Saturday, October 21, 2023

Church, Arise and Build!

[This message was shared today at the beginning of our Arise and Build leadership day for the Southwest Ohio Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church. It was a tremendous strategic planning day for the congregations of our district!]

We begin this morning in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

My name is Mark Daniels. I’m pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville and dean of the Southwest Ohio Mission District.

I want to thank Pastor Tom Brodbeck and the people here at Grace Lutheran Church for hosting us today.

So, why are you here today and why did we tear you away from the Ohio State-Penn State game? (Which, I’ll add, the district council originally thought would be held tonight.)

The short answer is that, seven years into the life of our district, we thought it was a good idea to have another strategic planning event to discern our path forward together. We had an event like this right after the NALC congregations in Ohio were split into districts and it has helped inform our priorities and budgeting since then. From the beginning, none of us wanted to form a district just to create more meetings for people. That’s pointless. Instead, we formed into a district so that we can do together what we can’t do or can’t do as well as individual congregations.

And we have done good things together: Supported our pastors and individual churches in fulfilling Christ’s mission of being and making disciples; held district-wide youth events; helped church councils organize around the Great Commission; and other things.

I think we all felt originally that we would do events like this one every five years. But you may recall that we hit a speed bump called the COVID-19 pandemic. So, here we are today.

Our theme, suggested by Pastor Brodbeck, comes to us from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.

To put Nehemiah in context, remember that after enduring centuries of faithlessness, idolatry, and injustice from His people, God empowered the Babylonians to conquer and destroy Judah, Jerusalem, and temple in 586 BC.

In 536 BC, the first of the Jewish exiles were allowed to return to their homeland. For more than a hundred years though, Jerusalem’s walls and the temple lay in ruins. This suited the Samaritans appointed by foreign overlords to “govern” what was left of Judah and the returned exiles. But it was a source of sadness to God’s people.

Finally, in 458 BC, Ezra, trained as a priest, returned to Jerusalem to not only rebuild the temple, but also to call God’s people to repentance and faith.

Thirteen years after that, God sent Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.

As the book that bears his name begins, Nehemiah, a Jew who likely had never seen nor lived in Jerusalem, is cupbearer to the king of the Persians. (The Persians, by the way, had conquered the Babylonians and taken control of all the Babylonians’ colonial holdings.) A cupbearer to a king was important. He would have maintained the king’s stock of wines and ensured the wines were safe to drink. A king would only appoint someone he trusted as cupbearer.

One day, Nehemiah tells us, Hanani, one of his brothers, arrived from Jerusalem. His brother tells him that despite the fact that many of God’s people had returned to the one-time religious and political center of Judah, the city was still a wreck, a heap of stone and ashes. Nehemiah says that when he heard this, he wept and mourned for days.

There’s a lot of mourning in Christ’s Church these days.

Lament seems to be a common theme when Christians get together.

We lament the fact that worship attendance and church membership are down.

We lament the sorry state of the world and the lack of young people on our membership rolls.

Lament and mourning are fine as far as they go. Just as it would be unnatural for us to not grieve over the loss of loved ones, it would be unnatural for Christians not to mourn the loss of faith in Christ we see in the world.

But, as Saint Paul reminds us, it is inappropriate for Christians to “​​grieve as others do who have no hope.” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)

We are baptized believers in Jesus Christ, heirs of promises from the crucified Savior that God will never leave us nor forsake us and that, wherever His Word is rightly proclaimed and the Sacraments rightly administered, there is resurrection hope.

Hope is central to our faith in Christ! (Deuteronomy 31:8; Hebrews 13:5-6; Romans 10:17)

And it’s here that Nehemiah inspires!

After getting the news about Jerusalem, he spent what appears to have been several weeks fasting and praying. While doing so, he confesses to God that he and his people had sinned against God and deserve none of His favor.

But, as he prays, he also remembers and expresses God’s promises, promises given not to morally perfect people, but to sinners in need of forgiveness and new life.

As Nehemiah prays, a plan seems to form in his mind. Certain that God has laid both a concern for Jerusalem and the responsibility to do something about that concern on his heart, he will leverage his relationship with the king to receive authorization and help to go back to Jerusalem and, though there’s no indication Nehemiah had any experience at all, lead the reconstruction of the city and act as its governor.

