Saturday, March 03, 2018

"Animated Unsatisfying Situations" by Parallel Studio

If your church is really big, you may ask, "What are we doing wrong?"

I liked a tweet I saw earlier today:
"I met this guy at the grocery store. He had a bumper sticker, ‘Thrill of it All Christian Fellowship’. 
"He tells me, 'We’re booming, man! 8,000 members and growing like crazy!' 
"I say, 'Really? What are you guys doing wrong?...the message of the Cross has never been that popular.'"
He's right. Jesus' words, "Take up your cross and follow Me," have rarely raked people in. Most people don't really want to have much to do with crosses.

But Jesus says that if we're going to follow Him and have life with God, we must submit to the cross of acknowledging our sin, our mortality, and our need of Him and what He has accomplished for us on the cross.

The Christian disciple is called to the death of self.

That's the way to liberation from sin and death, to life with God that nothing can destroy.

So, the apostle Paul, hardly a success in the eyes of the world, wrote: "...we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." (1 Corinthians 12:23-24)

Generally speaking, the churches that are more "successful" at making disciples are the ones who approach that commission from Christ with intentionality, deliberation, and love. They may not have huge footprints in their communities; but they have an enormous imprint on the lives of those who come to know and follow Christ because of them.

Of course, there are exceptional instances of authentic growth in churches. Three-thousand were baptized on the first Pentecost after Jesus' ascension (Acts 2:41).

But it's also true that some "churches" are huge in numbers because they proclaim a hugely mistaken version of the gospel. A gospel without a cross or Christ is no gospel. A church without cross and Christ is no church.

Now, I know of some big churches that are also big in proclaiming Christ and His cross. God's Holy Spirit can make that happen. But I know a lot more big churches where there needs to be more focus on Christ and the cross.

The Augsburg Confession says that the Church exists wherever the gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion) are rightly administered. If a church is wildly popular, there's a good chance it's not a faithful church. I'm just sayin'.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. For those who are interested, we average 170 people in worship on Sunday mornings. We're doing our best to be successful at being faithful, whatever our numbers.]

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Loving God and Others (Part 2, The Disciple's Life)

[This was shared during this evening's Lenten devotional worship with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Deuteronomy 10:12
Matthew 22:37-39
Tonight, as we talk about the disciple’s life, we turn to love.

While love is a commonly used word, from a Biblical perspective, I don’t think that we moderns have a good handle on what love is.

An online dictionary defines the noun love as “an intense feeling of deep affection.” It defines the verb love as “[to] feel a deep romantic or sexual attachment to (someone),” as in, “I love so-and-so.”

Now, I’m not knocking anyone’s intense feeling of deep affection. Nor am I condemning, in the right circumstances, feelings of "deep romantic or sexual attachment.” What I am saying is that when, for example, in Deuteronomy, God commanded His ancient people the Israelites to love Him, or that when Jesus says in Matthew, that the greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbor, He is not telling us “feel affection for God and neighbor.” God does not command affection; God commands love.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, let me try to unpack all of this. Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39) Jesus here quotes Deuteronomy 6:5, a portion of Moses’ farewell sermon that pious Jews know as the shema, and Leviticus 19:18, what scholars call “the holiness code,” an explanation of God’s moral code, binding for all time, expressed briefly in the Ten Commandments.

Here, we see Jesus commanding us to love God and our neighbor, with all our hearts, and we panic or rail at the impossibility of it all.

Someone might say, “If you knew my boss, you would know how impossible she is to love.”

Or, “My ex was horrible in the custody proceedings. I can’t summon any warmth for him.”

In statements like these and countless others, we show that we’ve soaked up more of this world’s understanding of love than we have of God’s understanding of love.

When the Bible speaks metaphorically of our hearts, it isn’t talking about the seat of our feelings. It speaks of the seat of our wills, of our wants and desires, the place from which our yen for things like security, happiness, food, drink, and companionship comes.

If that all seems innocent, remember that the heart is also the seat of our sinful desires, things like our desire to get what we want when we want it, to make other people do what we want them to do, to have what we want no matter if it hurts us or hurts others.

And, no matter how much we desire to follow Christ, as long as you and I live this life, our human hearts will be polluted by selfish desires. Jeremiah 17:9 asks, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

His words echo my own after I’ve caught myself doing something I shouldn’t have. “Why did I do that?” I ask myself.

