Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Who's Blessed? (AUDIO)

Here's the audio of this past Sunday's message. I hope you find it helpful.

Living Water!

[Below is the journal entry for my daily quiet time with God for today.]

Look: “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come!’ Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22:17)

Earlier in the chapter, John says that in the new Eden God will create after this old creation has died, God and the Lamb will be on their thrones. Flowing from them will be a great river, giving fecundity to the Tree of Life on either side. In this river, in other words, new and everlasting life with God flows.

Then comes the invitation from the Holy Spirit and from the Church, Christ’s bride, mentioned above. Drink of the water, they say, take in “the free gift of the water of life.”

Listen: In reading this, my mind is drawn to the scene of the dead Jesus on the cross. A soldier pierces His side, “bringing a sudden flow of blood and water” (John 19:34).

Jesus’ blood cleanses of sin and the water of life brings us ever-new life with God. This is a free gift, an act of God’s charity, His grace, for all who receive it.

Because it’s free, it’s not something I can earn or of which I’m worthy. It only comes to those who respond to the invitation to come to the cleansing water of new life from God.

Revelation 22 also shows who will not be included in this new creation: “...the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21:8)

In other words, those who refuse to be cleansed of their sin, who hang onto it as part of themselves, will die a second and everlasting time.

Respond: On this New Year’s Eve, Lord, help me to let go of the sins that hinder me from following You, that separates me from You and from partaking of the free gift of the water of life.

Today, send Your Holy Spirit to help me to resist temptation and instead, take Your invitation. Then, help me to do it tomorrow and the next day.

Be honored, glorified, and praised. Grant that in all that I say and do and am, people will know Jesus and Your living, saving water. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

[The artistic representation of the new Jerusalem and its water of life that appears above was done in the tenth-century.]

[The image below comes from this website. If I have violated copyright law, I hope the owners will feel free to take it down. But it seems to me to well illustrate these last chapters of Revelation and I love the picture which comes from Brazil.]

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I'm also a sinner saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus, a faith that is given by God's Holy Spirit. As someone who is simultaneously saint and sinner, I take all the blame for my deficiencies and give all the credit to God for anything good about me.] 

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Being a grown up

Thanks for sharing this over on Facebook, Kathleen.

Please Pray for John Lewis

Who's Blessed?

[This message was shared this morning during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. I found the "pump" for it was primed by a sermon once preached by the late Swedish pastor and novelist, Bo Giertz. The book containing that sermon can be found here.]

Matthew 2:13-23
One of the blessings of the Psalms, the Old Testament songbook, is that God gives us permission to say things to Him that we might think, in our misguided religious piety, we couldn’t possibly say to God. God gives us permission to be honest with Him. That includes the times when we don’t understand what He’s up to.

In Psalm 10, for example, we’re given permission to pray in this way:

Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises...His ways are always prosperous; your laws are rejected by him; he sneers at all his enemies. He says to himself, ‘Nothing will ever shake me.’ He swears, ‘No one will ever do me harm.’ His mouth is full of lies and threats; trouble and evil are under his tongue.” (Psalm 10:1-3, 5-7)
In our gospel lesson for today, Matthew 2:13-23, Joseph, the man chosen by God to be Jesus’ earthly father, would have had every reason to pray this psalm. 

Why was the baby Savior of the world, Jesus, the subject of a manhunt while Herod shed innocent blood to keep hold of his power and wealth? 

And why was it that Mary and Joseph, who welcomed God in the world on the first Christmas, had to leave their native land for fear of Herod, who sat comfortably in his palaces? 

Later, why did the holy family have to go back to Nazareth rather than to Bethlehem, their ancestral village, for fear of Herod’s son and what He might do to the baby?

It’s possible though that Joseph didn’t ask God any of these questions. 

Or, if he did, maybe he later dismissed them as those of a man who, like you and me, didn’t always see the whole picture. 

You see, I suspect that Joseph had an entirely different understanding of what it means to be blessed by God than most people have.

What do you think that it means to be blessed? 

If you were to ask the average person, including me some days, what it means to be blessed by God, we might say things like: having good health, having a loving family, having enough to eat, being spared bad experiences, getting to do the things we want to do. 

