Saturday, February 02, 2019

The True Meaning of Groundhog Day

It's Groundhog Day. I hope that Punxsutawney Phil doesn't see the shadow of an early demise via kidnapping and riding in a pick-up truck plunging into a quarry this year.

By the way, this was the reaction of one Cleveland television station to Phil's forecast of an early spring. It conveys the true meaning of the day.

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

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Free Delivery

[These are my journal reflections from spending time with God in His Word today.]

Look: “This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush.” (Acts 7:35)

This is part of the speech of the first-century Christian Stephen, speaking to his fellow Jews, about to stone him to death for his faith in Jesus. The speech Stephen gives reviews central themes of Jewish history to show that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecy for a Messiah and Prophet. Stephen also asserts that Jesus is “the Righteous One” come to earth, God Himself (Acts 7:52). Jesus, Stephen says, is no radical departure from the faith in God given witness in the Old Testament law and prophets, but its fulfillment.

In verse 35, Stephen is talking about the call of Moses by God to be the instrument by which God frees or delivers His people, Israel, enslaved in Egypt in Old Testament times.

Moses received this call from God in Midian, where he’d been living for forty years in exile. Moses had fled Egypt and gone to Midian shortly after he’d killed an Egyptian overlord who had been beating an Israelite (Hebrew) slave. He ran after another incident, when he tried to prevent two Hebrew slaves from fighting one another. Until that moment, Moses appears to have thought that his killing of the Egyptian soldier defending the Hebrew wasn’t witnessed. Instead, referring to the killing, one of the Hebrews asks him who he thinks he is, a ruler and judge of the Hebrews? Moses spent the next forty years as a fugitive.

It’s ironic (and typical of God), Stephen seems to say that Moses, who had been rejected by the Israelites as their leader was picked by God to be their leader.

Listen: But of interest to me is the competing set of designations for Moses in this verse.

Forty years earlier, Moses felt that the people of Israel had rejected him for seeking to be their “ruler and judge.”

Now, God sends him to the Israelites as their “ruler and deliverer.”

Both phrases see Moses as a leader for God’s people. But “judge” is how the enslaved Hebrews who rejected Moses had seen him. “Deliverer,” translating a Hebrew word that can also mean redeemer or liberator, is what God actually sent Moses to be.

It strikes me that often in life, we see people who want to deliver us as our judges. Of course, in order for us to accept the deliverance or freedom a person offers us we must accept the implicit judgment that there are things in my life that enslave me.

The enslaved Hebrews cried out about their horrible situation, their slavery which had now lasted over four-hundred years, but they didn’t want Moses reminding them of their need of deliverance. Who did he think he was?

When someone offers us freedom, our pride kicks in and we deny that we are enslaved in any way. “We don’t need anybody’s help,” we think.

The descendants of the ancient Hebrews, for example, when offered freedom from sin, death, and futility by Jesus, denied that their people had ever been slaves to anyone, even though they’d been enslaved through the centuries by Babylonians and Assyrians and, at the moment they denied it all, were under the thumbs of the Romans.

Their reaction is no different from the addict, whether their addiction is to work, money, alcohol, drugs, food, sex, whatever. All will, at least initially, deny their enslavement.

It’s this pride, this need to hold onto the lie of self-sufficiency, “having it together,” of being gods to ourselves, that prevents us from taking up the offers of others to help set us free.

That pride is why the Israelites saw Moses as their judge rather than their deliverer. It’s why the people who stoned Stephen to death heard the good news of Jesus he proclaimed not as liberation from sin, death, and futility, but as a judgment that they needed freedom from those things.

When God brings up my sin and mortality with me in His Word, He doesn’t do it to judge me. God doesn’t want His interchanges with me to end in terminal guilt or fear of living and dying.

God points my my sin and mortality so that I can see how far I am from being like God, how far I am from having it together, how helpless I am before the reality of my own sin and dying, and how hopeless my existence is without His deliverance. When I see these things, I know to return to Him. And because of Jesus, I know that I turn to a High Priest (Jesus Himself), “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15) and who has, through His death and resurrection killed the power of our sin and mortality over our lives forever.

Moses came to the people of Israel as an agent of God’s deliverance. God comes to me in Jesus Christ, reminding me of my slavery, so that He can be my deliverer. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says in Matthew 11:28. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He says in Mark 1:15.  

According to Stephen, many of his fellow Jews, like many people in the world today, saw God, his Old Testament agent Moses, and Jesus, God enfleshed, as only judges.  They did so because they refused to turn to God and be set free by Him.

