Saturday, December 15, 2018

Righteous AND humble?

[This is the journal entry for my quiet time with God this morning. In my quiet time, I follow a format of stop, look, listen, respond. You can see more about this approach to being with God here.]

[UPDATE: Over on Twitter, @pudicat11 (Steve Martin) raises an interesting point on this post. Here's what he said: "Nice job, Mark. 

"But I certainly would never want to rely upon the genuineness (is that a word??) of ‘my repentance’.

"I know myself all too well. What I do, won’t do, and the awful thoughts I often have.

"I’m trusting in His working repentance in me. And in His forgiveness."

Great point! This post could create the wrong impression and a "new law" for salvation. But no law can save. So, here's what I wrote in response to Steve's important caution:

"Well put. I suppose what I mean by that phrase is one's intentions. Even our intentions are never pure, of course. But it's as with the Apostle's Creed: I feel sometimes that I should say, "I want to believe..." God takes that turning, I think, and turns it into faith we can't muster or manufacture, only receive."

I added: "What I meant by authentic repentance was the place of brokenness to which God takes us, inciting us to turn to [Him] in powerlessness rather than in the manner of a transaction. Think: Saul's 'repentance' versus David's; or, Peter's 'repentance' versus that of Judas."]

Look: “Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:3)

I’m preaching on Zephaniah tomorrow and ordinarily, I would avoid focusing during quiet time on a book from which I’m preaching, to avoid being utilitarian. Quiet time is meant to be a time when I commune with God, not a time for studying a book in pursuit of professional ends. But I missed reading Zephaniah earlier in the year when its three chapters were assigned. Because Zephaniah is one of what’s called “the minor prophets” (and sometimes, “ twelve”) in the Old Testament, with whom I’ve been spending a lot of time in my teaching and preaching this Advent season, I decided to read Zephaniah’s three chapters. I also decided to ask God to show me a truth He wanted me to notice today in a verse outside of the lesson appointed for tomorrow, something that He wanted me to see in my quiet time with Him.

He did.

The first thing that struck me about the words of Zephaniah 2:3 are their similarity words of repentance seen in the books of the other minor prophets.

When Jonah reluctantly proclaimed God’s Word to the people of Nineveh, the Ninevite king called his people, who had been foreign to ancient Israel’s God: “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence,” the king said. “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish." (Jonah 3:8-9)

And in Amos 5:15, the prophet, speaking for God, tells the people of Israel, facing judgment: “Hate evil, love good; maintain justice in the courts. Perhaps the Lord God Almighty will have mercy on the remnant of Joseph.”

In each of these passages, the theme is the same: God calls people to repent for our sins with authenticity, with a true turning back to God. Whether that will spare the repentant from facing the consequences of sin is completely up to God.

To repent then is to value a restored relationship with God so totally that we’re willing to face the wrath we’ve incurred for our sin. We respect God’s sovereignty.

We know that if we must face earthly punishments for our sins, it’s only because God is a loving Father and He truly regards us His children (Hebrews 12:5-7).

We know too that in the resurrection, repentant believers will live perfectly in the “image of God” which God originally intended for all human beings (Revelation 21:1-27).

So, momentary difficulties aren’t to compared to all that God has in mind for us (Romans 8:18; 2 Corinthians 4:17)

This precludes any utilitarian approaches to repentance on our parts. There’s no, “I’ll repent for my sins if God will…” element in true repentance.

The classic example of authentic repentance is King David. David authentically repented for his adultery and murder. But he accepted that there were still consequences to himself, his family, his reign, and his nation that resulted from his sins. (Sometimes there are no discernible consequences. That too must be left in the hands of the sovereign God.)

The believer who is authentically repentant leaves it all to God.

The second thing that struck me about Zephaniah 2:3 today is its call to “seek righteousness, seek humility.” Righteousness and humility are presented poetically in parallel. According to this verse then, to be righteous is to be humble and vice versa.

