Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Weeknight Study of the Gospel of John, chapters 10 and 11

What the Church is Called to Do in These Times

A Virginia pastor has died from coronavirus after insisting on continuing with regular worship services at the congregation he served.

Here's the deal.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, following His baptism by John the Baptist when His deity and messiahship were affirmed by both God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, He went into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Jesus faced three major temptations then. One of them involved the devil taking Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem. The devil told Jesus: "If you are the Son of God...throw yourself down..." (Matthew 4:6) Then, he tried to push Jesus into jumping by citing a passage of Old Testament Scripture, Psalm 91:11-12: "He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone." That is a beautiful and reliable promise from the God first revealed to Israel and now to all the world in Jesus. Generations of believers have found God to be a fortress through the adversities of life. I know that I have.

But Jesus wasn't having any of the devil's mangling of the Bible. God's promises are not insurance against our willful foolishness.

So, Jesus told the devil, also citing God's Word: "It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7, with Jesus quoting Deuteronomy 6:16).

This pastor's death is tragic.

But it is also the result of a seemingly intelligent man's decision to engage in foolishness, to ignore the wisdom of those who know what they're talking about when it comes to this unique virus for which there is presently no cure.

This is a time that requires social distancing and for group meetings, including meetings of the Church, to not happen.

To forge ahead with public worship or church activities for the foreseeable future is pure foolishness, like texting while driving, not fastening one's seatbelt, or failing to wear a helmet while on a motorcycle. People can do these things. But if they're counting on God to protect them from their foolishness, they're putting God to the test.

I would argue that it's not just foolish, it's downright sinful to expose people to a lethal disease that we can prevent on the pretext of being faithful.

God the Father didn't count it a sin when His sinless Son refused to jump off the temple. And as much as I miss being together in worship with God's people, it's no sin for us to forgo doing so out of simple love for God and neighbor.

The magazine First Things presented an article by Thomas Joseph White this past week. Among other things, it searches through the history of the Roman Catholic Church for circumstances like the Plague we currently face. One paragraph particularly struck me:
The first thing to be said about the suspension of public masses is that it is not innovative nor is there any evidence that it stems from undue influence of a secular mentality. In fact, there is clear evidence that in medieval and modern Europe, as well as in the U.S., this form of response on the part of the Church is a very traditional and time-tested one. St. Charles Borromeo has been mentioned much in these discussions. He closed the churches of Milan due to a plague in 1576–77. During this time, he arranged for masses to be elebrated outside and at street intersections so that people could watch from their windows. There wasn’t any question of distributing communion since it would have been rather unusual in this period for most people to receive regularly at mass. This lasted about two years...
Mass was suspended in Milan because of a plague for TWO YEARS. Clearly, St. Charles Borromeo believed that if the Church truly loves God and loves others, gatherings of the faithful could not happen in diocesan churches until the danger had passed.

White goes on:
There are many other medieval and early modern examples that could be cited, but much more recently, in 1918, the churches in many parts of the United States closed for public worship during the Spanish Flu. In New Orleans (hardly a Protestant city) the city ordered that churches had to close, which did prompt some outcry from Catholic pastors who said that this had not been done during earlier epidemics. They were in error.
Fortunately, unlike past generations of Christians, we have two blessings that can help the Church to (1) not become the means by which coronavirus is spread; (2) continue our mission of proclaiming the Word and being and making disciples (and, I believe, in sharing the Sacraments).

We have modern medicine, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists, and a track record by which medical professionals have produced vaccines that have destroyed diseases that, initially, were lethal.

We have the Internet. Via the Internet this week, my congregation will be able to worship and hear the Word of God (and share it with others), hold Catechism class for our middle schoolers, have our church council meeting, conduct Bible studies on John and 2 Peter, have gatherings of our small groups for prayer, the consideration of God's Word, and, in a phrase from one of our Lutheran tradition's confessional documents, "the mutual conversation and consolation of the saints," and host a channel composed entirely of bedtime stories read by members of the congregation for our children.

