Friday, April 12, 2019

How to Pray

Just shared this over on Facebook.

Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others (Matthew 6:5)."

And Paul writes in Romans: "...the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God (Romans 8:26-27."

It's not our words or the manufactured fervor we muster to speak them that make our prayers acceptable to God. Nor is it even the clarity of our thoughts. When we pray trusting in Jesus, even when we don't know what to pray, God hears and answers our prayers according to His perfect will.

I like the prayer suggested by writer Anne Lamott which my colleague Will Hartfelder pointed out last week on Facebook: "The two best prayers I know are, ‘Help me. Help me. Help me’ in the morning and at bedtime ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

'Christ in the Passover'

Last night we welcomed Miriam, Daniel, and Francoise of Jews for Jesus to Living Water.

Miriam shared a fantastic presentation on Christ in the Passover.

Miriam and Daniel, Jewish believers in Jesus from Israel, are married and are involved in sharing the good news of new life through faith in Jesus with their fellow Israelis.

All who attended gained a deeper appreciation of Christ, “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.”

Monday, April 08, 2019

The GoogleAd and Amazon Adverts on this blog

Hi, everyone!

Traffic to this site is up about 500% from what it was this time last year. When I look at the numbers of folks who read the blog each day, I'm humbled and pray, "Please use it for Your glory, Lord." Not everything I post is about faith in Jesus Christ, of course. But I do hope the central message of new and everlasting life with God through faith in Jesus comes through as you visit.

But what's the deal with those Google and Amazon Affiliate advertisements that appear on the site?

I'm signed up with both companies. The two programs are not the same and I thought that I'd explain them both to you.

Google Ads appear here in the sidebar on the left and at the end of each post. I have almost no control over what ads Google decides to place on the site. (The one  exception is if I learn of an ad that appears in your feed, meaning you would have to let me know about it so that I could inform Google. You can also block individual ads that you may see on this site.) I only receive payments for the Google advertisements if you, as you're reading the blog, click on the ad. For every click, Google pays me between one- and two-cents. Since September 9, 2004, I've received a total of $689.70 in payments for the Google ads. (You can see that I'm well on my way to becoming a billionaire.)

The Amazon Affiliate program allows me to select from a variety of ad formats as well as ads for specific items that I recommend for purchase from Amazon. When a reader from my site clicks on an Amazon ad, it takes them to Amazon. If they remain on Amazon from that click and make purchases, I receive credits for future Amazon purchases myself. So far, Amazon has given me credits amounting to...drum roll, please: $0.00.

Just a little FYI.

Who's the Boss?

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

Luke 20:9-20
The questions that today’s gospel lesson puts before us as disciples of Jesus are these: Who has authority over us? And how are we to acknowledge or live under that authority?

There are different kinds of authority, of course. In a verses of Luke's gospel that appear just beyond today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells His hearers to give to Caesar, that is to the government, what we owe the government and to God what we owe God. 

Because I feel privileged to live in the United States, I’ve never minded paying my taxes. Justice Holmes said: “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.” Scripture teaches and Lutherans have always believed in the necessity of government authority. Since not all people voluntarily accede to the authority of God, Who commands us to love God and neighbor, we need government to keep the sinful impulses of a fallen humanity at bay. While it’s right for Christians, in the name of Jesus, to demand that governments be loving and just--the prophets were sent by God to place this very demand on governments and peoples, we also realize that it’s beneficial to our neighbors and to us that governments exist. All of which is why I usually switch the channel any time a commercial for Optima Tax Relief comes on my TV screen: Jesus is clear that if we owe Caesar, we’re to pay Caesar.

But there is a far greater authority, an authority to which all of us--presidents, prime ministers, dictators, bishops, pastors, business people, accountants, teachers, contractors, doctors, lawyers, and everyone else is answerable

It's the authority of the One Who, after creating the first human beings and placing them in the garden, directed, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28) God was asserting His authority. God gives the human race the world and commands us to use it and our whole lives in ways that honor God.

This isn’t always a popular message. Adam and Eve were tempted to sin by the serpent’s promise that if they disobeyed God, they would “be like God.” This is the central ambition of every child born to the human race--except Jesus: to be like God

And it’s especially the ambition of those to whom the world has given power, authority, comfort, prestige, and money, even in the smallest of doses

Jesus talks about the common human desire to usurp God’s authority and be gods unto ourselves in today’s gospel lesson, Luke 20:9-20. Let’s take a look at it.

