October 10, 2018 – Wisdom, God’s Will, and the Lord’s Prayer – Proverbs 19:20-21, Matthew 6:5-13, Luke 11:11-13

prayer for guidance

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. Proverbs 9:10 (ESV)

Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.  Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand. Proverbs 19:20-21 (ESV)

(Jesus said:) And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. Matthew 6:5-13 (ESV)

What do wisdom and prayer have in common? We learn from the inspired writer of Proverbs that the fear of the Lord (meaning respect, reverence and awe) is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of God is insight. If we want to be wise, we should seek God in the study of His Word, and in prayer.

Jesus teaches us to pray. It’s important to take a look at how Jesus teaches us to pray. Prayer is not meant to be a display of piety or any kind of a show to impress other people.  It is conversation with God in which we come to Him with everything He already knows about us. In prayer we give thanks. We praise. We joyfully affirm who God is.  We also bring to Him our sadness, our mourning, and even our anger. We intercede for those around us- for our friends, our family and even our enemies. We lay bare our vulnerabilities to the Author of Life- confessing that in and of ourselves we are dead in trespasses and sins. We affirm that by faith in Christ alone we have forgiveness, absolution and eternal life.  We trust Him for what we need, and we ask Him for what we think we want.

Why should we bother to pray if God already knows our heart and our needs?

We pray from that fear of the Lord, because in prayer we are acting out of faith.  We believe that God is omnipotent, that He is holy, and that His goodness and His plan will prevail.  We may not have our petitionary prayers answered in the way we ask, but getting our wants fulfilled isn’t the primary purpose of prayer.

If one looks at petitionary prayer from the standpoint of a child asking a parent for what the child wants, it makes a little more sense. A good parent knows what his or her child needs and will do his or her best to provide for a child’s needs.  Sometimes what a child wants is not congruent with what a child needs- ice cream and bacon for every meal sounds great to a child on the surface, right now, but a parent knows bacon and ice cream for every meal isn’t a healthy choice long term.

God knows when the things we want may not be in line for His plan for us. He does know our needs, and He does provide for them.  We may never understand why we must bear the crosses of sorrow, loss and pain. We know that Jesus endured all manner of suffering while He lived on earth, up to and including a brutal death by crucifixion. We aren’t going to “get out of life alive.”  Life on earth isn’t permanent. We don’t know why we are called to the way of the Cross, but we know that to live in Christ, we are called to die to ourselves and to the world.  We may not find understanding as we pray, and we may not like the answers we get- or don’t get. Yet we pray, and we trust. God is getting us ready for the not-yet world to come.

(Jesus teaches) :What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Luke 11:11-13 (ESV)

We pray because Jesus tells us to pray- not in the anticipation that God will become a celestial Santa Claus Who rains down all kinds of material stuff just because we ask for it, rather, we come to Him in faith. We trust that God is God even when we don’t understand.

We ask Him for daily bread because we trust that God is the One Who gives us provision every day, even when we don’t know where it’s going to come from.  We trust that God will forgive our sins and that they are washed away forever in Jesus’ blood. We trust God for the grace to pass the undeserved and unearned forgiveness He gives us along to those around us, who also don’t deserve it and can’t earn it. We trust that Jesus walks with us, even through the valley of the shadow of death. He has conquered the grave and so will we. We trust that Jesus keeps us from the evil one. We trust that He has rescued us from sin and despair and unbelief.

We believe the promise we receive in the water and the Word- that we are named and claimed and made to be children of God.  And so, we pray.

June 5, 2018 -Jesus, the Sabbath Breaker? John 5:1-18

jesus-in-garden-of-gethsemane

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?”  The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.”  Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

Now that day was the Sabbath. So the Jews said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath, and it is not lawful for you to take up your bed.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’”  They asked him, “Who is the man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:1-18 (ESV)

Biblical accounts of healing tend to make most orthodox (small o) Christians a bit nervous. Scripture teaches that Jesus is the one and only omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnipresent (everywhere all at once) God.  This being said, it is possible for Jesus, the Author of creation Himself, to do anything, including miraculous healing.

