Friday, January 05, 2018

Choosing Christ and the cross over the easy lies I tell myself

I met the Lord today during my quiet time in Genesis 12-14. Below is my journal entry from that encounter. To see how I approach quiet time with God, see here.
Look: “When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, ‘I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.’” (Genesis 12:11-13) 
Abram (later Abraham) is the patriarch of Biblical faith. Through the grafting of grace, God makes all who believe in His only Son Jesus spiritual descendants of Abraham (Romans 11:11-31). So, it’s instructive, sometimes inspiring, and sometimes uncomfortable to observe him. 
In chapter 12, Abram is instructed by God to leave his home of Ur to a land that God would show him. This land was God’s pledge to Abram’s descendants. In obeying God, picking up stakes and moving his entire household, Abram exhibits faith, the kind of faith in God I would like to have. 
Abram goes to the promised land, traveling around for a time. But when a famine hits the land, he books. He heads for Egypt. 
A history of God’s people going to Egypt in times of crisis would later develop. The Israelites were more or less forced to go to Egypt during a later famine after God had placed Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson, in a place of authority through which he could save the people. 
In the New Testament, another Joseph, selected by God to raise Jesus in his home, is told by God to go to Egypt in order to save the Christ Child from the murderous intentions of King Herod. 
Though Genesis records God’s command to Abram to go to the land He would show him, we have no indication as to whether God told him to go to Egypt when the famine hit. Abram may have just thought, “There’s no food here. I’ll go to Egypt.” 
It’s plausible to believe that the trip to Egypt was all Abram’s idea when we see the plot he hatches just as he, Sarai (later Sarah), and their people and livestock are about to enter Egypt. He tells Sarai that he’s afraid that if the Egyptians think he’s married to Sarai, they’ll kill him so that one of them can have her for their wife. 
Listen: There are several problems with this plan: 
1. Abram is thinking instead of praying. Had he prayed instead of thought, allowing God to guide his thinking, he wouldn’t have suggested such a conspiracy to his wife. I think of Proverbs 14:12 (again!): “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” 
Certainly, we’re to think. God gave us our brains. But we need to let God lead our thoughts. If we don’t let God lead, we’re led into sin and into death, separation from God. 
2. Abram is yielding to his fears, not following the God who had called him to faith. In this instance (and in another one when Abraham did the same stupid thing), fear beat out faith. Not good! 
God had promised Abram: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3) 
God had shown Abram the land that He was going to give to him. Abram knew that God was good for His promises and that in order for Abram to become the ancestor of a great nation, he would need to father a son. Inherent in that promise is another one, that Abram wouldn’t die before he had fathered a son. 
Yet, Abram decided to place greater faith in his own intellect, his own analysis, and his own plans than he placed in God. 
3. Abram is essentially giving his wife permission to commit adultery in order to save his neck. Not even the Pharaoh thinks that this is a good idea! When Pharaoh finally learns that the woman he’s taken into his house for a wife is already Abram’s wife, he’s horrified. “What is this you have done to me?” he asks Abram. “Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her for my wife? Now then, here is your wife; take her, and go.” (Genesis 12:18-20) 
Abram isn’t only sinning against God then, he’s encouraging his wife to do so and enticing the Pharaoh to do so. 
To paraphrase C.S. Lewis’ observation in Mere Christianity, there have been cultures that have said that men should have only one wife and others that said they could have multiple wives. But no culture has ever said that it’s OK to take another man’s wife or another woman’s husband. This was true even before God gave the ten commandments to His descendants at Mount Sinai. So, Abram is skating on extremely thin ice. 

Nonetheless, this third “problem” (read sin) with Abram’s plan is just the result of the fundamental sin: Failing to trust in God. 
Like Abram, I sometimes fail to trust in God. I value my own thinking more than I value His. I value my fears more than my faith. 
To trust in anyone or anything--even rational fears, even smart analysis, even feelings of love--more than we trust in God is idolatry. 
Every sin, in fact, from taking God’s name in vain to murder, from gossip to theft, is idolatry. 
Abram’s problem in the wilderness is that he was conflicted about who to worship: God or himself. 
That’s what lay behind his other conflicts: God or his fears, God’s promises or the temptations and dangers of the current circumstances. 
It’s amazing to me how often this conflict between following God, on the one hand, and following my thoughts, my fears, my plans, my reasoning, or my feelings, come into play in my life. 
This conflict is caused by my resistance to the anvil of sanctification on which God wants to forge me and my character for faithful living with Him now and in eternity.
God is interested more in my eternal comfort and my having a God-seeking character than he is in me avoiding problems in this world. (And to God, even death is only a problem, one solved by the resurrection of Jesus in which those who repent and believe in Jesus have a share.) 
It can be painful to opt for the eternal security of life with God over the immediate security of doing what we think is right, which is why I try so hard to avoid what God wants to tell me, why Abram concocted his lying conspiracy, and why the hardest petition of the Lord’s Prayer for me is, “Thy will be done.” 
It is painful. Every day, Lord, I have to ask You repeatedly to make war on my penchant for comforting myself, for doing what I want to do, for ignoring Your gracious call to turn from temptation and sin and to turn to Christ with honesty and transparency.
It’s painful to heed Your words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) 
The New Testament books of 1 Peter and Colossians, among others, promise that those who submit to this process will be transformed, becoming more like Christ, fit for eternity with God, fit as an instrument of God’s grace and love in this world.
But what Your Word tells me God is: It is through this painful process that You can set me free from fear and allows me to become my better self. It’s a process that will be incomplete before my time on earth is ended, I know, Lord. But I need the courage to stick with this process, to learn to yield to You, to ask You to guide my thinking and my living. 
Abram was confused. He didn’t know what he wanted more, security or You. My desires get similarly muddled, Lord. I need to be unmuddled every single day. 
Respond: God, in Jesus’ name, set me free from myself. Set me free from sin. Set me free to live for You with joyful abandonment. You know me: You know how relentlessly willful I can be. You know too how fearful I can become of offending someone. When sin or fear or idolatry tempt me this day, help me to resist. When tempted to act on a comforting lie rather than Your life-giving truth, help me to choose the truth. Help me to follow Jesus and live, no matter how others may judge or dismiss me as a fool or even hate me. No matter how hard following You may sometimes be. Let me opt for the pain of following You over the death that comes from following myself. Let me act on my faith today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Noah, the Flood, Christ, and Baptism

