Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Old Testament Book of Genesis, Part 2

Here's the second part of our new Facebook Live study of Genesis.

Saturday, July 24, 2021

The Dilemma That Isn't

[This is the message shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, during worship on July 18. You'll also find the video of the worship service from that day.]

A dilemma, one dictionary says, is “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives…” 

We all deal with dilemmas. 

Often I find, my personal dilemmas are driven by my sinful human nature. Like when confronted with a choice between the good I can do and the wrong I would rather do. 

A guy stands at the base of a freeway offramp and I see him. In a flash, I hear Jesus saying, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30) In the same flash, I find myself arguing with Jesus, “But, Lord, I’ve seen this guy here before. Why doesn’t he get a job?” And I sense Jesus telling me, “See previous statement, Mark. Don’t make a dilemma out of something that isn’t a dilemma. What part of ‘Give to everyone who asks you’ don’t you understand?” When the light turns green as I drift toward the intersection of ramp and road, I breathe a sigh of relief. 

I nearly forget about the dilemma-that-wasn’t-a-real-dilemma until I later pray and realize I have something for which I need to repent. I feel like Paul in Romans: “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19) This I keep on doing.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 6:30-44, the apostles--Jesus’ sent ones--return from a missionary journey on which Jesus had sent them. They are exhilarated. The apostles had preached and taught the good news that, in Jesus, God’s kingdom had broken into the world and that, in response, God was calling people to repent and believe in the good news about the One Who had come to die for our sins and rise to give us life with God, Jesus. People had responded to the Gospel message presented by the apostles.Through them, people believed in Jesus. The apostles had also cured diseases and cast out demons in Jesus’ name. But now, exhilarated or not, the apostles were also exhausted. So, Jesus invites them to come with Him to a quiet place so that He can fill them again with the blessings of His Word. This, of course, is what Jesus invites us to do through weekly worship, the Sacraments, and reading and studying His Word. To all who have made the wrong choices when given the chance to do the right all born into sin and unable to free themselves (that includes all of us) all worn out from life, Jesus says what He effectively says to the apostles at the start of our Gospel lesson, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…” (Matthew 11:28)

But if the apostles thought that Jesus was inviting them to sit around a campfire with ‘smores so that they could brag about everything they’d done in Jesus’ name, they would quickly learn otherwise. Jesus, in fact, was going to present them with a dilemma. A crowd, anxious to hear Jesus’ teaching, had actually beaten Jesus and the disciples to a the quiet place they’d gone to on a fishing boat. The apostles may have been disappointed. But, Mark says that Jesus looked on the crowds and “had compassion on them.” (Mark 6:34) The root word for the one translated here as “had compassion” is σπλαγχνίζομαι. It means that Jesus looked on the crowds with a gut-deep sense of love and responsibility for them. 

The people were flailing under the abuse of self-serving would-be shepherds. 

People like Herod, who had just killed John the Baptist. 

Like Pilate, who crucified anyone he didn’t like. 

Like the religious leaders, who were more interested in influencing society than they were in sharing God’s life-giving Word with people. 

Jesus looked on the crowd the same way that He looks at you and me: sinners in need of forgiveness and grace, children who are born wandering far from God and from the life that only God can give. 

So, what does Jesus do? 

He teaches them. He probably points out that humanity is fallen and far from God and life, but that He has come to bring God near, to save all who turn to Him from sin, death, and darkness, to give new and everlasting life to all who daily take up their crosses and follow Him (Luke 9:23). He likely teaches what He has been teaching since the outset of His ministry: “The time has come...The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

Jesus has spent hours feeding the crowd and the apostles on His saving good news, His gospel. Eventually, the apostles suggest that Jesus send the crowd away so that they can buy food for themselves. But Jesus confronts them with a dilemma, “You give them something to eat.” (Mark 6:37) The apostles, so recently intent on telling Jesus everything they had done, say that can’t be done. “That would take more than half a year’s wages!” (Mark 6:37) 

Isn’t it amazing that whenever Jesus tells us to do something, we can find reasons for not doing it? 

