Saturday, March 30, 2019

How God Makes Marriages Possible

[This message was prepared for a wedding that took place on Saturday.]

1 Corinthians 13:4-5
Emma and Kyle, I like the words from the Bible that you chose to have read here today. Well, mostly I like them. They are from the Word of God, after all. But I have to confess to finding them a little frightening too.

Just to remind you and everyone else what the words are, I’ll read them again. This is 1 Corinthians 13:4-5: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

That description of love was written by Saint Paul, the apostle, back in about 55 AD. It’s part of what’s often called the love chapter of the Bible, chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Christian church in the Greek city of Corinth. Words from this chapter are often read at weddings. That’s good because Paul’s picture of love is one to which anyone with a sound mind and a beating heart can agree. You can do so whether you have deep faith or no religion at all.

Paul originally wrote these words though, to a church that was torn with conflict. He wanted to remind its members of what love is: patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, nor proud, nor hurtful of others, unwilling to keep a record of the wrongs done to us by others. If your church relationships are going to be all that they need to be, Paul was saying, you need to live with this kind of love for each other.

But guess what? For any relationship to be everything we want it to be, there must be this kind of love. That includes marriage. I’m getting to the frightening part. The kind of love Paul is talking about has only ever been purely displayed on this earth by one person. That person is the One revealed to be truly God and truly human, Jesus. Jesus displayed this kind of love when He died on a cross as punishment for our sins and faults, not His; our failure to love, not His. Jesus was and is sinless and perfect. I’m not. He always loves. I don’t.

And that’s what I find so frightening. I know what love is. I know that I need to live with this kind of love toward others to make my relationships work, including my marriage relationship. But I was born in sin, a condition I inherited just by being a member of the human race, born out of sync with God. Because of this, my tendency is always to look out for number one. The love that all good relationships need is foreign to my nature. I feel like Paul who confesses in another place, the good “I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15).

Fortunately, for me..and for you, Emma and Kyle, our relationships do not have to fall prey to our imperfect capacity to love. It’s possible, through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, to be filled with the love that sustains marriages, helps our marriages and helps us as human beings to become all that we want to be, all that I know the two of you aspire to be as you begin your married life together. It’s a matter of daily turning to Christ and daily putting on Christ.

To turn to Christ is to turn to God, the only true source of love. It’s also to turn away from sin, darkness, and death. The Bible says that when we turn to Christ, we “are being transformed into his image (2 Corinthians 3:18).” As I turn to God in the name of Jesus, because of Jesus, God fills me with a renewed life. He corrects my wrongs and empowers me to live differently toward my spouse today than I did yesterday. Speaking for myself, I can say that when I repent daily, receiving forgiveness for my sins and new power for living, God renews my commitment to being a better husband today than I was yesterday. As we turn to Jesus, with honesty and trust, we become more like Jesus: more able to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we’ve been forgiven, to understand others as God understands us, to live in relationships of mutual sacrifice and commitment.

To put on Christ is to let Him live in and through us. The Bible speaks of clothing “yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14).” For me, this means when my energy is low, my frustration high, and my capacity for empathy is bottomed out, Christ blankets me with Himself and I live, love, and react to others, including my wife Ann, with love and grace. We still will disagree sometimes. After all, as someone has said, if two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant. But when we put on Christ, He makes it possible for us to speak the truth to one another in love, to resolve our conflicts before the sun goes down, to do for others as we want them to do for us, including the “others” with whom we share the marital bed.

Kyle and Emma, today you embark on what would be an impossible task if you thought you could have a solid marriage built solely on your human capacity to love each other. That tank can run dry in the face of financial difficulties, disagreements, family responsibilities, and setbacks. Jesus means it when He says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” That matches my experience in life: I can do nothing without the inspiration, the permission, and the power of God that’s ours through Jesus. But if you will root your lives and your marriage in Christ, you will find that whatever the joys and sorrows, victories and defeats, advances or disappointments, your love will grow stronger. Your marriage will grow stronger. You will find that you can do all things through the crucified and risen Jesus who fills His people with strength, especially the strength to love. That’s what I pray for the two of you today and always. Amen

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

Thursday, March 28, 2019

My Only Brag

[These are reflections from my quiet time with God this morning. In quiet time, I stop to confess my sins in Jesus' name and to honor God; look at His Word, watching for anything in the Bible (reading it a chapter a day) that He seems to want me to consider; listen for the implications of the passage that has struck me; respond with how I pray this word from God will affect the way I live this day.]

Look: “...far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, NIV)

“As for me, however, I will boast only about the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; for by means of his cross the world is dead to me, and I am dead to the world.” (Galatians 6:14, GNT)

Despite all his brilliance and dedication, Paul refuses to brag about anything but Jesus’ cross.