The answer is that my heart has inherited from Adam and Eve a desire to “be like God,” to be my own god, to call my own shots, to be the master of my own universe.

And yet, Jesus commands us to love God and love neighbor. What is a person who seeks to live as a Jesus disciple to do?

Here are several suggestions.

First of all, remind yourself daily that you cannot save yourself from your heart’s inborn penchant for selfishness and sin. If you and I could do anything to save ourselves from sin, Jesus Christ would not have had to die on the cross for us. Jesus resisted the temptation to act selfishly and sinfully, leading a sinless life to be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.

Second, also remind yourself daily that only Jesus can fill in the chasm that exists between you and me, on the one side, and God in His perfect holiness on the other. Even if this very night, you and I could find a way to always perfectly love God and our neighbors for the rest of our lives, our love would not erase the deficiencies in our love that have existed up until tonight. We must rely on Jesus to bridge the gap between who we are and who God has meant us to be. We must rely on God’s grace given in Christ.

But here’s a third thing. Just because we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone--and we are--doesn’t mean that Jesus’ great commandment goes away. We still are called to love God and love neighbor.

Out of simple gratitude for His saving an unlovable sinner like me, I will want to seek to fulfill this great command.

When I was in elementary school, my father and grandfather spent hours with, drilling me on the multiplication table. I kept at it not because I thought they would throttle me if I didn’t memorize the table or because I wanted to know the multiplication table, but because I saw how hard they were working with me on it our of sheer fatherly love. (I couldn’t have cared less about learning the multiplication table!) But these two men who cared for me wanted me to learn it and because of them, I did. God’s love, which has saved us from sin and death, should also motivate us to try to keep all of His commands and to seek His help when we fail to keep them.

So, how can you love someone you may find hard to love?

One: Ask God to help you love that person. And the more unlovable you find them, the more you’ll need to pray that prayer. Sometimes, I just say, “Lord, please love them through me. It’s beyond my capacity.”

Second: Pray for that person. Ask God to give them every comfort, joy, and success that you might desire for yourself.

Third: Seek ways to do some kindness to that person or to show openness to them. I promise that God honors earnest efforts to be obedient on the part of grateful disciples of Jesus.

Now, a word of caution. If the person you find it hard to love has abused you--emotionally, physically, or otherwise, you are under no obligation to continue to associate with them.

Love doesn’t compel you to subject yourself to unnecessary danger.

When a woman we knew in Cincinnati was physically abused by her husband, I told her that God’s command to love did not obligate her to stay in that home. I joined with others in helping her to get out. If she were to love her husband, it would have to be from afar.

The New Testament word for forgive is aphiemi, which literally means release. When we forgive others, we set people free from their debt to us for the wrongs they’ve committed against us, just as Jesus forgives us the enormous debt we owe to God for our sins against Him and His children.

But when we forgive, we also set someone else free, ourselves.

God wants to set us free to love as we were made to love. At the heart of our difficulty with loving others is an unwillingness to forgive, an unwillingness to let go of the things we hold others, that make us feel superior to them. And so Jesus teaches His disciples to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

In the power of God’s Holy Spirit, disciples who believe in and follow Jesus, seek to love God and to love neighbor.

More on the disciple's life next week.

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

Focusing on God's Wisdom, Using Our Brains

[Here are reflections on my quiet time with God earlier today.]

Look: “A discerning person keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.” (Proverbs 17:24)

God’s wisdom imparted through Solomon seems here to say, “Keep your focus on wisdom.”

The reason for this seems straightforward to me: Wisdom comes from God. Proverbs 2:6 says, “the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

To be wise is to keep focused on the God revealed to all the world in Jesus, to see nothing and nobody as important as God Himself and to, consequently, follow Him. This gives deeper meaning to Proverbs 9:10: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

To follow some other path or to try following multiple paths to gain “wisdom” is foolishness, foolish because all other paths lead to separation, not only from wisdom, but also from the only One Who can supply life. “There is a way that appears to be right,” Proverbs 14:12 says, “but in the end it leads to death.”

I must narrow my focus onto the God Who shows Himself to us in Jesus. Jesus says: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)

And He says that He is the single entry point by which we live wisely and eternally: “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9)

Listen: It’s so easy for me to be distracted, God, by the noise and the self-congratulatory and false wisdom of the world...and of my own broken soul.

It’s so easy to convince myself that I don’t have time for quiet time with You, time spent hearing what You tell me in Your Word and in the silence as I pray in Jesus’ name.

