Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The Old Testament Book of Genesis, Part 3

We continued our Facebook Live study of Genesis tonight, delving into chapter 2. I hope you find it helpful. God bless you!

Monday, August 09, 2021

Bread for the Journey

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, on Sunday, August 8, 2021.]

1 Kings 19:1-8
Our first Bible lesson for today comes to us from 1 Kings 19:1-8. The books of 1 and 2 Kings trace the story of God’s dealings with His largely faithless people, ancient Israel, from the reign of King Solomon, the son of David and Israel’s third king through the disintegration of God’s people into two nations--Israel or Samaria in the north and Judah in the south, and finally the destruction of both kingdoms as independent nation states.

Throughout these years, there was a handful of kings who sought to lead God’s people to repentance and faith in God, only to be replaced by kings who engaged in idolatry, injustice, and the mixing of worship of false deities. In these same years, God sent prophets who spoke the Word of God to His people in both the South and the North. They were largely ignored or murdered. Isaiah records that the people to whom he tried to give God’s truth responded, “Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions.” (Isaiah 30:10) They only wanted to hear messages that told them how wonderful and right they were.

Our lesson from 1 Kings involves the greatest prophet in Biblical history, Elijah, a person described by Israel’s idolatrous king Ahab as the “troubler of Israel.” (1 Kings 18:17) As we join the narrative, God has just used Elijah to bring a thunderous confirmation of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness in a contest between Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal, the Canaanite fertility deities favored by King Ahab’s wife Jezebel and countenanced by the king. All the false prophets of Baal had been killed.

In the wake of this victory of God, Elijah might have been ecstatic with joy. And he was for a while. He bowed in thankfulness to God, pronouncing that now God was sending rain to the thirsty land. For a prophet who had faithfully declared God’s call to God’s people to stop limping along as they tried leaning on different gods, this was vindication.

But Queen Jezebel was unbowed. After Ahab tells her of all the dead prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel and how the Baals had failed to produce rain but God did, she sends a messenger to Elijah. She will ask all the baals to kill her, she says, if, by the next day, Elijah isn’t a dead man. Now Elijah might have sent the messenger back to Jezebel to tell her, “You’re bluffing. If you think you can get away with killing me right now, you wouldn’t have sent a messenger, but an assassin.”

That’s not what Elijah does. Instead, he became “afraid and ran for his life.” (1 Kings 19:3) He ran a distance of more than seventy miles, from Mount Carmel in the north to Beersheba, a place at the southern edge of Judah, way outside of the land ruled by Ahab. He should have felt safe. Instead, he goes out into the desert and finds a broom tree. There, Elijah asks God to kill him off, “I have had enough, Lord.” And then, referring to his ancient Israelite forebears, dead and gone, tells God, “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” (1 Kings 19:4)

What on earth is going on with Elijah? Many students of the Bible think it was this: While being pressed hard by Ahab and Jezebel in the run-up to the contest at Mount Carmel, Elijah had been desperate enough and dependent enough on God to pray about everything. But when the victory came, Elijah was lulled into thinking that all would be well, that Ahab and Jezebel would be chastened and repent, turning to God. He thought that his faith rather than the God in Whom he reposed his faith, had on the day! The most dangerous time for us a Christians comes when God answers our prayers with a yes and we begin to think our blessings came not from God, but from our own effort or virtue. That’s the moment when the devil, the world, and our sinful selves snap the trap. When we face an insurmountable problem with the false notion that life depends not on what God does for us, but what we do for ourselves, we are in trouble. So, when Jezebel threatened Elijah, now thinking that everything depended on him, he ran.

Life had become too much for Elijah. Have you been there? Have you ever been in such a tight spot that you couldn’t see a way out? Elijah was so despondent that he asked God to take his life. When you think about it, this is one of the funniest places in all the Bible as we read further along in 1 Kings. God’s answer to Elijah’s prayer was, “No.” Elijah is one of two people in the Old Testament who, we’re told, never died, but were simply taken to heaven with God. Elijah’s story reminds us that “No” is one of the answers God may give to our prayers. 

But there’s a more important point to be garnered from our lesson. After falling asleep under that broom tree, Elijah is touched by an angel who tells him to, “Get up and eat.” At first, we don’t know who this angel is. But then we’re told in verse 7: “The angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’” In the Old Testament, the term angel of the Lord is used as another name for the Lord, Yahweh. God came to Elijah to tell him feed on His Word and His grace because the journey that lay ahead of him was more than Elijah could possibly handle on his own.

