Sunday, December 31, 2017

For the Nobel Prize, I nominate...

The person who invented tabs for Ziploc bags is a genius. Is there a Nobel Prize for innovation in the realm of food storage containers?

Are We Listening?

[This message for the First Sunday after Christmas was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 2:22-40
Today, as we continue to celebrate Christmas, I want to focus on a portion of just two verses from this morning’s gospel lesson. They’re words spoken by a man named Simeon to Mary, the mother of Jesus: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed…” (Luke 2:34-35)

Imagine the setting and context in which these words come to Mary. She and Joseph, fulfilling their calling as faithful Jews, have brought their eight-day-old Child to Jerusalem to be dedicated to God and to be initiated as a child of God through circumcision. Especially in light of Joseph’s and Mary’s harrowing trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in a Roman census, their trip to the temple would have been a time of joy and thankfulness to God, a bit like what Christian parents today feel when bringing their children to be baptized.

Yet here comes this old man, a party-crasher disturbing their euphoria, giving a disturbing message.

Not everyone was going to love their baby, Simeon tells them.

Can you imagine a harder message for the mother of a newborn to hear?

But Luke explains that this isn't Simeon’s message.

Simeon, Luke tells us in verse 25, had the Holy Spirit upon him, the way every person baptized in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does.

Verse 26 says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before seeing the promised King-Messiah.

And verse 27 says that Simeon was moved by the Holy Spirit to go to the temple that day.

It’s no stretch to say that it was the Holy Spirit Who also incited Simeon to praise God and, taking the Child from Mary, to say that in Jesus, he saw the promised Messiah, Who would come to be light to people from all nations. The King had come and having seen Him, Simeon said, he could now die in peace.

And it was also the Holy Spirit Who prompted Simeon to deliver His hard message to Mary.

But look here, you might say, guided by the Holy Spirit, messaged by the Holy Spirit, incited by the Holy seems like a bunch of religious mumbo-jumbo.

When I hear the power of the Holy Spirit like that, I feel that we’re living in a time like the one in which the boy Samuel, whose story is told in the Old Testament, lived.

One night, Samuel heard God speaking to him in much the same way that Simeon must have heard God. But young Samuel wasn’t sure what to make of it because “in those days the word of the LORD was rare; there were not many visions” (1 Samuel 3:1).

Why was the Word of the Lord rare in those days?

If you read what precedes that verse in 1 Samuel, you realize that God’s people were in the habit of living as though God didn’t exist or that if God did exist, He was some distant, impersonal, and mute deity.

But that isn’t the God revealed to Israel and then, to the whole world, in Jesus Christ.

The God we know in Jesus is a God Who seeks community and to communicate with those who want Him in their lives. God wants to speak to you and have community with you.

“Here I am!” says the God we know in Jesus Christ. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” (Revelation 3:20) God wants to talk with you. He wants to spend your whole life with you.

This God speaks to us, of course, in His Word in the Bible, in His Word as proclaimed by those who know and follow Him.

He speaks to us in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

He speaks to us in His Law, where He tells us that when worship anything besides God, take God’s name in vain, dishonor our families or those in authority, commit adultery, gossip about others, steal what belongs to or covet what others possess, we show ourselves to be sinners in need of the Savior.

He speaks to us in His gospel in which He assures us that sinners can be made new each day and for all eternity when they repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus.

But God can also be heard His gentle whispers (1 Kings 19:12) into our spirits as we seek to daily walk with Him.

The other night, after I’d brushed and flossed my teeth and before I tossed myself into bed, suddenly, out of the blue, a name crossed my mind. It was the name of a once-prominent person whose name I wouldn’t have remembered if you’d shown me their picture. In fact, after I heard this name in my spirit, I had to look them up on my smartphone to remember what they looked like.

Why had I thought of this person? After a time, it dawned on me (I can be kind of slow): This person may have needed prayers and God was calling me to pray. I didn’t need details; I simply needed to pray for them.

Someone has said that God the Holy Spirit is a Gentleman: He won't go where He's uninvited. But He will pester God's people--we disciples of Jesus Christ--to issue our prayerful invitations in Jesus' name to intercede in the people's lives for whom we pray. And so, I believe that God was telling me the other night, "Pray for this person, Mark!"

It reminds me of a story that Billy Graham tells of a Christian man who was awakened one night by the thought of a single word, a word from some other language, one that he'd never heard nor read. The man was sure that he had to offer up urgent prayers about this word, whatever it was. And so, he did. Then, when he felt at peace that he'd done what God had called him to do, he went to bed. Months later, a missionary on furlough visited the church of which that man was a part. He stood bolt upright when the missionary mentioned the place where he and his family did their work; its name was the same mysterious word that woke the man up one night. He later spoke with the missionary and learned that there had been a terrible crisis at the moment when the Holy Spirit had prompted that man to pray!

I know well the power of the Holy Spirit! When I was a little boy, I was close with my great-grandmother. She lived across the street from us and I would visit her every day. She spoke with me as if I were a grown-up, talking with me about politics and history and the God we know in Jesus. Once, when I was about six, she and I stepped outside after a spring rain so that she could check on her flowers. Out on her front walk, she looked to the southeast and saw, over what was then called Jet Stadium, a rainbow. She proceeded to tell me the story of Noah, the ark, and the rainbow of covenant God created to assure the human race that He would never again destroy the earth by water.

Years later, I learned that my grandmother's nickname for me was my little preacher. She had neber told me that. But I am sure that as a devout disciple of Jesus who I often found sitting in her rocker reading the Bible, she had sicced the Holy Spirit on me...and here I am today.

These are examples of the kinds of things God wants to do through those who seek to dial into Christ, something I don’t do nearly often enough.

God wants to use believers as conduits of grace, whether it’s through our prayers in Christ’s name or our witness for Christ’s gospel or our proclamation of Christ’s uncomfortable truth.

Simeon was so dialed into God and His promise of a Savior that the Holy Spirit rested on him, leading him as he patiently waited for years to see the Christ, then causing him to give voice to what God wanted to tell Joseph and Mary that day in the temple.

It was a message they needed to hear lest they fall into the trap of thinking that the baby in their arms was just another baby.

Look at Simeon’s words again: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel…” (Luke 2:34)

A baby, a helpless little baby, would grow to become the cause of falling and rising of many.

What does this message from the Holy Spirit mean exactly?

It describes two different reactions elicited by Jesus.

Some stumble over Jesus and His call to trust in Him so that we can receive forgiveness and life in His name.

In Isaiah 8:14, the prophet says: “He [God] will be a holy place; for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare.”

Some refuse the God they meet in Christ, saying, “I’m saved by God’s grace and not by anything I do? That’s too good to be true.”

Others refuse Jesus because of their desire to “be like God.”

Others turn Jesus down because they can’t imagine anyone overcoming death and rising again.

For many people, Jesus and His gospel are a stumbling block.

They refuse to believe in Him.

