Monday, August 05, 2019

Trusting God in the In-Between Times

[This was shared yesterday afternoon as Pastor Tom Brodbeck was installed as senior pastor of Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Springfield, Ohio.]

Hebrews 11:32-12:2a
We live in an in-between time. For Christians, this is the time between Jesus’ ascension in the past and His return at an unknown point in the future. Life for disciples of Jesus is always a time of waiting and watching...and sometimes, of impatience.

The preacher of Hebrews, from which our second Bible lesson comes this afternoon, was addressing a group of people who felt the burden of life in that in-between time. 

They were Jews--Hebrews--who had come to faith in Jesus. 

By faith, they trusted that Jesus is the Savior Who frees from sin, death, and futility all who trust in Him. 

By faith, they were certain too, that one day, Jesus would return and make all things in this fallen world right, judging the living and the dead and raising up all who persevere in turning away from sin and death and turning to Him for life.

These Jewish Christians also likely knew about the things that Jesus said would precede His return and likely thought something like, “Earthquakes. Check. Famines. Check. Wars and rumors of wars. Check” and asked, “What’s taking Jesus so long? Why is He making us live in this in-between time?” After the tragedies in El Paso and Dayton in the past twenty-four hours, we may be wondering the same thing: “What’s taking Jesus so long?”

It was to Christians with questions like these that the apostle Peter wrote, “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) Disciples of Jesus living in the time before Jesus’ return aren’t meant to obsess over God’s timeline. We’re meant to fulfill Christ’s calling on our lives, on the life of the Church. We’re to be and to make disciples. God means for that to be our singular obsession!

But, we can get impatient watching and waiting for Jesus to return. And our impatience will likely grow if we get pressured by others to turn from Christ. Many scholars believe that the Jewish Christians to whom the book of Hebrews is addressed were facing pressure from the Roman Empire to renounce Christ and return to Judaism. The Romans viewed the Christian proclamation of Jesus as the Lord and the Son of God as a threat to the emperor who they also called “Lord” and the “Son of God.” 

The preacher in Hebrews encourages the Jewish Christians to stand fast, to cling to Christ and not be intimidated by the Romans. The Romans could take away their lives on earth; but only Christ could give them life with God that never ends, making Roman threats irrelevant. “So do not throw away your confidence,” the preacher says in Hebrews 10:35, referring to faith in Christ. “it will be richly rewarded.” These words echo those of Jesus Himself, in Matthew 24:13: “...the one who endures [in faith] to the end will be saved.”

To encourage the Jewish Christians he was addressing, the preacher asks them to remember all those who, starting in Old Testament times, had persevered in trusting in the God Who promised the world a Savior centuries before that Savior appeared in Bethlehem. 

He mentions leaders like David and Samuel who “through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised [by God]; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.” 

He mentions a long train of nameless Old Testament and intertestmental saints who experienced persecution, flogging, stoning, chains and imprisonment, and death, who endured poverty, disdain, and hardship. 

He mentions those who, for their faith in the God Who would later send Jesus, were forced into hiding, forced to scavenge and live off the land. 

The preacher says, “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised [they didn’t receive what you and I too often take for granted: Jesus and life in His name], since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” 

Think of it: Only together with us, believers in Jesus who live in this time between Jesus’ ascension and return to the world, would those old believers be made whole, complete, through what Jesus has accomplished on the cross, enduring the tests and temptations of this life sinlessly, so that He can give all who believe in Him everlasting life with God

Those of us who live in this in-between time should never be discouraged: Can there be any doubt after Jesus’ death and resurrection that following Him is the way to life, even life beyond the grave?

After recounting all those believers who endured in faith in anticipation of the Savior Jesus, the preacher says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses [all those believers before Christ, watching us today in the arena of this in-between world], let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.

People of Grace Lutheran Church, you have called Pastor Tom Brodbeck to be your senior pastor. In that role, God will daily call him to remind you, through the ministry of Word and Sacrament, to throw off every distraction and sin that might keep you from following Jesus, to persevere in running the race of faith in Jesus Christ in this time, and to fix your eyes on Jesus without impatience or fear. You could not have chosen a better senior pastor to serve and lead you. In fact, God chose him and, through prayer, you discerned and issued God’s call to Pastor Brodbeck. Kudos to you for listening to God!

