Saturday, March 15, 2014

Saturday Song #3: Lean on Me by DCTalk

Here's my favorite cover of Withers' great song, from DCTalk. It appeared on the Free at Last LP.

Saturday Song #2: Lean on Me by Bill Withers

This song has been covered many times. But Withers is wonderful in this live treatment of his own composition, a great song by one of the greats. (I love the bass in this version.)

Saturday Song #1: Terra Nova by James Taylor

Because we all want to go home.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Good People

The really good people I know aren't better than others and wouldn't claim to be. They're simply people who, in the power of God's love given in Christ, do the right thing even when they don't want to. I'm blessed to know a few people like that.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Loving God

[This was prepared to be shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, during worship this morning.]

Matthew 22:36-40
Fads blaze in and out of life in the Church world as surely as they do in the realms of business, education, medicine, movies, and teenage music. All the time, it seems, someone selling a book or a DVD or a whole program with claims of having the silver bullets that will transform the lives of churches and individual believers, helping congregations to find and pursue their missions, and grow in all the ways God intends.

And some parts of those products and programs may actually help churches. After all, even a stopped clock, as they say, is right two times a day.

But, the problem is that often once churches and pastors adopt such programs, however well-intentioned, their lives effectively demonstrate that where they claim to believe in Jesus, they really believe in the mission statement, or the program, or the book, or the church growth guru, or the computer algorithm. Yet Jesus says, “I will build My church.”

The Church doesn’t need fads or new mission statements or DVDs or programs to know what its mission should be. Jesus, true God and true man, Who endured the condemnation for sin we deserved when He submitted to death on the cross, then sprung alive from the grave so that He can give us reconciliation with God, forgiveness of sin, power for living today, and eternity with God to all who repent and believe in Him as their only God and King, has already laid out the mission of the Church and the mission of Christ in plain language.

In three passages in the Gospels, Jesus defines the mission of every Christian congregation and of every Christian.

What He commands in these three passages is so impossible for us to do that unless we live in constant faithful dependence on Him, unless we constantly and regularly receive His grace and power as we pray in Jesus’ Name, worship Him with other believers, and receive His forgiveness and presence in Holy Communion, we simply will not be able to live the fivefold mission Jesus has given to us in these three key passages of Scripture.

As we begin this journey into deeper discipleship this Lenten season, let’s leave behind any notions of silver bullets or special programs that create instant discipleship or an instantly faithful and effective congregation.

If we as a congregation want to be all that Christ has in mind for us to be and if we as individual Christians want to live with the hope and peace that God has in mind for us, we must be attentive to the five building blocks for Christian living and mission that Jesus gives us in these three passages.

Let’s take a look at each of the three passages briefly.

The first is what we call the Great Commandment, found in Matthew 22:36-40. (Page 692 in the sanctuary Bibles.) A man asks Jesus, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Here, Jesus quotes two Old Testament passages which, taken together, summarize the two tables of the Ten Commandments, the first three deal with our relationship with God and the latter seven dealing with our relationship with our neighbors.

The second passage in which Jesus gives us our mission as congregation and individuals is referred to as the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20. (Page 698 in the Bibles.) The resurrected Jesus tells the 11 remaining apostles just before ascending to heaven: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Notice how frequently Jesus uses the word all here: God the Father ceded all authority to Him and Jesus in turn gives us authority in His Name to make disciples of all people and to teach them everything (another word for all) about Jesus, His commands, and the new and everlasting life He offers to all people who trust in Him.

The third passage that gives us our mission is the New Commandment, John 13:34-35. (Page 751 in the Bibles.) Speaking to His disciples during the Last Supper, Jesus says to His Church: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."

Here, Jesus commands us to love our fellow disciples because doing so authenticates the reality of our faith and that we really have been made new by the grace of Christ.

This doesn't mean we will never disagree. Someone has said that if two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant. We will have disagreements with one another in the Church; that doesn't mean we don't keep loving each other!

The five building blocks by which Christ builds His Church are seen in these three passages. They were the focal point of our church-wide vision and mission retreat in January.

They will continue to inform everything we do as a congregation and can help us all become the followers of Jesus--the disciples of Christ--we are called to be and that we all want to be.