They refuse to be willing to believe in Him. They trip over Jesus and fall away from God for eternity.

Our job--our only job as disciples of Jesus--is to keep sharing Him and His good news with people so that they don’t fall.

That’s because the God we meet in Jesus doesn’t want any of His children to fall away from Him. God loves every child of earth and wants each one of them to experience the victory over sin, death, decay, suffering, and futility He won for us when Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead. Jesus wants us to rise!

As Jesus says of us in John 10:10: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

Jesus has come to give us life: full, extravagant, eternal, fulfilling.

Jesus has come to give us reconciliation with God, with ourselves, and with those around us.

It is all a matter of believing in Him, surrendering in Him, trusting Him to take our sins off of our shoulders when we repent and to set us free when we believe in Him, building our lives on Him alone.

This past week, a friend of ours, husband to one of Ann’s childhood friends, died after a painful battle with cancer. We were with his wife on Thursday, about eight hours after he'd passed.

Our friend had been through a lot of other painful experiences in life.

With those in his background, sometimes, he would ask me tough questions that showed he was wrestling with God.

But his wife told us on Thursday, “He’d made his peace with God.”

Peace with God.

That’s what Jesus Christ was born into this world to give to us.

That’s what Simeon had in anticipation of the Savior he saw with his own eyes at the temple.

That’s what we can share with others when, like Simeon, we open ourselves to the direction of the Holy Spirit, proclaim Christ, and let Him use us for God’s purposes.

The God we know in Jesus is speaking to us; He wants to raise us up, filling us with His life in every aspect of our lives, now and in eternity.

The question is, “Are we listening?” Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Japanese Christian Who Survived the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb

This is an outstanding documentary from NHK, Japan's public television station. It revolves around Koko Kondo, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb drop of August 6, 1945. Kondo was eight months old when that happened. A Christian, Kondo was the daughter of a pastor. She is the wife of a pastor.

She is a thoughtful woman who lives with a hard-earned cheerfulness.

Her perspective on nuclear weaponry and her personal journey to forgiveness, reconciliation, and love moved me.

By the way, for those who may be interested: I am aware that the Japanese military under Emperor Hirohito initiated the Pacific Theater of World War 2. That notably began with Japan's invasion and brutal rule over China, even before the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The record also includes the savage treatment to which American POWs were routinely subjected by their Japanese captors.

Little of that is mentioned here. But I still think it's worth watching and that you'll find it interesting.

This was released a few weeks ago and appeared on NHK World-English.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Are you welcoming the stranger?

A woman who, before moving to another community, was a member of a church I once served as pastor, told me that she, her children, and her grandchildren worshiped with a Lutheran congregation in the town where they now live on Christmas Eve. She said that it was wonderful to once more sing Silent Night by candlelight. But she also said that nobody greeted her or her family or asked anything about them.

Reading that broke my heart.

It's sad and ironic that on a night when we remember that the Savior of the world had to be born in a barn "because there was no place for" Him or Mary or Joseph (Luke 2:7), we Christians can forget to be hospitable. (Not to mention forgetting plain good manners.)

If there's any group of people who should be committed to welcoming strangers on Christmas Eve, it ought to be Christians who confess a Savior who had "no place to lay his head" (Luke 9:58) and who themselves are told by God to see themselves as strangers just passing through this world (1 Peter 2:11).

God's Word is clear that, in response to God's gracious acceptance of us in Christ, disciples of Jesus are to practice hospitality toward others.

Referring to an Old Testament visitation experienced by Abraham and Sarah, Hebrews 13:2 tells Christians: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."

Jesus takes this command of hospitable behavior even further when He says in Matthew 25:31-46, that when we serve the hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, or imprisoned, we really serve Him. We are then, as Martin Luther put it, to be "little Christs" who serve Christ in others.

The Savior Who welcomes us into His kingdom simply because we trust Him to renounce our sins and place our faith in Him, a gracious welcome we don't deserve and can't earn, commands that, in return, we welcome and reach out to the stranger with His good news.

Of course, many Christians fail to welcome those who are "strangers" to them for fear that they might be embarrassed before people they feel they should have known. I've heard this excuse many times.

But tell me: Before who would you prefer to suffer embarrassment, a person to whom you may have to admit a faulty memory or the God Who calls you to love your neighbor as you love yourself?

Better to suffer a little embarrassment in telling people you encounter, "I'm sorry if I've met you before and can't remember, but Merry Christmas." (Or, "Happy Sunday." Or, "How are you today?")

It's always best to err on the side of love, of grace, of welcome.

It's always best to get over yourself enough to not be afraid of being embarrassed by your humanity.

If you seek to live in daily repentance and faith in Jesus, you belong to God's eternal kingdom. What's a little embarrassment compared to that?

So Christians, greet those who are strangers to you when you see them in worship.

And I want to say to those who aren't church regulars or who are non-believers who may have come to a church worship service and been treated like you weren't there: I beg you to forgive us and to give a church near you another chance sometime soon. We aren't perfect, although we follow a Savior Who is. We're a fellowship of recovering sinners. We pray that you'll worship God with us sometime soon.

And Christians, if you've neglected to greet those who are strangers to you not because you failed to recognize those strangers, but just because you didn't want to talk to someone you didn't know, repent of this failure to love neighbors as you love yourself and ask God to help you to be a loving, welcoming disciple of Jesus the next time you encounter a stranger.

We all fail to do God's will in different ways in our lives. But the Lord Who judges the thoughts and intentions of our hearts (Hebrews 4:12) bears grace for those who seek to love as they've been loved by God.

So, welcome the stranger.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Christmas: For You! (AUDIO)

Here's the audio for the message shared during the Christmas Eve candlelight services, which happened at 5:00, 7:00, and 9:00pm in the building of Living Water Lutheran Church this past Sunday night. (We also had a Family Christmas Eve service, featuring the Christmas story for children, at 3:00pm that day.)

Below are the pictures that are referenced in the message.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Best Movies About...Being a Pastor?

Althouse links to a Washington Post article that's based on the response of twenty-four people to the question, "What's the best film about your profession?"

That got me to thinking about movies that depict my own work as a pastor.

Film pastors seem mostly to fall into several categories:
  • clueless innocents 
  • fire-breathing moralists (who are unrepentant hypocrites) 
  • sociopaths 
  • money-grubbing manipulators 
  • sexual predators
There are and have been pastors for whom these descriptions fit, of course. But it's odd to see how consistently these stereotypes are portrayed in films and TV shows.

Some of my favorite portrayals of clergy appear in:

1. The Keys of the Kingdom starring Gregory Peck. Peck plays a priest packed off to China as a missionary who remains faithful despite the suspicion among his superiors that he's a failure. Thomas Mitchell plays Peck's spiritually skeptical friend, a relationship that's portrayed without a hint of heavy-handedness or sentimentality.

2. Bishop's Wife with David Niven as the spiritually-struggling bishop. This is one of the best Christmas films of all time. The movie isn't entirely satisfying though, ending with a Christmas Eve sermon that's more American civil religion than it is Christian.

