Saturday, June 02, 2018

Grace and Duty

Today in my quiet time with God, I was struck by this Bible verse involving David, ancient Israel's greatest king:
In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem. (2 Samuel 11:1)

[This illustration seems to capture well the boredom, languor, and lust that David gave a foothold in his life as he failed to do his duty.]

So begins the sorriest part of David’s life.

Until now, he exercised faith in pursuing God and God’s will.

But one spring, when his duty was to lead his armies in war, he decided to stay home in Jerusalem.

What led to David’s decision to stay behind?

  • Was he tired of war? That would be understandable. But he still had his duty.
  • Was he feeling entitled? That can happen when we reach a certain age. But we still have our duty.
  • Did he feel that the armies could do well without him, that he had trained them well enough? Maybe. But it was still the duty of kings to go to battle with their armies.
  • Was he tired of doing his duty, in need of what people today call “me time”? Yes, but...
Somewhere I’ve read that Martin Luther was asked how best to discern the will of God for our lives. The Scriptures give us a good picture of God’s will for all of our lives. But, Luther said, if God’s will is still unclear to us, we should ask ourselves, “What is my duty?”

God has made each of us part of families, communities, nations. We are called to love God and to love others. This will first be expressed in the networks of relationships I have with my family, community, and nation. What’s my duty to them?

When I am baptized, I become part of another community, God’s eternal family, the Church. In the Church, as Christ’s disciple, per Jesus’ new commandment, I am called also to love my fellow believer as Christ has loved me, with sacrificial love that puts the interests of others over my own.

David’s dereliction of duty, while forgiven by God, had horrible consequences.

So what happened that spring when David should have been with his army but stayed behind in his royal home?

He got up from his bed one night (2 Samuel 11:2). (Was he unable to sleep? Did he have a conscience that was pricking him? We don’t know.) While walking on the roof of his home, he caught sight of a woman bathing, Bathsheba.

David had her brought to her house. They slept together. (It’s hard for a woman to refuse a king bent on misusing his power to gain sexual favors, especially when that king has been anointed by God.)

Problem #1: Bathsheba was already married. (As was the king.)

Problem #2: Bathsheba became pregnant, while her husband, Uriah, was off to war.

The problem with the sinful avoidance of one’s duty is that, as it creates more problems unless you bring it all to God with repentance and faith, it only leads to more sinful avoidance of one’s duty.

David doesn’t want to take responsibility for his child. So, he arranges for Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, a member of the armies that David should have been leading, to get leave to go home to his wife in Jerusalem. Ostensibly, Uriah’s mission is to report to David on the battle’s progress. But David’s hope is that the soldier will go to his home, make love to his wife, and create the plausible fiction that the baby Bathsheba is carrying is Uriah’s, not David’s. Uriah doesn’t take the bait: He refuses to enjoy the comforts of home while his comrades are still sleeping in the fields by night and fighting enemies by day. (In contrast to David.)

That’s when David hatches another plan. He enlists his field commander as a co-conspirator to ensure that Uriah is killed in battle. That way, David could bring Bathsheba into his house as his wife. Clearly, that hadn’t been David’s original plan, but it would, he thought, let him save face.

The plot unfolds. Everything goes according to plan…

Until the prophet Nathan confronts David for his sin.

Unlike his predecessor, Saul, who expressed regret for his sin, mainly for getting caught, David is genuinely repentant. (Psalm 51 is his song of repentance and restoration to God.)

Nonetheless, there are times when sin has its consequences. God’s grace is such that whether the world catches us out or not, He will forgive the repentant. But our sins, even the forgiven ones, may set consequences in motion over which we have no control.

In David’s case: 
  • The child he had not wanted died, bringing grief to both Bathsheba and him. 
  • A second child was conceived, Solomon. Bathsheba, who probably never loved David, would scheme and connive to put Solomon on the throne, making David the object of palace intrigue. 
  • Solomon would become Israel’s most powerful king, but he would also spiritually destroy Israel, introducing the worship of deities other than the world’s one true God Who had called Israel into being.
All this happened because David failed to do his duty.

None of this should be interpreted, of course, as saying that David, in failing to do his duty, was failing to earn his salvation. THAT’S NOT THE WAY GOD WORKS!

