February 20, 2018 – Whatever We Fear (Do It Anyway!) 1 Peter 3:13-16, 1 Corinthians 2:13

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Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 1 Peter 3:13-16 (NIV)

Whatever I fear the most is whatever I see before me/ Whenever I let my guard down, whatever I was ignoring /Whatever I fear the most is whatever I see before me /Whatever I have been given, whatever I have been – “Whatever I Fear”- Toad the Wet Sprocket

Fear in and of itself is neither good nor evil, but there are healthy and unhealthy fears. “Fear of the Lord,” as in a reverent respect for God, is a healthy fear. Fear of touching a hot burner is a healthy fear. At times fear can prevent us from diving into an action or a behavior that will cause us harm.

However, it’s easy in this world to get mired down in unhealthy fears that are borne of either bad experiences in the past or irrational anxiety. To “err on the side of caution” is usually considered a prudent and wise course to take, but too much caution can lead us to stagnation and lead us away from the things that God has for us to experience and accomplish.

We should not hesitate to do what we know is good. We should be unafraid to tell others about Jesus and what He has done and is doing in and through us. The apostle Peter tells us to have an answer for those who ask us why we hope in Jesus- a kind and respectful and helpful answer.

Unhealthy or excessive fear can keep us from doing and saying the things we know we should.

Martin Luther is known for saying, “Sin boldly.” This doesn’t mean just randomly sin, but to feel the fear and live and do anyway. Since we are sinners, yes, some of the things we do along the way will be wrong and will fall short of God’s will, but nothing will get accomplished if we are too afraid to try. We are challenged to be bold even when we are shaking in our boots, if we know what we are doing, saying or standing for is necessary and right.

The Holy Spirit has answers when we don’t have them –

This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. 1 Corinthians 2:13 (NIV)

God is the only One we should fear- the same God who tells us to get out there to do good, and to tell others about Him.

How is fear holding us back from the discipline of service today?

Do we fear getting too involved, whether it is emotionally, physically, financially or in committing our time?

Do we hesitate to make a sacrifice for the sake of others?

The spiritual disciplines of sacrifice and service do require intentional effort on our part.  Like the disciplines of sports or music, for example, we get better at it through small steps, and practice.

How can we practice a small step today- an act of service for someone, or a sacrifice of our time and talents to serve God?

February 19, 2018- Possessed Pigs, Go Tell About God’s Mercy- Mark 5:1-20, Ephesians 6:11, Isaiah 61:1-3

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They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him.  This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain.  For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!” For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!”

Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.”  He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.  When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well.  Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him.  Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”  So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. Mark 5:1-20 (NIV)

What does this one of Jesus’ works of healing have to do with loving Jesus? Who seriously believes in demon possession today?

We can say that we are more enlightened today. Today we know that mental illness can be caused by chemical malfunctions in the brain.  While in most instances mental illness can explain what used to be referred to as demon possession, the fact remains that there is a spiritual world. There are powers and principalities that we learn about throughout Scripture that are not easily explained by science. We have an Adversary. Not everything that lives in the spiritual world has our best interest at heart.

In the Lutheran tradition we aren’t much to focus upon the dark side, and we don’t talk much about demons or possession or bizarre supernatural happenings, because we know who wins- but it is important to know that we do have an adversary, and that we know Who to run to when the adversary comes knocking. Evil has a lot harder time getting to us if we spend our lives being immersed in what is good.  The apostle Paul told us to put on the full armor of Christ (Ephesians 6:11) for good reason.

It was curious that the demons knew Who Jesus was. The demons knew their enemy and they knew that ultimately they were subject to His power.  Why do we doubt the sovereignty and final authority of Jesus when demons, who are evil, get it?

The demons begged to be released into pigs. To Midwestern Americans the pigs drowning themselves in the sea might come across as a really sad waste of a LOT of bacon.  Yet to Jews in first century Palestine, pigs were the most unclean of unclean animals. It was fitting, at least to first century Jews, that the demons met their demise in the unclean bodies of pigs.

More important than the final disposition of the demons, or even how the demons got in the man to begin with, is the final authority and sovereignty of Jesus.

