Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Biggest Dare

When I have my morning quiet time with God, after I've confessed my sins and lifted up my prayer requests in Jesus' name, I add a prayer petition along the lines of, "Father, as I read Your Word today, show me the truth You want me to see and live out of today."

Then I read the appointed Bible verses, usually about four chapters each day, from whatever annual program for Bible-reading I happen to be using that year.

I've read the New Testament book of Acts many times since coming to faith in Christ forty-plus years ago. I've also taught and preached on it.

But I noticed a passage in Acts today that I can honestly say I don't remember ever noticing before. It so struck me that, as I sat reading it today, I said out loud, "How have I never seen that verse?"

The verse is Acts 5:13: "No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people."

Context is everything when considering passages of Scripture, of course. The context here is Luke's account of the early growth of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension back to heaven and after God's Holy Spirit was given to the Church at Pentecost. (Acts was written by a man named Luke, who also wrote one of the four gospels in the New Testament.)

In Acts 4, we read how the Church encountered opposition from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, but kept growing anyway, how, to give people a sign of Jesus' identity as God and Messiah, the Church was enabled to perform miracles in Jesus' name, and how, though not coerced to do so, some of its wealthy members sold property to see that the poorer of their fellowship had all that they needed.

At the beginning of chapter 5, Luke tells about a couple, members of the early Church--Ananias and Sapphira--who had sold a piece of their property. They told the rest of the Church they were giving ALL the proceeds from the sale to care for poorer Church members. But it's learned that in fact, they'd withheld some of the proceeds from the sale for themselves.

Now, Luke makes clear that (1) Ananias and Sapphira had been under no obligation to give anything to the Church and that (2) even after they sold the property, they were free to give just a portion of the proceeds to the Church.

But the couple wanted to be celebrated for their generosity. So, they lied. In very public ways, they stuck to their lie, died, and were unceremoniously buried. Acts 5:11 says: "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." I bet! The message was clear: Do what you want to do with your property and money but don't try lying to God about it.

The signs and wonders God performed through His Church continued and the first Christians, at least 5000 of them, all Jews at this point, met regularly at a place called Solomon's Colonnade (or Solomon's Porch), part of the temple complex.

Then, verse 13, that verse I never noticed before, crops up: "No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people."

It's a strange verse. Jesus, after all, gave (and still gives) God the Holy Spirit to baptized believers in Him. He does this to help Christians trust in Him and to help them as they share the good news of new and everlasting life through repentance and faith in Jesus with others. The early Christians were, we're told "highly regarded by the people."

But here we see the Church, reaching out to others, telling others about Jesus, and performing signs in Jesus' name. Yet, at this point, "no one else dared join them."

What is up with that?

I think there are several reasons.

First, back in Acts 4, Peter and John, two of Jesus' earliest followers, were pulled in for questioning by the religious authorities, then jailed overnight, threatened, and told never again to speak in Jesus' name again. Up to that point, the early Church had enjoyed official tolerance and public favor. After that though, it became more dangerous to confess faith in Jesus. It would be daunting, unless you had a loved one or friend in dire need of the healing Christians were performing in Jesus' name, when desperation, the sense that you had nothing to lose, would trump fear, to "join" the believers in worshiping Jesus.

A second reason is likely the report about Ananias and Sapphira. Their death for lying to God (Peter says they lied to God in Acts 5:4 and more specifically, to God the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:9), was as sure a sign of the Lordship of Jesus (God the Son) as the healings being done in His name. Through Jesus, people were hearing that God shared His righteousness with all who dare to turn from sin and trust their lives to Christ, saving believers in Christ from death and condemnation. But now they saw affirmed a truth that Randy Stonehill wrote about God three decades ago: "He understands the human heart / His mercy is complete / But His grace was not intended as a place to wipe your feet."

The God we know in Jesus Christ saves us by grace through faith in Jesus. When we come to Him through Jesus, He sets us free to do and be all that we can do and be. He stamps us with His gracious approval as His child.

But He is God, sovereign. He's not to be toyed with or taken for granted.

I think that people were wary of worshiping with the first Christians at Solomon's Colonnade at that moment in the narrative of Acts because they realized that the God the Christians were worshiping was more than a distant deity, more than a religious icon, or a cosmic rabbit's foot, or a genie delivering up their heart's desire. He is God: holy, absolute, righteous. 

They wanted blessings that, at best, would end at the grave; He was offering eternity. 

They wanted a God they could keep at arm's length; He insisted on getting in their grills and living inside them.

Acts 5:13 reminded me today, God isn't playing. If we want the life He's offering, He will give us Himself without stinting. He will be with us always and He will give us eternity.

But if we're not interested in daily surrendering to Him, having our priorities scrambled, submitting to daily change, being exposed to the constant possibility of rejection by a sin-driven world, or giving up on our favorite sins, we too might choose not to come too close to Jesus.

