Friday, June 08, 2018

Remembering Who's the Clay and Who's the Potter

Any time God blesses us, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves lurk in the shadows to misuse them or suck us into a sense of entitlement.

I thought of this during my quiet time this morning, when I read 1 Kings, chapters 4-6. These chapters recount the early days of the reign of Solomon, Israel's third king and the son of David.

Here, everything is going great for the young king. He uses the wisdom God has given to him in answer to his prayer in order to bring peace and prosperity to Israel. He builds a permanent, if modest, temple (2700 square feet), to house the holy of holies and be the center for the worship of God. Everything is going well, according to 1 Kings 4:20: "The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy."

As a student of Scripture though, it's hard not to remember how badly all of this went. Acquiring more power and wealth because of the wisdom God had given to him, Solomon seemed to forget Who gave the wisdom and all the blessings.

Wealthy and celebrated everywhere, Solomon would later allow the worship of all sorts of idols. The people of his country followed suit.

Israel was so busy eating, drinking, and being happy that they didn't notice that they had become arrogant, self-reliant, and ungrateful, all while duly offering sacrifices and saying their prayers. They were great people, they seemed to think, and so the good times were their entitlement and would keep going on forever.

When Solomon died, Israel blew apart and its spiritual bankruptcy, along with its national and economic vulnerabilities, became apparent. Faithful people came to learn that Israel was nothing without God.

Ancient Israel, of course, was a theocracy. Modern nation-states, like the United States, Canada, Mexico, the countries of Europe, modern Israel, and elsewhere, are pluralistic democracies. We (I) don't want kings or despots. We (I) don't want national governments that tell me what religious affiliation if any, we (I) should adopt. It was in a religiously, culturally, and socially pluralistic culture that Christian faith, the fulfillment of ancient Israel's unique role in history, took root and grew into what it is today, the fastest-growing religious movement in the world.

So, while I think that there are lessons to be learned by contemporary nation-states and modern peoples from what happened to ancient Israel, as a Christian, I prefer a democratic republic over either theocracy or empire.

But the life of Solomon and the life ancient Israel do underscore that lesson I mentioned at the beginning: Any time God blesses us, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves lurk in the shadows to misuse them or suck us into a sense of entitlement.

God gives me the gift of life and there's nothing I've done to earn it.

In Christ, God gives me new and everlasting life with God and there's nothing I've done to earn it.

The Holy Spirit empowers me to believe God's good news in a bad news world and there's nothing in me that makes that possible.

I was born mired in self-absorption and self-worship. (No one is more about "me" than a baby.) But, as I trust in Christ and live in daily repentance and renewal, a daily close relationship with Him, the Lover of my soul, God is setting me free from me so that I can live as the grateful child of God who loves God and loves (all) my neighbors, just as human beings are meant to live. (Have you noticed that to be mired in ourselves not only can make us insufferable to others, but also to ourselves?)

I sometimes grow confused and think that the blessings in my life have come from my work, my insight, my shrewdness, my smarts. How can the pot presume to think that he's entitled and not utterly dependent on the potter?

It's to such stupid presumptions, often subtly and imperceptibly, that the devil, the world, and my sinful self try to lure me, sometimes successfully.

This is why maintaining daily appointments with God--through the reading of Scripture and prayer, as well as weekly worship and fellowship with other believers--is so important. God uses "means of grace" to reach me, interact with me, and, as is appropriate at any given time, call me to repentance and assure me of His grace and forgiveness.

Solomon, who started well, wandered from the God Who, nonetheless, always loved him. The same was true of Israel.

Dear God in heaven, You love me and want what's best for me. In Christ, You give me life for all eternity. As I look at Solomon and Israel, I ask you, don't let me be that guy. When I'm prone to wander, stop me in my tracks and turn me back to You. When I get full of myself, bring me back to reality. When I'm tempted to think about what I deserve, remind me that I am only Your child by grace. Let me always be Your guy, Lord, whether I'm wealthy or poor, powerful or a nobody of the world. In Jesus' name I pray. Amen

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

Thursday, June 07, 2018

"Watchful" Prayer?

Here's the journal entry from my quiet time with God yesterday. To see how I approach quiet time, see here. (That will explain the look, listen, respond headings you see below.)

Look: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Colossians 4:2)

This verse comes near the end of Paul’s letter to the Christian church in Colosse. He dictated it in 60 AD when he was imprisoned for his faith in Christ in Rome.

This verse struck me today for two reasons.

1. Even though he was in prison, Paul knew that believers in Jesus--disciples--always have reason to be thankful to God.

We have been saved from sin, death, futility, and darkness by God’s grace (His charity) through our faith in the crucified and risen Jesus.

Nothing can separate believers in Jesus from the new life God makes available to all people who believe in Jesus (Romans 8:31-39).

