February 8, 2018 -A Mentor, a Protégé and a Double Portion -2 Kings 2:9-12, Hebrews 12:1-3

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When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.  Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two. 2 Kings 2:9-12 (NIV)

Elisha was the prophetic successor to Elijah. Both men were great men of God, chosen to be prophets to the kings of Israel and Judah.  They had a rather unenviable job- to preach the truth to leaders who didn’t obey and didn’t want to listen.  Their job was so stressful and difficult that God used two men.

Elisha asked wisely when Elijah offered to do something for him before he had to go. He asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.  Elisha showed some shameless audacity in his request. Time and time again in Scripture we see that asking big with a right heart has its rewards.  God wants to answer our prayers when they reflect His will.

God puts people in our lives who serve as examples. In some way, everyone is an example of something. Some people are good at showing us examples of what not to do. The ones who show us the good and right way to live are especially precious.  Like Elisha, as good protégés, we should break out our shameless audacity and ask God for an extra whallop of whatever it is that our good examples have going for them.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us 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. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)

All of us have that great cloud of witnesses around us, living and those who have passed on. We have been given the gift of everyone who has ever mentored us or shown us a good example of what God-life is all about. We are certainly not alone in the race we are running.  There are also those around us who see us as mentors- as their own “Elijahs.”

It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s also hard to pass the mantle of authority down to those who follow us.  Yet it is God who gives us our purpose and the fortitude to carry out the various roles He gives us- and those who follow us.  May the Holy Spirit give us all a double portion of the spirit and strength of those who have gone before us!

 

 

 

February 7, 2018- The Chief of Sinners, and the Only Savior- 1 Timothy 1:15-17, James 2:10, 1 John 1:9

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This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. 1 Timothy 1:15-17 (NKJV)

The apostle Paul has an interesting back story. Here was the Pharisee Saul, a guy with a reputation for killing Christians- who by the transforming power of God became the apostle Paul, who was arguably the most powerful and influential Christian thinker and writer of all time.

Paul ended up having to endure much for the sake of his faith in Jesus. He endured prison, persecution and according to historical tradition, (though not recorded in Scripture,) died as a martyr by beheading.

How many of us could claim to be Chief of Sinners? It’s a good bet all of us have some pretty long lists. Some translations of the verse above from 1 Timothy say, “Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” (NIV) or “of whom I am foremost.” (NRSV) It is the same message, just a bit less poetic.  If anyone is feeling sin-free (which is unlikely,) the apostle James reminds us that everyone who violates just one little teeny part of the Law violates all of it.

For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. James 2:10 (NIV)

The title of Chief Sinner falls upon every one of us.

In the Lutheran tradition we tend not to be terribly overbearing on the sinner label, because we focus upon the grace of God in Christ, and that is a good thing.  If being a sinner were the end of it, then we would all be nothing more than the Chief of Sinners, just like Saul / Paul was, but without any hope of being transformed into saints of God.

Confession is indeed good for the soul, and it is for our own benefit to stay in conversation with God in prayer and meditation. Confession is one of the most difficult of the spiritual disciplines, but it is well worth the initial discomfort and squirminess. It is a good idea for us to confess to God and to a trusted believer who can pray for and with us, but it is God alone who forgives us.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 1 John 1:9 (NIV)

The interesting part of this is that God didn’t say, “I only forgive this, but not that.”  He says we are both forgiven and purified. Our God is far bigger than our sins and failures.  He can overcome anything.

Everyone who follows Jesus has the potential to transform the world around him or her. God can overcome our sorry back stories, our most tragic failures, and outright sins and work in and through us to encourage and inspire others.

Lent is coming soon. Lent is a season of penitence, but it isn’t about punishment. Lent should be seen as being cathartic- a time for getting rid of old garbage so we are free to take in what’s healthy and good and beneficial. Rather than seeing Lent just as a time of “giving up something,” why not see if the Holy Spirit would like us to take up something edifying for ourselves and others?   When we Chief Sinners confess our sins, and surrender ourselves to Jesus, we are forgiven and purified, set free for God’s purpose- so what does that mean in practical application?

