Thursday, March 31, 2022

Ruth and Jonah (Midweek Lenten Worship, Part 4)

[Below, you'll find the live stream video of the midweek Lenten worship service of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio for March 30 and the prepared message for the service. I hope God blesses you through His Word here.]

Jonah 2-3
Tonight, two themes will take our attention: the sign of Jonah and God’s call to a life of change.

Jonah is the only Old Testament prophet to whom Jesus compares Himself. Jesus was and is both God and human. Jesus is sinless. Jonah, by contrast, was a sinful man. When God called Jonah to rise and speak God’s Word to the Ninevites in the kingdom of Assyria, he ran in the opposite direction. When God the Father sent Jesus to die for our sins, Jesus was “obedient to death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:8) It would be hard to find an Old Testament prophet less like Jesus than Jonah. Yet when a Pharisee asks Jesus to show a sign of His deity, Jesus says, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:39-40)

What is “the sign of the prophet Jonah” exactly? Jesus’ resurrection is one part of the sign of Jonah. But so is death. Jonah prays to God in tonight’s lesson: “From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help…” (Jonah 2:2) In the belly of the fish, Jonah was at first, as good as dead, with no reason to think he could survive such an ordeal. And, Jonah was as good as dead because he had sinned against God. “The wages of sin is death.”

Like Jonah, Jesus has died for sin. The difference is that while Jonah would symbolically die before symbolically rising from the belly of the fish for his own sin, Jesus would actually die before actually rising from the dead for our sin. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 says of Jesus: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God has gone to the lengths of enduring death itself to reach us with His forgiving love. Do you want to see what God is like and how much He loves you? Look at His death, when like Jonah, buried in the depths of the sea, God the Son lay dead in a tomb for your sin. This is the sign of Jonah that Jesus gives to us.

In our reading from Jonah tonight, we see that God didn’t give up on Jonah or on the people of Nineveh. He wanted to call them to repentance and faith in Him. In the belly of the fish, Jonah repents for his rebellion against God and “​​the Lord commanded the fish, and it vomited Jonah onto dry land.” (Jonah 2:10) God delivers Jonah from death for a reason. Jesus has also delivered you and me from sin, death, and eternal separation from God for a reason. 1 Peter tells baptized believers in Christ: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” Those are blessed things to be; but then Peter tells us why God, through Christ, makes us a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession.” It’s this: “...that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:10) Faith shared, grows; faith unshared is stuck in perpetual immaturity, likely as not to die. God saved Jonah from death in the deep not just to save Jonah, but also so that Jonah could take life with God to others. In Christ, God has saved you and me to do the very same thing in our world and in our time, not as an obligation, but as a joyous privilege.

And so, saved from death in the deep, Jonah becomes the only prophet in the Old Testament that God calls (or has to call) twice. God once more tells Jonah: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2) God doesn’t say, “All right, Jonah, go to Nineveh and get it right this time.” When God forgives our sins, it’s as if they never happened. Forgiving Jonah, God again sends the prophet on his mission to the Ninevites.

Over the course of several days, Jonah delivers God’s message to the Ninevites: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” (Jonah 3:4.) The original Hebrew in which Jonah is written literally says, “Forty days yet and Nineveh shall be neh·pā·ḵeṯ.” That last word can be translated as overturned. But it can also be rendered as changed. God’s message to the Ninevites was, “In forty days, CHANGE is coming!” This isn’t much different from our message as Christians to the world, “When Jesus comes back, things are going to change. We can be on the right side of that change with Jesus or we can be on the wrong side of the change against Jesus.”

The Word of God that comes to the Ninevites through Jonah is both Law and Promise. The Law says, “God condemns your sin and without repentance, you won’t like the changes coming.” The Promise, like the Gospel that comes us through Jesus, tells the Ninevites, “When you repent and believe in God, there will be a change in your relationship with God. And when you believe in God, He will set out to change you to be more like Him.”

