Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hope and Comfort

[This was shared during the funeral of the father, father-in-law, grandfather, and great-grandfather of friends from Cincinnati earlier today.]

2 Corinthians 1:3-4
John 11:21-27

There’s a passage of Scripture I mentioned as we began today’s service. It comes from the first chapter of the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians and says: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort…

I know something of how important Lee was to people, especially to his family. He was a strong presence in the life of that family, a man who loved his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. And he was a vital presence in their lives almost to the end, as the video Dave shared on Facebook the other day, showing Lee teeing up on the golf course at the age of 90, demonstrates. All of you have been blessed to have Lee in your lives and you know it.

But now what?

People who haven’t been blessed as you have, strangers to Lee or to all of you, might not understand that it’s possible to grieve just as much, sometimes more, for an older person who has left this life as it is to grieve for someone younger. When someone has been the patriarch of a family for so long, it leaves a hole in many lives.

So, the first thing that I would say this morning is that you shouldn’t let anyone tell you that it’s time to snap out of it, time to stop feeling your loss.

As I read God’s Word, the Bible, it becomes clear to me that death was never meant to be part of the human experience. We were created in the “image of God,” Genesis says, and the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes tells us that God “has put eternity into [humanity’s] heart…” We have every right to feel offended by death, to resent its removal of loved ones from our lives. We weren’t made for death. It’s offensive and hurtful to us.

Listen: It’s offensive to God and hurts God too. He loves us. He wants more for us than death and grief. He wants to give us life and hope and peace.

That’s exactly why He took on human flesh in the person of Jesus, Who took the death sentence for sin each of us inherits at birth and then rose from the dead so that all who turn from their own sin and trust in Him have a life with God that cannot be taken from them.

When a friend of Jesus, a man named Lazarus, died, Jesus took His apostles with Him to the little village of Bethany. Some regarded this as a risky trip because, by that time, the forces of government and religion had decided that Jesus needed to be killed and Bethany was close to Jerusalem, where temple police or Roman soldiers could easily get their hands on Him. But Jesus went anyway.

Lazarus had two sisters, who also lived in Bethany. Martha was the first of them to see Jesus when He got to Bethany and she was none too pleased with Him. She and her sister had sent urgent pleas to Jesus to come and help their brother. They were sure that Jesus, Who already had a track record of miracle-working, could come and heal Lazarus. But, by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus was dead four days.

And so, when Jesus arrives, Martha is reproachful. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother he would not have died,” she tells Him. “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” They exchange a few more words, then Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

Jesus was offering to Martha at that moment the same thing that He offers you today: hope. Hope that when we dare to follow Christ, dare to turn away from sin, and turn to Him in trust, we have life with God. It’s a hope that God will be with us always and a hope that death need not have the last word over the lives of those who trust in Jesus.

To all people, Christ offers universally and unreservedly the chance to receive what, deep in our souls, we all know we were made for, eternal life with God. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” Jesus says elsewhere. “No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also.” As we turn to Jesus each day, He brings God’s hope to us, even when we grieve.

But this same God can give something else to you today. I pray that you’ll take it as He offers it to you. It’s mentioned in that passage from 2 Corinthians I spoke of a few moments ago: Comfort. The passage calls God “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”

If you seek God, the God made plain in Jesus, He can bring you comfort.

I remember being at a funeral visitation. One of the friends who stopped by to visit the grieving family was a man I’d met several times previously. We fell into conversation. He talked about how it had been when he lost his wife of fifty some years. They had been inseparable and he was devastated. He talked about how often at night he would fall to his knees in his bedroom and cry out, “God have mercy on me.” God’s Word, the Bible, promises that all who call on God will be saved. This man, as he called on God for help, was saved from facing His grief alone. “I don’t know how I would have survived without God’s help,” he told me.

And speaking personally, when I had a heart attack seven years ago and needed to be hospitalized, my son spent the night with me. As I lay in bed, I asked him to read some Scripture to me. I'll never forget the comfort I felt amid the noise in my soul when he read the words of Psalm 46:10: "Be still, and know that I am God."

The God Who has experienced death and grief Himself, wants to offer that same comfort to you today.

He wants you to know that you’re right to be hurt by the loss of your father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend.

He wants you to know that, for all who dare to trust in Christ, there is a hope for life with God in this world and a perfect life with God in the world to come, and there is comfort for those who run into the strong, compassionate arms of the God Who made you, loves you, died for you, rose for you.

Take the comfort and hope that only the God we meet in Jesus can offer.