Knowing him as I do, I know that Pastor Brodbeck will, like the preacher in Hebrews, encourage you to keep trusting in Jesus, because it’s not only through faith in Jesus Christ alone that we are saved, it’s also through faith in Jesus Christ alone that we persevere or even want to persevere as His people called to be obsessed with being and making disciples in this in-between time.

Just as today I charge my cherished colleagye Tom to take up the baton passed onto him by my equally cherished colleague Dan Powell and run the race Christ sets before him with perseverance, I also charge you, people of Grace Lutheran Church, to run that same race of faith and to encourage your leader along the way. 

This is a congregation with a rich heritage. A cloud of witnesses who have been part of this church’s life and history are, along with the God we know in Jesus Christ, looking on today as you begin another leg of your race of faith. Know that there is nowhere you may go as a congregation, that, if you live in fellowship with Christ and with each other as people and pastor, Christ hasn’t already been. The “pioneer and perfecter of [our] faith,” as the preacher calls Jesus, is already blazing the trail for those who faithfully follow Him here at Grace Lutheran Church!

None of us knows when Jesus will return to close the curtain on this in-between time and bring His kingdom to final, eternal perfection. But I am sure of this:
If together, people of Grace Lutheran Church and Pastor Tom Brodbeck, you keep following Jesus in this point in history, Jesus will take you exactly where He wants you to be. You can believe that! Amen! 

[Pictured above are Pastor Bruce Kramer, Pastor Tom Brodbeck, and me, after yesterday's Service of Installation. It was a celebratory event.]

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

Freed from Greed

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

Luke 12:13-21
A few years ago, I watched an interview conducted by a talk show host with a musician. “I’ve never understood what was so bad about greed,” the musician said. “Neither have I,” the talk show host agreed. The talk show host agreed with greed.

I think that most people would do the same. They may not feel comfortable with overt expressions of greed, like the character in the old movie Wall Street, who said, “Greed is good.” But their behaviors and attitudes speak volumes. 

A woman I knew was dying. Her daughter sat down beside her deathbed and said, in what was to be their final conversation on this earth, “Mom, if you’ve got any money hidden, you’d better tell us where it is now.” (Isn’t that heartwarming? A real Hallmark moment.)

You’re familiar with the old quote, sometimes attributed to Henry Ford, other times to John D. Rockefeller, who was supposedly asked, “How much money does the average person need to get by these days?” The reply: “Just a little more.”

In today’s gospel lesson, Luke 12:13-21, Jesus underscores how destructive, how fatal greed is

Greed, the constant desire for “just a little more,” is a violation of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” 

Jesus and God’s written Word don’t tell us to refrain from having ambitions in life. Christians are allowed ambitions. 

Paul’s ambition was to plant the gospel throughout the Gentile world. 

Martin Luther’s ambition was to reform the Church and set people free from sin and darkness with the gospel word about Jesus. 

The ambition of Gregor Mendel, a monk, was to understand how God engineered life, becoming the father of modern genetics. 

William Wilberforce set out to see slavery outlawed in the British Empire and it happened, thirty years before it happened in America and without a Civil War. 

Mother Teresa’s ambition was to serve the dying in Calcutta. 

There’s nothing wrong with the ambition to maximize the talents and gifts God has given to us. 

And there's nothing wrong with the ambition to take care of our families. 

These are all holy, God-blessed, and I would say, God-prompted, ambitions.
And, it should be said that human beings are ambitious by nature. It’s part of how God made us. 

Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it,” God told the human race at our creation. “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” 

God made us co-conspirators with Him in nurturing and, where needed, making better the life of the world, in the power of His love and grace. That is an ambitious undertaking! 

But when our ambitions revolve around self-worship or the worship of the things of this dying world, they become expressions of greed, false gods, tickets to hell

Greed is rooted in fear. 

Fear that the God Who provides daily bread won’t provide it for us. 

Fear that the Christian message that this world isn’t all there is to life is untrue. 

Fear that the God Who promises to be with us always will abandon us. 

Fear that the God Who promises an eternal world to those who trust in Jesus won’t come through and that we need to grab for the good things we can enjoy in this world.

Greed is rooted in fear. Jesus warns us against in today’s gospel lesson. 

