Friday, March 23, 2018

Remembering Not to Forget

These are reflections on my morning quiet time with God for today.

Look: “...take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 6:12)

Moses is imparting God’s commands to ancient Israel as the people are about to enter the promised land. God is enjoining Israel not to develop amnesia. He wants them to remember that it’s by His grace that they’re about to take the land He was giving to them, by His grace that they escaped slavery in Egypt, by His grace that these faithless people had been forgiven by God and not given up as a bad “project” long ago. God was committed to Israel. He wanted them to trust in Him so that they could have His good blessings and not the pain that’s experienced when we try to build lives apart from the Great Life-Giver.

God was concerned that Israel might forget its relationship with God and their need of God for a good reason: He was about to shower them with undeserved blessings. Deuteronomy 6:12 completes a sentence that goes like this: “...when the Lord your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—with great and good cities that you did not build, and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…” (Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

Listen: Material comforts can delude us. As we rely on them and they provide us with a level of ease, we’re tempted to think several things.

First, we’re tempted to think that this stuff comes from us. It doesn’t. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17) No matter how hard we’ve worked in life for the things that we have, they don’t come from us. Even our capacity to work hard with sound and patient minds or strong bodies is a gift from God.

Second, we’re tempted to think that our stuff will insulate us from the realities of our fallen world. Jesus told a parable about a man who stockpiled his wealth, thinking that he could then sit back and live in infinite ease. But after he built all of his self-storage units, God told the man, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (Luke 12:20) In this parable, Jesus isn’t telling us not to save or plan. He’s telling us to hold onto the things of this world loosely and to be willing to part with them and to not make them or the ease they can buy our gods.

And our stuff can become our deities. But to worship anything but God is fatal to our eternal health. That’s why Jesus told His disciples after their encounter with a wealthy man, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25)

Money, comfort, ease, and possessions aren’t the problem, though. The things of the world can’t make us forget God. The problem is our relationship with things like money, comfort, ease, and possessions, and how we use them.

The problem is the way, when we have the wrong relationship with these things, they can delude us into believing in our self-sufficiency or into thinking that these good things are the highest good in the universe, fogging our minds, cultivating forgetfulness of God and His goodness.

In a famous and famously-misquoted passage of Scripture, the apostle Paul doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil (no matter what the Pink Floyd song says). Paul actually says: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

Love for money and other things in the world can supplant love for God, even among those who know and repeat the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and join in the Order for Confession and Absolution at worship each week.

One of my favorite psalms asks, “What shall I render to the LORD for all his benefits to me?” (Psalm 116:12) The psalmist remembers the goodness of God.

I find myself, if not completely forgetting God, sometimes taking God and His grace for granted. I take the gift of life, an incredible gift, the scientific odds against which are so small that, when I remember it, I can’t help being overwhelmed and thankful. I take forgiveness from God for granted, sometimes ignoring the cost Jesus paid on the cross to give it to me. What can I give to God to show my gratitude for all that He has done for me?

The psalmist answers that question by saying, “I will lift up the cup of salvation [this refers to the “cup” of a saved life God gives to us; lifting it acknowledges it as a gift I can’t earn] and call on the name of the LORD, I will pay my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people.” (Psalm 116:13-14)

In other words, I won’t forget what God has done and is doing for me. I’m called to do this not because God needs my worship, praise, or gratitude. God really is a self-sufficient Being. Though God wants me, God doesn’t need me or my gratitude. 

I’m called to remember and thank God for all that He does for me because when I forget God, I fall for the lie of my own self-sufficiency, wandering away from the only One Who can give me life, “to the full” (John 10:10), prone to forget that I can call on the name of the Lord and be saved (Joel 2:32, Romans 10:13, Acts 2:21). In a very real sense, ingratitude toward God is suicide; gratitude is the way of life.

