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

saintsinner

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?

August 21, 2017 – Jury Duty- 1 Corinthians 6:1-11

writing on the ground

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?  Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  Do you not know that we are to judge angels—to say nothing of ordinary matters?  If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?  I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer—and before unbelievers at that?

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?   But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.  And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 (NRSV)

I knew it would happen eventually, having been a registered voter since 1987. I got the little postcard from the city municipal court informing me that I have been chosen for jury duty.

Since I am an avid student of history, government and civics, I am more fascinated by the prospect of serving on a jury than I am bummed out about it. Yet being put in a position of judging the actions of others is a bit daunting.  We are not God, so there is no way we can ever know all the details or weigh all of the variables, so all we can do is make the best informed decision possible with the information we are given.  In such instances all we can do is take a cue from Solomon and pray for wisdom. We must remember that while behaviors necessarily have consequences, we are fallible and sinners too, lest we be tempted to be too harsh.

It’s really easy to air our own dirty laundry on Facebook or other social media, and to let the “court of public opinion” mull over our private things.  Unfortunately, random gossip and various conjecture seldom ends well. Hurtful things are too easily said, and so difficult to mend.  Those kinds of commentary are best left avoided on all sides.

As Jesus followers we do have a role to serve in helping moderate each other’s behavior, even though at times we are loath to exercise that role. It’s easy to become legalistic and measure hems- to make sure everyone is staying modestly dressed for example- or to count others’ swear word lapses as standards of piety or indicators of proper decorum. It is equally easy to do the opposite and be laissez-faire and just say anything goes and completely overlook inappropriate or potentially harmful behaviors that should be addressed.  The Christian church as a whole, in the past fifty years or so, has been struggling with the balance between being hyperlegalistic and having no boundaries or expectations at all.  Neither extreme is healthy, and the balance as almost always, lies in the middle. We should always seek to treat others as Jesus would.  Love is neither mollycoddling nor stifling.  If we would correct another, we need to examine ourselves first and only seek to address the issue from a standpoint of love for the other person.

No one can earn or deserve God’s favor or salvation. There are no brownie points to be earned for “adulting” today.  Yet as Jesus followers we are invited to a better and fuller, God-honoring life, right here, right now- a life of modesty, chastity, moderation and honest enterprise. In this way we honor God and we respect others around us. Our examples can encourage other believers to live in God-honoring ways too.

Our lives are meant to be lived in response to the grace and mercy and generosity of God. Not in measuring hems, or counting swear words, or majoring in other minors.

As always we can go back to the words of the Shema: Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (my paraphrase)

God is God. Love Him first.  Learn His Word and write it on our hearts. Spread it around.  Repeat.

July 20, 2017 – An Undivided Heart- Psalm 86:11

undivided

Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name. Psalm 86:11 (NRSV)

In this age of “everything’s happening 24/7”, and it’s all available to us in real time, since when do we have undivided anything?

We often pride ourselves on multitasking. How many things can we accomplish at the same time? Is it really a good thing to constantly have several activities going on at once?  Where is the rest?  Where is the balance?

While it is good to be productive and to be good stewards of time and resources, too much “busy” can cause us to become divided and distracted to the point that we no longer commit our whole selves to what we are doing or participating in.

God has a different strategy for us. God longs for us to have a heart completely focused on and rooted in Him.

The psalmist’s words here are powerful. “Teach me YOUR way, Lord.” This means God’s way, not MY way.  This is remarkably similar to that difficult petition in the Lord’s Prayer where we pray, “Thy will be done.” Most of us have learned through life experiences that God’s way ends up being so much better than “MY way” in the end.

That I may walk in YOUR truth.” Contrary to common wisdom, truth is not relative, and truth is not dependent upon a person’s opinion or perspective.  God’s truth is constant, fixed and always the same no matter how we feel and no matter how society and social mores change.  Sometimes that makes it awkward to be a Jesus follower, when God’s truth clashes with the world’s opinions.  But it’s God’s truth that matters, not the world’s opinion.

Give me an undivided heart.”  May this be our prayer as Jesus followers, that as we follow Him we have an undivided heart, focused on Him first and foremost.

 

July 17, 2017- So Great a Salvation- Hebrews 2:1-9

sow-seeds

Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty, how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him, while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?

 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet.”

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. Hebrews 2:1-9 (NRSV)

There is a great debate among Christian thinkers and theologians regarding free will. Some say that we humans have been given free rein over everything, which would negate the truth that God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing.)  Others say that God controls us much as we humans would play a game of the Sims, with every breath and every thought and every action preplanned. But God didn’t make us to be robots, and He’s not playing a video game.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Wisdom would probably dictate that there is an element of mystery in that God does allow us to do our own things, and to screw up…to a point.  Suffice to say that God finds ways of using our free will to do His will, even if we don’t quite understand how that works.