Verse 9: “He went on to tell the people this parable: ‘A man planted a vineyard, rented it to some farmers and went away for a long time. At harvest time he sent a servant to the tenants so they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He sent another servant, but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent still a third, and they wounded him and threw him out.’”

Jesus has multiple audiences in mind when He speaks. 

1. He knows that His apostles are listening and will make us, as we read and hear their witness in Scripture, one of the audiences to what He says. He had promised the apostles that after He died and rose again, the Holy Spirit would help them to recall what He taught and did so that they could understand and teach others about Him as the Lord Who saves human beings by grace through faith in Christ alone (John 14:26; Ephesians 2:8-9). 

2. When Jesus first told this parable, He spoke it to a crowd of common people thronged around Him in the temple in Jerusalem. 

3. But He also knows that there are others listening in, the religious leaders anxious to hold onto their power to exploit others’ guilty consciences and have authority over them. 

Through the parable, Jesus is warning the religious leaders (and all of us who get little doses of authority in this life and may not handle it very well) that the authority that is a a trust from God will be one day be taken from those to whom it's granted unless they repent for their sins and trust in Him as the only One Who can make a human being right with God

This is a warning to all leaders, whatever their field

If they’re arrogant or unjust, if they show preference for those who can grease their palms, if they’re bullies, they will have to answer to God

When you’re the victim of evil leaders--whether at work, at school, at home, or in governments, you may wonder where God is. 

But in this parable, Jesus underscores the promise of Proverbs 11:21: “Be sure of this: The wicked will not go unpunished, but those who are righteous will go free.” 

There will come a day, Isaiah 2:17 tells us, when, “The arrogance of man will be brought low and human pride humbled; the LORD alone will be exalted…”

In the centuries after God made His covenant with ancient Israel, He had sent one prophet and preacher after another, like the vineyard owner of Jesus’ parable sends servants to the renters in Jesus' parable, to tell His people (and the world) to give to God what they owed God for giving them life

In the Ten Commandments, God tells ancient Israel and the world: “You shall have no other gods before me…” (Exodus 20:2). Yet human beings have a marked penchant for worshiping idols they think will give them the ability to control their lives and get what they want.

Through the prophet Micah, God reminded the people of the world, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Yet, it's an enduring characteristic of the human race that we act unjustly, treat others unmercifully, and walk in arrogance away from God.
In Leviticus 19:33-34, God told His people, “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God…” Yet the people of Israel (and the people of the world) have a decided penchant for turning life into a contest between "us" and "them," siloing us ourselves off from those we deem "different" or "other." 

In Jesus’ parable, the prophets and preachers of God’s truth, who reminded people of God’s authority over our lives, are portrayed as servants who are brutalized and murdered. It was precisely this human penchant for rejecting God’s servants that caused Jesus to lament, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.." (Luke 13:34)

In the parable, the vineyard owner is beside Himself with anguish over His tenants, as God is for us. When our kids first learned to drive and took off for work or school for the first hundred times, I remember the anxiety I felt as time seemed to drag as we awaited their return. Parents want their children to grow up, be independent, and do things for themselves. But you can't help but feel anxious as they take their first steps into adult responsibilities. Magnify the feelings of parents by an infinite amount and you can begin to imagine that anguish God feels for us as He places us in the vineyard, that is the world. God risks losing us by letting us go. He risks seeing us turn from, be contemptuous of, or to forget about His authority over us and losing us forever!

To reject God’s authority over our lives is also to reject His authority over our sins, our death, our vulnerabilities, His authority to give us new and everlasting life

It’s only when we entrust our whole lives to the gracious authority of God that He can give us all that He has in mind to give us through faith in Jesus, all that we can be as grown-up, maturing, confident, adult children of God

Verse 13: “Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they talked the matter over. ‘This is the heir,’ they said. ‘Let’s kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.” (Luke 20:13-15a) Here, Jesus prophesies His own crucifixion. Not interested in yielding to God the authority that they want to keep for themselves, the people of the world, led by the arrogant leaders of the Jews and the governor from Rome, would take Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem and murder Him. They didn’t realize that in voluntarily going to the cross, the sinless Jesus was dying for all human sin and that those who dare to lay down any claim to have authority over their own lives will have life with God that never ends.

Verse 15: “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” Here, Jesus says that there will be a great reversal, the very kind that His earthly mother Mary had spoken of in The Magnificat. In Jesus, Mary said, “...[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 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.” (Luke 1:51-53)

Strangely enough, even the common people who heard Jesus tell this parable, were appalled by it. Our translation tells us that they responded to the idea that human arrogance would be punished by God by saying, “God forbid!” Actually, they say, in the Greek in which Luke and the other writers composed the New Testament, “Μὴ γένοιτο,” a more literal translation of which would be, “Never may it be!” Or, “No way!”