The question we have for Jesus is, “Why are some people healed, and some people are left to suffer?”

Some traditions would teach us that Jesus will only heal us if we have enough faith. Yet faith itself is a gift of God.  We cannot bring ourselves to faith of our own strength or reason (Ephesians 2:8-9.)  In Mark 9:14-29, we learn that Jesus healed a boy afflicted by seizures- as the boy’s father prayed, “I believe, help my unbelief.” Nothing that comes from within us can heal us. God acts upon us with the gift of faith, and God effects healing according to His good and perfect will.

The Pharisees and others were incensed by Jesus’ claim to be God Himself. He was not only the Lord of healing, but also Lord of the Sabbath.

Jesus has the authority over all things in heaven and earth. We do not.  The sin of the Garden was the sin of “being as God,” and ever since we humans have to fight the desire to be gods unto ourselves. When we wake up in the morning and drown the old Adam yet again, he keeps resurfacing, just as the apostle Paul speaks about in Romans 7:7-25. As long as we are in these mortal bodies, we live the saint-and-sinner paradox.

God is always working whether we see it or not. God always hears our prayers, and knows them before we ever have a chance to pray them.  He gives us the answers we need, even when they are not the answers we want. As followers of Jesus we are subject to that “THY will versus MY will conflict”- the conflict we share with Jesus, the conflict that He endured in a garden- not the Garden of Eden, but the Garden of Gethsemane. If we are to follow the theology of the Cross we must accept that we will also have to endure suffering, though we will not be pushed or tempted beyond what God will give us the grace to endure. (1 Corinthians 10:13)

Why did Jesus heal the man at the pool? Why that guy and not all the other sickies who were hanging out there?  Why did the man have to wait 38 years?  Why do we pray for healing- whether it is physical, emotional, financial or relational healing- although sometimes we never receive that healing in this lifetime?  Jesus leaves us with more questions than answers- questions that require us to cling to Him and trust Him.

God is setting us up for forever. It’s about His plan. Sometimes His answer is “Wait.”  Sometimes His answer is, “No.” Sometimes His answer is, “I need you to endure this for a time to encourage others.” The good news is that God is faithful whether we see our healing and wholeness on this side of the world, or if we don’t see it until Jesus returns. He is the One in control- not just of the Sabbath and of healing, but of all things. His grace and His provision is sufficient for our needs.

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

kingdom power glory

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 17, 2018- Changing God’s Mind?- Jonah 3:1-10, Ephesians 2:8-11

Jonah11_main

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”

Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it.  Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.”  The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.

When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust. This is the proclamation he issued in Nineveh:

“By the decree of the king and his nobles:

Do not let people or animals, herds or flocks, taste anything; do not let them eat or drink. But let people and animals be covered with sackcloth. Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence.  Who knows? God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.”

When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened. Jonah 3:1-10 (NIV)

The story of Jonah – whether we take the entire story as literal fact or as an allegory intended to teach us about our purpose, and about God’s grace- is a hopeful story for us. It has a lesson for us about how God views our enemies, too.

Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. The first time God asked Jonah to go to Nineveh, Jonah got sidetracked and decided to go the opposite way (Jonah 1-2) which didn’t end well for Jonah.  Jonah ended up in Nineveh the second time God asked him.  Sometimes God has to ask us a few times before we get the hint that we need to go where He leads us, even if we don’t particularly want to go there.  Jonah didn’t think the Ninevites deserved saving, but God had other plans for them.

Some people have brought up the question of whether or not God changes His mind. Given that we know three basic qualities of God- that He is omnipotent (all powerful), omnipresent (everywhere at the same time in all times and places), and omniscient (all knowing), it would be safe to say it is unlikely- though not impossible- that God changes His mind.

Sometimes, like wayward children, we have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the place where our heavenly Father intends for us to be.