Now, all of these things are pleasant

And, as James says in the New Testament, all good and perfect gifts come from God. 

And only a sick person would want ill-health, a rancorous family, hunger, and so on. 

But, as Psalm 10 indicates, there are people who have all of these things and more and never think of themselves as blessed (or at least, never blessed enough) and never think of God. 

Herod, the king when Jesus was born, just as an example, had everything. But he always wanted more. And he lived in constant suspicious fear that someone was going to take away what he had. Despite all his supposed “blessings,” Herod was paranoid for fear of losing everything. 

Was Herod blessed? 

Was Joseph? 

Are you?

Our gospel lesson recounts three incidents that happened after wise men from the East visited the baby Jesus at Bethlehem. 

Incident #1

The first happened immediately after the visitors left. Joseph is visited by an angel of the Lord in a dream. “‘Get up,’ he said, ‘take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.’” (Matthew 2:13) Just as God once led His people out of slavery in Egypt, so now the Savior would come out of Egypt so that He could lead all who follow Him out of slavery to sin and death. But the time wasn’t right yet for God’s plan to unfold. That’s why the family had to flee.

Incident #2

In verse 16, we’re told that Herod realized that he had been “outwitted” by the wise men who had been told by God that Herod wanted to kill this new king. Actually, outwitted doesn’t accurately convey what the word Matthew used when he composed his gospel. My study of Scripture and of history convince me that the most dangerous people to wield earthly power are those who are both shrewd and stupid. Herod fell into this category. The word Matthew uses to describe Herod’s reaction, enepaichthe, means that Herod felt mocked and humiliated. Thug kings don’t like being embarrassed. That’s why Herod murdered the baby boys in Bethlehem. We may rightly wonder why God allowed the death of those babies. But we need to also remember that in allowing Jesus to live and offer His sinless life on the cross, God made it possible for the whole world--including this fallen world’s innocent victims--to have life that never ends with God, a blessing this world can never give.

Incident #3
In verse 19, after learning from an angel of the Lord that Herod is dead, Joseph takes the Child and His mother back to Bethlehem. But while on the way, He learns--again from God--that Herod’s son is king over that portion of Herod’s old territory and that it’s best to go to the place where he and Mary had been living before Jesus’ birth, back to Nazareth.

Joseph’s life, not to mention Mary’s life had been disrupted by God’s plans and the schemes of an evil ruler. Hearing the Word of God, Joseph was called to leave his means of making a livelihood behind. He was chased and terrorized, forced to settle in a foreign country that offered him and his family refuge and asylum. 

But each time the Word of God came to Joseph, God created the faith within him enabling him to respond faithfully. He didn’t abandon the baby and His mother in Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Egypt. 

You see, faith comes from hearing God’s Word (Romans 10:17)

The Holy Spirit authors God’s Word and then the Holy Spirit creates faith through that Word in those who are good soil, that is, in those who are receptive to the planting of God’s Word within them. 

Joseph heard the Word of God and Joseph trusted in God

Joseph heard God’s Word of promise and by the power of that Word, Joseph believed.

That’s what God’s Word does in us. The believers in God hears the promise of Isaiah 30:21: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’” And they learn that Jesus is that Way. “This is my Son...” the voice of God would cry out to the apostles Peter, James, and John, at the Mount of Transfiguration, “...Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5) Jesus is the Word. The Word Who gives us the faith in Him Who is our peace.

That’s why even in the midst of being torn from all that was familiar to him, in the midst of being chased and terrorized, Joseph was blessed. 

And that’s why even in the midst of all that bedevils, tempts, and tests us in this life, all who hear the Word of God about Jesus and trust in Him as Lord are blessed. 

You are blessed as you hear God tell you, “This is the way; walk in it.”

I mentioned earlier that the Psalms encourage us to say things to God we might not otherwise say. They also remind us of God’s promises to those who follow Christ rather than the world. 

