Saturday, December 09, 2017

Jerusalem Decision: One Christian's Perspective

Donald Trump has decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel. Whether that is the right or wrong decision is a political question and I don't do politics. (I have my own opinions about political issues. But, as a pastor, I have come to believe that it is contrary to my call and contrary to the great commission under which the Church operates, to give political opinions, except in the gravest of circumstances.)

[Photo from the Brookings Institution. No copyright infringement intended and the owner of the image is free to take it down if they wish to do so.]

But I do want to comment on the ideas of one group that this decision seems designed to placate. This group, a segment of the evangelical Christian community, has a particular view of eschatology (end times) that differs from how most Christians through the centuries and today, view it.

This subgroup believes that human beings can, in essence, force God's hand in bringing about the day of the ascended Jesus' return. They think that human beings can do this by triggering a war that starts in Jerusalem.

This is why one of the speakers at the Roy Moore-Donald Trump rally in Pensacola last night hailed the decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital.

The main problem with this idea is that it is unchristian and unbiblical.

I say this for several reasons.

First, the idea held by this group is that we can somehow force the hand of the sovereign God of the universe to bring the end times closer is wrong. The notion reflects the very idolatry of self that caused humanity to fall into sin in the first place, the desire to "be like God" (Genesis 3:5).

Jesus has made it clear that the decision about when He returns is totally in the hands and the mind of the Father. "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father," Jesus says in Matthew 24:36. We can neither know God's timetable nor influence it.

Jesus also renders the convoluted eschatology of this splinter group ridiculous when in Mark 13, He describes the conditions for His return and describes the world as it was and remains to this day: fallen, subject to all manner of disasters and evils. Those conditions prevailed in the first-century AD; they prevail today. Nothing has changed.

The reason that the apostles had to encourage first-century Christians that Jesus being good for His promise to return and finally and fully establish His kingdom, is that they could see that all of the conditions Jesus had spoken about as signs of His return were already fulfilled. The New Testament has many instances of the apostles counseling believers to be patient and to keep trusting in Christ.

Human beings cannot and will not force God's hand on this or any other issue. He is sovereign. He is God and we aren't.

My second point: One cannot equate the modern secular state of Israel with ancient Israel, whether, as the result of Jerusalem being recognized by the US and other countries as modern Israel's capital or not.

On Jesus' death, the curtain of the temple was torn (Matthew 27:51). The curtain concealed the holy of holies, where God lived in the temple to be approached by God's people. When the temple tore, it signified that God had been made accessible to all people. There was no need for a temple. As Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: "... a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)

There is no need for a new temple. The mission of ancient Israel was fulfilled in the Person of Jesus Christ.

And, in my estimation, it is a sick distortion of Christian faith for some Christian groups to hail anything that they believe will promote war.

Again, I am not making a political point. I am pointing out that the misuse of Scripture, for political or other purposes, is regrettable and unwarranted.