Jesus had mercy on the man. Everyone else wanted to restrain the man, and when that didn’t work, they simply pushed him out of society.  He was living in the tombs- basically written off as dead.

Jesus got the unclean spirits to move on out of the man and gave him his life back. Sound like a familiar theme?

We all have our stories to tell about what Jesus has done for us, just like the formerly demon possessed man. Jesus has set us free from the powers of sin and death, as well as for many of us, Jesus has set us free of earthly afflictions also. We return love to Jesus when we show it to people around us.  God is real.  He loved us first.  He sent Jesus to show us what love is, to love the unlovable, and to set captives free from the things that bind them (Isaiah 61:1-3.)  Who can we draw to Jesus by sharing our stories? By showing them kindness?

If we claim to love Jesus, we are called to do as He did. Go out. Share the love. To whom can we bring a bit of mercy and care today?

February 16, 2018- The Wait- Psalm 25:15-21

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My eyes are ever on the Lord, for only he will release my feet from the snare. Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart and free me from my anguish. Look on my affliction and my distress and take away all my sins. See how numerous are my enemies, and how fiercely they hate me!

Guard my life and rescue me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you. May integrity and uprightness protect me, because my hope, Lord, is in you. Psalm 25:15-21 (NIV)

There are times in which we seem to be “stuck in the wait”- living in a place of uncertainty and longing for a breakthrough of some sort. Whether it be living with illness, or being in need of a change in life’s circumstances, or in enduring a trial, there are times when the wait seems endless and interminable.

The psalmist keeps on pointing us to the Lord and His sovereignty and strength throughout Psalm 25. God is the only One who can get us out of the predicaments we find ourselves in.

It’s easy to get ourselves into challenging situations. Sometimes we land in challenging situations through our own ignorance or error.  Other times we are put in these situations through no fault or negligence of our own.

Regardless of how we found ourselves “stuck in the wait,” the answer is the same. We are told throughout Scripture to trust God and know that He is our refuge. Time and time again throughout the Psalms we are reminded that God is our refuge.  Sometimes all we can do, when we are at the end of ourselves and we have no other alternative but to wait and to endure, is rest in God our refuge.

Meditation is the spiritual discipline in which we fix our minds on God. When we are lingering and “stuck in the wait” there is no better time to meditate on the truth of God’s love and provision for us.

There should also an element of surrender in our meditation. We know that God is true to His promises and that He has created us for His purpose. We can trust the good news and comfort we find in the Scriptures.

The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him. Nahum 1:1 (NIV)

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11 (NIV)

February 14, 2018 – Ash Wednesday-Remember God NOW- Ecclesiastes 12:6-7, Matthew 12:43-45

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Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (NIV)

Today Lent begins. Traditionally Lent is a season of examination, repentance, sacrifice, and getting our priorities straight. If we accept the challenge, Lent can be a time of great spiritual growth for us. This Lent begins a journey- a journey with Jesus to the Cross.

It is interesting that Solomon, the Teacher, implores us to remember God NOW. Surrendering to God and getting closer to Him is not something to be checked off the bucket list at the last minute, but something to do NOW, before the bucket list comes into play.

Ash Wednesday is an opportunity for us to reflect not only on our mortality and our sins and all the ways we fall short of God’s expectations for us, but it is also a time to reflect on how we “do life.” Yes, we should confess and repent (repent means: to turn away from) of our sins.  As we reflect upon our sins and repent, we should also be mindful that turning from sin and those things that fail to glorify God has another essential component.

When we give up something harmful, what beneficial, God-honoring thing do we take up?  There is a great deal of truth to Grandma’s old saying, “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”  If we aren’t intentionally pursuing the things that God intends for us, we will occupy ourselves with any old thing, and given human nature, many of those idle things do not bring glory to God.

Jesus put it this way: “When a defiling evil spirit is expelled from someone, it drifts along through the desert looking for an oasis, some unsuspecting soul it can bedevil. When it doesn’t find anyone, it says, ‘I’ll go back to my old haunt.’ On return it finds the person spotlessly clean, but vacant. It then runs out and rounds up seven other spirits more evil than itself and they all move in, whooping it up. That person ends up far worse off than if he’d never gotten cleaned up in the first place.