Amazingly, the king gives his authorization to Nehemiah and the Jewish cupbearer heads to Jerusalem. He not only finds the city to be as badly off as he’d been told, but he also runs into opposition from people who don’t believe in God and don’t want God’s people to give witness to their faith in the world. (The Church runs into people like that today.)

But, having prayed and planned, Nehemiah refused to be discouraged. He refused to be discouraged!

Certain that God’s hand was on him for good (Nehemiah 2:28), Nehemiah tells the naysayers: “The God of heaven will make us prosper [or, advance], and we his servants will arise and build…” (Nehemiah 2:20)

Friends, Nehemiah well exemplifies what Jesus says disciples and His Church should be like. “Behold,” Jesus tells us, “I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

To fulfill the mission God laid on his heart, Nehemiah was innocent as a dove in that he relied not on any pretense of goodness on his part or on the part of His people, but solely on the grace, goodness, and promises of God.

This is the same God Who has decided to use people like you and me, sinners saved by Christ Who offered His innocent life to save us from sin and death, to do His work in the world: to tell all the world, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mark 1:15)

To fulfill the mission God laid on his heart, Nehemiah was not just humbly prayerful, but also wise as a serpent, shrewd. He used the gifts, opportunities, and assets God gave him to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.

On this Saturday, October 21, 2023, our challenge is to pray submissively in Jesus’ name and to use the gifts, opportunities, and assets God has given us now, today, to fulfill the mission Christ has given to us, confident in the power He gives to His people in every time and place.

Today, Jesus tells us again: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

Witnesses for Jesus: Let’s take inspiration from Nehemiah as we gather today. Let’s pray and plan so that our churches and our district can be the means by which God brings and builds His kingdom as through us, Christ builds His Church. Let’s “arise and build.” Amen

Friday, October 20, 2023

God is Looking for the Tender-Hearted and the Humble

This morning, as part of my quiet time with God, I read 2 Chronicles 32-34, which includes the account of the rediscovery of "the book of the Law" that had been long forgotten by God's people.
When it was first read to Judah's King Josiah, he was overcome with grief because he, his people, and their ancestors had neglected God and followed false deities.
This was the beginning of Josiah's reforms, turning Israel back to openness to God's Word and humble submission to the God we now know in Jesus Christ.
When we read about Old Testament Israel, we shouldn't think of a nation-state like the United States or even modern Israel. The Israel of the Old Testament is the Church anticipating the coming of the Messiah Jesus. Today's Church is the "Israel of God," encompassing Jews and Gentiles who, by the power of God's Word, can declare that Jesus, Yahweh in the flesh, is Lord and God.
The account of Josiah and his reforms then should inspire the whole Church to turn away from sin and away from trying to look like or placate the world and to turn to the God revealed in Jesus Christ as our only hope for this world or the next.
Jesus Christ gave up his sinless life so that sinners like me...and you...can have life with God, not through the performance of religious rites or good deeds, but solely because Christ covers those who daily turn to Him in faith with His sinlessness and righteousness. Christ comes to us in His Word, the fellowship of the Church, and in the proclamation of God's Word about Christ and in the faithful sharing of the Sacraments--Holy Baptism and Holy Communion--among His people.
I'm both chastened and inspired by the example of Josiah's faith. I dream of what God can do among people who, like Josiah, are open to God's Word and humble in following Him.

Heavenly Father, make my heart tender to Your Word, to see that, in myself, I stand under condemnation for failing to obey Your commands, but to see also that, because of Christ, Who is the way and truth and the life, You forgive my sins and give me life with You that never ends. Make me humble to live under Your will, authority, and loving lordship. In the name of Jesus, I pray these things. Amen 

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The Gospel of John, October 15, 2023

The audio woes continued this past Sunday. This time you can hear me fine...with a constant echo. If that doesn't drive you completely nuts, feel free to listen!

Dressed and Blessed

[Here's the message from this past Sunday's worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, as well as live stream video of both worship services.]

