Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Importance of How We Receive Our Gifts

[Reflections from my quiet time this morning.]

"Jesus answered, 'It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.' Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him." (John 13:26-27)

I've probably written about this before, but that last bit, verse 27, has always struck me. Jesus has been asked, first by Peter and then by John, who among the twelve apostles would betray Him, leading to His arrest and crucifixion.

Jesus' foreknowledge of His betrayer's identity doesn't strike me as odd. After all, Jesus is God in the flesh.
What gets me is this: Judas took the bread offered by Jesus and immediately Satan entered into Judas.
This is the opposite of what happens to Christians who, in the sacrament of Holy Communion, receive the bread. "This IS my body, given for you," Jesus tells us and in ways we can't fully understand, Jesus, His very life, and His grace enter us.

In non-sacramental ways, the Christian knows about receiving blessings through Jesus and experiencing gratitude, being overwhelmed by grace.

But here, in the upper room during the Passover Seder that Jesus had with the apostles on the night of His arrest, Judas receives bread from Jesus' hand and, instead of reacting with gratitude or a new appreciation for Jesus, Satan, the Evil One, entered into Judas.

I've thought about this and concluded that we can receive all sorts gifts from God (and do)--earthly life, relationships, work, homes, and even the gift of new and everlasting life through the crucified and risen Jesus, but still not acknowledge the gift or the Giver. And God isn't stinting in His gifts to us, even if we human beings find ways to selfishly grasp for those gifts, keeping them from others.

HOW we receive the gifts of God in Christ is really the key. It seems to me that when we receive them with openness, the Holy Spirit can use that openness to create things like gratitude and faith within us. ("No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit..." [1 Corinthians 12:3). But when, like Judas, we receive God's gifts as ho-hum matters or as only our due, the devil, the world, and our sinful selves pounce on us, robbing us of relationship with God, turning us away from God.

I pray that today I will receive all of God's gifts in Christ, no matter how inconsequential they may seem, with the openness that the Holy Spirit can turn into deepened gratitude and deepened faith.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Listening to One Voice

[This is the journal entry for my quiet time today.]

Look: “...they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” (John 10:5)

Jesus calls Himself the Good Shepherd Who will lead His people to good pasture (life with God). He speaks of the connection that exists between Himself and His redeemed disciples. They won’t listen to other voices, only to the voice of Christ. Christ’s Word is spoken through the Scriptures, the proclaimed Word, the Sacraments, and in the fellowship of Christ gathered around Word and Sacrament.

Lately, with vacation and general busy-ness, I haven’t spent the time in God’s Word, listening to Jesus, that I need to spend. There are a lot of voices blaring at me (and everyone else) every day: the Internet, radio, TV, etc. etc., not to mention the incessant whispers and cries of the devil, the world, and our sinful selves. And there’s always some new guru of some kind or another, almost all not overtly religious.

But I wonder, am I listening for the voice of Jesus in the midst of all of this noise?

Not enough in recent weeks!

Listen: I know that unless I remain connected to Jesus (unless I abide in Him, to use Jesus’ phrasing), I will begin to forget Jesus’ voice. I become susceptible to following other voices--including the voice of my own sinful nature--that lead me away from Jesus. I become prone to allowing my reasoning to become, not a tool in Jesus’ hands, but a means to do what I want to do. (“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” Proverbs 14:12)

I’ve become a bit lax in maintaining my quiet time in recent weeks. I’ve been busy. I’ve forgotten Luther’s sage statement that he was simply too busy to spend less than three hours a day in prayer. (And I’m sure that for Luther, prayer was always saturated in reading the Word, listening for the voice of the Good Shepherd.)

The problem is that if I, as one of Christ’s undershepherds, don’t take the time to listen for Christ’s voice, I can lead people astray. (After all, I can only reflect that which I focus on.) That hasn’t happened in these recent weeks, thank God! But, in listening to Jesus today, I am reawakened to the risk of it all.

Saint Paul warned the young pastor Timothy, “...the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.” (2 Timothy 4:3).