Life in this world can be hard. Especially when you think they don’t need or can’t count on God. But we do need God.

We need God, first of all, because, like Elijah, we are sinners bent toward forgetting God, thinking that we ourselves are gods. We put unnecessary pressure on ourselves when we fail to, in the words of the old hymn, “take it to the Lord in prayer.” We need God’s forgiveness.

We need God also because we are mortals bound for eternal separation from God apart from receiving Jesus, the “bread of life” Who offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin and rose from the dead to lead us out of darkness into the light of life with God.

We need God too, because the journey of this life is just too hard to bear without the God we meet in Jesus Christ. Tom Grabeman spoke for many when, before his mother’s funeral on Friday, he asked, “How do people who don’t have faith in God cope?” Through the years of having been with people of faith and with people of no faith as they or their loved ones died, I can tell you there is a qualitative difference between those who feed on Jesus, the bread of life, in their lives’ journeys and those who go hungry and without God. I agree with the lines of an old Bruce Cockburn song: “You can take the wisdom of this world / And give it to the ones who think it all ends here.”

Friends, the journey of this life, the journey toward that day when we meet God face to face is too much for us to do on our own. We need the bread of life, Jesus, found in God’s Word of Scripture and in Holy Baptism and in the bread and wine of Holy Communion, Jesus’ body and blood. We need all that God gives us in Jesus Christ: forgiveness, grace, love, hope, and peace. Today, God tells you again, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.” When we are weak enough and desperate enough to hear those words with repentance and faith, then we have the strength to hope and thrive and love no matter what our circumstances. Amen

A Place for Us

[This was shared during the funeral for Lilah, the mother of a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Saturday, August 7, 2021.]

John 14:1-6
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” I didn’t know Lilah. But in talking about her with Jeff and Dan, I know that she was deeply loved by her family. So, I understand what a tough time this is for all of you. The bonds of love among you is strong.

Lilah and the rest of you have been through a very tough period recently, especially with the sudden death of Karen, less than two years ago. So, for just a few moments, I want to share with you the comfort that God has for us all through the Savior Jesus.

A few moments ago, Dan read a passage from the Gospel of John, John, chapter 14, verses 1 to 6. These verses are part of a long section of John in which Jesus prepares His followers--the first disciples--for His crucifixion and also, though their doubts and fears kept them from hearing it, His resurrection. In the passage we just heard, Jesus is bringing comfort to the disciples. They know that if He goes to Jerusalem on this particular Holy Week, He will run into opposition and Jesus is telling them that it will be even worse than that: He’s going to be betrayed, mocked, and killed. The bonds of love between Jesus and the disciples are such that this was all too much for them to hear.

So, Jesus tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me.” Jesus is telling them that if they have faith in God, as they claim, they should also believe in Him. That’s because Jesus is God the Son. From miracles in which He walked on water the way the Old Testament said that God trampled on the waves; fed thousands with just a few fish and pieces of bread; healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead, the disciples should have known that Jesus, just like the God their people had known for centuries, had power over life, death, sin, and darkness. But if they hadn’t believed the signs Jesus performed, they should have believed, because Jesus was always trustworthy, His Words about Himself. Like when He said, “I and the Father are one…” (John 10:30) Or, when He claimed the name of God by which God identified Himself to Moses in the Old Testament--Yahweh or I AM, as He did when He told His own people, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) The disciples are too caught up in how the world usually operates and, at the moment, too caught up in their own grief, to trust in Jesus’ promise of resurrection beyond death, victory beyond defeat, forgiveness beyond guilt.

And so, Jesus patiently continues, telling them that He was going to prepare a place for them in God’s kingdom so that, despite the grief they were about to experience, they could be with Jesus wherever He was. He promises that after He has died and risen and gone to sit at the right hand of the Father, He will come back to all who have ever believed in Him and usher them into the place He has reserved for them.

Friends, through His death and resurrection, Jesus has prepared a place for you. The suffering and death of this world need not have the last word over the lives of those willing to turn from sin, the Bible’s word for our inborn selfishness and alienation from God, and turn instead to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new and everlasting life.

And then Jesus says something that baffles the disciples, something that may baffle people in the world today as they face its griefs and challenges. “You know the way to the place where I am going.” (John 14:4)

Folks, let me assure you that you and I want to go to the place where Jesus was going and where He now is. Wherever Jesus is not, there’s chaos, the disintegration of our lives and relationships, eternal sorrow, and death. Wherever Jesus is, there is peace and wholeness and joy and life. We want to be the same place Jesus is.