February 1, 2018- Light in the Darkness- Hope for Those Touched by Suicide- Isaiah 42:16, John 1:5, Romans 8:37-39

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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 (NIV)

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. John 1:5 (NIV)

In Tuesday’s study the subjects of chronic anxiety and mental illness were mentioned. There are times in which we need to seek help from those around us, including those professionals in the medical community. As Jesus followers, we are called to interact and respond to a fallen world. God put us here for a purpose, and to make a difference in the world.  Sometimes we may literally be the difference between life and death for someone close to us.

Death is a difficult subject for all of us. No one wants to face his or her own mortality, or the mortality of our loved ones, even though all of us will face the death of our earthly bodies.

American culture is particularly silent on the subject of suicide.   Christian tradition has not always given us a helpful or merciful approach to those who are at risk for suicide or for the loved ones left behind.  For much of the history of the church, suicide was labeled as a “mortal sin” for which there is no forgiveness offered.  However, there is nothing in Scripture that indicates there is an “unforgivable sin” save for blaspheming the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 12:31, Luke 12:10)  Can we place arbitrary limits on the ability of God to redeem and save His people? Is it more congruent with what we know about God to assume that God’s default plan for His creation is redemption?

There is a taboo and a silence that surrounds the subject of suicide, so that people don’t bring it out in the open. We can be quick to rush to judgment, but only God knows the depth of the pain and anguish that would compel someone to seek his or her own physical death.

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was bringing dark things out into the open to face the light. When we recognize something isn’t right it needs to be exposed- not to pass judgment- but to do what we can to make it right. We can help make people aware that there are better options available to work through their situations and their pain including seeking help from health professionals when necessary.  We can stay in touch with our loved ones. We can take time to make sure they know how much we love them, and we can always pray for them. We can have understanding and mercy for this fallen world and for fallible humans like us.  We can do everything within our power to prevent suicide, and to offer help and hope to hurting and desperate people.

The truth is that we are not called to pass judgment on anyone. We are not called to blame the person who succumbed to the desire to end his or her own life, or the people around him or her, or ourselves. Each person is intimately known by God, and only God is qualified to judge. We are called to forgive and to have mercy upon others- as well as upon ourselves.

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:37-39 (NIV)

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide there is help. There are life-affirming and life-saving options.

1-800-273-8255 –National Suicide Prevention Lifeline– is available 7 days a week and 24 hours per day.

January 30, 2018 Practicing the Prayers of Comfort- Deuteronomy 11:18-19, 1 Peter 5:7, Psalm 46:10, Romans 8:26

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Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Deuteronomy 11:18-19 (NIV)

Prayer is the most important spiritual discipline we have available to us as Jesus followers. Prayer is something we need to practice just as we practice any other good habit in our lives. Being aware of God and His presence in our lives is the first step to coming to Him in prayer.  We learn Who God is when we read and study the Bible.  We read the Bible and memorize the Scriptures, so that they are written on our minds and hearts, where we need them in times of crisis.

Martin Luther once said that the Bible is like the manger that holds the Christ child. What we learn in the Bible should always bring us closer to Jesus.

Most of us deal with situational anxiety in times of crisis, at one time or another in our lives. Others live with chronic anxiety that can be debilitating and crushing even when there is no immediate crisis taking place.

While God is the Author of healing, there are instances in which chronic anxiety is a mental health issue that should also be discussed with a physician, just as one would seek out professional help with a physical illness or injury. It is good to remember that God works in and through His people and in His world, including through our friends, family and health professionals. Sometimes we need to enlist their help as part of our healing.

Whether our anxiety is situational or chronic, we are invited to surrender our anxiety, our worries, and our seemingly unsolvable problems to the Prince of Peace.

Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken. Psalm 55:22 (NIV)

Cast all your anxiety on him (Jesus) because he cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NIV)

When we praise God we underscore Who He is and that he is in charge. There is no crisis in our lives that is beyond God’s ability to bring us through. Prayers of praise remind us that God is bigger than our problems. Sometimes prayer can be just remembering God as our Creator, and that our loving Father helps us find His comfort and peace. In Psalm 23 we learn that no matter where we may find ourselves, God is with us, and He will get us beyond the valleys of shadow.

