Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Call to Reach In (Part 4, Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out Lenten Series)

[Below you'll find the text of part four of our Lenten series at Living Water Lutheran Church, as well as live stream video of the devotional worship during which it was shared. God bless you.]

Tonight, as we continue to consider the mission of Living Water Lutheran Church, we turn to the second element of our “Reach up. Reach in. Reach out.” summary. We focus on reaching in.

Christ’s Church is meant to be more than a fellowship in which, responding to God’s grace in Christ, we reach up to God in worship, prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.

And Christ’s Church is meant to be more than a fellowship from which God sends us to reach out with the good news of new and everlasting life by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Christ’s Church is also meant to be a fellowship in which we sinners who have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus, reach in to each other with encouragement, prayer, and an occasional fit word of correction or counsel.

Many people who call themselves Christians see the reach in element as an unnecessary add-on to their being faith life. They tire of the messiness involved when you bring together people who have different ideas, gifts, and personalities in a local congregation.

They recoil at the Biblical truth that we who have been made saints by grace through faith in Jesus are also still, and will be until our own deaths and resurrections, sinners. We drag our sinful selves with us right past the Baptismal font, which is why when we gather on Sunday mornings, we begin by, together, confessing our sins to God and receiving His Word of absolution, forgiveness.

Jesus tells us that there will always be counterfeit Christians within the Church–the weeds among the wheat–and that He will sort all that out on the day of His return. For some convinced of their righteous wheatiness though, this isn’t enough. They dismiss the Church as being filled “with a bunch of hypocrites” and are unconvinced when we invite them by saying, “And there’s always room for one more.”

For some, being a Christian is mere intellectual assent. “I believe Jesus died for my sins and rose from the dead. So why do I need to go to church?” these people ask.

One woman went round and round with me recently on her insistence that because she believed in Jesus, she didn’t need a church. She told me, “Jesus never went to church.” But when I pointed out to her that Jesus regularly participated in the life of local synagogues, whether in his home village of Nazareth or in the towns to which she traveled, she said, “You see. He went to synagogues, not to a church.” I think she missed my point.

For Jesus, God the Son, Who bore the punishment for our sin on the cross and rose from the dead to bring the forgiveness of sin and everlasting life to all, to be received by faith in Him, His Church is no mere add-on to Christian discipleship. It is essential to Christian discipleship.

We read two lessons from the Gospels tonight.

In the first, from Matthew 16, Jesus has that famous conversation with Peter and the other disciples about Who Jesus is. When Simon Peter says that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Jesus tells him, “I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)  

This is one of the most misconstrued passages in Scripture. Jesus is not saying Peter is the rock on which He will build His Church. We know that Peter was not a rock that floated; he sank! Jesus is saying that the bedrock on which He builds His Church is the confession that Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, God the Son, the King of kinds, is Lord.

We confess Jesus as Lord not because we’ve been intellectually convinced, although the life of faith isn’t opposed to the life of the mind.

We confess Jesus as Lord because, through the administration of Christ’s means of grace–the Word and the Sacraments–the Holy Spirit has given us faith in Christ.

It’s in the Church and in the Church alone that these means of grace are administered.

And that leads us to our second Gospel lesson for tonight, taken from John 13. There Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

Now, we human beings are no good at keeping the first laws God gave to us, embodied in the Ten Commandments and summarized by Jesus in the great commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’...and…Love your neighbor as yourself…” (Matthew 22:36-40) We’ve proven pretty lousy at doing that. So, what makes Jesus think that giving us an even more stringent commandment, that we love our fellow believers with the same passion He showed by dying on a cross for us, is going to work?

Well, remember, no law can save us. No matter how strenuously or devotedly we commit ourselves to loving our fellow Christians as Christ has loved us, we will always fall short.

Only the Gospel–the good news that we are justified in God’s eyes by the grace God gives to us in Jesus–can we be obedient to this command.
As we live in the fellowship of Christ’s Church, Christ living in us by our Baptism, His presence in us quickened within us as we hear His Word and receive Christ’s body and blood, the love of Christ will be manifest in us, often without our even knowing it.

Sometimes, the most important thing we have to offer one another is our availability. When we don’t know what to say, when we can’t figure things out either, but are there in the name of Jesus with a sister or brother in Christ to remind them that Christ died and rose for them and cares for them.

You, friends, are Christ’s chosen conduits of encouragement and counsel to your sisters and brothers in Christ, to the person sitting next to you tonight.