And know that a lot of people, including Ann and me and our family, love you. God bless all of you. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, June 26, 2017

Grace, Discipleship, and Change

[Below are reflections on my quiet time with God from this morning. For more details on how I format my time with God, see here.]
Look: “Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.” (Philemon 1:11)

“If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me.” (Philemon 1:18)

Two thoughts:

(1) Onesimus, whose name means useful, has undergone a transformation. Paul says that he has been moved from uselessness to his master, Philemon, to being useful. Today a myth prevails in the West, under the influence of pop psychology, that people don’t change. Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus has changed. The gospel changes people.

(2) Compelled by the gospel of Christ that has changed him from an enemy of God to a friend (Colossians 1:21-22; Romans 5:10), Paul pledges that he will repay Philemon for anything that Onesimus has cost him.

It’s believed that Onesimus was a runaway slave and that he ran after stealing from his master, Philemon. But, in running, Onesimus ran right under the influence of Paul, who had earlier been instrumental in Philemon’s conversion to faith in Christ.

After hearing and experiencing the gospel through Paul, Onesimus too became a Christian. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon reluctantly, with a plea that this once-useless slave could now become Philemon’s useful friend “as a brother in the Lord” (v.16). (Paul also refuses to pull rank on Philemon. Although “in Christ…[he] could be bold and order” [Philemon 1:8] Philemon to free Onesimus, Paul instead chooses to appeal to Philemon “on the basis of love” [Philemon 1:9]). Paul goes completely to bat for Onesimus.

Listen: Several important truths emerge for me from this encounter with God in His Word.

(1) The Gospel has the power to transform us from people leading useless, vain lives to people whose lives have purpose and meaning. That’s exactly what Jesus has come into our world to make possible through His death and resurrection. Paul writes in Romans: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16-17)

This morning, I was upset with myself for the intractability and recurrence of the sins I seem to specialize in, as well as for my stubborn bad habits. This is one of the things I discussed with God during the “STOP” portion of my quiet time.

I get discouraged with myself, ignoring the fact that while I may battle with the same bad old stuff, I can take consolation from two facts: (1) When I look back over the decades of my walk with Christ, I can see the ways in which He has impacted me positively, to use a non-existent word, Christwardly; (2) I am in the battle. I haven’t surrendered to my sins and bad habits; I seek each day to surrender to Christ.

If I weren’t in the battle, I wouldn’t feel the need to repent while reading Scripture or while praying or during conversations with maturing Christian. The surest indicator that I am seeking to follow Christ is guilt...not shame...but guilt. It’s guilt that prompts repentance and nudges me to confession, the experience of grace, and a closer walk with Christ. (This isn’t a license for sin, of course. Paul dealt with this issue when he wrote in Romans 6:1-4: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”) Our call is to cover ourselves in Christ through daily surrender to Christ as He renews us more deeply into His own image.

The most prominent dynamic of Christian discipleship is change. The disciple is always changing. If they’re not changing, they’re no longer following Jesus. They’re deluding themselves with the idea that they’ve arrived, that they no longer need to be covered in Christ’s righteousness. This leads either to self-righteousness or spiritual indifference.

But none of us, not even spiritual giants, “arrive” before we leave this life. Until that time, God has work to do on us.

So, my despair over my intractable sins and bad habits, the things that make me “useless” to God and the world is unwarranted. I belong to Jesus Christ. I turn to Him in daily repentance and renewal of the covenant He made with me at my baptism. I am in the battle. The damnation of my imperfection that Satan, my sin-distorted conscience, and the world seek to hand out to me be damned.
Jesus Christ is alive and I belong to Him despite the sins and flaws I daily ask Him to forgive and take away. As long as I’m in the battle against the old Mark, all is well. That’s incredibly comforting!

(2) It’s my responsibility as a Christian and a Christian servant-leader to go to bat for those others may dismiss, ignore, marginalize. I need to be an advocate for those Christians others may be inclined to dismiss, leave out, insult. I need to stand with those Christians whose faith others may doubt.

Paul went to bat for Onesimus. He was willing to repay Philemon for whatever damages to or loss of property Philemon experienced as a result of Onesimus’ actions.

When I was a young and very, very immature Christian (today I’m just a very immature Christian, I think, by the grace of God), Martha Schneider, a sixty year old-plus member of the church where I came to faith, put up with my twenty-something infantile behavior. She discipled me. She mentored me. She even came to see some of my behaviors which she’d once seen as useless and disrespectful as useful.  
When others may have been inclined to give up on me, Martha didn’t. She taught me about Jesus, grace, prayer, and resilient faith. She saw my potential and she was an instrument by which God brought changes to my life: deepened faith, an openness to God’s call, a love of prayer. She was Paul to my Onesimus. 
Respond: Father, You haven’t given up on me. Help me to not give up on You or the changes Your Holy Spirit can bring to me as I humbly bring my life to You each day in Jesus’ name. And help me not to give up on anyone, to pray for and to witness to those not yet converted to Christ and to stand with those who confess Christ who may be misunderstood or regarded with fear or suspicion by other Christians for their sketchy track records. Fill me with Your Holy Spirit again today, so that You guide my thoughts, words, and actions. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Persecution and the Only Thing to Fear (AUDIO)


[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message prepared for worship today.]

