Friday, March 16, 2018

Pray (Part 4, The Disciple's Life)

[This is the fourth of a five-part series, The Disciple's Life, being shared on Wednesday nights with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during Lent.]

1 Thessalonians 5:17
Luke 11:1-4

In Luke’s gospel, we’re told, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”

This is a strange passage for several reasons, I think.

One strange element is that, as faithful Biblical Jews, you’d think that Jesus’ disciples would need no instruction on prayer.

Another odd element here is the reason the unnamed disciple gives for asking Jesus to give instruction on prayer: because John the Baptist had taught his disciples, his students, how to pray.  Did the disciple think that Jesus had been remiss in not teaching them about prayer? Or was he motivated by competitive desire to keep up with John’s disciples?

Or was he simply impressed by the amount of time Jesus spent in prayer?

Or did he have a rising understanding of the fact that a disciple of Jesus should be a person of prayer?

We don’t know the answers to any of these questions, really.

But we do know that Jesus took the question seriously. The disciple invited Jesus to teach them on prayer and Jesus did.

Luke tells us: “He said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:2-5)

We commonly use variants of these words of Jesus in our public prayer. And that’s a good thing because, as Luther observed, if we genuinely pray the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we will have prayed everything we are called to pray as Christians.

But I think that, as Christian disciples, we should also look at the Lord’s Prayer as a model for how a Christian is to pray, whenever we pray.

Often, we view prayer as presenting lists of requests to God. And God does want to hear our requests. That’s why, after teaching the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus goes on to say, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9) We should never be afraid of bringing anything to God.

But the prayer Jesus teaches also shows us that God doesn’t want just our prayer lists. The God we know in Jesus Christ wants a relationship with those who confess that Jesus is Lord. Through Jesus, God gives us the privilege of knowing Him as our Father.

God wants to do something else in our praying. Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and Old Testament scholar who created The Message translation of the Bible, has written of prayer: “Prayer is the way we work our way out of the comfortable but cramped world of self and into the spacious world of God.”

When we reach up to God in worship, praise, and thanksgiving--when we reach up to our Father in prayer, when we truly pray, God alters our perspectives on life, death, the world, eternity, ourselves, our sin, our sisters and brothers in Christ, and everything else.

In prayer, God seeks to change us. Prayer is a two-way street. In response to God’s accessibility to us purchased by Christ’s death on the cross, we reach out to Him. But, as we move toward God, He moves toward us.

And when that happens, those who are desperate enough, helpless enough, and trusting enough will find themselves changed by God. As Christians “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), even when they offer up the same prayer petitions repeatedly, as we do when we pray the Lord’s Prayer, God will change what they mean when they pray them.

The more that we interact with God in authentic, humble, submissive prayer, the more God’s viewpoint and our viewpoint will meld.

God will use the prayer of faithful Christian disciples to stretch us toward heaven so that God’s basic project in our lives--making us more like Christ--will be advanced.

So, be careful how much you pray, how earnestly you pray. God may turn your world upside down.

You may become less concerned about your own desires and more concerned with God’s will.

You may become less afraid of what this life and this world may throw at you and more sure that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

You may find yourself less impressed by the baubles of this world and more enamored with the riches of God’s gracious kingdom.

You may start letting go of your stranglehold on this world and instead, hold onto Christ with everything in you.

The petitions Jesus urges on us in His prayer are, if we let them do their work on us, bound to blow our cramped little worlds to bits.

Consider the petitions that Jesus teaches us in the Lord's Prayer.

“Hallowed be your name.” So much of our lives is about getting ahead in the world, about having good credit, about having a good reputation. But our greatest concern, Jesus says, should be honoring God’s name. Jesus implores us to ask God to set us free of our worry over “I, me, mine.”

Then Jesus says to pray, “Your kingdom come.” In this petition, we ask that the God we know in Christ would rule over us, that He would call the shots in our lives. Here, we give God the keys to our lives and we become passengers, not drivers.

Jesus teaches us to pray, “Give us each our daily bread.” You have to get to the third petition before Jesus tells us to pray for ourselves. And even then, He doesn’t teach us to pray for security, ease, happiness, or wealth; He says to pray only for what we need to live today. This is a declaration of complete trust in the God. What would our lives be like if we prayed that God would give us only what we need and free us from worrying about everything else? We would worry less, enjoy our blessings more, and be, in Saint Paul’s phrase, “hilarious givers.”*

Jesus then teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.” (Luke 11:4) Prayer without confession of sin is as meaningless as prayer without faith in Christ or an awareness of our utter need of God. Jesus warns us elsewhere, “...every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:31) To blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to ignore Him when He is convicting us of a sin, to change the subject when, during our times of prayer, God is impressing upon us our need to repent. If we refuse to repent when the Holy Spirit is calling us to repent, we’re calling God a liar and we erect a wall between the grace of God and our lives. We must not take this petition lightly if we are to be Christ’s disciples. If the Holy Spirit convicts us for our sin, we need to repent.

