Friday, January 26, 2018

God can be my friend, never my buddy

Here are reflections from a recent quiet time with God. I try to do this five days a week, letting God's Word speak to me in a dynamic, relational way. To see how I approach quiet time, read here. I hope that these journal entries are helpful to others. But nothing can replace your own personal quiet time encounters with God!

Look: “...And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” (Exodus 3:6)

God has just revealed Himself to Moses in Midian at the burning bush. When Moses realizes that he’s in the presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he hides his face. Moses understands the infinite distance between God and himself: God is immortal; Moses is mortal. God is perfect; Moses isn’t. God is the Creator; Moses is the creature. God is sinless; Moses is, like the rest of the human race, sinful.

No wonder Moses hid his face. His response is appropriate, understandable. Centuries later, Isaiah was conscious of the infinite distance between God and himself when he encountered God. He knew that for an unclean human to dare to look at God meant death. He cried out after God had initiated His call to Isaiah to be His prophet: “ “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

Theologians and experts in comparative religions say that Moses and Isaiah experienced “numinous awe,” awe, respect, terror, fear in the presence of the God of all creation.

Neither in Biblical history nor in the history of Jews and Christians since would this be the first time that people experienced awe or terror in God’s presence. During their wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel, who God called Moses to lead, caught a glimpse of God’s holiness and were terrified. They asked Moses to act as a go-between so that they wouldn’t have to look at God and be killed by the infinite distance. "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." (Exodus 20:19)

Decades later, Israel would marvel at how Moses enjoyed an intimate relationship with God. Deuteronomy 34:10 says, “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face…”

Here’s what strikes me in this passage: Where is my numinous awe?

I often seem to treat God as an afterthought.

Or I take Him and, maybe worse, His grace for granted.

I often ignore Him or treat Him like a buddy.

Listen: Of course, with Jesus, the new covenant or the new testament has come. God has revealed Himself to all people in Jesus Christ. John writes in the prologue to his gospel: “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:19)

In Jesus, to use Martin Luther’s phrase, all are able to see God’s friendly face, the same friendly face Moses, Isaiah, and others came to “see” as their relationship with God developed.

God IS perfect. God IS immortal. God IS sinless, righteous, and, in Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase, “wholly other.”

But God loves us, cares for us, and wants a relationship with us. If these things weren’t true, God wouldn’t have met Moses and Isaiah. And if these things weren’t true, He wouldn’t have reached out to Gentiles as well as Jews, to the whole world, in Jesus Christ.

God wants to be reconciled to us, to forgive us our sins, to give us new life, and to shower His love on us for all eternity. Jesus told Nicodemus: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

To all who repent and believe in God as revealed to us in Jesus, God offers life, forgiveness, citizenship in His kingdom, and intimacy with God.

Through Jesus, we can speak with God and ask of God anytime, anywhere. “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” Jesus says (John 16:24).

“...we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin [God has been subjected to temptation and death when He shared in human life in Jesus]. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Citizens of God’s kingdom, believers in Jesus, are to approach the God revealed in Jesus, our “high priest,” “with boldness,” the preacher in Hebrews says. But it’s interesting to see where Jesus is as we approach Him: “God’s throne of grace.”

No matter the intimate friendship with God that Jesus opens to those who believe in Him (John 15:15), He is still the King of all creation, my God, my Creator. He still deserves our honor, praise, and submission. When unbelieving Thomas finally realized all of Who Jesus is, he fell to his knees and confessed Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28).

The God Who seeks intimacy with me is also owed by submission, surrender, awe, and praise. In fact, His desire for intimacy with a sinner like me, along with His desire to cleanse me of sin and make me fit for living in His kingdom, should incite me to the deepest and most reverent of fear, honor, and praise.

But too often, I turn Jesus into a buddy.

Or my prayers are like emails dashed off to an indulgent uncle, an easy mark.

Not only does such an approach to God mock Him and His desire for closeness with us, it risks turning God into an idol, a good luck charm. Instead of being an expression of an intimate friendship with God, my “prayers” risk becoming messages to a false god I’ve created in my own head, a god I use for my convenience and comfort. I don’t want that! I want real intimacy with God! And I never want to forget that God is God and I am not!

Forgive me, Lord! For taking You for granted. For forgetting, in the words of the preacher of intimacy with You, that it is nonetheless, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). Forgive me for forgetting that only You are God and I am not. With the saints in the heavenly city, help me to say and believe, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!" (Revelation 5:12).

I realize that this is a practical issue. If I don’t reverence, fear, honor, praise, and glorify God, it indicates a deficiency in my understanding of You, a deficiency in my relationship with You.

