Saturday, April 27, 2019

Not Good Enough? So What?

A reminder that we are saved only by God's grace (charity) through faith in Jesus Christ.

So, no more worry over whether you're good enough.

You're not.

Neither am I.

But Jesus' sinless life voluntarily offered for sinners like us is more than good enough. Trust in Him and what He has already done for you, then get on with living your life free of self-absorbed speculations as to whether you're good enough.

All human hope boils down to three simple statements of truth:

Christ has died.

Christ has risen.

Christ will come again.

Christ then, has everything in hand. Trust in Him rather than your own "miserable works and doings" and He will set you free to be all that you could try to be through the works and doings. Christ will live in you and, like the sheep in Jesus' parable of the final judgment, when Jesus extols you for the good accomplished in your life of faith, you will wonder, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?" (Matthew 25:37-39)

Where the living Christ is received in faith, Christ saves. And Christ works in and through people who daily welcome Him.

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

Friday, April 26, 2019

I Want Life, Not Dust

[Jesus said:] “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?" (Matthew 16:24-26)

We spend a lot of time trying to acquire things that this dying world has to offer, like success, security, comfort, some validation of our worthiness.

But these trophies will mean nothing and do nothing for us when we've been reduced to powder.

Only the God Who made us and is ultimately revealed for everyone to know and see in the crucified and risen Jesus can give us life: Life today, in an imperfect and fallen world, with Christ beside us. And life tomorrow, beyond the dust, life that never ends, life as God intended for us to have it when He first breathed life into dust to make Adam.

I can easily see the trophies offered by this world. That's what makes them so tempting.

But I ask that the Holy Spirit will help me to remember the trophy that is more lasting and more meaningful than anything a dead world can offer me, the trophy of eternal life with God through faith in Jesus.

God, make my central ambition the same as that of the apostle Paul: "I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead." (Philippians 3:10-11) In Jesus' name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. These are reflections from my quiet time with God today.]

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Big Surprise

[This message was shared during the three Easter Sunday worship services with the people of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio and our friends and guests. Plan on worshiping with us this coming Sunday. Traditional worship happens at 8:45 AM and Modern worship happens at 11:00 AM.]

Luke 24:1-12
On the first Easter Sunday morning, Jesus’ disciples were taken by surprise. None of them had expected that Jesus would rise from the dead.

We may find their surprise surprising. After all, Jesus had told them often enough what He was on earth to do. 

For example, Jesus once told His followers, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life (Luke 9:22).” 

Later, speaking of Himself in the third person as “the Son of Man,” Jesus said: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again (Luke 18:31-33).”

The gospels tell us that every time Jesus mentioned that He was going to be crucified and then rise from the dead, they didn’t get it. 

Their incomprehension is understandable for several reasons. 

For one, I doubt that any of us have ever known someone who was dead for several days, then brought back to life by God the Father. Neither had the disciples.*

The other reason the disciples would have found Jesus’ prediction of His own death and resurrection incomprehensible was cultural. While many Jews believed that there would be a resurrection of God’s righteous people (like the Pharisees), they didn’t believe that one individual could be raised from the dead. For the Jews, resurrection was a group activity to take place at the end of history.

And so, the first Easter Sunday caught the first disciples off-guard. We see that in our gospel lesson, Luke 24:1-12. Let’s take a look at it together. 

Verse 1: “On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.”

A contingent of Jesus’ female disciples, people who have followed Him since His ministry began in Galilee go on the first day of the week, Sunday, to anoint Jesus’ dead body. This day will also turn out to be “the first day” of a new life for them and all who confess Jesus as their Lord. But they don’t know that yet.

Verse 2: “They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them.”

Luke’s account of the first Easter begins much as his account of Jesus’ birth began. Just as an angel came to Mary, a young woman who trusted in God, to give the surprising news that she would bear the Savior of the world, on Easter, women who trusted in God were met by two men we will learn later in Luke’s gospel were also angels, to give equally surprising news. If any so-called Christian tries to tell you that women are inferior to me, don’t believe them. A man didn’t give birth to the Savior; a woman did. (Most women will tell you that if birthing were left up to men, there would be no new babies born.) Men weren’t the first ones entrusted with proclaiming the Easter message; women were.

But, lest we think this means women are perfect, we come to verse 5: “In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.”’ Then they remembered his words.”

The women, overwhelmed by the gleaming angels reflecting the blazing perfection of God, fell to their knees while the angels chastised them. “Why are you looking for a risen Savior in a place for the dead? [It's like the angels are telling them, "Duh!"] Don’t you remember all the times He told you that He was going to rise again?” It’s with this reminder that the women, who had heard Jesus foretell His death and resurrection, remember.

Haven’t you had the same experience? You’ve had to be reminded of something repeatedly before you could remember it...and maybe you don't remember even then.

In one of his Narnia books, C.S. Lewis tells about an important message being entrusted to a young girl named Jill by the fictional Christ figure of those books, Aslan. Make sure you review what I’m telling you all the time, Aslan tells Jill, otherwise you might forget it. Of course, Jill doesn’t do what Aslan tells her to do and when the time comes for her to remember the message, she’s forgotten it all together.

Sometimes, I allow myself to get so caught up in the stuff of life that I forget about God’s promises. 

Ones like, “I am with you always (Matthew 28:20).” 

And like, “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).” 