Respond: God, if there are things of this world I need to get rid of because holding onto them makes me forget You, show me what they are and help me to act accordingly. Remind me daily, moment by moment, of my need of You so that I am always calling on the One Who can save me from myself, from my sin, and from the worship of anyone or anything but You. Thank You for all that You have done and are doing for me. Grant that today, my life will be lived in gratitude for You and Your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen

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

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Puerto Rico Six Months After the Hurricane

A Vox podcast from two days ago. It's a complicated situation. As Americans, as part of our compact with each other through the United States Constitution, have roles to play when our fellow Americans are impacted by disaster. More than that, we have a private responsibility to care for our neighbors.

If you'd like to give to relief efforts in Puerto Rico, you might want to consider Lutheran World Relief. It's an organization highly respected for its work and efficiency. Your money will be well spent.

Seeing with the Eyes of Faith

Some reflections on my Wednesday morning quiet time with God.

"See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.” (Deuteronomy 1:8)

These are the words that Moses reports God gave to His people, the ancient Israelites, in the wilderness. What strikes me is how God begins this directive: "See, I have given you this land."

Had an Israelite responded that they, in fact, didn't see that God had given God's people this land, their response would have been understandable.

After all, the land was occupied by other peoples: Amorites, Canaanites, the peoples of Arabah, and others.

"No," an Israelite might have felt tempted to say to God, "I don't see that You've given us this land."

But God was telling His people--commanding them, really--to see with the eyes of faith.

There would be obstacles.

There would be struggles, conflict, difficulties, and sacrifices.

Those facts didn't alter God's promise nor His command.

"This is the land I promised you," God is saying. "Go, occupy it."

I wonder how many of God's gifts I have failed to claim because I failed to see through the eyes of faith what God was giving to me?

How many of God's gifts have I failed to claim because all I saw were obstacles, risks, dangers, challenges, or sacrifices?

How often have I forgotten Jesus' words, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God”? (Mark 10:27)

And I wonder how often people refuse to turn from sin and embrace God's forgiveness because owning up to our deficiencies and sins and owning up to our need of God is hard?

How often do we (how often do I) hold onto easy sins rather than plunging forward into the hard grace that, freely offered through Christ though it is, asks me to leave behind the comfortable certainties of a me-centered wilderness for the God-given life that I can't control, that I am simply called to trust?

Prayer: God, in Jesus' name and by the power of Your Holy Spirit, today help me to trust You more and doubt You less. Today, when Your Word tells me to go--go to serve my neighbor, go to share Your good news--help me not to stick to safe, riskless, challenge-less places. Today, when Your Word tells me to repent, help me to take strength to obey from You and not to remain inert in the sins that comfort me. When Jesus calls me to follow, help me to do just that. Today, when Your Word assures me that my sins are forgiven for the sake of Jesus and my faith in Him, help me not to wallow in shame, but to live in Your grace and in the true wonder of forgiven sin. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen

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

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Walk in the Spirit (Part 5, The Disciple's Life)

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

Galatians 5:16-25
1 John 2:15

Tonight, as we complete our look at The Disciple’s Life, we come to an element of being a disciple that's probably discussed too little and misunderstood a lot, particularly in Lutheran circles.

It’s walking in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

What on earth does that mean and what do we have to do to walk in the fullness of the Spirit?

If we approach this subject with that question though, we’ll come out all wrong. As with everything else in the life of a Christian disciple, walking in the Spirit has to do with what God does for us and not what we do for ourselves.

Remember these words in Ephesians: “ is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast…” (Ephesians 2:8-9)? The whole life of a Christian disciple is from God, not from us. That’s true even of the good works we may do in the name of God the Son, in response to God’s call, and in the power of God’s Holy Spirit. As Ephesians goes on to say: “...we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

Yesterday, a man called me here at the church and asked for $22. He said that he needed that amount to complete what he needed for airfare to Florida, where his mother just died. I couldn’t verify that he was telling the truth, of course. But I looked in my wallet and saw that I only had $16. So, I called Ann; she swung by here with the other six bucks.

When the man came here, he thanked me profusely and asked if I could take him to the bus hub in Miamisburg. I was leaving anyway, so I did.

I am not telling this story to boast. I mean, it was only $22 and a ride that was on my way to where I was going anyway!