Psalm 73 contains such a reminder:
You guide me with your counsel [that is, with Your Word], and afterward you will take me into glory. (Psalm 73:24). 
Friends: Jesus, the Word made flesh, guides those who turn to Him through His Word in this life. He guides us to trust that God so loved the world--and so loves us--that He gave His one and only Son so that all who believe in Him have life with God forever.

God blesses us in life by being with us even when the evil people of the world seem to have it all. 

And those who trust in Christ will, after all the dead and dying rewards of this world have disappeared forever, live with God in glory. 

Be like Joseph: Hear God’s Word. In the hearing of God’s Word, He will create faith in Christ within you. And, by God's grace through faith in Christ, you will live eternally in the glory of God. This is the blessed life. Amen 

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

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Faith or Fear (AUDIO)

The contest happens within us every day: faith or fear? Listen to the message here. I hope you find it helpful.

Why Shepherds? Why You? Why Me?

[This is the message prepared for last evening's Christmas Eve services with the people and friends of  Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. But something the nurse practitioner at the doctor's office called viral gastroenterits hit me yesterday, meaning that I shouldn't be around people. Living Water's worship and music director Mark Brennan shared the message while doing all of his other work. Thank you, Mark!]

Luke 2:1-18
The accounts of the first Christmas in Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels are filled with characters. 

Of course, there’s Jesus, God the Son Who comes into the world as a baby Who will one day die and rise to give forgiveness and everlasting life to all who believe in Him. 

There are Mary and Joseph, the couple chosen by God the Father to be Jesus’ earthly parents. 

There’s Caesar Augustus, the most powerful of the Roman emperors, who ordered a census in his conquered territories, meaning that to register, Joseph and Mary, both descendants of David, had to travel to Bethlehem, where the Old Testament prophecies said the Messiah would be born. 

There are the angels and the animals. 

Later, there are King Herod, and scribes, and wise men from the East who, following a portentous star, arrive sometime after Jesus’ birth to bring gifts to the Baby they perceive to be a King. 

In their way, the appearance in the nativity histories of each of these characters makes sense.

But what about the shepherds? When you think about it, the shepherds’ part in this story seems misplaced. 

It’s easy to understand why Mary and Joseph are in the story. 

Easy to understand too the presence of Caesar, who turned the lives of ordinary people upside down when he ordered them to walk distances of eighty miles or more just for the privilege of being taxed by a foreign overlord. That order meant that Jesus would be born in the right place.* 

It’s even easy to understand the presence of the livestock.

Unlike kings, emperors, and wise men though, the shepherds had no earthly power. Shepherds were poor. Shepherds had no influence. They were vulnerable. And they were thought of as among the lowlife of society. No Judean child thought, “When I grow up, I want to be a shepherd.”

And unlike the animals at the manger, the shepherds would not have been physically close to the place where Jesus was born. They had no reason to be in Bethlehem; their place was in the fields.

Yet it was to shepherds keeping watch over their sheep that God sent an angel to announce the birth of the Savior of the world. 

But God must have thought the angels were important on this night. 

And just in case the shepherds thought the angels’ message was really for someone else, just like all the other good news and happy blessings of the world always seemed to be, the angel’s message could not have been clearer. He tells the shepherds: “...I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

The shepherds weren't a Christmas afterthought on God's part. It's significant that the angel didn’t go to the powerful king, priests, or scribes in Jerusalem to let them know. The big shots in Jerusalem were too busy being big shots to rejoice over an angel pronouncing the Messiah’s birth. Besides, as Matthew tells us, it was these elites who regarded Jesus as a threat and determined that any newborn Messiah would need to be exterminated in his crib.

The shepherds have none of what the Jerusalem elites have. 

They have no power, perks, or comfort. 

Like the poor and weak of every age, their daily lives show them how vulnerable and fragile they are. 

And it is precisely to people who see their vulnerability that Christ comes
  • He comes to those who know that they are sinners in need of the grace and forgiveness He gives to all who believe in Him. 
  • He comes to those who are weak and heavy laden and offers them rest. 
  • He comes to those who are rejected by the world and gives them God’s eternal acceptance. 
  • He comes to the poor and the poor in spirit and gives them the riches of heaven and His presence with them always!
God sent the angel to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds and so fulfilled what Mary, the virgin chosen by God to be Jesus’ mother, had said would happen when the Messiah arrived. 