The building blocks are:
  • loving God; 
  • loving our neighbors (wherever they may live); 
  • loving our fellow believers; 
  • making disciples; and 
  • personally growing in our faith every day of our lives. 
Our focus during Lent, both on Sunday mornings and, in more informal gatherings, on Wednesday nights, including the testimonies of faith of our young people, will be on these five building blocks and how we can surrender ourselves to the gracious hand of Jesus Christ to become, as the Bible puts it, “living stones” in His body on earth, the Church.

Today, our focus is on loving God. Jesus says, quoting Moses’ sermon in Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

Jesus, Who, after all is also God, says that this “the first and greatest commandment.”

Why does God need our love?

And why should we love Him?

And what does it mean to love God?

Let’s take each of those questions in order. Why does God need our love?

To put it simply, God doesn’t need our love. While speaking to the people in the marketplace in first century Athens, the apostle Paul noted: "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

God doesn’t need for us to love Him. God isn’t some self-absorbed egomaniac needing constant reassurance that He’s the apple of our eyes. God has all the love He could ever need or ever want within Himself, the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The New Testament tells us that, “God is love,” which doesn’t mean that God is some abstraction called love. It means that love informs every aspect of God's character and personality. Love is the motive behind everything God does--including judgment and discipline, including giving us the freedom to walk away from Him, including the cross and the empty tomb.

Out of an extravagance of love, though He didn’t need to do it, God gave us life and made us in His image.

The Old Testament says that we are the apple of God’s eye, the object of His passion and commitment and concern. That’s why, after humanity fell into sin, God set to work to save us from our sin--to save us from ourselves--and to save us from the death we deserve by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ, then dying and rising, so that all who repent and believe in Christ have life with God that begins now in this imperfect world and is “brought to perfection in the world to come.”

The fact is that God commands us to love Him not because He needs to be loved by us, but because we need to love Him.

When we love God, we simply acknowledge the reality that He is God and we aren’t, that He made us and that our lives are completely in His hands. We acknowledge that all of life is a gift from Him. And with gratitude, we acknowledge the depths of His passion for us, a passion that led Him to submit to suffering and death on the cross for us.

But how do we love God?

1 John 4:19 says: “We love because He first loved us.” Only God can empower us with the capacity for loving Him. We are only capable of truly loving God or other people because God, in Christ, has loved us into relationship with Him. In Christ, our love is no longer hostage to our thoughts or our emotions, which can change from day to day. To love God is to acknowledge the reality of both my need for Him and His grace for me, no matter what the circumstances of my life or my psyche at the moment.

My friends sometimes call me a human Thesaurus. If that’s even partly true then I have to tell you that a near synonym for the phrase love God is one simple word, worship.

To love God is to worship God, not just on Sunday mornings or Wednesday nights, but with our whole lives. The Old English word from which we get worship was worth-ship. When we worship God, we acknowledge His worthiness of all our praise, honor, allegiance, and sacrifice. When you know that you have been saved for eternity from sin and death by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, you know that putting your life at His disposal is the only course in this life that makes sense. God’s people, the Israelites, who looked to the coming of the Messiah so that God could make His fallen creation right again, often extolled God’s worthiness. “Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; His greatness no one can fathom,” Psalm 145:3 declares, for example.

But this raises a final point: To worship God involves more than our words: more than recited creeds, more that hymns or praise songs, more than offerings.

Through the prophet Amos in Old Testament times, God confronted a people who were evidently good at planning and executing impressive worship services. But He wasn’t pleased. “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies," God told His people. "Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” In other words, to truly love God means that we do more than give God or Jesus or our faith lip service. It entails seeking to do God's will and enlisting His power to do so.

David talks about this in Psalm 51: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it...My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise...”

To love God means to seek each day to align ourselves with God.

To praise and honor Him, not just with our lips, but with our lives.

To repent for sin.

To pray for the needs of others.

To help those in need.

To put God first because we know that in Christ, God has always put us first.

To put God first is the hardest and most impossible of all the commands God gives. It runs counter to our inborn nature as sinners.

But as we heed the call of the Holy Spirit to faith in Christ and to call out to God in Christ’s Name, God will do battle each day in the little places where we live our lives so that, whether with our families, at work, or in some ministry of the congregation in which we’re involved, God will help us render Him worship, honor, glory, and praise through who we are and what we do. By the power of the Holy Spirit given to Christians by Jesus, Who Himself was given to us by the Father, we will love God. Amen