Saturday, December 12, 2015

All I Know by Art Garfunkel

From Garfunkel's memorable solo LP, Angel Clare. His voice was at the height of its powers when this was recorded in 1973. The tune was written by Jimmy Webb.

The late and wonderful Larry Knechtel, a studio musician who also performed with a group of fellow studio musicians in the band, Bread, played the piano. Knechtel's most famous piano solo came in the Simon and Garfunkel tune recorded about four years before All I Know. That song was Bridge Over Troubled Water.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

What Faith Is

[This was the message at a funeral service for Tim.]

Hebrews 11:1-16
John 11:21-27

" is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what do not see." 

So says the first verse of one of Tim’s and Debi’s favorite passages of Scripture, Hebrews 11. 

Since I have been Living Water’s pastor for little more than two years, I never knew a time when Tim wasn’t ill. B​ut I also never knew Tim when he didn’t have the kind of faith that Hebrews talks about.​

He had confidence in the eternity of perfect peace and healing with God he would experience one day. And he had the assurance that the Savior Jesus he could not see had won this eternity for him. 

Tim was confident of the central teaching of Scripture: W​e are not saved by the good we have done, but by the great good God has done for us through Christ and by our faith in Christ alone.​

Christ died for sinful human beings like us, taking on Himself the death sentence each of us deserves for sin and then Christ rose from the dead, taking all who turn from sin and follow Him by faith with him, to lives of purpose on this earth and of everlasting life with God in eternity.

Tim often told people he was unafraid of dying. He knew where he was going and to Whom he belonged. 

This faith, this confidence in the God we cannot see, was forged early in his life, when he suffered from cancer at the age of twelve. He received the then­-newest treatments for cancer at Miami Valley Hospital. He told me, as I’m sure he told you, that his father­,­ who was Tim’s hero­­, often assured Tim that Jesus was right there with him and, when Tim asked what would happen should he die, his dad assured him that Jesus would be right there, leading him by the hand and giving him a hug when he entered heaven.

Are you letting Jesus hold you today? 

Or do you only have a passing relationship with Jesus? 

Tim held onto Jesus. One of the great joys in Tim’s life was that the Early Risers Bible study group purchased a device that made it possible for him for some time to read Scripture, the Word of God. And no one I have ever known more craved receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the body and blood of Jesus, given to believers to receive the presence of Jesus with them in a tangible way and, through it, just as Jesus promises, the forgiveness of sins.

In fact, it was during one visit with Tim at Saint Leonard’s rehabilitation center, sharing Holy Communion, that Tim had an amazing experience that I was privileged to witness. 

We had just considered Jesus’ words, “This is My body, given for you...This is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” I then handed Tim the bread and said, “The body of Christ, given for you.” He took the bread and then stopped, seemingly stricken. 

“Oh,” he exclaimed. I thought that he was in pain. 

“Are you alright?” I asked. 

He was silent for some moments and then said, “I just had an experience I have never had before. I felt the Lord in this room. Just as I took the bread in my hand, I had the overwhelming sense of His presence, a feeling of peace like I’ve never had. I felt it throughout my body."

Now, lest you be skeptical, Tim was not on any medication at the time that would have induced an hallucination of some sort. Five minutes before, we’d been having as pedestrian a conversation as you and I might have over a dinner, at a barber shop, or in the clubhouse at a golf course. N​o, the God we cannot see, had come to Tim to reassure Tim that, no matter what may lie ahead of him in this earthly life, all was well.​

And all is well for you today if, like Tim, you trust in the God in the flesh Jesus to be your Lord, Savior, King, and Best Friend.​

In our Gospel lesson for this morning, Martha, one of Lazarus’ sisters, seemed to condemn Jesus. “Lord, if you had been here," she said, "my brother would not have died.” 

We need not feel that Jesus was absent from Tim’s years of suffering or his death. We know that the Savior Jesus, Who bore scourging and death for us, was with Tim through all of his sufferings...and with Debi, who cared for him so faithfully, too. 

And Tim knew something else which Jesus claims about Himself later in his conversation with Martha. J​esus said: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.”​

Tim is alive today and with the Lord in Whom He believed, the Lord He experienced through the Word of Scripture, through the Word proclaimed in words and in the hymns he loved singing, through the waters of Baptism in which God washed and claimed Tim as a child of God, through the body and blood of Christ that Tim so gratefully received “in, with, and under” the bread and the wine.