We are saved by grace through our faith in the God Who has, since the days of David, been definitively revealed in Jesus Christ. Believers are called to do their duty NOT as a means of gaining forgiveness and new life from God. We’re called to our duty of loving God, loving neighbor, and loving fellow believers IN RESPONSE TO THE FACT THAT THROUGH JESUS AND OUR FAITH IN HIM, WE ARE ALREADY SAVED FROM SIN AND DEATH!

The doing of our duty then becomes a way of expressing gratitude for unmerited grace: the gifts of forgiveness, new life, and purpose that belong to those who trust in Christ.

There have been times in the past few days when I have gotten “fussy” with God about the fulfillment of my duties. (Not so much in my work, but in my life in general.) 

I’ve murmured and whined. 

For this, I repent. And I ask God the Father, in the name of Jesus, to help me do my duty “...heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…” (Colossians 3:23). 

Because, in the end, in all my duties and relationships, whatever good I do, I really do it for the God I know in Christ. 
  • The God Who loved me enough to go to the cross, 
  • loved me enough to offer me salvation as a free gift, 
  • loves me enough to stand by me always (Matthew 28:20)
God loves me in spite of who I am and what I often do. That should be reason enough for me to do my duty.

God, forgive me when in my fussy selfishness, Your grace doesn’t seem reason enough to do my duty to You and to others. And when I “lose my mind,” forgetting what I know of You and Your grace, restore me to reason and gratitude to You, Lord.

Today, Lord, my prayer is David’s on being confronted for his sin with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah: 

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me. 
Make me willing this day, Lord, to do my duty. (Psalm 51:10-12) In the name of Jesus, I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I'm also a sinner and, by God's grace in Christ, a saint.]

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Real Leaders Don't Take Themselves Seriously

We should be wary of any would-be leaders who take themselves and their “dignity” seriously. That's part of what God is teaching me today.

Today, during my quiet time, I read the account in 2 Samuel of King David bringing the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem. The ark was the place where God dwelt on the earth. In later centuries, it would be housed in the temple, behind a curtain that shrouded “the holy of holies.” (Later still, at the moment Christ died on the cross, the perfect sacrifice for our sins, the curtain tore, meaning that God’s holiness and power were no longer confined to a particular place, but can go out to all who turn from sin and trust in Christ as their Savior and God. And, as Jesus said would happen, this God we know in Christ can be worshiped and known anywhere by anyone. [John 4:21-25])

When the ark arrived in Jerusalem, David took off his royal robes--though he was still clothed in the common garb men wore in those days--and put on the ephod. The ephod was a sacred vestment worn by priests (and a few kings) while worshiping or offering sacrifices to God. Wearing a commoner’s attire and the ephod, David danced through the streets of Jerusalem, honoring, praising, and worshiping God.

But 2 Samuel 6:16 says that one of David’s wives, Michal, the son of his predecessor, Saul, was unimpressed by David’s behavior: “As the ark of the Lord was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord, she despised him in her heart.”

Why did Michal despise David? A few verses later we learn why: “When David returned home to bless his household, Michal daughter of Saul came out to meet him and said, ‘How the king of Israel has distinguished himself today, going around half-naked in full view of the slave girls of his servants as any vulgar fellow would!’” (2 Samuel 6:20)

Michal’s words are sarcastic and untruthful. She thought it unseemly, as her father before her would have, for a king to be one of the people, to divest himself of royal robes, even to honor and worship God.

The hubris that Michal commends to David is precisely what led her father Saul to have such a disastrous kingship. Leaders who are more concerned with their own dignity, power, and position than with honoring God or identifying with their people are worthless.

Michal didn’t know the difference between humility and humiliation.

David’s response to Michal is telling: “It was before the Lord, who chose me rather than your father or anyone from his house when he appointed me ruler over the Lord’s people Israel—I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes. But by these slave girls you spoke of, I will be held in honor.” (2 Samuel 6:21-22) [Italics mine.]

Those who are jealous for their own “dignity” think nothing of elevating themselves above others, ignoring the will of God, refusing to repent or take responsibility when they make mistakes, even denying that they make mistakes. Even if, rarely, they do express regret for wrongs, it has more to do with regret for getting caught than it is for doing wrong in the first place. (In the Bible, Saul and Judas, the one who betrayed Jesus, have this latter trait in common, by the way.) They bully and are afraid of being bullied. They’re coarse and condemnatory, animated always to prove themselves to be the best. It was for all of these behaviors that God, with sorrow and regret, rejected Saul as Israel’s king (1 Samuel 15:10). 