You are as essential to his or her walk with Jesus as the Bible or the Sacraments.

And your sisters and brothers in Christ are every bit as essential to your discipleship.

God has made us for fellowship with Him and with others in His Church.

How often I have dragged my sorry old self to worship on Sunday mornings, conscious of my sins and failings, not feeling like being in worship, not wanting to preach or teach or preside at the table, when you, my fellow recovering sinners, my fellow saints, have encouraged me, have helped me to see Jesus again, and my faith in Jesus is renewed.

In The Smalcald Articles, one of the basic confessional documents of Lutheranism, Martin Luther says that, “God is superabundantly generous in His grace.” He then enumerates five ways in which God delivers the grace and love of Jesus through the Church. The first four shouldn’t be too surprising to us. 

First, there’s the Word by which the forgiveness of our sin is preached.

Second, Baptism.

Third, Holy Communion, the Sacrament of the Altar.

Fourth, “through the power of the Keys,” the authorization Christ gives to His Church to withhold God’s forgiveness from the unrepentant and declare that forgiveness to those who turn from sin and turn to Christ.

And then, Luther mentions a fifth way that God delivers Christ and His Gospel to us in the Church: “...the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.”

Through Bible studies, small groups, visits with friends about to have surgery, cards sent to the grieving and the ill, time spent together in the hospitality room: These are ways in which we strengthen each other in our discipleship. Jesus promises, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Matthew 18:20)

We live in an era in which everybody’s sort of a free agent. Everybody seems wary of making commitments, whether it’s to churches, jobs, careers, marriages, families, children, and parents. We have an allergy to caring about each other because caring about each other can bring hassles.

But the Church is, if you will, Christ’s “hassle castle,” in which He invites us to participate so that in the messiness of life in this world, we encourage each other in the Gospel that God desperately loves us and gives us everlasting life through Christ! It’s something we need to be reminded of constantly. As you’ll remember Luther saying, “We need to hear the Gospel every day, because we forget it every day.” We become a means by which God delivers Christ’s Gospel to one another.

The fellowship of the Church or, as the Apostles’ Creed puts it, “the communion of saints,” is one means God the Holy Spirit uses to encourage us to keep following Jesus.

The reach in element of our mission is essential to our lives as Jesus’ disciples.

It’s as we reach in to each other in this fellowship that we remind one another, “Through Jesus, you are a child of God forever.” Amen

Monday, March 20, 2023

The Most Powerful Word

[Below, you can find live stream video of both of yesterday's worship services from Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, as well as the text of the sermon shared during our worship. Have a good week!]

John 9:1-7, 13-17, 34-39
Our Gospel lesson for this morning begins with the disciples walking alongside Jesus and, seeing a blind man, asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1)

This is a question that comes straight out of the human penchant for viewing everything from the perspective of the Law, or of judgment. We want to assure ourselves when we see the bad things others endure that such things couldn’t happen to us. Even when we know better, a part of us believes that someone in the afflicted person’s family tree must have committed a terrible sin. We want to be certain that our good behavior will exempt us from the horrors that can come to us in this fallen world.

Jesus’ response must have shocked the disciples.

For starters, He doesn’t accept the premise that the man or his parents are worse sinners than the rest of the human race.

Instead, He identifies the man’s affliction as a kind of opportunity. Jesus says, “This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3)

The blind man was no more and no less of a sinner than the disciples, or than you and me.

But, irrespective of his sin, this blind man becomes an object lesson of the one thing, the one Word, given by God in Christ, that is more powerful than the Law that condemns us to death for our sin.

Jesus approaches the man, makes mud from His saliva and the dirt of the ground, smears the mixture on the blind man’s eyes, and then tells the blind man, “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam” (John 9:7)

You remember that back in Genesis, God gave life to Adam, the first man, by scooping up dirt and breathing life into it.

And when Adam fell into sin, God told Adam that death would be the result, “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)

The mud on the blind man’s eyes reminded him and the disciples who saw it that this man and every human being Jesus encountered was a sinner bound for death, each of us subject to the condemnation of God’s holy Law.

But, overcoming the condemnation of the Law, Jesus gives a gift of grace that ignores what punishment the blind man–or the rest of us–deserve for our sin.

Christ gives the man a Word more powerful than the Law. It is a Word of promise, a good news or gospel word, that overcomes the condemnation of the Law. “Go over there to that spot you can’t see, to the pool, and wash the mud from your eyes.”

