Friday, October 20, 2017

Staying Focused

[Most days, I try to spend quiet time with God. Below is my journal entry for this morning. I hope that you find it helpful. To see how I approach my quiet time with God, see here. It's all about seeking to listen to what God is telling us through His Word as we meet Him each day.]
Look: [Jesus asked] “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44)

Jesus is speaking to those scandalized by His Sabbath day restoration of the once-paralyzed limbs of a man unable to walk.

All of Jesus’ words in this chapter are interesting. But today, I’m especially taken with these in verse 44. A paraphrase might be: “Since being acceptable to the crowd is so important to you, how could you possibly care about the glorious acceptance that only the one true God can give to you through faith in Me?”

Jesus underscores His own indifference to the accolades (or glories) that human beings may give to Him in verse 41: “I do not accept glory from human beings...” By this, Jesus means that He refuses to allow the opinions of Him--good or bad--to turn His head. He will do what He must do and what He has been called to do, popular or not, easy or not. In Luke 12:50, referencing the suffering He will undergo, calling His crucifixion and death His “baptism,” Jesus says: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!”

In the wilderness, of course, Satan had tempted Jesus to grab for the glories offered Him by Satan and the world. Luke’s account of the wilderness temptations of Jesus says:

“The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.’” But Luke says that Jesus responded: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’” (Luke 4:5-8)

Listen: If I’m to walk with God, if I’m to have life with God through Jesus, I can’t worry about having the accolades of the crowd. Nor can I concern myself with what’s easy, safe, or comfortable. Nor can I worry about the possibility of being deemed “weird” or “different” from everybody else.*

Some people, of course, wear their “distinctiveness” as Christians like badges of honor and pride. This is not what Jesus is commending when He says that we should focus on being considered “glorious” by God instead of the crowd. There is no place for being puffed up for the person who genuinely seeks to follow Jesus. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds Christians: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” And 1 Corinthians 13:4 says: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

To be set apart or holy for God is to be so focused on following Jesus that I am willing to ignore what the crowd or what my own internal preference for comfort say I should do.

In this, Jesus isn’t just the One Who saves us for life set apart for God, He’s also, as we say in the liturgy, “a model of the godly life.” Luke 9:51, a turning point in Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, says: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”

Jesus was so sold-out to glorifying God the Father that He “resolutely” went to Jerusalem, knowing what awaited Him there. He didn’t flinch.

He calls us to similar resolve. In Luke 14:27, Jesus says: “...whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus isn’t here saying that Christians should look for trouble.

And “their cross” here doesn’t refer to the troubles, adversity, and pain to which every human being is subject because we live in this fallen, imperfect world.

Taking up our crosses involves acknowledging the sin in us--both our sinful natures and the sins we commit because of those natures--and following Jesus as the only One Who can set us free from their power over us.

“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)

Those who follow Jesus daily submit to the crucifixion of our old sinful selves so that the new creation Jesus died and rose to make us become can rise.

We daily remember our baptisms as the time of our crucifixion and death so that can Christ can daily raise us up: “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” (Romans 6:4).

The only way I can follow through on a life marked by humble acknowledgement of my need of Christ is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to forget about the affirmations offered by the crowds or the comforts offered by the world so that I can follow Jesus Christ alone.

This isn’t easy. I like to be liked. I don’t like disappointing or offending people. I want to fit in.

On top of that, I’d like to be comfortable.

But while some Christians may be comfortable, materially or socially, none of that is promised by Jesus.

He promises us eternal life. He promises His constant presence with us. But, as I often remind others, so I now remind myself, Jesus also promises: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

So often, the discouragement I feel over the lack of discernible “progress” in my spiritual life can be attributed to one simple thing: I’ve taken my eye off of Jesus.

Real spiritual progress comes, I suspect, when I’m not even conscious of questions about my “spiritual progress” and I set my face toward Jesus. As C.S. Lewis puts it: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less.”

Respond: Father, today, by the Holy Spirit’s power, free me of concerns about the estimation of others or the standards of this world or my own sin-warped personal standards. Grant that the only accolade I care about is Your Words at the Judgment, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Help me to focus on Jesus alone. May I revere Your name today. May Your kingdom come to me today. May Your will be done in my life today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen
*Weird or different are two words that could readily translate the Bible’s term, holy. The best translation is probably set apart for God.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You're invited to be with the congregation for worship on Sundays, either at 8:45 or 11:00 AM.]

Monday, October 16, 2017


[These are reflections from my morning quiet time. To see how I approach quiet time, read here.]
Look: “Now while he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.” (John 2:23-25)

This takes place early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, according to John. At the start of chapter 2, Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Then, He cleanses the temple of moneychangers. After that comes these verses.

In verse 23, where we’re told that after Jesus performed signs, people believed in Him, just as earlier, the disciples believed in Him in light of the miracle at Cana.

“But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people,” verse 24 says.

The verb is a form of pisteuo, the same term routinely used in John’s gospel for believing faith. It’s the verb used by Jesus in John 3:16.