This doesn’t really comply with the way we ordinarily understand the word righteousness, or words like it: goodness, moral, upright, or even faultless. When we imagine someone who’s righteous, we imagine them being anything but humble.

We’re more likely to see them as arrogant, judgmental. We picture self-righteous prigs (
a good word from the UK) who look down their noses at the riff-raff of the world who don’t measure up to their high moral standards.

To hear Jesus tell it, people like this are also hypocrites, people whose repentance and faith in God are inauthentic and therefore worthless for them when they come into God’s presence: I think of Jesus’ story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14).

When God makes a person righteous--I could as easily say, “When God justifies repentant sinners,” because in the Greek in which the New Testament is written, righteousness is dikaiosune and justify is dikaioo, meaning that when God justifies a sinner, He ‘righteousfies’ us, declaring us innocent of sin despite our sin because all who repent in the name of Jesus are covered by Christ’s righteousness--it doesn’t make that person arrogant. In fact, the opposite is true: We are humbled. (I am humbled!)

Arrogance is precluded for the repentant sinner who has been forgiven and made new--made righteous--by God’s action in Christ: His sacrificial death and resurrection. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

“Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of [good] works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from [good] works of the law.” (Romans 3:27-28 ESV)

Humility and righteousness go together in authentic repentance because we know that only God can make us righteous: right with God, humble before God, humble in our dealings with others, grateful for undeserved grace, open to God and to others.

Listen: Genuine repentance precludes arrogance in dealing with others, even with those who are themselves arrogant.

As a believer, a disciple, a human being, a citizen, a family member, a servant leader, a pastor, and a dean, I am called to make judgments about people and circumstances. But I am not to be judgmental. I may judge that something a person is doing is wrong. I may, out of love, confront them for it. But I am not to judge their eternal salvation in the bargain.

I’m to keep sharing God’s Word of truth, in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), Law and Gospel, because God’s Law shuts our mouths and excludes our excuses and rationalizations for sin (Romans 3:19) and because the Gospel of Jesus Christ sets sinners free from eternal punishment for their sins (Romans 1:15-16), making us righteous (Romans 5:1, CEB).

I must trust that as I trust in God, entrusting my sins and my life to Him in daily repentance and enduring faith, He will keep imparting Christ’s righteousness to me. Like an alcoholic, I am called to daily surrender to God so that He can replace my sinfulness and arrogance with Christ’s righteousness and humility, my dead ways with His life.

Repentance is essential. I must honestly wrestle with my sins and submit them (and myself) to daily crucifixion. If there is to be a new Mark, it will not be built on my working at being righteous or humble. It will only come through this constant--and often painful because crucifixion is painful--regular submission to the God revealed in Jesus.

How will I know that I’ve become a humble, righteous person? I won’t. If I suspect that I’ve become that kind of person, it will be Exhibit A in evidence against my having become a righteous, humble person.

Does that mean I’m a hopeless case? As long as we keep turning to Jesus, laying my life before Him, I’m filled with hope: He shares His righteousness and humility with me, covering me with them.

I needn’t worry about taking on the project of becoming righteous and humble: As I daily turn to Christ, He’s doing the job (and a huge job it is) for me. I simply have to receive Him as I meet Him in His Word, in congregational worship, in the sacraments, in the fellowship of believers.

Respond: Today, Jesus, I turn to You. Forgive the sins of which I’m aware. Make me aware of the ones I don’t know about so that I can submit them to You. Make me fearless in pursuing the calls You have placed on my life: husband, father, friend, pastor, dean, communicator of Your truth. And, as I turn to You with an unveiled face, transform me, whatever pain is involved, into Your mage (2 Corinthians 3:18). Even when I resist You, fill me with Your righteousness and humility so that people don’t see me, but see You in me. In Your name I pray. Amen

Friday, December 14, 2018

Looking Virtuous or Being Virtuous?

