Friday, May 18, 2018

Living the Word God Gives

This a journal entry from my quiet time of over a week ago. To see how I approach my quiet time with God, see here.

Look: “Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.” (Proverbs 23:12)

This verse makes me think of the time I spend each day doing nothing: watching ball games in which I have little interest, loading up on the latest news from Washington D.C., perusing Facebook or Twitter, entertaining myself with trivialities.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with ball games, the news, or connecting with ideas and friends on social media. The question is how much of that sort of input can finally erode or eliminate my capacity for being a faithful disciple of Jesus?

What is the tipping point at which these trivial pursuits take over my life, making me just what the devil wants Jesus’ disciples to be: ineffectual, distant from God, spending far too little time in God’s Word or in prayer or in study and reflection rooted in God’s Word, spending far too little time living out my relationship with Christ or sharing Him with others?

I find it easy to become more consumed with the world than I am with the Word.

When I stop applying God’s instruction to my life, I’m a sap, a pushover, for the temptations to sin presented by the devil, the world, and my sinful self.

Listen: Spending time in God’s Word and God’s mission with God’s people and on my own as a redeemed saint/sinner is essential.

But I’m to be more than a reader of God’s Word; by the power of the Holy Spirit, I am called to apply God’s Word to my life.

I am to act and live in the freedom of grace given by God to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

People trained to be neurosurgeons, bricklayers, or lawyers are expected to apply what they learn.

Each is meant to enter into practice, an interesting term implying that while those trained never stop learning, they daily practice applying what they’ve learned. They perform surgeries. They lay bricks. They try cases or provide legal counsel.

Disciples are students, which is what the term New Testament Greek word translated as disciple, mathetes, means. Even as we keep learning to be more like Jesus, whatever our daily callings may be, we’re to daily apply the things we’ve learned to how we live as followers of Jesus.

Disciples are also teachers. I am called to both be and to make disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).

In fact, to be a disciple includes these two elements side-by-side: Being, making. I apply God’s Word to my life; I share that Word with others. I let the Word, Christ Himself, do its work on me; I share it so that He may do His same life-giving work on others.

And God’s Word, definitively shared in the Bible, but always new as I attend to it, not only teaches me old lessons, it keeps teaching me new ones. I then share or teach others these lessons from God, the truth of God centered in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the old and the new lessons. Jesus says in Matthew 13:52: “...every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old."

If I don’t pay regular heed and give regular, prayerful consideration to God’s Word every day, if I’m not seeking to apply what God is telling me, teaching me, and calling me to every day, I risk losing sight of God, His will for me, His grace for me, His love for me. I risk sinking into a terminally trivial life. In fact, I’m called to a life of significance, a gift of grace that God intends for everyone who comes to faith in Christ. First Peter 2:9 says: “ are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

So, I need to keep attending to and applying God’s Word to my life both to keep from forgetting all about God in my own life and in order to fulfill my mission as a disciple by sharing that Word from others. Through Moses, God told the people of Israel, speaking of His Torah, the way of life: “Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be many in the land the Lord swore to give your ancestors, as many as the days that the heavens are above the earth.”

Jesus warned how the pursuits of this world can crowd Him out in His parable of the seeds, representing His Word, that fell on different kinds of soil. Some seed, Jesus explains, “fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants” (Matthew 13:7). Jesus later explains: “The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22) In other words, we lose our spiritual fruitfulness when God gets crowded out of our lives.

James talked about how easy it is to lose sight of God when we don’t take the time to daily reconnect with Him in prayer and contemplation of His Word, weekly reconnect through worship, and regularly apply what God is teaching us in our daily lives. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do [apply or live out] what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.” (James 1:23-24)

Respond: God, today: (1) Give me the opportunity and give me what I need to use the opportunity to share the Gospel with a spiritually disconnected person; (2) Help me to spend time in Your Word and apply it; (3) Help me to engage in the “mutual conversation and consolation”* with sisters and brothers in Christ. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

*This phrase comes from The Smalcald Articles, one of the basic confessional documents of the Lutheran movement meant to explain Biblical faith. You can find the Articles along with the other confessional statements in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, available at Amazon.

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

Whose Will Comes First? Not Mine

This is the journal entry from my quiet time with God one day this past week.

Look: “So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers. The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” (1 Samuel 4:10-11)

Israel and the high priest, Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, had largely forgotten God. They relied on their own ideas and impulses. After going into battle against the Philistines and losing, the Israelites hit on a plan: They would bring the ark in which God’s presence on earth dwelt onto the battlefield.

The Philistines understood that Israel’s God had been faithful to the Israelites, delivering them from slavery in Egypt, giving them victories as they took the places assigned to them in the promised land. So, they were afraid and resolved to fight hard when they saw the Israelites had dragged “their god” onto the field of battle. The Philistines crushed the Israelites and took the ark of the covenant besides.