3. Alias Nick Beal, with the aforementioned Mitchell as a district attorney standing off against an evil Ray Milland. George Macready turns in an interesting performance as a clergyperson who helps call a friend who has lost his spiritual compass to account and to renewal. Released in 1948, I had never seen Beal until this year. It's a great film, a seemingly forgotten classic. (The film's title song is an embellishment on Martin Luther's most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God.)

4. Luther with Joseph Fiennes in the title role. Martin Luther, of course, was a theological genius, but he was, at heart, a pastor. He was also imperfect. That complexity of character comes across in this movie.

On television, Father Mulcahy of MASH is a variant of the clueless innocent type. Over the course of the series, Mulcahy's character was given greater depth than in the early seasons. (This is the opposite of what was done with Radar O'Reilly, who moved from the early episodes in which he was portrayed as sort of a sly conman to being an Iowa naif.)

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Not enough faith to be an atheist

A colleague of mine shared the quote cited below from Lee Strobel over on Facebook.

As a former atheist whose struggle against Christian faith led me to believe in Christ, I can identify with Strobel's thought processes as he engaged in a similar struggle.

In the end, as was true for Strobel, after considering the evidence, from the Scriptures, from reason, and from the sciences, I simply didn't have enough faith to be an atheist.

Strobel's quote:
To continue in atheism, I would need to believe that nothing produces everything, non-life produces life, randomness produces fine-tuning, chaos produces information, unconsciousness produces consciousness, and non-reason produces reason. I simply didn't have that much faith. 
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Christmas: For You

[This was shared during four Christmas Eve worship services with the people, family, and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]

Luke 2:1-20
Have you ever had this experience?

You go somewhere special or spend special time with someone you love, then later regretted that you hadn’t really taken the time to savor it?

Hadn’t taken the time to just let the moment penetrate the recesses of your memory?

Or allowed yourself to think, “This is so special, I need to always remember exactly what I’m thinking and feeling and doing”?

Life tears by and we often fail to mark the special times in memory and reflection.

The next-to-last verse in tonight’s Christmas gospel lesson tells us, “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.”

The word translated as treasured is, in the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, a compound word that means gathered together. Mary gathered together the events of that night and pondered or, in Luke’s original words, threw them together.

In other words, Mary made a point of noting and remembering everything that happened on the first Christmas.

Then she threw them together in her mind, turning them over, seeking to see what they all meant, how what was happening all jibed with God’s centuries-old promise of a Savior-Messiah and with the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would give birth to that Messiah.

Mary collected her memories and thought about their significance.

This is what I want to ask you to do over the next few minutes.

The Christmas story, as recorded by Luke and Matthew, is so familiar to us that we forget not only the details, but also their meaning.

We take Christmas for granted.

This Christmas, I beg you to not do that.

Christmas is one of the most important events in human history--and in our personal histories, surpassed only by Good Friday and Easter Sunday, neither of which could have happened had Christmas not happened.

Tonight, we consider and praise God for the moment when God the Son took on human flesh and took up residence in this world, not as a king or a president, not as a celebrity or a tycoon or a general, but as a baby born in a barn to an impoverished and unmarried couple who hadn’t yet consummated their union.

If you want a picture of just how much God loves you, Jesus in the manger will do.

It says even more than what we might think at first, in fact. Take a look at verse 7 of our gospel lesson, please.

The stage had been set by God. God had revealed through the prophets more than seven centuries earlier that the Messiah, the Son of God, God-enfleshed, would be raised in a home of descendants of King David, and that He would be born in Bethlehem, David’s city. God had orchestrated events so that Mary and Joseph would be in Bethlehem when the baby was born. God had even put it into the head of the Roman emperor to order a census in Judea so that Joseph and Mary would have to be in Bethlehem, their ancestral home, to be counted.

And then, the birth happens. Verse 7: “...and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.”

What must Mary have thought when she placed her newborn in that manger?

For sure, one thing that she must have thought about was the depths of God’s love, the lengths He was willing to go to in order to rescue you and me from sin and death. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son,” Jesus would tell Nicodemus decades later. And this Son would die and rise to set all who trust in Him free of the shackles of sin and death, to set you and me free to be the people God made us to be when He lovingly formed us in our mothers’ wombs. All of this had to be have been part of Mary’s pondering.

But she must also have considered the significance of the fact that her son’s first crib was an animal feeding trough.

In the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel, there were two words that could be translated as manger, table, or crib. One of those words was παχνί. The other was φάτνῃ (phantne).

When the second word, phantne, is used, it seems to usually refer to a certain kind of manger. Let me show you a few pictures ancient phantnes.

As you can see, these mangers were hewn stone, not comfortable surfaces to sleep on.

With hay in the manger and the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, it may have been a bit more comfortable.

Still, Mary would have known that this Child did not come into this world to be comfortable. He came to bring comfort, the comfort of God to a human race fallen into sin and its consequences, death.

Maybe Mary thought of words she often heard read in the Nazareth synagogue, Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for…”

This baby came to pay for our sins, yours and mine, with His shed blood and His earthly life, on the cross.

And maybe Mary thought of something else as she saw her first-born in that hard manger, of something else hewn from stone.

It may have been dawning on her that the only way Israel and the rest of the human race could be saved from sin and death was for an innocent human being, also God, to bear our punishment for sin, to die, so that when God raised Him from the dead, He could raise all who repent and believe in Jesus, would have everlasting life with God.

Jesus had come to die and rise in order to be our advocate in the halls of heaven. As God’s Word says: “...this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12).

Mary may have begun to understand all of this. And if the idea was just dawning on her that night in Bethlehem, it would have been made clearer to her in a short time. Eight days after Jesus’ birth, Simeon, an old man who identified Jesus as the Messiah warned Mary of the suffering her Son would endure and the stone tomb in which He would be laid, when he told Mary: “...sorrow, like a sharp sword, will break your own heart.” (Luke 2:35, Good News Translation)

As I told the Church Council this past week, there is a whiff of Good Friday in that stone manger, a foreshadowing of the tomb where Jesus’ lifeless body would be lain.

But, listen: There’s also the scent of Easter because the tomb of stone couldn’t contain Jesus and His grace for sinners any more than the news of His birth, His death, and His resurrection could have been contained these past two-thousand years.

Thank God that sin and death met their Conqueror that night in Bethlehem!

The Child has come to rescue you from sin, death, and purposeless living.

He’s come to cover your sins in His amazing grace and make you new.

He’s come to stand with you, by you, and for you as you trust in Him and call on His name.

He’s come to make sense of your living and give you life beyond your dying.

Jesus came into our world, precisely and specifically, because He loved not just the human race as a whole, but because He loved and loves you in particular.

His birth, death, and resurrection all happened for you.

And one day, He will raise all who trusted in Him from the dead. I pray that includes you and everyone whose lives we touch with the good news of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter.

