December 11, 2018- The Majestic Name of the Lord- Psalm 8

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Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!

You have set your glory
    in the heavens.

Through the praise of children and infants
    you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
    to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,
 what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    human beings that you care for them?

You have made them a little lower than the angels
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
    you put everything under their feet:
all flocks and herds,
    and the animals of the wild,
the birds in the sky,
    and the fish in the sea,
    all that swim the paths of the seas.

 Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8 (ESV)

Sometimes praising God is the furthest thing from our minds.  When we are in pain or stuck in sadness usually our first response is not to look up to God and know that He is there. Yet even when our lives seem dark, the Light of the world is never far from us.

It is good to praise our majestic God, God Who is above all the sadness and suffering of this world.

It is good to remember in this season that can be dark and depressing for some, that the Light of the world is with us.

The same God whose majesty is reflected in the heavens is the same God who chose to live among us, the same God who came to us as a humble child born to a peasant girl and laid in a manger.

The same God who is beyond time chose to endure a brutal death on a Roman cross to take the punishment for our sins and save us from eternal death.

The majesty of God is both beyond us, and intimately, always with us.

Take comfort this season.  The God of creation is always near.

 

 

November 19, 2018- Beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Psalm 23, Job 19:25-27

valley of shadow

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23 (ESV)

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another. Job 19:25-27 (ESV)

The valley of the shadow of death is not a popular destination, but mortality is a reality.  No one gets out of this life alive…except…those who believe by the grace of God in Christ will share in His resurrection.  In spite of the really bad pop theology that is rampant in American Christianity, Jesus never was about “your best life now.”   Even though televangelists and “Christian” authors may try to sell us a Cross-less Christianity, Jesus teaches us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

True Christianity holds to a theology of the Cross, one in which we die to our own selfishness and sins- not to earn points, but in response to the extravagant grace and the undeserved favor God has already given us.

Psalm 23 has been beloved among believers for millennia, precisely because God’s inspired words from David’s pen underscore God’s promise that death and the curse is not the end. We who are baptized into Christ are not alone.  This world and its valleys of shadow are not the end.

God with us, Emmanuel, does not shield us from suffering, but He is in it with us, ever present with his comfort, walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death, (Psalm 23:4) and leading us away from evil.

God so loved the world that He sent Jesus, His only Son to be a man- fully God and fully man- and live in this world with us. (John 3:16) When the time came for Jesus to give His life for us, He struggled with the cup He was given to drink, but the only way for Him to accomplish our salvation was through His suffering and death. Jesus was not spared the bitter path of the Cross.  The sin of the Garden of Eden could only be overcome on by Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately His sacrifice on Calvary.

God does give us challenges that are way over our heads and way over and above our capacity to overcome.  We do not have life in our own strength. On our own we have no strength.  Apart from Jesus we have nothing to look forward to but despair, hopelessness and death in our trespasses and sins.  Yet in losing ourselves and relying on Jesus we can endure anything.  He has already overcome death and the grave.

As the church year is drawing to a close, we become aware of the groaning of all creation, awaiting the restoration of all things that the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 8:18-25.

Those who are familiar with the musical work The Messiah, by George Fredric Handel, will recognize the verses from Job 19 above.  I know that my Redeemer liveth / and that he shall stand /at the latter day upon the earth./ And though worms destroy this body/ yet in my flesh shall I see God.

As we are very quickly coming upon the season of Advent and celebrating the arrival of the promised One, we put our focus on Jesus, the living Redeemer, the conquering King.

We can trust that we will endure the suffering that is simply a part of this life here in the now, but not yet. We will stand with Jesus, in our own bodies, on that great and glorious day when all tears are wiped away and there is no more suffering or mourning.

May 9, 2018 – Faith Alone- Abraham’s Righteousness- Romans 4:13-25

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For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression.

That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.  In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations, as he had been told, “So shall your offspring be.”  He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.  No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.  That is why his faith was “counted to him as righteousness.”  But the words “it was counted to him” were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.  Romans 4:13-25 (ESV)

The apostle Paul (who had formerly been the Pharisee, Saul) was dealing with the Judaizers, who were Jews who had become Christians and who expected Gentile converts to Christianity to adopt the Jewish laws, including being circumcised and living as a Jew.

It became necessary for Paul to teach to the Gentile churches that obeying the Jewish laws and adopting Jewish customs are not required to follow Jesus or to be saved.