Perhaps prayer and supplication and spiritual disciplines- especially the disciplines of confession and repentance, serve to bring us closer to God’s mind and heart?  After all, Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy will be done.”

Perhaps the message here is that God finds a way to get to his people, and to accomplish His purpose through them?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Ephesians 2:8-11 (NIV)

The apostle Paul teaches us that our life and our purpose are gifts of God. We are made by God for God.  So are the people that we don’t like so much. God wants our attitude to align with His attitude-which isn’t always such an easy prayer to pray.

How does this particular epiphany influence our attitude regarding the people around us, and our own place and purpose in God’s world?

November 16, 2017- Get On Board!- Zephaniah 1:12-16, Revelation 3:14-20

great god

At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps and punish those who are complacent, who are like wine left on its dregs, who think, ‘The Lord will do nothing, either good or bad.’ Their wealth will be plundered, their houses demolished. Though they build houses, they will not live in them; though they plant vineyards, they will not drink the wine.”

The great day of the Lord is near- near and coming quickly. The cry on the day of the Lord is bitter; the Mighty Warrior shouts his battle cry. That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. Zephaniah 1:12-16 (NIV)

Old Testament prophets were sort of a buzz kill in their day. It seems everyone is minding their own business, doing their own thing, and maintaining the status quo, and then one of these guys shows up.  Someone like an Isaiah or Jeremiah- or in the case of today’s verses, one of the minor prophets, Zephaniah- shows up and sounds a warning.  Before the days of the printing press or telecommunication, God spoke to His people through the prophets. The prophets sounded the warning so that people might get it that things aren’t going according to God’s plan, and that God is making a way to change the pattern.  When the prophets show up, the message is usually something like this:

Hey, people, wake up! God wants you to know that he’s not pleased with the status quo.  God is a merciful God, but sometimes He needs to shake it up and get you on board with His program- for your own good.  It’s time to examine ourselves and get on board with God’s plan, before it’s too late.

It’s easy to confuse being a Jesus follower with being someone nice. But Christian and nice are not always synonyms. Sometimes the most Christ-like thing to do doesn’t seem nice at all.  Did Jesus look nice when He toppled the moneylenders’ tables in the synagogue? We want to visualize Jesus as the gentle Shepherd, almost as a milquetoast, and not as the Lion of Judah depicted in Revelation 5. Jesus is both the Good Shepherd and Almighty God, and sometimes we forget that His judgment is as real as His mercy.

We should be gentle and compassionate with each other and those around us, but gentleness and compassion are not the same as enabling others’ destructive behavior, or looking the other way at things we know are sinful and evil. This is hard because we are all sinners and hypocrites.  We must be discerning, and should always examine ourselves first before taking on the sins and faults of others.

Zephaniah was talking about those of us who get complacent and satisfied with ourselves. We certainly believe in a gracious and merciful God, but we also need to understand that He has a purpose for us and that He expects our lives to honor Him. He does not expect us to sit around bragging about how great we are.  How we treat others is a big part of trusting Jesus and relying on Him- are we really being loving (not necessarily nice) to those around us?

The prophets’ messages of judgment are not meant to scare us but to keep us aware and focused on who we belong to and who He created us to be.

“To the angel of the church in Laodicea write: These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.  Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me. Revelation 3:14-20 (NIV)

Are we as Jesus followers aware of our deep need for Jesus? The Laodicean church was called out because they were rather meh about God, and not aware of their need for Jesus.  They thought they were self-reliant, but in truth they were not.  We as a community of Jesus followers are nothing unless Jesus is the center of all we are and all we do.

Before we as Jesus followers can effectively reach out to the broader community, we need to reach out to Jesus constantly in prayers and petitions, we need to invite Him in, so He will bring us to repentance (which is simply for us to want to turn toward Him,) and ask for Him to shine His light on us so that He may make us more like Him.