This is from my quiet time journal. Quiet time is a period I try to spend with God about five days a week. To see how I approach it, read here.

If you haven't yet been baptized and would like for Christ to claim you in this way, I urge you to contact a local congregation close to you to set up a time to talk about the meaning of baptism and what faith in Jesus is all about. Here is a list of congregations in the denomination of which I'm a part; one may be close to me. (In sharing this list, I'm not insinuating that Lutherans are the only Christians around. It's just offered as a handy list for your convenience.)
Look: “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.’” (Genesis 8:21-22) 
After the world-destroying flood, Noah and his family worshiped God. They offered a sacrifice which we can infer was no pro-forma performance, but an act of true worship and gratitude to God for His grace. 
In the Old Testament we see that God has no regard for “going through the motions” worship. 
For example, God says through the prophet in Amos 5:21-24: “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” 
And in his great prayer of repentance, King David notes: “ will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:16-17) 
In the New Testament, John recounts Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman by a well near the village of Sychar. Perceiving that Jesus is a prophet, the woman tells Jesus that His people (the Jews) saw Jerusalem as the proper place to offer worship to God, whereas her people thought it was properly offered in Samaria. But Jesus told her: “...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him…” (John 4:23) 
What God wants when we worship Him, pray to Him, and interact with Him is authenticity: authentic repentance, authentic praise and honor. No going-through-the-motions. No trying to find the right feelings or the right words or the perfect gestures. No desire to get what we “need” (read, want) out of it, whether it’s goosebumps or material well-being. 
Noah’s worship pleased God. And it wasn’t because Noah was perfect or “religious,” whatever that means. Nothing had changed about Noah or Noah’s family or the human race of which they were a part. 
Before the flood began, Genesis 6: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Genesis 6:5) It was human evil that caused God to regret making human beings and to cause the flood (Genesis 6:6). After the flood, Genesis says, “... the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 6:21). Nothing had changed about the human race. 
But God hadn’t changed either. I see from the verses that so struck me today how much God loves us, in spite of our evil. He doesn’t want to see us destroyed. He loves us and wants to spare us the consequences of our sinfulness (“the wages of sin is death”: Romans 6:23). God wants to extend His grace to us. When we meet His grace with our trusting faith, as Noah and his family did, God saves. God acts on our behalf. 
Listen: God entered our world in the Person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-2, 14; Colossians 1:15-20) in order to immerse His sinless life fully in the chaos of our sin and death and, after dying, rising in order to open up the only pathway to a resurrected life with God.
Jesus referred to His submersion into death and His rising to life as His baptism: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Luke 12:50) 
And it is through baptism into Christ, the baptism of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) that we are today spared the consequences of sin and death. The old self dies and the new self, the Christ self, rises. 
First Peter talks about how Jesus’ accomplishment is sacramentally imparted to us. Recalling Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter writes: 
“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because] they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” (1 Peter 3:18-22) 

After this amazing action of God, giving us a share in Christ’s victory over sin and death through our Baptism, our call is just this: to trust, to believe, just as Noah and his family did. 
As the apostles told their jailer: "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved--you and your household." (Acts 16:31) 
Authentic faith in God as revealed to all the world in Jesus. 
Authentic repentance in Jesus’ name. 
This is what God asks of us whose hearts and minds are still soaked in evil. His promise of new life with Him will hold, overcoming our sin and death; our part is to trust in Him and His promises. 
Respond: Today, Lord, help me to trust in You and not lean on my own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6).
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Important Point

From Servant of All: Status, Ambition, and the Way of Jesus by Craig C. Hill:

Politics aside...

...I feel sorry for young Barron Trump, being dragged in a tux to a New Year's Eve party with a bunch of old people. (At his age, anyone over twenty-five falls into the "old people" category.)

Monday, January 01, 2018

Another tune that starts as a love song...

...and ends as a political statement, this time one against war as a general proposition: Calico Skies by Paul McCartney.

"May we never be called to handle
"All the weapons of war we despise..."

New Year's Day by U2

It's a song that starts out sounding like a love song and reveals itself to ultimately be a political statement, born of the Troubles.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

For the Nobel Prize, I nominate...

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

Are We Listening?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this message from the Holy Spirit mean exactly?

It describes two different reactions elicited by Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

They refuse to believe in Him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace with God.

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

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

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

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

The question is, “Are we listening?” Amen

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