And freedom is what Jesus died on a cross and rose from the dead to give to us: Freedom from sin, death, and futility. And so, the apostle Paul wrote to first-century Gentile Christians who thought that salvation and new life as free gifts from God through faith in Jesus was just too good to be true: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)

“Repent, then, and turn to God,” the apostle Peter told a crowd of his fellow Jews at the temple in Jerusalem shortly after the crucified and risen Jesus had ascended to heaven, “so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord…” (Acts 3:19)

Too often, Lord, I turn to myself rather than to You. In some way, I’m running from You as a judge when I do that. “It would be pathetic if I couldn’t handle this on my own,” I seem to think. “I should be able to get this done,” I think at other times without a thought of you. “I don’t regret doing that,” my attitude implicitly says about things I should regret.

But God, I’m grateful that Your Word leads me to repent--to change my mind, to turn from the direction in which I’ve been walking and turn back to You.

I’m grateful that Jesus died so that, despite my inclination for denying my sin, mortality, and need, You have come into the world, died, and rose to deliver me from myself. Thank You that Jesus came to be my Ruler and my Deliverer.

Response: Lord, help me today to live as a person set free from my enemies--sin, death, and darkness--and rest easy, not in the world or my achievements or anything but  in the grace of Jesus Christ, the One Who delivers me from all evil. In His name I pray. Amen

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

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Should You Stifle Your Sneeze?

Ann Althouse, who is soon to have cataract surgery, has been looking for ways to avoid sneezing. She's been advised that sneezing while recovering from the procedure is not good. It appears she may have found one method for avoiding sneezes in this Youtube video.

My brother-in-law might want to see this video. Last week, during a visit, he sneezed. I thought nothing of it, but he said, "Excuse me."

Then he told me, "I hate to sneeze." I'd never thought about sneezing as something one either hates or loves, just something that your body does.

But I can understand why, after cataract surgery, sneezing isn't a good idea.

So, does this anti-sneeze technique work?

After reading Althouse's post, I felt a sneeze coming on. (Maybe because I had sneezing on my mind..) So I tried the little technique recommended here and, I didn't sneeze.

It didn't, though, prevent what always happens to me after a sneeze: the need to blow my nose.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, it's usually not a good idea to suppress our sneezes:
The next time you get the urge to stifle a window-rattling sneeze, you might want to reconsider. It could be harmful to your health.

Clamping your nostrils and mouth shut might avoid disturbing others. But it could damage your eardrums or sinuses or cause an ear infection.

Sneezes are surprisingly forceful. The sudden, powerful expulsion of air can propel mucous droplets at rates of up to 100 miles per hour... 
Some people sneeze because of colds. Colds may produce a yellowish nasal discharge that signals an infection.

It’s best for that discharge to move out of the body. Stifling a sneeze only keeps it in the body — and could move it further inside.

“By stifling a sneeze, you could push infected mucus through the eustachian tube and back into the middle ear,” Dr. Szekely says. “You can get middle ear infections because of that.”

Sneezing is a protective reflex. It means an irritant has gotten into your nose that your body wants to keep from getting to your sinuses or lungs. When you sneeze, your body is trying to rid itself of the intruder.
Often, I tell people after they've sneezed, "Gesundheit [German for Health]" or "God bless you." Doing so is probably rooted in a cultural idea that sneezes are bad.

But, in fact, they're meant to protect us from the bad, the body's way of getting rid of an intruder. So, the folks at the Cleveland Clinic say, when you feel a sneeze coming on, just cover your mouth and nose and let it rip. (Unless you're recovering from cataract surgery or wanting to avoid sneezing on someone while giving them a massage, I suppose.)

Bearing Fruit for God's Kingdom (Part 4)

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

Hebrews 5:12-14
Matthew 17:17-20
Not long ago, a group of us met to plan this year’s Ohio Mission Region Convocation. The theme will be Baptized AND Living It! and I hope that a good crowd from Living Water will be able to attend. In the course of our planning, we looked at Acts 2:40-41, where we’re told that, on Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came to Jesus' disciples, the apostle Peter, “...pleaded with [his fellow Jews], ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

I was struck again by that last verse. I couldn’t help asking a question: Don’t you ever wonder why we’re not taking in 3000 new believers as members of Christ’s Church every Sunday today? At least on Pentecost Sunday? 

What exactly is wrong with the Church today, at least in the Western world, that we’re not seeing those kinds of conversions to Christ as a result of the Church’s proclamation of Christ?

