Saturday, February 16, 2019

How to Claim Your Gift

[These are some thoughts shared with parents, grandparents, and family members of Upward basketball participants during halftimes of games today. What follows isn't exact because I simply jot down note for myself for these presentations; but this is what I intended to say anyway.]

The theme passage of Scripture the young people in Upward are focusing on right now is Hebrews 11:1, which says:
Faith is being sure of what we hope for. It is being sure of what we do not see. (NIRV)
Some of you may have read or heard about the TV personality who claimed, maybe half-jokingly, this past week that he hadn't washed his hands in ten years. He said that he didn't believe in things he couldn't see and he couldn't see germs.

But there are lots of things that we believe in that we can't see. I can't see oxygen. But I believe that exists.

And although God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, we can't see Him right now. Yet many people believe in Him.

I may have mentioned to some of you that for ten years of my life, I considered myself to be an atheist. But I married a Christian and just to get her off my back, I started going to worship with her on Sunday mornings. Something strange started happening to me after I did this: I started to believe that God saves from sin and death those who have faith in Jesus, Who died and rose for people like me...and you. I received faith in Christ.

When I think of faith, I don't think of it as a virtue. The Bible says that faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9). Faith in Jesus that saves us from sin and death and gives us life with God isn't something we can earn, work for, manufacture, or achieve in our own effort. And God wants to give faith in Jesus to everyone.

What I've learned is that there are several reliable places where God will meet us and present us with the gift of faith or the gift of deepened faith in Jesus.

First, God will give us faith in Christ through the Church. Some people say the Church is full of hypocrites. They're right...and I'm one of them! A hypocrite is anyone who at any time claims to be one way, but acts, or thinks, or lives in another. We hypocrites need the Church. I always say that the Church is God's hospital for hypocrites and there's always room for one more. The Bible says that the Church is "the body of Christ." In the fellowship of imperfect Christians, we can receive faith.

Second, God will give us faith in Christ through the Bible. When we call the Bible, "the Word of God," we mean that unlike other books we might read--instruction manuals, novels, biographies, whatever, the Bible is filled with the living power of God that will help me do what I can't do on my own: Have faith in the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and have faith in Jesus.

Third, God will give us faith in Christ through Holy Baptism. Holy Baptism isn't something we do; it's something God does. When we're baptized in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, God claims us as His own. We may choose to walk away from God, but in baptism, God commits Himself to never giving up on us. I know that I can turn back to Him for forgiveness, new life, strength, hope, peace, encouragement, and whatever else I need.

Fourth, God will give us faith in Christ through Holy Communion. In Communion, God gives Himself to us and fills us with His life and forgiveness.

Fifth, God will give us faith in Christ through prayer. Jesus tells us to pray to God the Father in Jesus' name. When I feel crummy because I know that I've committed a sin, failing to love God or love other people, God still lets me come to Him. Covered with the goodness and perfection of Jesus, I can ask for forgiveness, seek guidance, gain strength. I can ask for the faith to trust that Jesus is with me always and that, because of Jesus and my faith in Him--however weak my faith may be at the moment, nothing can separate me from God!

My faith isn't always strong. But I'm grateful that God is willing to renew the gift of faith within me as I meet God in the Church, in the Bible, in Holy Baptism, in Holy Communion, and in prayer in Jesus' name.

Let's pray. Heavenly Father, thank You for the gift of faith, which helps to trust in You even though, right now, we can't see You. When our faith wanes, when we sin, when we face discouragement or important decisions, helps us to turn to You and receive the gift of renewed faith. In Jesus' name. Amen

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

How Conflicts Can Bring God's Blessings

[This is the journal entry from my morning quiet time with God today.]

Acts 15, which I read for my quiet time with God today, might be titled, The Tale of Two Conflicts.

The first conflict arises over whether Gentile converts to Christian faith need to be circumcised. In other words, did Gentiles have to be Jews in order to be Christians?

The question was answered by the Holy Spirit, in consultation with Scripture, at a council in Jerusalem. “ Now then,” Peter said to Judaizing Christians, “why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.” (Acts 15:10-11) The council decided to ask Gentile Christians to refrain from a few things out of consideration of Jewish Christians’ sensibilities, but concluded that since the Holy Spirit had given the Gentile Christians faith in Christ and the Holy Spirit, the very gifts the Jewish Christians had received, they should not also have to become Jews also.