Help me, Lord, to heed the words of the preacher in Hebrews 12:28: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,”

Respond: Lord, to help me to get in the habit of acknowledging Your holiness and giving it to You, help me to spend time next week contemplating several passages of Scripture for five consecutive days: John 9:16-24; Revelation 5; psalms of praise. Help me to note reasons to honor and praise You. Help me to understand more fully the depths of Your love and grace. Teach me to honor You more fully as God. Help me to not be flippant. Help me to know You more fully as my best Friend, but not my buddy. In Jesus’ name I pray.

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

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Flying High with Two Religious Carnival Pitchmen (Ugh)

Kenneth Copeland and Jesse Duplantis are two heretics who espouse a false message referred to as the "prosperity gospel." Like people such as Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen, they tell people that if they give enough (especially to them) and pray enough and believe enough, they'll have riches and be happy and problem-free. (Clearly, they must not have noticed how the early apostles, like Jesus, had no wealth and were martyred for their faith in Christ.)

From this clip, I guess that they also never noticed that Jesus, even though He was intent on going to Jerusalem to fulfill His mission of dying and rising for us, always moved among the crowds and made Himself interruptible. When people asked for help--blind people, the parents of sick children, those suffering from some other affliction, those who had questions, He took the time to be with them and help them. Jesus had an agenda; but He knew that He could best pursue it by being interruptible, underscoring His identity as the long-awaited Messiah (the Christ) and helping people to see that He was the way to life with God.

The fact is that it's when we Christians move among people and allow ourselves and our agendas to be interrupted by the needs of other people that we do God's will.

Copeland and Duplantis seem to forget the whole point of God's incarnation, His taking on human flesh in Jesus. He came to move among the evil, the demon-possessed, the druggies, and everyone else. If God isn't too good to do that, then I'm surely not! Neither are Copeland or Duplantis.

I've had some of my most amazing opportunities to share Christ's love and to pray with and for people while flying on commercial jets.

The crap peddled her is nothing more than a rationalization for materialistic impulses. Duplantis and Copeland aren't seeking to help people or to glorify God, but to help and glorify themselves. Their private jets are no different than gold-plated coffins. Jesus' question applies here: "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Mark 8:36)

(Hat Tip to Ann Althouse for posting this video.)

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

Completely Pro-Life


[This is the journal entry for my quiet time with God today. I hope that you'll find it helpful if you wrestle with the same temptations and sins with which I daily wrestle. To see how I approach my quiet time with God, read this.]

Look: “41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’” (Mark 10:41-45)

Jesus had just foretold His crucifixion and resurrection a third time when James and John approached Him with a request. They wanted to be His right- and left-hand men when He came to glory. They had no idea what they were asking for. Meanwhile, the other ten disciples hear about the brothers’ impudent desire and start haranguing about it. Clearly, they thought that they had equally valid claims to be elevated once Jesus fully ushered in His kingdom.

That’s when Jesus calls for a huddle. He says that the greats among the Gentiles (to be read here as, the fallen world) lord their authority over others. But, Jesus says that’s not how things go in the kingdom of God that He has brought into the world.

Listen: What’s interesting to me as Jesus explains what it means to be great in His kingdom is that He doesn’t put down the desire to be great. Instead, He redefines greatness. “...whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Then Jesus says that we must take Him not only as our King and Savior; we must also take Him as our example: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That phrase, Son of Man, references Jesus’ deity, His status as God enfleshed. Although Jesus has been given all authority (Matthew 28:19), He doesn’t lord it over people.

Instead, He became a servant: becoming human, subjecting Himself to human limitations, death, and temptation, washing the disciples’ feet, dying for the sins of the world.

That’s the point of the hymn that Paul quotes in Philippians 2:5-11:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Aspiring to greatness is not a bad thing. But we must redefine our understanding of greatness. Greatness is achieved not be ascending above others. Greatness is something to which the human ego, human pretensions, and human sensibilities must descend. In the Kingdom of God, the way up is the way down.

To be great in God’s eyes and God’s kingdom is to dare to be a servant of others, to not toot our own horns, to not tell stories about my life in which I’m the hero, to not try to be the first one in line, to not resent others’ success, to not seek affirmation or accolades from the fickle world, to not put other people down in order to lift myself up.

It means to honor God, to share Christ, to show consideration and respect to others no matter how we may feel about them, to pray for those who rub us the wrong way or who have done us wrong, to pray for those we don’t understand, to help the poor, the despised, the neglected, to surrender all to Christ.

This is daunting. Even when I seek to be a selfless servant, I often find myself thinking, “Wow! I’m being a selfless servant.” That’s hardly the thinking of a selfless servant.