As we learned in this week’s sermon text, (Matthew 13:1-9) God sows His word everywhere, lavishly, generously, almost wantonly, everywhere and on everyone.  Yet the word doesn’t always grow where it’s planted. Sometimes we get discouraged when we plant the seeds only to find that they wither and die and don’t grow.  When we get rejected or mocked for being Jesus followers it can be discouraging.  Sometimes life gets us down too and we get discouraged. We wonder, “What’s the use in following Jesus”, when our circumstances can be so awful.  Or sometimes we get so caught up in material things and so obsessed with God’s gifts that we forget the Giver.

Some have made the comparison that our journey as a Jesus follower is more of a marathon than a sprint. It’s a long haul kind of thing. Like any other relationship or achieving any kind of goal, being a Jesus follower requires effort.  God is in control, but He’s not going to do everything for us.  God expects to hear from us- all the time.  He expects dialogue with us.  He wants us to surrender everything to Him, especially those parts of us that aren’t pretty or that need work.  My grandmother once told me, “It’s OK to be angry with God.  Let Him know about it.  He is bigger than your anger.”  Nothing is off-limits between us and God, because God knows us inside and out anyway.  He’s just waiting for us to admit to ourselves what He already knows.

In our culture of instant gratification, it really is countercultural to be a Jesus follower- to wait on God, to follow His rules, and to live according to His expectations. Our culture says, “NOW!” and “Me first!,” while Jesus says, “Wait,” and “Others first.”  It’s not easy to wait.  It’s not easy to put other people before ourselves.  Following Jesus is not always an easy thing to do, but it is worth the effort.  Better yet, He is patient with us, and He forgives us when we fail.  Every day is a new day He gives us to wake up, put on our Baptism as daily wear (to quote Martin Luther) and try again.

Are we the “good soil” on which God’s word can grow and bring forth a good harvest? Are we willing to plant good seeds everywhere, trusting that our work for God’s Kingdom has a good purpose, and that it’s God’s work and God’s harvest?

Keep on planting.

July 13, 2017 Our Work for God’s Kingdom is Not in Vain- Isaiah 55:10-12, Luke 6:32-36

Jesus compassion 2For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

 For you shall go out in joy,and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. – Isaiah 55:10-12 (NRSV)

The journey of life is often tiring. Sometimes we look around and wonder if living as a Jesus follower really makes a difference.  Sometimes we pray and we don’t get answers.  Sometimes we reach out to others only to receive a cold shoulder or overt hostility.  Sometimes it seems as if life is just a series of setbacks, challenges and sucker punches.  We are instructed to wait on the Lord, but often we wonder, when is He going to show up?

Does the little bit of good we can do really matter?

Should we plant the seeds even if we never get to see the full grown tree?

It is rewarding when we can see the fruit of our labor. We all need encouragement and positive reinforcement, but there are times when we don’t always get those.  We get discouraged.

Along with the theme of God’s rest is trust – trusting that He is faithful, trusting that He does hear our prayers, and that living faithfully to Him does make a difference, even when we don’t see results.

God’s word will not return empty. That is a powerful affirmation that we see throughout Scripture.  When God says something He means it, and He will make it happen. We might not understand His timing or His mechanics, or what our role in His plans may be, but God is always faithful.

Elijah promised the widow that she would not run out of flour or oil (1 Kings 17:8-16) as long as the drought lasted, and she was rewarded for her faithfulness.  Jesus promised us as well that our faithfulness to Him will be rewarded, even if it’s not in a way we might expect:

(Jesus said): If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.  If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”- Luke 6:32-36 (NRSV)

Love isn’t an easy proposition. Many times love is a choice- to choose the path of love versus vengeance, and to seek involvement in the messy things of this world versus detachment from the needs of others.  It can be frustrating, tiring and overwhelming to be as Christ to others, especially when we don’t see results.  But Jesus tells us to be like Him, and to let Him handle both the results and the rewards.

March 23, 2017- The Threefold Cord- Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 and Matthew 18:20

two or three

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other;  but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone?  And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken.  Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 (NRSV)

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

Sometimes when we study the Bible we make the mistake of thinking that the Old Testament was the “old law”- before Jesus- and that the New Testament is the “new law”- after Jesus. The truth is that both the New and Old Testaments are about Jesus, and that He is revealed throughout Scripture.  The truth about Jesus is that He has always been, is now, and always will be.

Human beings were not created to be alone, or even to operate in a simple “me-n-Jesus” relationship. It is a wonderful thing to know Jesus and an immeasurable blessing to trust in His salvation, but it is important to remember that most of His teachings focused on how His followers should engage the world around them. We were meant to live and operate in community with other human beings, as comforting (or disturbing!) as that truth is.

Martin Luther taught that Christian people – Jesus followers- were to be “little Christs” out in the world, and that our primary vocation and purpose is to be as Christ where ever we are and in whatever we do for a living. Sometimes it’s hard to see how our professions are part of our life in Christ, but God doesn’t compartmentalize our lives the way that we tend to.  There really is no abstract thing called a “spiritual life.” Our spirituality is part of everything that we are and everything we do.  God is with us in and through our entire lives- even the parts that we might want to keep separate to ourselves.