This is the Christmas truth that I hope you will ponder and savor tonight and tomorrow as you celebrate the miracle of this night: This Child, the Savior of humanity, has come for you.

For you.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

On Glory and Bragging

“The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood.” (Jesus, in John 7:18)

Jesus only ever sought to glorify God the Father. Those who seek glory for themselves are filled with lies when they boast and commend themselves to others.

God, forgive me for bragging. Help me to remember: Whatever good I’ve done has come from You; whatever bad I’ve done has come from me.

Just as I ask You to forgive me for and to prevent me from bragging, I pray You’ll help me to not fall for the lies of braggarts who claim glory for themselves. You alone are worthy of glory! In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Call to Persist

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on the morning of December 24, as we commemorated the Fourth Sunday of Advent.]

Luke 1:26-38
In Christian history, Mary, the mother of our Lord, seems to have been thought of in one of two ways. One way has been to see her as a super-saint, imparting perfection to her perfect son, Jesus. The other has been to see her as a more or less clueless surrogate mother. As we see from today’s gospel lesson, both views are wrong.

Mary was a forgiven sinner--a saint like all who believe in the God revealed in Jesus. She was an ordinary human being with an extraordinary faith from which we can learn much. And she was an ordinary human being with a sometimes shaky faith, as we see in today’s gospel lesson.

And because of the doubts and fears with which she sometimes wrestled (here and here), Mary can also be a source of comfort to we ordinary saints who sometimes wrestle with doubt, uncertainty, or fear.

Mary could, I think, readily identify with the man who, when Jesus told him, “everything is possible for one who believes,” replied honestly, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24)

And she also, I believe, could easily understand the feelings of Moses back when, at a burning bush in Midian, God called Moses to go to Egypt and lead God’s people to the promised land. Moses saw the personal danger in such a mission and, in the face of God’s persistent call, told God, “Pardon Your servant, Lord. Please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13).

In today’s gospel lesson, God calls Mary to do something dangerous: Although a virgin, she was to brave the condemnation of those who, when they saw she was pregnant, would conclude that she’d committed adultery and be justified under Judean law in stoning her to death.

Yet, despite the dangers, her fears, and her misgivings, as we know, Mary persisted. She kept trusting in God and gave birth to Jesus.

Now, this is no small thing. In those days, abortion had no stigma attached to it.

And in the larger Roman world under the rule of which first-century Judea lived, it was common for unwanted babies to be abandoned in a wilderness where animals and the elements would do their worst to the child.

In a world in which such options existed, who knows what temptations may have accosted Mary?

Of course, had Mary refused to give birth to the Savior, God could have found another way to bring salvation into the world. The Lord with the power to cause dumb stones to praise His name if no human was allowed to do so (Luke 19:40), would have found a faithful virgin to receive the Son the Holy Spirit intended to conceive within her. But God chose Mary and, as we will see, she accepted His choice.

Let’s take a look at exactly what happened in our gospel lesson, Luke 1:26-38. Verses 26 and 27: “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy [Elizabeth was expecting John the Baptist], God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”

Why a virgin?

Well, consider this: What if the baby about to born to inherited twenty-three chromosomes each from Joseph and Mary? Not only would the child have inherited Joseph’s brow ridge or Mary’s eyes, he would also have inherited what every one of us inherits from our parents: Sin.

As King David confesses in Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”

If a sinless human being was going to make atonement for our sin by sacrificing Himself on a cross, that human being couldn’t be born in the usual way. God the Father would need to create the human race all over again.

The Holy Spirit Who once hovered over the chaos to create life and Who was the very breath of God breathed into the dust to make the first man, that same Holy Spirit would now have to bring new life--the new Adam--into the being.*

It’s only through Jesus, this new Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45), that God could usher those who trust in Jesus into His new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). For this new creation to get its start, God needed a virgin’s womb.

Verse 26: “The angel went to [Mary] and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’ Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”

The word translated here as troubled is, in the Greek in which Luke originally wrote his gospel, “διαταράσσω.” Literally, this means, “distressed to the very limit, upset to the core of one’s being.” What’s interesting here is that Mary’s distress isn’t that she’s seeing an angel. Her distress is what the angel Gabriel tells her: “You are highly favored!” he says to Mary.

Listen: If you want an easy life, you don’t necessarily want to be one of God’s favorites.

When you’re one of God’s favorites, one of His chosen ones, chosen not because of anything good you’ve done but because you dare to turn from our own ways and dare to surrender your life to Jesus Christ--to believe in Him, God is going to make you part of His mission and purposes in the world.

You’ll be called by God to share His grace with others, speak His good news to the lost, the spiritually dead, and stand with the lonely, the despised, the neglected, the poor, the victims of the world’s injustices.

As the apostle Peter tells we believers in Jesus: “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

The apostle Paul puts it more plainly in 2 Corinthians when he says that if we have been made new by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus, we are Christ’s “ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20).

When we confess faith in the Savior Who saves us by His grace, God gives us a job.

All of us.

No exceptions.

For the disciple of Jesus, cruise control, spectator-only faith is not an option.

The angel’s words had Mary confronting that truth and she was overwhelmed. She may have felt like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, who tells God, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can't You choose someone else?”

Mary was agitated to her core.

By God.

By what God was calling her to do.

When is the last time you let God agitate you to the very core of your being?

When is the last time you read a passage from God’s Word and sensed God telling you to do some hard thing you didn’t want to do?

When is the last time you were in a Sunday School class, a small group, or worship and sensed that God was telling you to trust Him in doing something that could entail rejection, heartache, or sacrifice?

If you’ve ever experienced these feelings in the face of God’s call on your life, you know what Mary was feeling as she heard Gabriel’s words.

And if you haven’t experienced feelings like these in a while, it’s probably time that you stop and listen for God to agitate you in your discipleship again!

The Church needs to be filled with disciples agitated by God’s call on their lives!

And, in the end, this is what is so remarkable about Mary. She submitted to the agitations, the uncertainties, the pain that would come to her as she said, “Yes” to the Savior Jesus. She submitted to them because she knew that eternity belongs to those who trust God and seek to do His will.

This past Wednesday, as some of you know, one of my seminary professors, Merlin Hoops, died. Merlin Hoops didn’t always have an easy life.

A daughter has developmental disabilities.

His wife is afflicted with a degenerative disease that has bound her to a wheelchair for many years.

Along the way, as some of you have heard me say, ill-informed Christians told him that the tragedies that befell him happened because he was not a faithful Christian.

But not once did I ever see Dr. Hoops lash out at anyone.

Not once did I see him be anything less than a gracious and encouraging Christian disciple, a loving pastor, a dedicated prayer warrior.

He saw his work as husband, father, pastor, and teacher as holy callings to which God had called him and so far as I ever observed, never once wavered in his discipleship. He laid his suffering before the Lord and found strength and peace in the One Who had claimed him as His own in Baptism.