“While virtuous prudence is characterized by ‘purity, straightforwardness, candor, and simplicity of character,’ false prudence relies on the appearance of these as a tactic toward some other end.” (Karen Swallow Prior, On Reading Well) These are wise words from a wise author. And what Prior says applies to all virtues, whether real or only apparent. Jesus tells us to let our answers be yes or no, that any other answer is from the evil one (Matthew 5:37).

My personal experience is that people who spend a lot of time trying to convince you that they’re honest rather than being honest are probably more concerned with appearances, particularly with how they appear to other people, than they are with authenticity, relationships, or truth. (And nobody is immune from such hypocrisy, it should be said.)

It’s a subtle temptation to think that if we just look like good people, we’ll be good people. We can even fool ourselves into believing it.

But goodness isn’t about how we look and we can’t manufacture it. It must be daily imported, downloaded from God.

Jesus, God in human flesh, reminds us that God alone is good (Luke 18:19). And His goodness is most seen in those who aren’t thinking about being good or trying to appear good (or holy, or moral, or upright, or righteous, or “together"), but in those who think about, confess to, and daily receive life and forgiveness from the God revealed in Jesus.

Moral showiness impresses few and impresses God never. And it never makes us good, however we may appear to others. Only those who allow God to break them open to admit their imperfection are ready to be filled with the love, truth, AND goodness that God gives through Jesus.

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

Monday, December 10, 2018

The Love That Prepares Us...for Anything

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

Malachi 3:1-7b
Our theme word for this Second Sunday of Advent is love, as in God’s love for us. Whatever capacity for loving God or loving others we possess as sinful and imperfect human beings does not come from us. It comes from God. In the New Testament, John reminds us, “We love because [the God revealed in Jesus Christ] first loved us.” Self-giving love, the kind of love God bears for us and that He wills for us, is foreign to us human beings. We’re born selfish down to the bone.

That’s why love, as popularly defined by the world, from God’s perspective, isn’t love at all. 

Love, in God’s eyes, is more than affectionate feelings for us. 

God’s love for us entails

  • commitment to us (even when we doubt Him), 
  • confronting us for our wrongs (even when we hate ourselves for them), and 
  • refusing to enable us in our common human addiction to sin. 

God’s love confronts the sinner, cleanses the repentant, and redeems the surrendered

As someone has said, “God loves us just as we are. But He loves us too much to leave us there.” 

God’s love calls the Christian to a life of constant Holy Spirit-powered change. 

This is what we Lutherans mean when we speak of living in daily repentance and renewal. 

God doesn’t force this way of life upon us. 

It comes to us as we live in fellowship with Him and with His Church: as we gather in worship, as we read His Word privately and with others, as we receive God’s Word in Scripture, in the Sacraments, and in other ways, like the liturgy, preaching, and conversation with Christian friends who give witness to us about Jesus. 

These are the means by which God loves us: confronting us, cleansing us, redeeming us. 

As we trustingly receive God’s Word and receive the power to believe and obey, we are changed by God’s love

It’s precisely this process of change that the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “...we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”   

This morning, as we look at Malachi 3:1-7, I ask two big questions (of you and me): 

First: Are we regularly spending time with God in His Word, contemplating His glory and allowing His transforming love to penetrate to every part of our lives? 

Second: If we are spending regular times with God in this way, are we really listening for His confrontational, cleansing, redeeming Word (as opposed to looking for proof texts, merit badges, head knowledge, or some justification for self-righteousness)? 

God seeks access to the cores of our beings so that He can make us over in the image of Christ from the inside out. 

If our answer to either of those two questions is, “No,” as it can so often be for many of us, I suspect, including me, then we block Christ from having access to do His work of changing us.

Malachi, whose name literally means, my messenger, was sent by God to the people of Judah who were, sometimes without even knowing it, blocking God from their lives. 