You cannot be an effective, useful, or godly leader if all you can think about is yourself and your “dignity.” This is what cost Saul the favor of God. In fact, the Spirit of God totally left for Saul because of his self-obsession (1 Samuel 16:14.)

But leaders who are jealous for the Lord are unafraid of appearing “undignified” in the eyes of the world. They know too, like David, that those who humbly seek to follow the Lord themselves won’t regard a humble servant leader with contempt, but with respect.

David understood that he owed everything--his salvation, his calling, his life--to God. Like John the Baptist referring to Jesus, God-enfleshed, David’s humble worship of God said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

David understood what Jesus later taught: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Matthew 20:25-28) (David, of course, wasn’t always a faithful servant leader. But he knew how to repent.)

If even the Creator of the universe is a servant-leader, then how could I presume to “lord it over people” as though I’m “all that”? Jesus says that the first will be last and the last will be first (Matthew 20:16).

My dignity doesn’t come from whether people bow and scrape to me, or whether I have loads of money, or whether I impose my will on others. My dignity comes from being a human being created in the image of God and, by God’s grace, from being made a part of His new and everlasting creation through Jesus Christ.

King or president, powerful or powerless, if I trust in and follow Christ, nothing can separate me from the love of God or from the dignity that comes from being, through Christ, a child of God.

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

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Being With You Is All That Matters

This is the journal entry from my quiet time with God today.

Look: “David asked him, ‘Why weren’t you afraid to lift your hand to destroy the Lord’s anointed?’” (2 Samuel 1:14)

The question is asked by David of the Amalekite who had brought news of Saul’s death to him. Saul, resentful of David, had marshaled armies to kill David for a long time. You might expect David to feel relief, even happiness, at the death of his tormentor. But he’s not.

In the course of conversation, David asks the Amalekite how he knows that Saul is dead. It turns out that the man had seen Saul on the battlefield, near death. Saul begged the man to take his life. While Saul’s feelings are understandable, this request is typical of him: Saul had a lifelong pattern of finding “easy ways” to avert responsibility without reference to the will of God. In fact, his entire sorry kingship was the result of just this impulse. Now, Saul, rather than facing death at the hands of enemies or his already severe wounds, begged this Amalekite to give him a way out. Saul feared humiliation more than he feared dying. The Amalekite complied with Saul’s request.

David was horrified that the man who stood before him had the temerity “to destroy the Lord’s anointed.” Saul had long fallen prey to the idea that he was bigger than the office to which he had been called, that this office belonged to him to be wielded in ways that pleased or made things easy for him. Whenever people denigrate their callings by viewing them as their entitlements, they make their egos larger and their souls smaller. And they make their egos larger precisely because they are filled with feelings of inferiority. This is why Israel’s last great judge told Saul after God had become vexed with Saul’s flights of egotism born of inferiority: “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you king over Israel…” (1 Samuel 15:17)  

Saul had been called and anointed by God to be Israel’s first king. Had he relied on God, respected his calling and been humble about his person, all would likely have gone well for Saul and for Israel.

But Saul reversed things: He denigrated his calling and been arrogant and self-seeking for himself and his own glory, constantly replacing his own faulty, impatient judgments for the will of God, sought in God’s Word and in prayer.

To the last, Saul sought to have his own way, which is why he begged an Amalekite to kill him. He wanted the man to violate the sixth commandment: “You shall not murder.”

David, by contrast, had respect for the office to which Saul had been anointed. (Although as David’s life unfolded, he wasn’t always respectful of his calling.) Samuel, in fact, had already, before Saul’s death, anointed David to be his successor.

For this and other reasons, Saul had tried many times to kill David. And David, had many chances to kill Saul, an easy way out that would have enjoyed the support of many in Israel. But each time he had the chance to kill Saul, David refused. He would not destroy or harm God’s anointed one; he wouldn’t usurp the office of king from Saul. He wouldn’t take what God intended to give to him.

And David was horrified that this Amalekite would show such contempt for the will of God, which had made Saul king, by murdering the Lord’s anointed one.