Drawing close to the God revealed in Jesus Christ can be very dangerous to our egos and our desire to control our own lives. I pray to God that I'll draw close to Him today and every day nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Weeknight Bible Study of Hebrews, Chapter 12:18-29

Luther Born This Day in 1483...and what it means to me

Martin Luther was born on this date in 1483.

Two years ago, I sat in the the monastery chapel at Erfurt where Luther, already a monk, and a person racked by insecurities about God and his salvation, was ordained as a priest. The incident is well-known. Luther was so overpowered by the sense of God's holiness and perfection in contrast to his own sin and imperfection that he nearly spilled Christ's blood at the altar.

Sitting there in the gathering darkness of the setting sun, as I remembered the journey to a true faith in Christ and His grace for sinners like Luther (and me and you) that began shortly after Luther's ordination. Luther was directed to become a theologian, a scholar of Scripture. It was while studying God's Word that he came to realize that God is gracious and merciful. God remembers that we are dust, as the Scriptures say, that we can never make ourselves good enough or righteous enough to warrant a place in God's everlasting kingdom. And so, because of His love for all of us, God the Father sent God the Son, Jesus, to offer His sinless life on a cross, taking the punishment for sin that we deserve. Then, the Father raised Jesus to life again.

In Jesus Christ, God has done everything necessary for sinners like me to be forgiven, reconciled to God, and, when the gift of faith in Christ takes root in me, able to believe in Jesus as "the way, the truth, and the life," the One through Whom even I can be covered with Jesus' righteousness. We are only saved from sin, death, and condemnation by the grace of God given to those who believe in Jesus Christ. And even faith in Christ itself is God's gift to us.

As I sat in that monastery two years ago. Luther's journey of faith in Christ had, in a very real sense, made my journey of faith possible. As a young man, I had been an atheist. I had no use for Christians or Church.

But in a Lutheran Christian congregation in Columbus, the good news of new and everlasting life through faith in Jesus truly reached me for the first time. Through the Word and the Sacraments I experienced there, the Holy Spirit wooed me to faith in Jesus.

Luther, the once-insecure monk and priest, had by the insight into God's Word gave to Him, unleashed Christ's good news (his Gospel) onto the world and, more than four-hundred years later, that Good News reached me.

And so today, I do more than bless the memory of Martin Luther. I thank God for him.

Without his faithful witness for Christ and the Reformation it unleashed, I might not today be reconciled to God, certain of my place in His kingdom, and wanting nothing more than for all my family and friends to know and trust in God the Son, Jesus, too.

[The sanctuary of the Erfurt monastery where Martin Luther was ordained.]

Monday, November 09, 2020

Weeknight Bible Study of Hebrews, Chapter 12:1-17

The Only Hope

Here's both the video of yesterday's online worship from Living Water Lutheran Church and the full transcript of the message, The Only Hope. God bless you this week with faith in Jesus.

A Christian acquaintance recounted a conversation he had online with an African friend this past week. The African friend, a devoted follower of Jesus, said, “I feel so sorry for the Church in America. I’m praying for your country.” To be clear, the African Christian was not going to pray because of some imagined persecution against American Christians. Instead, I think, she feels sorrow for the Church in North America for two reasons.

First, Christians in North America have largely forgotten how to hope.

It seems that many of our fellow Christians have fallen into a kind of despondency, something that Martin Luther scorns when he talks about Christians descending into “despair and other great and shameful sins.”

“The world is such a terrible place,” these hopeless Christians tell each other over private conversations and on social media. They then catalog all the ways in which “the world,” (not them, by the way) has gone wrong.

Folks, the world went wrong a long time ago, back in a garden where  Adam and Eve, fell into sin.

Moral decay and death have been the way of the world ever since.

It existed when, disgusted with the human race, God told Noah to build an ark in which He would save Noah’s family and the animal species of the world but destroy everyone else.

It existed when Jesus, God the Son, perfect and sinless, was rejected by the world for which He came to die and rise.

But the reality of sin, death, and evil, in us and around us, should never cause Christians to forget to hope.

We have hope: Jesus, Who tore open the wall between God and the human race with His sacrificial death, then blazed the trail into eternal life with God for all who both acknowledge that they are “in bondage to sin” and incapable of freeing ourselves, and live and die in the faith in Jesus that God the Holy Spirit builds in those who stand under God’s promises made and kept in Christ.

But the sorrow of that African Christian for we believers in North America probably has a second reason: We too often put our hope in the wrong things.

Those of our congregation who go to Haiti to serve alongside the Church there always return with tales of the joy in Christ and the joy in worship that they see in our Haitian sisters and brothers in Christ. They live in Christian hope despite living in the most poverty-stricken country in the Western Hemisphere. At a rational level, the prospects of their ever living in a country with the kinds of freedoms or opportunities most of us enjoy here are nonexistent to minimal. And from the perspective of this same rationality, the likelihood that they will ever have the kinds of health or life expectancies that we take for granted in North America and Europe is minuscule.