And Jesus makes clear the way to that place.

Some people think they’re going get to the eternal place Jesus has prepared for them even if they’ve spurned Jesus or refuse to trust in Him. But Jesus doesn’t force any of us into relationship with Him. As Jesus told a man named Nicodemus, “...God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:17-18)

Other people think they’ll get to the place that Jesus has prepared for them by being good people or by doing good things. This is what most people in the world call “righteousness.” “He must be in heaven with God,” people often say, “because he was such a good guy.” But the Bible tells us that “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6) That’s because there isn’t a good deed we do as human beings that isn’t tinged by our sin condition. There’s always a part of us that thinks, “What a good person I am for doing this.” If we’re honest, we all, like King David are bound to confess, “I was sinful at birth.” (Psalm 51:5) If righteousness--rightness with God, with others, and with ourselves--was a bank account, at birth you and I would start out infinitely in the red, incapable of earning enough credit through our good works to climb our way into eternity.

Instead, God reaches down to us to save us from ourselves, our sin, and our death. As Jesus says at the end of our lesson from John: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)

Friends, this is good news! There is nothing we can do and there is nothing we must do to earn the place that Jesus has prepared for us in God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus, Who died as the perfect sacrifice for our sin and rose from the dead as confirmation of His power as God over sin, death, and darkness, is the way, the only way, to the place that Jesus has prepared for us.

Saint Paul, in the New Testament says we are justified, that is declared innocent of the sin into which we were born, by God’s grace, God’s charity, through faith in Jesus Christ. And not even our faith is something we have to manufacture, work at, or talk ourselves into. The Bible says that faith in Jesus comes through hearing the Good News, the Gospel of Jesus, and that this faith is a gift from God. Our call is to receive it.  As Jesus says in the most famed passage of Scripture, “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) The crucified and risen Jesus is the Way to the place He has prepared for us!

Jeff told his mother while she was under hospice care that when she came face to face with God, she could tell God, “Jesus died for my sins and I believe in Him.” That’s God’s truth! Jesus died for Lilah’s sins. He died for your sins (and mine) too. Jesus died and rose to give life with God to all who trust in Him.

So today, friends, turn to Jesus, the Way, the truth, and the life, trusting that He has erased the power of sin, death, disease, futility, and darkness over you; that He will one day raise all His people from the grave to live with Him; and that His cross and empty tomb show us that His promises can be believed. Jesus has a place prepared for all who can say, “Jesus died for my sins and I believe in Him!”

Grief is a hard reality in this life. That’s true even for believers in Jesus. When death and grief come to those who believe in Jesus, death still separates us from one another during our time in this place. And it would be unnatural not to grieve the loss of people we love.

Yet, as the apostle Paul says in the New Testament, for believers in Jesus, we don’t “grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13) Believers in Jesus have hope in the midst of our grief. “It’s true that I’m sad and I miss my loved one!” they can say. “But I know that Jesus has conquered the grave and my loved one believed in Jesus. So I have hope!” Today, I urge you to cling to that hope: Cling to Jesus! He will comfort you with His promises!

Jesus says that all who endure in trusting in Him--believing in Him--will live in the place He has prepared for us forever, the place where He and all who have believed in Him will live eternally. Those of enduring faith will one day hear Jesus say, “Enter into the joy of your master…” (Matthew 25:21, ESV).

God bless and comfort you all. Amen


"Because I know and love Jesus"

[This message was shared at the funeral for Laura, a member of the congregation I formerly served in the Cincinnati area, this past Friday, August 6.]

John 14:1-4
Dave, Jane, Pat, Amber: Our hearts and prayers are with all of you. There are no words that can make sense of Laura’s passing or of the hard five-years that preceded it. Laura was a vital and ebullient person--even when she was a girl. She had a big heart, a fun spirit, tremendous empathy, and great potential. Already, she had received statewide recognition for her work as a school psychologist. Laura leaves a hole in many hearts. And, even when we remember that we live in a broken world in which suffering and death come even to the most faith-filled people, none of us can make sense of her passing.

But I can point you to what, or more accurately, Who, Laura held onto as she faced her own passing. In a text to her best friend, Katie, she wrote: “So the docs came in and will be stopping treatment. They anticipate me to have passed in three weeks. We are not going to be sad. This will be fine because I know and love Jesus.”