Mary, as a faithful member of God’s people, also found strength and peace in the God Who sent Gabriel to her. Despite her agitation, after she’d heard God’s plan to enter the world in the Person of Jesus, the Messiah, she was ready to sign on. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she told Gabriel. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)

In the coming year or in whatever time God gives to us on this earth, individually and as a congregation, when the faithfulness to Christ to which God calls us, causes us to feel agitated, afraid, or uncertain, don’t throw in the towel and give up on the whole discipleship thing. Instead, throw in with Jesus. 

In the face of the agitation, tell God, “Lord, may your word to me be fulfilled in me and through me. I am the Lord’s servant.”


*The words for Spirit, breath, and wind are the same in both the Hebrew in which the Old Testament was written and Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written. In Hebrew, the word is ruach; in Greek, the word is pneuma.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Random Thoughts

When we trust in the God we meet in Jesus Christ, no experience in life will be wasted.

Every adversity or heartache we endure or help others to endure will soften our hearts with compassion and fortify our characters with courage.

In these ways, God will help us to learn to rely more on Him and be more reliable friends to others. Clay in the potter's hand, our lives will give glory to God and encouragement from Him to those who need it.

I haven't yet learned this way of life. But I'm asking God to help me do so.

Friday, December 22, 2017

God, Help Me Not to Be the Prostitute

Here's the journal of my quiet time today. It's important for Christian disciples to seek to maintain a regular quiet time with God on as many days a week as they can swing. It's also important that we let God call the tune, set the agenda, and give us our marching orders through quiet time. I try to keep these in minds each day when I meet with God.

To see how I keep quiet time, read here.
Look: “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits by many waters. With her the kings of the earth committed adultery, and the inhabitants of the earth were intoxicated with the wine of her adulteries.’” (Revelation 17:1-2) 
In spite of many efforts to complicate Revelation, the message here is simple. The seven bowls of wrath that John has seen in his heavenly vision constitute the full (hence their number, seven) consequences of unrepented sin. Sin known to us that hasn’t been confessed and covered by the grace of God given in Christ to those who believe in Christ will lead to eternal separation from God and the life that only God can give. 
Throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament, idolatry is portrayed as adultery, unfaithfulness to God. The first commandment tells us, “You shall have no other gods.” To violate any of God’s commandments in the moral law (the Ten Commandments and those commands that elaborate on them) is to commit idolatry because, in violating any of God’s commands, we hold our own judgments or own desires, we hold ourselves, to be more important than God. 
Listen: Here, I think, we see an adulteress whose adultery and adulterous influence over others may be subtle, deceiving people into thinking that what they believe in or lure others into believing in, is actually of God and righteous and reflective of God’s will.
Sly politicians, like every American president from Reagan to Trump, Republican and Democratic, dress their politics, to one extent or another, in godly language, invoking the name of God and the name of His Son, Jesus Christ, for their political agendas. But to adulterate our faith in Christ with earthly political, social, financial, or personal agendas is to worship our agendas and to leave Christ in the dust. To do that will inevitably lead us to death, separation from God, the life-giver. 
Many social and political systems, philosophies of life, and ways of living are built on the notion that those systems and not God Himself are preeminent. And even well-meaning people who think of themselves as Christians fall for this prostitute and betray Christ: They conflate their own opinions, interests, or desires with God. When these systems deliver the goodies of this world--military victories, financial well-being, a sense of supremacy, often at the expense of others--we risk becoming “intoxicated with the wine of [the prostitute’s] adulteries.” 
We risk becoming devotees of the system, the philosophy, the desire, the self. When this happens, wrath will follow...if not in this life, certainly in the life to come. We will condemn ourselves absent repentant belief in Jesus Christ: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (Jesus in John 3:17-18) 
Belief in Jesus is not intellectual assent. Belief in Jesus is the commitment to trust in and follow Him and not the world every day, the commitment to ask Jesus to help us believe in Him (Mark 9:24). Belief in Jesus is surrender to Him.
Respond: Alert me, Lord, to the ways in which I aduterate my faith in You. 
Help me not to play the prostitute for any earthly thing that offers to give me comfort or boost me in the eyes of myself or others, but help me to rely only on You as revealed in the Servant King Jesus. 
Help me not to follow You with any expectation other than that, in doing so, You will make me new each day, alter my desires, and give me eternity with You as an undeserved gift. 
Help me to be focused on doing Your will and giving You glory, not my own, because Your will is always in my eternal best interest. 
Help me to pray for and respect those in authority; but help me to put my trust in Jesus Christ alone. 
Help to work for the salary I’m given; but help me to not prostitute my faith or integrity for my own selfish pleasure or advancement. 
Help me to love my country; but help me to remember that You are eternally more important than my country or any country. 
Help me not to be prostitute, loving You alone as my God and Savior. 
Help me to be angry at injustice. 
Help me to speak up for the weak, the despised, the neglected, the poor, the put-upon. 
Help me to be angry at Satan and the ways in which he imprisons people. 
Help me to be bold and loving in sharing the good news of Jesus with others. In Jesus’ name. 
Today, help me to resist the temptation to desire or take anything more than I absolutely need to live; You are and You provide my daily bread. 
In Jesus’ name, by the power of the Holy Spirit, grant these things, I pray, Father. Amen
[I'm pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Remembering a Gracious Professor

I learned last night that one of my favorite professors from seminary, Merlin Hoops, died yesterday afternoon. It is hard for me to measure the impact that he had on me as a Christian and as a pastor, but it was enormous.

Dr. Hoops taught New Testament. But more than anything, he was a Christian encourager. He saw the best in others, even when they (I) did less than their (my) best.

My first class with him as the professor did not go well. In fact, I flunked and had to repeat the course. I thought that I'd never take another class with him.

But my final year of seminary, there was a New Testament option requirement I needed to fulfill and a seminar class led by Dr. Hoops was all that would fit my schedule. It was on the New Testament book of 1 Peter.

Dr. Hoops' passion and insight into the book was tremendous. First Peter is a book written by Peter the apostle to encourage Christians in their suffering. Without saying a self-pitying word, Dr. Hoops' own experience of suffering gave the class and his words about it particular power. I realized then that he wasn't just a scholar, he was also a humble disciple of Jesus, a pastor in the best sense of that word.

Amazingly to me, I passed the course with flying colors and as we were registering for classes for the next quarter, Dr. Hoops asked if he could speak with me. "Mark, I was wondering if you would take a class I'm teaching next term, 'Theology of the New Testament.' It's a seminar too and will have underclassmen in it. I find that having some upperclassmen like you in a class of this kind helps get the discussion going. And you're good at that."

I was honored. Though I didn't need the class to graduate, I, of course, enrolled in the class and thoroughly enjoyed it. So much so that, although my GPA was mediocre at best, Dr. Hoops urged me to do graduate work in New Testament studies. That was not to be. But I appreciated the encouragement...especially from a man whose first impression of me had to have been that I was lackadaisical about my work and downright disrespectful to him. But the man, so grateful for the grace of God given to him in Christ, always treated others with incredible grace.