In a hypermediated age, the time of “itching ears” of which Paul warns is a constant. (This is no slam on “the media.” I have no patience with people who use the media as a scapegoat for their own failures and those of society. Media are a neutral tool which can be used to convey any message. The problem isn’t “the media,” but the ideas we convey through them. And I say “we,” because in the Age of the Internet, everyone who has an account on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or whatever, is a media outlet.) People have “itching ears,” craving the “latest thing.” Earth-bound messaging is so pervasive that no one is immune from developing itching ears, even (or maybe especially) busy preachers who need to make important decisions each day yet fail to spend time in God’s Word each day.

Respond: Thank You, God, for this reminder from Jesus today. Luther is right in saying that, “We need to hear the Gospel every day, because we forget it every day.”

I know that this is true for me. It’s too easy for me to fall for following my own reasoning (Proverbs 14:12)  or my own heart (“The heart is deceitful above all things…” Jeremiah 17:19) Both are blind alleys!

And if pastors aren’t engaged in daily, vital relationships with you, we become “blind guides,” relying on our own schtick or the “wisdom” of the world rather than on You, Who alone remains true (“...Let God be true, and every human being a liar…” Romans 3:4)

Today, Lord, I have met You in Your Word and been richly blessed. Let me, like the sheep in Jesus’ vivid images of John 10, be one of Your sheep Who “come in and go out, and find pasture” (John 10:9) as I listen to Your voice each day.

In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

Our Whole Lives

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

Mark 12:38-44
“All she had to live on.”

That’s what Jesus told His disciples that the poor widow put into the temple offering a few days before Jesus was crucified. 

And, this is no exaggeration on Jesus’ part. When you read the Greek in which Mark originally quotes Jesus, Jesus says of the woman’s offering: “ὅλον τὸν βίον αὐτῆς,” literally she placed all her life or her whole life in that offering box.

Now, let’s be clear. In the Old Testament God only called His people to give a tithe, the first ten percent of their income, to the temple. Sometimes, additional tithes were called for in God's Law. But that same Old Testament law would have exempted a poor widow from giving anything

Yet here is this woman giving God everything she has to live on. Was she crazy? Was she imprudent? Was she trying to make deals with God?

Jesus doesn’t seem to think that there's anything wrong with her.  In fact, He commends the woman as an example of faithfulness for His disciples, for you and me. 

But let me be clear: Our Gospel lesson for this morning is about a lot more than money. It’s about our whole lives and how we spend them.

Our lesson, Mark 12:38-44, takes place in the temple during Holy Week. Just before where our lesson picks up, Jesus has had another confrontation with the scribes, the experts in Biblical and Jewish law. They’ve said, as Old Testament prophecy says, that the Messiah Whose coming they anticipated would be a “son of (or a descendant of”) David," Israel’s greatest king, who lived about a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. Their claim is true, but they seem to think that the Messiah will be inferior to David.

Jesus teaches them differently though. He quotes Psalm 110, written by David, where it says: “‘The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet.’” Here, Jesus is saying that the great King David called the Messiah--Jesus Himself--Lord. Jesus is no inferior to David. Jesus is superior to every king, prophet, priest, and preacher who preceded Him and of any and all born in subsequent centuries. Hebrews 1:1-2 echoes Jesus' teaching: "In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe."

As our lesson picks up Mark’s gospel narrative from there, Jesus talks about the scribes to His disciples: “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Jesus is warning us against people and warning us against being people who like to appear like believers, but are really, like the rest of the world, looking out for themselves. Today, such people are the ones who crave titles, to have people bow and scrape to them and honor them. They’re hung up on status and hierarchy and having places of honor.

Some of you may know that years ago, Ann and I were invited--along with about 500 people, so don’t be impressed--to a dinner with a prominent man. It was Billy Graham. Just before dinner started, a local pastor was invited to offer the prayer. It went on forever, certainly what Jesus would call a “long prayer.” And, I hope I wasn't judging unfairly, but it certainly seemed that the man was praying less to God than to Billy Graham. Jesus warns against long public prayers meant to wow people with the praying person’s faith.

Jesus also warns us against people and warning us against being people who crave money and the status it can confer on us. He said that the scribes found ways to look pious while extorting money from widows because of their love of position.

They’re like pastors and church people who focus on the performance of liturgy with elaborate exactness but don't believe that Jesus was God. Or that He was born of a virgin. Or that He rose from the dead. Or that He was (and is) “the way and the truth and the life,” the only Lord by Whom we can be saved from sin and death. Or that the Bible is the Word of God. 