Let’s take a look at it, starting at verse 13: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’”

Jesus has been teaching the crowd about the Kingdom of God, the eternal kingdom that belongs to all baptized believers in the crucified and risen Jesus. In the previous twelve verses of Luke, chapter 12, Luke tells us that Jesus: 

  • warned the disciples about the false teachings of the Pharisees;
  • encouraged them to live without fear, knowing that every human life is precious in God’s eyes, so valuable that Christ came to die and rise to set all who trust in Him free of sin and death;and 
  • told them--and us--that we must fearlessly and publicly follow Him, Jesus, as our Savior, and not keep our faith hidden from the world.
But there’s a guy in the crowd who clearly isn’t interested in learning about being part of God’s eternal kingdom. He has something that he considers to be “more important,” "more practical," than having a life with God. He wants Jesus to be the mediator between his brother and himself in a family squabble over their father’s will. The man in the crowd wants Jesus to use His authority in the best way the man can imagine, to line the man's pockets. 

Greed, you see, makes us forget what’s important. It makes us chase the things that are here today and gone tomorrow, rather than following Jesus for life with God that never ends.

Verse 14: “Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you? Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’” (Luke 12:14-15)

Jesus' response here is ironic

We know, of course, that Jesus is the judge of the world. 

That’s the point of His portrayal, in Matthew 25:31-46, of the final judgment in which Jesus the King separates the sheep from the goats. 

And we’re told in 1 Timothy 2:5, “...there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus…” 

Jesus Christ is the judge and mediator of the universe. But the man in the crowd in our lesson is only interested in using Jesus to get what he wants. If we were to boil his request of Jesus down to a prayer petition, it would be something like, “Lord, my will be done.” 

But Jesus tells him and the crowd that life, the gift of God to those who believe, doesn’t come to those who set their ultimate ambitions on the things of this world. “Life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” 

Jesus' words echo those He spoke to Martha, the anxious hostess greedy not for money but for attention, affirmation, and compliments, resentful of the different role to which God was calling her sister Mary. “‘Martha, Martha,’ [Jesus told her], “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42) 

In today's gospel lesson, Jesus effectively tells yet another resentful sibling, “Choose life over death. Choose life with God over death by things.”

To undergird His point, Jesus then tells one of His parables. 

You know it well. A man is blessed with a particularly fertile piece of land. It grows so abundant a harvest that the farmer has no idea where he’s going to store all of it. (This was obviously in the days before those sprawling self-storage units you see everywhere today.) The farmer decides to build bigger grain silos to store it all, take care of himself for life, and then just chill, happily self-sufficient, happily heedless of the will of God or the needs of others. “But God said to him, [Jesus tells us] ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Luke 12:20) Someone was paraphrasing Jesus here when she or he famously said, “There won’t be a U-Haul trailer hitched to the hearse when they take your earthly remains to the cemetery.”

The things of this world, including money and stuff, will not bring us life. And when the call of greed takes hold in our lives, nothing we do, nothing we own, nothing in our investment portfolios or bank accounts, will ever be enough. Greed will compel us to want “just a little more.” God, the life He offers through Christ, and other people will be crowded out of our lives and our concerns. Jesus says: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21) 

Greed is a killer, a creation of Satan designed to make us think that the God we know in Jesus Christ isn’t enough. That is a lie.

There is a better way to live. God has created it for us in Jesus Christ. It’s the life of certainty and security in God’s love and provision, the life of freedom to love God and love neighbor and to share with one another, the life that Jesus makes possible for those who trust in Him, for those who daily fall into His arms and seek God’s will for our lives

We can live in the kingdom of God, no longer viewing life as a zero-sum game where if someone else gets more, I get less. 

In the kingdom of God, we know that in the God we meet in the crucified Jesus, there will always be “daily bread” and there will be more grace, love, and security than we can imagine, in Jesus’ words, “good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over” (Luke 6:38). 

Jesus gives those who trust in Him so much of Himself that their lives can be spent in finding ways to share our blessings, not hoarding them!

As God’s ancient Hebrew people were about to enter the land He had promised them, God told the people: “...This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life…” (Deuteronomy 30:19). 

Each day, as we come to God in repentance and faith in Jesus, we choose life. We choose God’s kingdom over our greed and over all of our sins. We choose to rest in God’s grace rather than stewing in the anxiety and futility of self-worship.

One New Testament scholar says this of Jesus’ words to us today, “The kingdom of God is, at its heart, about God’s sovereignty sweeping the world with love and power, so that human beings, each made in God’s image and each one loved dearly, may relax in the knowledge that God is in control.” 

That’s Jesus’ message for us today: Relax and live in His grace. Amen

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