Some may wonder how Laura could have loved Jesus after she’d been through so much and as she faced death. One reason may be that she knew how Jesus loved her even before she was born. The New Testament says, “​​This is love: not that we loved God, but that [God] loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

I suspect Laura also knew that the God we know in Jesus understands and sympathizes with us in our suffering. He doesn’t stand aloof from our suffering; He enters into it. Jesus wept at the tomb of His friend Lazraus. And as He Himself faced death, Jesus asked the Father not to force Him to go to the cross, yet surrendered to whatever the Father willed for Him.

But there was another reason, I’m sure, that Laura could say she loved Jesus as she faced death. In the passage we read a few moments ago from the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing His first disciples for what was to come in Jerusalem after the first Palm Sunday. He would be arrested, suffer, be executed on a cross, die at a young age--scholars think Jesus was aged between 28 and 33 when He was crucified, and rise again. But despite being people of faith who believed that God could raise the dead, the disciples are inconsolable.

Seeing their turmoil and grief, Jesus tells them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am...”

What was Jesus telling the disciples? What is he telling the brokenhearted here today?

That this broken world, with its suffering, shadows and death, is not our final destination. Jesus has a place prepared for all who trust in Jesus, who know and love Him. One day, at a time appointed by the Father, Jesus will return to this world and give places to His people in His Father’s house. And while Laura may have been a bit unfair to expect that her family wouldn’t be sad, there can be no doubt that she knew that Jesus had a place for her. (He has a place for you too!)

At the end of this passage from John, Jesus tells the disciples, “You know the way to the place where I am going.” But in response to this, Thomas told Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” Sometimes, even people who are close to Jesus don’t get Him. But Jesus replies: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Back when I was a young believer in my twenties, coming out of the fog of ten years of atheism, I sometimes found it hard to believe, to trust in Jesus. There was a lot of suffering in the world and so many people died far too young. I remember when a high school classmate of ours died in a tragic accident. Death seemed so final. When these thoughts assaulted me, I felt guilty, questioning whether I believed in Christ at all.

But I came to realize that troubling doubts about God’s goodness, love, or promises aren’t the opposite of faith in Jesus. Doubts assail us as long as we live in this imperfect world. I take comfort from the fact that Jesus answered the prayer of the man who told Jesus, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” (Mark 9:24)

And anger with God isn’t the opposite of faith in Jesus either. Job, one of the notable saints in the Bible, who lost his ten children, his health, and his property, got angry with God. You only get angry with a God you believe is there.

Sorrow isn’t the opposite of faith in Jesus either. Because we were created “with eternity in our hearts,” we know that death isn’t supposed to be part of the lives of human beings created “in the image of God.” It’s only right that, along with Jesus, we should rage at death, especially when it visits a young person who loved and was loved so much!

The Bible teaches in many different places that, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In the days, months, and even years ahead, there may be moments when doubt, anger, or grief cloud your capacity to believe. But the saints who occupy the house of God in eternity aren’t those who are perfect. The house of God that Laura now occupies belongs to those who keep calling on Jesus, the Lord we can know and love because He loved us first, because He understands and empathizes with our every grief, because He is with us always, because He forgives our sins and makes us new, and because He has conquered sin and death for all who repent and believe in Him.

Many of us learned this promise from Jesus when we were young: “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) When, in the fellowship of believers, we receive God’s Word in the Scriptures or in God’s Word embodied for us in the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, God gives us the gift of faith. Sometimes it’s a faith that finds us only able to grunt or groan our words of anguish or cries for help or an explanation. But God, through His Word and the fellowship of believers who gather around that Word, gives us faith in Christ. And through the faith-building message about Jesus’ death and resurrection for us, we learn that we can keep calling on Jesus’ name and be given the power to trust in Jesus even when we face death, grief, or emptiness. Jesus can give us peace beyond all understanding and hope for eternity. We can trust that nothing in all creation, not even death, can separate us from the love of God given to us in Jesus. (Romans 8:31-39)

May God comfort and encourage you all to trust in Jesus so that one day, not only will you see Jesus face to face, you will enjoy an eternal homecoming in the place Jesus has prepared for you. And you can be sure that Laura, who knew and loved Jesus, will be there to welcome you. Amen


Facing Crucibles

[This message was shared during the funeral for Jo, a member of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Friday, August 6.]

