Saturday, November 07, 2015

The God Who Restores

[This was shared during the graveside service for Dan, the father of a member of Living Water Lutheran Church, earlier today. He had been an active member of a church elsewhere, but had moved to the area after being diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.]

Job 19:23-27
Psalm 46
John 11:21-27

First of all, I pray God’s peace and encouragement and the hope of Jesus’ resurrection on all of you in the times to come.

I did not know Dan. But through you, his family, I learned a little about him the other day. I know that he leaves a hole in your lives. His seems to have been a strong presence always. Not flashy or demonstrative. Not judgmental or free with unsolicited advice. But a man who demonstrated his love by his deeds more than his words. A man who was firm and fair with his children as they were growing up and then respectful of their adulthood. A man who derived a sense of pleasure in knowing how things worked and in restoring old cars that from the before pictures looked beyond repair.

And it’s to this last image from Dan’s life that I want to turn your attention briefly now: the restorer of old cars. I have a lot of respect for people who can do that. To me, there are few things more beautiful in this world than a restored car. To make the restoration happen, you have to possess several qualities.

First, you must have the belief that what others might write off as hopeless is possible. The old, worn out, even dead, can be restored. You have to be able to see the possibility of new life in what others dismiss as a junker.

Second, you must have patience. Whenever you restore anything old, you run into obstacles. Sometimes it’s hard to find parts. Often, you have to improvise. If you’re going to restore an old car, you have to have patience.

Third, you have to have talent. You must have the ability to do the job. For some of us, restoring an old car would be an impossible task. But if you have the ability, you can accomplish a lot.

What our lessons from Job and from John’s gospel tell us today is that God is in the restoring business. He wants to restore us, free us from the power of sin and death. In Revelation, God says, “Behold, I make all things new.” And in 2 Corinthians, we’re told that if anyone is in Christ--if anyone believes in Christ, they are a new creation! That’s restoration!

From what I’ve been told, Dan had a tough childhood, a time of life brightened by going through it with his brother Bob. Nonetheless, we all know that not everyone gets free of the effects of difficult childhoods. People often replicate the ways of their elders in the way they are with their own families. From what I’ve been told, Dan didn’t do that.

I suspect that’s because of the gracious restoration from God Dan received when, through the ministry of a pastor he got to know, came to have a faith relationship we meet in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God demonstrates that, like the restorer of old cars, God writes no one off as a helpless case; God has patience with us--the Bible says that God “remembers that we are dust”; and God has the power and the ability to make anyone brand new! He then empowers us to love and forgive others the way He loves and forgives us.

The restoration God gave to Dan allowed him, to be a different parent than his own parents had been. It allowed him to be the means by which Christ brought new and everlasting life to his beloved brother Bob.

Here’s the thing: God loves us all with a passion we can hardly imagine. God made us. We are His children. And though God is a gentleman who will never force a relationship with Him upon us, He wants to restore us. He wants us to enjoy an eternal relationship with Him desperately.

That’s why Jesus, God in the flesh, came into the world to take on Himself the burdens of our sin, even though He was sinless. He died, taking the punishment for sin we deserve. Then He rose from the dead, certifying His power over not just sin, but also over death, for all who turn from sin and surrender their lives to Him as their God, Savior, Lord, and King. As Jesus puts it: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

We can be assured this day that because he trusted in Christ as his Lord and Savior, Dan is alive and fully restored in the presence of the God to Whom he surrendered his life. Beyond the gates of death, in the presence of God, there is for the believer in Christ, no more Parkinson’s Disease, no more suffering, no more dying, no more tears.

And for those who are still here on earth, who follow Jesus Christ, there is the promise of God’s loving presence, the fellowship of believers, and the promise that the God we know in Jesus will continue to restore us day by day in this life and will give us a place in eternity with all of Christ’s saints, including Dan, when the dead in Christ rise again. There we will live eternally restored, the people God made us to be when He first knit us in our mothers’ wombs.

If you’re not today following Jesus, I invite you to do so. Turn to Him and live, now and in eternity.

May God give you comfort, hope, and peace. Amen

Friday, November 06, 2015

Saying goodbye

Today I was talking with a person who mentioned a friend who is moving elsewhere. "It's so hard," this person said, "to have people move in and out of your life. But then, you know what it's like having to say goodbye."

In thirty-one years as a pastor, I've served four congregations. It is hard saying goodbye, particularly to people to whom you've grown close not just personally, but spiritually.

One of the many consolations I derive from the thought of the resurrected life is that in eternity, all who have trusted in Christ will always say hello and never have to say goodbye to each other.