Listen: There are lots of lessons here. But one of them is to patiently seek to do God’s will, to not force our will on circumstances in the search for closure or convenience or to avoid the difficult. God says through the prophet Isaiah: “...they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:31)

That’s true. But in the waiting, we’ll also experience the temptation to despair, the temptation to give up, the temptation to seek human closure rather than divine solution. The adversity and pain that sometimes happens in the waiting can be the road by which God refines us, makes us new, teaches us dependence, integrity, and most of all, faith.

The apostle Peter talks about how God works in the lives of Christians through adversity near the beginning of his first-century letter to the churches in Asia Minor:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:3-7)

David was renewed in his faith and in his life by God through the strength God provides to those willing to admit that they don’t know it all, control it all, understand it all.

When things are unendurable, believers in the God we know in Jesus own the reality of their vulnerability and give up on trying to draw strength from within themselves, drawing it instead from God. God gives us His endurance.

Paul wrote “...for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:13). When I can own my weakness and my need of Christ, He fills me with His strength.

For Saul, there was nothing worse than being judged as weak or unsuccessful by the world. He loathed to see his poll numbers go down, his generalship deemed weak or inadequate.

In this, he wrecked his life and showed himself to be a fool because wisdom and strength only come from God. Proverbs 3:5-6, one of my favorite memory verses from the Bible, says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”

Saul didn’t trust God and he did lean on his own understanding. He didn’t submit to God and he took a crooked path away from God and the life that only God can give.

David was always at his best when he was dependent on God. Like all of us, he could be a fool (that adultery and murder thing was a disaster). But he also knew what to do when, like Saul, his life got off track. His confessions of sin and professions of faith, spoken by a man broken by his willfulness still move me:

“Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” (Psalm 51:10-12)

Respond: Forgive me, God, for the sake of Jesus, for wanting to take easy ways. I don’t seek to suffer, of course; that would be masochism. But I do seek not to avoid adversity, challenge, difficulty, or opposition. I do seek to trust in You when things aren’t perfect, when the going gets tough. I do seek to thank You and honor You even in the midst of tough times.

Forgive me too, for wanting to deny my vulnerability, for pretending invincibility. I know that these pretenses act as walls that keep Your grace, power, guidance, and wisdom from penetrating my life. When I’m busy building up my own walls of invincibility, I can’t be the clay that’s molded by its Maker.

Help me to remember how essential it is to sacrifice my broken spirit to You, as David wrote: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) Help me to lose my pride and so gain Your power in my life, even in the face of death.

And if my spirit isn’t broken by the realization of my sin, imperfection, and mortality, break me, smash me in pieces; it’s only in being broken by You that I can be made new. It’s only by volunteering for last place that I’m qualified to take the place You assign to me.

Forgive me for being inclined in my thinking and in my speech, to lift myself up. James says: “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up” (James 1:7). Help me to rely on You to lift me or place me wherever You want me to be, because wherever You put me is where I should be. Help me to embrace the ambition of Psalm 84:10: “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”

Being with You, Lord, and having You with me is all that matters. That’s where the grace is. That’s where the strength is. That’s where the life is.

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Gift We Could Never Earn

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

John 3:1-17
On this Holy Trinity Sunday, a message, appropriately and only coincidentally, with three points.

Scholars speculate about what motives the Jewish teacher Nicodemus might have had for visiting Jesus under cover of darkness one night. 

Was he trying to avoid bloodshed? 

Was he beginning to believe in Jesus? 

We don’t know for sure. 

But, whatever his motives, I do think that Nicodemus felt that he was conferring a privilege on Jesus by visiting Him. After all, Nicodemus was a respected scholar, a renowned ruler of his faith. (In the original Greek in which John wrote his gospel, Nicodemus is referred to as the teacher of the Jews.)

But, when Nicodemus comes to converse with Jesus, the carpenter’s son from Nazareth delivers essentially the same message that He’s been delivering to all who hang on His every word. “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” Jesus says. “There are no privileged characters in the kingdom of God,” Jesus was telling Nicodemus. Or to put it another way, "Everyone is a privileged character in the kingdom of God, all equally so."

So, the first point of today’s message: We all need the new life God gives through Jesus. Every single person is a sinner. And every Christian is a sinner given a new life by God. Whatever our status in the eyes of the world, we need to be born again. We need to be created all over again.

This message from Jesus had to have been jarring, maybe even a bit insulting, for Nicodemus. Jesus seemed to be telling him that he wasn’t such a privileged character, after all. Even he needed to exchange his old life of sin and selfishness and presumption, to embrace one simple title, the one that every Christian receives from God above in the waters of Holy Baptism: Child of God.

