Thursday, July 12, 2018

Charming the Serpent Before It Bites

Here's the journal entry from my quiet time with God this morning. When I come into God's presence, I always stop, look, listen, and respond. The key question is, "What truth do You want me to see and act on from Your Word today, Lord?"

Look: “If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.” (Ecclesiastes 10:11, ESV)

I may have the capacity to do a thing. But if I don’t act on that capacity, it means nothing.

I may be able to present competent plans for good. But if I fail to present them, someone with a wrong plan can carry the day.

I may be able to resist temptation and evil or blunt their attacks on me personally. But if I haven’t armed myself with the Word of God and submissive prayer and surrender to God, I could be toast. I need to constantly wear the whole armor of God.

And I must do the requisite work. Not to save myself, but to respond to the God Who has already saved me with a life that honors Him and expresses gratitude for the gifts, abilities, and opportunities that God has given to me. Christians are motivated to use their gifts and their lives to honor God and serve the neighbor, spiritually, materially, and in other ways.

Prayer without work is a way of testing God. And work without prayer is futile.

But God’s Word condemns laziness: “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed.” (Proverbs 26:14)

Listen: Lack of preparedness, lack of diligence, spiritual and otherwise, is a deadly thing. It gives the evil from the devil, the world, and our sinful selves a chance to prevent us from being all You have in mind for my life.

Your Word, Lord, says to leaders what they should do with their gift: “.... if it is to lead, do it diligently” (Romans 12:8). Through lack of prayerful preparation, leaders can fail to exercise diligence as leaders, becoming susceptible to the activities of the serpents before they can be “charmed,” won over, blunted, or thwarted. This is particularly the case when the “serpents” are gossips, unleashing damage with their every word and innuendo.

I have been called by You and Your Church to be a leader. I need to use the gift You have given me for this calling as You intend.

Response: Today, Lord, help me to be prepared, to prayerfully “charm” the adversary, as well as the evil in the world and the evil in me. In other words, help to so walk with You that I can, by faith, claim Your promise of deliverance from evil for all who take refuge in You. In Jesus’ name. Amen

Monday, July 09, 2018

The Places God Shows Up (AUDIO)


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

The Places God Shows Up

[This message was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio on Sunday, July 8, 2018.]

2 Corinthians 12:2-10
A friend of mine worked in a foundry where engine blocks for many makes and models of cars and trucks were made. He worked on a  production line. He used to tell me about a guy on his line who got on everyone’s nerves. He was one of those annoying Christians who, no matter what, had all his (and everyone else's) problems solved. According to my friend, a guy might say, “Man, it was so hot last night, I couldn’t sleep.” Mr. Super Christian would say, “Yeah, before I got saved, I couldn’t sleep.” Another might say, “My kid came in after curfew last night…” Or, “My wife is on me about new carpet…” Or, “I’ve had a bellyache all day…” Mr. Super Christian would charge into every such opening, telling his co-workers, “My kids used to come in after their curfew before I got saved..My wife used to get on me about needing new carpet before I got saved...I used to get bellyaches before I got saved.” He portrayed his life as completely problem-free because he had Jesus in it.

Look, a problem-free, pain-free life would be super. But in this world, it doesn’t exist, not even if you’re a Christian.
In our second Bible lesson for today, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, the apostle Paul, the first-century evangelist, is dealing with Christians who are skeptical about the power of the Jesus and the good news of new life for all who repent and believe in Jesus--the Gospel--that Paul proclaims. 

Instead of the real Gospel or the real Jesus, they want preachers who’ll assure them that following Jesus will mean that their lives in this world will be problem-free.

In fact, shortly before Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians, they’d been wowed by preachers who told them that if the crucified and risen Jesus was really working in their lives, they would be problem-free. They would have success, victories, and no illness. Paul sarcastically labeled these happy talk preachers, super-apostles.

Now, it is true that Christ gives His Church, among other ministries, the power to bring God’s help to people, including, as we talked about last week, healing. But no physical healing lasts indefinitely. This world is imperfect and that’s true whether you’re a Christian or not.

“So, in the face of these realities, where is the power of God and what good is your gospel?” the Corinthians demand of Paul. Their questions are pointed because, unlike the preachers who had wowed them, Paul was a less than impressive preacher. Sometimes, he could be downright boring. he didn't have a private jet or a rags to riched story. Far from it. To support himself as an itinerant preacher, Paul had to scratch out a living as a tentmaker. He wasn’t what the world would call a success. His Christian resume included being arrested and flogged, shipwrecked and beaten, mocked, chased out of several towns, and jailed. The skeptics in the Corinth church labeled him a loser. But this loser Paul has a message for those who question the authenticity of his message about Jesus Christ and question his authority to share it.