Like the scribes’ friends, the Pharisees, who Jesus once described as “whitewashed tombs,” the scribes were spiritually empty suits. Jesus is telling us that in the halls of heaven where God hears prayers offered in Jesus’ name, people like the scribes remain unheard by the Almighty, their long public prayers no more than noise!  

Then, we’re told this, starting in verse 41: “[Jesus]  sat down opposite the treasury and watched the people putting money into the offering box. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him and said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

The widow wasn’t trying to be seen by anyone. She didn’t make a show of her appearance at the temple. She simply gave everything she had. She believed that the God Who gave her life would sustain her in this life and give her new life beyond the grave. She didn’t worry about sacrificing herself in this way because she knew that the God Who gives life has plenty more to give away. Jesus says that this gift of her whole-self exceeded the value of all the fat offerings made by the “look at me” crowd.

It’s instructive to consider when this incident took place: Just a few days later, Jesus Himself would give His whole life on the cross. Repeatedly, Satan and the world tried to tempt Jesus away from the cross, to divert Him from His mission of dying as the perfect sacrifice for our sins so that all who believe in Him can live with God and share in His resurrection life. But Jesus was intent on giving His whole life to God for us so that He could give new life to us. Luke tells us that "Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51)," and referring to His suffering and death as His baptism, Jesus said, "I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed (Luke 12:50)."

The only way you and I can share in the life that God gives exclusively through Jesus Christ is to for us to yield our lives to Jesus and His saving grace. That’s what it means to believe in Jesus: To trust Him with our whole lives. And, although it’s been four decades since I came to faith in Christ, I realize that I am only now beginning to understand that truth, to understand how complete God's grace in Christ is, how serious my sin is, and how I can do nothing toward my own salvation but give up on being God

I repent daily for my sinful desire to hold back parts of my life from Jesus’ lordship and each day, the grace of God given in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, works to keep making me over in Jesus’ image.

Jesus tells us in Matthew 16:25: “...whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” 

This isn’t legalism, folks. God doesn’t require our lives in a legal transaction to claim the salvation He gives in Jesus. Rather, it’s a simple fact that only as we daily empty ourselves of being the lords of our own lives, are we free to take Christ’s outstretched hand of forgiveness, life, and love

All the scribes, obsessed with earthly comfort and status, were slaves to this world, weighed down with concerns over what people thought of them, how others saw them, whether they were happy. (They sound like thoroughly modern people, don't they?)

The widow cared only about what God thought of her. And she already knew that God cared very deeply for all people, even poor, powerless widows. That’s why her offering was so valuable: It came from an authentically surrendered believer putting her surrender into practice.

In Germany a few days ago, at the behest of Ann who knew that it wasn't far away, our tour guide took us on a side trip to Ettal Abbey in the German Alps. It’s here that Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in increments of several months at a time, spent a total of several years in prayer and study and also wrote a portion of his book on being the Church, Life Together. (I recommend it.) As we stood by a plaque remembering Bonhoeffer, I thought of how, though he had traveled to and taught in America and Britain and been offered cushy assignments on theological faculties, decided to return to Germany after the racist nationalist movement of Adolf Hitler had taken hold. Bonhoeffer felt he had to be in Germany to continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in the face of Hitler’s evils. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazi government in the waning days of the war. As he went to the gallows, he said, “This is the end–for me, the beginning of life.”  

What are we willing to yield to the Lord? 

What shall we, as individuals, give in response to a grace that has done and is doing everything for me? 

Of course, every Christian will see it as an appropriate expression of our faith to worship regularly, to give to the mission of the Church, take up a ministry, pray in Jesus' name. But even more than your money or your works, God wants you. 

He wants to give you the new life on which Bonhoeffer staked his life as he went to be executed

God wants you because He loves you. 

God wants you so that He can redeem and make new every part of your life: your mind and emotions, your work, your friendships, and your marriage, your present and your eternity. 

God wants you because He’s given His all--even the Son’s life sacrificed on a cross--to make you His own. 

And He wants you for all eternity.

May we, like the widow, learn what it means to give our whole selves to the God Who has given us all in Jesus. Amen

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