Our salvation and justification (being made right in the eyes of God) comes through faith alone in Jesus.  Paul uses the example of Abraham to set the precedent- Abraham was justified by faith before the covenant, before he was circumcised, because God gave Abraham the gift of faith.

Today the premise of faith alone (sola fide) is challenged in many Christian traditions.  If any preacher or teacher tries to say faith plus anything is required of us to follow Jesus, know that is not the truth.  We are not required to follow the Mosaic Law, or to wear specific clothing, or to observe specific rites or rituals.  Even if we did do these things, it would not save us or justify us in the eyes of God. None of us are in any way able to fulfill the Law completely, which means the one who tries to earn his or her way to God is doomed.  The apostle James teaches us that if we break one teeny tiny piece of the Law we violate all of it. (James 2:10)  The scandalous, almost unbelievable, simple truth is that the only requirement for salvation is faith that Jesus has done for us what we cannot do for ourselves – He kept the Law perfectly and became the perfect sacrifice to cover our sins.

One might say, “That’s cheap grace, because we don’t do anything or earn anything. Just believe?  That’s nuts!”  That’s exactly the point, that our faith is what justifies us before God, though grace is anything but cheap.  Grace, salvation, forgiveness, eternal life- Jesus bought and paid for all of these- which we cannot do- with His suffering and with His precious Blood.  We respond to and reflect His amazing love and grace by serving our neighbors, by learning His word, and by partaking of the Sacraments. All of these are gifts from God to us. God is the action hero in this story.

The good works that Christians were created to do (Ephesians 2:10) are not ways to earn brownie points.  They are an answer to the prayer Jesus taught us: thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Our good works are the end result of having the faith (which is a gift from God) to confess our sins to God, knowing that in Christ we are forgiven, and trusting Him for what we need to live in a way that honors Him.

Some communities may pass out projects and to-do lists, which are not bad things in and of themselves, but we cannot earn our way into heaven based upon how many items we check or don’t check off of a list. What sets Christians apart is our love for Jesus. Our motivation to serve others comes as a result of wanting what God wants for others and for the world around us- not to earn points or to stroke our own vanity, but to follow Jesus’ example.

Abraham was justified by his faith. His faith, which was a gift from God, brought forth amazing fruit.  Faith is also what justifies us- not that we are able to live 100% perfect lives, or even to have 100% perfect faith.

Do we trust Jesus enough to rely on Him alone? Even that is a tricky question.  Every one of us struggles with a degree of unbelief.  At times we also need to pray as the father of the boy with the unclean spirit (see Mark 9:14-29) prays- “I believe, help my unbelief!”

God was faithful to Abraham even though Abraham wasn’t perfectly faithful. The fact that Abraham, when he was still called Abram, had a son, Ishmael, that was conceived outside of the promise comes to mind as we learn in Genesis 16. Even though Abram and Sarai acted according to their desperation for a son rather than in response to God’s promise, He was still faithful to His promise to give them Isaac, a son born of Sarah, the son of His promise.

We can only be saved, justified, and made right with God by faith alone. Yet even that faith is a gift that God gives us.  God worked great things through Abraham by faith- not because Abraham was entirely faithful, but because God made Abraham able to believe.  God works in us by the gift of faith today as well without brownie points, no checklist to check off.  By the sacrifice of Jesus alone, He covers us, He adopts us. In baptism we are marked with the Cross of Christ, and named and claimed as God’s own.  In the Sacrament we are given the very Body and Blood of Jesus to give us strength and sustenance for our toil here on earth.  Jesus fulfills God’s promise from long ago to Abraham, the promise that extends to us as well- because of faith.

April 4, 2017- Take and Eat- Matthew 26:26-28

last supper

While they were eating, Jesus took bread and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to His disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is My Body.” Then He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is the Blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.-“ Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

One of the biggest taboos in human society is cannibalism. We aren’t supposed to eat each other! Yet Jesus tells His followers that the bread He has broken is His body, and that they should partake of His body. It seems strange that Jesus would command His followers to do what is forbidden in the Law –not just eating someone’s body, but especially concerning consuming blood- see Leviticus 17:10-16. The blood is the life of a living being, and it is blood that is required for atonement.

This new directive to the disciples from Jesus is not a routine thing, even though if we are not careful, we may come to view the Sacrament of the Altar to be a routine thing. To the disciples, Jesus is doing something shocking and revolutionary. He is offering a sacrifice far more profound than the blood and flesh of livestock.  He sets Himself up as the offering.