The message is clear: Jesus doesn’t put His faith in human beings, because He knows all about we human beings. He knows that we’re fickle, unreliable, unworthy of trust. And even when human beings claim to trust in someone, that belief is subject to change, even when the One trusted is the foundational truth of the universe, Jesus (John 14:6).

The human condition is such that we tend to break trusts, turn on others, change our minds. We’re not reliable in any ultimate sense. I know that I'm not. No human being, no thing, no idea, can be believed in to make us whole, happy, sane, forgiven, purposeful. At least not over the long haul. Certainly not for eternity.

Only God can be trusted. This is what I think Paul is saying in Romans 3:14: “Let God be true, and every human being a liar.”

Listen: If I believe in anyone but the God revealed in Jesus, my belief--my faith--will be disappointed.

I have put too much pressure on trembling human shoulders when I’ve placed my faith in them. And people have made the same mistake when reposing similar faith in me. We just can’t bear the weight of the need of every human being has for the one true God. Imperfect, sinful human beings can’t be God. As Paul also writes: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

This doesn’t mean that we should have nothing to do with others, I don’t believe. Quite the opposite.

What it does mean is that we need to enlist the help of God in all of our relationships: marriages, friendships, churches, small groups so that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can become more trustworthy. We believe in God to help us be trustworthy.

When we fail to be trustworthy, we must repent, seeking God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those we let down.

When others fail to be trustworthy with us, we must forgive as we’ve been forgiven (Ephesians 4:32).

This doesn’t mean that we should continue regular relationships with those who continually betray us. We can forgive others even when we realize that they’re chronically and unrepentantly--with repentance affirmed by a real life commitment to living differently--untrustworthy.

To understand that no one is ultimately trustworthy isn’t to be cynical or resigned to a life of loneliness.

It means that we love and accept others just as Christ loves and accepts us.

We confront. We talk things through. We pray. But we place our ultimate trust in Jesus Christ alone.

Respond: God, forgive me for so often believing in people, human leaders, or human ideas more than I believe in You. You alone can make me whole, purposeful, joyful, alive. Help me today to trust You more so that I can love both You and others better. In Jesus’ name. Amen
[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Right Clothes?

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Matthew 22:1-14
This is going to be tough today because Jesus presents us with tough words in our gospel lesson. But I promise if you will be patient and receptive to what Jesus has to say, discomfort will give way to joy.

Let's begin with the basics.

The God you and I know in Jesus Christ is, to use a term popular these days, inclusive in His love. By that, I mean, God loves all people.

But the God we meet in Jesus is also exclusive in His standards. As Jesus Himself puts it, “not everyone who calls [Him], ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

God loves us just as we are; but He loves us too much to leave us the way He finds us.

God will welcome us, but He will not welcome our sins into His kingdom. He insists that we set them in His hands and leave them behind.

And if you and I think that we are going to be part of God’s eternal kingdom while still clinging to our favorite sins, we are setting ourselves up for eternal regret.

If following Jesus doesn’t make us fundamentally different people than we would be if we’d never heard of Jesus, we may not be following Jesus.

For you and me, this is the message of the parable that Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel lesson, Matthew 22:1-14. It’s an important message.

As has been true in our gospel lessons over the past several weeks, Jesus is still in the temple on the Monday after the first Palm Sunday, days before He would be arrested and murdered.

As has also been true over these same weeks, Jesus once more tells a parable to the chief priests and elders who hate Him.

Jesus has already made it plain that the chief priests’ and elders’ reliance on their goodness will mean nothing on the day when God judges every human being. All that will matter then, for them and for us, is whether we believe in the Messiah, Jesus, as our King, turning from sin and trusting in Him to give us life and make us fit for eternity.

If we follow Jesus, we live; if we refuse to follow Jesus, we won't live.

But Jesus isn’t finished making His point. So, He says, starting in verse 2: “The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.”

You all know enough about the wedding practices of first-century Judea to know that friends and family were informed that marriages had been arranged, but the invitations came later, on the spur of the moment. The groom and his party would arrive at the house of the bride and messengers were sent out to say, “The wedding will be in a few minutes. Come on.” You’d have to be ready with your wedding clothes at a moment’s notice.

Here in the parable, the groom’s father, a king, representing God the Father, invites people to join in the wedding celebration and feast for his son, representing God the Son Jesus. But in the parable, people refuse to come to the banquet.

These are like the folks who view church membership as a "get out of hell free" card, but remain indifferent to the will of the Father or the Lordship of the Son. They’re too busy with their own agendas to be caught up in God’s agenda.

And God’s agenda is clear: It’s to repent and believe in Jesus, not just as a ritual we go through on Sunday mornings. We are to turn from sin and trust in Jesus as God’s truth and the only way to live every single day.

We must daily heed the invitation to the eternal banquet of Jesus Christ as articulated by Paul in Romans 12:1-2: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

Are you and I listening to the Father’s invitation to the banquet everyday?

Or are we doing our own things?

Jesus’ parable continues at verse 4: “Then he sent some more servants and said, ‘Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been butchered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.’”