Finally, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” James 1:13 warns us, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone…” So, what is Jesus teaching us to pray in this petition? Martin Luther says that Jesus is telling us to pray that God will “guard and protect us” from temptation, that we won’t be deceived by the temptations of “the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.” And, Luther says, in this petition we also ask God to prevent us from being deceived or led into “false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins.”

Disciples pray.


But as they do, they don’t try to change God.

Disciples pray, above all, to ask God to change them. To change us.

That takes courageous faith. May we never be afraid to truly, humbly, openly, expectantly pray.

More next week.

*Most English translations render the phrase in 2 Corinthians 9:7, as "cheerful givers." This is a good translation. But the Greek word translated as cheerful is ἱλαρός (hilaros) from which we get the English word hilarious.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. You're invited to worship with us on Sunday mornings at 8:45 am and 11:00 am. We're located at 667 Miamisburg-Centerville Road, Centerville, Ohio 45459.]

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Please pray for and give help to Puerto Rico

Please pray for the people of Puerto Rico, especially those in rural areas and small towns.

Please also pray for success for the efforts of those working to restore to some semblance of normalcy to that island.

Over the weekend, our daughter shared a conversation she'd had earlier in the week with a utility worker who had just returned from Puerto Rico. He was among the mainland crews working to restore power to that US territory.

While there, he and other crew members slept in tents on a beach. His report: Much of Puerto Rico is still without power or potable water.

I know that many of the resorts and restaurants in San Juan have been up and running for a while. But in the countryside, in small towns and villages, much remains to be done.

This article, from USA Today, which appeared about six months after Hurricane Maria decimated the island, gives a picture of where things stand right now in Puerto Rico. Progress has been made but it isn't pretty.

Please keep Puerto Rico in your prayers. Please contribute to your favorite relief organizations working there. Thanks.

If you're looking for a relief agency to whom you can contribute, you may want to prayerfully consider Lutheran World Relief, still at work there.

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

Monday, March 12, 2018

Turning to Jesus (AUDIO)


Spring-Ahead Monday: National Napping Day

I'm a big fan of Daylight Savings Time. I like having more daylight in the evenings.

But, of course, when we spring ahead, especially after a busy weekend, the first Monday after under DST can be tough. That's why this is National Napping Day. If you weren't able to observe the day, try it another time this week.

I liked this graphic from the US Department of Defense. It makes me wonder: Are there any metrics showing the number of bad decisions made on the spring-ahead Monday? This would be interesting to know.

I know that worship attendance, generally, is impacted by spring-ahead Sunday. (Although our congregation's attendance, especially at the second service, was very good.) But I wonder if there are other ways springing ahead may affect congregations, as well as weekend activities like sporting events and so on.

And what about accidents: traffic accidents, accidents in the home? How do the numbers of these events on the first Monday after going to DST stack up to most Mondays?

One thing suggested by this graphic: Congress should never make the decision to declare war on spring-ahead Monday unless all of the members have gotten their 75-minute naps.

Turning to Jesus

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

Numbers 21:4-9
John 3:14-21
When our kids were small, the one thing we didn’t abide as parents was whining. Whiners, whether they’re children or adults, are telling the world: “I want to be the most important person in this relationship, this family, this business, this world.” “I want life to go the way I want it to go.” Or, like Adam and Eve in the garden: “I want to be like God.”

Whining is especially galling when it comes from people who repeatedly go down destructive pathways in life, then complain that the rest of the world hasn’t been fair to them. A man I know has been married many times and complains that women are impossible to get along with, not once wondering whether the source of at least half of his marital problems might be found by looking in a mirror.

Today’s first Bible lesson recounts God’s reaction to the whining of His people Israel during their wilderness wanderings from Egypt. They had been slaves there. God miraculously freed them so that they could go to the land He had promised them. Throughout their forty year journey to the promised land, the people repeatedly caved into the common human temptation of wanting to do things their own way and to ignore the will of God.

In Numbers 21:4, we’re told: “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way…” The Israelites are whining, “Are we there yet?”

Verse 5: “...they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?...’” Talk about gall! Here, in effect, the Israelites were saying, “God, why did you answer our prayers and set us free from slavery in Egypt? Why did you take us from a place where we did back-breaking labor for masters who whipped us, beat us, and owned us?” And they’re saying, “Moses, why did you lead us as God directed you to lead us?”

We Christians can be like this. “Yeah, God,” we seem to say, “I know that Jesus died on a cross because of my sins. I know that through baptism and my belief in Christ, You are saving me for eternity. I know that You’ve given me a new life and that nothing can separate me from Your love. But, really God, when are you going to let me call the shots?”

Even we who bear the Name of Jesus and have the free gift of new life through Him, can be world class whiners!

When we whine it’s because we tend to forget two things in our daily lives. First, we forget that we aren’t God. We didn’t invent this amazing thing called life. We aren’t in charge and never should be! The other thing we forget is that, like the Israelites, you and I haven’t yet reached our promised land. Today, we’re in the wilderness. 1 Peter 2:11, tells we Christians: “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.”

