Thursday, December 17, 2015

I don't follow Jesus because I'm a good person

I'm not a follower of Jesus Christ because I'm a good person.

I'm a follower of Christ because I'm not a good person.

And because Christ, truly God and truly human, is so good--perfect, in fact--that through His death and resurrection and the faith in Him that His Spirit creates in me, He covers me with His goodness.

In doing this, He makes me acceptable to heaven despite my lack of goodness.

And the Holy Spirit then daily undertakes to reconstruct me--in ways often painful to my ego and to my sense of entitlement--in the image of Jesus.

Though I need Him, I often fight the very Christ I daily invite to control my life.

But Christ is a relentless combatant for un-good people like me.

While we draw breath on this earth, He never gives up the fight to save us from sin--our intrinsic ungoodness, our inborn alienation from God--and the fight to help us to be more like God's prototype for the new human, Jesus Christ, we are all meant to be.

If you'd like to follow Jesus, along with all the other not-good people of the world who are being saved and who bear His name, let me know. I'll try to help you. Or point you in the right direction for moving forward.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

How to Live in Tough Times

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church at both worship services today.]

Philippians 4:4-7
Chances are when you read and heard the words of today’s second Bible lesson, you gave it little thought. The familiarity of the words threatens to bleach them of their meaning. 

And because they don’t narrate a story or paint a picture or give some lofty teaching, they wash over us like a TV commercial we've seen a hundred times.

This morning though, consider that these words may deserve more of our attention than we usually give to them. 

In fact, Philippians 4:4-7, four short verses dictated by the apostle Paul to be sent to the church in the Greek city of Philippi back in the first century, give us a roadmap for how to live in tough times

“In tough times,” really means “in this lifetime,” because every season of life on earth brings its own tough times

It has been that way since Adam and Eve rebelled against God and it will remain that way until the return of Jesus at the end of this old creation’s history. 

In this life, there’s no way around tough times. But there is always a way to live in tough times.

Paul tells us about that way in this morning’s second lesson with three simple admonitions. You might want to write them down, because following them will help you avoid becoming riddled with fear or resentment; they will help you to keep on living, no matter how tough the times get.

Paul says in verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Do we want to learn to live in tough times? First, we need to know how to rejoice in the Lord

Years ago, a band had a song called Rejoice. For the music video, they interviewed people on the streets of New York City to ask them what made them rejoice. A good percentage of those interviewed looked at the person asking that question like they were crazy. We live in a tough world, these folks seemed to be saying, who rejoices?

Maybe part of the problem is that we don’t know what it means to rejoice in the Lord. Pastor Steven J. Cole points out that to understand what it means to rejoice in the Lord, we need first to understand what it does not mean. 

For one thing, rejoicing in the Lord doesn’t mean that we’ll never be depressed or unhappy. Jesus, you know, wept. So, what makes us think that those who bear Jesus’ name will always be happy? There’s a difference between being happy and rejoicing. 

Cole points out that the Bible paints Christians as people characterized by “sorrow for sin,” yet filled with an “irrepressible joy” that comes from knowing that, by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, we belong to God

Romans 8, reminds us, that nothing can separate those who trust in Christ from the love of God. So, the Christian has reason to rejoice--to be deeply assured by the love, presence, and promises God given through Christ--even when we go through difficult times.

Another thing we may not understand is that rejoicing in the Lord isn’t mainly about feelings. Rejoicing is an attitude of contentment and certainty about God’s presence and power.  

The person who rejoices says, “I’m going through tough times: It seems that there are more days than money to pay for them each month. I worry about the violence and nastiness in our world today. My child gets bullied. My spouse and I argue. Health care costs are astronomical. College is expensive. I hate seeing my kids exposed to movies and music that depict sexual intimacy as something other than a gift to men and women in the covenant of marriage. But still I know that God is faithful and I have hope and all who trust in Christ belong to God forever. So, I can rejoice!”

So, to get through tough times, we must first learn to rejoice always in the God Who loves us always and, through Christ, has saved us from sin and death and darkness.

Paul then says in verse 5: “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” The second thing we need to get through tough times then, is gentleness. 

Gentleness is not a strong suit of our contemporary world. 

We tell little kids that they need to get straight-A’s in finger painting because otherwise they might not make it into Harvard. 

We savor the nastiness of reality TV cage matches. 