1 Peter 1:3-9
Today, I want to talk with you about hope in the midst of grief, joy in the midst of sorrow, peace in the midst of chaos, and, most importantly, life beyond the cross.

Jo was a remarkable person. She deeply loved and was deeply loved by her family. She was one of the most cheerful people I ever knew, quick with a smile and a friendly comment. (She was one of the few people I knew who always smiled when she received Holy Communion, signaling her understanding of the joyful things we receive with Christ’s body and blood: His presence, His forgiveness, His life!) Jo also loved having a good time. She would have been very much at home had she been with Jesus at the wedding at Cana. Jo was also tough. Even after she had gone on oxygen, she would drive to worship on Sunday mornings because, she told me, she could go without oxygen for an hour in order to worship God.

Of course, all of these qualities--love, cheerfulness, toughness, and faith in Jesus Christ were seen in what was undoubtedly the most difficult period of her life, after the death of her husband in 1974. She went to work as a teller at a bank, provided for her family, and, in short order, became chief loan officer. Imagine the pluck and fortitude that required: a grief-stricken widow with some of her family still under her roof, not only getting a job, but working herself into a demanding position that required not just a cheerful attitude, but a mind for details and the willingness to sometimes tell movers-and-shakers, “No.”

Where did all these qualities come from? How did Jo emerge so whole and, honestly, remarkable after undergoing the ordeals she faced?

We talk, you know, about people enduring crucibles. A crucible, in the first place, was a metal or ceramic container in which things like metals are subjected to intense heat or melted, purged of impurities, and formed into something new. It’s related to the Latin word for a cross, crucis, from which we get our words crucify and crucifixion.

 That’s why a second meaning of the word crucible, according to the
Oxford Dictionary, is “a situation of severe trial, or in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.”

As Christians, we believe that Jesus bore the cross for us to make us new. After all, Jesus was sinless and had no impurities of which He needed to be purged. But Jesus stepped up to the cross so that He could purge us--you and me--of our impurity--our sin--and make us fit for eternal life with God. “While we were still sinners,” Paul writes in Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.”

The fact is that we all go through crucibles of one kind or another. We’re all subject to the sudden changes and cataclysms that life in this fallen world can bring. And, as some have heard me say before, the ratio of births to deaths for human beings is still 1:1.(1) But while some people melt under the heat of life’s crucibles, others emerge stronger, renewed, full of new life.

There’s a reason for that. In our second lesson for this morning, the apostle Peter, a man who knew something about life’s crucibles, wrote to encourage the Christians in first-century Asia Minor who were enduring some crucibles of their own. Today, many scholars think that Peter wanted  to encourage Christians who, either because of the dismissiveness of their unbelieving communities or the simple challenges of remaining faithful to Christ in this world, were teetering on giving up on following Christ. Peter encourages them to shift their focus from what they were going through and instead, focus on the One they were going to. “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he says, because in “his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you…” In the meantime, as believers in Jesus go through their own crucibles, even death, and look ahead to the resurrection life God gives to all who believe in Christ, they can be assured that they “are shielded [guarded] by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” By grace through faith in Jesus Christ, Jo knew that she was guarded by God’s power until the day she saw Jesus face to face. Because of Jesus, Jo knew that she had hope in the midst of grief, joy in the midst of sorrow, peace in the midst of chaos, and life beyond the cross. Jesus is why she didn’t melt or crumble under her crucible. Through Christ, the same can be said of you.

Later in our lesson, Peter talks about what happens when people endure the crucibles of this life clinging to the crucified and risen Jesus. He says that because of Christ, we can rejoice, even if in this life, we may have to suffer various trials. And then: “These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”

When you reflect on the widow found by her son on her knees in her room praying as she faced her crucible, don’t you see where all Jo’s joy, peace, toughness, and love came from? It came from the same place you can go this morning for the strength and peace she had. You can go to the God Who told Nicodemus, “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.”

Today, as you continue to process a grief that will be with you in some ways your whole life, turn to Jesus Christ. He underwent the crucible of bearing our sin, shame, and death, so that, as we turn to Him daily in repentance and with faith in Him, we, like Jo, will be given the power to live each day in hope and to one day face God covered in Christ’s righteousness, fit for eternity with God, and hear Jesus say as I’m sure He is saying of Jo, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” God bless you all. Amen (1) According to Scripture, two human beings did not die but were simply taken up to heaven at the ends of their lives: Enoch and Elijah.