Tuesday, August 14, 2018

If I'm going to vex people, Lord, grant that I'll vex them for following You

My quiet time with God today revolved around Psalm 109. It’s an imprecatory psalm in which, among other things, the psalmist prays: “Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy; let an accuser stand at his right hand. When he is tried, let him be found guilty, and may his prayers condemn him. May his days be few; may another take his place of leadership. May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow. May his children be wandering beggars; may they be driven from their ruined homes.” (Psalm 109:6-10)

The language is jarring! It doesn’t seem consistent with biblical, Christian faith.

And, in truth, it’s not the kind of thing that a Christian should say or even think.

But, honesty compels us to admit that while we may not go as far as the psalmist does here, there are vexing people in our lives we don’t exactly wish well in our thoughts. And, if as believers, we want to lay our entire lives before God, we cannot conceal such sentiments from Him. It’s only when we acknowledge such thoughts to God (not to our neighbor), that we can be set free of the slavery that goes with grudge-holding and be set free to be the joyful people God desires for us to be.

A touchstone passage from the Psalms for me is this prayer: “Search me, God, and know my heart;  test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)

We “vent” to God, whether it’s in complaining, praising, confessing, or imploring so that the free, clean air of His grace can make us new, so that He can set us free to live in closer fellowship with Him and so that our lives can give Him glory for saving us from sin and death through Jesus. When we try to sweep our ill-feelings toward others under the carpet before God, we’re really concealing reality from ourselves. After all, God already sees everything.

Jesus tells us,  “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:43-44) Few of us today think of people as our enemies and, in America anyway, we don’t have anyone persecuting us. But there are people who vex us, speak ill of us, and give us a hard time. These are the people for whom Jesus says His disciples are to pray. 

I have found that the more I pray for people, the less I’m able to hold grudges, withhold forgiveness, or have ill feelings toward them. God also gives me a heart to be more understanding. But Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms tell me, anyway, that until I can own my ill feelings toward people, I can’t be free enough of myself to pray for their good.

Lord, today help me to be honest about all of my feelings with You. Help me to pray for others. And help me to so reflect Your love and grace that I don’t vex people for the wrong reasons. In other words, if I’m going to vex people today, grant that it will be because I’m following You and not because I’m following my own sinful impulses or feelings. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen

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

Monday, August 13, 2018

How to Handle Your Next Crisis

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio on Sunday, August 12, 2018.]

1 Kings 19:1-8
Into every human life, times of crises come. 

Pastor H. Beecher Hicks, Jr. calls our life’s crises, storms. Like storms, crises can toss us around, make us lose our bearings, challenge our stability, make us wonder whether we’re going to go under or stand upright. Hicks says that in this life, we are either about to go into a storm, are in a storm, or have just emerged from a storm. I think he’s right.

Some of our storms--or crises--are self-inflicted through our own sin or carelessness. 

Others come from the devil. 

Others God allows in order to help us grow in our faith and character. 

Others can be caused by those in our families or churches. 

But whatever their source, crises are an inevitable part of life in this fallen and imperfect world. The real question for the Christian disciple in the midst of a crisis is not, “How can I avoid having crises in my life?” 

The question should be, “How will I handle the next crisis to come my way?”

Elijah was the greatest prophet of Old Testament times. A prophet is one who speaks God’s Word fearlessly. 

When people have wandered from God, the prophet’s job is to confront people with God’s commands. 

When people suffer or are tempted by sin or feel convicted for the sins they’ve already committed, or when they feel discouraged or overwhelmed or empty, the prophet is to speak God’s seemingly impossible Word of hope and grace and forgiveness to them. 

The prophet’s message, whether it brings comfort to those the self-righteous consider unworthy or confrontation to those who deem themselves righteous, is often viewed with skepticism or hostility. 
That means that prophets have to be confident in God, not in people. 

Prophets must be unafraid of human opposition, willing to stand with God no matter what. 

Elijah spoke God’s Word with boldness, conviction, and faith.

Yet today’s first lesson, 1 Kings 19:1-8, finds Elijah in a crisis under which he nearly crumbles. Just a short time earlier, at God’s direction, Elijah had engaged in a contest on Mount Carmel with the prophets of the false Canaanite deity, Baal. Through Elijah, God showed His people once again that there is only one God and King of all creation, the God Who, today, through faith in His Son Jesus saves us from sin and death. 

The contest at Mount Carmel was the greatest triumph of Elijah’s career as a prophet, God’s proof that the words proclaimed by Elijah had, all along, been God’s Word. Elijah was vindicated and victorious! 

It was exactly at that moment that Elijah’s crisis began. Through Elijah and his experience in today’s first lesson, God can teach us how to cope with the crises in our lives.

