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.]