Monday, September 13, 2021


Earlier today on Twitter, Lutheran layperson Steve Martin (not the comedian) quoted Paul's words in Romans 5:6: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly."

Then, Steve writes, "If you happen to be ungodly then He died for you."

I had to respond, "That would be me: ungodly by nature, saved by grace through Spirit-given faith in Christ."

When, as an atheist, I observed the way the God we meet in Jesus was not just real, but also living and active in the lives of ordinary people in what was then my wife's home church, I was moved.

When I realized that He died and rose and was still calling and reaching out in love to someone like me who was so ungodly as to reject His very existence, I was overwhelmed.

I thank God that Christ died for the ungodly. That's the only reason I have hope in the midst of this world and hope for the world to come.


Below you'll find two things. First, video of yesterday's modern worship service with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio. Then, below that, the text of yesterday's message. Have a good week. God bless you!

Mark 9:14-29
From time to time, news outlets report the stories of pastors or church members who die from snake bites incurred during their congregations’  worship services. Typical is an incident reported seven-and-a-half years ago from Middlesboro, Kentucky and the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus’ Name. Pastor Jamie Coots handled a rattlesnake during worship when he was bitten by the snake. He refused treatment at the church and went home. By the time he and his wife got to their house, he was unconscious. But when an EMS arrived, the pastor’s wife signed a form refusing medical treatment for her husband. Within an hour, Pastor Coots was dead.

Why would anyone go out of their way to handle a rattlesnake? People like Pastor Coots would point to Mark 16:17-18, where Jesus says of His followers: “In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18) Of course, the takeaway from these promises by Jesus is not that we're to go our of our way to prove we have faith and or that we must do them in order to have faith, but that God will provide signs of His power over sin, death, and darkness in those with faith in Jesus Christ.

Jesus doesn’t say that your need to handle snakes, drink poison, stand in the middle of traffic, leave your seat belt unfastened and text while you drive, climb onto a motorcycle without a helmet, or adhere the religious laws that the Pharisees were always chastising Jesus for ignoring to prove you have faith. People may fool themselves or fool others into thinking that such behaviors prove that they have faith; but God is never fooled! 

When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the devil took Him to the highest point of the temple in Jerusalem, about 150 feet above the ground below. Remember how the devil tried to use Old Testament Scripture to try to convince Jesus to prove His faith in God the Father? “‘If you are the Son of God, [the devil] said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written [and it is, in Psalm 91:11-12]: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands,  so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” (Matthew 4:6) The devil’s message to Jesus was that if Jesus really believed in the Father and if Jesus really was God the Son, He would throw Himself to the ground, sure that the Father would suspend the law of gravity and spare Him death on impact. Jesus’ response reminds us that no matter how large or small our faith in God, stupid is still stupid and faith is not deliberately enlisting in games of chicken with reality. Jesus replied, ““It is also written [and it is, in Deuteronomy 6:16]: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7)

As our Gospel lesson for today, Mark 9:14-29, begins, Jesus is returning with Peter, James, and John, from the mountain on which Jesus was transfigured while Moses and Elijah appeared to talk with Jesus and God the Father told the three disciples, “This is My beloved Son; listen to Him.” (Mark 9:7) At the base of the mountain, the disciples are squabbling with teachers of the Law. The squabbling is presumably over the fact that when a man brings his demon-possessed son to Jesus and meets only Jesus’ other nine apostles, the apostles say they can’t help the boy. Undoubtedly, the teachers of the Law, always looking for a way to make Jesus out to be a false teacher, jump on this and an argument ensues.

The fact that this situation has arisen at all is a bit surprising. Just a few chapters earlier in Mark’s gospel, we read that the Twelve were sent by Jesus two-by-two on mission journeys in which they “drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” (Mark 6:13) Yet, in our gospel lesson today, the nine apostles who had been on the flatlands while Jesus and the other three were in the heights, told the desperate father of a demon-possessed boy, “Sorry. There’s nothing we can do for you.”

What gives? Just this, I think. The disciples had been sent on their earlier mission by Jesus, empowered by Jesus to bring the good news and signs of His dominion over sin and death. But they’d derived the wrong message from their experiences. They developed not faith in Jesus, but faith in themselves. They’d come to assume that if they were good people or knew about Jesus or said the right words and went through the right motions--in other words, if they complied with certain religious rules--they could handle anything life brought their way. In other words, their faith was in their faith and not in Jesus. No wonder Jesus says, “You unbelieving generation, long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you?” (Mark 9:19)

Jesus then calms the chaos and turns His attention to the boy and his father. “If you can do anything,” the father says to Jesus, “take pity on us and help us.” (Mark 9:22) Jesus sees his tentative faith. “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” These words of Jesus are often misconstrued. Jesus isn’t telling us we need to have a positive attitude. Or that we must have a monster, never-a-doubt faith. Nor does Jesus mean that we will necessarily get everything we want when we pray. Jesus Himself would later pray in the Garden of Gethsemane that somehow His work of saving us could be accomplished without His having to go to the cross and die. But He also tells the Father, “Not my will, but Your will be done.” Listen, friends: God hears our prayers offered in Jesus’ name when our faith is weak and when it’s strong. When we’re helpless enough to own our need of God, casting aside all thoughts of of placing faith in our faith or our virtues or our goodness, turning in desperation to Christ alone, our prayers have power. Self-confidence in faith or prayer is an oxymoron. Only prayer and faith that put their trust in Jesus, however weak our trust may be, is worthy of even being called “faith” or “prayer.” That’s why what the father says to Jesus next in our lesson is so powerful: “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23-24) Now, that translation isn’t the best. More literally, he prays to Jesus: “I believe; rescue me despite my unbelief.” “I believe; rescue me despite my unbelief.”

Folks, let me tell you something you may have heard before: We are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone! Don’t let anyone tell you what you have to do to gain salvation or make sure God hears your prayers. Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, has already done everything necessary for you to be saved from sin and death and to be a child whose prayers are offered to heaven in Jesus’ name. Baptized believers know that’s true! Faith is not a human decision, but a gift from God given to us through the Word and the Sacraments. We are not rescued from sin and death, nor are our prayers heard by God, because of our religious works or by our playing chicken with death like the snake-handler churches or doing some other religious ritual. Our prayers are not heard by God because we have a self-confident faith in our faith. We are daily called to be like the desperate man in today’s Gospel lesson, turning to Jesus in trust, whatever the deficiencies of our faith, and knowing that, since we cannot save ourselves, we need Jesus to save us: from sin, death, darkness, and ourselves. In these days, I can’t think of a more apt or necessary or truthful prayer that we could offer than the one one offered by the father today, the prayer Jesus heard and answered, “I believe; rescue me despite my unbelief.” You can be sure that the Savior Jesus Who has already died and risen for you, will hear such prayers and answer them. Amen