God is patient. He spent centuries preparing His chosen people for the arrival of the Groom, Jesus. And He’s patient with Gentiles, the non-Jews: He’s given His Church centuries to share Jesus with others, to invite them to life with the Messiah Christ.

God has prepared everything for those who turn from sin and follow Jesus. The invitation is inclusive. God wants everyone to say, "Yes!" to His invitation to eternal life.

Jesus goes on at verse 5: “But they paid no attention and went off—one to his field, another to his business. The rest seized his servants, mistreated them and killed them.”

This, Jesus says, is how God’s prophets and preachers, including John the Baptist, were treated: with indifference, or roughed up, or killed off.

Even the pious don’t like to have God telling them what to do. I know that I don't.

The fact is that God’s truth, and His call and commands on our lives, can sometimes be tough for us to take.

How do we react, for example, to God’s call and command that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves? As any parent knows, love isn't the same thing as approval. You still love your child even when you don't approve of the choices they sometimes make. So, how good are we at heeding God's command that we love the neighbors of whom we may or may not improve?

Including our Muslim neighbor.

Our gay neighbor.

Our Latino neighbor.

Our Democratic or Republican neighbor.

Not just in real life, but on Facebook and Twitter, when we’re watching TV.

Every time we fail to love others as we love ourselves, effectively speaking or acting on the devil’s lie that we're God, judge, and jury over others, we walk away from God's love and from Christ and we drive another nail into His innocent flesh.

Verse 7: “The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.’ So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Jesus’ first hearers included fellow Jews who wanted nothing to do with Him. They refused to welcome Him or acknowledge Him as God in the flesh, but were intent on killing Him. As soon as Jesus finished telling this parable, in fact, the chief priests and the elders of the temple began plotting how to get Him crucified.

That's because Jesus is here signaling that even if His fellow Jews aren’t going to receive Him, the invitation to follow and belong to God for eternity is going out to everybody, including Gentile outsiders (the riff-raff) like you and me!

Invite everyone, God is saying through Jesus. It’s why Jesus tells His Church: “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19) and “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Who are you and I inviting to Jesus’ kingdom these days?

I’m not talking about who you’re inviting to worship or the programs of our church. I mean, who are you and I inviting among your neighbors and friends without a connection to Jesus to know Jesus, to follow Jesus?

And are we intentionally seeking to strike up friendships with people who don’t follow Jesus so that you can have the privilege of inviting them to know Jesus?

Are we cultivating your own relationship with Jesus so that, in Peter’s words, we’ll “be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have” through our relationship with Jesus, an answer to be offered “with gentleness and respect”?

If we’re not doing these things--and I'm asking them of myself as much as I'm asking them of you--why not?

God has prepared the banquet for everyone.

Now comes the most disturbing and, maybe, important part of an already-disturbing parable. Verses 11-14: “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Look, folks: This is not about wearing the right thing in the presence of God. As long as your attire is modest, God doesn’t care about the clothes you church or anywhere else.

In our church in Cincinnati, a man and his wife in their sixties always sat with a young man in his thirties during worship. The two man always sat next to each other. Having met at church, they became good friends. The older man showed up every week in a three-piece suit, dressed to the nines. The young man often arrived on his motorcycle, sporting a do-rag, earrings, a three-day beard, a T-shirt, and torn jeans. They were as different as two people could possibly be. But they enjoyed worshiping together. They both realized that what's on the inside is vastly more important than what's on the outside!

Personally, I’m happy to see people worship God whether they’re wearing jeans and flip-flops or three-piece suits. 

I'm sure that God is too! 

But nobody can enter the kingdom of heaven and be with God if they aren’t clothed in God’s righteousness, if their sins aren’t covered by the forgiveness and grace God gives to those who dare to turn from their own desires and submit entirely to the Lordship of Jesus and the will of God over their lives. 

Romans 13:14 tells us, “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.” The proper attire for entrance into the kingdom of heaven is the righteousness that comes from faith in Jesus Christ! 

If we’re clothed in anything but the righteousness of God that comes to those who make repenting and believing in Jesus their daily lifestyle, we will be, in Jesus’ words, thrown outside in the darkness, weeping, gnashing our teeth, snarling eternal regret. 

That’s a daunting thought and it should remind us that faith in Christ isn’t like belonging to the Kiwanis or the Pinochle Club; it’s life and death business. Eternal life and death business.

God’s love is inclusive. He loves the whole world. Everyone’s invited.

But entrance into His kingdom is exclusive. It’s open to only those willing to be retrofitted for eternity by the grace He bears for all people through Jesus Christ.

It’s open only to those willing to die to getting our own way and to live the life of God’s will be done.

Clothe yourself in Jesus.

And when He calls you to lay aside a sin, jettison a sinful attitude, or befriend a fellow sinner, do it.

Let Jesus lead your life and all of its decisions.

Trust in Him.

Then you’ll be clothed in His righteousness and ready for anything, even the eternal banquet that awaits all who trust in Christ. Amen

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