“That’s what this generation is like: You may think you have cleaned out the junk from your lives and gotten ready for God, but you weren’t hospitable to my kingdom message, and now all the devils are moving back in.” Matthew 12:43-45 (MSG)

There’s no sense in cleaning house and cleaning up our lives unless we surrender our lives to God to put them to good use. The discipline of surrender is simply inviting Jesus to clean us up, and then inviting Him to move on in.  He’s the one at work here, not us. Grace, love, and joy happen when we let go and let Him in. He actively brings about God’s kingdom through us here on earth.

How are we responding to the grace of God NOW? Are we honestly praying the most difficult petition of the Lord’s Prayer- “Thy will be done?”  Are we listening to the Holy Spirit when He responds?

There is nothing wrong with the tradition of “giving something up for Lent.” Sacrifice is a beneficial discipline for Jesus followers.  Yet along with giving up harmful things, and/or getting rid of the clutter, we are called to take up our own cross and live surrendered and sacrificially as we follow Jesus.  We are called to live the God-life NOW, not as something to check off our bucket list, but as something to embrace NOW, because our time here is fleeting and not at all guaranteed.

Life on this earth is a limited time offer. We are called to get out there- NOW- and live it in response to God Who has given it to us.

 

 

February 13, 2018 – Mardi Gras- Fat Tuesday- Shrove Tuesday- Eat, Drink and Be Merry? Ecclesiastes 3, 6:2, 8:15, Hebrews 12:1-2

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God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. Ecclesiastes 6:2 (NIV)

So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun. Ecclesiastes 8:15 (NIV)

Today is a sort of unusual holiday. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, which most people are aware of. Most people have also heard of Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday.  It sounds a little better in French!  Mardi Gras traditions can include parties, drinking, debauchery, and basically “getting your sin on” before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.

More conservative Mardi Gras observers use the occasion to get rid of all the rich food and sweet treats that people tend to give up during Lent. There’s a reason for today being referred to as Fat Tuesday. It may be some people’s last day to eat chocolate for awhile.

It’s not that possessions, food or enjoying what life has to offer are bad things. We shouldn’t go through life as drab, dull no-fun Nellies. God’s gifts can be unappreciated or misused, but inherently and of themselves, the “finer things in life” are good gifts. God gives us those things for us to enjoy and to share them.

We should celebrate when it is time to celebrate. We should not be afraid or ashamed of eating, drinking or being glad in the proper time and context.  However, Solomon (the Teacher of Ecclesiastes) warns us against a lack of balance. Over or under doing it just isn’t a good thing. Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes Solomon shares his wisdom that there is a time and a place for “every purpose under heaven.” (See Ecclesiastes 3.)

As we enter the season of Lent it is good to be thankful for God’s good gifts, and to enjoy them. It is also a good time for us to examine how we can better serve God with the gifts we have been given.

For Jesus followers, rather than overindulging in the secular bacchanalias that can accompany Mardi Gras, (and the accompanying hangovers and heartburn!) today it might be better to consider observing Shrove Tuesday.  To be “shriven” is an old way of saying to get rid of those things that fail to glorify God, and to be forgiven and to start fresh.  It’s a good day to confess and forsake our sins and accept God’s forgiveness.

The writer of Hebrews encouraged us to: …throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)

This Shrove Tuesday, may the Holy Spirit show us the things that hinder us so that we can throw them off, and may we fix our eyes on Jesus today and every day.

February 12, 2018-Visit the House of Mourning- Ecclesiastes 7:2-4, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Matthew 22:36-40

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It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools. -Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 (NIV)

On Ash Wednesday most of the liturgical Christian traditions begin the season of Lent. Traditionally Ash Wednesday is a day in which we remember that we come from dust and are returned to dust.  This life is a limited time offer.  What are we doing with it?  Are our lives being lived in response to the grace and glory of God?

The only caveat to going to a house of mourning- or being in that place of reflecting on our own mortality- is that while it is good and sometimes needful to visit, don’t stay there. Reflection upon the end of this life is meant to bring us to appreciate and live fully the life that we have. The season of Lent is just that- a season- in which we focus upon what is truly essential. Hopefully along the way we discover what is not essential, and that which would be better for us to give up. More importantly, hopefully, along the way we also discover that part of following Jesus is taking up our own crosses.