I have many other wonderful memories of Dr. Hoops. One summer while I was in seminary, my brother Marty and I had a lawn-mowing business. Dr. Hoops was recuperating from surgery and asked us to include his lawn in our work. He and his wife were so gracious to us. I remember the two of them bringing out lemonade for us as we worked.

In the decades since I got my Master of Divinity degree and became a pastor, our paths would occasionally cross and, as I'm sure is true of all his former students, Dr. Hoops was always gracious and encouraging, always full of questions about my ministry and my life. That's just who he was with everyone.

A high school classmate of mine who knew Dr. Hoops through her work in the field of developmental disabilities has occasionally given me reports on how he and his family were doing. We would pass greetings to one another through her. He was just a dear man, a wonderful example of Christian faithfulness. I loved and respected him. His insights, stories, passion for the gospel, and witness for Christ have shown up repeatedly in my sermons, Sunday School classes, and Bible studies over the years.

But it's his compassion, his forgiving spirit which I experienced so directly, and his unflagging encouragement that I cherish most. Once, he said to us as we sat in that class on 1 Peter, "I shudder when I think of the sacrifices some of you will be asked to make for Christ." And then he made it clear that he prayed for every one of us.

Knowing something of his prayer habits, I'm sure that he prayed for hundreds of people regularly. Those prayers offered by a righteous man in Jesus' name most certainly have made a difference in hundreds of lives. His prayers for others were the ultimate act of self-denial and encouragement from a man whose life was characterized by these expressions of faith in Christ.

I look forward to seeing him again one day in eternity. May God grant comfort and encouragement to his family and friends as they mourn his passing.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Again and Again (AUDIO)


[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Lord, break me, thaw me, remake me

Reflections on this morning's quiet time with God in which Revelation 16 was central. To see how I approach quiet time, go here.
Look: “The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him.The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done.” (Revelation 16:8-11) 
This imagery of people facing God’s righteous wrath for their sin is chilling. It shows people so hardened to God that neither the Law nor the Gospel gives them pause. They worship at what Carolyn Arends called “the altar of ego.” 
The people here in Revelation are the opposite of those martyrs in history who refused to renounce the God ultimately revealed in Christ on pain of losing their earthly lives. When Paul looked at all the earthly things he had lost and likely would lose--including his life--because of his refusal to turn from the God he knew in Christ, he wrote: 
“...I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…” (Philippians 3:8) 
Listen: It’s difficult to see what those in John’s Revelation image think they will gain by enduring their deserved punishments and refusing to receive the grace God would still make available to them in Christ. 
Like Adam and Eve, they’re mired in their desire to “be like God.” They’ll be their own bosses even if it means eternal punishment, eternal separation from God. 
This is tragic and unnecessary. It’s not what God desires; Jesus’ death and resurrection prove that. But God doesn’t force salvation, grace, hope, peace, and joy on anyone. He offers His hand; He doesn’t take us by force. 
Respond: God, forgive me when I harden myself to You and to what You desire. Forgive me for hardening myself to grace and to love. Thaw my icy heart. Break down my iron will. Penetrate and overcome my self-centered thinking. Help me to trust in Jesus as my Sovereign. Make my trust in Your more complete. I yield control of today and how I live it to You. Re-form me more in the image of Jesus. Today, set me free from myself so that I can move toward becoming my better self. In Jesus’ name I pray. Von Staupitz taught Luther a prayer based on Psalm 119: “I am Yours; save me.” That’s my prayer too, Lord, today and in all circumstances. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Do we get what we deserve?

I reposted this graphic over on Facebook and was then contacted by a friend who asked about Galatians 6:7, where Paul writes: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows."

That business about a person reaping what they sow, my friend wondered, isn't that like karma?

Good question!

This is how I responded:
I think that Paul here is talking about unrepentant humanity. If we don't repent and trust in Christ, we stand defenseless against condemnation for our sins. In Romans 6:23, Paul writes: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[a] Christ Jesus our Lord."

The law, God's commands, are real and holy and they reflect the will of God for human beings. But the law can't save us because we're incapable of keeping them in our own power.

The grace God gives to those who repent and believe in Jesus (Mark 1:15; Ephesians 2:8-10) trumps the condemnation of the law.

God's grace in Christ covers our sins and spares us the eternal consequence of them.

Luther pictures God standing before two groups of sinners at the judgment. One group stands naked in their sin. The other group, although sinners, are covered in Jesus and all that the Father sees in them is Jesus.

To unrepentantly sow sin without turning to Christ will cause people to reap judgment. But when we take Christ's outstretched hand of grace, we are set free. And Jesus says, "...if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (John 8:36)

I hope that this helps.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Hurricane Maria was likely far deadlier than once thought...but you can help!

The hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico on September 20 and after was far deadlier than previously thought.

And still, much of the island is without the power it needs to help people there experience anything like normal.

Puerto Rico is regularly in my prayers, offered in the name of Jesus Christ. I urge you to pray too.

If you’d like to help financially with continuing relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts, Lutheran World Relief has a good reputation and is a recognized ministry of the denomination in which I serve, the North American Lutheran Church. You can go here for more information and make a donation.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, December 18, 2017

TCM's Annual Memoriam for those who passed away in 2017

Among those who meant something  especially to me: Richard Anderson, who played a proud and clueless Army captain on the Zorro the TV show; Mary Tyler Moore, everyone's favorite girl next door in The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, but became an  ice queen out of touch with her grief in Ordinary People; and many others too many to name. Just watch..

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Again and Again

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church this morning.]

John 1:6-8, 19-28
The other day I was working a crossword puzzle that included this clue: Double French affirmative. The answer, of course, was, “Oui! Oui!” Strange as it may seem to us, French speakers will sometimes actually say, “Oui! Oui!” “Yes! Yes!” like that.

But it’s really not that strange. In the years when Jesus walked the earth in Judea, where people spoke Aramaic, words were often repeated twice like that. Jesus Himself spoke this way.

In John 3:3, for example, Jesus is speaking to a Jewish teacher, Nicodemus, and says, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." That’s our English translation. But in the Greek in which John wrote his gospel, he retains a typically Aramaic way of speaking. Jesus says, not “very truly,” but, “Amen! Amen!” “Truly, truly!”

The repetition of a single word like that is a way of emphasizing a point. Jesus is saying, “Truly! Truly” tells us, “This is important. You need to catch this.”

There’s a reason why I’m making this point. It’s because in the one verse I want to focus on in today’s message, John the gospel writer emphasizes something about John the Baptist, something it’s important for us all to catch, something it’s important for all Christian disciples to apply to our lives.

It’s John 1:20, where we’re told about John the Baptist: “He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah.’”

John never failed to confess and confessed all the time.

When asked whether he was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s anointed King, John would confess and confess again, “I am not the Christ.”

“Get this clear,” John is saying, “I’m not the King you’re looking for. I can’t save you. I’m just a witness for Him.”