Little “successes” in which I rely on my own resources delude me into thinking that I don’t need you.

Day after day without casting a look toward Jesus can develop into a daily habit that leaves me wandering far from you, like a lost sheep.

Relying on my own “wisdom,” my own thoughts, my own feelings, leads me away from You.

I’m sure that focusing on You doesn’t mean that I should choose stupidity. I still should read and gain knowledge. It was a man who disdained knowledge who told the apostle Paul as Paul proclaimed the good news of Jesus, “You are out of your mind, Paul!" Your great learning is driving you insane." (Acts 26:24)

Great learning won’t make a person crazy. And we need to pay heed to people with great learning, even those who may not follow the Savior in Whom I believe. “Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety.” (Proverbs 11:14)

I loathe anti-intellectualism, the chosen ignorance of those who resent the learning of people who have spent their lives gaining useful knowledge and expertise in specific areas, whose knowledge and expertise could benefit us all. I am sure that You would not have given us brains if it was Your intention for us not to use them!

[This graphic contains a wise saying my father imparted to me more than once as I was growing up.]

It seems to me that what You are saying in Proverbs 17:24, Lord, is, “So cultivate your relationship with Me that, no matter how many voices you hear in a single day, You always will discern My wisdom. You’ll always know that the wisdom imparted to you by someone else is actually from Me. You will always hear My voice and so, know the right path.”

Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27)

Respond: As You know, Lord, I’ve been ill the past several days. I thank You that You’ve given me the medical help I needed and the time to recover and heal. But I’ve also been lax about my quiet time. It’s unwise to ever “take a vacation” from You, too easy to cast my eyes on other things and be led down a sinkhole far from You.

Forgive my recent inattentiveness to You. Help me to keep my eyes on Jesus.

In His name I pray.


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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Christ, You Can Hold Your Head High!

[This message was prepared for worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, earlier today. I developed a cough that erupts every time I take a deep breath. It's a cold both my wife and me have right now. So, I thank Mark Brennan, our worship director, for pinch-hitting for me.]

Romans 5:1-11
A Christian scholar writes of listening to a radio interview with a film star. The star said it was “ think that, if there is a God, he might actually be concerned with every single human creature at every single moment.” As the scholar, N.T. Wright says: “Put like that, of course, it seems absurd; and yet absurdity lies in the attempt to picture God as just like us only a bit bigger and more well-seeing.” [Italics are mine.]

People unfamiliar with the God first worshiped by ancient Israel and then disclosed to the rest of us through Jesus Christ don’t understand the enormity of God.

Nor do they understand the depths of His love for us.

As Wright says: “...his very nature is love, it is...completely natural for him to establish personal, one-to-one relations with every single one of us.”

That’s exactly what God has set out to do in Jesus Christ.

And it’s precisely through such a relationship with Christ that God can save us, give us strength for each day, and supply us with a hope that will never disappoint us.

All of this is what the apostle Paul writes about in our second lesson for this morning, Romans 5:1-11.

The New Testament book of Romans, you’ll remember, is a letter written by the apostle Paul to first-century house churches in Rome. It’s Paul’s masterpiece, an exhaustive presentation of the gospel that can bring eternal life to all who bet their lives on it.

In the chapters before our lesson appears, Paul has talked about the fundamental human problem, sin, which leads to death, among other things. Because sin is universal to every human being, Paul says, quoting a psalm: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.”

But, Paul says that’s not the end of the story. God is unwilling to see you and me die in our sin, forever separated from Him. So God acts.

God the Father sends God the Son Jesus to receive the punishment we deserve for our sin. Jesus dies, although He committed no sin. Jesus experiences separation from God the Father, the Maker of life, which is why Jesus cries from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) It’s also part of the reason Jesus descended into hell (1 Peter 3:19); He bore the full weight of sin and its fatal consequences.

God the Father then raises Jesus from death. As Paul explains elsewhere: “...Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

All who renounce sin and trust in Christ have reconciliation with God and have life with God, an intimate and enduring personal relationship with the One Who loves us more than anyone in this world ever has or ever will.

Jesus tells us: “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). Even more than that, Paul goes on to tell us at the beginning of today’s lesson, we have peace with God even when the sin, darkness, and imperfection of this present world makes war on us.

Take a look at what Paul says, Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

In other words, we who are born wrong and who have lived wrong are made right with God through our faith in Jesus.

Although we deserve death, God gives peace to those who trust in Christ.

