Friday, January 31, 2020

When Things Seem Futile

[This is the journal entry for my quiet time with God yesterday.]

Look: “‘And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…

“... it was not you who sent me here, but God…” (Genesis 45:5, 8)

The speaker is Joseph, son of Jacob, grandson of Isaac, and great-grandson of Abraham. He lived about 1900 years before the birth of Jesus. He’s speaking to his brothers.

Years before, resentful of their father’s favor of Joseph and Joseph’s superior attitude toward them, the brothers had sold Joseph into slavery, convincing Jacob that his son had actually been killed by a wild animal.

But now the brothers stood before Joseph, who had been effectively made the prime minister of Egypt.

It would have been an opportune time for Joseph to take revenge on his brothers for his years of slavery and forced separation from his family.

Instead, Joseph believes that, as he will articulate more succinctly in Genesis 50, while his brothers meant their action for evil, maybe even death, to Joseph, God used their action to take Joseph to the exact place he needed to be, to accomplish good

Joseph, the dreamer, interpreter of dreams, and person with a gift for administration, was, as head of Pharaoh’s government in Egypt, able to institute a program whereby the government held surplus crops in reserve during flush years for distribution and sale during the subsequent years of famine. By this work, Joseph was even able to save his own people, the descendants of Abraham, ancient Israel, so that they could continue to be God’s light to the nations...and ultimately, become the people from whom Jesus, the Light and the Savior of the world, would come.

Listen: When someone has hurt me, my impulse is to hurt them back. 

Or, at the very least, ignore them, insult them, or be disdainful of them.

Now, when a person is physically, emotionally, or sexually abusive to us, avoidance is a good idea. God doesn’t expect me to deliberately subject myself to danger. 

That’s why Jesus refused the devil’s temptation to hurl Himself from the pinnacle of the temple. We tempt God when we mistake faith for fatalism and simply acquiesce to our own harm. Even though God protects His people, He doesn’t protect them from taking unwise risks, like not wearing a helmet while riding on a motorcycle or texting while driving, to use two examples.

But as Joseph stands before his brothers, he holds all the cards. He has power. His brothers’ families are at risk of dying off from the famine. Joseph is the second-most powerful man in Egypt who has gone through slavery and imprisonment for years because of the actions of his brothers. It would have been so easy--and, in the eyes of the world, justified--to put his brothers into slavery, hold them in prison, or even kill them. 

He sees things differently. He’s grateful to be positioned to save his father’s people and to forgive the brothers.

Joseph seems never to have forgotten God, worshiping and obeying Him even through his long captivity. He had resisted when Potiphar’s wife’s attempts at seduction by saying that he couldn’t violate either God’s will or Potiphar’s trust by having sex with her. He told the Pharaoh that God--Israel's Yahweh--who gives interpretations to dreams.

In the verses that caught my attention today, Joseph sees beyond his own pain to see that God, Who might have seemed far away or even absent during his years of slavery, actually had been with him all along and actually had a reason for sending him to Egypt in the first place.

Not all the painful circumstances we find ourselves in are sent to us by God, of course. Job, for example, endured hardships that came from Satan. Sometimes the fallen world is where our hurts come from. Sometimes those hurts come from our own stupid, silly, or sinful actions.

But wherever we find ourselves, God can transform the seeming futility of painful circumstances and help us live for His purposes within them. Joseph knew this.

I get fussy. I like things to go the way I want them to go and when they don’t, I can bellyache. There’s no record of Joseph bellyaching. He followed God and sought to be faithful where he was.

Respond: Lord, by the power of the Holy Spirit, help me to be faithful where I am today. Forgive my fussiness and bellyaching. Help me to trust that You never forsake me and are always there for me. Jesus' death and resurrection prove that. Thank You for the forgiveness of my sins and for Your resurrection promise given to all who trust in Christ. In Jesus’ name, I pray. Amen

[The painting is Joseph Recognized by His Brothers by Marc Chagall.] 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Encounter That Can Change Everything

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

Matthew 4:12-25
Some of you have heard me talk about Ayman. He was the Syrian-Muslim owner of a deli we frequented in days gone by. 

One day, Ayman told me that his brother-in-law, who was from a Christian background, had died suddenly and at a young age. Ayman told me when the visitation would be. I arranged to be at the funeral home just before the calling hours, allowing me to spend a little time with the family before I went to an evening meeting. I actually met members of both families, Christian and Muslim. After giving my condolences, Ayman offered to walk with me to the door.

We’d walked into another room when he asked if we could talk. “Mark,” he asked, “what do you think happens to someone who dies?” 

I explained as respectfully as I could (because God's Word tells us to be respectful to those from other backgrounds when we share the substance of our hope as Christians) that, as a follower of Jesus, I believe that all who turn from sin, or repent, and trust in Jesus, have life with God that never ends. 

I said that Jesus makes us part of His eternal kingdom as His Holy Spirit enables us to believe in Him. 

I told Him that I believe Jesus is God in the flesh, how Jesus came into our world to die for us and bring eternal life to all who follow Him, and how everyone who follows Jesus is in His hands even after we die. 

I tried to point Ayman to Jesus. 