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

Friday, December 08, 2017

Grace and Wrath

Here's the journal entry from my quiet time with God today. This contains an explanation of how I approach this time with God.
Look: “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’” (Revelation 6:15-17) 
The day of Jesus’ return, when He will judge the living and the dead and usher in the new heavens and the new earth, will not be a happy time for those who have relied on their own wisdom, who have wielded power without the call or guidance of God.
It won’t be a happy day for anyone, “slave and free,” if they haven’t trusted in Christ to spare them from the wrath that we reap when we set out to be our own gods (Genesis 3:5). 
In fact, absent repentance and faith in Christ, we cannot be saved from the wrath to come (Matthew 3:7). 
Wrath, as I understand it, is less an action of God, than it is the inevitable result of living life contrary to the will of God. We choose wrath when we choose not to follow Christ. Wrath (and death) belong to us when we fail to turn from sin and fail to trust in Christ, Who alone can give us new life and grace. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). 
According to John’s vision, those who have gone their own ways (Isaiah 53:6; Proverbs 16:25), will beg God to destroy them rather than to be forced to come into the presence the blinding holiness of the Lamb or deal with His wrath. 
Listen: As uncomfortable as it is, I need to share this truth with others
God says, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23) 
People need to hear about the wrath to come in order to know God’s desire for them to avoid it. 
Also, I must be careful that in “handling the holy,” I don’t take God and His grace for grantedH, that I not become immune to His call for continuing repentance and belief in Christ
This must be part of what the preacher in Hebrews 6:4-6, is getting at when he says: “It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” (I readily confess not to fully understanding all of the implications of these words.) 
Finally, I need to call out self-righteousness, in myself and others. There are broods of hypocritical vipers in Christ’s Church today (Matthew 3:7). They’re weeds among the wheat and Christ will deal with them at the judgment (Matthew 13:24-30). They’re wolves in lamb’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). They’re “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27-28). They turn Christian faith into a series of dos and don’ts. (Although they themselves fail to keep their preferred versions of “Biblical morality.”) People must be warned about them and their capacity to tempt us away from humble faith (Galatians 6:1). 
Respond: Daily, it seems, in ways I haven’t experienced before, I am being called upon to speak the hard truth about:
  • How the God of the universe views sin and self-righteousness. 
  • How God wants desperately to save us and how Christ’s death and resurrection brings that salvation to those who repent and believe. 
  • How we must not see the gift of salvation as our achievement or reflective of our virtue. “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. (Ephesians 2:8-9) 
Wrath is real. People who have run from God throughout their lives or made God into a pliant caricature who approves of our sins, will run from wrath on the day of Jesus' return. But God’s grace overcomes wrath for those who repent and believe, not just as a rote affirmation or in a single thrilling moment, but all through our lives--in this ups, the downs, and everywhere in between--as we live in humble communion with Christ and His Church
Today, help me to heed this call, the call You give to every Christian, Lord. In Jesus’ name.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The Only Worthy One

Today, for my quiet time with God, I read Revelation 5. To see how I approach quiet time, see here. Below is my journal entry for this morning.
Look: “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’” (Revelation 5:5) 
The scroll, containing God’s plan for saving human beings from sin and death, is in God’s right hand. Its perfection is signified by its being sealed seven times. 
As John sees and experiences this vision, he’s driven to despair. Because no one is found who is worthy, that is, no one is without sin, to open the scroll, humanity is doomed.
But then one of the elders reassures him. The Lion, Who also has the appearance of a Lamb who has been murdered (Revelation 5:6), is worthy, the elder says. This is "the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).
I'm unworthy of opening the scroll. 
The human race is unworthy of opening the scroll. 
But the Lion Who is the Lamb, Jesus, true God and true man, can and does open the scroll because with His blood, He “purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). 
Listen: Jesus is able to save me from sin and death, to save me from myself. And Jesus alone is able to do this. 
Only He is able to break open the scroll and unleash life on and bring into the kingdom those who believe in Him. 
I can’t break open the seal myself. I’m incapable of offering myself and making a perfect atoning sacrifice for my sin (or anybody else’s). I can’t perform my way into God’s kingdom. Intellectually, I know this is true. But I am sure that at some level, I still harbor the legalistic notion that I can be good enough to deserve the kingdom of God. I can’t be. My good works can’t break the seal. 
Nor can the seal be broken by anyone or anything else. Revelation 5:3: “ one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it.” That means that it can’t be broken by religions. Buddha, Allah, Mohammad...none of them are true God and true human, none of them died for my sins, none of them were raised from the dead by God the Father. 
Only One has conquered sin and death. Jesus says: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). 
Jesus says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For 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.” (John 3:16-18) 
Jesus is the One Who has earned the right to break the seals on our behalf by dying for us, although we weren’t worthy of the sacrifice of the sinless Lamb of God. “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) 
Jesus is God. Jesus a sinless Man Who bore all of our sins and took our punishment for them. Jesus is the only way to life with God. 
It’s telling that, in Revelation 5, after Jesus steps forward to break the seals of the scroll, not only do the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders who have been worshiping the Father, now worship Jesus as well, but they each hold “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people” (Revelation 5:8). 
Before His crucifixion, during His time on earth, Jesus had said: “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24). The One Who breaks the seals is the one to Whom and through Whom the prayers of God’s people must go. To speak to God in any name other than that of Jesus, is to send letters to the wrong address. 
(This doesn’t mean that parroting the words, “in the name of Jesus,” acts like a good luck charm for our prayers. To pray in Jesus’ name means also that one understands that we only dare approach God’s throne in the name, in the power, and in light of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. In other words, we pray in Jesus’ name when we have faith in Jesus as our Lord, God, and King.) 
The bowls of incense containing the prayers of God’s people are brought to Jesus. He is the only way to God. 
Respond: In many ways, this is a despairing day. So much bad news from Washington and other parts of the country and the world. And there is bad news from among our friends. I want God’s kingdom to break into this world in its fullness, banishing the bad, the sad, the sinful, toppling the arrogant and the foolish. 
But I must not regard Jesus’ seeming delay in making all things right as a bad thing. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) I have repenting to do. I have witnessing to do. 
Since I’m not the one who can break open the scroll and its delay might actually be to my advantage, giving God more time to break me of my sin and fashion Christ in me (2 Corinthians 3:18), I should not weep (or sigh, or complain, or bemoan, or rail against rotten people, or murmur, or give into misplaced spiritual pride, or despair over my own sin). 
I should worship the God revealed by God the Holy Spirit in God the Father and God the Son, Who has saved me by grace through faith in Him, and be about my business. My business is Matthew 28:19: “...go and make disciples of all nations...”
God, help me to be focused on worshiping You and making disciples today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