“We don’t have enough,” the apostles say. 

We say similar things, “We don’t have the time. We don’t have the words. We don’t have the expertise.” At Living Water, we might say, “We don’t have enough people”...even though we’re larger than 75% of the churches in the United States!

Jesus will never hold you accountable for what you don’t have or can’t do. 

And it’s good for us to know our limitations, what we can’t do. 

But the God we know in Jesus can do anything! In our lesson, He takes five loaves of bread and two fish and makes it a feast for five thousand men, meaning that with the women and children who were with them, Jesus feeds between twelve- and eighteen thousand people. “Without Me,” Jesus says in John 15:5, “you can do nothing.” But consider what Jesus can do in and through helpless people: He can make the unrighteous clean. He can make the fallen sinner whole. He can answer prayers in His name, as we can testify here in this prayerful congregation. And in Holy Baptism, Jesus had made you a saint; through you, He can feed the hungry, provide for the poor, and, most importantly of all, give the saving good news that all who believe in Him have everlasting life with God, to all people.

After Jesus feeds the throng, the apostles gather up leftovers: “twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.” (Mark 6:43) 

A woman asked me once, “How could Jesus forgive me?” She asked as though the God we meet in Jesus couldn’t possibly have enough grace to go around for her. 

A man, cognizant of his own limitations but anxious to do God’s will asked me, “How could Jesus use me to share His Gospel with others?” 

When Jesus fed the 5000, there were leftovers, folks! Jesus can meet you in the wilderness and shower you with His love, forgiveness, and power. He can forgive your sins. He can give you eternal life. He can empower you to share Him and His good news with the world.

Most of the spiritual dilemmas that we face in life aren’t really dilemmas at all. They’re just instances of us arguing with Jesus. 

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asks in our lesson. 

“What have you got?” Jesus asks us. 

We answer, “Just me, Lord. That’s all I’ve got: just a sinful, finite, selfish, human being.” 

And Jesus says, “That’s funny. You’re exactly who I’m looking for. YOU are exactly the person to whom I want to give My grace and forgiveness, My peace and My life. You’re the person to whom I want to give rest in Me, respite from a world that’s constantly telling you to do better, be more. I receive you as you are and, as you follow Me, shape you into the person God made you to be. You’re the one for whom I died and rose. You’re the one to whom I’ve given the Holy Spirit in Holy Baptism. You’re the one to whom I have given My saving Word. You’re the very person to whom I give forgiveness of sin every time you hear the words, ‘Given and shed for you.’ And you are the person, forgiven and made new and clean in My grace, that I unleash as My agent in the world. All these blessings and more than you can imagine are Yours for the taking!” 

So, friends, take them. Amen  

The God Who Deserves Our Praise

[Here is the text of the message presented during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on July 11, 2021. Below it, you'll find a video of the entire service. I hope you find this helpful.]

Ephesians 1:3-14
Recently, during my quiet time with God, as I considered God’s incredible grace toward me, despite my sins, I was compelled to stop as I read the Bible to praise God. 

My words were inadequate and tumbled from my mind in an incoherent jumble. At that moment, I needed to praise and thank God for Who He has shown Himself to be in the crucified and risen Jesus. I needed to thank and praise God for Christ’s death on the cross, for His empty tomb, and for the way God the Holy Spirit daily comes to me in His Word, makes me part of His Kingdom, forgives my sin, gives me the gift of faith, and fills my life with purpose and hope.

I bet that most of you know what I’m talking about. There are those moments when God’s grace, love, and salvation, given in Christ, so overwhelm you that all you can do is praise Him!

Our second lesson for today comes to us from the New Testament book of Ephesians. It’s a letter written by the apostle Paul to be circulated among the Christians in the ancient city of Ephesus in about 60 AD. Paul wrote it to remind the church that would read it during worship of the spiritual blessings all who belong to Jesus enjoy (more on what spiritual blessings are in a moment) and of the unity that believers have because all alike have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.