In our times of loss and sadness we learn what is really important and what is really lasting. Our social status doesn’t mean anything.  Neither do our possessions or our accomplishments have any lasting value, save the ones we give in the service of God. No one regrets not having spent enough time at the office on his or her death bed.

In our times of loss and sorrow we should cling first of all to Jesus. He is always there for us even in our most profound loss, our deepest sorrow and our most cutting and agonizing pain.

Sorrow and pain do not last forever, but the love and care of God is constant. His understanding transcends the confines of this world as well as our ability to express it.

We learn much about priorities when we go to a funeral or a visitation to honor the dead. We learn about who and what the deceased cared about.  We learn about the family dynamics of the deceased- sometimes for good, and sometimes for ill.  Most of all we learn that life is short and fleeting, and as Solomon, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes points out, “chasing after wind.”

During the season of Lent we will spend much time on the theme of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are not punishments, but good exercises to take up. There are many practices that can be considered spiritual disciplines, but in our Lenten studies we will concentrate on seven of them: worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender.  These disciplines do overlap at times, and that is OK. Some things we do to grow closer to the heart of God may combine worship and service, or prayer and fasting.  That is perfectly fine.  Spiritual disciplines are simply things we do to connect with God, to invite Him to transform our hearts and minds, and to live according to His purpose.

As God’s people are commanded in the Shema from the Old Testament:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.   Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (NIV)

Jesus expanded on this theme:

 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

Spiritual disciplines- worship, prayer, fasting, meditation, study, service and surrender– are all ways to love God and our neighbor with our minds, hearts, souls and strength.   Some of the disciplines are easier to practice than others depending on our strengths and weaknesses, but all of them serve to bring us closer to the heart of God.  As we journey through the season of Lent, and from time to time visit the house of mourning, we can also explore the spiritual disciplines and discover what they reveal to us about loving God- and the love that God has first and always had for us.

 

 

 

 

February 9, 2018 God is Not Silent- Psalm 50:1-6, James 2:12-14

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The Mighty One, God, the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to where it sets. 

From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth. Our God comes and will not be silent; a fire devours before him, and around him a tempest rages. He summons the heavens above, and the earth, that he may judge his people:

“Gather to me this consecrated people, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice.”

And the heavens proclaim his righteousness, for he is a God of justice. Psalm 50:1-6 (NIV)

God will not be silent. Why do we think He is silent at times?  Do we lose sight of Him in the darkness of all the evil that threatens to prevail in this world?  Does His voice get drowned out in the vapid soundbites and machinery of modern life?

Judgment is always a squirmy topic, especially if we examine our hearts fully and truthfully. Even though we fall short and fail regularly, God’s judgment is always in our favor. For Jesus’ sake He has mercy on us and forgives us and redeems us. That isn’t to say that His judgment is always fair.  In the name of fairness we are all law-breakers and have earned the penalty of eternal death.

Our hearts cry out when we see the injustice of this world. Things happen that should not be allowed to happen- war, famine, death, decay, sorrow, loss- the list is long.  It’s easy to get angry and become disillusioned and wonder where God is in all of it.

Jesus came to earth as the one perfect sacrifice for all, but He also came to show us how to live, and to empower us to be His instruments here on earth.

If we aren’t hearing God, is it because our voices are silent? Do we affirm the goodness of God with our speech and conduct?

If we aren’t seeing God, is it because we aren’t reflecting Him in our actions?

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-14 (NIV)

Jesus is the New Covenant. We as Jesus followers are the consecrated people He lives in and through. There is a popular “new age” saying out there that states one should “Be the change you want to see.” We should strive to follow Jesus’ example. We should want to live in a way that makes God known in the world.

Mercy and judgment may seem to be mutually exclusive. However, by God’s mercy in Christ we are not judged according to what we have earned, but we are given grace instead.

Are we merciful and gracious to others? Are we becoming the change we want to see?

God is speaking. Are we listening?