Look at verse 1: “Now Ahab [Ahab was the seventh king of Israel, the breakaway northern kingdom that came into being after the reign of King Solomon] told Jezebel [Ahab’s wife] everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets [of Baal] with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ‘May the gods [notice she doesn’t acknowledge the one God of the world, as God’s people had been taught by God Himself; she worships the false idol, Baal] deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Jezebel vowed that within twenty-four hours, she would be sure that Elijah was dead.

So, how did Elijah, this great prophet, so recently victorious and vindicated, react? 

Our lesson tells us. “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. ‘I have had enough, Lord,’ he said.” 

Do you know the first thing that often happens to Christians when we confront a crisis? 

Our memory goes. 

Faced with temptation, we sometimes forget how destructive sin is, how it can destroy our relationship with God and harm others. 

Faced with unwelcome news or a challenging problem, we forget how God has helped us face past unwelcome news and challenging problems; we think we’re on our own. 

Faced with the reality of a sin we’ve committed, we either forget how God’s Law teaches us the seriousness of our sin or we forget that the God we know in Jesus Christ died and rose so that sinners like us can experience God’s forgiveness and live new lives.

In his moment of crisis, Elijah forgot the power of God Who had just given him victory at Mount Carmel. 

Crises may be inevitable in this life, but we always make them worse when we focus on the crisis instead of focusing on God!

Elijah focused on Jezebel when he should have focused on God. 

Elijah does turn to God. But his prayer doesn’t, at this moment anyway, mark him as a profile in courage. He prays to God: “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Elijah prayed for the easy way out. Rather than confront his crisis, Elijah wants to be dead.

I know that feeling. When the denomination of which many of us were part fully affirmed in 2009 that it was rejecting the authority of God's Word and the truth of the Lutheran confessions, I remember telling Ann that I had been born too late; I preferred being dead to living and facing the reality that the Christian denomination in which I had so believed--so believed--had now turned from God. I could easily have been persuaded to pray a prayer like Elijah's. And, less dramatically, I have often prayed for the easy way out in my life as a Christian.

Even Jesus, God in human flesh, did this as He confronted the prospect of the cross. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed that if it were possible, God the Father would remove the cup of suffering and death from Him that He had come into the world to bear. But then Jesus prayed in Luke 22:42 “yet not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus knew that the only way to the resurrection is through the cross. 

The only way to make it through a crisis is to go through a crisis with the God we know in Christ and trust Him to get us to the other side

Jesus' resurrection is the certain proof for those who believe in Him that He can do this, take us through the crisis to the other side.

The next thing that Elijah did after running away from Jezebel, was sleep. Sleep can be a way of avoiding a crisis, you know, especially those crises associated with sustained depression. 

But sleep can also be part of the rest and restoration we need to face our crises. This is especially true when, like Elijah, we’ve prayed for God’s help. 

It’s true that God didn’t give the help that Elijah asked for; God didn’t bring death to Elijah. (In fact, Elijah is one of two Old Testament people who never died, but were simply transferred to heaven. In Elijah's case, I think this shows that God has a great sense of humor.) 

But when we pray for God’s help with our crises, even when we have suggestions on the type of help God may offer us, we’re really inviting God in to do what He thinks best. To reach up in helplessness and need to the God we know in Jesus Christ is to give him total access to our lives

It was good that Elijah did just that, because God had more for the prophet to do on this earth, just as I’ve learned, much to my joy and happiness, that God has had more for me to do as a pastor since those dark days nine years ago when I thought I’d be better off dead than facing the greatest crisis of my pastoral career.

Twice in the midst of Elijah’s long nap, God sent an angel to feed Elijah bread and water. The reason was simple. Verse 7: [The angel touched Elijah and said;] “‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.”

God was sending Elijah to Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai, the place where God gave His Law to Moses. It was 200 miles from where Elijah was at that moment. He needed strength from God

When you’re going through a crisis, know that God has not forgotten you, even though you may sometimes forget God. Psalm 121:8 promises all who trust in God: “the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.” Even when we confront crises.

Through Jesus and our faith in Him, as Jesus reminds us in today’s gospel lesson, we already have--long before our own deaths and resurrections--life with God! That life belongs to us in times of crisis and times of calm, as we live, as we die. As was true of Elijah, God has plans for us...as individuals, as a congregation. Never forget that!

We all have either just come through a crisis, are going through a crisis, or are headed for a crisis. But we can weather our crises faithfully if we learn the lessons today’s incident from Elijah’s life teaches us: 
  • focus on God, instead of the fear induced by the crisis;  
  • commit to going through the crisis with God, rather than sidestepping it or running from it; 
  • trust that God will respond to our prayers, usually in ways we couldn’t have imagined; 
  • trust that God will give us what we need for the next step in our journeys--just as God strengthened Elijah with bread and water; and  
  • finally, trust that God has plans for us, plans that no crisis can derail.
Crises come in this world. Some may even rob of us our earthly lives. But in Christ, we have a God Who can take us through every single of them...even beyond death. His grace can give us peace and hope no matter what! Amen

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