Paul wrote this letter while being imprisoned for his faith in Christ. This makes the passage before us today, Ephesians 1:3-14, all the more remarkable. That’s because these twelve verses, which are part of one single sentence in the Greek in which Paul originally composed them, are what we might call a doxological effusion

A doxology, of course, is a word of praise to God. The word is a compound from the New Testament Greek made up of doxos, meaning glory, and the suffix logos, meaning word or a word about. As Paul begins this letter, he praises God three times over for the blessings God has showered on His people. I pray that this message today will be a kind of doxology empowering and encouraging us to praise God along with Paul.

Paul’s first expression of praise for God comes in verses 3 to 6a of our verse. Paul says: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace…”

It’s likely that as we read this section of the lesson, three words or phrases jump out at us. The first two are heavenly realms and spiritual blessing. Don’t get wifty here, folks. Paul is no New Age guru. In this entire passage, Paul isn’t talking about God taking people into some tingly nirvana of feel-goods. Paul is talking about how God took on human flesh and entered into our lives to set us free from sin, death, and darkness. To be blessed in “the heavenly realms,” Paul literally says in “the heavenlies” doesn’t mean that God is going to bless us someday in a mirky spiritual realm. It means that the God Who wasn’t afraid to get His uniform dirty, taking our sin and dirt and filth onto His clean and righteous shoulders at the cross, makes us part of His eternal kingdom, making all baptized believers His own dear children, even now.  

We might also notice in these opening verses two similar words, chose and predestined. A lot of mischief has been done with these words by so-called theologians who replace God’s revealed Word with their own imperfect thoughts. These mischief-makers teach that God had picked winners and losers, those who would be saved and those who would be damned, before any of us were even created. But Christ would not have commissioned the Church to share His Gospel and make disciples if God had already decided who would be saved. What Paul is saying here is that before the world began, He chose and predestined all who respond to His Word as it calls us to repentance and faith in the God ultimately revealed in Jesus to be saved. Paul is overwhelmed by the fact that, through Christ and our faith in Christ, God makes sinners who would otherwise be lost and damned for all eternity, “holy and blameless in His sight.”

In verses 6 to 12, Paul praises God for lavishing His grace--His charity, His forgiveness--on us through the revelation of Christ. There are people who believe that human beings can think or act their way into a life with God. “If I do the right thing, say the right thing, think the right thing,” they reason, “God will let me into His kingdom.” Folks, this thinking is straight from hell and can only lead to hell. The Bible teaches and experience should show us that we can’t do enough good, say enough good, or think enough good to make ourselves right with God. Instead, Jesus, God the Son, acting according to the plan of God, dies and rises for us so that all who repent and believe in Him have everlasting life with God. If our rightness, our righteousness, in the sight of God, depended on us in the least, we would be eternally lost. Our hope is in Christ alone!

Finally, Paul praises God the Holy Spirit for the miracle of faith. “When you believed,” he tells the Ephesian Christians (and you and me), “you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13-14) Do you know how hard, how impossible, it is for human beings to believe or trust in anyone or anything beyond themselves? Psychologists like Erick Erickson have told us that the first stage in human psychosocial development is negotiating the battle within us between trust and mistrust. In some ways, we never get past it. From Adam and Eve, we have inherited an intrinsic mistrust in others, especially a mistrust in a God Who loves us despite our sins and flaws, Who gives us love now and life beyond the grim reality of death. We would rather put our trust in ourselves and the things we think we can control. Yet the Holy Spirit comes to us in God’s Word, spoken and shared by God’s people, the Church, and, pointing to Christ’s death and resurrection, woos people into believing that we can entrust Christ with our past, our present, and our eternal future. Miraculous, world-defying, death-destroying faith in Christ that God gives to us--saving faith--is a reason for praising God now and always!

Even in shackles, Paul could praise God for choosing to make people His own through what Jesus has done for the whole human race; for God’s undeserved grace for sinners; and for the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith in Jesus Christ that makes sinners the saved saints of God. May we, as we encounter God in His Word, His Church, and the Sacraments, also be compelled each day to praise God for these blessings and the millions more He showers on us. Amen

Monday, July 12, 2021

The Love That Conquers All!