A man saw me, deeply disturbed because he thought that his sins would forever separate him from God. A woman spoke with me, her conscience thunderstruck for some horror she had perpetrated. These are real people whose consciences convicted them.

They thought that they were too sinful to receive the promise of God given to us through the crucified and risen Jesus: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13; Acts 2:21). There is nobody beyond the scope of God's "everyone."

“You are stained red with sin,” God says in Isaiah 1:18, “but I will wash you as clean as snow.”

If you trust Christ with your sins, along with the rest of your life, you are made clean.

You have peace with God.

And you can keep having peace with God through faith in Jesus even when you, as is true of each of us every single day, sin again or experience life’s pressures and need to repent or take refuge in Christ.

That’s why Paul says what he does next. Verses 2 and 3: “...through [Jesus] we [believers] have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God…”

The word translated as stand is histemi. We get the word histamine from it. Histamines get released naturally by our immune systems to help our bodies to function properly, to help us to stand strong. (The New Testament Greek word for resurrection is rooted in this word and literally means to stand again.)

The idea here is that because of the charitable forgiveness--the grace--that God bears for sinners like you and me who open ourselves to trusting in Christ, we stand in God’s kingdom.

By this grace given to those who trust in Christ, God will always give us life, always give us hope.

The psalmist spoke of what it means to stand in God’s grace when he wrote: “I will not fear though tens of thousands assail me on every side…” (Psalm 3:6)

Paul says that we who stand and keep standing in the gracious kingdom of God can brag, not of ourselves, but “of the hope of the glory of God.”

When God’s full glory is revealed to all the world at Jesus’ return, everyone who has believed in Him, will experience the fullness of God’s promises. You have been saved by God’s grace through your faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. So, hold your head high, stand tall, not from arrogance, but knowing that by the grace of God, you’re eternally free from sin and death.

Paul says that’s not the only thing in which we can glory. Verses 3-5: “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

As believers we can glory in our sufferings.

Does that seem strange? It shouldn’t. Why?

Because in the person who stands in God’s grace, suffering produces endurance, the capacity to keep on believing as we meet the crucified Jesus at our crosses. And we can glory in our sufferings because through persevering faith in the midst of suffering, God forges our characters. We become more dependent on God the Father, as Jesus was as He bore His cross. We become more sympathetic to the suffering of others. We understand the depths of Christ’s love that reaches us even when we suffer. We’re humbled by the realization of our own limitations; we can no longer worship ourselves or our desires with straight faces or clear consciences. 

And a character forged through reliance on Christ’s grace in the midst of our suffering will be filled with hope in the Savior Who pours Himself into us. 

If you have experienced or are experiencing now the sustaining grace of Christ as you have suffered, you have a God-given rendezvous with an eternity about which you can boast, a story of grace to share, a track record with the Lord that can give you hope even “in the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). When you have a hope like that, you “fear no evil” (Psalm 23:4).

Paul then gives the reason for our hope as Jesus people. At the time set aside by God, Jesus died for sinners like us. Paul says that this happened “when we were still powerless” (Romans 5:6).

The word powerless translates the Greek word asthenon, which means weak, unable to stand.

Paul is saying that those who once were so weakened by sin that they couldn’t stand in the presence of a holy God nor have any hope of standing beyond their graves, now stand in God’s kingdom of grace because of what Christ has accomplished for them...for us, you and me! 

Jesus lifts dead and dying believers out of everlasting separation from God and makes it possible for us to stand in the life-giving presence of God forever, even now!

In the last section of today’s lesson, Paul says that if by His shed blood on the cross, Jesus can save us from death, how much more as the One Who stood alive again and stands forever alive and forever first, can He give us life with God that nothing can destroy?

In Christ, we meet a God big enough to save us from sin and death.

He’s also loving enough to care about each of us, to die and rise for everyone, to hear our prayers, to stand with us in defeat, death, and darkness, and to give us the hope of living fully in His glory forever. This God cares about you as an individual person.

This week, I invite you to soak that reality up by reading the Gospel of Mark. Take a week to read this one gospel in the New Testament. Mark is just sixteen chapters long. That comes to 2.28 chapters a day. That’s doable. As you read, whether on your own or with your family or a friend--and this is key, ask God to help you see His love for you and show you too how you might respond to that love, His grace, that day or the next. Let Christ love you in every part of your life. There's nothing He wants to do more than that. Amen

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