Some Christians will say, “All of my friends are Christians. I don’t have anyone I can reach.” But all this explanation tells us is that we aren’t very good about reaching out to people who are different from us. While we  cocoon ourselves from non-Christian people, the numbers of our neighbors, classmates, and co-workers who have no religion increases.

Other Christians will say that ever since the courts took prayer out of school, it’s harder to share our faith; we live in a hostile environment. Listen: You couldn’t have found a more hostile environment for the Church than what existed in the first-century Roman Empire in which Jesus died, rose, and established His Church. When was the last time an American Christian was thrown into a den of hungry lions? 

When Jesus gave the Great Commission, he didn’t give it to the public schools, the United States government, the entertainment industry, or the people who make cups for Starbucks, all of whom are among the people and institutions about which American Christians like to bellyache. Jesus gave the Great Commission to us, His Church, to every baptized Christian, to you and me.

Our explanations for the lack of growth and vitality in our Western churches sound like excuses or rationalizations rather than explanations. So, why don’t our churches grow the way the first-century Church grew early on? 

The question isn’t a new one. Even the second-generation early Church faced it. In Hebrews 5, the preacher tells a congregation of Jewish Christians, “...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:12-14) Evil happens in the world, in the Church, and in individual Christians' lives when we aren’t growing as Christian disciples.

We can’t be the instruments of God’s love and grace that Christ wants us to be (and which, I’m convinced that, deep in the heart of every Christian, we want to be) if we insist on remaining babies in our faith. Babies are only cute when they’re babies; not when they hit ages 20, 30, 40, 50, 80, 90. 

It’s Jesus’ expectation that the baptized children of God will grow up in their faith. In Matthew 17, Jesus upbraids His disciples for not bringing healing to a boy whose life was being decimated by demons from hell: “You unbelieving and perverse long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.’  Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment. Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, ‘Why couldn’t we drive it out?’ He replied, 'Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matthew 17:17-20)

Why then is the Church of our day not growing like it did in the first-century? Even allowing for the fact that there are eras in history and in different places when people are more open to the good news of new life through faith in Jesus Christ, part of the answer may be is our lack of faith

In places like China, Ethiopia, in Germany where Lutherans independent of the state church are seeing hundreds of refugees from Iran come to faith in Christ, and in other places, the Church is growing. Today, in fact, in terms of conversions, Christianity remains the fastest-growing religion in the world. But here, where we’re distracted and comfortable, not so much. We’ve allowed the relative ease of our lives to rob us of our faith in Jesus.

Folks: We cannot and will not bear as much fruit for God’s kingdom--we won’t see people come to faith in Christ through our churches or through us as disciples of Jesus Christ--if we’re not growing

And growing isn’t something we can manufacture. If you leave here today and resolve, “I’m going to grow as a disciple,” you will not grow as a disciple. You can't resolve to be a growing disciple. 

It’s God’s Holy Spirit, employing the Word of God, the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, and the fellowship of the Church built around the good news--the gospel--of Jesus Christ that will bring us personal growth and bring spiritual and numerical growth to this wonderful congregation.

Here’s how disciples and congregations grow: by getting close to Jesus every day

Growth in our discipleship is a byproduct of spending time with Christ and with His people, the Church

That growth allows us to bear fruit for God’s kingdom: 
  • to persevere in praying for others in Jesus’ name when all seems lost; 
  • to seek from God and receive opportunities from Him to share the good news with others;
  • to live in God’s peace even in the most challenging of circumstances; 
  • to emit the magnetic joy of Christ from every pore of our bodies! 
To get close to Christ, we spend quiet time with God each day, read and let His Word speak to us each day, regularly gather with others around God’s Word, regularly surrender to Christ’s lordship over our lives. We get close to Jesus! 

This isn’t magical. It’s as simple as this: When we take root in Christ, He fills us with Himself and we bear the good fruit that only comes from Him.

Jesus says: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) 

The pathway of discipleship--knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and showing Christ--isn’t an end in itself

Knowing Christ, growing in Christ, and showing Christ: These are gifts that come to God’s people as we dare to come close to Jesus. They're what God uses not only to increase our joy in being eternally saved by grace through faith in Jesus, but also to produce the fruits of Christ living in us: “, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23) 

Through people rooted in Christ, God the Holy Spirit grows His Church. But more than that, these gifts evidence that God is at work making us into the people He always intended His children to be: Human beings who reflect the image of God in which they were first made, transformed into the image of Jesus Christ Himself. Amen

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