[This message was shared during the funeral service for a disciple of Jesus who was a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Romans 8:31-35, 37-39
Nearly one year ago, Ruth Olson lost her earthly life to cancer. I don’t need to remind any of you of what deeply committed disciples of Jesus both she and Bob have been. 

Ruth’s trust in Jesus was remarkable. She loved Christ. She also loved Christ’s Church. Even as she faced death, Ruth faithfully prayed and cared, as she was able, for her family, the Church, and for others.

There are some who might look at Ruth’s faith in Christ and, particularly in the wake of her passing, see it as delusional. 

But Ruth, like all Christians who confess an informed faith in Jesus, was among the least delusional people of all. 

Disciples of Jesus face facts the world wants to forget. 

The world, for example, may want to forget that all, including Christians, sin (Romans 3:23), but Christians don’t; as Christians, we forthrightly confess that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” 

The world may try to deny that death comes to all of us because we were born into the condition of sin, an inborn alienation from God and the life that only God can give; but Christians confess that “sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned…” (Romans 5:12) 

The world too may want to deny that the wages of sin is death. (Romans 6:23) But for followers of Jesus, facts are facts and denial is the way of everlasting separation from God. 

Death also comes to disciples of Jesus, to people made righteous, right with God, by the gracious gift of faith in Christ that God pours into them through the Gospel given in Word and Sacrament.

Death is a hard reality; it can even cause grief-stricken disciples to tell Jesus, as Martha did near the burial site of her brother Lazarus in our Gospel readings, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:21) 

But there is a deeper truth than our sin and death. 

There is a greater reality that has the power to veto and reverse the dominion of sin, death, and darkness into which the human race is born. 

That greater reality, that deeper truth is the love of God given to the whole universe through Jesus Christ. 

It is through His love that God makes once-condemned sinners righteous, fit for eternity, and able to face suffering, life, and death with faith, able to live in the certainty that all who trust in Jesus have eternal life with God. As Jesus assures us, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Our second Bible lesson for today, Romans 8:31-35, 37-39, chosen by Ruth, comes from the New Testament book of Romans, a letter written to the Christian church in Rome in about 55 AD. 

These verses form the capstone of a section of Romans that deals with the supreme power of God’s love given in Christ. It begins in chapter 5, where Paul says: “...God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit,” Who gives witness to Jesus and His Gospel and because of this powerful love, our hope in Christ is never disappointed, even in the face of death. (Romans 5:5) 

Throughout the chapters of this section of his letter, Paul celebrates what God gives to those who believe in Jesus: peace with God, life in Christ, freedom from the condemnation of the Law, the capacity to live in the Spirit, that is, to live each day in utter reliance on Christ alone. 

This is the deeper reality--the certainty of God’s grace and love for us--in which God empowers believers in Jesus to live. 

God loves you desperately despite your sin and sets all who believe in Christ free from the power of sin and death.

In our lesson, Paul poses and answers seven questions. 

The first introduces all the others: “What, then, shall we say in response to these things?” (Romans 8:31) 

What, in other words, are we to say in the face of the reality of Jesus dying to take our punishment for sin and His resurrection to open up an eternal relationship with God to all who repent and believe in Him? What can we say in the face of a love so vast, so never-ending? 

Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension are better attested by more witnesses closer to the events to which they give witness than is true of any other ancient figure or event. 

More importantly, two-thousand years of Church History affirm that beginning with people like the once-impulsive, hot-headed Peter and the murderous, religiously fanatical Saul (who became Paul), the crucified, risen, living Jesus, transforms the lives of those who trust in Him and His righteousness rather than themselves or their self-righteousness. Jesus Christ gives those who follow Him peace and hope beyond all human understanding.

Paul goes on to ask two questions in quick succession: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32) 

You see, the cross of Jesus isn’t just the death of death for all who trust in Jesus, it’s proof that God intends to give those made righteous through faith the very inheritance that once belonged to Jesus alone, all the life and joy His kingdom can offer. He gives us an honored place in His house! 

