the New Testament. One place we see it is in Acts 1:8, where the risen Jesus, just before His ascension tells us: “...you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you [the Holy Spirit Who came upon each of us when we were baptized in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit]; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

Jesus doesn’t say, “You shall be My witnesses as long as people are willing to accept that I am the way, and the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Me.”

Nor does He say, “You will be My witnesses as long as God and the Bible are popular.”

Nor does He say, "You will be My witnesses as long as it's politically correct."

He says that we are to be His witnesses. Period.

And if nine out of ten people with whom we share the Gospel reject Christ, the Gospel message, and God’s Word in the Bible, so be it.

Our call is to simply keep on sharing Christ, keep making disciples. And we are to fulfill this Great Commission, as Paul puts it, “in season and out of season.” [For help in playing your part in fulfilling this commission given by Christ to every Christian, see here.]

Then, Jesus says to the one thankful man in verse 19, “Arise, go your way. Your faith has made you well."

Now, you and I know that ten people had been made physically well. But Jesus isn’t talking about people being physically well here. Jesus didn’t suddenly revoke the healing He had given the other nine because only one man displayed gratitude. So, here’s the key fact in this passage: All ten were physically healed, but only one was made well.

A person can be physically healed, but still not be well.

And a person can physically or psychologically or emotionally broken down, but still be well!

The New Testament, of course, was written in Greek. And the root verb of the word translated as “has made you well” is, in Greek, sozo. It literally means saved.

The grateful man was well because he had been saved.

The person dying on a hospital gurney can, even as they die, know: “It is well with my soul!” They know that they are just as saved as the healed leper was at the moment Jesus declared that his faith had made him well!

Even at the point of death, it’s possible for us to live in the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love of God given in Jesus Christ. We are saved.

How? How can we know that?

By faith!

By faith, the healed man acknowledged God’s blessing.

By faith, he fell to his feet and worshiped God.

And Jesus declared that, no matter what suffering may await that man through the balance of his life, for there is nothing more certain than suffering and death on this dying planet, the healed man had nonetheless been saved for all eternity because He believed in Jesus Christ!

By God’s grace, he had been saved by his faith in Jesus Christ.

He could live his life on earth in confidence and hope and joy; through Christ, he was saved--eternally saved--for a life with God that never ends.

We can live our lives with the same confidence, hope, and joy as we yield our whole lives in faith in Jesus Christ!

On this Sunday that we end our partnership as congregation and pastor, I urge you to never forget that our hope is built on faith in Jesus Christ alone.

It is Jesus Christ alone Who can save us--not denominational affiliations, not church rituals or traditions, not liturgies, though each of these things can play constructive roles in the lives of God's people.

We cannot be saved by habits, nor political correctness nor political action, not by caving into the warped values of a world out of sync with God, not by our personally preferred interpretations of Scripture, not by love, nor morality, nor being good, nor obeying the rules

It is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ alone who saves us from sin, death, and futility. He does that as, in response to His grace, we believe in Him as our only God, Lord, and Savior.

Paul writes in our second lesson for this morning: “If we endure [in faith], we shall also reign with [Christ]. If we deny Him, He also will deny us..”

Stick with Christ.

Refuse to let the lies told to you by the world, the devil, or your sinful self to tear you from Christ, the only Way, the only truth.

Have faith in Christ alone.

And one day, all who trust in Christ, giving their sins, their past and their future to Him, will--despite our faults and sins and backsliding--gather around the throne of God together and hear the words of our Lord: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your Master’s joy!”

And, on hearing those words, all who have been made well by the grace of God given through faith in Jesus Christ will join the celebration with all God’s saints that never ends.

If not before that moment, we will, I am sure, if we remain steadfast in letting Christ love and grace and guide us, see one another then.

And, by the way, you’ll know me when we get there; I’ll be the guy sitting in the last row shaking my head in wonder that, in Christ, God’s grace even saved a wretch like me. Amen