What I’m saying is that I had prayed about how I should respond to this man and I just did what I thought God was telling me to do. If a stranger asks me for money, my first impulse is to say no. Sometimes I do say no. And sometimes after saying yes, I realize that I’ve been “had.” But that doesn't matter.

Here’s the deal: I felt called and led by God to give away the money. With something as small as this, I feel no need or compulsion to use the pastor’s discretionary fund. God seemed to say to me that the money should come from my pocket. After all, if I'm going to ask others to give to God's work in the world, to respond to the needs of strangers, I need to be willing to do the same thing!

God was teaching me two things yesterday, I think. First, that my money isn’t my money; it’s God’s money! James 1:17 tells us: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” I sensed God telling me, “I want you to give this stranger some of My money, Mark.”

Second, God was telling me, “This is one of those good works I prepared long ago for you to walk in. You don’t need to know whether the request is legit or not. I’m planting seeds here. Give the man $22!” Walking in the Spirit can be scary, but as Saint Paul shows in Galatians, walking in the Spirit is the way of life with Jesus.

Take a look at what Paul says in Galatians 5:16: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Older translations have Paul saying “walk by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” But that’s a bad translation of--you’re going to have to take my word for this--the aorist subjunctive active second person plural verb, will gratify.

In other words, Paul is not laying down the law here. He’s not issuing an imperative. He’s not saying, “Do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” He’s saying that when we walk by the Holy Spirit, when we let God be our guide--not our consciences, not our instincts, not our hearts, not our guts, we will be walking in line with the Holy Spirit and not our own selfish desires.

Paul is not barking orders; he’s making an observation about two different kinds of lives.

One life is spent gratifying the desires of the flesh, flesh here meaning life spent pursuing those things that align with what I want to do.

The other is life in the Spirit, in which our primary aim becomes walking in the direction in which the Holy Spirit, given to us at our Baptism, leads us.

Life lived in response to the flesh is lived under the condemnation of God’s law, because it’s a life lived according to our own standards with no reference to God.

The life of the Spirit is one set free of the law because, as Paul writes elsewhere, “...there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1)!

In the rest of the passage from Galatians, which we read earlier, Paul helps us to see the profound difference between a life in which we call the shots and a life in which we follow where Christ’s Spirit leads us.

Verse 19: “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality [The word Paul uses in the original Greek is porneia, from which we get the word, pornography. It means any and all sexual intimacy outside of marriage.], impurity and debauchery [The word Paul uses here means unrestrained, unrepentant lewdness.]; idolatry and witchcraft [Putting anything ahead of God.]; hatred, discord [This refers to the practice of creating divisions.], jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. [Paul goes on:] I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Let’s be clear: Any human life lived apart from the saving grace of God granted to all who repent and believe in Jesus will manifest one, some, or all of these characteristics. We who are born in sin are all inclined to live in these ways. But when, by water and the Word in Holy Baptism, we born from above (John 3:3), God gives us a share in the victory over sin and death Jesus earned for us through His death and resurrection and makes it possible for us as disciples of Jesus, to walk differently, to live differently, to live by faith in Him and in His way.

Paul explains, beginning at verse 22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Notice again what Paul doesn’t say here. He does not tell Christians: You'd better live in love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He says that these behaviors are “fruit of the Spirit.” These wonderful attributes aren’t the cost of admission into the kingdom of God. These attributes aren’t the fruit of our work. They’re the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit working in a life surrendered to Jesus Christ. They’re what happen, often without our even knowing it, when we daily yield our lives to Christ, examine our lives in the light of God’s Word, repent for sin, and receive the renewing Word of forgiveness that comes to all who humble themselves before the mighty grace of Jesus!

By faith, we open ourselves to the work of God’s Spirit within us and the Holy Spirit goes to work, working intimacy between God and us, scrambling our priorities, using us to accomplish the good works God prepared for us before we were even born. All we must do is take a step in faith, a step toward Jesus. When we do this, we are walking in the fullness of the Spirit.

How can we do this?