When God gave the apostle John a glimpse of eternity beyond death, John heard the four angels surrounding God sing to Jesus about the inheritance He shares with all of His disciples, His saints: “You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:10)

Paul then asks, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:33) 

God has chosen to give His perfect righteousness to those who turn to Christ. The Law shows us to be guilty, but Jesus acquits us. God’s promise stands for all eternity: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved!” (Romans 10:17)

Next question: “Who then is the one who condemns?” (Romans 8:34) 

Who, Paul asks, has the power to condemn Ruth or any of the saints who face God covered in Jesus’ righteousness? Nobody, Paul says, because “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Even as we draw our last, labored earthly breaths, no one can condemn those covered in Jesus’ righteousness!

Then comes Paul’s sixth and seventh questions. 

You know that, in the Bible, God’s Word, seven is the perfect number, the number of completion and wholeness to God’s activity. 

On the seventh day, God declared the Creation “very good.” 

In the book of Revelation, when Jesus, the Lamb of God, opens the seventh seal, the angels are unleashed to bring the curtain down on the life of this universe so that Jesus can return in glory to give everlasting life in the new heaven and the new earth to His people. 

Paul asks: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” (Romans 8:35) We might ask, “Shall cancer, or grief, or sorrow, or adversity?” 

No, Paul says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37) 

There you see it again, the love of God. Not our love for God. Not sentimental, Hallmark card love. But God’s tough, resilient, devoted, death-destroying love for us poured into us from the cross and the empty tomb and even today, through the Holy Spirit, from the very throne room of God--this love makes disciples of Jesus “more than conquerors.” 

Our sin and our death have been vanquished by Jesus and believers in Him live in a hope of which we cannot be robbed, the very hope in which Ruth lived her life and faced her death.

This is why Ruth chose these words from Scripture for you today. She didn’t want to point to herself. She wanted to point to the Lord Who, by His charity, His grace justifies all who trust in Him. 

She wanted you to know the deepest truth and the greatest reality of which Paul seems to almost sing at the end of this passage from Romans: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

In the days and years ahead, however long or short, may God’s Word fill us with faith in Christ so that we too will live each day in the certainty that nothing...NOTHING can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen

Monday, July 05, 2021

Willing to Believe?

[Here's yesterday's message from worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Below the text is the YouTube video from the second worship service. Have a good week. God bless you!]

Mark 6:1-13
By the time of the events recorded in today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 6:1-13, the gospel writer Mark tells us that Jesus has already created a stir by announcing that in His appearance, the kingdom of God has invaded the world and that, in response, people need to repent and believe in Him.

Jesus has already undergirded the legitimacy of His apparent claim to be Messiah and God-in-the-flesh by performing notable miracles.

Now, disciples in tow, Jesus comes to His hometown of Nazareth.

I’m convinced that Jesus did this quite deliberately. We’ll see why in a moment.

Once in Nazareth, Jesus goes to the synagogue. It was the custom then to ask visitors or members of the synagogue who had been away for a time to speak on the reading from the Torah for that day. So, Jesus was bound to be asked to teach. It’s likely that Jesus’ disciples went to the synagogue anticipating that Messiah-come-home would receive a hero’s welcome. They would soon be disabused of such ideas.

Mark tells us that while listening to Jesus, the hometown crowd was “astonished,” the word Mark uses in the original Greek meaning they were shocked, at a loss to explain Jesus’ words, wisdom, or miracles.

Their astonishment doesn’t spring from faith or pride though. The Nazarenes are appalled by what they see as Jesus’ presumption.

Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son…?” Mark says, “...they took offense at Him.” (Mark 6:3)

Two scorpions in a bottle with an open top would rather sting each other to death than help each other escape. As human beings, let’s face it, we’re not much different from the scorpions: Our sinful natures resent it when others are higher than us, especially when those others are people we think we know, even when that other we think we know is God Himself.