Matthew 22:1-14

When Ann and I were first married, her stepfather belonged to the Columbus Männerchor. The Männerchor started as a German singing club. But for those who don’t sing, it’s primarily a social club with a very good restaurant. Members ask their families to have dinner with them there. But, at least in those days, there was a stipulation: Men had to wear jackets and ties to enter. Without a jacket and tie, you were on the outside looking in.

Near the end of the parable Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson, Matthew 22:1-14, a king who is throwing a wedding banquet for his son spots one man who, unlike all the other guests, wasn’t wearing the proper wedding garment. At that, Jesus says, “[The king]...asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” (Matthew 22:12-13) The wedding crasher was on the outside looking in.

Jesus’ parable, like many of those He tells, is about the eternal Kingdom of God: His Church.

Jesus’ Word for us this morning, encompassing both the parable and a Word of summary, can be divided into three parts. Together, these three parts tell us: about the sorry history of God’s ancient people, Israel, not to be confused with the contemporary nation-state that bears that name; the sorry history of the whole human race, including Jews and Gentiles; and, most importantly, God’s unwavering desire to save the whole human race, Jews and Gentiles, from sin, death, and eternal separation from God, and to bring all people into His eternal Kingdom!

Jesus tells about a king who plans a wedding banquet for his son. In Jesus’ telling, the king is God the Father and the Son is God the Son, Jesus Himself.

The human race, you know, fell into sin and separation from God, back in the garden of Eden. Each of us has inherited the condition of sin and the desire to be our own gods.

But at the very moment sin entered the human story, God gave a promise. In Genesis, He told the serpent that He would send a Savior born of woman who “will crush your head.” (Genesis 3:15)

God’s desire is that all people will be saved from sin and death. “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord [in Ezekiel 18:23]...Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?”

Throughout the Old Testament, God referred to the Church of those days–the people or the nation of Israel–as HIs bride.

In the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles speak of the Israel of these days–that is, the Church, the New Testament Israel–as His bride.

In Revelation, the apostle John is given a glimpse of the new heaven and the new earth that Jesus will bring from heaven when He returns to earth and is told about the Church, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” (Revelation 21:9)

And for His Church–the fellowship of forgiven sinners eternally wed to Jesus, God has long promised an eternal banquet, as our first lesson for today, from Isaiah, reminded us.

Even today, before we die and before the day when Jesus will raise us from the dead, we can come to the table and enjoy a foretaste of this banquet when Jesus comes to us and says, “This is My body given for you…This is My blood shed for you.”

The ancient Israelites repeatedly rebuffed the invitations of God to feast with Him, to live with Him. They followed other gods, sacrificed their children to false deities, and engaged in injustice.

God, the broken-hearted husband, called them to repentant faith. They would return for short periods of time and then betray God again. The behavior of God’s people in those days (and of many in the Church today), are represented in Jesus’ parable by those who paid no attention to or even killed the Old Testament prophets, the New Testament preachers, and the ordinary Christians of history who have shared Jesus’ call to turn from sin and death and to follow Him and live with God.

A man I know, concerned that a good friend of his hadn’t been in worship for a while asked why. The friend said that while he wanted Jesus and Jesus’ salvation, he didn’t agree with the Bible’s teaching that sexual intimacy is for marriage between a husband and a wife only. He refused his friend’s invitation to come to Jesus in repentance and faith and to come to Christ’s table because he insisted on believing what the world was teaching him rather than what God teaches.

This past week, I listened to a podcast interview with Paul McCartney about his song, Let It Be. That song, you know, was inspired by a dream in which McCartney saw his mother, named Mary, come to him and reassure him that everything was going to be OK and he should just “let it be.” McCartney said that some people found a spiritual dimension to his song and that pleased him. He remembered that his mother had seen to his being baptized and that pleased him too, because she cared about saving his soul. But then, McCartney asserted, that all the religions of the world are the same.

If you think only of “the Law,” laws like, ”Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” McCartney’s statement is true. All religions pretty much agree with what’s right and what’s wrong. But that doesn’t mean that all religions are the same. Rather, it’s a testimony to the fact that God’s Law is written on every human heart.

