Saturday, February 24, 2018

Hello, France, Brazil, and Belgium!

Last week, I noticed that a lot of the traffic to the blog was from Russia, perennially in second-place among countries from which people visit the site. Today, with a surge of traffic generally, came a big surprise: Lots of folks from France, Brazil, and Belgium. (Along with readers from Italy, Kuwait, The Netherlands, Ukraine, Germany, and Canada.) Welcome to the site and feel free to leave comments! (By the way, I know nothing more about visitors than the countries from which they visit.)

"Car Dieu a tant aimé le monde, qu'il a donné son Fils unique, afin que quiconque croit en lui ne périsse point, mais qu'il ait la vie éternelle. Car Dieu n'a point envoyé son Fils dans le monde, pour condamner le monde, mais afin que le monde soit sauvé par lui. Celui qui croit en lui n'est point condamné, mais celui qui ne croit point est déjà condamné, parce qu'il n'a pas cru au nom du Fils unique de Dieu." (Jean 3:16-18)

"Porque Deus amou o mundo de tal maneira que deu o seu Filho unigênito, para que todo aquele que nele crê não pereça, mas tenha a vida eterna. Porque Deus enviou o seu Filho ao mundo, não para que julgasse o mundo, mas para que o mundo fosse salvo por ele. Quem crê nele não é julgado; mas quem não crê, já está julgado; porquanto não crê no nome do unigênito Filho de Deus." (João 3:16-18)

"Want alzo lief heeft God de wereld gehad, dat Hij Zijn eniggeboren Zoon gegeven heeft, opdat een iegelijk die in Hem gelooft, niet verderve, maar het eeuwige leven hebbe. Want God heeft Zijn Zoon niet gezonden in de wereld, opdat Hij de wereld veroordelen zou, maar opdat de wereld door Hem zou behouden worden. Die in Hem gelooft, wordt niet veroordeeld, maar die niet gelooft, is alrede veroordeeld, dewijl hij niet heeft geloofd in den Naam des eniggeboren Zoons van God." (Johannes 3:16-18)

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Believing and Following Jesus (Part 1, The Disciple's Life)

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on February 21.]

Romans 10:9
1 John 1:9

As you know for the past three years, we’ve been involved with life-to-life discipleship, an emphasis of our North American Lutheran Church (NALC).

Like other NALC congregations, we’ve received coaching from the Navigators.

Currently, we have nearly forty Living Water people involved in life-to-life discipleship groups convened by members of our congregation’s Life and Learning Team.

God is leading us to align our life and culture as a congregation with the great commission, the only mission Jesus gave to His Church. “...Go,” Jesus tells us, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

And then Jesus gives us this promise: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

But what is a disciple?

The word that’s been translated into English as disciple is, in the Greek of the New Testament, mathetes. It means learner, pupil, student.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be involved in learning how to cooperate with the Holy Spirit sent to us by Jesus when we are baptized to be more like Jesus, the One Who has saved us from sin and death and darkness.

Jesus talks about discipleship when He says in Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Discipleship is a process, a way of life by which God makes our lives more and more like the life of Jesus Himself (Galatians 4:19).

If being a student sounds boring to you, you need to remember what Jesus means when He calls you to be His student, His disciple.

When Jesus called people to follow Him, He didn’t take them to a classroom. He called them to follow Him, live alongside Him, observe Him, and then, after He’d deputized and empowered them with the Holy Spirit, to do exactly all He did: share the good news, heal the sick, cast out demons, and make disciples.

Jesus’ classroom for discipleship is the world we live in.

The textbook is His Word, the Bible.

The classmates are first, fellow believers who we help and who help us to live out our faith in Christ through small groups in which people reflect on Scripture together, pray together, and own their common need of God for everything, including forgiveness.

Disciples of Jesus will also seek out ways to bond around God’s Word and prayer with people who may not know Jesus but who want to know Him. In this, our model is the Samaritan woman at the well, who told the villagers in Sychar after meeting Jesus, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (John 4:29)

Bottom line: The conscious life of a disciple begins, irrespective of when we were baptized, when we respond to the invitation to, “Come and see the God we meet in Jesus.”

