Saturday, November 29, 2014

Thinking About the End

Mark Allan Powell, a New Testament scholar with whom I often disagree, writes this about the Gospel lesson that will be front and center in most churches around North America tomorrow, Mark 13:24-37:
Modern Christians often think, "Since the time of Jesus' second coming cannot be known, we need not think much about it." Mark [the writer of the New Testament's second gospel] draws the opposite conclusion: since the timing is unknown we should think about it all the time.
Not to quibble with Powell, but I think Mark got this conclusion from Jesus Himself.

Be that as it may, Powell makes an important point. We modern day Christians are complacent to the point of functional disbelief when it comes to Jesus' promise of a second coming, when He will end the life of this time-bound, sin-bound universe to usher in "a new heaven and a new earth."

That isn't to say that Christians should get caught up in speculation about when Jesus will return. The very words of Jesus that Powell explores tells us that only God the Father knows when Jesus will return and that all the conditions for that return had already been met in Jesus' generation.

But how might it affect the lives of Christians if we really believed and lived out of the belief that Jesus could return at any time? Even right now?

How would it change our priorities?

Would it cause us to live with less fear?

Would it cause us to be less concerned for ourselves and more concerned for the physical and spiritual needs of our neighbors, not to mention Christ's call to treat them with love and justice?

Those are good questions to ponder, I think.

(By the way, thinking about and believing in the End that Jesus promises will come is not to be confused with "rapture theology," a la Left Behind. See here.)

Ohio State wins, but...

The Buckeyes won today in Columbus, 42-21.

The defense looked good in the second half, for the most part, although our penchant for giving up the big play was seen again.

The offense played well through much of the game, although it sputtered throughout most of the second quarter. Worse, quarterback J.T. Barrett, the surprise linchpin of the offense, was injured. I feel very badly for this young man, who has been mentioned in connection with the Heisman Trophy, amazing considering that just twelve days before the season began, when Buckeye starter Braxton Miller, who had already figured in Heisman talk, re-injured his shoulder. I pray that Barrett will be feeling better soon and that Miller's recovery and rehabilitation will continue strong.

The Buckeyes will face either Minnesota or Wisconsin in next week's Big Ten championship game. The Bucks already beat Minnesota in a tough away game a few weeks ago. As I write this, the Gophers, called by most experts the underdogs, are up on the Badgers, 17-0.

Either opponent will be tough as it's likely that third-string quarterback Cardale Jones will get the start. He has few real-game snaps this season. (I would expect to see the Buckeyes try the Wildcat formation with greater frequency next week, taking advantage of phenom Jalin Marshall's experience as a high school QB.

Should Ohio State win next week's game and teams ahead of them in the rankings lose, the College Football Playoff committee would have to decide whether, without Barrett, the Buckeyes are a championship-contending caliber team.

There already were questions about the Buckeyes being worthy of the top four spots nationally. Today's game and what happens next week may either answer them...or muddy the waters.

[UPDATES, 11/29/2014: J.T. Barrett's injury, as reported by Dom Tiberi of WBNS 10TV, was a broken ankle. He will undergo surgery tomorrow. Wisconsin beat Minnesota. The Badgers will be the Buckeyes' opponents next Saturday in the Big 10 championship game.]

[ANOTHER UPDATE, 11/29/2014: Here's a link to head coach Urban Meyer's post-game press conference.]

Truly a "Happy Ending"

I love today's installment of Our Daily Bread. An excerpt:
Heaven is not an afterthought or an optional belief. It is the final justification of all creation. The Bible never belittles human tragedy and disappointment—is any book more painfully honest?—but it does add one key word: temporary. What we feel now, we will not always feel. The time for re-creation will come.

For people who feel trapped in pain or in a broken home, in economic misery or in fear—for all of us—heaven promises a timeless future of health and wholeness and pleasure and peace.
Read the whole thing, but before you do, be sure to read Revelation 21:1-7.

Friday, November 28, 2014

When Love Comes to Town By U2 and B.B. King

"When love comes to town I'm gonna jump that train
"When love comes to town I'm gonna catch that flame.
"Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down
"But I did what I did before love came to town."

Before love comes to our town, before love becomes real to us, before it singes us with its power and starts the painful work of transforming us gut deep, we're prone to thoughtless betrayal of those who love us and who, we realize too late, we both love and were always called to love.

Yet love, true love, the love that has only one source, can conquer any divide. It can make war on our selfish impulses. "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8).

"I was there when they crucified my Lord
"I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword.
"I threw the dice when they pierced his side
"But I've seen love conquer the great divide."