As I was leaving, Ayman told me, with warmth, “Mark, I really liked hearing what you said back there.”

What happened to elicit such a reaction in a mostly non-practicing Muslim? This is what happened: Jesus happened

I had no idea that Ayman was going to ask that question of me. 

I hadn’t rehearsed anything. 

All I did was pray, as I always do in such circumstances, “Jesus, give me the right words and the right silences.” That’s it. 

Jesus once taught His followers how to prepare for persecution: “...when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20) I think that this directive from Jesus also has application to our everyday interactions with others. We need to trust that the Holy Spirit will give us the words we need to speak when others who may not know Jesus ask us about Him. Jesus will give us the Holy Spirit do His life-giving, faith-raising work through us. Through us, people can encounter Jesus.

We see what happens when people encounter Jesus in today’s gospel lesson, Matthew 4:12-25. It shows us ways in which the Word of Jesus, God the Son, can come to us and transform our lives. In our encounter with Jesus today, we hear Him bring the Law, the Gospel, and God’s call to obedience.

Early in our lesson, we’re told that Jesus says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 4:17)

We moderns cringe at the word repent. “Don’t guilt me,” we say. 

Now, the command to repent is Law, God’s Law. But to repent isn’t necessarily to cover ourselves in ashes or engage in a lot of self-referential blubbering

The word in the original Greek in which Matthew and all the New Testament writers composed their books is metanoeite. It means change your mind, as in, “I was walking along a path that pleased me, but when God got through to me, showing me how I was destroying myself, I changed my mind and went the other way.” 

A few months ago, a man I’ve known for some time wrote to me about a conversation he’d had with a friend. He’d said some rough words to this friend. He told me, “I think that I was right. But what do you think?” 

Honestly, I don’t always answer such questions immediately. 

I want to be careful about giving “life advice” when I know that I fail and fall in this business of living, let alone living righteously, as anyone else. 

I also wait in order to pray over my responses to questions I get. 

But I finally did write that man what I think he already suspected, that his rough words maybe were too rough and that even when we speak hard truths, we must do so with the love of Jesus for the other person. After getting my email, the man changed his mind. He repented and apologized to his friend. 

My response to him had nothing to do with me. God gave me His Word and His wisdom and the Holy Spirit changed the man's mind. That was all the work of the Word of Jesus speaking through me.

Jesus also says in verse 17, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 

That, friends, is good news, the gospel from God! 

This gospel tells us that though we may live in a world of darkness, sin, and death and though we may be sinners, violators of God’s Law who can hardly stand to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning from guilt and shame, let alone look into the eyes of Jesus, Jesus, the King of kings, has come with God’s grace--His charity--to bring us into His light, under His reign

He does this not because we deserve His love, but simply because He chooses to love us

We may find it hard to love the unlovable; but God does love the unlovable, even you and me. And that's something to be celebrated, relished, and enjoyed, something that fills us with thankfulness and praise to God!

When Jesus and His kingdom come to us and His Word of love gives us the faith in Him that makes us His, we are compelled to believe and empowered to believe that absolutely nothing, not even death, can separate us from God or His loving, eternal intentions for us. 

As one Lutheran layperson wrote this past week on Twitter, “‘ALL YOUR SIN IS FORGIVEN FOR CHRIST’S SAKE.’  If you believe this, God has given you the gift of faith. There is nothing that you need do. It is already done to you. Now, go live.” 

“I am not ashamed of the gospel,” Paul writes in the New Testament, “because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes...” (Romans 1:16) 

It was the power of the gospel, the good news of Jesus, that warmed Ayman’s heart that day in the funeral home.

Later in our lesson, Jesus approaches two sets of brothers who are fishermen: Simon Peter and Andrew, John and James. Jesus tells them to follow Him and they do so, “at once,” “immediately.” 

After God’s Word in Jesus convicts us of our sin in the Law that says, “Repent”...after that same Word convinces us of God’s love and good intentions for us in the Gospel, we’re open to doing what might have otherwise been unthinkable to us. 

We’re ready to follow Jesus

We’re ready to go where He takes us. 

This doesn’t mean that if you’re a Christian, you should become a pastor or a missionary. 

It means following Him wherever we may be--at work, at school, at home, in doctors’ offices, grocery stores, restaurants, gyms, community gatherings, sporting events, social media. 

God taking on human flesh, dying for us, and rising for us tells us that the kingdom of heaven isn’t a place in the sky; it’s wherever Jesus’ gospel Word of Law or Gospel comes to us, transforming us from God’s enemies to God’s friends, forever

As we live daily in repentance and faith, we carry Jesus’ Word with us, creating the possibility that still more people will encounter Jesus as they did in today’s gospel lesson.

This is how darkness and death are defeated in this world. 

This is how the kingdom of heaven shows itself even in the imperfection and sadness of this world. 

Not with political agendas or social programs, though each has their places. 

Darkness and death are defeated only as the Word of Jesus pierces our sin, selfishness, and despair through the Law, the Gospel, and His call to obediently follow

When we hear and respond to Jesus’ Word to repent, believe, and follow Him, we are changed forever

And we might, by His presence in and with us, become the instruments by which Jesus forever changes the lives of others too. Amen

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