Listen: What happened?

(1) The Israelites weren’t following God, they were using God for their own purposes. They didn’t ask, “Lord, what should we do?” They asked, “Lord, bless what we’ve already decided that we’re going to do, no matter what Your purposes may be.”

(2) They treated the ark of the covenant not as the place where God dwelt on earth, but as a good luck charm. If God isn’t in the things that we do as His people, we will fail no matter how many times we invoke God’s name.

Respond: Today, in my decisions and in my words, help me to seek and react to Your will, not my preferences. In Jesus’ name. Amen

Monday, May 14, 2018

When You've Got Decisions to Make (Church Lessons, Part 6)

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

Acts 1:12-26

When I was in school and we neared the end of an academic year or of a quarter, we reviewed all that we’d learned before we took the final test or heard the final bell. Today is the last Sunday of the Easter Season, 2018. Throughout this season, we’ve looked at the New Testament book of Acts. Acts is the history of the early Church, from Jesus’ ascension somewhere between 28 and 33 AD until sometime around 90 AD. We’ve considered how the early Church followed Jesus, lived life, and shared Jesus with others after Jesus had gone back to heaven. Today, we will review the lessons God has been teaching us throughout Acts. 

But there’s a sense in which all of the lessons we’ve derived from Acts this Easter Season are summed up in the sixth one we cull from today’s appointed first Bible lesson, Acts 1:12-26. It's this: Every decision we make as the Church and as individual disciples is to be rooted in God’s Word and in prayer

In other words, our every action, our every word, are to be rooted in a relationship of intimacy with God that we share together as sisters and brothers in Christ.

In John 15, Jesus tells His Church, including us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) 

If we do anything in life apart from the life-giving power that only comes to human beings through Jesus Christ, apart from an intimate relationship with the risen and ascended Jesus, we will never accomplish all that we might otherwise

Proverbs 16:25 tells us, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” We need to be connected with the God we know in Jesus in order to make the right decisions in life. 

As the Church and as individual disciples of Jesus, our standard isn’t what the world thinks. 

It isn’t what the standards of this or that profession proscribe. 

The only One Whose say-so matters is Jesus. 

That’s why the apostle Paul said, “I can do all this through him [Christ] who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

A friend recently asked me about a decision I’d made and why I felt so confident about it. 

Above all, I wanted the person to know that I have no confidence in Mark Daniels. Zero. 

There were two very different reasons for my confidence, I explained. 

First, because I had spent time every day with God in His Word and in prayer. 

Second, because the decision I sensed that God was calling me to make was precisely the opposite of what I had wanted to make before I started praying. I’d preferred the easier route; God pointed me to the harder one. 

What, my friend wondered, had God done to make things clear to me. I told him that it was the same way God has always made things clear to me from the day I came to faith in Jesus. No voice from heaven. No flashing lights. No bolt from heaven. Just peace, clarity, and certainty. 

I liken it to the experience of Elijah who sought a word from God. God didn’t make Himself known to Elijah in a mighty wind that cracked open ancient rock formations. God didn’t reveal Himself or His Word to Elijah in an earthquake. God didn’t disclose Himself or His will to Elijah in a raging fire. Elijah only finally perceived God in “a gentle whisper,” or as another translation puts it, “a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). 

Elijah experienced “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). 

And that’s what you and I can experience when we seek intimacy with God, when we root everything we do and say in the Word of God and in prayer in Jesus’ name.

We find the early Church acting on that belief in today’s first lesson, Acts 1:12-26. Let’s set the stage: The eleven remaining apostles have just returned from the Mount of Olives from which they had watched the resurrected Jesus ascend back to heaven. Just before that, Jesus told them to wait for the Holy Spirit’s power before they pursued the mission of the Church, making disciples. 

The apostles are to wait. 

And how do they wait? 

Verse 13: “When they [the apostles] arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” 

The apostles and the others with them spent their time waiting by praying. We don’t know the content of their prayers in Jesus’ name. But we do know that they prayed. They waited on God.

After a period of prayer, Acts tells us, starting at verse 15, Peter felt compelled to speak. As he’d been praying, Peter had also been considering the Word of God

Listen: Prayer that isn’t rooted in God’s Word can deteriorate into a self-absorption that leads us away from God. Considering God’s Word as we pray can remind us that our primary concerns, in order, need to be: God first, others second, ourselves last. 

But considering God’s Word without prayer can turn Bible-reading into an intellectual exercise, the acquisition of facts untethered from God. You get bragging rights at the next small group or Bible study meeting.

