Saturday, January 25, 2020

For the Feast of Saint Paul's Conversion

Here's a poem, with explanation and audio, from Malcolm Guite.

Friday, January 24, 2020

My Case of the If-Thens

In my quiet time this morning, I read Genesis 28. There, God tells Jacob the schemer in a dream: "I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (v.15)

This is an unconditional promise God makes. It's made without respect to Jacob's past unfaithfulness. God announces that He will be faithful to Jacob.

But Jacob's response isn't unconditional trust in God or God's promise. "If God will be with me and will watch over me on this journey I am taking and will give me food to eat and clothes to wear so that I return safely to my father’s household, then the Lord will be my God..." (vv.20-21) "IF...THEN..." "If God will do what I want Him to do," Jacob is saying, "then I'll believe in Him and worship Him."

I can be an "if...then" believer. God has claimed me as His own in Holy Baptism, sending His Holy Spirit to enable me to believe and call on Him through Jesus. But when I sense God calling me to have that tough conversation, to do something kind that will be inconvenient, to speak out for justice, to forgive as I've been forgiven, to love as I am loved, to spend time with someone even though I'd rather be doing something else, to reconnect with friends, or to tell people what God has done (and is doing) for me in Jesus, I break out into the "If thens."

If it's on my way.

If I can find the time.

If I see changes in the other person.

If I thought that it would do any good.

If I had any influence.

But I realize that since God doesn't put any strings on His promises to me, I can't put strings on the promises I make to Him. I am to live in response to His grace from moment to moment in all the moments of my life. Even the hard or inconvenient or seemingly futile ones.

God has bought me out of slavery to sin and death through the offering of God the Son, Jesus, on the cross. All who call on Jesus' name are daily being saved from sin, death, and futility.

Because I'm as human, flawed, and sinful as Jacob...and, like him, with a checkered past, I will only ever be able to keep my promises to God (or to others) with the help of God. "Without Me, you can do nothing," Jesus says (John 15:5). I've come to realize how literally true those words are!

And even when Jesus is helping me to do something worthwhile, I--me, my fears, my shortcomings, my imperfections, my selfishness--get in the way. (As Jesse Jackson famously said back in 1984, "Be patient with me; God isn't finished with me yet.") Right now, like the apostle Paul, we only see all that God has in mind for us as in a mirror dimly (or, a glass darkly).

But God's promises are solid. I pray that today, I'll be all-in for Him and not cave in to the temptation to say, "If God gives me what I want, then I'll follow Him or seek to do His will."

Because God has never said, "If you get your act together, Mark, then I will love and forgive you and give you life with Me," with the help of God, I won't tell Him, "If...then" today.

Make it so today, Lord, I pray.

Just a few thoughts.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Seeing, Telling

[This message was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday. I hope you find it helpful.]

John 1:29-42
You all know of my former atheism, which lasted from my mid-teens into my twenties, a period of about ten years. In those days, honestly, I thought that people who believed in God were superstitious, fanatical, and dim-witted. When I heard Christians talk about their faith, I thought that, as someone sufficiently smart and resourceful, I didn’t need the “crutch” of a Savior God. 

But in those ten or so years, there was one Person from Whom I tried to keep my distance. Someone I never wanted to see. That Person was Jesus. 

Occasionally, at a bookstore or a library, I would run across an article about Jesus; I would read with a mixture of interest and revulsion. 

Or a friend would talk to me about Jesus and I would, as a friend, listen dutifully, but disinterestedly. “Well,” I would think, “he or she is a weaker, dimmer person than I realized. They actually believe in Jesus.”

And yet. When I was away from the bookstores, libraries, and friends, when I lay in my bed at night in the darkness, the witness about Jesus I had heard or read or seen from people, movies, books, articles, and the Bible would come to mind. 

I felt two things in those moments. One was terror! A perfect, risen Savior terrified me. The other thing I felt was an attraction to Jesus. 

But I would shake off my thoughts of Jesus and avoid seeing Him as best I could.

Eventually, you know, Ann and I were married and I reluctantly began attending worship with her, then listening to the witness of members of the congregation, and studying the Scriptures with them and on my own. 

For the first time in my life, I began to see Jesus for Who He is. The Holy Spirit started both tearing down my walls of resistance and building faith in Jesus within me. 

The work of the Spirit continues in me. I still sometimes try to avoid seeing Jesus or, more significantly, avoid being seen by Him. 