So, as Christians devote themselves to prayer--that communication with God the Father made possible by the name and power of Jesus, in which we can call down the powers of heaven to earth--we can do so with thankfulness, gratitude.
  • We can be thankful that because of Christ, we belong to God forever and that He stands with us always.
  • We can be thankful that, because of Christ, He hears our prayers and will, according to His wisdom, answer them.
  • We can be thankful that, as people assured of being raised with Jesus on the last day, God will ultimately and eternally, make all things work together for our good. So, Paul says that as Christians diligently pray, they can be thankful.
2. Paul also says that as we pray, we should be “watchful.”

Listen: I had some idea of what he might mean by this, but I asked, “Watchful of or for what?”

Watchful, an adjective, translates the Greek word, γρηγοροῦντες (transliteration: gregorountes), more literally, being watchful.

Forms of the word are used in several other places, helping to give an idea of what Paul means when he tells Christians to be watchful when they pray.

In Matthew 24:42, Jesus uses the word when speaking of the Day when He will return to the world: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.”

He reiterates this warning in Matthew 25:13: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

In Matthew 26:38, He tells Peter, James, and John, the inner circle, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

In that last verse, Jesus clearly doesn’t have in mind a watch that would allow them to fend off or attack the temple police and Roman soldiers who would soon come to arrest Him. Jesus came into the world with the specific intention of allowing the world to put Him on a cross to take the burden of human sin and death on His shoulders. When one of the disciples later did offer armed resistance to Jesus’ arrest, He chastised the disciple.

In Matthew 26:41, Jesus gives a clearer understanding of what He means when He tells the three apostles to watch. It seems to be the same meaning Paul has in mind when he tells the Colossian Christians (and us) to be watchful when we pray. After some time in agonized prayer, Jesus discovers that Peter, James, and John, far from watchful, have fallen asleep. He tells them: “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

To be watchful in prayer then means in part to pray that, whenever we’re weak or vulnerable (always), we will not be tempted to cave into the human default behavior of sin.

“And lead us not into temptation,” Jesus teaches us to pray, which might be more accurately rendered as, “Don’t allow us to pay attention to temptation rather than to You.” This is an important point because, as Martin Luther writes in The Small Catechism, “God indeed tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and protect us from this, that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or lead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins, but pray that when we are tempted in these ways, we may finally prevail and gain the victory.”

Respond: It doesn’t take much time scouring my memory to see that when, at least in my own eyes, I have most noticeably sinned, it’s been when I’ve let my guard down, when I’ve turned a deaf ear to Jesus, God’s Word, and the importuning of the Holy Spirit. It comes when I let temptation get the upper hand.

I ask myself, “How did that happen?” But the reason is always pretty much the same: It’s so easy to come up with a million rationalizations for why a temptation isn’t really a temptation, or why I can handle whatever temptations come to me, or why the sin to which temptation points me isn’t such a big deal.

But Paul (along with Jesus) says that, if I’m to avoid the sins that mar my character, negatively influence others who know I believe and show God ingratitude for His undeserved grace, I need to pray with watchfulness.

I’m sure that this means more than saying, “Lead me not into temptation” in a perfunctory way.

I’m sure that it means that I must pray for the wisdom to perceive temptation when it comes my way.

And I’m sure that it means I must pray this protection with a proper sense of my own helplessness before temptation and sin without the help and power of the God I know in Jesus.

This is no game. These aren’t mere words. When we who bear Jesus’ name become confident in our own goodness, rather than in the goodness of the God Who freely saves us through Jesus, we are at risk of allowing our lives to become swamped by sin, rebellion, and death.

So, I must be persistent in relying on God to protect me from the temptations to which, in the dark center of my soul, I want to cave.

Of course, the most alluring temptations are those that don’t seem dark at all. They’re also the most dangerous of temptations and include temptation to sins which, under different circumstances, might not be sins at all.

For example, there may be times when voluntarily working a couple of hours extra is a laudable and appropriate thing. But not when you’ve promised your spouse and family that you’ll be home in time for a family celebration.

There’s nothing wrong with a man having a romantic attachment to a woman who loves him in return, with whom he shares faith, values, interests, and an easy, wholesome rapport if both he and the woman are single or are married to each other. But under other circumstances, the temptation to connect romantically is a temptation to sin.

The serpent, a guise of Satan, who tempted Adam and Eve to sin against God, is described by Genesis, in some translations, as the most subtle of creatures. (In others, the description is rendered as “crafty.”) Temptation is subtle, which is why watchful prayers--along with partaking of the means of grace, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, the Word of God, mutual conversation and consolation with others in Christ’s Church--are so important.

How can I be watchful in prayer?

