Wednesday, February 26, 2020


[This was the message for this evening's Ash Wednesday worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Tonight’s gospel lesson is Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Here, Jesus tells us things like, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them…” (Matthew 6:1). 

And, “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets...But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.” (Matthew 6:2-4) 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...But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen…” (Matthew 6:5-6). 

And “[w]hen you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do...But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting…” (Matthew 6:16-18)

Now, if we read Jesus’ words superficially, we might think that He’s contradicting something He said to His followers--including you and me--just one chapter earlier. There, Jesus says, “...let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16) In this verse, Jesus is telling us to live our faith in Him and our love for Him out loud, “let-everyone-see-the-good-we-do-in-His-name” loud

Yet, in tonight’s lesson, He tells us to: give to help the poor, just don’t announce it to the world; live with a right respect for the God Who saves us by grace through faith in Jesus, just don’t call attention to your righteousness; pray for everyone, just don’t call attention to your praying; fast, just don’t let anyone see what you’re sacrificing. 

So, which is it: Live your faith loudly in the public square or refuse to call attention to your own faithfulness?

The answer, friends, is both

We are to live out our faith in Jesus out loud for all the world to see. As Jesus says elsewhere, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32) 

That means living our gratitude to God for saving us from sin and death by the faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ that His Holy Spirit and His Word have created within us. 

It means trusting in Christ to love God completely, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, to love each other in the Church with the same devotion Christ showed for us on the cross, to live each day in the light of Jesus’ resurrection promise. 

And it will mean giving to the poor, praying for others--including our enemies, fasting from--that is avoiding--those things that can get in the way of our relationship with Jesus, and telling others about the good news--the gospel--of new and everlasting life for all who follow Jesus.

But we also are not to live out our faith to call attention to ourselves. When I’m out to dinner and I pray over my meal--and I realize that at the Famous Restaurant in Centerville last night, sitting there in my clerical collar, I forgot to pray--but when I do pray over my meal in a public place, I’m to do it not for any audience around me, but for an audience of One: the God I know in Jesus. When I fast, I'm not to do it so that I can create an impression on others. When I give to the poor, I'm not to do it with an eye to how good it makes me look to the world, only to honor the God Who gives me everything I have.

It all boils down to motivation

Do we do the things that Jesus commands--things like love God, love neighbor, make disciples, worship with God’s people every week--to point to Jesus or to point to ourselves? 

Do we do the things that Jesus commends--things like praying, giving to the poor, fasting--to give Jesus control over our lives or just to control what others think of us? 

Listen: You can get the whole world convinced that you are the most wonderful, devoted, loving, faithful follower of Jesus by doing the kinds of play-acting Jesus condemns in tonight’s lesson. You can be known for your generosity, your beautiful-sounding prayers, your notorious fasting from the pleasures of the world. But if your motive in all these and other religious acts is anything other than honoring the God Who saves you through Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, God is not impressed

In fact, God will condemn us for using Him to build up our reputations at Christ’s expense. Hebrews 4:13 reminds us, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” 

You cannot fool God! That’s why our motivation is so important.

Let’s be honest though. 

None of us acts from purely pristine or holy motives. My sinful nature reminds me that when I pray in a restaurant, others may see me doing it. As long as I live on this earth, the old Adam in me will try to mess up everything. 

Compelled by Jesus’ grace love and empowered by the Holy Spirit, I’ll do something for another person without a thought of how it may look to others...until later, I think, “That’s a really good thing I did.” 

And it happens to preachers too. In the weeks before virtually every Sunday for the past thirty-five-plus years, Ann can tell you, I have agonized over what God wanted me to say in my sermons. Deep inside, I know that I have nothing to say. I offer up desperate, pleading prayers to God to help me discern what I should tell you about His Word for that week. God has always been faithful; He has always given me what I should say, even when I get in God's way while I preach. I always thank God for giving me a sermon. But it takes just one person to tell me, "Good sermon," and I'm thinking to myself, "Wow! I really am good."

So, our motives for doing the things God calls us to do always get clouded by our sinful selves.