Peter knew that prayer and consideration of God's Word need to go together. So, as he prayed, he remembered or read two passages from the Psalms, Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8. As he prayed, Peter understood the application of these two verses to the life of the Church. Always, as we read Scripture, we need to be asking God, "How does this apply to me today? What does this passage tell me I need to see or do today?" 

Peter, in prayer, considering God's Word, and considering the life of the infant Church, saw an application in those two passages from the Psalms.
Let me explain: Jesus was the fulfillment of the mission of salvation and new life God had started Israel, with its twelve patriarchs, the great-grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. 

Israel’s entire purpose for being was to bring God’s salvation to the world through the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, God's Anointed King.

When Jesus called apostles, He called twelve of them. That was no accident! Through the apostles' proclamation of new and everlasting life for all who turn from sin and trust in Jesus, a greater Israel, one made up of Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus, was to come into being

Judas had been called to be an apostle. But he had betrayed Jesus and defected to Satan, the Evil One. The psalms told Peter that someone who, like the other apostles, had witnessed Jesus’ resurrection had to take Judas’ place as an apostle, a patriarch of God’s enlarged Israel so that the mission of the Church could proceed as God intended.

Now, if Peter and the others were Americans like us, he might have said, “Let’s take a vote for a replacement apostle.” 

Instead, the group came up with the names of two men who had been with Jesus from the day that Jesus was baptized in the Jordan until they saw Him risen from the grave, then asked God to show which of the two--Justus called Barsabbas or Matthias--it should be. 

They cast lots to figure out who God chose. We don’t know exactly what the Bible meant when it spoke of “casting lots”: It could have been tossing dice, drawing straws, or something else. But the point is, when God’s people “cast lots,” they weren’t putting their faith in dice or straws. They were trusting God to show them what to do after they had prayed and considered God’s Word

The lot fell to Matthias and, at that moment, having a full complement of twelve apostles, the Church was ready for the coming the Holy Spirit. 

I wonder whether after the lots had been cast if there wasn’t someone in that room who wasn’t sure about Matthias and was tempted to suggest, “How about if we make it two out of three?” 

However tempted any of them may have felt, all accepted that, because they were people rooted in prayer and God’s Word, Matthias was the apostle God had chosen.

The New Testament book of Acts can help us to answer the question: After we have been baptized and can say that we believe in Jesus as our God and Savior, now what? How do we live as the Church? How do we live as Christian disciples? (It's interesting to note that when Luke set out to give us a clue about the answers to these questions from the experience of the first-century Church, he didn't write the Book of Just Hanging Around. He wrote the Book of Acts!)

The lessons the book of Acts has taught us this Easter Season have included: 

  • (1) In all ways, we are to seek to take care of the needs of our fellow believers so that together, we can be authentic witnesses for the new life God is establishing in all who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord
  • (2) Share Jesus, knowing what to share about Jesus, sharing what we have personally experienced of Jesus, and looking for opportunities to share Jesus
  • (3) The only power to overcome the sin, death, and futility of this world is the risen Jesus Christ. The true, eternal Church is made up of those who trustingly live as though they believe that’s true...because it is! 
  • (4) Every disciple in Christ’s Church is a witness for Christ
  • (5) God has no favorites
  • (6) Every decision we make as the Church and as individual disciples is to be rooted in God’s Word and in prayer.

And honestly, as I've said, if we can remember this last one, God will empower us to do the rest. 

We who make up Christ’s Church need each other. The New Testament describes the Church as Christ’s body. When any part of its body gives up on mutual care, sharing Jesus with others, trusting in Christ’s power over sin and death, being witnesses, accepting that God loves and Jesus died and rose for all people, or regularly praying and considering God’s Word, the body can’t function as Jesus intends for it to function. 

But it must all be rooted in a daily time with God in prayer and consideration of Scripture. It’s in these quiet times that God can 

  • assure us of His love for us, 
  • listen to our confession and grant us His forgiveness, and 
  • empower us to live the life that our Church Lessons show us are meant to be normal for everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord.

Look, I know how busy life can be. I’m right there with you. 

But I also find that the more time I spend in God’s Word and in prayer, the more time God seems to manufacture for me to get the things I need to get done accomplished

And I am assured through this regular interaction with the God I meet in Jesus that maybe the things I think I need to get done don’t need doing at all

In the end, the Christian life is simple: To stay close to Jesus and to share Jesus with others. Spending intimate time with the God we know in Jesus will help us to live that life.

Martin Luther, whose life was filled with busy-ness, including preaching, teaching, pastoring, leading, raising a family, and welcoming all sorts of people to his home, once said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours [of every day] in prayer.” Never try to face the frenzy of daily living before spending time with the One Who can conquer any storm!

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus tells us, “and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). When we come to Jesus, He will also give us the power to live faithfully for Him. 

Be ready for all that God has called you to do and be in life: Soak up His Word and pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

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