It’s probable that most of you here tonight can’t remember a moment when you didn’t know about Jesus and believe in Him.

But it’s also possible for Christians to continue as baby disciples all their lives, And that’s tragic.

Jesus doesn’t love us any less when we refuse to grow up as Christians, any more than parents love their problem children who refuse to grow up any less. But if we’re not seeking to be faithful disciples of Jesus, we will miss the joy of intimacy with God, be ill-equipped to face life, be unable to make good decisions, make the most of our time on earth, or be all that God intends for us to be.

The preacher in Hebrews expressed his frustration with a group of first-century Christians in Asia Minor who refused to grow in their faith when he said: “...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again.” (Hebrews 5:13-6:2)

Jesus expressed a similar frustration with the apostles when, after following Him for several years, they still seemed unable to live out their faith in Him: “You unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Matthew 17:17).

It’s a measure of Jesus’ grace and love that He continued putting up with the apostles and that He puts up with us even when we turn our backs on the call to discipleship, the call to grow in our faith, that could, if we paid heed to it, give us joy!

Here’s the deal: If we’ve been Christians more than a few months, we shouldn’t be content to be mere spectators of the Christian faith; we should be full-fledged participants in the life of discipleship. We should be disciples and be seeking to make disciples and we should be supporting each other in the disciple’s life.

The first trait of a disciple is to believe in the God you and I meet in the crucified and risen Jesus.

The Old Testament tells us that Abraham, the patriarch of Biblical faith, “believed [in God] and God reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Or as The Message paraphrase of the Bible puts it, “[Abraham] believed! Believed God! God declared him ‘Set-Right-with-God.’” (Genesis 15:6)

When we believe in the God we know in Jesus, we are set right with God, now and for all eternity.

Jesus says something similar in John 3:16: “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.”

The two passages of Scripture we read earlier convey the same message: Discipleship is built on the foundation of believing in Jesus. Believe in Jesus and you are saved from sin, death, and darkness.

But belief is more than what goes on between your ears, more even than the words of confession we speak at worship.

Abraham lived the faith in God he confessed with his lips by what he did with his life. When God called him from the cushy lifestyle he enjoyed among his own people, God told Abraham (then called Abram): “Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

Abraham’s belief in God, his faith in God expressed itself in what he did next: He packed up his wife and servants and livestock and belongings and headed for God only knew where.

Believers are disciples and disciples are followers.

Disciples let God decide directions and destinations. They follow the God we meet in Christ.

When Jesus calls us to believe in Him, He says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

The disciple’s life is built on believing expressed in a life of following Jesus.

Are we following?

More next week.

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

Monday, February 19, 2018

Presidents' Day Thoughts

Today is President's Day. I've been a student of the presidency since I was a boy.

Despite the naive cynicism that "informs" the attitudes and beliefs of many today, we've had more than a few great or good chief executives. (Naive cynicism, to me, is the default position of people who don't know diddly but think they know the score and suspect that everyone in public office is a rotten scoundrel. There are some rotten scoundrels in public office, just as there are rotten scoundrels in every job field. To think that they're all bad or all good, for that matter, is naive.)

For me, four US presidents stand out as great: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower. These four steered the country through challenging  circumstances. And they all shared an important characteristic: They overcame themselves and their own deficiencies to become their best selves.

We've also had some fine presidents I would classify as nearly great: Theodore Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, Harry Truman, James A. Garfield, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter.

In history, there have been a few terrible presidents: Andrew Johnson, Andrew Jackson, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, the sometimes well-intentioned Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, and Richard Nixon.

(Please note that I've included no presidents in these lists whose tenures were more recent than twenty-five years ago. Historical judgments must await perspective and the release of internal presidential documents.)

I respect our constitutional system. With its division of power among three co-equal branches of government and checks and balances, it's a blueprint for government that takes into account the fact of original sin and other human frailties. Its ratification effectively completed the American Revolution. Originally fought only for liberty (although, as we know, sadly not liberty for all), America's first "greatest generation" realized that liberty without mutual accountability was chaos. That's when they wrote the Constitution, bringing with it a potentially strong, but accountable chief executive and central government within a federal system.