Persecution and the Only Thing to Fear

Matthew 10:1, 21-33
I had no idea when I first planned on this being the day we would welcome twenty new members to Living Water that in today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus would talk about the subject of Christian persecution.

In any case, you should know that this is not an abstract topic.

Open Doors USA, a Christian organization that offers support to persecuted sisters and brothers in Christ, defines persecution as “any hostility experienced from the world as a result of one’s identification as a Christian.” Open Doors estimates that worldwide, each month:
  • 322 Christians are killed for their faith in Christ; 
  • 214 churches and church properties are destroyed; and 
  • 772 forms of violence--including beatings, abductions, rapes, arrests, and forced marriages--are perpetrated against Christians. 
Jesus warns us today of the truth borne out by those figures: Being His disciple is not easy.

That might make people wonder why anyone would want to be a Christian. And yet, millions of people come to faith in Christ each year.

I am not a media basher, but much of the media likes to say that Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. But that’s true if you only count the number of people born Muslim. The fastest growing religion by conversions in the world is Christianity.

And this growth is led by the numbers of Christian conversions that are happening in places where Christians face daily persecution, whether from their governments or their neighbors, places like China, Nepal, and Ethiopia.

But, it must be said that, as hostility toward and ignorance about Christ and His Church grow in North America, even here, where we face no persecution, we can feel apprehension, if not fear as followers of Jesus about being overt in the expression of our faith.

Today though, Jesus tells us: “Don’t be afraid.”

And He tells us why we shouldn’t be afraid, too.

Let’s take a look at our gospel lesson for this morning. Jesus begins by citing things that would happen--and have happened many times in the twenty-plus centuries since--to His disciples: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. Truly I tell you, you will not finish going through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

Nobody can accuse Jesus of painting a rosy picture of Christian discipleship! Not only does Jesus call us to die to our sins and our old selves and be subject to the reconstruction of our characters He wants us all to undergo so that we can be, sometimes painfully, more like Him in His love, integrity, kindness, and righteousness...He also says that, during our lives on this earth, as we follow Him, people we know and love may turn on us.

Every person in this sanctuary probably has experienced this. I know that in my own life, there are people in my life, many of whom I’ve known for years, who view me as a humorless, naive, judgmental, party-pooper. Now, I suppose that there are times when I am a humorless, naive, judgmental, party-pooper, although I hope I’m not. But it seems to me that those who “know” me and think these things don’t really know me. They just know that I hang out with Jesus and they don’t want to get too close to that.

Some years ago, I was appointed by the county government of the community in which we lived to a committee charged with addressing the use of drugs by young people. There were about twenty-five of us on this committee. At the first meeting, the chairperson went around the room, asking people what they thought was the fundamental reason for the drug problem in our community.

There were many answers: family disintegration, the influence of media superstars, poor communications, a predisposition to addiction, poverty, affluence. In truth, each of those factors play some role in the use of drugs. But I don't think that they're the fundamental reason.

When the question came to me, I said that I thought it could ultimately be traced back to a disconnect from God.

When you are connected with God, you know how highly prized you are in God's eyes and are more resistant to abusing the gift of your life.

When you're connected with God, you're also connected to Christian community; God and His people can help you to make healthier, life-affirming choices.

No one is immune to addiction, of course. No family is. But, without God, people aren't living in hope. They're trying to fill holes in their souls that can only be filled by God.

After I'd said my piece...crickets. I could almost hear my fellow committee members saying, "There goes the guy in the collar."

As the question continued around the circle, one other person offered a similar answer. His name was Reggie. I came to find that Reggie is an amazing man, the leader of a program designed to help people get out from under addiction, himself recovering from an addiction. "You know," he said, "I agree with the pastor."

We didn't win any people over that day. But I learned a valuable lesson on how difficult it is for people to accept the practical application of faith in Jesus to everyday life.

At some level, I suspect that most people are afraid that if they get close to Jesus, He will win them over with His love:
  • they’ll come to see Jesus as God-enfleshed;
  • they’ll become grateful that despite His sinlessness, He died for their sins, and they’ll repent; 
  • they’ll come to believe that Jesus rose and that He can give them new lives; 
  • they’re afraid they’ll start surrendering their lives to Him each day. 
And surrendering to Christ is the hardest thing for us to do, whether we're just coming to faith in Christ or if we've been striving to follow Him our whole lives. It will keep on being the hardest thing for us to do every day we live on this earth.