But the Haitian Christians have hope.

And it isn’t rooted in things, or stuff, or presidents, or politics.

In today’s second Bible lesson, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, the apostle Paul writes to the Christian churces in Thessalonica.

Thessalonica, to this day, is a port city of Greece that sets on the Aegean Sea.

Paul had once preached to the Christians there. But, by the time he writes this letter in about 55 AD, some time has passed.

Paul has received word through the young pastor Timothy, who is visiting him, how things are going with the Thessalonian Christians. He’s overjoyed with their faithfulness to Christ.

But Timothy also apparently brought Paul some disturbing news. Some of their number had died and the surviving members were overtaken with despondent grief.

Some scholars believe that this hopelessness was born of their belief that, since the world was so rotten with sin, Jesus’ return was imminent. But, they were sure that since Jesus hadn’t returned before their Christian friends and loved ones died, those friends and loved ones were lost for all eternity.

They’d been putting their hope in how they thought Jesus would do things, replacing the real hope that Jesus gives to those who believe in Him--life with Him by our sides in this world and perfect life with Him beyond the grave--with a false hope: the fantasy that Jesus would come back before being His disciple got harder, the fake hope that Jesus would make the world go the way they wanted it to go right now.

This is why--both compassionately and forcefully--Paul addresses the Thessalonians (and you and me) as he does in our lesson. “Brothers and sisters,” Paul says, “we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14)

Like others, Christians mourn the loss of friends and loved ones. Death is an offense to every human being. We know that God made us to live, not to die.

Yet the wages of sin is still death and all human beings born into the condition of sin remain susceptible to death and all the suffering that goes with it.

But, Paul says, we need not grieve the way those who have no hope grieve.

He then says why: “For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (1 Thessalonians 4:15-16)

When Jesus Christ returns to this world, on a timetable established by God the Father, it won’t be a secret. Heaven is going to throw a party on the earth the likes of which we can’t even imagine.

Then, Christ will raise from their graves all who have died believing in Him.

Jesus’ victory over death will belong to all who, by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, have confessed their faith in Jesus Christ: both the living and the formerly dead.

That’s a hope that is ours no matter what!

Then Paul says, “After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (1 Thessalonians 4:17)

Some people read these words too metaphorically, others too literally.

This verse doesn’t mean that Christians are going to fly off to heaven when Jesus comes back. That’s a false teaching that nobody in the history of Christianity ever thought or believed until the nineteenth century when a misinformed Bible teacher named C.I. Scofield propounded the theory.

Here’s what Paul means.

When God met Moses on Mount Sinai, God descended in a bright cloud that surrounded Moses in God’s glory.

When the people of Israel went through the wilderness, they were led by God Who came to them in the pillar of a cloud.

When Jesus was transfigured on the mountaintop, He, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John were enveloped in a cloud of God’s glory as God told the three disciples, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!”

And so, when Jesus returns, He will envelop His people in His glorious kingdom and they will live in the sinless atmosphere--the air--of His presence.

Our hope as disciples of Jesus Christ is that we who already belong to Him, will one day be enveloped by His perfect, glorious embrace.

Jesus will descend as He once ascended and finally and fully establish His kingdom of which all who confess His name are citizens.

We belong to Jesus forever, whether we live or die, and whatever is happening in this world.

So, when you hear your sisters and brothers in Christ caving into despair or putting their hope in the wrong gods--from politics to possessions, from being healthy to being wealthy, Saint Paul exhorts us, in verse 18, “encourage one another with these words.”

Friends, if you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and God, you have hope, whether you’re rejoicing or you’re grieving.

In Jesus, you have hope.

The only hope.


Sunday, November 08, 2020

An Update on Living Water's Mission Outreach Center

Living Water Lutheran Church of Centerville, Ohio, the congregation I'm privileged to serve as pastor, is building its Mission Outreach Center. The construction is happening even though, at present, we're unable to worship in our sanctuary still, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These videos were presented on Facebook to give members and others an update on the construction's progress. 

When I say that the new facility will be "enormous," I mean it in relationship to our current sanctuary/multipurpose area which, if everyone squishes together and doesn't breathe too much will allow 120 to be seated. (We generally have two services with an average weekly attendance of 150-170 for both services. At least that was the case before COVID-19.) The Mission Outreach Center will seat about 250 when arranged in tables and about 300 when arranged in rows.

Two videos were necessary because while broadcasting the first one on Facebook Live, I lost connection to the church's WiFi.

Anyway, I'm deeply thankful to God for His grace and provision and to the people of Living Water for their faithfulness to Christ and His Church!