There are many sources of prayers of praise and examples of God’s deliverance and comfort to be found in the Bible. Psalm 139:1-18 reminds us that God created us for a purpose and He knows our every thought, our very fibers inside and out. This beautiful Psalm reminds us to praise God and thank Him for the gift of life and for our physical bodies.

Elijah’s flight from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:1-18) shows us that even the most faithful of God’s people can get to the end of their ropes.  We learn from Elijah’s story that:

God provides for us when we are at the end of ourselves.

God comes to us and speaks to us in the silence, after the storm.

God has solutions we can’t imagine or foresee. He is preparing us not only for life on this earth, but for forever to come.

God has a good plan for His world, including for those who come after us. We are not the whole story, just a part of it.

He (God) says, “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Psalm 46:10 (NIV)

So how do we pray in crisis? We pray in crisis just as we should when the sun is shining and we can readily see God and His handiwork in the world.  Sometimes it helps to simply look around us and praise God for the beauty in creation, to thank Him for all He has done, or to just meditate on Who He is.

We learn the beauty and the power of prayer the more that we practice it. Prayer does not have to be complicated.  Sometimes all we can muster is something as simple as a song- the Kyrie song, for instance, that is simply, “God have mercy, Christ have mercy, God have mercy on me,” or we pray a word of thanks or praise as we inhale or exhale (breath prayers.)  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we aren’t even capable of uttering those simple prayers.  Prayer is about conversation and connection with God.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. Romans 8:26 (NIV)

January 26, 2018 – Praying With Humility, and Authenticity- James 4:1-10, Philippians 2:12

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What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud, but shows favor to the humble.” (Proverbs 3:34)

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.  James 4:1-10 (NIV)

Sometimes the book of James gets a bad rap. We as Lutherans are uncomfortable with James sometimes because he is all about putting the rubber to the road. James makes us think about the squirmy things that cause us to examine our consciences, which we should do before we pray.

Early in Martin Luther’s ministry, Luther called the book of James an “epistle of straw.” At first glance one could take James’ point of view as supporting a system of works-righteousness. Later in his life, Luther grew to appreciate the book and James’ perspective.

James is not subscribing to a works-righteousness relationship with God at all. God still loves us and names us and claims us in spite of our sinful nature and all the things we screw up on a regular basis. God’s grace abounds, and none of us would be able to live a life that honors God apart from His grace. Yet liberty is not license.  We may not be bound by the Law, but we were not set free in Christ to live lawless, hedonistic lives and think only of ourselves.  We are called to examine our hearts and ask ourselves if we are truly surrendering ourselves to God and allowing Him to transform us.

When we pray we should be bold. We should pray with shameless audacity, and with authenticity.  We shouldn’t pray for leftovers.  We should know that God has a good plan for our lives and He wants the best for His children. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask God for anything.  However, James is calling us to examine our motive when we pray.  Sometimes God’s answer is no, because we ask for the wrong things for the wrong reasons.  He has a better plan for us than we can imagine.

Are we affirming God’s will when we pray? As much as it would be great to win millions in the lottery, perhaps God has a different plan for us than to give us earthly riches. Perhaps it is more congruent with God’s will if we pray to trust Him for our daily bread and for the ability to share with others?

When we follow Jesus we are called to take up our crosses and follow Him. It’s not always easy to do that. Sometimes sacrifice just plain sucks. We don’t have any kind of satisfactory answers for the existence and the prevalence of evil or of suffering. It’s not always easy to eat humble pie and admit that we don’t always know best, that sometimes our motives are completely wrong, and that we fall short of the glory of God every single day.

Following Jesus means putting the rubber to the road. It means as the apostle Paul said, to “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”- Philippians 2:12 (NIV)

This doesn’t mean that our salvation is contingent upon what we do (it isn’t, it is contingent only on the merit of Jesus alone) but that salvation is a process. We are called to ask, seek and knock. Jesus tells us to pray with shameless audacity- with the confidence that God is infinitely able to answer our prayers. We are called to listen, to open our hearts and minds, and to let God transform us.