Lutheran Christians believe that when we take the Sacrament of the Altar (Communion) that Jesus is present in, with, over, under and through the elements of bread and wine. There is no question over the meaning of the word IS that Jesus uses, in saying this IS My Body (Matthew 26:26) and this IS My Blood (Matthew 26:28.) Lutheran Christians do not view Communion as a metaphoric or symbolic act, but as a very real way that God comes to us through physical elements.

So what exactly happens when we come to take, and eat, and when we come to drink from the cup?

In Luther’s Small Catechism, we learn that the Sacrament of the Altar has been instituted by Jesus for us- for the remission of sins, to bring life and salvation to us.

In partaking of the Sacrament, we internalize Jesus- not only in the elements of the bread and wine, but He becomes part of us. Physically. Spiritually. Emotionally.  In every way that we exist and move and breathe.

When we come to the altar and we hear those beautiful words, “This is My body, given for you,” and “This is My blood, shed for you,” know that in that meal it is Jesus becoming a part of us. Healing us, forgiving us, making us stronger, giving us life and hope.

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March 1, 2017 Ash Wednesday- Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 Ashes to Ashes…

 

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“For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.   All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downward to the earth?” Ecclesiastes 3:19-21 (NRSV)

Ecclesiastes can be a pretty gloomy book, until one understands the perspective from which it was written.

For the sake of argument I’m going to assume that Solomon was the Teacher of Ecclesiastes- the guy who wrote the book.  Now Solomon was King David’s son- a guy who pretty much had everything under the sun.  Even if he didn’t already have it, (on that rare occasion) he could get it.

cemetery


Solomon was legendary for his wisdom, but he was also legendary for his many wives and concubines, as well as for the wealth and opulence that surrounded him. If money could have ever bought happiness, Solomon would have been the guy who would have been able to buy his way happy.  He tried.  Yet as he got older he realized that material things don’t really lead to satisfaction, and that eventually no matter what you have or what you accomplish, everyone grows old and dies just like the animals.  It’s easy to be convinced that life is pointless when all we see is the old routine of you’re born, you grow up, you get old, you die.  On the surface sometimes it’s hard to see the purpose of muddling through the physical realities of life.  It’s easy to get worn out and jaded and reduce the business of living to just waiting in line to get on the worm food express.

warningsignsdeath

Mortality is reality.  Physical bodies die no matter how much exercise one does or how healthy one’s diet is.  Physical death is hardwired into humanity.

“The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” Psalm 90:10 (NRSV)

Solomon asked the same questions that people today are still asking: “What is my purpose?”  “Why am I here?” “What will fulfill me and make me happy?”

It’s been said that money can’t buy happiness, just the misery that one likes the best.  I’d like to have the privilege to test that theory for my own curiosity (wink-wink) and I’ll heartily agree that poverty adds to misery.  But no matter how much money or how many material things one has, the day will come when those things won’t mean anything because that tiny electrical spark that keeps one’s heart beating and the synapses of one’s brain communicating WILL go out.

“And he (Jesus) said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’  Then he told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly.  And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’  Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’   But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” Luke 12:15-21 (NRSV)

It doesn’t matter how much stuff you have when the worms are digging in on your liver and other assorted bodily organs.  Our bodies came from dust, and sooner or later our bodies, in one way or another, are going to be dust again.

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What does really matter is knowing that even though worms are going to munch on these physical bodies, we will see God.  Jesus will ask us the question He asked of Simon Peter, “Who do you think I am?”

With that in mind, whose purpose are we serving?  Who do we say Jesus is, and more importantly, are we living- now- in a way that displays that we understand Who He is?  Are we willing to give up those things that cloud the waters and keep us from a fuller relationship with Him?  Are we willing to repent- to turn away from- the things we know fail to please God?

Do we really mean it when we say we follow Christ?  More importantly, do we trust that He does have a purpose for us above simply being born, growing up, growing old, and becoming fertilizer?

I believe that if we ask Him, and if we are open to the work of the Holy Spirit, we can discover the purpose for which we were created.  I believe that we are invited to turn from the things that fail to bring life, and find satisfaction and abundant life in God.

February 28, 2017- 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 “Shrove Tuesday”- Throw out the Old Dough

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“Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?  Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” 1 Corinthians 5:6-8 (NRSV)

As part of the Jewish observance of Passover, (Exodus 12:1-28) everyone is supposed to clear out all the leavened bread (including bread starters) in their kitchen, which sounds like a weird thing to do- why would God tell people to throw out food?- but it has a symbolic significance.

