Friday, October 05, 2018

Trusting in Christ Alone

[This is the journal entry from my quiet time with God this morning. If you'd like help in having your own quiet time with God, you might want to read this.] 

Look: “In that day the people who live on this coast will say, ‘See what has happened to those we relied on, those we fled to for help and deliverance from the king of Assyria! How then can we escape?’” (Isaiah 20:6)

In the late 8th-century BC, Isaiah was called by God to enact a prophecy demonstrating that Egypt, in which some of God’s people were depending to defend them, would be conquered and enslaved by Assyria. Egyptian leaders and people would be marched along the coastline out of their homeland, as slaves, to Assyria. God’s people on the coast would be among the first to see this and they would ask who would save them now.

It’s fine for nations to have armies and even alliances, but when we place our trust for security, safety, and life in things of this world--armies, wealth, and so on--we delude ourselves. God won’t deliver or favor people who worship other “gods,” the way some of His people effectively worshiped the worldly power of Egypt, then merrily ignoring God daily lives.

Our hope can’t be found in political philosophies or figures, in armies or money. None of those things can protect us from the sin, death, and darkness of the world. Only the God revealed in Jesus Christ can. It’s foolish to put our ultimate faith (trust) in anyone or anything other than Jesus. “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save. When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing. Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God.” (Psalm 146:3-5)

As Peter told a crowd at the temple after he had brought the risen Jesus’ healing to a beggar and proclaimed the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus.” (Acts 3:19-20) In the end, only God can protect us from ourselves, from sin and death.

Listen: The Lord has taught me again recently and underscores in this passage, the central importance of not relying on my smarts or shrewdness (such as it isn’t) or any of the markers of power or success in this world to give me security.

I am called to rely on the God revealed in Christ alone for all good things. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)

I need to look to God alone to justify me, sanctify me, validate me, and protect me.

On that latter thing, protection: None of us is immune from the effects of living in this fallen world. We all age. We all fall to sickness and failure. We all die. The question is: Will we live and die relying on Christ or on the false deities of the world?

The answer to that question should be obvious. “Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12)

Respond: Today, Lord, help me to live out the truth that You alone are God and You alone can save me from a fate worse than death, being separated from you while living in this world and for eternity beyond death. Be the Lord of my decisions, my thoughts, my mouth, and my actions. Help me to put the full weight of my trust for all good and necessary things in You alone. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

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

Tuesday, October 02, 2018

Glimpsing God: Giddy with Grace and Love

Below are reflections from my quiet time with God today. For ten years of my life, I was an atheist. But in Jesus Christ, I saw God and came to trust in Him. I'm still a sinner, but one who daily trusts in the Lord Who has conquered the power of sin and death over my life through His death and resurrection. I hope that you know and follow the God Who saves us from ourselves, from sin, death, and futility, through the faith in Jesus Christ that He enables even former atheists to experience.


Look: “The oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land. In love a throne will be established;  in faithfulness a man will sit on it—one from the house of David—one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.” (Isaiah 16:4b-5)

God’s people and the Moabites had what might be termed an ambivalent or mixed relationship. On the one hand, Israel’s King David was descended from a Moabite woman. On the other, Israel and Moab occasionally warred with each other, the latter frequently paying tribute to the former.

When Moab fell into idolatry and, as a result, unchecked injustice (idolatry always brings social injustice), God both condemned and lamented Moab’s resultant deterioration and subjection to foreign conquerors. Earlier in Isaiah 16, God tells His people through the prophet to welcome the refugees who crowd Israel’s borders. God always expected His people to welcome the refugees from oppression in light of the fact that God’s people had once been delivered by God when they were refugees from oppression. This openness to others is also commanded of modern-day Christians. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it,” Hebrews 13:25 says, alluding to the incident recorded in Genesis 18:1-15.

But, as often is the case when one of ancient Israel’s prophets delivers God’s Word, there’s a sudden expansion of the prophecy for more than just the time in which the prophecy was delivered, in this case the eighth century. It’s as though God can’t restrain Himself from telling the Moabites and the Israelites and the entire world that one day, He will bring a new King to sit on David’s throne, a King Who will make all things right. Verse 5 says, “In love a throne will be established;  in faithfulness a man will sit on it—one from the house of David—one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness.”

The King will end injustice, another word for which, in both the Old and New Testaments, is unrighteousness.

He will also speed “the cause of righteous.”

