Thursday, January 17, 2019

Transformation from the Gentle Savior

[This is the message prepared for presentation at the funeral of Elmer, a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. The funeral took place earlier this evening.]

Matthew 11:28-30
Mark 1:15
Galatians 5:22-23
John 11:21-27
Yesterday, I visited with one of the people in our congregation who knew Elmer best. He told me, with conviction, “Elmer was the gentlest man I ever met.” This echoes Sharon’s words: “Elmer was a gentleman.” Someone just told me, "He was a gentle giant."

The dictionary says that one way the word gentleman can be defined is, “...a man whose conduct conforms to a high standard of propriety or correct behavior.” That’s certainly part of what marked Elmer as a gentleman. But even more, I think, Elmer had a gentle spirit, a servant’s heart. In Elmer, love for God and love for neighbor was manifest in a simple willingness to do for others.

Everyone who got to know Elmer at Living Water can attest to his gentleness. On learning of Elmer’s passing, one member of the congregation wrote, “Loved Elmer's hugs and smiles. Heaven has a beautiful saint. I will miss him!”

Elmer was also a man who loved to have fun. He had a ready laugh, liked to dance and play golf (and did so nearly to the end of his life) and spend time with people.

Where exactly did Elmer’s gentle, loving personality come from? Well, genetics played its part, I’m sure. And he likely was nurtured to be such a person by his family. Nature and nurture have their effect. 

But I think that there was a deeper reason for why Elmer was the kind of man he was.

You know, Jesus invites all we human beings--sinful mortals in need of saving--to daily turn from sin and turn instead to Him for the forgiveness of our sins and life with God that begins in this imperfect world and that will be brought to perfection when all who trust or believe in Jesus will be raised from the dead just like Jesus.

Jesus speaks of this promise a lot. 

For example, Jesus once told the crowds that were thronging around Him: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent [that is, turn from and repudiate your sin] and believe the good news!” [Mark 1:15] 

The good news is what Jesus talked about on another occasion: “For God so loved the world [He said] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [John 3:16] 

But what interests me in connection with Elmer is how Jesus talked about the good news--the gospel--that saves those who lay down their sins and trust their lives to Him in yet another verse of the Bible. There Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11:28-30]

The gentleness of spirit we all observed in Elmer came from the Savior in Whom he believed

This is the Savior Who promises that if we will lay down the burdens of sin, death, and futility into which we’re all born, and take on instead, the yoke of being a follower of Jesus, this gentle, humble Savior will give rest, serenity, peace to our souls. 

Once we rest easy in Jesus, we have nothing to prove to God or the world, no incentive to crawl over others in order to stand out or be successful, only to do our best to love God and love others in response to what God has done for us in Christ. 

When we daily renounce our sins and daily follow Jesus, we are infused with the power to live with the joy, hope, life, compassion for others, and being at ease in our skin that we saw in Elmer. 

Through our faith in Jesus, God unleashes the Holy Spirit in our lives and we reflect the very gentleness we all so appreciated about Elmer. 

God’s Word tells us, “...the fruit of the Spirit [the evidence of God living in us] is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” [Galatians 5:22-23] This is what we saw in Elmer.

Of course, the good news of new life through faith in Jesus transforms much more than our lives on this planet. It also gives us an eternity with God, an eternity without fear or death, without goodbyes or grief, without pain or sorrow. It gives us a life with God that never ends

In the passage we read a few moments ago, we’re told about Jesus going to the little village of Bethany, where a friend of his, a man named Lazarus, has just died. One of Lazarus’ sisters, Martha, is upset with Jesus and tells Him that if He had been around to help Lazarus, her brother would still be alive. But Jesus reminds her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)

Because he believed in Jesus, trusted Jesus as the Lord of his life, the gentleman we remember today, Elmer, will enjoy a perfect life with God that never ends. I’m sure that Elmer wants nothing less than that for all of you. 