The second conflict occurred later at Antioch. Paul proposed a second missionary journey to Barnabas. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark as part of their team. Paul was still upset with the younger man for abandoning the earlier mission. Paul and Barnabas became so upset with one another that they decided to “agree to disagree” and go on separate missionary journeys. Paul took Silas. Barnabas took John Mark.

What’s interesting to note is that neither conflict harmed the Church or its witness for Christ. In fact, both conflicts helped the Church.

Through the first conflict, the Church was driven to Scripture and prayer. Both parties listened to each other and came to a resolution that was deemed acceptable “to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

The second conflict resulted in two mission journeys rather than the originally intended one journey. God multiplied the Church’s impact and the spread of the Gospel through division.

It’s thought that John Mark is Mark the Evangelist, author of the second of the New Testament’s four gospels. The tradition supporting this notion is very old. If true, it would seem to indicate that Barnabas’ invitation to the young disciple to go on this missionary journey was a gracious act that sustained John Mark’s faith. What would have happened had Barnabas gone on the second journey with Paul and left John Mark behind? We don’t know, of course. But I like to think that Barnabas was used by God to buttress the young man’s faith.

In any case, both conflicts ended with good results.

What this passage tells us is that not all conflict is bad.

Conflicts can send us back to God’s Word.

Conflicts can bring listening and new understanding.

Conflicts can also bring a healthy resolution of agreeing to disagree and pursuing different paths without acrimony.

As long as our aim is to honor God and love others and we pursue it prayerfully and with an eye to the ultimate source of authority, God’s Word, conflict need not be harmful.

This is good to remember in our homes, places of work, and churches. I have seen marriages strengthened through honest, loving conflict. I have seen the same thing in churches.

When the Church experienced conflict over what to do about Gentile converts to the faith and when two of the most prominent preacher/evangelists of the first century had a conflict, God brought blessings through the conflicts. Both conflicts brought great spiritual and numerical growth to Christ’s Church!

Conflict is neutral; whether it’s good or bad is in how it’s approached. Conflicts in which one or both parties are selfishly seeking their own ways can be deeply destructive. Conflicts in which one or both parties are seeking to understand the will of God and who desire to honor God can be healthy...and even result in growth of all kinds.

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

Monday, February 11, 2019

AUDIO: The Powerful Word of God!

This is the message from Sunday's worship services with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.

[I'm the pastor of Living Water.]

The Only Opinion That Matters

[This is the journal entry from my quiet time with God this morning.]

Look: “Even with these words, they [Paul and Barnabas] had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them. Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe. They preached the gospel in that city and won a large number of disciples.” (Acts 14:18-21a)

In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas, commissioned to carry the Gospel to Gentiles and Jews, are the instruments by which the risen, ascended Jesus heals a man lame from birth. The local crowd thinks that Paul and Barnabas are gods. They’re intent on offering sacrifices to the two. Even after Paul and Barnabas explain that they’re not gods and have come with good news of new life from the one true God revealed in Jesus, “they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.”

No sooner had the two explained this than some of their fellow Jews, opposed to the preaching of Christ and from Iconium, convinced the Lystra crowd that Paul and Barnabas should be stoned to death. Paul was so badly pummeled, apparently unconscious and immobile, that the crowd left the apostle for dead. But, after the Christians gathered around Paul, presumably praying, “he got up and went back into the city,” heading off to Derbe with Barnabas so that the two could continue their missionary work.

There are two obvious things about this incident, I think. First, there’s the fickleness of the crowd. Within the span of a short amount of time, they have two conflicting reactions to Paul and Barnabas, both of them wrong. First, they want to worship the two of them. Then, they set out to kill them.

That’s not unlike how we treat the latest celebrated people to enter our lives: At first, we hail them as some kinds of gods; then, disappointed that they’re only human, we tear them down. This cycle is depressingly familiar.

The second thing that strikes me in the passage from Acts is this: Paul and Barnabas are not swayed by the fickle crowd. They don’t play to the crowd. When the crowd wants to make them idols, they’re faithful to Christ. When the crowd wants to kill them, they’re faithful to Christ.