How can we dare to do things that seem frightening or not in our best interest, but that respond to the will of God?

Paul explains in Galatians 5:21: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

When we are linked with Christ through Holy Baptism and the faith to which Jesus calls us, our old selves are crucified.

And as we keep our eyes on Jesus, the old self with all its selfish, sinful desires is crucified.

The new us rises every time we repent, every time we receive God's grace in Christ with faith, every time we respond in faith to God’s call in our lives.

And our new selves, knowing that we belong to God forever, are set free to live the lives of love, joy, peace, and selfless that are the hallmarks of Christ’s presence in us.

Only Jesus Himself has walked in the complete fullness of the Holy Spirit, of course. But the more we move toward Him, the more of Him will be evident in our lives, the more fruit of the Spirit will be apparent in us.

This is why Paul says in Galatians 5:25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

In so doing, God makes it possible for us to walk in step with the Spirit.

You could say that Christ sets us free to walk the beat of God’s drum.

If you want the simplest definition of the disciple’s life and of walking in the Spirit, it might be this: Disciples walk where Jesus leads them

Let’s do that together. Amen

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

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Jesus: High Priest and King

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

Hebrews 5:1-10
The name of Melchizedek isn’t often mentioned among Christians. And there’s no mystery about that. Melchizedek makes only one actual appearance in the Bible, in Genesis 14:18-20.

After Israel’s patriarch Abraham, then called Abram, alongside allies, fought and won a battle, we’re told: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem [Salem means “peace.” The city bearing that name later became the site of Israel’s capital, Jerusalem. Melchizedek] brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.’ Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”

[Portrayed here is a the scene from Genesis 14:18-20. Melchizedek brings bread and wine to Abraham.]

Think about this. Before God had begun to fulfill His first covenant (or first testament) by making Abraham and Sarah the parents of Isaac, the foundation on which God would build His people Israel, there already was, at Jerusalem, a king and priest of God.

Now, this is interesting. Among the descendants of Abraham, there were priests and then there were kings. While Israel’s kings were called to be submissive and trusting toward God and to honor the priests, except in the case of pretenders later in ancient Israel’s history, Israel never had people who were priests and kings.

Such a combination of eternal and earthly power could only be handled by someone who, because of their humble trust in God, would resist the temptation to be an autocrat, a dictator, or self-glorifying conqueror. Melchizedek apparently was the kind of person who could resist those temptations.

When Abraham met Melchizedek, he clearly understood himself to be in the presence of someone who was a priest of the very God Who had called him from the comforts of his home in Ur, willing to wander to the new home that God promised to show to him.

That’s why he humbly received bread and wine from this priest and king and, in response to God’s grace, gave Melchizedek a tithe, ten percent “of everything” he owned.

This is the last known appearance by Melchizedek on the earth.

So, what happened to his royal house?

What happened to his priesthood?

And what difference does it make for you and me?

Our second lesson for this morning, Hebrews 5:1-10, provides some answers.

Hebrews, you'll remember, is a book of unknown authorship. We do know that it’s a sermon by a Jewish-Christian to a congregation of Jewish-Christians who are being tempted, under pressure of Roman persecution, to renounce Christ.

The preacher of Hebrews encourages his fellow Jewish-Christians to not desert the hope they have in Christ. Christ, he says, is the culmination of all of God’s promises of forgiveness and new life given to their ancestors and through them, to the world.

Let’s take a look at what he has to say today.

Verse 1 (He's talking about priesthood.): “Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron [the brother of Moses] was.”

The high priest of Israel, who had been at the temple in Jerusalem before the temple was destroyed and the priesthood decimated in 70 AD, several decades before this sermon was given, acted as a mediator between God and God’s people.

The high priest was called to make sacrifices for their sins and to gently counsel people with God’s Word. He was able to do this because, as a human being himself, he understood the pressures, joys, and temptations that we human beings face.

But the high priest could only do this because he acknowledged his own sins before God and offered sacrifices for them.

The preacher in Hebrews says that anyone who would presume to take the office of high priest would not be qualified for it; it had to be conferred on them by God.

I think that even today, there’s a principle for us: Anyone who wants to have a position of authority or power in the Church--be it pastor, bishop, church council president, congregational officer, church council officer--ought to be viewed with a certain amount of skepticism. When the people of the Church, after a season of prayer, felt led to ask an often reluctant but faithful person to respond to God’s call, that’s the person God is likely calling.

One of the things I love about this congregation is that we don’t ask any elected person to serve in positions of responsibility unless there has been prayer and a discernment of their call from God. We don’t use the spaghetti method to recruit candidates for church council, for example: We don’t just throw up a name and see which one sticks. Like the high priests, those who hold responsibility in today’s Church need to be believers who live in daily repentance and renewal, who have no notion that they’re anything other than sinners made saints by God’s grace through their faith in Christ. We are blessed to have elected leaders like that at Living Water. And it’s my observation that we take the same care in selecting people for appointment to positions in the congregation.

The preacher goes on to say that Jesus Christ’s claim to be our great High Priest, King, and Lord is not contingent on His taking the reins of ultimate power by force. Jesus too was called by His Father in heaven. Verses 5 and 6: “In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him, ‘You are my Son; today I have become your Father.’ [This is from Psalm 2. More on that in a second. And he says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’”

Here, the preacher of Hebrews cites two different psalms. There are different kinds of psalms. Psalm 35, for example, is an imprecatory psalm in which the psalmist asks God to go after his tormentors. In Psalm 51, David confesses his sin and asks God to give him a clean heart. In our lesson from Hebrews, two psalms, Psalm 2 and Psalm 110, are cited. These are both royal psalms. They were written to celebrate the anointing of God's king in Israel. royal pslams. A king of Israel was referred to as the Anointed One, in the Hebrew, Meshiah, Messiah and in the Greek in which the New Testament was written, Christos, Christ.

So, what’s the point? Jesus isn’t a successor to the priesthood of the Levites in the temple, who were descendants of Aaron. Instead, Jesus is, like Melchizedek, anointed directly by God the Father. And like Melchizedek

Jesus is also a king, the King of kings.

God has made Jesus both our High Priest, able to understand our weaknesses because He’s withstood every test and temptation that we have in life, and our King, Who has conquered death, darkness, and the devil to give all who let Him be their Priest and King, life with God that never ends.

And how has Jesus achieved this for us? Verse 7: “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death [Remember Jesus in Gethsemane, Who prayed in submission to the Father’s will that He become the perfect sacrifice for our sins even as He asked if there might be a way for Him to avoid the cup of wrath for human evil that He was about to drink full-up on the cross?], and he was heard because of his reverent submission. [He was heard even though the Father didn’t take away the cross. He was heard because God gave Christ the strength to endure the cross for us, the greatest act of love in the history of the universe. And He was heard too because, having faithfully endured the cross, the Father raised Him on the third day, allowing Christ to exert an eternal priesthood and an eternal kingship for you and me.] Son though [Jesus] was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect [The word in the original Greek doesn’t mean perfect, but complete. Jesus uses a form of the same word when, with His dying breath on the cross, He says, “It is fulfilled,” more literally, ‘It is completion. Having completed His mission], [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.”

[A portrayal of Jesus, high priest and King of Kings.]

All of this Jesus did for you and me so that, even now, at this very moment, sitting at the right hand of the Father, He is able to be our understanding priest and the King Who has conquered our darkness and death by giving His life for us.

What does Jesus ask of us in return?

What can we do?

What should we do?

"The work of God is this,” Jesus tells us, “to believe in the one he has sent." (John 6:29) 

Everything you and I might be tempted to put our trust in in this world--kings and presidents, money, security, and possessions, health and success, the power of every bit of it will give out at the grave. 

Jesus, our High Priest and King of kings, Who comes to us amid the battles of our lives with bread and wine, His body and blood, has conquered this dying world and its futile ambitions for us. 

He and those who trust in Him and His high priesthood of love are all that will survive and thrive for all eternity. 

May we always be counted among those who trust in Christ alone.


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