Today is “Shrove Tuesday”- the last day before Lent in the church year.  In some traditions it is also “Mardi Gras” or Fat Tuesday, a day to get rid of all of one’s tempting food and get  one’s vices out of our systems before Lent begins.

Most people today don’t bake their own bread.  Those of us who do (and then only for special occasions) generally buy powdered yeast to mix in with the dough so that it will rise, and the whole batch of dough is used at once, but in ancient times there was no powdered yeast.  In order to keep the yeast cultures going, ancient bakers kept a bit of the dough back from the previous batch of bread to leaven the next batch, in the same way that people might make and use starters for sourdough bread today.

Anyone who has ever dealt with sourdough starters knows when a starter has gone south.  A pink or slimy appearance or a bad smell can indicate that the starter is contaminated with bacteria or mold, and then it needs to be thrown out, and then all the utensils and such that touched it need to be thoroughly washed.  If one uses a contaminated starter, any bread baked with it won’t taste good, and the finished bread (if it did actually rise) could also contain rather disgusting things such as salmonella, other bacterias and fungi that aren’t healthy to be consumed.

It was a good idea from time to time for people (especially in the days before refrigeration) to clear out the old bread and starters and start fresh.

Our lives are sort of like that baking cycle too.  Every once in awhile, we need to go clear out the kitchen and get rid of the stuff that’s potentially dangerous, that might make us sick, the stuff that clutters up the cabinets and gets in the way.  This is what the apostle Paul is talking about, only in spiritual terms.

We always need to examine our thought patterns and confess that we don’t always bring them captive to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)  More often than not, we resort to the old ways of doing things- instead of letting the things that interfere with our life in Christ go.

The rotten stuff, the contaminated thought patterns, have to be thrown out.  We occasionally have to take out the spiritual trash.

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The practice of confession is a good spiritual discipline in the season of Lent. Today is a good day to start to clear out the old ways and to bring in those that bring glory to God.

“Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” James 5:16 (NRSV)

Confessing our sins, one believer to another, in a context of forgiveness and prayer, is a good first step in throwing out that old starter and bad bread.

Lord, help us to search and be willing to throw out all the things in our hearts and minds that are not of You.  Help us to pray for and with believing friends, so that we may think and behave as Your followers should.

IF


“(Jesus said:) For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Matthew 18:20 (NRSV)

February 20, 2017 Spiritual Disciplines- When We Fast…Matthew 6:16-18

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When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, Who is unseen; and your Father, Who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

Spiritual disciplines are worthwhile pursuits- things such as prayer, worship, study, fasting, meditation and service.   Why are we praying, worshiping, studying, fasting, meditating, or serving?  If we are just putting on a show to impress people or to be “holier than thou,” we are wasting our time and effort, but if we are doing these things as part of the natural rhythm of our lives, because we long to live as God created us to live, and to get closer to the heart of God, then we are acting with the proper motive.  We don’t need to toot our own horns.  Our lives and actions should speak for themselves without us feeling the need to draw attention to them.

In the Lutheran understanding of theology, God comes to us.  He comes to us in life and love and creation, in His inspired word (the Bible) and most fully and human in the Person of Jesus.  The Holy Spirit works in and through us, empowering us to do what God created us to do.

The opening phrase of Genesis: “In the beginning, God” means everything.  We can only do those things that bring us closer to God in response to the gifts He has first given us.  This is a Big Deal.  We can’t earn, deserve or buy our way into God’s favor.  He has already given us His favor, His love, and His grace.  We are called to respond to God’s calling for our lives and service and growth because that is His will and purpose for us.

Our culture glorifies posers.  It’s trendy to put on a good show.  It’s fun to be entertained. It’s human nature to show the world just how great we think we are. But is there substance behind the show?  Are we making genuine sacrifices to the glory of God, in response to His love and grace, or is our pious or charitable behavior just a front to make others think we are some kind of great people?  Are we doing the right things for the right reasons, or do we just want to look extra holy or extra good when other people are looking?

Jesus calls us to the counter culture.  Jesus calls us to be the one who slips an anonymous donation in the food bank box, or to help the person stranded along the road to change a tire.  He calls us to be the encourager who tells a frazzled cashier that it will be OK and that her day is going to get better.  He wants us to seek Him in the silence of our hearts when no one else is around to see or hear and He has our undivided attention.

Jesus calls us to those small, anonymous acts of kindness that may or may not be remembered, but may be life changing for someone.

Ever wonder about meeting an “angel unaware,“ that anonymous encourager, or the one who pays it forward without leaving a name?  Perhaps as Jesus people, we are called to be the “angels unaware?”

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