Friday, November 23, 2018

Why God Humbles Us

In my quiet time with God today, I read the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapters 4-6.

Daniel, living as an exile in Babylon, which had conquered God's people, is an adviser to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel interprets a dream for the king, telling Nebuchadnezzar that, although he is powerful and rich at the moment, his kingdom will soon be taken from him. Because of his arrogance, Nebuchadnezzar will be driven from his throne, forced to live like a wild animal.

A year passes and the king is still in power...unchastened by the dream. Then, one day while walking on the roof of his palace, Nebuchadnezzar observes with self-satisfaction, "Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?" (Daniel 4:30)

Just then, a voice came from heaven and told the king, "This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times [seven years] will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 4:31-32)

After seven years of God's humiliation for his arrogance, Nebuchadnezzar repented for his sins and confessed his faith in God. As he tells it, his sanity is restored. (The abiding insanity of the human race is the notion that we can "be like God," masters of our own lives and fates. Nebuchadnezzar apparently had followed this insane line of thinking to the nth degree.)

Eventually, his advisers and others sought Nebuchadnezzar out and his kingship was restored, although he approached it with a different attitude. His kingship and all of the other gifts God chose to bestow on him weren't his due, nor the result of his goodness or power: They were only trusts given to Him by God to be used with faithfulness, diligence, and wisdom.

In Daniel 4:37, the king says, "Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble."

"And those who walk in pride he is able to humble."

We may sometimes resent or question the ways in which God humbles us. But maybe God has to humble us in order to restore our sanity, to help us to acknowledge the fundamental fact of the universe, that God is God and we're not. He needs to humble us so that we will turn back to Him and live.

The way of self-centered pride may gain us the whole world. But eventually, it will cost us our eternal lives. When we insist on worshiping at what Carolyn Arends has called "the altar of ego," we aren't walking with the God we know in Jesus Christ.

Jesus asks, "What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Mark 8:36)

Nebuchadnezzar's answer to that question was, "It doesn't profit anyone at all to gain the trophies of this dying world and lose our life with God for all eternity."

I try to spend time in God's Word each day. I don’t do that to earn brownie points with God. God doesn’t give brownie points. He gave Himself on the cross for sinners like me. I spend time in God’s Word each day so that I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that this world or this human being is all that. I need to be reminded of how gracious, loving, powerful, and righteous God is. I need to reconnect with the only Source of life there is: the God revealed in Jesus.

I don't want to be my own man. I want to be God's man. I want to be a man who belongs to the One Who bought my soul out of sin and death by His death on the cross. I want to belong to Jesus.

I don't need the kingdoms of this world--prominence, popularity, power, property. I just need the God revealed in Jesus. I ask that God would remind me of that each day, to keep me sane.

"One thing I have asked of the LORD, this is what I desire: to dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and seek Him in His temple." (Psalm 27:4)

That’s how I feel when I’m sane. And I'm not always sane. Sometimes I let my ego, my thoughts, my emotions, or my desires take control. 
I need to be humbled to see God, the world, and me aright. That's why I keep coming back to God in His Word, the God I know in Jesus, the God Who has established His Church as a fellowship of healing for recovering sinners like me: So that His sanity will penetrate my life and so that I will believe in Him and live.

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

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

The Call to Be Bold and Humble

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

Look: “...I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors: You have given me wisdom and power, you have made known to me what we asked of you, you have made known to us the dream of the king.” (Daniel 2:23)

This is part of a prayer of praise and thanksgiving offered by Daniel, a Jew held captive in Babylon after that nation conquered God’s people.

Daniel, following a period of training, was enlisted into the ranks of the Babylonian king’s “wise men.” Also enlisted from God’s people were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. (The three are known best today by the names given to them by the Babylonians, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, although I’m certain they would prefer to be known by their given Hebrew names.)

The king had dreamt a troubling dream. Unlike the Pharaoh during Israel’s enslavement in Egypt many centuries before, the king not only expected his wise men to interpret his dream, but also to tell him what had happened in his dream. For some reason, neither Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, nor Azariah was present when the Babylonian seers confessed that they couldn’t see the king’s dream, only interpret the dream as the king recounted it. The king was furious and ordered the execution of all the wise men, even the four Hebrews.

When Daniel and the other three Hebrews learned of the king’s death sentence, Daniel went to the king and asked for time so that he could interpret the dream. He then enlisted Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah to pray that God would show them mercy by revealing both the content of the king’s dream and its meaning. “He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.” (Daniel 2:18) Daniel wasn’t just interested in saving himself and his friends from the executioner, but also the Babylonian wise men.

That night, after the four had sought God’s mercy, the dream and its interpretation were revealed to Daniel. Interestingly, in the verse, Daniel thanks God not only for revealing these things to himself personally but also to “us,” to him and his three prayer partners. Our faith life is lived out in the company of, with the support of, and with accountability to other believers.

Listen: I’m struck by several things here.

I’m struck, first, by the nature of prayer offered to the God of Israel, now revealed to the whole world in Jesus Christ.