Christians are foreigners and exiles. We’re not “there,” not in our real home, yet. So, we shouldn't put too much stock in the things has to offer. Everything that we may want that is in this world has an expiration date.

Until we get to our real home, things won’t be perfect. The moment we are baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are no longer citizens of this world. We're just passing through. We can expect to be attacked by the tests and temptations that come from, as Martin Luther puts in The Small Catechism, “the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.” This world isn't perfect and never will be.

Thankfully. our ultimate destination is not in this wilderness. Our destination as believers in Jesus is what the New Testament book of Hebrews calls “a better country,” the eternal kingdom of God. This fallen world, wonderful though it can be, is a faint hint of the perfect, sinless, eternal new creation God is preparing for us. I often think of (and quote) Jesus’ words in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Now, go back to Numbers 21:5. The people are still whining: “...There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’”

The “miserable food” they’re talking about is the manna that God had been giving them virtually every day of the forty years they were in the wilderness.

To get the manna, they never had to plant a single seed, water a single sprout, or remove a single weed.

Like every blessing that God gives to us and that we take for granted--from breathing all the way to everlasting life for those who trust in Christ--the manna was simply there for the taking. It was a gift of grace.

The Israelites wanted more! In itself, there’s nothing wrong with wanting more good in our lives. But in our wilderness, in this life, God wants to teach us to not let our desires supplant God in our priorities. God wants to show us that nothing this world may offer us can match the gifts God wants to give to those willing to receive them by faith in Him.

God wasn’t happy to hear His people whining yet again. It was a sign of faithlessness and sin. Numbers 21:6-7: “Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you...’”

The people had broken God’s commandments. I can think of at least three: They failed to honor God as God (first commandment). They had used His Name for whining, rather than for its intended use in prayer, praise, or thanksgiving (second commandment). They had borne false witness against both God and Moses (eighth commandment). And they had broken these and other of God’s commands repeatedly. That's why God allowed the serpents in the desert to be so deadly to the Israelites.

But the people were awakened by God’s action. In verse 7 says that the people asked Moses to pray for them. Moses did. Now, look at verse 8: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’”

What a weird prescription!

Why was this God’s fix?

In the hymn Amazing Grace, we sing, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

Before we’re ready to receive the undeserved grace of God and the forgiveness of our sins, we have to be aware that we have sin that needs to be forgiven.

Before we can have our relationship with God restored, we need to know that we’re separated from God.

As you've heard me say before, God doesn’t force forgiveness and new life on us. We must receive it by faith. When the Israelites turned to the bronze serpent, they were reminded that their sin was what triggered their situation. Forgiveness, healing, and life could only come to them when they acknowledged their sin and trusted in God.

Now look, please, at John 3:14-15, from today's Gospel lesson. Some 1500 years after the incident in our first lesson, Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus: “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

In the wilderness, the bronze serpent became the repository, the scapegoat, for the rebellion and sin of God’s people and through their honest repentance, the means God uses to turn their attention and allegiance back to Him so that they could be restored.

In our own wilderness, it’s easy for us to wander away from God, to get caught up in our own agendas, to think that God has wandered from us. It’s easy for Christians to say, “I know what God says about sexuality, or covetousness, or loving others, or trusting alone, but I just don’t agree with Him.” (As though anyone can disagree with God!)

That’s where the Savior on a cross comes in. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says of Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Jesus volunteered to be the repository, the scapegoat, for our sin.

He calls us to turn our eyes away from the wilderness and turn instead to Him.

Every time we picture Jesus on the cross and remember again that He had no sin, but that our sin--your sin and my sin--put Him there, we’re forced to acknowledge our need of Him.

We confess our sin and we put our trust in Him alone. When that happens, our faith in Him is renewed and the life and forgiveness that only Jesus can give floods us once again!

The wilderness in which you and I live each day can be hard. But God lets us decide whether he or our sin have the last word over our lives. Look at Jesus‘ words to Nicodemus in John 3:16 to 18:
“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. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
While we’re here in the wilderness we will never have all of life’s answers. But it’s clear to me that life without Jesus leaves us with nothing to hope for, while life with Jesus is filled with God’s presence now and with hope for eternity with God.

A man rode a unicycle on a taut rope above Niagara Falls. “I couldn’t have done it,” a friend told him. “Every time I pedaled, I’d see 167-feet of churning water below me.”

“If that’s what I’d looked at, I couldn’t have made it across, either,” the unicyclist said. “But I was focused on the solid ground ahead.”*

Keep your focus on Jesus, our solid rock.

He will forgive your sin.

He will stand by your side.

He will lift you up.

And He will give you life, here, now, in the wilderness...and beyond. Amen

[This sculpture, conflating the bronze serpent on a pole about which we read in Numbers 21, with Jesus' crucifixion, is a memorial to Moses on Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo is the place in the last book of Deuteronomy from which Gods allowed Moses to see the promised land before he died.]

*This story is fictional, although several people have walked or taken wheelbarrows on tightropes above Niagara Falls and others have ridden unicycles on ropes strung between skyscrapers. The words of the fictional unicyclist are consistent with what such daredevils often say.

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