Why would they react like this? Jesus was offering them freedom from the arbitrary authority of self-glorifying human leaders. More than that, He was offering, as He still offers today, freedom from sin and death, freedom from the cruel demands of human authority, replacing them all with His loving lordship over our lives, the freedom to be all that a loving, omnipotent God can make of us for all eternity! 

The answer, I think is simple: As children of a fallen race who have only ever known the dog-eat-dog world in which we live, life in the kingdom of God is scary. 

We’ve never lived in a world in which we were accepted just as we are and helped to be all that we can be. 

We’ve never lived in a world that says if we will die to self, we will live with God. 

Accepting life in this upside down world that Jesus brings means that we must give up all pretense of having the authority of God over the world--or even our own lives

When death comes, as it does to us all, we must finally admit what we sometimes spend our lives trying to deny: Only the God we know in Christ can give us life

At the beginning of this message, I said that Jesus’ parable forces us to wrestle with two questions: Who has authority over us? And how are we to acknowledge that authority

It’s the God we meet in Jesus Who, alone, has authority over our lives, no matter how much we may pretend otherwise. 

And there’s only one way to acknowledge Christ’s authority: It’s to lay aside all our arrogance and sin and trust in Jesus alone to give us the greatest gift of all, eternal life from the hand of God. Amen

Sunday, April 07, 2019

Shopping for Lettuce, Meeting Amir

After a long day capped by a late-afternoon meeting at the church, I called my wife to say that, meeting over, I was going to stop at our local Aldi store to pick up some salad mixes.

As is usually true when I go to Aldi, I ended up going down every aisle, picking up a jar of grape preserves, two loaves of whole grain bread, a package of gluten-free protein bars, a bottle of Canola oil, and a bag of potato chips for my wife.

At aisle two, a man, another customer, greeted me. Later, as I rolled down the last aisle, the freezer section, the same man, having noticed my clerical collar, asked me if I was a Roman Catholic priest. "I'm a Lutheran pastor," I told him. That simple exchange began a thirty-minute conversation. Although I was weary from having awakened at 3:30 this morning, I was glad that God had orchestrated my day so that, at that moment, I met Amir.

Amir explained that he was originally from Teheran. He came to this country during the lead-up to the Iran-Iraq War and became a follower of Jesus Christ here in the United States in 2005. The story of his coming to new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus reminded me of that of the late Nabeel Qureshi, whose autobiographical book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, I recommended to him.

As was true of Qureshi, Amir was a devout Muslim who sought to know Allah, the Muslim name for God. In the midst of his seeking, he had an encounter with the risen Jesus in which he as healed of an illness. He was overwhelmed and has been a Christian ever since.

Although he lives in Dayton, where he works in financial services, Amir commutes to Columbus every week to worship with other Muslims who have come to faith in Jesus. "You wouldn't believe how many Muslims from Iran are now Christians. The people back in Iran say, 'You're only a Christian now because you're around Christians in America' I tell them, 'No, I have met Jesus and so have others from Iran.'"

He told me about a woman who is part of his fellowship. "She also was trying to know Allah. She had no peace of mind because, even though every chapter of the Koran begins by extolling Allah's mercy, Allah is always angry. It was written long after the New Testament, but it replaces the gospel of grace with the law and leaves people far from God.

"But in her quest for Allah, this woman felt led to call on the name of Jesus. God saw her sincere desire for Him and the Holy Spirit prompted her to call out to Jesus. She wasn't even sure why she'd said Jesus' name.

"But as soon as the words left her mouth, there was a knock at her door. She went to find a man dressed in a white cloak who had olive skin, dark hair and beard, and piercing brown eyes. She immediately fell at his feet and began to weep, wiping the stranger's feet with her tears, long before she had ever read of the woman who had done the same thing for Jesus."

I told him about my own personal encounter with Jesus, one that came as this one-time atheist wrestled to understand the faith of the Lutheran Christians that I had come to know. Although it happened in a dream forty years ago, I remember meeting and being embrace by Jesus distinctly.

Amir told me more stories of his personal walk with Jesus. "I'm sorry I took so much of your time," he told me toward the end of our conversation. "Not at all," I told him. "I thank God that I had the chance to meet you. You have inspired me."

I may never see Amir again. But I won't ever forget him.

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