She had told her kinswoman Elizabeth that her soul magnified God because “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty...just as he promised our ancestors.” (Luke 1:52-53, 55)

God comes to those willing to cast aside their delusions of self-sufficiency, self-importance, and self-righteousness

The God we know in Jesus comes to those willing to pray, “Hallowed by Your name, Father. Your kingdom. Your will be done, Lord.” 

It is to  just such people that our Savior comes today so that He can raise them with Jesus. 

To many people--if not to most people--this will seem crazy, foolish. “But,” the apostle Paul writes in the New Testament, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things...so that no one may boast before him.” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Friends, the angel’s “good news of great joy” is for you. The Savior Jesus will give never give life with God to those who are too busy being busy or pretending to be self-sufficient to hear His call to new and everlasting life. But Jesus does give life to those who, like the shepherds, listen to God’s voice and follow where Jesus leads

And Jesus does give life to those who, broken by the knowledge that they are sinners in need of a Savior and made new by the Gospel Word that God so loves the world--God so loves you--that He gave His Son to live, die, and rise for you, replacing your sin and death with His righteousness and His risen life.

To you this day Christ has come. 

To you every day Christ comes. 

Run to Him when He calls you, then tell the good news of the Savior Who, unlike kings or scribes or presidents or emperors, is always and forever and totally for you

God knew that that message would mean everything to the shepherds and that because of it, they would run to see the baby and then tell others about the Savior. 

May the angels’ message given on the first Christmas mean everything to you and me too, so that every day, we run to spend time with Jesus and every day, we point others to Jesus. 

Merry Christmas, friends!

*Eighty miles is the approximate walking distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Faith or Fear?

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

Matthew 1:18-25
I was ordained as a pastor, serving my first parish. Even before I was ordained, I had preached and led worship every Sunday of my year-long seminary internship and done these things at lots of churches all over Ohio. 

But now, Sunday mornings were agony. Each week, I woke up feeling sick to my stomach, feverish and faint. I had stabbing headaches. This went on for my first five years as a pastor. 

One morning as I prayed about all of this, the thought crossed my mind--a thought I’m sure came from God: I had stage fright and I had it because I was terrified that I would embarrass myself, that I would say the wrong thing, that people wouldn’t like my worship leadership or my preaching. I would fail in this calling, letting down God, my wife, my family, and the Church. On Sunday mornings, instead of seeing a group of fellow sinners in as much need of the gospel Word of forgiveness, new life, and godly power as I was, I saw them as potential judges ready to condemn me. And I thought such condemnation was completely warranted. I covered my fears up with bravado, but really, I was just waiting to be exposed for the fraud I assumed people would eventually see me as being. 

In the contest between fear and faith constantly exploding within me, I was letting fear get the upper hand. I put more trust in my fear than I put in Christ.

Faith versus fear. 

Have these two contestants ever jousted in your gut? 

You know a struggling friend could use your offer of prayer in Jesus’ name. But you’re afraid that she or he will be offended. So you say nothing. 

You know that a victim of injustice, whether at school or work or in society, could use the support of a Christian advocate. But your fear of what others might say if you spoke up keeps your mouth clamped shut. 

You know that a ministry of the church could use your help far more than it needs your “ideas” or criticism. But you’re afraid of not doing a good job, or of losing free time, or of being accountable to yet another person. So, you don’t get involved. 

You’ve hurt someone. You know that the faithful thing to do is to apologize. But you’re afraid of the humiliation that goes with acknowledging a wrong, a fault, a sin. So you let the wounds to your relationship fester. 

You feel inadequate as a parent or friend or professional and you’re sure that soon, everyone will know.

Each day, as baptized believers in Jesus, the contest of faith versus fear happens within us. 

Fear is the voice of our sinful nature that may tell us that protecting ourselves from pain and death or promoting our own interests are our highest callings. 

Or fear may insist that we’re not good enough. 