Nicodemus, this prominent, powerful teacher and ruler of the Jews, may not have been sure that he wanted to become a child of God, at least not on Jesus’ terms of unconditional surrender to Jesus. He may have been content, as all of us can be after we've gotten to a certain age, with being a grown-up who got to do whatever he wanted. 

And Nicodemus couldn’t have been too keen on the notion that he, just like all the other sinners Jesus interacted with each day, needed to get a new life

More than anything, probably, Nicodemus didn’t want to accept God’s new life as a free gift. It's human nature to try to attain things by our own efforts or even thievery rather than being humbled by having to accept a gift we didn't get by our own devices, brawn, brains, or shrewdness. It goes against our grain. We’d like to think that we deserve the riches of heaven, as well as the accolades of others. 

But that's not the way it works in the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring to us through His death and resurrection! “For it 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 kingdom of God that belongs not to those who earn it or deserve it, but to all with faith in Jesus

Steve Taylor, a Christian rock singer, with a satirical wit, says, “Jesus is for losers.” And he’s right! Jesus belongs to those willing to lose control over their lives and lose their sin and lose death.

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus tells Nicodemus, “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” 

Every time a person is baptized, whatever their age, born from above, and every time a person renews their faith through daily confession of sin and profession of faith in Jesus’ name, the Holy Trinity is at work to give them new life: 
  • God the Father sends the Son. 
  • The Son offers the benefits of His death and resurrection on the believer. 
  • God the Holy Spirit preaches the Word about Jesus to us through the Bible, the Sacraments, fellow believers, and even preachers so that we can grasp the gifts of forgiveness and salvation God offers us for free. 

This is all God’s doing, not ours.

So, point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God. We can’t take credit for our faith. It’s pure gift.

When, at the initiative of the Father, through the action of Jesus on the cross and at the tomb, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we believe and believe, again and again, God gives us new birth, new life. 

This is part of what Jesus is getting at in the Bible’s most famous verse, which appears in our Gospel lesson, John 3:16: “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.”

That word that we translate as believes can be more literally rendered as is believing. The tense in the Greek is more complicated than our present tense in English. It denotes continuous action. Belief isn't static but keeps being renewed

The idea is that the believer is trusting God, not just because she or he was baptized or confirmed or had a warm. fuzzy feeling back in the day, but because they’re actively trusting Jesus Christ today, in this moment. Jesus is their Lord now and they are trusting Jesus moment to moment. They keep surrendering to Jesus every day and they know that they have to keep surrendering to Him, lest the devil, the world, or their sinful selves take control of their minds, hearts, and lives.

Of course, because new and renewing life from God is a gift over which we have no control, we can’t decide to be born again. But we can, like a child about to be born who has no control over the contractions that will happen in labor, respond to the promptings that position us to be born anew. 

We can put down our dukes and let the Holy Spirit have His way with us. 

We can let God love us. 

We can bow to the authority of God’s Word as expressed by Jesus and the Ten Commandments and surrender our thoughts and actions and work and play and bodies and mouths and past, present, and future to Jesus Christ.

This leads to point three: We need to keep being born from above

Some days, in times of Scripture reading and prayer, I come close to God and see the blazing light of God’s purity and I see my darkness. 

I see my sin and I see His grace. 

I see His power and see my weakness. 

I can hardly believe that God, the maker of the universe, bothers with me, loves me, and gives me new life. 

And often, in light of all this, I say, “Thank You, God, for not striking me dead as I deserve. It’s the judgment my sin has earned me. Thank You for the gift of life with You forever!” 

The God we know in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is truly the only One deserving of the adjective, awesome!

Three points then about the Three-in-One God on this Holy Trinity Sunday. 

Point one: There are no privileged characters and everyone is a privileged character in the kingdom of God. We all need the new life God the Father gives through Jesus, God the Son. 

Point two: We can take no credit for the new and everlasting life that comes from God the Holy Spirit. It is pure gift. 

Point three: We need to keep being born above, letting the Savior Who put religious teachers in their places and Who accepted even prostitutes and extortionists, put us in our places in His kingdom. 

We need to let Him accept us and make us His forever.

Let God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit--give you new life every single day and in eternity. Trust in Him. Amen!