First, Daniel was concerned not just for his own life and not just for the lives of his fellow Jews, but for the lives too of the Babylonian wise men. In James 4:3, James upbraids his addressees, who are mystified at why they receive no answers to their prayers, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” Daniel wanted to save his own life, to be sure. But he also wanted to save others’ lives and to rely with bold faith on God. In 1 Corinthians 13, the apostle Paul says that love doesn’t seek its own way. And in Philippians 4, he exhorts believers to put the interests of others above their own. Things could have gone very badly for Daniel when he boldly came into the presence of the king to plead for time to learn from God both the content of the king’s dream and its proper interpretation. But he did so with confidence in the mercy God shows when we love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Second, when we pray alone, God certainly hears our prayers. But when we enlist others to pray with us, there is an accountability. If Daniel had said, “Hey, guys, please pray that God will save us and nobody else,” it’s likely that he would have prayed alone...and without effect.  But the four Hebrews could all agree that seeking God’s help and wisdom in order to save everyone’s life was a godly prayer. The God of Israel was ultimately revealed in Jesus, Who tells us, “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:19) (Of course, even when two or three or more pray for something, as Christians, they also pray in Jesus’ name and for God’s will to be done. Prayer is submission to the will of God, even when it’s not what we want.)

I’m also struck by the fact that Daniel didn’t forget to thank God for the answered prayers. How often have I gotten into scrapes and prayed, with genuine faith and submission, only to forget to thank God after He’s taken me through them? More often than I can remember, I’m sure.

I’m also struck again by the fact that true faith in the God we now all can know only in Christ is characterized both by boldness and humility. Daniel and his friends were bold in their prayers to God and humbly submissive to God. Daniel was bold to petition the king but did so without accusation or anger, only humility. Boldness AND humility should characterize the Christian’s life, including our prayers and our interactions with others. I often seem to fall prey to my human nature and end up being neither bold nor humble!

One big takeaway for me is to pray with faith and submission to the God revealed in Jesus. This is what Jesus teaches us to do. “Your will be done,” is, for me the hardest and most important petition of the prayer that Jesus has taught us, the Lord’s Prayer.

The other big takeaway is this: pray with certainty that God hears prayers offered in Jesus’ name, that is, prayers that submit to the will of God and are filled with a knowledge of God born of our relationship with Him. James says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5) The experience of Daniel and his friends bears the truth of that verse out.

Respond: Lord, teach me today to be both bold and humble as I seek to live my life in Your power and to Your glory alone. In Jesus’ name I ask this. Amen

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

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Keep Planting Those Apple Trees

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

Mark 13:1-13
During our recent trip to the Reformation Era places in Germany, a small item for sale appeared in several shops. It was a figure of a smiling Martin Luther, holding an apple in one hand and a shovel in the other. The trinket draws its inspiration from a quote, probably falsely attributed to Luther: “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Although Luther likely never said this, it sounds like something he would say. Luther never concerned himself very much with the end of this world. He was certain as a Christian disciple who believed in Jesus, he was safe in the hands of Christ, no matter what might happen in this world. (Luther was also fond of trees, although it was usually Katy, his wife, who took care of the planting and the farming.) 

More importantly, these words attributed to Luther could serve well as a summary of what Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson, Mark 13:1-13

As you know, many people get hung up on questions about when the world will end and how we’ll know that it’s about to happen. Today, Jesus, God-in-the-flesh, tells us, “Don’t give any of that a thought. Just keep trusting in Me and focus on what I am calling You to do.” 

In other words, even if you and I knew that Jesus was returning to close the book on the life of this dying, sin-riddled world today or a half-hour from now, we should, each of us, in our own ways, keep at the life and calling of a disciple of Jesus.

Let’s consider exactly how Jesus makes that point and what it means for how we live today by looking at our lesson, starting at verse 1. “As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’”  

Many ancient accounts say that the not-yet-then-completed temple was one of the most beautiful and imposing buildings in the world. But Jesus was unimpressed. Verse 2: “‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’” 

In Old Testament times, you'll remember, people in the city of Babel decided that they would build a gigantic skyscraper to “make a name for ourselves” (Genesis 11:4). Of course, people still do that kind of thing, building monuments to their egos, individual and corporate. (I think of all the stadia with the names of one corporation or another splattered across them.)

Even congregations do this, erecting elaborate buildings designed to wow and impress people with just how wonderful their church is even as they forget altogether what a church is, a fellowship of disciples of Jesus built on Word and sacrament, and forgetting that buildings are just tools churches can use to pursue their mission of being and making disciples. 

When buildings or busy-work or happy hours become the end-alls and be-alls of a congregation’s life, the mission of the church--the reason for the building--gets forgotten. I’m glad to be part of a congregation that hasn’t forgotten its mission!

Jesus tells the disciples: “Take a good look at this place. One day it will be rubble.” In 70 AD, when the Romans violently suppressed an armed rebellion by the Judeans, the temple would be smashed to bits. The second temple built by Herod was little more than a monument designed to impress and win over the people over whom he illegitimately ruled. 