But as the Word of God and the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion are unleashed into my life, I understand the truth of what Peter once told Jesus after Jesus had suggested that the disciples might want to follow some other person or some other way rather than follow Him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? [Peter asked] You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68) [emphasis mine]

It was tempting when I first came to see and imperfectly follow Jesus to not say anything about it to people. I wanted to keep Jesus to myself for fear that people would view me in the way I’d once viewed Christians, as weak, dimwitted, fanatical, superstitious, in need of a crutch. 

But I’ve come to learn something. It’s pointless being a witness of what Jesus is--to see Jesus for Who He is and can be for all people--if we won’t testify about what we’ve seen to others who are in as much need of Jesus as we are

If you learned the cure for cancer, heart disease, depression, or AIDs but didn’t share the cure with others, you would be an inhumane monster. Just so, if you have seen Jesus as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world and with it, the death and purposelessness that afflicts the human race without Jesus, it would be inhumane and monstrous

In another part of the Bible, the apostle John writes: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1:3-4) 

When you see Jesus--really see Him--your joy in knowing Him is only made complete when you share Him with others

To a great extent then, being a disciple of Jesus is all about seeing and telling.

We see this in today’s Gospel lesson, John 1:29-42. Here, four people see Jesus and at least two of them tell others about Him immediately. They don't wait to take a class or memorize the Old Testament Scripture that points to Jesus or go to seminary. They see Jesus, then tell others about Jesus.

The first person to see Jesus in our lesson is John the Baptist. Verse 29: “The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!' This is the one I meant when I said, “A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel. Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, “The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.” I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.’”

In these few verses, John tells us Who he sees Jesus to be: 

  • the Lamb of God Who gives His perfect life in sacrifice for our sin so that all who believe in Him will have eternal life with God; 
  • God the Son, Who lived before anything was created; 
  • the Lord affirmed by the Holy Spirit; 
  • the One Who will give that same Spirit, the very breath and life of the ever-living God to all who follow Jesus. 
Oddly, though John was Jesus’ kinsman, he hadn’t really seen much of the truth about Jesus until that moment on the Jordan when Jesus was baptized. I’ve known many Christians who have been as blind to Jesus--to His lordship and His power over sin and death--as John apparently had apparently been. Pain, adversity, change, temptation, happiness, success, and life generally come to some Christians and they crumble because they’ve never really seen or followed Jesus. They can't handle life. Their so-called faith has been or has become a habit, nothing but happy banter with people they find convivial. I’ve also known Christians who run away from seeing or being seen by Jesus better than any overt atheist. They’re afraid that if they really see Jesus, they might have to come to terms with their own sin and admit that they’re nothing without the grace God gives in Jesus. But John the Baptist saw Jesus and told the world Who and what he saw.

John’s telling engendered the interest of two of his disciples and they went to observe and listen to Jesus. “Where are you staying?” they ask Jesus. He tells them, “Come and you will see.” (John 1:37-38) One of those two disciples--students, followers--of John the Baptist, Andrew, went to his brother. “We have found the Messiah (that is the Christ, [God’s anointed Savior King]),” he tells Peter. Andrew saw Jesus and told his brother what he saw. (John 1:41-42)

During a meeting this past week, a public school teacher spoke to a group of us with passion and tears about the teachers and students she encounters each day who don’t know Jesus. They’ve never seen that He is God, that He can free them from the power of sin and death, from slavery to the condemnations and harsh of a dog-eat-dog world, from despair and hopelessness. This teacher prays and she shares Jesus when she can. But still, she cries for those who don’t yet see or know the real Jesus.

Do you understand her tears? 

If you don’t, maybe you need to begin looking at Jesus again. Read and study and pray over His Word in Scripture and ask Him, “Jesus, help me to see you clearly as Savior, God, and Friend not only of me but of my neighbors, all of my neighbors the world over whatever their backgrounds, skin colors, nationalities, or present religion.” 

I guarantee that the more you see of Jesus, the more you will, like that teacher, seek to share Him with others. Jesus will fill you with the same passion for those who don’t know Him as He had for you when He went to the cross to take “away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)

Friends: Don’t avoid Jesus. Don’t forget about Him when you leave here this morning. 

See Him. Every day. 

Know Him. Every day. Let His life fill you. 

Then make your joy complete: Share Him. Amen

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

[Above is a drawing of John the Baptist pointing to Jesus as "the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world." The artist is Cerezo Barredo, priest, painter, artist. He created drawings like these while living in Panama. Like the painters of the Renaissance, he contextualized Jesus to the time and place in which he was living, in this case among the poor of Latin America.]