Jesus had already revealed Himself to be God and Messiah by the time He returns to Nazareth in today’s lesson. But the Nazarenes refuse to believe in Jesus or the gospel of new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in Him He brings. As a consequence, Jesus, Who has been performing miraculous signs right and left everywhere He went “...could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them…” (Mark 6:5)

Faith, of course, is a gift from God. It comes to us when, through the Word spoken, read, or explained to us or given to us in Holy Baptism or Holy Communion, is used by the Holy Spirit to create belief in Jesus within us. As we’re told in Romans 10:17: “ comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” You can’t manufacture or talk yourself into faith in Jesus. Faith isn’t derived from feelings or thoughts.

The question is whether we’re willing to receive the gift of faith or not?

Are we?

God’s Word tells us that Baptism saves us, because when the water covers our heads, we participate in both Jesus’ death and His resurrection. Baptism, the apostle Peter writes, “now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (1 Peter 3:21) And Baptism, the apostle Paul says, causes us to be “buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:4) Are you willing to trust in the salvation that God’s Word says you already have?

God’s Word tells us that we can only confess that Jesus is Lord by the power of the Holy Spirit: “no one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit,” 1 Corinthians 12:3 says. Are you willing to believe that the 

Holy Spirit is working in your life and empowering you with faith?

Jesus, the Word of God, says to His followers in reference to the signs of the Kingdom He opens to all who believe in Him, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12) Are you willing to trust in that promise?

Jesus commissions all of us who bear His name to go and make disciples, teaching them to observe all that He commanded them, then getting them baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, promising that as we faithfully pursue this mission He will be with us “always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20) Are you willing to take Jesus at His Word?

Friends, I can tell you with certainty, if we are willing to believe God’s Word in Jesus Christ, we will believe.

I can say with equal certainty, that if we aren’t willing to believe, we won’t.

The gift of faith is there for us to be received one day at a time. Jesus says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves [meaning, deny your skepticism, deny your addiction to sin, deny your need to be in control or to know how everything’s going to turn out] and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Are we willing to believe in Jesus?

Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes weren’t willing to believe. Nor did they have a faith in Jesus that would cause them to share Christ and His Gospel with others. To see this must have been stunning for the disciples to see.

Listen: It’s possible for people to receive the Gospel, whether through the Word or the Sacraments, and for people still not to believe.

If you carry the Gospel to others, they may refuse to believe in the only Savior Who can give them eternity with God. As Jesus is about to send the disciples out in pairs to share His message and do His signs, this is what Jesus wants the disciples to know. If you follow Jesus and, from a place of love, you share Him with others, expect to be rejected. Expect it. If you are faithful, you will have your good news spurned, even by those closest to you.

This is why Jesus tells the Twelve as He sends them out, “if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:12) Disciples should expect to be rejected for their faith in Jesus just as Jesus Himself was rejected.

But, as disciples of Jesus, we need not be discouraged.

Instead, we need to pursue our faith-sharing mission with urgency. The reason for the urgency is simple. When the people we know die, they will have no more chance to repent and believe in Jesus.

Jesus Himself makes this point in His parable of Lazarus and the rich man. After each of them die--the rich man who paid no heed to God or neighbor and Lazarus, the poor beggar, who trusted in God despite his suffering, the rich man goes to hell and Lazarus is safe in eternity in the bosom of Abraham.

The rich man begs first, that Abraham will send Lazarus to bring him relief from the condemnation he chose in rejecting God. Then he asks that Abraham will send Lazarus to preach repentance and faith to his brothers.

But Abraham says that can’t happen; beyond the gates of death, there is a fixed chasm between the living and the damned that can no longer be crossed. God alone can close the gap between Himself and those of us born into sin and separation from Him. He did that in Jesus.

And Jesus sends those of us willing to believe that Jesus is God-come-to-us to people who will die under condemnation if someone doesn’t take the risk of sharing Jesus with them! “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

Are we willing to believe in Jesus?

Are we willing to share that belief in Jesus?

God has already done everything necessary for us to have such faith and to live with such belief.

Our call is to get out of God’s way so that we can believe and we can share Christ with the world.