The apostle Peter, who was with Jesus when He spoke His prophecy about the temple, later told the first-century churches in Asia Minor, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). I can’t help thinking that Peter may have been remembering this very moment in the temple when he cited those words.

Verses 3 and 4: “As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, Tell us, when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?’” 

Four of the apostles approach Jesus on the QT. They probably had been disturbed by Jesus’ prophecy of a destroyed temple. So they ask: (1) When will this happen? (2) What will be signs that it’s about to happen? The apostle Paul would later say that “Jews demand signs” (1 Corinthians 1:22). He clearly knew his own people. 

But it’s interesting to note that while Jesus tells the apostles the signs, He doesn’t tell them when things will happen. There’s a good reason for that...and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But for now, I want to make sure you keep listening; so, I’m going to leave you in suspense.

Verse 5: “Jesus said to them: ‘Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many.” 

In the two-thousand years since Jesus died and rose, there have been many fake messiahs and false gospels. Jesus says that we have to watch out for the deceivers, lest they waste our time in this life and rob us of the life to come because we’ve placed our trust in someone or something other than in the God revealed to all of us in Jesus.

During my quiet time a few days ago, I was struck by Jesus’ words in John 10:5. He says, “...they [His sheep, His disciples] will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” The charlatans of this life--the devil, the world, and our sinful selves--will always try to sell us on false gospels:

  • “Follow your heart,” says one false gospel. 
  • “Follow your mind,” says another. 
  • “Follow your desire,” yet another. 
  • “Get what you want,” one tells us. 
  • “Work hard to be worthy of God’s love,” says another. 

But these are all worldly lies and not the gospel. And those who put their trust in Jesus, who know Him and seek to follow Him each day, will never follow a false gospel or a stranger who pushes a false gospel.

Of course, picking Jesus’ voice out from all the noise of the world isn’t always an easy proposition. The false gospels of this world can twist or drown out the call of Jesus to humbly follow Him if we don’t daily acclimate ourselves to listening for His voice

That’s why a daily quiet time of reading God’s Word, seeking His will for us, praying in repentance, dying to ourselves so that we can rise anew each day as God’s children, and soaking up the grace God makes available to us through Jesus is so important

As Luther did say, “We need to hear the gospel everyday because we forget it everyday.”

Jesus goes on to describe the signs of the end: “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains.” 

The signs Jesus describes were going on then; they’re going on today. Jesus may as well have said, “When you see the sinful, dying world hurtling along just as it always has, take it as a sign that the end is near. The new creation I will bring in its fullness when I return is in labor pains until then.”

Jesus goes on to say that the days before His return will also be filled with persecution and arrest for those who dare to follow Him. There has never been a time in the two-thousand years since Jesus spoke these words that the Church hasn’t faced persecution somewhere in the world. You and I are fortunate that we don’t face persecution in the United States, although some people ridicule faith in Christ. 

As the apostle Peter also wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, then under the threat of persecution: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” (1 Peter 4:12) For disciples of Jesus, persecution is SOP, standard operating procedure.

For human beings not yet experiencing the love and grace of God received through faith in Jesus Christ, the entire idea of letting anyone be the Lord of their lives, even the God Who created them and took on flesh and died and rose for them, that idea is repulsive. Many call faithful submission to Jesus weak. They call trusting faith imbecilic. 

All human beings are born in sin and so, we’d rather be our own gods. When Christians, by their lives, words, and deeds remind folks of human sin and the need we all have of the forgiveness and new life that only comes to us through surrender to Jesus, we will not be universally popular

And sometimes, we will face outright persecution, even death, for proclaiming that Jesus is Lord. This too is merely a sign that we’re living in a world that’s going to die.

But it should also remind us of something else. Verse 13: “Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” 

You can breathe now. I’ve ended the suspense. We’re not to worry about when the end will come or what the signs will be

Through Christ, we have been saved from all the world’s thrashing, hating, self-glorification, and death. Our call is simply to stand firm with Jesus

As Jesus says elsewhere, “...whoever lives by believing in me will never die” (John 11:26). That’s a promise that can sustain us through all circumstances!

I once heard a speaker ask, “What would you do if you knew you could never fail?” Jesus’ words to us today pose a different question: “How will you live knowing that in Jesus Christ, you will never die?” 

Well, for one thing, you’ll probably be bolder in following Jesus and telling others about the new life He gives to those who believe in Him. 

You’ll be less spooked and fearful of the world. Every time you read a bad headline, you can say, “There’s the world being the world again.” 

And you may have--I hope that we all will have--a greater sense of urgency about the mission of Christ’s Church, the mission of this church: to be and to make disciples who... 

  • reach up in worship, praise, and awe for God; 
  • reach in to grow together and lovingly, prayerfully support one another in our life with Christ; and
  • reach out to make new disciples for Jesus. 

We don’t know when Jesus will return. We don’t know when our lives on this earth will end. 

Until either or both of those events occur, keep planting your apple trees, living your life in the light of God’s love for you. 

Keep trusting Jesus! Amen

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