Even our greatest presidents made mistakes under the system the Framers created. That's because every president has been a human being. Washington initially placed too much trust in the smarmy, backbiting Thomas Jefferson; Lincoln suspended habeas corpus; Roosevelt tried to pack the court; Eisenhower was too slow in embracing the civil rights movement.

But we can count ourselves blessed that most of our presidents have, once in office, tackled their job with responsibility and love for country. Chester Alan Arthur was a political hack who, once he was president, saw the impact that corruption has on politics and stood up to the bosses, becoming a champion of civil service reform. John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson both voted against civil rights when they were in the Senate but became champions of the cause while they served in the presidency, especially Johnson.

Most presidents have felt the need to grow up and see themselves as the custodians of America's future once becoming president. Even the corrupt Richard Nixon, when confronted with tearing the country apart by fighting to stay in power after his criminal acts became known, chose to resign for the good of America.

Sadly missing in the list of US presidents, of course, is a woman. I'm convinced that America has been prepared to elect a woman chief executive for more than three decades. And it will happen, I'm sure, sooner than later. Who that will be and what her party affiliation will be is anyone's guess.

Americans, presidents included, need to respect our constitutional system and be informed about current events and about our history. When we do these two things, we not only perform our most basic and important patriotic duty, we acquire some of the wisdom needed to vote the best candidates into office.

Happy President's Day!

Life in the Wilderness and Beyond (AUDIO)


Life for the Wilderness and Beyond

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

Mark 1:9-15
On Friday, I was scanning Twitter for the comments people were making on the recent school shooting in Florida. One woman’s tweet particularly struck me. She said, “I can’t believe in a God Who would let children be killed in school.”

She’s not alone in such feelings. People often feel and say things like this. “My husband/my wife has left me,” someone will say, “How could God let this happen?” “My friend was killed in a car accident, my wife has died from cancer. Where is God?” For many, life on this earth is a savage wilderness and God seems like a distant and powerless being.

As Christians, we can be brutally candid: This world is a wilderness.

As beautiful and breathtaking and wonderful as this life can sometimes be, it’s also a fallen place where bad things happen to unsuspecting and even faithful people.

It’s a place where evil and deranged people prey on others.

It’s a place where death can come to people at early age, where death, weeping, and sorrow exist.

As Christians, we realize that while we live on earth, we’re looking for what the New Testament calls “a city” God has prepared for us (Hebrews 11:16).

We believe God’s promises given in Christ of “a country of [our] own” (Hebrews 11:15).

But for now, we are “foreigners and strangers on earth” (Hebrews 11:13).

Every human being is an alien here, whether they know it or not. We weren’t meant for life in a brutal wilderness. Our very revulsion and questions in the face of tragedy demonstrate that fact.

But as hard as it can be to remember and cling to when the wilderness does its worst to us, we need never be alone!

God has not forgotten us.

And He never will.

Not when you’re at work or school.

Not when you’re at home.

Not when you rejoice in victories.

Not when you die.

God will never forget you!

Today’s gospel lesson finds God affirming this truth. Last week’s lesson from Mark narrated an event that happened near the end of Jesus’ ministry, the Transfiguration. This week’s lesson, Mark 1:9-15, takes us to the beginning of His ministry. The two events are connected in ways that remind us of God’s presence with us and His mission for us in this world, as well as God’s promise of life beyond the boundaries of this wilderness. So, please look at our our gospel lesson.

Verse 9: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: 'You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.'”

I love how graphic this verse is. After being baptized by John, Jesus looks up to see “heaven being torn open.” The phrase translated into the English as torn open from the Greek in which Mark wrote is σχιζομένους (schizomenous), the root of which is the verb σχίζω (schizo). (Yes, it’s where we get the word schizophrenia for a split personality.) This verb means to split, to cleave, to divide.

This is important!

When Jesus was baptized, God the Father was offering a preview of things to come. Through Jesus, God in the flesh, God was going to tear an opening in the wall that divided our perfect, loving, and holy God from His imperfect, sinful, and fallen human children.

This Jesus accomplished when He died on the cross. Mark 15:38 tells us that when Jesus died on the cross, “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” The verb translated as torn there is ἐσχίσθη, a past tense form of the same verb in today’s lesson, σχίζω.