First though, we must surrender to it. "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved..." (Acts 16:31)

And we need to keep surrendering to it "...because of the prevalent disregard of God's law the love of the great majority will grow cold; but those who stand firm to the End shall be saved." (Matthew 16:12-13)

[See here.]

All My Trials by Mary Hopkin

The sound quality of this live recording isn't great and I'm not so fond of the montage of photographs connected with it on this homemade video, but I love the Mary Hopkin version of the folk classic, All My Trials. It's been recorded by many people, as noted here. I find Hopkin's version the most affecting.

A Bit of Columbus History...F & R Lazarus

Click on the pictures.

Hey, Black Friday Shoppers

Be careful out there. (And have a good time, which is probably the main idea.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Go, Buckeyes! Beat TTUN

"You're a Big Girl Now"

Love these lines from a song on Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks:
I’m going out of my mind, oh, oh
With a pain that stops and starts
Like a corkscrew to my heart
Ever since we’ve been apart
These lyrics are from what has long been a go-to album for me.

One-time blogger, the novelist Richard Lawrence Cohen, a huge and insightful Dylan devotee, once told me that the LP was "pretty," but not his favorite.

I suppose that in the grand scheme of things, Dylan collections like Highway 61 Revisited, along with his earliest work, as well as John Wesley Harding may rightly be regarded as more important.

And truthfully, I love almost all of Dylan's albums, owning nearly all of them.

But, while Richard is a brilliant man I truly respect, Blood on the Tracks is still my favorite Dylan LP. I love its vulnerability, immediacy, and melodies.

It's a painful album in many ways. But it's also amazing.

"I think we're smart enough to converse"

Lecrae, a committed follower of Christ and a great recording artist, has taken some heat for trying to engage in useful dialogue about the broader issues involved in what has happened in Ferguson, Missouri.

Like him, I can't claim to know the facts of the specific case, but I believe the reaction indicates that there is a broader issue to be addressed.

Prayer and the humble pursuit of unity and understanding are goals that we all can embrace, especially as Christians who seek to love our neighbors, white and black.

Like Lecrae, I have no political agenda. (Politics seems irrelevant to this entire issue, really. It's more a matter of our wills, minds, and hearts.)

Before recording this video, Lecrae, undoubtedly already exhausted from a recent tour, had spent long nights trying to convince young people not to use violence in protesting the wrongs they perceive. For that alone, he deserves a fair hearing.

I long ago came to love this man's music. But, increasingly, I love his heart for Christ and for his neighbors, his courage, and his integrity.



'Letters to My Non-Churchgoing Friends'

Here's a link to a series of columns I wrote for a suburban Cincinnati newspaper years ago. They're letters from this former atheist, now Christian, to non-churchgoing folks about why they might want to consider becoming part of God's family, the Church.

Advent Season Welcome

This is the welcome that visitors to Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, will find in their worship bulletins during the upcoming Advent season, which begins this coming Sunday, November 30. Advent is a great time for people without church homes to find one. Wherever you live, I hope you'll find a church where you can hear God's Word and feel welcomed. To learn more about the Church Year, go here.
We welcome you to Living Water Lutheran Church in the Name of the God made known to all the world in Jesus Christ! We hope that while here, you feel welcomed and that as we worship God together, you are drawn closer to God.

We’re in that part of the Church Year called Advent. Advent starts on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, which always happens on December 25 and is the festival of Jesus’ birth to a virgin named Mary.

Advent is a time that remembers the expectant waiting of God’s people, the Hebrews or the Jews for the coming of the King, the Anointed One, promised centuries before the birth of Jesus. In the Hebrew language of God’s people, the title for that King is Messiah. In the Greek language in which the New Testament was written in the first century, that title is rendered as Christos, Christ.

Advent is also a time when we modern day Christians expectantly anticipate the coming of the crucified, risen, and ascended Christ Jesus to bring an end to this fallen universe and usher in with finality and perfection His new creation.

The word Advent comes from the Latin and means coming.

The color of the season is blue. With its connection in our imaginations to clear skies, blue suggests the hope that we have as those who trust in Jesus Christ as God, King, and Savior, knowing that through Him, we have a certain hope of eternity with God.

Once again, welcome and may God bless you! 


The thing for which I am most thankful is the gift of new life brought to the world--even to a sinner like me, through Jesus Christ. When we trust in Him, He brings us out of sin, death, and darkness into His marvelous, eternal light!

'The Lake House'

For a long time now, a friend has told me what a good movie, The Lake House, is, but I've never had the chance to see it. Tonight, I found out it's going to be shown tomorrow afternoon on E! So, I've got my TV set to record it and I look forward to watching tomorrow night.