January 25, 2018- Hezekiah Prays With Shameless Audacity- 2 Kings 20:1-6, Romans 3:19-26

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In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”

 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.’” 2 Kings 20:1-6 (NIV)

Hezekiah was one of the few “good Kings” of Judah – kings who tried to live as God wanted them to.  When he was faced with his own mortality, Hezekiah was not afraid to pray with shameless audacity.

One can argue that today we would not want to bargain with God based upon our own merit or perceived “goodness” because we really don’t have any. Hezekiah really only had the argument that he was “good,” because God gave him the heart to live God’s way. Even before Jesus walked the earth, God’s grace was still in action for Hezekiah, who came to God in faith, prayed with shameless audacity and had his prayer answered in a most unexpected and generous way.  He believed God is who He claims to be.

We can only protest our case with God on the merit of Jesus, who became our righteousness. Because of Jesus, we too can pray with shameless audacity- as Jesus tells us to do.

So what does that mean? The apostle Paul explains:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:19-26 (NIV)

The apostle Paul demonstrates an important concept in Lutheran theology here too: the juxtaposition of Law and Gospel. The Law shows us our sin and our desperate need for Jesus.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus has justified us by His perfect sacrifice and His limitless grace.  We need to hear both the Law and the Gospel.  Without the condemnation of the Law, how do we know and appreciate our desperate need for Jesus?

No, we are not good. God doesn’t hear our prayers because we are good.  He hears our prayers for Jesus’ sake. We are sinners and lawbreakers, every one.  But we are also saints, because we cling to Jesus and believe He is Who He claims to be.  In His name and by His merit, we can pray as Jesus tells us to, with shameless audacity.  Anything and everything is fair game for prayer.  God already knows our hearts.  Prayer that comes from believing Jesus brings us closer to the heart of God.

January 24, 2018 Pray With Shameless Audacity- Psalm 141:1-2, Luke 11:5-10

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I call to you, Lord, come quickly to me; hear me when I call to you. May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice. Psalm 141:1-2 (NIV)

Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11:5-10 (NIV)

It is true that when we pray we are approaching Almighty God. We should address Him bearing that in mind.  Fear of the Lord (“fear” meaning reverent respect) is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10) This is why it is good for us to know a few things that Scripture teaches us about prayer.

Prayer is meant to be bold. Do we really believe in the power of the One we pray to? If we do, then why do we pray as if we are begging for scraps, as if God is only willing to give His leftovers?

God gives us the privilege of calling him Father (the word Jesus uses, “Abba,” is more accurately translated to the more intimate English word, “Daddy,”) and He invites us to include Him in our whole lives- the good, the bad and the ugly. God knows our needs more intimately than we do.  Prayer is more than anything a way for us to come closer to God. God does not want us to show Him a sanitized PG13 compartment of our lives.  God wants our whole heart, our whole life.

While one can debate the theological position of whether or not God changes His mind, (perhaps it is more correct to suppose that He changes our minds,) Jesus entreats us to pray boldly- with shameless audacity.  We should pray with complete surrender, and complete openness.

In other words, pray as though we have no boundaries and nothing left to lose.

In some traditions bold prayer is frowned upon, as though one can only approach God with nothing more than sweet platitudes and rote prayers. Those prayers have their place, but so do the prayers that come from the deepest, darkest gut wrenching depths of sorrow, desperation and yes, even anger.

When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane it was said He sweat blood, His prayer was so passionate and heartfelt.

If we believe God is Who He says He is, we can surrender everything and anything to Him. He is big enough to handle our anger, our rage, our passion and all of those charged emotions we don’t like to deal with.  If we look at Jesus as a Precious Moments figurine or as a sanitized ethereal being (aka Wayne Newton in a white robe?) we miss His humanity, we miss His power, we miss His earthiness, we miss His sovereignty.  We miss the opportunity for Him to come to us in our human weakness, in our surrender and brokenness, so that He can make us whole again.

Jesus tells us to keep banging on the door, to make ourselves pests. Ask! Look! Keep knocking until the door opens. Keep asking, until our wills align with God’s will.