I talked about this in a song I wrote and sang back in 2007, to the people of the third congregation I served as pastor on our last Sunday together:
Someday, I'm going to see you again
I'm not the one to say when
But I'm sure,
I'm going to see you again 
Someday, when we no longer grow old
We'll walk on streets made of gold
And it's then
I'm bound to see you again 
The hardest part of living each day
Is learning to say goodbye
Each sad farewell reminds us that we
Aren't in control of this life 
But someday, I'm going to see you again
I'm not the one to say when
But I'm sure,
I'm going to see you again
I'm going to see you again
Together forever again
Thank God that all who trust in Christ will one day not only be united with Him for eternity, but also with all "who have loved His appearing." Then, we'll kiss goodbyes goodbye.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

"What it means to forgive your enemies"

A challenging and important article from Relevant Magazine about what the author calls, "the most unreasonable thing Jesus says." A sampling:
Loving your enemy does not mean you have to add them to your Christmas list, or make them your best friend. It doesn’t mean you excuse their actions. It means you forgive them, with the knowledge that God is both merciful and just.
Read the whole thing.


[Jesus asked:] “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?" (Luke 6:46)

These words confronted me in my daily quiet time with God today.

They hit me hard. I felt that they were directed at me and not at "other people." 

As a Lutheran Christian, I regularly confess my sinful nature. Of course, it's a true confession for any human being.

But I realize today that I also make this confession, in part, to excuse my disobedience to the will of God, the law of God, to explain it away.

Of course, the law of God cannot save me from sin and death because I'm incapable of perfect obedience. Only the perfect sinless Jesus, Who took humanity's rightful punishment for sin--death--can save those who repent and trust in Him as their God and Savior.

But surely that's no reason for me to not try to obey God's law out of gratitude for God's grace and new life given freely to all who turn from sin and trust in Christ. 

I am forced to ask myself this question: If I'm willfully disobedient or casually so, can I honestly say that I'm letting Jesus be my Lord? Am I doing violence to my relationship with Him, risking its loss because of subtle disobedience?

I've been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's meditation on Psalm 119, left incomplete at his death. This is Bonhoeffer's point regarding this psalm extolling God's law: Believers in the God we now know more fully in Jesus Christ seek to live obediently to His Word, to His law.  That message dovetails with the simple words of Jesus I focused on today.

I sensed God telling me, "If you believe in Me, no more excuses! If you believe in Me, obey!"

Of course, God is compassionate. He remembers that we are dust. But I best express my gratitude for His love and redemption by striving always to obey Him. 

God, help me to be obedient.

Don't be afraid!

[This was shared during All Saints' Sunday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on November 1, 2015.]

John 11:32-44
Back in high school, I came to love a poem written by Alan Seeger, a young man killed in battle during World War One less than a year after he penned it, I Have a Rendezvous with Death. One reason I liked the poem so much, I think, is that it was just dawning on my sixteen year old brain that all people--even me--have a rendezvous with death.

And we can go to absurd lengths to deny the reality of death and all the other realities that go with it: aging, deterioration, and sagging bodies. A few years back, blogger and author Annie Gottlieb wrote about seeing a famous political campaign strategist on TV: “She's on CNN right now and she has had a really terrifying facelift, eyelift and Botox assault. She can hardly move her mouth, she can't smile at all…She looks like a particular fake alien face on the original Star Trek. It's a disaster! Hey, I feel bad about my neck too, but at least it's still my neck.”
None of us may like it, but the truth is that we all have a rendezvous with death, some at tragically early ages, others much later. That reality is acknowledged in today’s Gospel lesson. But so is another reality, a deeper, more powerful reality. In our lesson, Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies. In fact, earlier in chapter eleven of John’s Gospel, we see that Jesus knew that Lazarus was dead even before He told His disciples that they were setting off to Bethany, Lazarus’ hometown. The disciples hadn’t wanted to go there. That's because just a short time before, they had escaped their fellow Judeans with their lives, mobs bent on stoning Jesus and those with Him to death. Now, Jesus wanted to take them back into the jowls of death.

By the Gospel of John’s telling, these reluctant disciples had already seen Jesus perform six major miracles, six major signs of His Lordship and of God’s Kingdom. They’d seen Jesus turn water into wine, heal a desperate father’s son, restore healthy legs to a crippled man, feed 5000 with a few scraps of bread and some fish, get the disciples to a safe shore while the boat in which they rode was swamped by a furious storm, and make a blind man see. Those were all impressive miracles, the disciples must have thought. But Lazarus was dead. Dead is dead. Why should Jesus risk His neck and theirs to simply pay His respects? They didn’t know that Jesus had another miracle, another sign, He wanted them to see.

Our lesson finds the disciples, Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, and the people of Bethany all struggling to follow Jesus in the face of death, the greatest enemy any of us will ever face. In the bargain, they can’t help blaming Jesus. Three times in John, chapter 11, and twice in our lesson, they tell Jesus or each other, “If Jesus had been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” We make similar accusations against God when someone we care about has died or when bad things happen to us or those we care about. “Where is God?” we may wonder. “How could God let this happen?”

But it’s interesting to see that in the course of events at Bethany, John reports several times that the mourners weren’t the only ones who were upset. Jesus was upset too. At one point, He even began to weep. God in the flesh wept with those who wept. He still does.

Many times, I have puzzled over exactly why Jesus wept. I’ve reached two conclusions. Part of Jesus’ reaction, I think, stems from grief for us. He hates to see us suffer, die, or grieve. This was never part of God’s plan for our lives. But until Jesus returns, we live in a world groaning under the burdens of death, decay, and sin. Jesus wept because His friend, Lazarus, and each one of His precious children, have a rendezvous with death.