But instead of giving into despair, which Luther, in The Small Catechism, identifies as one of many “great and shameful sins,” I need to repent and ask God to change our ways of thinking. From an earthly, human point of view, I can’t see how God can make a selfless servant out of this bundle of selfish ambitions and desires. God though, can do anything. As Jesus says a few verses earlier in regard to those who worship their own wealth being able still to gain entrance into the kingdom of God: “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)

God can save sinners like me. He can transform the self-absorbed into the selfless disciple, if my ambition is to be great in the eyes of heaven and not in the eyes of the world.

Knowing God’s grace and my own depravity, I would even say that if I want to want to be a selfless disciple while the old Adam is still saying, “Not really,” God will bring His transforming grace into my life and transform me.

I simply need to let Jesus in, to ask Him to work on me, to fill me with the Holy Spirit, to crowd out the old Adam in me with Himself, and to shut the old Adam down, to tie him up, and to destroy his power, as well as the power of the devil and the sinfulness in the world, over me.

“Here I am!” Jesus says to the Christians in the ancient city of Laodicea who had become blase about their faith in Him. “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.”

If I aspire to greatness in the kingdom of God, I must daily repent and daily be renewed by the power of God’s saving Word and His Holy Spirit’s life-giving power. Sometimes I want this; but, Lord, I do want to want it. Since I’m giving you that inch into my life, please, Lord Jesus, take a mile! Take all of me!

Respond: Lord, help me today to pray for those who, over the course of my life, have been my detractors, those I have hurt, and those I have found difficult. Help me not to think about what people think of me. And help me to point others to You. Help me not to aspire to be honored by the world in any way, but only to live a life that honors You. Today, I ask You, Lord, to crucify the old Mark with all his vain ambitions so that the new Mark, the Mark turned to You alone for life and affirmation, may rise with renewed vigor. In Jesus’ name. Amen

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

Monday, January 22, 2018

How Jesus Disciples Live

[This was shared during worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church yesterday morning.]

Mark 1:14-20
In today’s short gospel lesson, Mark 1:14-20, Jesus shows us something of what it is to be His disciple. It boils down to four words:
  • Repent 
  • Believe 
  • Follow 
  • Fish.
Our lesson, written in Mark’s rapid-fire style, falls after his narration of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist and Jesus’ time in the wilderness, immediately after John the Baptist's arrest by Herod.

Take a look at verse 14, please: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” (Mark 1:14) John’s ministry had been preparation for this moment when Jesus began His ministry. John had worked to get people ready for the coming of Jesus, the King. “After me,” John had said, “comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.” (Mark 1:7)

Verse 15: “‘The time has come,’ [Jesus] said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

The word translated as “time has come” is, in the Greek in which Mark wrote his gospel, Πεπλήρωται, from the verb πληρόω. It means full up, fully complete. The time was full up, Jesus was saying. Full up for the kingdom of God to be ushered into our world by the King of kings, Jesus!

There may be no more overlooked Biblical concept than the kingdom of God. Yet Jesus talks about it all the time.

When we think of that phrase “kingdom of God,” we might think of something that will happen in the future, beyond our own deaths, after our resurrections.

This view of God’s kingdom turns this life into nothing but heaven’s waiting room.

Not only is that incredibly boring, it’s built on a false understanding of the kingdom that Jesus came to bring to us.

In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to petition God, “Thy kingdom come.” When we say that, we’re not asking God to make us part of His reign after we die. We're asking God to reign over our lives right now.

In explaining this petition of the prayer, Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism: “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit [now], so that by His grace we believe His holy Word [now] and live a godly life now and in eternity.”

Jesus says in John 5:25: “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

He says to those who come in contact with Him, “...the kingdom of God is in your midst." (Luke 17:21)

And 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us, “... if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

So, Jesus comes to bring us into direct relationship with God our King in these days, as we walk on this earth! We become citizens of His kingdom now. We don’t have to wait till we die!

Jesus explains exactly how the kingdom of God comes to us in verse 15 of our gospel lesson too. When Jesus brings God’s kingdom to us--in His Word, in the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, in the fellowship of other believers, we enter the kingdom of God and we enter it at deeper and deeper levels of connection and joy when we “repent and believe in the good news.”

Those are the first two aspects of being disciples in the kingdom of God: repenting and believing in the good news.

Let's unpack those two things for a moment.

As you know, a lot of people have the wrong idea about repentance. Repentance does begin with sorrow for sin, with regret over hurting the God Who made us and sent Jesus to die and rise for us. But after sin has been confessed honestly to God, repentance ends with the joy of reconciliation with God. It ends with God telling us we are forgiven. Repentance clears the clutter of sin that otherwise obstructs our relationship with God. His life flows to us again.