But we will never love others just by being told to love others. Neither will we ever love God by being told to love God. The Law only tells you what’s wrong with you; it doesn’t tell you how what’s wrong with you can get fixed!

The only religion in the world that can offer a fix to our failure to love God and to love others is Biblical, Christian faith. In this faith, God came to earth and offered His sinless life on a cross to take the punishment for sin that you and I deserve and then engages in what has been called “the happy exchange”: God gives us His righteousness and we give Him our sin; He gives us His life and we give Him our death.

The Gospel only happens through the Christian faith through which the Savior says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) We want to fudge on that and create our own religion and our own righteousness. But if we insist on doing that, we will stand naked in our sin before God on judgment day.

In Jesus’ parable, the King, God, sent his army and had those who rejected His invitation destroy the people who met his invitations to his son’s feast with rejection and murder. This is the fate that will befall all who insist on facing God in their own supposed righteousness instead of taking refuge in Jesus Christ as their God, Savior, and only hope for grace in this life and eternity with God in the next.

But God our King isn’t easily discouraged when it comes to saving us from ourselves, from sin and death. He is the God who “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4)

So, He sends out more servants–people like you and me who God sends into the world each week to share the gospel of forgiveness and everlasting life through faith in Jesus Christ–to invite those the world regards as “the bad as well as the good,” to come to His Son’s banquet.

And so Jesus pictures the heavenly banquet hall, filled with people invited by God to know the eternal salvation earned by His Son Jesus when He died on the cross and rose from the dead for sinners: street people, drug addicts, sports heroes, corporate CEOs, celebrities, nobodies, people of every color and from every walk of life, all of whom who have heard the inviting Gospel Word about Jesus with glad and grateful hearts.

These are the people, repentant believers in Jesus Christ, who are in His Church and will be in His Church for eternity.

This is the kingdom of God, which The Small Catechism tells us about when explaining the second petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come”: “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word...”

We can’t decide to follow Jesus; it’s foreign to our sinful nature to follow anyone or anything other than our selfish impulses.

But, by the power of the Holy Spirit, when the Word of God comes to us in water, in bread, in wine, or in the word heard or read, God creates faith in us, we can become part of the heavenly banquet, the Kingdom of God. This kingdom is what we’re all part of when God’s Word comes to us and by its power and the love, forgiveness, and newness it brings, enables us to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is my Lord.”

All of which leads us back to the Columbus Männerchor. It turns out that they didn’t want people to be left on the outside looking in. If a man showed up without a coat and tie, as I accidentally did once, they ushered him into a large room with a  collection of coats and ties of various sizes they could wear while they were there.

God is even more gracious than the Männerchor!

He freely gives us the proper dress for entering into His eternal Church, His everlasting Kingdom.

Do you know what that proper dress is?

It’s Jesus.

It is Jesus alone.

Jesus is the One in Whom all who believe will be dressed and fitted for everlasting life with God.

Your good works or fine character won’t get you into God’s Kingdom.

Nor will your good name or your good reputation.

Only Jesus.

The apostle Paul tells us to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh…” (Romans 13:14)

Friends, I want to give you a tip. You remember in the parable when the king confronted the man not wearing wedding clothes, asked him how he’d gotten into the banquet hall, and the man had nothing to say.

Ann and I have our burial plots purchased at Sunset Cemetery in Columbus. When Jesus comes back, He’s going to raise us and all the dead. He’s going to judge the living and the dead. The new heaven and the new earth will descend to heaven and only those dressed appropriately will be able to enter this place of eternal life with God.

Friends, when Jesus raises you from the dead, looks at you, and wonders if you’re wearing the right attire, this is what you can say, “Jesus. I am not worthy myself to be in your eternal banquet. But Jesus Christ has claimed me at the font, He has fed me with His Word, He has fed me His body and blood, and He has covered me with His righteousness and grace and Christ is eternally worthy! Jesus is my wedding garment!”

And all who are clothed in Jesus Christ will enter eternity with God. You can trust that to be true.


[PS: I'm grateful to God for the inspiring exegetical work done on this text by Steve Paulson, John Hoyum, Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Rick Serina, and John Wohlrabe, Jr.]