In other words, the King being foretold will condemn sin, but will also justify sinners who trust in Him. Jesus is that King!

Though Jesus is God, He is also God in human flesh: true God and true man. As a man without sin, He bore our sin on the cross, accepting the rightful condemnation for our sin--our unrighteousness, our injustice--so that He could make righteous all who turn from sin and trust in Him. When Jesus returns to the earth to fully establish His Kingdom, the “oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land.”

Listen: It’s telling to me that in this verse, as in others in which God addresses the immediate situations of His and another people, His thoughts move to His redemption for all people around the world who dare to welcome the King He sent us in Jesus.

God’s redemptive work with ancient Israel was simply the prelude or the first act of His rescue mission for the whole human race.

Tragically, many reject God’s rescue in Christ, but God delights in the idea of offering salvation to all His children. “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:39)

Respond: In this verse in Isaiah, Lord, I spy You becoming giddy with Your love for the whole world, even for me. You can't contain Yourself! I see that You are a God filled with the joy of love for all of Your children, every one of whom You want to return to You for love, power, grace, forgiveness, and life!

Thank You that even in our darkest or most rebeliious days, You never forget Your promise, Your grace, or Your intentions to overcome the injustice and sorrow that result from human willfulness and idolatry. You keep offering us forgiveness and new life through faith in Jesus Christ!

You are giddy with the very idea that after all is said and done, Your grace and power and love will make all things right!

Just as You never tire of loving us, Lord, help me to never tire of thanking You. In Jesus’ name. Amen

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

Monday, October 01, 2018

Do Not Be Afraid

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

Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)
1 Corinthians 14:8
Luke 12:32
This morning, I’m scrapping the planned sixth installment of our series, I Am a Church Member. Through times of prayer and conversations with many members of our church, I realized late yesterday morning that I would be shirking my duty as the spiritual leader of Living Water if I did not address our church’s most pressing issue directly, lovingly, and resolutely. 

The King James Version translation of Proverbs 29:18, says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” Today, I will remind you again today of the vision and mission of Living Water Lutheran Church. 

Some will welcome what I say. 

A few will not be pleased. I can’t help that.

I take as my model the apostle Paul, who wrote the church at Galatia: “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) 

However imperfectly, I do seek to be a servant of Christ and I do seek to be a leader who gives a clear vision to the people I am called to lead as pastor. 

I wrote this message without any input from our leadership or staff. So, if you do get angry, get angry with me. 

And if you do want to call anyone crazy, as I know a few people said of our church council this past week...if you feel the need to violate the eighth commandment by failing to put the most charitable construction on the actions and lives of sisters and brothers in Christ, do it to me. 

It’s as true of the pulpit as it is of the Oval Office: the buck stops here, with me. 

As you know, the only time I’ve spoken before the whole congregation regarding the proposed building project was last March. Otherwise, I’ve listened. I ask you to do the same now as I seek to apply God’s Word to our situation.

This past Monday night, thirty-six hours after it was announced that Living Water members, led by the Holy Spirit, had offered to pay the entire $41,000-cost of a capital campaign to raise money for the first phase of our repeatedly-approved building plan, the church council met in emergency session. The council met because on Sunday night, I received an email from Christ the King Lutheran Church. It told me that that congregation was moving toward closing its doors. Would Living Water be willing to receive the property to be used or sold as our congregation chose? I was told that Christ the King needed to know by September 27, this past Thursday. 

The council was unanimous in saying that we would be interested in receiving the property. Since then, I’ve learned that a decision on the disposition of the property still has not been made.

Our church councils have always been transparent. That’s why on Tuesday, the council sent out a special edition of The Wave notifying you that we could possibly receive Christ the King’s property. You deserved to know of this possibility before the vote that was then scheduled for today and next Sunday. 

The feeling of some members of the council was that, if we receive property, we should abandon our present property and move to the Christ the King campus. 

More said that we should sell the Christ the King campus and use the money to help pay for the first phase of our building project or retire a portion of our current mortgage. 

Of course, there’s no decision to make until and unless we actually receive the property. 

Because of that, it was felt that we needed to go ahead with the scheduled vote. As our meeting ended on Monday, I had two prevailing feelings: 

First, awe of God that in a day-and-a-half, the Holy Spirit had affirmed our plans by blessing us with the money to run a capital campaign and blessing us again with the possibility of a property that could help us pursue the mission and vision of Living Water Lutheran Church. God blesses His people in unexpected ways when they step out in faith to do His work! 