Listen: Years after the incident recounted in these verse, the apostle Paul wrote to a young pastor: “Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

Paul wasn’t asking Timothy to do what he himself wasn’t willing to do. (Or hadn’t done.) The seasons in which the gospel we Christians are called to believe and to share with others change. Sometimes the message of the gospel we carry will reach people and they become disciples of Jesus too. Other times, people will misunderstand the message or us and treat us like we’re “all that.” And at other times, our message and we ourselves will be treated with contempt, sometimes even be subject to persecution.

But neither the God we know in Jesus Christ nor His gospel or our need of Christ and His gospel ever change! “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8).” Even as we reach out in love to the crowds who need Jesus Christ to be saved from sin and death, we can’t allow their reaction to change the only message that can save them. As the apostles Peter and John said of Jesus shortly after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension: “ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” (Here, they simply reflect what Jesus says: “ I and the Father are one” and “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”)

I like to have people accept me. I don’t like confronting those who are hostile. I don’t like offending people, even when the offense is the revealed Word and will of God. By the power of the Holy Spirit Who lives in believers, I need to be more like Paul and Barnabas, faithful to the God revealed in Jesus whether people’s high opinions or low opinions of me don’t match reality; faithful to Christ, whether people like it or not, whether they misunderstand it or not. It’s only this kind of faithfulness that authenticates the gospel, the good news of new life as a gift of grace from God through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

Respond: Lord, help me to resist my desire to take my cues from the world. Open me today to the promptings of Your Holy Spirit seen in Your Word. Help me to remember that Yours is the only opinion that matters. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

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

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Powerful Word of God

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

Luke 5:1-11
One of the recurring themes in the Bible is the mysterious, life-changing power of the Word of God. The preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews speaks of this: 
For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin. (Hebrews 4:12-15) 
The Word of God has the power both to lay us open, showing us our sin and limitations, and to give us the new life that God the Son, Jesus, died and rose to make possible for those who believe in Him.

This Word of God, imparted in the Scriptures, the sharing of the Gospel, the fellowship of the Church, and the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, creates faith in Christ within us. Not anything we do, only the Word of God. 

This is why the great commission, Jesus’ call to every Christian, to make disciples by sharing the Word of God--the Word of Jesus--is central to who we are as God’s people. Romans 10:13-14 reminds us, 
...'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? 
Every Christian is called to share the Word, to be a preacher or proclaimer of the Word.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 5:1-11, we see how the Word of God, ultimately Jesus Himself, the Word, God in human flesh, creates faith. 

It takes place back in Capernaum, the setting of last week’s lesson. Take a look at what happens with me now, please.

“One day as Jesus was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, the people were crowding around him and listening to the word of God.” (Luke 5:1) 

One of the things I’ve learned in doing premarital counseling through the years is that people like hearing the Word of God. 

I’m not talking about the rote recitation of passages of Scripture, though that may sometimes come into play. I’m talking about letting people see the heart of God through our own encounter with God’s Word, including our own personal relationship with Jesus. 

Whether they know it or not, people are hungry for this Word. Peter speaks for others who encounter the Word when he says to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) 

By the Lake of Gennesaret, also known as the Sea of Galilee or the Sea of Tiberias, crowds are hanging on Jesus’ every word. But they’re crowding Jesus, making it hard for everyone to hear.

The lesson goes on: “He saw at the water’s edge two boats, left there by the fishermen, who were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little from shore. Then he sat down and taught the people from the boat.” (Luke 5:2-3) 

On the shore near Capernaum, there is a series of inlets that create natural amphitheaters. Even today, I've read that a person can go out into one of the inlets and, speaking in a normal voice, be heard clearly by people on the shore. Jesus commandeers a boat owned by Simon, the fisherman in whose house He had earlier taught and healed Simon’s mother-in-law and sits down to teach.

Then Luke says: “When he had finished speaking, [Jesus] said to Simon, ‘Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.’” (Luke 15:4) 

Peter was an expert fisherman. He knew that the comb fish, the only large fish that swam in the shoals of these waters, couldn’t be caught in daylight hours. That’s why he and others who fished in this lake went out to do their work at night. 

Now, it’s generally true that only a fool fails to listen to experts. When my mechanic tells me that I need a new part for my car, I usually listen. When my doctor tells me I need a test, I listen. 