Malachi wrote sometime between 490 and 430 BC, about one-hundred years after Jeremiah, whose prophetic words we considered last Sunday. Jeremiah, you’ll remember, sat in a prison cell as the Babylonians prepared to conquer and sack Jerusalem, the place where the temple and the presence of God existed in Judah. The Babylonians exiled much of Judah’s population and destroyed the temple. But by the time Malachi became a prophet, Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persians, in turn, had allowed God’s people, the people who had once inhabited Judah, to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. 

While many were disappointed that the second temple they built wasn’t as beautiful as the one built by Solomon, there was a deeper crisis among the Jews who had returned to the homeland, a crisis of faith. Scarred by their experience of being conquered and exiled, the returnees felt that God had let them down.

Have you ever felt that way? That God let you down? 

You tried to be faithful but God didn’t seem to hear your prayers? 

You jumped through all the hoops, but God didn’t seem to come through? 

You worshiped God and trusted in Christ with all your heart, yet bad things have happened in your life, in the life of your family, the life of the world? 

Likely, we all have felt at one time or another that God and His love have let us down. 

When that feeling takes hold in us, we might go to worship more out of habit than conviction. 

We might also spend less time with God. 

We might let other habits, some of them perfectly innocent, others of them contrary to the will of God, take root in our lives, crowd God out of our lives, and then, wander further and further from God

Malachi wrote our lesson for this morning to lovingly call God’s people back to an authentic walk with God and to hearten them with the vision of what God intended to do for them--and us--through His Messiah, His Christ, Jesus.

So, please look at our lesson, Malachi 3:1-7b. It begins: “‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.” 

God was going to send a messenger, in the Hebrew, a malachi, to prepare the way for God to process into our world. 

The language is that of road building and repair, the kind that communities undertake when they know a king is going to process into their community. Even today, when celebrated people are scheduled to visit somewhere, the towns and cites spruce up in preparation. (It's been said that Queen Elizabeth smells fresh paint wherever she goes.) 

Malachi says that a messenger--we believe that messenger was John the Baptizer--would prepare the world for the Lord Almighty, God enfleshed, Jesus, to arrive. 

Today, as baptized believers in Jesus, our call is to prepare a way, in our lives and in the disciples we make, for the return of Jesus. How do we do that? Stick with me.

The lesson continues: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.”

Like other prophets, Malachi is saying that we may want to rethink our desire for Jesus to return quickly. We may not be as prepared as we think we are. We need to be refined and cleaned

That means allowing the God we know in Jesus to clear out all of those things that keep us from being the saved, transformed people of God we were meant to be

  • All the sins, however secret we may try to keep them from the world
  • All the fears we have of this world, however much we try appearing we have it all together.
  • All the suspicions that we may have that God isn’t real or that God doesn’t care about us

The old must be discarded; the new life given to us through Christ must become embraced

This is how we prepare for the coming of Jesus!

When we let the God we know in Jesus have access to us and go to work to cleanse us, we won’t be perfect. That will have to wait until after our resurrections. As long as we draw breath in this world, we will remain, by grace, saints AND sinners. 

But Christ’s death on the cross will cover our sins and His resurrection will give us peace and hope in all circumstances and we will be prepared to meet the Lord our God! 

The cleansing and renewal only God’s love can give us is ours when we can let the God we know in Jesus Christ into our lives the way David did when he prayed, “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)

Malachi continues, quoting God: “‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.” God still hates sins, including sorcery, adultery, perjury, bosses who defraud workers, and anyone who oppresses widows, orphans, or foreign strangers

But God also loves the sinners who commit sin

That’s why God became human at Christmas and then went to the cross on Good Friday to take our punishment for sin. 

Listen: God can forgive any sin and He can give new life anyone who turns to Jesus, God the Son. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 11:28). That really is the final message God gives to us through Malachi today.

God says in our lesson: “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

In this imperfect world, things happen that we cannot explain, things that hurt. 

Some of them will happen because of our own sin and rebellion, our failure to turn to God in faith. 

Others will happen because bad things happen in a fallen world. 