Lord, today, I ask You to help me review every remembered interaction with people and all my pursued, prevailing thoughts to discern where I might be undergoing temptation from the devil, the world, and my sinful self. I know that Your grace covers the sins I don't remember or perceive and that as I lay my life before You, You will work like a potter on this clay made pliant by Your grace that leads to a repentant life, a life turned to Christ.

Then, help me to pray for Your protection from all temptations that might be thrown my way today. Help me to walk with You with faith, a sense of my helpless need of You, and a desire to lead a life pleasing to One Who has saved me by grace through faith in Christ. I know how much You love me. I love You, Lord! In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

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

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Free in Christ

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

Mark 2:23-3:6
Years ago, I’ve read, there was flooding happening in a section of rural Holland. Government officials determined that a small village lay in the flood’s path. The government contacted the local pastor, the closest thing to a public official there was in the village and said that the community might be spared if the people worked all that day, a Sunday, to build a temporary dam.

The pastor was caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, he wanted to lead the villagers in saving their community. That seemed like the right thing to do. On the other, it was the sabbath day, a day set aside by God for His people to rest and hear God’s Word. Building the dam would be work. Resting seemed like the right thing to do. 

So, the pastor called a meeting. He asked what the villagers thought should be done. Discussion followed. To make sure that all points of view were considered, the pastor said that while he was certainly in favor of observing the Sabbath day, there were times when Jesus was confronted with what might be called “emergency” situations when He worked on the Sabbath. Might this flood be such a situation? 

At this, an elderly man spoke up: “Pastor, I must say something that I have never ventured to bring up before. But sometimes, I think that our Lord was a bit of a liberal.”

In today’s Gospel lesson, we see an example of why that man thought of Jesus as “a bit of a liberal.” 

We also see that Jesus views things like the Sabbath, along with all the other commands of God, the law of God, from His perspective as God, not from the world’s perspective, whether the world’s perspective is that held by religious people confident of their own goodness or by secular people who think nothing of God

Let’s take a look at our lesson, Mark 2:23-3:6. As we do so, I want to warn you that we're going to have to spend some time on the Biblical and historical background. But stick with me, as I think it will be worth it.

The Gospel lesson starts this way: “One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’”

The Pharisees, as you know, were a sect of Judaism for hundreds of years. Pharisaism was a people’s movement, composed of mostly poor people without influence over the religious and political elites of their time. The world was a fearful, place for the Pharisees, changing all the time. Looking for stability and certainty, they turned faith in God into a moral and political program. There were many fine Pharisees, but many others used their “religious program” to shame and intimidate people into compliance with their version of God’s will. They also scrupulously observed God’s Law, or at least their version of God’s Law, as an act of defiance of the Romans, who occupied their country. We find Christians doing much the same today, whether they're conservative or liberal. Instead of proclaiming the Gospel of new, everlasting life with God for all who entrust their lives to Christ, they want to tell people what to do.

The Sabbath was mandated by God, of course. In the Third Commandment, God says, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” God set apart a day so that His people could rest after six days of work, just as He had rested when He created the universe. 

The Sabbath had other functions as well: 
  • to give particular focus to worshiping God; 
  • to gratefully remember God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt in ancient days; 
  • to joyfully anticipate the day when the Lord’s Messiah--the Christ, God’s Anointed One, referred to by the Old Testament book of Daniel as “the Son of Man”--would come into the world and establish His kingdom. 
But for the Pharisees, the Sabbath wasn’t a day of rejoicing or faith-filled rest; it was a day to prove how wonderful they were. For them, the Sabbath was a flag they waved in the faces of the Romans, not as a witness to God’s goodness and desire to save all humanity from sin and death, but as a symbol of their own moral superiority.

They used the Sabbath also as a moral and religious bludgeon on their fellow Jews. The Pharisees acted as a kind of unofficial secret police, seeking to out anyone they deemed insufficiently Jewish, insufficiently loyal to God, or insufficiently loyal to the Judean homeland. 

That’s how they act in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus and His disciples are walking through a grain field. The disciples are hungry. They pick some of the heads of grain, grind them on the palms of their hands, and eat. 

Now, everybody knew that God’s law allowed hungry travelers to glean from crops in the fields through which they passed. 

But the Pharisees get upset with the disciples because in their harvesting and grinding, they're doing work on the Sabbath. They're violating the Third Commandment. 

When the Pharisees confront Jesus on this, Jesus doesn't deny that the disciples are doing work on the Sabbath. Nor does He deny the importance of Sabbath observance as a moral law given by God. 

But Jesus does point to an Old Testament precedent to demonstrate that the Pharisees' criticism of His disciples was not of God. 