In ancient Israel’s history, God had sent prophets to His own people, the Jews, and their calls for repentance and faith were often rejected, the prophets killed. But: “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.” (Jonah 4:5) Later, the king himself will repent and believe in God and say, “Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (Jonah 3:5)

The trusting attitude of the Ninevites is remarkable! They repent and believe in God. They accept that God is entitled to bring any changes to their lives He wants.

Change, in fact, is the essence of the life of faith in God. When we live in daily repentance and renewal, we accept that God is likely going to make changes in our daily lives. He’s going to call us to do things we don’t want to do, to change the ways we think about other people. We will either curse the changes that God brings to us, as Jonah did when God wanted him to change from being a prophet just to his own people and to reach out in love to people he hated as well, or we will embrace God and trust Him through all the changes that He calls us to make in our lives. Friends of ours had a negative view of people who came to America from other countries. But when God called them to help their local church teach English to immigrants who spoke Spanish and Arabic, they didn’t run in the other direction like Jonah. They embraced the call God placed on their lives. It meant changes in their lives. Big changes. But it has also brought them the joy that always belongs to those who are open to the changes God wants to bring to our lives. How is God calling you to change your life tonight?

The Ninevites trusted in God. “When God saw what [the Ninevites] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened,” Jonah 3:10 tells us. God loves to destroy our old sinful ways of thinking and living and forgive us, then sets us free to live out the lives He is daily changing, to face the new callings He sets before us each day.

While the repentance, faith, and life of God-driven change we see in the Ninevites inspire us, Jonah presents a different story. More on that as we conclude our series next week.

Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Searching Father and His Two Lost Sons

[Below you'll find both the live stream video of today's 11:00 AM worship service, the "modern" service, from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, and the text of today's message.]

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke 15:11-32, Jesus tells what’s usually called the parable of the prodigal son. But, really, the parable isn’t about either the younger or the older son. It’s about the father, who loves both sons. It’s about the God we meet in Jesus Christ, Who loves all people.

Just before telling this parable, Jesus tells two shorter ones. The first is about a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine of his sheep to go find the lost one-hundredths one, then throws a party when the lost sheep is found. “I tell you…” Jesus says, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” The second parable Jesus tells is about a widow who loses one of her ten coins, sets about searching for it, and, on finding it, throws a party. “I tell you,” Jesus concludes that parable, “there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

In each of these parables, something gets lost and in each, the person charged with the stewardship of what is lost doesn’t rest until they’ve found the lost things. Notice too, that in these two parables, the shepherd and the widow stand in for God, and the lost things stand for those who have become separated from God. Jesus, God the Son, once described His mission by saying He came “to seek and save the lost.” (Luke 19:10)

But here’s the other thing I want you to notice about these two parables. Jesus says that both stories are about repentance. But neither the sheep nor the coin do anything to get found. Repentance then isn’t something you and I do. Repentance is what God does to us when His Word comes to us, whether through the words of Scripture or through the sacraments. God’s Word comes to us as Law, telling us that we are sinners who deserve death and cannot save ourselves from that fate. God’s Word comes to us as Gospel, telling us that Jesus Christ died for us and grants forgiveness and eternity to all who believe in Him. We might more accurately call the parable in today’s Gospel lesson,  the parable of the searching father and the two lost sons

Jesus tells these parables to a crowd composed of two groups of people besides His own disciples. First, there are the tax collectors and other sinners. The second group of people Jesus addresses today is made up of Pharisees and teachers of religious law. These two groups are represented by the lost sons in Jesus’ parable.

You know Jesus’ story. A younger son asks his father for his portion of his inheritance. The father complies with the son’s request. The younger son converts his inheritance to cash and sets off for a far country. While there, he squanders his money, a famine hits, and the son has to go to work for a Gentile pig farmer, something unthinkable for Jesus’ fellow Jews. He looks longingly at the pigs’ feed because he’s so hungry. He then devises a plan. Remembering how well his father treated the hired servants, he decides to ask his dad for a job. That way, he can earn a living but still be free of his obligations as a son. The younger son thinks that he can or has to work for his dad’s favor or help, just the way we may sometimes think we have to work at being good Christians. A man once seriously asked me, “What inputs do I have to bring to God to get the outputs I want?” He wanted to have with God what the younger son now wanted with his father: a business relationship.