I know that when I was an atheist, I didn’t like being around authentic Christians. When you’ve drawn your identity from things like your favorite sins, your sense of self-reliance, your winning personality, your brains, your work ethic, it’s tough to admit that Jesus even died for your sins, that even you need to come to the foot of the cross and confess sin, and trust in Jesus to live.

The good news of new life for all who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus will always clash with the human ego. 

But for all who dare to hear Jesus’ call to follow Him, that good news will never clash with truth. 

And it will never clash with joy, even in the face of persecution.

Jesus continues in our lesson: “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters. [If Jesus, our teacher and master, faced persecution and then, death, who are we as people He has saved from eternal death and darkness, to be spared from persecution and even death as we follow Him here on earth? Jesus continues:] If the head of the house has been called Beelzebul, how much more the members of his household!” On this last point, you may remember that some of Jesus’ opponents once said that the only way Jesus could cast our demons was in the power of Beelzebul, another name for the devil. Jesus made mincemeat of that logic by pointing out that the devil would hardly act against his own self-interest in that way.

Then Jesus says something curious: “So do not be afraid of them, for there is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”

As one Bible scholar points out, you would expect Jesus to say something like, “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you always." Or, "Don't be afraid. I’ve overcome the sin and evil of this world.”

And, in fact, Jesus says those things elsewhere.

But not here, when telling His Church how to face persecution.

Instead, Jesus seems to say that we shouldn’t be afraid because one day, at the end of the age, when He comes to judge the living and the dead, everything we’ve ever done, said, or thought will be laid open for everyone to see.

That’s supposed to make me feel less afraid? I don’t know about you, but there are plenty of my actions, thoughts, and words I’d just as soon nobody else knew about.

In one way or another, I’ve violated every single one of the Ten Commandments and I’d just as soon those weren’t paraded before the whole world on Judgment Day, thank You very much.

Well, maybe all of our sins will be paraded before the universe at the judgment.

But we don’t need to be afraid when we have put our trust in Christ, when we’ve repented for our sin, and grasped the grace only Jesus can offer.

That’s because the thing that will also become visible at the judgment is whether we have taken refuge, life, and hope from Jesus Christ, whether we’re clothed in His righteousness and stand naked in our own sin.

And when our conscience, or the devil, or the world accuse us for our sin, the disciple of Jesus can take the example of Martin Luther, who advised: “...when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

Jesus goes on: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.”

Look, Jesus is saying, the most that those who persecute you is take your earthly life. That’s nothing to fear!

The One we should fear, reverence, and follow is the God revealed in Jesus, the One Who can send us away from Him, life, and eternity.

But when we trust the One Who made us, saves us, died for us, and rose for us, we know that we are eternally in His care.

None of us is perfect. We all sin. I sin.

Just in the past few days, I have unconsciously and reflexively sinned and it was only after God pricked my conscience that I knew I needed to repent before the only One Who can forgive me and set me on the right path.

That’s why, for centuries, Lutheran Christians around the world have come to God daily in repentance and faith, to daily be revived by the God seen in Jesus, to daily surrender to the One Who gives life to the repentant.

That’s why you and I confess our sins and receive assurance of God’s forgiveness given through Christ each Sunday morning.

As the prodigal son learned, the question isn’t whether we have wandered from God. Everyone of us is prone to that. The question is whether we keep coming back to the God Who reaches out to us as He has reached out to us through Jesus from cross and tomb and as He still reaches out to us from His throne in eternity. 

Our daily coming back to Christ will also be revealed at the judgment. And to all who have trusted in Christ from our King in this way, He will say, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matthew 25:35)

Along the way, in this life, Christ will be with us.

He will forgive us.

He will give us the gift of the Church from which we mutually draw strength and to which we are each accountable.

He will meet us every time we read His Word and pray in His name.

He will meet us every time we worship with others in His name, every time we receive the sacraments, every time we tell a neighbor the good news of new life for all who believe in Christ, every time we serve our neighbor in Jesus’ name.

All of these things--gifts of grace--Christ does for us, no matter what the world does to us.

And then, one day, after we have passed from this life, the ultimate truth about fear will be revealed. Do you know what that truth is? It’s this:

The only thing to fear is a life without Christ. 

Not poverty.

Not contempt or indifference from neighbors.

Not our lapses into faithlessness for which we repent.

Not persecution.

No, the only thing to fear is life without the Life-Giver Jesus Christ.

May you never have that kind of fear. Amen

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. This was the message prepared for worship today.]