We experience the life of Christ most profoundly and tangibly in our relationships- our friendships, our marriages, our families. It is telling that Jesus says He is most present when two or three are gathered in His name- and He echoes the Teacher of Ecclesiastes (most likely King Solomon) who had pointed out centuries before that “the threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

When we as Jesus followers come together in His name, He is there with us in a powerful and profound way.

Do we know the presence of Christ in our relationships, and if not, why not?

How is Jesus with us in our workdays, and how is He present in the work that we do?

March 21, 2017 – Trust Issues- Jeremiah 17:7-8

 

weak heart strong god

Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.  Jeremiah 17:7-8 NRSV

Anxiety is one of the major scourges of modern life. All of us have been anxious to a degree- some of us only in certain trying times, and others of us have experienced anxiety on a daily basis, to the point of it becoming a debilitating condition.  Everyone has known and will know uncertainty, and everyone will have adversity in life.   God knows this, and as in all things, He has made a provision for us to deal with our anxiety.

Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. 1 Peter 5:7 (NRSV)

It sounds easy to just let God have our anxiety, but before we can give away our anxiety and fears, we have to trust God.

Trust is easier for some people than for others. People who have been betrayed by others regularly or who have had a number of catastrophic events in life have a lot harder time trusting anyone, including God.  Yet the answer to suffering from anxiety remains the same: trust God.

Since we are not able to trust God fully and surrender to Him in our own strength, the Holy Spirit is always readily available to us to provide that strength. When we lack the strength and sentience to find the words for prayer, the Holy Spirit provides those as well.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26 (NRSV)

Trust is not something that is easy to give. The trust in God that is faith is not a blind trust, but a faith that is tested by adversity and struggle and doubt.  Doubt is a part of faith, not the opposite of it.  Doubt triggers us to ask questions and to seek the truth so that our faith and trust are strengthened, grounded and informed. God longs for us to surrender even our doubts to Him- as well as our anger, our fear, our frustration and our despair.  The Creator and the Master of creation can take it, and He invites us to come to Him exactly as we are, with all the baggage that entails.

There are many of us with heavy hearts and serious issues weighing on our hearts and minds today. Yet God is trustworthy. He is our Provision and our Strength, even when it’s hard for us to see it, even when we doubt, and even when we feel as if we are overwhelmed by anxiety.

March 13, 2017 – Discernment and the Fruits of the Spirit – Matthew 7:15-20

 

godslove

(Jesus said): “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?   In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit.  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will know them by their fruits.”  Matthew 7:15-20 (NRSV)

 

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines discernment as:

1.:  the quality of being able to grasp and comprehend what is obscure :  skill in discerning.

2    : an act of perceiving or discerning something

Jesus speaks so much to us here about discernment.  We are not only supposed to be discerning regarding our own hearts and motives, but we should be discerning of the people we associate with and align ourselves with also.

We should strive to be good “fruit inspectors,” beginning with our own fruits.  Do our lives bear the fruits of the Spirit that the Apostle Paul speaks of in Galatians 5:22-25-?

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.   If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Galatians 5:22-25 (NRSV)

This “good fruits” test applies first to ourselves and our own conduct, but it also applies to those who we choose to look to as our spiritual leaders and those who comprise our faith community. While no church or faith community is perfect, and any church is just a rag tag collection of sinners, Jesus is telling us to also discern the fruits coming forth from our leaders and our communities.  That discernment is not for the purpose of judging others, or for making excuses against being involved in the church, but to be sure that we are listening to and participating in a community that is following Jesus and is not being deceived by false teaching.

Many people are lured into the false cults of prosperity theology (“believe and you will receive”) or of exclusionary theology (only certain special people can be saved,) or of brownie points theology (you can earn your way to heaven by doing good deeds.)

All of these false teachings are contradictory to Jesus’ teachings. Being a Jesus follower means that we will have to pick up and carry our own crosses, not that we are entitled to Porsches and champagne and the good life. While God is our Provision, and He always makes a way to fulfill our needs, earthly wealth and security are not guaranteed to us.

Anyone who God calls to Him can be a Jesus follower- there are no special prerequisites. No one is excluded on the basis of their race, gender or the habitual sin they tend to prefer.  When Jesus was here on earth He sought out the very people that the world despised- prostitutes, tax collectors, dirty fishermen and so forth.  No one is too bad- or too good- to be a Jesus follower.

No one can earn or deserve God’s grace, as it is intended to be a gift to be received, priceless, yet given to us without cost. The gifts that we return to God are not given to earn brownie points or make ourselves look good, but are in response to the immeasurable gifts He gives to us every day.

Martin Luther taught that the Bible is “like the manger holding Jesus.” The Bible, discerned and taught correctly – and Christian communities- should have Jesus inside. Those good fruits- the Jesus inside- coming forth from a healthy Christian community should be evident everywhere the people of that community leave a footprint.

Good fruits are all those things that show Jesus being lived out in our lives- grace, forgiveness, compassion, serving others, and most of all, love.

Are we exclaiming to the world, “We are Jesus followers!” by bearing these good fruits, not just as individuals, but also as a community?