When the younger son returns to his father. He only gets through part of his rehearsed speech. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son,” he says, as planned. (Luke 15:21) But before the self-admitted unworthy son can ask for a job so he can earn a place in his dad’s dominion, his father welcomes and forgives him with hugs and a kiss. Friends, God doesn’t make deals with us. He freely offers His gifts of forgiveness and new and everlasting life to all who, because they see God in His Son, Jesus Christ, turn to God. The younger son thought that returning home to his father was his idea, part of a shrewd plan to use his dad to get what he wanted out of the old man. In fact, he turned to the father because the father’s love had created the impulse to turn to him. When people turn to the God we know in Christ, they may do so for their own selfish reasons. But whatever our motive, whenever anyone turns to God in repentance, it’s because God has used His Word to call us to that repentance. Whenever the lost are found, it’s the action of God alone. God the Father refuses to make any of us His “hired hands,” servants striving to earn our way out of hell into God’s kingdom. Instead, in Jesus, God calls us to be His children, heirs of His grace, forgiveness, and love.

As the Creator of the human race, it’s God’s right to receive the repentant, no matter how uninformed their motives may be, just as it’s God’s right to destroy the unrepentant who refuse to turn to Him. But God wants to save all people. Not just people like the tax collectors and notorious sinners to whom Jesus speaks, but also people like the Pharisees and teachers of the law, people who have grown certain of their own righteousness.

That leads us to the older son. He comes in from the fields and hears the music of a party in his father’s house. When he learns that the father is celebrating over the return of his younger brother, he’s angered. His father comes outside of the house to invite the older son inside–the way Jesus leaves the comfort and eternal jubilation of heaven to enter our world, inviting us to follow Him and enter the Kingdom of God. The oder son refuses his father’s invitation. “All these years,” he says, “I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (Luke 15:19) And yet, he goes on, “when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!.” (Luke 15:30) We can see that, despite the differences between him and his younger brother, the two sons actually have had the same view of their father. When the older son complains of “slaving” for his father, he shows that his respect for his father has had nothing to do with love or gratitude or because he values their relationship. Like his younger brother when he set out to come home, the older son wants a piece of his father’s estate, but he doesn’t want his father. The older son got an A+ as a “good boy,” but he has no desire for a relationship with his father.

Many church people think that being Christian has everything to do with “being good” and nothing to do with having an eternity-changing relationship with God or with living in God’s Kingdom. They think if they’re good, attend worship, and do things for the church, they’ll be leading godly lives. (Even though many of the things these people do “for the church” has absolutely nothing to do with the one and only mission Jesus has given to His Church: to be and to make disciples.) People like this think that their “slavery” to being “good Christians” will earn them a place in God’s kingdom.

At the end of Jesus’ parable, the rebellious son has learned of and experienced his father’s undeserved grace–his charity. He receives forgiveness and a welcome home. Meanwhile, the older son, always outwardly compliant, stands outside of his father’s home. He refuses to be part of a family that welcomes repentant sinners. There are many Christians who hop from church to church looking for the one where there are only good people like the older son and where the rebels who need God aren’t allowed.

But folks, no matter who you’ve been, whether a hypocrite who’s played at trust in God like the older son, a rebel who’s wanted just enough of God to get what you want in life but not so much as to actually repent and believe, or some combination of both, God is running down the lane looking for you, a father desperately seeking His children. He calls you again today and everyday to turn to Him through Jesus…and to receive again and again the joyous welcome of heaven that happens whenever anyone hears Christ’s call to turn from their sin and follow Him…and then, by the power of the Holy Spirit, run into God’s outstretched arms. Amen