John insists that he is not the Messiah and that no matter how many thousands may come out to hear him preach and receive his baptism of repentance, he is nothing and the Messiah to come, the Savior, is everything.

Why is that such a big deal? For one reason, had John gone along with people’s desire to treat him as though he were the Messiah, he could have gotten out of that ridiculous outfit of his and maybe eaten something tastier than locusts and wild honey. Who knows, maybe he could have wangled his celebrity into a kingship or gigs at the first century Judean version of Las Vegas?

John the Baptist could have become an important person in the world’s eyes. Imagine the faith required of John to turn away suggestions that he was hot stuff!

Instead, in the face of the fame and the accolades, John said, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness...I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (John 1:23, 26-27)

The other reason I think that John’s double confession of not being the Messiah is so remarkable is that his message is so counter, not just to first century culture, but even more to twenty-first-century culture. John couldn’t care less about whether his achievements in this world stroke his self-esteem or make others bow down to him. What John cares about is being faithful to the God Who would send the Messiah Jesus to save all who surrender to Him from the eternal death we deserve for our sin.

John had no need to be important in the eyes of the world. It was enough for him to know that God loved him and the whole human race enough to send His Son to die and rise for them...for us, you and me.

John didn’t need a trophy for participating in the bowling league.

He didn’t need to win an argument.

He didn’t need people telling him, “Thank you.”

He didn’t need the affirmation of the crowds. John knew that the God Who made him was going to save and remake all who trust in His Messiah. And that was enough.

Is it enough for you and me? Is Christ enough for you and me? If Christ isn’t enough for us, we need to repent and trust in Christ. Again. Today and every day.

The team planning a discipleship conference for our district of the North American Lutheran Church, which will be held this coming February, met in this building yesterday. Doug and I are on the team and I’m hoping that every member of Living Water will attend.

But after the meeting, two of the pastors and a layperson chatted a bit with Doug and me. We were talking about the subject of congregational decision-making. One pastor underscored how important it is for every disciple to be heard. And, he said, it’s equally important that when making decisions, every church member ask themselves a simple question: “What does God want?”

It’s no trouble for any of us to identify what we want, what we think, what we feel.

But the real question we should ask when making decisions is, “What does God want? What is God showing me through prayer and Scripture? What is God telling me through the godly wisdom of other disciples rooted in God’s Word? What is God telling all of us as we prayerfully seek His will as we meet and talk?”

And these sorts of questions apply as much to our personal lives as they do to our congregational lives.

What does God want? What does God think about our desire to buy a new house, work with the poor in a Third World country, take the promotion with the bigger pay even though I love the work I’m doing right now and don’t really need the raise? What does God say about someone's desire to end their marriage rather than working things out? What does God want?

This is the question of a disciple seeking to be faithful to the God they know in Jesus. It’s the question of the person who, like John the Baptist, confesses and confesses repeatedly that they, that we, aren’t God. We aren’t in charge. We don’t have the final say.

The fundamental war every Christian disciple must wage is the fight to subdue our own egos, our inborn desire to “be like God,” and to instead, surrender totally to Jesus Christ.

But know this: When, like John the Baptist, we put God first and ask that His will be done and not our own, God will ask us to take risks of faith.
  • God told Abraham and Sarah to go to a place He would show them. 
  • He told Moses to traverse the wilderness with the whiny people of Israel until He said to stop. 
  • He told David he could take on a giant. 
  • He told Gideon that his army was too big; he needed to rely on God by whittling the army down. 
  • He told Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem even though they didn’t have the resources, didn’t have the technical skills, and were surrounded by enemies.
The risks of faith God asks us to make often don’t make human sense. In fact, when a course of action meets our human standards of "common sense," it's probably the wrong way to go. God's sense usually doesn't make common sense.

And most of you here know about that.
  • When a group of people left a congregation of which they’d been members for decades because they believed that congregation was no longer faithful to the gospel, then formed Living Water, it didn’t make sense. But God was faithful. 
  • When Living Water faced division over disagreements, some wondered if it made sense to continue the life of this congregation. But God was faithful. 
  • When this congregation was forced to move out of a 38,000 square foot school building that would be torn down five months later, some thought it nonsensical to think that we could continue. But God was faithful and here we are.
God doesn’t promise that when His people confess and keep confessing their faith in the God we know in Jesus, everything will turn out great in this life.

John the Baptist lost his earthly life in taking the risk of doing what God called him to do. In confessing Christ as his Lord in his words and in his life though, John also gained something that will never be taken away from him: The life with God that belongs to all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ!

As Jesus promises believers in John 16:33: "...In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Despite the odds. Despite what his intellect or his fears or his heart may have told him, John confessed and kept confessing his faith in Jesus. We are called to do no less!

And when we keep confessing Jesus with our words, our lives, our worship, our witness, and our discipleship, we can rely on a promise from our Lord: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)

Stand firm and keep confessing Jesus always!


[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Remembering this tonight, for some reason

Back on December 19, 2006, my dad and I went to the Ohio State House, where I provided the opening prayer for that day's session of the Ohio House of Representatives. I was invited to provide the prayer by Representative Joe Uecker, who beat me and three other candidates when we ran for the House two years earlier.

It was an honor for Joe to ask me to provide the prayer and it was meaningful for me for two big reasons.

One is that I formerly worked for the House. I supervised the 85 college-age pages there. I got a birds-eye view of the legislative process and was impressed.

It was fun to be back in the chamber, which I had visited many times as a boy. Back then, I walked around the State House, soaking up the history and imagining one day that I would serve as an elected official.

That never happened, of course. God put another call on my life and I've come to regret having run for office while serving as a pastor. But the Ohio State House is my favorite of all the state capitol buildings I've been to through the years.

The other reason this visit was so meaningful is that my Dad was with me. Dad had never been to the State House before, although he's a lifelong Ohioan and became a full-time resident of Columbus in 1954. But it was, as always, just great being with Dad. After the session, my dear friend Tom joined us for lunch.

It was a nice day.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Friday, December 15, 2017

On finding two old family photos

My sisters are helping my dad clean out his attic right now. The house was built by my mom’s parents in 1950.

The other day, the girls (despite our respective ages, they are always the girls and my brother and I are always the boys) found a box filled with photos of people none of us could identify. They were almost all taken at photography studios along North and South High Street in Columbus.

My guess is that they were probably acquired by some family member in hopes of using them in a craft project or, likelier, they may have been among the refuse found by my grandfather in his many search-among-the-trash missions.

But in the box of those studio photos were two family snapshots, seen here.

The first is of my grandmother, no doubt taken in her teens while she still lived in Columbus’ Linden area. (My great-great-grandfather, Martin Ranck, a carpenter and former schoolteacher, built a number of homes in Linden.) This would have been in the 1920s, shortly before my great-grandparents moved the family to the Bottoms, Columbus’ near-west side. My grandmother was a member of Central High School’s first graduating class in 1925.