Second, I felt grief for the people of Christ the King, forced to acknowledge decline of their congregation

I also thanked God that the people of Living Water know that the call to discipleship is not a call to comfort or easy answers, but a call to faithfulness and acceptance of God’s crazy plans. 

  • Like the crazy plan God had to make a 100-year-old man and his 90-year-old wife, Abraham and Sarah, the ancestors of Israel in a place God would show them if Abraham believed and followed. 
  • Or God’s crazy plan of freeing His enslaved people via the leadership of a tongue-tied murderer, Moses. 
  • Or God’s plan to defeat the enemies of God’s people through a shepherd boy named David and his measly little slingshot. 
  • Or God’s plan to save us from sin and death not through good works but by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. 

Listen: If God calls you to do something that doesn’t seem a little crazy or that you can easily see the end of, you’re probably not hearing from God.

Within hours of our council’s decision, we heard that some people were confused and some didn’t understand why we would go forward with the vote. Others thought that, given the $41,000 donation, there was no need to vote; we should simply forge ahead with the campaign.

Because of the confusion, the council decided to postpone the vote. I supported that decision. But I was and am deeply saddened that that decision was necessary. I know from my conversations with others, that many other Living Water disciples feel the same way. Many feel betrayed. Others feel like yo-yos, up and down, back and forth, yes and no.

As you can imagine, both because I’m pastor of Living Water and dean of the Southwest Ohio Mission District, Bishop John and I have had ongoing discussions for several months about what might happen with Christ the King. In our most recent conversation, two weeks ago, Bishop John said, “I’ve told you before, Mark, and I don’t mind you telling everyone there that whatever happens at Christ the King, Living Water must move ahead with the building plans for your present site.” 

Is Bishop John crazy? Well, he is a fool for Christ. And like me, he loves this congregation. But he also knows that we cannot afford to keep delaying doing what, through prayer and discernment, we have learned God wants us to do! We can’t keep saying, “Ready! Aim!” “Ready! Aim!” "Ready! Aim!"

Bishop John has repeatedly underscored for me that the priorities we originally identified through our cottage meetings and online voting and which you have affirmed in multiple votes since--activity/community center and kitchen first, classrooms and offices second, sanctuary third--are the priorities adopted by churches that are serious, as Living Water is serious, about being and making disciples, about growing

The community center is a key component of our future growth. A bigger sanctuary won’t bring growth because the unchurched aren’t likely to be introduced to Christ and the church through a worship service. That’s too foreign and foreboding to them. They’re likeliest to be introduced through various community events, like Upward basketball or outreach efforts. 

And, given traffic patterns, this location is superior to Christ the King’s location for that

I believe that we need to quickly reschedule the vote originally scheduled for today and next Sunday and get moving on God’s plan for us!

Am I apprehensive about doing that? Let me remind you of a few facts. 

  • We have ended every year of this congregation’s history with an operating surplus. 
  • While our attendance for 2018 is presently lower than it was in 2017, it’s higher than it was in 2016, a common blip in the path of growing congregations. 
  • While our current annual budget is at about $400,000, it’s no stretch to extrapolate from the answers of well over half of our congregants in the recent REVEAL survey that this congregation could easily handle an annual general fund budget of $800,000. I’m not proposing any such increase. But I am saying that although we’ve never held an annual stewardship program, our members have still generously given to the need they perceived in our budget. 
  • In addition, they have always found extra money to pay for things like sanctuary reconfiguration or building a church in Haiti or money for rice and beans for people in that country.* 

So, am I afraid to have a capital campaign and have it fall short of whatever goal we set for it? No, I’m more afraid of waiting around or settling for being an ordinary, cruise-control church

This is not a cruise-control church. This is a church that prays, that serves, that reads and studies God’s Word. 

This is a church that cares about those who are going to go to hell if they aren’t connected with Christ and His Church. 

The building process laid out in the plans displayed in our hallway will, in the first phase, provide us with an irreplaceable tool that we need to reach this community for Christ and at a great location.

I remember the day that George Kellar asked to meet me at 667 Miamisburg-Centerville Road. “Pastor,” he told me after I’d arrived. “I’m asking you to look at this property not for what it is right now, but for what it can be.” 

The relocation team that George headed had looked at, in one way or another, about forty properties. 