"If you're alive, you're winning...

"if you haven't lost a loved one, you're winning."

Those words are spoken in the interview with Puerto Rican blogger Edmaris Carazo embedded below.

Eleven weeks after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria, about half the island still has no electricity and much of it still only has the power some of the time.

What I was struck by in listening to Carazo on The World today was how she has retained her good humor and how amazing the people of Puerto Rico are.

I have sent dollars for relief. And just yesterday, the 420-member denomination of which I am a part, sent a container loaded with items for Puerto Rican relief.

But there is so much more our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico need.

Not the least of their needs are our prayers.

But if you also feel moved to make a donation for Puerto Rican relief, recovery, and rebuilding efforts, see here. Please prayerfully consider a gift to the linked agency or some other agency with which you're familiar.

By the way, as this additional report from today's edition of The World, Puerto Rico's continued desperate situation is having an impact on the rest of the United States. Puerto Rico is a major manufacturer of medicines and medical supplies. Most notable among these, maybe, are IV fluids used in hospitals.

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

Sunday, December 03, 2017

How to Wait for Jesus

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today. This the First Sunday of Advent, which begins the new Church Year.]

Mark 13:24-37
Advent is a season for waiting. As we get ready for Christmas during Advent, we remind ourselves that as surely as God once came into the world as the baby Jesus, that same Jesus will one day, on what the Bible calls the Day of the Lord, return to this world.

Advent, of course, nothing but a human invention, a tradition that Christians are free to keep or ignore. There’s nothing sacred about Advent in itself.

But as a reminder to you and me to wait (and how to wait) for Jesus’ return, Advent is useful.

It reminds us that when Jesus returns, He will put everything finally and fully right, and usher all who have trusted Him into life in His new creation.

It’s when that happens that we will fully appreciate the meaning of God’s promise given through the prophet Isaiah centuries before Jesus’ birth: “They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31, English Standard Version).

Until that day, we “live by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

We trust that the God Who once took on human flesh (John 1:14), then died, rose, and ascended to heaven, will return.

All who confess Jesus as their God and Lord are waiting for that day of the Lord.

But, as Jesus makes clear in today’s gospel lesson, for the disciple of Jesus Christ, waiting is not a passive thing. Take a look at the lesson, please, Mark 13:24-37. Jesus has been talking about two events at the same time. One is the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD. The other is the Day of His return. He’s shifted mostly to talking about His return and the deterioration of life in this world that will precede it when He says in verse 26: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”

Both the living and the dead will then be brought together to meet their King and receive His welcome into His kingdom.

Because of this promise from the crucified and risen Jesus, we confess: “...if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8).

Next in our gospel lesson, Jesus talks to us specifically about waiting. Verse 28: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.”