Let the gentle Savior Jesus cover your sin, overcome your mortality, and give you life with God. 

Let Jesus into your life to give you life eternally and to transform you in His gentle image each and every day. Amen

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

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Growing in Christ (Part 2, Bearing Fruit for God's Kingdom)

[This was to have been shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio during worship this morning. But we were snowed out.]

2 Corinthians 3:12-18
Last Sunday morning, we showed you what we think of as a “video postcard”: a graphic illustration of the pathway of discipleship, the pathway of a deep, joyous, and eternal relationship with the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Let’s take a look at it again.

The pathway of discipleship we seek to follow and to make possible for people both within the congregation and beyond these walls begins with knowing Christ

To know Jesus Christ is to know Him as “the way and the truth and the life.” When we know Christ for Who He is, we know that He took our sins on Himself at the cross and made it possible for us to know God, to have life with God, now and in eternity. 

Christ sets us free from the world’s punishing demand that we prove ourselves worthy. By His death and resurrection, Christ covers sinners who repent and trust in Him with His grace. And so, we have nothing left to prove. Hebrews 10:14 tells us that “by one sacrifice [Christ] has made perfect forever those who are being made holy [that is, eternally set aside as God’s people by grace through faith in Jesus].” 

To know Jesus is to know Him as Savior, Lord, and God. “Truly this man was the Son of God [meaning, in the parlance of first-century Judea, God the Son, God Himself],” the Roman soldier announced when He saw the manner in which Jesus died for others. (Mark 15:39)

“My Lord and my God!” Thomas called Jesus when he finally knew that Jesus was more than just a great teacher (John 20:28). 

To know Jesus is to know God’s love for us and the salvation from sin, death, hell, and futility that He gives to those who trust in Him. This is God’s gift for sinners who trust in Christ: “For it is by grace you have been saved,” Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us, “through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.”

When we know Christ, His Word has been planted in our lives and, as Jesus says, we ourselves become like seeds must be planted and die in the earth in order to come to life and to grow and thrive as children of God

Growing in Christ, the second leg of the pathway to discipleship, isn’t easy. It entails dying to our old sinful selves so that we can become the people God designs us to be. Very truly I tell you,” Jesus tells us,  “unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) 

God wants all people to know Christ and grow in Christ so that they can show Christ

But growing in Christ--what the theologians call sanctification--isn’t something we do

It happens in the same way that we come to know Christ and life with Him in the first place: By the power of His Word to transform us, to enter into our lives, calling us to turn from sin (to repent) and to trust Christ not only with our sins, but also with our lives, our past, our present, our future, our all.

Paul talks about how growing in Christ happens in 2 Corinthians 3:12-18. Let’s take a look at it now. It begins: “Since we have such a hope [that is, the hope of having a portion of the glory of God in eternity with Him], we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts.”

The New Testament tells us that, as disciples of Jesus, we can bold in living, bold in sharing Christ with others, bold in praying. “...the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline,” 2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us. 

In 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul is telling us that because God has planted--not a wish, but a certainty guaranteed by Christ’s death and resurrection, but the hope of glory with Him, we can be bold in living as confident, joyful Christian disciples

Unlike the Hebrews of Old Testament times and even, Paul says, his first-century Jewish contemporaries, we can turn to God in Jesus’ name with unveiled faces, without pretense, without feigned holiness, just as we are without one plea. 

A child needs never be ashamed to come to his or her father or mother, no matter how inadequate they feel or how sinful they may feel, knowing that while their father or their mother may discipline them for their wrongs, they will never stop loving them. Their parents' love will always be available to them. 

At the funeral of famed evangelist Billy Graham, his daughter spoke of how as a young woman, she defiantly married a man that her parents had warned her against. When the marriage went bust, she was afraid that her father would condemn or even disown her. But when she went to her parents’ North Carolina home following the divorce, her father embraced her with love and support. If a forgiven sinner like Billy Graham, or the mother or father of any child, can love and accept their children, think how much more the perfect God we know in Jesus Christ is willing to do the same thing and so much more for us when we turn to Him!