Or, “...whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him (Colossians 3:17).”

The Bible repeatedly tells us to remember God’s Word and God’s promises. God told His ancient people: “These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deuteronomy 6:6-9).” And, in the New Testament book of Hebrews, God tells Christians through the preacher: "...let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another..." (Hebrews 10:24-25)

Had Jesus’ first disciples spent more time listening to and reminding themselves and each other of God’s Word, they wouldn’t have been so surprised that first Easter. 

And though God's love for us, its depth and breadth, always is surprising me, aybe we wouldn’t be so surprised by the things that happen to us in this life or so hesitant about following where Jesus leads us if we spent more time remembering God’s Word and God’s promises given through Christ! 

We need to learn to be less self-reliant and more God-reliant.

Verse 9: “When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”

Faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, the faith that saves us from sin and death, isn’t easy. One of my favorite Christian musicians, Steve Taylor, says simply, "It's harder to believe than not to to."

We can’t decide to believe. Faith is a gift from God given to those who are willing to believe, who understand that the notion of a risen Savior is nonsense to a disbelieving world. 

It will seem like nonsense to us too, unless we leave ourselves open to the Holy Spirit giving faith to us when we’re faced with temptation, despair, adversity, grief, or death. We need be open to letting God surprise us again and again! 

On Friday night, after the Good Friday service, Sarah and I watched a documentary about the evangelist Billy Graham. It recounted the famous crisis of faith that Graham underwent while preaching under the auspices of Youth for Christ. He was a modern man living in a modern world. How could he believe in the Bible? 

Ultimately, Graham knelt down in a woods with an open Bible and told God, “I don’t understand everything in this book. But, I ask You to help me to trust in it as Your Word, just as I trust in Jesus.” 

Graham learned what I have learned and relearned as a disciple of Jesus: If I am open to trusting in Jesus, He will empower me to trust in Him

If I will only bring my needy, sinful, mistake-riddled life to Him, He will breathe the new life of faith into me. The apostle Paul writes: “ one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ and no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).” 

The Holy Spirit wants to give you a deep, growing faith in the risen Jesus. Are you willing to receive Him by faith today and each day? That’s the question for us all in the face of Christ’s Easter surprise.

As many of you know, some forty years ago, God brought me out of implacable atheism to faith in Jesus Christ. It all started when I began to observe the faith in Christ I saw exemplified in the people of Ann's home church. None of them claimed to be perfect. But I saw in them a peace in the face of difficulty and a love in the midst of a crazy world that I needed to understand. 

As I studied the Bible and listened to the reflections on Christian faith of the people of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, I found myself being tugged toward Jesus. I began praying, even though I wasn't sure that the risen Jesus Who reveals the heart of God to the whole human race was there or real. I told Him that while I didn't yet believe, I was willing to believe. I don't know the exact hour or minute, but I do know that God heard that prayer. I fell in love with Jesus and I came to know that He wanted to save me from myself, my sins, my self-reliance. He made me see that going my own way--relying on own thoughts, my own will, my own heart--was, in the words of another song, "the highway to hell." He began to help me trust in the crucified and risen Jesus, "the way and the truth and the life," to receive forgiveness of my sins and for new life through Him. 

Faith in the risen Christ happens and is made stronger when God's grace meets our open minds, open wills, open hearts, whether as infants at the baptismal font or as needy sinners at the Communion altar. 

It happens when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we gladly hear and learn the good news of new life through Jesus. It's not a matter of doing anything, any more than it was for the first Christians. It's a matter of doing nothing and letting God do it all!

The disciples were skeptical about all of that as the first Easter began. But at least one of the apostles though, was curious about what the women said about the empty tomb. Verse 12: “Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”

The gospel lesson ends with Peter still not believing that Jesus was risen. That would come later. 

For me, knowing that the first disciples were skeptical about the resurrection is evidence that Jesus did rise. If Hollywood had written the gospels, all of the disciples would have been waiting for Jesus to emerge from His tomb and immediately believed in Jesus’ resurrection and, without doubt or evidence, begun to tell the world. 

But it took time for their faith to get to that point. 

Jesus had to show Himself to them. 

He had to teach them some more. 

He had to send His Holy Spirit after He had ascended to heaven to help them remember so that they, in turn, could tell us so that we can remember. 

The initial mystification of the first disciples on the first Easter has about it the whiff of authenticity, telling me that they came to believe in the risen Jesus against their own worldly judgment in the face of seeing the risen Jesus, eating with Him, hearing Him, talking with Him, touching Him. 

The honesty of the gospels in telling us that the first disciples didn't originally think that the resurrection was true or even possible, tells me that because these skeptics came around, I can believe in Easter too!

Everybody, it seems, knows the most famous words Jesus ever spoke: “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).” 

When we attend to Christ and His Word, turning from sin and to Christ, and when we open ourselves to faith in Him, Christ builds that faith within us. We will live in the certainty that He is with us always, even now, and that one day, we will have the greatest surprise of all: Jesus will raise from the dead all who trust in Him for to spend eternity with Him. This is the great promise of Easter. Never forget it! Happy Easter, friends. Amen

*Although they had seen Jesus call several people back from the dead.

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

In The Language of God, Collins, director of the human project, talks about how his life in the science of genetics, led him to faith.

[In Mere Christianity, Lewis, a scholar and one-time atheist, explains the Christian faith.]