But Tim also experienced the presence of Jesus in another way. I would be remiss in not mentioning this other way now: He experienced Christ through the fellowship of believers. 

He loved the guys of the Early Risers Bible study group. That’s something he often expressed to me. 

He appreciated the ad hoc group of singers from Grace, Epiphany, and Living Water who came to sing for and with him recently. 

And he also often expressed appreciation for the people of Living Water.

In fact, if there’s one sadness I have this morning it’s that Tim couldn’t fulfill the one ambition he expressed to me many times. 

“I want to get strong enough,” he would say, “to speak to the people of Living Water. I want to thank them. I want to tell them how much their prayers and their encouragement have meant to me. I want them to know what a special church it is.” And then, he would always add, “I feel the love of Christ the moment I open the doors to Living Water. Every person is just filled with the love of Christ.”

" is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see."

We ​can trust in Christ this morning. He’s the God and King Who can destroy the power of sin and death over the lives of those who turn away from sin and turn each day to Him. 

He’s the Lord Who promises that He will never leave nor forsake those who trust in Him, even when we experience illness, grief, or adversity. 

He’s the Lord Who can be counted on to one day welcome to eternity those who have been faithful in following Christ, faithful in returning to Christ even after we have sinned. 

There, those who trusted in Christ will be told by their Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Welcome to the joy of your master.” 

(And some of the saints who enter into the joy of the Lord in eternity might next hear, “By the way, the heavenly choir needs a bass. Report for duty immediately.”)

Today, I invite you to follow Jesus. 

Today, you can find Jesus where Tim found him: in the fellowship of believers; in the Word of God; in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. 

And when you do find Jesus in these places, latch onto His strong hands of grace and power and never let go. 

When we hold onto Jesus on this earth, we may not see Him. But one day, like Tim the moment he closed his eyes to this world, we will see Christ face to face. 

And we will know that our lives with Christ here have been, in C.S. Lewis’ words, “....only...the cover and the title page,” as we step into the first chapter of a never-ending book entitled, Eternity with God.

Trust in Christ and let him give you your story with God to live out forever and ever. 

The Way of Life

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church on Sunday, December 6, 2015.]

Luke 13:1-14
Some of our vacations over the years have taken us through mountains in places like West Virginia and Colorado. Whenever we drive through mountains, I think about all that was involved in building the piece of highway we’re on. Mountains and foothills had to be blasted through and dug out, low areas filled in with concrete, dirt, and gravel. Road-builders create straighter, clearer paths to the places we want to go.

Our Gospel lesson for this morning tells us about a road-builder we call John the Baptist. According to Luke, the writer of the book from which our lesson is taken, John fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, written hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus. Luke cites Isaiah 40:3-5; they make up verses 4-6 of our Gospel lesson. John the Baptist, Luke tells us, is “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

Long before John was born, God had defined John’s mission in life. He was to be a road builder who would create a clear pathway for “all flesh” to “see the salvation of God.” 

How did John do this? 

And what does it have to do with us?

This morning, we’re going to focus on just the first six verses of our Gospel lesson. We'll look at Luke 3:1-6. Luke writes: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, ...” 

From what Luke tells us with this list of kings and priests, scholars believe that John the Baptist’s ministry began in 28 or 29 AD.

But Luke wants us to know more than just when John the Baptist began his ministry. He wants us to know why John began his ministry. If we were reading Luke straight through, we already would have gotten a hint back in Luke 1:52. Mary, the virgin God chose to be the mother of Jesus, tells Elizabeth, then in the sixth month of her pregnancy for John that “[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.”

The world kowtows to the Caesars, the kings, the wealthy, and the powerful, but people who believe in the God revealed to all the world through Jesus Christ know Who’s really in charge. They know too that God is at work even when most people think that God has disappeared. Even when terrorists, despots, and superstars are “getting away with murder,” God is still moving the world and all who trust in Him toward a certain destiny, ensuring that at a time both the Old and New Testaments call “the day of the Lord,” all will be made right. On that day, despots will get their comeuppance and those who trust in the Lord will step into the joy of their inheritance from God. Rulers will be brought down from their perches of power and the lowly will be lifted up.

Back in verse 2 of our Gospel lesson we’re told that: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” These words are a clear signal that like Jonah, Hosea, and Joel, to whom God’s Word came in the Old Testament, John the Baptist was to be a prophet, a tough calling.

The word from God that the prophets were expected to spread was often a message that people didn't want to hear, but needed to hear if they were going to have right relationships with God. 