A few days ago, our son posted on Facebook, “God gave me the opportunity to share my faith with someone today. Please pray that the Spirit guides and enlightens both proclaimer and recipient of the Gospel.” Philip doesn’t know what God will do with the Word about Jesus he planted in the life of that spiritually-disconnected person. And Philip will be the first to tell you he doesn’t have all of life together and that there are times he’s probably had the opportunity to share the Gospel and he hasn’t. (I know that’s true of me as well.) But, quite honestly, when I read that post, I was proud of his willingness to trust in Jesus and share Jesus’ Gospel with someone.

Friends, God is only looking for people willing to believe in Jesus; He will do the rest.

May God daily work such willingness in us. Amen

Friday, June 25, 2021

Three Petitions for Worship This Sunday

Here are three petitions we'll be including the Prayers of the Church during morning worship at Living Water Lutheran Church this coming Sunday, June 27. Feel free to make the prayers your own.

Gracious, almighty God, You have dominion over all things. We thank You that You hear our prayers offered in Jesus’ name. Above all, we thank You that through the crucified and risen Jesus, You have done all necessary both to save us from sin and death and to make us Your holy people. In all circumstances, help us to take refuge and hope in Christ alone. Let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Gracious Lord, the world with its worldly thoughts, ideologies, and prescriptions crowds around us, making it difficult for us to see the Truth only revealed in Jesus, the Way, Truth, and the Life. Forgive us for the ways we allow the devil, the world, and our own sinful natures to lead us to bitterness, suspicion, envy, or the ancient human desire to be You. Forgive us too for sometimes thinking that Your Church is something that we must control rather than seeing it for what it is, the body of Christ, Your eternal people, to which, as disciples of Jesus, we are all mutually accountable. Fill us with Your Holy Spirit so that in all we say, do, think, and pray, we seek to honor Christ alone. Let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Lord of the nations, we lift up to You for guidance and encouragement all the leaders of the world and of this country that we might lead peaceful lives. Protect those in military service from danger, harn, and temptations. Let us pray to the Lord.

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

The New Testament Book of Galatians, Part 8

This study somehow was cut off before we were done tonight. We'll look forward to picking things back up when we resume on Facebook Live next Tuesday evening at 9:00 PM Eastern Time. God bless you.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Letting Go of Our Anxieties

Below, you'll find both a video from yesterday's 11:00 AM worship service at Living Water Lutheran Church and a text of the message presented during the service. Have a great and blessed week!

Mark 4:26-34

They never have been. 

In the mid-and late-first-century Church, we know, Christians were anxious because the world was getting so bad. All the signs of Jesus’ return had already happened. Yet Jesus hadn’t returned. What was the hold-up? How much worse did things have to get before the risen and ascended Jesus came back to the earth and welcomed His people into the Kingdom of God? Some believers were beginning to doubt that Jesus would ever return or that Jesus really was the Savior or that He could give anybody eternal life. These anxieties became such an issue that sometime before 67 AD, about three to four decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the apostle Peter felt compelled to write to the Christians of Asia Minor: “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)

It may have been because He anticipated the onset of anxieties among Christians that Jesus told the two parables we find in today’s Gospel lesson, Mark 4:26-34. 

Parables, of course, are stories or illustrations that have a deeper meaning wrapped into the narrative. When Jesus told parables to unbelievers, they either whetted or lost the unbelievers’ interest. When believers hear them, they challenge us to consider their meaning for our daily lives, our faith, and our salvation. Generally speaking, in His parables, Jesus describes the Kingdom or the reign of God that He initiated through His earthly ministry.

The first parable Jesus tells in today’s lesson is the parable of the growing seed. 

In it, Jesus says that the kingdom is like small seeds scattered in a lot of soil. The man in Jesus’ parable has just one job: to scatter the seed. Everything else is done by the seed itself. The man sleeps, but without any effort on his part, the seed grows, first sprouting and then enlarging into a huge harvest.