Faith happens when we hear the voice of the Holy Spirit drowning out the screams of our fears, telling us that Jesus Christ died and rose for imperfect people like you and me and that He has us in His loving grip now and forever. 

When the Word of God moves over us--over our imperfections and doubts and our fears--to create faith in Christ within us, there is nothing that this world or the devil can do to us that will allow us to be separated from God and His love

Faith assures us that, in the words of the apostle John, “...love [the love of Christ living in us] has no fear, because [Christ’s] perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:18, New Living Translation]

Our gospel lesson for this morning, Matthew 1:18-25,  features a man in whom this contest between fear and faith is happening. 

The man is Joseph. Mary, the woman to whom he is pledged to be married, announces that she is pregnant, not through the usual means, but from God the Holy Spirit, and that the child she carries is the promised Messiah. 

Although there had not yet been a marriage ceremony and Mary and Joseph were forbidden from having marital relations until after that happened, by Jewish law they were viewed as husband and wife. Joseph naturally assumed that Mary had been unfaithful to him. But the appointed punishment for adultery was that violators were to be stoned to death. And even if that punishment weren’t meted out by the people of Nazareth where they lived, Joseph knew that if Mary’s sin were exposed, she would be forever disgraced. 

He resolved to divorce her quietly.

But then, in verse 20, an angel of God appears to Joseph in a dream. “Joseph son of David [he says], do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

“Do not be afraid, Joseph,” God was telling him. “The child Mary bears is the Savior of the world, Whose very name, Jesus, Yeshua, meaning Yahweh, God, saves, is coming to save you and everyone who repents and believes in Him from sin and death and separation from God.”

Why did the angel tell Joseph not to be afraid? 

What was Joseph afraid of? 

I can think of several possibilities. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid of personal humiliation. What if Mary was just telling him a story and the angel was just a figment of his imagination. Joseph couldn’t know until God’s Word called him out of fear and to faith. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid of exposing Mary to rejection and death. He’d made his decision to divorce Mary quietly. But even after the decision was made, Joseph considered--or agonized--over doing the right thing. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid that by protecting Mary, he would be going against the will of God. Joseph may have feared that in treating Mary so compassionately, he was simply enabling her sin and displeasing God. 
  • Joseph may have been afraid of what others would say about him. If he took Mary as his wife, people would always say--as they still say today--that he was the actual father of Jesus. They would refuse to believe that Jesus was the sinless Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. They would write Joseph off as one more sinful religious hypocrite. 
Maybe, by turns or simultaneously, Joseph feared all of these things. 

But the angel says, “Do not be afraid, Joseph!”

And that’s God’s message to you and me this morning: Do not be afraid!  

Do not be afraid of what might happen. Have faith in what has already happened: Jesus Christ has already died and risen for you, you have been baptized into His death and resurrection, and He has given you the gift of faith. 

Do not be afraid of the world, its violence, or the human race’s penchant for self-destruction. Jesus has conquered the world. 

Do not be afraid of having less than what you need. The Savior Who refused to test His Father by jumping from the pinnacle of the temple has taught you to pray confidently for your daily bread.

Do not be afraid to be kind to or to love others. Jesus says that you’re to see everyone around you as you see Christ Himself, as people to love as Christ loves you. 

Do not be afraid to say no to sin because in doing so, you will say yes to God’s grace and new life.

Matthew says that after Joseph was visited by the angel, Joseph did what God commanded him to do. He took Mary as his wife. When faith defeated fear in Joseph, Mary’s life was saved, of course. 

But so was the life of Jesus, the Savior Who assures us by His resurrection that, no matter what we may fear, we can have faith in the God Who, through the baby born in a manger--crucified, risen, and ascended to heaven--makes us His own for all eternity. 

That day God made me aware that I was afraid, I sensed Him telling me, "Get over yourself, Mark. Turn to Me. Christ has shown you my loving face. Don't be afraid. Believe!"

When you turn to Christ, He gives you a faith bigger than all your fears. And He gives you a life with Him that makes all our fears eternally irrelevant. 

If you remember nothing else of this message today, please remember this: Faith trumps fear. 

Turn to the God we know in Christ and He will conquer your fear. Amen 

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