Back when King Saul was still in power in the 11th.-century BC and trying to kill David, who had already been anointed by God to be Israel’s second king, David and his men, running for their lives, sought refuge from the high priest Abiathar. David and the others were famished and asked for food. The priest was out of everything but the consecrated bread, or the bread of the Presence, which God’s law stipulated could only be eaten by the priest. 

But Abiathar may have been a bit of a liberal: He thought that feeding hungry people might be good use of bread dedicated to God. So, he let David and his men eat. This, Jesus is telling the Pharisees, was the right thing. 

Then Jesus reverts to the original discussion about another one of God's laws. “The Sabbath,” Jesus tells them, “was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” 

God gave the Sabbath not as a badge or a flag for proud, judgmental people, but as a day for rest and celebration

And then, to underscore His authority to teach in this way, Jesus tells them: “So the Son of Man [that’s Him, the Messiah-King foretold in Scripture] is Lord even of the Sabbath.” 

Listen: God gives His Law to show us what it's like to live as His children, not to make us judges of others’ lives, to show people who are grateful for His undeserved grace how best to live if we want to honor God

Jesus isn’t just Lord of the Sabbath, He’s the Lord of everything, the great I AM. He alone has kept God’s Law perfectly so that He can set free from sin, death, and darkness all who turn from sin and surrender to Him.

On another Sabbath, our Gospel lesson says, Jesus saw that the Pharisees were out to trap Him. So, He decided that it was a good time to do some of God’s work. He had a man with a shriveled hand stand in front of the crowds following Him. 

Then He asked the Pharisees: “'Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:4) 

Mark tells us that the Pharisees said nothing. Then we’re told, starting at verse 5: “He [Jesus] looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored.” 

At the very least, the Pharisees might have said, “Wow! We’re so happy for the man healed by Jesus!” 

But in this miracle, they didn’t see a sign of the coming of God’s kingdom. 

They didn’t comprehend that Jesus was and is God. 

They didn’t stop to think that it might be OK to do good to others on the Sabbath day. 

Instead, they were enraged. Mark tells us, “Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:6)

Those are strange bedfellows, the Pharisees and the Herodians, by the way. 

The Herodians were a powerful class of people who supported and were enriched by their connection to King Herod. Herod wasn’t Jewish, though he claimed to be descended from David. He had been put on his throne by the Romans. The Herodians were secular people out for power and money. The Pharisees allying themselves with the Herodians made sense for only one reason: They both wanted Jesus dead and out of the way.

What does it all mean for us? Just this. Pharisaism started out as a well-meaning movement by people of God. They wanted to follow God in a frightening, tumultuous world. But instead of clinging to God and trusting in the grace He gives to all who believe, they clung to the Law, which cannot save us because no one but Jesus has ever perfectly kept God’s Law

The Law can point us to our need of God’s grace given in Jesus. 

It can be a guide to us in our prayer lives, as we allow it to show us our sins and vulnerabilities. 

But only Jesus can save us. 

In the end, Pharisees, ancient and modern, are no different from secularists who don’t believe in God: They put their trust not in God, but in themselves and their own goodness

The Pharisees saw themselves as God’s protectors and God’s enforcers. But God is bigger than all of us. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal. As believers in the God Who saves us through Jesus Christ, we don’t need to protect God and we don’t need to enforce God’s holy will on the world. When Jesus returns to the world, He will sort everything out. Remember how He said that when He returned to the world, He would separate the wheat from the weeds--the righteous from the unrepentant.

In the meantime, our call as Christians is simple: 

  • To trust in Christ alone. 
  • To live our faith in Christ. 
  • To tell others about Christ. 
Anything else, all the other stuff churches waste their time doing, is not of God

By trusting in Christ, seeking to live our faith in Christ, and telling others about Christ and His grace, right out loud for all the world to see, we may, like our Lord, encounter opposition, not just from secularists but from modern Pharisees who claim to be Christians. 

In fact, the Christian's biggest and most unforgiving critics may be other Christians. Years ago, one of my sisters told a friend of hers that her brother was a pastor. The friend was excited to hear that. "Really?" she asked. "Where is he a pastor?" "He's not in town," my sister explained. "But he served a Lutheran congregation." Her friend's attitude soured. "Oh," she replied unenthusiastically, as though she'd learned I was an underworld kingpin. "No," my sister quickly reacted. "He is a Christian."

But no matter how much shade the world or even other Christians throw our way, it's OK. 

When you follow the Lord of the Sabbath, the King of all creation, Who has conquered sin and death, what’s a little opposition? 

What difference does it make if we bear others’ condescension or condemnation? 

What difference does it make even if we die for our faith? 

The Christian lives in the assurance enjoyed by St. Paul: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21) 

If the world thinks we’re  “a bit of a liberal” because we live, depend on, and share the love of Jesus with others, so be it

We confess and follow Jesus, the Lord of love, and He will never let go of those who trust in Him. Amen

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