But just because the devil, the world, and our sinful selves constantly remind us that our motives aren’t totally pure doesn’t mean that we should refrain from living our faith in Jesus for all the world to see.

Don’t be afraid to live your faith out loud! 

Don’t be afraid tonight to stop at a store or somewhere else with the ashy cross still on your forehead. 

The apostle Peter tells Christians, “ your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (1 Peter 3:15)

As we begin Lent on this Ash Wednesday, 2020, I’d like to ask you to consider doing the following things, not as works to earn God's favor, but as ways to open your heart and life to Jesus working and living within you. 

  • 1. Ask Jesus to help you follow Him more closely. 
  • 2. Ask Jesus to help you live for Him more devotedly and openly.
  • 3. Ask Jesus to keep your motives for your acts of devotion focused on Him and not on yourself, to grow closer to Him and not to impress others. 
  • 4. Ask Jesus for forgiveness and help when you see your motives turn selfish. 
  • 5. As you repent and put yourself in Jesus’ hands, know that you belong to God, not because of anything you do, but totally because of what Jesus Christ did for you on the cross. 
  • 6. Ask God to daily remind you that, by grace through faith in Christ, You belong to the God Whose opinion of you is infinitely and eternally more important than what anyone else may think of you! (Even more important than what you think of you.)
At the end of our lesson for tonight, Jesus says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21) 

In this Lenten season, may God plant within each of us a deepened desire to honor Him Who, in Jesus Christ, has given us everlasting life with God, a treasure greater than anything--including the good opinions of others--that this dying universe could ever give us. 

May we repent and trust in Jesus in response to the Word and the Sacraments and may we learn to trust Jesus always. Amen

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

Monday, February 24, 2020

Get Up; Don't Be Afraid!

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

Matthew 17:1-9
Ann and I had lived in the house we rented from our home church in Columbus for only a short time when, early one Friday evening, an emergency squad went to the house across the street. 

Later, I saw EMS personnel pack up their things and leave. 

I had just returned to faith in Christ. As I saw the squad pull away without taking anyone from the home on a stretcher, I prayed, “Lord, what should I do?” My thought was that someone was ill and that maybe I could run to a drug store and pick up a prescription for them. I didn't want to be a busybody, but God kept impressing on me the need to cross the street and find out what I could do.

Within seconds, I found myself crossing the street to the house of neighbors I hadn’t yet met. 

The elderly man who answered the knock on my door looked dazed, in a state of shock. 

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said. “But I saw the squad and wondered if I could do anything to help.” 

At that, the man flung open the front door with his left hand and waved his right hand, gesturing to the figure of an elderly woman on the floor. 

“My wife just died. We were having dinner. She didn’t feel well. I brought her into the living room. She collapsed. I called the squad. She had a heart attack. They couldn’t do anything.” 

It was, at that moment, the last place I wanted to be. I had always been terrified of death. I even avoided funerals whenever I could. 

I prayed as I spoke next. “Why did they leave your wife here?” I asked, trying to make some sense of the situation. “The police have to come to certify her death before they can take her,” he told me.

The next forty minutes or so, I called my neighbor’s adult children, his priest, and the funeral home. After that, I sat with him as we waited for the police and the others to arrive. 

Once people got there, I  walked back across the street, thanking God that I had listened to what He had told me to do (you know, “Love your neighbor”) and thanked Him for banishing my fear. 

God had moved me from cowering in fear to being emboldened by His grace. That seemed like a miracle to me. It still does.

Our gospel lesson for this morning, Matthew 17:1-9, tells the familiar story of the Transfiguration. 

In it, the trio of Peter, James, and John, three of Jesus’ disciples, go to the top of an unidentified mountain with Jesus. 

There Jesus’ appearance is transfigured, His face shining like the sun, His clothing as white as the light. Then, Jesus is visited by Moses, Israel’s great giver of God’s Law, and Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet.

But what exactly does the Transfiguration mean? What is the Goe we know in Jesus telling us in this incident? 