The fig is one of the few trees in the Middle East, where Jesus lived in the first century, that loses its leaves in the fall. When its leaves begin to reappear in late spring, people know that warm weather is on its way. It’s a sign of things to come.

Verse 29: “Even so [Jesus goes on], when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”

The these things that Jesus speaks of here are all the calamities that will happen in the world before His return, things like wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and famines. In other words, life will continue to go pretty much as it has in this world from the moment that Adam and Eve fell into sin.

And Jesus tells us that these things--all the sin and sadness that permeates our fallen universe--will not be the last words over the lives of those who trust in Christ. 

His Word--the Word of and about the Word made flesh, Jesus--will never pass away, will give all who have persevered in trusting in Him, a new and everlasting beginning.

So, we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by these things--whether they’re injustice or corruption, disasters or holocausts, personal tragedies or illness, gun violence or racism, sexual harassment or selfishness.

Jesus has conquered them all and even in the midst of the things of this world, we can know God’s peace.

We can hope.

Life in this world is short; eternity lasts forever.

If we focus our hope on this world, we will, at most, gain only what will fall from our grasp when we draw our last earthly breaths. “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world,” Jesus once asked, “yet forfeit their soul?” (Mark 8:36) But when we trust in Christ above all, our grasp is on eternity with God, which can never be taken from anyone who believes!

As we trust in Christ, persevering in living life for Him and to His glory, the hope of eternity will splash into our daily lives here, empowering us to keep on following Jesus and living useful lives when the world loses its way.

We will live more fearlessly, with greater willingness to fail, free to love and care for others, knowing that whatever we may lose in this life, is nothing compared with all that God has in store for us in eternity.

“If only for this life we have hope in Christ,” the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:9, “we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Our faith in Christ empowers us, obliges us even, to always hope, to live in hope! Not to hope in this world or in the things or the people of this world, but hope in Jesus Christ. 

When we hope in Christ and live in that hope, we know the truth to which 2 Timothy 1:7, points us: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.” We can live our lives at home, with our church family, and in the world at large with God’s “power love, and discipline.” We can live in the power of knowing thta if God has called us to do something, the Holy Spirit will empower us to do it. Period. End of subject.

And in telling us to see the signs of the inevitability of His return when He will bring our hope in Him to its fullness, Jesus is not telling us to waste our time in trying to game out the exact moment of His return.

Nor is He telling us to go along with our lives as though we’d never encountered Jesus, people indistinguishable from the unbelievers, agnostics, or atheists who surround us.

Verse 32: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”

Listen: This is how a Christian disciple waits for the return of Jesus. They fulfill their calling as disciples first, as members of Christ’s Body, the Church and second, as people who live in the world with families, spouses, friends; as people who are students or workers or retirees. 

Every follower of Jesus Christ, every disciple, has a vocation, no matter what their work or daily activities.

We’re to be and make disciples.

We’re to repent and believe in Jesus, to hear His Word and take it to heart, to love God and love neighbor, to love our fellow disciples with the same passion Christ has for us, to pray, and to make other disciples.

Each of us will have our own “assigned tasks” within that vocation. I can’t be as effective a witness for Christ among your friends, co-workers, neighbors, or classmates as you can be, because I’m not you and I'm not there with your friends, co-workers, neighbors, or classmates like you are. You may not be called to be Christ’s witness at the grocery deli counter in the same way I seem to be. But each of us who bear the name of Christ is called by Christ to wait and watch for Him. 

We faithfully wait and watch for Jesus’ return when we go about what it is God has called us to be and do, with faith in Christ. 

The chorus of one of my favorite songs by the late John Ylvisaker, Jesus Was Sent, says,
Jesus was sent that our eyes may be open,
So we might witness the day of the Lord.
He will make sense of our loving and hoping;
He will break fences and open the door. 
We faithfully wait and watch for Jesus’ return when we let Him break all the fences and doors we hide behind to hoard our lives and to feed the delusion we all have that our lives are our own and don’t actually belong to the God Who made us and died for us and rose for us.

We wait for Jesus rightly when we trust in Jesus and keep on trusting in Jesus all the time.

God help us to do just that. Amen

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