In a few weeks, lay representatives and pastors of the 60+ congregations of our Ohio Mission Region will gather in convocation, hear our bishop, and conduct business online.

Wouldn't I rather that we were able to worship and meet together in person? Of course, I would.

But if we are serious about following Jesus and living in His love, then the Church must be willing not to meet until we no longer will be testing God by doing so, until Jesus' great commandment to love God and love neighbor gives us leave to resume more normal activities.

I also think that while our church buildings are closed, we are seeing Christians reaching out to others in loving ways. Every day, I hear of people in our congregation checking on each other, checking on neighbors, and praying together on the phone and by other means. The blessing in this cursed time is a Church--laity and clergy alike--growing in their faith and sharing Christ with others as I haven't seen in thirty-five-plus years as a pastor and over forty years as a Christian!

The family of this Virginia pastor is in my prayers. I pray that God will comfort them.

And I pray that all churches will refrain from worship and all group activities until, by the grace of God and in answer to the prayers of the faithful, this scourge is forever destroyed!

Monday, April 13, 2020

Nothing Can Hinder God, the Saving One

This morning for my quiet time with God, I read the entry for April 13 from The One Year Chronological Bible. Today, that included 1 Samuel 13:23-14:52 and 1 Chronicles 8:1-9a.

I was struck by words, spoken by Jonathan, the son of Israel's first king, Saul. Jonathan said to his armor-bearer, "Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few." (1 Samuel 14:7)

The context of these words is that Israel's army, under King Saul's command, was faced by a Philistine outpost on the other side of a rocky pass rimmed by cliffs. The Philistines had been harrying God's people. Jonathan proposed to his armor-bearer that the two of them would cross over and enter the Philistine post themselves.

They agreed that they would let the Philistines see them crossing over. If the Philistines told them to stop, that they would come to Jonathan and his companion, the two would stop. But if the Philistines told them to come up to their outpost, they would go, knowing that God--Yahweh, the LORD--was giving their people victory.

Clearly, Jonathan and his armor-bearer had entered what we might call a prayer agreement or covenant with God; they asked God for a sign on how they should proceed and committed themselves to proceed on the basis of what God revealed to them. In the end, the Philistines did tell Jonathan and the armor-bearer to come up to their camp. From that point, God threw the Philistines into a confused panic that resulted in victory for God's people.

But that victory began with Jonathan's simple faith. "Nothing," he'd said, "can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few."

Before I start my quiet times with God, I always ask Him to show me the passage, among those appointed for the day, I need to read, focus on, or act on that day. This is the passage that struck me forcefully today. I underlined it immediately.

Then I asked God, "Why is this passage important for me today?"

The answer, I believe, has two parts.

First, in this grim time of a massive pandemic, on a day when China is reporting a deadly new outbreak and the United States is experiencing a massively disproportionate share of the total global cases and deaths from the coronavirus (the US is about 5% of the world's population, but has about 20% of all COVID19 cases and deaths), God was assuring me: Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving people's lives.

Obviously, this means that governments need to continue stay-at-home orders, mandate social distancing, provide hospitals and individuals with the tools needed (i.e., testing, tracking, ventilators, and eventually, a vaccine). It means that we can save other people's lives by refraining, to the greatest extent possible, from social contact, wearing masks, washing our hands well and frequently, and refraining from group meetings.

If we will use the wisdom our Lord has given to us through dedicated people who have spent lifetimes studying and understanding infectious diseases and epidemiology, nothing can hinder the Lord from saving lives that would otherwise be threatened.

Second, even now in the midst of the restrictions under which we must necessarily live, there is nothing hindering the Lord from saving people from eternal separation from God, nothing preventing us from using all the tools presently available to us (i.e., cell phones, social media, email) to share the good news--the Gospel--that all who repent and believe in Jesus Christ have eternal life with God.

You can do this in your everyday interactions with people, even if you never leave your house.

God can use our witness for the loving, redeeming, saving God we know in the crucified and risen Jesus to save people for life with God for all eternity.