Wary of being a braggart, Paul uses the third person to describe a personal experience he’d had years earlier. Verse 2: “I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” 

Paul had an amazing experience of heaven. But, he says, that experience, awesome as it was, did not prove Jesus’ power over sin and death and it didn’t prove Paul’s authority to tell others about Jesus. God's power, Paul shows us today, is most readily seen in two other ways that the super-apostles never would have dreamed of: The first way is in God's grace. The second way is in our weakness.

Grace, you know, is God’s charity, God’s act and offer of acceptance to those who willing to repent and willing to entrust their entire lives to Jesus Christ alone. Grace doesn’t paper over or ignore our sins. It forgives them and offers a new and everlasting way of living, with Jesus by our sides. God doesn’t wait for us to be perfect before we have this life with Him. As Paul puts it in Romans 5:8: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Life with God is a free gift for all who have faith in Christ. That's grace.

The super-apostles who had wowed the Corinthian Christians said, basically, “If there’s something wrong in your life—some illness, adversity, heartbreak, poverty, or struggle—it proves that you’re faithless.” They said that Paul’s troubles proved that he was faithless. 

People say things like this today. They don’t understand grace! Having the grace of God that comes only from Jesus Christ in our lives doesn’t mean that our lives will be perfect; it means, rather, that we will still have God’s grace even when things are not perfect! Even when we’re not perfect!

In verse 7 of our lesson, Paul says, “ order to keep me from becoming conceited [by all the amazing things God had shown to him and done through him], I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.”  

We have no idea what Paul's thorn in the flesh was. It may have been an illness, an incessant temptation, a psychological disturbance, a relationship problem, a lack of money. But, whatever it was, three times, Paul says, he had asked God in prayer to remove the thorn. And three times God’s answer came back (verse 9), “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

God refused to bring Paul the relief Paul sought, telling Paul that His grace was all thr apostle really needed. God refused to remove the thorn so that Paul would remember that. Everybody here this morning knows what it is to experience thorns in the flesh. Everybody. 

They’re the problems and heartaches that bedevil us and seem never to go completely away. 

They drive us to our knees and there, before God, we learn that all of the things we thought we needed—health, wealth, connections, the big house, the respect of others, happiness, good times—are nice, but they're not what we need the most. 

What we need the most is the life-giving grace of God given through Jesus Christ. God's tough, incessant, faithful grace is the first thing that proves the power of Jesus Christ.

This leads to the second thing that proves the power of Jesus Christ: our weakness. Listen: God gives those humble enough to admit their weakness the strength they need for living.  

You were with a loved one as they were dying and you knew that on your own, you couldn’t do all that you needed to do, but, with God’s help, you did it. 

You had to undergo one more round of medical treatments, one more battery of tests, and you knew that you just couldn’t take it, but with Jesus by your side, you did. 

In order to graduate or be certified, you had to pass a class for which you knew you had no talent or ability and, after prayer in Jesus’ Name, God helped you study and to learn what you needed to learn to pass. 

To pay your bills, you had to work double shifts for which you knew you didn’t have the energy, yet God’s Spirit-filled you with the needed energy. 

In each case, you called out to the God we know in Jesus Christ and confessed, “Lord, I’m too weak to face it.” And in each case, God told you, “I know you’re too weak. But My power belongs only to those wise enough and faithful enough to know they need it."

This was exactly what Paul experienced when he had asked God to remove his unidentified thorn in the flesh. “I’m not taking this adversity away,” God told Paul. “I’m not going to take you around it. I’m going to take you through it. You’ll have to learn to lean on My power more and more each day, and not on your own.” 

Why did God tell Paul this? Why does God sometimes tell us the very same thing? Because, God says in verse 9: “ power is made perfect in weakness.”

God’s power is seen only in people who admit that they’re powerless without Jesus Christ. When we own our weakness and seek Christ’s help, we can face anything. We acknowledge our weakness, our emptiness, and the God we know in Christ fills us up with His power and His grace. In the name of Jesus, God powers us up. Paul writes in verse 10: “That is why, 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.” [emphasis mine]

Through Jesus Christ, God demonstrates His power by giving grace to the needy—and that’s all of us—and strength to the weak—that, too, is all of us. 

If you’re feeling weak or powerless today, that’s a great sign

It means you’re seeing life on this earth clearly. You’re able to give up on relying on yourself and able to depend on Jesus Christ alone. Contrary to a popular saying, the Lord does not help those who help themselves; He helps those who admit that they need the Lord’s help

Call out to the God we meet in the crucified and risen Jesus and let God the Holy Spirit fill you with strength you can’t generate on your own.
Life in this world does not always make sense nor does God promise us that it will be easy. But, God’s Word assures us, we can do all things through Him as He strengthens us (Philippians 4:3). 

Our strong God stands at the ready to give us grace and strength in all circumstances. If we will let go of our skepticism (along with our fears, our need for control, and our skepticism) and let Him take over, God will see us through everything in His power...and do so all the way to eternity. Amen

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