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