Do we derive our identity and our being from Jesus? That is probably the biggest question we should ask when we encounter the doomy and gloomy messages from the prophets.

A wise Pastor once said: “Love God, and do what you want.” If we truly love God then it stands that we will want what He wants: for His Kingdom to be made as real here on earth as it is in heaven.  It is a process and a journey that has both failures and triumphs.  The good news is that Jesus is with us through it all.

September 15, 2017- Praise God of All Compassion- Psalm 103:1-13

jesus-mercy-compassion

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits-who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.  He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.

He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.

For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.

As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. Psalm 103:1-13 (NRSV)

The Psalms (today’s reading from Psalm 103 is one of many Psalms attributed to King David) are a ready source of instruction on the nature of God, which is a great comfort for us at times when we are struggling with faith and with life in general. In those times when we cannot find the words with which to pray, one can turn to the Psalms and we will find that the various Psalmists have written the very words we need to pray and meditate upon. God has given us great gifts of prayers and praise through the pens of the Psalmists!

We learn in the very beginning of Scripture (Genesis 1) that God created the earth and all of creation to be good. God’s will is that creation is good.  In the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Thy will be done, Thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”  When we thank God for the goodness of creation we create an atmosphere in which we want to work toward the goodness and restoration that He created us for.

In today’s Psalm we have several points of meaningful prayer right in front of us.

First we are reminded to bless the Lord- to remember who we are talking to when we pray.  God is holy. He commands our reverent awe (which is the meaning of “fear of the Lord.”)

Then we are reminded of all the kindness we have received from God, and to thank Him for it.

We are also reminded that God doesn’t give us what we deserve, but He always gives us what we need to make us good and whole. He separates us from our sins as far away as we can possibly be separated from them. He gives us strength and healing.

God has compassion. He has compassion for us when we are distraught, when we are at the end of ourselves, and when we can’t find the words to pray.

God also has given us a purpose and a place in His story. We all have different roles and we have been put in different places to fulfill them, but compassion is a universal expression of love that we can all display.

How can we reflect the compassion of our compassionate and forgiving God today?

September 13, 2017- Are We In the Place of God? Genesis 50:15-21, Ephesians 2:10

Joseph-and-Benjamin-in-Egypt

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”  So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him.  Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.”  But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.  So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them. Genesis 50:15-21 (NRSV)

Are we in the place of God?

When it comes to exacting revenge, we shouldn’t presume to stand in the place of God, even though sometimes we really want to.

Surprisingly Joseph doesn’t choose to repay his brothers for selling him into slavery even though he would have every right to do so. In our lives there are so many times we want to take our pound of flesh from everyone who has wronged us, and we want to play the tit for tat game.

The problem with playing tit for tat- exacting our own revenge- is that we don’t have God’s perspective on the purpose of events in our lives.

Joseph’s brothers had no idea that the pesky younger brother who was their father’s favorite would be transformed from being a slave into a savior.

In some ways Joseph teaches us about one of his descendants- Jesus- Who became the suffering servant and ultimately the Savior of all.

Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice and joined us in our humanity. Humanity rewarded Him by hanging Him on a tree to die.

Yet God’s mercy and grace abound even when we betray our fellow humans. Like Joseph, Jesus comes to us as a brother, a friend, and offers us provision in our times of desperation and need instead of the vengeance we deserve.

Joseph ended up in Egypt for the very purpose of preserving his family- a family that includes Jesus’ ancestors. God knew what was happening to Joseph was ultimately for good even though Joseph’s brothers intended their actions for evil.

How do we know that the cruelty someone else inflicts on us today may not end up as a means for us to glorify God?

Sometimes being merciful is hard. It’s difficult to forgive when we have been wounded.  But sometimes that’s God’s plan for us, to forgive the unforgivable and love the unlovable.

We may not stand in the place of God, but we can trust that He stands with us, and that He will give us what we need to do the good things He intended for us to do. Even when it’s hard.  Even when we want revenge.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV)