Thursday, May 03, 2018

Listening for Wisdom

A few thoughts from my morning quiet time with God:

“Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” (Proverbs 19:20)

The key to acting wisely, this passage seems to say, is to listen, especially to the voice of wisdom.

The first place to find this, of course, and the source that trumps all human pretense of wisdom, is God and His Word. I can turn to the Bible and receive from it God’s any time!

Of course, the Bible is more than a sourcebook for daily decisions, it’s God’s Word to us, for us. In it, we meet THE Word, Jesus Christ. We see what provision God has made for us to have life in Jesus’ name: We are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Christ. We know that our sins are forgiven and we belong to God not by our efforts, but by the work THE Word has already done for us.

This, in turn, sets us free to really live without fear, with the certainty that nothing can separate us from the love God gives in Christ.

And it sets us free to learn from our mistakes, listen for good advice, and to keep on living. Failure is never fatal for the one who has eternal life in Christ. And self-pride is eliminated as an excuse for not listening, and growing. Living in grace, God freely gives us wisdom, joy, magnanimity, love. Unafraid to make mistakes, we live in peace, continuing to learn from God all the way.

God, today, help me to listen to Your wisdom and live in the assurance of Your grace. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

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

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

"Gideon Not Welcomed Here"

I learned today of a major hotel contacting a local Gideons group, asking them to pick up all the Bibles placed in their rooms. They said it was no longer their policy to keep religious materials in their facility.

That's their prerogative, of course. Hoteliers are under no obligation to stock freely-accessible Bibles in their rooms. (Or $5.00 waters in their mini-fridges, for that matter.)

Nonetheless, it strikes me as a strange decision. The hotel is a privately-held company; there are no Church-State issues involved. And the Bibles are tucked away in drawers; nobody is forced to read them. (Though I have read of one-time atheists who came to faith in Christ as the result of reading a Gideon Bible in a hotel room one night.)

I suppose some might be offended by the presence of a Bible in the top drawer of their bedside stand and that this is what the hotelier is reacting to.

It just underscores the fact that we are living in an increasingly intolerant culture--much of that intolerance incited by so-called Christians bullying rather than loving their neighbors--and that, if Christians want to see Jesus' great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) fulfilled, we cannot rely on others to fulfill it. (We never should have relied on anyone else to do it anyway!) We must prayerfully prepare for opportunities to share the hope that we have in Jesus Christ by building loving relationships with those who don't yet know or believe in Him. As a former atheist myself, I can tell you that it was people who were prepared to tell me about the hope they had in Christ who opened me up to knowing Jesus and appreciating the Word of witness about Him we read in the Bible.

(By the way, the Gideons are preparing to distribute the Bibles they've collected from the hotel in other ways. So, Gideon checked out, but he's going no doubt, to find a place for his Bible.)

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

Speaking of Gideon Bibles, this seems like a good place for the Beatles' Rocky Racoon.]

Tuesday, May 01, 2018

Gossip Pushers and Junkies Hurt Everyone

This morning, for my quiet time, the passage of Scripture on which I camped was Proverbs 18:1-8. (You can find those verses here.)

The temptation when we read passages like these is to start thinking of all the people "out there" who are unfriendly, who gossip, who spout opinions without the facts, who trap themselves in their own self-centered verbiage. 

But the moment such thoughts sneak up on me is the one in which I need to say, "God, what are You telling me in these words?" 

Verse 8 brought across to me the importance of refraining from anything like gossip. It says: "The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts."

There are several important points to remember when considering this wisdom given by God through Solomon.

First: From the Christian perspective, the gossip we pass on to others may be factually true or factually untrue. The thing that makes gossip gossip isn't its facticity; it's whether the gossip is less than charitable toward the subject of the gossip. 

In his explanation of the Eighth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor," Martin Luther says in The Small Catechism
We should fear and love God so that we do not betray, slander, lie, or gossip about our neighbors, but defend them, speak well of them, and put the most charitable construction on all that they do.
Gossip is designed to denigrate other human beings, questioning things like their integrity, trustworthiness, or intelligence. And defending gossip by saying, "But it's all true," is, in the eyes of God, no defense.

Second: When we gossip, according to Proverbs 18:8, we are feeding people "choice morsels." Gossip is like a slowly-but-surely acting poison wrapped in chocolate and it becomes part of the person who receives it, distorting their views of those being gossiped about and those who pass on the gossip. Gossip harms its recipients spiritually, diminishing their capacity for love. 

A common saying is, "You are what you eat." As Christians who trust that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we believe that, as we receive Christ's in, with, and under the bread and the wine, Christ actually enters us, working to transform us from the inside out. Just so, gossip we receive with credulity stays with us and sets to work to lure us into sin and pride, to corrode our trust in God and others, to make us cynical, separating us from God and from others.

Gossip is horrible stuff: The one who gossips is like a drug pusher; the credulous recipient is an addicted junkie; and the entire process of gossip transmission and reception, like any other addiction, has a destructive impact on all who encounter pusher or junkie. 

We need to pray both that God would keep us from engaging in gossip and from giving it a place in our lives. 

At least this is how God spoke to me in this verse today. What do you think?

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Call to Be a Witness

[This message--or something very like it--was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday morning.]

Today, in the fourth installment of our series based on the New Testament book of Acts, Church Lessons, we begin and rather than ending the message with today’s key point: Every disciple in Christ’s Church is a witness for Christ

When Jesus met the surviving eleven apostles just before He ascended to heaven, He told them and through them, you and me, “You will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). 

For us, the issue is not whether we will be His witnesses. Jesus says that we will be. By our lives and by our words, we who have been baptized and confess Jesus is our Lord will inevitably give witness to whether we truly believe, as Peter and John said of Jesus in our lesson from Acts last week: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). 

Our call as Jesus’ disciples is to tell the world about the freedom from sin and death that God makes available only to those who turn from sin and entrust their lives to Jesus Christ.

But, how do we fulfill that call faithfully? 

Our first Bible lesson for the day, Acts 8:26-40, provides us with good modeling in answer to that question.

But first, some background is needed. The disciple who witnesses for Jesus in our lesson is Philip. This is not Philip the apostle, one of the twelve called and intensively trained by Jesus to be a public leader of the Church. Philip the apostle was sort of like a modern-day pastor. The Philip in today’s lesson from Acts is a layperson. This Philip, let’s call him Philip the Layperson, is worth observing as he shows us how to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

Verses 26 and 27: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went.”

The first thing that faithful witnesses understand is that God speaks to His people

Definitively of course, God speaks to us through His Word. The person steeped in God’s Word, who spends time quietly asking God to speak to them through the Word, who maintains intimacy with God through regular worship with God’s people, mutual accountability in His Church, and open, humble prayer, will find God’s Word almost unavoidable as they go through their daily lives. 

I’m no spiritual superstar, but the other day while I was consciously thinking of something else shortly after I’d been praying, God brought to my attention an item I needed to pray over and act upon. 

God will usually speak to us with such a still, small voice, I believe (1 Kings 19:12, KJV). 

Philip the Layperson had an advantage I’ve never experienced: God sent an angel to this man of God and this angel, this messenger from God, told him what he needed to do. 

What God told Philip he needed to do wasn’t convenient. He was to travel from Jerusalem to Gaza, on foot, a distance of some 43-miles. 

What’s worse, God gives Philip no idea why he’s supposed to do this! 

But Philip went anyway. 

If we want to be faithful witnesses for Jesus, we need to go where God leads us, even to inconvenient places and situations. Even when we don’t know why.

The latter part of verse 27 forward: “And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’”

The man in the chariot was a Gentile. He was what the Jews called a “God-fearer,” a Gentile who believed that the God of the Jews was the one true God of the whole earth. He was heading home from Jerusalem, where he had worshiped God. In his soul, Philip could hear the Holy Spirit telling him to go to this man. From Philip, we learn that God calls faithful witnesses to meet people where they are so that they can help those people come to know Jesus

Philip literally and physically came alongside the man. We must do the same with the spiritually-disconnected people we encounter each day in our lives. 

God wants us to go to them to establish relationships through which we can give Jesus to them and, following the power of the Holy Spirit, make disciples. 