We brag about ourselves, our families, our achievements, our places of work, our connections, our churches, our political parties, and lots of other things and do so, in almost all cases, to elevate ourselves, to impress others, to get a piece of the world’s glory. (Even though the glory given by the world, along with its money, power, and conquests, mean nothing when we die.)

Paul is saying that on Jesus’ cross, his concern for the recognition of the world was also crucified. So was all the glory that the world has to offer. None of it has power over us any longer. None of it matters. By His cross, Jesus destroyed the power of the world--its estimation of us, its possessions, its affirmation (all on loan, at best)--over us. We are free to live in the gracious approval of God that belongs to all baptized believers in Jesus Christ.

Our only boast then is in the One Who, by His sacrificial death on the cross, sets us free, Jesus.

Listen: Jesus frees believers from the need to boast, brag, or burnish our reputations. I am a sinner saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ, alone. That’s my brag. That’s my glory.

Of course, the old Adam still lives in me. So, I am daily tempted, even within my own mind, to elevate myself, to shine my own apple. I do this even though I understand that whatever good I am or do comes from Christ and whatever bad I am or do comes from me. Daily, my call is to submit to the crucifixion of my old self so that, in submission to Christ, I can more fully share in the freedom from the dead ways of the world He earned for me on the cross.

In Christ, I am approved by God. I don’t need the approval of the world.

Respond: Today, Lord Jesus, crucify the world’s estimation of me as motivation for boasting. Whether the world thinks well or ill of me is irrelevant. Help me to only brag about You, Your grace, Your love, Your will, Your authority, Your power, Your death, Your resurrection, and the freedom You alone bring to those who submit to the crucifixion of the old self that allows the new self to daily rise in You.

Help me not to care about the estimation of me among the unwitting wolves in sheep’s clothing who lurk among Christians. They think that when they’re bragging about their own “holiness,” they’re doing Your will. They’re not. They are as much a part of the world which must be crucified to me as the most rabid secularists. Both are of the world, offering rewards and condemnations that will not survive Your return.

Help me to remember today that You alone set me free. Now and in eternity. You are my only brag. Amen

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

Monday, March 25, 2019

When Bad Things Happen

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, during worship on Sunday, March 24, 2019.]

Luke 13:1-9
Why do bad things happen to people? 

We ask this question, in many different ways. The main reason we ask it, it seems, is because we want the world to make sense. 

Often though, it just doesn’t. 

Marriages end. 

Spouses and children die. 

Tragedies occur. 

And we wonder why.

This question seems to be on the minds of people who approach Jesus in today’s gospel lesson, Luke 13:1-9. Let’s look at it together. 

Verse 1: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.”  

Apparently, pious, believing people from Galilee, the region where Jesus grew up, had been offering sacrifices to God at the temple when Pilate set Roman soldiers on them, murdering them and, showing added disrespect to the Jews, polluting their sacrifices by mingling the blood of the worshipers with them. 

We have no record outside of the New Testament of this particular incident. But we do have independent records of Pilate doing equally awful things. Pilate was a well-documented thug.

The unspoken question of Jesus’ interlocutors here, of course, is, “Why?” 

Now, it’s possible as you read their words to Jesus to think that they wondered how an omnipotent and loving God could allow worshipers to be killed in the Lord’s house. But, it’s apparent from Jesus’ reply to them that He reads their question differently. He sees that they already had their own explanation for what happened to the murdered Galileans and were there just to get Jesus to agree with them. 

He doesn’t

Verse 2: “Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.’”

The unspoken assumption of the people who approach Jesus is that, somehow, the Galileans murdered in the temple deserved to die. And mentioning what must have been another bit of recent news, Jesus says that eighteen people who had been killed by the collapse of a tower built into Jerusalem’s city walls didn't deserve their tragic deaths either.

As we read this passage, we may be horrified by the suggestion that the victims of these tragedies and the family members who mourned for them deserved these horrors. 

But don’t we hear people say similar things in the face of tragedy that befalls people today? 

Don't we, sometimes, looking for a rational explanation of irrational events, say such things ourselves?

When Alabama was hit with flooding recently, some claimed that it was God’s punishment for voting for Trump in 2016.

Back when much of California was ablaze with fires, some people on Twitter claimed it was  God’s punishment for filthy movies that came from California.

Ideas like these appeal to human ego because they say that if we’re doing the right things in life, nothing bad will touch us and that if bad things like these happen to other people, it must mean that they’re not good people like us, not right with God like us.

But, as disciples of Jesus, we know that we are, every single one of us, and that, at best, Christians can only claim to be sinners saved from sin and death not by how good we are, because we could never be good enough to be counted righteous, but only because of what God has done for us through the crucified and risen Jesus and through the faith in Jesus that has been set in us, not through our effort, but by the Holy Spirit

In Jesus, true God and true man, we have a Savior Who endured poverty, pain, and death even though He was sinless and deserved none of the bad that happened to Him. Do we want to say that Jesus deserved the horrors that befell Him? 