This was where they were led, this is where we were led, not as a stopgap station, but as a place where we could put down roots and do an expansion that will make Living Water and the Gospel we proclaim visible to and welcoming of the spiritually disconnected in our community.

In 1 Corinthians 14:8, the apostle Paul asks, “... if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” Today, as your pastor, I am sounding a clear call: Let’s quickly reschedule the vote and move ahead on the path God has laid before us. The quicker we do a capital campaign, the quicker we’ll know what God wants and, perhaps, the quicker we can start building. No more uncertain trumpets or signals! We need a vote to decide right now it we want to be a missional church that takes reasonable chances to reach the lost or if we just want this congregation to be a place where we gather in comfort

But let me remind you that this congregation started because people believed--many of you here believed--in more than having a comfortable church. 

You believed in Christ and the authority of His Word and the power of prayer and the joys of discipleship. 

If you’d wanted a comfortable church, you would have stayed at your former congregation. 

But you wanted to be part of a faithful church. 

Don’t let the temptations of comfort lure you away from that. 

Don’t let the temptations of ease lure you away from being faithful stewards of the gospel and all the other gifts God has given to you!

Jesus famously tells His Church: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32) 

Friends, the worst that can happen if we forge ahead with a capital campaign for this location is that we might fail to raise the needed money. 

But even if we fail, we will still have the Kingdom of God, eternally. 

Forging ahead with the vision revealed to us in prayer will not result in the loss of our salvation. 

We don’t know how a capital campaign will turn out. 

But we do know that if we forge ahead it may result in many new believers trusting in Christ and becoming part of His eternal kingdom. 

And we know that it will certainly result in our trusting Christ more and growing deeper in discipleship. 

By forging ahead, we may even ensure that this congregation will be a vital disciple-making community, welcoming young families and singles, for decades to come. Whatever happens, that possibility alone makes trying to move ahead with our current plans a win.

I took the call to Living Water because God and the congregation were telling me that this is a church that cares about mission, about making disciples. Continued inaction will harm the positive initiatives we’ve undertaken since we moved here, including the growth of youth, children’s, and family ministries, which had to be rebuilt from scratch when we moved to our present location. We don’t know what decisions Christ the King will take. The real question is what decision are we going to make? 

I urge you all to pray. Then, let’s do the vote and move into the future God has in mind for us. Amen

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

*At the 8:45 service, I mentioned that through the generosity of Living Water, a well was built in a community in Haiti served by our congregation. In this instance, it was the generosity of one member rather than of the whole congregation. No matter. It still speaks to the generosity of this incredible church!

Treasuring the Church ('I Am a Church Member,' Part 6)

[This message was prepared to be shared during worship on Sunday, September 30, 2018, with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I felt moved to share a different message. That other message will be shared too. But this scrapped sermon is the sixth installment of our series on the Biblical themes raised by the book, I Am a Church Member, by Thom Rainer.]

1 Corinthians 12:27
Revelation 21:2
John 3:29
Lucy Van Pelt, the creepy little kid in the old Peanuts comic strip who always pulled the football away just as Charlie Brown was about to kick it, said, “I love humanity. It’s the people I can’t stand.”

Some people in the Church have an equivalent attitude about all local congregations. “I love Christ’s Church,” they seem to say, “It’s the people in individual congregations that I have no use for.”

But, as Thom Rainer rightly points out in the sixth and final chapter of his book, I Am a Church Member, people who try to make such distinctions aren’t really paying attention to the witness of the New Testament. Rainer writes that “...the universal church and the local church are not mutually exclusive...The Bible is clear that we are to be connected to a specific church in a specific context.”

This insight comes from reading Paul’s letters to New Testament congregations. Each letter was written to individual, local congregations, each committed to living out their faith in partnership with and accountability to one another.

Essential to being a member of Christ’s church universal or church catholic then, is to be a member of a local church. The holy catholic Church is in every local congregation where Christ’s gospel is rightly proclaimed and the sacraments are rightly administered. And every member of every local congregation where those conditions are met is also part of the whole Church in heaven and on earth. We who make up local congregations like Living Water are part of Christ’s body, His eternal fellowship. This is why the apostle Paul says to we disciples of Jesus, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27)

But church life can be difficult. Like families or workplaces, we can disagree, argue, and not see eye to eye. Why then does God give us the gift of salvation only through the life, ministry, and proclamation of Christ’s Church? And why does He consider the Church such a gift for its members anyway?