Sometimes, the people who need to hear from faithful witnesses are members of Christ’s Church. A Pew Poll released this past week shows that 20% of all who say they are Christians don’t believe in the God of the Bible

As inconvenient as it is, we need more Philips!

Verse 30 forward: “So Philip ran to him [Philip had to run to catch up with a chariot, when you think about it] and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading? And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And the invited Philip to come up and sit with him.”

I love these verses. After the habit of the day, the Ethiopian was reading out loud. Philip could hear that the Ethiopian was reading from the prophet Isaiah. On hearing this, Philip didn’t talk down to him. “Do you find these verses confusing?” is his basic question of the Ethiopian. 

Faithful witnesses establish non-threatening relationships with people who don’t yet know Jesus. Relationships of love and respect are the conduits God uses to woo spiritually-disconnected people to eternal life with Jesus Christ. 

Faithful witnesses who love the spiritually disconnected are the ones God uses to call those disconnected people to repentance and new life through faith in Jesus. They tell people the sometimes hard truth with love

In the face of Philip’s love and concern, the Ethiopian asked Philip to come on board his chariot to explain the Word of God about Jesus to him. As we see from the ensuing verses, Philip was ready to give an account for the hope he had in Jesus (1 Peter 3:15-16) because he had spent time in intimate fellowship with Christ, Christ’s Word, and Christ’s Church. Faithful witnesses are prepared to share their faith in Christ because they are on intimate terms with Christ and Christ’s Church

We will never be faithful witnesses for Christ if we wall ourselves off, literally or otherwise, from the tough but life-giving pursuit of being in community with our sisters and brothers in Christ.

After Philip told the eunuch the good news of Jesus, Acts says: “as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” 

During my seminary internship, between Easter services, a young woman from the church, a freshman in college, approached me. “Mark, this is Ann [not my wife, a different Ann], my college roommate. I’ve been sharing Christ with her this year at school. She’s been going to worship with me on Sundays. She knows now that she believes in Jesus. But she’s never been baptized. Could she be now?” 

I ran to the pastor, who was already in line for Easter breakfast in the fellowship hall, and a few minutes later, in the sanctuary, between services, that young woman was baptized. Faithful witnesses, like my internship supervisor, know that the sooner a person is baptized, the betterIn Holy Baptism, God claims us as His own and the power of the Holy Spirit to create faith in Christ within us is unleashed in our lives. We need to sic the Holy Spirit on people as soon as possible. That's why we baptize infants!

There wasn’t going to be a church back in Ethiopia where the Ethiopian eunuch could be baptized and at that moment in Gaza, the nearest apostle was 43 miles away; so Philip, the faithful witness, baptized the man. It might make some uncomfortable to think that they could be the ones, like Philip, called by God not just to share Christ with others, but, in some circumstances, to baptize them. But Philip shows us that faithful witnesses who are passionate to see others in the kingdom of God and not eternally damned will be sensitive to heed God’s call on the spur of the moment.

Verse 39 forward: “And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”

Philip didn’t rest on his laurels. The word translated here as preached from the Greek in which Luke wrote Acts is εὐηγγελίζετο. It doesn’t really refer to preaching. It literally says that Philip “good newsed.” Everywhere Philip went, he good newsed; he shared Christ. 

Acts 21 tells us about a visit the apostle Paul paid on Philip the Layperson at his home in Caesarea Maritima. Philip must have done a lot of good newsing at home because Paul discovered that Philip had four daughters who were prophets, adept at sharing the Word of God. 

Faithful witnesses know that the time to give out the good news, the gospel, of new life for all who believe in Jesus is now, no matter how young or old we may be.

During a physical this past week, my doctor asked me when I was going to retire. I think he asked me partly because we’re the same age and because, like me, he loves his work. I told him that my current plan is to retire at 70, in about five years. But even if I do retire as a pastor in five years or ten years, I will have the same call that I had before I became a pastor, a call as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to be about the business of good newsing, of being a faithful witness. 

This is your call too. It’s the call that all who bear Christ’s name through our baptism and our faith in Jesus share, to be faithful witnesses for the One Who has saved us by grace through faith in Him. No matter what our age or our circumstance may we, like Philip the Layperson, always be faithful to this call. Amen