I hope not! On the cross, Jesus got what we deserved and what we deserve

As God’s Word teaches, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).” God doesn’t give human beings the punishment we all deserve, but eternal punishment comes to those who choose to follow sin rather than Christ.

Bad things happen in this world simply because we live in a fallen, imperfect creation that is haywire with sin and death

Jesus says that God the Father “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45).” God isn’t out to get anyone. 

And Jesus tells those who follow Him, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).”  God loves us and He makes all baptized believers in Jesus part of His new and eternal creation, but as long as we live in this old creation, every one of us is subject to its difficulty, pain, and death

Thugs will order soldiers to kill worshipers. 

Towers will fall on people standing in the wrong place. 

Wildfires will rage in wooded areas. 

Floods will come to coastlands and river valleys. 

There may be things we can (and should) do to prevent some tragedies, but the possibility of tragedy is baked into the cake of a creation groaning under the weight of sin and death.

And so, the first question we need to ask in the face of the tragedies that befall others or could befall us at any moment in our lives isn’t why. It’s what am I going to do about it? What will we do once we come to terms with the reality of our mortality and susceptibility to tragedy

Jesus has already told us how we should respond to that question twice in our lesson. He says, “unless you repent, you too will all perish” and, again, “unless you repent, you too will all perish.” 

In other words, don’t make judgments about others that make you feel superior; focus instead on daily seeking the forgiveness and new life that God offers us through Jesus

Daily repent: turn each day away from sin and turn each day to Jesus

We might take as our model the man in Jesus’ parable who prays, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner (Luke 18:13)!” God will renew us in His charitable, forgiving love, when we offer up prayers like that. 

In Psalm 51 in which David confesses his sins to God, he also confesses his faith in God’s receptivity to the repentant: “...a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:17).”

In our gospel lesson, Jesus underscores His call for us to daily repent, to turn to Him and live with God as part of His renewed people, in a parable. Verse 6: ““A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Here, Jesus tells the story of a fig tree that deserves to die. A fig tree that doesn’t produce fruit is only taking up space, just as a disciple who knows Jesus, but never repents or seeks to follow Jesus is taking up space. 

So, the owner of the fig tree orders that it be cut down. 

But the caretaker asks that the owner let him spend a year trenching around the fig tree to ensure that it gets plenty of water and putting lots of fertilizer on it, just as God showers us with grace so that we can know Jesus, grow in Jesus, and show Jesus to others. So that we can bear the fruit of a life filled with Jesus. 

God’s intention for us when He claims us in Holy Baptism, feeds us on His Word, gives us Holy Communion, and places us in the fellowship of the Church is clear: As long as we live in this earth, whether a long time or a short time, God means to fill us with and means for us to share with others, the life that only comes to those who trust Jesus Christ

Our lives are meant to be displays on which God daily writes the message for all the world to see: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).”

A moment ago, I said that the first question we need to ask in the face of life’s tragedies is not why, but what am I going to do about it? Am I going to turn to Christ and live? 

I think that in the parable, Jesus suggests a second question, the answer to which, when I remember it, sustains me and encourages me with hope in an often hopeless world. It’s this: Why me? Not “why me” as in why is bad stuff happening to me, but “why me” as in why am I still around? Why is God still pouring His grace on me?

When I suffered a heart attack nine years ago, it was the "widow maker": a 100% blockage of the left anterior descending artery that often leads to sudden death in its victims. More than two weeks after the cardiac event, a cardiologist was able to push a stent through the blockage.* Later, during my overnight stay at the hospital, the night duty nurse entered my room. She'd looked at my chart. "You're lucky to be alive," she told me. "God must have plans for you."

I'm convinced that God has plans for you too! That's why you're still drawing breath on this planet.
I can’t explain why tragedies befall some people and not others. I don’t know. 

But I do know this: God keeps us around until further notice because He wants us to let the world know about the new and everlasting life all people can have through faith in Jesus Christ

The apostle Peter writes to we Christians in one of his New Testament letters (this translation is from The Message): “ are the ones chosen by God, chosen for the high calling of priestly work, chosen to be a holy people, God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference [Christ] made for you (1 Peter 2:9-10, The Message).”

The victims of tragedy in this world don’t need misinformed “Christians” piling on, telling them that their pain is punishment from God. Our call is to share Jesus. Our call is to live for Jesus, Who lived, died, and rose for us and for those who don't yet know Him. 

May God help us to do just that. Amen

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

*Why this happened two weeks after the heart attack is another story too long to go into here. But the fact that I survived after losing 40% of my heart function and still having 100% blockage in a critical artery is something which both I and my cardiologist regarded as miraculous. And that's not a term I throw around lightly.