If I’d been the blind man, I’m afraid I would have argued with Jesus. “Are you out of your mind? What kind of a nut goes rubbing mud on a blind man’s eyes, then tells him to feel his way to a pool of water he can’t see in order to wash it off? What good will that do?”

These are similar to the questions we’re inclined to throw at God and at Christians when told that God saves us in the waters of Holy Baptism or that the bread and the wine of Holy Communion are also Christ’s body and blood. How can good things like forgiveness, new life, and the very presence of God come to us through water, bread, and wine, through ordinary stuff? They can happen because God’s Gospel Word of promise come to us through them!

Amazingly, the blind man heeds this word from Jesus to go to the pool at Siloam and when he splashes the water on his eyes, not only are his eyes clean, but–sinner though he is–he can see!

Anyone familiar with the promises of God, given in Old Testament times, should have remembered at that moment that God had foretold a Messiah Who would bring a Word that overcomes the condemnation of all who trust in Him.

Our first lesson for today contains one of those promises. God says, “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” (Isaiah 42:16)

To those of us bound by sin and unable to free ourselves, laid low by life, afraid that our sins will eternally alienate us from God, Jesus’ gift of sight to the blind man is a Word of promise to us all: “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

Friends, the God we know in Jesus hasn’t given up on us even when we’ve given up on ourselves.

Even when we think we’re hopeless cases, beyond the reach of God’s gracious love, beyond the reach of His forgiveness.

As long as we are on this earth, Jesus, through His Church, will keep speaking His saving Word of forgiveness, life, and promise to us.

This isn’t a Word we need to go looking for.

We needn’t wonder what we must do to merit it or earn it.

This Word comes to us in the Bible and the Word proclaimed and taught and shared and heard.

It is as close as the water in the Baptismal font and as near as the bread and the wine on the Lord’s Table.

Some of Jesus’ fellow Judeans and their religious leaders, as our Gospel lesson tells us, didn’t see Jesus as the One bringing the promised Word that overcomes sin and death. All they saw was an itinerant preacher from Nazareth who violated the Third Commandment–”Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy”--by working on the Sabbath: mixing His saliva with some dirt.

When the once-blind man insists that only someone from God–a prophet, at the very least–could have performed the unprecedented miracle of giving sight to eyes blinded from birth, he gets excommunicated. He’s no longer considered part of God’s people, no longer allowed to worship at the synagogue or make offerings at the temple.

Back when some of us got thrown out of a Lutheran church body for standing for what we believed to be right and true and of God, we got letters from our former bishops. Mine said that I was no longer considered a pastor, no longer able to preside over the Sacraments, no longer able to preach in the church body of which I’d been a pastor for nearly thirty years. (They didn’t know that I was already on the roster of the North American Lutheran Church.) A colleague who got a similar letter remarked, “I’ve been thrown out of better places.”

Maybe the blind man, thrown out of the people of God had similar sentiments, that he was better off not being part of a group that refused the clear teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures and refused to acknowledge a mighty work of God when even a blind man could see it for what it was!

After the man’s excommunication, Jesus approaches him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

This was no idle question on Jesus’ part.

Seven centuries before His birth at Bethlehem, God the Son, Jesus the Messiah, appeared in a vision to the prophet Daniel. “In my vision at night,” Daniel writes in the Old Testament book that bears his name, “I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days [that is, He approached God the Father] and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)

“Son of Man” was among Jesus’ most common names for Himself.

In our lesson, Jesus is asking the formerly blind man if he believes in the Son of Man.

His mind, will, and heart laid open by the Word of God that already gave him sight, the man asks Jesus, “Who is he, sir? Tell me so that I may believe in him.”

When Jesus tells him, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you,” John says, “The man said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.” (John 9:36-38)

It didn’t matter if his parents rejected him as they did in a part of John 9 we didn’t read this morning.

It didn’t matter that the synagogue had thrown him out.

It didn’t really matter if this man was sighted or blind.

That’s because the man now knew he had life with God, that he was made right with God–justified before God–by grace through faith in Jesus.

Jesus had spoken His gracious Word, a Word more powerful than the Law, and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, he believed and so had life with God that would never be taken from him.

The Lord, Who would be crucified to bear our sins and raised to give us eternity with God, the One Who has authority, glory, and power, had spoken His forgiving Word to this once-blind man and he knew he would live in Jesus’ kingdom forever!