But I think that there was another reason for Jesus’ tears. He was frustrated to the core of His being that the people around whom He had lived for several years, the disciples, Mary, Martha, and the people of Bethany, refused to get it. They refused to dare to believe in Him. “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” He asks in John 11:40, with what must have been bewildered frustration. Were Jesus’ followers so stymied by death that they couldn’t see that the God Who made life and had demonstrated His power over life, death, and sin, was among them at that very moment?

Jesus didn’t begrudge them their grief. Grief is natural. But He was frustrated by their hopelessness. The follower of Jesus need never be hopeless!

Pastor Mike Foss tells the story of visiting a man about to undergo surgery. Says Foss: “
Eyes sparkling, he laughed. I had met him at the hospital and, before any anesthetic had been administered, he and his wife and daughter gathered with me at his bed side. There I began to talk of his impending surgery. ‘It’s natural,” I said, “for you to be anxious.’ And I didn’t get any further than that, because he laughed...As I stood there (at a loss for words) he grinned and said, ‘Pastor Mike, I’m not afraid. I already died once. I know what’s on the other side because I saw it…and I saw Jesus [when he had briefly died during an earlier surgery]. I’m not anxious at all because I know that no matter what happens it’ll be okay.’”

When, through the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ, you know what awaits you beyond the grave, you're not afraid. In fact, you even give others encouragement.

The seminary professor who most influenced me was Pastor Bruce Schein. He had come to Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus from Jerusalem. He was gravely ill, though Pastor Schein was so intent on glorifying Christ and preparing us for ministry that I didn't even notice the signs of his physical deterioration. He was always on fire for Christ. A year after I graduated from seminary, he had surgery that lasted hours. I saw him sometime after that. He had lost so much weight and could barely walk, but the fire had not gone out. We talked for awhile. Then he told me that he had actually died during his surgery. "Mr. Daniels," he said, "I was in the throne room. I put in a good word for you." A few months later, he died, just forty-two years old.

But what a forty-two years! At the NALC Convocation in Dallas a few months ago, a person who served an internship under one of my classmates brought up Pastor Schein. “I see how he impacted all of you for Jesus,” she told me. “He would be so proud of you all.”

I tell you unashamedly that when she said that, right there in the lobby outside the meeting area, with people coming and going, I began to cry, not out of grief or frustration, but out of gratitude to God for a saint of God who brought me closer to Jesus. Pastor Schein taught me that we need not fear death.

That was precisely the lesson Lazarus learned that day in Bethany. Dead four days, his body emitting the stench of death, bound in the tight bands of cloth in which the dead in first-century Judea were always buried, Lazarus was called by Jesus from death back to the once mournful, now astonished villagers of Bethany. “Lazarus, come out!” Jesus called to the dead man (John 11:43).

I’ve often wondered if Lazarus hesitated when he heard Jesus call, knowing that on returning, he would re-enter a life of death and decay, a place where people get Botox injections to fool themselves and the world that the rendezvous with death can be avoided. Lazarus knew that, in returning, he would have to go through death again. Did Lazarus hesitate to return?

Maybe not. Because Lazarus knew that deeper reality we talked about earlier, something C.S. Lewis called “the deeper magic.” Lazarus knew that all who entrust themselves to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ will live in God’s presence forever. He knew that for the believer in Christ, beyond the gates of death is a perfect life with God, with no suffering, no death, no tears.

I’ll wager that when, any time after that, people tried to tell him how natural it was to be afraid, he laughed.

How can a follower of Jesus Christ really be afraid when she or he knows that besides a rendezvous with death, we also have a rendezvous with life with God that lasts forever?

How can we be afraid to use this life in full in reverencing God's Word, proclaiming Jesus' death and resurrection, repeating Jesus' call to repentance and renewal, and serving and sharing Christ with others?

This is All Saints’ Sunday. In part, it’s a time to remember the blessed dead who have lived and died believing in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, and who are now in His presence. Their examples of faithfulness to Jesus, especially the departed saints who, like the young people who recently lost their lives in Washington State after a lunatic gunmen asked them if they believed in Jesus, inspire us.

But there’s more to All Saints’ weekend than remembering the blessed dead.

A saint, according to the Bible, is nothing more than a forgiven sinner, someone who has turned from sin and let Jesus loose them from death.

Whether we’re saints on earth or saints in heaven, we all are spared separation from God. By God’s gracious acceptance of those who turn from sin and believe in Jesus, we belong to God forever.

If there is a single message we can learn from Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead and His own resurrection, it’s this: Don’t be afraid!

The Lord Who has conquered our sin and our death allows us to say, “Yes, we have a rendezvous with death. But because we believe and submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over our lives, we also have a rendezvous with life!”

We can live with the confidence that God intends to turn all our mourning into dancing. We’re promised a banquet of grace that lasts for all eternity.

And knowing that, we too can laugh!