In this parable, the seeds are the Word of God. When the Word of God--the Gospel Word about new and everlasting life for all who repent and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus--when that Word is scattered in the soil of human hearts, minds, and wills through the Word shared, taught, preached, and given in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, there is a harvest. The seed won't grow in every person who receives it. But there will be a harvest. The harvest is disciples, people who, by the power of the Holy Spirit, receive the gift of faith in Jesus and have life with God. Faith in Jesus makes people part of the harvest, part of the Kingdom of God.

This first parable addresses one enormous source of anxiety among some Christians. 

In it, Jesus says that our job as the Church and as disciples isn’t to produce crowds. 

Nor is it to congratulate ourselves when our churches grow numerically or to wring our hands and ask what’s wrong when our churches remain the same or decline in numbers. 

Our job is to keep sharing the Gospel, to keep scattering the seed. 

That seed doesn’t come from us; it comes from God. 

The seed won’t grow into a large crop by our efforts; the growth comes from God alone. 

As Jesus says elsewhere, “I will build My Church” (Matthew 6:18).

Last month, I was talking with a pastoral colleague who serves a congregation in a small town in another state. His church’s facilities were ample enough to provide for social distancing midway through the worst of the pandemic and reopened in January. “We lost three or four families,” he told me. “Why?” I asked. “They were upset that we were reopening.” The loss of those families triggered the anxiety of some of his church’s members. “What are we going to do, pastor?” they asked him. His answer was very wise: “Keep spreading the Gospel!”

That’s our job as Christ’s Church. We scatter the seed and trust God to do the rest, no matter what the apparent results

The task of every Christian is the same as that given by the apostle Paul to the young pastor Timothy back in the first century: “Preach the word [meaning, of course, spread the Gospel]; be prepared in season and out of season...” (2 Timothy 4:2) 

I have known megachurches that had a handful of disciples of Jesus on their membership rolls. 

And I have known tiny country congregations that gathered twenty people for worship on Sunday mornings and every one of those twenty people was faithful disciples of Jesus. 

Jesus wants to banish our anxiety in this parable by telling us, “I died and rose for you. That's an accomplished fact. I sit at the right hand of the Father to hear your prayers and be your Advocate. That's an accomplished fact. I sent the Holy Spirit to empower you in spreading the Word. The Holy Spirit created that Word and the Holy Spirit will work in people’s lives through that Word to create faith. All you have to do is share it. Don’t wring your hands or feel anxious. Share the Word. Period.”

The second parable Jesus tells today, the parable of the mustard seed, assures us that just as a mustard seed is tiny and becomes a great bush that accommodates birds looking for places to nest and sing, the Kingdom of God may look tiny, vulnerable, and overmatched by the sin, death, and darkness of this world and our common enemy, the devil. 

But as the Gospel is shared with the world and people hear the good news of a God Who is for them, died and rose for them, and is with them always in this world and, in ultimate perfection, in eternity, many people will take refuge in Jesus. They’ll hear Jesus’ invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened…” (Matthew 11:28) and they’ll find rest, peace, hope, and joy in Him.

One of the biggest anxieties you hear among Christians these days is, “The world is going so badly and nobody wants to be in Church. What’s going to happen?” 

These laments ignore the fact that, when counting the numbers of conversions, Christianity is the fastest-growing religion in the world. 

But they also miss the point. Our call, as Mother Theresa used to say, isn’t to be successful--as the world counts success, but to be faithful. 

Do I want the Church to grow by leaps and bounds? If the “leaps and bounds” is composed of people who are seeking to follow Jesus, yes. Absolutely yes! But if people want the church to be a business enterprise and the biggest show in town, I am definitely not interested. 

I’m certain that Jesus isn’t either. 

In His time on earth, through a traveling ministry that included miracles and raising people from the dead, Jesus had, at most, five hundred followers. 

What were 500 people compared to the world Jesus was sent to save? 

Some people would say it’s a drop in the bucket. Jesus didn’t see things that way. 

Instead, He pursued His mission and trusted God the Father and God the Holy Spirit to take it from there. 

Our call is to let go of our anxieties, all of which are ultimately expressions of our desires to be in control and to be like God, and instead, trust in Jesus, to follow Him and spread His Word, trusting Him to expand His kingdom. 

Even here. 

Even now.