[UPDATE, 11/29/2014: I watched it this evening and loved it.]

Monday, November 24, 2014

Trygve Skarsten

Just learned of the passing of one of my favorite seminary professors, Trygve Skarsten.

He was a man whose love for Christ and gentle piety oozed from every pore. I will never forget when he was honored for his years of service during a banquet at the seminary. Tryg was asked to speak a few words at that time.

He spoke of how Jesus had changed his life, after being a member of a gang in his native New York City. He talked about the prayers of his pious mother for his salvation and spoke gratefully of how Jesus had changed his eternity. He spoke movingly of the power of Christ's gospel to change everyone's life similarly.

When he finished speaking, Skarsten received a standing ovation. I turned to my mentor, the late Pastor Bruce Schein, and said, "Tryg is alright." As he clapped appreciatively, Schein looked at me and replied with feeling, "He's in the vision."

He indeed was in the vision of heaven and earth as the domain of the Lord Who saves us from sin and death and darkness by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Trygve Skarsten is in the presence of his Lord Jesus right now and, I am sure, he is bursting with joy and celebration!

UPDATE: Here is a sermon I preached in 2010, in which I mention an article written by Dr. Skarsten. The anecdote from his life cited there evokes his passion for Christ and for sharing the Gospel.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Life and Welcoming Jesus and "the Least of These"

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

Matthew 25:31-46
It’s always humbling to realize that there is so much more in the Bible, the Word of God, than we sometimes imagine and that the understanding of it that we sometimes take for granted isn’t entirely correct. Or even substantially incorrect.

That’s the experience I’ve had this week in studying today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:31-46.

I confess that I approached my study and the prospect of preaching on this text with something of a ho-hum attitude. Everyone could see, I thought, what these words of Jesus are about: Jesus the King is portraying the final judgment scene. Some will be welcomed into His eternal kingdom because their faith in Him has led them to serve those in need, while others, who have refused to trust in Christ and so have refused to serve their neighbor, are separated from God and sent to hell. Throughout my Christian life, I have believed that these words of Jesus were about how faith in Christ leads Christians to an ethic of love for the needy and a concern with justice for them.

Now clearly, when we know that we have been saved by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, it will change how we live. Jesus’ life and heart will be planted within us and we will feel motivated, not be legalism, but by gratitude, to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” But, I’ve come to realize that that is not what the words in our Gospel lesson from Christ our King today are about. They’re about something altogether different.

Jesus' words for us today are not about how believers treat the needy of the world. They're about how the world treats His disciples who, because of their belief in Him, experience need.

To follow Jesus means to risk, in a sinful, disbelieving world, going without food, water, shelter. It means to risk being despised and imprisoned.

The world casts judgment on itself when it fails to welcome the children, the disciples, of Christ the King.

People receive salvation and eternal life when they welcome Christ and His messengers into their lives.

To set us on a course to more clearly understanding this, I’d like to ask you to look at three other passages of Scripture with me this morning.

First, please look at Isaiah 52:7 (page 511 in the sanctuary Bibles). It says: “‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’"

God cherishes those who proclaim His truth and the good news of new life through faith in Him. And the proclaimers God values aren't confined to the ranks of the ordained clergy. First Peter, for example, reminds us that every Christian is a proclaimer of God’s good news, telling and showing others how God has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light and how He is willing to do that for anyone who repents and believes in the God we know in Jesus.

Now, look at Matthew 10:40 and 42 (page 682). Jesus is speaking to His disciples, ordinary followers of Him just like us. Jesus says in verse 40: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Of course, the One Who sent Jesus is God the Father.) Slip down to verse 42, where Jesus goes on: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

These little ones are Jesus’ disciples. When people welcome Jesus’ disciples and their message of new life through Jesus, they too become disciples. It’s through Jesus’ little ones, followers of Jesus, that others come to know and believe in Jesus as their God and King.

Finally, let’s look at Matthew 18:6 (page 688). Jesus says: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

What do we learn from these three passages and the rest of Scripture?

First, we learn that God transmits the message of new life in Christ through ordinary, humble people, not people the world might call superstars.

Second, we learn that when people receive the message and the messengers of the Gospel, they have new lives. And those who reject them and their message, are condemned.

Third, we learn that Christ cherishes the faithfulness of His little ones, the humble “least of these” of the world who trust in Him as their only God, King, and Lord.

So now, let’s look at our Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:31-46 (page 695). It begins: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him...”