But Saint Paul tells us that unless we learn gentleness, none of us will be able to weather life’s tough times. Gentleness is how people toughened by the hope, grace, and honesty that comes from Jesus get through tough times. 

They can be gentle because they know, in a phrase used by Paul also in Romans 8, we are “more than conquerors through Him Who loved us.” More than conquerors!

The word translated as gentleness in our lesson is epieikes. It’s an adjective that can also mean being patient, forbearing, or reasonable. In fact, my favorite translation of the Bible, the English Standard Version, renders Paul’s words in this verse as, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” Despite the turmoil of the world, we can be reasonable in our dealings with life, the world, and the people in our lives. Christians can live, if I can make up a word, unbefuddled.

Since we belong to God for eternity, we can be free of the impatience or the sense of entitlement, or the unreasonableness that so often characterizes this world. 

As a young pastor, I learned what this means when visiting people from my first parish, people who were in the hospital and had just learned that they were fatally ill or who were in great pain. I was struck by how patient and forbearing they were in their suffering...not passive, but patient. 

One man, Arnold, who had a long history of heart trouble, was in the ER, having suffered another heart attack. “How are you, Arnold?” I asked. He chuckled and struggled to say, “I’ve been better, Pastor.” We prayed together and he told me he knew he was in God’s hands. No tears. No railing against the unfairness of it all. Just a smile and a squeeze of the hand. He trusted in God. Moments later, he was gone and I asked God to help me to be more like him.

To be gentle is not to be passive. 

A Christian shouldn’t be passive in the face of injustices perpetrated against the innocent. We should fight on behalf of others: the powerless, the hurting, the despised. That’s our call as people of God. 

And we shouldn’t be passive when we confront unbelief, either. There are people who will be separated from eternity unless they repent for sin and come to know Jesus as their God and Savior. And Jesus has left it to us as His people to share Jesus with others. We should fight to give them life with Christ. But, if it’s to have any impact, this too, must be done gently. First Peter 3:15-16 tells us: “ prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have [from Christ]. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

So, to live in tough times, we need to rejoice and we need to be gentle and reasonable. 

Paul gives one more admonition here. Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” 

In other words, the third strategy for living in tough times is to stop worrying and start praying. And we can do that with thankfulness to God for the fact that whenever life seems too big or overwhelming, we have a God Who loves us and has conquered everything that could separate us from life with Him

He has even conquered the sin that the devil likes to remind us of, but which in Christ, is forgiven when we repent.

I’m a slow learner. It’s bizarre how many times in my years as a Christian I’ve allowed myself to stew over a problem before I finally ask myself, “Why haven’t I prayed about this?” 

And when I do pray about things, the answers don’t usually come right away--though, as we have seen in recent events here at Living Water, answers do sometimes come that quickly. 

But the main thing that happens when I pray about things and I look to God’s Word for guidance through my life is that I’m filled with the assurance that God has got me

He’s got my problem. 

He’s got my family. 

He’s got my temptation. 

He’s covered my sin. 

He’s got things under control. 

These are exactly the assurances I need to live in tough times! 

In his explanation of the Second Commandment, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…,” Martin Luther celebrates the fact that we can “call upon [God] in every time of need.”

Worrying, you know, can be a subtle form of idolatry. We live with the delusion that we can “be like God” and in control. 

When we stop worrying and start praying, we cede control to the only One Who “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” [Romans 8:28] 

This doesn’t mean that every bad thing that happens in this fallen world is good. Terror killings aren’t good. The death of the young isn’t good. 

But the God Who has conquered sin and death through Christ can bring good out of the most horrific situations. He can even raise the dead who have trusted in Christ to an eternity filled with life and joy, where death has died and suffering is a distant memory.

How do we live in troubled times? 
  • We rejoice always in the Lord Who sent His Son at Christmas to be our Savior. 
  • Knowing that the Lord is always near us, we live with gentleness toward others. 
  • And when tempted to worry, we pray with thankfulness to the God Who cares about and hears our prayers. 

These three strategies are central to the lifestyles of people who actively surrender their lives to Jesus Christ each day.

The result of living like this, Paul tells us is this (verse 7): “...the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” 

Even in a fearful world, we can know God’s peace. 

We trust that the Baby born at Bethlehem Who died and rose, is our Lord and our Savior and that nothing can change that. 

And it's in Him that is where peace is found. Amen