There need be no veil, no wall, between God and us. At the moment Jesus died on the cross, we’re told, the curtain concealing the holy of holies, the place where God dwelt on earth in the temple, was torn in two. When we turn to God through the crucified Jesus, there is no distance between God and us at all. We can approach our Father with boldness and confidence, knowing how much He loves us and always wants what’s best for us. 

We turn to Jesus when we heed the Spirit’s call to worship with God’s people, when we confess our sins in Jesus’ name, when we hear, read, and reflect on His Word, when we receive the sacraments. These are means by which God helps us to grow in Christ.

Paul underscores this in the balance of our lesson. Verse 16: “But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Remember the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well outside the village of Sychar? Her sins were notorious. She’d been with lots of men and was living with another. But when, the Word made flesh opened her to see the truth, she knew that she was in the presence of a Man who, improperly, according to the standards of the time, talked with a woman--a sinful woman--in public. This man, she told others, “told me everything I ever did,” and knew all about her, yet offered her everlasting life with God anyway.

When we meet Christ the Word, whether in the Bible, in worship, in prayer in His name, or in the sacraments, He changes us just like He began to change the woman at Sychar that day

You may remember the REVEAL study we did some months ago. It showed us steps in the pathway of Christian discipleship like our knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and showing Christ and it underscored this truth: Every step of Christian growth happens because of the Christian’s daily interaction with God’s Word

The more I stand under the authority of the God I meet in Scripture, the more I grow as a disciple. The more I turn away from encountering the God of Scripture, the less of a disciple I become, the less I reflect Christ's presence in me.

In our passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we are “transformed,” using the same word Mark uses of Jesus’ being “transfigured” on the mountain before Peter, James, and John. 

Imagine what Paul is saying! As we dare to spend time with the God we know in Jesus and the love letter He has given to us in the Bible, God undertakes the most unlikely makeover in history. 

Paul says that when we come into the presence of God’s Word, “with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, [we] are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another…” 

We grow in Christ when we dare, boldly, to spend time in His presence each day. 

And the result of this growth? More and more each day, in ways we ourselves do not understand or even perceive, we reflect the presence of Christ in our lives. 

We look more and more like Jesus, without our even knowing it, because God is doing His work in our lives. His glory comes to live in us!

Don’t be skeptical, underestimating what God’s Word can accomplish in your life. “...the word of God is alive and active,” the Bible tells us [Hebrews 4:12]. And God says that “[My word] will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” [Isaiah 55:11] 

I sometimes wonder why God puts up with me, why He doesn’t condemn me for my sins, my sinful thoughts, the fitful, imperfect way I follow Him. But when I spend time in God’s Word, like you and I are right this moment, I am assured that, if God can be patient with me as He works to transform me after the image of Jesus, I can be patient with me and with my life in Him too. I can be patient as the master sculptor does His work on me, happy to pray, with the prophet Isaiah that, “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 55:11]

And don’t think that I’m laying some new law on you, some grim obligation. I’m simply inviting you to spend time with Jesus each day. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us [Matthew 11:28]. God wants us to rest easy in His grace. 

You and I can’t make ourselves holy; that’s totally the work of God and the tool He uses to accomplish it is His Word

Let God’s Word work on you, in you, and for you. 

  • Don’t turn from God, but turn to Him each day. 
  • Have a quiet time with God in His Word.
  • If you can do it, become part of a small group that reads the Word and prays together. 
  • Be in worship each Sunday, take Holy Communion every time it’s offered. 

None of these are things that we do, but are things God offers to us

So, don’t try to play the Christian or make yourself Christian; that never works! 

Let Christ, the Word of God, work in you and, whether you perceive it or not, you will be growing in Christ. More next Sunday. Amen

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