In today’s Gospel lesson, friends, Jesus is speaking this same Word to you!

We are saved by grace through faith in Christ.

And “faith,” the apostle Paul says famously, “comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ.” (Romans 10:17)

The greatest miracle in today’s Gospel lesson then isn’t Jesus giving the blind man sight.

The greatest miracle happens when Jesus tells the once blind man that He is the Son of Man, the Savior of sinners, and the blind man, by Christ’s Word, believed.

The Gospel Word about Jesus gives us faith in Christ and sets us free from the condemnation of the Law that we all deserve!

My seminary professor and mentor, Pastor Bruce Schein, told us about a man who approached him in a state of some agitation after a service at which Pastor Schein preached. “All you did was retell the Gospel lesson!” the man complained. It was as if the man wanted something more than or different from Jesus. He wanted to hear something like five ways to become a better person or, how to be nice. (It seems that many people today would prefer to belong to the church of nice rather than the Church of Christ.) “All you did was retell the Gospel lesson!” the man said. To which Pastor Schein replied, “Exactly.”

Listen, friends, the only Word we have or need is the story of the God Who came to rescue you and me from sin, death, and darkness in Jesus Christ, the Savior Who died on a cross for you and rose from the dead for you. It’s a Word to which we need not and must not add or subtract.

By the power of that Word, the once blind man trusted the Savior Who forgives sinners and gives everlasting life with God to all who believe.

By His Gospel Word, Jesus saves sinners even today to live with God forever!

By the power of His Word, you can repent for sin and trust in Him again today.

When the Word about the crucified and risen Jesus gives you faith in Jesus, you have eternal life with God. No matter what! Amen

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

The Old Testament Book of Ezekiel, Part 12

When Worship Happens

[Below you'll find live stream video of worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church that took place this past Sunday as well the message shared during both services.]

John 4:5-30, 39-42
A man came to visit me once. He was deeply troubled by something he had done years earlier. His wife became pregnant and he insisted that she have an abortion.

The man was overcome with grief and guilt, first of all, because of the little life that had been snuffed out and secondly, because, by his insistence, he laid deep guilt and regret on his wife while driving a wedge between him and his wife that had never diminished. He wondered what he could do to take both his and his wife’s guilt away.

Over the centuries, all of the religions of the world but one have tried to deal with this problem of human guilt and God’s expectation that we should be righteous by various forms of works righteousness, that is deeds or gestures the religions tell us we can do to overcome our sin.

These religions have been obsessive about creating systems of sacrifice. Through these systems, human beings, conscious of their sin, have made offerings of sacrifices to get out from under the guilt they know they bear.

In olden times, people offered up animals, plants, gold and silver, and even other human beings to try to make themselves right with God.

Today, people give up swearing for Lent, trumpet their contributions to good causes, and so on as a way of assuring themselves and the world and, sometimes, God, that they’re good, righteous people.

Even Old Testament Judaism had a system of sacrifices that saw the offering of sheep, pigeons, and grain, although King David reminded God’s people: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17, English Standard Version] God, David was saying, didn’t want our stuff or our showy deeds, he wanted hearts and lives turned to Him. He still does.

There are two big problems with sacrificial religions.

The first is that as soon as you offer up a sacrifice like putting a bit more in the offering plate or standing up for someone who’s being gossiped about, making you feel all clean and righteous based on your own behavior, you commit another sin. You take God’s name in vain. You entertain a lustful thought. You lose patience with your spouse or child.

The second problem with sacrificial religion is that you can never be sure you’ve sacrificed enough. And if a  sacrifice isn’t enough to cover a person’s sin, eternal separation from God is the consequence.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus encounters a woman who confronts her sin and her sinful nature all the time.

She’s the woman at the well outside the Samaritan village of Sychar.

Married five times, now living with another man to whom she isn’t married, she goes to the well at noon each day, despite the scorching heat, to avoid condemnation and shunning from the other villagers.

From what she says to Jesus, the only hope she has for forgiveness or righteousness is in the sacrifices she and all Samaritans make at Mount Gerizim.

Under the sacrificial system, the woman at the well could only hope that her sacrifices could earn God’s forgiveness for her. But she could never be sure.

That’s why Samaritans and Jews kept offering sacrifices for their sins year after year, over and over again.

Now the woman meets Jesus.

Jesus asks her for a drink. She’s shocked because Jews won’t talk to Samaritans and Jewish men aren’t supposed to talk with women to whom they’re unrelated in public.