In the picture, my grandmother looks as though she could easily be transported to today. Though in later years, she became a whining passive-aggressive, in those days, I think she was a handful, who liked and was liked by the boys.

When I saw the second photo, I immediately spotted my mom. She’s in the center, unmistakable. The back of the photo has a caption that says it was taken on February 28, 1941, making mom exactly nine years and four months old.

The caption also says that the other two in the picture are “Uncle Burt” and “the little girl next door.” Because my mom’s middle name is misspelled (Jean instead of Jeanne), I imagine the picture was taken by someone other than her parents, probably one of my great-uncles. None of us knows of an Uncle Burt. But I’m guessing it’s one of my great-grandfather’s brothers or brothers-in-law.

My mom died earlier this year. My grandmother passed in 1991.

There’s a treasure trove of history in every family tree. These pics were interesting for me to see.

By the way, my sisters also uncovered three songs in sheet music. One was copyrighted 1910; the other two were from 1917. The latter were both songs about young men leaving their families, their mules, and their sweethearts, in that order, to fight in the First World War. One song also extolled the leadership of President Wilson.

The last point is unsurprising because my great-grandparents were staunch Democrats. My grandmother often told me how the Republican kids would taunt her and other kids from Democratic families for their political allegiance, telling them, "Beans is good enough for Democrats."

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Two 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Acts

The 2018 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class was announced yesterday. It includes the Moody Blues and Nina Simone.

Back in the day, I was into the Moodies. But in listening to them more recently, I find their lyrics, which play for profundity, embarrassingly pretentious. They belong in the Hall, I believe, because, through their use of symphonic flavorings, they helped show how rock and roll's pallet could be expanded.

Two other bands in the class, I think, have produced enduring work without any pretense. They just created good songs: Dire Straits and the Cars. Very different bands, they managed great sounds without seeming to take themselves too seriously.

Here's the Cars' Drive, a pop-rock ballad. The lead singer is the late Benjamin Orr, the bassist. Lead singing was usually handled by Ric Ocasek.

I suppose that most people would say that Dire Straits' best LP was Brothers in Arms. I agree. Guitarist and songwriter Mark Knopfler created a varied collection of tunes on this one. This one, Ride Across the River, is one of my favorites. It's kind of an ambient piece without being, you know, boring.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

For Christ and the Gospel, the Church and Clergy need to stay out of politics

I tweeted this about an hour ago:

“Now, at long last, will my fellow Christian clergy get out of politics? Instead of playing for worldly power and dirtying the Church’s reputation, let’s do our job: proclaim Christ and make disciples!”

I speak as one who, thirteen years ago, made the mistake of running for public office while serving as a pastor. While I was always quick to say that I was not a “Christian candidate” or that I knew what God’s politics (I don’t believe there is such a thing) was, running was a terrible risk.

Why was it a risk?

Because it risked alienating people from Christ, the Gospel, and the Church when people heard a pastor advocating particular political ideas.

No political idea is worth losing the chance to commend Christ’s saving gospel, which is the only way to forgiveness of sins and life with God. Nothing is important as that.

If I’m going to offend people, I want to do it by lovingly lifting up Christ, “the way, and the life, and the truth” (John 14:6).

I've written before that there are exceptional circumstances when the Church and its clergy will feel called to speak up about political issues. This applies especially when one feels that injustices are being committed. But such speaking should never be done in the service a political party or candidate, so as to avoid subordinating the gospel message to a human message or a human being.

To subordinate anyone or anything to Christ and His gospel is to engage in idolatry, a violation of God's First Commandment: "You shall have no other gods before Me."

I pray fellow clergy and church bodies, both politically right and left, will stop playing politics and instead proclaim Jesus Christ!

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Just because I'm OK, it doesn't mean I'm OK

I try to start most days in quiet time with God. Here you'll find how I approach this time each day. Below is today's journal entry from my quiet time.
Look: “The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.” (Revelation 9:20-21) 
As the end times unfold, God allows Satan and his demons to do their worst to the whole human race not yet marked for salvation. By three different plagues, a third of the human race is destroyed. 
Yet we see here that the survivors don’t repent and, in fact, continue their unrepentant living: worshiping idols, murdering, relying on dark arts, committing sexually immoral acts, stealing. 
For them, eluding the torments of the devil and the wrath of God endows them with a feeling of invincibility, I think. Since they haven’t yet experienced the consequences of their selfishness and idolatry, they seem to think that no consequences will ever occur. 
They refuse to repent. They are apparently unmoved either by Law or Gospel. They put their trust in themselves and in their “idols that cannot see or hear or walk.” They think everything is OK. But just because I'm OK, it doesn't mean I'm OK.
Listen: In some ways, these untouched survivors are like the idols they worship. Like the idols, they seem incapable of seeing or hearing. They are insensitive to what God and life and the demons are all telling them: Their numbers are up. They are vulnerable. They are mortal. And nothing in this world will save them as this world hurtles toward death. Only Christ can save them. Jesus says in Luke 12:56: “Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don't know how to interpret this present time?” 
When we’re chasing after the things we want, even if they’re contrary to the will of God, we can be facile in shielding ourselves from all that God tells us through His Word, experience, the input of friends, and the pangs of our conscience. We ignore those signs. We easily become dumb (like our idols) to the signs of God’s displeasure with our sin We hypocritically pursue our own selfish ends, ignoring the clearly-revealed word of God. We follow the ways of death instead of the one way of life (John 14:6; Matthew 17:13-14). 
The people in Revelation 9 are completely deluded. They are oblivious to their own vulnerability and need of God because nothing bad has happened to them yet. They see themselves as being in a different class from those who have been tortured by the plagues discussed in the chapter. They don’t think, “If something like that were to happen to me, I would need God.” Instead, they seem to think, “I am protected from such evil because I and the things I rely on are stronger than anything. I’ll just keep living the way I have been. God is irrelevant. God is a fantasy. I need to look out for myself.” 
I used to think like these people and am sometimes tempted to do so even now. I even sometimes allow myself to be deluded by my sinful nature into thinking that if I do a sin it must not really be a sin because I’m a good person. 
But I’m not a good person. I’m a saved person, saved by the grace God gives to sinners who daily turn from sin and daily trust in Christ above all. 
When God’s Spirit incites me to confess again that Jesus is my Lord, God come to earth, I’m set free again from these delusions. In this confession, I am confessing Him as the only One Who can save me from my sins and the only One Who can give me life with God. Jesus is the name above all names (Philippians 2:9). 
“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8:14-17) 
“ one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 12:3) 
Respond: Lord, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, help me to remember how much I need You and the life that only comes through Jesus. I know that more today than I did yesterday. Events of the past twenty-four hours have shown me that again. If I yield to any thought or action of utter self-sufficiency today, Lord, rein me in. It is in You that I live and move and have my being. Forgive me my sins. Guide me. Show me the way. Give me Your wisdom. You alone are God. You are my God, no matter what the devil or the world may do to me or tempt me with. In Jesus’ name. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]