These things will keep happening until the day Jesus returns, when our unchanging God, will make all things right in His new creation

Until then, our call is to daily return to Jesus

When we return to the God we know in Jesus, day in and day out, submitting to Him as He confronts, cleanses, and redeems us, as we lay our lives before Jesus in trust, we will be prepared to meet Jesus without fear, certain of His love, whether it happens today, tonight, tomorrow, at Christmas, at the ends of our lives, or at the end of this world. 

As we turn to Jesus and let Him love us, we are prepared, ready, for anything


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

When I doubt that I'm forgiven

[These joyous journal reflections are from my quiet time with God this morning. I hope that you find them helpful in your walk with God...and, more importantly, that they'll incite you, if you don't yet do it, to keep a daily quiet time with God yourself.]

Look: “Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Take off his filthy clothes.’ Then he said to Joshua, ‘See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you...I will remove the sin of this land in a single day. In that day each of you will invite your neighbor to sit under your vine and fig tree,’ declares the Lord Almighty.” (Zechariah 3:3-4, 9-10)

Zechariah was a prophet in late 6th.-century BC Judah. The Persians were allowing God’s people who had formerly been taken into exile by the Babylonians, now vassals of the Persians, to return to their homelands. Zechariah hears from God that the promised land had been wrested from God’s people because of their idolatry and other sins. Now the people were going back and Zechariah encounters the high priest Joshua. (This is not the Joshua who succeeded Moses as the leader of God’s people in the wilderness. This Joshua lived many centuries later.)

Here’s the high priest: In filthy rags, representing the sins of Judah (and presumably his own). But God removes Joshua’s filthy clothes, replacing them with “fine garments.” God’s gracious forgiveness is swift in its impact: He removes the sins of the nation in a single day. And its impact goes beyond those He forgives: Infected by His grace, the forgiven invite their neighbors to sit with them in the shade of their vines and fig trees. God’s forgiveness for us creates within us a humility and a love for others that cannot be contained. I think of the early Christians, the forgiveness of God in Christ, when embraced transforms our lives and our relationships with others, including our unbelieving neighbors.

Listen: This is an awesome passage! Despite being a preacher of the gospel--the good news of forgiveness and new life for all who repent and trust in the God Who comes to us in Jesus Christ, I sometimes cling to my filthy rags. I do this not only in the sense of committing again sins for which I have authentically repented, but also when I allow myself to doubt that God can forgive or has forgiven the sins that I lay at his feet. I give God my filthy sins, lay my sins bare before God, accept the clean garment of forgiven sin, and then cling to the old sins, struggling to believe that God could actually forgive me.

The Gospel of Jesus says that God can forgive all of my sins! So does this passage!

It’s akin to the words of Psalm 103:12: “ far as the east is from the west, so far has he [God] removed our transgressions from us.”

God calls me to trust that in Jesus Christ, I am forgiven and I am made new. “... if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

No matter how hard it may be for us to accept that God could possibly forgive us, our call is to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh…” (Romans 13:14). In other words, our repentance is only complete after we accept the forgiveness God freely offers through Jesus to all who repent.

Repentance that stops at regret for sin is no repentance.

Repentance that ends in self-recrimination and doubts that God could possibly forgive me is not repentance.

Repentance is composed of a sorrow for sin, a trusting turn to God through Jesus to confess, and grateful acceptance of the forgiveness of God given, not because I deserve it, but because Jesus has earned it for all who trust in Him, including me.

When the power and truth of God’s forgiveness clothe us in Christ’s righteousness, a humble gratitude takes hold, making it possible for we forgiven to love others as we’ve been loved by God.

Respond: Thank You, Lord, for this reminder of Your forgiving grace. Help me to discard the filthy rags to which I so readily cling. Today, help me to cling to Christ alone. Throughout this day, on the half hour, remind me to thank You for Your forgiveness. In Jesus’ name. Amen

[I think Martin Luther had the right attitude as to how Christians should respond to the temptation, whether from the devil, the world, or our sinful selves, to doubt that God forgives repented sin. He wrote, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’” AMEN!]

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