All we have to do--"with gentleness and reverence" as we're told by the apostle Peter--is share what Jesus has done and is doing for us.

He is a living God and "nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or the few."

He can save whoever reads this from sin, death, futility, and hell. He can give you life, purpose, peace, and hope. He can give you a life with God that never ends. In the book of Revelation, John reports that the risen and ascended Jesus says, "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." (Revelation 3:20)

When the Holy Spirit gives us the faith to let Jesus in, He will enter our lives and save us from ourselves: all our darkness, fear, futility, and death. Jesus told his grieving friend Martha, "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." Then he asked her, "Do you believe this?" (John 11:25-26)

If we do believe this, if the Holy Spirit has led us to faith in Jesus Christ as we've received the Word about Jesus, we have the very life with God that Jesus told Martha about.

If we believe in this gospel, our call from God, whatever our jobs, is to share Jesus with others, so that they too can be saved from sin, death, and hell, saved for life with God.

God, this day, help me to trust that nothing can hinder You from saving, whether by many or by few. In Jesus' name. Amen

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

Easter Worship from Walburg

This the Easter Sunday worship service at St. Peter Lutheran Church in Walburg, Texas. The pastor is someone we know fairly well, my wife and I: our son, Pastor Philip Daniels.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

'Easter, 2020,' An Extraordinary New Poem from Malcolm Guite

Easter: Fear, Joy, and One Consoling Truth

Below is today's Easter Sunday online worship service from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Lower on the page is the manuscript for today's message. God bless you!

Matthew 28:1-10
For several years after I came to faith in Jesus Christ, the people of our home church had been telling me they thought God was calling me to be a pastor. Both Ann and I were resistant to the notion. 

Highly resistant. 

We were both deeply involved with our church. 

We both wanted to honor the God revealed in Jesus. 

But neither one of us saw me as a pastor, especially after I’d gotten a job that I thought would be a stepping stone to the political career I’d always wanted to pursue, working for the State House of Representatives in Columbus.

Eventually, though, the call of God to pastoral ministry became irresistible to me. 

I applied to seminary. On the day I was admitted, while retaining my full-time position, I took a part-time job in the office supplies department of a local Sears store. 

During my first night there, a woman purchased a file cabinet. As I rolled the cabinet with a two-wheel dolley to her car, she asked me about myself. I told her about my wife, my full-time job, my call to start seminary in a few months. 

After I’d loaded her car, she held out two-dollars to me. “Oh, ma’am,” I said. “We’re not allowed to take tips. This is just part of the job.” “I don’t care,” she told me. “You’re going to need every penny you can get and I want to support you in following God’s call.” 

I thanked her and rushed back through the sales floor where I worked into the stockroom. I was shaking, tears in my eyes. I felt as though God, through that woman, had reached out to me and said, “You didn’t imagine this call. It didn’t just come from the people with whom you go to church. It came from Me.” 

It was a moment of fear at the enormity, power, and reach of this living God we know in Jesus, a kind of terror in knowing that the Creator of the universe was intervening in my life. Who was I? How could I, a sinner, possibly survive being in the sight of God Almighty? 

It was also a moment of joy at the thought that this same God cares to reach us, love us, and affirm us even in retail parking lots and stockrooms. 

All I could think, as I excitedly paced amid the shelves of boxes, shaking, was to pray, “Thank You, Lord. Thank You. Thank You.”

In our gospel lesson for this Easter Sunday morning, Matthew’s stark yet theologically fraught account of Jesus’ resurrection, we’re told that after Mary Magdalene and another Mary left Jesus’ empty tomb, where an angel told them that Jesus was raised from the dead: “the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples…” (Matthew 28:8) 

Let’s be clear about why the women were afraid. 

They weren’t afraid of the things of this world. 

They weren’t afraid of men or nature.

They weren’t afraid of hostile soldiers or empires. 

Nor were they afraid of the ills of this world, like suffering, disease, plague, or death. 