To believe in the good news is to believe in Jesus, to trust that when He died on the cross, He died for my sins, to trust that when He rose from the dead, He did so to give me life. That’s good news! “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus says, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

Discipleship begins with repentance and belief. These two things alone are enough to save us. They are gifts God gives to those who are open to Jesus. Repentance and belief in Jesus, both of which only God the Holy Spirit can create within us, are the conduits by which we are saved by grace through faith in Christ.

But we live in a world darkened by sin. And until our own physical deaths, you and I will be dogged by our sin and the temptation to sin. Unless we remain resolutely connected to Christ, we can fall away from God. We can lose our ways.

This is why Jesus told the disciples who wanted to sleep at Gethsemane, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

So, on top of repenting and believing, the disciple of Jesus will diligently seek to follow Him.

They follow Jesus so that they can be filled with God’s strength and not have to face life or temptations to sin on their own.

In our gospel lesson, Jesus finds Simon and Andrew, two brothers who are fishermen, and tells them, “Come, follow me…” (Mark 1:17). Later, Jesus calls another set of brothers, John and James, to follow and they do (v.20).

But what does it mean for you and me to follow Jesus?

Imagine for a second a couple who get married, then decide, even though they live under the same roof and have jobs in the same city, that they’ll just see each other for one hour every week...unless they have something more interesting or fun to do.

How deep do you think their relationship would be?

How prepared do you think they’d be when adversities hit?

You couldn’t really describe what they had as a marriage, could you?

As ridiculous as that illustration sounds, it precisely describes the manner in which most people who call themselves Christians approach the most important relationship in their lives, their relationship with Jesus.

They set up a time to meet Jesus every week (unless something more interesting or fun comes along) and then forget Him the rest of the week. Weekly worship with fellow believers is essential to the Christian life; I'm not knocking it. But if that’s the only connection you have with Christ over the course of your weeks, how deep can your relationship with Christ really be? How prepared will you be for life’s adversities when Jesus is nothing more than a distant acquaintance?

We need to spend some focused time each day in prayer, in reading God’s Word, in asking Jesus, “What do you have in mind for me to think or do in this passage of Scripture today, Lord?”

I also find myself as I grow older more closely adhering to Paul's admonition to pray without ceasing. Many times over the course of my days, I'll find myself talking with God about one thing or another. I'll be driving along in my car, praying. And I know people who pass by think I'm talking to myself. I don't care what they think! I want to keep praying that God's kingdom will come to people.

But even if you're not that crazy, having a daily focused time with God is important. If it seems too hard to do for say five days a week, try at first to do it one day a week, then two, and so on. And, if you need help in even getting started on following Jesus in this way, contact one of the members of our Life and Learning Team to ask them for tips.

So, disciples of Jesus repent, believe in the good news, and follow Jesus. And then, they fish. Jesus told Simon and Andrew to follow Him “and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Matthew 1:17)

This metaphorical description of every disciple's mission would have resonated with Simon and Andrew. And not just because they were fishermen.

You see, God’s people, the Jews, viewed the sea as a daunting, evil thing. It was a place of death and ferocious sea monsters. They remembered Genesis 1, in which God’s Holy Spirit moved over dark chaos to impose order, bring good from evil, and to create life.

To fish for people is to draw them out of chaos, sin, evil, and darkness.

To fish for people is to bring them to life with God, to the light of God’s goodness.

To fish for people is to make disciples.

I try to go fishing all the time, even though it doesn’t come naturally to me, even though I would rather keep to myself. (Believe it or not...and Ann will vouch for this, I am an introvert. God has had to kick me out of my shell and still has to remind me to move beyond myself all the time!)

So, at Jesus’ behest, I go fishing for people.

Last night, I made a run to a Kroger deli.

Not my usual one.

I was trolling different waters last night.

I happened to be in uniform, my clerical collar. That can be more of a disadvantage than an advantage.

Whatever, I followed my usual pattern of interaction: I struck up a conversation with the clerk who waited on me. “Have you been busy today?” “No need to put paper between every slice of cheese.”

This is the way you start when you go fishing for Jesus:
  • You strike up conversations. 
  • You ask questions. 
  • You show genuine concern. 
  • As time goes on and people get to know you, as appropriate, you mention your faith in Jesus. 
  • As they share things about themselves, you ask if you can pray for them. 
  • You plant the seeds of the good news of the God Who sent His Son Jesus so that all who believe in Him will never die, but have everlasting life with God. You go fishing.
Before you say, “I could never do that,” let me remind you of something. However you came to faith in Jesus--through your parents, through a friend, whatever, it ultimately can be traced back to moments when some Christian disciple went fishing. They cared enough about people swamped by the darkness, chaos, and sin of this world to share Christ with them.

Fishing for people is the greatest expression of love in the world.

Repent. Believe. Follow. Fish.

This is how disciples live.

This is how Christ uses us to make more disciples.

May we always be faithful disciples of Jesus. Amen

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