As in other lessons we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks, Jesus is talking about the end of earth’s history, when judgment will come to humanity. The Old Testament has several passages that speak of this final judgment by God. God is portrayed as being on the throne. Here, Jesus makes clear Who He is by claiming that He, “God in flesh appearing,” as we sing at Christmastime, will be humanity’s judge. All the nations--the very nations to which He commands His Church to go with the message of new and everlasting through faith in Him--will stand before the King.

Jesus goes on, “...and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” I’ve read that even in the Middle East of today, shepherds pasture their sheep and goats together during the day. At night, the shepherds separate sheep from goats. Like the wheat and the weeds in Jesus’ parable in which He says He will allow the righteous and unrighteous to live side by side until the day of judgment, Jesus says that He won’t separate His sheep from the goats until the night of this world comes, when no one can work.

Verse 34: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”

Salvation and eternal life come to those who receive the message about Jesus through the humble servants of Jesus. They’re the messengers that the world underestimates.

The world would never guess that for me, the great-grandmother who mentored me in Christ and prayed for my salvation is a more important person than all the kings and rulers this world has produced in my lifetime, because it was she who, even when I couldn’t see it, set my course for eternity.

The world would never guess that welcoming unassuming saints with their good news of new life through faith in Christ, like Martha Schneider, my mentor in the faith when I was in my twenties of whom I’ve spoken before...or a simple housepainter named Charlie, who shared his faith in Christ with me on the day of his beloved wife's funeral...or Betty, a woman whose life was hard, yet who openly proclaimed her love for Jesus...or dozens of other messengers from Jesus who have crossed my path in life...were and are more important to me and are more important in the eyes of God and the Kingdom of God than all the VIPs, prime ministers, presidents, kings, and potentates that have ever occupied this planet taken together.

To welcome Jesus' disciples, even when their needs make them weak in the eyes of this world that values the strong and powerful and self-sufficient and beautiful, is to welcome the King of the universe.

To let these disciples' King become our King is to experience life with God and everlasting salvation...the only way to experience these things.

In their humble, unassuming ways, Jesus' children reflect the presence of Jesus within them.

In the eyes of the world, one of the great scandals of the Christian faith is that we claim that the God Who created the whole universe has come down deep into our lives.

He hasn’t overpowered us with His infinite strength.

He hasn’t used His power to force us to believe.

Instead, He became one of us and chooses, by His Holy Spirit and His Gospel, to woo us with His love.

He suffered as we suffer.

He died on a cross.

It was only after He experienced the worst that any and every human being will suffer in this world that He destroyed the power of suffering, death, and sin over us by rising from the dead.

Today, by His Holy Spirit unleashed within them, Christ the King works in the lives of ordinary people who experience the full gamut of hardships and challenges that come to human beings, making them His ambassadors to neighbors, friends, relatives, and strangers who, just like us, need Jesus.

We who believe in Jesus bring Jesus to this world.

It’s as true today as it was when John the apostle wrote in the prologue to His Gospel: “ all who did receive [Jesus], to those who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become the children of God [the little ones, huh?] born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”

You know what happens with the goats in our Gospel lesson. They’ve lived alongside the sheep all their earthly lives. When they’ve met the King’s sheep, they haven’t welcomed them. When they’ve heard the sheep’s message, they’ve rejected it. To them, Jesus says in verses 45 and 46: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

At the end of history, at the ends of our lives, Christ’s judgment over us won’t be about the service we render, though if we believe in Christ we will render service to God and to others.

Instead, Christ will judge us over whether we have received Him through the witness of believers in Him, no matter how inferior they may seem--no matter that they are “the least of these.”

We will be judged on whether we have believed the Gospel message of Jesus, the Servant King.

The words of Jesus this morning have, I think, special meaning for us at Living Water.

Throughout the just completed series of Getting to Know You dinners, the most commonly mentioned aspiration for the congregation is that we would grow.

I want that to happen too, especially spiritually. It would be nice for it to happen numerically too, although it’s important to remember that Living Water is already bigger than 75% of the churches in North America and that the church growth experts would classify this, not as a small church, but as mid-sized one.

And maybe some day, God will bring the millions of dollars we would need to build a facility that allows us to do as much ministry to our community and our world as we’re able to do from this building with which we’ve been blessed.

But whatever God’s plans for our congregation may be, our Gospel lesson tells us that our call will always be the same:

First, to welcome the messengers of Christ and their message about Christ, irrespective of how humble or powerless or worthless those messengers may seem to be.

AND second, to be disciples who point the world around us not to our power, or our class, or our building, or out programs, or to ourselves at all, but always and only to our King, Jesus Christ. Amen