They had seen first-hand just a few moments before that nothing--not men, soldiers, nature, disease, or death--can stand up before God. 

They were afraid of this good news, the Easter news, the greatness of God, and the privilege of being the first people to preach the Easter message to the world.

Matthew tells us that the women had gone to “look at the tomb” (Matthew 28:1). In the Greek in which Matthew originally wrote his gospel, the word he uses which is here translated as “to look,” is θεωρῆσαι (theoresai). It’s where we get our word, theory

When we’re confronted with tragedy, things we can’t comprehend, we want to have a theory of the case. 

That’s why some people ignore facts and are open to concocting or believing crazy conspiracy theories, as is happening today with the coronavirus pandemic. They want to make sense of an often senseless world. 

Grieved, their hopes that Jesus had been the Messiah, God the Son, seemingly dashed, the women go to the tomb to look, to theorize: Why did Jesus die? What will they do now? Jesus’ death makes no sense to them.

Then it happens. 

Verse 2: “There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: “He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.” Now I have told you.’” (Matthew 28:2-7) 

An earthquake, in this case, a convulsion of the cosmos as God intervenes to save the human race--to save you and me--from sin, from death, from futility, from separation from God--occurs on this first Easter Sunday just as one had occurred on Good Friday when Jesus drew the final breath of His earthly human life. 

On Good Friday, Matthew tells us, the earth shook, rocks split, and tombs broke open, allowing those who had trusted in the God Who had come into this world in Jesus, to walk free of death

When the earth quaked again on Easter Sunday morning, the women no longer needed a theory about why Jesus died

They knew why

Heaven revealed it to them, just as God reveals His truth to anyone humble enough and desperate enough to hear it

An angelic being, His appearance beaming with the brightness of God in His heaven, told them that Jesus was alive. 

He had died to save us. 

He died to be raised by the Father so that all who repent for their sin and trust in Jesus to save them, who become His disciples, will have the same resurrection victory gained by Jesus on the first Easter Sunday!

Jesus had earlier told the disciples that after He had died and risen, He would meet them back in Galilee. “After I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee,” He had told them. (Matthew 26:32) The angel now gives the two women at the tomb their mission; they are to go quickly and tell the eleven remaining apostles so that they could make their rendezvous with the resurrected Jesus. 

Without seeing the risen Jesus, the women believed that He had risen and they run off to do as the angel says, “afraid yet full of joy,” just as I felt in the office supplies stock room at Sears, just as I have felt countless times since: 
  • when I’ve heard God’s Word, 
  • when I’ve received the Sacrament, 
  • when I’ve sat with faithful fellow believers in prayer and fellowship. 
Anyone to whom God has brought the gift of faith in Jesus knows what it means to be in the presence of Jesus, the crucified and risen God, and to be both afraid and full of joy. 

You know that You’re not worthy of the sacrifice of love Jesus made for you on the cross. You know your sin. 

But You know that His death and His empty tomb testify that, no matter your sin, God thinks that you are of infinite worth and value

That’s why Jesus died and rose for you. 

You know that by God’s grace through faith in Jesus, You are right with God for all eternity!

Soon after encountering the angel at the tomb, the faith of the women in Jesus and His resurrection is rewarded. Jesus meets them. “Greetings!” He says and the women, clasp His feet, offering Jesus the worship He deserves as God

Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” (Matthew 28:10)

Friends, on this Easter Sunday, 2020, when our world is reeling under the weight of a lethal disease that threatens all of us, the resurrected Jesus speaks these same words and others to us now:
Do not be afraid. I am with you always until the end of the age. I am going ahead of you to a place I am preparing for you for all eternity. There you will see me. There, your fears will be forever erased and your faith in Me will be forever rewarded. Go tell the world and make disciples!” 

Easter blows away all puny human theories about God, life, and death and replaces them with one, powerful, consoling truth: “Jesus is risen; risen indeed!” 

That’s news of joy worth sharing! 

Amen and amen!

[See here for information on the icon shown above.]