The curtain that was torn after Jesus’ crucifixion separated the area where pious Jews had worshiped from the place known as the holy of holies, where God was thought to dwell.

Listen: With the death of the sinless Jesus on behalf of sinful humanity, all that divides us from God was torn down.

Jesus tore an opening to eternity with God for all who repent and believe in Him.

It’s through Jesus that we are privileged to address God as “our Father.”

It’s because of Jesus that we can trust that nothing, not even the wilderness, can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:31).

And it’s because of Jesus that we can affirm, as we often do after we’ve received Holy Communion, that in the sacrament in which Jesus comes to us, heaven touches earth. Eternity reaches us here in the wilderness, promising God’s forgiveness and presence here and an eternity with God forever!

All of this was foreshadowed when, after Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were torn open in celebration!

And the same thing happens when we are baptized in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Heaven is opened to us as God claims us as His own, which is what happens next at Jesus’ baptism. “You are my Son, whom I love,” the Father says, “with you I am well pleased.”

But even after our baptisms, there is wilderness to go through. And Jesus could only tear open the heavens for us after He had gone through the wilderness too, only after He did successfully for us what God knows we can not do ourselves: Jesus lived in the wilderness without caving into sin or despair. Verse 12: “At once the Spirit sent [Jesus] out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”

There’s no way to overestimate the importance of the fact that when God took on human flesh, as He did in Jesus, He faced the same challenges, dangers, everyday joys, and temptations you and I face.

Unless Jesus had been susceptible to the temptations of our wilderness, it would mean nothing to say Jesus is sinless.

If Jesus had been hotwired to resist temptation, it would have taken no dependence on God the Father for Him to say no when the devil and the world tried to lure Him into sin.

Because Jesus could be tempted, He was able to save those who believe in Him when He offered His sinless life on the cross.

It also means that when we face temptations and we cry out to Him, He understands.

And when we have given into temptations and sinned and cry out in His name for forgiveness, He understands and brings God’s forgiveness.

Hebrews 4:15 says: “[in Jesus] we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin.” Because Jesus was tempted in the wilderness of this world, He empathizes with us and gives us strength to face evil, whether that evil comes from the world around us or from the fallen hearts inside of us.

Many of you have heard me tell the story of the woman in my first parish who was dying of cancer. It had been a tough slog for her, with rallies and setbacks and finally the word from her doctors, “There’s nothing more we can do.” I asked her as she neared her death if she’d ever gotten angry with God. “At first, yes,” she told me. “But then I remembered, He’s right here with me.” And this same Jesus Who endured the worst this world can do to a human being, also is with all who trust in Him when they pass from this life to the next, leading us to those rooms He has prepared for all who trust in Him (John 14:2).

After Jesus had faced down Satan in the strength God provided to Him, the same strength God can send to us in our wilderness experiences, Jesus still had a mission to fulfill. He still needed to call people to follow Him and to believe in what He was doing for them...and us. Verse 14: “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’”

When Jesus arrived on this earth, the days of this wilderness were numbered. The jig was up for the power of sin, death, the devil, despair, and darkness. Jesus has eternally and definitively conquered their power for all who believe in Him. We don’t know when Jesus will return to this earth. But we do know that we can trust the promised return of a Savior Who guaranteed His promise with His shed blood and His resurrection from the dead.

In the meantime, He stands living and ready to comfort and encourage the grieving and the dying, to give new life and new purpose to the uncertain and the doubting, to fill with strength those who have been knocked down low by life.

The psalmist says of the God we know in Jesus: “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11).

Through Isaiah, God promises those who follow Him: “...those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

And Jesus tells us: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

If the wilderness seems to have been winning in your life lately, you’ve come to the right place, to worship God in this fellowship of believers. Jesus says that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, He is in the midst of them (Matthew 18:20).

The One Who conquered the wilderness is here today among us and He says, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent [turn away from the wilderness, its blind alleys, and sin that leads to death] and believe the good news.”

The good news, the gospel, for us today is this: Every person lost in the wilderness who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved (Romans 10:13) and this Jesus can be with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).

Count on Jesus to take you through your wilderness and beyond, to life with God that never ends. Amen

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