The lives of the prophets were, as a result, often difficult. Many were killed, just as John the Baptist would be, not because God had abandoned them, but because they were being faithful to the word God gave to them. 

And people then, no less than today, didn’t want a God Who told them what to do.

In Luke 3:3, we read, “[John] went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” 

Out in a wilderness like the one where God had spent forty years preparing His people to enter the promised land, John preaches the message that he’s been given by God. It’s simple: “Repent.” 

This is how John the Road Builder did his job of creating a pathway by which people could see God’s  salvation given in Christ

Repentance, to this day, remains the only roadway by which we can find salvation from sin and death, the only roadway by which we can have peace with God and peace within ourselves.

The Bible teaches that all of us are born in sin. That’s why God sent Jesus into the world. He took our sin on His own shoulders on the cross. He rose from the dead to tear down the walls of sin and death for us and to allow us to enjoy peace and intimacy with God. 

But sin can set us down pathways so far from Jesus that even if we’ve been churchgoers all our lives, regarded as “good people” by the rest of the world, we can get to the point where we can’t really see Jesus any more. 

To see Jesus, the arrogant must be laid low and the lowly must be lifted up

We need a straight, clear path to the salvation God wants to give to all people through Christ. John pointed people (he points us still today) to the pathway of repentance as the way to salvation through Jesus.

To many people today, repentance is a dirty word. A woman sent me an angry email a few years back complaining that in a message I’d shared on a Sunday morning, I’d intimated that all of us in church that day--including me--might have reason to be repentant. She didn’t like that at all. 

Truth is, we all recoil at accepting responsibility for our sinful thoughts and actions. This is why Jesus tells us that to be with Him, we must take up our crosses--that is, admit our sin--and follow Him. We must be honest: We cannot receive Jesus as the One Who saves us from our sins until we can acknowledge that we have sins from which we need to be saved.

For many people though, repentance is a great word, a joyful word! That’s because true repentance is made up of two elements. First: It means to be sorry for my sin. Second: It means to trust that when I confess my sins to God through Jesus, God will forgive me and I will be at peace with God

The believer in the God we know in Jesus is filled with the assurance voiced by King David in Psalm 103:12: “ far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” They know the joy of repentance.

Imagine two people, each headed for the same destination. One takes a mountain path, following ever upward through switchbacks and hairpin curves, sure that she’s headed in the right direction, only to find herself at the pinnacle of a mountain, nowhere close to where she intended to go. 

The other person, with the same destination, descends into a deep valley, slogging through swamps and streams, equally certain that he’s going right, only to find himself mired in mud, his destination nowhere in sight.

These two people illustrate the lives of people who have lost their ways in life, far from the God we know in Christ

The only way off the mountain paths of egomania and selfishness that lead us away from Christ is through repentance. The selfish person must say, “You’re right, Lord. I’m not in charge. I’m not God. I’m not entitled. Forgive me and let me be Your child.”

Similarly, the only way off the lowly path of self-condemnation is through repentance. The lowly person says, “You’re right, Lord. I’ve been expecting too little of my character, I’ve thought too little of myself, and so, given myself a pass for engaging in sin that dehumanizes me. I thought that who I am and what I’ve done didn’t matter. But You died and rose for me. Because of that I know that I matter! Forgive me for denying the truth about myself and lift me up to live as Your child.”

And then the repentant person, whether they started from a position of lowliness or arrogance, trusts Jesus to be as good as His promise to give life, peace, hope, and the power to live with purpose to those who believe in Him.

Romans 8:1 says: “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus...” Let that sink in for a moment. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!

Those who repent--who own and regret their sins and trust Christ to forgive them--know what that passage is saying: Though we are sinners who deserve condemnation, Christ sets the repentant free to live as the human beings we were all meant to be!

Chances are that if you’re like other Christians (including me), you follow Jesus well sometimes. But sometimes, you lose your way. You sin and maybe you find, as I find, that the more you sin or ignore the will of God, the easier it becomes to sin again and the harder it can become to really worship God or to have peace with God or peace with yourself. 

This is why regular, daily repentance is so important. It clears away the blindness of our sin, helping us to see how deadly our sin is. It helps us to see the God we know through Jesus, the love He has for us, and the life He gives to those who turn their backs on sin and follow Him.

It was while repenting that David wrote in Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me,and lead me in the way everlasting.”

John the Baptist was a road-builder. But the road to life with God and the second chances of God are open even today to all. We travel the road of repentance when we turn from sin and trust in Christ alone for life. May this be the road we travel each day.