Jesus was no expert fisherman, but Simon listened to Jesus anyway. It seems that after hearing and observing Jesus on a few occasions, he’s beginning to think that Jesus is worth listening to and obeying.

Verse 5: “Simon answered, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.’” 

The word translated as master from the Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel is Ἐπιστάτα (epistata). It can mean things like commander or chief and carries the meaning of someone who has a higher status. Jesus, you’ll remember from last Sunday’s gospel lesson, taught as someone with authority. 

Simon recognizes that authority. But he doesn’t yet seem to fully understand who Jesus is. He understands enough though, to ignore that Jesus is no expert fisherman and simply take Jesus’ word as a command. So the nets are let down.

Verse 6: “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them, and they came and filled both boats so full that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw this, he fell at Jesus’ knees and said, ‘Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!’ For he and all his companions were astonished at the catch of fish they had taken, and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.”

Listen: Even if you know that because of God’s deathless love for you, Jesus has come to save you from sin and death as a free gift you cannot earn and don’t deserve, encountering Jesus will still always bring with it awe and fear and a sense of the distance between you (or me) and Him
  • Jesus is perfect; we’re not. 
  • Jesus is omnipotent; we’re not. 
  • Jesus is eternal; we’re not.
  • Jesus is sinless; we’re not. 
No wonder after seeing Jesus command yet another impossible event into being, Simon fell at Jesus’ feet and begged Jesus to go away. Simon knew that as a human being, he had no intrinsic right to stand in Jesus’ presence or even to live.

Don’t you sometimes feel just this way? I know that I do. I read God’s Word or I pray, coming into God’s presence and realize again how unworthy I am of His love or attention or forgiveness I am, how small I am before the Creator of the universe. The Word of God--spoken, enacted, tasted, seen--can do that to us. 

As the preacher in Hebrews reminds us, it can lay us bare before the scrutiny of God and show us that we are wanting, that left to ourselves and our own devices, we are eternally dead in our sins, eternally separated from the God Who loves us and makes us.

But, this same Word can heal us and call us to new life. In Jesus, as that passage from Hebrews about the Word of God I mentioned earlier says, we “have a high priest who is [able] to empathize with our weaknesses,” Who has led a sinless life and died on a cross in order to be able to cover us with His goodness and eternal life. He gives us lives moving in a new direction, an eternal direction, lives infused with His grace and mercy. 

At the end of today’s lesson we read: “Then Jesus said to Simon, ‘Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.’ So they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 10b-11)

Friends, the Word of God has come to us again this morning to tell us not to be afraid because Jesus has given us new lives and new missions, new reasons for waking up in the morning and facing the world with hope from Christ

No longer do we have to march to the world’s tune; Jesus sets us free to follow Him to life with God. 

No longer do our lives need to be marked by the futility of dying people looking out only for ourselves and our own; grace blows our hearts open to God and to our neighbor. 

Knowing that we are eternally in Christ’s hands, we can concern ourselves with the spiritual and physical needs of our neighbors, including those in our own homes, schools, or places of work.

Simon and the others who left their nets to follow Jesus had no idea what lay ahead. They didn’t yet know the truth that Dietrich Bonhoeffer identified in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” 

They didn’t know that the repentance and faith in Jesus that leads to new life which they experienced on the lakeshore that day would be their lifestyle until God raised them to life in eternity

The Word of God sets us free to die to concern for ourselves knowing that we have resurrection life with Jesus that cannot be taken from us

This Word might also make us willing to commit ourselves to doing things that will bring us little or no apparent benefit, like 
  • going to Haiti on mission trips, 
  • tutoring at Chevy Chase, 
  • participating in Upward Sports, 
  • inviting friends to participate in small groups, or 
  • constructing a multipurpose facility to welcome the people of our community--the spiritually disconnected, the poor, the poor in spirit, those hungering and thirsting for God's righteousness--to encounter the Word of God, Jesus.
Simon Peter learned (and would have to learn again and again, just like us) that the Word of God, Jesus Himself, gives us new lives, lives with eternal purposes. May we, in the words of The Small Catechism*, always “gladly hear and learn” the Word of God. Amen

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

*The Small Catechism is one of the basic statements of the Lutheran Christian understanding of Biblical faith. It appears in The Book of Concord, also known as Concordia.