Above all, I think, in the Transfiguration, God demonstrates that in Christ, He can move all of us who cower in fear before the realities of life, be they the reality of death and that of the infinite perfection--the holiness--of God, Who has every right to condemn us for our sin, to a place of assurance and peace and life through faith in Jesus

Jesus shows us that, despite what we may deserve as sinners who have violated God’s holiness, God wants to save us not condemn us. God wants to comfort us, strengthen us, give us life with Him that never ends.

Six days before the events recounted in today’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells His disciples: “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:28)

In today’s lesson about the Transfiguration, surrounded by the light of eternity itself, Jesus’ promise comes true

In Jesus, the kingdom of heaven comes into the world and Peter, James, and John know that it’s true, even if they don’t understand exactly what Jesus means when He speaks, as He often does, of suffering, dying, and rising, or when He tells us of our need to take up our crosses--to own our sin and morality and need of Him for life--and follow Him.

Imagine being those three disciples with Jesus on that mountain, especially after they heard the Voice from heaven tell them: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” 

Matthew says that the three fell on their faces, terrified. 

What happens when human beings, mortal and marred by the imperfection of their sin, come into the presence of God? 

Well, if they have any sense, they do what we do when we begin our worship each Sunday: They recognize that they “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 

Hebrews 10:31 tells us that, “It is a dreadful thing [a dread-filled thing] to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Friends, it is a dreadful thing, unless, hear me now, your sins and imperfections are covered over by God’s grace through your faith in Jesus

And it’s precisely at the moment that the moment the disciples realize how imperfect they are and how perfect Jesus is, how Jesus is God and they need Him for life and forgiveness, that the grace of God comes to Peter, James, and John. It comes to loud-mouthed, impulsive, know-it-all Peter and it comes to the two other disciples who, just like us, were mortal, imperfect, and sinners.

After the Voice spoke heaven’s affirmation of Jesus as the Messiah Who would suffer, the sinless God Who would die for His sinful children, Matthew says--in a beautiful passage of Scripture--that “Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.” (Matthew 17:8)

For God to banish our fear, to give us the power to live each day, to give us the certainty that God has us in the palm of His hand for all eternity, we need to look to Jesus and no one except Jesus

That’s because no one but Jesus can overcome the terror we feel in the face of this world’s realites: The realities of death, suffering, adversity, relational discord, self-doubt, prejudice, fear, our own inadequacies, our pride, our ego, and all the other horrors wrought by human sin, by our sin. 

We may try to cover our fears over with bravado or false notions that if we’re good enough or work hard enough that death and suffering won’t touch us or that God will owe us a place in His kingdom. But listen: God owes us nothing. On our own, we can never be good enough and we will forever live or die in our fear or our bravado. 

But when we listen to God’s Word about Jesus--”This is My Son...listen to Him,” God creates within us a faith in Jesus that vetoes, overpowers, and negates our fears

He gives us the capacity to trust in the resurrected life Jesus promises to all who trust in Him

That isn’t to say that we never feel fear as human beings; as long as we live on this earth, we will know fear, especially in the face of death. We will be like the guy who said, “I don’t fear dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

But when Jesus comes to us--as He does today in His Word, in the fellowship of believers, and in His body and blood in the sacrament, He touches us again and He says, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” 

And when we respond to that call, we will find that wherever we look, we will see Jesus. I saw Him that night long ago in the dazed and grieving features of a neighbor who had just lost His wife. 

Jesus, Who touches us and calls us to get up and follow Him, empowers us, as He did Peter, James, and John, to go into the places where life and death, birth and suffering, joy and sorrow intermingle. 

With Jesus, we can face anything: Readied by His gracious forgiveness to look our Lord face to face, to face life and death, to love God and love neighbor, to share the good news of new life through faith in Jesus even with skeptical friends. 

When you turn to Jesus each day, He will move you from being one who cowers in fear before life’s realities to one emboldened to live--fully live--in the kingdom of heaven, now and always. 

Today..and tomorrow too...don’t be afraid, friends. Follow Jesus. Amen