Then Jesus tells her that if she would ask Him, He could give her “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) Jesus is offering her a free gift that she thought she could only earn, a life with God that never ends.

The woman is dumbfounded with disbelief and fear.

Could Jesus be greater than Jacob, the Jewish patriarch who had dug this well for God’s people?

She would love to be out from under the condemnation of God, freed of her debt of sin, assured of life with God. “Sir,” she says, “give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.” (John 4:15)

Knowing this woman and loving her the way God loves all of us sinners, Jesus now confronts the woman in her sin. God’s grace comes as new life to those who understand that they are otherwise dead in sin. That’s why Jesus tells us elsewhere, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Jesus now tells the Samaritan woman to bring her guilt to Him, the guilt from which she’s tried to run and for which she’s offered endless sacrifices. “Go,” Jesus says, “call your husband and come back.” (John 4:16)

Jesus has already offered the woman eternal life, the Gospel. But here, He surfaces the very set of sins–her serialized and continuing adulteries–to show her that even when the world’s religions of sacrifice and good works fail to give us peace with God or peace with ourselves,

Jesus gives us that peace as a free gift.

He gives us forgiveness.

He gives us life.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Mark tells us that He preached, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15) By the well at Sychar, Jesus is proclaiming the same message to this woman who spent a lifetime in sin, regret, and shame. Turn from death and turn to Me, Jesus is telling her.

In the offer of living water, the woman had heard the Word of God’s grace. In Jesus’ request that she fetch her husband, she heard the Word of God’s Law condemning sin.

To her credit, she doesn’t try to dodge Jesus’ call to confession and repentance. She admits that she’s breaking the sixth commandment at that very moment and had many times before with other men.

When you and I gather for worship on Sunday mornings, the first thing we do is hear Jesus’ call to repentance. We turn to Jesus so that we can once more live in the freedom of forgiven sin and the grace of God by which we sinners are declared saints, NOT by sacrifices or religious works. NONE of that stuff can make us righteous or acceptable to God. Religious law cannot save us. It can only tell us, as it told the woman who had been trudging day-in, day-out to the village well burdened by guilt, unsure of God’s forgiveness, that we are sinners whose impulses, thoughts, attitudes, and actions merit condemnation.

In Romans 10:4, the apostle Paul writes that, “Christ is the culmination [or the fulfillment or the end] of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.”

We are made righteous before God not because of sacrifices or works, but by grace through faith in Jesus alone.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that true worship isn’t about making sacrifices to God nor about the places where sacrifices are made, whether at Jerusalem. “A time is coming and has now come,” Jesus tells her, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” (John 4:23)

Listen, friends, to what Jesus is telling us: True worship isn’t about what we do for God or give to God.

Worship happens when needy sinners like you and me enter into the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and Jesus the Messiah explains everything to us, everything we need to have faith, to be righteous, to be assured that we are free of all condemnation by God!

Worship happens when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we hear and believe the truth of the Gospel, as expressed by Paul in our second lesson today: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

Worship is about what God gives to us in the Word and the Sacraments, not about what we think we do for or give to Him!

Each time we worship, Jesus Christ, sent to us by God the Father, presents Himself to us crucified and risen, and tells us, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (John 6:29)

Each time we worship, He gives us the Word that the Holy Spirit uses to give us saving faith.

And each time we worship, Christ gives us His body and blood by which we are filled with His forgiveness and new life!
When the woman in our Gospel lesson hears Jesus identify Himself as the very Messiah Who could save her (and you and me), without our sacrifices but simply by grace through faith, she leaves her buckets behind and runs back into Sychar!

Head held high in the freedom of God’s forgiving Gospel, she tells the very people from whom she’s been hiding all about Jesus: “He told me everything I ever did!”

God wants you to hold your head high in His forgiving grace too, friends! He knows everything you ever did and loves you and died for you and rose for you anyway!

Nothing you ever do will ever make God love you any more than He already does.

Nothing you ever do–no sacrifice or good work–will ever make you more righteous than you are through Jesus Christ.

Jesus has already done everything needed to give you life with God!

It’s when we hear and receive this message, this gospel, that we worship in spirit and truth!

As Jesus says later in John’s Gospel: “Whoever hears my word and believes [the Father] who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)

When you hear and believe Jesus’ word of life, your sin is not held against you and you are alive in God’s grace forever.

Friends, you can trust in that promise. Amen