Members of my extended biological family experienced a major blow-up with their local church and its pastor. They tell me that they now have “church” at home, inviting companionable friends over for Bible studies that they lead.

Now, I’m an advocate of small groups. They are essential for our growth as disciples. But the problem with these family members’ approach to church, of course, is that people who treat a small group as their “church” are more likely to take a wrong turn in their faith.

When you’re only around the companionable people with whom you feel comfortable, you’re ripe for heresy that can pull you far away from God and the truth of His Word. It’s only when “iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17), when we’re in a church in which we can disagree with Christ’s love, that we grow, that we really learn what it means to love each other as Christ loves us. The approach taken by my family members also leaves them at risk of forgetting all about the entire mission of Christ’s Church, to make disciples, instead, being satisfied to just read Scripture and pray with people who will never challenge them for self-satisfaction or spiritual smugness.

So, one reason that God considers the Church His gift to us is that it helps keep us faithful. I mentioned Hebrews 10:25 in the first installment of this series a few weeks ago. There, we’re told not to give up “meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” So, as the day of Christ’s return grows ever closer, we need the people of our local churches even more. We need to gather around the Word and Sacrament, we need to be challenged and afflicted by God’s Word, as well as comforted and empowered by it. That’s part of what Christ’s Church, part of what this church, does!

Another reason God says we should regard the Church as His gift is that it shows contempt for God to see it in any other way. In Revelation, chapters 18 to 22, we find an idea developed that comes from Jesus: The Church is the bride of Christ. This is rooted in the very language that Jesus used about Himself during His earthly ministry. In John 3:29, Jesus says, “The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom [the best man, John the Baptist] waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.”

Jesus here speaks of His joy of being one with His bride, the Church. The marriage of Christ and His Church is consummated in Holy Baptism and strengthened in Holy Communion. And one day, the groom will come to take His bride into His home for all eternity.

John saw this in one of the visions he had while on the island of Patmos, where he records, “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2)

The Church then, including Living Water Lutheran Church, is a big deal, an eternal fellowship. That’s why Rainer writes, “Church membership is a gift. A gift must be treasured. It should not be taken for granted or considered lightly. Because it is a gift, we must always be thankful for it. And when we are thankful for something, we have less time and energy to be negative.”

The Church ultimately is the fellowship of believers in Jesus in which we learn that Christian faith is not about me, it’s about us as a community of believers submissive to Christ whose only mission is to invite and welcome “outsiders” into that same community so that, believing in Jesus, they too will have life with God.

That’s a truth that we cannot and will not learn apart from the fellowship of the Church Jesus established through His apostles and their successors.

The crucified and risen Jesus tells His Church, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:16)

The Church then is a gift because through it, we learn and build our lives around the truth of the gospel that God gives new and everlasting life to all who daily turn from sin and daily follow Jesus...and then, by His Holy Spirit, empowers us to grow each day in the likeness of the Lord Who died and rose for sinners like us.

When you have the gift of Christ and the Church that can never be taken from those who believe, you then can keep giving those gifts away--Christ and the Church. And as that happens, not only will more people be given the chance to know Christ, follow Christ, and share Christ with others, those same people--new believers in Jesus--will join us in sharing our free gifts of life with Christ and His Church with others.

The apostle Peter was one of the first to be sent out to invite others to receive the gifts of Christ and Church. One day at the temple, Peter encountered a lame man begging for money and told the man, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” (Acts 3:6) Peter claimed that he could offer prayer and new life in Jesus’ name and Jesus underscored the validity of Peter’s words by also giving the man the ability to walk and jump once again. That was because Peter was part of Christ’s Church. And you can bet that that formerly lame man was anxious to hear all about Peter’s church after that.

Are we treasuring Christ’s Church enough to respect those with whom we disagree in our congregation?

Or, do we speak of them and treat them like the refuse that some politicians claim their opponents to be?

Are we Lucy Van Pelt Christians?

Or do we love our sisters and brothers in Christ in this church? Do we pray for them, speak well of them, encourage them?

Treasure your church; after all, if we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ, all of the people in every local church of which you may be a part, are people with whom you’re going to spend eternity! Better to learn to love them now than wait until Jesus returns.

And if we don’t learn to love them now, it may be too late to learn after Jesus comes back and time has run out for us to repent for our half-hearted discipleship. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” Let’s live out that truth with gratitude and love for one another. Amen

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